The slow road to unhappiness

You know.

You know she spent hours getting that picture Instagram-ready — fifteen minutes cropping it, fifteen minutes looking through filters, and at least an hour writing the caption. You know she posted it at exactly the moment when she’ll get the most ‘likes.’ In fact, you know she’s waiting for you to ‘like’ it right now.

You know this behavior is absurd. You know Instagram can’t possibly have much to do with human happiness. And yet you’re still tempted to compare your happiness to her picture. Still tempted to compare your ‘likes’ to hers.

The slow road to unhappiness is, of course, self-comparison.

Maria Popova, writer of Brain Pickings, talked about self-comparison in a commencement address last year at the University of Pennsylvania. I can’t say it better:

“Develop an inner barometer for your own value. Resist pageviews and likes and retweets and all those silly-sounding quantification metrics that will be obsolete within the decade. Don’t hang the stability of your soul on them. They can’t tell you how much your work counts for and to whom. They can’t tell you who you are and what you’re worth. They are that demoralizing electric bike that makes you feel if only you could pedal faster — if only you could get more pageviews and likes and retweets — you’d be worthier of your own life.” 

Getting rejected, part II

[Here’s Getting rejected, part I]

Seth Godin is a personal hero of mine. His most recent book, What To Do When It’s Your Turn, has been a joy to own.

This story is my favorite passage from the book. It’s a simple, but powerful lesson on how to think about rejection:

Try this with $5

It might teach you something about what “no” means.

Go to the bus station and walk up to the first person you meet. Say to him, with as much confidence and trustworthiness you can muster, “would you like to buy this five-dollar bill? I’m selling it for a dollar.”

The odds are, he will walk away without buying anything. In fact, he will probably avoid eye contact and walk away rather quickly.

How rude!

Doesn’t he know that you’re offering him a five-dollar bill for just a dollar?

Of course people won’t buy a five-dollar bill from a stranger at the bus station. It’s the first rule of the bus station: don’t buy something that feels like a scam. The second rule is don’t talk to strangers.

That story got there before you did.

Do you understand that the ‘no’ that you heard wasn’t someone rejecting you, or even rejecting your new project after carefully and completely reviewing it?

It was the ‘no’ of someone examining your story (as heard) and comparing it to their worldview.

You never had a chance.

Consider this alternative…

Go to your neighbor’s house with a $5 bill in a plain, unsigned envelope. Leave it in his mailbox.

Go back again tomorrow.

Do it one more time the day after that.

Then, on the fourth day, ring his doorbell, hand him another $5 and say, “I’m the guy who keeps leaving you five-dollar bills.” Smile and walk away.

On the fifth day, ring his bell and say, “Hey, wanna buy a $5 bill for a dollar?”

My guess is that it’ll go a lot better than it did at the train station. 

The five-dollar bill later in this story is worth just as much as it was at the beginning. What’s different is the story, not just the story you’re telling, but the story he’s hearing. It’s weird (you’re weird) but it feels a lot safer this time, doesn’t it?

Everything you create, every idea you try to share, every project you launch is a five-dollar bill. Sometimes, people will refuse it, even as a gift. Other times, they’ll fall all over themselves to pay you ten dollars.

They buy (or reject) a story. Not you.

Why you didn’t get the job

Earlier this month I needed to hire one more employee to work in the fitness center. The week prior I happened to get an e-mail from a student asking for a job. I knew she would be a good fit, so she got it.

Yesterday I got three e-mails from students asking for the same job. Since I already have a full staff, they didn’t get it.

It would be silly for those three students to spend time wondering what’s wrong with them. Are they incompetent? Do I not like them? Are they fated to a life of rejection? Of course not — the timing was just unlucky in this case.

Once you realize that most instances of career rejection work like this, you can move on. You can move on to the most rational and productive response there is:

Keep trying. Keep failing. Keep improving.

An incredible comparison

Fredonia women's club swimming 1976.jpg

Scrolling through Fredonia’s Facebook alumni page, I found this picture of the 1976 club women’s swimming team.

Thirty-six years later, the varsity women’s swimming team in 2012:


I don’t think I need to point out the differences that signal obvious progress over the last four decades. But that’s not the incredible comparison.

The incredible comparison is that there’s no evidence — none whatsoever — that the people in one picture are any happier than the people in the other.

No, this is not a critique of progress. No rational person would choose to go back to how things were in 1976. It is, however, a reminder that happiness often comes from wanting what you already have.

Why a 4.0 GPA matters

A senior athlete just got a 4.0 GPA in his last semester before graduating. He was on academic probation as a freshman.

On the one hand, getting a 4.0 GPA doesn’t matter at all. It doesn’t matter that you memorized a few more facts about world history than the person with a 3.8 GPA.

On the other hand, seeing yourself go from academic probation to a 4.0 GPA is a powerful lesson. It changes how you see yourself: “What else could I get better at?”

Growth mindset“, the belief that you can change your qualities through your own effort, has become cliche in education circles. And yet if you listen closely, every day you’ll hear someone refer to things they’re not good at:

“I’m just not an outdoors person.” … “I’m just not a math person.” … “I’m too socially awkward to talk to people.” … “I’m not very confident.”

Are you sure you couldn’t be?