Say their names

José comes all the way from Costa Rica every year, leaving his family behind for six months.  Peter moved here from Ireland fifteen years ago and thinks Americans can’t drink.  Aubrey lives in the Bronx and remembers every Yankees stat you could think up. Mae just started a new job and doesn’t know many people in the city yet.

What do these people have in common? You’d probably never have noticed them.

As I go about my day, I’m overwhelmed by the thought of people who made it possible. I’m not talking about parents, who made all of my days possible.  These people play a more subtle role, making life just a bit easier in this particular day.

Some are distant.  I type this post on a keyboard that twenty people handled between its assembly and my use.  I may never know who they are, because it’s abstracted away from me. Logitech didn’t make my keyboard; twenty nameless people did.  But I have only Logitech to thank for these keystrokes.  I know nothing of these individuals and what they sacrificed for me.

Yet some of these people are much more accessible.  José woke up at 5 AM, mopped the lobby floor, and opened the door for me on my way to work.  Peter cleaned all the front windows, even though his back isn’t great.  Aubrey stays up until 3 AM each night, alone, keeping our office building safe.  And Mae took out our trash, got on her hands and knees, and scrubbed around eight toilets — even in the hard to reach places.

A couple weeks ago, I realized I had passed by all of these people, and many more.  I smiled, but didn’t know who they were.

Could you imagine if your life’s work was completely taken for granted?

So I asked.  I gathered up the courage (why does it take courage?) and said hello, introduced myself, and asked their names.  They were all taken aback in different ways. This is outside of social norms, for whatever reason, and some didn’t know how to respond. Mae was hesitant because she thought she had done something wrong.

It didn’t take me long.  I spent maybe five minutes learning a bit of their life stories, and exchanging some of mine.

That half hour of conversation has added more fulfillment to my days than all the office chats I’ve had in three weeks.  I know some more people, they know me, and for thirty seconds passing by I can remind them how meaningful their personal sacrifices are to me.

All it takes is a handshake, a smile, and a name.

So, here’s a challenge to you and to myself: be mindful of what it took to make your life easier. And get to know one person you see every day but don’t know anything about.

Then do it a few more times.  Soon enough, you’ll have a little family to greet every day. And I’m willing to bet that they smile bigger than your coworkers.

Labor therapy

June to August 2011 marked my last ever commitment-free summer.  I spent the majority of the time in Cali and Seattle, picking up web programming and devising a startup.  Soon I found myself spending 80% of my waking hours at my computer. Though I flew west bearing four books, I had finished only two by late July. Between code, e-mail, chat, Twitter, blogs, and distractions, there was seldom time to think – let alone disconnect.

My salvation came in the form of a kitchen table, purchased at IKEA for my friends’ new place. It was almost perfect for their dining room, but the wrong color: a faux-antiqued chestnut stain.  I offered to re-stain it a more modern ebony.

The last time I had undertaken such a project was over six years ago, staining a small bench at my house.  So when the painstaking process of sanding every surface of the table and matching chairs — over 40 pieces and 130 surfaces — took a whole week, I found myself frustrated and anxious to finish every day.  Nightfall was my enemy.

Yet the time I spent outside on that deck, sanding from sunrise to sunset, was actually quite calming.  There was fresh air, an absence of electronic distraction, and time to think. Sawdust is so sublimely hostile to our gadgets and devices that they dare not enter the land of the workbench.

Calculating it out, the week and a half I spent sanding and painting was the longest contiguous time I had not been in front of a computer, for about as long as I can remember.

While my hands were at work, it freed my creativity. Ideas, which would normally linger on the tip of my mind’s tongue, were consummated into full mental soliloquies. Every day I spent on the table, I came back inside with ten ideas to note down.

Working on a project with my hands was about the closest I’ve gotten to a vacation in years.

Many digital natives like me pass time at the office as so-called “knowledge workers.”  Our tools are our minds.  So on most days, we try to satisfy our inner thirst for kinesthesia by running on treadmills and playing Wii sports. But with music blaring and a TV on, the sense of solitude is missing.  As is the feeling of creation when you make something from nothing.

So let this be a reminder that a vacation to get away isn’t always the answer. Pick a project, build it, fix it, cook it, paint it.  All it took for me was some wood and thirty bucks at a hardware store.

P.S. here’s the actual finished table, in case you were wondering:

Conversation, hold the coffee

I’ve taken a lot of meetings this year, and aside from meals, they always seem to follow the same format. We meet for coffee, or drinks, or dessert, at a nearby shop, and spend about an hour, at a cost of somewhere from $5-15.

And that would be totally fine, except that I don’t actually drink coffee, and rarely want any of the other assortment of snack and drink options. I’m neither hungry nor thirsty for anything but a good conversation.

It bewilders me that so many people who don’t actually want a cup of coffee would meet at a coffee shop, buy one or more, and drink them. Every time they have a meeting!

I’ve tried to understand this behavior, and I’m sure there are some rational explanations. Maybe it’s:

  • Space that’s neutral and not ‘owned’ by either party
  • Convenient location somewhere in between both people
  • Ability to leave whenever you want by just finishing the drink
  • Setting that’s not too intimate and not too formal
  • Public area in case you’re afraid of the person (?)

But actually, in most cases, I think it’s out of habit or social norm. Meeting for coffee or drinks is the standard good excuse to spend a significant amount of time in front of someone. We need these to avoid feeling awkward, and to ensure we can quickly justify the meeting without committing too much.

It seems those needs are a bit foolish, and end up exacting a rent on the meetings we have with others. Talking is free, but coffee is $5. Why put ourselves through this social dance if neither party actually likes the beat?

This extends to other social meetings as well, including time spent out with close friends. Often the need is to feel like you’re justified in spending a night out together, by having something socially acceptable to talk about. “We were out at a lounge” is a great way to avoid anyone noticing that what you actually wanted was time together.

Our quality time ends up being much stronger when there are no distractions, anyway. So let’s take a walk or go to a park. I promise, we’ll both remember more of the conversation.

So, if you happen to be meeting me and suggest coffee or a bar, I might decline and forward you this post. Please don’t be offended, but I don’t really want to pay someone’s Starbucks dividend. I just want to spend some time talking to you.

Bypassers

I’m often at a loss for words when I see Americans pushing past all obstacles standing in the path to success. Vigilance, determination, and the one-track mindset is deeply ingrained in the American spirit.

We’re trained to jump through hoops and over hurdles. Never stop, and always look ahead.

But sometimes the ‘obstacle’ is actually a fellow citizen, and looking ahead means looking past. So today I have some words.

Consider five situations I’ve observed over the last week:

– A man driving his pickup, filled with tools, with the back tailgate open and pieces falling out. He’s driving down a four-lane freeway filled with cars, in slow traffic.

– Tourist couple with a camera. A man takes a picture of his wife. They switch off and she takes a picture of him. Lots of people walk by or take their own pictures.

– A woman trying to back out of a cramped parking space, blocked in by a car that parked across the street behind her. A line of cars waits for her to figure it out.

– People driving into a filled parking lot, not knowing it’s full. A line of people drive out of the parking lot, having realized it’s full already. They pass each other.

– A woman’s headphones fall out of her pocket as she boards a bus. Five people are in line behind her. They step over the headphones, board, and pay their fares.

Much has been written about the bystander effect, wherein people can watch motionless as a violent crime takes place before them. Being a bystander is an issue of diffusion of responsibility, as everyone believes someone else will take the lead and save the victim.

But being a bypasser is different.

Bystanders stay put, noticing that something is wrong, yet failing to act. Bypassers fail to acknowledge an opportunity to act at all. They remain absorbed in their lives instead.

Having your windows up or an iPhone to stare at provides an excellent escape from being present in the world, and isolates us from natural empathy. We don’t think “gosh, I would wish for some help if I were in that situation.” You’re anonymous, so why care?

All it took was a quick action for me to reverse all five situations. Rolled the window down to tell him about his tailgate. Offered to take a picture of them together. Jumped out of the car to help her back up. Told them to turn around before getting into the full parking lot. Picked up the headphones and handed them to her on the bus.

The reactions were deeply energizing. It completely made my day to see people happy, and made me want to help even more. But it was less heartening to see that they were so surprised.

Lately I’ve been frustrated because I love technology and believe in its power to bring people closer together. Yet all I see are examples of it making us more self-absorbed. Passively, absently — watching the world happen around us.

A few months ago, I read Justin Horner’s beautiful NYT piece on the immigrant family that helped him change his tire. Hundreds of cars sped past him on the highway. So it bears asking yourself as I did then: would you have been one of them?

So if you read this, please give by-pausing a try. Start small, and start today. Watch what’s going on around you, and actively think of how you could help.

I promise it won’t take you long. And these days, lifting a finger for someone else earns you smiles of bewilderment and a round of high-fives.

Happy Fakebook Birthday

Monday was my birthday, but you probably missed it. If you’re a friend of mine, you might have a sinking feeling for a moment. How could you possibly have forgotten to wish me a happy birthday? Did you forget to check your birthday reminders? Cue the open tab to Facebook. But wait a minute.

This year I removed my birthday from Facebook for a reason. It was a small social experiment, and some friends found it sneaky. Please forgive me — I was testing out two life hypotheses:

  1. I’d receive very few happy birthday notifications, if any at all.
  2. I wouldn’t care.

Unsurprisingly, both turned out to be true. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed being free from the inundation of Facebook messages.

You know the type: trying to be quick and on their merry Facebook way, people respond to their right-column reminders with a quick “Happy birthday!!” and they’re good to go. The craftier among them try to make their impersonal birthday posts slightly differ from the last two or three on the wall.

But they’re all essentially the same: mere variations on the same one-liner with plenty of exclamation marks. I’m certainly guilty of this when I’m viewing Facebook connections as a task to be checked off each day.

Last month, David Plotz conducted a different social experiment by changing his Facebook birthday several times. Lo and behold, he got tons of happy birthdays on all three fake days. It’s called an information cascade: some of David’s friends observed others wishing him a happy birthday, so they did too, without actually examining the underlying information (that they all just got it from the birthdays page). I could see the same cascade dynamic evolving in the particular people who realized it was my birthday from each other.

Unfortunately, many one-liners do not sum up to an actual happy birthday. Instead, what made me happy were the actual conversations I got to strike up with friends.  Whether it was a short text or chat, an e-mail, a phone call, or a visit in person, those real moments were memorable and turned it into a great day.

Therein lies the deeper difference: a wall post forces the poster to wish that the recipient has a happy birthday. But a real message or conversation is so much more powerful, enabling us to actually cause the recipient to have a happy birthday through our actions instead.

I doubt you’re ever impressed by people spending 5 seconds on your Facebook page because the site reminded them to. Which raises a greater point: why do we care about being wished a happy birthday at all?

A birthday is a pretty arbitrary thing to remember. And I have a terrible memory, so I won’t be offended if you don’t remember mine. Please return the favor.

For everyone who posts on my wall, I appreciate the gesture. But every one liner wall post is a missed opportunity to make a real connection. I’d much rather hear from you on any random day than to see your wall exclamation on my birthday.

So I’ll propose a toast. Here’s to all your birthdays, and your unbirthdays. May your happiness be made and not wished.

Fear of missing life

A lot’s been written about how, as the Facebook Generation, our notion of real human interaction is slowly being withered away. We’ve diluted the term ‘friend’ into an abyss of meaninglessness. Dating has given way to the indeterminate state of ‘hooking up’. And personal identity is no longer defined by the self.

But this is not about the Facebook effect we all know and love. Instead, I’d like to explore something more subtle: the way our public lives online and our ease of communication has led to endemic non-commitment.

Something about all these online services and slick communication interfaces appeals to our deepest insecurities. We want to be included, relevant, important, and in-the-know. So if things are happening when we’re not present, we get an uneasy feeling.

That feeling is what draws you to your Facebook wall, Twitter feed, e-mail inbox, text messages, news aggregator, and Groupon notifications. We call this effect “fear of missing out,” or FOMO for short.

In the realm of our daily activities, FOMO results in distraction and procrastination. App designers use this thirst as an intentional strategy, and it makes us all a little addicted. The Times wrote a great piece on the FOMO effect in April. By appealing to our insecure desires to be important, apps and services win our valuable attention — generally while we’re alone and bored.

But when you take FOMO into the domain of real life, away from a screen and in front of other people, we see an even more insidious effect. We’re all pathetically noncommittal about the people right in front of us.

We’ve all been there. You’re at a party and suddenly your friends are texting, checking Facebook, and waiting for updates.  Sherry Turkle calls this being alone together.

Everyone’s utterly paralyzed by the thought of taking a position, and deciding to be with a certain group of people or at a certain place. Which makes sense, because at any second, our phones could make us aware of something MUCH better that we need to leave for. And we want to be the first ones to know about it.

I once asked Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, about the effect of Facebook and texting on our choices. He told me that by putting our lives on display, and constantly comparing our own happenings with others, it makes even small choices (where to eat tonight, who to spend time with, what party to go to) seem dramatically consequential. Which leads us to waste our time not making any choice at all.

Barry couldn’t be more right, and it’s getting worse. Last week, Nokia released a ‘heat map‘ that enables us to see exactly where everyone else is hanging out right now, so you can always make sure you’re going to the hottest scene. Real-time, location-based technology means we’re getting better and better at finding what’s up at any moment.

Unfortunately, if we all wait to see what everyone else is doing, no one does anything. It’s a prisoner’s dilemma, and the strictly-dominant strategy is to delay making a decision until others commit first. Then you’ll never miss out on the coolest thing, right?

Remember the last time someone sent out a Facebook invite? And everyone waited to see who would say Yes first, only to realize that Yes and No were meaningless and most people flake or don’t show up. You’re witnessing FOMO in action. That party was everyone’s backup, until the crowd decided on what was better.

We’ve been slowly coaxed into a backward, quantitative mentality about socializing. If friends, followers, and attendees are all quantified, put on display, and photographed, then the only value we get out of being present with each other is critical mass. The makings of an epic time, to be sure. But in reality, we have the power to choose where we have fun, and to be alive in those moments. We just have to use it without fear.

Personally, my solution has been selectively disconnecting. Fighting FOMO at the source, by making myself less aware of the ever-present updates. My phone’s been on silent for over a year now. It’s useful for many things, but I have to remind myself that it’s only a tool, and ultimately I have to take responsibility for committing to the people and experiences that will make up my memories. Photos, statuses, and comments are salient and visible, but no substitute.

Let’s convert fear of missing out into fear of missing life.

Like riding a bike

Today I learned to ride a bike for the first time.  No, this isn’t the beginning of a retrospective on my life as a five year-old. Rapidly approaching my 22nd birthday, I had yet to sit on a bicycle and attempt to ride since my first elementary school. Until today.

Several questions naturally arise. What stopped me from trying to ride a bike for the last fifteen years? And what made me suddenly decide to pick it up now?

But first, a more basic question: how did it go?

Pretty awfully, to start. I couldn’t get my feet on the pedals, kept tipping over, nearly hit two stationary cars, and needed my teammate to hold me upright so I could get started. I was embarrassed, completely gave up at least three times, and thought myself hopeless.

Probably my lowest point was when a little girl sped past me on her pink Barbie bike with tassels flying alongside her hands.

But I kept going.

In the span of about forty minutes, I went from not being able to balance upright and cursing myself out to pedaling up and downhill, stopping with brakes, and maintaining stability over several runs around the block.

True to form, I can’t help but wonder what lessons I can take from this experience. All too often, I find myself procrastinating on long-term goals and picking up new skills through some kind of rationalized avoidance. Fear of embarrassment contributes. But it often goes deeper than social fears — that I didn’t have a strong enough plan for how to succeed.

Cal Newport has an excellent post about the evolutionary significance of complex planning. And my reluctance to pick up a bike stems from this natural reaction: I failed the last time I tried, and didn’t have a convincing plan for how to succeed this time. So I avoided it altogether.

But what’s uplifting is that all my fears were overcome by a little pressure from my friends and a desire to just get up and try it.  And, as it turns out, biking isn’t so hard to learn. So as I move forward, I’ll constantly re-evaluate other situations where I’ve failed, and invest in just trying again in spite of all the time that’s passed.

Rely on others, fail publicly, plan, fail again, and keep planning until your mind believes you can succeed. And then you might just surprise yourself.

TV realivision

Have you ever been in a fight with someone and realized that it had no purpose? Or heard a friend passing on some gossip about others? Perhaps you’ve competed with someone, stopped talking over an argument, or taken offense to a comment. Maybe you told others about it, wrote a passive-aggressive post on your favorite social network, and deleted the contact in your phone. Shows them right.

Sensitivity to criticism, rash decisions, exaggerated displays of emotion, inappropriately seductive behavior, rapidly-shifting emotional states, and approval-seeking — all behavior that’s worthy of being the center of attention, to be sure. This is how people take (rather than earn) their fifteen minutes of fame in their own little worlds.

The trouble is, these traits are known to psychiatrists as histrionic personality disorder.

Why do we love drama so much?  Kurt Vonnegut once wrote (neatly summarized by Derek Silvers – a worthwhile read here) that we’re addicted to drama because our lives are essentially mundane.  Yet, we’re trained by stories from a young age that dramatic variations in emotional state are actually the norm.

So when we experience real life in all its banal stability, we feel like we’re missing something. We seek out drama as moths to light because it is often quite literally the only light in our lives. And many people create their own drama where there is none.

This is harmless and natural when people play plot line madlibs but fill their own behavior in the blanks. It’s a very different story when people emulate exaggerated behaviors as they act out their own life dramas.

Enter reality television.

It turns out, growing up with Cinderella is not the same as growing up with The Jersey Shore. Reality shows have two central propositions: everything is unscripted, and the actors are people just like you and me.

That’s a toxic combination. It sets up the behaviors in the show as being normal, expected, and worthy of aspiring to. So when people watch a lot of reality TV, they start acting out the characters in the show in their own life dramas. The ‘reality’ trend greatly exacerbates our natural tendency for drama-seeking as expressed in the soap operas of the past.

So it’s no surprise that I avoid people who watch a lot of reality TV almost as much as I avoid watching it myself.

But we can rediscover our real realities, and find meaning in the silence and humdrum of normal days. Yes, it’s much easier to get attention and make life exciting by picking a fight, talking behind peoples’ backs, and making things happen in your relationships. But here’s a counter-proposal: use relationships as a source of stability rather than drama.  We can channel the desire for attention and excitement into creating, changing, and improving ourselves and the world around us.

I haven’t turned on the TV in years — either on a screen or in my real life — and I’ll never look back.

Deadweight jungle

Nothing warms the heart and uplifts the soul quite like a heartfelt gift. Friends and loved ones have a special way of imbuing even a modest trinket with deep personal significance. The best gifts are intimate, meaningful, and surprising. So then what happens when gifts become obligatory?

We’ve long pejoratively called commercialized gift-giving the “Hallmark Holiday,” but I doubt Hallmark is to blame for our behavior. Psychology teaches us that external expectations undermine our intrinsic motivation. So when there’s a holiday coming up, rather than expending the emotional labor of creating a deeply intimate gift for every recipient, rational people do exactly what one might imagine: they economize.

Enter the plastic jungle.

When we know that a gift is expected, the pressure’s on to get the right one.  It’ll be put on display in front of family and friends, and a competition ensues for whose gift is the most radical, memorable, and perfectly-suited to the recipient. For many, that pressure multiplied by the hundreds of expectant individuals on birthdays, religious holidays, and X‘s Day’s is too much to handle.

So we resort to a transfer payment.  Put some cash in an envelope? That’s too thoughtless. Instead, decide where your recipient will spend the cash and put a piece of plastic in the envelope instead.

But it turns out, those gifts only serve to make us feel better about our lack of emotional labor.  In the West’s giver-oriented gift culture, we need to know that our recipient is enjoying the gift and expect to hear follow-up stories to know it was put to good use.  That kind of lock-in destroys value for the recipient.  We’ve all been there, having to fake how much we love aunt Molly’s sweater, fondue set, or — more likely today — gift card to Applebees.

The problem is, recipients don’t value these gifts as much as we pay for them.  As far back as 1993, my micro professor wrote a paper called “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas” that describes the effects of mismatch between gift and recipient preference.  As summarized in the Economist, gifts are usually valued at 10-30% less than their actual prices.  The worst offenders are when extended family buys a specific gift, and we all know this. So the modern solution is to use gift cards when there’s a high probability of getting it wrong.

Plastic jungle isn’t my own term.  An entire marketplace by that name exists for people to trade gift cards at a discount, instantly destroying 8-20% of value in fees.

Imagine your broker called you today and offered you an investment that would be worth 85% of its value the following day.  Would you take it?  So why do that with your gifts?

This is the deadweight jungle. When emotions run high and the pressure’s on, we act irrationally. That we’re willing to waste so much value to avoid appearing thoughtless is indicative of the deep desire we have to feel appreciated and remain relevant in our loved ones’ lives.  Sadly, we’re going about it all wrong.

But there’s hope — gifts from friends and significant others are consistently the most valuable and kept the longest.  Why? There’s love in them, and love is memorable.  So, too, is creativity.

Warren Buffett changed the world by getting some of its billionaires to pledge their fortunes away to charity.  Let me suggest another kind of sea change.  For the less wealthy among us, let’s stop wasting money in the jungle.  When you don’t have the time, creativity, or love to give a memorable gift, just don’t give one at all.  Donate it to your favorite charity instead.  Give gifts less often, on random occasions, and throw expectations to the wind.

I promise everything will be okay, your family and friends will still love you, and the world will be a better place without all the extra plastic.

Cardboard casino boxes

This past weekend was the bachelor party of one of my best friends and greatest mentors. A weekend in Vegas, fifteen guys from college and work, three suites at the Venetian, two suitcases of booze, and bank accounts that had want of emptying.  All the trappings of an epic time and unforgettable stories.

Our standard of comparison

I’ll be the first to admit that I fell victim to the hype.  It was my first ever bachelor party, and in the post-Hangover world, it seemed like absolutely raging for the two days was the only way to go.  And rage we did.

In our first thirty minutes, the group probably lost close to five hundred dollars playing craps.  None of us felt particularly great for it, but walked it off and continued raging. Vegas has a lot of ways of parting you with your money, and they all involve an experience that’s commonly known to be epic.  So you invest a little in the adventure, and if it doesn’t turn out to be as mind-blowing as in the movies, you invest a little more until it is.

Oh, wait a minute.  Throwing good money after bad sounds a lot like, well, irrational escalation of commitment.  In the casino it’s known as gambler’s fallacy, and we knew immediately that the ROI on trying our luck wasn’t so hot.  But in other cases it’s more subtle.  You’re already in the club, so why not spend another grand for somewhere to sit? Or why not get the VIP treatment to make your night that much more story-worthy?

The epitome of fun

From the first evening, I quickly realized that the most fun was to be found just sitting around in our hotel room, cracking jokes at dinner, or walking from place to place. I felt strangely disconnected whenever we were out at a party spot.  That disconnectedness led me to have some really great conversations with other guys in the party, and I learned new things about their lives, perspectives, and histories.

I had a flashback to a midyear Christmas at the age of 8, when my mom bought our first ‘big screen’ (32″) TV. How excited I’d been to get something everyone else knew was awesome.  And then how I ended up having more fun cutting a hole in the box and making it into a spaceship.

Here we were, at one of the most celebrated destinations in Vegas, and I was cutting another hole in a box.

Something struck me about all the revelers in clubs, casinos, pool parties, and the like in Vegas.  Sweaty, cramped, in debt, and smiling.  I couldn’t help but remember a moment in tenth grade, reading The Catcher in the Rye.  Holden describes the phoniness of adults, as when they act out their roles and emotions.  In this resort world, it seems the most insecure people go the hardest, and act out having fun even when they’re not.

What’s strange is that in a group of very intelligent guys, I found all of us (myself included) falling victim to the insecurity too.  We constantly straddled the fence between our characteristic thoughtfulness, and our desire to have stories worth telling.  Overall, the weekend was a win for irrationality and, perhaps, a failure of imagination.  We walked away, mostly having had a great time in spite of the epicness, but telling ourselves those things were the very source of our enjoyment.

I’m glad I spent the weekend with my friends, and would fly somewhere to celebrate life with them again in a heartbeat.  But I’ll always remember that circumstances are nothing more than a catalyst for happiness.

My kids are going to grow up with a lot of cardboard boxes.