The Myth of the Stress-Free Life

Have you ever dreamed of  a stress-free life? In this stress-free life there is no one to tell you what do do, how to do it, or when it must be done. You are master of your universe and get to do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it. This dream becomes most desirable when your boss or someone else with authority puts the pressure on you to perform or face the consequences. Those consequences may include being fired or getting an F in a class. This dream of a stress-free life is very seductive because it tempts you to believe that you can somehow escape the responsibilities of adulthood. Adulthood requires you to be responsible and to fulfill the requests of other people.

My operating assumption is that stress is the normal default condition of life. Consider this:

 Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters. The Road Less Traveled, Timeless Edition: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth by M. Scott Peck

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This dream of a stress-free life can take many forms. One example is a young man I know whose dream is to move into a modest cabin on a ranch and to live off the land. This is an idealized vision of leisure that is not based in reality. Anyone who has grown up on a farm or ranch can destroy this myth quickly. The realities of that kind of life intrude upon the idealized dream. Before I detail some of these realities, I must say that living on a ranch in a cabin and living off the land is a perfectly fine ambition. If that is what you want to do, you can do it. I am just pointing out the reality that it will be full of responsibility. Life always is. To live on a ranch or farm is to trade your current stresses for a new set. This is true because, as Peck says above, life is difficult. This is the default human condition.

My grandparents lived on a farm, and I have recordings of them discussing the hardships they faced. Among the difficulties of life on the farm are:

  • Food. You still have to eat. Perhaps you will hunt your food, fish for your food, or grow your food. All of these require work, and there are deadlines built in.
  • Money. Just because you live on a ranch does not mean you need no cash. You will need to buy equipment, seeds, tools, clothes, gasoline, and any food you cannot catch, hunt, or grow. You will have to pay for your electricity and heating gas or oil. You will have to pay for water or at least drill a well and maintain your pump operation. Also, the government will still require you to pay property taxes on any land you own. Any buildings you own must be maintained and repaired. This all requires money.
  • Natural deadlines. Careful attention has to be paid to the seasons. No boss may tell you when to plant the corn, but if you do not do it at the right time you will not be pleased with the result. Once the corn is grown you must harvest it in a narrow window. That sounds like a deadline to me. In addition, the animals must be fed, and the cows must be milked. Those fish are neither catching themselves nor cleaning themselves once caught. The deer are not shooting themselves nor dressing and processing themselves.
  • Natural challenges. Farmers and ranchers face lack of rain (drought), too much rain (flood), hail, high winds, insects, and weeds, just to name a few challenges.

If you really turn the clock back and envision a time when nomadic hunter-gatherers lived a care-free life, you would find that their lives were not actually care-free at all. If your own well-being is dependent on successfully hunting wild game, your own hunger becomes the stress in your life. If you do  not leave the cave or the tee-pee you will starve regardless of whether or not you have “Leave Cave” in your day planner.

 So What?

Given that there is no such thing as a stress-free life, part of becoming an adult is accepting this fact and crafting a Forward Story that embraces this reality. Avoiding stress is not a realistic strategy. I encourage you to embrace the idea that stress and responsibility are inherent in life. With this baseline realization you can then get around to a future worth living. The Myth of the Stress-Free Life is one end of the spectrum. In our next article we will explore the dangers of too much stress.

What are the stresses in your life, and how do you handle them?

Kombucha Guy Loves Kombucha

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It’s Saturday morning, and I am about to head down to our local farmers’ market to stand in a line and buy a product that my wife loves: Kombucha. We refill seven bottles each week. She has a one bottle per day habit.

I am starting to wonder what they put in this stuff that makes it so irresistible. Kombucha is an ancient beverage that tastes a little weird at first, but really grows on you. It contains an active culture called a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast), which is probiotic.016

The guy that sells this stuff is known to us only as Kombucha Guy. I’m sure he has a real name, but we don’t want to know it. We prefer to refer to him as Kombucha Guy because this fella really loves kombucha. He embodies the practice of ABS – Always Be Selling. He can have a line of ten people waiting patiently to refill their bottles and yet he is still singing the praises of kombucha to every person who walks by his booth.

The thing I like about Kombucha Guy is that he really loves what he is doing. As far as I can tell, he is totally sold on kombucha as a product, and he really believes everyone should be drinking it.

It reminds me of one of my favorite poems. In Two Tramps in Mud Time, Robert Frost writes:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation

The idea of uniting your avocation (your love) and your vocation (your work) is the holy grail of career goals. If you are ever able to combine these together, do you ever really “work”?

I would love to hear from you if work and love are the same. What do you do? If your current work is not what you love, what do you think you would love to do?

Planting Seeds for the Future

This year I decided I needed to grow something. I have never had a garden or really any interest in gardening, but over the past year I have gotten a lot more interested in food. Though life-long city-dwellers, my wife and I have become regulars at our local farmers’ market and have completely changed the quality of food we eat. We have bought in to the “farm-to-table” movement.

So I decided to try to grow something. I wanted to start small and pick a fairly easy plant to grow for our climate. I chose jalapeno peppers. Following my regular approach to any new subject, I read a lot of information about how to grow plants in containers. I bought some organic seeds, two containers, organic potting soil, organic fertilizer, and organic compost. On May 7, 2013 for the first time in my life I planted seeds. I put five seeds in each container at about 1/4″ depth and then watered. It felt good to get my hands dirty. These hands are normally on a keyboard, so this was a different sensation. I haven’t played in the dirt much since I was a kid. Here is what my plants look like three days after planting.

Potential Jalapeno Plants

Potential Jalapeno Plants

Not much to see right? According to the seed packet, these seeds should germinate in 10-25 days.

So now I wait.

Actually, now I water and wait. If I fail to water I will be waiting for a long time. However, even if I water diligently there is nothing I can do right now to speed up the process. Nature dictates that these seeds take 10-25 days to germinate in the proper conditions.

It is hard to wait.

I remember my Grandfather Adcox making us wait on Christmas Eve (which was our family’s big gift exchange). The brightly wrapped boxes piled up under the tree were adorned with seductive bows and paper snowmen. We were bursting at the seams wanting to get at those boxes — but PawPaw had his rules. With a twinkle in his eyes, he explained that those rules had something to do with the sun setting or a certain time on the clock. Whatever it was, it was excruciating. As we waited, those packages taunted us.

We don’t like to wait.

And yet, waiting is required for most good things. We have many aphorisms and proverbs about patience and waiting:

  • A watched pot never boils.
  • Good things come to those who wait.
  • “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • Rome wasn’t built in a day.

So, I am not waiting for Godot, but rather for the first green sprouts from my new pepper plants. It is hard to wait, but at least I have planted and watered. If you never plant, you will not reap. My Grandfather, who was a master gardener, would be proud of these first small steps I have taken.

Sowing and reaping is a powerful metaphor. It is a law of nature. You cannot reap if you have not planted. Even if  you have planted you will likely not reap if you do not continue watering, weeding, and providing the proper nutrition. It takes work. You have to nurse and tend the process.

What is it in your life that you want to reap? What steps should you be taking to get your seed in the ground and to help it grow? It will take patience and hope while you water and work, but in the end you should have a reward for your labors.

I will provide an update on my project in time. All I have to do now is work.

And wait.

UPDATE 5/17/2013

Today was day 10 since I planted my seeds. Today began like every other day, with me checking the containers carefully at around 7 AM for any signs of life.

Nothing.

But then I checked again after lunch, and lo and behold I saw something, ever so slight, that is green. I surprised myself by how excited I got. Take a look:

Ten Days After Planting Seeds

Ten Days After Planting Seeds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So now, I wait again.

Don’t forget the update on 3/25/2014.

Trajectory

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Think of your life as a dart on a certain trajectory. Are you likely to hit your target?

When you think of your current life trajectory you are immediately forced into a glimpse of the future. While none of us can truly glimpse the future, I believe we all walk around with some sense of how our lives are going and whether we are “on track” or not. Of course, “on track” for you is likely quite different from “on track” for me. You cannot define my track, and I cannot define yours. This relates to ambition. We all get to have our own. The important thing is to make an honest assessment of where you currently are, what you are currently thinking and doing, and where you want to go. Are you likely to get there or not in the right time with your current bearings?

The powerful thing about the human experience is that in a free society you possess the power to alter your course. Unlike a dart that has been hurled, you are capable of course correcting from this point forward. For you that course correction might be new education, different friends, a different job, a different career path, or a new relationship. Whatever it is, you can do it if it really matters to you. It comes back to what “on track” means and how much you desire that outcome.

It may be that your honest assessment of your current trajectory reveals that you are indeed on track. If so, your challenge will simply be patience and endurance. Make that a priority by keeping your eyes on the prize.

Is your current trajectory likely to lead to your desired outcome?

If so, endure.

If not, make a move.

Graduation Stories

Today we are attending the college graduation of our niece, Amy, who crosses a threshold into the rest of her life. Any kind of graduation marks a potential turning-point for people. It is the completion of a defined phase of education or training that was begun because it held a certain promise of a better future.

As these graduates today listen to the commencement address and walk across the stage to get their diplomas, they will be reflecting on the hard work of the past four years and thinking about the future. Some of them already have jobs lined up, while others see little hope for a good job. Regardless of where they find themselves in the job market, they are all in need of a plan – a strategy. They need a narrative for the future. Hopefully they will not view today as the end of education, but rather as the beginning of their life-long commitment to learning and improvement. All of us need such a plan, whether we went to college or not.

It is my hope that Amy and her fellow graduates will design a powerful narrative for their futures, a Forward Story, to help guide the paths they take and to fulfill their highest and best ambitions.

Congratulations, Amy!

Matt, “you got next.”

Mind-Mapping the Nearer Term – Adding Age 25

In our last article our 18 year-old John completed his mind map for the time-frame 12 years down the road when he is 30 years old. He put in writing in his mind map his various dreams and goals across three areas – family, career, and personal. However, there is a large gap between where John is right now at 18 and where he wants to be when he is 30. Now comes a crucial step for John. He must answer the question, “How do I get there from here?”

When we introduced John in this series we identified the time-frames that he will plan for. The exact time-frames are flexible and can be defined as John desires. The most important thing is that these time windows make sense to the person creating the mind map – in this case John. Here is the mind map we laid out for John: (all images will enlarge when clicked)

With his age 30 mind-map completed, the next time-frame for John is the next seven years. At the end of that window he will be 25 years old. This period is exactly five years before the age 30 period he has already completed. With each new time period, John has to review the plans he has already written to make sure that what he plans in this new time-frame truly enables him to accomplish what he has already written in his longer time-frames. For example:

  • Family. John wants to be living near his parents when he is 30 in order to be able to take care of them. The likelihood of that happening will depend in large part on John’s decisions by age 25. He has to make sure that this new time-frame takes location into account.
  • Career. John said that when he is 30 he will be in his 7th year of work as an engineer. In order for this to happen, John needs to have already been an engineer for two years by the time he is 25. If he were now to write that by age 25 he wants to start his first job as an engineer, there is no way he will be in his 7th year of work when he is 30. This is why he must review what he has already written.
  • Personal. Since John wants to be under 190 pounds by the time he is 30, he will want to make sure he is setting a realistic goal for his age 25 time-frame with regard to his weight and health. If he does not pay attention to his weight and instead gains weight in his early to mid twenties, John may have weight problem to deal with when he is 30.

In this way John reviews what is already planned in longer time-frames and begins to write a coherent plan for the shorter time-frames. It is important to note that John’s already completed age 30 plan is not chiseled in stone. In working on an earlier time-frame he may discover that something he has written for age 30 cannot be accomplished by that time. OR he may determine that he has been too conservative and that he can really accomplish more in that more distant period. In either case he will need to go back to age 30 and make changes so that his plan has a realistic shot of success. In this way, the entire process is really an iterative process. That is, it will likely take several iterations (or repetitions) to develop a coherent plan.

Back to Age 25

After reviewing his age 30 mind map, John will now begin writing for age 25 across all three realms. Here is the blank template for age 25 with the familiar fields to guide John in his planning.

Since John has already completed his more distant time-frame, he can more easily step back in time and create his goals:

Family

  • Family Status: Mom & Dad 62, Steve 27, Jane 24, Kate 20
  • If we are not already living near Mom & Dad, we will look for career opportunities to move closer.
  • Steve may have children by this time, and it is important to me to be a good uncle to my nieces and nephews. This is true even if we do not live near one another.
  • I will have contributed my love and help to Jane and will have a healthy, supportive relationship with her as an older brother. I will maintain healthy boundaries.
  • I will continue my strong relationship with Kate and assist her in whatever ways she needs me.
  • I may be an uncle to Jane and/or Kate’s children at this point. As with Steve’s, I will invest in these nieces and nephews and be a wonderful uncle to them.
  • Robin and I will be celebrating our third anniversary.
  • I will support her in her career, life, and interests.
  • I will spend quality time with her and work seriously on making our marriage great. I will invest in us.
  • We may have children by this time. I will take fatherhood seriously and will look out for the well-being of them all.

In reviewing his age 30 map, John notices that he failed to say anything about his in-laws in what he wrote about family. He address this now in the new time-frame by writing:

  • I will make it easy for Robin and the kids to spend time with her parents.
  • I will look for ways to help Robin’s parents.

Also, now that John has identified this oversight from the age 30 plan, he will go back to that age 30 map and add his thinking about his in-laws.

Career

  • I will be in my 2nd year of work as an engineer.
  • I will establish a reputation as a person with a strong work ethic.
  • I will cultivate relationships with engineers I admire in order to learn from them and grow my network.
  • I will look for and participate in continuing education opportunities.
  • I will earn at least $60,000 per year.
  • We will practice wise budgeting and will pay off all student loan debt.

Personal

Body/Health

  • I will keep my weight under 190 pounds.
  • I will play tennis and walk regularly.
  • I will eat a healthy diet, and continually educate myself about the latest in nutritional science.
  • I will get annual physicals from my doctor.

Fun

  • I will take guitar lessons and review the fundamentals of music.
  • I will play in at least one charity golf tournaments each year for fun and to support good causes.
  • I will hunt annually with my Dad and brother.

The World

  • I will explore various charities and volunteer my time to determine the place I am most passionate about serving.
  • I will explore the mentoring a young person through Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
  • I will financially support humanitarian relief efforts through world-class charities.
  • I will vote in local, state, and national elections as an exercise of my civic duty and of patriotic gratitude.

Spiritual

  • I will continue to learn and explore my own spiritual nature and the nature of God.
  • I will focus on my spiritual journey with my wife and grow along with her.
  • I will explore and identify a good group of people/church to belong to and to do spiritual work with.
  • I will strive to be consistent in my religious beliefs and allow them to guide my actions in work and personal life.

Here is all of this information in the mind map for age 25:

When both the age 25 and age 30 map are included, here is John’s map. Remember, this image will enlarge:

Now that we have gone through two different time-frames for John we can begin to understand the process for doing a complete mind map. I think you will agree that it is actually hard work. We have not even completed John’s plan yet for his two closest time-frames. One thing that will emerge as we look to the closer time-frames is that the specific goals will become more like tasks as he begins to realize actions he will need to take to make his longer vision a reality. In our next article we will examine how the closest time-frames will drive John’s actions.