Thursday, November 10, 2011

Kilroy Cafe #17: So you're having an Existential Crisis (Welcome to the club!)

Here is a repost of a Kilroy Café philosophy essay from 2008. (Previously available only as a graphic.) You can print this newsletter on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters

So you're having an 
Existential Crisis
(Welcome to the club!)


So you’re having an existential crisis. You’ve been looking in the mirror and asking yourself “Who am I?” Due, no doubt, to an unfortunate series of events, you now find yourself at a personal crossroads and don’t know which way to go.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Millions are suffering from the same disorder. Unfortunately, society doesn’t offer much sympathy or support. “Don’t you know who you are?” people seem to say. “Are you some kind of dummy?”

But you’re no dummy. Just recognizing the existence of a crisis is evidence of your intelligence. Most people coast through life playing simple-minded roles: fireman, fashion model, soldier, mommy. You at least have the presence of mind to know you have a choice and that none of the available roles quite fit.

An existential crisis is sometimes known as a “mid-life crisis.” You recognize in a panic that your life is half over and that most of the things you intended to accomplish aren’t happening. That’s when middle aged men dump their wives for younger girlfriends and invest in the proverbial red sports car. Alas, it rarely solves the problem.

Turns out, a mid-life crisis can happen at any stage of life, and the earlier you start having them the better. There’s nothing wrong, in fact, with being in continuous existential crisis from the age of 14 until you die. All of us are facing a deadline, and none of us can afford to waste much time.

Not knowing what to do with ourselves is an inherent condition of life. Things are easier when we have no choice—when our career, relationships and goals have all been arranged for us by others. Once we recognize our ability to choose, we start to fret about it and wonder if we are accomplishing all we are capable of.

The pain is numbed when we fall into a role and it is reasonably successful. Someone playing the role of “doctor” or “corporate executive” doesn’t usually think much about where his life is going because the role itself takes up so much time. It is mainly when we are unsuccessful in our chosen pursuits that a crisis emerges.

And thank God for that! Our most important and potentially rewarding decisions are prompted by failure. Had you been successful in your original plan, you would have continued along a fairly bland straight-line track. Failure forces you to make a bold departure. It is riskier than the straight-line route, but the potential is also greater.

So what should that departure be? In the midst of a crisis, everything is on the table. Should you chuck it all and join the Peace Corps? Should you change your sexual orientation or even your whole gender? (Chop, chop, snip, snip!) Or should you just quit the game altogether, opting for a clean or messy suicide? (A plea from the living: Please don’t be messy.)

While it is useful to think about all the theoretical options, your practical choices are much more limited. You’re not going to get a sex change, and it would be silly to check out. It would also be unwise to completely change your career. If you are already a doctor, it doesn’t make much sense to try to become a lawyer. It is just too costly to start over from scratch.

Listen up because this is the important part: You’ve got to stick with what you know and what you’re already good it.

Okay, your life up to present may have been an abject failure, but you’ve still built up certain skills and assets, and you shouldn’t abandon them lightly. In a crisis, there is often a temptation to completely discard the past and start over in an entirely new field. Unfortunately, you’re probably a babe in this field and are competing against those who grew up there and are much better at it than you are.

The first step to resolving your existential crisis is making a cool, objective inventory of your assets. For example, there are things you have been doing since your earliest consciousness—singing, writing, drawing, etc. These skills are part of your nervous system, so it is senseless to try to purge them. You need to be working with your native skills, not against them.

The solution to your crisis lies not in radical change but in rediscovering to your roots. What do you do well? What are you already set up for? What product comes out of you effortlessly? It is easy to devalue your native skills because they come so easily to you, but in the context of society, they are still remarkable and shouldn’t be dismissed.

Once you complete an honest inventory, an existential crisis usually resolves itself. There are things you can do with your current resources and opportunities and things you can’t. Obviously, you are going to focus on what is doable right now.

You don’t need to know where your whole life is going to make adequate decisions for the moment. You just look at the real opportunities in front of you and choose the one that’s most consistent with your past and your core abilities.

Just work with what you have.
—G .C.

©2008, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy writings at

It turns out we also published this issue as a blog entry in 2008.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Kilroy Cafe #4: Teenage Insanity Explained at Last! (reposted from 2008)

Here is a repost of a Kilroy Café philosophy essay from 2008. (Previously available only as a graphic.) You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters

Teenage Insanity Explained at Last


Monkeys can be clever. If you hang a banana just out of reach and leave a stick in their cage, they’ll eventually figure out how to use the tool to obtain the treat.

Human teenagers are almost as smart. If you hang something they want just out of reach and give them the tools to attain it, they’ll eventually learn to connect the two, but maybe not as quickly as the monkey.

First, they have to throw a tantrum, insisting it’s IMPOSSIBLE to obtain the goal with those pitiful tools. They complain bitterly about your cruelty in not giving them the banana directly. Their strategy, of course, is to coerce you into fetching it for them.

But if you cave in and do what they demand, they only hate you for it. The more bananas you give them, they more they resent you and devalue what you’ve done for them. They’ll take whatever you give, bitch about it, then demand you give even more.

Generally speaking, monkeys are easier to work with.

There seems to be vast misunder-standing among the general public about what a teenager is and what he expects from the world. Parents and other social workers often make the mistake of trying to reason with the teenager using words alone. They expect him to think like an adult, when in fact adults don’t even think like adults most of the time.

He used to be this sweet little thing who saw you as a hero and followed you everywhere like a puppy. Then puberty kicked in and it was like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Everything you did became wrong and your old bag of tricks didn’t work anymore.

We are pleased to report, however, that adolescent humans can be success-fully managed and occasionally turned into productive citizens. You just have to think like they do.

Around puberty, a youth becomes afflicted with an overwhelming need for identity. He is driven to distinguish himself from all the other humans around him, which is no easy task. Spiked hair, outrageous fashions, risky behavior, graffiti—All are attempts to say, “Here I am!” They don’t want to be a puppy anymore; they have to be their own dog.

This drive for identity is more powerful than anything else: food, sex, sleep, safety. It is also inherently something you can’t do for them, even if they demand it.

Teens make fantastic rodeo riders because they’re absolutely driven to make their mark while having very little common sense. This, of course, is what terrifies caregivers. What is the teen going to try next, and will it be fatal? If you give him the keys to the car, will he blow his brains out with it?

The solution is to not give him the keys to the car. In fact, a teen shouldn’t be given anything. No keys, no bananas—nothing for free.

Consult the child abuse laws of your state. There are penalties for beating the kid, raising him in squalor or with¬holding basic nutrition or medical care.

Under the law, it is not considered child abuse if you fail to provide video entertainment or decline to take him to the mall for the latest fashions. As much as he may cry child abuse, it isn’t child abuse.

If it isn’t abuse to withhold a discretionary entertainment or fashion, then why are you providing it?
Here at Kilroy Cafe, we firmly believe in one guiding principle of parenting: Every child should be required to pay for his own upbringing.

Maybe not the full retail cost, but whenever a kid wants something, he should have to pay a price for it. If he wants dinner, he must contribute something to dinner. If he wants a ride somewhere, he must do something to compensate you for your time and gas.

No matter how wealthy you may be, the best environment for your kid is one of moderate poverty where nothing is taken for granted. If you have assets, hide them. Give the kid nothing for free, apart from your time. If he has a goal, he has to use his own resources to obtain it.

If he asks you for something, your first response should be “What will you do for me?”

You want to connect the kid with the real demands of the world as quickly as possible. He’s going to face them anyway when he moves out of your home, so why not start early?

Then the banana will have value, and you’ll be amazed by the ingenuity of the monkey.
—G .C.

©2008, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
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You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Bandwidth in Personal Relationships

"Bandwidth" in electronic communications is the amount of data that can be passed through a communication channel. For example, with a high-bandwidth internet connection you can play movies, while with a low-bandwidth one you can only exchange email.

Bandwidth, in personal communications, refers to the amount of information that can be passed between individuals. This kind of bandwidth is different between different pairs of people. Some people you can communicate a lot with, others very little, even though you all speak the same language.

In this case, you can't really increase the raw data stream. All of us are communicating through words and gestures. Instead, you have to make these tokens carry more meaning. This happens when people know each other well and have common experiences to draw on.

The Coen Brothers, the sibling filmmakers, are known as the "two-headed director" to actors because if you ask either of them a question about the film, they'll give you the same answer. They can be said to have a very high bandwidth between them. However they are communicating between each other, it is obviously with a very economical use of words, based on their shared past experience.

When you communicate with a person on the street who you just met, it is usually a low-bandwidth connection. You can talk about the weather and recent news stories but little else.

We hesitate to talk about meaningful things with strangers because we fear they might not understand us or, worse, that they might be offended. You want to feel them out before you attempt complicated topics.

If you see that someone is reading a book that you have also read, then suddenly you have a body of knowledge in common. You can safely launch into a complicated discussion about the topic of the book, and the amount of information passed between you can be quite large relative to the number of words you are using. A person sitting near you who hasn't read the book might not have a clue what you are talking about, because he doesn't have the common knowledge base.

Since we are all operating with the same language—English—with a limited number of words at our disposal, bandwidth has to do with encoding and decoding mechanisms. When we have shared knowledge base with someone else, we can encode information into smaller packages, knowing that they will accurately decode the message at the other end.

But bandwidth involves more than shared knowledge. There are plenty of people who have years of shared experience with each other but who nonetheless communicate very poorly. We see them bickering in public places. No doubt, you too have been involved in relationships where there was shared experience but poor communication. It can be hell!

It turns out, high bandwidth involves a certain emotional sync between people. Furthermore, some people have such emotional blocks that they can't communicate deeply with anyone at all.

People develop emotional blocks when they become heavily invested in things—be they life choices or belief systems. People can also get out of sync with themselves, where there own brain is rife with inconsistencies. Both of these things can form a barrier to external communication.

Theoretically, the more common experience you have with someone, the better your communication will be, but it doesn't always work that way. Sometimes, communication just gets worse and worse, until you tiptoeing around, doing your best not to set them off.

If you are only communicating a small portion of what you think and feel to another person, then you have a low-bandwidth connection, regardless of how many years you have spent together. Like it or not, your investment in shared experience really hasn't paid off. Now, you have to decide whether the investment should continue.

The benefits of high bandwidth are great, especially in creative partnerships like the Coens'. You can economically communicate instructions to each other knowing they will be understood. The more experience you have together, the more complex projects you can collaborate on, like whole movies.

In a low-bandwidth relationship, you are forever trapped in a cycle of retractions and corrections, misinterpretations and apologies, and the volume of information you actually convey is very small. When you are out of emotional sync with your communication partner, nothing works right. Messages are decoded in a completely differently than how you encoded them, then you are supposed to apologize for how your message was misinterpreted.

If you're already heavily invested in the relationship, you may try all sorts of tricks and therapy to try to make communication better, but they rarely work. High bandwidth involves many personality factors, and for the most part, personalities can't be changed.

If you want high bandwidth, you have to build it, but you also have to select for it. Face it, you just can't communicate with most people in the world. You can discuss weather, sports and other non-controversial topics, but anything deeper is going is going to trigger their sensitivities. There's nothing you can do to change this.

While common experience is useful, there are also people you can communicate with almost instantly. 99 out of 100 people you sit beside in airplanes are dolts, but 1 out of 100 is reachable. You will get a lot farther investing in them then you will with the others.

Invest in a dolt and years later they will still be a dolt. And you will be watching your words very, very carefully.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Identifying Your Own Narcissism on Twitter

On Twitter, we are broadcasting short messages to the world about ourselves. Every tweet has some of its author contained in it, but not all tweets are narcissistic. What distinguishes a narcissistic tweet from a non-narcissistic one?

A narcissistic tweet is something that aggrandizes the author without giving anything of value to the reader. "Here's what I'm doing" or "Here's what I'm feeling" or "This is my opinion." It's all "I" centered, concerned only with the needs of the author. If you don't think that's bad, imagine removing you own name and reading the same tweet from someone else. Would you even care?

The simplest test of narcissism is whether the tweet would be compelling to the world regardless of who wrote it. If it's not meaningful with the author's name removed, then it's probably just self-centered crap, destined to be forgotten instantly.

The difference between narcissistic and useful can be hard to distinguish in your own tweets. Just because you are talking about yourself and your own activities doesn't make a tweet worthless. The question is whether the tweet gives stand-alone value to others.

We are all, at our core, narcissistic. We want others to love us! But some of us learn to step beyond this primitive urge and actually serve the needs of others. In the end, people should value you for how you contribute to their own lives, not just for being you.

It is not necessarily narcissistic to travel to some interesting destination and tweet photos and descriptions of things you discover along the way. If those observations are unique and interesting in themselves, they are useful to your readers. Even though the journey is centered on you (where you are going and what you are doing), you are still performing a public service. You are taking your own experience, filtering it and giving only the most interesting and useful parts to others. Traveling has inherent value to others, just like being in the middle of a major news event, but you have to find the parts that are universally meaningful.

Should you also tweet photos of yourself while traveling? Sure! If I was visiting the Taj Mahal, I would almost certainly turn the camera on myself in front of the monument and tweet that photo to my followers (hopefully geotagged with the Taj Mahal's address). Is this narcissistic? Certainly! Deep down, I am saying, "Look at me! I'm special because I'm in a special place!" but you get a pass on something like this if the photo is interesting in itself and contributes to the credibility of your tweet stream. There are thousands of photos of the Taj Mahal already on the web. The world doesn't need another unless there's something unique about it. Placing yourself in the scene gives your tweet stream some immediacy and makes people pay attention. It shows people that you are actually tweeting from experience, and this increases the value of whatever you subsequently tweet—which is the interesting and ironic things you find in Agra.

It's not so interesting to tweet your location in your own hometown when you happen to be meeting friends. "I'm at the Berry Barn, 123 Main St., with Joe and Sue." That's fine if your only friends are Joe and Sue and people who know Joe and Sue. For the rest of your followers, it's just noise, and if you tweet too much of this stuff they'll unfollow you.

If you aspire to having followers around the world, not just on Main Street, then you have to broadcast things with worldwide appeal, which doesn't include the Berry Barn. You tweet above has value to Joe and Sue's friends, but it has only a COST to everyone else. Someone in another country is forced to read your tweet while getting nothing out of it, and this pulls down the value of your whole tweet stream.

A narcissist thinks his activities are important just because they're his. Therefore, he spews lots of tweets about what he is doing and how he is feeling. He also thinks his own opinion is important to tweet just because it's his. He'll tweet, "I love Sarah Palin" or "I hate Sarah Palin," but in both cases, he isn't giving the world anything it hasn't heard already. You get a pass if you can say something clever and funny about Sarah Palin, but even then the bar is very high. It has to be funnier than the million Sarah Palin jokes already out there.

Unless you happen to be a celebrity, no one cares about your opinion! Instead, people care about insight. If you have new information to offer, something that's never been said before, then it's worth tweeting. If you're just adding your voice to a million others, then it's noise.

If you ARE a celebrity, then you can get away with just about anything. For a stream of pure narcissism, check out @KimKardashian. For some unfathomable reason she has almost 7 million followers, even though she says nothing of value to anyone outside her personal clique. If she didn't happen to be a celebrity (and constantly referencing other celebrities) she wouldn't have more followers than the average teenager.

The rest of us can't get away with that. We have to actually give value to people if we expect strangers to follow us, and it takes time for strangers to recognize this value. It can be a long, hard slog!

@CharlieSheen may be able to attract a million users overnight, but the rest of us have to fight for every 100. This doesn't matter! In the end, we will win and Charlie will lose, because Charlie will never learn how to gain self-worth by giving to others. He will be forever trapped in the most primitive form of narcissism: "I'm special just because I'm me." (Or in his words: "I'm tired of pretending I'm not special.") He'll never learn to modify his behavior to serve the needs of others, so eventually he'll self-destruct. Like other narcissists, he'll perpetually seek perfect love and adoration that can never be achieved.

We may all be narcissists at our core, but some of us get a clue: To be loved by others, we have to serve their needs. We have to step out of ourselves enough to see what those needs are and filter our own output to address them.

Reducing narcissism in your own tweet stream doesn't mean eliminating yourself from it entirely. Frankly, you SHOULD tweet about yourself from time to time. Use of "I" and "me" is not necessarily selfish. In fact, it may be essential! Why? Because if you don't insert yourself and your needs into you tweet stream occasionally, people will start taking it for granted as a free public service. It is important to let people know there's a real person behind this output and not a robot or organization. Otherwise, your efforts will never be appreciated.

Yes, you WANT people to love you, but it has to be for the right reasons. You want to be judged for what you DO, not who you ARE! Children are valued for who they are. Adults should be valued for what they do for others.

If your tweet stream does something for people, then you ought to be recognized for it. If that's narcissistic, so be it. It's good kind of narcissism: seeking love and appreciation by doing good things for others. That's a noble undertaking! It's not noble to just say: "Here I am. Love me!" Sadly, that's how most people think, because they haven't broken out of childhood. They expect to be treated as special without doing anything for anyone.

You can break out of that, can't you? Just work on giving value to others, without losing yourself in the process, and the respect of others will (probably) follow.

Also see my YouTube video: "How to Twitter (and How Not To)"

Monday, March 14, 2011

Knowledge is not Wisdom!

Our society's knowledge base seems to be expanding almost logarithmically! Never before has so much relevant data been available on so many subjects.

However, that doesn't mean that wisdom has increased in the world. On the whole, people don't seem any wiser now than they were 100 years ago. That's because wisdom and knowledge are two different things.

Wisdom can be defined as mature judgment in dealing with the problems in front of you. Knowledge give you the facts, but wisdom tells you how to weigh these facts against each other to reach a final behavior that works.

Simple example: driving a car. You can collect all manner of facts about cars, memorize the highway codes, know how a car works and where you are going—and still not be a good driver! Driving is a holistic, non-verbal skill that requires the weighing of many more factors than can ever be described. When should you pass other cars or cut into traffic? When can you "disobey" the traffic laws by driving over the speed limit? Sure, it's good to know the traffic laws and how a car works, but driving is more than that. It's an exercise in operational wisdom, and the proof of that wisdom is having fewer accidents.

Driving is a skill that can be gained only by experience, and you need time to get good at it. Time and experience don't guarantee wisdom on the road, but they are a minimum requirement for it. Furthermore, you can't say that drivers today are better than drivers fifty years ago. On the contrary, drivers today have too many distractions with all their incoming data and are probably worse!

The same applies to virtually any other real-world skill. Just because you have unlimited facts at your disposal doesn't make you a smart operator. You can read 100 books on management and still be clueless when thrown into a management situation. No matter what data you gathered on the internet, only real experience is going to teach you how to do it.

Society is currently intoxicated with information, thinking that information will solve everything. In fact, information solves nothing! The same problems of the world persist! Certainly, good data is important input to any decision, but data doesn't make the decision; wisdom does. If balanced wisdom isn't there, then the decision will fail no matter how much data you have.

Data, in fact, can be as much a burden as an asset. It can bury the truth in irrelevancy, so you "can't see the forest for the trees." It can also distract you from the real-world experience you need to make good decisions.

Before visiting a foreign country, you can read every available travel guide, analyse every map on the internet, look at other people's photos and read their accounts, and still get lost or tripped up when you visit the country. Instead of wasting all that time collecting data, maybe you should have just visited the country first! Actually experiencing something, rather than collecting data on it, is the best way to start putting that activity into perspective—to start collecting wisdom rather than information.

Many people think they don't need that. They stay at home, collect facts on the internet and think they understand something. Then when they do venture forth into reality, they get beaten up by it! No matter how much data you have collected about something, only reality can show you what really matters. If you rely only on the internet, then you end up preparing for the wrong thing and getting blindsided by the right thing.

Wisdom is balance that comes from experience. To a certain extent it can be taught—say, from parent to child—but only by direct interactive experience over an extended period of time. You don't pick up wisdom from a weekend seminar or even a semester course. You get it by direct experience and perhaps some nudging from someone who has already learned things the hard way.

Even in the internet age, wisdom today is gained as it always has been—by personal experience and personal relationships. Don't expect faster data streams to improve things. For the most part, that just helps us make stupid decisions faster!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Complexity and How to Find It

Complexity is the quality of being intricate and compounded. For example, the human body is a very complex life form compared to an amoeba. It's not just a matter of there being trillions of cells in the body but that they are connected in many different ways we're only beginning to understand. Complexity is hard to define precisely, but whenever you compare two objects or systems you can usually say without a doubt that one is more complex. One has more layers, more systems, more internal connections. An aircraft carrier is more complex than a sailboat. A chess game is more complex than tic-tac-toe.

Complexity also applies to people. Although we all have approximately the same number of brain cells, some brains are much more intricate than others. You can probably quantify this by slicing open someone's brain and examining the number of connections between cells, but that option isn't usually available to us.

An easier way to judge someone's complexity is to talk to them! Are they a one-song band or a multifaceted orchestra? Although complexity can't be precisely defined, you know when someone is complex and "deep" or simple and shallow.

Complexity is like layers of onion. Some people have many layers, others only a few. You find out which is which by spending some time with them. Assuming that you yourself have many layers, those with fewer get boring very quickly.

When you are trapped on an airplane, sitting beside a stranger, you may strike up a conversation with them just to be friendly. How long this conversation continues is a hint of their complexity. You might learn they are married, have a new baby and are a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, but the conversation peters out after that. There's just nothing more to talk about.

Then there are the rare people you find yourself beside where each question you ask leads to another and another, and soon you're engaged in an hours-long conversation that occupies the whole flight. Those are the complex ones. Each layer of them you peel away reveals a new, more subtle layer. They show signs of having thought things through, having built system upon system to deal with the challenges of their life.

In fact, these conversations usually end only when YOU reach the limits of YOUR complexity, to the point where you don't know what they're talking about—or don't want to. Their solutions may become upsetting to you when it is clear they have outpaced your own development. You curtail these conversations yourself because it is painful to see all that they have done that you haven't.

Complexity is different from success. Many simple-minded people achieve great outward fame or wealth yet remain very one-dimensional to talk to. Complexity is also not the same as intelligence, at least by standard measures. A mathematician can be brilliant in his field but still not know a thing about life outside it. Complexity is a holistic measure of emotional depth, not just abstract intellect.

Someone who is simple has one or two core areas of interest and sticks to them. He has only a couple of dimensions, which you come to understand quickly. He doesn't inquire beyond his current sphere and doesn't display much real humor about himself. Someone complex has multiple interests and appreciates the ironies of life. She can laugh at what she is doing and appreciate the absurdities of it without getting offended. The simple people are ants who see only their little ant world. The complex people see the world from above, from outer space, and even if they have to live in the ant world they are always striving to understand their place in the cosmos. They want to grasp the big picture and the underlying mechanisms, while most ants are content with the surface world in front of them.

Complexity is a treasure! It is something we want to nurture in ourselves and seek out in others. In ourselves, complexity means that we aren't just seeing in black and white but in a subtle range of colors. We see systems within systems in everything we look at, so we end up making better, more nuanced decisions.

Complexity in others helps enhance our own complexity. If you hang out with smart friends (on the internet or in real life), you're going to get smarter yourself, because these people will help you see all the subtleties of life you've been missing.

So how do you identify complex people, short of dissecting their brains? Listen to them. Watch them. Most of the data you need is being spewed out of them spontaneously. When you want more data, poke them. Ask them questions and see how they respond. Push them out of their comfort zone and see what happens.

Any data stream from the person is useful. For example: Look at their Twitter feed! People can pretend to be anything they want, especially on the internet, but they can't fake complexity. Even if a tweet stream consists entirely of articles and retweets from others, it is either a complex stream or a simplistic one. Is there intelligence in the selection of material, or is it based on a simple algorithm a computer could replicate? Are we seeing a growth curve, or are the tweets of today the same as those a year ago?

On Twitter, a good gauge of complexity is how long you want to keep reading someone's tweets. A tweeter may seem fascinating when you first subscribe, but over time you see them repeating the same ideas over and over. Once you understand their schtick, you can write it yourself and you end up unsubscribing. When your own complexity exceeds someone else's, you eventually want to move on.

Complexity has nothing to do with how many followers you have. Some celebrities with millions of followers are extremely boring and give you nothing back for your time. They are popular because most followers are simpletons themselves. They want the same things repeated over and over again because it's predictable and reassuring. If you happen to want complexity, then you have to look at a person's output objectively. Would you be following this stream if the person wasn't a celebrity or didn't happen to be a friend? Are you really getting any benefit from this output stream? Is it increasing your own complexity, or just taking up your time?

The same is true in real life. We are connected with all kinds of people—friends, family, co-workers. We receive, in some form, an "input stream" from each them. We are emotionally attached to some people, but that's a separate question from whether their input is useful in itself. Although we are very fond of a person, we may not be gaining much by interacting with them. When our own complexity exceeds theirs, they start dragging us down.

Almost everyone has something to teach us. The have techniques and perspectives that are useful to us. However, with most people, the lesson doesn't last long. We learn all their tricks, and then it's like we're trapped in First Grade with them when we really should be in Second.

Romantic relationships ultimately fail when complexity diverges. When you're in love, you see far more of that person than you normally would. After the honeymoon period, you quickly learn their limitations. You know the song they are going to be singing over and over for the rest of their lives. If you stay with them, they're going to hold you at this level, for better or worse. If you aspire to something more, then you've got a tough decision to make: Do you detach yourself, or do you accept a permanent burden on your own complexity.

In circumstances like this, where the decisions are painful, most people prefer to sacrifice their own development. That helps explain why there are so many simpletons in the world. Complexity is hard! It involves hard decisions about which input streams you are going to reject. If you have a dear friend you've known from childhood who isn't doing anything for you in the present, do you pull away, or do you continue giving them your precious time?

There is a limit to the input streams you can follow. If you are following dull and repetitive streams then you can't be following the complex ones that are going to benefit you most. Over time, you become whoever you associate with. If you follow a lot of fascinating Twitter streams, yours will become fascinating too. If you hang out with a lot of smart people, you'll become smart yourself. But of course it works in the other direction, too.

Time is your most precious resource. How you spend it—and who you spend it with—is the best predictor of who you will become.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Going with the Flow

We all want things. You want things. I want things. Whatever position now you have in life, you want to improve it. Whoever you are, there are goals that you want realized because you think they will bring you greater happiness.

For example, you might want a better job doing more of the things you enjoy doing and fewer of the things you hate. Or you might want more money, because you're tired of struggling to pay the bills. Whoever you are, you have problems right now that you would like not to worry about in the future. Maybe you want to move yourself into a position where you can use more of your talents or get more recognition.

I don't know what you want from life; that's for you to decide. But once you decide on your goal, how do you go about getting it?

The stock answer is you fight for it! You set your sights on the goal, and you drive relentlessly toward it, overcoming any obstacles in your path.

Unfortunately, that's not always the best answer. Between you and your goal, there will be barriers, some of them unexpected and extremely costly. If you drive directly for them, then you aren't taking the most efficient route, and if the costs add up, you might not reach your destination at all.

The opposite philosophy is: don't try to seek your goals at all! Just let things happen as they may. Whatever will be, will be!

In that case, you are never going to attain your goal because you are never even going to head in that direction. Frankly, this is the method used by most people. They dream of great things, but they never even make the first step toward realizing them. They usually figure it is something they will do later, but as long as it remains in the future, they never start moving in the present and the goal is never achieved.

This corresponds roughly to many Eastern philosophies, like Taoism. One should not actively seek happiness but merely seek to free oneself of want. Go with the flow of the universe, wherever its currents may carry you.

Bull! If you're going to be like that—merely a piece of driftwood on the ocean of life—then there's not much point in living at all. Existence is exerting your will in the world. It is a quest for SOMETHING, even if you don't know exactly what. If you're not going to at least try to do something, then why are you wasting space on this planet?

It is good to have the motivation to change yourself and improve your lot in life. All I'm saying is there is such a thing as trying too hard and driving too directly for your goal.

The good message of Taoism is that you shouldn't fight the currents of life when you can avoid it. "Go with the flow" is a very good philosophy when the currents are going in the same general direction you are. BUT YOU STILL HAVE TO CHOOSE A DIRECTION.

You don't want to be a piece of driftwood bobbing helplessly in the sea. You want to be a sailing ship! As captain of the ship, you have to understand and respect the ocean. You can fight the currents, but it is very costly. It is much better to recognize the way the water is moving and use it to your advantage.

But above all, it is your responsibility to STEER the ship, not let it drift aimlessly. If one current doesn't do what you want it to, then you take control of the rudder and change currents! Sometimes, you have to fight rough waters to get where you want to go. Sometimes the crew will grumble. But as the captain, it is your responsibility to choose the best route for the ship.

The trouble with those hard-driving people who head directly for the goal is that they ignore the currents. They are more like a powerboat than a sailing ship, ploughing through the water regardless of the circumstances. Unfortunately, that takes a lot of energy, and their fuel may run out before they get there.

Sailing is the way to go! Certainly, you should know the direction you want to go, but you must also pay attention to the winds and waves. If the sea "wants" you to go in a certain direction, it may be a good idea to listen to it.

But you are the captain, not a victim of the waves. It is your responsibility to plot a wise course to the best of your ability as far ahead as you can reasonably see. The only problem is that it is hard to see ahead sometimes, so you often have to deal with circumstances as you find them.

It is good to have goals, but once you leave port, you must listen to the sea.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Eastern Europe: Your Next Vacation!

If you are planning a vacation for next summer, let me put in a plug for Eastern Europe. It is cheap, safe, easy, and you don't need any visas. Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bosnia... there are too many countries to mention, many of which you probably know nothing about. I define Eastern Europe as all those countries that used to be Communist, and there's a lot more of them now than there used to be then.

Eastern Europe is not the dark dismal place of the Communist era, nor the ethnic battleground of the 1990s. These are optimistic, green and generally prosperous countries, very welcoming to tourists. The tourist trails are not so well-worn as in Western Europe, and there's more opportunities to get lost, but that's part of the adventure.

Above all, it's a safe adventure! Crime seems no worse here than in Western Europe or North America. And did I say cheap? Last summer, I wandered around in a half-dozen countries for only about $25/day for food and lodging. Then it was $25 to $35 more each time I took the train to the next city. Airfare notwithstanding, that's a lot cheaper than any vacation in the USA!

You don't need to know a single word of the local language (of which there are many). English is sufficient for communicating with ticket agents and lodging staff. (English is, after all, the language of Rock n' Roll, which the whole world speaks!) If you are lost, the first person you talk to may not speak English, but there is almost always someone in the vicinity who does—it's not as English-friendly as Germany but roughly equivalent to France.

You don't even need an itinerary! Just choose a city you can fly to cheaply, reserve your first night's stay, and the rest of your itinerary will take care of itself. Bring a laptop, plug into the wifi at your lodging, and plot your next move.

If you actually plan to go, the following is more detailed advice....

Start at, to see the accommodations available. You can book hostel beds here, but this is also a good place to find private rooms. Throughout most of Eastern Europe, a hostel bed for $15 is common, as is a private room for $40. Even if you walk out of the train station and stop at the first hotel you pass, you'll probably find a very reasonable rate by US standards. If you're the sort of wuss who needs to stay at the Hilton or equivalent sanitary lodging facility, I'm sure you can find that, too, but you're on your own here. One huge advantage of hostels, apart from the low price, is that you meet lots of people, which might never happen in the Hilton.

June and July are glorious! So is September. Avoid August, though, because all of Europe is on vacation then; trains may be packed and lodging booked.

If you are an American, Canadian or European, you don't need any visas for the Eastern European countries. (Check the US State Dept.'s travel site to be sure.) Only Russia requires a visa, and the hoops you have to jump through there seem almost as complicated as they were in the Communist era. For the other countries, just go as you wish. Ukraine? No problem!

Train is generally the way to get around. You can usually look up the schedules and fares online, then just go to the station on the day of your travel to buy your ticket. My all-day train ride from Zagreb to Sarajevo was only $25, and other point-to-point fares aren't much more. There is really no need for a rail pass with prices this low! (In Western Europe, plan to spend 2-4 times as much for an equivalent trip.) Eastern European trains tend to be old and a frayed at the edges, and stations can be dismal, but the whole system works and gets you there for a reasonable price.
You could also rent a car. In a car, unlike a train, you can start and stop at interesting places along the way. However, a car doesn't make much sense on your first visit to a new country. In that case, you want to cover as much ground as possible without the stress of driving. On your first visit, your main focus is the old town centers, where you get around on foot anyway and parking is a bitch.

One really cool thing about many of the trains in Eastern Europe: You can usually open the window and poke your head outside. That's way more exciting than a sanitary ride on the TGV, where you can't even sense how fast you're going!

One annoyance is money. Some countries use the Euro, but most still have their own unique currencies, which means you need new money at each new country you visit. The easiest way to obtain the local currency is to use your ATM card at a cash machine. Beware, however, that your bank may note the unusual activity and cut you off from your funds (believing it is fraud). You can avoid this by informing your bank of your travel before you go. (Call Customer Service to tell them.) Even then, you should be prepared for the possibility that your ATM card could be cut off.

If you go to a tiny country like Bosnia, you have to plan your transactions carefully, so you have enough cash for your visit but not too much. (Just like the old days in Europe before the Euro!) Acceptance of Visa/Mastercard is not universal, even for train tickets, so you can't depend on it.

Power is the European 220 volt standard, using the same plugs as the rest of continental Europe. Most modern electronics (like your laptop and camera power adapters) run on both 110 and 220 volts. (Look at the print on the adapter.) All you need is a small plug adapter (converting flat American prongs to round European ones), NOT a voltage converter. Adapters can be hard to find, so you need to have one before you leave home. (Walmart usually has a universal adapter in their luggage section.) Don't forget an extension cord or branching cube so you can charge all your devices at once.

Wifi is standard the world over. You need to make sure your lodging has it before you make your reservation; if not, don't go there.

Do not use your cellphone in any manner outside of your home country, unless it works on Wifi. The charges are astronomical, even for the simplest text message! Lots of visitors Skype on the Wifi at their lodging (much to the annoyance of their roommates).

So you have your first hostel night booked in the city where your plane lands. You plug into wifi and plot your next move. At the hostel, you will also meet your fellow travelers and you can ask their advice. This is especially important in Eastern Europe where there may not be a lot of information online. (For example, look at Bosnia on Google maps, and you'll see a big blank area.)

I don't need to give you specific advice on where to go, because you can figure that out on your own. I enjoyed the places I visited—Ljubljana, Zagreb, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Transylvania and Budapest—but there's much more I haven't seen. In particular, you shouldn't be afraid of the Balkans. The wars of the 1990s are long past, and these are stable countries now. Romania, also, is not the horror show it once was. I travel here with the same comfort as visiting the Netherlands.

On the other hand.... Myrtle Beach, South Carolina is a perfectly lovely vacation spot. So is Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Where else in the world can you find a higher density of miniature golf courses? Disneyland, Las Vegas, Six Flags... I know a many Eastern Europeans who would die to visit these places.

However, I expect a little more from you.

Also see my blog entry: How to Sleep in a Hostel

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Roads are more important than destinations

Standard inspirational advice usually goes something like this: "Set your sights on lofty goals and never let go of them. Choose your destination, and the road will take care of itself. If necessary, you'll make your own road! Dream big dreams, pursue them unwaveringly, and those dreams are bound to come true."

Bad advice! This invariably means young people choose grandiose, unobtainable dreams—movie star, rock star, sports star—and waste many years of their lives throwing themselves against the obstacles that stand in their way. In the end, they are usually defeated because the goal disregarded what was realistically possible.

So what is the alternative? "Choose a wise road, and the destination will take care of itself."

It's okay to have a general direction you want to go in, but it should be more of a meta-goal then a specific one. For example: "Use more of my creative abilities on things I find meaningful." Within that general goal, a lot of things are possible. You don't need to know right now exactly what the destination will be.

At this moment (and every moment), you stand at a crossroads. There are a number of roads open to you. There are also a number of roads not open to you. You can't become a movie star right now because no one is offering you the position. Your wisest move is to choose the most promising road from those that are actually available to you.

Right now, at this crossroads, you must look ahead at each road as far as you can see. You aren't looking for a specific destinations but the spectrum of choices that this road offers. One road may lead to Europe and another to Africa. You don't need to know the exact city you'll end up in; you are just evaluating the range of options each continent presents. In your current circumstances, you may see that Europe offers better options, so that's the road head off on.

A funny thing happens on roads. Unexpected things turn up—things you weren't expecting when you first made your plans. There are unexpected obstacles, but also unexpected opportunities. If you have already fixed your sights on a specific goal, then you are going to barge through the obstacles and breeze past the opportunities, because they weren't part of the plan.

If your goals are more general and you aren't driven by a schedule, then you can afford to listen to the road. You can stop at the obstacles and figure out what they are trying to tell you. You can also stop at the opportunities, do a little analysis and say, "Wow! This is a lot better than my original plan!"

The nice thing about unexpected opportunities is they are organic. They flow easily. You don't have to force yourself. An opportunity is when the world has a need, and you happen to be in the right position to fill it. That's different from you having a need (to be a movie star) and demanding that the world fill that need.

The conventional advice says, "If the world doesn't give you the road you want, then pave your own." Unfortunately, that's very expensive—clearing all that forest, etc. It's much better to use a natural road when available. If you want to get to the next valley and a mountain range stands in your way, you shouldn't draw a straight line on the map and follow it blindly; you look for natural passes in the mountains. They may not take you exactly where you intended, but they get you past the obstacle.

Likewise, there is no particular value in choosing a specific destination in life and barging toward it come hell or high water. For one thing, by the time you get there, the destination may be gone! The trouble with choosing a specific goal right now is that it is based on information from the past. You don't know how the world is going to change or how you yourself will change. In most cases, those lofty childhood goals are just you trying to reproduce someone else's success. They aren't you finding your own success.

It sounds like a truism, but traveling is a journey. You can't really know what works for you until you get there. By all means, visit Europe, but don't decide beforehand what you are going to like best about it. You don't want to choose your destination, force your own road through the mountains, then find out the destination wasn't all that great anyway.

To a certain extent, you have to trust the road. You use all your skills to choose the most promising path, but once you're on it, you have to listen to it. Don't let a better opportunity pass you by because you were on a fast-track to somewhere else. Stop and smell the flowers!

Maybe that was what you really wanted anyway.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The 6 Essential Communication Skills of Modern Life

By Glenn Campbell

To communicate effectively in the modern world, you have to master the current forms of media. Turns out, most of these skills haven't changed much since pre-internet days, but we call them by different names. Instead of "quotations", we now have "tweets", and instead of "essays" we have "blogging", but the basic abilities are the same: You need to be able to write, speak, take photos and argue effectively to get your point across to others.

Here, in modern terms, are the six essential skills of human communication...

1) Tweeting. You need to be able to distill your most important ideas into a compelling package of 140 characters or less. Of course, 140 is arbitrary, but the need to compress a message is universal. Some of mankind's greatest shared wisdom is passed from generation to generation in these short sayings. E.g. "There's no use crying over spilt milk." You probably have 1000s of these verbal gems stored inside you, and they guide your life as much as anything your parents or teachers have given you.

As important as it is, the skill of good tweeting is extremely rare. That's the reason 99.99% of the public Twitter feed is crap. A great tweet, like a quote from Winston Churchill, says something ironic, memorable and useful. "Democracy is the worst form of government except for the alternatives." If you can gain the skill of effective tweet writing (which is too complex to describe here), you're well on your way to controlling the world.

2) Blogging. You also need to be able to express yourself in a connected linguistic message of MORE than 140 characters, whether it be a blog entry, email, essay or written report. Not everything you want to explain to others can be expressed in one line. Sometimes you have to expand on your ideas with an organized series of sentences and paragraphs. Most Twitterers make poor bloggers because the skills are different. You have to come up with a plan and a structure for what you are going to write, a lot like a computer program. In fact, that's exactly what writing is: a software program written in English rather than Perl or Java. Instead of a CPU processing the instructions, the human brain is, so you have to understand both what the instructions do and how the brain works.

At various points in your career, you'll have to compose a compelling email or written proposal to convey your ideas to others. If you lack this skill, you'll be crippled. To develop your writing ability you need to actively use it, so you should write whenever you can, for whatever excuse. Even if your blog entry gets lost in cyberspace never to be heard from again, at least you are developing the skills of organized linguistic expression so you have them when you need them.

3) Photography. On Twitter, people say, "Photos or it didn't happen!" and with good reason. There are many things that just can't be conveyed effectively in words. It is senseless to try to describe a visual scene verbally when a snapshot will do it instantly. Nearly all of us now have this capability via the cameras in our smartphones, but like tweets, most photos are crap. If you want to communicate effectively, you have to learn how good photography works.

The skill of photography lies in stepping outside yourself and seeing what is actually in the viewfinder, not what you want to be there. Certain photos are interesting and others are boring, even if they show the same event. In the good photos, the photographer has taken control. Instead of just standing there and clicking the shutter, he has moved, engaged himself in the event, and arranged the elements of the photo in such a way that the composition is now compelling in itself. There is an element of deception in good photography (It's usually much more exciting than real life!) but by adding this spice you are much more likely to get your point across.

4) Video. There are many things that can't be conveyed with either words or still photos. Certain activities can only be understood via video. This is one medium that has changed dramatically in recent years. Forty years ago, you had to be a movie director or TV reporter to have access to film technology, and a hundred years ago, this facility wasn't available at all. Now, it's an integral part of our culture, and if you want to convey your ideas to others, you have to be able to use video effectively. Many of us have this capability on our smart phones, but few people know how to make a video you'd actually want to watch.

Like photography, video involves seeing what's actually there on the screen, rather than what you want to be there. From the same New Years Eve party, there can be interesting videos and boring ones. The boring videos are made by boring people who just stand there. The interesting ones are made by people who have actively explored the medium, made some mistakes and learned what really works on the screen. We can't all be movie directors, but we can all learn to make compelling videos that advance our own personal mission.

5) Public Speaking. As you master the skill of video, at some point you are probably going to turn the camera on yourself and want to say something to your audience. This used to be called "public speaking". It is pretty much the same as standing at a podium and speaking to an audience. Most people are terrified of public speaking and equally terrified of speaking on television. If you had to speak LIVE to an audience of sixty million, with no teleprompter in front of you, how would you hold up? It is pretty much the same when you talk to the camera for a YouTube video or when you stand up at a meeting to give a presentation. If you have gained this skill of speaking extemporaneously to a passive audience, there are many ways to use it to advance your message.

Public speaking is a lot like blog writing, in that you have to come up with a plan and a structure for your message. You have to know where your talk will be going before you begin, and you have to have a road map in your head for how you are going to get there. Unlike writing, however, there is no rewriting and no error correction. You have to get it right the first time! You are also appealing to the audience in a more emotional way than you do in an essay. You are using simpler words, and you are pretending to speak to each audience member personally. If you connect with people emotionally, then they'll overlook the inevitable errors and typos in your speech. The important thing is that it be "real" and emotional, not stiff and distant.

6) Conversation. You remember conversation, don't you? That's when you sit down in the same room with someone and communicate directly with them using words and facial expressions. As the other media rise, conversation is becoming a lost art, but it's still an important skill that you're going to need sooner or later. Technically, you are also conversing with someone when you Skype them, engage in a running exchange via instant message or respond to others in Facebook comments, but the archetype for all this is the classic face-to-face meeting over coffee or across a desk. Believe it or not, such meetings still take place, and when they do, you need to be ready.

Unlike the other 5 forms of communication, conversation is a two-way street. You aren't just expressing yourself. You are also LISTENING, and after you have listened, you are going to tailor your response to what the other person just said. As with public speaking, emotions are important, but in conversation you aren't just pretending to connect with the audience, you are actually doing it. You aren't just listening to the other person's words; you are trying to read the emotions and subtext behind the words. There's a lot more to conversation than we can possibly review here, but like the other skills, the more you do it, the better you'll get at it.

All of these 6 communication skills require a certain detachment. Frankly, most people are terrible at these skills—all of them!—and that's because they are so enmeshed in their own needs that they can't see the needs of others. They tweet exactly what they think and photograph exactly what they see without trying to understand how someone else is going to receive it. Good communication, in any medium, means stepping outside yourself and seeing what the audience does. Most people are so trapped in narcissism that they can't pull it off. They "communicate" only in the most rudimentary sense—like a barking dog or squawking bird—and they are unlikely to sway anyone to their viewpoint.

You will communicate better by switching off your narcissism and looking at your output as though it was the product of someone else. Would this be a compelling photo, tweet or blog entry if you stumbled upon it at random with no idea who produced it? If so, then you have probably created a good one. If not, you've still got work to do.