Jesus, Webmaster Extraordinaire

This is another post I wrote for for the North Point Ministries’ “Starting Point” leader blog, so it is only tangentially related to The Conditions of Success. But it was fun to write, and it deals with tactical steps toward success in this area of my life, so I consider it worth posting here. Hope you enjoy. -Fred


“Search Engine Optimization and Starting Point”

Last night was our Starting Point group’s first meeting, and my first experience as an Apprentice-Leader. Among the many comments from participants regarding “why they are here,” one received the most agreeing head nods from others in the room: “This church is relevant to my life.” As leaders, and likely long-time listeners to Andy’s sermons, we know that at an almost instinctual, maybe even taken-for-granted level.

God, and the church, must be seen as relevant to today’s Christ-followers and seekers. Relevance is neither a substitute for, nor necessarily an indication of, the presence of Truth, but our failure to take it into account as leaders of Starting Point groups, and as Christ-followers more generally, will only serve to undermine our belief and argument that ours is a God whose love does not change with time.

Having dispensed with that bit of “inside baseball,” here is a way to think of relevance as it applies to the Digital Age, and to that other (seemingly) all-seeing and all-knowing quasi-deity in our daily lives: Google.

There is an entire industry among online marketers known as Search Engine Optimization, or “SEO.” It’s the process – and an unending one, at that – of designing and populating websites in such a way as to make them appear higher on search engine rankings.

Now the SEO mavens among us may take some issue with this greatly over-simplified version of the main points of their tradecraft, but there are four widely accepted pillars of a quality website that is optimized for search engines, Google in particular. I think each of them bear direct relevance to our Starting Point groups in particular, as well as to our Biblical Great Commission.

1. Content – “Content is King,” so goes the phrase among bloggers and website producers. It’s true – there is no substitute for quality content, be it for websites, or the church. You can’t fake it (at least for very long), and you can’t create it quickly. But content that is unique, high-quality, and constantly fresh – not to mention relevant – is the only proven method for improving a website’s search ranking.

In a Starting Point environment, we as leaders must be work to present the truth of Christ’s love to each person in our group in their own way, with fidelity to scripture, and we must be prepared to do it week in and week out. There is no substitution for this step, which why it is ranked first in this list.

2. Links – SEO masters know the importance of having links on your site, as well as having links from outside sites to your own. There is both a quality and quantity aspect to this. In terms of quantity, think social media: if hundreds or even thousands of people are posting and re-posting a link to your site, that will improve your search ranking. But, like everything about social media, that is fleeting, unless you’re able to create and re-create that demand on a consistent basis. (Again with the relevance…). More permanent links, both into and away from your site, and to and from quality sources, are looked upon favorably by Google. On the “to” side, this is not easy. You can’t just call up another site owner, especially one with a lot of traffic, and get them to post a link to your site. They need reason to do so, and will want evidence that your site is of sufficient quality – and relevance! – for them to promote to their own audience.

As Starting Point leaders, we often find it necessary to create links – think “connections” – from other sources of information when trying to convey some important truth in one of the lessons. The credibility of the link or connection, in the mind of the participant we are talking to, is crucial. It could be something you’ve both read, a shared experience, or even a mutual friend or acquaintance. Rather than relevance, you might call this “relatability.” And remember: the number of links is important, as is the quality of them.

3. Popularity – the closest SEO equivalent of relevance, popularity cannot be faked. You’ve either got content that people want to view, or you don’t. Many SEO practitioners, depending on the subject matter of their website, attempt to “ride the news” cycle and create content based on what’s going on in the world. There is both an art and a science to this, and only truly quality content creators can do this both regularly and well.

As stated previously, popularity/relevance is not the determiner of Truth. The Starting Point curriculum and guide already does a great job of relating the faith to the most pressing questions of 21st century seekers, but always consider other ways that you, as a leader, can tailor the discussion to the specific needs and interests of those in your group.

4. Reputation – A good one takes a long time to create, yet it can be lost in an instant. None of us need to be told that the online world is fickle and often unpredictable. Something you wrote on a blog a long time ago could, due to some event, come back to draw positive attention to your site when you least expect it. But, once you’ve established an audience, the wrong content could ruin your reputation, and, ultimately – assuming bad publicity is actually bad, itself no longer a given – also your search ranking.

I won’t be so condescending as to give us a lengthy reminder about what your Starting Point group participants should or should not see you, as their leader, doing when you’re out and about on the weekends. I’m referring as much or more to your reputation within the walls of the Starting Point meeting room. The tone that each of us sets from the moment of first interaction, and every little action along the way, could make or break a participant’s willingness to engage further with their process of faith. I don’t mean to suggest that you and I ought to act as though we are walking on pins and needles, or to make overthink every little gesture or comment we’ve made, or forgotten to make – that’s not helpful. But this can serve as a reminder that little things can make add up to make an eternal difference.


You may have noted some significant overlap between and among the categories. They are not separate silos. Action or inaction, adeptness or ineptitude, in one category necessarily affects the others. Like SEO, our leadership in Starting Point, and as witnesses for Christ in general, requires a loving, long-term, integrated approach.

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The Fear of Success

We all have a fear of failure, at some level, even if we’ve learned to recognize it before it shows up in our thoughts and actions and we’ve learned to push it down and bury it. That’s hard, and I’m nowhere near that place, even with the things I am “good” at. But what I’m more concerned with here is our Fear of Success.

That seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Why would you be afraid of something good, and (hopefully) beneficial, and what is surely the result of much time and hard work on your part? It can manifest itself in many ways: simple mistakes that you should no longer be making,  such as a failure to double-check the smallest details in your work. Or it can be more serious self-sabotaging behaviors, such as a social gaffe in an important meeting. “We as human beings have a tendency to get in our own way,” I’ve heard it said, I think by a former professor of mine, though I can’t recall precisely who it was. Those specific behaviors can be largely solved for by changes in mindset, added accountability, or other such safeguards that we can put in place. Essentially, they exist at a tactical level.

What I’m concerned with here is the Fear of Success that exists at the strategic level, points of demarcation along any path toward success. (There I go with the whole path and travel thing again, I know.) You can break it down to four broad areas, roughly linear progressions, that your inability – or refusal – to deal with make success not just uncertain, but impossible. Let’s call them “The Four Delimiters of Success,” which is kind of a crappy name, save that all four of these also start with “D,” so that alliteration makes it all okay in the end!

1. Defining It  – Our refusal to define success either broadly, or in a given situation, breaks down into a few possible reasons, some of which we would more easily admit to ourselves than others.
a. Afraid to be wrong – simple enough. It’s basically a fear of failure on a micro level.
b. Afraid of limiting ourselves – not really an excuse, unless you’re negotiating some sort of incentive structure for your annual bonus
c. Afraid of responsibility – if you put a stake in the ground, then you have to “own” that territory. Best to just avoid that, right?

2. Doing It – This is where the beautiful simplicity of Nike’s tagline comes in: Just Do It. Doing it, in this case, refers mostly to the starting of a process, because we all know that is the hardest part. Once you get going, momentum and inertia play an important role. The best thing I’ve read recently about “starting” is from Seth Godin:

Where to start

Start your first business this way: Begin with the smallest possible project in which someone will pay you money to solve a problem they know they have. Charge less than it’s worth and more than it costs you.

Repeat.

You don’t have to wait for perfect or large or revered or amazing. You can start.

That’s not an excerpt. That’s the entirety of what he wrote. Complete business plans and thoroughly validated financials are important – down the line. For now, Just Do It. Just start. We have too many tools available to us in the digital economy to make excuses about needing more money, or not being an expert, or not knowing where to begin…I’m talking as much or more to myself as anyone else here, understand, but anything other than getting started is just an excuse not to do it at all.

3. Dealing With It – I’m a little out of my realm of experience here, because how successful have I really been? Or maybe I’m just betraying my principles and thinking about this in terms of Money, Fame, and Power, of which I have little to none. But letting success “go to your head” can affect almost anyone, albeit on a local level. Whether it’s getting a date with that girl you’ve been interested in for months, finishing a well-executed project at work, or even something like buying (leasing, perhaps) that car you’ve been wanting, there are small ways that we get a little too big for ourselves, and those around us can take notice.

Conversely, faux-humility and overly self-effacing behavior is its own kind of problem, because you can end up resenting yourself and others if you don’t take a little time to appreciate your success (whatever it is), and then think seriously about what it took to get you to that point, in the hopes of repeating it. Proportion is the key element here – understand the importance of a success in context of your entire life and the world in which you live. Not allowing your high moments to get too out of control helps ensure your low moments don’t get you down more than they should.

4. Doing It (Again) – If you get to this point, now you’re left with the “What’s next?” question. It could be from those around you – say, your boss – or it could be, perhaps more aggravatingly, from your self.

I could not find a good clip of it on YouTube, but if you’re familiar with the movie Zero Dark Thirty, recall the scene where the main character Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, as the only passenger on the military transport plane, is asked by the pilot, “So where do you want to go?” She breaks down into tears. She doesn’t know. How can she? She’s spent over a decade doing nothing but chasing down Osama bin Laden, and now he’s dead. Her work – her life’s work, to this point, is complete.

Maybe this example is a bit melodramatic for you, and for most of us. But that question – where do you go now? – is a real one that each of us has to contend with as part of our success. For the hard-working and high-performing among us, the issue is not complacency. It’s that the “high” you experienced with success is difficult to get back. And with respect to Mr. Godin, the injunction to “Repeat” usually isn’t enough. (Sidenote: I don’t think that he thinks that “repeating success” is as simple as repeating a process, only that the process of starting a business is likely not as complicated as we might think it to be.)

Right now I don’t have a good “three step process” I’ve read about for overcoming all this. This best I can give you is the importance of understanding this tendency in ourselves as humans, and of your responsibility to recognize the tendency in yourself in your specific circumstances.

As for what’s next: I’m working on a “Case Study,” which details my experience with my first real professional project, which was “widely” considered to be a success, and how it led to much of my thinking here, including the title of this project, “The Conditions of Success.” I’ll leave it yo you to decide whether it is biography, hagiography, or just therapy.

More soon…

-Fred

“Militarizing” the Church?

This is a post I wrote for North Point Ministries’ “Starting Point” leader blog. Starting Point is a ministry for new Christians, or these seeking answers about faith, and I’m co-leading my first group starting in late January. There are a few “inside baseball” references, so please pardon those.


Starting Point and “The Art of War”

Yes, I dare to bring Eastern philosophy into my first post on the Starting Point leader group blog. So edgy and dangerous am I…

If you do not know, Sun-Tzu is the name of the author (or, according to some historians, a name for a collection of authors) of the ancient Chinese guide to strategy known today as The Art of War. No doubt you are least familiar with the title, if not the concepts, so I won’t give any lengthy explanation save to say that it is considered perhaps the greatest work of strategic assessment, specifically as it relates to military conflict.

As Christ-followers, we believe in the idea of spiritual warfare, a battle against Satan for the hearts and souls of our fellow man and woman. So as leaders in a ministry that caters specifically to those at or near the cusp of Faith, we should see ourselves as front line troops, and even the Generals that Sun Tzu refers to throughout.

At the very beginning of the work, Master Sun describes the five essential initial estimations that one must make prior to committing forces to battle. I see in these assessments some direct relation that we as leaders can make of our participants, especially in the early meetings, in order to stand the greatest chance of “victory” or “success” during the eight weeks our group meets.

The Five Assessments:

1. The Tao (pronounced “dow”) – Don’t worry, C.S. Lewis made this term safe for Christianity in The Abolition of Man, and defines it so:

“[The] way in which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.”

And

“[Recognition] of an objective value or response to an objective order.

Think about how fundamental that is: if someone in your group does or does not recognize an eternal, universal moral order – explicitly Christian or not – you’ve learned something very important. The degree to which they do or do not believe in that order, the Tao, let alone try to live their life within it, necessarily changes how you may try to reach them during Starting Point.

2. Heaven – Finally, a term we’re comfortable with! By “heaven,” Sun Tzu means “the constraints of the seasons.” Remember that the rainy season or the dry season, summer or winter, were, in pre-modern warfare, important elements to consider. Just ask Napoleon.

As leaders, we must attempt to recognize the “Seasons of Life” (to borrow Charles Swindoll’s phrase) that our group members are in. Someone who is going through a divorce, or a recent job loss, or the death of a loved one, just to name a few such difficult events, is in a different “season” from someone who has none of those things to fight against, mentally and emotionally.

3. Earth – Translated and defined as “the terrain,” think of this topographically in terms of mountains or bodies of water that an ancient army had to cross. If you march 10,000 even well-trained men across a desert and a mountain range, they’re going to be tired when they arrive at the enemy’s city gates.

Similarly, we as leaders must assess the “terrain” of our group members: for example, their character and experiences. You could argue some similarity to “Heaven” here, and I’ll concede my argument is not air-tight, but in general I think the terrain to be more immutable features of the individual’s “landscape” that could be further accentuated by the particular season they are in. But the point is, there are elements beyond just the changing seasons to be aware of and contend with.

4. The General – This one hits home. Or it should anyway, because it’s you. And me. And our fellow leaders. Sun Tzu says that “The general encompasses wisdom, credibility, benevolence, courage, and strictness.”

You could make your own list of the virtues that a good Starting Point leader should have, but that’s not a bad one to begin with. Do you possess any of them? How about your Apprentices and Co-Leaders? Look for ways to act within your strengths as a General, and to let your fellow leaders in the group act on theirs, as they likely shore up your weaknesses.

5. Military Organization and Discipline – I beg your mental indulgence, as this one is kind of stretch to stay within my framework. The author calls this the “organization of material resources.”

A responsibility that we as leaders have is to run a well-organized group. Even a group that “gels” well together during each session could be detracted from by poor administration behind the scenes. That can ruin the collective experience or that of an individual. As someone who tends to think “big picture” and focuses getting the larger ideas right, I can tend to overlook details. So I’m especially cognizant of this one. (Huh, maybe this one was not as much of a stretch as I thought?)

“There are no generals who have not heard of these five. Those who understand them will be victorious, those who do not understand them will not be victorious,” says Sun Tzu. As a general in Starting Point, perhaps you had not “heard of these five” until now. But now you have have.

I asked Teesha McCrae, Starting Point Coordinator at Buckhead Church, how she defines “success” for a Starting Point group. What she wrote should serve as our basis for determining “victory.”

If you assume faith is on a continuum, with atheism or agnosticism all the way to the left and the mature Christ follower at the right, with the point of conversion in the middle, then “success” is defined as any movement to the right.

I like it. Maybe you’ve heard that from her before. And while this primer in the Art of War and its strategic assessments do not guarantee “success” or “victory,” even in the terms she suggests, I think it’s a starting point (yeah, I went there) for us as leaders that, when added to prayer, could see us through this 8-week battle in the midst of our Spiritual War.

Success is Relative

Easy, now. Put the Sword of Truth down. I have NOT lost my moral marbles.

I said relative not relativism. Support for my claim that there is a distinction comes from the eminent historian Paul Johnson, who, in his monumental work, Modern Times, makes this very point on behalf of no less than Albert Einstein himself. (You know, that guy who came up with the whole “Theory of Relativity” thing?) In the opening pages of the work, Johnson writes:

At the beginning of the 1920’s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly, but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.

No one was more distressed than Einstein by this public misapprehension.

Feel better? If not, consider three broad, simple examples:

  1. Life – for a person in war, success is staying alive. For a person living in peace and harmony in the developed world, it might be a wife [or husband, depending], two kids, and a house with a white picket fence.
  2. Business – some people just want a job, or to get offered a specific job; others want to be CEO and have a 7-figure salary.
  3. Sports – one athlete will accept nothing less than the championship, while some other kid just wants to make the team.

I won’t belabor this point any further.

I bring this to your attention because it bears directly on my purpose here: to build toward a definition of Success, one that you and I can apply to our lives as a whole, as well as to individual events within them.

Specifically, here, I want to answer this question: “If Success is relative, then why bother trying to define it? It’s different for each person, in each situation.”

Well, voice in my head, that seems to be true, but defining success is like setting a goal. It gives us something to work toward, as well a marker against which to measure our progress and stay on course.

I’ve tried to be clear about my position on the whole “success means wealth” thing in previous posts, but if this is your first time joining us, let me repeat: I don’t think money equals success, but it is part of the equation. Or, at least, a certain amount of it makes life a heck of a lot easier. All of that being said, a recent example, drawn from the world of finance, provides a helpful illustration. In his latest book, Money: Master the Game, Tony Robbins challenges readers to come up with a number that would provide “total financial freedom” for the them. This is not just paying your bills and basic necessities, but income and wealth that allows you to live the life you otherwise only dream about.

But Robbins goes beyond just the mere suggestion: he actually provides the tool(s) to come up with such a number, through a calculation and formula available in the mobile app that readers get along with the purchase of the book.

Certainty, a form of knowledge, is power. He gives the example of man, who, at one of his seminars, said he needed (or wanted?) a billion dollars to live the life he “really wanted,”  which included travel on private planes, yachts, etc. Tony challenged him on the point, and, rather than just letting him persist with what is, for 99.99999% of people an unattainable (and maybe even inconceivable) dollar amount, he actually went through some real calculation of the cost of such luxuries, and helped the man arrive at a revised 8-figure goal. That’s still a lot – but it’s WAY less than a billion dollars, and significantly more realistic and attainable.

Now unfortunately for me (or for all of us), there’s no formula for determining success in other – or any – areas of our life, big or small. There’s no “app for that.” (They lied to us!)

But I do have a simple formula, drawn from what is, at least to me an unlikely source: my former boss. A smart guy, he began his career in the Air Force and the NSA, and, among other things, went on to be a partner at Deloitte. As we were preparing an investor presentation for our startup company, and I was wondering how to find the answer to a question he asked of me, he told me (maybe a little condescendingly) about his rule for making “directionally correct assessments.” He said you need three “lines of bearing” all pointing you toward, or validating, the same point. Those three lines of bearing are:

  1. Research, Evidence, or Data – this should be some objective source of information that relates to the question you are trying to answer
  2. Experience of Others, preferably someone you know – this should corroborate the information gleaned in your research, but add some “color” to what could otherwise be dull, gray facts.
  3. Your Gut – things may be stronger in (or on?) some of us, than for others, but trusting yourself, and your intuition, should not be dismissed.

If you can, in any situation, take time to understanding what each of those three things tells you, then you’ve at least got a “directionally correct assessment” of what success may look like for you. Or at least you’re in a better position than believing that you need the equivalent of a billion dollars.

In the next few posts, I’m going to going a little deeper, and even use some unconventional ways to help us arrive at our definition of success, including:

  • What prevents us from wanting/trying to define success?
  • What are the “normal” ways people try to define success?
  • Defining success through its opposite: failure

Stay tuned.

-Fred

Shipping: Day One

In response to my most recent post, Reflection and Resolution, my sister wrote that “it seemed a bit disjointed.” I take her input seriously anyway, but in this particular case she’s managed to capture a larger feeling that I’ve had for some time. I can’t seem to focus on completing individual tasks: I’m always moving from one thing to the next, mentally and sometimes literally.

Do I have adult ADD?? Well, based upon my Wikipedia research, my self-diagnosis comes back negative. Maybe, like Dante, “In the midway of this our mortal life, / I found me in a gloomy wood, astray / Gone from the path direct[.]” Ironically (or paradoxically, or something), I had planned to write a post that used Google Maps, as its framework. (It was also to include references Sun Tzu and Benjamin Franklin. Maybe my sister has a point, huh?)

Clever as I think that post might have turned out, it would have been little more than the “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”

It’s not that I’ve lost my way…I don’t even know where I’m going! It’s not just the blind leading the blind here. You’ve got Captain Wanderlust at the helm, and he’s had a whole bottle of rum before noon!

So I’ve put that aside for the time being, all that talk about “finding the paths formed by the conditions of your success.” Don’t misunderstand me – I still that our working terms of Preparation and Providence hold up. There are numerous ways of saying the same thing(s), which many people smarter and more accomplished than I have done – which leads me to think that my thinking is at least directionally correct, as well as come by honestly.

Rather than persisting in this journey, hoping to bumble way back into familiar territory and the answers I don’t currently know that I’m seeking, I’m hitting the pause button. I want to take a “meta-journey.” Finding my way in order to find my way. If this sounds unnecessarily esoteric and pretentious, well, yeah, maybe. But I’m really concerned with getting all of this – whatever “this” is – right, in the hopes of doing all of us a bit of good for our lives.

Two phrases, borderline platitudinous but relevant nonetheless, come to mind here. The first, repeated to me recently and often by my good friend Deshad, is “Progress, not Perfection.” One day, after discussing that at some length, I told him I wanted to add “Trust the Process” to our list of mantras.

In response to the first, “Progress, not Perfection,” I’ve taken up a challenge, from Seth Godin, to “ship a product,” in the form of a blog post, every day for a week. Read more here: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2015/01/getting-unstuck-a-one-week-challenge.html

Simple, and also maybe a bit trite, but I like it and it struck me at just the right time and in just the right way. Progress. Everyday. At least for a week…

The second phrase, “Trust the Process,” I could attribute to a variety of recently viewed source material, but in the interest of my eternal soul I’ll give it to Oswald Chambers and the My Utmost for His Highest daily devotional, which on January 12 read, in part:

Jesus does not take us alone and expound things to us all the time; He expounds things to us as we can understand them. Other lives are parables. God is making us spell out our own souls. It is slow work, so slow that it takes God all time and eternity to make a man and woman after His own purpose.

It’s slow work, this thing we call life. Even if I thought I could handle the truth God wanted to impart to me, I could not handle it. I’ve got to trust the process. That’s hard.

But wait…are those two statements, and my responses to them – first, to take action, and second, to wait – in conflict? Is this not the palpable tension of Preparation and Providence that is central to this project?

Oh gosh…it’s like this all actually does make sense…I better quit while I’m ahead!

So here’s what we’re going to do for the next few days, and, with any luck (or is it Providence…?), over the coming weeks and months. We’re going to probe the definitional boundaries of the following:

  1. What is Success, both in your life as a whole, as well as being able to identify what that means in any situation you may encounter
  2. How to determine your individual conditions of success, elements of Preparation and Providence
  3. How, once you understand those things, to recognize and apply them in any situation to improve your chances of favorable outcomes

My hunch is this: over time, by going through that process and doing all of that, you’ll stand a greater chance of eliminating situations that you do not choose and find yourself in a greater number of circumstances where your conditions of success are more easily recognized and applied. Now THAT sounds like a goal, one that you can make progress toward each day as well as one that you must trust to a long-term process.

Won’t you join me, Captain Wanderlust, on this meta-voyage?

More soon…

-Fred

PS – we’ve assembled quite the crew so far.

Reflection and Resolution

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About the photo: That’s me, far right, posing with a bottle of “Fred” water along with members of Movers & Pacers, the “influencer-based running group” led by the inimitable Señor Kaos. (Far left, wearing the hat.) I started my new year in the company of new and good friends, people I’m blessed to have as part of my new life here in Atlanta. For more info about Movers & Pacers, including info about when and where you can join us for run during the week, check out the group on Instagram: http://instagram.com/moversandpacers

2014 is gone. You can’t get it back. 2015 is here. What happens during the next 364 days (or however many are left when you read this), is, to are a large degree, up to you.

I want to revisit something I wrote toward the end of my last post. You remember, that one “about” fantasy football? In the section about the Playoffs, I wrote how sometimes a competition really is not a competition. You, or your competitor, has been preparing for the big game, consciously or not, and that will very likely be the deciding factor, not some spontaneous outburst of virtuoso performance. I stand by that, for the most part. You have got to prepare as though you’re going to win, even if the outcome is uncertain. Or, as Winston Churchill said it better, “It is never possible to guarantee success; it is only possible to deserve it.”

Where am I going with this in context of the New Year?

Well, one of the voices in my head is saying, “The calendar is completely arbitrary. Nothing magically changed because it’s January 1st. You still have to live with the decisions – and mistakes – you made yesterday.” And yes, Voice Number One is kind of right. But then Voice Number Two, speaking to me in many different dialects of the same language, says, “Every day starts a New Year. You can’t get back that lost time, but you can redeem it starting now. Make better decisions today than you did yesterday. That’s a New Day’s Resolution.”

I choose that maybe slightly Pollyanish voice of optimism, the belief in the capacity of human beings to make choices – for good or bad – over its dreary opposite. If you’re feeling a little reserved and cynical, or think I’m being naive, then remember what Jesus told us, as recorded in Matthew 10:16: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” That squares the circle, in my mind.

I do believe that we are all fallen, sinful human beings who have an unfortunately seemingly limitless capacity for plumbing the depths of despicability. But I also believe in the ever-available and wholly-redeeming power of God’s grace. If the bad part is always there lurking, then the good is also there waiting. That’s the point where God desires for us to meet Him – at the point of the Grace He offers. But it’s something we must do, that He cannot do for us, if He is a truly loving God.

With that idea of Grace, and of Choices, firmly in my mind, then I feel more resolute than ever to share with you some of these thoughts – gathered from various sources, including my own mind – about a new year, making changes, forming habits, and in Preparing and praying (Providence, remember?) for 2015 to be the best year yet.

First, a word about time.

Recently my friend Matt shared with me an article from The Economist titled “In search of lost time: Why is everyone so busy?” It’s a good read, more for the information than any conclusions or suggestions it provides, as my other friend, Johnny pointed out. One idea that I took away, which fascinates me in its “truth without really being true,” is this: “[Most] people worry over how [time] flies, and wonder where it goes. Cruelly, it runs away faster as people get older, as each accumulating year grows less significant, proportionally, but also less vivid.”

[Read the rest here: http://www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21636612-time-poverty-problem-partly-perception-and-partly-distribution-why?fsrc=scn/tw/te/pe/ed/whyiseveryonesobusy]

Think about that: if you are 10 years old, then each year of your life, when graphed on a pie chart, takes up 10% of the graph. That’s a significant portion. But when you are 50? Each year is now 1/50 of the total. What’s one piece matter? Or one more? Each chunk gets smaller as you get older, and each year gets…shorter? Wait, what? How can a year get shorter? It’s 365 days, right? Well, yes, it is. That doesn’t change. But your perception of it, especially when viewed at the macro level, changes, making it seem smaller, to the point that the differences are trivial and they all tend to run together after a certain point. Already at 27 I feel this, as I’m sure we all do to some extent. I don’t have an antibiotic to this time-decay disease, but I’ll share something that I’m doing to help alleviate the symptoms.

It’s called the Five-Minute Journal: http://app.fiveminutejournal.com/

It was first referred to me by Tim Ferriss, and I’ve heard him say that some readers of one of his books are the app’s creators. It builds on the concept of Daily Gratitude that I discussed in my Thanksgiving post. It is a small way to reclaim some of your time each day. Rather than rushing ahead and allowing one day to blend into the next, you’re actually stopping yourself – and time, in a way – to reflect on what you did earlier in the day, and how it might help you think better, speak better, and act better in the next. If it seems hokey to you, fine. I call it a good start, even a small one. Which brings me to my next point…

Another one of my recent favorite authors/thinkers is Ramit Sethi, author of the “I Will Teach You To Be Rich” blog, and publisher of the “Zero To Launch” online course I’m currently going through. In a post from earlier this year, which he recently re-sent as part of his “Best of 2014,” Ramit talks about Motivation and Procrastination, the latter of which is one of my best buds. He (Ramit) talks about the importance of “building systems,” a theme that runs through his work. Here’s an excerpt from one example:

“I want to get fit.” How many millions of Americans say this, then beat themselves up for doing nothing? No, no, no…I want you to be specific: “I want to eat 3 healthy meals per week and go to the gym 2x/week for 15 minutes.” (Notice how I’m focusing on the process at first, and starting off conservative: Anyone can eat just 3 healthy meals in a week. And anyone can go to the gym for 15 minutes. Set yourself up to win, you weirdos.)

(Read the rest here: http://www.iwillteachyoutoberich.com/blog/my-answers-to-your-questions-on-motivation-and-procrastination/?inf_contact_key=db2bef9b57c050d80b3d3d3683818c87869973633bbf140de4db7016a359a643)

Here, and elsewhere, Ramit does a nice job of reminding readers that they probably already know the right thing to do in that situation. The actual problem is breaking the solution(s) down into manageable, repeatable steps that make consistent execution possible and more likely. In other words: habits. This example is particularly poignant to me, because in the “aftermath” of the half-marathon I ran in November, I’ve lost pretty much all motivation to run and exercise, save the weekly Sunday runs I do with Movers & Pacers. Suddenly, as though the clouds have lifted, getting re-started does not seem so difficult, given Ramit’s example.

I don’t have a cool app to share for this section, so I’ll ask you this instead: What whole-life topic/issue/problem do you need to break down into smaller chunks? Are you failing, or even refusing, to get started on something, because you find the whole to be overwhelming? You probably already know the answer, what you have to do, so plan out one thing – just one small thing – that you can do today that would give you real progress toward that goal. It should not take you more than 15 minutes, and you can’t let yourself feel guilty for “not doing more.” Do it. Then tomorrow, do it again. And then the next day. After three days, think about adding something to it – be it time, or another step, and see where that takes you. I think you’ll look back in a month and see something very different from what it – or you – used to be.

(Note: In the hours between when this post was drafted, and before it was posted, I, your author and friend, went for a 1.5 mile run. Now, cue up the transition music…)

“Used to be.” That’s the subject line of this morning’s email from Seth Godin. I have several friends who, for several reasons, can’t stand Seth, and think he is a fraud, a hack, or just plain wrong on any number of topics. And while I don’t agree with Seth on everything (forgive the bland disclaimer), particularly on politics, he’s another writer/thinker who, for my money, re-states the simple and obvious in new and thought-provoking ways. (BTW, “my money” in this case is zero, because Seth’s email list is free.)

Here’s what Seth wrote this morning:

Used to be

This hotel used to be a bank.

That conference organizer used to be a travel agent.

This company used to make playing cards.

Perhaps you used to be hooked on keeping score, or used to be totally focused on avoiding the feeling of risk, or used to be the kind of person who needed to be picked…

“Used to be,” is not necessarily a mark of failure or even obsolescence. It’s more often a sign of bravery and progress.

If you were brave enough to leap, who would you choose to ‘used to be’?

[If you want to read more from Seth, maybe start here: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2014/12/its-not-about-you-have-you-been-to-this-meeting-really-bad-powerpoint-7-years-later-sadly-still-relevant-project-manag.html]

We have all got the capacity to be something other (and better) than what we currently are. We cannot make it happen on our own – that’s where God’s Grace (Providence) steps in, and where we must rely on the assistance of others. (Sidenote: This is the subject of another post I’ve been working on, and will finish  soon, I hope.) But going from “used to be” to “is” IS possible, be it a business or you. Or me.

Let me suggest each of us be willing to write down, alongside our resolutions, what is really underlying those resolutions. Put down on paper – even if you don’t show it to anyone (though that might be good for each of us to do) – those “ugly” things that we know to be true about ourselves, but that we don’t want to own up to. No one should have trouble with this, the difficulty should be in limiting what we choose to include as truly important, rather than merely superficial.

In the interest of transparency, and hopefully as a source of motivation to you in doing this, here’s what is at the top of my list for an “ugly” part of me that I want to work on in 2015: I tend to dominate conversations. Whether it’s with family, close friends, colleagues, or just occasional peers and acquaintances, I make it all about ME. I’m my favorite topic of discussion, just ask me. Or don’t. I’ll tell you about me anyway. Self-deprecation (as an attempt at deflection) aside, I really do feel very convicted about this.

Building on the suggestions provided in the last two sections, here’s what I’m trying to do about it:

  1. The Five Minute Journal is intended to take my focus away from me. Gratitude cannot point inward, it is an outward expression. I want to take time every day, even just 5 minutes, to put the focus elsewhere. Baby steps…
  2. Before every conversation I plan to have – and by plan, I mean when you set aside time to call someone, like a friend or family member, to catch up – I want to think up ahead of time, even write down, a list of a few things I want to ask that person about, and to make sure is covered during the course of a conversation I would otherwise make all about me. I’m not even going to entertain the possibility that this sounds forced, or that I’m not letting my relationships be spontaneous or organic. I’m going to try it anyway. (There are 4 or 5 guinea pigs, errr, uh, friends, who are reading this, who know that I’ll be calling them soon, piece of paper in hand…)

Now I’m not sure if those same people really do think of me as selfish or self-centered in this way. But even if they don’t, the fact that I am conscious of it, places it firmly in the category of who I want to say I “used to be.” (I don’t blame you if that last sentence confused you a bit. I’m scared to re-read and try to edit it…)

Finally, I’ll leave you all with some “quick hits,” from a little mental exercise we did at last night’s (and this morning’s) New Years party. Before the party started, I laid out four stacks of cards, each with a different question printed on them. I asked party-goers to fill out one (or all) of the cards, and to share their answer(s) with someone at the party whom they did not know. It turned out to be good conversation starter. (Or in some cases conversation ender, depending upon the answer.)

So, even if you missed the good times last night, here are the four questions, along with my answers. Enjoy.

  1. The good deed I want to do this year is…………..Time Tithing.

That’s not a specific good deed, I know, but it goes back to what I wrote about out Thanksgiving. I have not exactly been consistent on that one since I originally wrote about it, but that’s what a New Year is for, right?

(Also, I could have put “mission trip abroad” in that blank. I have really felt God tugging at my heart about that one.)

  1. The bad habit I want to kick this year is………………Sleeping In!

Oh, I’m bad about this. I am a Snooze Button Master, one of the greats. (My friend and college roommate Erik will tell you horror stories about this. Pretty sure he wanted to kill me in my sleep so he didn’t have to go through another morning of buzzing alarms scattered through the room.)

  1. The skill I want to learn this year is………………….Reading Music.

Can’t do it. Never learned. Admittedly I never really had a desire to learn, and I’m not optimistic that my inner Mozart is going to pour forth after 27 years of hibernation. Like learning a language, I guess. Suggestions of how best to accomplish this are encouraged and appreciated.

  1. The person I want to be more like this year is……………….Napleon.

WAIT! Don’t leave. Here me out, please. This is not some hitherto latent expression of a desire for Continental domination, nor is it the full and final flourishing of my own delusions of grandeur. Let me explain, this will only take a second:

I’m reading an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson called “Napoleon, Man of the World,” which you can also read here: http://www.emersoncentral.com/napoleon.htm

Now other than Wikipedia-level details, I admit to not knowing much more about Napoleon, which is why I intend to pick up a good bio of him for one of my next reads. In Emerson’s essay, he quotes Napoleon just so:

” ‘As to moral courage, I have rarely met with the two-o’clock-in-the-morning kind: I mean unprepared courage; that which is necessary on an unexpected occasion, and which, in spite of the most unforeseen events, leaves full freedom of judgment and decision’: and he did not hesitate to declare that he was himself eminently endowed with this two-o’clock-in-the-morning courage, and that he had met with few persons equal to himself in this respect.”

[Note that the first portion is Napoleon’s actual quote, and the latter is Emerson’s commentary.]

For the time being, I’ll let the scholars debate just what kind of moral courage Napoleon had, and if it is worth emulating. Leaving that aside, look at Napoleon’s quote: “unprepared courage; that which is necessary on an unexpected occasion, and which…leaves full freedom of judgment and decision[.]”

I don’t care who you are, or which countries you’re invading (ok, that does matter, actually…), that’s a form of virtue worth aspiring to and cultivating. Because it can be “two o’clock in the morning” at anytime of day, or any day of the year. I worry that I’m not ready for such times. Do you?

So maybe “Napoleon” is not really the answer to that question, about who I want to be more like this year. Maybe, at the risk of sounding selfish, the answer is ME. But not me, as I am currently, but me as I want to be. And I’m trying to be. Every day, setting 5 minutes aside to be grateful, and taking 20 minutes to go for a run, and making sure, when I talk to people, that I’m asking about their lives and how I can be praying for them and helping them, rather than talking about me. That’s the ME that I want to be.

Who do you want to be?

Happy New Year. Let’s talk more soon.

-Fred

PS – For those actually reading, you might note that these last two posts have been a bit different, both in format and content. They’re less explicitly compatible with our topic, the Conditions of Success, I know. I’m probably too aware of that. But I don’t think they’re in any way incompatible. They are more “occasional” in nature, meaning that they have to with things that pop up during the day or week. They are easier to write, for one thing, and will allow me to post more frequently. But, don’t you worry, I’m still working on the longer essay-style posts. (“Oh, uh, yippee!” I can hear you say.) I don’t know if this an announcement of a format change, or what, so you’ll just have to stay tuned.