Forget About ‘Life Hacks,’ You’ll Thank Yourself Later: An Exclusive Interview With WSJ Best-Selling Editor James Ranson

We’re told we need it all. More importantly, we’re told we need it all right now. Don’t have time? That’s okay – just “hack” it. Whatever that means. Hack your job, hack your homework, hack your body, hack your relationship, hack your life. Get the most for the least amount of effort. Sounds great, right? There’s only one problem: that’s bullshit.

James Ranson, a Wall Street Journal bestselling editor, will be the first person to tell you that although shortcuts are seductive, they come back to bite sooner or later. After witnessing the destructive effects of shortcuts in his own work and personal life, he set out to write a book that would expose this faulty thinking and provide a framework for a more sustainable life. The result was Buy Once, Cry Once: How Shortcuts Cost You in the Long Run. 

After I read the book last week, I reached out to James about conducting an interview. I’m happy to share our conversation here:

Today it seems like finding the shortcut or “hack” is valued more than putting in the work to achieve mastery, even if that shortcut does more harm than good. What caused this trend and what steps need to be taken to reverse it?

We, as a Western society, seem to have collectively decided that easy is better than hard, fast is better than slow, cheap is better than expensive, and lucky is better than good…without ever really understanding the tradeoffs of making those decisions. Easy is easier, but it’s rarely fulfilling. Fast is faster, but when things get rushed, people make mistakes. Cheap is cheaper, but then the only options are low-quality. Luck may bring temporary good fortune, but it rarely lasts–and even less often strikes the way we dream it will. So counting on, hoping for, or chasing after these kinds of shortcuts to success actually sets us up for failure in the long run (and often in the short run as well).

Reversing this trend, aptly, is not easy or quick or cheap. It’s not sexy, it’s not flashy, it doesn’t have a high-profile marketing campaign behind it. It will be done one person at a time, one moment at a time, one decision at a time, as each of us eventually learn that the tradeoffs described above aren’t worth what we get for them…and that creating true value for ourselves and those we want to reach is worth the time and effort it takes.

You note in your book that most successful people we admire rarely take shortcuts, or at least have learned to avoid them. Given this realization, why do people still insist on cutting corners?

In large part, I think this happens because we never see the whole picture of any successful person. We see their success, and usually only that. If we’re lucky, we’ll see some of how they got to that success, but even that is often either painted as an overnight thing (like a startup getting its first investor) or described in abstract ways that we can’t really relate to (like saying “they worked for years” or similar). So our impression is that these people got success much more quickly and easily than they actually did–sometimes even that they took shortcuts themselves, and that those shortcuts actually worked well for them. Combine that with the need for speed we talked about in the first question, and you have a recipe for essentially ignoring how success actually works and replacing that knowledge with whatever hack will supposedly get them there fastest.

Explain how you think social media impacts our shortcut culture

Two ways: by making it very easy to see only the best parts of a person’s life, the parts they want you to see and have curated for you to see; and two, by encouraging definitions of success that are very superficial and easily hacked. If we see only the best results of someone’s efforts but never their failures, we get an unrealistic picture of their success. If we think success is determined by how many likes or shares or free downloads we get rather than how much real value we give people, we believe that hacking our way to more of those things will put us on par with the successful people whose curated images we lust after. In both cases, social media allows us to treat incomplete or inaccurate info as complete and accurate, which tends to make shortcuts and hacks look more viable than they really are.

Some people might argue that taking shortcuts is the only way to meet all the demands placed on them by work, school, relationships, and so on. How can people successfully manage their responsibilities without cutting corners?

For starters, do fewer things. Especially in our college years and shortly after, it’s easy to feel like you must do all the things. But in reality, the more things we try to do, the less of them we’ll do well. I remember the spring semester of my freshman year of college I was taking a full class load, acting in a play, writing for the newspaper, working two different jobs, and trying to keep up a long-distance relationship…and not only did I not do well on most of those things, I put myself in the hospital for a week from the stress of it all. Trying to do everything is a shortcut unto itself. Don’t fall for it.

But if you really have a lot of things you need to do, there are two big things you can do to manage them. First, prioritize self-care as much as possible, especially in terms of getting enough sleep, healthy food and fresh air. If you aren’t up to taking care of yourself, you won’t be able to meet your other responsibilities for long. Second, multitask as little as possible. As Ron Swanson says, don’t half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing. Focusing on one thing at a time raises your quality of work for that thing exponentially over trying to do it while distracted.

What are a few of the most dangerous shortcuts that people in their 20s should resist?

Debt is a big one. I’m not saying to never put a round of drinks or an oil change on a credit card, that’s not always realistic, but I am saying that if the only way for you to do or get something is to charge it, think very, very hard about whether you need that thing…or whether you need it right this second. If it’s still going to be there in six months and you can honestly do without it till then, put the credit card away and start saving. That goes triple for any program, product, mastermind or membership that someone tries to sell you, especially if they use scarcity tactics or limited admission to try to get you to pay for it RIGHT NOW. If someone wants you to go into debt to join their program, walk away. If they pressure you to go into debt to join it, don’t walk. Run.

I’d also include trying to get to the level of success of anyone who has been working in your field more than 2-4 years longer than you have. There’s challenging yourself to perform well, and then there’s trying to skip over necessary growth time. Know the difference, and don’t think the first entitles you to the second.

And along those same lines, resist the temptation to think things aren’t moving fast enough. Life isn’t short, it’s long. Let it be long. Realize that you may not always be where you want to be, and that being in that place has as much or more to teach you as getting to where you want to be does. Don’t be afraid to take time, put in effort, learn, think, try, fail, and keep going. Don’t focus so hard on getting to the destination that you ignore the journey.

***

More about James Ranson:

James is a Wall Street Journal bestselling ghostwriter and editor who’s earned his title, The Master Wordsmith. With more than two decades of experience involving over 200 authors, he is one of the nation’s premier book consultants. Here’s how to connect with him:

Website: JamesRanson.com

Email: james@jamesranson.com

Facebook: /masterwordsmithjames

Twitter: /TheMasterWords

LinkedIn: James Ranson


Dominic Vaiana’s articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations are sent in his monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive the PDF “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors.”

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My School is Upset About Washington Redskins Underwear When Local Kids Are Going Hungry

“What initial or lingering emotions are you feeling? Do these images offend you?”

These are the questions posed by a sign at the “Racism, Sexism and Stereotypes” exhibit in the student center of my school, Xavier University. Sponsored by Xavier’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI), the exhibit is intended to “spark conversation that will lead to greater understanding, accountability, and social change.”

Among the artifacts on display is a collection of women’s underwear branded with Washington Redskins, Chicago Blackhawks, and Cleveland Indians logos. This may, according to the exhibit’s description, cause unintended harm to viewers, but can provide windows that allow us to see more clearly how history influences today’s social issues.

Initially, this might make us feel cozy and socially responsible. But in reality, the exhibit accomplishes nothing except for diverting our attention away from the real injustices that afflict our community.

The city of Cincinnati ranks 3rd nationally in terms of child poverty behind Cleveland and Detroit. Nearly 90,000 children in the tristate area are food insecure, meaning they often do not know where their next meal is coming from, or if they will get a meal at all. Each Friday, over 5,000 students rely on packs of food called Power Packs to ensure they have something to eat over the weekend. Many go to bed hungry.

The mission of Xavier’s CDI is to “achieve a unifying consciousness for the common good.” It has done the opposite. “Microagressions” and “triggers” now irritate us more than hunger or poverty, and our campus leaders are complicit in this embarrassing rearrangement of priorities. Their continual fabrication of controversy proliferates a plague of hypersensitivity that has crippled our capacity to take action on pressing issues.

There are plenty of things to be outraged about in this world. Hunger is one of them. Underwear is not. Blithely overlooking the plight of our neighbors while encouraging students to share their emotions about team-branded panties is a blatant waste of time and energy.

In the past, anger and frustration fueled some of society’s most admirable revolutions and progressions. But today, how much of that anger and frustration is squandered on policing political correctness and coddling feelings? Does magnifying something that people wouldn’t typically care about compromise our ability to mobilize assistance for children, some of which are in walking distance from Xavier, who might go to bed hungry tonight?

The CDI has good intentions, as do most of us. We understand right from wrong. This isn’t a matter of morality. It’s a matter of convenience. Indulging in pseudo-drama boils down to one thing: it’s easy. It’s easy to talk about the world as we’d like it to be instead of how it actually is. It’s easy to retreat into a fantasy world where hard and unpleasant facts don’t interfere with our comfort. But the longer we stew over insubstantial issues, the faster the community around us unravels.

If the CID truly wants to work for the common good, it should line the walls of the student center with pictures of the 90,000 local children that have probably never heard of a bias incident, but know the pain of hunger all too well.


Dominic’s articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations are sent in his monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive the PDF “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors.”

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You Should Skip Class to Read a Book

After Malcolm X was released from prison in 1952, a writer from London called him to conduct an interview. One of the questions he asked Malcolm was, “What’s your alma mater?” His response was, “Books.”

Sentenced to ten years in prison on burglary charges, Malcolm X refused to wallow in self-pity during his time behind bars. Instead, he educated himself by reading widely and often. In his autobiography, he recalls reading until three in the morning with only a sliver of light shining through the bars of his cell.

“No university would ask any student to devour literature as I did when this new world opened to me,” he said. “The ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.”

But he wasn’t reading to boost his status or to earn a degree. He was reading because he was genuinely curious and hungry for truth. He understood that personal experience could only take one so far in life.

Today we are not confined by prison walls, but by a seemingly inescapable multitude of distractions and trivial obligations. The times have changed, but we still face the same decision that Malcolm X did: sit idly as the world passes by, or take the initiative to immerse ourselves in things that challenge us, guide us, and build character.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American adult reads only 19 minutes per day. The number is likely lower for college students who juggle classes, jobs, homework, internships, sports, and a social life. If we want to carve out time to read, something has to go. Most of these obligations are non-negotiable; but attending every single class? Not so much. So why not skip once in a while?

College is important for developing social intelligence and time management skills. But when it comes to understanding the big picture and cultivating intuition, sitting through PowerPoint slides and monotonous group projects won’t cut it.

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education,” said Mark Twain.

The world doesn’t give a shit that you go to college. What matters is what you do while you’re there, what you have to show for it. And if making the most of your four years means skipping a few gen-ed lectures to read the autobiography of a Holocaust survivor or how an obscure ancient philosophy can change your life, so be it.


Dominic’s articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations are sent in his monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive the PDF “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors.”

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15 Quotes to Help You See Through the Bullshit in 2018

There was a virtually infinite list of things to get worked up about in 2017: political chaos, celebrity scandals, hyper-polarized news, endless opinions, your Twitter feed. Sadly though, most of what provokes us today is either out of our control or just doesn’t matter that much.

It’s tempting and gratifying to indulge in whatever trivial, scandalous, or pointless junk is fed to us, and there’s no indication that the information flood will cease in 2018. That being said, these 15 quotes can help to ground us in reality and distinguish truth from bullshit:

“For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” – H.L. Mencken

“If you really want to escape the things that bother you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place, but to be a different person.” – Seneca

“It is impossible to learn that which one thinks he already knows.” – Epictetus

“Dogs bark at what they cannot understand.” – Heraclitus

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do, what you say, and what you think.” – Marcus Aurelius

“In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” – Desiderius Erasmus

“The only thing that we know is that we know nothing – and that is the highest flight of human wisdom.” – Leo Tolstoy

“If you live with a lame man, you will learn to limp.” – Plutarch

“When the tree has fallen, anyone can cut the wood.” – Publilius Syrus

“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” – Chuck Close

“Nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old.” – Jack Kerouac

“If you ever find that you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.” – Austin Kleon

“Shallow men believe in luck…strong men believe in cause and effect.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Better to be ignorant of a matter than half know it.” – Publilius Syrus

And most importantly…

“No longer waste time arguing what a good person is. Be one.” – Marcus Aurelius


Dominic’s articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations are sent in his monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive the PDF “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors.”

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Your Brain is Wired to Keep You Unhappy. But Why?

The good life appears to be straightforward: acquire enough money, find your dream girl/guy, be the boss, get the fancy car and the big house. Then, we tell ourselves, will we be satisfied. Then we can relax.

There is a slight problem, however: there isn’t a trace of evidence suggesting that higher earnings or more material goods will translate into joy or fulfillment. In fact, it’s often the opposite (especially for lottery winners). With each acquisition, the threat looms that our prized possession will be taken away. We become tense and grasp for more.

This makes sense from natural selection’s standpoint. Humans evolved to react in ways that would constantly make life easier or more comfortable. I imagine this trait would come in handy when seeking shelter or food on the Sahara. Today, however, technology has managed to outpace that primal instinct. The result is that we are still scanning our environment for things to be uncomfortable, unhappy, or unsatisfied with, even though this is the safest and easiest time to have ever lived on Earth.

Our minds are hardwired to trick us. We salivate at the thought of a diamond engagement ring or the latest shoe release, but the feeling that occurs when we actually get them never seems to live up to our expectations. After the initial dopamine rush, the pleasure dissipates. We become bored, or worse, resentful that we thought this thing could actually make us happy. So our brain tells us to go get more.

The saddest part is that our conscious mind is fully aware of this cycle, but we can’t resist the urge to consume. Many people, from Socrates to Jesus to modern psychologists, have warned us about the futility of self-indulgence. Unfortunately, we haven’t caught on.

“The idea that just one more dollar, one more rung on the ladder will leave us feeling sated reflects a misunderstanding about human nature,” says the author and scholar Robert Wright. “We are designed to feel that the next great goal will bring bliss, [but] the bliss is designed to evaporate shortly after we get there. Natural selection has a malicious sense of humor; it leads us along with a series of promises and then keeps saying ‘Just kidding.’”

The process that created us is the same one that, paradoxically, torments us. It places us in a vicious, frustrating, emotional cycle of desire, consumption, and confusion. And it seems as though the only way to escape it might be to simply acknowledge that it exists.


Dominic’s articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations are sent in his monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive the PDF “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors.”

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Our $900 Pacifiers

In one famous Middle Eastern folktale, a notorious king vows to take a new bride each day, only to have her executed the following morning. But one woman, Shahrazad, manages to escape her fate by telling the king dramatic stories each night which can only be completed the following day. She ends each story with a cliffhanger, and when one story finishes she immediately starts up another. She does this for 1,001 nights until the king finally decides to spare her life.

It would be easy to interpret this fable literally, to have a few chuckles at expense of the gullible king and move on with our lives. But to do so misses the point entirely. At it’s core, the story sheds light on two weaknesses of the human condition: our obsession with novelty and our diminished willpower in the face of anticipation.

Each one of us, like the king, is easily seduced by the promise of something new, something to free us from our own thoughts. Such has been the case for hundreds of thousands of years. Today, however, our novelty comes not from a fictional woman named Shahrazad, but from our phones. And it looks as if they will have our attention for more than just 1,001 nights.

It’s difficult to imagine our phones suddenly revoking their promise of unlimited entertainment and gratification. Their allure would die. But phones do not know limits. They are machines, like Shahrazad on steroids. And we are under their control for as long as we permit ourselves to be.

In the words of media critic Nicholas Carr, “[The phone] is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master.”

“Our phones are designed to deliver positive reinforcements which encourage the repetition of the same actions,” Carr goes on to say. Each news alert, Google search, Instagram like, and text message “turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”

We turn to our phones to dilute our insecurities, confusion, stress, discomfort, and loneliness. We convince ourselves that phones offer relaxation and escape, but in reality they leave us in a worse mood. They stifle our ability to think deeply or creatively and leave us with nothing but a despondent feeling and a craving for the next flurry of notifications. The promises of comfort and security are seductive, but nevertheless empty.

The saddest part is that we know this to be true, but still refuse to put them down. When researchers ask participants to best fit the description “I should have been doing something else,” wasting time on the Internet or watching TV are often the most popular answers. We could instead have deep, personal conversations, reach out to sick relatives, or even sit down in silence for five minutes. The problem, of course, is that these activities can be difficult. Our toys never reject us.

“Our tendency to become more intimate with our phones and computers, to experience our lives through the filter of a screen or series of flickering pixels, poses a significant threat to our humanity,” said the late MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum. “To sacrifice self-awareness, deep thought, and literacy is to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines.”

Still yet, we cling to the pathetic counter-argument that instant and limitless access to information has produced the most informed society in history. But this blind, utopian ideology is as Marshall McLuhan said, “the numb stance of the technological idiot.”

In truth, we’ve regressed to a sort of bizarre functional illiteracy. We spend, on average, ten hours per day in front of a screen that demands nothing of us. We’ve become so entranced by shows, apps, games, and social media to the point that it’s painful to process a paragraph of text, much less a book. Our tools are so individualized that they are anti-individual. An iPhone speaks to an 80-year-old and an 8-year-old in the same language. It does not “know” us. We worship its simplicity, but its simplicity makes complexity impossible to fathom.

Our phones command our attention with far greater intensity than any other activity. Observe yourself and others, oblivious to what’s right in front of us. But the biggest threat is not becoming numb to our immediate surroundings, it is becoming numb to slow, less tangible cultural transformations. The great tragedy of a technologically-sedated society is the belief that if we are happy, if we are entertained and satisfied, the rest of the world will take care of itself. We scroll and click, blind to the suffering and decay around us. We sit, with our $900 dollar pacifiers, as the planet rots, families bankrupt themselves trying to pay their children’s medical expenses, and 13 million children go to bed hungry every day in our own cities.

Such tragedies happen on time scales that defy our phone’s now-ness. They don’t change minute to minute, or even day to day. Something that happens constantly and everywhere cannot be comprehended in a 280-character tweet, a push notification, or on Fox and Friends. You need to sit down and contemplate it. The tug at our hearts from horrific images of human suffering on Facebook or the flare of resent that arises after seeing one of Donald Trump’s tweets cannot replace the capacity for self reflection that we’ve sacrificed in the name of convenience.

The more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience what makes us human: empathy and compassion. We have forgotten who we are and who we were meant to be. Our moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological well being cannot flourish when we subsist on factoids and celebrity gossip. To be fully human requires adequate time and reflection.

We live in a state of deep ignorance where information is conflated with wisdom and entertainment supplants understanding. We are urged to choose everything at the cost of understanding nothing. But, as the Stoic philosopher Seneca noted nearly 2,000 years ago, “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”

You don’t need your phone to understand this.


Dominic’s personal articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations are sent in his monthly newsletter. All subscribers get the PDF “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors.”

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If You Email Potential Employers Like This, Get Cozy in the Unemployment Line

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine mentioned he was looking for an internship in web design/computer programming. While I know next to nothing about computers or how they work, I do happen to know a woman who’s a senior project director in that field, so I said I’d happily refer him. Long story short, I gave him the woman’s email address and notified her ahead of time that he’d be reaching out.

He did indeed reach out. But his note was so thoughtless and unprofessional that it warranted an email to me from the woman insisting that I coach him on self-presentation and think twice about referring him in the future.

This is what he sent (with names and details removed):

Hey [name]!

Let me introduce myself, I am a computer science student at [college name]. I have worked for [company X, company Y, and company Z], all as summer internships. I have also been involved with the computer science club at [college] and at [high school]. I was also part of the Robotics team my 4 years at high school and we made it to world once.

I am actively looking for a internship where I would get more experience with working in a job that can further develop my skills as a computer scientist. I have worked a few other internships and have a bit of experience already. I am interested in front end web, but also any kind of database and backed programming as well. If the position fits what I am looking for I would love to hear back from you!

Thanks,

[name]


If you thought that was fine, chances are you need a primer on social intelligence. (This, this, or this is a good place to start). Ignore the heinous grammatical errors and 5th grade writing quality. It’s the blatant selfishness and lack of empathy that warranted a swift stroke of the “delete” key.

Notice how he focuses entirely on himself and how a potential internship could benefit him. There is no inquiry into what this woman’s work entails or how he could add value to her team. It doesn’t take much effort to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and realize he or she doesn’t want to hear your life story. They need to know how you can benefit them. Robert Green sums it up well in this excerpt:

“The art of asking people for help depends on your ability to understand the person you are dealing with, and to not confuse your needs with theirs. Know that even the most powerful person is locked inside needs of his own, and that if you make no appeal to his self-interest, he merely sees you as desperate or, at best, a waste of time.”

I could ramble about how written communication is a lost art or how employers are mad because they can’t find skilled writers. But that’s another article in itself. In short, here’s what must be kept in mind when reaching out to a potential employer, regardless of the field:

  • Don’t focus exclusively on the past, but instead use it to demonstrate how you will add value in the future
  • Don’t get trapped in your own wants or desires
  • Don’t confuse your needs with theirs
  • Show, don’t tell: testimonials and work samples are always better than “here’s what I’ve done”

I would say sending a shitty email is better than not sending one at all, but I’m not entirely convinced that’s true. After all, professionals who work in the same network share lots of information with each other. Information about the 19-year-old who told the project director that he wanted to hear back “if the position fit what he was looking for.”

Don’t be that person.


Dominic’s personal articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations are sent in his monthly newsletter. All subscribers get the “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors” PDF.

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My Pilgrimage to Whole Foods: America’s Most Pretentious Grocery Store

I am not one of the regulars at Whole Foods Market. I am an alien, an outsider. But I am curious as to how a grocery store became so polarizing. Faithful Whole Foods shoppers refuse to buy food from any other store while it’s objectors denounce it as a temple of pseudoscience. Either way, I am making a pilgrimage to explore the Mecca of socially-conscious foodstuffs in hopes that I can obtain a glimpse into this exclusive society. What follows is my eyewitness account.

As I shuffle cautiously into my local Whole Foods Market, I am not entering a grocery store. I am being cast into the midst of an obnoxious fall festival. The neatly arranged cornucopias, pumpkins, hay bales, and containers of eight-dollar organic caramel dip remind me that I am not, in fact, here to shop for groceries. I am here for a quasi-religious experience.

Beyond the seasonal section is the produce section. Here, a young woman in black Lululemon leggings carefully inspects a container of seven-dollar carrot sticks. I am tempted to ask her how she rationalizes a 250% price increase for a root vegetable, but I manage to restrain myself. I’ve only been here a minute or two – I can’t agitate the natives yet.

As I round the corner into the cereal aisle, I notice a display for “craft” granola. Eight dollars. I stand there, dumbfounded, as I try to grasp the difference between craft and non-craft granola in my mind’s eye. I consider putting the nearby employee on the spot to explain, but I decide to show him mercy. I proceed toward the cereals despite my confusion. For a brief moment I reminisce on the cereal cartoon characters that defined my childhood: the Trix Rabbit, Cap’n Crunch, Tony the Tiger. At Whole Foods, these characters have been replaced by professional photographs of green pastures and stone-ground oats. A mother is deciding between two sugarless bran cereals. I lock eyes with her toddler and wonder if she will ever know there’s another way.

Further down the aisle are bottles of nineteen-dollar pancake syrup. But do I dare call them “bottles?” If, God forbid, I drop a Jackson on the sap that comes from a tree, maybe it deserves to be held in something more artisanal: perhaps a carafe of syrup, a decanter of syrup. Even then, this isn’t just any pancake syrup, it’s grade-A organic maple syrup. A carafe of grade-A organic maple syrup. And we wonder why America has ego problems. I leave this aisle wondering what grade my Aunt Jemima syrup is.

The smell of coffee wafts over to me, so I take a detour to the aisle of its origins. As I pretend to read the labels on the absurd variety of organic coffees, I listen intently as a thin bearded man yammers about grinding his beans at home. Whole Foods reminds me that I may want to do the same, so as not to transfer any non-organic coffee dust into my morning brew. After all, Whole Foods’ grinders process conventional coffee, too. I stoop down to check out a coffee brewer that “blends art and science to create the ultimate coffee experience.” I wonder if my mom’s Mr. Coffee has, unbeknownst to her, been spoiling her coffee experience all these years. Maybe I should buy her this for Christmas.

I make my way toward the household products aisle, which I’m confident will be somewhat straightforward. But to my astonishment, Whole Foods has managed to put a veneer of snobbery over the most fundamental kitchen commodity: paper towels. Forget Bounty, forget generic store brands. Here, I can purchase “sustainably strong paper towels.” Twenty dollars. As I contemplate how my choice of material used to wipe excess ketchup off my face affects the global ecosystem, I end up next to a display of various branded waters: vapor-distilled water, artesian water, pH-balanced water, water with electrolytes, water without electrolytes, and water in a box. By now I’ve lost all sense of direction, so I decide that I’ll follow one specific shopper. I figure shadowing someone else will add some structure to my haphazard wandering.

I choose a woman nearby who looks to be in her sixties. Everything in her cart is green. Her long, tangled, gray hair is tied in a loose ponytail and she wears a lengthy, earth-tone garment. I imagine she would walk around barefoot if it were socially acceptable. She is “organic” and “sustainable” personified. I keep a safe distance as she creeps around the perimeter of the store, occasionally adding to her collection of homeopathic produce. I can’t help but think she’d save money by simply growing her own vegetables and eating them out of the soil. Be that as it may, my tour guide begins to bore me, so I peel off into the restroom.

I am expecting a rustic lavatory. Perhaps some fine woodwork, maybe even a bathroom attendant to offer me a towel to dry my hands. But alas, I’m underwhelmed by a standard tile floor and white urinals. As I go to dry my hands, I wonder why there are no sustainably strong paper towels in the dispenser. Practice what you preach, I think to myself. Maybe I’ll tell the manager.

Just when I think my brain can’t withstand being beaten over the head with any more pretentious health suggestions, I encounter the supplement and herbal remedies aisle. There are plant sterols to lower my cholesterol and valerian root extract to help me fall asleep. There’s St. John’s Wort which treats everything from mood swings to inflammation to cancer. I can buy a meld of rich goji berries and ashwagandha root to strengthen my immune system and bottles of chlorophyll concentrate to build better blood. Now I can’t muster the patience to read the labels. Bee pollen, cinnamon bark, lecithin, fenugreek seed, echinacea, and goldenseal.

This is all a bit overwhelming. But not to worry, the good folks at Whole Foods have placed a “Discover Your Remedy” station at the end of the aisle. Here, an overweight man wearing slacks and a pinstriped Oxford shirt gazes sternly into the digital touchscreen monitor that, based on an algorithm, tells him what supplement will best combat his ailment. Out of respect for his privacy, I don’t look at the screen. It looks as if he won’t finish any time soon, so I slip past him. But wait – I can’t forget the eight-dollar environmentally-friendly jug in which I can mix my concoction of oils, extracts, and powders.

By now, the workers are catching on to me. I have nothing in my hands. I’m not carrying a basket nor am I pushing one of their black carts that I admit look sturdier than your run-of-the-mill gray shopping cart. An enthusiastic young man with a beanie and unkempt facial hair asks me if I’m finding everything okay. The employees of America’s healthiest grocery store do not wear uniforms, just aprons. I assure him that I am, in fact, finding everything I need and tell him to have a great weekend.

I have seen many things at Whole Foods, some impressive, some laughable. But as I proceed to the sliding double doors which mark the end of my expedition, my mind shifts to what I have not seen: whining kids, the occasional misplaced product, a mother rushing frantically through the aisles. No, the people here are in the midst of a transcendent experience, not a chore. They are the regulars. They are the insiders. But I am not one of them.


Dominic Vaiana studies writing and media strategy at Xavier University.  You can get the PDF “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors” along with his personal articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations by joining his monthly newsletter.

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You’re Not Being ‘Slept On’ – Your Ego Is Just Too Big

Whether you’re a mediocre high school basketball player or Kanye West, no amount of hype or admiration ever seems to suffice. For whatever reason, people can’t fathom the talent or brilliance that subsists within your imagination. Some day they’ll all bow down to you. But until then you justify it by telling yourself (and others) that you’re being “slept on.” (Urban Dictionary defines slept on as: “Ignored or overlooked, not paid respect when an effort is made by a person or group of persons.”)

The slept-on culture is a byproduct of a tidal wave of self-published content that anybody with an Internet connection can make: SoundCloud mixtapes, Hudl highlights, Instagram fitness accounts, whatever. These people are never unskilled or lackluster. They’re just “slept on.” Below are six out of thousands of tweets that result from searching the term “sleeping on me” on Twitter:

“I’m glad everybody sleeping on me [100 emoji] They going wake up sooner or later” – Random high school football player

“People gonna stop sleeping on me one day” – Music producer

“Those sleeping on me. Stay sleep [praying hands emoji]” – Film maker

“Some y’all be sleeping on me [snoozing emoji]” – Recent college grad

“They stay sleeping on me but y’all about to get WOKE” – Makeup, fashion, and lifestyle vlogger

“Y’all sleeping on me but that’s just pushing me to go harder [100 emoji] Ima Remain humble” – Another random high school football player

These self-righteous claims, which are almost universally undeserved, are the symptoms of an inflated ego. The same voice that says “I’m slept on” is the same voice that says “I have it all figured out; I deserve the spotlight; I can do no wrong.”

Maybe you are the diamond in the rough. But even so, it’s doubtful that people purposefully shut you out. They just don’t have time to put their lives on hold to watch your highlight reel or listen to your mixtape. So instead of taking the time to bitch about how people are ignoring you, why not channel that energy into becoming so good that people can’t ignore you?

It’s incredibly easy to blame others for our lack of fame, recognition, or success. It’s tempting to hold them to the fire instead of holding ourselves to the fire and asking: What am I not doing to separate myself from the clutter?

 With a few exceptions, I don’t care about anybody who reads this. I don’t write so I can have random people affirm me. I care more about myself and my personal progress than I care about retweets and how many newsletter subscribers I have. My potential, the best version of myself, is the standard I measure myself against. Not my level of public recognition.

“Winning is not enough,” says Ryan Holiday in Ego is the Enemy. “People can get lucky and win. People can be assholes and win. Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best possible version of themselves.”

This raises an interesting question:

If you were to maintain the same level of talent, but suddenly racked up thousands of followers and got featured in The New York Times, would you be satisfied? For most of us, the answer is yes. That’s because we’re obsessed with attention and validation when we should be obsessed with progress and humility.

Whenever we’re seduced into thinking we’re “slept on,” we must remember to distance ourselves from the clamor of others’ opinions, to persevere with no regard for admiration.

“What the superior man seeks is in himself,” said Confucius. “What the small man seeks is in others.”


Dominic Vaiana studies writing and media strategy at Xavier University.  You can get the PDF “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors” along with his personal articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations by joining his monthly newsletter.

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The Cure for Distractions is to Stop Doing Work You Hate

The majority of men devote themselves to silencing [their] vocation and refusing to hear it. They manage to make a noise within themselves to distract their own attention in order not to hear it; and they defraud themselves by substituting for their genuine selves a false course of life.”

– Jose Ortega y Gasset


Why am I distracted?

That’s usually the last question you ask yourself when you’re trying to get shit done. The big project is due tomorrow morning, but with each passing minute it becomes harder to focus. So you fight the resistance. You check Snapchat again, you drink more coffee, you put it off until tomorrow when you’ll “have more time.”

You’ll do anything except question why you’re distracted in the first place. In other words, you treat your symptoms, not the disease. And the disease is doing work that’s meaningless, boring, and not aligned with your talents.

As children, we experience primal inclinations – we’re drawn to activities that captivate our attention and ignite our curiosity. We enjoy them not because of their perceived value, but because we develop an emotional connection to them. We all remember spending hours on end fully immersed in our favorite activities: drawing, writing, acting, building, designing, and so on. It wasn’t hard to focus; in fact, we often had to be dragged away because we were missing out on what we were “supposed to be doing.”

 

Fast forward to college and the situation is reversed: students’ attention spans are shriveled. Phones are in hand, TVs glare in the background, and complaints are abundant. Anything that provides an escape from work, even momentarily, is joyfully welcomed.

So what’s the disconnect? And why does it occur?

If we are to determine why campuses are littered with distracted 20-somethings, we have to look beyond the “millennials are lazy/undisciplined/entitled” stereotype. That’s the cop-out answer. The problem isn’t a lack of work ethic or endless distractions. The problem is choosing work that isn’t engaging enough to make distractions irrelevant.

“Once you choose a career [or a major] that doesn’t suit you, your desire and interest slowly wane and your work suffers for it,” notes Robert Greene, author of Mastery. “You come to see pleasure and fulfillment as something that comes from outside your work.”

Greene goes on to say that it’s our subconscious desire to conform to our parents’ expectations, money, and social norms that pulls us away from our primal inclinations and inevitably separates us from our truest selves.

While this observation seems bleak, it provides insight into how we can nullify the distractions that hinder us: We must partake in work that is both stimulating and fulfilling – work that kindles our deepest inspiration and ignites the eagerness we possessed as children.

In order to rediscover this inclination, the first step must be inward. Set aside the noise and look for patterns throughout your life: What do you think about in the shower? What do you do for free? What makes time stand still? Whatever that is, it’s your ticket to freedom.

All masters, from Socrates to Einstein to Michael Jordan, followed their inner voice. They were able to focus not through sheer willpower, but because they cherished their work. You and I are no different in that we learn faster and deeper when we’re emotionally invested in our work. There is a sense of urgency that manifests itself when striving towards something you care deeply about. Psychologists refer to this as being “in the flow” – a state in which, to some degree, one becomes immune to distractions.

Jason Fried, the founder of Basecamp, says that distractions can serve a purpose: “They tell us that our work is not well-defined, our work is menial, or the project as a whole is useless.”

Granted, not every project will flow effortlessly from our fingertips. There will be classes we hate. There will be grunt work. Those are all part of the process. But instead of beating ourselves up for being distracted, is it time instead to reevaluate what we’re doing and determine why we can’t seem to pay attention in the first place?


Dominic Vaiana studies writing and media strategy at Xavier University.  You can get the PDF “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors” along with his personal articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations by joining his monthly newsletter.

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