Complete or Delete

It’s a new mantra I’m trying on, because I have a lot of ideas, and sometimes they get lost in the shuffle.

Between this year’s re-reading of David Allen’s Getting Things Done and checking out Cal Newport’s Deep Work, one of the recurring themes was the notion that putting to much front-and-center in a to-do list makes the doing part more difficult.

You set an obligation for yourself, and the longer it sits there, incomplete, the more weight it puts on your mind. Even if you don’t realize it, an incomplete obligation takes up space in your mental RAM, and can distract your focus.

So I’m telling myself to choose to take on less, and to get more comfortable with walking away from ideas.

If there’s a project I’ve started but haven’t moved forward on for a long time (say, a month), I’m going to ask myself a simple question:

Is there something you can and will do today that would move this forward?

If the answer is no, it gets deleted.

If I want to make sure I realize more of my ideas, I need to be honest with myself about the limits of my time and focus.

But I also need to hold myself accountable for making sure that I use what time I have for things that matter to me. If I’m saying no to an idea, I want it to be because I’m working on something I’ve decided is more important (and not because I’ve spent a bunch of time faffing around).

If I tell myself that something is important, I either need to work toward completing it, or be okay with deleting it.

Your vote matters. You matter.

Election Day 2016, my wife and I took our daughter to the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, which is easily in Sprout’s top five all-time favorite places on Earth. On our way back, while our daughter napped in her car seat, we hopped off the freeway to re-caffeinate at a McDonald’s.

As I pulled up to the window to pay, the woman behind the counter noticed our “I Voted” stickers and said, “Oh yeah. Didn’t do that today.”

We asked if she was registered and when she got off her shift, to make sure she still had time. But then she said,

“But really, it’s just a choice between death and… death.”

She didn’t see any substantive difference between the presidential candidates, and gave us a nihilistic, too-cool-for-civics soundbite to justify shrugging off voting.

And that interaction has haunted me ever since.

I know not voting by choice isn’t the whole picture. I know there are numerous laws designed to reduce the turnout for eligible voters, or actions taken to close polling places to depress turnout. I know that registering people to vote is seen in some quarters as a partisan act instead of a civic duty.

But I want to speak to one small portion of the conversation: The idea that there are people out there who are registered to vote, who are able to vote, but who haven’t definitely committed to vote.

I’ve been teaching a class that’s new to me focusing on media, journalism, and civic engagement. Being that it’s a step outside of my previous wheelhouse, I’ve been looking for how to judge whether my teaching is making an impact.

I haven’t had to look that hard because of the number of times students have done one or more of the following:

  • Told me directly that they made sure they registered to vote because of class
  • Used an exercise in class as a reason to talk to other people about current political issues and how it’s relating to their vote
  • Asked me for help finding non-partisan resources to help educate themselves on who and what is on their ballot

The thing I tell them is that so long as they’re registered, they definitely have the time to figure out how they want to vote.

Because voting isn’t like dating, where you need to find someone that matches with you personally and excites you in ways you don’t think you’ll tire of. It’s not like ordering off a menu, where you expect that what you pick will immediately satisfy you.

Voting is charting a course into the unknown. It’s thinking about where you want to go and who you think will help navigate us in that general direction.

You’re not voting for any one person. You’re voting for a destination. You’re traveling into the future, headed to the country that you want this place to become.

And if we lose sight of the destination, we can choose another navigator. But without a strong sense of where we want to go; without a clear mandate backed up by a large turnout of potential voters, the entire journey will be undermined.

When fewer people vote, more power ends up in the hands of pollsters, pundits, and bloviating partisans. Instead of a true picture of who we are, we get inference and divination. The more people who vote, the less room there is for speculation about “the actual opinion” of the nation.

But if you still want to say that your vote doesn’t matter, let me ask you this:

What do you mean by “matter?”

Do you need to be the tie-breaking vote for your vote to mean something to you?

Do you need to have everything you vote for succeed for your vote to mean something to you?

Is it enough to know that your vote matters because you’re keeping the system of elected officials accountable to one more person?

Is it enough to know that your vote signals that there’s one more person out there who cares about where we’re headed? One more person paying attention?

If that’s not enough, don’t stop at voting.

If you feel like your vote doesn’t matter then find something to do with the other days in the year to support what you voted for. Politics and civic debate doesn’t just happen one day every two years.

If you want your voice to matter, voting is just the start of the journey. So make sure you take that first step.

We Are Here

There are billions upon billions of planets in the observable universe. Most are inhospitable to life.

They’re in the wrong position relative to the nearest star, they have the wrong atmosphere, or their surface doesn’t have the right component elements. Out of all those potential sites for life to flourish, we have the only planet where all the conditions worked out favorably.

Here we are. We exist.

You’re here, reading these words, doing whatever you did just before this, and about to do whatever comes next.

And you’re as unlikely to have ever existed as life itself.

Think of the slow transfer of human genetic material through generation after generation for thousands of years (because let’s not completely blow our minds and go all the way back to add single-celled organisms to our family tree). Think of all the events, both historical and common, that lead to the exact DNA cocktail that brewed you.

A chance meeting of two people. A war forcing a family to flee their homeland. The work of a savvy matchmaker. A natural disaster. The thoughtful consideration of future parents looking for a donor.

These are just a few of the potential steps on the journey to get to you.

It’s something I think about a lot, given that my dad is the keeper of his family’s genealogical records. And if it ever stops seeming strange to me, I think about the fact that I’m a Mayflower descendent and my daughter happened to be born in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

We are all part of a larger conversation with this history of unlikely existence. We all come from somewhere, and whether or not we personally have children, we all shape the world that new people will be born into.

But it wasn’t necessarily going to be this way.

Earth could have been hit by a huge chunk of space debris at just the wrong moment and wound up with a different orbit. The boat carrying your ancestor across the ocean could have capsized. Some misaligned chromosomes could have prevented the cell division that allowed you to grow and flourish.

You are not just part of a line, but a singular point. You are a marvelous improbability.

Even if you feel like a disappointment to the people most important to you. Even if you can’t find work that feels meaningful to you. Even if your family refuses to use your proper pronouns, or people won’t take you seriously as the protagonist of your own story, or you face disrespect based on your skin, your speech, who you love, or the place you were born.

Even if you have to fight an endless battle with part of your own mind that believes you’re worthless and don’t have any right to exist.

Remember that you are a marvelous improbability.

You get to be here.

You deserve to feel awe and wonder at the very fact of your own existence.

Bricklayers and Rock Throwers

There’s two kinds of people in this world: Bricklayers and Rock Throwers.

Bricklayers look for opportunities to make something. Rock throwers look for opportunities to knock something down.

Bricklayers care deeply about every brick they place, wanting to make sure it all fits together. Rock throwers don’t care about where their stones land, so long as they hit something.

Bricklayers feel satisfaction with the progress they make based on their own effort. Rock throwers feel satisfaction when a chucked rock gets the kind of reaction they want out of others.

Rock throwers feel confident they know better than everyone else. Bricklayers know there’s always more to learn if they want to do their job well.

Rock throwers will tell you it can’t be done. Bricklayers tell you it hasn’t been done yet.

A rock thrower can feel their job is finished after throwing a single rock. A bricklayer knows they need patience and focus to follow through on what they’re building.

Bricklayers look to others to see if they can help share in the work. Rock throwers look at others with suspicion, sizing up if they’re a target.

Bricklayers want to leave something behind after they’re done. Rock throwers have nothing to show for their efforts but sore arms.

Cynicism is not a virtue.

Caring deeply about other people is not a weakness.

Get your wheelbarrow. It’s time we built something.

Enough for Today

The dishwasher broke on Thanksgiving. Even five people can generate a lot of dirty plates on Thanksgiving. Learning the basics of dishwasher diagnostics could wait for morning, but the dishes themselves couldn’t.

My mom took charge of cleanup (saying my wife and I had done all the cooking and needed a break). While scraping and scrubbing, she mentioned she’d learned something about my grandfather on her last trip down to West Virginia to visit her parents.

Everyone in the family knew he never earned his high school diploma. Even without it, he’d served in the Army, had a long career back home, raised four kids, and did a savvy job managing both his investments and the timber on his property.

But he’d kept part of that story a secret, even from his kids: He dropped out of school at ten years old.

His mother died. He needed to work odd jobs. It was just what he had to do.

And my mom told me about how he pushed all his kids to finish high school. It reminded me how he’d encouraged me to keep my grades up by paying me a quarter for every A on my report card. How he’d always remind me that your mind is the only thing that nobody can ever take away from you.

And I thought about the pride I heard when I called to tell him that I’d found a job teaching at a university. He left school at fourth grade, and now his grandson was a college professor.

There are bad days. Days when you feel like the brass ring you’re grasping for will always stay out of reach.

On those days, look to the people who care about you. See how you might be fulfilling their dreams.

See if that can be enough until tomorrow, when you have a chance to try again.

Boiling River

Early in the morning of our last day in Yellowstone, my wife, Dena, and my father-in-law wanted to take me to Boiling River.

Boiling River is where the Gardiner River meets up with a hot spring. You can climb into the water and have a soak, with the swirling current and shallow, rocky river bed forming an all-natural, certified organic hot tub.

Unfortunately, when we parked nearby, I couldn’t find my river shoes. On a cross-country road trip with six people, not enough space, and all their stuff, this kind of thing happens.

It would be a 25 minute drive back to the hotel, and we didn’t have time for a second round trip.

Dena could see the scowl forming on my face. “Don’t stew on it,” she said. We needed to get moving if we were going at all. My $5 Old Navy flip flops would have to be good enough.

As we walked along the gravel path to the swimmer’s entrance, Dena and her dad pointed out different parts of the river, and told me about how when they’d come down the other night, it had been packed with people. We were lucky to be out so early, since it looked like it would be easy to find a spot to sit down and relax.

My father-in-law also mentioned not to stick my head in the water, especially my ears, since the water might be swarming with brain-eating amoebas.

Seriously.

We hung our towels up on a fence and walked down a slope to the river’s edge. As soon as I dipped my feet in, I knew my flip flops weren’t a smart choice. The water pushed down as I lifted my foot up, creating drag with each step.

I took lower, gliding steps and did my best to curl my feet, trying to grip the flimsy plastic with my toes, while keeping my balance on the smooth, wobbly rocks.

After catching up with Dena and her dad, I sat down. The tension of the last few minutes melted away as I found a spot where the currents mixed to the perfect temperature.

I wasn’t thinking about brain-eating amoebas, or the days we’d spent crammed into cars driving out here, or or the logistics of bringing an almost-three-year-old on such a big trip.

I sat quietly, feeling the river flow around me. We watched a bird of prey glide in circles overhead.

But we needed to leave and meet back up with the rest of the family. I stood up and started following Dena back to the entrance.

I plodded upstream, taking my time, trying to get solid footing. I fell behind.

And then the current yanked a flip flop off my foot.

It shot downstream toward a shaggy, surfer-type. He tried to catch it, but it zipped past his grasp.

“Alright,” I thought. “Don’t stew on this.”

I don’t go outside barefoot. Even as a kid, I never liked direct contact between my feet and nature.

I took a moment to get my bearings. I looked up at Dena, then upstream past her to the swimmer’s entrance.

I planted my bare foot on a rock to see how it felt. A little slick, but solid.

Goal set, I reminded myself that sitting back down and staying in the river forever was not an option. While not ideal to walk back on one flip flop, it could be done, one step at a time.

And the next step I took sent my other flip flop flying down toward the surfer. He missed that one, too.

I’d love to say I made a dignified march in my bare feet back to shore, deftly navigating the current and shifting stones. But that would be lying.

The next few minutes involved a lot of struggling for traction on slippery, river-smoothed rocks, punctuated by sharp moments of pain stepping on smaller, jagged stones.

I wobbled, frantically waving my arms to keep from falling on my face (because let’s not forget about the brain-eating amoebas).

I misjudged the current as I moved toward a larger stone and smashed my big toe against a rock as I lost my footing. I swore. Then I looked up and saw two parents and their four-year-old son a few feet away.

I quickly convinced myself I had heard them speaking German so I could at the very least keep from feeling embarrassed about my language.

But even after all that, I made it back to the shore. I took my towel off the fence and sat down on a bench. I caught my breath.

I made it.

And then I looked over at the gravel path I still had to walk on to get back to the parking lot.

At this point, I didn’t even bother starting to stew on the problem.

When my feet pressed down on the gravel, I felt even more pain than I’d anticipated. It was the combination of tiny, pointy rocks and a week’s worth of already sore feet from sightseeing.

But the path was the only way back to the parking lot. I took it slow. Big steps, pausing whenever I caught a particularly bad jab.

And then something funny happened. A group of people walking past us the opposite way whispered “Is he barefoot?” with a mix of shock and awe.

I turned to Dena, about to crack up. “They think I’m a badass!”

So, I played the part. I took my hesitant, big steps up until the point where I saw someone coming. Then I switched to strutting, just to see if people would react.

It was a stupid game. I understand this. But it also kept me moving and made the situation a little funnier.

A few minutes in I noticed that every so often there was a span of chalky white logs, bolted to the ground on the sides of the path. I hadn’t noticed them on the walk to the river, but now I was using them as balance beams, reveling in how smooth they felt against my feet.

If every situation were so simple, we wouldn’t need reminders not to dwell on the problem itself and start looking for a solution. Compared to a lot of problems, “I’m in a river and need to get back out right now,” has a refreshing clarity.

Stewing, complaining, or otherwise dwelling on the problem acts as a form of denial. Denying that you’re ready to solve the problem. Denying that you can even believe that you have this problem. Denying that it’s your problem to solve. Denying that a solution exists.

You need to accept the problem before you can move past it, and once you’re in motion, the problem becomes less important than staying in motion.

Wind Your Watch, Dude.

There’s plenty that Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure can teach us beyond the importance of being excellent to each other.

At one point, Future Ted reminds his past self to wind his watch. Future Ted forgot to take care of this task when it was his turn, so he’s hoping this message will correct his/their mistake.

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Later, Bill & Ted use a similar technique to remind themselves to set up the conditions they need to escape from a police station, lending assistance to themselves across time.

But it doesn’t take a technologically advanced phone booth or the mentorship of George Carlin to do the same for yourself.

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I’ve started pausing before I leave a place that I return to frequently, like my home or my office at work, and ask the question “How can I help my future self?”

Maybe it’s printing out some paperwork I’ll need for my next day of classes. If I wash out this French press now, it’ll be ready when I want it tomorrow. If I start this writing project, even if I don’t have time to finish it, my future self will have a foothold to use when it’s their time to take over.

Taking a pause and asking that question can lead you to see that even a small action now might be helpful later.

Try it, and see if you don’t wind up thanking yourself.

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