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Introducing Office Hours (Episode 1): Trapped in College, Breaking Boredom, and “What Do You Do?”

Today is the day.

Isaac Morehouse and I have launched our new podcast: “Office Hours.” This is a show where we offer philosophical insight and actionable advice on all things pertaining to personal/professional development. We’re like the geek squad for your creative challenges. You bring the problem. We’ll bring the nuts and bolts.

This week, on the first episode of Office Hours, Isaac and I tackle three questions about a daughter who feels stuck in college, a young entrepreneur who doesn’t know how to pitch his business, and a successful professional who feels bored with life.

Check out the first episode of Office Hours now on iTunesYouTubedirect download and all major podcast platforms.

In this episode:

– A handwritten letter from a mom with an ambitious daughter who can’t stand college.

– How to create experience around your interests as a young person

– Answering the classic question, “What Do You Do?”

– How to develop your elevator pitch for what you do

– Describe what you do with honesty and don’t panic

– What to do when life is good, but you feel bored?

– Choosing projects that stretches your boundaries

Links:

Unconditional Parenting and Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn

You Don’t Have to Be a Fool to Deschool

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Photo by JJ Thompson on Unsplash

Growing up as a child, I remember watching “pro-education” commercials with slogans like “Don’t be a fool, Stay in School” or “The mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Where I’m from, the term “drop-out” generates just about the same effect as the term “dope-dealer.”

Now that I’m an adult, I’m quite fortunate to be able to see through the ideological snobbery so often directed at unschooling, homeschooling, private schooling, and alternatives to college.

As I mentioned in my talk Raise a child, not a cliché, many of us are waking up to the fact that we’ve been doing this whole learning thing backwards. Slowly but surely our world is experiencing a Copernican revolution where education is ceasing to revolve around the agendas of authoritarians/bureaucrats and is beginning to shift towards an autonomous model with the learner at the center.

With podcasts like The Successful Drop Out, organizations like The Alliance for Self-directed Education, apprenticeship programs like my own (Praxis), and many others, we are upgrading to an Education 2.0 world where people no longer feel on the defense about taking charge of their own educational path.

After my recent post about those who make the “it worked for me” argument when it comes to college and compulsory schooling, I received the following comment/question:

If you’re cynical about your life, what’s the one thing you wished you had more of? If your answer isn’t “education,” we are all ears. But, that begs the question: If “more education” is the answer, more education about what?

That comment/question gave me the perfect opportunity to share a very important and increasingly popular position:

“If you’re cynical about your life, more education is definitely the answer. More education about what? Here’s the place to start: more education about the fact that education is not the same thing as schooling. Until people internalize that lesson, they’ll never know how to take responsibility for their own personal development. And until a person takes ownership of that, no amount of educational resources and opportunities will really matter.”

Nothing is more important than our ability to learn. And nothing is more dangerous than the idea that learning cannot or should not happen outside of traditional/subsidized institutions.

The mind is a terrible thing to waste on a such a trash-filled idea.

Don’t be a fool. Rise above school.

 

Did it Really Work For You?

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“Send those kids to school so they can become good citizens and responsible grownups who are prepared for the real world.”

I hear adults speak this way all the time. They go on and on with their fear-mongering about how you’ll end up with a job you hate and a life you loathe if you diverge from the status quo by unschooling your children or opting out of college.

“Do what we did,” they advise. “Then you’ll turn out to be a respectable adult.”

Just like you guys, right? Cynical grumps who complain about your lives, hate your jobs, stress out over money, and constantly freak out about politicians while you fantasize about the next holiday so you can possibly get a brief break from your miserable life.

Yes, send those kids to school so they can be just like you. We wouldn’t want them to miss out on the enviable dream you guys are living.

Does that sound a little harsh?

Well, I shared the above thoughts on my Facebook page recently and here’s the response I got from one of my friends:

I turned out pretty entrepreneurial after public K-12 and college, though obviously one anecdote doesn’t prove much.

But more broadly, I think it might be easy for people like us who live unusual lives to assume that people who don’t live like us are unhappy, because we would be unhappy in their shoes. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a fair assumption.

Or to put it another way: do you have evidence that most people are as unhappy as your post suggests?

Here’s what I wrote back to him:

No assumptions. No comparisons. Simply mocking the BS of those who argue for a path on the grounds that “it worked out for me” when those same people carry themselves as if they’re miserable. Evidence? Let people speak for themselves and just pay attention to what they say when they talk about the world, their possibilities, their jobs, their love life, their finances, their problems, etc.

The matrix is all around you. Look in any direction. Keep it simple and start right here on Facebook. Behold the multitude of those who complain about their lives, who sulk in sorrow and self-pity, who constantly freak out over politics, who continually speak of stress, who rarely express cheerfulness and gratitude. The adult world is filled with dysfunctional, distressed, and discouraged souls. What you really need evidence for is the presence of human beings who will talk about their lives with a sense of passion, pride, and personal power.

Who am I talking to? Unhappy people? People who love school? People who aren’t entrepreneurs? People who aren’t lucky enough to live successful lives? None of the above.

I’m talking to all the people who go around prescribing a particular path as the optimal or necessary way to get an education based on anecdotal evidence regarding what worked for them. And here’s my message to you: Don’t say “it worked for me” if you spend a bunch of time complaining about how your life doesn’t work. You are free to be as miserable as you can possibly be and you will receive no condemnation from me, but you shouldn’t vouch for the path you took unless you’re willing to represent the life that path led you to with pride.

Imagine some guy saying everyone should get married because marriage worked for him. And imagine the same guy warning single people about how they’ll end up stressed and unhappy if they don’t have anyone to share their struggles with. But then whenever you hang out with this guy, he constantly goes on about how stressed out and unhappy his wife makes him. We’d all recognize a problem in this scenario. But we fail to see this same inconsistency when it comes to people who constantly go on about the necessity of college or compulsory schooling. If you’re going to advise people to do a certain thing in order to avoid becoming a dysfunctional and depressed adult, you can’t be a dysfunctional and depressed adult while also holding your life up as evidence for the advice you’re offering.

You don’t have to be happy, but you probably shouldn’t be the person who talks about how important a product is for people’s happiness if your life looks like a glaring counterexample. If you’re going to fight for a particular point of view, then you should at least try to look satisfied with the life it gave you. And if you can’t do that, maybe it’s time to ask yourself the following question:

Did it really work for you or are you just afraid of something new?

What a Tragedy

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“I have several personal books that are like family to me–the nearest and dearest which will never leave me. They are the truest companions in the whole world. Through the mere act of touching them, I can feel a new presence enter my aura and touch my inner being.” -Melanie Hope Gassaway

For as long as they’ve existed, books have functioned as portals of possibility allowing humankind to participate in its own evolution.

Books are like these wonderful little allies that we have all around us. They offer us the opportunity to parent ourselves anew and to glean wisdom from people of a different era who would probably never speak to us if we saw them walking down the street.

These allies helped people like Frederick Douglass escape slavery and they taught people like James Baldwin how to understand his pain. And yet, we manage to destroy people’s affinity for these very allies before they’ve hardly begun.

When people are young and very small, when their appetites are most ripe for learning, we tell them “now these are the important books that responsible people read.” Then we proceed to rob them of the most important components of reading: getting to be the one who chooses the book, getting to be the one who chooses when reading should be done, and getting to be the one who decides what parts of the book are worth remembering. We tell them “Here are your choices (and you must make one) and here are the things you need to pay attention to, and here’s your deadline. And then we teach them how to look smart and sound smart so as to not get in trouble with the big people who dole out the stickers and stars. In a short amount of time, they become masters of equating knowledge with the ability to tell an authority figure what he/she wants to hear.

Meanwhile, their curiosities are relegated to that esoteric realm known as “the extracurricular.” If there’s any time left over after we’ve busied them up with books that adults “love” (I put “love” in quotes because the adults don’t like the books either), we give them room for play. Non-compulsory reading is treated like the luxurious thing students get to do if they’re lucky enough to finish their “real” reading assignments on time. No wonder so many people grow up to find books boring. The books that powerful people force you to read are almost always boring.

Poor kids. So many of them have been taught how to read, but so few have been taught how to listen for the special kind of music that happens when a book sings your name.

What a tragedy.

 

Trust In the Power of Your Asking

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“Hey, since I gave you advice about your girlfriend the other day, can you loan me five dollars?”

Those words were literally spoken to me by a friend several years ago. As if the question wasn’t already laughable, it gets even funnier when you consider the fact that we had already been really good friends for more than five years when he asked for the loan.

Me: What do you honestly believe I would say if you just flat out asked me for five bucks?
My friend: You’d probably just give it to me because we’re homeboys.
Me: So why throw in the extra part about you helping me out in the past?
My friend: (laughing) That’s insurance in case you don’t feel like helping me out.

At least he was honest. Of equal importance, at least he was conscious of what he was doing. He was aware of the fact that he didn’t trust my willingness to help him based on our friendship alone, so he gave himself a buffer by making me feel obligated just in case.

My friend and I laugh about this experience today (partly because it’s not the only time he’s used this strategy), but it contains an important lesson about asking for help and knowing how to play your cards.

The Buffer Strategy

Let’s call my friend’s question-asking approach “the buffer strategy.” And let’s define “the buffer strategy” as “the act of including a piece of information in a request as a tactic for making the other party feel guilty or threatened in order to provide them with extra motivation for helping you.”

It’s important to distinguish the buffer strategy from the value-creation strategy. The latter is when you incentivize someone to help you by appealing to something positive that’s in it for them. An example of this might be a request like “I have over 100K subscribers on my podcast and I would love for my audience to hear more about the philosophy behind your latest book. Would you be open to doing an interview with me?” In this example, the request provides extra motivation by offering the person a platform for promoting their book. That’s value-creation.

The buffer strategy appeals to a person’s fear of a negative consequence. An example of this would be “If you don’t get over here and fix the plumbing like you promised, I’m going to sue you” or “If you don’t refund my hotel room costs, I’m going to write a negative online review.”

The buffer strategy is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. For any given relationship, professional or personal, there’s a conceivable scenario in which it’s appropriate, justifiable, and most effective to use this approach. When people owe you something and they repeatedly fail to respond to reason, it might be time to whip out your contract or firmly remind them of the precise nature of your agreement.

Now that we’ve defined the buffer strategy, illustrated it, and given the necessary “it’s not inherently bad” disclaimer, here’s today’s two cents:

Never waste social capital by using the buffer strategy unless it has been made necessary by the other party’s clear unwillingness to cooperate. 

Keep Your Ace in The Hole

Poker players use the phrase “keep your ace in the hole” to convey the importance of never showing your most powerful card too early in the game. Revealing your most powerful card too quickly reduces the amount of money you can win by scaring people away at the outset and it compromises your advantage by alerting people to your strategy while they still have time to prepare for you. Think of my above suggestion as an application of the “keep your ace in the hole” strategy to conflict-resolution and customer service.

Having leverage in your relationships is a very useful thing, but it usually works against you if you build a reputation for flexing your muscles at the very beginning of a negotiation.

Very rarely is there an expiration date on your ability to make a threat or appeal to guilt. And even if there is an expiration date, you’re better off waiting until you get close to that point before putting all of your cards on the table.

Asking for what you want, without dramatizing your request with accusations or appeals to guilt, is a surprisingly simple and effective strategy for getting what you need. This is especially true if the other party is already obliged to you in some way.

The Day I Bought Coffee for My “Enemy”

Last year I requested some help on a maintenance issue from my property manager. It was a malfunction with my shower. He promised to send someone by the next morning between 8am-9am. The next day arrived and no one showed. I wasn’t happy about that. I work from home so it wasn’t the biggest inconvenience, but I’m also the kind of guy who expects people to be there when they say they’re going to be there.

To blow off some steam, I decided to walk down the street to Starbucks and grab a coffee. My initial plan was to stop by the office when I got back and firmly remind them of their promise. But when I arrived at Starbucks, I got an idea: “Buy your property manager a cup of coffee.”

When I got back home, I stopped by the office and gave a coffee to my property manager. I said absolutely nothing about the maintenance issue. I told him “Good morning, I was at Starbucks and figured you could use a cup of coffee too. I know you’ve been really busy lately.” He was totally surprised and he thanked me. Twenty minutes later, the maintenance guy knocked at my door and fixed the problem. More importantly, he’s been really nice and helpful ever since that event. I rarely need anything from him, but I usually get great service when I do.

5 Observations From A Coffee Cup

1. It wasn’t necessary for me to buy that cup of coffee. It wasn’t even necessary to be nice about the issue. I had the leverage in this situation and I could have easily walked into the office and demanded respect.

2. Even if I didn’t have the time, money, or willingness to buy an extra cup of coffee, I would have likely been just as effective had I said “Hey Joe, I just wanted to follow up on that maintenance request to see what I should expect.”

3. I didn’t take the positive approach because of my sense of spirituality. I took the positive approach because I’m selfish and I like to get my way. And I’m much better at getting my way when I can get people to feel like we’re playing for the same team. Starting a fight, argument, or a war takes a lot of energy. It feels good to the ego, but it’s also draining.

The best kind of help is the kind that people are happy to give. When people are happy to help, they usually do a little more than what’s requested. When people are silently resentful or embarrassed to help, they usually do exactly what was required and then they try to figure out a way to never be in a position where they are in debt to you again.

4. Even though I could have been very effective by flexing my muscles, I would have lost something that’s very important to me: the intangible advantages that come with having lots of social capital. If my property manager felt compelled to help me as a response to a threat, this would have changed the dynamic of our relationship. While he would definitely make it a point to do the things demanded by our contract, I would never be able to expect him to go beyond what he’s forced to do.

What if I’m vulnerable in the future? What if I really need his help and he’s not obligated to help me? What if the tables turn and I find myself at his mercy? In these types of situations, I will gain far more cooperation out of my property manager by being one of his favorite tenants than by being the guy who’s known for calling him out.

Again, this isn’t about me being Zen or doing the “right” thing. I’m a strategist. And while I’m not afraid to have enemies, I like to create as many advantages as possible for myself. Why make a guy afraid of me when I can just as easily make him like me? If you live by the sword, you will eventually die by the sword. That is, if you rely on your ability to threaten, intimidate, or guilt-trip people to get your needs met, those very same people will turn a blind eye or finish you off at your first sign of vulnerability.

5. My decision to do things nicely didn’t cost me any respect or opportunity. I still had the right to get really assertive if I needed to. In fact, my right to get really assertive only increased because of the patience and kindness that I exercised early on. My choice to play it smooth came with great rewards and it had no risks.

Take The Easy Way Out and Be Charitable

The principle of charitable interpretation says we should evaluate other people’s claims and arguments in their strongest possible light. When a person seems to contradict themselves, we should try to make sense of their words in a way that doesn’t cause them to look silly, stupid, or sinister. What’s true of words is also true of behavior.

If someone forgets to email you, call you, or help you, assume it was for a pardonable reason and send a gentle reminder instead of making an accusation. If you need something from someone, assume they will be glad to help you and simply ask for what you need without being dramatic. Keep your ace in the hole until or unless you need it.

Take a chance on the power of your asking. Give your relationships an opportunity to work on the basis of sincerity and sympathy. You’ll have a lot more fun that way.

Don’t pull out a fire extinguisher if all you need to do is ask someone to blow out a candle.

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