Five Questions That Will Shape Your Life’s Story: A Guide to a Coherent Life

Vertical Awareness

Life at its many (vertical) levels

Human beings are great at waking up, doing things, going to sleep, and repeating. We drive our kids to school, submit project reports, endure the commute home, cook dinner, shop online a little, and maybe even book a flight to somewhere exotic to escape winter.

This is all well and good; life is a wonderful gift, even when we’re taking it day by day. However, researchers are demonstrating that certain long-term lifestyle decisions can significantly influence our day-to-day happiness. In other words, by temporarily stepping out of the daily grind and making certain decisions, we can improve our day-to-day happiness.

If this is a topic that interests you, one question you should ask yourself immediately is, “Is my life vertically coherent?”

Huh? Vertically coherent? I have no idea what you’re talking about.

I hear you; it’s a confusing term that I needed to have explained to me. Let’s put it another way. Imagine you’re traveling somewhere exotic and encounter a friendly local. This local is intelligent, light-hearted, and speaks enough English to communicate well with you. After a bit of banter, he asks you a rather direct question: “I want to learn more about your journey to my humble village. So tell me, how does this trip further your life story?”

I’d probably freeze up in this situation. My life story? Hell, I don’t even know what I have going on next week, let alone a clear idea of my entire life’s story. I’d likely laugh off his question with a shrug and start asking more questions about things to do in his village.

In the scenario above, the local was asking me about my life’s vertical coherence, and I was unable to demonstrate it. Continue Reading…

Simplify: When Doing Less Results in Mastery


There’s too much unactionable information on the Internet.

Too many generic 10 Productivity Hacks You Need RIGHT NOW (And 2 You Should Never Do) articles out there, doling out surface level advice in rapid fire. Great for immediate gratification (“Wow! I just read an article with tons of great tips!”); absolutely awful for long-term retention and application of those ideas.

To convert new ideas into lifestyle change, you need deep focus, time investment, and an action plan that resonates with you (remember, you’re not average). Quick, easy-to-read lists offer none of these necessities.

Continue Reading…

Why Ignoring Advice Is Often a Great Idea

Bad Advice Free

One of the first things a student in a statistics class may learn is how to calculate the variance of data.

Two data sets may have the same average value, but one data set may have significantly more samples on the extremes.

For example, two cities have an average household income of $70,000. One city has low variance; almost all households make between $60,000 and $80,000. The other city is a bit more extreme; half of the city makes less than $30,000, the other half making over $110,000.

Although the average household income is the same in both cities, the way you’d handle each city’s situation would be quite different.

Similarly, when talking about a specific group of people (artists, bankers, San Franciscans, New Yorkers, men, women, etc.), you’re missing the point if you only focus on the average person in that group.

On that note, I’ve noticed a lot of advice in books, blogs, lectures, and news publications tends to be worded to appeal to the most amount of people. In other words, vaguely pointed at the “average” person.

For example, here are a few headlines I’ve seen floating around the interwebs today, from both small and large publications:

  • 3 Productivity Hacks You Should Be Using At Work (And 2 You Shouldn’t) (Huffington Post)
  • 15 Ways To Stay Productive Over Summer Break (Buzzfeed)
  • Don’t Speak: Three Situations Where You Should Never Offer Feedback (Forbes)
  • People Should Work Less, According to Larry Page (Utah People’s Post)
  • Why You Should Be Using Your Accountant for More Than Taxes (Entrepreneur)

Unfortunately, when people dole out advice that is meant to apply to a wide group of people (whether to sell a product or in an attempt to be genuinely helpful and build readership), you need to take it with a grain of salt.

Why? Simply stated, you’re not average. In fact, as we pointed out at the beginning of this post, the idea of an “average person” is a myth.

Side note: For a brilliant talk on the topic of the “average person”, I’d highly recommend watching The Myth of Average: Todd Rose at TEDxSonomaCounty

You’re a unique combination of personality traits, skills, desires, thoughts, and expressions. You’re anything but average, which means that following cookie-cutter advice – designed for the “average person” – can be unwise, if not dangerous.

For example, just because Steve Jobs has given advice that can be summed up as seven rules of success, doesn’t mean that you should follow them to a tee. For example, note the number one piece of advice in this Steve Jobs article: Do what you love.

Personally, I’ve found that the advice to do what you love can do more harm than good, as it’s not always possible to simply “figure out” what you love. This is well argued by various thought leaders and scholars on the web, and I’ve found better success following alternative recommendations on this subject (in particular, passion isn’t something you seek; for many, it grows over time from mastery of a skill set).

So what’s a unique individual – in other words, everyone on the planet – to do instead of accepting advice designed for mass appeal?

Doubt and experiment.

Set up a filter for any recommendations, advice, or wisdom you receive, especially if it wasn’t based on a careful consideration of who you are as an individual.

Unless you read it on this blog, of course. 😉

In all seriousness though, this idea of strict trial and error is the basis for much of what I’ve figured out in my life. I’d estimate that 5-10% of the recommendations I test out actually work well for me. By being a harsh judge, I’ve saved tons of time that used to be spent forcing myself to be patient with ideas and advice that simply didn’t fit.

Note: This technique doesn’t apply to building habits. Habits will require time and patience no matter how well it fits into your lifestyle.

If there’s one thing to remember here: You’re not average. Average is a myth. Any recommendation that’s made for the average American, man, woman, accountant, entrepreneur, whatever, should be taken with a grain of salt, and diligently tested. If it passes your test, great. If not, move on and wait for the next round of ideas to come your way.

Moving Towards Simplicity

Sebastian Marshall has it down pat. I consider him the king of simplicity. He takes a powerful idea and writes a beautifully simple, impactful post on it. He doesn’t bother with scouring Flickr for blog post images.  If the idea is not what the reader needs at that moment, no big deal; only a few short minutes were committed to reading his latest work. On his end, it allows him more flexibility to blog.

I, on the other end, tend to write lengthy essays. This is good in moderation, but I’m ready to move towards simplicity. Keep the content valuable, but simplify the message and reduce the commitment of my readers.

I don’t just plan on adopting this philosophy in my writing. In the rest of my life too. At a daily level, I’ve divided my life into five areas that require attention. When these five areas are met, I’m happy. When they’re not, I’m usually dissatisfied at some level. It takes me less than 10 seconds to track it each day, and I can instantly see my running progress through an automated GDocs heat map (click to enlarge the image):



As you can, I have a lot of work to do before I have found a sustainable balance in my life, but this system makes it so simple to see what needs improvement. Self improvement, automated.

Simplification takes work. Anyone can make a messy, complicated system. Simplicity is elegance, and it’s not easy. But it’s worth pursuing.

When you can simplify things others find complicated and time consuming,  you leave yourself more time to explore, experiment, and expose yourself to the randomness and adventure that makes life worth living.

Learn. Build systems and strategies. Remember that it’s ok to let them to grow convoluted and complicated as you layer them on top of each other. But don’t forget to simplify. It’s that final step that allows magic to happen.