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Archive for the ‘Motivation’ Category

Is There a Hidden Inspirational Message In Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?

Have you ever experienced a really profound dream – one in which you’ve stumbled upon the hidden mysteries of the universe, and one so intense that it actually woke you up in the middle of the night? Upon awakening, you think to yourself “This is it – I’ve discovered the secret! Yes, it all makes sense now!” Then you roll over and go back to sleep, and when you wake up in the morning, you’ve completely forgotten what your dream was about. I had one of those dreams a few weeks ago, but this time it happened just a few minutes before I was supposed to wake up, so I was able to remember it. It doesn’t seem as profound now as it did when I was dreaming it, but for what it’s worth, here it is…

In my dream, I uncovered a secret inspirational message contained within Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Of course, since Einstein died in 1955, we can’t ask him if it’s true, so this will be nothing more than the whimsical nocturnal speculations of my overactive imagination.

Albert Einstein

I suspect that I was able to connect the dots because I’m a fan of Leonard Bernstein and had recently been watching his Harvard lectures. In 1973, this Harvard alumnus delivered a series of lectures at his alma mater called The Unanswered Question. In the first lecture, Musical Phonology, he told the students that the principal thing that he learned from his masters at Harvard was a sense of interdisciplinary spirit, and that “the best way to know a thing, is in the context of another discipline.

It was in a similar interdisciplinary spirit that I was dreaming about something very analytical, which appeals exclusively to the left hemisphere of our brains – Einstein’s Theory of Relativity – from a decidedly right-hemisphere point of view. I was contemplating relativity from a new and unique vantage point: the self-help section of a bookstore.


Even if you don’t understand it, you are undoubtedly familiar with Einstein’s relativity equation: E=MC² It states that energy (E) equals mass (M) times the speed of light (C) squared. It’s also important to know a couple of facts about the speed of light, which is 186,000 miles per second, or about 300,000 kilometres per second. Einstein stated that the speed of light was always constant, and that nothing (or at least nothing with any mass) can travel at or faster than light. I admit that it does seem strange that there could be a maximum speed for anything in the universe, but the concept of light’s maximum velocity can be illustrated in the following graph:

Energy vs Speed Graph

This graph displays speed along the x-axis (horizontally) and energy along the y-axis (vertically). The faster an object travels, the more energy is required to reach that speed. As you can see, there is a vertical asymptote at c (the speed of light). I’m sure that you already know that a vertical asymptote is a vertical line that the graph plot approaches but never actually touches (because its value would have to be infinity in order to reach it). In this graph, it means that it will take an infinite amount of energy to propel anything at the speed of light. That’s why nothing (with mass) can travel that fast – there just isn’t enough energy in the universe to do it.

And now, the essence of the dream… was Einstein an even greater genius than we thought? While E=MC² was certainly a groundbreaking equation for physicists, it could also be interpreted as an important social statement. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity might actually be a parable – much like one of Aesop’s Fables – disguised as an equation. I had finally decoded the secret, inspirational message contained within the equation, because I (much like Leonard Bernstein’s professors) was examining it within the context of another discipline.

The 80/20 Rule and Project Management

If that graph looks familiar to you, then this might be why. If your job is at a manager’s level or higher, then you probably know about the 80/20 Rule, known formally as The Pareto Principle. It’s embraced by many different industries, and each one places their own personalized spin on it:

  • 80% of your sales will come from 20% of your clients
  • 80% of network traffic occurs during 20% of the day
  • 20% of computer code contains 80% of the errors

In project management, there is a popular maxim paraphrased as follows “80% of a project can be completed in 20% of the time… but it’s that final 20% that requires 80% of the project’s timeline (or even more, in many cases)“. This graph illustrates that maxim quite well.

Take a look at the graph from a Project Manager’s point of view, but relabel the x-axis as “Percent Complete” and the y-axis as “Time”. At the 80% mark, the project time requirements start to skyrocket, and soon it becomes clear that delivering every feature (flawlessly) within the initial time frame will not be possible. Compromises are inevitable. Did Einstein leave this message for Project Managers in his Theory of Relativity?

Perfectionist Personalities

We all know people who are perfectionists, and I’m sure you’ll agree that they can often be trying. Some of these folks – those who insist that others should rise to their perfectionist standards – can be annoying or even insufferable. Personally, I think that perfectionists are generally not very happy, since they have set for themselves, a goal that cannot realistically be achieved, and therefore exists in a continual state of disappointment.


In that same graph, let’s relabel the axes once again and assume that the x-axis represents our own perceived level of perfectionism, and that the y-axis represents the time, money and energy required to reach this level of perfection. Since we are all imperfect beings, targeting 100% is a pointless exercise. In fact, I would love to show this graph to a perfectionist and say “Study this graph, and then please abandon your quest for perfectionism. None of us will ever be perfect, so stop trying. As you can see, you can reach and maintain a fairly respectable level without even breaking a sweat, but soon as you set your sights on 100%, the effort (relative to the gains) rises exponentially. The graph is speaking to you!

Could Einstein have coded into his equation, this sage and practical advice for the perfectionists in our lives?

Reinterpreting Relativity

For more than a century, Einstein’s concept of relativity has been viewed only one way. Could it also be examined within a social context? I’m going to propose that Einstein embedded a behavioural allegory in his Theory of Relativity, and that the following is his hidden personal and motivational message for all of us: What relativity really means is that you must measure yourself relative to those around you, and not on an absolute scale of perfection. Since none of us is perfect, then your life is really a lot better than you realize. If you’re a perfectionist, then trying to achieve 100% perfection is merely an exercise in futility. Do the best you can, but as you can see from the graph, anything more than that will take a disproportionate amount of time, energy and money.

Einstein was certainly a genius, but I’m going to propose that he was also a cross-disciplinary visionary who purposely designed his Theory of Relativity to appeal to both hemispheres of our brain. This theory challenged Newtonian physics and also contained an inspirational message for everyone. It simply took the rest of us a century to decode this second component. Who could have guessed that analyzing a graph of the speed of light might make us a little more… enlightened?

And now, I’d like to pose what I call The Grand Unifying Question: should books about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity also be placed in the self-help section of your local bookstore?



The Royal Leadership Lesson

Last year, I decided to start watching a TV series called The Royals – a fictional drama, starring Elizabeth Hurley as the Queen, that re-imagines the British Royal family as a modern, edgy and dysfunctional bunch of characters, whose lives seem to be perpetually rife with scandal.

The series begins with the King mired in a deep and troubled contemplation. He was seriously considering abolishing the British monarchy, because the the rising discontent among the people. Many citizens (who were quite vocal in their protestations) felt that the institution was now completely irrelevant and was a financial drain on the taxpayer. In the second episode, the royal family is preparing to host a garden party at the palace, to which many heads of stare have been invited. Despite the festive surroundings, the King is not enjoying himself; this issue still weighs heavily on his mind.

Staff Kitchen

The camera then turns to the kitchen, where the King and a member of his staff, Prudence (whom he knows by name), are both placing tiny Union Jack flags on a tray of desserts which will be served to the garden party guests. As they decorate the food, he makes small talk by asking her about her life outside the palace walls, and trying to get to know a bit about her as a person. He also asked her what she thought of the monarchy itself, presumably a prelude to the question: does she think that should the monarchy be abolished? Although he requested a completely honest answer, Prudence replied (most prudently) “I am happy to be employed in your Majesty’s home”. While her response may not have been a “big picture” view that the King was hoping for, I can understand that job security and the continuation of her livelihood would be Prudence’s primary and immediate concern.

When I first saw this scene, my initial reaction was “Who wrote this script? This is the King of England, who has hundreds of full-time staff members all ready to do his bidding. Why would be spend his time in the staff kitchen, doing the work of a servant, when he surely has more important things to attend to?”.

A couple of weeks later, I thought about this scene again and realized that I was completely wrong. This was actually an teachable moment moment and a stellar example of leadership. Here’s why:

I’m a member of Toastmasters, and this organization promotes what’s known as a “servant leader philosophy”. That is, the higher one rises in an organization, the more s/he is required to serve others. As members become more experienced and gain new skills, they will be called upon to mentor newer members, assist in club contests, be guest speakers at other clubs, as well as serve as an executive at the Area, District or Division level. It’s a good philosophy that not only keeps us grounded, but ensures that our new skills are used for the benefit of all, and not just ourselves.

Years ago, when I worked in the financial district, there was a story going around the street that Matthew Barrett, who had recently been named as Chairman of the Bank of Montreal, called a meeting of the head office employees. After he introduced himself, he told the audience that everyone naturally assumes that the Chairman is the top job at the bank, but he disagrees. He then displayed a large image of an inverted corporate pyramid and explained that this is how he views himself in the corporate hierarchy – right at the bottom. His job is to serve the bank, its customers and its employees.

Inverted Corporate Pyramid

I also saw something on my Facebook wall that encapsulated everything. This diagram:

Boss vs Leader v2

I now realized that the King was actually displaying outstanding leadership skills:

  • He did not feel that any work was beneath him, and gladly volunteered to help out in the kitchen alongside his staff, performing what is certainly a menial task.
  • He set a good example through his actions, rather than just his words.
  • He made an effort to know his staff members by name.
  • He asked his staff about their personal lives and got to know them as people, rather than just servants.
  • He even appeared to be soliciting their advice on matters for which only the heads of state might be consulted – the abolition of the monarchy. I would imagine that such an inquiry from the King must be immensely flattering to someone working in the palace kitchen.

Above all, the King remained humble. He internalized the advice of Saint Augustine, who said “Do you wish to be great? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation“.

Although his character is fictionalized, he offers a real leadership lesson for all of us.

Wanted: Role Models

During the late 1990s, when the Spice Girls were near the height of their fame, they visited Toronto and spent some time at the MuchMusic studios. Teenage fans filled the street in front of the studio as they tried to catch a glimpse of the group. The Spice Girls then went outside to greet their fans. One teenager had the opportunity to say something to the group, and as the reporter held up a microphone, she managed to blurt out that she thought they were wonderful role models, before being overcome with emotion and losing her composure. As I was watching this on television, I was shaking my head in disbelief while muttering something to myself about the decline of Western civilization. Clearly, this young lady and I had vastly different interpretations of the term “role model”.

I didn’t think about that news report again until recently, when I read a very macabre Rolling Stone article about a Florida teen who murdered his parents. One of his friends, while searching for an explanation for this behaviour, tried to pin the blame on the town itself – there was nothing for teenagers to do, and therefore, they always got into trouble. He said to the reporter “It drives kids nuts. There’s no role models. And the parents are always on everyone’s ass because everyone’s stressed about money.”

Try to ignore his weak argument and the reassignment of blame for a moment, and focus on what he said about role models. Up until that moment, I hadn’t thought that teenagers may actually want role models in their lives. I don’t expect adolescents to come out and say it, but if teenagers are looking for good behavioural examples in their community – then this statement is significant. This boy may be expressing what many other teenagers want, but haven’t said out loud. If this is true, then we as adults have a responsibility to be good role models, and from what I’ve seen, we’re not doing a particularly good job.

If young people are having trouble finding role models, where do they turn? My guess is that celebrities are now filling this vacancy, whether or not they are qualified to do so. To be fair, celebrities (as far as I can tell) are not requesting this label – it is being foisted upon them by their fans, as illustrated in the Spice Girls example. I’m not the only one with this opinion; other people have also said that celebrities should not be role models.

This confusion, as I see it, is twofold. First of all, fame is not the same thing as accomplishment. Secondly, young people looking for role models can’t make the distinction between fame and infamy. These are opposite sides of the publicity coin. Reporters measure attention-seeking behaviour only as an absolute value, and ignore the +/- sign. Celebrities no longer have to set a positive example to stay in the spotlight – they just have to behave poorly, which is obviously much easier. Since many young celebrities behave poorly, and don’t come close to fitting the definition of a role model, there is a gap that needs to be filled, and we – the middle-aged and older adults of our community – are the ones who should fill it. It is time for us to step in and become honest-to-goodness role models to the young people around us.

Railway CrossingLast summer during a neighbourhood walk, I approached a railway crossing that had its lights flashing, bells ringing, and guard rail down. I was standing there with five other people: two boys who looked to be about nine or ten, and three middle-aged women. The train was only a couple of hundred feet away, stopped at the adjacent station. This intersection’s proximity to the station meant that the guard rail is usually down while the passengers disembark. After 90 seconds or so, the three middle-aged women decided that they were tired of waiting and crossed the tracks together. About 15 seconds afterwards, the two boys decided to do the same. I was disappointed to see the boys cross the tracks, but not surprised. I didn’t day anything at the time, but looking back I wonder if I should have given these women a stern lecture on the fiduciary responsibilities of being a responsible adult. There were three tracks at this crossing, and while a ground-level observer would assume that the signals were triggered by the train stopped at the station, there could have been another train travelling at high speed (and obscured by the stopped train) on one of the other tracks.

This is an example of the power that we adults have over younger people. We’re all told repeatedly not to cross railroad tracks when the guard rails are down, and the boys didn’t – until they saw the adults do it, and then decided to emulate them. The parental advice given to those boys seemed to be effective, but was then completely negated by the actions of a complete stranger. Our actions speak louder than words, which is why we must always be aware of the effect that our behaviour has on others.

We should behave well at all times, especially in public. Whether you realize it or not, you are being watched every time you step outside. If you cross the railroad tracks while the lights are flashing, or whether you run a red light or cross the street against the traffic lights, you may think that this act affects only you, but it doesn’t. Other people are watching you, and some may be taking cues from your behaviour. For this reason alone, we should always strive to behave admirably. We may not notice anyone reacting to what we do, but it doesn’t mean that our actions are going unnoticed.

The importance of being a role model actually increases over time. Every day in your community, babies are born and some elderly people will die. This means that with each passing day, a slightly greater percentage of the population is younger than you. Therefore, a greater percentage of that population will now look up to you as someone who is knowledgeable and wise. In time, you may even be thought of as your community’s proverbial “tribal elder”.

How To Be A Role Model

Some of you will find that being a role model is effortless (since you may already be one), but for others. it will involve a major shift in your philosophy of life and in your behaviour. Being an adult means taking on the fiduciary and continual duty of being a good behavioural example to others. Not everyone has the awareness, self-discipline, motivation or desire to do this. However, if you feel up to the task, then read on…

  • Remember that you are always being watched. Others – family members, relatives and even complete strangers – are using you as a behavioural example.
  • The younger a person is, the more s/he will mimic you. Be on your best behaviour around young children.
  • Remember that actions speak louder than words. Lead by example, rather than by giving advice.
  • If you’re driving with kids in the back seat, remain composed and don’t curse at other drivers or give them the finger.
  • Don’t take the path of least resistance. When faced with a challenge, remember the words of John F Kennedy “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”.
  • Set your own (impeccable) standards, always do your best, and strive for excellence in everything that you do.
  • Challenge yourself regularly, and keep raising your standards.
  • If those around you have lower standards, that’s fine – just don’t drop yours.
  • Be kind, supportive and helpful.
  • Be humble. Don’t brag about your own accomplishments – use your experience to assist others.
  • Be respectful toward others.
  • Be a team player. Remember the words of Mr. Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.
  • Don’t be easily discouraged.
  • Take responsibility for your actions, and “own” your mistakes.
  • Keep all of your promises. Walk the walk.
  • If you have the time, do some volunteer work in your community.
  • Treat young people the way that you wanted to be treated in high school.
  • If you notice something praiseworthy in another person, then mention it.
  • Take good care of yourself physically, and don’t put poison in your body.

Finally, behave in a way that will make other people say “What would [your name] do?”.


Recognizing Our Surprising Innate Abilities

When we look back on the poor decisions we’ve made when we were younger, we’ll often use phrases such as “20/20 hindsight” or “if I only knew then what I know now”. The implication, of course, is that we acquire knowledge, wisdom and insight over time. This is true, but I also believe that there is an opposing force that is working against us. While we gain knowledge, we are simultaneously losing skills and innate abilities as we grow older – and at a faster rate.

Innate Ability Chart

Based on my own empirical observations, this the graph that I think best represents our simultaneous gain and loss. With our age along the x-axis, the red line represents our (as yet undocumented) innate abilities, and the blue line represents our cumulative knowledge and wisdom. We slowly gain knowledge and wisdom during our entire life, but we lose our innate abilities very rapidly. In fact, we just about everything is gone by the time we reach puberty. The most insidious thing is that we aren’t even aware of what we’re losing – that is, until now. During the past few years, I’ve noticed some of these innate abilities in myself and others, and decided to keep track of them. Here are a few of my own examples:

I remember one of my university professors telling our class that language acquisition should (ideally) begin at an early age. When a child is born s/he can pronounce phonemes that exist in all languages, and is therefore capable of speaking any language. If a child is exposed only to the phonemes that exist in English, then s/he will eventually lose the ability to pronounce other sounds, and over time, even the ability to detect them. Native French speakers can hear the difference between tu (you) and tout (all), but English speakers who haven’t been exposed to French at an early age will hear both sounds as “too” – which doesn’t sound like either tu or tout. Those who aren’t exposed to a foreign language early in life will never be able to speak it without an accent.

When my nephew was two years old, we were at my mom’s house, playing a game while sitting on her kitchen floor. I rolled a ball to him, and he caught it and rolled it back to me. I noticed that while my nephew was sitting, his legs were spread out almost 180 degrees. He was doing the splits from a sitting position – effortlessly. Intrigued, I decided that I would test my own flexibility, so as we rolled the ball back and forth to each other, I pushed my left leg out a couple of inches, and then did the same to my right leg, to see what I could still accomplish at my age. When my legs reached an angle of 70-75 degrees, the strain was considerable, and I had to stop. Between the age of two and my current age, the range of motion in my legs had decreased by over 100 degrees.

When I was visiting my brother, his daughter, who was two years old at the time, walked up to us and kept saying “doo dax”. We assumed it was baby talk, and thought it was cute. She wasn’t pleased with our response, so she kept repeating “doo dax”, more insistently. We realized that she wanted something, but none of the adults (including her parents) had any idea what it was. We thought that dax might mean “ducks”, so we found her toy duck and gave it to her. That wasn’t it, and it just made her more frustrated. After a few seconds, my five-year-old nephew walked into the room, heard his sister’s request, and very calmly said to her “No, you can’t have any fruit snacks right now”.

Car Side ViewMy nephew was three years old when he developed this uncanny ability to name cars. When we would take a walk through the neighbourhood, he would be able to name each car in the driveways or parked on the street. My sister and I just assumed that he was very good at recognizing and memorizing the logos. As we walked past one car parked on the other side of the street, he looked at it as said “That’s a Ford”. From his vantage point, he could see only the side of the car, and he wasn’t able to see the logo. There were also no words or other markings on the side of the car. When we finally walked far enough to see the back of the vehicle, sure enough, it was a Ford. I have no idea how he recognized the manufacturer merely by looking at the car from the side.

ThomasAround the same time, my nephew and I were playing with his Thomas The Tank Engine set. There are several different train engine characters, each with a different name, and a slightly different face. Personally, I can’t tell one from the other, even when I’m comparing them side by side. I have to look for the name printed on the bottom. My nephew wanted to play a guessing game with me. He showed me a train engine from a Thomas picture book, and I had to tell him who it was. It took me an average of four or five tries to guess the right name, much to his frustration. He, on the other hand, guessed each one correctly on the first try, and couldn’t understand why Uncle Bob was having so much trouble.

BB DVDA few years ago, I was watching Beauty And The Beast on DVD. One of the special features was an interview with Paige O’Hara, the actress who voiced the Belle character. She commented that as a voice actress, she is generally unrecognized. She then said that she was in a supermarket one day and a little girl approached her and asked if she was Belle. The little girl had heard her speak and recognized her voice. Personally, I would never have been able to recognize her voice, especially if the actress was out of context – as a real person pushing a cart in a supermarket – and (presumably) saying words that aren’t in the Beauty And The Beast movie script.

Record PlayerWhen I was growing up, I had a number of children’s records (on vinyl) and a plastic children’s record player. My parents listened to their own “grown-up” music on the stereo or on the radio. When I was five or six years old, I remember hearing Yellow Submarine by The Beatles playing on the radio. My first thought was “why are they playing a children’s song on the radio? The radio is supposed to play only grown-up music”. When I was five, I knew that children’s songs and adult melodies sounded different, and although I couldn’t verbalize those melodic differences, I knew intuitively that Yellow Submarine was a children’s song, and that it shouldn’t be playing on the radio. Unfortunately I can no longer make that distinction; whatever perceptual ability I had back then is completely gone, and Yellow Submarine now sounds as “mature” as any other Beatles song.


It’s comforting to think that we are continually learning new things, and that we are becoming wiser and more knowledgeable as we age. However, I’m no longer convinced that we are superior to our newborn selves. We were born with many perceptual abilities and we are losing them rapidly as we age. Some physical skills, like being able to do the splits, disappear from disuse, but others (in my opinion) vanish because we simply weren’t aware of them and hence didn’t realize what was slowly disappearing. I just happened to stumble across these examples, and decided to write them down rather than ignore them. To me, they are just scratching the surface – I have no idea what other perceptual abilities we were born with, or how many of these innate abilities have faded away because we neglected to notice them.

While we often look to older, accomplished people for inspiration, or as examples of what we can achieve, I think it’s time to look at the very young. They also represent all that we can be, if only we were able to recognize the talents we were given at birth, and not allow them to slip away.

Finally, have you experienced anything like this, in yourself while growing up, or perhaps while babysitting? If so, then please leave a detailed comment – I think it would be wonderful to catalogue some of our innate, long-lost abilities.


Don’t Just Do It – Do It Now!

Checkout Line ItemsI have a confession to make. Years ago, whenever I was shopping and waiting in the checkout line, I would secretly make fun of some of the other shoppers. As you know, checkout lines are filled with impulse items – batteries, candy, gum, tabloid newspapers and other high-margin items that are never on sale. If the person in front of me picked up one of these items and placed in on the conveyor belt, I would think to myself “Look at you – you are so undisciplined! You just see something and you grab it. I am clearly a superior shopper because I have a list, from which I do not deviate. I know exactly what I want and how much it costs, and I am not tempted by the store’s amateurish attempts to make me spend more than I had planned. Unlike you, I am methodical, I stick to the task at hand, and I am not distracted by small shiny objects or celebrity gossip”.

My rigid attitude started to change after I re-watched the movie Dead Poets Society. As you may recall, Robin Williams portrays an English teacher at a private boys’ school who impresses upon his students, the importance of the phrase carpe diem. While I was congratulating myself for being organized and disciplined, I failed to realize that during the execution of my plans, unexpected opportunities would often arise. I was so focused on my list that I neglected to even notice or take advantage of them. What I had pejoratively labelled as impulsiveness can often be a good thing, if applied judiciously.

A few months before re-watching Dead Poets Society, I was doing some shopping, and I remember seeing a nice polo shirt on a clearance rack; it was marked down 40%, and it just happened to be in my size. I should have bought it immediately. Instead, I pulled out my phone and took a picture of it so that I could hold the picture up to some pants in my closet, determine how well it went with each colour, and calculate how many decent-looking combinations it might yield. As you’ve probably guessed, when I returned to the store later that week, the polo shirt was gone. For some reason, I keep forgetting that other customers shop at this store, and I assume that all of the merchandise will magically remain on the shelves, waiting for my return. Now I have a lovely photo of the polo shirt, but not the shirt itself. Clearly, I am a doofus; don’t you be one as well.

Dead Poets Society reminded me that life, and the many opportunities contained within it, are ephemeral. If we spend too much time analyzing the risk/reward ratio of a decision, then the window of opportunity may close. The Nike slogan is a good example – Just Do It. I’ve now adopted a revised version for myself: Don’t just do it – do it now!

I applied this philosophy when I was in Rome. It was my first time in Italy, and while walking around St. Peter’s Square, I decided to take the advice of a friend and sample an authentic Italian gelato, in order to enhance the cultural experience. When I found a nearby street vendor, he wanted 7,000 lira (about $7). I thought this was outrageous! Seven dollars for a couple of scoops of gelato? I could buy two litres of Chapman’s ice cream at the No Frills supermarket for $3; even a small tub of Häagen-Dazs was (at the time) only $6. However, I thought about it some more, and weighed the cost against the experience. Years from now I won’t notice that my bank account has seven fewer dollars in it, but I will regret the missed opportunity. So I bought the gelato, and enjoyed myself immensely as I lived in the moment, and experienced simultaneously, the sights, sounds and tastes of Italy.

ChecklistIn addition to carpe diem, another phrase that has entered the public consciousness recently is “the bucket list”. It refers to a list of things that we want to accomplish before we die, or to put it more colloquially, before we “kick the bucket”. The list could be mental, or you could actually write out your list and cross off the items as you accomplish them. Each person’s bucket list is unique. In 2007, a movie called The Bucket List was released, and starred Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two men who have a terminal illness. Amazon.com has dozens of books touting this philosophy, with titles such as Make Your Own Bucket List, The Adrenaline Junkie’s Bucket List and 1,000 Places To See Before You Die.

If you’ve made your own bucket list, then start ticking off those items now – don’t wait. I think we humans have a habit of distributing things evenly. For example, if we’ve made a “To Do” list for today, then we will do the chores at regular intervals throughout the day, so that we’re not overworked. Similarly, if we create a bucket list, there is a natural tendency to think “I’m 35 years old, so I’ll probably live another 50 years, and during the first 40 years, I’ll be in fairly good health. There are about 40 items on my list, so I can check off one item per year and get everything done”.

This approach does make sense, if we are lucky enough to live out our lives completely, in good health, and with enough money. However, good health cannot be taken for granted. Even tomorrow is not guaranteed. Reading a newspaper or watching the news is a constant reminder that our lives can be cut short at any time. There are continual reports of traffic accidents (including pedestrians and cyclists), tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, building fires, wildfires, civil unrest and violent crime. If you live in a large city, how many times have you heard this phrase on the nightly news “It was a deadly start to the long weekend…”?


Television commercials may depict retirement by showing us images of an affluent older couple on a yacht (or in the above example, whiling away the afternoon hours on a backyard swing), but that’s not a reality for most people. Our health deteriorates and our mobility decreases even before we reach the age of retirement. In one example that hits close to home, a gentleman in my Toastmasters club had been in the workforce for almost 50 years and told us that he was looking forward to his retirement; he would finally have the time to do everything he wanted. Less than two months after he retired, he started experiencing health problems that were severe enough to limit his activities. He is now practically housebound, and is no longer to attend our club meetings, much less do all of the things that he had planned for this part of his life.

I know you’ve heard that life is a journey, not a destination, and that we are supposed to enjoy ourselves along the way. I agree completely, but I’m going to go one step further and recommend that you don’t try to spread your bucket list goals evenly across your anticipated life span. Start crossing things off that list as soon as you can afford the time and money.

You probably have the following, understandable concern: if I actually complete my bucket list, then I’ll take a deep breath and say “OK, now what? I’m bored”. In my experience, bucket lists are never static. Within ten years, you will invariably add one or more items to it. Even my own daily “To Do” lists don’t always get completed because I am often adding items to them throughout the day. The same principle applies to bucket lists. More items will be added to your list after you see a movie, browse a travel magazine, watch a documentary, or peruse a friend’s vacation photos. Furthermore, the increasing rate of change and technological advances in our society gives us so much opportunity to explore, and to learn new things. In my opinion, we – no mater what our age – will never feel that we’ve lived long enough or that we’ve accomplished everything.


Sale-SundayIf you want a carpe diem reminder, then read advertisements or watch commercials. Even if the items are on sale regularly, advertisers know intuitively how to appeal to our sense of urgency, through the use of phrases such as “act now”, “sale ends soon”, “limited-time offer”, “our biggest sale of the season” as well as the blatantly obvious and redundant “get yours now, because when they’re gone… they’re gone!”. Let’s put the same sense of urgency into our own lives. Do as much as you can, and don’t wait – do them now!

Finally, take some time to direct your gaze outward and offer a kind word or a good deed to those you care about. Their lifespan is also limited, and their journey can end unexpectedly. If there is something important that you want to say to a loved one, say it now; don’t wait until the funeral service. Although it’s a poignant scene, in my opinion there’s nothing more pointless than people who apologize, or pour their hearts out to a gravestone.

I’ll leave you with the words of Herb Magidson, performed by Guy Lombardo:

Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think,
Enjoy yourself, while you’re still in the pink,
The years go by, as quickly as a wink,
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.



Beyond Self-Actualization

Think back to your university days, and I’m sure you’ll recall your professors introducing you to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In the 1940s, Abraham Maslow created this diagram to illustrate, classify and stratify human needs and motivations. The diagram resembled a pyramid, and Maslow postulated that human needs and motivations are divided into several levels. Our basic needs (known as physiological needs: food, water, sex) are at the bottom level, or foundation of the pyramid. Only after these are fulfilled, can we pursue the needs of the next level – and so on, all the way up the pyramid.

The highest level on this pyramid – one that can be achieved only after all of the needs and motivations below it are satisfied – is self-actualization. This has a number of definitions, including “the realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potential”, “the achievement of one’s full potential through creativity, independence, spontaneity, and a grasp of the real world” and “the process of establishing oneself as a whole person, able to develop one’s abilities and to understand oneself”.

Maslow's Hierarchy

There are several variations of Maslow’s pyramid online; this is the diagram from Wikipedia, and it illustrates five separate levels. However, the diagram from my university psychology textbook lists two additional levels above Esteem Needs, for a total of seven different categories. From lowest to highest, they are:

  • Physiological needs: to satisfy hunger, thirst and sex needs
  • Safety needs: to be physically secure and out of danger
  • Belonging/Love needs: to be with others and be accepted
  • Esteem needs: to be competent and gain approval
  • Cognitive needs: to know and understand
  • Aesthetic needs: to find order and beauty
  • Self-actualization needs: to fulfill one’s potential as a unique person

It’s Time To Update The Hierarchy

Since the 1940s, society has tacitly accepted Maslow’s analysis and his assertion that self-actualization is the highest level that we humans can achieve. However (as you’ve probably guessed by now), I do not. When I look at his hierarchy from The Bob Angle, I see unrealized potential, and a new level to which some of us may aspire. In my opinion, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is no longer complete, and may even be limiting our collective ambition. Therefore, I’d like to propose adding a new level of human motivation beyond self-actualization, which I call “Godliness”. In order to achieve this level, we humans must anoint ourselves with God-like powers.

It’s actually not nearly as arrogant as it sounds. Many of us have already reached this state, and are enjoying it thoroughly. Calling it “Godliness” is merely a new, and (I hope) more motivating way to frame the experience. In order to reach this level, all we have to do is create our own universe, and then invite other people to live happily within it. Fortunately, this universe doesn’t have to be a physical one.

Steve's WorldA few months ago, I read an article about Steve Jobs; the final line read “It’s Steve’s world – we just live in it”. To me, there is no higher praise than that. Just think about how much our world has been sculpted by Steve’s vision. You’ve probably downloaded a few songs from iTunes over the years, and if look around, you’ll probably see within a couple of minutes, somebody using or wearing an Apple product. While admittedly these are collective effort of thousands of Apple employees, their existence depends to a large extent, on the vision of one man. In the early 1980s, Jobs’ desire was to “make a dent in the universe”. He has exceeded that goal and has defined a universe for us as well. His neural synapses have become our enduring reality, even after his death. We are still living contentedly in the world that Steve has designed for us; he has moved beyond self-actualization and has achieved Godliness. Steve Jobs built a world in his own image, and we are inhabiting it.

We are also living in the universes of other inventors and visionaries: Thomas Edison (light bulb, phonograph), Henry Ford (automobile), William Shockley (transistor), Tim Berners-Lee (World Wide Web), Mitch Kapor (spreadsheets), Steve Wozniak (the personal computer), and of course Walter Elias Disney.

How To Move Beyond Self-Actualization

You don’t have to be a technological visionary or even an inventor to ascend beyond self-actualization and create your own universe. It’s not as difficult as you might think – in fact, there are a number of professions (and even hobbies) that will allow you to do just that.

Author: JRR Tolkien created Middle Earth; CS Lewis created Narnia; L Frank Baum created Oz, and of course JK Rowling created Hogwarts. These places are now entrenched in our popular culture, and references to them are understood as readily as if they had been actual places. From 1997-2007, millions of children (and adults) around the world were immersed in the Harry Potter universe. Whenever a new book was published, children, teens and adults would line up outside bookstores so that they could jump into the world that JK Rowling created, and live there for a while. Imagine the satisfaction she must have felt, knowing that at any given time during those ten years, there were countless thousands of people living in “her” universe. Even if you’re not a best-selling writer, this principle still applies to you – if you write a work of fiction, then you have created a brand new world in your own image, populated with characters who are doing your bidding.

Writer: This also applies to writing short stories, poetry, plays, movie scripts and television scripts. Personally, I’d love to be part of the writing team for The Big Bang Theory. Imagine the thrill of watching Sheldon, Leonard and the rest of the cast members exist in a universe that you helped envision, and then act out whatever you wrote in the script!

Cartoonist: As much as we love to read comic books and watch Saturday morning cartoons, it pales in comparison to the satisfaction of actually designing your own superhero and making him (or her) do whatever you want, in issue after issue. This is a rare privilege indeed.

Computer Programmer / Game Designer: Programming may seem nerdy to some people, but there is a tremendous joy in coding. I first realized this as a teenager in the 1980s, writing programs on our family computer, the Commodore 64. They were very simple programs, written in BASIC, but writing code was such an unexpectedly visceral experience for me. I was creating my own universe on the screen, and I not only got to write the rules, but I could change them anytime I liked. Anyone who used the program, was existing in a world that I created. Unfortunately, I can only wonder if today’s programmers feel that same sense of satisfaction – while modern computer games have much larger, detailed and more realistic worlds, the days of a single game designer are long over. Now each programmer works on only a minuscule part of an incredibly complex world.

Composer / Lyricist: If you can write music or lyrics (or preferably, both), then you are also creating your own universe. It also doesn’t have to be a symphony or anything grandiose – a four-minute pop song can easily transport people to another place and time. Billy Joel created a mini-universe with his song, Piano Man. This particular live version is just magical – even while sitting at home, you can feel the tremendous energy in the crowd as everyone spends six minutes living inside Billy’s world – a local bar on a Saturday night – sitting beside the piano player and getting to know the patrons. I can only imagine what an immersive experience it must have been for this audience, and also for Billy Joel who could look out over these thousands of people, all enjoying themselves immensely inside his universe.

Painter: I can admit it now – I never had more than a cursory appreciation of paintings until I watched Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting series of videos. This video series is absolutely spellbinding. When Sister Wendy Beckett casts her gaze at a canvas, she sees more than I could ever imagine. Her detailed descriptions are mesmerizing and I now understand how much there is to appreciate in some paintings, and how much the artists wanted us to absorb. Painters, through their art, are also creating their own universes, and when we visit a gallery, we escape our own lives and become a temporary inhabitant of those worlds.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with two things.

Question everything: Disregard what you learned about Abraham Maslow in university. His framework of human needs and motivation is just a theory, and shouldn’t define your view of the world, or make you accept that self-actualization is the highest level you can achieve. As Morpheus said to Neo in The Matrix “You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe”. I believed that self-actualization was the ultimate human experience until a few years ago, when I started seeing evidence of something even better. Rather than discount what I saw, I decided to discount Maslow’s theory. I now subscribe to my own modified hierarchy, and I now aim higher than I did before.

Godliness might be just the beginning: I’m not going to suggest that this new level is the apogee of human experience – that would be arrogant. This is just the best I can offer right now; there may be many more levels of awareness and cognitive functioning beyond it. Some people believe that transcendence (an existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level) or nirvana (a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self) is the ultimate human experience. I haven’t experienced either (yet), so who am I to argue?

Godliness may be the proverbial first step on a journey of a thousand miles. Take the red pill, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes – or in this case, how high the pyramid ascends.


The Power of Pay It Forward

Every once in a while, I’ll hear of an idea that’s simple, yet so powerful, that when it’s put into practice by enough people, has the power to change the world. That idea is called Pay It Forward. If you’re not familiar with this phrase, here’s a definition: responding to a person’s kindness by being kind to someone else, instead of the person who was nice to you. That person could be a friend, colleague, acquaintance or even a complete stranger.

The Pay It Forward concept isn’t new. In fact, there is a reference to it dating back to 317 BC (in a Greek play called Dyskolos). Benjamin Franklin, in a 1784 letter to Benjamin Webb, wrote “I do not pretend to give such a deed; I only lend it to you. When you… meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress.

However, Pay It Forward didn’t make its way into the public consciousness until the theatrical release of a movie with the same name, in 2000. In this film, a grade school boy decides to conduct a social experiment for a school project. Every time someone does something nice for you, you have to pay back that kindness by doing something nice for three different people.


Why Is This Idea So Powerful?

When somebody does you a favour, it seems only natural to do something nice for that person in return. The expression “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” reinforces this philosophy of mutual assistance and co-operation. In fact, there is nothing inherently wrong with it. While the approach is perfectly logical, it’s ultimately ineffective if you want to change the world. Being nice only to those people who have shown you kindness creates a closed system. The kindness gets passed back and forth, benefiting only two people. However, if you receive a favour and pay it forward instead of paying it back, and do a favour for a stranger, the kindness now diverges and spreads, like ripples in a pond.

1970s shampoo commercial

This is the power of paying it forward – your simple acts of kindness won’t get lost in an endless loop. By redirecting your good deeds outward, there is always the possibility that your kindness will “go viral” and spread further and farther than you’ve ever imagined. A 1970s shampoo commercial illustrated this binary growth potential quite effectively. Their message was “try our product and you’ll be so happy that you’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on, and so on…”. This is the underlying strength of paying it forward.

Think about all of the YouTube videos you’ve watched recently. Each minute, over 100 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube, and I think it’s safe to say that many of those uploaders desperately want their own videos to go viral. Knowing that something you created is spreading around the entire planet and is being enjoyed by thousands or even millions of people is the ultimate validation in this online age – you are the one making those ripples in the pond (or making a splash). Unfortunately, there is no “view counter” or any other measurement device with Pay It Forward – and there is no way to know how far or how quickly your kindness is spreading – but rest assured that the positive effects of a single good deed will far outweigh any happiness bestowed upon the world by a YouTube video of a cat chasing a laser pointer.


Why Isn’t The World Already A Better Place? 

If this idea is so powerful, why aren’t we all doing it, and why isn’t the world already a nicer and more benevolent place? I can think of three reasons: few people have heard of Pay It Forward – it’s a fairly new concept, so it may take a while to catch on; secondly, fewer still have tried it; finally, those who have tried it are doing it incorrectly.

I don’t blame anyone for not trying it, because it goes against our inclinations. It feels natural to reciprocate kindness directly. If someone is nice to you, then you feel obligated to do something nice for that person when the opportunity presents itself. Doing a favour for an unrelated person feels like we’re cheating our benefactor. Also, If you are the benefactor, it can be difficult to put your ego aside and tell someone not to repay you, but to pay it forward instead.

The expression “what you reap is what you sow” reinforces this attitude – why would I be consistently nice to people if others will reap the benefits of my kindness? Answering this question requires a subtle shift in perception. Consider the following expression: what goes around comes around. There is no promise that what goes around (in this case, your good deed) will come back to you immediately – it may affect the lives of many people first before finally making its way back into your life. This is the essence of Pay It Forward. However, even if it doesn’t return to you, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that your actions had a positive effect on the lives of many people.

Paying It Forward – The Wrong Way

There have been a number of instances of Paying It Forward that received media attention recently:

  • In late December 2012 in at a coffee shop in Winnipeg, one person paid for the person behind him in line, and this generosity was repeated 227 times, until someone finally “broke the chain”.
  • In July 2013 at a coffee shop in Edmonton, two people gave a total of $1812 to the manager, and asked that it be used to pay for the customers’ purchases, until all of it was spent.

Interestingly, a news outlet criticized the Toronto customers for failing to grasp the concept of Pay It Forward, and not perpetuating the kindness offered them. The customers simply accepted their free coffee and walked out of the store, which prevented the kindness from spreading, and brought the social experiment to a premature end.

While the criticism is warranted, the charity would have fizzled out anyway, because the coffee shop staff were not implementing Pay It Forward as efficiently as they could have. In the Winnipeg case, a single good deed was passed along from person to person, as if they were all dancing in one giant, magnanimous conga line. In the Edmonton and Toronto cases, even if you happened to be one of the enlightened few who gave a donation before they left the store, it would have simply gone to the next person in line. While this is better than nothing, the kindness still isn’t spreading beyond the store, and will never have the opportunity to go viral. This structure does not allow the goodness to grow or spread. The Winnipeg example, while well-intentioned, is particularly weak and vulnerable arrangement because a single person has the power to bring it to a screeching halt.


Improving The Coffee Shop Examples

While I admire the generosity of those who started each of these coffee shop examples, it’s clear that the philanthropy was going to fizzle out fairly quickly, and never take on a life of its own. Therefore, I’d like to propose another, more effective way to implement this coffee shop Pay It Forward experiment. Giving away all 500 coffees at once will create a surge in demand; as word spreads of the giveaways, most people will descend on the coffee shop like a bunch of parasites, going there only to snatch their freebie(s) and then continue with their day. If I were the benefactor, I would instruct the cashier to say nothing, and give away free items, one at a time and at random intervals – thus extending the giveaways over several days. The sporadic nature of the generosity means that the customers won’t expect anything for free, and any kindness will be a genuine surprise. As the cashier hands the order to the customer, s/he is to say “This is a “Pay It Forward” gift by someone who wishes to remain anonymous. All s/he asks in return is that you consider doing something nice for a complete stranger”. This plants the seeds of social obligation into each customer’s head, and will (I hope) encourage some people to follow through with the suggestion and perpetuate the kindness.


Paying It Forward, The Right Way

Why aren’t we harnessing the awesome, society-enhancing potential of this idea? It’s because aren’t implementing it properly. Despite our best intentions, our Pay It Forward efforts are not being maximized because we’re once again following our instincts and being nice to only a single person. If it’s any consolation, Benjamin Franklin also got it wrong. However, the Pay It Forward movie got it right, and that’s the method that we need to emulate: for each act of kindness bestowed upon us, we in turn need to be kind to more than one person. In the Pay It Forward movie, Trevor’s social experiment dictated that a recipient of an act of kindness was obligated to do something nice on three separate occasions, for three different people. Only then would the debt be paid. This eliminates the possibility of a single person “breaking the chain”.

If you’re still reluctant, then remember – what goes around comes around. Your good deeds won’t bounce back and forth directly and exclusively between you and another person – they will travel on their own circuitous journey and in the process, affect a large number of people before they make their way back to you.

Imagine the excitement that a YouTube uploader must experience when their video goes viral and the number of views begins climbing into the thousands. Now imagine the satisfaction and the warm fuzzy feeling you’ll have by knowing that your single act of kindness also went viral – spreading throughout the world and benefiting hundreds or even thousands of people. This is the power of Pay It Forward – properly implemented – and this is the society-changing power that you and I can use right now.