Joey McIntyre’s Boilerplate Encouragements

You know the song “Stay the Same” by Joey McIntyre?

I hate it. Hate, hate, hate.

I get that it’s supposed to be uplifting and inspiring, but for me, it smacks of lazy, unexamined, unicorns-and-rainbows positivity. The title suggests that staying the same is the way to go, but the whole song itself doesn’t build on that; in fact, it seems to totally contradict itself. The way the lyrics are written and put together sounds like someone just randomly took a bunch of Hallmark cards, cut them up, and pasted them together to make a rhyme.

The Chorus: A Dangerous Affirmation

Consider the first few lines: “Don’t you ever wish you were someone else; you were meant to be the way you are exactly.” Right there, it sounds like the generic encouragement that a friend who’s only half-interested in your problems would throw at you because he or she tuned out halfway and doesn’t want to bother understanding your issues.

If you’re meant to be the way you are exactly, what’s the point of changing? What’s the point in trying to do anything? Let’s just stay on our comfortable little plains and plateaus built on platitudes, and just take the opportunity to love ourselves. The world doesn’t expect any more, and it doesn’t owe us any less.

Then Joey warbles on: “Don’t you ever say you don’t like the way you are; when you learn to love yourself, you’re better off by far.” The first part, I can get behind because if you let your self-hate cripple you, then it’s all over. I get that. But what I can’t stomach is the sweeping statement that learning to love yourself is better, period. I mean, what if you’re a total jackass or loafer? Are you supposed to be okay with being a pest and a leech, just because you already “love yourself”?

That’s only the first step. You’ve got to love yourself to the point where you realize you can be awesome, you’re not at your best yet, and then work your way up and forward from there. You’re not meant to be the way you are exactly; you’re meant to become.

The chorus ends with “And I hope you’ll always stay the same, ’cause there’s nothin’ ’bout you I would change.” Either that’s a lie, or the singer just isn’t thinking very hard.

The Verse: It Gets Worse

The first (and only) verse starts with: “I think that you could be whatever you want to be.” Sounds promising. Sounds similar to “if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything”, the line which makes “Back to the Future” my all-time favorite sci-fi movie.

But then the verse goes on: “…if you just realize all the dreams you have inside.” Big problems with that writing. Like, where else would your dreams be but “inside”? Do you keep them outside, in a jar on top of the refrigerator, or in your back pocket where you might carelessly leave them on laundry day? Is your mind outside your body? And the whole statement, “you could be whatever you want to be if you just realize all the dreams you have” smacks of tautology. Of course you realize your dreams when you are whatever you want to be; why didn’t I think of that? Thanks a lot for giving the most helpful advice ever, late ’90s pop song!

And didn’t the song say earlier (at the very beginning, actually), that you shouldn’t wish you were someone else? So why say anything about becoming whatever you want to be? That’s what wishing you were someone else is. What do you want? I’m so confused!

The next lines (“Don’t be afraid if you’ve got something to say; just open up your heart and let it show you the way”) are pointless and just contradict the idea of “staying the same” for me. If you are honest and expressive, don’t censor yourself, and don’t keep yourself closed in, then you open yourself up to conversations, discussions, and ultimately, opportunities for growth and change; the fact that there’s a “way” that your heart shows you suggests that there’s a journey you must take, and you’re not meant to “stay” anywhere. So while Joey tells us to stay the same, he’s still flip-flopping and advising us to not be stagnant.

The Bridge: Taking Us Nowhere

Then there’s the bridge: “Believe in yourself; reach down inside; the Lord above will set you free.” It might be because of my agnostic, leaning towards atheistic tendencies, but for me, you either believe in yourself or believe in the Lord to set you free. Either work your own way through your own problems, or wait for a divine bailout. Any advice that gives both recommendations sounds like a speaker who’s hedging his motivational bets.

The rest of the bridge (“Believe in yourself; you will come alive. Have faith in what you do; you’ll make it through”) seems to hammer home the same point made earlier about getting through obstacles to get to a goal. But again, for me, it addresses a totally different problem from someone wanting to be different from who they are. It’s the last line in a long, meandering, falls-flat-on-its-face attempt at inspiring people to…

…I don’t know, really.

In Summary…

So basically, that’s why I hate the song “Stay the Same”, and there’s plenty about it I would change. You can still listen to it if you want, but I defy you not to cringe at the message, or lack thereof.

You know what? Just listen to “Man in the Mirror.” Whether you like Michael Jackson’s take or James Morrison’s, it’s a damn good song with a message written right.

One Year More

I’m turning a year older today. One more year of struggle. One more year of experience at being inexperienced. One more year of thinking that the best of me’s still up my sleeve.

And this past year, especially these past few months, has been a doozy. Lots of things I’m having to face up to, because I couldn’t put them off anymore. Lots of realizations that I could not escape, despite my hardest efforts to run, hide, or deny.

One realization: being fast at the beginning doesn’t mean you’ll end up finishing well. More than anything, consistency is key in success, and your being successful isn’t as easy as being the hot kid or the dark horse at the start and expecting that early momentum to carry you along.

Nope. Life isn’t physics.

Another realization: friction is unavoidable. You may try to be a nice guy, you may try to be inoffensive and have the best intentions. But there’s always something you do or something that happens that’ll end up having unintended consequences, and friction results. You can try to understand or rely on people’s understanding, and you can try to believe that things can be fixed so that everyone’s happy. But the truth is, sometimes people just rub each other the wrong way, and the best thing to do is let things go.

Finally: fairness isn’t always a simple matter of assigning weights and points. No matter how much math and measurement you try to inject into life, it’s still a messy, constantly moving and growing thing, and there will always be unknown quantities. You can’t measure an object’s velocity without changing its position, and you can’t determine an object’s position without changing its velocity (I think that’s the principle in quantum physics; for all I know, I could have butchered it).

In the end, the best we can do is make a judgment call in the moment. If it’s right, great. If it’s wrong, okay; at least you can try to be right next time (an excerpt from a book my sister lent me: “Failure is a friend disguised as an enemy”). If you didn’t do anything, then chances are you did the worst thing possible.

Maybe there’s something about growing into a new decade that makes you more aware of time. Just as milestones make you reflect on your progress on a race, turning 10, 20, 30, 40, and so on puts a natural weight and pressure on your thinking. The question is whether you’ll take the pressure as a challenge to rise to, an opportunity to be excited by the woulds, coulds, and shoulds of your life, or a gravitational force to submit to, a situation in which the would-haves, could-haves, and should-haves will take you to a state of defensive pessimism.

I’m at a fork in the road.

Tips for the Aspiring Master

I talked before about the path to getting things right, and how masters got to where they are. It’s not an easy path, and it can take a lot of grueling, repetitive work, involving a lot of mistakes, to get from wrong to right. It’s relatively easy to grasp this principle, but actually accepting and applying it can be very challenging. As human beings, we’re not purely creatures of principle: we have egos that need to be stroked, and a need for fulfillment that must be satisfied. What can we do to make the error-laden path to perfection sting a little less and pay off a little more?

Here are a few things that I think will make the leap from understanding to application a little bit easier.

Pick an Activity that You’re Motivated to Do

Whether it’s via intrinsic motivation or extrinsic motivation, drive is something that makes you more willing to practice, because practice requires immersion. It’s easier to immerse yourself in waters where you can swim rather than drown. So you have to go for an activity that you have motivation to work at.

As a student, I was very motivated to study because of a blend of intrinsic motivators (I enjoyed learning and relished the achievement of understanding difficult concepts) and extrinsic motivators (because a scholar, I was entitled to a stipend, provided that I maintained a certain grade). Think of intrinsic motivation as a gill-based respiratory system, and extrinsic motivation as SCUBA gear; both let you breathe underwater, but extrinsic motivation tends to be more limited. That’s why a lot of the time, it’s important to rely on intrinsic motivation and find the waters where you can thrive. And it’s not a simple matter of finding free swimming space.

Not every company adopts the Blue Ocean Strategy with success.
Because I’m a realist, I’m fairly sure that not every business that adopts the Blue Ocean Strategy succeeds.

Choose an Endeavor that You Can Probably Be Good At

Picking up from a metaphor I used before, a skill is a blade that you sharpen, and different types of blades are sharpened in different ways. If you try to hone a knife so that it has the same cutting properties and functions as an axe, chances are you won’t have much success. So beyond the criterion of passion or interest, you’ve got to find a place where you can positively kick butt. If you have a bigger probability of succeeding at your chosen endeavor, you’ll have a better shot at a payoff at the end of the pain, so you should go for something that betters your chances.

We all have different sets of talents, skills, and knowledge, so nobody can be good at everything. Not everyone can achieve mastery at all things; pick the target you can realistically hit. Assess your skill sets and talents, see what field you can apply them to, try to figure out the types of practice you can use to improve them effectively, and then you can begin.

Make Sure It’s Not Too Easy, but Not Too Hard

People tend to want to avoid stress. However, there are actually two different kinds of stress: eustress and distress. What you want is to have just enough stress to be challenged and but not push yourself too hard. Don’t exercise to the point of injury; don’t study to the point that you get burnt out. Keep everything in moderation, and push just enough so you can grow. If you feel that you’re not performing at your peak, then chances are you need a push. Sometimes, the judgment is hard to make, as is beautifully illustrated in the movie “Whiplash”:

Realize that Mastery doesn’t Always Involve Rivalry

Okay, at this point, I have to apologize. In my previous blog post, I talked about our competitive world, and how it’s important to win. However, I have to admit that not all games are zero-sum in nature. There is such a thing as a win-win situation, and anyone who’s played team sports or co-op games knows that success can come from working with others just as much as it can from competing with them. Teammanship, cooperative and friendly play can drive adaptation and evolution just as much as competition can, so consider finding a coach or mentor and peers you can share your path to perfection with.

Kids have been known to make adults better, too.
Kids have been known to make adults better, too.

So, what is one thing that you’d like to master? What skills, talents, and knowledge do you have to get on the road to mastery? What motivates you to want to master it? Is it career-related or just something personal? Are there any people who are helping you with that? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below, and let’s try to get a conversation going.

The Road to Right

I used to be a big CSI fan. Say what you will about how unrealistic some parts of it are and how it has affected expectations in the real-life justice system, but the characters were just too damn awesome. Gil Grissom, the lead protagonist of the flagship series who described himself in high school as a “ghost”, was my hero. He was smart, he was stoic, and he was wise. There’s probably a collection of his best quotes from the series out there, and I’m willing to bet more than half of those would be great nuggets that philosophers, scientists, managers, and practically anyone can learn from.

Hat tip to Pinterest user Maddie Marsh: https://www.pinterest.com/maddiemarsh14/csicriminal-minds/

But the one quote of his that sticks out for me, from the minute I heard it until now, is this: “I’m wrong all the time. That’s how I get to right”.

One-Strike Perfection Doesn’t Exist

Businesses talk about how it’s important to get things right the first time. It all has to do with cost minimization, of course; the fewer times something has to be done, the less time and energy and fewer resources have to be invested in that thing, so less money spent. The thing is, in the real world, we know that hardly happens. It’s not like Tiger Woods picked up a golf club and hit a hole-in-one his first time out on the green, and I’m sure Bruce Lee didn’t get the one-inch punch down perfect overnight.

And it’s the same for me. In anything I do, I never could get it right the first time. For example, people might have thought me smart during my school days, and to some degree they were right. But I wasn’t smart… at least, not in the way they thought I was.

Everyone’s Aiming for the Bullseye

We live in a highly competitive world. Each person added to the population is a drain on the planet. Resources are limited, wealth is rationed, and every person has to prove their worth every day. So it’s hardly surprising why businesses don’t like the idea of mistakes being made. It makes sense; each time you miss a point in the first quarter makes it easier for your opponent to win the game, and the game is made so one side can win. And everyone understandably wants to win. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that this justifies being a jerk. DO NOT BE A JERK, OR AT LEAST TRY NOT TO BE ONE.)

However, perfection isn’t a target you hit the first time. It takes practice; you aim for it, and it takes hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of attempts before you get it right. Anyone who’s ever tried to coach or teach anyone else knows that it’s unreasonable to expect much from a newbie.

Frigging Perfect

So what’s the answer? How do you reconcile the reality and necessity of mistakes with the need to get things right?

It’s simple. There’s no secret to it.

Don’t Be Wrong for Long

Art. Sketches. Boxing. Sparring. Singing. Rehearsal. Marathons. Training.

For every field of endeavor that requires perfection, there is a mechanism that allows for mistakes… and those mechanisms allow people to make mistakes before they count.

As a student, I didn’t pick lessons up in the class the first time I heard them; I started picking them up the day or the week before, when I studied them in the textbooks, and went over them repeatedly until I got them through my thick skull and imprinted into the grey matter of my brain. (Personally, I think few students appreciate the value of a course outline or syllabus anymore; the real world is not kind enough to provide a heads up, so the young ones should enjoy the privilege.)

Each perfect swing Tiger Woods makes is not purely a product of raw talent. Bruce Lee didn’t get his martial arts mastery handed to him on a silver plate. And everyone remembers that commercial where His Airness recognizes the value of his mistakes.

The skills these masters are associated with took honing and polishing. These were not divine, supernaturally sharp blades handed down from on high; they were honed on whetstones or grindstones, forged in furnaces, created from iron and carbon extracted from the earth. They were products of a long, long process.

What is one thing that you’ve done that you really worked hard at to achieve or get right? What were the drills, exercises, and routines you had to do to achieve it? Did anyone help you with it, or did you do it all on your own? I’d like to see your input in the comments below. 🙂

P.S: It took me ten drafts to get this blog post to a point where I’m satisfied with it. Sometimes I added something, sometimes I removed something else. It’s a messy, unsystematic method, and it’s a process I spend a lot of time immersed in. But it’s my way, so it’s well worth it.

Score Points with Your Future Self

We all have a problem with immediate gratification, I think. No matter who you are or what your situation in life is, there’s always one indulgence that, despite your rational mind instructing you otherwise, you cannot resist. It could be video games. It could be watching movies. It could be sports, or drinking, or eating, and you just can’t get enough… or at least, you just can’t get it soon enough.

The thing is, when you make a choice to indulge yourself, you have to give up time and effort that could be spent some other way. There may be other productive things you could do. Maybe you have homework to do. Maybe there’s a project you have to get to, a deadline you have to beat, or a test you have to prepare for. And maybe, just in that moment, you decide to blow it off in favor of indulging yourself, because your future self can take care of it.

"Y'know who I think we should let deal with this problem?" "Who?" "Future Ted & Future Marshall."
“Y’know who I think we should let deal with this problem?”
“Who?”
“Future Ted & Future Marshall.”

Don’t Deny Your Gratification…

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with decompressing. We’re human beings, and we all need to decompress from whatever pressures we deal with in our day-to-day existence. It’s all part of us being multidimensional and being something beyond our work or obligations.

Imagine what life would be like if we did nothing but fulfill our obligations every day. We’d eat not for the pleasure of it, but for the energy that it gives us to do our job; we’d have no awareness of anything that doesn’t concern protocols, procedures, and productivity. We’d be no fun. And probably a bit weird or sociopathic.

Just Delay It

However, what I do suggest is that when we do something to gratify ourselves immediately, let’s consider whether there would be any repercussions to our future selves. If there’s an immediate choice I have to make between binge-watching a series or working on a project I absolutely must finish, I should think about what will happen if I go for option A. Will my future self still be able to beat the deadline?

Whenever we make these kinds of decisions, we have to look back and see how much we’ve done to curry favor with our future selves. Did I work on the project enough over the past few weeks that I can afford to take a break? Have I crossed enough milestones that I can afford to walk or jog a little and still finish the race within the time I set for myself? If the answer is “yes”, then by all means, go for it.

So, whenever we feel like doing something that has an immediate payoff, let’s consider the future costs that we must pay when you do it. We should think about our future selves; hold ourselves accountable to them if necessary. It can take some getting used to, but if we let our future selves have a say in our present decisions, then I think we’ll all be better off.

On Discipline and Satisfaction

The thing about discipline is that it’s got this connotation of being just this tedious, repetitive, mundane activity that only bores, bureaucrats, and the anally retentive will get any measure of satisfaction from. Discipline is about restraint. It’s about lines that you’re not supposed to cross, or color outside of, or deviate from. It’s about rules that will, supposedly, hinder you or another in some way or another. And that’s not cool, man. Like, totally not cool.

We NEED Structure

But what a lot of people don’t realize (or maybe, what everybody doesn’t realize most of the time) is that discipline is what builds the framework around which we build everything. It’s the trellis that vines grow around. It’s the highway systems and railroads and trails that you follow as you backpack through Europe. It’s the pentatonic scale that your voice bounces along on as you attempt to hit those runs on your awesome rendition of “And I Am Telling You” or “Let’s Get It On”.

So when someone says that discipline is not their thing, and they’ll have nothing to do with it because it hinders them as an artist, or otherwise interferes with whatever inexplicable energy-based, mood-dependent activity or creative endeavor that they are pouring their passions out into, it might be good to remind them that hardly anybody starts off being great or a genius. You don’t just pick up a guitar, then feel a magical connection based on its feeling “just right” in the crook of your arm, and suddenly come out with this great, tear-jerking cover of “Let It Go”, your fingers plucking the strings as if they were red-hot, the chords ringing out like bells in the silent space formed around you by a spontaneously generated, awestruck audience that whip out their smartphones, taking videos of your feat and uploading it onto YouTube, where it gets like 999 million hits, and then turns you into a star overnight (whether that’s the time it takes before you become a star or the duration of your stardom, it’s anyone’s guess, but if it were mine, I’d guess the latter), and you are happily crowned as the miraculously musical prodigy of your generation.

Pleasure without Pain? Dream On

You know what the more statistically likely scenario is? It’s that you won’t get it right the first time. Or the second time. Or the third. It’s going to be an ego-crushing, humiliating, why-the-hell-am-I-doing-this marathon that will never seem to end, during which time you will continually question the sanity of going back and doing it over. On that score, the complainers probably get it right; there’s very little satisfaction to be gotten during that grind, that place and time when no matter what you do, it hardly seems to get any better.

But that’s the thing about satisfaction: more often than not, it’s delayed. Gratification that comes without effort is a myth, I think. Or, more likely, when you find yourself gratified with hardly any effort on your part, it’s because of the effort of other people who are carrying your hedonistic, McHappiness-seeking butt.

Behind every superb meal is a team of chefs, sous chefs, sommeliers, and other professionals who spent years learning about every nuance of the food that you’re about to consume, and you’ll probably have no more intelligent comment on it than “This is pretty good”.

Every great movie that tugs at your heart and fires up your soul is the product of thousands of man-hours spent by talented and creative workers (whose talent and creativity are honed, not inborn), more than nine-tenths of which will never be seen on the silver screen, left as nothing more than cellulose acetate ribbons on the cutting room floor, or dormant MOV/AVI/MP4/name-your-format files on some no-name videographer’s hard disk drive, never to be found or even sought out.

Every “miracle” drug (I put “miracle” in quotes because drugs don’t just happen) comes from millions of dollars and hours’ worth of research, quality control, regulation, administrative cost, failed experiments, and sleepless, coffee-fueled nights in the laboratory spent by people in lab coats who spent decades of their lives learning what they know, and earning the right to learn more about things that you’ll never even wonder about.

My point, I guess, about discipline, is that it’s a necessary cost. There are no miracles. There is no sorcery. There’s only input, work, and output.

What’s Your Discipline? Go and Find Out

So whoever you are, whatever you’re doing right now, I suggest you go out and find that discipline that will give you the most satisfaction. Find that one thing that you won’t mind mindlessly pouring weeks, months, and years into. Find the grind that will sharpen you rather than wear you down. Recognize how much it will take from you, and be prepared to pay for it.

If you’ve already found your discipline, kudos to you; you’re better off than I am, and probably 99% of the world’s population.

And what if you haven’t found yours, and probably never will or can?

Well… condolences, and welcome to the club.

The Importance of Being In Context: A Demonstration by Patton Oswalt

(Fair warning: most of the links in this post refer to content written by Patton Oswalt, whose opinions can be controversial and whose language is often profane. If you’re offended by swearing or politics, think twice before clicking.)

Patton Oswalt is one of my favorite comedians, if not the top one in my book. Not only is he a funny guy, but he comes out with some of the most insightful thoughts and gets them across in the most outrageous ways. For me, irreverence is not necessarily bad, if used correctly, and he’s one of the masters at this. Whether it’s through profanity or through some other form of verbal provocation, he makes people think. Don’t believe that a comedian can be intelligent? Let me remind you of his post on the Boston Bombing. Yeah, that was him.

But going back to my original point… he makes people think. Why? Because he’s a thinker. He’s a Big Fan of thinking. As a comedian, he says things that would give a lot of other people more than a minute of pause. And when he doesn’t say them, he posts them, writes about them, tweets them, or blogs about them.

Which brings us to July 15.

Actually, it starts before July 15 on the US news site Salon.com. The site had picked up on a joke that he made on his Twitter account, accusing him of being racially insensitive (actually, he was just making fun of a news station that did not check its facts properly before running a list of obviously fake names). This kind of out-of-context reaction to content published as a joke is not uncommon among Facebook users (I’ve been guilty of this myself), but to see a news site run with it is embarrassing, which Patton points out in an open letter published on his blog.

Among the points he drives home is the importance of referring to the original context in which a joke is made. Which, if we think about it, applies to a lot of other things. Context is often important in judging whether something is right or wrong, bad or good. But many people seem to disregard that once in a while. Why? I don’t know. The knee-jerk response is always easier than the thought-about reply, I suppose. Or maybe it’s too much trouble for a lot of people to look beyond what’s shared.

Fast forward to about a month, August 17. Patton Oswalt makes the point more clear on his own Twitter feed in a brilliant comedy bit/social experiment: basically, he writes two-part Twitter jokes whose second part, if taken out of context, are totally out of line with his typical declarations of opinion. Check out the number of retweets for the first part and the number of retweets for the second part of each joke. Amazing.

I could go on and on about how much guts that had to take, how fearless a comedian has to be to risk offending his followers, or how trusting of his fans he has to be to bet that they would resist the urge to go with first impressions and check his actual Twitter feed to see what the hell he’s actually saying.

Any way I look at it, it’s an act that makes him more deserving of respect, in my opinion. We all need that once in a while: the courage to say all that we want to, and the openness and diligence to hear the whole of what others say.