Jay Shirley

Striving to be a man of gallantry and taste

My Dream Job

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When I was 14 I had a glimpse of a life as a software developer. I wanted to do this more than anything, and I worked hard to get there. It was an outside chance but things fell into place for me. When I was 17 I was paid to write code. It was a brilliant moment.

Over the next 4 years, the .com bubble grew and popped. I went from struggling to get callbacks to turning my phone off to stop recruiters and then back again. The bubble popped, it ended so abruptly. I still wanted to be a developer, so I continued.

This was great until I felt very solid as a developer. Then it wasn’t my dream job anymore. I didn’t really know what I wanted to be when I grew up. Writing code felt very empty, and there was a dark curtain that was closing in on me.

I took a job that combined my personal interests. The darkness was still there, but wasn’t getting worse. I still felt it there, on the fringes. I thought maybe I should work with some awesome people. So I did. I picked a job purely because of the coworkers.

The darkness was always there, urging me to do something different. If I would have known what that different should be, I could have made a decision. I didn’t know. I was lost. But I was successful.

Being lost and being successful seemed so contradictory, but that was exactly where I was. My dream job wasn’t a nightmare; it became mundane.

I told myself it was about the grass being greener. If I only got a better job I would like it more. I knew that wasn’t true and so I started thinking about the answer. When I looked for an answer I realized that I didn’t know the question.

The question I learned to ask is what long term focus I wanted to have. When my days on earth were over, could I say I lived the way I have chosen? Was I responsible for my life? That’s what I wanted.

It took a long time to get to that understanding. I studied a lot of potential professions. Through that I discovered social psychology and behavioral economics. I discovered what I wanted: To merge the research of our minds with what I had spent 15 years mastering.

My dream job isn’t a job at all. It’s my life. It’s how I choose to live. It’s being able to say that I’m responsible. It may be more stressful at times, but it’s more rewarding. In a job, you’re building someone else’s dreams.

I want my dreams to build a life.

Altruism at Work

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I wish for you to be happy.

Let that settle in for a moment, and then I’ll explain.

I’m not going to make you happy, but I wish for your happiness. I sincerely hope everybody I encounter is happy. Most of the time, anyway. Sometimes people are jerks. I’m still working on wishing the jerks to be happy.

It took me a long time in my life to feel this way. Outside of the basic idea, I struggled with the Why? for years. These are not people who care about me. Why should I care about them?

What I found is that, in a nutshell, it makes me happy.

Altruism is a funny thing, and it’s absolutely required for the survival of our species. We are a herd species. Perhaps tribal is a better word. We must give in to a higher purpose than our simple, fragile selves.

For me, that higher purpose is merely the feeling of leaving the world better than I found it. I don’t crave many friends or a large audience. I crave happiness and peace. The golden rule taught me everything I needed to know about what I want to feel.

If I wish others to be happy, it makes me happy. It doesn’t mean my happiness is their responsibility, any more than it is my responsibility to ensure others’ happiness. It gives me permission to be happy. It changes my mindset into one in which every person, without exception, can be happy.

There is no scarcity of happiness, we only have to pluck it from the tree.

On the subject of things easier said than doneā€¦

I’m very fortunate to have met some really astounding people over the last 10 years. First, I met my wife. She continues to inspire and push me. She never would let me settle. But meeting her was a fluke. I wasn’t in a good place in my life.

From the time my first child was born until now, I’ve had an amazing series of events in my life that have pushed me to where I am at now. It took these events to allow me to feel ready to embrace altruism as a core principle of my being. I immediately worked to remove those things that weren’t beneficial from my life.

It’s impossible to feel connected with others when you are surrounded by toxic people. Instead, surround yourself with people that is easy to wish them happiness. It’s a simple test, and if you don’t truly, sincerely find it easy to wish them happiness, reduce the time and energy you devote to them.

Pretty soon, the people left will be wonderful people. They will be people who hoist you up, make you feel energized and awesome. After this, it’s significantly easier to expand the well-wishing outwards.

Find Your Partner

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What’s a partner? For a long time I struggled with this question. I went through a series of bad relationships; I had bad friends, bad girlfriends and bad jobs. They weren’t bad because they people were bad. Maybe they were. I don’t know. We were bad together. We weren’t partners. It takes two to tango.

I went through a series of companies I just didn’t fit in. I didn’t like the culture. I didn’t like the projects or the people, sometimes both. I spent at least a third of my time, over half my waking hours, doing something I didn’t want to do. I was paid well so I tried to enjoy it. The money didn’t fill what was missing.

There was no partnership. They didn’t want me to improve myself. I didn’t want to improve the business. I wanted a paycheck. They wanted software. We simply exchanged services, but there was no relationship.

And then I gave up on this idea. Well, gradually. It took a long time. It took a decade, in fact.

The last 10 years of my life have been pretty amazing. I’ve gone through some serious tragedy, found my life partner and what is my current calling in life. I found a company in which I feel like a partner (and hey, I actually am a partner).

Through all of this I’ve learned the real value of partnership, and the variety in which it comes.

My wife, the best partner.

It’s fairly common to hear about relationships going south because a person is trying to “fix” another person. It’s easy to think that if you bring goodness into someone’s life, they’ll climb up to greet it. It rarely works that way, partnerships go to the lowest common denominator unless both people work hard. Find someone better than you in certain ways and work, deliberately, on being better.

I fortunately found a partner who looked into the future with me. She laced up her boots, started hiking on this journey with me without a complaint. She pushes me forward and asks me challenging questions. She doesn’t let me slack off. She’s a partner in this, we’re in it together.

Partners in business.

It was much harder to find partners in business. I struggled to understand teamwork for my whole life. Through school a group project was punishment. In the working world, I had teams that were 80% useless and 20% got work done. If we were a squad of super-heroes, most would have the super human ability to do nothing.

I was surrounded by that guy from Office Space. They would do nothing and enjoy it. They resented anybody upsetting the balance. This is what it felt like, but I know that wasn’t the real case.

Then I found my calling. I found what it was that I wanted to do. The difference I could make. I started working in that direction and felt good about it, even though economically it didn’t make sense. I trusted Benjamin Franklin and his maxim:

Do well by doing good.

I did good by my own reckoning, and I met people who became partners. We are working together to improve all of us. To make us all more capable than we would be alone, and to make a business out of it.

This is the value of partnership. Whether it’s romantic, friends or business, partners make things possible that a single person can’t do.

For a long time I resisted that and I limited myself. Now I’m working to embrace it, but old habits die hard. I worry I’m a bad partner. I hope that worry is preventing me from truly being a bad partner.

Invest Every Day

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When I was starting out as a family man, in my mid-20s, I naturally thought of financial security. I thought of retirement and savings and all the things responsible married people do. I even opened up a spreadsheet and ran some numbers! I found that if I were to maximize my IRA contributions every year and invest in low-risk dividend-bearing stocks, I would retire a millionaire. Virtually Guaranteed.

That’s all thanks to the power of compounding. Money, however, is one of the least valuable things to compound. Skills are vastly more important. Money can save you time, but skills can create time.

I built an entire application in 3 days over a holiday weekend. 5 years ago it would have taken me 3 weeks. 10 years ago it would have been 3 months. This isn’t due to just practice, it is due to learning and investing time in expanding my knowledge.

Skill development is a time factory.

Every skill I have practiced and studied to do better has resulted in not only a better job done, but also done in less time. Every minute of practice will get paid back in full, with interest. That interest compounds each time I perform that task.

I obviously can’t master everything I do. I won’t master replacing cracked irrigation hoses, that only happens once a year. I don’t need to master that skill. I will master repeatable or similar tasks.

It’s important to not just look at direct benefits, such as more efficient driving. Related but potentially hidden benefits exist. If I practice driving in a way to increase fuel economy while also decreasing wear and tear, I save time between refueling and save time and money in service fees.

It bears repeating: Every task I do that is repeatable can be studied. Any improvement will be paid back. The initial, up-front work may be more than necessary but it means I can be lazy in the future. I’ll take that trade-off.

This Is My Life

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I struggle every day with the concept of importance. I list so many things that are important to me. Then I care for them in the exact opposite way.

I ignored writing an email for a week, even though the subject is very important. I finally did it. It took a little over 2 minutes. The corner of my office sat cluttered for weeks, even though I constantly talk about how much I appreciate maintaining an orderly work space (though it doesn’t come naturally).

I don’t think I’m a hypocrite. I’m just busy. Maybe. Maybe I am a hypocrite and using business an excuse. I do have lots to do, most of it is wrong. I spend my time doing unimportant but urgent things. These things that collect and keep me tied down.

This is my life, and I can choose.

I can think of at least 4 books on my Kindle that talk about this problem. I can think of countless more apps that promise to allow me to get more things done. They’re not the right things, though. I need to do the important things.

To do the important things, I must feel free to ignore the unimportant. I can’t feel guilty. This is my life, the only one I get to live. I’m genuinely happy now, but I’ll be happier to feel completely free to focus on what I choose.

The other day someone told a group I was in to focus on what comes easy, to delegate the hard stuff. This is a hard lesson to learn. I can write code all day long. I can tinker and study. Ask me to balance numbers, create graphs or even sit down and have an emotional conversation? No thanks. But I still try, then struggle and ultimately fail. More over, I don’t write code that is more important!

Listing what’s important.

I recently read 18 Minutes. The suggestion is to list 5 areas of focus and spend 95% of your time there. That’s a good framework, and this post is building up to my 5 things.

  1. Advance my public presence, primarily through writing and speaking.
  2. Pursue social and behavioral knowledge.
  3. Build a sustainable and growing business.
  4. Enrich my relationships with family and friends.
  5. Maintain good health.

Rather than follow his model of devoting 95% of my time in these categories, I’m going to devote my focus. If I get done, I want to be free to spend time on leisure activities. However, I must fill my days with enough items to make observable progress in those goals. If I have remarkably productive days I want to feel free to spend more time relaxing.

After all, I’m human and here to be happy. Progress makes me happy, but all the happiness in the world may not always be fun.

If I Can Do It…

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I will always feel that I’m a really terrible writer. There are a lot of reasons for this, some valid and some invalid. I struggle with writing and publishing. I write a lot, I just don’t publish frequently. When invited to write to a larger audience, I hem and haw and typically don’t act.

But then I had a convergence of ideas, an insight, even. Writing and publishing is about engaging in conversation. A conversation with unknown participants. We don’t even know when they arrive; maybe immediately or in many months. There is a chance that something I write may spark something. It’s a chance worth taking, because it’s essentially free.

This is exactly how others write and spark something inside of me. A few ideas, maybe written by the same perhaps but often not, converged together. These ideas show me that yes, I can write and publish. I don’t need to do it well, I just need to do it. I can create conversations and tell a story. I can do it so I will do it.

I feel drastically unqualified (or under-qualified) to write, let alone share my amateur ideas about psychology, improvement and personal growth. I don’t have a college degree. I don’t even remember high school English teaching English. I entered college and didn’t know what subjective and objective meant. That was a hurdle to overcome.

But these fears are more than fears: they are also ideas. The main is that this isn’t in a scientific journal. My absolute fascination with social psychology doesn’t make me an expert, it shouldn’t and it won’t. However I’m fascinated by it, have questions and experiment on myself. Why shouldn’t I write about it? Why shouldn’t I invite conversations? I’m limiting myself and my own knowledge if I don’t; the only way to maximize my understanding is to discuss it with others.

I can’t do that alone. I need others to converse with. I can’t converse without publishing. We live in a great world with information everywhere and I don’t capitalize on that. I can change it, and I’m changing it now.

Now when I think about what was holding me back it seems so simple and foolish. But held back I was, struggling against my own mind.

Nothing was holding me back, I just didn’t realize it yet.

Habits for the Lazy

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Maintaining good habits is hard. Stopping bad habits is hard. Why are bad habits easy? This keeps me up at night (which is a bad habit, but I’m trying to make it a productive habit instead). This struggle leads me to try all sorts of new ways to increase my awareness of habits and reactions to them.

For example, this post and its (hopeful) 30 siblings. I’m publishing a post every day in August. I’m also doing it without reminders and without automation. Why? I want to see how conscious I have to be to maintain a habit. To form a habit requires a huge amount of mental energy. I wish it didn’t have to, so I’m looking at ways to reduce that load.

Psychologists have found that the real, measured average time to form a habit is 66 days. Over 2 months! No wonder it takes up so much energy, that’s a marathon. If you’re lucky, it can take a mere 18 days. Unlucky? Buckle down for the better part of a year.

Habits are worth it, though. Habits means we can accomplish more, increasing productivity, with less overall effort. This lets us do more without exhausting our will-power, too. Think about a dreaded chore, whether it’s pulling weeds or doing dishes. If you turned that into a bonafide habit, it would require less motivation to get done. That’s a win!

Just knowing it’s worth the work doesn’t mean it’s easier to commit and maintain that commitment. After the first week it takes herculean effort to continue the habit. There is no easy way out, but there are some tips.

If you attach a new habit you want to an existing habit, it takes less overall willpower. Want to floss your teeth? Try a habit of putting dental floss on the counter when you put toothpaste on your toothbrush. Now you have a reminder, and can build the motivation the entire time brushing. This is BJ Fogg’s method with Tiny Habits.

Want to build a habit of writing 500 words every day? Schedule an hour every day, on your calendar, called “My Writing Block”. Set an alert for 5 minutes before. Spend those 5 minutes shutting every distraction down. Put your phone into airplane mode, even turn off the Internet connection if you can. For an entire hour. All of those choices are easier than writing 500 words. When you are in that disconnected environment, there is nothing else pulling at you. Writing will come easier, because everything else comes harder.

There are a lot of other techniques for habit formation. I’m trying many of them and the two above have worked the best for me. I’ll write more as I go.

5 Tips for Mental Space

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1. Meditate somehow

I meditate in the morning while doing some light yoga. I found sitting and meditating was physically uncomfortable after I was done. I have fairly significant arthritis in my knees, I need to move around in the morning to loosen up. Sitting still doesn’t work well.

As for my mental state, I work to find a way to clear my mind. Usually this is just breathing, but really I just want to take a moment to appreciate I exist. If I acknowledge my mental state, outlook and life before starting anything, I feel significantly better. This means in the morning, don’t check email or even attend to others. Put your own oxygen mask on first, each and every morning.

2. Surprise yourself

Getting a reminder to stop and take a moment to mentally regroup can be really valuable. Unfortunately, set times tend to not work so well. Surprise yourself at a random time. I built a feature in TDP purely for this. Schedule a Mindful Check at a random time during the day. Take a moment and simply pause, record how you feel.

And you can’t say you don’t have time. This literally takes 15 seconds. Try it now. Breathe in for 6 seconds, out for 6 seconds. In the next 3 seconds find that one word that describes how you feel. Write it down. I just did it, and my word right now is eager. Every living person can spare 15 seconds, you aren’t dead yet, right?

3. Clean your desk, literally or figuratively.

At the end of every day, clean your desk. Put everything away. If something is dangling, outside of its “home”, don’t end your day until it’s home. This is an approach with two benefits.

First, it establishes the end of the day. After you clean your desk the day is over. Your mind has a real, physical cue to move on. It says, very clearly, “I am completing my work today.”

Second, and this only works for literal cleaning, the morning feels better when you sit down to an organized and clean desk. There isn’t a moment of chaos when you try to ramp up. Things have been put away so you know where they are. You don’t need to scramble to find anything. I’m a highly disorganized person, but I can typically remember exactly where something is. This isn’t about that, it’s about a fresh start every day. It’s about that first moment, the first impression about the day.

4. Find a 5 minute hobby

My very favorite mental-space generator are 5 minute hobbies. Just little things that take less than 5 minutes to start, make progress on and then clean up and put away. My current hobby is wire sculpting. I’m not very good at it, but each interval I get a little better.

I focus intently on some small thing, releasing my mind from the task at hand. I had to find specific hobbies, which have some constraints. It can’t be on a computer, no screens allowed. It can’t be mindless, either. If it doesn’t engage my brain, it doesn’t work.

There is a growing body of evidence that shows focusing your mind on an enjoyable activity has substantial benefits to your cognitive capabilities. These activities may even increase willpower and reduce mental fatigue. If it’s mindless, you may actually increase fatigue.

5. Commit to a habit

Want to be more mentally calm? Commit to it! You have to practice anything to be good at it. You will suck at first, just like my wire sculptures.

Practicing will make it easier, but it’s also hard to practice. Pick a time every day to review and think about your mental state. Maybe combine it with the end-of-day desk cleaning routing.

Without scheduling it and maintaining, it will be very difficult to continue.

Courage and Encouragement

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We, as humanity, don’t help each other nearly enough. Some people do; these superheroes are exempt. I don’t. I don’t even offer enough encouragement. Encouragement is free, but I hold on to it because of my own perspective.

I have an abundance of courage. No amount of encouraging (or discouraging) comments could sway me from my current path. I’m not sure if this makes me stubborn or resilient. Maybe both. I certainly enjoy encouraging remarks, I have a wishlist and secretly hope to get surprised by a purchase from it. I don’t expect it, though. This not happening, or happening, doesn’t change my life.

What does change my life is giving encouragement. I feel better when I do and I feel worse when I don’t. I’m aware of it, though! I still don’t.

I know I don’t help people out as much as I should. I have some friends who take amazing photos, worked hard on an ebook and have it priced way too cheap. Did I buy it? Nope.

I shared it with a lot of people. I made excuses, the primary one was PayPal and I dislike PayPal. This is an excuse and not a very good one. They’re my friends and I’m making excuses instead of encouraging them on their endeavors.

Encouragement is not for their benefit. It’s for me, the giver. It feels very good to give encouragement but I feel silly while doing it. Every time I send people an encouraging message about how impressed or excited I am to see them going for their dreams, I feel absurd. It is absurd to feel absurd! But I do, so I keep my mouth shut.

When someone reaches out to me and says, “You’ve inspired me” or “I hope you succeed!” I enjoy it. When I think of reaching out or offering encouragement, I feel silly. I think, “What if they don’t want to hear about it?” Or perhaps, “Will they think I’m patronizing?”

This is a huge block. Why do I think this way? What’s my take away? How can I be better?

Don’t feel silly. Don’t feel absurd. The smallest words can feel good, and maybe, just maybe, in encouraging others I’ll make my day a little brighter.

Repeat Yourself

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I’m a bad listener. I need to hear things so many times before the real magnitude sinks in. I try to listen, it’s just hard. Phones, emails, funny cat pictures. It’s no wonder I struggle.

Outside of the internal struggle against politeness, I really hate missing out on interesting conversations. Especially the beginning. The other day a colleague wasn’t included at the start of an email thread. We kept trying to re-add him but he continued getting dropped off when people replied to the original mails. I felt bad and he missed a lot of that conversation and it was hard for him to keep up.

These two problems have made me re-think the importance of communication. More specifically, the structure of it.Some of the best advice I’ve received on writing emails was to follow a simple format:

  1. Sentence containing the core message.
  2. Paragraph explaining and outlining relevant details
  3. Sentence containing the core message (reworded)

It’s time consuming and I hate writing that way, but it’s necessary and has been invaluable advice.

When I think of the problems I’ve had keeping up, it almost always could have been solved in that format. If meetings started that way and ended in this format, I would have better knowledge. I would know what I should know, the depth I can choose.

But I don’t run meetings this way. It’s time consuming! It requires planning! Forget about the time it will save, that’s in the future. I want to save time now. Except I really don’t, because it creates wasted time.

Instead of spending a few minutes up front on this, I flounder (or worse, cause other people to flounder) for hours! This is a debt that I create and must be paid back, but it’s hard to get out of this habit.

When there is a habit of creating time debts, it’s to gain time now at the expense of the future. Simply repeating the core messages when we communicate can drastically reduce this debt. To further maximize the impact it isn’t enough to just repeat it, it must be reworded to seem new and to appeal to the differences in the audience.

What is clear to me in one form is ambiguous in another. Hit me both ways and see what sticks.