Autopilot to Engaged

I have a theory.

Most people walk around on autopilot. Yesterday's behaviors predict what we'll do today. We have free choice (I think), but for the most part, human beings operate like machines. Wake up, scroll through social media, eat breakfast, check email, shower, get dressed, drive to work, park in the same spot, grab a cup of coffee, say hello to Sally, work until noon, get that sandwich you like from that restaurant you like, work until five o'clock, drive home, experience road rage, take the dog out, walk the same loop, get mad when she takes too long to poop, eat dinner, watch Netflix, goof around your phone, go to bed, repeat.

That's not my life. Parts of it are true (I do shower). Parts are true for everyone. But regardless of how we spend our days, most of our hours seem to be spent on autopilot. Ever drive somewhere, arrive at your destination, and think, "How the hell did I get here?" We have no memory of the trip itself because our brains actually do operate on autopilot sometimes. Scary, but true.

I wonder if the switch is stuck on autopilot more often than we realize.

Something magical happens every time I fast from something (dessert, Twitter, alcohol). I become more aware of what's happening around me. My brain is more focused. I'm more alert and, ultimately, more alive. Is that because fasting is a spiritual discipline? Perhaps. But there's another explanation. Maybe shaking up our routine flips the switch from autopilot to engaged? Maybe breaking our predictable patterns wakes us up? It's as though consciously making a decision to do something different from my normal routine stirs parts of my brain that are normally dormant.

Maybe we should choose something every month (or week, or day) to keep the switch permanently locked into the "engaged" position.

Chocolate? Social media? Television? What will wake you up?

Dream Again

Today I was reminded of Isaiah Austin's story. He played basketball at Baylor University and was expected to be chosen in the 2014 NBA draft until he was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome three days prior, a condition that affects the heart and prematurely ended his basketball career.

Three days before Austin's childhood dream was about to come true, it was taken away from him. Devastating.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver did a wonderful thing that night by recognizing Austin during the draft with an honorary selection. The crowd gave the young man a standing ovation, and Austin was moved to tears. It was an emotional moment for all involved.

But what really stood out for me was Austin's interview. When Jay Williams asked about Austin's next step, he said, "I'm going to dream again."

And he did. In 2016, he was medically cleared to play basketball and has been competing professionally overseas ever since.

So many of our dreams get crushed. A marriage falls apart. A job lays you off. A business fails. An idea implodes. And too many of us give up. We call it quits. We stop dreaming.

I've been there over and over again. Spent hundreds of hours writing books that never got published. Recorded podcasts that never became popular. Had creative ideas that flopped. But I've always picked myself up, dusted myself off, and dared to dream again.

Isaiah Austin was a kid who had his dream pulverized. And he chose to dream again. If he can do it, so can we. If a lost dream has you paralyzed, it's time to dream again.

The Importance of Solitude

People work hard to avoid loneliness. Growing up in suburban Cincinnati, the idea of spending time alone in public made me squirm. Flying solo meant you had no one to hang out with, which meant you had no friends, which meant you were a loser, which meant you were going to die alone. (That’s a flawless line of reasoning.)

As I got older and spent more time in contexts that naturally led to solitude (my college campus, downtown, airports), the idea of being alone became less intimidating. It’s okay if you eat alone downtown at noon because everyone you know is working, and therefore, it cannot be an indictment of your personality. Of course, context still matters. Most of us don’t mind reading alone at a coffee shop at ten o’clock in the morning, but even the most secure person might feel awkward eating dinner alone on a Saturday night at a romantic restaurant.

Living downtown for two years meant I was alone in public a lot. There wasn't much to do in a small apartment, so I spent most of my time wandering around the city. Coffee shops, happy hour, Fountain Square, Smale Park ... I was a man of the town.

When my wife and I decided to move across the street from Great American Ballpark, I was thrilled about the idea of walking to games by myself, drinking a beer, and wandering around the stadium in search of the best empty seat. I was intimidated about being by myself, but who cares what other people think, right? The first time I tried it, I ran into two friends I hadn't seen in years. When they asked where I was sitting, I casually changed the subject. (I didn't want to tell them I was alone.) After a quick chat, I wandered up to a section behind home plate, grabbed an empty seat, and I kid you not, saw myself on the jumbotron within two minutes of sitting down. Alone. For everyone in the stadium to see.

Text messages and tweets started rolling in from people at the game who knew me. Someone even asked me if I was there alone. I couldn't believe it. What are the odds I picked a seat that was on the jumbotron two minutes later? Great American Ballpark seats 42,319, so I guess the odds are 1 in 42,319.

Here’s what I've learned about solitude. It often creates connections that likely wouldn't form if you were surrounded by friends and family. I get to know bartenders when I’m alone. I’m more aware of the people around me when I’m alone. I hear fascinating life stories when I'm alone. I make new friends when I'm alone.

Being alone allows us time to think, reflect, mourn, plan, dream, and create. Friends and family are wonderful. I love being surrounded by people. But I also love being alone. And I’ve learned to overcome the stigma associated with solitude. Amazing things can happen if you just give yourself space for the universe to do its work.

Enjoy Yourself

Years ago, I watched the series finale of a television show called House. I loved the main character, Dr. House. He was a narcissistic jerk (who may have reminded me of myself), but he was a lovable narcissistic jerk, so I tuned in every week. The final scene still haunts me (in both good and bad ways).

The show's plot was way too complex to explain in a single post, but essentially, Dr. House's best friendan oncologist named Dr. Wilsonwas dying of cancer and given six months to live. Dr. House faked his own death and arranged for them to spend Wilson's final months traveling the countryside on motorcycles.

As the series fades to black, House and Wilson begin their journey cruising down the highway. In the background, a song plays. Its chorus:

Enjoy yourself; it's later than you think,
Enjoy yourself while you're still in the pink.
The years go by as quickly as a wink,
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself; it's later than you think.

I haven't been able to get those lines out of my head since.

In my twenties, I thought I would live forever. Not literally, obviously. I understood that all living creatures eventually die. But it felt like I had all the time in the world. There was always tomorrow. I could be anyone. Do anything. Sure, there was stress, anxiety, and fear, but the future was as limitless as my dreams.

As I approach forty-two, I realize that I'm on the back end of my life. Not that I'm old, but death is no longer an imaginary friend. My mortality feels real, which has me contemplating how I want to spend the next forty-two years.

Most of us play by the rules of a world that has an agenda. This world wants our time. It wants our money. It wants our energy. It wants our precious, fleeting, ever-dwindling minutes. And we oblige. We lick our index fingers and stick them in the air to determine which way the winds are blowing, and then act out a script someone else has written for us.

The world says to spend money and time on external looks, so we empty our wallets, stand on a scale, and stare into the mirror looking for flaws. The world says popularity is what ultimately matters, so we desperately try to be noticed. Aren't I clever? Aren't I smart? Aren't I talented? Aren't I important? Please tell me. Like my Facebook status. Retweet me. Read my blog.

I don't want to wait around for a near-death experience, a cosmic tragedy, or a terminal diagnosis to start living.

Of course, we all understand in the philosophical sense that everyone has a terminal diagnosis. Most of us just aren't sure how much time we have left. But my guess is, it's later than you think.

I'm not saying I've found the secret to life. I'm sure my next existential crisis is percolating as I type. But why wait for the perfect set of circumstances that may or may not ever arrive? Why wait for life to slap us upside the head to start living?

I've certainly been judged for some of my choices throughout the years. But that's because most people are so unhappy (or insecure) with their own lives that they only feel better by tearing down someone else. (I only know that because I've often been the unhappy, jealous, insecure person driving the bulldozer.) Luckily, we can rise above. Chart our own course. Death is eventually coming for us all, so we might as well live the lives we were created to live in the time we have left.

So the next time you have a choice between existing and living … enjoy yourself. Enjoy yourself. It's later than you think.

Keep Going

When I was a teenager, my sister and I would drive to a tree farm and cut down our own Christmas trees. One for her house. One for my parents' house. We didn't make the trip every year, but we did it enough that I became fond of the tradition.

When my ex-girlfriend and I started dating back in 2002, we thought it would be fun to drive out to that same farm and cut down a live tree.

We were wrong.

On our way east, a parade completely shut down Route 125, leading to a detour, and the detour was so backed up that we sat in traffic for almost three hours. The drive was only thirty miles. That's an average of ten miles per hour and five emotional meltdowns per minute.

We finally arrived shortly before closing, and for some reason, I thought a butter knife would be sufficient for cutting through the trunk of a pine tree. Okay, it wasn't a butter knife, but the saw's blade was so dull that my Dollar Shave Club (tell them Steve sent you) razor would have been a better choice.

I sawed, and sawed, and sawed with all my heart. After what felt like months of sawing, our tree finally fell to the muddy ground. Did I forget to mention it was unseasonably warm that day, it had rained the night before, and we were walking through mud puddles the entire afternoon?

We escaped tree hell as soon as possible. No hayride. No hot chocolate. No Christmas caroling. None of the reasons that actually made the excursion fun. Instead, muddy feet in my car, our tree tied to the roof, and two annoyed people sitting in silence.

We got back to my apartment and realized the tree wouldn't stay vertical because I had sawed the trunk at a 45-degree angle and the stand kept tipping over. So I started sawing againwith that same dull bladeand made zero progress. Not exaggerating, I sawed for an hour and the trunk had a mark the size of a paper cut. We finally drove to the store and bought a new saw. Amazing how much easier it was to saw through wood with a sharp blade.

The tree was finally ready to be decorated. Dozens of ornaments, hundreds of lights, and, of course, the star on top. After a very long day, our tree was finished (and looking exquisite). As we sat and basked in its beauty, the damn thing fell over. Sap-filled water went everywhere, ornaments broke (including an ornament that had been passed down in my ex's family for decades), and pine needles invaded my carpet like an army of green demons.

I snapped and vowed never to get a live tree again. But then …

In 2005, I was living with approximately ten friends, and when Christmas rolled around, one roommate and I went shopping for a tree. After checking a couple of places, we ended up at a Hyde Park lot. We found the perfect tree, and while my friend finalized the purchase, I noticed a cat hanging around the nearby house. It looked like a nice cat, so I reached down and pet it. After a few minutes, the cat decided it was tired of my affection and chose to bite the hell out of me. The dude selling the trees was like, "Hey, that wasn't very nice." I said it wasn't a big deal, that my family cat did the same thing all the time. He replied, "Oh, it's not even our cat; it just kinda hangs around here and the people upstairs feed it."


I said, "Oh, that's perfect," and pretended like the cat didn't break skin, even though half of my hand was missing (I'm exaggerating a bit). But deep down I knew—I had deadly kitty rabies and my days on this planet were numbered. What a wonderful Christmas miracle.

I didn't contract rabies, but I did have a nice gash in my hand as a reminder of Catjo, but at least the tree looked nice.

I vowed never to get a live tree again. But then …

Liz (then my girlfriend, now my wife) and I went to that same tree lot during our first Christmas together in 2007, bought a live tree for my apartment, and decorated it. The tree was beautiful and provided many hours of enjoyment. Lovely, wonderful, gorgeous tree.

But the holiday season took a turn for the worse on December 28, 2007.

That morning, I woke up and watered my Christmas tree. When I brought the glass back into the kitchen, I noticed there were several bugs around its rim. So, I went back into my living room and looked at the tree, and you guessed it, there were bugs everywhere. I know people exaggerate these stories, but this is no exaggeration—there must have been two hundred bugs on the floor under my Christmas tree. They were these spider-looking things (luckily, they were big enough to see, and slow enough to be easily killed). It was disgusting, so I got to squishing. When most of the bugs were dead, I realized I had to get rid of the tree as soon as possible. Of course, the only way to accomplish this was to stick my arm inside the branches (into a potentially huge nest of bugs) and carry it outside.

I still shiver thinking about it.

After a panic attack, I grabbed the trunk and leapt down my stairs (tripping and almost breaking my ankle along the way). Pine needles flew everywhere, but the tree eventually made it outside. I looked at the trunk's base and saw hundreds of bugs. The tree was infested.

I went back inside and spent an hour killing the remaining spider-thingies and sweeping pine needles (and additional bugs) from my hallway and staircase, then I cleaned like a madman. Finally, after feeling my skin crawl (I never knew what that felt like until December 28, 2007) for the better part of two hours, I took an amazing shower. A long, scalding, bug-murdering shower.

My beautiful, perfect, Hallmark Christmas tree was infested with bugs. The outside was gorgeous; the inside was a ticking time bomb.

I vowed never to get a live tree again. But then …

I did. The following year. And the year after that. And after that. And last year. And this year.

Twelve years in a row. And they've all been great. No tipping over. No spider families.

Because you can't give up. You can't quit. With little things like Christmas trees, but mostly, with big things like relationships, businesses, organizations, goals, hopes, dreams.

Everyone fails. Everyone falls down. Some people stay down. They quit. People who accomplish amazing things just keep getting back up. Natural talent matters, but we're all good at something. Skills matter, but you can learn those. The key difference between successful and unsuccessful people isn't how much they fail, because we all fail. The difference is that successful people ultimately get back up one more time than they fall down.

Finding Your Creative Spark

The enemy of creativity is distraction. Growing up in the 1980s, I didn't have the internet or Netflix. There weren't tiny computers in our front pockets. No one was addicted to social media. As a kid, I spent time creating. I colored pictures, wrote short stories, and invented elaborate games in my backyard.

These days, I waste huge chunks of time doing nothing. Playing with my phone, scrolling through my Twitter timeline, looking for a new binge-worthy series. Hours disappear. And when I do sit down to create, I'm easily distracted by beeps and vibrations. It's a problem. But I have discovered a few tricks to stay creative and productive in the midst of the technological invasion.

1) Find your happy place.
This is different for everyone, but there are places on this planet that your productivity will go up, and there are places your productivity will plummet. Some people work best at home. Others need to escape. Some work better in isolation. I tend to work better in public places (coffee shops). People energize me. I'm more distracted when I'm alone because the silence is deafening. Wherever that place is, find it and get to work.

2) Discover your ideal hours of creative productivity.
I'm not a morning person. I spent decades apologizing for that until I finally accepted who I was. Some people wake up at five o'clock in the morning to write. I could never do that. I like sleep. My most productive period is late morning/early afternoon (10:00 AM – 3:00 PM). If I try to write outside of that window, it's normally mush.

So—and you really have to commit to this or it will never happen—find at least two hours per day and use that time to create. If you can spare more time, do it. I suggest two hours instead of one because it normally takes me some time to enter a creative rhythm. If you only have one dedicated hour set aside, you'll run out of time right as you experience a creative breakthrough. Write, paint, sculpt, sing, dance. Tap into your creative energy and see what happens.

3) Travel back in time to 1985.
I was eight years old in 1985 and experiencing my creative peak. I didn't have a cell phone. I don't think we had cable television. I'm almost positive Ozark wasn't streaming on Netflix. The internet was just a gleam in Al Gore's eye. I know the media has convinced us life is impossible without our technological gadgets, but they're lying to you. Society survived for centuries without Twitter. You can unplug for two hours per day. Don't say you can't. You're inflating your own value. Someday you'll pass away, and the world will keep spinning. So why not contribute something unique and meaningful while you're still here so our planet spins just a bit slower in your absence?

4) Fail spectacularly.
I know we're all delicate flowers whose entire self-worth hinges on how many people like our most recent Instagram post. Get over it. Who cares if no one likes the thing you created? You didn't create it for them. I spent way too many years paralyzed by fear of failure. Of course I've produced some creative duds over the years. Everyone has. It doesn't mean we're talentless hacks. Keep going. Keep honing your craft. Keep creating. And if you're going to fail, fail spectacularly and learn from it.

5) Play in a sandbox with friends.
I've learned this lesson a million times, but I keep forgetting it. Creating can happen alone, but it's more fun with friends. And I don't mean that you have to all sit in a room and paint together or work on the same project all of the time (although that's certainly wonderful too), but simply having a group of friends to encourage you is a game-changer. And it doesn't have to be overt. All I usually have to do is hang out with creative friends for an hour and that's enough to recharge my battery. When friends do cool stuff, it motivates me to do cool stuff. Hey, that looks fun; I wanna play too!

For the next month, make all five a priority and see what happens. At least two hours per day in your happy place back in 1985, failing spectacularly in a sandbox full of friends.

The Magic of Harry Potter

I'm a decade late, but I recently finished all seven Harry Potter books, and since reading the epic conclusion, I've been thinking about why people obsess over the series. And I mean obsess. Fans play Quidditch in real life. Universal Orlando built a Harry Potter theme park. Students dream of attending Hogwarts (even though it doesn't exist).

The books were perfectly fine. The writing was pretty good. I found the stories entertaining. I'm not a huge fan, but I did enjoy reading them. Enough to finish all seven books in a year. It wasn't until I dug deeper that I began to understand why people obsess over Harry Potter. Here's my best guess:

1) People want to be special.
From the very beginning, Harry Potter is a regular boy stuck in an awful family. Then, Harry discovers he's actually a very special wizard who was meant to save the world. I wonder how many kids (or adults) dream of being swept away by Hagrid into a world where they're the chosen one. Especially Millennials and Generation Z. Those generations have been told they're special since birth, but when life feels mundane, they're left wondering where Platform 9 3/4 is hiding.

2) People want to live an adventure.
Speaking of mundane, watching Netflix gets slightly boring after eight hours. Movies, television, books, and video games all create counterfeit adventures for the adventureless. This isn't exclusive to Harry Potter, of course, but all seven books are filled with challenges much more exciting than school, work, or chores.

3) People want to believe in magic.
I have never understood why some religious folks loathe Harry Potter. After reading the series, I'm even more confused. If anything, the books encourage people to desire and pursue an unseen, mysterious, magical world. Doesn't religion tell us there's a hidden world that's bigger and more important than the one we're living in? Prayers are sorta like magic, aren't they? And Dumbledore is an old man with a long white beard living above his children advising the chosen one, who is destined to destroy the evil Voldemort. I mean, come on. My guess is that Harry Potter has led more people into the church than he's led away from it.

4) People want real community.
The more technologically advanced we become, the more we long for human contact. It's no coincidence that our favorite stories—even the ones written in the current decade—rarely include social media. In our imaginary worlds, people aren't text messaging, tweeting, or looking for one-night stands on Tinder. They're talking, exploring the world, and sharing life. A lack of technology leads to lots of in-person communication in Harry Potter's world. He, Hermione, and Ron shared a special kind of friendship because they made each other priorities. How often do we experience that level of community in real life? Americans think we want solitude, space, and privacy, but our hearts tell us otherwise.

5) People want a home base.
Who wouldn't want a place like Hogwarts waiting for them every fall? Even though bad stuff happened inside the castle, it always felt safe. Like a warm blanket. People move so much that it's hard to get that same sense of home anywhere. I've moved twenty-one times since I was twelve years old! We all need that place where we belong. A place we fit in. A place that always welcomes us.

I'm sure I missed a few reasons. Maybe you just really wanted a taste of Butterbeer or you're obsessed with redheaded twins. Regardless of why you love Harry Potter, perhaps we should all adjust our lives to make reality a bit more magical.

Devour the Rainbow

Tucked into the corner of my childhood living room stood a puke green bookcase. It was nothing fancy. Old, cheap, ugly. But that bookcase was my gateway to the universe. It held less than a hundred books, but to this kid, it felt like the Library of Congress.

The Berenstain BearsFrog and Toad, Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, Richard Scarry. I spent hours huddled by that green bookcase devouring tales of hungry caterpillars, generous trees, and boy detectives.

Those fictional adventures stirred my soul so much that I began writing as soon as I could spell. In the third grade, I wrote a weekly mini-series about a crime-fighting pup in a red cape. It began as a class assignment, but Superdog became my muse. I would pay a hefty sum to track down the original copies of those short stories.

Years later, my niece and I started a family newspaper called The News Express. We covered the stories that mattered—that night’s dinner, updates on the lost remote control, who won yesterday’s whiffleball game—you know, the hard-hitting news. We were forward-thinking pioneers, of course, getting out of the newspaper business decades before the print media bubble burst.

I later discovered television, movies, theater—anything that kept my storytelling fire burning. I read more, wrote more, and found myself obsessed with great stories.

I got lost in my own head. Up there, I could create any world my imagination fathomed. As a child, those worlds revolved around game-winning home runs, saving the universe from evil space monsters, and holding hands with pretty girls. As I matured, both life and my imagination became darker, more complex, and less innocent. School, work, and daily chores left little time for dreaming. And when I did have time to create, my imagination had become so atrophied that the stories were flavorless versions of what could be. Like a snow cone without the cherry syrup.

Along the way, I met friends who wanted to tell important stories. Stories that sparked hope. Stories that empowered the oppressed. Stories that made people laugh or helped them escape the real world for a few hours. And the more time I spent with those friends, and the more we dreamed together, the strangest thing happened. I sprang to life.

Writing, painting, photography, poetry, singing—they all trick us into thinking creativity is born in isolation. “Lock yourself in a room and get to creating!” But that’s a lie. I do my best storytelling with a group of friends. They don’t sit with me as I type, but they read, edit, encourage, and offer invaluable feedback. And I do the same for them. We dance a creative waltz that leaves me energized and makes me a better writer.

If you want to create, you can accomplish good stuff locked in a room by yourself. But sharing the journey with a group of friends is more fun. Your snow cone transforms from a colorless ball of ice into a magnificent rainbow of dazzling colors.

Rainbow sherbet is way better than any one sherbet by itself. You think Grape Loops would be as good as Fruit Loops? Remember stopping by the concession stand after playing Little League Baseball, swimming at the community pool, or enjoying a post-soccer orange slice? Everyone knows the greatest drink ever invented is the "bomb." It goes by many names depending upon your age and geographical location, but whatever fountain drinks the concession stand served, you mixed them all together and guzzled the liquid perfection.

The evidence is clear. If your creative life feels stale, just add more flavors.

Do the Work

I am fascinated by old comedians rehashing their early days playing dive clubs for pennies, shacking up with seven roommates in a New York studio apartment, or getting their first big break on The Tonight Show.

For someone like me, Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a dream come true.

The premise is simple. Seinfeld picks up his guest in a rare automobile, drives him or her to a coffee shop, and they talk. My favorite episodes are when Seinfeld chats with a comedian he broke into comedy with back in the late 70s. Their stories are riveting. These millionaire superstars (Jay Leno, David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres, Larry David, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock) were all once unknown and dirt poor.

I love listening to them rehash old memories because of where they are now. They did it. They made it. Seinfeld, Leno, Letterman, DeGeneres, David, Stewart, Rock … all remarkable success stories. And the best part? They worked hard for it, putting in long hours, cramming into tiny studio apartments, eating Ramen Noodles every night for years. They failed over and over again, but kept improving. They got heckled and booed off stages, but kept fighting, persevering, and working. And now look at them.

The world is different today. Fame is readily available to anyone with an iPhone. Reality television takes people with zero talent and turns them into celebrities for acting like buffoons in front of the camera. And, honestly, that’s fine. I’m entertained by some of the nonsense I watch on television, so I don’t want to judge anyone for enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame. It simply amplifies my respect for people working hard to hone their craft.

Years ago, while walking through downtown Cincinnati, I stumbled upon a teenager hula hooping. At the time, I tweeted that she's better at hula hooping than LeBron James is at playing basketball, and it wasn't much of an exaggeration. Her skill and artistry mesmerized me. She obviously invested hundreds of hours honing her craft. Cynics might scoff at so much time spent hula hooping, but people who become experts at anything in life deserve our respect. She certainly earned mine.

People love shortcuts. I don’t want to read books, I just want the knowledge hidden inside. I don’t want to work, I just want someone to hand me a million dollars. If you don’t believe me, swing by a casino or visit a convenience store the next time your state’s lottery jackpot reaches nine figures. We want fame and fortune without earning them. But every successful person I know worked for his or her success. No matter how many YouTube stars or Instagram models society produces, shortcuts are rare. The long, narrow road ultimately takes you where you want to be.

In one of my favorite episodes of Mad Men, in the midst of a meltdown while searching for a shortcut to regain his place at the top of the corporate ladder, Don Draper receives some simple advice that rattled my soul. “Do the work, Don.”

Wherever it is you want to be, do the work to get there. Whatever your dream, put in the necessary hours. If you want to be a writer, start writing. Try, fail, try again, fail a dozen more times, but keep working. If you want to be a comedian, find a stage. If you want to make movies, buy a camera and hit the record button. Hone your craft. Be excellent at what you do. It may take decades to achieve your goals, but there’s only one way to make those dreams come true.

Do the work.