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This follows my previous TED Thursday post.

Sometimes I find myself worried too much about the big stuff: things beyond my complete control. I stress out over situations and scenarios I can’t immediately resolve in a way I’m satisfied. The problem in these situations is my focus is wrong. I’m focusing on something too big and not taking care of the “little things,” the details, which play into the bigger issue or problem.

This is a miniature from Games Workshop and it’s a model of the Warhammer 40,000 game. As you can see from the close-up, there are a lot of details. This particular model had been sitting primed and ready for paint for over a year now. The reason it remained unpainted? Because I kept looking at the big job of getting a decent look to this model. There are a lot of details. For instance, take the gems. There are 4 gemstones on this model. There is the leather wrapping around what we’d typically call a mace (it has a different name in the game which isn’t relevant). There are all these strips of parchment and the wax seals which affix them to the armor. And there are the details of the weapons and armor as well. Taken as a whole, it can be overwhelming. It was overwhelming.

Attacking the Task:

Then I broke it down. First I worked on the armor. It’s primarily black with a couple of grays to highlight the edges. I’m still not great at doing this, and you can see that if you look at the feet, but I’m a lot better than I was. Getting the armor done was one detail. It moved the model closer to the finish. Then I worked on all the parts of the model that used gold trim. If you look back at the finished model, a lot of the surface area was covered by just focusing on these two aspects. As a result, what once looked like an almost insurmountable project was now looking more and more doable. From there I proceeded to complete one set of details after another. I broke down the larger task of painting the model into smaller, more doable chunks. And finally, the model was finished to my current capability of painting.

Using Details to Improve:

I say my current capability because I learned how to do the gemstones correctly with this model. In breaking down into simpler, smaller tasks, I also could hyper focus on a particular skill I wanted to develop better. In this case it was painting gemstones because there are a lot of them on Game Workshop’s models. When you break down a bigger task into those easier chunks, there’s an opportunity to focus in on an area where you want to be better. If you’re so overwhelmed by the larger, complete problem, you won’t consider that you have just such a possibility. This is another reason to break things down.

What If I Can’t Control Everything?

The reality is that there are a lot of things outside of our control. Take, for instance, the weather. We can’t control it. We just deal with it the best we can. We can’t control other drivers when we’re in a motor vehicle. That’s why learning to drive defensively is so important. I can’t control what they do. However, I can improve my own odds by what I do. That’s the key. By focusing on the details we can control, we move things in our favor. If a bigger problem is not fully within our control, then we have to accept that fact. Then we figure out where we can influence the problem as much as possible. That’s typically in the details. Don’t waste time, energy, and sanity on anything you can’t impact. Instead, figure out where you can and hit those hard. We’re not going to have everything go our way, but at least we’re giving ourselves a better shot.

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Have you ever felt like something was too big or too hard to accomplish? Did you feel like too many things are out of your control? Then this TED talk by Stephen Duneier may be helpful. He’s the type of person who can’t focus more than 5-10 minutes at a time. However, by breaking things down into little decisions and smaller chunks of time, he has been able to find success. But not only has he found success, he gives us an example from the world of tennis where what seems to be a marginal increase in decision making led to a gentleman merely making a living at professional tennis to becoming the world #1:

“Focus on what truly matters, and do not fall for the lies of the comparison thief.” – Joshua Medcalf, Chop Wood Carry Water

I used to compare myself with others and lament how others had all the breaks, how they be given all the benefits in life, and how they were succeeding because of unfair advantages. I was missing my own advantages:

  • I grew up with both parents in the home.
  • I had access to more than sufficient food and health care.
  • I had teachers and mentors who invested in me at every turn.I never worried about sleeping in the cold or having to wear the same clothes over and over again.
  • I was exposed to computers in 3rd grade and continued to get to use them every year thereafter.
  • I had an amazing opportunity to attend and graduate from the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics.
  • I had yet another amazing opportunity to attend and graduate from The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina.
  • I went to my first USAF assignment and had the privilege of having prior enlisted officers as my sponsors and mentors.
  • I was trained for ministry by men with a great deal of experience and a proven track record of serving God.
  • I was exposed to the latest technologies in my position with the US Air Force.

The reality is that if most of us sat down and were honest with ourselves, we could list our own competitive advantages. However, too often we focus on what others have or how something seems easier for them than it is for us. This is what Joshua Medcalf terms the comparison thief. We are so busy looking at what we perceive is someone else’s advantageous situation that we don’t focus on what we are given. As a result, we don’t make progress because we’re allowing ourselves to be distracted from our goals and the work in front of us.

Don’t fall into the trap of the comparison thief. It doesn’t matter if someone has an unfair advantage over you. That’s not something you can control. It doesn’t erase your own goals and the work you have to put in. Focus on what is in your power: your own effort and mindset. While you’re busy doing that, you will make progress. Sure, the other person may succeed ahead of you. Then again, they may not. We don’t know what else they are facing. Even if they do, however, that doesn’t change the opportunity for your own personal growth by putting in the work.

Shut the door on the comparison thief. Focus on you and what you can do.

Joshua Medcalf offers the follow advice in his book Chop Wood Carry Water:

“Living by our feelings is like riding an emotional rollercoaster. When you make the choice to live by a certain set of principles, it will not only protect you from your feelings, it will allow you to step into your greatest potential.”

Here are mine for 2019 along with links (or in the first case, a video) that form the basis for including the principle in my top 5:

1. Speak Life

2. Maintain a Positive Mindset

3. Live Gratefully

4. Take Care of the Little Things

5. Improve Every Day

 

Dr. Dolly Chugh gave a great talk about how our desire to be seen as a good person inhibits our ability to grow and be better. Part of the reason is when we are challenged on something that will dispute that notion, we tend to get defensive.

Dr. Chugh also talked about the concept of bounded ethicality, one of her key areas of of research, and how this also affects us. Quite simply, we may subconsciously be processing ideas and decisions that go against our stated and conscious beliefs with respect to ethics and morality. A great example unrelated to the typical hot areas like sexism and racism Dr. Chugh gave was with regards to conflict of interest. Even a relatively small and inexpensive gift, such as a pen from a vendor, sways us in favor of the vendor because subconsciously our mind is trying to find reasons in favor of the gift-giver.

This all leads to a conclusion that we can’t be good people. The working definition for many folks is typically based on yes-no decisions. Do you have integrity? Are you honorable? Are you truthful? Are you racist? Are you sexist? That’s part of why we become so defensive. We don’t want “no” applied to any of the positive questions and we don’t want “yes” applied to any of the negative ones.

The reality is that we all fail. We make mistakes and bad decisions. A better approach is to acknowledge this fact and then acknowledge when we fail. With each failure we should endeavor to grow, because this is how we approach most areas of weakness in our lives. Those from a Christian background should see the parallel with sin/repentance. Her suggestion is to dispense with the notion of being a “good person” but instead living to be a “goodish person:” one who acknowledges failings and learns from them.

Thinking Positively

Working in IT, especially infrastructure, I’m always having to think about the worst case scenario. After all, part of infrastructure’s responsibilities is to “keep the lights on.” The problem with always thinking this way is it can lead to some dark places if I don’t also consider the positives. When I’m pressed for time, which IT often is, I don’t take that second step.

Therefore, I’m now forcing myself to pause and think about the positives. What opportunities are there in this bad situation? What can be learned? What can be improved? What ramifications of the situation cause a positive result? How can I drive towards those positives?

A bad situation is a bad situation. But a bad situation doesn’t have to be one where nothing positive results. By requiring myself to consider the positives, I prepare the possibility for the positives. That’s important. Life, after all, isn’t fair. So when a bad situation happens, what can I make of it? (within ethical and moral boundaries, of course)

Having two sons in college, I’ve kept a close eye on the costs of higher education. Just about everything seems like it’s twice as costly as it was 20 years ago. I recently read an article that looked at the fact that textbooks cost 191% (or almost 2x) what they back in 1998. Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell the whole picture.

Many textbooks now require a code for online content. Or a slight change was made between editions so you can’t buy a used copy of an old edition. As a result, students are having to buy new editions because the old editions can’t be used.

Then there are additional fees that weren’t charged 20 years ago. Student activity fees, athletic fees, etc. Going to college has become increasingly more expensive. Needless to say, that means folks are having to go more and more in debt to be able to get a college degree.

Several prominent people like Mike Rowe who have spoken out about this college or bust mentality that we have in the US as well as the increasing cost to get there. The reality is we should want more affordable opportunities for education available to more and more people. And while we need folks for jobs that don’t require a college education, critical jobs, if someone decides to tackle more education, it should be affordable. However, I don’t see us getting there fast.

One of the things we can do to offset the costs is to take advantage of free or low cost methods of learning. One of the greatest resources in our communities is a resource a lot of folks are starting to say is unneeded. That’s the library. However, as educational costs continue to increase, having the ability to check out books for free that we couldn’t afford to get out hands on otherwise seems to me a more and more important investment for our communities. If anything, we should be pushing libraries more, not less.

Then there are online communities. I’m not just talking about online education sites like Coursera or EdX. I mean communities on Facebook, Twitter, and other forums. My main technical area is around Microsoft SQL Server. We talk a lot about #SQLFamily and how we’re out to help each other. There’s even a popular twitter tag, #SQLHelp, for folks to ask questions and others in the community try to respond with advice and next steps.

Libraries, online communities, and other methods of free or low cost learning are critical as educational costs continue to increase. Even if educational costs weren’t increasing, these sources are still important. Rather that saying they’re dead, we should be championing them more.