The Zen of Getting Unstuck

Steve Jobs shared what might be the greatest advice college graduates have ever received when he delivered Stanford’s 2005 commencement address. In it he said, “For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” 

From time to time all of our lives require a bit of course correction. The further we get off course, and the longer we allow problems to exist before addressing them, the harder they become to correct. 

Two years ago, the brilliant Italian businessman Sergio Marchionne delivered a speech that my brother Greg was privileged to attend. Greg took notes that he later shared with me. I was so impressed by Marchionne’s words that I wrote them down too. One thing he said was, “Problems denied and solutions delayed will result in a painful and costly day of reckoning.” 

And Marchionne should know- he turned struggling auto manufacturer Fiat around before going on to lead Chrysler from bankruptcy to profitability. His discipline of addressing problems honestly, quickly and directly has undoubtedly been central to his success. 

Do we have the strength and courage to do this in our own lives? 

In his self-improvement classic The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck shares the insight of an army general: “The single greatest problem in this army, or I guess in any organization, is that most of the executives will sit looking at problems in their units, staring them right in the face, doing nothing, as if these problems will go way if they sit there long enough.” 

Peck continues, “The general wasn’t talking about the mentally weak or abnormal. He was talking about other generals and senior colonels, mature men of proven capability and trained in discipline.” 

In other words, we all do it sometimes. 

What matters, then, is what we do after our problems become undeniable. 

Jennifer Winter shares a few great ideas in her post called How to Get Out Of Bed When You Hate Your JobIt’s worth a read even if you don’t hate your job because we all find ourselves stuck in some area of our lives sometimes. The advice Winter shares can be applied to more than just our careers, and can help us break out of a rut. 

For me, the most powerful parts of Winter’s message include consciously treating yourself well (if you don’t, who will?), admitting and giving preference to your own desires, facing your fears and responsibilities directly, increasing your clarity through list-making and writing, and taking action. 

So if any part of you doesn’t want to do what you’re about to do when you return to work tomorrow, muster your courage and your honesty, look in the mirror and change something.



How I Let Go of a Two-Decade Attachment in Twenty Short Years

One of life’s most intense challenges lies in knowing what to hold on to and what to let go of. From wisdom and experience we learn that attachment is the root of all suffering­­. What’s harder to learn is how and when to release any given attachment. 

I recently let go of my absolute, all-time favorite pastime, a game called Magic: The Gathering. Magic has filled a massive emotional space in my life since I discovered it as a teenager nearly 20 years ago. But lately, the quiet voice inside of me has suggested that my attachment to it is limiting my growth. When I think of my affinity for Magic, I often recall words I once heard Bono say: We’re all addicted to something.

Magic fathered a genre of games known as “collectible card games,” and games like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! wouldn’t exist without it.

Magic, as most great things are, was a product of passion. It was designed by a professor of mathematics named Richard Garfield who also designs games. Hasbro bought Magic in 1999 for a bit over $300 million. 

Pretty sweet payoff for something you love, right? 

If you’ve never seen the game, it’s a cross between chess (logic and deep strategy), poker (randomness, bluffing, and cards) and Dungeons & Dragons (fantasy elements and randomness). Magic can be played with paper cards or digitally online. Most games only take about 15 minutes, but because every game plays out differently the replay value is endless. And Hasbro has an R&D team in Washington pumping out new sets every year to make sure it stays that way.    

The thought of spending an evening playing Magic with friends, or a Saturday at the card shop (America’s nerd equivalent of Asia’s Mahjong parlors) makes me giddy with anticipation- the same excitement I’d get as a kid before Christmas. Seriously. 

I knew I had it bad when I went skydiving for the first time a few years ago, landed safely, and then realized that I get a greater rush from playing competitive games of Magic than I do jumping out of a plane. It was even hard for me to believe.

Winning a tough match gives me the same emotional spike I used to get in college after toiling for an entire semester to earn a perfect 4.0 grade point average. If that doesn’t explain my addiction I don’t know what does– the same emotional payoff from a close Magic victory in less than 30 minutes instead of four months of effort.

I recognized, of course, that the Magic-induced emotion is both short-lived and practically meaningless, but still, the feeling is real. Many years ago, during a dark period of my life, I’d binge on Magic, playing for as long as 30 hours at a stretch. I remember standing up after one bender and not being able to walk straight.

In my mind, I likened playing Magic to dumping time down a hole. But I didn’t care. My life lacked direction and meaning, and I had regular thoughts of ending my life. It wasn’t that I wanted pain to stop, but I desperately wanted something to fill my emptiness. I remember thinking playing Magic was like committing suicide one day at a time.  

One of the things that I love so much about Magic is that it’s a closed-system. It’s one where unlike life, the rules are clear, everything makes sense, and there’s always a path to victory.

And, I figured, being addicted to a card game that sixth graders play in the halls at school was probably better than being addicted to gambling, drugs, alcohol, sex or anything I could think of. So Magic filled a sizeable space in my life for a long time and I don’t know what I would have done without it.

I believe that I formed my attachment to Magic a means of protection, a way to survive. A friend and mentor recently pointed out to me that many of the habits and ways of being we form to protect ourselves ultimately limit our growth. If Magic was a suit of armor, for me it became one that rusted shut, restricting the growth of my spirit.

I’m not saying that I’ll never play it again- there’s a great social aspect to the game, a lot of the art is fabulous, and it’s a great means of self-expression and creativity. But what I am clear about is that I’m never going back to the darkness of the abyss where Magic found me. It’s one attachment I’m glad to let go of.