Monday, May 30, 2011

Why “It’ll Pay the Bills” Can Be Dangerous (or “What’s the Endgame?”)

“I need this presentation by MONDAY.”

“This brief has to go out TONIGHT.”

“File that report by THIS AFTERNOON.”

A lot of people have high-pressure, high-stress jobs that force them into stressful situations like the above.  Many of those people got into their jobs thinking, “well, it’s not exactly what I want to be doing, but for now, it’ll pay the bills.”

Thoughts like these are incredibly dangerous.  Sure, we all need to pay the bills—if you didn’t pay the bills, you’d probably be living under a bridge right now, drinking cheap gin and scaring tourists.  I get it.  The problem is, a lot of those bills tend to inflate themselves to cover your paycheck.

Think back to what you wanted to do coming out of high school, or even college—and I mean what you really wanted to do—even something as stupid as “writing and starting on-line businesses.”  When you took something else because of the paycheck, did you ever think, “I’ll just do this for a couple of years, save up, and move on to something else?”  Did you find that, at the end of “a couple of years,” you had far less saved up than you thought you would?  How the cable bill turned into a $120 a month monster?  How your rent is probably a lot higher than it needs to be?  Would you be happier with less “stuff” and fewer services but a higher quality of life?  Why make the trade-off, then?

Now, think about how much shit you had to put up with to cover those “bills” that you had to pay.  All of the late nights or weekends you put in—and for what?  So that you could get bottle service?  So that you could make that payment on the fancy new car?  So that you could buy that TV that you never get to watch because you’re always working?

Think to yourself, “if I stay here another five, ten years, and put in all of the work for that long, what is the upside?”  If it’s “making VP” or “making partner,” is that something you really want to be doing with your life?  If the answer is “no,” either pull the cord now and get out or come up with a plan to pull the cord and stick to it.

This includes if you plan on starting up something as a hobby, but never seem to find the time to do so.  Far better to work at “just a job,” where you’ll have the ability to come home at the end of the day and work on what truly makes you happy.  Again, if this doesn’t sound like your job, find another one.  Or, start your own business doing something you want to do.  The bottom line is your happiness.  For some people, money and the things it buys makes them truly happy.  If this is the case, by all means, keep working that cash-cow of a job until the milk runs dry, and fucking enjoy it.  But if something doesn’t seem right and you make a good amount of money, spend a good amount of money, and still don’t seem happy, maybe it’s time to take a good, long look in the mirror and reevaluate the direction your life is headed.  You only get one shot at this thing, so make it count.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and recovering attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at Follow him on twitter @djgelner. Friend him on facebook here.

Friday, May 27, 2011

9 Ways to Improve People in the U.S.

This is the second installment in my “Fixing the Country” series.

It didn’t always used to be like this.  Airline desk agents and flight attendants didn’t always have huge chips on their shoulders.  Neither did TSA agents, or waiters, or receptionists, or lawyers…well, actually lawyers have always been assholes, but you get the idea.  Pretty much anyone that interacts with people in this country has a problem with you.  It flat-out sucks that people in many service positions have gone on such power trips in recent memory. 

Adam Carolla goes on rants at least weekly about this phenomenon on his podcast, and like many others out there, I have to say that more often than not, I agree with him.  Of course, there are rare exceptions; as I’m typing this, a flight attendant on American gave me a free drink because the flight had been delayed an hour-and-a-half due to the crew’s late arrival.  Most of the time, though, people will seize on the smallest amount of power imaginable as if it’s a mandate from God Almighty himself, like they’re the fucking King of Norway.  And even for those of us that try to be the exception, I’m sure we all have our moments where we could’ve exercised better judgment as opposed to snapping at someone, or playing the asshole because our own lives sucked at that moment.

As I am wont to do, though, instead of just bitching about this phenomenon, I figured I would come up with nine values that should be taught in every grade school right now, and practiced by everyone in the country to make things just a little more livable for everyone else.  So without further ado, enjoy:

1) Life is Short (and Actually Worthwhile to Some of Us)

Too many people take life for granted now, and while the hours away either doing shit that they hate, or making life tougher for those of us that have better shit to do because they don’t value their own time.  Some people just don’t value life at all, and make lives for themselves as gang members or hardened criminals, not giving a shit when they have to end someone else’s life.  Just because your life sucks doesn’t mean the rest of us hate our lives.  Also, a lot of us have stuff to do that is important to us, so don’t hold us back from doing what we need or want to do.

2) Don’t Hurt Others (If at All Possible)

This is tied directly to the first one.  Too many people want to make other peoples’ lives difficult FOR NO REASON AT ALL!  Even worse, some people think that for some reason hurting other people, either  physically or mentally, makes them feel better about themselves.  This is, for lack of a better term, sociopathic.  Sure, there are times you have to hurt someone: if you’re in a relationship that’s not going to work where the other person is really into you, or if you need to give your buddy a gentle nudge on the road to fitness, but don’t make a fucking sport out of it—that’s just cruel.  Also, this does not mean “don’t stand up for yourself”—if there’s an asshole that deserves a beating for crossing the line, by all means, as Mel Gibson says at traffic stops in the movie Signs, “swing away.”  Just don’t go around picking fights for the hell of it—that’s just a shitty move.

3) Work Hard

I don’t care if you’re swinging a hammer or writing novels—at the end of the day, you simply won’t get ahead without hard work.  This goes even beyond just “doing your job.”  Even if you write the greatest blog in the world, it doesn’t really matter if nobody reads it.  (Now you all know why I’ve been such a little shit about promoting the blog on facebook.  Not that I think it’s “the greatest blog in the world” or anything…).  You have to work hard at ALL aspects of being successful to have true success.  That’s what separates the successful, talented guy from the unsuccessful, talented guy.  Even though you may have a talent at something, you need to be a finisher and GET SHIT DONE.

4) Be a Problem Solver

This is one that all of our fine airport and airline personnel could use a refresher in.  A lot of people think that it’s not their job to help customers, or even other people, with their problems.  You get a lot of, “Sir, it’s just company policy,” or “Sir…no…we have rules sir!”  Like they’re in the army and the policy exists for life-and-death reasons.  In the vast majority of cases, these are rules put in place by higher-ups for reasons marginally related to legal liability, or to ensure the uniformity of customer service.  Unfortunately, that uniformity has come to mean uniformly shitty service.  Here’s a tip: your job isn’t to embrace the problems that people come up with so that you have to do less work.  Your job is to help people solve problems whenever possible.  What happened to taking pride in the work that you do?  Sure solving people’s problems may take a miniscule amount of additional effort, but I’ve found that when you help other people solve a problem that’s important to them, they are extremely grateful, and YOU also generally feel better.  For example, just now I ordered another drink, and the stewardess gave me FREE DRINK NUMBER TWO!  Problem: not drunk enough on a plane that was delayed because the stewardess was late getting in.  Solution: give the man more free drinks.  Amazing how simple it can be sometimes.

I’ve covered this one in greater detail in the post linked above, but too many people bitch about things with no clear purpose other than to annoy those around them.  They actually enjoy complaining about things, so they’ll put themselves in situations where they are more likely to be able to complain about things not going their way.  Maybe bitching enough worked for them once, and they latched onto it as a problem solving strategy.  Or maybe they just fucking suck.  But bitchers rarely get results.  Doers, on the other hand, don’t spend their time chewing other people out, and actually do something about their situation.  Flight is cancelled after a long delay?  The bitcher finds someone from the airline and is in their ear for an hour about how “I paid a lot of money for this seat!” and “You owe me!”  The Doer, meanwhile, is on the phone with the airline, getting a seat on the next flight and arranging a rental car if need be to get from LAX to San Diego.  One person is generally going to be more successful than the other.  Bitching is only effective in a couple of instances; when you’re not too serious and trying to chat up a chick, or for entertainment value.  But by and large, you’re much better off being a Doer instead of a bitcher (yes, the capitalization or lack thereof is intentional—I refuse to dignify bitchers with a capital “B”).

6) Take Personal Responsibility

I could do a whole post on this point alone, but I’ll restrain myself.  Too many people play the “victim” card nowadays.  “I didn’t get X,” “it’s somebody else’s fault,” “I had nothing to do with it.”  Actually, odds are it WAS your fault!  Now, sometimes, shit happens—you work for Enron and the company goes belly up, for example.  But it was still your decision to keep your 401(k) in company stock.  A lot of times, a failure to take personal responsibility is an acknowledgment that you avoided helpful information that was readily available.  Maybe “I had no way of knowing” was a legit excuse in the 50s, but nowadays, with everything available online, that excuse doesn’t fly anymore.  By taking responsibility for your actions, you cut everyone else out of the equation and come back to one person that you can always hold accountable: yourself.  Shit does happen, but nine times out of ten, if you want it badly enough, you can get it.  Now, if you’re that one out of ten, I’m terribly sorry, but still, things should work out eventually if you keep your goals in focus.

7) Have a Sense of Humor

Too often, you hear about a group that represents some group of people protesting a movie because of a joke contained within.  This is ridiculous.  Not only are you actually reversing your cause a good amount because normal people think, “holy shit, these people can’t take a joke?”, but you also set the level of discourse about your subject back quite a bit.  People become too afraid to express their views, and we end up with the fucking thought police hauling us into Room 101 for something that’s not “politically correct.”  Fuck that.  Here’s an idea: make fun of yourselves before other people can do it.  It’s worked for fat kids for years (trust me on that one), and shows that “ok, this person doesn’t take themselves too seriously—they’re cool.”  I’ve seen the same thing from countless friends of mine that happen to be minorities or from groups that otherwise get made fun of; if they can make fun of something about themselves, they are almost universally good people.  Unless it’s something that they harp on and harp on constantly, or if it’s uncomfortable, like one of your buddies talking incessantly about his small dick.  But generally, it’s a good idea to develop a sense of humor and quick wit that will serve you well in almost any situation.

8) Be Courteous

This is kind of a combination of all of the other points, but when there’s a choice between being an asshole and showing someone a little bit of courtesy, go with the courtesy.  Being an asshole may seem “cool” to your “hard” friends, but it usually sucks for the person on the receiving end.  Oh, and by the way, sometimes that “mild mannered” person on the receiving end isn’t so mild-mannered after all, and will kick your ass.  But even if the threat of physical violence isn’t a possibility, if you’re a TSA agent and want to stop somebody in line at LAX for not having their toiletries in a quart-sized plastic bag instead of the gallon-sized one, DON’T HOLD UP THE FUCKING LINE WHEN ALL OF US HAVE ALREADY BEEN WAITING AN HOUR SO THAT YOU CAN MAKE THIS PERSON CHOOSE WHICH TOILETRIES TO KEEP!  And, lady with the toiletries, let’s not make this “Sophie’s Choice” here, if it’s the $3 bottle of mini shampoo versus the $2 toothpaste, just fucking pick one already and be done with it!

But, yeah, be courteous when given the opportunity.

9) Make a Positive Difference in the World

Isn’t this what it comes down to in the final moment of your final day?  “Did I make a positive impact on this planet during the short time I was here?”  Every day, you should ask yourself, “Am I doing what I want to be doing today?  If so, is it making the world a better place for me and a significant number of people?”  If the answer to either of those questions is “no,” you either need to take a long look in the mirror at what you want to be doing with your life, or you’re a sick fuck that likes doing some pretty fucked-up shit.  Seriously, though, a lot of times, the legacy we leave is all that there is to make our mark on this shitty little rock.  The entertainer brings smiles to other peoples’ faces.  The architect makes buildings that are (hopefully) both functional and eye-catching.  It doesn’t have to be a famous legacy; there are plenty of teachers out there that have had wide-ranging effects on their students.  Even the garbageman takes trash away from peoples’ houses so that they can enjoy their trash-free homes.  There are loved ones and even strangers that have had enormous impacts on others by what they said to those people during key moments in their lives.  The bottom line is that if you aren’t looking to make a difference in the life of someone else, what are you doing here?  Really, at that point, you should just go live off the grid in a cabin in Canada, or, better still, roam the world (like that guy at the end of Kung Fu) until you find a purpose in life higher than yourself.  Whatever the case, make having an impact on others a central focus of your life, and you’ll feel much better about what you’re doing.  Is that selfish?  Maybe.  But I don’t think it is if the net impact you have on society is a positive one.

Phew, that was one long diatribe.  Thoughts?  Concerns?  Leave them in the comments.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and recovering attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at Follow him on twitter @djgelner. Friend him on facebook here.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Unlikely Lessons From a Plastic Cowboy

I recently watched an excellent documentary on Netflix streaming called The Pixar Story.  It’s a movie about…well…if you can’t figure it out from the title, I doubt the rest of this post is really going to help you. 

There was one particular portion of the movie that really resonated with me.  Right after Pixar had released A Bug’s Life, John Lassiter, who is the creative driving force behind a lot of the company’s movies, was scheduled to take a well-deserved vacation after putting in months of round-the-clock days trying to prep A Bug’s Life for release.  At the time, the “second squad” at the studio was working on a direct-to-video release of Toy Story 2.  Pixar’s partner, Disney, saw some of the dailies from the project, and thought it was good enough to release in theaters.  Though this sounds great, many of the people that worked on the original Toy Story thought that the sequel was nowhere near the quality of the original.  When Lassiter returned from a promotional junket, he looked at the footage and agreed that it wasn’t up to the studio’s standards.  So instead of taking his vacation, Lassiter hunkered down with the original creative team and delivered the Toy Story 2 that we all know and love on a very tight deadline, after having to re-do over half of the shots in the movie and the entire script.

I found this story to be incredibly inspiring for a number of reasons.  First of all, Lassiter was able to deliver amazing results on an incredibly short deadline.  This is a valuable skill in any line of work, and one that I became familiar with while working as an attorney.  As much as you try to manage expectations and cajole your schedule, sometimes someone will set a hard deadline in front of you that has to be met, and you simply have to push through and get the work done.  Being able to do this is the sign of someone who has the perseverance, work ethic, and (usually) creativity to take on the toughest projects.  This distinction is obviously what everyone should strive for in whatever line of work they are in, and obviously a commendable quality. 

I also think that Lassiter took things a step further, and his story illustrates an important lesson about leadership.  Lassiter was in the trenches with his employees every day, pitching in with whatever needed to be done.  Not only that, but he told his team not to ask for his approval on every little detail because there quite simply wasn’t any time, and he knew and trusted the people that worked on the original Toy Story to create spectacular results at the end of the day.

In my experience, people in leadership positions usually toe a difficult line between “showing employees that they care” by sticking around until the work is done, and a more “hands-off” approach, where their employees are able to take a project and run with it.  Err too far on the side of the former, and you have employees complaining that they “don’t get to do their jobs.”  Skew too far in the other direction, and the employees think that they don’t have enough guidance, or worse, that the project is somehow being “pawned off” on them.

By dealing with the big-picture stuff and showing that you’re working just as hard as everyone else, yet being around to help with any detail-oriented work that might crop up, I think Lassiter struck just the right balance.  I think it probably also helps if you’re not a total prick, but that’s just common sense.  In my somewhat limited experience in leadership positions, I’ve definitely worked hard, yet developed the right camaraderie with the team where if someone came to me and wanted to pursue one aspect of the larger project on their own, I felt comfortable letting that person tackle it.  It’s not like I was a Fortune 500 CEO or anything, but I have been in a leadership role on fairly complicated projects with a lot of moving parts (like Presidential Classroom’s Future World Leader’s Summit), and trusting other people on the team with important projects is often both necessary for the project and rewarding for the individual.

I think that the most important lesson to be learned from Lassiter is that he didn’t sulk, bitch, or moan about what needed to be done.  He just did it.  It can be incredibly difficult when put under pressure to not go in and scream or yell or unload on someone when a project goes ass-up, or if a partner drops an all-weekend assignment on your desk.  But as I’ve stated many times before, there are bitchers and doers on this planet, and bitchers never prosper.

“But D.J., these people were working at Pixar on Toy Story 2!  I’m writing stupid briefs and motions all day long!  It’s easy to buckle down and do things when you really love what you do!”  Well, whose fault is that?  Nobody’s forcing you to stay at whatever job you’re at.  “But the loans!”  “But the paycheck!” “But the prestige!”  These are all excuses.  Sure, you might have loans now, but at the end of the day, you prioritize how aggressively you pay those loans off, and how quickly you save up to have enough of a nest-egg to be able to embark on the life you really want to.  Until then, you owe it to yourself to be able to push your personal feelings to the side and get the job done.  You may really hate your job, and I mean HATE it, especially for a day, week, month, or many months at a time, but by setting a goal for yourself, developing an exit strategy, and working toward that strategy, you come that much closer to living the life that you want.  If you’re already happy in the job that you have, then coming up with creative solutions to unique problems on short timelines is what will distinguish you as a true superstar and advance your career. 

At the end of the day, it’s all about finding something that you want to do and working to be the best at it.  Until you find what that is, you owe it to yourself to establish a strategy to reach that point in your life and make it happen.  Anything less is, to be blunt, a bullshit excuse. 

And who would’ve thought that these lessons would come from the guy that brought you “Buzz Lightyear” and “The Claw?”

Oh, wait…

Have you ever faced an impossible deadline or ridiculously stressful situation at work?  If so, how did you deal?  Let me know in the comments.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and recovering attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at Follow him on twitter @djgelner. Friend him on facebook here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Fixing the Country: Six Simple Steps to Curb the U.S.'s Obesity Epidemic

Traveling through Australia has been an eye-opening experience. The country is modern and the people are friendly, but the country as a whole is extraordinarily different than America. At some point during my travels, I started thinking: “Our country is kind of fucked up.”

Don't get me wrong, I still think the U.S. Is the best country in the world, and it's probably the best time to be alive (until tomorrow, that is...think about that one...), but truth be told there are some things that we could definitely be doing better. For example, did you know that “Naked” juices here are called “Nudie” juice? Or at least that's the Aussie rip-off version. Who woulda thought?

At any rate, this is the second in a series of posts about what the U.S. Could do to improve in several key areas. I call it “Fixing the Country.”

One of the problems that they don't seem to have nearly as much of in Australia is obesity. I spent a lot of time walking around Sydney, and I noticed the number of people jogging or running around on your average Thursday is a lot higher than what you see in St. Louis. On the weekend, the difference is even more noticeable. People are constantly active, constantly moving around. Part of it is that they have fewer TV channels in Australia—less chance to watch trashy reality TV shows, though there is one show that I saw a commercial for (something like “Random Alcohol Checkpoint”) that looked pretty solid. Most of the guys look like fucking Eric Bana. Most of the girls look...well...pretty awesome.

You all know how much I like specific lessons and action items, so here are a few that may help our obesity epidemic here in the States:

-Make food more expensive. You can't get a decent sit-down meal in Sydney for less than $20 Australian (closer to $24 American). As someone without income for the time being, this got my attention really quickly. You learn that a box of granola bars and the one place that advertises “$10 steak” can easily get you through a day, and (guess what?) you don't starve! In fact, I'm finally getting back to my college weight down here, as those last 15 pounds or so are slowly being eaten away by just not eating as much. So how can the U.S do the same when ConAgra and McDonald's are constantly striving to shave a few pennies off of their prices? In a word, taxes. Now I'm not usually a fan of taxation as a solution to a problem, but we're still digging a huge deficit hole in this country, folks. I'm not usually the “sky is falling” type, but we're getting into a situation where other countries are starting to worry about the long-term viability of the dollar. Even a $1 tax on fast food or sugars/corn syrup would likely bring in billions, while dissuading people from eating that shit and thus saving money on health care. Why should I be subsidizing the 400 lb. Guy that needs a forklift to get him into his wheelbarrow so that he can go out for a “stroll”? If food was more expensive, maybe he'd put down the knife-and-fork and exercise a bit. Portion control also falls under this heading—less food for the same money means that food is more expensive.

-Drop the high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, and flour addiction. These three food ingredients are probably more responsible for obesity than any others. I love the high fructose corn syrup people who defend the stuff by saying, “well, it's no worse for you than sugar!” yeah, but SUGAR IS ALSO TERRIBLE FOR YOU!!! Do you have any idea how much sugar people consume now compared to even fifty years ago? Literally, tons more per person per year. A coke used to be a rare treat, and even then it was something like 8 ounces. Now, you can get the super big “Fuck You” gulp, 128 ounces of pure sugary delight, for like 49 cents. It's ridiculous how much sugar we eat. Flour is something else that we could do with a lot less of—the processed kind tends to be metabolized directly to fat, leading to old Jethro in the wheelbarrow above. I'm not saying get rid of them entirely; it's just that people have shown that they're incapable of limiting their own intake, so like children with candy, maybe we should set some guidelines. On a related note...

-Eat more meat and (especially) vegetables. Get a little primal. Meat, especially grass-fed beef, contains tons of Omega 3 fatty acids, which are vital antioxidants. And replace those starches and carbs with two different kinds of vegetables at dinner every night—they fill you up, are high in fiber and water content, and have all kinds of stuff that is good for you. I used to be like a poor Irish family; going without potatoes at dinner time was practically a sin. But guess what? Over time, I learned to appreciate that second serving of vegetables, especially with how light and energized I felt the next day. Quite simply, people need to eat more vegetables at home, and restaurants need to offer at least two vegetable substitution items so that people can hold those potatoes and rice on the side, and eat a little bit healthier when they go out.

-Cut the PC bullshit. I can't stand this “accept me for being fat!” attitude that is going around now. I'll accept you for being fat when my health insurance premiums don't subsidize your gout and bed sore cleanings. Until then, though, a healthy dose of ostracization is actually healthy. My brother and I are perfect examples: growing up, we were both fat. Our parents, bless their hearts, let us drink soda all day and eat Dove chocolate-covered ice cream bars literally by the boxful. Because of this, we both got fat. Because of our fatness, we enjoyed some “mild ribbing” at school. This negative attention forced both of us to change our lives once we became self-aware enough to do so, to the point that my brother has lost over 100 lbs. From his heaviest point, and is now an actor. My own weight loss hasn't been as dramatic, but without several well-timed pictures and people pointing out what a fat ass I was, I'd still probably be tottering around at 225, and thinking P90X was something you could buy at GNC.

This shouldn't give you license to go overboard, but if a friend is being a fat piece of shit, tell them so. Additionally, if some asshole who happens to be fat is being unreasonable, it should be one more bullet in the chamber. The only problem with this is because our society has conditioned people to believe so, the fat asshole will think, “Oh, I'm not an asshole, he's just making fun of me because I'm fat.” For these people, I recommend letting them know that they're both fat AND assholes.

To those of you that think that this is somehow “bullying,” get over yourselves. Is it technically? Probably. But without a little bullying, I'd probably be pushing 300 lbs. today, asking my brother to use the “fridge stick” to open the freezer without getting up so that we could tear into another package of Dove bars. Sometimes a little peer pressure and adversity can toughen up an otherwise soft, doughy ball of fat. Well, adversity, and football.

Get back to letting kids run around. I'm saving our educational system for a future post, but while we're fattening up our little piglets in these creativity-free zones with chips, pizza, and soda, “budget cuts” have forced schools to cut back on gym and other recess time. My question is simple: why? It doesn't cost anything to let kids run around on the playground for an extra hour per day. The real reason is the over-lawyering of America—you can bet if fat little Suzie falls and twists an ankle, her folks will lawyer up so quickly the principal's head will spin—and that's a goddamned shame. If these kids are going to go home and sit in front of a computer all night, either to do mindless, pointless homework, or IM their lives away, then we need to build in some forced active time for them. In Australia, it just seemed to be a part of life. There were people running through the botanical gardens at all hours of the day, many of whom looked like they should be on one of their Olympic teams. From my own experience, it takes a while to get to that point where you simply exercise every day. It needs to become routine so that these kids and their fat-ass parents think of it as a necessary, even enjoyable part of their day, as opposed to something that is both hated and unnecessary. Additionally, we need to emphasize the endorphin boost that you get after exercise, which these people only currently know from biting into that second Big Mac. I promise if you pick an exercise routine and stick with it for at least two weeks, YOU WILL FEEL BETTER!

Genetics are not an excuse. My brother and I clearly inherited some of our genes from our dad's side of the family, which almost universally struggles with weight loss and gain. That doesn't stop us from now eating (relatively) healthily, working out, and getting in pretty good shape. Too many people see one or both of their fat parents and think “well, nothing I can do about it. Might as well just eat and 'be happy.'” This is so wrong, it's laughable. Generally, what these people inherit are their parents' eating habits, not their “genetics.” Fat people eat shitty food and do little to no activity. Consequently, their kids often do the same. If you're a fat parent, set a positive example for your kids by making a commitment to get in shape. “It's too hard” isn't an excuse. “I don't have enough time” isn't either. This is your life I'm talking about here. It may be shitty now, but there's no reason that can't start changing tomorrow.
For the few people that actually do have a “thyroid condition” or other “glandular problem,” get medical help. Everyone on your medical plan and your insurers would gladly pay for whatever procedure is necessary so that they don't have to share the burden on your quadruple bypass at age forty. This generally doesn't have to do with genetics, but rather some discreet problem with the endocrine system. Your doctor can help, and if for some reason he can't or doesn't want to, find another one who will. Life is too short to spend it fat, unhappy, and wishing you were someone else. Believe me, I know.

Any other suggestions on how to trim down America (which hopefully don't involve The Biggest Loser)? Leave them in the comments.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and recovering attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at Follow him on twitter @djgelner. Friend him on facebook here.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Nothing Lasts Forever (Especially You)

A footprint in sand lasts less than a day. That same footprint on the moon may last 10,000 years, but it also will eventually fade into oblivion.

Even the most memorable works of art, carved into stone, seemingly indestructible, will be reduced to stardust someday, as the Sun becomes a red giant and swallows the earth.

It's easy to forget that nothing lasts forever. Perhaps even more unsettling is the fact that this includes you. Oh, sure, depending on what your beliefs are concerning an afterlife, you can argue that your soul lasts far longer, maybe even forever. But your physical self, the vessel that experiences all of your senses, thoughts, hopes, dreams, and day-to-day tasks, will not be around more than probably 100 years or so. After that, you'll be rotting in a hole in the earth somewhere, or turned to ash, or if you're Ted Williams, sitting in a freezer somewhere until you have been long forgotten and somebody pulls the plug on the building like it's a broken refrigerator.

This doesn't give you license to sit around and do nothing. You may think in some nihilistic little corner of your brain that because we're all destined to become dust again, what the fuck does it matter what you do with your time on this planet? Bullshit. This old solar system still has billions of years left on it. By “opting out,” you deny a significant percentage of humanity the possibility of benefiting from what you have to offer. Be it in a fulfilling job that you hold down, or the art that you produce, or a charity that you start, or even by making somebody else's day or life better, you owe it to everyone to give your best all the time so that someone might benefit from what you have to give.

Additionally, because nothing is truly permanent, the stakes for taking risks are far less than you think. Getting up in front of that big auditorium and giving a speech doesn't seem like such a big deal when extrapolated out to its cosmic significance. People-pleaser, like I am? It doesn't matter—these people all shit, fart, and die like you do and will. Once you accept that we're on this temporary planet for a temporary period of time, the risk of embarrassment goes down exponentially and the sense of urgency increases exponentially.

Assume the number of days you have left in your life is “n.” Every morning, you're faced with n-1 days left in your limited life. When you have a “lot of days left,” it may not seem like a big deal, but as you get closer to the end, the number of days you have left decreases exponentially until you reach zero. The big problem with this calculus is that you have no way of knowing where that end point is. It could be tomorrow, it could be fifty, seventy-five years from now. The point is, that day will come, so you better live your life like that day is just around the corner.

Take (calculated) risks. Do what you want to do with your time. Spend it with people that matter to you. In the end, it's all just dust. It's all temporary. Especially you.

Agree? Disagree? Think I'm nuts? Let me know in the comments.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and recovering attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at Follow him on twitter @djgelner. Friend him on facebook here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Six New Steps to Better Problem Solving (or “Uneducating the Masses”)

(Ed's Note: Traveling for the next couple of days, so this is going to serve as Wednesday's post.  Enjoy! -D.J.)

Traveling around Australia for a bit has given me a renewed appreciation for some of the “little things” you encounter in the good ole' U.S. of A. Of course, it's also given me insight into how we could be doing a lot of things better. Combined with my well-known proclivity toward, I figured that I would try to write a series on fixing some of the biggest problems with our society by proposing specific solutions to problems. The first topic on the list: (somewhat fittingly) Solving Problems.

My travels have allowed me to read a ton of books. It feels good to get back in the habit of reading for pleasure (a lot) as opposed to reading some indemnification agreement or horribly dry legal opinion. One of the books I've been working through is Seth Godin's Linchpin. One of Godin's central theses is that in the new economy, replaceable workers with few skills are going to become obsolete. To become a true star (and to enjoy what you're doing), you have to think differently and become what he calls a “linchpin”--that person who is indispensable to an organization. These people should embrace their creativity and look for solutions to problems as opposed to following orders.

I couldn't agree with Seth more. He encapsulated what I hated about my old job the most—the inability to apply creative solutions to problems. Blame the profession or billable hour, but being a lawyer simply is not conducive to being a creative thinker, unless your idea of thinking creatively is thinking “how to fuck over the other side” the most, or how to find a loophole buried in hundreds of pages of contracts or regulations. It can be mildly entertaining at first, but down the road, it becomes awfully tedious.

Unfortunately, our current educational system plays right into this--it's designed to feed the industrial machine with low-skilled, replaceable workers who show up on time, do their job without much thought, and leave. This is great if you're making cars in Detroit in the 20s. It's not so great if your business needs to identify a consumer need and launch a new product, or connect with that one person or company that could put you over the top.

After a recent outburst of creativity on my flight to Cairns, I put pen to paper and outlined how I go about solving problems. I don't have a clever acronym for it...yet...but there are basically six steps that I have identified that are crucial to solving problems effectively. Once you can master these steps, internalize them, and get to the point where you don't feel like an idiot in going through them, you should be well on your way to becoming one of Godin's Linchpins.

  1. Identify a Problem. This can be more focused (how do I get five new accounts?) or broader (how do we end poverty?). At this point, the scope doesn't matter; just think of something that is currently a problem that, if solved, would benefit yourself or others.

  1. Brainstorm Potential Solutions. Nothing is out-of-bounds here, with the possible exception of something completely morally-reprehensible. It doesn't matter how you do it—I prefer “mind mapping,” but others like outlining, and others still prefer drawing or even other methods that no one else has thought of yet. The important thing is that the method works for you, and you start putting stuff down on paper.

  1. Discuss/Evaluate. A crucial step in the new economy. Hopefully, you have people that you can bounce ideas off of that won't just tell you, “well, I don't know...we've never done it like THAT before...”, or the similarly-frequent “that idea is stupid.” If not, you can go ahead and evaluate your various options yourself. Still, I've found it much better to collaborate with a trusted team than to try to go it alone if you have the option on larger projects; as you will see shortly, 90%+ of the problems we deal with on a day-to-day basis generally don't require collaboration.

  1. Revisit Your List of Solutions. Which ones can you throw out? Which ones have real potential? Go through and be ruthless based on your evaluation stage. Keep the ones you cut—this isn't a “goodbye forever” to those, just, “so long for now.”

  1. Implement the “Best” Solution. Go through and try whatever you think the “best” solution is. It doesn't matter if it's the “right” solution—just get out there and try something, damn it!

  1. Re-evaluate. Ask yourself, “is this working? Even if so, how can I improve it?” Problem-solving is a process to be embraced. If you fail, so what? People think that failure is far worse than it actually is. Try failing a few times and pulling yourself back up again—not so tough, is it? There's always a way to jump back on the horse.

Though I've found that this is generally a great process for solving problems, it does you no good until you can internalize it and go through the options in your head as quickly as possible. It's fine to write things out for big projects, or the first few times you go through the process, but you don't want to be the asshole at Denny's paralyzed by the “regular or decaf?” question from the waitress. Going through this process in your day-to-day life should take maybe five to ten seconds for most things.

Another piece of advice: if there's a shortcut available, feel free to use it. If there's a person readily available who clearly has more information than you with regards to the problem, just ask. 90% of problems could be solved by asking someone who is more knowledgeable. Unfortunately, these days it's difficult to find more knowledgeable people even at Best Buy, so a better way may be to research a bit online or “crowdsource” the solution via twitter. At the end of the day, though, the stockboy in the grocery store usually knows where the tomato sauce is.

Additionally, you can't “crowdsource” the solution to everything. The people that make themselves truly valuable are the creators of entirely new solutions to either common or intrinsically valuable problems. You might think that these people are just flat-out geniuses, and, to be fair, a good number of them probably are. But if you internalize this framework, make it second nature, and apply it to whatever problems you come across, I think you'll find that you free up your mind to be more creative and think of your own unique solutions to problems. Though I can't give you the actual solutions themselves, hopefully I've provided a little insight into a process that should make doing so easier.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and recovering attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at Follow him on twitter @djgelner. Friend him on facebook here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Getting Back to Basics (Or “Digging a Deeper Hole”)

Yesterday, after an exciting morning of surfing, I decided to just hit the beach in the afternoon (yeah, I know, life is tough in Australia...). Initially, I was hoping to get some reading done, but the book I'm currently working my way through didn't really pull me in, so I ended up in a half-reading, half-lazing-around daze.

At some point, I started subconsciously playing around with the sand with my right hand. I picked up handfuls and crumbled them through my fingers. I wish there was some mind-bending, clever metaphor regarding the nature of sand that served as the underpinnings of this post, but that's not the case.

When I was younger, my brother and I always used to find creative ways to spend time on the beach, generally involving either building a “wall” to prevent waves from encroaching further up the beach, or digging a big hole to...well...just for the hell of it, most of the time. Sometimes, we'd combine the two in the search for the perfect system of moats and walls to try to control whatever ocean we were combating.

Perhaps driven by these memories, at some point yesterday, I just started digging. And digging. And digging some more. I must've dug three feet down by the time it was all said and done. Sure, there were other people on the beach, probably wondering what the hell a grown man was doing digging a big hole in the sand, but I kindly direct those people to rule number 4.

It felt fantastic. It was like rediscovering a long-lost part of myself that had long ago been left behind. Somewhere along the line, something in my mind told me, “you can't dig anymore, you're an adult!” And for some reason, I bought into this wholeheartedly. Adults just don't dig holes! If that's the case, why did it feel so good then?

A lot of times, as adults, we're told that the kinds of fun that we used to have as kids aren't any good anymore. At some point, the old toys are thrown out, and we're told to “grow up.” A lot of people try to fill the void with fancy new toys, like cars, clothes, and watches, hoping that these will bring them a similar kind of happiness to that they enjoyed with the old toys. Some people even really enjoy these new toys, to which I say, “great!” But some people get one or two of these fancy toys and think, “is that it?” Worse, sometimes immediately after buying one, they're met with buyer's remorse--”was that the best new toy I could've gotten?”--or worse still, “I wonder if this toy is better than my neighbor's toy.” This is a vicious cycle, one that leaves people empty, wanting more, and compiling a collection of pure shit at the end of the day.

Maybe the answer is to sometimes just go back to what made you happy as a kid. If you liked digging holes, dig a hole (after checking with your utility companies, of course). If you liked drawing or coming up with stories with Ninja Turtles, maybe try that again, too. If you directed all of your energy to sports or dance, maybe take that up as a hobby again. If you liked building things, take up woodworking or sculpting. If you have kids, all the better—let them in on the fun. If not, well, then you should have more time to try to rediscover what made the kid “you” happy.

Some of you might think that reconnecting with what made you happy as a kid is...well...childish and stupid. “I'm a grown-up! I have a house and a car and a job and responsibilities!” Lighten the fuck up, already. Life isn't some serious, punch-the-clock exercise in futility, wasting time until your number's up. If you're even a little bit unhappy with the direction your life is headed, maybe rediscovering what made you happy on a very basic level, without those responsibilities, is a step toward reclaiming the life you want. And if not, then what are you out? An afternoon? Not all that big of a gamble in the grand scheme of things.

Since I'm preaching action as opposed to idleness, I'm going to try to start putting “Action Items” at the end of posts. “Now homework? You're fucking shitting me!” It's not like it's mandatory or anything, and I'll be doing the same things, this is more of a “follow along at home” for those who want to try to better themselves. If you don't do these things, I won't be offended—hey, at least you're reading—but I figured laying out some measurable steps (when applicable) could only help those that actually want to make affirmative progress toward their goals.

Action Item: Try to remember one game or activity that made you happy as a kid. Try your best to recreate it sometime in the next week or so, and see if it leads you to any realizations about what you really want to be doing or how you can live a more enjoyable life.

Also, feel free to leave any stories in the comments.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and recovering attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at Follow him on twitter @djgelner. Friend him on facebook here.

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