The Price of Excellence

I’m currently reading a book written by Ryan Holiday called The Obstacle is the Way. It’s basically a treatise on stoicism, and how meeting obstacles with the right perspective, energy, and will can let you convert them into opportunities. If you’re a subscriber to the stoic philosophy, or if you want to read stories about people from history who exemplified this way of living, then I recommend that you read this book.

Saying that, this is one of those self-help books that lends itself to occasional oversimplification; hard not to do that when you’re making strong, prescriptive statements.

One part of the book I take issue with is its call for people to pursue excellence, regardless of the circumstances. Basically, the author’s thesis for that chapter is that if someone has to motivate you to do something well, then something’s wrong with your attitude. What you have to cultivate is to attack any task in front of you to the best of your ability. You need to bring to bear an excellence ethic, a perspective that says “this is something I made with my hands, a product of my mind, a service from my effort; it must be great no matter what.”

Excellence is a Premium Product…

The thing is, if you’re going to bring heroic effort to everything you produce, then you’re going to run yourself into the ground eventually. Even machines wear out or burn out; human beings need to eat, sleep, play, and fulfill themselves in far more aspects beyond their work in order to be satisfied and productive. So while I do appreciate the romance behind single-focused, eye-on-the-object workmanship, I also appreciate that the worker is a person.

Also, one has to recognize the value of the workmanship in terms of the time value of mastery. No one is born a master, or even becomes a master overnight. It takes a lot of failures to get to mastery, and those failures have a cost that the master happily paid.

…That Clients Don’t Often Appreciate

The tragedy of it is that in a lot of industries, there’s no consideration made for this. Editors, proofreaders, and copy editors (yes, those are different things) are often not compensated well because their expertise isn’t appreciated: experts, the ones who know what they’re doing, should charge more because of their attention to detail, meticulousness, appreciation of nuances in style, syntax, punctuation, and what-have-you. But because clients don’t appreciate the difference between someone claiming to be an expert editor/proofreader/copy editor and someone who actually is one, the truly skilled are forced to compete in a lopsided wage war against those who provide a defective product.

Similar arguments can be made for many creative industries. Musicians have to scrape by for their gigs. There are video editors who are forced to churn out hundreds of videos a month. Many graphic artists, writers, and designers are approached by clients and publishers who have no idea what they want, and want to pay them little to produce it (Internet personality Wil Wheaton has actually spoken out, slamming the use of “exposure on a unique platform” as a substitute for monetary incentives).

In a Perfect World, There’s No Settling for Dirt

There’s a popular story about Pablo Picasso: supposedly, he was once approached by a woman who asked him to draw her portrait, which he did with a single stroke. The woman was delighted at the result, but dismayed when Picasso asked her for five thousand dollars for it. She asked “Why so expensive? It took you only a moment to do it!”

Picasso replied, “Madam, it took me my entire life.”

While not all of us are Picassos, many of us are engaged in some sort of creative work, which clients often take for granted. In the mad dash towards “gaining the edge in customer service,” many companies and freelancers are pressured to sell themselves short. A video recently released on YouTube also calls out the unfairness in the common advertising industry practice of asking for RFS. Check out the video below to learn more about it (in a tongue-in-cheek) way:

In the Philippines, many Filipino workers are concerned about the impending competition that would be introduced by the APEC integration next year. They’re afraid that skilled workers from other countries could easily take jobs away from us because they are more qualified. That may be true, but consider this: how many of them would want to? With our country’s high income tax rate, slow Internet connection, and poor transportation infrastructure, there are many things that would turn off foreign businessmen and workers from entering our job market. I’m sure at least some of them would walk away from invitations from our employers. That’s the kind of leverage being skilled should get you.

Basically, there’s just one point that I think should be made about excellence: No one is asking anybody to be all about the money. No one is saying that your excellence should only be pursued when there’s an incentive to pursue it. However, you also have to respect yourself enough to know when someone isn’t recognizing the worth of your work.

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Start with the Small Wins

What do you do when the hardest part is at the start?

You know what I’m talking about.

Maybe you’re looking at that cursor on your word processor, mocking you as it blinks on and off in the blankness.

Or maybe your mind is whirring at octo-core speeds in the presence of your crush, dismissing conversation starters almost as soon it conceives them in an infinite loop of anxiety.

Or maybe you want to quit smoking and are smoking just one last cigarette–for the hundredth time. 

It’s like when you’re pushing something. Ever notice how when you start to push something, it’ll refuse to budge at first, but it feels like it doesn’t resist as much once you’ve gotten it to move? (Remember the concepts of static friction and kinetic friction from your high school physics classes?) Or in certain chemical reactions, there’s a high energy toll that needs to be paid (technically called activation energy) before the reaction can take place.

A more fun metaphor is when you’re on a roller coaster. Sure, it’s exciting, with the cars going through the twists, turns, and loops at devil-daring speeds. But before that, the cars have to slowly go up the highest peak of the ride, getting pulled up by a heavy chain, each clack-clack of the wheels against the rails building anticipation, excitement, and nervousness among the passengers.

So that’s the way it is with a lot of tasks. A lot of the time, you have to muster enough willpower to start, and from the initial grind, you gather enough mental momentum to power through to the finish.

Still, it doesn’t change the fundamental problem: how can you muster the willpower needed to get through the first hurdle when even that’s really challenging? How do you keep yourself motivated to climb when even base camp seems like an impossible summit?

Simple: don’t even think about base camp.

Think about what comes beforehand, and aim for that. Then aim for the next step. Then the next. And before you know it, you’ll have gotten over the hump.

Speaking in angry, impassioned ebonics, Eric Thomas puts it really well:

You got to go in the future and see it, baby, and then you got to come back in the present… you got to take that big goal, that big dream, that big reality-that’s what I said-you got to take that big reality, and we got to take small steps to make it manageable to make your dreams become a reality.

Think big, dream big, but start small. That’s right, start small. Remember what I told you; start where you are, with what you have, because what you have is plenty.

In the book The Power of Habit, we read about the concept of small wins. Basically, it says that there’s power in acknowledging even little victories:

“Small wins are a steady application of one small advantage,” one Cornell professor wrote in 1984. ” Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.” Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny achievements into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.

If you’re an amateur, be fair to yourself. Don’t measure yourself against the records of Olympians. Just do what you can today, then do a little more, and a little more after that. Keep telling yourself: “just one more push.” Then make the push, then say “just one more push” again. Gamblers tell themselves that they can quit any time they want; give yourself permission to tell your mind the exact same lie, but channel it towards a productive endeavor.

Technically, every milestone is separated by inches.

Once you realize that, you can get started.

Moral Stamina

I believe all people are innately tuned towards sin because more often than not, it’s the easy way out of things. Check out the seven deadly sins: each one of them is caused by some form of selfishness, some variation of “I’m going for the thing that will satisfy my appetites easiest, other people be damned”. Saying “human beings tend to be sinful” is like saying they have mass, and therefore have weight; it’s only natural for them to fall, to gravitate towards the depths, to stoop low and sink.

However, I also believe that all people are capable of doing good. While people have mass, they also have muscles. They can choose to stand, to rise, and to move forward.

The thing about doing good, though, is that it usually takes a toll. Doing the good thing often takes some measure of sacrifice. One is considered virtuous if one acts against his or her own self-interest.

Make no mistake; defying gravity is not purely an experience of exhiliration. Birds don’t fly by virtue of some anti-gravitational force field. It takes a constant beating of the wings, an awareness of headwinds and tailwinds, an adjustment to gales and currents. In a similar manner, I believe doing good is a draining task, and one needs to develop the right kind of moral muscle to sustain that. One needs not just moral strength, but moral stamina.

So what gives you moral stamina? What is that one core belief you hold on to to keep yourself on the right track, no matter how inconvenient it may be for you? What is that one thing you have to keep telling yourself, that one gospel truth you have to latch onto to keep upright?

When you feel start to feel the burn after being your good self for so long, how do you keep yourself from crashing and burning?

Expectation vs. Reality

There’s a reason why there are so many memes and tropes build around the theme of “Expectation vs. Reality”: it’s because the tension is real.

It’s part of the human condition. No matter where or who you are, there’s a gap between your current reality and what you expect, and it’s natural to want to close the gap. You can either close the gap by changing your reality or changing your expectations.

The thing is, expectations are often a lot more malleable than reality. Reality is a messy, chaotic, Brownian thing, shaped not just by your actions but also the actions of others around you; not just by your wishes but also by the wishes of others related to you; and not just by your history but also the history of others who came before you. How can you fight a typhoon of conflicting, clashing forces, the sum of all fears, the product of all appetites?

So you shift your expectations. You resign yourself to reality, surrender to its ebbs and flows, to its whims and caprices, which seem to be nothing more than random flux, no more predictable than the winds of a hurricane. You change to suit the environment. You become one with the mob. It’s adaptation, you tell yourself. It’s what you have to do to survive.

However, closing the gap by changing your expectations isn’t really the way to be happy. You bend and blow in the wind, and thus avoid getting your spirit broken, but it leaves the spirit flaccid and shapeless, a tree that does not stand.

So, here’s the question for today: should you live your life waiting for others to be okay with what you really want? Or should you live life changing what you want based on what others prefer or expect?

Or should you live your life based on what you expect for and from yourself?

A better question: when does expectation dictate reality, and when does reality dictate expectation?

I Feel Cheated, but I’m Not Sure I Was

So yesterday, I read an article on Inquirer.net about former Philippine President Joseph Estrada defying age through stem cell therapy. The exact title is “Joseph Estrada defies age, shares how he did it: Stem cell therapy.” Having had a background in life science, I read the article, skipping to the section about the treatment. Here’s what it said:

At the prodding of friends, the 75-year-old Estrada flew to Frankfurt, Germany, last month to undergo fresh cell therapy (also known as stem cell treatment), an innovative albeit controversial procedure where fresh cells from donor animals are injected into the human body to treat diseases or reverse the aging process.

Fresh cell therapy operates under the principle of “like heals like.”

The fresh cells from a donor animal’s organ are infused into the human counterpart.

… Estrada said he received 14 shots of blood from unborn sheep in his buttocks during the visit.

I was confused. In all the time I learned about human stem cell treatments, I was aware of only two types: autologous and allogeneic stem cell transplants. Basically, one involves stem cells taken from the injured person himself, and the other involves stem cells derived from another person. Both procedures involve putting human stem cells in an injured or diseased human.

But here, we have an article referring to fresh cell therapy, where fetal cells from a sheep are taken and introduced into a human. It further states that “fresh cell therapy” is also known as “stem cell treatment.”

While I’m not familiar with developments in medical biotechnology that have happened since I graduated, I’m pretty sure that the term “stem cell treatment,” as discussed in the news, currently broadly refers to human-to-human transplants. To illustrate, a related article in the same issue of the online publication discusses “stem cell therapy” without referring to animal-to-human transplantation. If ever, I’m fairly certain such a process would be called “xenogeneic stem cell therapy,” which, if I remember my science nomenclature right, would correctly indicate the process of taking stem cells from a creature of another species.

To be fair, though, the term “stem cell treatment” itself specifies only the use of undifferentiated cells for treatment purposes; strictly speaking, if one reads that phrase alone, the question of where the stem cells that are used came from is left unanswered. But given that the context of discussions surrounding “stem cells” nowadays is centered around human-derived stem cells, could we say that there’s been a case of misleading writing here?

I can only speak from my experience: I read “stem cell therapy” in the headline, I expected to read about human stem cell treatment, and I instead read about sheep’s fetal cells being used. Personally, I feel cheated. I learned from the article, sure, but it wasn’t what I expected at all.

What do you think? Am I being a prick about it, or do I have a right to feel like it was unfair?

Why I Can’t Do Everything

There was a time when I genuinely believed that if I put my mind to it, I can accomplish anything (that was around the time I watched Back to the Future for the first time, for those who may know the reference).

Any challenge accepted, I'd think.

But now I’m older, and I can safely assert that mere willpower won’t get you everything. Your expectations have to be realistic.

To that self, I now say "get outta here," euphemistically speaking.

A few days ago, I posted about some car trouble I had. The car broke down, and I had to drive it back home. It was a rattling, clunking mess. There was no way I was going to be driving it anywhere else; it had to be fixed. I called a couple of mechanics over, who determined that the problem was with the brake shoes, and said they would come back to take care of it within a week. When they came back, I watched as they fixed the problem. It entailed taking the brake assembly apart, replacing the faulty component, and putting it back. Simple to write, but for me to have done it myself would have been ridiculous.

I have a book at home. It’s called “How to Repair Your Car.” I bought the book during my “I can accomplish anything” phase, and hardly read it nowadays. On the cover, there’s a smiling man with a wrench, and inside were fairly easy-to-understand diagrams of the innards of a car. The book’s central thesis is simple: if you know the inner workings of your car, and have the right tools, you can fix certain problems yourself and save money.

Watching the two mechanics work on my brakes, I realized that that’s a bunch of hooey. I could fix the problem myself, theoretically; borrow the right tools, buy the right parts, set aside a day or so to figure out how to take the brakes apart and put them back together. But I was worried by the loudness of it all. They had to bang on the brake assembly with a hammer to remove the drum. They had to pry the whole thing apart too, eliciting some whining and screeching from the springs within. But at times, they would take great care. It was a random ritual to me, a strange mixture of force and finesse. I wouldn’t know the difference if I tried it myself.

Afterwards, they lay the pieces on the ground in no order I could recognize. The parts looked different from one another, for sure, but ask me how they came together, and there would be an awkward silence, after which I would exclaim “witchcraft!”

There’s also one basic physical requirement that I somehow failed to account for: strength. Somehow, I had thought that tools were talismans of power. In my mind, simply holding a tire iron would give you infinite leverage. Of course, now I realize that yes, there is a physical element to it. There’s a reason why Thor could lift Mjolnir*, while my girl-like figure could easily be defeated by a P206/60R15 tire.

It took them just over 30 minutes to replace the brake shoes on both back tires, while I probably would have broken down and cried a quarter of the way into the job. So there’s my big epiphany. I can’t do everything myself, and I’ll have to pay someone else to do things sometimes. Perfectly acceptable to me now, no matter how disappointed my past self would be about it.

*Yes, it’s because he’s worthy. But for the purpose of making me right, let’s say it’s because of his strength.