Death by a Thousand Cuts

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”
― SenecaOn the Shortness of Life

It is one of the immutable laws of the universe that time is the one thing you can never get more of. It should be guarded carefully. In today’s world it’s far too easy  to make little commitments that can drain away the limited amount of time we have on this earth. One manifestation of this subtle erosion is being too free with your email address.

Psychologically there are few more powerful motivators than a free giveaway. But once that transaction has been completed, you are subject to an unspoken, and unavoidable sense of obligation. The perceived value of the gift does have some effect on the level of the obligation you feel, but every freebie you accept comes with a string.

Free is virtually ubiquitous in the online world.

Digital products are so cheap to carry in inventory and distribute that, once they are created, there is really no cost at all to share them with the world. For a small investment of time and some say marketing, anyone can come up with something that will yield a virtually endless stream of obligation. The only thing that is universally demanded in payment is an email address.

Sure, the vendor needs the address to deliver you the goods, but that is never the end of the transaction. By clicking submit you are granting someone access to your life. You are opening a channel to your limited attention and you are committing a tiny slice of your valuable time to their enterprise. This is where many of us can get into trouble.

Your email address is a valuable commodity

Statistically email is the single most effective channel for selling things to you later. If person running the list you are now added to has done minimal research into email marketing, the moment you sign up you will begin receiving a series of messages designed to convince, cajole, and sometimes beat you into submission to purchase something from the sender.

Ignoring the problem is not a solution

I tend to fall into the habit of either deleting the messages or simply ignoring these messages. Neither of these approaches is a true solution however. Most of the people writing the subject lines for these automated communications are good. Even though I know I will probably find useless junk inside I cannot help but click on some of them. Even the few seconds it takes to realize my mistake add up. That’s time that I will never get back. Even worse, I tend to get behind on the deletions when busy. In only a few days I inevitably have an inbox that is overflowing with meaningless attempts to attract my attention. These can quickly bury the truly important communication I need to be doing.

There are only two ways out of this barrage.

1. Unsubscribe ruthlessly

Scroll all the way to the bottom of every junk email and hunt for the unsubscribe button in the microprint of the disclaimer, then jump through whatever hoops are required to get off that list. Make a habit of this. Any time something shows up in your email inbox that isn’t a “Hell Yeah!” in the words of the great Derek Sivers, take the time to end that digital relationship. This takes time, but I consider it an investment worth making. Think of it like a satellite TV package. Every time you opt out, you shut down one of the channels in your programming package that you mindlessly flip through searching for something of interest. Taking away one of those channels makes it that much easier to realize that there is nothing on and that you should get up and do something useful.

2. Resist the urge to sign up in the first place.

This path is much harder to walk. If you are a curious person who is bent on success and trying to learn, you will be drawn to anything that claims to give you a leg up. The arguments that go through my head range from: “How do you know its a scam until you read through it” to “If its useless, I’ll just unsubscribe”. It is VERY hard to convince myself that in general:

FREE = Crap

Even though I have seen proof to the contrary thousands of times, and I have incontrovertible proof that I rarely even read through all of the material (I currently have 42 free ebooks in my “to-read” folder and one in my “read” folder) I still hold out hope that there is some genius out there who will change my life by giving me the key to success for the price of my email address. It’s ridiculous really.

That’s it. You can rescue hours of your time and free yourself from the frustration of a massive number in the unread email ballon with these two simple steps. It’s not a free solution, but with a little effort and a little discipline these two actions can help you avoid a death by a thousand cuts.

How to Avoid Self-Limitation and Do the Impossible

Luke: “I can’t believe it!”  Yoda: “That is why you fail”

It may not seem like it, but most of the time the one thing holding people back from what they really want in life is a lack of belief.

If you don’t believe something is possible, really believe it, you are just playing the cosmic lottery.

Let’s look at an example.

I just finished up the latest book by a couple of my favorite authors, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, called Think Like a Freak. It was excellent and I highly recommend it.

One of my favorite chapters was about the eating champion Kobayashi. When he signed up for his first hot dog eating championship he was a complete unknown. Plus he was nothing like the prototypical eating contestant. Small and thin, he was dwarfed by his fellow competitors.

At the end of the competitions however, Kobayashi had not only won, but he had done something that no one would have thought possible. He nearly doubled the standing record.

             Previous record: 28 1/4

Kobayashi’s record: 50!

How did he do it? In all of his preparation, and during the competition, he never let himself think about the record. He didn’t set it as a target to achieve. He just worked his process and ate as many hot dogs as he possibly could before time expired.

Let’s look at one more example:

Last week I went hiking in the incredible Columbia River Gorge outside Portland, OR. At the trailhead my wife and I ran into a few other WDS attendees who noticed my shirt and asked if we wanted to tag along on a three and a half mile hike they had planned. I hadn’t really made any plans beyond getting out in nature and exploring, so we decided to take them up on their offer.

Seven miles later, with our legs shaking, we made it back to our car. Not only was the hike twice as long as we had been told, but nearly the whole route was a series of switchbacks climbing 1600′. We were exhausted.

The hike was otherworldly though. It felt a little like we’d been transported to the Forest Moon of Endor. We wandered through massive trees hung with moss, and past incredible waterfalls surrounded by lush greenery.

The thing is, we might have missed that experience if our companions had correctly read the map and noticed their planned route was twice as long as they thought. It’s not that we would shrink from a long hike, it’s that number: seven miles.

Seven miles is outside of my range for a casual diversion. My mind would have started telling me that we weren’t prepared. That we didn’t have enough water or snacks to tackle something like that. I would have quickly convinced myself that it would eat up our entire day, our only free day for the whole trip. I firmly believe we would have said no.

Since I’ve been home I’ve decided to take this idea a little further and run a test on myself. For the last year I’ve been setting myself a daily word quota. After pondering the examples above, I started to wonder how much more I could get done if I wrote with a time limit instead. What would happen if I worked as hard as I could until my time expired? The results were embarrassing.

Minutes to write 500 words: 67

  Words written in 30 minutes: 1565

You can probably guess it changed the way I approach my writing.

Ok, I think you get the idea. What you believe is possible can hold you back.

Sometimes you have to trick yourself to avoid limiting yourself.

Here are a few suggestions that work for me:

1.  Set a time limit not a physical limit – When you put a quantitative number on your goals, you will naturally begin to back off as you approach that goal. It’s why boxers are taught to not punch their opponent, but to punch through them. It’s why sprinters are taught to run to a spot beyond the tape. Physical limits can limit output. Go with time instead.

2. Lie to yourself – Tell yourself that you are going to quit in just a few more minutes. When that time expires set yourself another short target to achieve and convince yourself that you are really going to quit when you get to that one. Rinse and repeat. This method has been used by many of the great sufferers throughout history: Navy SEALs, political prisoners, ultra-endurance athletes, people in bad marriages, etc.

3. Set ridiculous goals – Think of the absolute maximum that you think you could ever achieve, after years of struggle, and then double it. Make that your target. Keep driving toward it. Ignore the people who will tell you that you are being unreasonable. Keep going and every once and a while take a glance in the rearview mirror to see how far you have come. You will be surprised. This is the concept of True North. You continually strive for unattainable perfection, knowing you will never reach it, but driving toward it relentlessly anyway. If you ever do happen to get there, set a new, even more ridiculous goal and then start up that mountain.

How about you? What artificial limits do you believe in? How much are they holding you back? What are the things the voices in your head tell you are not possible? What tricks do you use to achieve better results? 

Captive Pricing and a Homeschooling an Entrepreneur

Yesterday Eli decided he wanted to spend some of his savings on a new Wii U game. From those simple beginnings things evolved into quite the adventure. A few hours later we had both learned a few things about life and business.

The first step in our quest naturally was to do a little price shopping. One Google search later we quickly discovered two things:

1. Walmart had the game for ten dollars less than anyone else in town ($39)
2. Eli didn’t have enough in his piggy bank to buy the game on his own ($21)

He’s a sensitive kid who had already decided that he NEEDED this game. Coming up short really bothered him. He first attempted to convince us that if he paid $15 and we paid the rest all would be right with the world. He wasn’t willing to spend everything he had. In his mind it might be all the money he was ever going to have in this lifetime (at least that was how he presented it to us).

We calmly explained that, in general, you have to work to get money to buy things, and that maybe he should think about finding a way to come up with the money that he needed to make up the difference. He wasn’t a fan of this. He did have some money in his long term savings account, and in the end we agreed he could take some money out of there as long as he found a way to earn enough to pay himself back in the next few weeks. He agreed and we headed off to the bank, then to Walmart to buy the game.

Along the way the little guy started asking some very good questions. First he wanted to know how you get people to give you money. I explained that you have to have something that people are more willing to pay for than they are to do for themselves. Generally you have to either make something that isn’t easy for just anyone to make or know something that takes a lot of time to learn. He thought about this and decided that he was against such things on principle.

“People should just do things for themselves instead of paying other people to do them,” he said.

I was suddenly a very proud do-it-yourself, independent minded dad. Still I had to admit to him that some things are simply beyond reach. We can’t, for instance, create our own internet service. Money is almost an inevitable part of life. After that we got into the definition of a market and the importance of finding your market before you spend time and money creating a product. He thinks helping parents understand Minecraft so they can help their kids get started might be an excellent place for him to start, but I don’t want to ruin his idea. In the end we had covered a lot of Entrepreneurship 101. It was a good discussion, and right in the middle Clara piped up with her idea to sell a few of her thousands of drawings in an online store. With all of that behind us we headed into the store.

This is where I started learning things. Standing in front of the locked game case at the back of the store we realized that the price listed under the game was $10 higher than it had been online. I flagged down a store employee and showed him the online price on my phone. He sheepishly explained that the online store was completely separate from the brick and mortar store and they could not give us that price.

My son did not take this well either. After all of the discussion he suddenly saw that he still didn’t have enough money to get his game. This time I stepped in to help. I asked to speak to the manager who repeated what the first guy had said and told us how sorry he was. While I had him there, I noticed that the online listing said I could buy it through the site at the reduced price and pick it up at the store. There were several copies right there on the shelf, so I clicked buy it now.

Twenty minutes later a dutiful employee came walking over from the service desk two hundred feet  away, unlocked the case and carried the game back. The kids and I walked over and picked up the game. It was one of the most ridiculous shopping scenarios I have ever been a part of. The hell of it was, it wasn’t the first time.

A few months back the exact same thing happened. That time we’d switched to a different game to keep Eli on an even keel and hadn’t realized that we were being scammed by the largest retailer in the world. You see no where on their site does it say that the pricing is exclusive to online orders. You don’t find out about that up-charge until you have already driven to the store, parked, and walked all the way to the back. I am guessing they figure you will decide $10 isn’t too much more to pay since you are already there. In my case they were wrong, and they have lost a customer.

On the way home this made me think about all of the blogs out there that give away something for free to get your email address and then relentlessly spam you with paid product offers. I know this is standard web marketing and I know that it works very well, but it feels just as dirty as what Walmart tried to pull on my son.

So now I have a commitment to make. I’m currently working on some things that I plan on giving away to readers. I’m doing it for selfish reasons, I want more traffic so I can build a community here, but I’m also doing it because I think some of it might be useful to people. When the time comes however, I will give you a choice. Free is free in the Learn. Write. Repeat. world. If you want to sign up, I’m happy to have you, but if not, that’s fine too. I will let my work speak for itself. If you like it, maybe you;ll come back for more. If not, then it’s on me. That’s going to be the deal. I expect you guys to hold me to it.