My First Day

todd headshot 2016
Today marks my first day at an old job.

After five years away, I am returning full-time to Astronaut Projects, my publishing studio based in Portland, Oregon.

IT Revolution has been a great home. I have so much gratitude for Gene, Margueritte, and the whole team for my time at ITRev.

The Phoenix Project started as a novel for technology leaders that we launched as a self-published book on Amazon in 2013. With each indicator of success, we iterated. We first released the title as a hardcover and an ebook, followed that with a paperback edition and then an audiobook. We followed that with The DevOps Handbook and titles by other authors in the technology community. In my time there, we sold over 500,000 copies of our books.

2017 kept nudging me in a new direction. My trip to India nudged me. Our family trip to Europe over the summer poked me. My 46th birthday elbowed me.

Many things, big and small, kept pointing me to focus back on my own business.

So, here I am, on my first day back as excited as ever.  With new beginnings, you never know where they will lead, but I do know my future is with authors, books and readers.

I help experts create better books and grow their businesses.

If you are thinking about publishing a book, I can probably help. Let’s talk.

What I Read – March 2018

Non-Fiction

Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller –  The premise of Attached is that there are three ways people engage around intimacy – Secure (50% of us), Anxious (20%), and Avoidant (25%).  And the trick is what happens when these styles interact with each other. This is book is interesting but is short on utility; felt like a long magazine article that got turned into a book. Could.

Great At Work by Morten Hansen – Through a 5000 person study asking bosses, peers and the the individuals themselves, Hansen believes he has found a set of strategies and tactics to improve your performance in the workplace. Here are four lessons that caught my attention:

    1. We are always balancing focus and effort. The best performers focus on a smaller number of priorities and then obsess, scoring 28% higher than the next closest group that does more and stresses about the added commitments. Ways to apply – focus on an industry, cull the number of projects, learn to say no.
    2. High achievers find a way to bring individual passion to their work and purpose that serves the broader community. The study found passionate people in all jobs and industries. It also found purpose in highly creative to the most low paying positions (hospital janitors score among most purposeful). The best result came from individual who had BOTH.
    3. When leading groups, maximize debate among team members, reach selected action and foster team unity toward end goal. Make it safe to speak up, ensure everyone is heard and get everyone behind the final decision.
    4. Collaboration is not magically better. It only makes sense when it is effective and creates value towards an end goal. Top performers find that balance and fully commit or they say no.

I give Great At Work a Must.

The Million-Dollar One-Person Business by Elaine Pofeldt – Pretty standard book for starting a business.  Pofeldt is a journalist and she is reporting on the current scene. Could.

Fiction

Traveler’s Gift by Andy Andrews – I have been reading business fables and parables ahead of a new project I am working on. The book came out in 2002. I wasn’t familiar with it until recently. The main character, David Ponder, hits a rough patch in his life and has a George Bailey moment of crisis. In this version, Ponder is sent through time to visit famous figures at pivotal moments in history to receive words of advice. The opening scenes are rushed but the rest of the book works. Could.

 

Graphic Novels

She-Hulk: Deconstructed by MarikoTamaki and Nico Leon with Dalibor Talajić – Jennifer Walters aka She-Hulk attempts to return to a normal life as a lawyer after the events of Civil War II. Their treatment of someone struggling with PTSD is matched so well with the green monster. It’s all there – anger, fear, lack of control, remorse, consequence, exhaustion.This is one of the best story arcs I have ever read in a graphic novel. Must.

Other

Launch Podcast by John August – August is the author of a new middle-age novel called Arlo Finch and the Valley of Fire. He is also the co-host of the Scripnotes podcast and the screenwriter of many movies you know – Go, Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels. Launch tracks the journey of the book being published from finding an agent to copyediting to visiting the printing plant in Virgina. The podcast is a fun overview of the whole process. I think even publishing people will enjoy hearing the story told through the eyes of an enthusiastic first time author. Should.

Black PantherMUST for all the reasons.

Meru – Amazing documentary on Netflix about three men’s attempt to be the first to ascend a peak in the Indian Himalayas. My wife and I sat on the couch amazed when it was over. Must.

What I Read – February 2018

Non-Fiction

Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss – This is my favorite book by Ferriss. Drawing from his podcast, he compiled a list of interesting questions that he asked a set of interesting people. Here is a sampling:

  • What books have you gifted the most to other people?
  • What are some unusual habits you have?
  • What $100 purchase has most improved your life?
  • What would you put on a billboard?
  • What is your favorite failure?

That structure made the book a page turner for me. I have a file with 12 pages of notes I took while reading the book. Must

Radical Candor by Kim Scott – Scott spent time at the world of startups, Google and Apple University.  Radical Candor is her take on the most effective way to manage and communicate with employees. I liked it. There are some solid frameworks for people to us. I was reminded of Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott and the needed combination of compassion and honesty. My takeaway is asking new employees to tell their life story by starting early in the childhood and looking for moments of change; those moments often illuminate values that are important to them. My only critique would be that it felt long and a little heavy on explanation.  Should for any manager, Must for new managers.

Spiritual

Don’t Be A Jerk by Brad Warner – This is a brave book. Brad chooses to translate and paraphrase the first section of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, the definitive work of the founder of Zen Buddhism. The book covers the first twenty four chapters with each fascicle getting a short introduction, the paraphrased material and a further expansion. This is also a wonderful book because it covers Japanese history, ancestors back to India, the attempts at translation, and he shares his path of learning Zen. I have been practicing for seven years and the book felt like an advanced class on my Zen Center. Must (and there is follow-up called It Came From Beyond Zen!)

Graphic Novels

Star Wars by Jason Aaron, John Cassaday and many amazing others – This series started after Disney bought Lucasfilm and turned the comics over to its previous acqusition Marvel.  Aaron envisioned the series as a running sequel to Star Wars (IV). I have read the first five volumes and it is outstanding. Luke is lost and searching for traces of the Jedi. Leia and Han don’t get along. Vader is trying to find the lucky kid who destroyed the Death Star. There is no shortage of themes to explore and new characters to sprinkle in. The trade paperbacks to a rare outstanding job of pulling together crossovers into solid story arcs. Read them in this order: Skywalker Strikes, Showdown on Smuggler’s Moon, Vader Down, Rebel Jail, The Last Flight of the Harbinger, Yoda’s Secret War, The Screaming Citadel, Out Among The StarsMUST! 

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra Volume 1 by Kieron Gillen, Kev Walker, Marc Deering and Antonio Fabela – I heard buzz about the Aphra title and it didn’t live up to the hype for me. Aphra is a thinly veiled female version of Han Solo with (yes) a Wookie and (evil) droids. My real objection is my personal preference to read stories about heroes that are trying to make their world a better place; Doctor Aphra is not that. Skip

Invincible Iron Man: Ironheart Volume 1 and Volume 2 – I like Riri Williams. She’s smart. She is African-American. She has opinions. Tony Stark is hanging around as a amorphous AI. We get a “figuring out how to be a superhero” storyline, reminding me of Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel.  It got weird though when she took over a country without any complications. Wished there was more that defined her as a unique character, from the genius persona. Could/Should.

Other

Altered Carbon – I read a few early reviews for the new Netflix series and wondered if I should watch.  I ignored the critics, watched and I am glad I did. Yeah, there is the violence and nudity, but the story is interesting and complicated and it moves fast across the ten epsiodes. Ignore the reviewers if you like sci-fi (and watch after the kids go to bed). Must.

Lorne Stories from WTF podcast with Marc Maron – I am fascinated with Lorne Michaels and the makings of SNL. If you haven’t listened to the show, Maron tried out for SNL, and fixated about it for years. Most of these interviews took place before Maron finally interviews Lorne Michaels for the show. The most interesting thing about listening more than twenty people talk about Lorne is how much their stories are reflections of who each of them are as people. Should.

The Chemicals of Happiness

Loretta Graziano Breuning says there are four chemicals that produce happiness in our brain.

  • Dopamine produces the joy of finding things we seek
  • Endorphin creates oblivion that masks pain
  • Oxytocin creates the feeling of being safe with others
  • Serotonin creates the feeling of being respected by others

All of these chemicals are produced and released the limbic system, a mammalian system in our brains made up of structures such as the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus. The limbic system reacts quickly and claims to know what is good and bad for you. It makes sense between pleasure and pain.

The cortex is the part of the brain associated with primates and most evolved in humans. This much larger section of the human brain is the thinking, processing part of our mind. They are not involved in chemical production or the release of those chemicals.

Our work with being happiness requires us to work on those lower level systems, given the enormous effects those chemicals have on our mental well-being.

What I Read – January 2018

I haven’t posted any entries to my What I Read series in about six months. The main reason is I was doing an enormous amount of research on my #happier project. I didn’t want posting my source material to give away the pieces I was working on. To kick things off again, I am going to share several books I read.

  • The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor – This was my favorite book, mainly beacause it took a “business book” approach to the topic. Achor focused on how managers could work with employees better using the happiness research. Must
  • The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky – This book showed me the depth of the research that has been done and convinced me I need to read more.  The pitch for this book is “Happiness is hard to maintain, but here are the reliable things you can do to improve your overall happiness.” Must
  • Love 2.0 by Barbara Fredrickson – From the book – “To put it in a nutshell, love is the momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: first, a sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another; second a synchrony  between your and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviors,; and third a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care.” Must
  • Thanks! by Robert Emmons – Emmons is the leading researcher on gratitude and gratitude is one of the most reliable ways to become happier. Recognize the benefit, acknowledge receiving it and return the favor. Should
  • Happier by Tal Ben Sahara – Out of his many books, this one is the best at covering the research and some different mental frameworks for happiness. He also does a good job of drawing on prior applicable research in things like self-esteem. Should
  • The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith – The author was headed in the right direction but didn’t land it. I am still recommending it because this topic of finding purpose and meaning to so important for everyone. Could
  • Solve For Happy by Mo Gawdat – I don’t agree with everything that Gawdat says but the chart on page 134 is worth the price of the entire book. Could

Emotions Chart - Mo Gawdat

#YEARINREVIEW 2017

In 2010, Seth Godin asked people to make a list of what they shipped. I did the exercise in 2010, 20122013,  20142015 and 2016. I have come to believe that this is a important exercise, especially for entrepreneuers to see what they have accomplished.

What did I ship this year?

And I helped 16 Kickstarter projects make their way into the world.

Happy – Short and Long

Philosophy has been working on questions of the mind and meaning for centuries. The thinkers and their analysises are too numerous to count, but for the discussion of happiness, let’s consider two school of thoughts.

As early as the Eygptians, philosophers believed that pleasure should be the primary and proper purpose to human life. Greeks used their word hedonia or ‘delight’ to describe it. Today, we still describe self-indulgence pursuits and behavior as hedonistic. Freud called it “the pleasure principle” and said it provided, in the words of Howard Cutler, “the fundamental motivating force for the entire psychic apparatus…to relieve the tension caused by unfulfilled instinctual drives.”

With time, the Greeks advanced the idea of happiness further. Aristotle said singularly pursuing pleasure was vulgar. He believed activity needed to be measured against virtue. The Greek word he used was ‘eudaimonia’, often translated as ‘welfare’ or ‘happiness’. The word, translated literally, means “good spirit” and more recently as ‘human flourishing’. This is the approach Martin Segilman, the father of positive psychology, has advocated in his most recent work, in a effort to bring a greater whole to the discussion of happiness.

Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist and professor at UC-San Francisco, believes the duality is driven by the neurotransmitters in our brain. He associates dopamine with pleasure and desire, flooding the brain following a rewarding stimulus.  Dopamine helps us take action toward goals but can also trap us in addiction. On the other side, seratonin in the brain functions to create longer, sustained happiness. In one description, the chemical was described as helping people feel important and significant. That might explain serotonin’s association with both gratitude and depression.

In The Art of Happiness, The Dalai Lama distinguishes between these two schools in a different way. He says pleasure is unstable–“One day it’s here, the next day it is gone.” It’s sex, drugs and Rock ’n Roll. Real happiness, he says, is persistent and stable. It remains through the inevitable ups and downs that make up life. Where the pursuit of pleasure move us further away from life, real happiness moves us towards life and make us more receptive to what is always there.

As with most everything, it is not about seeing these competing or distinct. We experience intense pleasure and long for lasting happiness. The practice is to working with both equally.

#happier

Failing to Express Gratitude

Gregg Krech is a leading expert on Japanese psychology and the author of Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection.

In the book, Krech shares a list of 11 reasons why we fail to express gratitude:

  1. Misdirected attention – Just failing to notice what is given.
  2. Lack of Reflection – Not taking a moment.
  3. Others must “know” how grateful I am – Don’t take for granted, especially with those close to you
  4. Procrastination – Don’t wait.
  5. Forgetting – Don’t let the moment pass.
  6. Laziness – Make the effort.
  7. Entitlement – No matter the circumstance, others help.
  8. People were doing their job – You still benefit, say thank you.
  9. It’s wasn’t much trouble – Receiving any gift is justification enough.
  10. Later trouble or difficulty – The benefit exists separate from anything else that comes.
  11. An unknown giver – Honor the gift even if you don’t know the source.

A list like this helps us see many things that get in the way of being thankful.

#happier

Naikan

Naikan is a Japanese word that means to “look inside.”

Ishin Yoshimoto used this term to describe a structured method of self-reflection. Ishin was a devotee of Jodo Shinshu, a school of Pure Buddhism and in creating Naikan, he adapted a highly demanding ascetic practice called ‘mishirabe’, that involved going without food, water or sleep for days.

Naikan practice take a less austere approach, but it still involves commitment. Retreats normally last week. Participants spend all of their time in reflection outside of a short twenty-minute work practice, three meals and a shower. When they sit, it is on cushions or pillows in a small area surrounded by curtains or screens.

For reflection, participants are given three questions to contemplate:

  • What have I received from ____________?
  • What have I given to __________?
  • What troubles or difficulties have I caused __________?

The first purpose of these questions is to explore the quality of relationships of those around us. The positive psychology research consistently points to how important social relationships are when assessing happiness. In naikan, participants often start with the relationship they have with their mother.  Reflection period last 90-120 minutes and examine the relationship in segments of three to six years. At the end of each period, a coach enters, listens to what the participant has to share and make suggestions for the next reflection period. Participants continue through a set of reflections to consider the relationships with their father, siblings, spouse, children, and friends.

The second purpose is to show how much you are supported and cared for by those around you. As a daily practice, naikan can be expanded to acknowledge a wide variety of human and non-human items that allowed you to move through the day. I’d have to thank Gregg Krech for writing a wonderful book on Naikan, Aaron Feuerstein for popularizing and not patenting polar fleece, the leftover rice in the fridge that made it easy to make dinner and Matt Mullenweg for WordPress. I could go on to thanking my daughter’s wonderful new friend Hannah, a co-worker who quickly got a call schedule with an upcoming sponsor, autumn, and the airplanes that are built, are flown, and safely maintained to allowed me visit to Maine this week. This is what a naikan reflection list begins to look like.

The most interesting question to me in the naikan technique is the last. Psychology and psychotherapy have long used approaches that ask people to think about those around them, how they have been affected and the feelings that arise. Asking people what role they played in causing harm shifts the lens of self-reflection from being affected to doing the affecting. Ishin considered this practice so important he told participants in retreats to spend 60% of their time on this question alone.

As I have discussed, gratitude takes practice and naikan provides one possible route to improve your practice.

#happier

I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.

Express Gratitude

Countless acts each day involve the interaction of giver, receiver and gift.

Gratitude is the realization that we have much to be thankful for in each of those exchanges.

“Most of us recognize the ways in which our lives are supported and sustained by others,” says Robert Emmons, “…But acknowledging this awareness takes effort.”

I want to concentrate on the effort in this post.

A book that pushed me down the #happier path was The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. Her book is a collection of her original research and the research of others that points directly at the actions people can take to be #happier.

The first practice in her book is “Express Gratitude.”

Feeling grateful is important, and sharing it is just as important.

Martin Seligman’s practice of gratitude letters is the most documented. Seligman asked his students to write a 300 word letter to someone who they were grateful to have in their lives. He then asked students to arrange a meeting with the letter’s recipient and deliver it to them in person. Seligman told the students not to share the reason for the meeting and present the letter when they arrived. The recounted stories of those who received the letters are as beautiful and emotional as you’d expect.

Seligman, though, was interested in the students. He wanted to know if they would be affected by expressing their gratitude in such a personal and direct way. Seligman followed up with students and he found that students were still affected weeks and even months later. They were #happier for having shared their thanks.

The other equally studied method of expressing gratitude is with a gratitude journal. Oprah gets a lot of credit for publicized the practice in the 1990’s but the research supports that people are 25% #happier, exercise 30% more, and report fewer health issues when they keep a gratitude journal.

Some have focused on follow-on research to examine frequency with which people kept their journals. Some studies found that a weekly accounting of blessings showed greater long-term effects on happiness than those kept a daily gratitude practice. Emmons, who has done the most work researching gratitude, believes that keeping the practice matters the most. In his book, Gratitude Works!, he offers a variety of suggestions:

  • Sharing more detail helps maintain a practice. In studies, it was found that writing five lines about one item was better than writing one line about five different things.
  • Write about people who have helped you and people who have helped people you love.
  • Look for things you take for granted.
  • Write about unexpected, novel, or unanticipated events and circumstances. These surprising experiences are intense and can help generate gratitude.
  • Be grateful for the negative outcomes that you avoided, escaped, prevented, and redeemed into something positive.
  • Along the same vein, think about ways an event might not have occurred. This helps counter the tendency to take benefits for granted.

A daily practice around journaling could involve focusing on one of the items above and moving others on following days. The changing focus maintains a certain variety that avoids fatigue and highlights different ways to invoke gratitude.

If you need a goal, think about 18,256 blessings.  That’s how many entries in the journal of Jane Randall of Centerville, Utah. In reaching out to Robert Emmons, she said she tried to list each blessing just once.

Without

Before I started this #happier research, I tended to think that gratitude was cultivating an appreciation for what you have and taking time to do that is important, but considering the opposite can be just as important.

In the holiday classic “It’s A Wonderful Life”, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is given a chance to see the world without him ever being born. Seeing that alternate future fills Bailey with gratitude and inspiration to return to his life anew.

Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda said “constantly being aware of how fortunate one’s condition is and how it could have been otherwise, or actually was otherwise before” engages our minds to recall and imagine those times.

Spiritual practices and academic research also support the value in focusing on less or being without. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims engage in the practice of fasting while the sun is in the sky. Almost every religion places value on silence and solitude. When you ask college seniors to comtemplate the limited time they have left in university, they report higher levels of well-being and participate more in school activities ahead of graduation.

We assume everything we have will always be there.

Flower petals fall.

Loved ones die.

Memories fade.

As Robert Emmons sums it up – “It is a good practice to notice when a particuarly good thing in your life is going to end and not assume it will go on forever. Or just imagine that it is about to end.”

Gratitude follows.

#happier

 

Gratitude – What Is It?

What is gratitude?

Is it an emotion? Is it a thought that we construct? Is it a value that we cultivate? No one is sure.

Anthropologist Jonathan Haidt suggests the existence of an emotion called elevation—“a warm, uplifting feeling that people experience when they see unexpected acts of human goodness, kindness and compassion.”  He further believes that gratitiude motivates you to become a better person, and engage in altruistic acts ourselves.

Paul Ekman, the leading researcher on mapping emotions to facial expressions, is hestistate to refer to gratitude as an emotion, because he can’t find a set of expressions that universally characterizes gratitude, like a smile for happiness or frown for anger. Ekman says, “Not everything we experience is an emotion; we also have thoughts, attitudes, and values, for example.”

Robert Emmons, the leading researcher on gratitude, calls gratitude a secondary emotion.  He refers to Ekman’s research and agrees there isn’t a universally recognizable expression. Emmons thinks this may be because gratitude lags after the event and is often felt later.

No one questions gratitude exists and the discussion of where it arises from is valuable.

Why?

Gratitude is one of the most reliable ways to make you happier. Emmons says gratitude has the strongest link to mental health of any personality trait – stronger than optimism, hope or compassion. Brené Brown, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, says that her research found that gratitude and joy arose together in people’s experiences. Better sleep, less envy, and a longer lifespan are just a handful of many benefits that come from cultivating gratitude.

Being so pivotal to our well-being, understanding the source of gratitude can help us create practices to nuture its growth.

#happier

A Vow To Gratitude

I have been mulling around on this post on gratitude for over a week.

I keep looking for something unique to say, a hook that will catch your attention.

On the surface, gratitude is something we all know. We’ve felt it. We’ve been told we should feel it more. We feel guilty that we don’t feel it more often.  This complexity we layer on top of gratitude confuses us, or more accurately, it confuses me.

I know that’s true because it feels like another reason it has taken so long to write this post. In my researching and soul-searching around happiness, I find gratitude is something I don’t focus on enough on and express enough to those around me.

At the beginning of September, I made a personal vow around gratitude. I am actively working on being more grateful in my daily life. I plan to work with it through Thanksgiving.

Over the next few posts, I’ll share more of what I have learned about gratitude and the forms I am using to practice it.

#happier

What Makes You Happy?

Katherine Liu interviewed me for a zine she kickstarted and published this spring.

She asked me:

What makes you happy? 

Here was my in the moment, on the record, lightly edited answer:

I think I’m always surprised when I’m happy. It’s when all the stress and all of the worry and all of the regret fall away, and that’s what I think makes happiness such a wonderful quality of life.

I just got back from three weeks in India for a religious pilgrimage—India is an interesting country, and it’s a complicated country. But even with all the challenging parts of the trip, there were some beautifully serene moments of happiness. It was when all that other stuff fell away. It was slowly walking around one of the temples, being there with 6,000 Tibetan monks who were chanting all day long. There was a surreal moment of ‘There is nothing else but this’, that these people were doing something similar to what I do.

I guess that’s how I’ve come to think a lot about happiness lately. I think I try to move things in a forward direction, but what I really try to do is get rid of the other stuff—the things that stress me out. I think most people think that happiness is joy. That’s a different emotion. Joy is that ultimate high— like, “Oh, my son’s going to be graduating in three months for eighth grade.” That moment that he goes across the stage, that’s a joy moment. But I think happiness has the potential of always being there, if you let it.

And it happens in such unexpected ways—it happens every day. I have three kids, and every day it’s something they say, or some joke that they tell, and you just think—wow, that’s really smart. It clears everything else out of the way, and you’re just in that moment with them.

#happier

I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.