To Bills, With Love

June 17th, 2014

Under_the_Tree

My bank account offers a feature, common these days, that lets me set up automatic payments for all my bills. They started offering it ages ago. But month after month, year after year, I somehow never got around to signing up for it.

Friends who used “billpay” told me it was great, a major convenience, a huge timesaver, an ingenious alleviator of sundry headaches. Still I avoided it. Finally I asked myself why. And immediately realized the answer:

It wasn’t a Luddite thing, and it wasn’t that I was paranoid it would go Hal 5000 on me and spend all my money when I wasn’t looking. The truth was simpler and, you might say, weirder.

I liked writing out those checks.

When I was young, paying every month’s bills was a source of great stress. Typically I had more bills than cash (typically well more), so paying those bills was a constant and sometimes terrifying juggling act: weighing how to prioritize the available dollars and parse out the minimums, calculating which payables I could safely hold off, and for how long, and which I could pay part now and part later, and which I just had to pay in full right now.

(As you already know from my repossessed Lexus story, I didn’t always get that right.)

I often went whole months with those nagging questions tugging at my psyche thirty days out of thirty.

Then one day, as I sat at my desk feeling the acid clench in my solar plexus, it suddenly occurred to me: I was angry. Angry that I didn’t have enough, angry that I had to let go of the precious little I had, angry that even once the checkbook was drained empty I would still owe more. Every one of those checks I wrote, no matter how large or how small, was dripping with resentment.

I was spending money negatively.

No wonder I was living in negative cash flow!

So I made a decision: I would start paying my bills positively.

I started by asking myself, what did I enjoy spending money on? I had to stand up and pace my little room to think about that. “I love spending money on books,” I thought, “because I love to read.” I also loved to spend money on music, because I love listening to it. I loved spending money on good food, because I love to eat. You see the pattern.

It was a start, but Mann does not live on bread and books alone. What about my rent?

Well, what about it? Did I love living under a roof? Of course I did. What about having electricity in my apartment? Wearing clothes? Having a car to drive? Yup, loved all those things.

I sat back down at my desk and started writing a check to my landlord. Feeling my chest tighten as I filled in the AMOUNT box, I made myself take a deep, slow breath, and say, “Thank you for giving me this place to stay this month.”

It took a while to get the hang of this, because I still had plenty of nagging worries. Money was, after all, still tight.

But that didn’t mean I had to be tight with money.

And that’s why I’ve been resisting using that online billpay service. I’d years ago come to the place where I loved sitting down and going through the process of pulling out those bills and paying them each, one by one, writing out and enveloping and addressing and lick-stamping all those checks by hand.

They had become love notes to the universe.

Last month I finally began using that online billpay service. And I’m happy to admit, it really does save a bunch of time—time I can fill instead with reading, or taking walks, or, hey, sitting under a tree thinking about what I want to say in my next blog post. When it’s time to pay the bills, I just go online and click a button.

And I make sure to remember to click it with love.

Love and Work

June 11th, 2014

Writing

One fine day as I idled at a red light in Allston, Massachusetts, two hopped up guys stepped into my cab, trained a gun on me, told me to turn off my dispatch radio and drive up Summit Avenue to the top of Corey Hill, where they were going to shoot me dead.

(Note to self: lock door at red lights.)

Something in me said it would be a good idea to keep the vehicle moving and not stop. So instead, I drove my passengers up to and over Corey Hill and right into Brookline, where I pulled into the curb outside the Brookline police station. They disembarked and slithered away without a word.

They did not tip me. They did not even pay their fare. I did not complain.

I was in my early twenties, learning something about the world by driving taxicab, which I did for about six months. At the time I thought I was doing it purely for the much-needed income, but four decades of hindsight tells me I also needed to do something that would stretch me and force me to grow up a little.

Driving taxicab outside Boston certainly did that.

I stretched and grew in that job — but I also hated it.

I hated it not so much for the danger, but because it felt like taking a long walk in a pair of shoes that didn’t fit. The job didn’t really use any of my strengths. Some people have a naturally outgoing, chatty nature and love spending time striking up conversation after conversation. I am not that person.

I had a friend at the time, exactly my age, who also drove cab for that same company. In a short time he graduated from cabbie to dispatcher, and was one of the best dispatchers Red Cab of Brookline ever had. He eventually had his own transportation company. He had a natural feel for that line of work. I did not.

Driving cab was good for me at the time, perhaps, but if I’d had to keep doing it for years? Misery.

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do that thing.

My mom once observed: “If you’re in a shipwreck and you see the top of a grand piano floating by, by all means grab it and hold on. But just because that works doesn’t mean we should start making life preservers the size and shape and weight of grand piano tops.”

Driving cab worked—but it wasn’t what I loved doing. It was a life preserver fashioned out of a piano top.

Here’s how Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, describes the difference between a job, a career, and a calling:

a JOB is something you do for the paycheck;

a CAREER is work you’re deeply invested in, because in addition to paying you, it also advances your path by developing your abilities, your experience, and your ability to earn higher pay and more prestigious positions;

a CALLING is work you do for its own sake, work that is fulfilling in its own right. It is work you because you love it.

I learned about love of work from my father.

In our home dinner was a nightly family ritual, complete with candles, cloth napkins, and roundtable conversation about whatever had gone on that day. After dinner we cleaned up—and my father went back upstairs to his home office to work, and he worked at his desk until 10:30 or 11:00.

He not only brought his work home with him, he also brought it on vacation. I have vivid memories of weeks spent on Cape Cod, my father in his bathing suit poring over a manuscript in a corner of our little rented beach cottage, putting in corrections with red pencil for a few hours before setting it all aside and going for a swim.

It never occurred to me that any of this was the behavior of a workaholic, for the simple reason that it wasn’t. He simply loved his work, and he pursued it with a kind of relaxed intensity that never allowed it to hold the rest of his life hostage.

When my father reached retirement age he earned the title “professor emeritus” — which didn’t mean he stopped being a professor, it just meant he now had far more freedom of choice as to which seminars he would teach, which conferences he would attend, and which writing projects he would undertake.

I remember his exact words: “Thank God I’m retiring — now I can start getting something done!” And he went right on doing the things he loved to do.

For the last few days I’ve been completely immersed in a project to revise and enlarge an early book of mine and prepare it for self-publication on Amazon Kindle, Amazon CreateSpace, and Apple iBooks. I’ve never done this before and there’s a ton to learn, as I’m doing it all myself. I could pay someone else to do it. (It doesn’t cost much.) But I’d rather get my fingers into the dirt and soak up every detail about exactly how the process works.

In that wonderful film Patton, George C. Scott as General George “Old Blood ‘n’ Guts” Patton stands at the edge of a battlefield surveying the chaos and smoke and carnage, and murmurs, “I love it. God help me, but I do love it so.”

That’s how I feel about building a book.

What is it that you feel that way about?

My friend Dan Burrus says everyone has many skills and talents, but one true gift. You could spend your entire life using your skills and talents, says Dan, but the secret to happiness is finding your gift, and then wrapping your career around that.

How do you know what your gift is? I can’t say for sure, but I suspect love will be involved.

You Are Not What You Do

June 3rd, 2014

butterfly girl

You’ve probably read this quote before: “You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Wise words from the sage Aristotle. Except for two problems.

One, Aristotle never said them.

And two, they’re not true. Thank heavens! Because if they were, you and I might be in big trouble.

What Aristotle actually said was this:

“These virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions … As it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”

The entire “You are what you do” quote that everyone knows comes not from Aristotle but from the great historian Will Durant, in his summarizing of the Aristotle passage.

I get what both quotes (the original and the add-on) are driving at:

1) Actions you take over and over tend to become things you do automatically, without thinking … and

2) Like rivulets of water from steady rains wearing grooves in rock, your habitual actions over time will carve riverbeds of behavior into the landscape of your days.

So true, and there is something powerfully positive about that. For example:

If you start going out of your way to thank people, even for little things, and notice things you are grateful for, and you do this every day, you’ll start carving streambeds of gratitude in your psyche, and in time become a habitually grateful person. (The same goes, like a photonegative, for the habit of complaining and criticizing: you get malign riverbeds of unhappy silt and sand.)

Or more simply: what you do every day rubs off.

So, thank you, Will Durant, and thank you Aristotle, and thank you to all the well-intentioned writers who quote you, even if mistakenly.

The problem is with the innocent phrase: “You are what you repeatedly do.” It reminds me a lot of that famous statement of modern Western philosophy, “Cogito ergo sum.” I think, therefore I am.

Yes, Rene Descartes really did say that. And, according to Eckart Tolle, he got it exactly wrong.

It is when we’re thinking that we get lost in corridors of abstraction and disconnect with our present reality. That we stop being.

I think, therefore I am not — but when I stop thinking, I am.

We too often turn that Cartesian logic into our modern achievement-obsessed signature theme song: “I do, therefore I am.” It’s so easy to confuse our accomplishments with our selves, as if productivity were the sole measure and evidence of our worth.

The truth is, you are not what you do. And that’s a good thing, too, because if you were, then your identity, your essential being, would be inescapably defined by your past actions. (Yikes. Imagine a legal system based on that proposition.)

If you were what you do, then your youness would be imprisoned, like a prehistoric insect trapped in amber, in a huge agglomeration of everything you’ve done.

But it just ain’t so. You have a past, but you are not your past. You are not what you’ve done, and you are not what you’re doing right now, or going to do tomorrow. And you are not what you think. You are who you are. That’s it. All the rest is what that you happens to be dressing up in at the moment. As children, we played dress-up in our parents’ clothes, or ballerina outfits, or pirate duds, or Batman costumes to explore different ways of being in the world. As grown-ups we put on tasks and occupations. But they’re not us.

For years I was locked into that amber bug-slammer. I so strongly identified with my productivity, it was like the only way to justify my existence was to do something. If I wanted my life to be one of genuine significance, then it naturally followed that I needed to do something really significant.

My theme song became “What have you done for me lately?” only in my version it was, “What have I done to prove myself lately?”

Each day I didn’t “get something done” became a trial of anxious frustration.

Somewhere along the way, I seem to have learned, or remembered, how to let it be okay at times when I am not really doing anything, simply existing, me-ing. (I have a feeling my wife had something to do with this.)

Don’t get me wrong. I love being productive. I love doing — writing a book, composing a blog post, paying off a debt, fixing a toilet seat, it’s all doing, and it all gives me an endorphin-laden thrill.

But let’s not get caught up in the buzz of accomplishment and lose the quiet truth behind all the doing, which is that it is simply what you are doing, not who you are.

What you do is important. It can reveal you, refine you, deepen you, and help to perfect you. But it doesn’t define you.

You are not what you do. You are who you are.

You always have been.

You always will be.

Dancing with Destiny

May 27th, 2014

Dancers

There was once a young man named Jack who had a dream of being a great pilot, maybe even an astronaut. He joined the navy and went into their aviation wing, intent on laying the foundation for a soaring career in the skies. It never happened. A freak car crash nearly ended his life, and definitely ended his chances of being a pilot.

Jack was a wreck as he began the slow process of recuperation. In order to strengthen his arms he took up swimming, and got pretty good at it. Eventually he went into the water as a line of work and started getting serious about ocean exploration. In time he co-invented the Aqua-Lung, developed a one-person jet-propelled submarine, and introduced millions to the wonders of the undersea world. You’ve heard of him, only you don’t know him by the name Jack.

You know him as Jacques Cousteau.

The failed pilot.

There are two principles to life. The first is one my mother imprinted in me from an early age: you can do whatever you set out to do. I believe this wholeheartedly, except that I also know that sometimes, you can’t. (Just ask Jack.)

And that’s because of principle #2, which is that sometimes what you set out to do may involve a wholly unexpected and often unwelcome left-hand turn.

Flying high above the earth; diving deep below the ocean. Same dream … only with a left-hand twist.

Life (or you could say fate, or destiny, or God) sometimes throws things at you out of left field. It’s easy to get knocked off kilter, to resist, to fight back, to get bitter. The trick is to stay open to the wisdom of it, even if that wisdom is unseen for now. I call it the law of left field.

When a crash takes you out of the sky, it might be the perfect time to look in the water.

Living is like dancing, and you’re not alone on the dance floor. You make a move, then the universe, your dance partner, makes a move. What do you do? You go with it.

If you’re going to live this life successfully, you have to trust your dance partner.

That means taking your own wants and insistences with a grain of salt. Not taking yourself too seriously. Yielding to the fact that the universe may know you better than you know yourself.

Trusting that sometimes — often — the greatest results come from directions you did not expect and could not possibly have predicted no matter how hard you tried.

As that wonderful Yiddish expression goes, Der mentsh trakht un got lakht.

Man plans — and God laughs.

Years ago I published a magazine about health and the environment. My ambition was to be a big magazine publisher, a publishing mogul. Toward that end, I bought a competitor’s magazine, figuring that swallowing up the competition would make me big and strong, like eating a can of Popeye’s spinach or a bowl of Bob Richards’s Wheaties.

But growth is not always good. The move ended up killing my company.

On my day in bankruptcy court, my biggest single creditor was also the only creditor who showed up for the hearing. When his turn came, he addressed the court, testified earnestly on my behalf, and astonished the judge by asking if the amount I owed him could please be reduced. In fact, could it be cut in half? (It took years, but rarely have I so relished paying off a debt.)

Today I am so grateful my publishing business was left-turned out from under me. Had it succeeded, it would have been an enormous burden. And its failure, like Jacques Cousteau’s car crash, opened the door to the career I have today.

Don’t be too quick to judge what is a disaster and what a saving grace.

And remember this: your dance partner has your back.

(Image copyright: ostill / 123RF Stock Photo)

The Way It Is

May 20th, 2014

earth_eyes

I was out driving one day, years ago, with my son Nick. He was young, maybe seven, and he’d been thinking about the state of the world.

“Hey, Dad?” he said. “Seems to me like everything is … getting worse. You know?” He looked over at me from the passenger’s seat, and I nodded. Go on, I’m listening.

He thought hard for a moment, gazing out the windshield at his sifting thoughts, then added, “But … it also seems like everything is getting better.”

I loved it. He was examining his view of the world, articulating it, testing it, sorting it out.

We each have our own worldview, consciously aware of it or not.

Your worldview is not what you think you believe or want to believe. It’s what you do believe. It drives your attitudes, decisions, and actions, moment to moment, day to day, year after year. It is the lens through which you see everything.

When I was a kid, Walter Cronkite ruled the world with an authority greater than that of presidents or kings. Every weeknight, after finishing his report on the CBS Evening News, he would leave us with his famous signoff line, “And that’s the way it is on …” whatever the date was that day.

And for millions and millions of Americans, that’s the way it was.

You have a Walter Cronkite in your head telling you how it is, not just once an evening but constantly, in a 24/7 real-time newsfeed. Your inner Cronkite scans everything happening in your world, searching out those events that confirm your personal view of the way it is, and ignoring or downplaying all other information. It filters your reality and colors every thought and perception you have.

A car cuts you off in traffic. Depending on your worldview, either you say “Oh well” and shrug it off — or your inner Cronkite supplies its confirming punch line: “… and that’s the way it is.”

If I’m going through a tough time, you can tell me “Things will work out” or “Look on the bright side,” and I may try to listen. But if I’ve got a worldview whispering inside me that says, Nothing ever works out in the long run, or Life’s a bitch and then you die — then I might hear your words but I can’t grasp the music. My inner Cronkite is drowning it out with its in my ear: “Nope, that’s not the way it is. Here’s how it is…”

“If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.

When God closes a door, He opens a window.

They don’t make ’em like they used to.

Everything will be okay in the end.

If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

What goes around comes around.

Money doesn’t grow on trees…”

So many different versions of worldview!

For far too many, that inner Cronkite is unconsciously and unquestioningly inherited in childhood, from parents, teachers, church, television. By cultural osmosis. The unexamined lifelens.

That was what I so loved about Nick’s rumination: he was examining it all, carefully and consciously. He was asking, “What do I think?”

When I was a teenager, a friend’s father told us one evening, “Remember these high school days, guys — they’ll be the best days of your lives.” He was jovial and friendly as he said it, but I felt distinctly uncomfortable. It was only later that night, as I was going to sleep, that the penny dropped and I realized what he was really saying:

“It’s all downhill from here, boys … And that’s the way it is.”

That’s why it made me feel uncomfortable. I just didn’t believe that. I still don’t.

In the four decades since that encounter, despite losses and setbacks and tragedies, my life has overall gone uphill, not down. My friend’s life, alas, has not followed the same course, but has been a drama of drugs, alcohol, and crippling disease. He has an amazingly positive attitude in the face of all his difficulties, but I can’t help wondering if he was not infected terminally with his father’s fatalistic worldview.

Driving to town one day in the fall of 1982—this is three years before Nick was born — I happened to tune the car radio to an interview with the futurist John Naisbitt, who had just published his breakout book, Megatrends. Captivated, I pulled over to listen to him read an excerpt from the last chapter. The book’s closing line hit me like a thunderclap:

What a fantastic time to be alive!

This was not an easy time in my life. I’d lost a child, was struggling financially, and my first marriage was headed for the rocks. Yet the moment I heard Naisbitt declaim those seven words I knew that deep down inside, that was fundamentally what I believed to be true.

It still is.

How do you see it? What, for you, is the way it is?

Not Postponing Happiness

May 13th, 2014

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So I was driving down the highway, thinking about things, not paying any attention to where I was.

My first book was finished. My coauthor and I had it in the hands of a literary agent who was shopping it to publishers in New York. (This was many years ago.) Nobody had picked it up yet, but I felt sure this would happen any day now, and not only that, but that it would be published and hit the bestseller lists.

As I drove, I was dreaming about how good that was going to feel, knowing that this thing my friend and I had worked on so hard was going to be in the hands of so many people, touching so many lives, making such a difference out in the big world.

And then I heard myself say out loud:

“Man, when that happens, I’m going to be so happy!”

The implications of that remark were so disturbing that I instantly slapped on my turn signal, yanked the wheel to the right, and pulled off the highway. Gliding into a rest stop, I parked, put on the brake, and sat there thinking about what I’d just said as the cooling engine went tink tink-tink tink.

“When that happens, I’m going to be so happy.”

It was a beautiful summer day on Interstate 81, somewhere deep in that luscious green stretch of mountain countryside stretching north to south from central Pennsylvania to Virginia. Gorgeous as it was, though, I had not been enjoying it, not the slightest little bit. Why not? Because I hadn’t been there.

Where had I been?

Nowhere.

For the past hour or so I’d been busy thinking about some imagined circumstance in some imagined future that would (I imagined) make me feel happy. Projecting myself into some fantasized future, I’d projected myself right out of reality. I’d been holding my own happiness hostage to a hypothesized future, and in the process keeping myself inanimately frozen like a prehistoric insect in amber, a fossilized citizen of that land of nonexistence called Someday.

I call Someday the eighth day of the week: the day that never comes.

When I say, “I am going to be happy,” the message my subconscious receives is, “Right now I’m not happy, and I won’t be happy until that future comes.”

Which, of course, it never does—because it is always “right now.”

Jim Carrey, the comedian, wrestled for a long time with deep depression. In recent years Carrey has become a devoted friend and advocate of Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, the bestselling book that so beautifully articulates the essential value of existing in the present moment and not allowing our ego to stretch us like taffy into projections of the future and ruminations over the past. Introducing Tolle at an event for the Global Alliance for Transformational Entertainment, Carrey told the audience:

“If you’ve read The Power of Now, if you know his work, and you’ve been looking forward to hearing him this evening … you should go back and read it again, because you obviously missed the point.”

This got a big laugh and a round of applause — and it was a really good point.

Sitting there on the side of Interstate 81, it occurred to me that I had obviously missed the point.

Sure, it would be great when and if the book got published. But why not be happy right now?

The first condition of being happy is to be as fully present as possible, in the moment, right now, right here. Because this moment, right now, right here, is where happiness happens. The only place and time, in fact, where happiness happens.

(The words “happiness” and “happen” come from the same root. Aha. A clue.)

Parents with active careers know how easy it is to miss out on the most important moments in a child’s life. Hence the classic busy executive’s lament, “I watched my kid growth up on video.” But it’s just as easy to miss out on your own life the same way. Don’t watch the moments of your existence passing by from the distracted distance of the video camera in your mind.

That day on the interstate I was traveling from Massachusetts, where my sweetheart lived, to Virginia, to see my sons. Traveling from one good place to another. But right then I wasn’t in Massachusetts and I wasn’t in Virginia. I was somewhere in between … on the road.

Something like where I was with our book.

I’d had a wonderful time writing the thing. But that place was now behind me, and I was now on the way toward that eventual place where I would be enjoying the experience of our book being out in the world. And that place lay ahead, in the future.

As it turned out, in the far future.

As it turned out, that summer not a single publisher bought our book. Not that fall or winter, either.

As it turned out, every publishing house our agent approached turned it down.

That winter our agent kicked the manuscript back to us with dozens of pages of notes and suggestions. It wa a long winter. We spent months revising it. The months stretched out into a year, then more than a year. Finally, two full years after the day of that summertime roadside reverie, we signed a contract with a publisher, and six months after that our little book, titled The Go-Giver, was published. And in fact it did end up on some bestseller lists, and it did go on to touch a lot of lives. But not till some thirty months after that bucolic day on Interstate 81 when I’d imagined it happening.

I’m sure glad I decided not to hold my own happiness hostage to the future.

Thirty months is a long time to sit on the side of the road.

Which makes me wonder: Are you by any chance sitting anywhere on the side of Interstate 81, or any other highway, imagining how nice it will be when you arrive?

If so, I have a thought to share:

If you can imagine how nice it will be when you arrive, then don’t wait to enjoy it, because you’re already there.

Deep as an Ocean

May 6th, 2014

A guest post from my wife, Ana Gabriel Mann, on milk, soup, and love as deep as an ocean.

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This morning I awoke to realize that the milk was spoiled.

We had bought the milk to make my mom’s favorite homemade tomato soup, from a recipe that her mother, my grandmother, taught me forty years ago.

For the better part of the past five years I’ve been making my mom’s favorite lunches, dinners, Western omelette sandwiches, clam chowders, and anything else she wanted so we could both feel better about the fact that my husband and I could no longer take care of her at home. (And to give her a much needed break from the truly awful food at the nursing home where she had now taken up residence.)

Every morning when I awoke I would plan my day around making and bringing her lunch and her adored hot fresh coffee. I took no phone calls, made no appointments. By noon I would be sitting with her and visiting while she ate, watching her enjoy every bite.

During those visits over lunch, she and I would review every last memory we could dig up. Some days we had truly remarkable conversations about virtually everything of any importance between us, going all the way back to her childhood and, sometimes, all the way forward to her death. She told me things about her life that I had never known. We discussed at length our views of God and the afterlife. She witnessed my tears in those moments when I told her that after she was gone, I would miss her every day for the rest of my life. We talked about anything and everything we could think of — and yet the entire time we were talking I knew that the moment she was gone, I would start to think of the many questions I had never asked, the myriad of things that still went unsaid.

That’s just how it is, I eventually realized. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t say everything.

In the last several weeks of her life her appetite waned and she ate far less. The last two weeks, it was soup that she wanted most, and especially her favorite, her mother’s homemade tomato, made with fresh whole milk.

During this time her pain increased, and the medications given to ease her pain also sedated her and made her sleep many more hours than she was awake. Still, she sat up whenever I came, to have some soup and visit about whatever was new in my life.

One Tuesday near the end of March, John wrote the most beautiful blog about Sylvia. He referred to the place we had arrived, where we were still holding onto her but knew we were near the end of this time, as “where the string meets the knot.”

I held her hand that night, fed her soup by the teaspoonful, and told her about John’s blog post and his metaphor about the string and the knot.

She smiled deeply and said, “That is exactly where we are, Honey.”

She knew, and I knew, that the days of sitting together were numbered. As much as I was fully adult in my understanding, I felt a deep and childlike urgency, a desire to freeze the moment so I wouldn’t ever have to face the inevitable. I had reassured her that I would be sad but that I would be okay, too, to which she replied, “You’ll be fine. You’re strong, like me.”

On Thursday night, it happened: she could no longer swallow the soup. Even the smallest sips made her cough and choke. I brought the thermos of hot soup back home that night; pouring it down the sink, I knew I had made the last meal. The gravity of the moment made me numb. It was as if the house had collapsed.

On Friday I went without soup, we just sat together.

On Saturday morning my most loyal friend, my dear Sylvia, my mother, passed quietly. That morning the sky broke open and delivered a torrential rain.

Simple routines are the guard rails of our lives. They inform us of the fragile, ever-present boundaries between the safe and secure and the chasms of the unknown. We seldom realize their strength until they’re gone. Making home-cooked meals for my mom made me feel that even though I couldn’t control her illness, I could at least bring her company and comfort.

It allowed me to feel that I could somehow control the situation … until I couldn’t.

For the first few days that I didn’t make soup, I felt lost. It wasn’t the soup, really. It was me. I was adrift upon an open sea. Grief coming in waves I couldn’t control, waves I simply had to ride.

Finding the spoiled milk on our refrigerator shelf this morning was a punctuation mark, a period at the end of one sentence and the start of a new one. Much as you may want to hold onto a moment and make it last forever, you can’t. The only moment you can truly possess is the one before you right now.

The spoiled milk made it clear that I’d already set foot on a new path. A path, perhaps, where making homemade soup will serve as a sweet reminder of the power of simple routines, and of love as deep as an ocean.

To Change a Nation

April 29th, 2014

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Can one woman with a courageous heart and entrepreneurial passion change a nation?

Before answering that question, let me back up eighteen months.

In November 2012 I received an email from a Lithuanian woman named Neringa Oboleviciute, then living in London. Neringa was writing to tell me and my Go-Giver coauthor Bob Burg about a dream she had to bring The Go-Giver to her native country in a Lithuanian edition.

“Your book can change my beloved country,” she wrote. “Even if it’s just for a couple of people — every life is so worthy.”

She went on to explain, in passionate detail, exactly what this mission meant to her:

“On March 11, 1990, Lithuania had the courage to be the first Soviet Republic to declare its independence. A year later, in mid-January, when Soviet Army and tanks came to fight our country back, people came to protect TV station and parliament — without guns. I remember staying with my mum and my little brother at home when my dad went to one of the main governing places in my town. They stood next to each other, sang hymns, prayed, shared food, helped to stay warm in the cold night. The people who went risked their lives; they did not think of themselves; it was not just about them, it was about others, about their kids, future generations.

“And this is how Lithuania protected its independence. Fourteen people died because tanks drove over them or Soviet soldiers shot them, and hundreds were injured. It’s sad and inspiring at the same time, because hundreds or thousands could have died if they would have reacted. However, they responded instead. People did not fight back using guns. It was sharing, giving, standing for each other that won a revolution.

“When I look back at my grandparents and parents, they were very so brave. They had hopes, and faith, and they helped and trusted each other.

“Sadly, today Lithuania has highest suicide rate in the world. But the truth is that deep inside of every Lithuanian I still see that person who is brave and giving.

“We cannot change history, but we can change the future. We need to look forward and start creating a successful story based on great values and helping each other. No matter what happened, the time has come to forgive, let go, and start something beautiful — by thinking about others first again.

“People are saying that young people will emigrate and the country will disappear. I do not believe that! I believe Lithuania can fly again, but only if we help each other fly higher. Only if we realize that our own success depends on how much we help others.

“I saw people [in the UK] start questioning their minds after reading your books in English. It also gave great value to me — which I would like to share with those that I love so much.

“As I said, even if one person changes way of life because of reading Lithuanian version of your book, I will be happy.

“I would greatly appreciate your advice of what my next steps should be to make this dream come true.”

We wrote back and encouraged her, telling her what we tell everyone who writes us asking about having the book appear in their language: that this would need to be contracted by a publisher in their country with our publisher, Portfolio/Penguin, in New York.

“I will find a publisher,” she replied, “and will come back to you again.”

We didn’t hear from Neringa for the next year and a half.

Then, a few days ago, she wrote once again to bring us up to date on her journey.

Prior to her first email, back in 2012, Neringa’s dream had been to become an economist. After securing her Master’s degree in economics she was working in London as an analyst in the Internet marketing industry, as a stepping stone toward a career in economics.

Reading The Go-Giver had pushed her to a crossroads moment.

“I had to choose between my two passions,” she wrote, “economics … and the book.”

The book, and her new mission, won. Soon after writing us, she left her career track behind in London and returned to Lithuania, book in hand.

Once back in her homeland she contacted two Lithuanian publishers. Both passed. (“One of them didn’t even want to hear the book’s title.”) When they saw how determined Neringa was, though, the second publisher offered advice, suggestions, and even their professional connections, adding that she could call them any time with more questions.

Which she did. “Since our first meeting,” she wrote, “they’ve been there to guide me.”

She started talking to everyone she knew and everyone she met about her dream of bringing The Go-Giver to Lithuania.

At first it was hard to do this, she admitted, “without being afraid of people stealing my idea. I had to step over myself and still do it. As you say in the book, sometimes you feel foolish, you look foolish, but still do it — only in my case I guess it was: sometimes you feel vulnerable, you look vulnerable, but still do it.”

Even without her asking for it, people began offering their help, too.

“I am still shocked how many people offered their contacts and suggestions. It’s as you said in the book: you get what you expect. If you stop expecting people to steal your idea and wish bad for you, they all start living your dream with you. Now all my friends want this book to go wild in Lithuania. It’s crazy!”

She contacted the foreign rights agent who handles the international rights in Europe for The Go-Giver, and they agreed to sell her the Lithuanian rights — if she could have a publishing company ready to buy them and the necessary distribution channels lined up.

Which was a problem. Because she still didn’t have a publishing company behind her.

So she did something that still makes me smile every time I think about it.

She built one herself.

Neringa founded her own publishing company (naming it Kitas Gestas, Lithuanian for another gesture) and signed a contract with the largest distribution company in Lithuania. Her company’s catalogue of books, for the time being, includes a total of one title.

“I thought I’d left my work in economics behind,” she added in another email today. As it turned out, not entirely. As she wrote her new company’s business plan and worked up projections, that economist’s training of hers proved quite useful after all.

Neringa has completed the translation herself and has professionals lined up to do the editing, layout, and cover graphics. She is talking with journalists about advertising and planning a website and Facebook page for the book.

There is also a distinctly go-giver dimension to her business plan: she will use a portion of the profits from her Lithuanian edition’s sales to distribute copies free in jails, orphanages, and other institutions in need.

Neringa’s brother has invested in the venture and become part of the company, working on online promotion. Her mother, a senior accountant, is on payroll to manage the finances.

“This has become our long-dreamed-of family business,” says Neringa. “It’s amazing!”

This week our U.S. publisher, Portfolio, signed a contract with Neringa’s new company. It’s official. A Lithuanian edition of The Go-Giver, in hardcover, is on its way, planned for release and wide national distribution by this fall.

So … can one woman with a courageous heart and entrepreneurial passion change a nation?

You tell me.

Your Dog Is Right

April 22nd, 2014

Benny 3-14-14

Do you sometimes worry that you’re a fraud? That secretly, you are not as capable, or as smart, or skillful, or honest, or noble, or whatever, as people (especially the people who matter to you) think you are?

Let me ask it this way: Have you ever had a dream where you suddenly realize you are in public without any pants on? Or you’re taking an important exam and have no idea what it’s talking about? Or some other, similar dream, where you all at once find yourself unprepared, ill-equipped, exposed?

(A recurring dream of mine: I am on stage, violin at my chin, before a huge audience, orchestra and conductor poised behind me. All are breathless in anticipation, awaiting the first note as I light into an especially demanding violin concerto. And it occurs to me: I don’t play the violin.)

I don’t think it has anything to do with actually being a dishonest person or with low self-esteem. I think it’s about having the honesty and humility to face the fact that even our best accomplishments are mostly a mystery even to ourselves.

Especially to ourselves.

Last week I compared writing and living to diving off a cliff. Diving off a cliff, I might have added, with no pants on. This has to be why highly accomplished writers, actors, and other artists so often say they have the secret fear that one day the world will suddenly wake up and realize they are a sham. For example, guess who said the following:

“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now.”

Or this one:

“You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie?’ And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”

Both confessions remind me of my favorite bumper sticker:

“Lord, help me be the person my dog thinks I am.”

In The Last Battle, the final book of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, the children discover that in Aslan’s Country (Lewis’s storybook version of heaven) there is a real England, the essential, pure England of which the version we know here in this mortal life is a mere shadow.

Perhaps each of us is like that. Perhaps there is a true, essential, fully realized you that exists in some dimension beyond this one, a you which you can sense and which aspire to be, a you that your life is about approaching ever closer to, yet still knowing we aren’t there yet.

But here’s the thing: That essential you? It’s right there, right now, and always has been, pulsing just beneath the surface of all your first drafts, no matter how rough they are.

You truly are the person your dog thinks you are.

That’s why your dog—and everyone else who cares about you—are here. To make sure you see that.

P.S. Maya Angelou and Meryl Streep.

Diving Off a Cliff

April 15th, 2014

cliff

Today I started writing a book.

This morning when I woke up I had no idea how it started. It’s a book about a well-known CEO (alas, can’t reveal the name just now) whose story I’ve been struggling to figure out exactly how to tell. Today in the shower a thought came to me and I wrote it down:

“In English grammar, they have what they call first person and second person. First person is when I talk about me. Second person is when I talk about you. I think grammar may have it backwards. Anyone who has had any measure of genuine success knows that focusing on myself comes second. Focusing on you comes first.

“So here’s the thing. I’m going to tell you my story. But the point is not to tell you my story—it’s to offer whatever experiences and perspectives I can in hopes it may help you work out what your story is, and muster the courage to live it.”

Right now I have no idea if these hundred words are good, or so-so, or awful. That’s not false modesty. I truly don’t know. I have no idea if they will end up being the way the book starts, or even whether or not they will appear in the book at all. But that’s not important. What’s important is taking that first step — that one that takes you off the cliff and into freefall.

That’s what writing is like: flinging yourself off a cliff every day, without knowing if there’s a net there or not.

Living is like that, too.

They’re similar in a lot of ways, writing a book and living a life. Each book starts with a blank page. So does each day. And no matter how long you’ve been doing this (writing, living) you really have no guarantees that this time, you know what you’re doing, and no sure-fire formula for how to do it.

You have tens of thousands of examples before you — books that others have written, lives that others have lived. That’s helpful, but not as much as you’d hope. None of those books is the one you’re writing now, none of those lives the one you’re living now. So you’re still faced with that blank page and the challenge that you’re going to put something down on it that may turn out to be mediocre or worse.

Here is what George Orwell commented while writing 1984, widely regarded as one of the greatest novels in the English language:

“The rough draft is always a ghastly mess bearing little relation to the finished result, but all the same it is the main part of the job.”

Ernest Hemingway (no surprise here) put it a little more simply:

“The first draft of anything is crap.”

I look back at my twenties and thirties as my life’s first draft. There were some good ideas in there, but also an awful lot of missteps and minor disasters, even some major ones. There were moments and episodes that still make me cringe. As far as I can see, Hemingway was right on.

Still, there’s no getting around it. You have to start, or it won’t get done.

I’m deliriously happy with my life today. But I couldn’t have this life with having dove off the cliff and taken a stab at that first draft.

This, I think, is what stops so many people from writing: the fear of putting down something that’s no good. But that’s essential. In fact I think it is the unwillingness to suppress that reflex for in-the-moment self-critical judgment, self-editing, second-guessing, and revising-as-you-go, that smothers most good writing (and perhaps a good deal of living) in the crib. It’s probably the biggest thing that separates those who aspire to write from those who actually do.

In a word: courage.

It takes courage to write a book. It takes courage to live a life. It takes courage to let yourself be vulnerable. To let yourself look foolish. To let yourself fall. To let yourself feel.

Joan Didion wrote, “I write to find out what I think.” I think we live to find out who we are.

There’s no safe way to do either one, but in both cases the result is real — and worth it.