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The Fallacy of Self-Improvement

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster…” – The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is one of my all time favorite books. Not only does it read and flow well, the story has an excellent moral that has stuck with me since my first time reading the book. That being said, there is lots of debate over the real meanings of the story so, if you disagree, go write about it on your own blog.

Gatsby is always working to have what makes him happy – to chase an unattainable future ideal. There is nothing wrong with striving to be more excellent every day. But constantly working towards something that has no end goal is the same thing as spinning your wheels to see how fast the car will go.

Now, I definitely think that it is a good thing to have to work at things that aren’t necessarily fun. But this mindset is different than just building your endurance through intentional discomfort. What we’re talking about is a person who never has the ability to make dreams into realities because that person is too busy chasing the dream, itself.

Fight Club has a few crude ways of saying something similar about self-improvement. The problem with it is that it never makes us happy. There is always more about our “self” that can be improved.

I’m trying like crazy to get better about that. My obsessive personality lends itself to constantly trying to find a better way to do something. I’m constantly making “perfect” an enemy of “good”. Do yourself a favor and accept that if you’re trying, where you are probably isn’t as bad as you really believe it to be. If you’re still that concerned, as someone who you know will be honest with you to give you some feedback – whatever the subject.

Figure out where you need to go – specifically – and get to work. Will you ever get there? Only time will tell. But at least the destination is well-defined. You’ll work better as a result.

Confessions of a Binge Runner

“Pain is a function of nerves…pain comes as light comes to the eyes. Effort comes from the muscles, not from nerves.” – Children of Dune

11:20PM – My Garmin has just notified me of a new fastest-recorded half-marathon speed.

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That was night before last (I ran another 10 miles last night at an easy trot). I’m feeling pretty good about where I am physically as far as running is concerned. The speed isn’t fast compared to most runners but it’s the best I’ve done so far. That’s enough to make me happy. It has to be.

See, there are no cheers of excitement when I do things like this. There aren’t any crowds watching me (see the hour completed above). My motivation for doing stuff like this has to be internal because, most of the time, external motivation for running pales in comparison.

This personal best is also the first time I’ve run in a week or so. A year ago, I was lifting weights and keeping cardio at a minimum. Now I really don’t think I’ve picked up a weight since my birthday a couple of weeks ago.

Binge – noun, a short period devoted to indulging in an activity to excess

I binge at just about everything I do. I attribute it to my inability to multitask, my tendency to get bored quickly, and my obsession with finding the perfect system for doing anything. Here’s a quick set of examples:

  • Watching – get me hooked on a particular TV show and I literally hate watching anything else until I’m finished with that show.
  • Reading – lately I’ve been on this horror kick. Once I get that out of my system, I probably won’t pick up another one for years. I’m also really into audio books right now. I can’t really remember the last real book I picked up and actually finished (Actually, that’s not true because I’m also a binge note-taker). I quit way more books than I finish.
  • Listening – my current favorite song is “5 More Minutes” by Scotty McCreery. I literally don’t want to hear anything else when I get in the car, though, my kids often overrule me with the “Trolls” soundtrack. There are also a few Taylor Swift songs that have an embarrassing number of plays in my iTunes library.
  • Writing – just look at the date of my last post. This might be the last post you see for a while or you might get several in a row. I can tell I’m out of practice and I’ve deleted a ton of draft posts while writing this (here’s why). But I have been doing a good bit of writing since then for other places.
  • Habits – remember how I like to get up early? Until this past weekend getting up early to slalom ski, I don’t remember the last time I saw the sunrise, intentionally.

For me, balance in life is insanely overrated. Though it’s great for avoiding burnout, I do almost everything based on how I feel at the time. My family, my faith, and my professions are constants and are important enough that they have maximum effort put into them all the time. Everything else changes way too regularly for me to keep doing things I don’t enjoy.

When someone tells me to “Keep it up” or that I’m “Doing great”, that someone will probably find me quitting whatever “it” is soon after. The thrill comes in the journey and the challenge of getting there. Specifically, as weird as it is, I love the change undergone to get to the destination. That’s part of the fun. I think I’d rather play the game once and win then bask in the victory a thousand times.

Life balance is great for some people who would go insane otherwise. That’s just not me. I enjoy what I do better when it’s in short periods…in excess.

“Can Daddy touch the stars?”

Last night, after getting home from supper, we stopped to admire the beautiful moon and stars above our house as we pulled into the driveway. My little girl was incredibly excited to see how big and bright the moon was and, after seeing it (and the stars) with an enormous smile, she immediately reached up and attempted to touch it.

When reality sank in to her two year old mind, she said, “Can’t reach the moon!” I confirmed her statement and she immediately turned to me and said, “Daddy, reach the moon!” I told her that I couldn’t reach the moon and her next question was, “Can Daddy touch the stars?” After another denial she also asked about Mommy and JT being able to assist her in the quest to touch the stars.

Childlike faith is a beautiful thing – it’s no wonder that’s what God calls for us to have. After this exchange I thought about the pressures of being that big of a role model and example to my kids who think that their mom and I can do just about anything. I thought about how wonderful it must be to think that nothing (even touching the moon) is impossible. I wondered what it is that they dream about at that age – if they dream at all. How incredible it would be to dream once again without reality as a point of reference.

Maybe we could all stand to have a little bit more of that kind of imagination. Maybe the reason that we are so dissatisfied with every day life is because we haven’t given our minds permission to wander outside of that routine in quite some time. Who knows what kind of things we could create, if we spent more time daydreaming. What would we produce for the world if we approached it with a more intelligent ignorance of what is possible?

Don’t think of it as delusions of grandeur. Think of it as stretching your mind as far as you can. God created your brain with relatively few limits when it comes to the imagination. Only when we exercise our brains to go as far as they are able will they bring us novel ideas, innovative approaches, and bring goals into focus. It won’t hurt you to dream a little.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And then one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

How to Win Like a Professional

“You were born to win, but to be a winner, you must plan to win, prepare to win, and expect to win.” – Zig Ziglar

One of my favorite Disney trilogies growing up was “The Mighty Ducks” (that has since changed as Disney now owns Star Wars). It probably had something to do with the fact that I’ve always lived in the south and ice hockey just wasn’t very popular (for obvious reasons). One scene I never understood at the time but have come to appreciate later in life happens in the final installment of the trilogy.

The ducks have been playing hockey together for several years and become the JV team for a prep school in the area. This comes with a new set of challenges and a new coach. In their first game, they score their first goal under their new banner and go nuts with celebration. The coach, a former NHL player, immediately says, “Hey, knock that off. Act like you’ve scored before.” Initially and for years after, this response seemed harsh to me. If you scored a goal, why wouldn’t you celebrate?

“Savoir Faire” is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “capacity for appropriate action; especially  :  a polished sureness in social behavior.” One of the things I’ve always admired about people who are considered professionals in their respective fields is that “polished sureness”. There is a brief moment of pride in accomplishment and then an almost refocusing effort to move to the next thing or task. Professionals need not to be distracted in the moment by the thrill of a job done well. For a real professional, the thrill is reserved for when the job is complete – not in a premature manner when there is still work to be done.

By that same token, the professional expects to win when that person has put the work in the preparation to do so. To act surprised or astonished when an accomplishment is bestowed on someone who has prepared to do just that is another version of humbly bragging. Don’t let the terminology fool you; it’s the same thing as a normal brag.

Conduct yourself in a manner that shows that you prepared to handle the success as well as you would handle the failure. Act like you’ve been there before. That mindset takes into consideration the respect that is due the accomplishment and the other competitors in the game. Have a little savoir faire and don’t forget to enjoy yourself in the prep, the expectation, and once the job is done.

A Mantra on Taking Responsibility

I take care of something because it belongs to me. My wife and kids are prime examples. It’s my desire to work hard every day to make sure that they have everything they need. Not that they are slaves to me but that my family is my responsibility.

My professional life is the same way. When I’m told that I’m an “account owner” or that I am “owning” this particular portion of the department or the business, I take responsibility over it and treat it as mine. I’m also much more willing to vouch for the work and job done if I have responsibility for the finished product.

There is a great deal of pride in a job well done that accompanies this mindset by default. I find a lot of fulfillment in taking a project from the beginning stage all the way through to fruition. Those kinds of things are the ones I have a hard time passing off to someone else because I am the producer, creator, and developer.

The flip side is that I also have a hard time delegating. Maybe I need to spend more time being willing to let go of certain things so that I can spend time and energy on what really matters to me. I will always be responsible for the well-being of my family. I will always be responsible for my personal development and using my gifts for the glory of God and for the good of others. I will not always be responsible for the specific outcomes in either of those areas.

I am results-driven. But I never want to be so focused on what comes as a result that I forget to enjoy the journey.

That’s What Makes You Beautiful

“…and when everyone’s super (maniacal laugh), no one will be.” – Syndrome

The quote above is from the bad guy in Pixar’s The Incredibles. Syndrome admired super heroes as a child and, despite not having super powers himself, wanted to be just like them. So he started inventing things that enabled him to fly, shoot lasers from his fingers, etc. After growing up, he began using his inventions to kill off super heroes to prove that he could be as good as they were without their “oh, so precious gifts” and their “oh, so special powers”. The end game is that when he’s old and had his fun with his inventions, he will sell them so that everyone can be super – ultimately depleting the value completely of the real super heroes.

To me, this is one of the most dangerous super villain plots written into a super hero movie – to take away what makes people special. For a lot of people, identities are wrapped up in work, families, or in those who depend on them. What makes individuals unique can’t be true about them without validation from other people. Their identities don’t belong to them, but to those around them. It has been given away so freely that it no longer exists because of the individual – but because of the people who depend on it. They neglect spending any time developing who they are because they’re too busy stretching it out to other people. They refuse to acknowledge the fact that, the less they love themselves, the less they can really love those around them. 

There is another camp who doesn’t believe that there is anything special about them at all. They go through life thinking that they have nothing to offer, or that what they have to offer isn’t good enough or as good as another who can offer the same thing. They are incapable of working hard to give themselves to others because they don’t believe that there is anything in them worth giving in the first place. They neglect spending any time developing who they are because there is no point in doing so – no one cares. They refuse to acknowledge that doing for others can be a great way to discover what makes you special.

One of my favorite stories is called, “You Are Special” by Max Lucado. Here’s a link to a pdf of the story – it’s worth your time to read, trust me. Understand that we were made in the image of our Maker for the purpose of pointing back to Him. We are like paintings designed to showcase an Artist. Though it is incredibly important to pour into the lives of others, our identities should be wrapped up in the fact that we are His. Paintings and works of art aren’t concerned with how other works of art point back to the Artist, but only that they are doing so to the fullest potential.

There is something about you that makes you beautiful to your Creator. Honestly, I don’t know that whether you realize it or not matters all that much. What matters is that you be someone who lives to glorify Him through your best worship now. There are lots of ways to do that.

Jesus once told a story (in Matthew 25) about a master giving talents to his servants. He gave them different amounts of talents according to their ability and left for a journey. When he returned, the majority had used their talents and multiplied them. To them, the master was well-pleased. There was one servant who hid his talent away – did not use it or enhance it. He is referred to in the passage as a “worthless servant”.

The point is that how they used their talents and what their talents were is excluded on purpose. I think the important part is that they had them and that they used them to multiply them. If you still don’t think you have any – just start doing things that enhance the lives of others to the glory of God. That’s the best path forward. If your talents are completely wrapped up in doing for others, take some time to remember what they are and developing them. Multiplying talents doesn’t always mean giving them away 100% of the time. Realize what makes you beautiful and work to see those same things in other people as well.

My Work Day Without My Smartphone

For those of you wondering, my computer and to-do list were separate days. And all of these have been unintentional. But I’ve really enjoyed writing about the experiences. This whole forgetting things trend needs to be taken care of but that’s a topic for another day.

I recently got to the office ready to take on the day. I love days like that. I unlocked the door to my office and, out of habit, reached in my pocket for my smartphone to text my wife that I made it safely. After realizing that it was neither in my pocket or my briefcase, my recollection called up a picture of the kitchen counter with my iPhone sitting there charging (I assume it was also ready to take on the day)…

See, had this happened several years ago, I would’ve been sent into an instant panic, gone into withdrawals, and been incredibly bored at work. But as it stands, I’ve been making it a practice to do things like leave my phone in my office when I have a meeting with someone. I found that the constant buzzing was always interrupting anything I was creating and that isn’t good. I’ve also been working to reduce my dependence on my smartphone. If I can’t produce content and value for my company with my mind apart from my smartphone, I see myself as a severely limited resource.

That being said, I didn’t panic when I realized I didn’t have my phone with me. I called my wife from my desk phone and got started working. Here’s what happened:

No Music

My phone works as a music player and audio book reader throughout the day. The music works like white noise for me while I’m working. I’ve got a CD player in my office which I prefer to listen to, anyway. It just makes talking on the phone more difficult when I have to start and stop it. But being without my phone made me realize that, I don’t need music to get creative work accomplished. I just need to schedule the time to do it, and do the work. Speaking of which…

No Calendar Reminders

This one was a bit more difficult to work with. I get them on my computer when it’s time for the next meeting or to move on to the next task. But I had a couple of meetings run long and didn’t know what was next up on my calendar because my smartphone wasn’t with me. I’ve tried copying it down on paper to carry with me but that system lacks the ability to edit and move things around on it and have it sync across multiple platforms so I can tell where my time is being spent. I don’t have an answer for this yet. On this particular day, I just had to know what was coming up next and at what time.

No Interruptions/Distractions

This one is a given. I felt like I was in my creative zone a lot more without the little mobile distraction in my pocket. No temptation to check social media, the news, etc. This was actually pretty freeing. But I realized that my phone does give me some liberty away from my computer as a trade-off. Considering the movie screen of a computer that I was given when I came to this job, sometimes the freedom is worth the distraction. It’s also not like my web browser is completely innocent of the distraction crime either.

No Digital Notes

I keep all of my notes from meetings digital so that I can access them from anywhere. I do the same thing with business cards I receive. I take notes by hand and then copy them into my computer for later reference and the ability to search them quickly. Several times during meetings I needed to reference back to my notes from another meeting but was unable to do so because the paper copy was in my office in a file and the digital copy could only be accessed from my computer. Though smartphone addiction is serous, those little computers have been pretty fantastic at enabling us to be productive on the go and not have to be tied behind a desk. I think the larger return on investment is in face time (no, not the iPhone kind) with people, anyway.

I also had a really hard time with ideas for blog posts and other projects I’m working on. Normally, I’d just open the right app, drop the idea in somewhere, and come back to it later. But my ideas from the other day were all jumbled up on a sheet of paper. I felt less organized and constantly worried that I was forgetting something.

As I’m writing, I’m seeing a post emerge that is all about what I had to give up when I left my smartphone at home. The truth is that I did have to find some different ways to do things I usually do. There are some really productive things that my smartphone is used for (it’s also my phone book) and there are also some really distracting things. Ultimately, it’s a powerful tool that will do what I tell it to do. The responsibility is mine to use it appropriately.

My Work Day Without a Computer

Not too long ago, after a good weekend, I walked into the office to hook up my laptop only to find that it was out of commission after startup. I promptly notified IT and they asked that I leave my machine with them for a while so they could run diagnostics and get the problem fixed.

All of a sudden, I’m at my office in a sales role armed with a desk phone, my smartphone, and writing tools (pen and paper). After I copied down my calendar on an index card to keep my tasks and schedule in front of me, I went to work. What resulted was a full workday based solely on what I could produce with my head – without my electronic brain. I felt like it was some of my best content/work since being in my current position. Here are some other things I noticed:

1. It’s Harder to Put Things Off

When there’s no busy work (read: email) to occupy you, it’s much harder to put off those things you’ve been procrastinating on. I had several pages worth of printed notes and follow-ups that I needed to get to work on, and a paper to edit as well. With no “emergencies” coming through my inbox taking my attention and my time, I was able to knock out a few tasks that I had been dreading. This was simply due to the fact that there wasn’t any busywork I could have been doing.

I had a few people that I needed to discuss things with that, normally, I would have just emailed about. However, without the computer as an option, I spent time actually walking to offices and talking face-to-face. The follow-ups from those meetings had to be prompt and able to be performed without a computer. I don’t know that I’ve ever found collaboration so useful.

2. Increased Focus on Content Generation

Employees can easily get bogged down in doing stuff that they aren’t really paid to do. Content generation and adding value through that content is a big part of my job. Without the computer, I was left to quietly focus on what I needed to produce. The results of a day of hard focus were fantastic. I genuinely believe that the reason for this was because I didn’t have the computer.

3. Most Email and Calls Aren’t Urgent

Yes, my smartphone has email. But it doesn’t connect to our server where the majority of my files are located. I don’t think I answered email much at all that day. The calls I did get had things that needed to be done with the computer that I had to defer to the next day. You know what happened? Nothing.

That’s right. The company is still in existence. I still have a job. And we’re still making money. My lack of email and computer work that day weren’t detrimental to the company’s performance at all. I know you’re probably reading this and thinking, “Yeah, good for you. But mine are pretty critical.” I completely understand as I was in a similar position before. But we figure it out and get it done, anyway.

There are lots of people who would’ve been completely lost without the computer for a day and probably would not have gotten much done. That’s the mark of a non-producer – someone who can’t generate value on the virtue of their mind and talents apart from electronics. If that’s you, start looking for ways to change that. Those things you learn apart from machines are transferrable skills and can contribute to any organization. Keep up the good work.

My Work Day Without My To-Do List

I’ve tried just about every productivity system you can think of in some form or fashion during my professional life. Actually, it’s kind of obsessive. I have to constantly remind myself that efficiency for the sake of being efficient is a waste of time. That is, if I spend my time finding ways to be more efficient and don’t actually produce anything, all I’ve done is get better at doing nothing.

Part of many productivity systems is the infamous to-do list. These can take numerous forms and have many functions. I’ve got some I’ve liked and others that never worked so well. See, another of my issues with this kind of stuff is that it constantly has to change to keep me from being bored with my “new and improved” method of getting things done. My latest test is coming from a couple of issues I’ve found with my to-do list that I just couldn’t get past.

First, my to-do list would take up my entire day. Parkinson’s Law discusses that items will shrink or expand depending on the capacity that they are given. My list could be 3-5 items long (where I tried to keep it) and could easily take the entire work day. In contrast, I’ve had days where I’ve gotten 10 items crossed off easily. But the fewer items were the real driver behind this reason – especially if I didn’t think that those few items should actually take all day if I just sat down and got them knocked out one after the other. But what would I do for the rest of the day, then?

Second, if my list was especially full and an emergency came up, items would constantly get pushed off to another day. Guess what always got pushed back? That right – the stuff I really didn’t want to do. It’s awfully discouraging to see the same thing moved from one to the other (lists) several days in a row. That process almost made the anxiety over doing it worse than the act, itself.

The last reason I stopped using my to-do list is that I had little to no respect for my time. As long as I got my items knocked off, it didn’t much matter what I did with the rest of my day. My current role forces me to keep a timesheet so that hours are correctly allocated to jobs we are doing. My to-do list didn’t help me figure out where I had been spending each hour that week, either.

That’s a list of what I didn’t like about my lists – ironic, isn’t it?

Having to keep a timesheet was really helpful in determining where to keep my task manager. I now schedule everything I have to do on my calendar. That way, there is time throughout the day allocated to that task. I’ve found that I get more done – it’s on the calendar so it has to be done, right? I’m more respectful of my own time with scheduling meetings, etc. I also produce more content and valuable adds than I ever have before. That’s really fulfilling for me as an employee. My wife and I have taken to using our family calendar more as well and that really helps us stay on track as well. If an emergency comes up at work, that gets put on the calendar after the fact so I can look back and know where I spent my time.

No system is perfect. Find out what works best for you where you are. Go get some stuff done.

 

4 Reasons Your Kids Should Sit with You on Sunday

This post was originally authored by Jared Bridges and was posted by The Gospel Coalition. As a parent who keeps both of my 1-year olds with me in church on Sunday, I could easily relate.

Taking your child to a Sunday worship service can be jarring. Trust me, I know. It once gave me a concussion.

Years ago, we began introducing our 4-year-old son to the worship service, with all the potential misbehavior that entails. During corporate prayer he decided to lie down on the floor. Like a good dad I knelt over and told him to get up. Like a good son he obeyed, immediately and enthusiastically. A little tooenthusiastically.

As he jumped up, the full weight of his 95th-percentile-sized head drove directly into my semi-opened jaw. My teeth sank into my tongue before sending the rest of my cranium upward, and for a fleeting moment I saw stars. Somehow I managed to make it through the rest of the service with a growing dull buzz inside my head.

The incident gave me a new perspective on impactful worship.

Not every instance of bringing our kids to the worship service is like that, of course, but it can be a difficult transition, both for our little ones and also for us. So if it’s that hard, why would a church encourage kids (not necessarily babies) to sit in worship with their families? Here are four areas why I believe this is helpful: discipleship, education, tradition, and opportunity.

1. Discipleship

At the core of Jesus’s Great Commission to his disciples (Matt. 28:18–20) is the call to make disciples of all nations—that is, all people groups. The “all” includes the very people within our own families, and the commission is not restricted to age. And making disciples is never an abbreviated event.

Hearing the gospel preached and seeing its effects in the worship of a local church family is a powerful way to make disciples. What better way for a child to be introduced to what it means to be a disciple than to experience life with disciples of all ages and levels of maturity?

2. Education

Moses tells God’s people, “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:6–7).

The words of God should be taught to our own children today. A corporate worship service in which Scripture is read, sung, prayed, and preached helps us as we educate our kids.

The art of listening to a sermon is not something easily obtained in our soundbyte- and social media-driven culture. There’s virtually nowhere else kids will learn this skill. Someone introduced to a worship service as a teen will have a much more difficult time learning how to listen to sermons than one who’s been raised to slowly appreciate the intricacies of this unique (and biblical) form of communication. Sitting in the worship service teaches them how to worship by listening to God’s Word—an invaluable skill for any Christian.

3. Tradition

Evangelicalism has a long history of eschewing tradition. You might say it’s our tradition to not think much of tradition. But therein lies the rub. While we are right not to blindly serve tradition, there is no biblical prohibition on allowing tradition to serve us and our children. During my childhood, I was powerfully influenced by my grandfather giving the offertory prayer as I stood and sang beside my grandmother, who had the hymnal memorized.

Jude urges his readers to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). The faith that was delivered to our predecessors is the same faith now being entrusted to us. While it’s possible to pick up bad habits from tradition, it’s also possible that tradition will guard us from falling into error. When novel teachings arise in the church, their very novelty can be a warning: If no one’s ever thought or done this before, is it wise for us to start now?

4. Opportunity

Even if our kids don’t at first understand everything encompassed in the readings, singing, and preaching—and make no mistake, they won’tthey will at least understand the people who love them and stand beside them.

This proximity gives us a prime opportunity to explain what they don’t grasp. Children hear more than you think. You’d be surprised at what 4-year-olds ask when you assume they’re tuned out. In worship, we have the opportunity to introduce our kids to a taste of the eternal—God’s saints celebrating him together. At the least, attending worship with your child may prompt them to ask you the reason for the hope within you (1 Pet. 3:15).

Transitioning kids to the worship service is difficult, but it’s a difficulty worth enduring. Yes, you may have a few months (or a few years) of distraction.

But the distraction won’t last forever, and you’ll be building on something that will.