The most important thing in life

Years ago, I heard someone — I think it was a stand-up comedian — say that he knew what was the most important thing in life:

“The unexpected.”

At the time, his explanation made sense: If you woke up in the morning and knew exactly what you were going to get out of the day, you might not bother. Knowing a good day was on tap would take away some of the adrenaline rush when it actually happened. If you knew it’d be a bad one, well, you’d want to stay under the covers.

Not sure why this has stuck with me for so long. But I remember when I realized he was wrong, because I recognized what the most important thing actually was:

Hope.

And I wanted to debate this long-forgotten comedian/philosopher about my revelation, convinced that it’s the possibility of good that actually gets people moving and inspires them to be the human beings we all know and love.

I’m glad that didn’t happen, because a couple of weeks ago, I came up with a new answer.

Belief.

Hope is important of course; but in some ways it’s transient. We can hope for meaningful, noble things… but we can digress into hoping for warmer weather or that we hit all the green lights on our commute.

What really gets us out of bed in the morning, without hitting snooze and maybe without an alarm at all, is belief. We don’t just cling to a wish that it will be a good day; we’re empowered to make it so. Conviction that we can serve as a good parent or citizen. Belief that a relationship or cause is worth dedicating ourselves to. Confidence that the work we do is meaningful and making a difference.

Of course, belief can be based in spirituality. I remember being invited to a church group’s awards dinner 20-some years ago. Technically, I was an adult at the time, but I felt aimless and ungrounded listening to a couple of teenagers give witness to their belief and blessings from God. Their passion was unwavering and clear.

Based in religion or elsewhere, to have that kind of fire within — to know something is so valuable to you, that an internal force is constantly guiding you — is what matters most. It can’t be manufactured or faked. True belief is authentic, real, and palpable.

When it’s missing, you can’t make up for it. We all know someone who is going through the motions because they’re missing a sense of purpose.

But each and every one of us has something to offer the world; it’s just a matter of finding the trigger to unleash that power. Think about the people in your life who are on a mission, to the point that it is what defines them to you. They’re driven and won’t stop.

That kind of belief is a blessing. It needs to be cultivated and fed to sustain us for today and the next day and the next. When we believe, we’re unstoppable.

What do you believe in?

More than a game

A big week in sports, with three super-major accomplishments: The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, Golden State beat the LeBrons for the NBA title, and my son Jake’s team scored seven runs in the bottom of last inning for a 12-11 tournament win.

Man, do I love sports. The players, the stories, the adrenaline rush — it’s all good. My family’s typically not so into it, but as the Blackhawks clinched Game 6, I realized we were all on the couch cheering them on.

We were looking at jubilant players and raucous fans as I explained the traditions of the Cup and the playoffs in general. It was late and the kids were a little slap-happy, and I found myself frustrated they weren’t treating this moment with the reverence it deserved. This was the presentation of Lord Stanley’s Cup! This is honor and history — not, as Jacob put it, “a big silver wine glass.”

But if you’re ten years old, that’s exactly what it is. It’s a funny-shaped silver mug that bearded men lift over their heads as they skate around, having just played a game.

So when, and why, does that change? Why do sports mean so much to so many people?

Because they end.

Sport seasons are finite. They have a defined amount of time — whether we’re talking a game, a season, a tournament — to achieve a goal. There’s a defined set of rules to succeed. They win or they lose.

As fans, we’re passionate about the build-up and the drama around each phase, and we commit to it. We’re not even on the playing field. We find ourselves not just with favorite teams, but favorite players, rooting for their professional success, supporting them every chance we get. I will never meet Tramon Williams or Aaron Rodgers or Jordy Nelson, but that doesn’t stop me from having replica jerseys in my house. We identify with them.

You know who I don’t display that exuberance for? Me. Or my coworkers. That would be silly, right? I’ll see my coworkers tomorrow and the next day, always. Eventually they or even I may leave for new jobs, but the routine is ultimately the same: Forty- or fifty-some years of professional achievement, because that’s life, and that’s what we expect to happen every day for forever.

As a wise man once sang, forever’s a mighty long time. What if we consciously measured that time differently? What if we worked for a season, not the duration of our lives? What if we could look at a professional scoreboard and knew if we won or lost? Would we gear up for work differently, with better focus on the day-to-day? Could it make us more effective, working harder for shorter sprints? Would we need someone to root against as much as we need to cheer ourselves on? (Most importantly: Would we get jerseys? Of our co-workers?? Could I get a #47 Berrones home jersey?!)

We work as we live our lives, expecting there’s always a tomorrow. Sports teams can’t afford to do that.

And we love them for it.

Motivation: From real work to yard work

I’m not doing yard work.

Last week, I started a seven-week sabbatical that my company graciously offered. As the idea of this company perk bubbled up, the idea was to allow time to recharge and relax, get away from it all and come back to work with a fresh mind.

My first instinct: No thanks. I love pretty much everything about my job. My coworkers, our members, the mission, my responsibilities, the fulfillment I get from working hard, the opportunities to improve… there’s a lot to not just like, but truly love. I don’t want to be away from that for seven days, let alone seven weeks.

But I took it, because, hey, when do you get an offer like this? Lots of benefits: Sleeping in sounds nice. My commute is replaced with a family road trip. Time with family. Time for me.

And, as my wife told me, time to spend on her “honey-do” list. First up: Landscaping the backyard.

Note: The word “landscaping” is as absent from my list of benefits as it is from my résumé. But when she said it was important to her to have decorative rock edging, then it became important to me.

Our conversation quickly turned to how capable I would be to lug a pile of rocks from the front yard to the back. I can, case closed, so let’s do this. We bought 2 cubic yards of rock, which now sits in our driveway.

Only this project is more than rock. In fact, that’s the least of it. We need to dig up the grass we no longer want. Right? At least put down weed block. Uh oh, we didn’t discuss paver blocks to match the rest of the house’s look. Wait, what do we do with the sod we dig up? These thoughts have consumed my sabbatical so far, especially since the opportunity to do the work has been hampered by the rain that has fallen Every. Single. Day.

I recognize these are first world problems. In fact, I’ve come to a first world answer: Let’s pay someone else to do it.

My knee-jerk reaction to that thought was: I’m a failure. I’m giving up on a project that really shouldn’t be all that tough. I’m physically capable of doing this. It’s not rocket science. I could always just take my best swing, then get someone to fix it afterwards.

I stumbled across Dan Pink’s TEDTalk on motivation. One of the many takeaways are three elements he says workers need in order to stay motivated: Autonomy (“the urge to direct our own lives”), mastery (“the desire to get better and better at something that matters”), and purpose (“the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”)

I really dig this (and this fuller version of his talk) because it explains why this landscaping project feels like such a waste of time. The desire for this project didn’t come from within, it’s a one-time project that I’ll never repeat, and maybe a couple dozen people will ever see the result. This is the opposite of motivation. (Well, except the part where it would make my wife happy. But that motivates me to find a solution, not to do the job myself.)

What I find interesting is that the same checklist sums up why I love my job — it’s a slam-dunk to check those three boxes as a doer. What about as a manager? Am I providing my team the opportunity and reinforcement to stoke their passion for the job, giving them the chance to develop in the ways that help them in a way that also helps the company’s mission?

Maybe this sabbatical is going to be good for me after all.

2×4

At work, we have a very friendly, collaborative, team attitude. I love the people I work with, and I believe they love me too. It’s a wonderful arrangement, and encourages us to do even better work — for ourselves as much as for one another.

Which is a good thing, because there’s a lot of work to do! I’ve been in charge of this team for several years now, and I’m constantly amazed and impressed by the work they do. We’re always in hiring mode due to the growth of the company, yet we’ve managed very well. We continue to have ideas to make improvements. Some get implemented, some we don’t have time for, and sadly, some may get ignored.

That last category is inexcusable. This year, we’ve talked about using a figurative 2×4: To make sure you get heard, you sometimes need to deliver your message as bluntly as possible. I can get in heads-down mode, but as a leader, I must always have an eye out for the team. If I’m not proactively recognizing a need, I may need to be on the receiving end of a 2×4.

It’s not like we’re the only ones to use this expression. A recent post from Return Path CEO Matt Blumberg talks about the value of a 2×4 in reviewing employee performance — “a big wakeup call” for employees who need it.

“The hardest (conversations) are with people who think they are doing really well,” he writes, “when in reality they’re failing or in danger of failing.” As a harsh self-critic, my initial instinct was: Am I in danger of failing? Am I leading my team as best I can? I’ve encouraged them to use 2x4s on me, but come to think of it, that hasn’t happened in a while…

The ensuing revelation may have been my biggest 2×4 yet. I am a harsh self-critic, and not always quiet about it. Nobody is harder on me than me… but that doesn’t mean I’m my most effective critic. I might best hear that from the people I work with. So why haven’t they given me those 2x4s?

Ironically, our office culture may be part of the reason. Friendly, nice people can find it a challenge to deliver critical feedback; imagine how much harder it must be when you see the recipient already beating himself up.

It’s a recent revelation, but one I’m hoping changes the way I act — it’ll benefit my team, and it will absolutely be good for me.

“Feed Me” is now “Fed Me” — conclusions from the great experiment

It’s nearing (what should be) dinner time on August 31 — time to recap the month of the great “Feed Me” experiment.

My goal is here is to explain what I’ve learned, where this has made me better, how I have faith in longer-term healthiness… and how the wheels came off at the very end.

I’ve gone back and graded myself on how I ate each day — sticking to the plan, if I ate well when I went off-plan or was left to my own devices, etc. Instead of A’s, B’s, or F’s, I went with percentages on a typical school grading scale. You can see the scores (and explanations) on the far right column of the meal plan spreadsheet.

The month started strong, and even with events (an impromptu ballgame, a short camping trip) interrupting flow in the first two weeks, I stayed true to the plan. Through August 14th, I gave myself just one B and one C. The rest were A’s.

During that second week of August, the kids started school. Same for my wife Tracey, since she occasionally works there, and she was called in a bunch in the first couple of weeks. A work event that kept me late on what would have been grocery shopping night meant postponing Friday’s plan. I recommitted that weekend, and spent Sunday shopping and preparing upcoming meals… when jury duty called. I was seated for three days — an experience I’m proud to have been part of, though it stalled out the experiment. The perishable groceries I’d purchased had perished. Then *I* started to perish, as the back-to-school bug the kids brought home (and had knocked Tracey out for the better part of the week) finally got me over the weekend.

With one week to go, I was determined to do well — until the kids’ first sports practices and games got underway, stretching longer into nights than expected. The month’s final weekend wound up being Labor Day weekend, and a chance to finish strong lost out to an impromptu road trip with Tracey. Family first, not food.

I end the month with two failing grades — two of only three I had for the month. I’m going to take an overall B for August as a win. Earlier, I was thinking if I ever did this again, I’d start with a grading system, because scores tend to keep me motivated. The more I thought about that, though, I realize a scoreboard couldn’t have given me the thing I most needed to have made this an A+ success:

Time. You foodies, I don’t know how you do it. My typical weekday involves 1 hour getting ready, 3 hours of commuting, 9 hours at work, 2 hours for family (typically: dinner, homework, sports practices), and 7 hours of sleep. That leaves two hours for me, from 8-10 PM. Whatever I need to do for me takes place then. I don’t bring this up as an excuse or a complaint — early in the month, I was able to stick to using those hours learning my way around the grocery store or prepping the next day’s meals.

That time was in high demand as the month progressed, and was needed for more than just planning meals. In the context of this experiment, it led to some failure. As for my life, I needed to use that time in other places, and I’m OK with that.

It also helped crystallize the biggest learning: The main reason I’m attracted to fast food isn’t taste, but convenience. We live in a world where you can pull off the road for one minute, get inexpensive sustenance in a bag, handed to you with a smile through a window, and you’re back on your way. And you can snarf down that consistently-prepared food by the time you reach your destination, so you can focus on whatever’s next.

I realize now that what I put into my body is also priority, as much as the kids are, as much as work is, as much as any of it. The road I was on was going to end much sooner than I’d like if I didn’t make a change. This month was a wake-up call for that, and I’ve learned.

I’ve also learned that the support from people who care about me is intense. For as many good recipes that were shared, the encouragement was leaps and bounds beyond that. Thank you, everyone, who helped make this month happen. You helped me improve my life, and you continue to do so. My good friend Mike wrote me near the end of the month, advising me to think about what September might hold and set some reasonable goals to keep up the good that’s happened here.

After some careful thought, I don’t think I’ll set September goals. I don’t know that I need them. August’s numbers are nice: 0 fast-food burgers, 1 Coke, 5 lost pounds. But the bigger takeaway is, I deserve better than what I’ve been doing to myself, and I won’t need a scoreboard to stay true to that. Just some patience, some extra virgin olive oil, and some reflection on why this is important in the first place.

I swear, when this whole thing started, I thought September 1 was going to include a Wendy’s Triple and a Culver’s Concrete Mixer. It won’t. Doesn’t mean it won’t happen someday, but it won’t happen as often. The longing for them just isn’t there.

And that is a win.

Feed Me update: Feeling guilty

It was a tough week for the great experiment.

After a pretty successful first couple of weeks, things took a turn last Sunday afternoon. I was already feeling a little overwhelmed: Making Monday’s lunch in advance, lining up Monday’s dinner ingredients, while knowing Sunday’s quick recipe still needed to get made.

That’s when Tracey asked, “So do you have jury duty tomorrow?”

The wheels came off. I was seated on a jury from Monday through Wednesday where lunches (and one dinner) was provided. My family celebrated my civic duty by catching some back-to-school cold bug that they couldn’t wait to share with me.

It caught up with me Friday evening, flattening me for the weekend. So I napped, I neither shopped nor cooked, I postponed meals to future days.

Worst of all, I caved. During the jury deliberations, fighting a sore throat and cough, I asked the vending machine for a Coke.

On Saturday, a day that included twice passing out on the couch, I ordered pizza for dinner.

In both instances, karma tried looking out for me: Instead of giving me a Coke, the vending machine rolled out a Hawaiian Punch. And while I lazily waited and waited for the pizza delivery, it dawned on me that I might have ordered carry-out.

If I was going to cheat, it wasn’t going to be easy.

By Sunday evening, I was starting to get my mojo back. Realizing there’s one week to go in the month, I put together the recipes and got to work. Made a grocery store trip. Whipped up some veggies. I’m revved up for the homestretch.

I’m writing this on my commute to work, carrying my breakfast and lunch (a Greek yogurt and a homemade Southwest Quinoa Bowl) in a plastic bag.

One more week. The days are all claimed, so the path is clear, as is the support. We got this.

The mid-month “Feed Me” update

It’s somehow already August 15th, and only August 15th, all at the same time. Either way, it’s time for a quick update on our great experiment.

I consciously call it “our” instead of “my” experiment, because it really wouldn’t happen without you. I’m just the guinea pig here. But even guinea pigs can learn a thing or two. Me, I’ve learned five:

If you’d like to cook, being color-deficient sucks

Since I can’t tell reds from greens from browns, I’ll never get to be a pilot or astronaut. But I’ll also be limited in properly cooking meats, which means I’m a liability at the grill. That filet mignon I had August 7 was a rude awakening on how I needed to turn over my “man card” at the grill so I don’t kill anyone. So Tracey grilled up chicken on August 12 (and man, was that a great thing). It’s frustrating as one of the goals here is to learn to enjoy cooking, but gauging meat by its color just isn’t going to happen. Which leads to the next learning…

To cook, it helps to be flexible with rules

You’re not just making food, you’re experimenting, dabbling, trying. Over the years, Tracey always has gotten a laugh when she sees me making pancakes — I precisely measure the 1 cup of water and 2 cups of mix, just as the box says. What else would I do? “Just keep adding until it looks right.” She may as well ask me to grill up a steak on the moon. We recently took a personality assessment at work, where part of my description reads, “Being exact is imperative in everything Kurt does.” The butcher told me how to cook that filet mignon: how many minutes to sear each side, what the grill temperature should be when, what the meat temperature should be, and so on. But it didn’t work. Silly as it sounds, following the directions and not getting the desired result can be a punch to the gut for me. Especially for the time and investment I’m putting into this. Which brings me to…

Cooking requires a lot of planning

The first lesson came on July 31, when I told Tracey I would buy all of the first week’s groceries. She looked at the list and taught me all that produce wouldn’t survive to the end of the week. Very well, it’ll be two grocery trips each week, a few days’ worth at a time.

Ah, plans. How quaint.

At the end of last week, I found myself behind on shopping. This week, after a late work night then a day’s notice that SOCCER PRACTICE BEGINS TOMORROW EVENING YOU BETTER BE THERE, I didn’t even make the grocery list let alone shop. Which is frustrating, because it made me postpone the one day that included a dessert. Not to mention it took me off my plan (see paragraph above).

But I’m learning some good things too.

I’ve got great friends

To date, everyone has been about as excited as me when their day pops up. Did I actually make it? Really? And I ate the spinach? How did it turn out? When I get to say something like, “even the kids liked it!” (I’m looking at you and the pork sandwiches, Sharon), it makes us all happy. That so many people have stepped up is amazing to me — it’s a dopey little experiment, but these pockets of investment really matter, to you and to me.

I actually can eat healthy — even on my own

I’ve taken the list very literally, and since nobody has listed soda pop, I’ve only had one (on a day not assigned to anyone). But I haven’t looked back. And I’ve never snacked much during the day anyway, but when I do, it’s been almonds, or piece of cheese, or just a glass of water. The two days I had to postpone the original plan, I still ate healthy: oatmeal, bananas, turkey sandwich on thin bagel, etc. And maybe my proudest accomplishment: A road trip with my dad and son included three restaurant stops. Last month, I’d have had the buffalo chicken pizza, the fried egg burger, and red velvet pancakes; this month, I had the pasta and veggies plate, a simple cheeseburger, and the small order of whole grain pancakes with fruit.

I’m down six pounds.

If you’re just reading about this experiment for the first time, get the whole story here. Even better, claim your day by clicking here. And to Michelle, Erin, Beth, Laura, and Sharon: Thanks for getting me through this last week!

One week down, the rest of my life to go

Last month, I asked for your help to help me eat better. Or frankly, to help me eat, period. As the original post explains: Left to my own devices, I don’t take such good care of my temple, and who’s in a better position to help me than… well, pretty much everybody else?

One week in to the experiment is a perfect time to check in. The short version: This is going better than I could hope, because it has me paying attention to what I’m eating, it has me excited about preparing meals, I’m more aware of my body, nutrition, and friendships than I ever have been.

Here’s a breakdown:

The meals

So these are the real stars of the show. The first night, I made a tilapia with tomatoes, olives, and capers. And it was magnificent.

tilapiadinner 20140801

An excellent Sunday morning breakfast of scrambled eggs and spinach (!) set me up for a work week of easy-to-make breakfasts (yogurt parfait, cereal, oatmeal), basic lunches, and dinners that even I could make. When I’m home. Which leads me to…

The planning

Somehow, I didn’t consider how spontaneous plans could ruin this whole experiment. In late July, we made a plan for an August 2 family trip to the ballpark. That not only postponed the evening’s steak dinner plan, but could have wrecked the whole experiment — you don’t walk into the park without being overpowered by enticing smells of funnel cakes and hot dogs. But I stayed strong: merely 2 bao (yes, they have a Wow Bao at U.S. Cellular Field!) wasn’t extravagant or especially damaging.

Last night, a friend in a new job had a work-related event, which kept me downtown late. Only on my 5:30 walk to the event did I realize: My wife Tracey and I talked about a fish dinner, and I was going to miss it! She was going to cook this one, but it turned out she’d had a busy day too. Without the Michelle-ordered “protein, veggie, and grain such as rice” dinner prepped, I asked Michelle for (and received) the OK for a Chipotle rice bowl feast.

Physically

I’ve taken the list of what to eat as literally as possible — if drinks aren’t listed, I only drink water. My co-worker Erin had Day 1, and in the afternoon, I jokingly (?) expressed my desire for a Coke. She was surprised and said, well of course you could — she knows that’s basically my lifeblood. But I said no, it wasn’t on the list. And I survived. Until about 7:30 that night, when I had one of the most crippling headaches I can remember. It hurt just to keep my eyes open, and I fell asleep. I awoke at 2:30 overnight, still with a headache. Maybe it was all caffeine-induced, maybe it was other stuff. But I can tell you this, I haven’t had a Coke all week.

I’m continually sensitive to how my body feels at most every moment all week, probably because I’m looking for the smallest detail to give credit or blame to what I’m eating. But that’s not fair, and with that in mind, there’s nothing significant to report after just seven days.

Emotionally

On the afternoon of Day 3, I was grumpy for no obvious reason. I paused for a moment (it was Laura’s day, she recommended meditation), and realized: For the first time in forever, I’d gone three days without eating the typical processed crap I eat; maybe my body wasn’t celebrating, but asking, “What the hell are you doing up there?” I went to the grocery store to stock up, and was very conscious of how much junk is out there, and how the stores highlight these items: Cookies on the end caps, an entire aisle full of chips, another one dedicated to snacks, and candy bars at the register. All of it colorful, enticing, and delicious. It’s amazing any of us eat well. But the real kicker…

Financially

When I checked out of the grocery store, I looked at the conveyor belt and wondered, “What have I become?”

grocery 20140803

I’ve never bought so many produce items in my life. Not in one day, OR IN ALL MY LIFE COMBINED.  There wasn’t much more than what you see in this picture… but this was a $44 trip. Before August started, Tracey said she was worried this would be expensive — but she may not be fully aware of how much of my paycheck goes toward fast food. I reasoned the cost would be another facet of the experiment. I haven’t done an actual comparison yet, and I recognize I’m buying some ingredients for the first time (and will have lots of leftovers. That minced garlic will LAST). Sticker shock is a part of it. (If this paragraph interests you, you should really read this article about taking a homeless woman grocery shopping. It’s a worthy read for the main piece as well as the comments.)

Setbacks

Today was rough. I was tired and crabby this morning, and really wanted a caffeine hit. For lunch, I bought a Diet Snapple Half’n’Half (iced tea and lemonade) instead of water. (Or, depending on how you look at it, instead of a Coke.) 20 minutes later, I was WIRED. From just 22 grams of caffeine? That never would have given me such a buzz.

Tonight was steak dinner night (thank you Kathy). I stopped by the butcher’s on the way home, and asked for advice — I don’t do this often, and I don’t see colors very well. No worries, they said, and told me how to cook two filet mignons. Well, this is under “setbacks” for a reason: I went in confident, Tracey knew better than to let me on the grill but I wouldn’t have it, and I ate what was probably a rarer-than-rare steak while she went and recooked hers. I got stubborn wanting to do this myself, and could have better enjoyed a nice piece of meat. But, lesson learned — and we will try again. With Tracey on the grill. (Partially-colorblind guys like me have to turn in our Man Card during BBQ season, it sucks.)

Support

So, I lied earlier, the meals aren’t the real stars of the show: You all are. That so many have jumped in to help with a meal plan, or to ask if I’d be OK to eat X, or no really you’d eat X?, or even just to ask how it’s going — that keeps me motivated. And isn’t that the biggest help for any habit change, to know that people care that you’re looking to improve yourself — and they’re willing to help?

A couple of people have asked if this is ultimately going to be a book or feature article I’ll write somewhere. Nope. Hey, that it led to a feature on Outside the Loop Radio is honor enough!

If I can be greedy, it’s to say I could use more support: August is filling up, but isn’t yet full. I’d love to have different people fill up each day this month, so if you haven’t yet taken part, it’s not too late: just click here to claim a day.

And to Erin, Jaclin, Laura, Jack, Evette, Michelle, and Kathy — thank you for a memorable week!