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 HostelWorld.com, 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.