Agile Lifestyle Personality Development for a Changing World Wed, 13 May 2015 20:44:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 5 Stories of Resilience and What They Mean For You Wed, 13 May 2015 08:15:40 +0000 Resilience Stories

All this month, we’ve been talking about resilience, that seemingly magical quality exhibited by certain individuals and organizations that allows them to bounce back from severe disruption and even grow, adapt, and thrive.

In Part 1 we covered what resilience means and in Part 2 we looked at the five characteristics of resilience.

Here in Part 3, the final installment, we examine five specific examples of resilience—just about the only trait that could unite these five very different stories of resilience:

  • a Swedish furniture store recovering from a hurricane
  • a manufacturing CEO facing a tough layoff decision
  • a San Francisco emergency director preparing for the big one
  • an iron man pitcher refusing to accept his injury as permanent
  • Airbnb hosts with extra capacity and open hearts

5 Resilience Stories

#1: Ikea vs. Fairway After Superstorm Sandy

Resilience Stories: IKEA versus Fairway

Take the tale of two Red Hook shopping goliaths: Fairway and Ikea. Built within miles of one another and the bay, the two retail behemoths were staples of the Brooklyn community.

Then Superstorm Sandy hit.

“The Ikea store, which opened in 2008, was built to be resilient. It was constructed on pilings, with a ground floor garage and the show floors and inventory on the upper floors; the building also has an emergency generator,” writes Judith Rodin in The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong.

When Superstorm Sandy hit, Ikea took some minor damage to its elevators, outside benches, and parking lot. But it reopened quickly after the storm, and even became a temporary headquarters for FEMA to distribute food, clothing, and supplies to the neighborhood.

Fairway didn’t fair as well. Its nineteenth-century warehouse building took the brunt of the flooding. Red Hook’s Fairway closed its doors and didn’t reopen.

“It finally had to gut the building, renovate, and restock its entire inventory—a process that took four months. Fairway, a nearly $1 billion company, was able to survive the loss, although a smaller operation might well have failed,” writes Rodin.

Ikea reaped the resilience dividend—not only did it reopen quicker than Fairway after the storm, it built ties with the community by serving an important role in the relief effort. As Rodin writes, “its business was only briefly disrupted by the storm and it took advantage of a new opportunity.”

#2: Bob Chapman at Barry-Wehmiller: “Better That We All Suffer a Little”

This story comes from Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t by Simon Sinek.

Bob Chapman, Chairman and CEO of manufacturing concern Barry-Wehmiller, couldn’t afford to keep all of his employees. Instead of succumbing to the temptation of easy answers—layoffs—Chapman instead implemented an innovative furlough program:

Every employee, from CEO to secretary, would have to take four weeks of unpaid time off. They could take the weeks off whenever they wanted and the weeks did not have to be taken consecutively. But it was how Chapman announced the program that proved his leadership bona fides. “It is better that we all suffer a little,” he told his people, “so that none of us has to suffer a lot.”

Let’s marvel at Chapman’s ingenuity for a minute: Who wouldn’t want four weeks of time off? Yes, the “unpaid” bit hurts—a lot—but by framing the furlough program as shared sacrifice, Chapman allows his employees to take guilt-free time to relax, recharge, and fight off burnout.

Here’s Sinek again:

The protection Chapman offered his people had a massive impact. Unlike in a company that announces layoffs, sending everyone into self-preservation mode, at Barry-Wehmiller the people spontaneously, and completely on their own, set out to do more for each other. Those who could more afford the time off traded with those who could afford it less. Though they were under no obligation to do so, they took off more unpaid time than required just to help someone else out. The overwhelming feeling across the company was one of gratitude for the security they had been given. I suspect in other companies that face hard times, most of the people would also rather lose a month’s pay than lose their job.

The added resilience benefit to furloughs? Barry-Wehmiller can take advantage quicker when the demand bounces back. Its downsizing rivals, on the other hand, have to re-hire to get back up to capacity.

Score on all fronts.

#3: What Are You Willing to Let Burn?

Resilience Stories: San Francisco Emergency Planners

As a young man, Rob Dudgeon was working the ambulances during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and bridge collapse in San Francisco. He has since worked his way up to deputy director of San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management.

Here’s Rodin from The Resilience Dividend:

For the most part, Dudgeon’s agency wants to keep San Francisco’s elected officials “out of the weeds” of emergency preparedness and management so they can deal with crucial high-level, often difficult, planning choices. “Let’s not talk about where you are going to park the fire engine,” he says. “Let’s talk about what parts of the city you’re willing to let burn.” Obviously, no city leader wants to let any part of the city burn, but thinking about such overarching issues—what happens if?—are matters of policy and, of course, politics.

Dudgeon’s framing of the question is a great one.

If disruption happens to you, which parts of your life are you willing to let burn?

Perhaps it’s knowing which household expenses and luxuries you can shed after a job loss. Or who and what you can say no to in your life. Or which draining friends and family you can cut from your personal life.

The point is you’re probably better prepared for disruption than you think:

“In an emergency,” says Dudgeon, “people do what they did yesterday.” SF72 wanted to break away from the fear-based messaging so often associated with preparedness activities, and it does it very pointedly by telling visitors to the site: You’re more prepared than you think. You know your networks, your connections; you can fill in holes in your emergency supplies on your next errands run. Readiness, as SF72 knows, is about readiness to help each other and to receive help from others. A line on the site reads as follows: “actual emergencies look more like people coming together than cities falling apart.”

Let the unimportant things go and help one another.

Good advice even when there isn’t an emergency.

#4: Who Tommy John Surgery Is Named After

Resilience Stories: Tommy John

In The Obstacle Is the Way, author Ryan Holiday tells the story of Major League Baseball pitcher, Tommy John.

Tommy John pitched professional baseball for twenty-six seasons, an astounding feat of longevity for a professional athlete.

John’s nearly superhuman endurance and career came from asking the same sort of questions over and over: “Is there a chance? Do I have a shot? Is there something I can do?”

All he ever looked for was a yes, no matter how slight or tentative or provisional the chance. If there was a chance, he was ready to take it and make good use of it—ready to give every ounce of effort and energy he had to make it happen. If effort would affect the outcome, he would die on the field before he let that chance go to waste.

In the middle of the 1974 season, John blew out his pitching arm, permanently damaging the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow.

In 1974, this was a career-ending injury. Except for Tommy John.

Was there any chance? Did he have a shot? Was there something he could do?

Yes, as it turned out. Doctors clued him in on an experimental surgery that could replace the ligament with a tendon from another part of his body. It worked.

The procedure is now commonly known as Tommy John surgery.

In life, the ninety-nine no’s rarely matter; it’s the one yes that counts.

#5: Latent Surplus: Airbnb Hosts Step Up After Disaster

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, there were countless displaced residents of New York and New Jersey looking for shelter.

Airbnb hosts with spare rooms wanted to know if they could offer their extra space for free:

Good idea, but Airbnb was not set up to offer free accommodations. Then an Airbnb host, based in Brooklyn, called and pleaded. Wasn’t there some way she could her accommodation for free to people displaced by the storm? Yes, there was. “Our engineers stayed up all night long, basically rebuilding the whole backend of the website to enable people to list their properties for $0,” [Airbnb director of public policy Molly] Turner says. The team also created a new landing page——where hosts could click a button to automatically have their listing posted for free. “Within about a week,” Turner says, “we had over 1,400 hosts offer up the extra space in their homes to displaced New Yorkers for free.”

That’s Rodin again writing in The Resilience Dividend.

Airbnb’s response to Superstorm Sandy is particularly interesting because it also demonstrates the important role of spare capacity—or as it is also called “latent surplus”—in response to crisis. “Even in a city where there is a huge housing shortage,” Turner says, “there are still people living in houses that are too big for them or that they only use part time because maybe they travel a lot for work.”

Latent surplus is great from a system perspective. Relying on the latent surplus of others is how services like Airbnb and Lyft work.

But in a crisis, it can be hard to remember what kind of latent surpluses we have that can help others.

Resilience might be a function of what you already have, like latent surplus or recognizing you’re more prepared than you think as the San Francisco emergency planners would have you believe.

Resilience might come in the form of forethought, as in the case of Ikea, or creativity, as with Barry-Wehmiller.

Or resilience might be best represented by the old-fashioned, never-give-up grit of a Tommy John.

So let’s turn it over to you: Which of these five stories of resilience is most readily adaptable to your life and why?

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5 Characteristics of Resilience to Help You in Toxic Situations Tue, 05 May 2015 14:55:36 +0000 5 Characteristics of Resilience

When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.

Henry Ford

The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.

Robert Jordan, The Fires of Heaven

Diversity Comes to Lewiston

Lewiston, Maine Property Crime Rate, 1985-2012

Image Credit: Irregular Times


Lewiston, Maine was a tiny town of 36,000 people, 96% of whom were white.

After 2000, an influx of Somali immigrants came to settle in Lewiston—first as a part of a refugee program, and then as a network/enclave of Somalis developed in the area.

The small town reacted as you might expect—with ignorance, fear, and mild contempt. The mayor at the time, Laurier Raymond, wrote an open letter attempting to discourage further Somali immigrants from coming to the city. The letter gained national attention, but for all the wrong reasons.

In time, the growth of the Somali settlement in Lewiston began to have a positive effect. The immigrants opened new businesses, brought new money into the city, and revitalized the stagnant downtown area.

Diversity so transformed the city that by 2004, Inc. magazine was calling it one of the best places to do business in the U.S. The National Civic League named Lewiston an All-America City in 2007. Lewiston’s disruption became the turning point towards its revitalization and reinvention.

Diversity is one of the five keystone characteristics of resilience according to author Judith Rodin in The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong, where I first encountered the story of Lewiston, Maine.

The five characteristics of resilience according to The Resilience Dividend are:

  • Awareness
  • Diversity
  • Integration
  • Self-regulation
  • Adaptation

In this article, we’ll address 3 of these 5 characteristics in depth and cover how to prepare for and recover from disaster.

Here we go.

This is the 2nd of a 3-part series on resilience. You can use the following links to read the 1st part of this series (What is resilience?).

The Imperial Hotel and the Great Kanto Earthquake

Characteristics of Resilience: The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Imperial Hotel Tokyo

Photo Credit: Collin Grady

Self-regulation is the fourth characteristic of resilience in The Resilience Dividend.

Now, when you hear the words “self-regulation,” what comes to mind tends to be images of self-denial and self-control, like the squirming kids in the famous Marshmallow Test experiment.

The characteristic of self-regulating in this context means that when one aspect of the system is tested, another part of the system can compensate.

Self-regulating isn’t about rigidity and brute force. On the contrary, self-regulating aspects are often lean, lightweight, and flexible. Here’s Rodin:

An early and famous example is that of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, opened in 1922, which was designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who vowed to make a structure that would withstand the earthquakes that have long been common in that area.

… The two men [Wright and engineer Paul Mueller], whose practices were based in Chicago, included many features designed to make the hotel more able to withstand seismic shock. These included an exterior reflecting pool, which looked like a design feature but doubled as a source of water for firefighting (this is an ancient method that you can also see outside the buildings of the Forbidden City in Beijing), special wall joints that could absorb seismic energy, and plumbing and electrical components that—like the floors of the Mediatheque—were exposed and suspended, instead of encased within walls where they could be damaged if the walls buckled or collapsed.

Wright and Mueller also picked up a few other tricks in Chicago—including building the main structure as a series of independent structures, each resting on its own separate foundation pad of concrete.

In 1923, a mere year after its opening, the Imperial Hotel’s revolutionary design was tested by the Great Kanto earthquake. While it didn’t emerge unscathed, the Imperial Hotel’s design minimized the seismic damage. The structure stood until it was voluntarily demolished in 1967 to make way for a larger high-rise structure.

The Vietnamese Community After Katrina

Characteristics of Resilience: The Vietnamese Community of Village de l'est after Hurricane Katrina

Photo Credit: Kingprince

Village de l’Est, the community of Vietnamese-Americans in New Orleans, showed remarkable adaptability—the fifth characteristic of resilience—after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Rodin sets the table:

The Vietnamese community evacuated early; nearly 80 percent had left the city when Katrina hit. About half of them went to Houston, Texas, which had, at the time, the second-largest Vietnamese population in the country. Most of the evacuees stayed with family or friends, many of whom had also settled there after the war. Less than a quarter stayed in shelters.

Trust me, this isn’t only a story about the power of networks. You’ve heard that story before.

What the ethnically Vietnamese members of the Village de l’Est community did next puts this story into another category altogether:

Only a few weeks after the storm, the community made a bold move. Led by Father Vien The Nguyen, the pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in Village de l’Est, three hundred parishioners returned to New Orleans, despite objections from both state and federal authorities. They negotiated with Entergy, the utilities provider, to get back on the grid, restoring power and water to the community by November 2005.

As they resettled, the Vietnamese residents of Village de l’Est reached out to black leaders in the community and invited them to join in the first mass in New Orleans East since Katrina. The new neighborhood that emerged from this strengthening coalition was more resilient and more culturally rich than the one that came before it.

Adaptability isn’t simply about coming back from adversity. Adaptability is about bouncing back stronger and more prepared for future shocks.

The 5 Characteristics of Resilience

Here, in their entirety, are the five characteristics of resilience Judith Rodin identifies in The Resilience Dividend.

AWARE The entity has knowledge of its strengths and assets, liabilities and vulnerabilities, and the threats and risks it faces. Being aware includes situational awareness: the ability and willingness to constantly assess, take in new information, and adjust understanding in real time.

DIVERSE The entity has different sources of capacity so it can successfully operate even when elements of that capacity are challenged: there are redundant elements or assets. The entity possesses or can draw upon a range of capabilities, ideas, information sources, technical elements, people or groups.

INTEGRATES The entity has coordination of functions and actions across systems, including the ability to bring together disparate ideas and elements, work collaboratively across elements, develop cohesive solutions, and coordinate actions. Information is shared and communication is transparent.

SELF-REGULATING The entity can regulate itself in ways that enable it to deal with anomalous situations and disruptions without extreme malfunction or catastrophic collapse. Cascading disruptions do not result when the entity suffers a severe dysfunction; it can fail safely.

ADAPTIVE The entity has the capacity to adjust to changing circumstances by developing new plans, taking new actions, or modifying behaviors. The entity is flexible: it has the ability to apply existing resources to new purposes or for one element to take on multiple roles.

How many can you identify in yourself?

When Disruption Becomes Disaster

Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.

Charles Swindoll

Sometimes, a simple disruption spirals into full-blown disaster.

On the individual scale, it can be as simple as ignoring the balance on one too many credit cards and paying the minimums to get by. One missed payment soon turns into dealing with a collections agency. Getting harassed daily by creditors then turns into bankruptcy quicker than anyone ever imagines.

Here’s Rodin:

The disruptive event escalates into a crisis of great proportion, catalyzes other problems, cascades across domains and scales, spins things out of control, and disturbs human activity to an abnormal, unpredictable, and often unimaginable degree, causing injury and loss of life, destruction of property, damage to livelihoods, and upheavals in social, political, and economic endeavors.

What causes a disruption to become a disaster? We do. Disasters are almost always human made or, at least, intensified by how well people have prepared for, responded to, and recovered from a crisis. Disasters are the result of disruptions coinciding with vulnerabilities, our lack of awareness of the threats we face, our lack of diversity of options and choices to prevent disruptions or manage them when they occur, our inability to integrate our ideas and actions into effective solutions, and our instability and poor adaptiveness to new circumstances as they emerge.

A key aspect of resilience is preparation, the readiness and capacity to deal with life’s disruptive events.

We can’t be ready for everything. But we can limit our contribution to a crisis by not losing our heads and relying on the five characteristics of resilience to bounce back better and faster.

“Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste”

Resilience requires readiness. The more ready you are for change, the more resilience you build.

Here’s Rodin:

The more ready you are, the less damage and dysfunction you are likely to experience when a disruption takes place. Although we cannot prepare ourselves completely for the specific circumstances of the unpredictable disruption, we can be ready for the predictable ones, and that general readiness contributes to our capacity to deal with whatever else comes along.

It’s unpredictable disruptions that we need to watch out for. But predictable disruptions, like credit card bills or medical payments coming due, can be budgeted for and mitigated to a great extent.

Getting predictable disruptions right leaves us with greater capacity to deal with the stuff that makes us truly vulnerable—the truly unpredictable disasters.

And once disaster strikes, it’s incumbent upon us to learn from what happened so that we can be ready the next time.

When a once-unpredictable disaster occurs—levees breaking, oil rigs exploding, layoffs/downsizing for the “protected” employees—once that happens, a disaster ceases to be unpredictable and becomes predictable.

Here’s how Rodin puts it:

In the context of resilience, then, it is very hard for us to imagine, and nearly impossible to predict, how a disruption will play out and what a disaster might look like. This is one reason it is so difficult to get people to focus on things that might go wrong or to make decisions about how to deal with threats, especially when they involve multiple vulnerabilities and multiple stakeholders. That’s why it’s important to move as swiftly as possible in the revitalization process. Because the disruption and its effects are highly available, it is more likely that people will be able to focus on them and be willing to devote energy to looking for solutions. If you wait too long, something else will come along and overshadow the availability of the disruption.

Never let a good crisis go to waste.

The urge to reform gun laws and revise banking regulations peaks after respective crises threaten the status quo. But after that moment passes, we quickly get on with business as usual, forgetting the lesson.

Our failure as a society can’t be mimicked at the individual level. If you don’t learn anything from a disaster, can you really recover from one?

Relief, Restoration, and Recovery

Disaster experts believe there are three phases of the post-crisis period—relief, restoration, and recovery:

Relief involves the alleviation of acute crisis conditions, including search, evacuation, and rescue; delivery of basic supplies; and provision of essential services. Restoration can include many activities, including the bringing back of utilities, communications networks, and transportation systems—and the repair and return to service of damaged facilities and infrastructure. Recovery is a broader concept, usually referring to human or other natural systems, including bringing organizations, communities, and environments back to successful functioning.

While these definitions are useful, Rodin argues that they don’t fully describe how post-disruption recovery truly works.

For one thing, the cycle suggests things will “get back to normal” or return to their previous state. Not so, says Rodin. Some entities won’t make it. Others will thrive:

But resilient entities—those with high levels of awareness, sufficient readiness, and the capacity to effectively respond—move on. Not only do they bounce back to a functioning state, they bounce forward: they nurture natural systems, improve structures, and strengthen social ties.

So which will you choose: thriving resilience or fragile rigidity?

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What Does Resilience Mean? Thriving in a World of Accelerating Change Mon, 20 Apr 2015 14:30:22 +0000 If you’ve been following events in the news these past few years, you might have heard the term “resilience” thrown around without really knowing what people were talking about.

Well, don’t worry. We’re here to talk about what resilience means and how you can find more of it in your life.

What Does Resilience Mean?

Do you ever wonder why some people and organizations fare better in times of rapid, disruptive change? And why others flail and fail?

I know I do.

I looked into the subject, canvassing a number of different writings and books. The concept I kept returning to was resilience and how it functions as a fail-safe in times of brutal change and disruption.

In this Part 1 of a three-part series, we’ll explore the question of What does resilience mean?

Here, in this article, you’ll learn:

  • What resilience means
  • Why you need to build resilience
  • How feedback loops allow you to adapt faster and come back stronger
  • The three key attitudes of resilient people (“the three C’s”)

So what does resilience mean? Let’s find out together.

What Does Resilience Mean?

The Resilience Dividend Book Cover

Cover image copyright its respective owner. Used under fair use.


The primary text for this article is The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong by Judith Rodin.

It’s a great book. We’re going to be referring to it a lot.

Rodin’s book is concerned with resilience as it applies to individuals and institutions after a dramatic disruption—anything from hurricanes and earthquakes to demographic change.

Right off the bat, Rodin has a great explanation of the concept of resilience:

Resilience is the capacity of any entity—an individual, a community, an organization, or a natural system—to prepare for disruptions, to recover from shocks and stresses, and to adapt and grow from a disruptive experience.

Resilience building, therefore, is a core concept in an age where change happens quicker and more disruptively than anyone anticipates.

Here’s Rodin again:

As you build resilience, therefore, you can become more able to prevent or mitigate stresses and shocks you can identify and better able to respond to those you can’t predict or avoid. You also develop greater capacity to bounce back from a crisis, learn from it, and achieve revitalization. Ideally, as you become more adept at managing disruption and skilled at resilience building, you are able to create and take advantage of new opportunities in good times and bad.

That is the resilience dividend according to Rodin. The resilience “dividend” pays out every time you survive shocks and thrive in new environments.

But how do you go about upping your resilience quotient?

The Necessity of Resilience Building

Resilience means weathering the cost of disruption

Disruption exacts a heavy toll on people, institutions, and economies. The losses are impossible to calculate, but we often try to quantify them anyway. Rodin talks about how we go about estimating the cost of disruption:

We can get a sense of their scope, however, from the World Bank’s estimate that, between 1980 and 2012, nearly $4 trillion has gone into relief and recovery efforts worldwide for natural disasters alone. But that figure includes only quantifiable damage, and only from one kind of disruption, and says nothing about the greater toll on people, the environment, and economies exacted by the interruption of activity, loss of opportunity, and all the rest.

The individual toll that disruption takes can also be mighty. Here’s Rodin again:

Disruption comes in much smaller increments, too: local shocks, organizational disturbances, individual setbacks. The damage done by these may not be as costly, but can be devastating.

Indeed, the most common form of disruption we are all familiar with is the disruption from economic shocks—the rhythmic tanking of the economy that happens like clockwork every 6 to 8 years.

When the financial markets implode due to dot-coms, Asian currencies, or credit default swaps (just to name a few), we all suffer greatly—governments, institutions, organizations, and individuals on down.

Frequent, unpredictable, and debilitating disruptions are the new normal, and we have to face up to this truth. Here’s Rodin:

We can no longer accept our vulnerabilities or ignore the threats we live with. Nor can we devote such great amounts of resources to recovering from disasters that could have been prevented or responded to more effectively. Nor can we continue to delude ourselves that things will get back to normal one of these days. They won’t.

Is it any wonder we need to build resilience?

Thankfully, resilience isn’t a constant, intrinsic trait like height or hair color. It can be built up.

The good news is that resilience building is a concept that can be learned and a practice that can developed [sic]; resilience is not an inborn individual trait or an inherent character of a company or community. Any entity can build resilience.

Resilience building has the potential to lift you up out of a life of constant fear—of rejection, of layoffs, of disaster—and into a calm and steady mindset that’s adversity-tested and durable.

Resilient Systems Require Feedback Loops to Function

Feedback loops power resilient systems—otherwise, people, institutions, and the actions they take remain unconnected. Here’s Rodin with some examples:

Technological systems depend on feedback loops for successful functioning—such as the simply home thermostat, which measures the air temperature and sends signals to the heating and cooling unit to adjust its function. Natural systems, too, including human beings, depend on feedback loops for the integration of all the elements within the system. Your brain and skin maintain a feedback loop and send signals to regulate body functions, such as sweating.

Feedback loops are also essential to agile thinking, whether you’re talking about Scrum, Lean Start-up methodology, or Agile Results. Here’s Rodin boiling down the fundamentals of feedback loops:

Feedback loops can take many forms but always involve a method of sensing or gathering data, the ability to understand and analyze the data, and the capacity to then respond “back” in some way that is meant to keep the system functioning.

If the feedback loop succeeds in adapting the system to change, we get what Rodin calls the adaptive cycle.

The Adaptive Cycle

Adaptation and resilience go hand in hand.

Resilience isn’t merely about returning to your former shape; sometimes disruption enacts permanent changes on a system that forever alters its form. That’s okay.

The point is to continue operating as a system, not to remain unaltered. That’s where the adaptive cycle comes in. Here’s Rodin explaining how the cycle works:

The adaptive cycle has four phases and is often depicted as a loop: rapid growth, conservation, a “release” of some kind—which can be caused by a disruption or the reaching of some threshold (more on thresholds later)—followed by a period of reorganization.

In case that was too abstract, the example Rodin gives is a forest. Roughly speaking, a forest goes through the following stages of adaptation:

  • Rapid growth. More trees, taller trees, forest expands.
  • Conservation. Certain trees “win” the battle for survival, growth slows.
  • Release. A forest fire, logging, a massive ice storm, something disrupts the stability of the system, throwing the equilibrium permanently out of whack.
  • Reorganization. “If the forest can adapt, change character, continue to function, and still grow—even if with different species and in new directions—it shows resilience,” writes Rodin. A new equilibrium is reached.

In myriad ways, large and small, we human beings have to do the same thing in order to thrive in an environment that’s constantly changing.

“Living in the Foreloop”

But does disruption always have to be triggered by an external event? What if you want to take control of your own destiny and self-disrupt?

This is what Rodin calls “living in the foreloop”:

[W]hile the larger system (the company or the city as a whole) chugs along in the growth and conservation phases, small parts of the system (a unit or project) can create a disruption that will provoke change and do so without destabilizing the entire system or causing it to lose its ability to self-regulate. As the smaller element grows, it too will move into the conservation phase, perhaps resulting in the transformation of the entire company.

Apple’s one famous example of a company that’s not afraid of self-cannibalization. From the iPod to the iPhone and the iMac to iPad, the folks at Cupertino are willing to destabilize their own product-markets in order to compete in the future.

We do this on a personal level too. Here’s Rodin:

Individuals, like cities and business, regularly take risks that bring with them disruptions—such as moving to a new city, committing to an innovative project, or taking on a new job—but that enable them to grow and thrive and be more resilient in the face of still more challenges.

Whether it’s job hopping to be happy or creating second streams of income, you’re likely to test your responsiveness to change.

The Three C’s of Resilience

What Does Resilience Mean? Layoffs and Bell Telephone

Salvatore Maddi was a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago who studied more than 25,000 workers at Illinois Bell Telephone. He was interested in their behavior after the company laid off 50% of its employees in a single year.

Here’s Maddi:

Two-thirds of our sample broke down in various ways. Some had heart attacks or suffered depressive and anxiety disorders. Others abused alcohol and drugs, were separated and divorced, or acted out violently. In contrast, a third of our employee sample was resilient. These employees survived and thrived despite the stressful changes. If these individuals stayed, they rose to the top of the heap. If they left, they either started companies of their own or took strategically important employment in other companies.

Hat-tip: Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington.

What made the groups so different?

Maddi found that the resilient ones displayed three key attitudes that helped them turn setbacks into success. These “three C” attitudes are:

  1. Commitment — being part of the solution instead of hiding
  2. Control — not resigning to fate, instead demonstrating high locus of control
  3. Challenge — using disruption to strengthen yourself instead of crumpling in despair

Notice what each of the three C’s have in common: They’re internal. Contrary to popular belief, your external reality is less a predictor of resilience than you might think.

What matter is mindset.

A strong belief in your efficacy and a commitment to overcoming your present set of circumstances is a better predictor of how you’ll fare—even if half of your department is laid off tomorrow.

It’s your responsibility to determine how you react and respond to disruption.

When everyone else around you is losing their heads, your best opportunity comes from keeping yours and bouncing back faster, stronger, and more agile than the next guy.


Resilience isn’t about returning perfectly to your previous shape after a setback or a disruption. That’s a myth. Resilience is more than that.

Here’s what resilience does mean:

  • Resilience is the capacity to prepare for and bounce back from disruption.
  • Bouncing back doesn’t necessarily mean returning to the status quo—adaptation and growth are also features of responding to change.
  • The adaptive cycle follows a four-phased loop: rapid growth, conservation, release, and reorganization.
  • “Living in the foreloop” requires self-disruption.
  • Remember the 3C’s of a resilient attitude: Commitment, control, and challenge.

The opportunity of our turbulent time is to embrace change and live with agility. You can do it now, even before disruption tests your capacity for resilience.

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How to Change Yourself Completely (And Why You Might Want To) Thu, 12 Mar 2015 13:00:05 +0000 There may come a time in your life when you feel like you need to change yourself completely. Whether due to your career, for personal reasons, or for your own continuing self-improvement, the question of how to change yourself completely and deliberately is a complicated, emotional topic.

How can you adapt your personality and still hold onto your values in the face of massive change?

Ways to Change Yourself

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated and expanded with the latest research and information.

Have you ever witnessed someone—maybe it was yourself—rise to a position that that person was totally unsuited for?

When long-time Coca-Cola insider Doug Ivester took over as CEO in the 90’s, the move seemed like a no-brainer:

Ivester had long envisioned occupying the role of Coca-Cola’s CEO. But the promotion also represented a crossroads in his life as a leader, one that demanded that he exercise different skills and, critically, take on new priorities. To succeed he would have had to move out of his comfort zone and learn new skills.

Instead of embracing these challenges, Ivester became more of a “super-COO” than a CEO. He refused to name a replacement for his old position, even under strong pressure from Coke’s board of directors. His extraordinary attention to detail, which had been a virtue in his finance and operations roles, now proved to be a hindrance. He maintained daily contact with the sixteen people who reported to him and remained intimately involved in operational details. Mired in day-to-day business, Ivester appeared to neglect the strategic and visionary responsibilities demanded of an effective CEO of Coca-Cola.

Authors Max H. Bazerman and Michael D. Watkins tell this story in Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming, and How to Prevent Them. The story of Ivester’s tenure as CEO definitely counts as a predictable surprise AND a disaster.

Ivester fell prey to a classic prioritization failure: He expected to be successful in his new job by continuing to do what he did in his previous job, only more of it.

Anyone who’s spent a day in corporate America has seen a version of this story play out: Hyper-competent superstar gets promoted to a new role—for their own career advancement/status/prestige as the story goes. Superstar is a disaster in new role—turns out the skills he or she is hyper-competent at don’t necessarily translate. In the end, superstar flames out or leaves. The cycle repeats.

Ivester’s mistake wasn’t taking the CEO job in the first place—that’s fixed mindset thinking that says you are what you are and you have to live with it.

In a 2012 study, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that, on average, you will hold 11 different jobs between the ages of 18 and 46. In other words, you should expect to change companies (or whole careers) every two-and-a-half years.

No, Ivester’s error was not adapting himself to the new situation he found himself in. That’s growth mindset.

How do we stop this cycle from repeating? Or worse, how do we stop ourselves from getting caught up in it?

In a turbulent environment, how do you respond to change without compromising your principles?

It takes a completely new set of skills. Namely, you have to learn how to change yourself completely without losing sight of who you are fundamentally.

Confused yet?

Adaptation Is the New Black

Accidental Genius Book Cover

Cover image copyright its respective owner. Used under fair use.


There are a million reasons why you might want to change yourself.

One reason is to adapt to a new role, as in the Doug Ivester example.

Another might be that you’re simply tired of yourself.

In Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content, author Mark Levy advocates freewriting (like Morning Pages) as a form of creativity enhancement. But freewriting also works as a method of self-reflection:

A lot of the poetic discipline boils down to getting tired of yourself, and I really believe that. When you get tired of yourself, then you change. See, even if you’re stuck in life, if you can describe just exactly the way you’re stuck, then you will immediately recognize that you can’t go on that way anymore.

So, just saying precisely, writing precisely how you’re stuck, or how you’re alienated, opens up a door of freedom for you.

Levy points to an important and serious reason why someone might seek change in themselves.

It’s hard to be stuck in a rut all the time. The experience isn’t pleasant. But lasting change and personal growth rarely gets triggered externally—it has to happen within.

And it starts by recognizing that you need to make a change.

Be Willing to Change Your Mind …

In a strategy session with the team at 37signals (now Basecamp), Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos shared the following observation:

He doesn’t think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait. It’s perfectly healthy — encouraged, even — to have an idea tomorrow that contradicted your idea today.

He’s observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.

The point isn’t to be flighty or wishy-washy, but to always be on the lookout for new evidence that might change your views. Rigid thinking makes it harder to respond to change.

But the best and the brightest of us also don’t jump onto every bandwagon or fad that comes by.

Instead, they are committed to the truth.

Not in absolute truths, but in the living, changing truths that inform our everyday lives.

Acclaimed business strategist and organizational thinker Peter M. Senge writes in The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization:

Commitment to the truth does not mean seeking the “Truth,” the absolute final word or ultimate cause. Rather, it means a relentless willingness to root out the ways we limit or deceive ourselves from seeing what is, and to continually challenge our theories of why things are the way they are. It means continually broadening our awareness, just as the great athlete with extraordinary peripheral vision keeps trying to “see more of the playing field.” It also means continually deepening our understanding of the structures underlying current events. Specifically, people with high levels of personal mastery see more of the structural conflicts underlying their own behavior.

The reality of our imperfectly evolved minds is that we deceive ourselves all the time—about our circumstances, our abilities, our happiness.

Changing yourself completely requires a radical commitment to honesty.

Honesty about what you really want out of life. Honesty about what you need to do and who you need to be to get there.

It’s not the easy road but it’s potentially the much more fulfilling one.

… But Change Deliberately

Great by Choice Book Cover

Cover image copyright its respective owner. Used under fair use.


Jim Collins in Great by Choice argues that the best leaders in fast-moving industries changed less than their less successful counterparts.

Less successful leaders often acted too quickly before making a solid assessment of the situation. They often changed in ways that violated their core principles and made their offerings less unique and compelling.

The great companies, what Collins calls 10x Companies, took a more disciplined approach to change. They deliberated more and considered whether change made sense in light of their values.

When they decided to move in a new direction, 10x Companies acted decisively and swiftly to implement the changes that were needed. They didn’t hesitate to take action when it was needed.

You Won’t Be the Person You Think You’ll Be in 5 Years

Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin. What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us.

—Daniel T. Gilbert, Harvard psychologist

As reported in the New York Times, a group of psychologists, including Daniel T. Gilbert, researched the question of personality changes over time. They looked at a group of more than 19,000 people between the ages of 18 and 68.

What they found was that people were perceptive when it came to their past selves. They recognized that they had changed personality traits and preferences, sometimes profoundly, in the previous decade. This result was apparent in every age group.

But they were not as perceptive when it came to projecting their own selves forward 10 years. Rather, they downplayed the potential for change in their personalities.

From this study, we can draw 3 lessons:

  • You will change.
  • You won’t think you’re changing.
  • But you’ll recognize that you’ve changed once you’re already different.

When you stop to think about this process, it’s kind of scary. You’re essentially blind to the changes that are happening to you until it’s too late. How do we moderate this process, knowing that it will happen, with values that will stand the test of time?

There’s a way.

How to Change Yourself Completely Without Compromising Your Values: 5 Steps to Prepare

#1: Get Comfortable With Uncertainty

Uncertainty is here to stay. You might as well get comfortable with it.

In Great by Choice, Jim Collins starts by studying companies that had to operate in chaotic times: the airlines after deregulation, the computer companies during the PC boom, and so on. These periods were marked by turbulence, rapid change, and immense uncertainty.

Slowly but surely, Collins makes the point that nowadays everyone operates in these kinds of conditions. There’s nowhere to hide from disruptive change, even for industries that seem staid and well-explored, like retail (Amazon) or taxi service (Uber). This affects us at the individual level, too.

Agile is a set of values and principles that equip you with the mindset to embrace change. To change yourself without compromising your values, you have to start with a resilient set of values. Agile values are represented by documents like the Agile Manifesto and applying them to an agile lifestyle.

#2: Anticipate Your Future Personality Development

At 15, I was confident, cocky, and borderline arrogant. I succeeded in school so I felt like I could do anything and beat any challenge.

At 20, after failing at my first job, I was depressed and lacking in confidence. I realized I didn’t know anything about the real world after graduating college.

At 25, my eyes were opened by the lifestyle design movement. I could see that there was another way to live life that maximized fulfillment and meaning while minimizing everything else.

In another 5 years, I’m sure I will be yet a different version of me.

Jeff Bezos’s quote reminds us that personality development is an iterative process that gradually turns us into a different person. Even if that process seems hidden from us, as the research study confirms.

You will change. Recognizing that this will happen is the first step to defining what really matters to you and making sure that part of you is preserved even as your personality changes over time.

#3: Recognize That All Help Is “Self-Help”

Seth Godin asks whether better is possible:

The easiest and safest thing to do is accept what you’ve been ‘given’, to assume that you are unchangeable, and the cards you’ve been dealt are all that are available. When you assume this, all the responsibility for outcomes disappears, and you can relax.

Again, fixed mindset thinking in action. Godin is telling us the lesson we should take away from the Doug Ivester-Coca-Cola story. It’s easier to assume your traits are immutable, that your personality can’t change. It’s easier to do what Doug Ivester did—more of the same, just in a different context—instead of radically changing yourself.

And yes, personal growth and self-improvement requires “self-help.”

When I meet people who proudly tell me that they don’t read (their term) “self-help” books because they are fully set, I’m surprised. First, because all help is self help (except, perhaps, for open heart surgery and the person at the makeup counter at Bloomingdales). But even this sort of help requires that you show up for it.

Mostly, though, I’m surprised because there’s just so much evidence to the contrary. Fear, once again fear, is the driving force here. If you accept the results you’ve gotten before, if you hold on to them tightly, then you never have to face the fear of the void, of losing what you’ve got, of trading in your success for your failure.

So don’t be afraid of self-help. It’s better than medicating yourself with more consumer junk.

#4: Pick Values That Will Stand the Test of Time

Collins’ 10x Companies created a “recipe” that gave their organizations consistency even in turbulent conditions.

For instance, the Southwest Airlines recipe laid down in 1979, contained 10 points about the company’s culture that persevered for decades afterwards. Southwest Airlines’ commitment to passengers, quick gate turnarounds, and low fares contributed to its success even in the aftermath of 9/11, when the airline industry as a whole nearly cratered. Southwest was the only carrier to make a profit the year after 9/11.

So here’s your action step: See if you can come up just 3 values you believe will stand the test of time. These values shouldn’t be so general that they’re meaningless, but rather set out a set of operational details that can act as guideposts for your next decade.

Your recipe needs to be specific. Think Southwest’s commandment to use only one type of aircraft.

Here are 3 ingredients of my personal recipe, for guidance:

  1. Embrace change.

    Embracing change is a value in and of itself. Many people embrace rigidity and hierarchy. And it works for them. Corporate managers (though corporate culture is changing) and military people come to mind. But I choose to embrace change, because changing the status quo is the only way things get better.

  2. Simplify whenever possible.

    Simplicity is the lowest level of complexity for the highest amount of reward. Life is hard enough without making it more difficult for yourself. Complexity creep is everywhere, and if you let it in, it gets that much harder to adapt and be agile.

  3. Find moments of gratitude.

    Even in the toughest times, there is so much in life to be grateful for. The simple act of being alive is a thermodynamic miracle. Remembering the principle of gratitude frees me to move forward even in the face of potential failure.

#5: Diversify Your Identity

How to Change Yourself Completely - Diversify Your Identities

Photo Credit: A30_Tsitika via Compfight cc

There are real dangers to having our identities too wrapped up in our careers.

In 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, author Peter Bregman says we have to diversify:

I don’t mean diversifying your money, though that’s a good idea, too. I mean diversifying your self. So that when one identity fails, the other ones keep you vibrant. If you lose your job but you identify passionately as a mother or a father, you’ll be fine. If you have a strong religious identity or view yourself as an artist, you’ll be fine. If you see yourself as an athlete, or even simply as a good, loyal friend, you’ll be fine.

Everyone has that irrational crisis moment after they get their first “real” job and start making serious dough:

Jeez, what happens if I lose my job? Get fired or laid off … I’ll start drinking, get depressed, become unemployable. Then I’ll never get another job and end up living on the street!

This is the same line of thinking that leads to aiming low, settling for mediocrity, and living the life of quiet desperation.

One solution is to diversify your streams of income. Another is to simply define yourself by something other than your profession—a surprisingly hard idea for Americans to wrap their heads around.

Dr. Paul Rosenfield, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, tells Bregman, “People with mental illness often feel their identity is reduced to being mentally ill. Part of their recovery involves reclaiming other parts of their identity—being a friend, a volunteer, an artist, a dog lover, a student, a worker.”

From Dr. Rosenfield’s comments, it stands to reason that a component of keeping your mind healthy is nurturing the different facets of your identity. After all, isn’t job burnout a kind of mental illness?

An agile identity requires multiple layers to your self. When one identify “fails,” you have another identity to fall back on.

Personality development is the purposeful pursuit of changing yourself. Accepting that you will change and yet approaching it with intentfulness and purpose are the keys to changing yourself and still standing for something.

An earlier version of this article first appeared on February 4, 2013.

Top Image by Alex E. Proimos.

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No Balance Between Work and Life? Here’s Why It Doesn’t Matter Mon, 23 Feb 2015 15:30:24 +0000 Let me tell you something you already know: Work-life balance is a myth.

Aside from the obvious impossibility of “balance” in a world where work dominates most of our waking lives, it’s not clear that neatly separating work and personal life is even a desirable goal, let alone an achievable one.

So where does that leave us?

No Work-Life Balance? Walking the Tight-Rope

The truth is, balance is bunk. It is an unattainable pipe dream. … The quest for balance between work and life, as we’ve come to think of it, isn’t just a losing proposition; it’s a hurtful, destructive one.

Keith H. Hammonds, writer

There is no work-life balance. We have one life. What’s most important is that you be awake for it.

Janice Marturano, director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership

When I’m advising folks, I often hear about one recurring anxiety over and over again: little to no work-life balance.

These are high need-to-achieve people who spend the majority of their waking lives either at work, working, or thinking about work.

And for them, the lack of “balance” in their lives—between work and home, work and relationships, work and self, etc.—drives them to feel horribly guilty.

Guilty about the people they’re neglecting, guilty about the household chores going undone, guilty about the 15 pounds of flab circling their bellies.

Guilt is a strong emotion to be walking around with all the time. But so many hard-working Americans have it. Loads of it.

But what if work-life balance is a myth anyway—and that’s why we can’t seem to find anyone who has achieved it?

Would it be surprising that most people working 50-60 hour weeks have no work-life balance then?

The ONE Thing Book Cover

Cover image copyright its respective owner. Used under fair use.


In The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, author and entrepreneur Gary Keller, along with Jay Papasan, writes that we misunderstand the balance between work and life:

Seen as something we ultimately attain, balance is actually something we constantly do. A “balanced life” is a myth—a misleading concept most accept as a worthy and attainable goal without ever stopping to truly consider it.

Balance, therefore, is in the mode of becoming, not the mode of being.

You constantly shift to maintain balance. You don’t get to the point where you’re just “balanced.”

Think of a tight-rope walker. At no point is the walker “in balance,” rather, she is constantly “balancing.” If she stops balancing, she falls off.

Because we don’t understand that distinction, Keller says, we get trapped into thinking our lives should be perfectly ordered, compartmentalized, and “balanced” all the time. That’s not how it works.

So if “work-life balance” is at best misleading and at worst a complete fabrication, where did the term come from?

Keller has an answer for that too in The One Thing:

Still, the term “work-life balance” wasn’t coined until the mid-1980s when more than half of all married women joined the workforce. To paraphrase Ralph E. Gomory’s preface in the 2005 book Being Together, Working Apart: Dual-Career Families and the Work-Life Balance, we went form a family unit with a breadwinner and a homemaker. Anyone with a pulse knows who got stuck with the extra work in the beginning. However, by the ‘90s “work-life balance” had quickly become a common watchword for men too.

And the usage of the term exploded in growth from there.

The notion of work-life balance, in the guise of “having it all,” reared its head into the national conversation once again when Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article came out in 2012.

It’s an issue that plagues both genders, across every generation. There’s no issue that unites the “Peter Pan” generation with their Baby Boomer parents quite like the dreaded work-life balance question.

But there are problems with the concept of work-life balance. Not only is the balance between work and life a fool’s errand—it might not be a worthy goal at all.

Why We Have No “Work-Life Balance”

Leading the Life You Want Book Cover

Cover image copyright its respective owner. Used under fair use.


Writing in Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life, Wharton professor and leadership adviser Stewart D. Friedman believes there’s a fundamental misconception out there about the costs of success:

Many people believe that to achieve great things we must make brutal sacrifices; that to succeed in work we must focus single-mindedly, at the expense of self, family, and society. Even those who reject the idea of a zero-sum game fall prey to a kind of binary thinking revealed by the term we use to describe the ideal lifestyle: work/life balance.

Friedman thinks it’s harmful to promote this forced separation between our “work” selves and our “life” selves. Not only is the tidy partitioning between the two impossible, it also confuses the issue.

What we really want is harmony:

Work/life balance is a misguided metaphor for grasping the relationship between work and the rest of life; the image of the scale forces you to think in terms of trade-offs instead of the possibilities for harmony. And the idea that “work” competes with “life” ignores the more nuanced reality of our humanity. It ignores the fact that “life” is actually the intersection and interaction of the four domains of life: work or school; home or family; community or society; and the private realm of mind, body, and spirit. Of course, you can’t have it all—complete success in all the corners of your life, all at the same time. No one can. But even though it can seem impossible to bring these four domains into greater alignment, it doesn’t have to be impossible. Conflict and stress aren’t inevitable. Harmony is possible.

Friedman says we should be seeking out four-way wins, actions that promote harmony in all four domains of life. The four domains, again, are:

  1. work or school
  2. home or family
  3. community or society
  4. mind, body, spirit

So instead of raging about how we can’t get the four different domains in perfect “balance,” we should instead be looking at ways to create wins in two or more domains at once:

  • Could you negotiate a partial work-from-home arrangement so you can spend more time at home with young kids? Work + Home/Family
  • Could your work sponsor a local charity or nonprofit using employees as volunteers? Work + Community/Society
  • Could you find a new route home from work that gets you into the gym for 30 minutes a day? Work + Body/Spirit

The elusive four-way win could take the form of starting an agile lifestyle business—work from home, spend more time with family, prevent burnout, get more involved with your community.

I strongly believe that the alternative to the harmful work-life balance myth is work-life integration.

It’s finding ways to acknowledge that you will spend most of your waking adult life at work—and integrating that reality with leading a fulfilled, meaningful existence in all facets of your life.

The Three Be’s of Work-Life Integration

Friedman’s system, the one he teaches in his Total Leadership program, revolves around the three Be’s: be real, be whole, and be innovative.

What does he mean? Again, from Leading the Life You Want:

To be real is to act with authenticity by clarifying what’s important to you. It’s about exploring your answer to this basic question: What matters most to me in my life? To be whole is to act with integrity by recognizing how the different parts of your life affect each other. This involves identifying who matters most to you at work, at home, and in the community; understanding what you need from each other; and seeing whether and how these needs mesh or don’t mesh. All this examination allows you to be innovative. You act with creativity by experimenting with how things get done in ways that are good for you and for the people around you. You learn how to take small steps aimed at scoring four-way wins: improved performance at work, at home, in the community, and for your private self (mind, body, and spirit).

Taken together, Friedman’s three Be’s act as a kind of safeguard against living the schizophrenic/inauthentic lives we’ve become accustomed to living.

Since the division between work and home, career and life are largely illusory anyway, Friedman says we have to find a way to act in the world that integrates these different spheres into one cohesive life.

Here’s a sampling from Leading the Life You Want of how the three Be’s play out when you apply them to your life:

Be Real


You know how important each of the different aspects of your life is to you. Your high self-awareness enables you to understand clearly describe the value of each of the roles you play—work, spouse, parent, sibling, son or daughter, friend, or citizen. You are also able to see the bigger picture, in which all your different roles in life contribute to your vision of the future.


You are able to be yourself wherever you are, wherever you go. You act in ways that are consistent with your core values. You have taken the time to get comfortable in your own skin. This confidence allows you to be yourself wherever you are. Rather than conform to external pressures, you rely on your internal compass to guide your words and deeds. Rather than bend to social pressures, you make choices that match your values, and you are not afraid to share your opinions.


You make choices about how to spend your time and energy in ways that match what you really care about. This skill allows you to think about your goals so that you have a clear understanding of them, making it easier for you to prioritize. You understand how what you do each day fits with your values, so you are able to persevere when things get rough. You also know when and how to say no. You do not let feelings of guilt force you to take on things that are not true to what you stand for.

Being real has a lot to do with integrity: Do you embody the same values in the work sphere and the life sphere?

For instance, if you’re a committed environmentalist, can you rationalize working for a company that harms natural habitats and promotes unsustainable practices?

If you believe in everyone getting a fair shake, can you justify working for a financial organization intent on skimming money from unsuspecting 401(k) contributors?

Being real forces you to confront the inconsistencies in your expressed values and your lived experience.

It’s the supposedly minor hypocrisies that get you in the end.

Be Whole


You are able to delineate and maintain boundaries between the different parts of your life. you not only know when to merge the different aspects of your life, but you also know when to segment, or separate, them. You are able to decide when it is beneficial to create boundaries that allow for concentration on a single goal or responsibility. …


You are able to weave together the pieces of your life so that it has coherence. You view the different aspects of your life as interconnected in a way that is mutually enriching. You see how your different roles complement each other. You have a sense that all aspects of your life are integral parts of who you are; they all fit together as one. You understand how the various parts you play enable you to realize your vision.

Work-life integration isn’t synonymous with working all the time, just as the freedom of work anywhere, anytime is undermined if you work everywhere, everytime.

The point is, you can set up intelligent boundaries between work, family, and personal time. If even the President of the United States can find time to review his day and work out in peace, us mere mortals can surely do it too.

Be Innovative


You challenge traditional assumptions about how things are done, experimenting to make things better whenever possible. You are not constrained by conventions about how others think things should be done. Rather than follow the pack, you are willing to think and act like a rogue. You are not overly concerned about how others will perceive you. Instead, you are willing to step out on a limb to find a creative solution to the challenges you face.


You are willing to question old habits and innovate in managing life’s demands. You do not allows long-standing routines to dictate how you live your life. You are willing to try new approaches to see whether there are opportunities for greater performance in, and cohesiveness between, the different aspects of your life. You are willing to question your behaviors and to experiment with creative solutions for managing day-to-day as well as long-term goals.


You look forward to change—seeing it as an opportunity—rather than fear it. You embrace opportunities for personal development. Rather than follow a strictly defined path, you realize that life takes unexpected twists and turns. You are confident that you will be able not only to survive the unexpected but also to thrive in new circumstances.

Once you live a lean, nimble, integrated lifestyle, your capacity to respond to change increases too. And that’s the crux of personal agility.

The world is changing faster than ever. Technology—ubiquitous telecommunications in a globally-connected, 24-hour world—isn’t going away, nor are we go back to the old days anytime soon.

Learning how to change with the times and seize new opportunities requires seeing things in new ways. You can’t outsource innovation.

But Remember: Magic Happens at the Extremes

There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.

Alain de Botton, philosopher

There is a counterpoint to all this. And it’s actually presented by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan in The One Thing.

It’s the idea that in order to lead a successful, fulfilling life, you will need to be unbalanced at times.

To do something extraordinary requires extraordinary focus.

And the idea that you can be perfectly in “work-life balance” while pursuing something extraordinary is faulty and leads to guilt or mediocrity:

The problem with living in the middle is that it prevents you from making extraordinary time commitments to anything. In your effort to attend to all things, everything gets shortchanged and nothing gets its due. Sometimes this can be okay and sometimes not. Knowing when to pursue the middle and when to pursue the extremes is in essence the true beginning of wisdom. Extraordinary results are achieved by this negotiation with your time.

The reason we shouldn’t pursue balance is that the magic never happens in the middle; magic happens at the extremes.

Keller’s quote is a useful reminder that although your life may be unbalanced now—for work, for health, whatever the case may be—the key is that your unbalanced state should be temporary.

If it isn’t temporary, if unbalance has become a permanent fixture of your life—well, that’s when you have a problem. That’s a sign you’re heading for burnout.

But in order to have massive impact you need massive effort. There’s no getting around it.

Balance can’t be an excuse for mediocrity.

Top Photo Credit: frozenhaddock via Compfight cc

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The UN Commissioned a Report on Global Happiness. Here’s What It Said Fri, 20 Feb 2015 04:00:33 +0000 How do we know we’re measuring the right things in life?

I mean, we pay plenty of lip service to happiness but how often does being happier take a backseat to money, status, and the accumulation of junk?

UN World Happiness Report 2013

The question of how to measure the well-being of a country’s citizens isn’t a new one, but researchers at the United Nations have looked into the problem with new statistical techniques.

And what they found might surprise you.

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated and expanded with the latest research and information.

Gross National Happiness

When Jigme Singye Wangchuk (let’s call him J.S.) succeeded his father as king of Bhutan in 1972, he faced the problem of ushering in the modern age to a strict, traditional Buddhist country consisting of mainly subsistence farmers.

J.S. knew his country needed to embrace modernity, but how could he preserve Bhutanese culture in the process? J.S. also knew that the high Gross Domestic Product of his Western allies didn’t necessarily translate to happiness for its citizens.

King J.S. and his advisors developed a new metric: Gross National Happiness.

UN World Happiness Report: Gross National Happiness and King Jigme Singye Wangchuk

He believed that sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance were a better measure of a country’s success than simply counting up all the money its citizens produce each year.

Ever since he coined the term Gross National Happiness, people have been trying to develop a metric to capture those intangibles King J.S. identified as being important to his countrymen’s happiness.

Is there a common set of factors that leads certain countries to be happier than others? And what are those factors, if they do exist?

The UN World Happiness Report

In April of 2012, the Earth Institute published the first-ever World Happiness Report for the United Nations Conference on Happiness. The UN World Happiness Report represents one of the first major attempts to develop a standard system for determining happiness in the different nations on earth.

The researchers of the World Happiness Report started with two very simple questions, and had the participants rate their response on a scale of 0 to 10:

  • How happy would you say you are?
  • How satisfied are you with your life as a whole?

You might expect that happiness closely tracks a country’s wealth. After all, if people are richer, aren’t they also happier too? While happier countries tend to be richer countries overall, wealth doesn’t explain the whole story:

Political freedom, strong social networks and an absence of corruption are together more important than income in explaining well-being differences between the top and bottom countries.

What the researchers at the Earth Institute found was that while living standards were higher in some countries like the United States, happiness didn’t increase along with it at the same rate.

For instance, they found that job security was more important to happiness than total pay, which comports with the idea that the optimal salary for happiness is no higher than $75,000 a year. Job security in the U.S., as we all know, is practically nonexistent, even though wages are relatively high.

The World Happiness Report 2013

In 2013, the first update to the World Happiness Report came out, this time led by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).

Many of the key findings from the first World Happiness Report were reinforced and expanded upon by the second report.


Denmark and a slew of Scandinavian countries topped the list once again. But the news wasn’t all good for the developed West.

National Geographic points to the plateauing and, in some cases, even declining happiness figures in the Western developed world with some alarm:

On the other hand, warns Jeffrey Sachs, the director of Columbia’s Earth Institute and one of the authors of the report, riches can cause stresses and problems of their own. In his introduction to the report, Sachs cites the “persistent creation of new material ‘wants’ through the incessant advertising of products using powerful imagery and other means of persuasion.”

Sachs warns that an advertising industry worth around $500 billion per year is “preying on psychological weaknesses and unconscious urges,” and therefore making us less happy. Unhealthy products like cigarettes, sugar, and trans-fats are being pushed to our detriment, he wrote.

Such stresses and disillusionment may account for why the overall happiness figures for the (otherwise happy) industrialized West have been declining, while countries in developing regions, especially in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, have been becoming happier overall, Sachs noted. Of the three biggest gainers in overall happiness, two (Angola at 61st and Zimbabwe at 103rd) were in Africa. Albania (at 62nd) is the third.

Why does it matter whether a country’s citizens are happy or not?

According to the report, happy people live longer, are more productive, and act as more responsible citizens.

And besides, who wants to live in a country where everyone is miserable?

5 Factors That Contribute to Happiness

In The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, cognitive scientist Tali Sharot writes about a study conducted by British research company Ipsos MORI.

Ipsos MORI surveyed 2,015 people to discover which factors contributed most to happiness. Participants listed five factors as the most important (in order of importance):

  1. More time with family
  2. Earning double what I do now
  3. Better health
  4. More time with friends
  5. More traveling

What’s more interesting than the exact composition of factors—although that’s interesting too—is how much the order of importance varied with the respondents’ age:

While 55 percent of young adults, ages fifteen to twenty-four years, believed being richer would make them happier, only 5 percent of respondents seventy-five years and older thought more money would contribute to their happiness. Maybe life experience had taught them that happiness cannot be bought. On the other hand, the perceived contribution of health to satisfaction with life increased steadily as a person aged. Only 10 percent of respondents from fifteen to twenty-four years old rated better health as one of the top five factors that would make them happy, as opposed to 45 percent of people over the age of seventy-five.

Similarly, spending more time with family was a uniquely middle-aged concern: The peak of anxiety was between age thirty-five and forty-four.

Accounting for our future well-being is a difficult problem. Our tastes change, our values change, our priorities change … and this happens constantly throughout our lives.

The UN World Happiness Report reflects this reality, but in the aggregate. What’s important to remember is that different factors take on varying degrees of importance as you live your life.

This is exactly where a bit of agile thinking does a lot of good. Designing your life in such a way to anticipate the (inevitable) changes in what makes you happy leads to longer lasting satisfaction.

The promotion and the paycheck that you care so much about today might not matter in ten or fifteen years when you’re worrying about your health or your family instead.

Personal agility is your ability to respond to change—to survive and thrive in turbulent, ever-changing situations.

Even when the source of that turbulence is you and your changing personality.

Thriving Blue Zones & the World Happiness Report

The findings of the World Happiness Report fit what we’ve learned about the world’s “Blue Zones,” regions of the planet where people are happiest and live the longest.

In Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, author Dan Buettner traveled to Denmark (coincidentally the #1 happiest country in the world according to the UN report), Okinawa, Mexico, and California to find the Blue Zones of happiness.

These Blue Zones combined the best elements of freedom, economic stability, tolerance, and good governance to produce optimal levels of happiness for the people living in these Blue Zones.

Buettner deconstructed what made people living in these areas so happy. What he came up with is the 6 Thrive Centers:

  • Community. Quiet, walkable community spaces with plenty of light and nature are recurring features of Blue Zones. So is a commitment to public safety.
  • Work. Meaningful work that follows the Hedgehog concept creates engaged, happy citizens. And don’t skip your vacations!
  • Social. Human beings are social animals. On the Japanese island of Okinawa, they create moai groups of friends who commit to one another for life. Cultivate strong, mutually supportive relationships.
  • Finance. The key to happiness in your financial life is being happy with what you have. Have the right amount of money to thrive, and stop striving for more.
  • Home. Most of us spend a third of our lives in our homes, and another third in our bedrooms. Are you putting enough thought into optimizing these spaces for work, life, and sleep?
  • Self. People who live life with purpose are happier. An aimless life is an unhappy one.

It’s no surprise that the 6 Thrive Centers and the key happiness factors from the UN’s report overlap considerably.

3 Takeaways From the UN World Happiness Report

#1: Finding job security in yourself

The World Happiness Report teaches us that job security is more important to happiness than how much money you make. But if job security can no longer be found in a 9 to 5 job, then where do we look to for security?

The answer is that living agile requires looking inward for security. These days, you are the Chairman and CEO of You, Inc. whether you like it or not. The best way to find security in your career is to make sure that You, Inc. is always in demand.

Author and entrepreneur James Altucher states the situation well in his response to a question about pitching a startup:

So we became, and we always will be, a world of temp-staffers, executives, and entrepreneurs. Everybody fits into one of those categories. Even if you think you are a permanent staffer, that’s just a lie your employer is telling you. There’s no more loyalty. You are a temp. And eventually your payroll will be outsourced. And eventually you will be outsourced. So you’re either ok with that, or you become an executive, or you figure out how to be an entrepreneur or work in a more entrepreneurial company.

The economy is changing in a permanent way, spurred on by the internet revolution and the death of bigger is better. We have more options than ever, but at the same time we will have to be more responsible for our careers than our parents. Closing the feedback loop and finding your personal Hedgehog become more important than ever in the agile century.

#2: Strengthening social networks

As you grow older, you grow further apart from our family and friends. Over time, it may seem that you spend all of your time with coworkers and acquaintances, instead of your true friends.

Some of this is inevitable in a location independent society, where people move around frequently to pursue new opportunities. Technology like social media is keeping us more in touch with friends than ever before. For instance, I use my fantasy football league to keep in touch with friends from Bangkok to Oakland.

But none of this is a substitute for face-to-face human interaction. Go out of your way to build a social network outside of work. Favor deep connections over the shallow, fleeting contacts you make at networking events.

As the moai example demonstrates, it’s not the quantity of friends that matters, it’s the depth of feeling and mutual support that contributes to overall happiness.

#3: Picking the right neighborhood

Seem trivial? It’s not.

The UN World Happiness Report, Buettner’s Blue Zones work, and Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness identify safe, quiet, natural environments as being immensely important to happiness.

Even if you live in a bustling city like New York City, finding private places for peace and public places to appreciate nature are incredibly important.

City planners are wising up to this truth. That’s why many cities are fighting to recapture green spaces for the public.

Remember that human beings didn’t evolve to live in concrete boxes in the sky. Your psychological well-being is powerfully tied to your surrounding environment. Something like Seasonal Affective Disorder wouldn’t exist if it weren’t.

Final Thoughts

The world is changing rapidly. Living agile is about responding to change.

There are two ways to respond to change: frantically with anxiety or calmly with confidence.

Agile is a set of tools to deal with change. My job and the goal of Agile Lifestyle is to equip you with the tools to respond to change, decrease your anxiety, and turn you towards the project of designing your life.

As we learn more about what actually makes people happy, we’re finding that it’s not about making more money or investing in junk that you can live without.

In an environment where jobs are being displaced and industries are being disrupted, we’ve learned that happiness comes from within. Happiness is a mindset that can be learned.

A version of this article first appeared on November 9, 2012.

Top Photo Credit: AdamCohn via Compfight cc

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Losing Your Head: Why It Makes Things Worse (And What You Can Do to Stop It) Tue, 03 Feb 2015 15:30:01 +0000 Feeling panicky? Starting to lose your head?

Here are 6 simple steps to get your brain out of the basement and confronting your challenges before they overwhelm you.

Losing Your Head: Apatheia & How Not to Panic

The Downward Spiral and the High Cost of Losing Your Head

One perfectly normal day, Josh Waitzkin—eight-time National Chess Champion and the subject of the film Searching for Bobby Fischer—was walking to a chess class he was teaching in Manhattan.

He stood waiting at a light when a pretty young woman wearing headphones walked up a few feet next to him.

While looking down the wrong way on Broadway, she stepped directly into oncoming traffic. A bicycle bearing down on her blind side swerved and barely missed her.

“In my memory, time stops right here. This was the critical moment in the woman’s life. She could have walked away unscathed if she had just stepped back onto the pavement, but instead she turned and cursed the fast-pedaling bicyclist,” writes Waitzkin in The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence.

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin: Book Cover

Cover image copyright Free Press. Used under fair use.

While she stood with her back to traffic and shouted at the departing bicyclist, a taxicab struck the woman and sent her flying into the air. She hit a lamppost and fell unconscious. Waitzkin and others called an ambulance and police and waited with her to be taken to the hospital.

Shaken, Waitzkin continued onto his chess class. He knew he needed to say something about what had just occurred. He decided to relate it to the chess lesson he was about to give, doing his best not to trivialize the woman’s accident.

One idea I taught was the importance of regaining presence and clarity of mind after making a serious error. This is a hard lesson for all competitors and performers. The first mistake rarely proves disastrous, but the downward spiral of the second, third, and fourth error creates a devastating chain reaction.

Wearing headphones was probably the woman’s first mistake. Headphones playing loudly masks out the noise of traffic, which impart crucial signals about danger. There was no way for her to hear any oncoming traffic, cars honking, bicycle bells ringing.

The second mistake was looking the wrong way and stepping into oncoming traffic.

However, it was the third mistake that proved to be the most severe. After the bicyclist nearly hit her, that should have been the wake-up call that she needed to sense that something was wrong. But instead, she got angry.

“She wasn’t hurt, but instead of reacting with alertness, she was spooked into anger, irritated that her quiet had been shattered,” Waitzkin writes. That last mistake completed the vicious, downward cycle of her accident.

Waitzkin says “momentum” in sports is largely a byproduct of this downward spiral, not an entity unto itself.

“With young chess players, the downward spiral dominates competitive lives. In game after game, beginners fall to pieces after making the first mistake.” The difference between winning and losing is small and there are many opportunities to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and vice versa.

(On some level, this had to be what happened to both Super Bowl coaches last night at the end of the game.)

Let’s take a less vivid, do-or-die, life-threatening scenario i.e. changing jobs or roles at work, getting laid off, having to move for a spouse’s job, or striking out on your own as a lifestyle entrepreneur. Any major change likely to induce feelings of overwhelm.

What causes some people to panic, freeze up, lose their cool, and do exactly the wrong thing at the absolute worst time?

How do other people remain calm, flexible, adaptable, and agile in the face of overwhelming change?

How do you avoid the downward spiral?

Apatheia: Staying Calm in the Face of the Storm

The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday: Book Cover

Cover image copyright Portfolio. Used under fair use.

In The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumphs, noted marketer and “media manipulator” Ryan Holiday connects the panic—the beginning of Waitzkin’s downward spiral—with our evolutionary psychology:

When people panic, they make mistakes. They override systems. They disregard procedures, ignore rules. They deviate from the plan. They become unresponsive and stop thinking clearly. They just react—not to what they need to react to, but to the survival hormones that are coursing through their veins.

Welcome to the source of most of our problems down here on Earth. Everything is planned down to the letter, then something goes wrong and the first thing we do is trade in our plan for a good ol’ emotional freak-out. Some of us almost crave sounding the alarm, because it’s easier than dealing with whatever is staring us in the face.

The key to effective response (and avoiding the downward spiral) is to not lose your head and keep your faculties about you.

Obstacles make us emotional, but there’s no way to overcome them without keeping those emotions in check. A steady hand in a stressful situation is worth more than the best-laid plans.

The Greek word for this calm-in-the-face-of-a-storm attitude is apatheia:

It’s the kind of calm equanimity that comes with the absence of irrational or extreme emotions. Not the loss of feeling altogether, just the loss of the harmful, unhelpful kind. Don’t let the negativity in, don’t let those emotions even get started. Just say: No, thank you. I can’t afford to panic.

You have to focus your energies on solving the problem, after all. Not freaking out about them. Because freaking out about your problem creates its own sort of obstacle:

It’s a huge step forward to realize that the worst thing to happen is never the event, but the event and losing your head. Because then you’ll have two problems (one of them unnecessary and post hoc).

There’s a moment before freaking out emotionally when you can step back and force yourself to consider the alternative:

Subconsciously, we should be constantly asking ourselves this question: Do I need to freak out about this?

And the answer—like it is for astronauts, for soldiers, for doctors, and for so many other professionals—must be: No, because I practiced for this situation and I can control myself. Or, No, because I caught myself and I’m able to realize that that doesn’t add anything constructive.

Freaking out, losing your head, panicking—it’s rarely constructive and almost always detrimental.

But is there something worse than losing your head?

Lose Your Head or Shut Down: What’s Worse?

When people are faced with overwhelming change, instead of panicking or losing their cool, one natural reaction is to simply shut down:

They overestimate the resilience of the status quo and underestimate the driving need for innovation. They make excuses, close their eyes to the world around them, and lull themselves to sleep with naive cliches such as, “Things will get better on their own,” or, “I’m sure the worst is behind us.” When those phrases begin floating around your mind—or your organization—you can expect that the calamity of unforeseen change is barreling forward, and ready to mow you down.

That’s Josh Linkner writing in The Road to Reinvention: How to Drive Disruption and Accelerate Transformation. His point is that people are great at rationalizing away the danger of imminent change.

Rejection of reality is a form of shutting down. It’s a way of preempting the possibility of making a mistake—you can always claim you were caught off guard or by surprise later instead of facing up to the idea that you simply weren’t prepared or nimble enough to survive the change.

Self-awareness is absolutely necessary before you formulate a response. Doing the latter without the former always leads to a bad response. And sometimes it leads to disaster, in the case of the lady crossing the street in The Art of Learning.

Defiance + Acceptance: There Is Always a Countermove

Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle Is the Way has a framework for responding to crisis. And it all depends on nerve:

Ultimately, nerve is a matter of defiance and control.

Like: I refuse to acknowledge that. I don’t agree to be intimidated. I resist the temptation to declare this a failure.

But nerve is also a matter of acceptance: Well, I guess it’s on me then. I don’t have the luxury of being shaken up about this or replaying close calls in my head. I’m too busy and too many people are counting on me.

I’ve found in my experience that the most profound truths tend to come in the form of a paradox—and that’s not just the Buddhist in me talking. The paradox of defiance and acceptance is a close kin to the paradox of tough-minded optimism and the Stockdale Paradox.

So it’s not surprising that a paradox lies at the heart of apatheia, or responding well to disruption, crisis, and change.

Defiance is the upstart’s belief that you can make an impact. Acceptance comes from a core awareness of the reality of your situation. The paradox is at the forefront of all your actions in an emergent situation.

Defiance and acceptance come together well in the following principle: There is always a countermove, always an escape or a way through, so there is no reason to get worked up.

But how do we keep our heads and not lose our cool in heated situations?

“Am I Going to Die From This?”

Extreme emotions don’t last.

Acting from a place of extreme emotion, therefore, is generally counter-productive.

One way to ground yourself and bring your emotions back to the moment is by reminding yourself of the big picture:

After all, you’re probably not going to die from any of this.

It might help to say it over and over again whenever you feel the anxiety being to come on: I am not going to die from this. I am not going to die from this. I am not going to die from this.

That’s Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle Is the Way again.

Evolution has fine-tuned your response systems to overreact to existential threats. Most contemporary situations don’t call for this type of response, even though your body will kick into that gear at the slightest provocation, like speaking in public or losing your job.

(Of course, if you’re actually in a life-or-death situation, like a natural disaster or accident, repeating I am not going to die from this in your head might simply be positive thinking.)

Use Mantras to Defeat the Fear Moment

Don't Lose Your Head: Airline Pilot Mantras

Photo Credit: nicolacassa via Compfight cc

Are there proven mental hacks to help keep your wits about you during a crisis?

Why, yes.

They’re called mantras.

In The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong, Judith Rodin makes a case for using mantras to “get out of the basement” of reactive, fight-or-flight evolutionary psychology. The key is developing routines and mantras:

The routine circuits, in other words, are where you keep your preparedness, your knowledge of what to do in certain situations. You reach into the mind’s metaphorical toolbox and grab something that is already there. Dorn, for example, is a physician. When faced with a situation that looks like a cardiac arrest, he is able to cut his fear moment short. He reaches into his toolbox for a well-known, five-step protocol and follows the steps methodically, without deviation. This enables him to respond almost immediately, gets beyond fear and out of the basement. Aircraft pilots have a mantra—aviate, navigate, communicate—which keeps fear at bay when faced with a crisis situation in flight. Repeating the mantra gets them out of the basement and into the toolbox where they have access to a whole range of protocols and checklists they can follow to assess their situation and determine the best options for action.

“Am I going to die from this?” and “Do I need to freak out about this?” of course are forms of mantras.

In order to work, a mantra has to be short and memorable, like a checklist.

Maybe it’s as simple remembering to breathe and pause to assess your situation (“breathe & assess”). Maybe it’s more specific to your profession, like the well-known Apgar test administered to newborn infants.

Whatever the case, a prepared mantra that you can recite to yourself in a crisis can do wonders for your chances of successfully addressing the situation.


  1. Fight the urge to get angry. Anger leads to mistakes. Remember Waitzkin’s story of the woman crossing the street in The Art of Learning.
  2. Don’t shut down. Denying there’s a problem is about as bad as losing your head. Responding well to disruption requires self-awareness.
  3. Remember there’s always a countermove. The paradox of defiance and acceptance dictates that you recognize the gravity of your situation and simultaneously refuse to succumb to it. There’s always a way out.
  4. Ask yourself, “Do I need to freak out about this?” Probably not. 9 times out of 10, freaking out is only going to make things worse. You’ll still have to deal with the problem and then the freak-out on top of it.
  5. Remind yourself that you’re (probably) not going to die. Not going to die is good, right? Now start digging yourself out of that hole.
  6. Repeat a mantra to get yourself out of the basement. Airline pilots repeat “aviate, navigate, communicate” when they get in trouble. What’s your equivalent mantra?

Top image by Shinichi Higashi.

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10 Personal Cash Management Strategies That Actually Work Thu, 29 Jan 2015 10:15:56 +0000 Personal cash management is the key to achieving financial freedom.

Here are 10 cash management strategies you can start implementing today to get there. But there are also plenty of pitfalls and bad advice you must avoid at all costs.

10 Personal Cash Management Strategies

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated and expanded with the latest research and information.

Here’s why I don’t like the term “personal finance.”

The personal finance gurus often endorse strategies that are counterproductive to your financial health.

The biggest sin in this area is peddling homeownership as the solution to everything. These advisors act as a de facto sales arm of the mortgage refinancing industry.

(Refinancing, by the way, is the biggest kick-the-can-down-the-road scam ever perpetrated on honest working people.)

Feel like servicing debt for your entire life? How about refinancing another 30-year mortgage every couple of years to “save” on your interest rate.

Remodeling? Just add it to your refinancing!

Owning your own home is just one of the myths of happiness perpetuated by the personal finance industry. Another is that you can retire on the meager earnings in your 401(k).

The mutual fund industry is “the world’s largest skimming operation, a $7 trillion trough from which fund managers, brokers and other insiders are steadily siphoning off an excessive slice of the nation’s household, college and retirement savings,” said one Illinois lawmaker. Personal finance advisors rarely talk about index funds, the low-cost alternative to actively managed mutual funds. Why? They don’t make advisors any money.

So if the personal finance industry has become too scammy, then what’s the alternative?

Why I Prefer Personal Cash Management

I prefer the term cash management because it immediately focuses you on what you should be caring about: Straight cash, homey. Real, honest-to-goodness legal tender. Not highly illiquid “assets” like your home, your car, or your possessions.

From a cash management perspective, yes, these things could be converted to cash. But until you actually do it, they drain money from you—they’re expenses.

For example, the debt-financed home you live in is, at best, cashflow neutral. Even if you buy a house like we did and avoid all the common traps, you still might not come out ahead. In the end, you might sell the house for the inflation-adjusted price you paid for it.

Don’t believe me? CBS News reported that in the period between 1890 to 2005 (right before the housing bubble) home prices grew at less than 1% a year after taking inflation into account. 1% a year! And those were the good times!

The same people who are howling about how low CD interest rates are right now are the same people touting homeownership as an investment—makes you wonder if they can do math, right?

More likely, your home is cashflow negative due to interest payments, homeowners insurance, property tax, repairs, and all the associated costs of homeownership. You’re also taking the downside risk that your home value will tank (remember, all your risks have to go somewhere).

So quit worrying about this amorphous thing called personal finance and start managing your cash instead. It’s a lot more grounded in reality.

How Does Cash Management Help Your Personal Agility?

Agile thinking is all about responding to change. We can divide the changes in our lives into roughly two broad types: positive change and negative change.

(That’s painting with the broadest brush in the art store, by the way. Not recommended, but grant me some leeway to make my point.)

Responding to positive change is taking advantage of opportunities, like how the Amazon Kindle platform is making it easier than ever to become a published author.

Responding to negative change is about being prepared for setbacks, financial or otherwise. Personal cash management is important in good times, but it’s even more critical when things take a turn for the worse.

Bottom line: A healthy grasp of cash management strategies helps you in good times and bad by preparing you to be nimble, lean, and agile enough to respond to change positively.

The Top 10 Cash Management Strategies to Transform Your Relationship With Money

#1: Automatically Track Your Budget

Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You to Be Rich says keeping a budget is bad advice because it’s too hard, and besides, no one does it anyway.

I might have agreed with him in the days before Mint. But nowadays, automating your budget is so easy, you have no excuse not to.

Once you sign up with Mint and authorize your bank, credit card, and loan accounts to communicate with Mint, all of your transactions will automatically import into the system.

Mint will even try to categorize your purchases. For instance, it knows that when you go to McDonald’s these transactions should be categorized as ‘Fast Food’.

After your transactions are in Mint, it’s a simple matter to set up a budget and track your spending habits (good or bad) using categories.

To keep things dead simple, I recommend you only set up three categories (the fourth is created automatically):

  • Home. This is your rent or mortgage, along with home-related costs like renter’s or homeowner’s insurance.
  • Utilities. This is typically everything that gets billed to you monthly, like water, gas, electricity, cell phone, and cable.
  • Food & Dining. Both groceries and dining out, including bars & alcohol.
  • Everything Else. Like it sounds, this is your category for shopping and every miscellaneous expense that comes up. This doesn’t need to be set up specifically.

That’s it. The rest is making sure that as you spend, you categorize Home, Utilities, and Food & Dining expenses properly. Everything else automatically falls into the Everything Else category.

Over time, Mint starts to learn what is what and automatically code things for you. It’s like magic.

After a few months, you will have a highly accurate picture of where all your money goes.

If you can’t do that bare amount of work to understand your financial life, then you may not have a pulse and should seek medical treatment immediately.

#2: Lower Your Expenses

You automated your budget with Strategy #1. Now it’s time to pare down your household expenses.

Most people try to jump to this step before tracking their expenses and understanding their budget first. That doesn’t work. Good cash management strategy requires you to have an accurate picture of where your cash is coming from and going to before you make changes to your spending habits.

Once you have an accurate picture, lowering or even eliminating the unnecessary fluff from your expenses becomes a lot easier.

Do you rent or finance too much home? Are you eating out too much? Does that cable bill need to go? You can answer each of these questions after going through the step above.

A rule of thumb I use to budget is the rule of thirds. Each of the following should be one-third of your total expenses per month:

  • Home should be a third of your expenses
  • Utilities + Food & Dining should be another third
  • Everything Else should be the last third

If one of these categories is out of whack, consider scaling back until the slices of the pie are in balance. For instance, most of you are spending way too much on housing relative to your lifestyle (you know who you are).

If your Home expenses are 50% or more of your budget, that’s a sign that you need to find a better fit elsewhere. Time to think about selling or moving out. Do you own your house or does your house own you?

#3: Decouple Your Expenses From Your Income

What’s the first thing most people do when they get a raise? Buy more junk, of course. Except the UN World Happiness Report tells us that accumulating consumer junk isn’t a major factor in making our lives happier.

So why do we do it?

Make no mistake about it: Lifestyle inflation is a communicable disease. You see your friends and neighbors buying nicer stuff and you feel compelled to go out and do the same.

Any time you get a raise or a bonus or switch to a higher paying job, keep your expense levels the same. Don’t fall for the relative income trap.

Always, always, always aggressively save the difference between your expenses and your income.

The bigger the gap, the better. I recommend saving at least a quarter of your household income if possible.

There’s a good reason to save this differential in the next strategy, but we’ll see why we should save so much when we get to Strategy #10.

#4: Build an Emergency Fund

How many of you got caught flat-footed when the Great Recession hit in 2008?

I know I did. I’d just started my first year of law school AKA three years of accumulating six-figure debt. I had about $5,000 to my name. If I had been jobless out of law school (like 40% of my classmates), there’s no question I’d be financially ruined right now.

The rule of thumb is to have six months of living expenses in a very liquid account in case of emergency. Personal finance blog Yes, I Am Cheap reports that in 2012, 28% of Americans had no emergency fund, while another 49% had only three months of cash reserves.

Talk about living on the razor’s edge.

The paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle is not only irresponsible, it’s not agile. Any kind of negative change, like an unexpected layoff or increase in tax payments, can torpedo this type of lifestyle in a hurry. Even minor shocks, like an unexpected car repair or medical emergency can send the paycheck-to-paycheck person into a spiral of debt.

Sandy at Yes, I Am Cheap recommends a course of action if your emergency fund is looking thin (or nonexistent):

Begin with something tiny like 2% of your paycheck. For every $100 that you make, only $2 will go to savings. Fill out a direct deposit form with this new savings account getting what we’ll call the ‘painless percentage’ and then promptly forget about it. Wait about one month and see if you miss the money coming from your paycheck. If you don’t them bump your savings rate up by another percentage point and continue doing so until you reach a comfortable level.

Utilize the painless percentage if you’re the sort of person who needs gradual change. If you’re like me and you like to rip the band-aid off, I would put $5,000 in cash into a no-fee checking account immediately.

#5: Get Out of Debt ASAP

Consider this scenario:

  • Pam has $100 in take-home pay. Is it better for her to invest that $100 in the stock market or use it to pay down her credit card debt?

That might be tough for you to answer. Let’s ask the question another way and see if the answer is more obvious:

  • Pam has $100 in take-home pay. Is it better for her to invest in something that historically pays 8% a year or something that for sure pays 20% a year?

Seems obvious now, right? Yet I know a great deal of many smart, talented people who do strange things with their money, like buy stocks when they have enormous credit card debt hemorrhaging cash from their bank account (and remember, cash is the name of the game here).

Let me go even further. If you are in your twenties, I would put all my money into getting out of credit card and private education debt before contributing to a 401(k) and/or traditional IRA.

I know that investing pre-tax dollars is very enticing and the math favors it, but look, you can’t touch that money without penalty until you are 59 and a half years old. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee your company’s 401(k) isn’t drastically mismanaged with high fees—some to the tune of $150,000 to $200,000 per household.

There’s a lot that could happen between now and 2050. You want the flexibility to adapt to change.

Nothing cuts down a decision tree faster than owing a huge amount of debt to someone for the next 15 to 20 years. And your retirement will benefit the quicker you get out of debt.

#6: Negotiate a Raise

Okay, we’ve covered the top strategies for expenses. Let’s start talking about the income side of personal cash management strategies.

If you are employed, either as a 9 to 5 slave or a contract employee, the single best thing you can do today is negotiate a raise.

This is tough, no question. I will not trivialize how difficult it is to ask for a raise in a climate where most people are grateful to even have a job. But because you are reading this article, I know you are an A-player and a high achiever. And that means there’s a very good chance you are underpaid.

The key to any negotiation is to focus on the benefits to the other side. It’s too easy to walk into a salary negotiation and make it all about yourself. You need to convey the following 3 ideas to get the raise you deserve:

  • How much value you add to the department. The more discrete the examples, the better.
  • How comparable people in your field are compensated. Research on PayScale and make sure to match your search as close as possible. Added bonus: the implied threat that you can and will entertain offers from other employers.
  • And that you want a raise. Don’t forget to actually ask for a raise.

If you’re feeling stuck, you can always focus on what makes you different from your colleagues. If you’re the youngest member of the department, you can emphasize how social media or tech savvy you are (assuming you are these things). If you’re the oldest, you can emphasize your experience and track record.

In other words, there are no losing hands when you are negotiating a raise.

Unless you genuinely suck at your job, in which case, time to find a better Hedgehog.

#7: Switch Employers

Your employer has a psychological barrier to paying you a significant salary increase. It’s called anchoring. Because they know you are willing to do the work for X dollars today, they aren’t inclined to give you X + 15% next year for roughly the same work.

When you get to this point (and you’ll be able to tell because you can’t get much better than a 2 to 4% increase from your boss), it’s time to jump ship.

With a new employer, you will have a clean slate. No prior salary to anchor to means you can get paid a figure closer to what you’re worth.

Sure, the interviewer at the new company will try to trick you into telling them your previous salary, but they have no legal right to do so.

The best defense to an interviewer fishing for salary information is to tell them that you are still under an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) with your current employer. Say that your NDA requires you to keep salary and other employment information confidential.

In my experience, this is accurate the vast majority of the time—which makes me wonder why it became common practice to divulge salary information in interviews in the first place!

Put it another away, if the shoe were on the other foot, would the interviewer want details about their company’s compensation scheme going out to competitors? Of course not! So tell them you’re only doing what an loyal, ethical, and law-abiding employee would do.

#8: Better Yet, Become an Entrepreneur

As long as you are employed by someone else, you will never be compensated what you are worth.

That might seem harsh, but it becomes obvious once you think about it.

Why does a corporation employ you at all? Because that corporation believes it can pay you X dollars to harness your productivity and make X dollars plus a profit.

If you’re paid exactly what you’re worth, the company would merely break even and wouldn’t be able to stay in business. And if you’re ever paid more than what you’re worth, rest assured you will get laid off pretty soon unless you have a powerful union on your side.

In exchange for never getting paid what you are worth, you get stability and a steady paycheck. At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

But we’re seeing that this day and age, no company is safe from uncertainty, poor management, and technological disruption.

How much do you trust your executives? I’m sure if you were working at Enron or Lehman Brothers in their heyday, you would say you trusted them quite a bit. See how that turned out.

The only certainty right now is harnessing successful entrepreneur traits. Even if you’re working a 9 to 5 job today, you can start taking a more entrepreneurial approach to your career. You can build a second stream of income on the side, or fight for more control over how you use your time at work.

#9: Boost Your Credit Score

Ask 5 different personal finance advisors how your credit score is calculated and you will get 8 different answers. It’s that opaque.

Your credit score is a tautology. By that I mean your credit score is supposed to indicate how creditworthy you are. But in order to get credit, the banks look at your credit score. So how do you start building credit in the first place?

The answer is to get a no-frills, no-perks, no-bonuses credit card with a low credit limit that hopefully has little to no annual membership fee. Because the age of your oldest credit line is a factor, the sooner you do this, the better.

As your credit score improves, you can apply for better credit cards with huge bonuses that can net you free travel or hotel stays. Blogs like The Points Guy and Million Mile Secrets are devoted to this subject.

I’ve personally flown multiple trips solely on points, including an international trip to Peru in 2013 with flight and hotel covered by credit card sign-up bonuses. I’ve stayed at 5-star hotels in Beijing—with butler service, no less—using points.

I understand how this advice might sound contradictory to what I said above about controlling your expenses and lifestyle inflation. The point isn’t to go racking up charges on things you wouldn’t otherwise buy. The point is that you’re going to be spending money anyway and these bonuses are out there for the taking.

Travel credit cards are the closest thing to free money out there right now for people who want to see the world—and that’s practically everybody.

Strategy #9 only works if you have the ability to pay in full every month. Otherwise, see Strategy #4 above.

#10: Create a Personal Endowment Fund

All the scrimping and saving and tracking and earning needs to lead somewhere, right? Otherwise, what’s the point? Why shouldn’t we live paycheck to paycheck?

Here’s how I define the ultimate end goal of personal cash management:

To never work for money because I have to.

Note that the goal is not to “retire” in the sense of “stop working.” I hope I will be healthy enough to work on the things I love for the rest of my life.

The goal isn’t to stop making money either. But it would be nice to not have to worry about it.

The only way to reach this goal is to create a Personal Endowment Fund that pays you a baseline income every year for the rest of your life.

If this sounds farfetched, then let me talk about a concept you’re probably more familiar with: a trust. Many foundations, charities, and universities are funded by a trust. Here’s how a trust works:

You start with a principal amount, say $100,000. You invest the principal in a mix of investments that yield 5% a year, or $5,000. Then you pay yourself 4%, or $4,000.

The beauty of this is if you’re doing it right, you’ll never run out of money (even adjusting for inflation). That’s how charities and museums that were funded hundreds of years ago continue to operate from their original endowment today.

If you start with a higher principal in your Personal Endowment Fund, then this concept starts getting exciting.

If you have a Personal Endowment Fund of $500,000, then 4% a year is $20,000. That’s a livable amount of income in many parts of the world, and even some parts of the United States. Remember, you’re still working if you want—you simply don’t have to in order to survive.

4% of $1,000,000 is $40,000 a year. That’s starting to look like the median salary of your average American, and enough income to live like a king in places like Thailand and Costa Rica. The difference is that you’re no longer actively working to make that income. Instead, your Personal Endowment Fund is working passively for you, generating an income for life.

Building a Personal Endowment Fund that can produce basic income for the rest of your life is the goal of personal cash management. Through a combination of simplicity (reducing expenses) and entrepreneurship (increasing income), this is the heart of my financial freedom strategy in the agile era.


Whew. That was a massive post.

Please do me a favor: if you derived any value from this article, one good idea, or one chuckle, please click one of the sharing buttons below/floating to the side here. I would greatly appreciate it!

A version of this article first appeared on January 30, 2013.

Image by stevendepolo.

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How to Read More: The Exact Strategy I Use to Read 150 Books a Year Thu, 22 Jan 2015 07:00:46 +0000 Many of us set a goal of reading more books in the new year. But how often do we actually meet those goals?

In this article, I go over step-by-step my strategy for how to read more than 150 books a year. It’s a game-changer, I promise.

How to Read More

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated and expanded with the latest research and information.

A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.

― William StyronConversations with William Styron

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

― Dr. SeussI Can Read With My Eyes Shut!

In the age of blogging and social media, reading a good book can seem trite. Can’t you get the information you need in a faster, shorter, and less cumbersome way than a book?

Yes and no.

Yes, you can find any information you like now with Google and a decent keyword search. But a book often delves deeper and reaches wider than a blog post. In making a single sustained argument over the course of an entire book, the information is inevitably better.

And that’s just talking about nonfiction books.

You know how movie and TV adaptations of books never seem to measure up? There’s a reason why: reading a good novel is an entirely different experience from watching a movie or TV show.

This is the agile guide to setting and accomplishing massive reading goals each year.

How Reading More Is Like a Superpower

Many of us have a goal to read more on our list of new year’s resolutions. But it can seem like a major hassle to read more books once you sit down and try it.

Who has the time? Where can I read? What do I read?

I loved to read when I was a kid. I always maxed out the number of books I could take from the library at any given time. I read about everything. I read about dinosaurs, model cars, superheroes, astronomy, you name it. Whatever struck my fancy that particular week.

I’m sure I’ve described many of you when you were kids.

But like you, somewhere along the way, I got too busy. I lost my ability to read for pleasure. I only read books when I needed to, like for college or law school.

Back in 2010, still reeling from the aftereffects of the financial crisis, I resolved to read more. One of the first books I picked up was a recommendation from a friend. It was The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss and it literally changed my life.

Maybe there was something to this reading thing after all. How many other books out there were like this?

I devoured more books, looking for new ideas and opening my eyes to new fields. I read about business and marketing. I read about psychology. I read about Agile software development. In short, I was like that kid again, devouring new subjects and building up expertise in a matter of a few weeks.

Each subsequent year after 2010, I tried to read more books than the one before it.

In 2012, I hit a new record: 150 books.

Every year since, from 2013 and 2014, I’ve completed 150 additional books. That’s 450 books in 3 years.

Honestly, it feels like I’ve gained a new superpower. I’m learning at a much faster rate than I could on my own without books.

I know 150 books a year sounds like a huge amount right now. Don’t worry, I’ll show you exactly how I did it, and how you can too.

How to Read More Than 150 Books a Year

Step 1: Use Goodreads to Track Your Reading Goal

Reading Goals Met - 2012 to 2014 - Goodreads

That’s 450 books in 3 years. Even I have trouble believing it.


Goodreads is an awesome site that let’s you track what you read, when you read it, and how you rated each book you read. It also works as a fantastic recommendation engine, hooking into your social accounts to connect you to friends and show you what they are reading.

Go ahead and set up your account. Seriously, I’ll wait.

For our purposes, what we are most interested in is the Reading Challenge widget in the sidebar of Goodreads. Here you can set a target reading goal for the year.

The screenshot above details my personal reading goal challenges for 2012 through 2014. You can see that I completed them and Goodreads congratulated me for the accomplishment.

So how did I do it? And how did I find so many books to read?

Step 2: Source More Books to Read

Reading Goals: Where to find 150 books

Image by albertogp123

1. Buy new books

You can always buy new books. There’s a bevy of sub-$5 selections on Kindle and Nook. If paper is your preference, consider supporting a local bookstore, which will often have more thoughtful curation and older backlist titles, in addition to all the new stuff at your standard Barnes & Noble brick and mortar store. Whatever you do, don’t buy those full-price hardcovers at the airport.

2. Public domain books

Project Gutenberg is the premier site for public domain books in multiple formats. Public domain books are books that have fallen out of copyright — typically written before 1922. A whole host of classic books are public domain and freely available.

3. Free books

Both Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook have a vast library of free ebooks. You could easily put together a list of 150 books just with the free stuff on Kindle and Nook. But you won’t always read the best quality or newest selections when you go that route. I find a mix of free ebooks on Kindle and Nook, and newer releases to be ideal. If you committed to reading one free Kindle or Nook ebook selection a week, you’d only need to read one other book a week to reach a reading goal of 100 books in a year. Remember that you don’t need an actual Nook or Kindle to read Nook or Kindle ebooks. You can always download the free Kindle or Nook webapps or phone apps.

4. Re-read favorites

Books that you already own and have read previously are a great source, especially if you haven’t logged them in Goodreads yet. Re-reading a book you already own also makes reading faster, since you’re already familiar with the arguments. I make a point of re-reading The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss every year. Not only do the lessons stick better after a few readings, but it counts towards my reading goal.

5. Go to the library

Go get a library card. Trust me, trying to buy 150 books every year is a recipe for financial ruin. You will need a source of new books that is “free” (in truth, your taxes help pay to support local libraries, so it makes no sense not to take advantage of them as a source of books). Most libraries these days have an online system for putting books on hold. Use this to make sure you have a fresh supply of books without having to waste too much time browsing every visit. After all, you need to save that time for reading!

Step 3: Read Everywhere

Reading Goals: Read While Waiting

Image by moriza

1. Read while you’re waiting

I read when I’m waiting in line at the post office. I read when I’m on the subway. I read when I’m queueing for tickets at a sold-out show. With the Kindle app and my Android phone, I can read almost everywhere with some downtime.

2. “Read” in the car

Even though your commute is probably killing you, the brutal fact is that many Americans can’t avoid it. So you might as well turn a negative into a positive by listening to books while you drive. I find that nonfiction books (especially business books) are great for the stop-and-start experience of listening to audiobooks in your car.

3. “Read” while you’re doing chores

Another great advantage of audiobooks is that you can load up an iPod or smartphone with your current book, put on some headphones, and read while you’re folding laundry or doing the dishes.

4. Read at work

Read during lunch. Read when you need a break. Read when you’re procrastinating. Books in PDF form and the Kindle and Nook webapps are ideal for reading on the sly at work.

5. Be device-agnostic

Paper. Ereader. Tablet. Smartphone. Audio. Web browser. To hit a goal as audacious as 150 books in a year, you can’t be a snob about how you read. Don’t wait for the perfect conditions. Start reading!

Step 4: Read Multiple Books in Parallel

One of the ways reading goals can stall out is that you get bored of the book you’re reading. Pushing through each chapter becomes a slog, and then you give up on your reading goal completely.

The solution to this problem is to read more than one book at once. Whenever you get bored or stuck in one book, you can then hop to another book. That way you’re always making progress.

To keep things straight in your mind, you can read different types of books in parallel. Here’s a real-life example from this past year of 3 books in different categories that I was reading at the same time:

By reading each of these books in parallel, I could be certain I was getting ahead on my goals while keeping things fresh and interesting.

In reality, I read about 10 books in parallel at any given time, by subdividing the books even further. The Nonfiction category would become Biography, Business, and Marketing. Genre, I would subdivide into Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Thriller. That way, I could still keep track of the different books in my mind as I was hopping between them.

One quick tip: If you often read library books, as I do, the numbers on the spines of nonfiction books can be helpful. The numbers come from the Dewey decimal system, which roughly translates numbers to a subject area. For instance, I read a lot of books in the 153’s (creativity/psychology), 332’s (personal finance/money), 650’s (business/management), and 658’s (business). With a bit of pre-planning, I can make sure I’m not reading two books from 658’s in parallel, for example. That keeps the advice from each book clear in my mind (although sometimes you want to purposefully mash-up the advice from some books in your brain for effect).

I don’t recommend reading this many books in parallel until you’ve mastered the other techniques in this article first.

Step 5: Cheat Like a Fox

‘Classic’ – a book which people praise and don’t read.

Mark Twain

1. Read shorter books

When you establish a reading goal for 150 books in a year, you have to be willing to game the definition of done a bit. In this case, a book is a book whether it’s 125 pages or 450 pages long. You want to minimize your consumption of super-long epic fantasies in favor of shorter books, like business books and essay collections. Now, you don’t have to go out and read 150 poetry collections, but also be wary of queuing up the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series—you’ll be lucky to read 20 books that year.

2. Read the classics

It might surprise you to learn that many of the classics of English literature were relatively short compared with today’s books. The demands of publishing profits have ballooned the length of modern books to 75,000 to 100,000 words. And that’s a minimum. Check out this list of great classic novels that are 250 pages or less in many cases.

3. Read more ebooks

Part and parcel with the advice in #2 above, read more ebooks. Novellas, short stories, and single-topic nonfiction (sometimes called “singles”) are experiencing a creative resurgence with the growth of ebooks and ereaders. Some of these books weigh in at less than 100 pages, but because they’re not constrained by the mandates of publishing houses, they can see the light of day. Get started today.

4. Read graphic novels

Graphic novels, or comic books collected in trade paperback form, have gained considerable cultural cachet in recent years due to the explosion of superheroes and comic book adaptations in movies and media. Take advantage! While generally quicker to read than a prose novel, there’s no shortage of literary worth in graphic novels like Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, and Maus by Art Spiegelman.

Bonus Step: The Secret to Speed Reading Like a Demon

Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.

Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

Not every book deserves to be read thoroughly. I know that statement is bordering on sacrilege to hardcore literary types, but it’s true. The use of skimming, scanning, and speed-reading techniques, correctly applied, can increase the speed that you get through books without hurting comprehension … too much.

1. Skimming, scanning, and skipping. You can write a whole article on these skills, so let me point you to Dr. David L. Davis who let’s us know how to skim a book. The big idea? Hollow out the book by reading the beginning, reading the ending, and skipping the middle. You can do this at every level, but the most ethical method for the purposes of a reading goal are to read the first and last sentence of every paragraph, and skim the rest.

2. Stop subvocalizing. Did you know most people read by “sounding out” the words in their head? I know I do. In fact, I didn’t even know you could read without subvocalizing until I read this article. But there you go. If you can’t hush the inner voice in your head, at a bare minimum, you should stop moving your lips when you read. Yes, I know grown adults who still do this.

3. The Tim Ferriss technique for speed reading. Here’s a tip I learned reading Four Hour Workweek: Don’t move your eyes from side to side as you read. Your peripheral vision can pick up the words on the side of the page. This is a bit tricky at first, and I recommend you try this out on your ereader by increasing the font size and dickering with margins until your ereader displays only 5-6 words per line. Then slowly step up to more and more words per line until you get the hang of it.

Last Tip: Never Abandon a Book Halfway Through

There is only one commandment when you are attempting a hyper-reading goal like 150 books a year: Never quit a book midway through.

This rule is tough to live by. I concede that.

It’s inevitable that you’ll read a few clunkers throughout the year. Reading 450 books in the past three years, I went through my fair share of awful books … 2 out of 5 stars type disasters (and I’m a pretty generous guy when it comes to ratings, so 2 out of 5 is utterly miserable).

So why did I finish these terrible excuses for novels? Simply put, my reading goal doesn’t allow for too many changes of heart once I reach a certain point within a book.

At 150 books a year, I have to finish a book, on average, every 2 and a half days.

Let’s say it takes me a day of reading to figure out a book is bad, and then I abandon the book. If I do that just 2 or 3 times in the year, then I’m completely off my pace for 150 books.

What’s the solution? Suck it up and finish.

Yes, you can abandon a book after a chapter or two. But if you’re 25% to 50% of the way through the book, sorry to say, you’ll have to tough it out if you want to meet a yearly reading goal as aggressive as 150 books. My compromise in these situations is that I will skim and scan through a bad book like a demon to pick up the gist of what’s going on.

After all, if it’s a truly bad book, there’s no real reason to linger over poorly constructed sentences or bad advice.

Final Thoughts

Most of us have a goal to read more in the new year. You might not set reading goals as audacious as 150 books a year, but could you use these techniques to read 10 more books this year?

How about 25?


Books have the power to change lives, but you won’t ever know unless you pick one up.

Question for you: How many books will you read this year and why?

A version of this article first appeared on January 18, 2013.

Top image by Moyan Brenn.

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What Is Muda? Eliminating Waste From Your Career + Life Mon, 19 Jan 2015 15:45:46 +0000 Muda Waste Definition

Fact: As your days get busier, you lose more and more of your time to waste.

Japanese business thinkers, specifically the creators and disciples of the Toyota Production System, have a term for this waste: muda

In Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones, the authors go into detail on the ways that muda can creep into your organization and your processes:

It sounds awful as it rolls off your tongue and it should, because muda means “waste,” specifically any human activity which absorbs resources but creates no value: mistakes which require rectification, production of items no one wants so that inventories and remaindered goods pile up, processing steps which aren’t actually needed, movement of employees and transport of goods from one place to another without any purpose, groups of people in a downstream activity standing around waiting because an upstream activity has not delivered on time, and goods and services which don’t meet the needs of the customer.

The good news is that clever people have solved the problem of waste or muda before. They simply come from a context many of us are not familiar with. They are upstart and serial entrepreneurs, Lean Startup thinkers, the snowbirds who wrote the Agile Manifesto, and revolutionary Japanese management gurus like Taiichi Ohno, originator of Lean Manufacturing:

Fortunately, there is a powerful antidote to muda: lean thinking. It provides a way to specify value, line up value-creating actions in the best sequence, conduct these activities without interruption whenever someone requests them, and perform them more and more effectively. In short, lean thinking is lean because it provides a way to do more and more with less and less—less human effort, less equipment, less time, and less space—while coming closer and closer to providing customers with exactly what they want.

Lean thinking is exactly what we need in an age of rapid change, rampant disruption, and abundant opportunities. Doing more with less is no longer a luxury—it’s a necessity. Understanding and eliminating muda in your life can help immensely.

Muda: Waste in Soda Can Production

Have you ever given much thought to soda can production?

The authors of Lean Thinking did, and it turns out the process is full of muda waste:

More than 99 percent of the time the value stream is not flowing at all: the muda of waiting. Second, the can and the aluminum going into it are picked up and put down thirty times. From the customer’s standpoint none of this adds any value: the muda of transport. Similarly, the aluminum and cans are moved through fourteen storage lots and warehouses, many of them vast, and the cans are palletized and unpalletized four times: the muda of inventories and excessive processing. Finally, fully 24 percent of the energy-intensive, expensive aluminum coming out of the smelter never makes it to the customer: the muda of defects (causing scrap).

In a very real sense, the product that you’re buying when you buy a can of soda is the aluminum can. It just happens to come with some fizzy sugar water in it.

“The simplest way to think about this situation is that a can of cola is very small and cola is consumed by the individual customer in small amounts, yet all of the apparatus used to make cola and get it to the customer is very large, very hard to change over, and designed to operate efficiently at very high speeds,” the authors write.

However, what appears to be efficient to individual companies along the stream—for example, purchase of one of the world’s fastest canning machines, operating at fifteen hundred cans per minute, to yield the world’s lowest fill cost per can—may be far from efficient when indirect labor (for technical support), upstream and downstream inventories, handling charges, and storage costs are included. Indeed, this machine may be much more expensive than a smaller, simpler, slower one able to make just what the next firm down the stream needs (Tesco in this case) and to produce it immediately upon receipt of the order rather than shipping from a large inventory.

The soda can example illustrates a very important quality of lean thinking: It’s counterintuitive. We’ve been trained to think that bigger is better or more efficient when lean thinking trains us to seek agility.

Making a soda can just in time, right when a customer downstream needs it, might not be as efficient on the whole as creating giant batches of aluminum cylinders. But the latter strategy requires near-perfect predictions—about supply, about demand, about the future—that are simply impossible for human beings to forecast with precision.

In practice, batch thinking compensates by creating inventory, a fancy MBA word for storing spare/extra parts. The practice of inventorying is expensive and challenging to manage in its own right. In a lean world, there’s never any soda cans waiting anywhere for someone to do something with them—they only exist when they need to exist.

That brings us to the two major types of muda.

What Is Muda? The Two Types of Muda

The muda definition Womack and Jones in Lean Thinking devise centers around perceived customer value. They sort every product-making, product-ordering, and design action into three categories:

(1) those which actually create value as perceived by the customer; (2) those which create no value but are currently required by the product development, order filling, or production systems (Type One muda) and so can’t be eliminated just yet; and (3) those actions which don’t create value as perceived by the customer (Type Two muda) and so can be eliminated immediately.

This muda definition or rubric is impressive in its flexibility—it can be applied to nearly every system, including your personal life.

Remember that in terms of lifestyle design, you are both the designer and end user of your life.

Type Two muda in the context of your personal life means anything that you’re currently doing that yields no fulfillment. So why are you doing it? The second kind of muda, Type Two muda, can and should be eliminated immediately. They bring no value to anybody.

This may mean obligations, relationships, or career duties that no longer make sense for you—the idea is to remember that you can opt out.

But what about the wasteful activities you may be engaging in that are still necessary to maintain your lifestyle? Type One muda is, in some respects, the harder of the two types of muda to correct. But the key here is to continuously improve your processes.

Oil changes, laundry, food preparation, and the like can all be outsourced, automated, and eliminated to varying degrees in order to free up your time for higher-value activities.

As an example of this thinking in action, the authors of Lean Thinking take a look at the muda of buying a car:

Whenever we drive by a car dealer our first thought is always the same: “Look at all that muda, the vast lot of cars already made which no one wants.” Similarly, when we see the large banner out in front offering “rebates” off list prices and “specials” on service and parts, we wonder, “Why did the dealer order cars and service parts which aren’t needed, and why did the factory build cars and parts in advance of customer pull?”

The unresponsiveness of mass-production car makers is partly to blame. “Out of fear of losing sales to ‘impulse purchasers,’ mass producers create vast seas of cars on dealer lots, one of practically every specification, so no buyer need walk away unsatisfied,” write the two authors.

But the problem is also with us, the consumers:

Dealers love to “deal” and public loves a “sale.” … Changing the way retailers and consumers think about the process of ordering goods and making transactions may be difficult, but as we will see, it is essential to doing things a better way.

It would be far better for both sides of the transaction to pull value from the stream, instead of the car manufacturer pushing it onto the public.

The car makers and the distributors and the dealers would have more predictability, less inventory cost, and better customer service.

We as consumers would be less likely to succumb to impulse buys and bad spending habits that lead to ruined agility.

We’d be better off doing the bulk of our car buying from home—researching specific models of cars, talking to other car owners, reading reviews, scheduling test drives—and then simply soliciting the best offers from various car dealers and accepting the best one.

In fact, some intrepid lifestyle designers outline exactly how to do that here.

Final Thoughts: Much of “Craft” Is Muda

What Is Muda? Porsche Manufacturing Example

Photo Credit: elanbeat via Compfight cc


In some ways, the message of lean thinking can be harsh.

Porsche learned this the hard way when their workforce made the transition to lean enterprise:

Both the workforce and the union were initially quite upset at the affront to, respectively, their competence and their role. The lean message was that the traditional craftsmanship was mostly muda: correction of mistakes which should never have been made, movement to find parts and tools which should be immediately at hand, wasteful motions through a lack of careful analysis of how to do the job, wasted time while watching machines which could be taught to monitor themselves, waiting for missing parts, and inventories everywhere due to batch-and-queue methods.

How much of your workday is dominated by “correction of mistakes which should never have been made”?

How many bad bosses and dysfunctional corporate hierarchies foster “wasteful motions through a lack of careful analysis of how to do the job”?

If any of this is sound like you, take heart. You’re not alone.

Much of what we think of as “craft” or doing your job well, the only way you can do it, is actually waste. It’s muda. It’s refusing to systematize your process when it makes sense and refusing to get organized because you’re a “creative” (“Now where did I put those papers?”).

But for those of you who feel married to your particular idiosyncrasies, realize that there is a higher form of craft:

Fortunately, lean thinking carries a positive message which can redefine craft for a postcraft age. As Porsche employees participated in one improvement activity after another, many began to see that there is a higher form of craft, which is to proactively anticipate problems in a team context and prevent them while constantly rethinking the organization of work and flow of value to remove muda.

What can you do to eliminate muda waste today?

Top Photo Credit: John_X via Compfight cc

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