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Archive for December, 2011

Appreciating Bits of Genius

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

One good way to make your life better is to notice the ways it already is.  There are so many little bits of someone else’s smarts that we get the benefit of.  Usually we take it all for granted and notice the “not quite right” parts instead.

For a good day, start with your shower.  Hot water, on demand, where you want it on your body.  That wasn’t part of what was here before humanity started asking “what would happen if…?”   How lucky we are that someone figured out fire…and how to heat water with fire…and how to keep water hot in a tank…and get it to the bathroom via a network of pipes.  How wonderful for us that some genius figured out how to blend hot and cold water so that we can have it just the right temperature, turn it hotter–or colde–and turn it off when we didn’t need it any more.  A lot of people put their smarts into what has become a taken-for-granted piece of the morning routine.

And at the breakfast table, how about orange juice–or whatever juice you drink if it’s not “liquid sunshine?”  Someone had to figure out that it would be cool to separate the juice from the fruit–or vegetable.  And someone had to learn how to store it once that was done.  And then how to transport it so that it stayed palatable and safe to drink.  If you make your own juice, someone probably helped you with that process by designing a machine to extract the juice in your very own kitchen.

The little things are good reminders of the big things.  We are blessed with machines that accomplish many important things for us–everything from getting us to Point B from Point A, be it by car, train, airplane or space shuttle to making us coffee.  We have a wide range of options for gaining information–computers, books, newspapers, personal conversations.  Everything we know depends on someone else’s smarts for us to be able to access it.   Our lives are so much easier because of other people’s effort and ingenuity.

John Donne’s quote “No man is an island” is particularly true when it comes to our convenience.  We are so lucky that so many were so smart about so many “little things.”

As we end this year, let’s benefit even more by noticing them.  What little pluses do you rely on every day?  The barista’s skill at making your machiatto?  Someone came before to invent a machiatto.  And to figure out that picking, roasting, and grinding coffee beans was worth doing.

The subway system?  The daycare to whom you entrust your child–or your grandchild?  Perhaps a nod to those who invented animal and graham crackers is in order.  Or vitamins that child is willing to ingest.    How about the clothes you’re wearing?  There’s a ton of smarts in a good pair of pants.

These are just bits and pieces of a richly complex life of conveniences.  Our lives are so much easier and more pleasant in so many ways because of someone else’s thinking and ingenuity.  Lucky for us that they wanted to create those things.

In our current jaded take on commerce, the thought might come, “Well, they made money on the deal.  I don’t need to be grateful.”

Oh come on!  Most of the good that’s come about in the world is because someone wanted to solve a problem, to make something better.  Until recently, it was never about the money.  It was about the satisfaction of improving life for oneself and others.

A little gratitude for all those bits of creative effort and smarts puts you right with the world you’re blessed to live in.  So appreciate that stoplight–what chaos you’d have to endure if it had not been invented!  Appreciate the time clock if you punch one.  It keeps an accurate record of all the time you worked.  So many have done so much to make our lives easier.  Be happy about that–and then see what you can do to add to this glorious collection of little bits of genius.

That’s where the best of life resides–in appreciating what we already have and then adding our own bits to make it even better.


Beginnings Are Messy

Monday, December 19th, 2011

The farther you move through life, the more tempting it is to want to have everything under control.  Bad plan.  That strategy is a nice straight road to boredom.  Being a beginner until the day you die is an important piece of creating a good life.  And beginnings are not controlled situations.  Beginnings are messy.

When you move, things are total chaos for a while.  When you start an art project, everything you might need gets hauled out of drawers and closets.  To renovate your yard, you usually create a mud bog at some point in the process.

To make something better, most often, you need to make a total mess of what you already have.

And that’s okay.

In fact, it may be an essential piece of appreciating what you have once you’ve completed the change.  My mom’s yearly version of this process was the family camping trip.  Dad was great about getting everything needed by a family of nine packed in–and on–the car, getting us there, getting the tent set up, etc.  He was really good at making order of the inevitable chaos.

Mom, however, was better at appreciating the chaos.  “Going camping” was our vacation and that meant new adventures for us kids and the chance to break from the routine for our parents.  But “going camping” also made us all appreciate that routine when we got home and had everything put away.

The disruption and confusion of going in a new direction can be unnerving–and almost always is when you change anything significant.  But that doesn’t mean you don’t do it.  It’s just wise to realize what you’re getting into.

Beginnings involve going in the wrong direction.  When  you start something new, even if you have a full set of instructions (which most things in life don’t have), you make mistakes because the whole idea is new and a challenge to grasp.  Mistakes are every bit as much a part of getting things to go the way you want as the things you get right the first time.  Wrong turns help define the context of what you’re doing and help make it work well.  They’re most valuabe if you use them–figure out what they’ve taught you and then move past them.  But if you can’t get that far about what went wrong, at least relax about the fact that they happen.  When you start something new, there are going to be mistakes.  Sometimes lots of them.

Beginnings usually involve a few restarts.  Thinking that it’s going to be smooth sailing from the get-go just invites frustration.  Redirects are inevitable. Sometimes, you don’t even know where you are trying to go when you start out.   And when you need to change course, you often need to just plain stop before you do so.  So if the project doesn’t keep going at a steady pace, don’t be surprised.  And for heaven’s sake don’t get all torqued about it.  Starting something new takes courage.  Finishing something new takes patience and tolerance–for clutter, confusion, and starting again….and sometimes again and again.

Beginnings often don’t look like beginnings.  Starting in a new direction is often disguised as something old ending.  This probably makes the messiness of a beginning even harder to endure.  When what you had worked for  you and was not something you wanted to change, it’s very hard to get on with the messiness of starting over.  That old reliable version of life was…well…yours, whether it was with a mate who died–or left, a job you lost, or health you took for granted. Pining for what was makes getting on with what’s next a lot more difficult.  Letting go of what you don’t have any more and stepping into the chaos of a new start is the only way to get on with your life.

Know that the disruption is essential and temporary. It’s easy to begin to feel like the turmoil is never going to go away, but that’s not what’s going on.  Psychologically, being able to predict what’s going to happen is as calming as being able to control it.   Reminding yourself that there’s an end point to the chaos gives you that predictability.

Beginnings are essential.   Beginnings can be intimidating simply because of the disorder and confusion they engender.  Begin anyway.  Having a good life is not a matter of having everything under control.  You need to keep your world expanding and to do that, you have to begin something new.  Again and again and again.


Planning — How Much Is Enough?

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

Planning is an interesting challenge for most of us. We either plan too much or plan too little.  (And we tend to make fun of those at the opposite end of the spectrum no matter which we are guilty of.)  Is one right and the other wrong?  And if so, which is which?

The truth is in the middle, of course.  How thoroughly we plan needs to be a function of what it is we are trying to get done.  But even that can be a matter of perspective.

If I showed you a photo of a bunch of vertical furroughs and said “We need to get to the top of this,” how would you make it happen?  Would you know what you were dealing with?  It’s easy to get deep into the details of things and miss what’s involved at a broader level.

In this particular case, the broader perspective paints a much different picture of what we are trying to do.  Getting to “the top of this” is not a matter of running up one of the furrows.  Getting to the top of Devils Tower takes climbing skill, specialized gear, and multiple conversations with the folks at the climber registration desk.  So the first thing to decide when you think about planning anything should be, “Just what am I looking at here?”

Christmas tasks come to mind on this.  We focus on buying the perfect gifts, trimming the tree, decorating the house, getting the outside lights up, remembering to buy eggnog ad nauseam and totally lose track of the basic idea of the season–“joy to the world.”

Planning can make life simpler if you use it at the right times.  It can also make life a whole lot more difficult if you get carried away.  The best example of the latter that I can point to is a family vacation I took long ago with my then husband, my two sons, (ages 12 and 16 at the time) and my then 11 year-old stepdaughter.  The intent was to fly to San Francisco to visit family and see the sights.  I planned the whole nine days to a gnat’s eyelash—and insisted on doing exactly what we planned to do exactly when we had predetermined we were going to do it.  It was awful, and it was all my sweet little planner-manic fault.  What a waste of a good time.

Too little planning isn’t much better though.  Traveling without any plan means you’re looking for a motel room when you’re dog tired and wanting to already be in it.  (You usually end up with worse accommodations at a much higher price if you do this, too–at least from my extensive road trip experience.)  Or maybe you show up in town the week after an event you would have loved to be part of has occurred—that was plastered all over the website if you’d bothered to take a look.  It might also mean you don’t have the resources—time, money, or vacation days–to do the dream thing when you finally notice that the opportunity exists.

Finding the right blend of planning and not planning is part of our life-long quest for balance.  You need to know what you have to work with and what you are trying to do—to have some idea of where you’re trying to go.  That’s the planning. But you also need to leave room for serendipity and magic.  That’s non-planning.  Remember that as you gear up for your next project.  Having the right balance gives much better results.

A few years ago, I was sending a friend hiking photos on a regular basis because he couldn’t get out on the trail.  The hiking opportunities are slim in early spring in the Pacific Northwest.  Plus, no matter where you hike, your photos will be mostly shades of gray.  So I decided to create a colorful photo. It was Easter Sunday.  I’d learned to “tie dye” eggs with food coloring and foil a few years earlier and chose that as my “medium.”  That was the “planning” part.  I could have just put them on plastic grass in an Easter basket for the photo.  But by nestling those wild eggs in what was available at the moment (the unplanned aspect)–in this case some newly blooming rock cress–I had a much more spectacular photo to send.

Planning is a tool, not the whole point of the effort.  So remember these four things:
  *  Don’t plan what you can’t control.  (It won’t go the way you want anyway.)
  *  Leave room for magic and last minute detours.
  *  If the plan becomes a burden, simplify it.
  *  Plan only for important outcomes; learn to enjoy doing things on the fly.

That should give you the best of both worlds…and you’ll thrive whether your plans are with planners or non-planners.


Retired and on Fire

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

I met supercharged retirement in the flesh yesterday. Cate and Dieter Benz are ablaze with what they believe and what they want to do about it. And they are going in more than one direction with all that enthusiasm.

A few weeks ago Cate emailed me to ask if they could republish a blog post I did on being a good healthcare consumer. At that point, I thought they lived somewhere far away. Turns out they live in the same metro area I do. So we met in person and shared stories over a glass of wine. I came away grinning from ear to ear because what they are doing is what I firmly believe is what we all need to be doing to have satisfying lives once we retire. They are living today with gusto by standing on long-held values and using well developed skills to do something that they believe is important now.

They also seem to have a good sense of how to combine their disparate skills to make a stronger team effort. They are on fire together.

Cate has background in property management and real estate, but has also created bookkeeping software for small business that she currently markets in one of her own small businesses. Dieter made his mark in leadership positions in the automotive and railroad industries and has a weakness for owning historic buildings. While they are still active in those pursuits, their current passion is RestlessBoomers.com, a web resource they are building to help boomers find solid information for navigating that no-man’s-land we call retirement.

They are interesting as a couple, too. This is not a lifelong partnership where they met in high school and have been sweethearts ever since. Though Dieter grew up in Dearborn, Michigan and Cate in Santa Monica, California, they met after they had both moved to the Pacific Northwest. Even then they were willing to use the technology available—they met via an online dating service. (About which, Cate admitted, she had to kiss a lot of frogs before Dieter came on the scene.)

Cate seems to be taking the lead as company nerd, but they are both hot to learn how to use what’s available now in online technology to offer what they are firmly convinced is an essential service for Boomers—a clearinghouse that vets the information before passing it on. Their intent is to provide a trusted resource where boomers can learn of new products and services that they’ve already checked out.

Their vision is to build “a community where millions of likeminded Boomers can share and bond in celebration of accomplishments and struggles while moving forward into the future.” Their mission with RestlessBoomers.com is to help you “achieve exciting new goals and dreams, build confidence, maintain optimum health, grow wealth and obtain true happiness.”

The benefits they want you to reap from accessing the site are:
~ Reducing your cost of living without reducing your living standards.
~ Creating innovative and fun income streams that don’t require large investments or tie you down.
~ Longevity strategies that not only don’t break the bank, but actually reduce healthcare expenses.
~ Medical breakthroughs that affordably and significantly extend life.
~ Protecting and Growing assets at a time when life savings & pensions are under extreme assault.

Only time will tell if they can pull all that off, but they are certainly on fire with making it happen.

Though they are still in development with some sections of the website (and will be for as long as the effort continues given their zeal for employing the latest and best options in what they provide), it’s already worth a look. Check it out at www.restlessboomers.com.