I recently had an encounter with a friend of mine who I don’t see particularly often. She’s an actress and a singer, and during our conversation I learned she had found herself producing a short series of television shows for kids through some obscure chain of connections, acquaintances, and opportunities.

Now, producing a TV show is not easy. Not even a little. The producer has his or her hands on absolutely every step of the process, from pre-production to post-production, and is often the only one with an eye on the big picture and larger arc of the project. It can be a stressful, sleepless job, and generally is craziest just before it’s all done. This is where my friend was when we spoke. I asked if she’d had a chance to consider what was coming next — what she was thinking of doing with the experience.

“You know,” she said, “it’s kind of an odd thing.”

“I could keep going. It turns out I’m actually pretty good at this, and this one little gig has opened up doors that would lead to some fantastic opportunities, and ultimately could make for a really comfortable living. And I can’t kid myself — I’m no Julia Roberts or Celine Dion. The odds of making it ‘big’ in either of those worlds that I’ve been exploring for the first part of my career is pretty dang small.”

“But I sort of feel like I went to Madison Square Garden with a soccer ball. I was just looking for somewhere to play when I walk onto an unfamiliar court with a game going on, and suddenly a basketball gets tossed my way. I start dribbling and passing out of instinct, you know, just trying to keep up with the people around me so I don’t get clobbered.”

“So I keep dribbling and passing and somebody says, ‘Hey Kid — you’re pretty good!’”

“And I mean, come on. Who doesn’t like to be told they’re good? Especially when they’re in the middle of a game in Madison Square Garden? So I start working a little harder, dribbling cleaner and running faster, trying to impress and such. And sure enough, soon someone else goes, ‘Kid — you wanna play for the NBA?’”

“And I sort of feel like that’s where I am right now. The allure of the lights and fame — such as it is, what with it not actually being the NBA and all — is pretty damn compelling. But then I find myself looking over at the bench, and see my lonely soccer ball just… sitting there.”

“If I do this, if I ride this wave, I’ll have a blast. And I’ll be successful. And it’ll be fine. But I didn’t get into it because I was crap at soccer and needed an alternative, it was just a little cosmic accident. And honestly I’m not ready to give up my small-time success and journey for the first shiny alternative that comes along. Because small-time for this thing that I love, that completely resonates with my sense of self… it’s just not something I can walk away from so easily. And believe me, I’ve tried to convince myself to do it. Turns out though that for me, it’s worth spending some more time wandering around the Garden, looking for the right game.”

Guiding Precepts

March 8, 2011

Over the last several months I’ve been toying with thoughts about codifying some general principles I try to abide by in everyday life. It started out as an exercise in curiosity, but the fruits have evolved into a sort of pair of mantras that have formed a conscious, solid foundation from which I’m learning to ground all my actions. While the actions themselves don’t particularly differ from what they were without the rocks, I’m appreciating my enhanced awareness of where they’re coming from.

So again and again I return to the same two phrases. It’s sort of funny, as part of me wishes they weren’t exactly what they are. They ‘could’ be more ‘positive’ or more overtly focused on the importance of others… and gee, wouldn’t it be nice if they were more lighthearted? Ultimately I’ve come to realize though that, like so much else in life, it doesn’t particularly matter what I wish they were — it matters what they are.

And here is what they are:

1: I am entitled to very little in life.

This is what I come back to every time I feel myself sliding down that dangerous slope to frustration. The nudge off the edge comes in any of a million forms: my train may be late; the shower water might never heat up one morning; money in any of its many darker forms could have come knocking; hell… I’ve even gotten annoyed at unexpectedly windy days that make for a struggle on my bike. Very honestly, my natural inclination in these situations is often to get angry — inanimate objects or abstract ideas be damned.

But then I think to myself:

There is no rule that says the world is supposed to be laid out at my feet, rolling along and taking it easy on me.

Ultimately it’s just as simple as that. It’s nice when things are easy, and a moment can be quite beautiful when circumstances work out elegantly. But we’re really just recipients of a pleasant gift when this happens — it’s not to be expected. Why would it be? Who or what should be given the responsibility of making each of our little worlds ‘right,’ if not ourselves?

Once any sense of entitlement to an innately perfect life is abandoned, it’s possible to see adversity for the opportunity it actually offers. Windy days give me a chance to get a more intense workout and up my hardcore factor (I’m a big fan of the hardcore factor). Trains that never come are an opportunity to practice patience; people I find frustrating allow the chance to practice empathy and compassion; less-than-ideal circumstances of any sort are a lovely time to practice focus and to learn how to work really, really hard to modify those circumstances to my liking. Because while situations don’t have to be pre-formed to each of our individual expectations and desires, they almost all are modifiable so they can be whatever we want them to be — assuming we put the work it to make it so.

And it is work, I’ll give you that. But what real reward is to be had from an endeavor that took no real effort?

2: Don’t waste people’s time.

People’s time is the most valuable commodity they have to offer. Every interaction we have is a transaction, and while most of us are often quite willing to be on the giving end of an exchange with someone who can’t pay us back, when it happens there’s generally an understanding that someday that debt will be repaid, whether directly or indirectly (“paying it forward,” as it were).

Ideally you want your net contributions to these complex transactions to be positive — put in more than you receive. But when you are the recipient, as will inevitably be the case from time to time, you should do everything in your power to be deserving of that gift. Do not waste it. Bring something real to the table. Action works well, as potential only goes so far. Be as informed as you possibly can. Respect your benefactor, as they are giving you a valuable, powerful gift.

It comes down to the recognition of people’s time as precious, and the knowledge that you are not entitled to it. Use it well when you receive the honor.

**

So there are my two thoughts, my two underlying mantras. In a more significant gesture toward total simplification, my truly unifying core concept has been making itself clear to me only now that I’ve explored the two it precedes:

Be a giver, not a taker.

I’ll just let that one speak for itself.

“What do you do?”

February 24, 2011

I seem to run into a somewhat unexpected issue when confronted with this very typical question.

My default is to say, “Oh I’m an audio engineer,” and launch into the narrative I’ve developed over the last several years — what it means, where I work, my aspirations, sometimes my philosophies surrounding sound and picture (depending on how receptive an audience I have). It’s a lovely little spiel that invariably satisfies and often even impresses the inquirer.

The problem is that it’s actually quite reductive, in an increasingly restrictive way.

Yes, I am an audio engineer. But I’m also an aspiring writer. I am a major part of running a small business. I’m a casting director, an intern educator, a client wrangler. I practice yoga. I run. I bike. I read. I explore the life around me and think about abstract things. I spend a somewhat inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to make the world better.

But beyond all of this is the fact that none of these things I do indicate why I do them or what my guiding philosophies are. There is no arc, only facts.

I value education and consider it to be one of the most empowering forces in the world, but believe most people don’t receive the education they deserve. I care very much about economic inequality and its repercussions throughout society. I love people and want them to be content, but am often frustrated by them.

I adore a good cup of tea, homemade bread, and Christmas trees.

There is so much more. I am complex.

Roughly 3% of even this much comes across when I reach for my current script though. I recently spoke with someone who exists as I currently only aspire to; who does amazing, selfless, world-changing work. But when he asked me about myself, I once again defaulted to the usual, and completely missed an opportunity to establish a connection that could have been tremendously valuable as I navigate my transition from a world like mine to a world more like his.

So I’ve come to think about how we’re so seldom encouraged to actually specifically put together an identity. It’s ridiculously easy to come up with a general outline that covers the socially-accepted big bases — Job? Check. Kids? Nope. House? Nope. College? Check. Spouse? Nope. Adhering to this simple checklist of sorts will satisfy just about everyone every time.

But it is an undeserved simplification. We’re all more.

Break out. Right now. Take a few moments to summarize yourself. Your activities, your beliefs, your goals, your accomplishments. It’s a powerful exercise because it sets the building blocks of our selves completely out in the open. Maybe you spend your days at a job you hate, then go home and veg — but don’t realize it. It doesn’t feel like you’re wasting your days away, so you don’t really consciously recognize that that’s what’s happening. Or perhaps you’re on the other end of the spectrum, constantly on fire, moving from one activity to the next and the next, but never take a moment to look at all you’ve done and give yourself a modicum of credit.

It’s wildly easy to move through one day without being bored, without considering anything but your moment-to-moment existence. And one day leads to another… It’s one of the great conveniences of our time, actually: there’s ‘always something else’ — another book to read, cause to support, person to befriend, food to taste, hobby to try. And time continues to pass, with or without our input.

So just take about three minutes — seriously, three — and you don’t even have to write anything down. But figure out what defines you: activities, beliefs, goals, achievements. Establish a bit of a narrative: where you came from, what has happened in your life to produce your most ardent ideals, where these ideals will take you.

And reassess every once in awhile, very specifically looking at yourself in abbreviated form from an outsider’s perspective. Do you present yourself the way you want to be seen? In a way that accurately depicts who you are? This identity should evolve over time, so be careful to accommodate the growth instead of sticking to an old script — the new stuff is often the most important stuff, and it’s okay to let go of some of the old stuff.

Introductions and short summaries of one’s entire life may be inherently reductive, but they’re your gateway to new relationships and connections that will help you achieve your goals. Don’t be shy or dishonest, just be briefly thorough. And even though you’re inevitably more complex than this short summary, it’s good to have it in your pocket as a home base to return to. It’s a syllabus by which to assess your development, and a jumping-off point for anything you do.

Just develop it consciously and actively — don’t let the outside world do it for you, don’t let it become obsolete. You deserve your perfect little story.