Article

Competing Goals

It’s easiest to have clarity about decision making when we’re separated from the decision making process. We build rules to allow us to avoid making tough decisions in the moment. It’s hard when emotions can push us toward a particular desire and block out other important factors. That doesn’t protect emotions from misaligned feelings though, and it’s why we need habits of revisiting our actual desires.

I’m constantly amazed with my ability to want things in the moment that are in complete contrast to what I want when I have time to sit and think. More than that, my brain can switch between two polar opposite desires in a matter of seconds, and somehow struggle to appreciate how counterintuitive it is to want them both.

The last decade, two desires have influenced many of the decisions I’ve made. One one hand, I want to create value, primarily through software. I’ve invested in the skills and headed down the path to make it happen. It’s been a more serious endeavor than anything else in my life. During it all have been uncomfortable situations, reduced paychecks, and frustrating, endless nights of reading code.

But I’m not fully bought in. On the opposite end is a desire to live in the moment, appreciate the opportunity to be alive and avoid the rat race. Money could never buy what a long conversation or morning spent in the pages of a good book offers. Many of the best moments of my life have been spent in conversation.

Recently, I’ve caught myself envying those who have focused and (seemingly) succeeded in one aspect or the other. In a matter of moments, I’m jealous of each. I have friends that invested themselves in their careers and experienced success that I’ve only seen from a distance, though often a short, agonizing distance. They’ve made a trade off for societal impact, financial success, and long term security. Peace of mind and value for others are key goals, worth almost any short term cost.

I also have friends who have put their livelihood first. Money is only a means for acquiring few worthy possessions and enabling experiences. If what’s desired doesn’t have a price tag, why waste time to earn? Contributing mustn’t come through world changing, technological breakthroughs. Being present, building strong relationships, and supporting one another is more than enough.

I want them both. I want to work late into the evening, for weeks on end, to ship something useful to a customer, all while stopping to smell the flowers and calling a friend who’s lonely. And all at once, it seems, I manage to experience doubt that I’m succeeding at either.

That’s where our minds suck. I look at each of these friends, and in comparison I’m convinced that I’m lesser than each. Angrily, I tell myself that I’m more thoughtful than the worker, more productive than the lover. It’s a manic cycle.

It’s where perspective and goals are most necessary. Objectively, like most people, I know I’m doing well in each area. I work hard, put in extra hours when the job requires, and progress toward career goals that have allowed me to have an impact. I also manage to live outside my career, reading in the morning and having breakfast with my wife rather than demanding an always-on, always-working attitude.

In the moment, I can feel inferior to two completely opposed lifestyles, or flip the script and tell myself I’m better than each. In reality, when I step away, take a deep breath over a coffee on a Sunday morning, my goals are my own and all comparison is useless. 

Have I contributed and enjoyed life in the ways I know I can? 

In the moment, the answer gets drowned out by all the noise. Better step back and give myself the time and space to chime in. It’s the only opinion that really matters.

A Unique Perspective

When I flew to Japan in April 2016, having just left my job and completely uncertain about my career, I had a feeling it was an opportunity to start writing. Writing was never a strength of mine in school. I lacked whatever patience was needed to organize my thoughts, or even identify a subject worth diving into. Opinions came easily during conversation. I was confident that learning to bring that energy to the page and widely share my perspective would provide an outlet for a lifetime.

Having an opinion has always felt like the prerequisite for writing. People certainly read unoriginal works, but it’s never felt worth my time to regurgitate an idea that’s been captured already. The uniqueness of my life and experiences has built a lens that colors every moment. I see Chinese food in London differently from others, because I travelled to China and experienced the flavor they’re shooting for, but also because I grew up in a New York suburb, and because I cook myself. The list goes on. Every little nugget of my past, along with my distinct genetic makeup, paints my opinion.

Travelling through Japan and China allowed me to figure out if there was value in that unique perspective. It sounds like a foolish question at this point. Thankfully, the writing habit I built since then has informed and affected some of the people closest to me, a better prize that I could have expected. At that time, though, my confidence was completely derived from in-person interactions. Sharing my thoughts beyond a conversation was a line I hadn’t crossed.

I spent time walking through the Olympic Park in Beijing. I ate in a tiny, quiet, shoeless restaurant in Hakone, Japan and meandered around Kyoto in the pouring rain, ingesting one of the world’s most beautiful cities through photos and journaling. I took directions from guide books and hostel employees, setting destinations while looking to be sidetracked. Every step, every photo, every pause to read about a building’s history or speed walking sprint to beat the crowds, was my own choice. I took advice, mixed it with gut-feelings, and observed.

The bulk of my writing came weeks after returning from the trip. Leaning on thousands of photos and dozens of journal entries, it became clear how much this foreign culture affected me. Obvious differences came quickly and stood out. Soon, nuances in the culture reframed my understanding of friends and colleagues who had spent time in the Japanese and Chinese ways of life. Conversations exposed the unawareness of some and highlighted the reality of others. The lens that I viewed my trip through had itself been reimagined.

As I begin a new journey into writing, restarting nearly two years since discontinuing my blog about all my random opinions, I find myself fighting to remain unique. How-to guides and listicles about morning routines promise readership and attention. There’s a formula to satisfy the modern, dopamine-hungry audience. Thankfully, it’s a grind I don’t need to participate in. Writing remains a hobby, a space to explore my perspective and not a precursor to life. Clicks and retweets and shares, if they come, represent nothing if they’re attached to unoriginal trash.

I treasure the responses and engagement I get for original work. Good writing has always required two things, an opinion and the ability to express it. Every step, interaction, and conversation cultivates my perspective. Every morning at the keyboard sharpens my tools. Optimizing for internet points wouldn’t be selling out with my writing, it wouldn’t be writing at all.

Comfortable with Uncomfortable

There’s a saying about “being comfortable being uncomfortable” that gets to the heart of Settled Afar more than I’ve realized in the past. Meeting people from around the world who are all trying to figure things out the best they know how, the one characteristic that always stands out is a person’s focus on learning. It’s a big word, learning, but in my mind it’s tied to a person’s comfort being uncomfortable. The smartest people I know ask the simplest, “stupidest” questions. They jump into the uncomfortable, concerned more about what they’re missing than what they’re proving.

It’s impossible not to build expectations around our lives and how we expect things will, and should, play out. Some mixture of the media, the example set by our parents, and numerous other factors create a template in our minds for how the world works and the expectations we should have. It’s clear as day in college, where groups of not-yet-adults live together and see that they have very different attitudes toward cleanliness, nutrition, and respect for roommates. Even the non-conformist rebel learns to add a dryer towel and say please and thank you. It’s a waste of time to think about going through life without the examples set by others. We depend on them, both for practical reasons and the confidence to stay the course.

Holding onto the habits and frameworks that bring comfort and peace of mind builds confidence but only goes so far. At some point, parents must head back home. As hard as we might try, there is bound to be a point of uncertainty and surprise. Most often, we’ll try to reshape the situation to fit our frameworks and gain more control. Soon enough, though, we’re bound to veer away and be faced with unique challenges, conditions we couldn’t have prepared for or been taught about. It starts with the classroom, a structured world where novelty is a daily occurrence. Moving ahead, like from finger painting to mathematics, we’re not only given new information but different frameworks and processes. The surprise, the differences from our expectations and comfort, extends far beyond the blackboard. It exposes itself in the new relationships we form and interactions we have. The world is not only bigger than we realized, but bigger than we may ever realize.

And at this point, the question comes back to one thing: how comfortable are we being uncomfortable? I’m not sure any of us really enjoys feeling uncomfortable, that sense of dread coming up through our stomach that says we may not be safe. The enjoyment comes from our history in these situations, knowing that our lives are not at risk and the discomfort is a clue that we’re about to learn. Like the friend who is always willing to ask the stupid question, a consistent pattern of searching for learning opportunities leads to a wealth of knowledge and experience. If we really believe that our relationships are the best aspects of life, from the long standing ones with family and friends to the smaller, simpler ones with baristas and butchers, relationships grow through empathy and understanding. Nothing helps us empathize more than listening, learning, and at some point along the way, a willingness to be uncomfortable.

First Trip to Hyde Park

My first trip to Hyde Park was the summer of 2008, when I studied in London for a month with other privileged Americans. We were at the London School of Economics, right in the center of the city, but more than a quick walk from the park. NYU to our Central Park. Hyde Park was another box on my touring list, snuggled between trips to Tate Modern and Harrods. I lived in Boston at the time, but had spent almost zero time in the city’s outdoor spaces. My outdoor time was generally spent on a field, and honestly, I wasn’t sure how to act in a public park. Especially alone.

The most memorable part of that trip was that I took the Tube (subway) to the park. Something about packing yourself in a small train 100 feet below ground in order to find some slice of nature didn’t feel right. Beyond that, I had no sense of direction. Not a smartphone or a map, nothing. Like a little gopher, I popped out and headed toward open space, constantly afraid I’d lose my reference point. I can still feel the unwillingness to leave the station behind. That was an important lesson, don’t keep your reference points. You can’t get very far if you’re stuck on a leash.

The east side of the park is bordered by one of the city’s largest roads, full of buses, taxis, and cars. Directly within the east gates is a walking path, then a larger, vehicle-width road that acts as the border of the park’s fields. These fields, especially on the north east side, are flat, groomed, and open. It’s a welcome view when everywhere else in the city gives no more than a few dozen feet of unobstructed viewing. When I first caught a glimpse of the fields, I was taken back by just how many people were playing soccer.

As far as I could see, there were pick-up soccer games. I’ve gotten to understand these games better over time, European pick-up soccer, that is. I grew up playing sports on full sized fields with plenty of space to run. These were miniature pitches, contained by adjacent games, walking paths, and the players desire to run. The athlete in me wanted to join, see what I still had left. That was a dream though, there was no chance my lonely self would interrupt a game of strangers. The idea that the games were open if I wanted to, though, kept me satisfied.

Fairly quickly, no less than fifteen minutes after arriving, the rain started and I headed for the Underground. It was a nice reprieve from the outdoors and a good way to avoid my own growing desire to join a game. I’d seen about 5 percent of the park, and two things stuck out: soccer and walking paths. It was great to see people playing sports, but why was the park so groomed? Five foot wide, asphalt paths slicing through a perfectly good field, it painted a picture of London for me. The natural, wild feeling I had hoped for wasn’t about to be found here. The park wasn’t a piece of nature plopped into a city, but a city block bulldozed and planted with grass. Who could find escape in such a place? Well, ten years later, it’d be me.

Quality Then Scale

In the interview Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker and The Big Short, recently did on the Tim Ferriss Show, he talks about his aspirations. Money and fame are two goals he doesn’t deny reaching for, thankfully, and he’s been pretty successful at (see the three Oscar nominated movies based on his books). After having each, even admitting that he enjoys fame more than wealth, he’s clear that there’s a feeling he gets from quality writing that’s the most motivating part of the process. When Liar’s Poker was released, hitting bestseller lists and becoming a cult classic, he was dancing around his kitchen because he never expected it to be so successful. Now, there’s times when he’s not even sure if his books are on the NYT best sellers list. External validation obviously wanes. Knowing he’s produced quality, that’s a personal aspiration that never subsides. The people who spend money on his latest book aren’t the best judges of success. They’re swayed by his previous work, his place in popular culture, and the fact that Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, and Christian Bale have all taken up his characters. Seeing the impact the story has on individuals though, and his own judge of quality, that’s completely his. And that’s a perspective that doesn’t change, and doesn’t lie, nearly as much as the public’s.

“What is better: a medium amount of good pizza or all you can eat of pretty good pizza?”

Quality is now, and always has been, king. As a consumer, especially of things that require a lot of our time (like books), we owe it to ourselves to air for quality. Alice in Wonderland is under 150 pages, The Shawshank Redemption is under 2.5 hours, to name a few, but the stories impact and inspire in a way that 20 hours of Police Academy simply can’t. Spend a night at a decent jazz club with unknown performers and it’s hard to argue that at some point, the world does a bad job identifying and promoting quality artists. The world, our world, is run on capitalism, and that framework doesn’t optimize for the best experience. 

The mind wants very satisfied consumers, even if it’s just a few, not a mass of apathetic followers. There’s a genuine interest in scaling one’s work. If it’s impactful, more people should experience it. But if it’s not delivering, who needs it? And as capitalism takes over every aspect of life, the search for quality becomes harder and harder. We live with a multitude of mediocre choices, from food to furniture, that work best for businesses and businessmen. Chipotle is good, but have you ever eaten good Mexican food? Ikea makes decent chairs, but what about a hand made, wooden chair that lasts thirty years? It’s not harder to deliver quality on a small scale than it was previously, go have another taste of your grandma’s lasagne for proof, but the need to scale sucks the life energy from the idea that delivering an amazing experience, even for only a single person, is worth the effort.

If we can create quality products, cook food and build furniture that lights up someone’s eyes, the possibility to scale will come. There are too many people looking to make money for nothing. It won’t guarantee it can be done, especially while maintaining a high standard, but the opportunities will be there. Certain businesses will thrive when given the opportunity to expand. Take Airbnb for example, a company that operated on such a small, user focused scale when it began that the founders would visit each hosts home and take photos themselves to ensure their quality. As smartphones grew in ubiquity, competition between hosts grew, and potential for revenues for soared, hosts took over, but not before the founders built a high quality product. When scale came, it was a tsunami allowing super rapid growth. 

This potential is obviously different for other businesses, like the restaurants of David Chang, which started in 2004 with a single noodle bar in New York City but has grown to a portfolio of nearly thirty locations throughout the world. Ensuring quality doesn’t suffer when growing an scaling is a monstrous feat in the restaurant world, and especially when low margins mean any mistake can bring it all crashing down. But Chang’s hasn’t rushed the process, and it’s led to not only a few dozen amazing restaurants, but a revolution in the food world.

There is a place for lower quality, mass produced goods. Primark, a store in the UK similar to H&M or K-Mart, sells low quality clothing. For some, it’s the only place to get back to school clothes or birthday gifts. Chipotle’s made Mexican food accessible. For a large majority, though, we gorge on low quality junk because it’s so cheap and available.

Worst case when focusing on quality is delivering a lot of value to a small group. Teachers, local businesses, restaurants, they all focus on pleasing small numbers first and foremost. Sometimes it seems like people would sell junk to a million people than a treasure to a single person. And it all comes back to money. Consumers are choosing more cheap junk, and creators are choosing more, under-satisfied customers. They’re both losing.

Value, that’s the point, and we take aim at material items and personal accomplishments to show others how much value we’ve amassed and how much we can give. But these items and accomplishments get confused for the value itself. An amazing sweater, even if old and off brand, can bring far more value than the logo on the shirt. Writing a letter that changes a friend’s life is far more valuable than an Instagram post at a fancy beach that’s liked a million times. Materials and accomplishments can represent values and skill, but they’re a secondary representation. A job title doesn’t define one’s skill set and a social media statistic doesn’t define one’s relationships. A good writer doesn’t need to be read by the masses and being read by the masses doesn’t make a good writer. 

Michael Lewis started by writing for magazines, first as himself then under a pseudonym because he pissed off a few big shots at the bank that employed him. He cared about putting high quality stories in front of readers. The way to do that was writing about finance. His articles were passed around on the trading floor with another name under the title, but the appreciation for the work was there. He managed to deliver his work to millions. But even now, with a guarantee that anything he puts out will be devoured by loyal followers, it’s his own judge of quality that matters. He knows the feeling of quality, and it’s not defined by others.