What has meaning

So, what has meaning and what doesn’t?

Whenever I share a book/article/recommendation with people, I always ask them to share what they learnt with me. It rarely happens. But, it gives me great joy when it does. This morning, a friend shared a profound portion of David Foster Wallace’s awesome “This is Water” speech.

 if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down. Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

This was a great reminder. A large portion of our lives is spent responding to everything that happens around us. So, for the most part, it is just us learning to roll with punches.

The beauty about this is that we get to consciously decide what has meaning. That freedom comes with responsibility. And, it is on us to wear it well.

Trees of green

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you e

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world


We have before us an opportunity to connect with everything Louis Armstrong sang about today. Trees of green, flowers, clouds, skies, friends – these aren’t hard to find.

Or, we can spend our time today fretting about things we don’t control, poring over news feeds and email and waiting for a miracle to give us happiness.

Our choice.

Unhappiness is a privilege

Unhappiness is our dissatisfaction at a particular situation. On the other hand, an advantage granted to a few is what we call privilege. And, unhappiness is an incredible privilege even if it isn’t obvious to us at first.

If we spend time being unhappy, it can feel as if we have no choice. But, of course, that would only happen if we did have a choice.

Being conscious of this privilege is important because small bouts of dissatisfaction are necessary for progress. It is dissatisfied human beings who’ve made progress possible. But, that assumes this dissatisfaction is temporary and directed at things we control. The moment it isn’t, we inevitably spiral into unhappiness territory. And, that’s largely useless.

So, there are two things to remember the next time you find yourself unhappy. First, it is an opportunity to make things better – to improve the situation or to improve yourself.

Second, it is a privilege. So, it calls for gratitude, not unhappiness.

Amplifiers

In 1906, Lee De Forest invented the first amplifier. Until amplifiers were discovered, performers relied on the acoustics of a given space to amplify their voices. Opera artists were expert proponents of this performance genre.

One of the more powerful uses of amplifiers was a political rally. Suddenly, a powerful speaker could command the attention of thousands of people, live. Every great technology has seen uses that are good and evil – the amplifier was no different.

On the one hand, amplifiers were a critical aide in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.

And, on the other hand, they also helped Martin Luther King Jr. create change that enabled better lives for millions of African American in following generations.

Similarly, all the technology around us can be used to make things better… or worse.

As always, it is our choice.

Choosing information

Not too long ago, your family would have received just one Sunday newspaper. In our home, we typically called dibs on the pieces of the paper we wanted to read. Someone wanted the “supplement” while someone else wanted the sports section. There wasn’t a whole lot of choice in the matter. Some households afforded two newspapers. But, most just worked with one. But, now, we don’t need to worry about information scarcity of any kind.

The fantastic Quartz newsletter had multiple powerful pieces yesterday. There was one about free trade – what populist leaders have gotten right and wrong about it. Then, there was an important piece on the evidence gathered so far about the effects of direct cash transfers (the basic income idea). They also had an informative piece about the problems caused by the boom in the sushi business – fish stocks are depleting quickly. And, did you realize that Giraffes have been placed in the extinction watch list?

The Economist shared that Latin America leads the world in renewable energy. This is driven by hydro power. However, they’re investing heavily in solar power. Costa Rica and Uruguay met their power needs from renewable sources for more than half the year this year. This stems from the fact that Latin Americans care deeply about clean energy. Wow. Wonder what we could do to improve the state of things where we are..

Of course, both of these can come straight to your email inbox. The Economist actually works out cheaper than an old school newspaper subscription – the kind we used to have 20 years ago. And, they deliver not just a weekly stream of articles but all sorts of specialized services. They earn that fee. The Quartz newsletter is free. At that quality, it is one of the deals of the decade.

But, just as easily as these can make their way to our inbox, others things can, too. We could be hearing about the likes to our latest photo of our coffee shop. Or, we could be clicking on some piece of fake news that showed up on a news feed. Or, we could spend our time looking at the latest collection of viral cat videos.

As kids growing up, we earned our freedom with evidence of responsibility. The more responsibility we showed, the more our parents trusted us. But, information in today’s age doesn’t work that way. We have unlimited freedom to choose what we consume despite no evidence of responsibility.

Here’s the impact of that – what we consume informs how and what we think about. Then, how and what we think about influences what we do. And, what we do influences our world and, in many cases, the world.

It is all up to us, then.

Let’s choose well.

Two sided tools

Humans invented the Axe around eight thousand years ago. It was one of the most powerful tools ever invented. And, its foremost use was cutting wood. While it went a long way in easing early human effort, it also had a dark side.

The Axe also became a powerful weapon when humans fought each other.

Many millennia later, tools and inventions continue to have a two sided nature. Overdosing on life saving medicines, for example, can kill us.

Similarly, technology analyst, Benedict Evans, shared a headline yesterday that likely brought a smile to the face of anyone reading it. Macedonian entrepreneurs have been making money by creating more than a hundred fake pro-Trump sites and sharing them on Facebook. As Ben Evans pointed out, try explaining that headline to someone ten years ago. Yes, we can use social media to connect with each other. But, we can also use it to waste huge amounts of time reading stuff that isn’t real.

All of this is a lovely reminder as we walk into our work desks today. We have an unparalleled array of technology and tools at our disposal. We could use these to learn, ship and make a positive difference. Or, we could be among the millions who only get to experience their other side.

It is on us to choose.

Choice vs Tension

Choice is the act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities. Tension is the state of being stretched tight. In a decision making context, this stretch is often between two ideas seemingly in conflict. A sign of great decision making is the ability to distinguish between choice vs tension.

There are many time when we need to choose between options. Picking a restaurant, credit card or car require us to choose. However, there aren’t as many situations where we need to choose as we think there are. Most decisions, especially difficult ones, require us to embrace tension rather than a choice.

Should we be push ourselves or be content?
Must we focus or should we diversify?
Should we build toward the long term or the short term?
Must we create profits or value?
Should we pursue quality or quantity?

Every one of these tough questions (and many more) is a false choice. They look like straight-forward A or B questions. But, they aren’t. Each of these are examples of natural tensions. We can’t do one of these at the expense of the other. We have to do both. So, how do we tell the difference?

A wise friend once shared – “Whenever I am faced with such a dilemma, I ask myself [very deeply] what it would take to replace OR with AND.”

We must embrace the tension.