Five Year Plans

"I had a job interview at an insurance company once, and the lady said 'Where do you see yourself in five years?' I said, 'Celebrating the fifth year anniversary of you asking me this question!'" - Mitch Hedberg

I love this joke. Not just because it's funny, but because it made me ask some important questions about my five year plan. Why does it have to be five years? Because that's what everyone says? Because it seems like a nice round number? Because it feels like enough time to complete my goals, at a comfortable pace?

The problem is, gas fills the size of its chamber. Gas being work, and the chamber being time. Like when you started a high school book-report the day before it was due. Despite having four weeks to finish it. For some students, it took exactly four weeks to finish. But for you, just one manic evening. And I'm willing to bet you still received a decent grade.

(Of course, if there's too much gas in a small chamber, it explodes. So if you started your book-report five minutes before class, it would have blown up in your face. Please proceed with caution.)

What does this have to do with five year plans? Well, try this. Imagine where you want to be five years. Envision the path of your success and the steps which lead you there. Now ask yourself: "How can I make this happen in six months or less?"

If you only had six months to do what you planned for in five years, what would you do? What would you focus on? What risks would you be willing to take? How courageous would you have to be? Chances are, you'd be forced to do things which scare you. But those are the things which matter most, and will give you the biggest return on your time invested. No pressure, it's just a thought experiment. But you'll start to see the excuses you've created to waste time and feel busy, without actually doing anything. That's what most of social media is -- a great way to feel busy. And it may be job specific, but for most, it's akin to high school busy work. So you'll need to be ruthless about where you spend your time. 

Six months is just the right amount of time to do almost anything, without getting burned out. What's more, if you do decide to move forward with this idea, in five years time, you may end up with 10x the amount of "success". Success being what pulls you into action, and makes you feel excited to wake up everyday. Having a sense of urgency to move, create, think and feel totally enriched.

Time is non-refundable. So don't spend five years spreading yourself thin. Class starts tomorrow, and your book-report is due.  

If only I could follow my own advice. 

Your friend,

Matthew Cooper

Who's Responsible

Sports bars are the bane of my existence. But lately, I've noticed what I share in common with their customers. And chances are, you do too. Next time you're around after "The Big Game", notice the language people use.  

When their team wins, they say:

  • We won.
  • We're undefeated.
  • We made a comeback.
  • I knew we'd pull through.
  • We're number one.

When their team loses, they say:

  • They fell apart.
  • They gave up too early.
  • They did their best.
  • They should have put "so-and-so" in.
  • It wasn't their night.

We share credit for a win, and pass blame for a failure.

A good example of this, comes from a video of basketball fans who left the court early, thinking their team lost. Only to find out moments later, their team made a comeback. Notice their language, before and after the fact. One fan even said - "They were down a little bit, but we showed resilience and we brought it back..." Making my case in just one sentence. Of course this doesn't apply to everyone, but it happens more than you'd think. Watch the video here, starting 23 seconds in.

So what? Why is this important? Well it seems to apply to our personal wins and losses, too. How we take responsibility for success, but not failures.

If we succeed:

  • It's because I was persistent.
  • It's because I didn't listen to the nay sayers.
  • it's because I worked harder than anyone else.
  • It's because I never gave up.
  • It's because I did it my way.

If we fail:

  • It's because of the economy.
  • It's because those people who backed out.
  • it's because there wasn't enough time. 
  • It's because no one agreed.
  • It's because Mercury was in retrograde.

Most people want full credit, without any responsibility. That's why it's easy being a spectator, instead of getting on the court. Why there will always be more critics, instead of artists. Why most will follow, rather than lead. And why we desperately seek permission, because if it doesn't work out, then who's responsible? 

Something to think about.

Yours truly,

Matthew Cooper

 

Notifications Make Me Sick

Photo by Anthony Waldron

Photo by Anthony Waldron

Dear reader,

Have you ever had a ghost notification? When you feel the phone buzz, you look down, only to find a black mirror staring back? It's a scary moment. Not because Siri might be possessed by the demon known as Jikininki, but because you could have a sickness, like me.

There was a period, in July of this year, where I felt something was off. It's not that I was depressed, but it was a form of apathy. Although, it wasn't clear why I was feeling that way, so I went back through my journals for clues.

I keep private journals for many reasons:

  • To justify my stupid expensive briarwood fountain pen.

  • To develop good penmanship, which I feel is a lost charm.

  • To learn to be a better writer and thinker, in the absence of cut and paste.

  • To stop the ricocheting thoughts inside my skull.

  • To have good reading material for planes and trains.

  • To keep a record of personal development or decline (this is where my journal writing came in handy).

Looking back over my journals, I noticed words like fatigue, malaise, apathy and so on. Then I noticed the time stamps. My journaling went from a 10:00am, when I was most happy, to 3:00pm, when those key words showed up. An interesting observation, I thought. 

As a test, I went back to my morning journal writing routine. I woke up the next day, pulled out my journal, and out of habit, quickly checked my notifications. Email, twitter, Instagram, etc. My morning was being frittered away. I'd even check for another email, without the notification! Like checking the fridge for food, when you know there isn't any.

I felt it was necessary to break from social media and turn off notifications, for at least a month. The first week was tough. There was an itch to check, constantly. But I desperately needed the detox. So I kept to a strict information diet. No internet, email, text, calls, news or outside influence of any kind, for the first hour of my day. I wanted my mornings to be mine again. where I could focus on things which are important to me. But that's an impossible task when you're distracted. And distractions, no matter how short, can suffocate a good feeling or idea. Even a 10 second text, can take 10 minutes to get us back to where we were.  

I'm reminded of this scene from The Shining. Where Jack gets distracted by his wife who mentions the weather, and offers up a few sandwiches. Maybe Jack could have handled his temper a little better, but the rule still applies. No matter what the interruption is, it will always take time to get back to where you were. 

Mornings are important, and really set the tone for the day. So responding to an email which takes care of someone else, before we take care of ourselves, is toxic. Instead, mornings should be all about you. Learning something, reading a book, making art, keeping a journal, etc. Do what's important to you, before you let others in. And if you truly believe your livelihood is dependent on responding to notifications, first thing in the morning. Then you owe it to yourself to wake up an hour earlier, for your soul, not your wallet. 

After my social media and notification detox, I decided to remove email from my phone altogether, along with Safari. I realized they weren't necessary. If there's an emergency, I can be called. And Just like that, everything changed. I rediscovered what it felt like to be bored, instead of doing things which masked boredom, and made me feel busy, without ever getting anything done. In place of that time, I found more fulfilling things. Which ultimately lead to a boost of well-being.

Turning off notifications and ending distractions was the lead domino, which set off a chain reaction of happiness. But social media, notifications, the internet, none of these things are bad. They're amazing tools which I still use. I use Facebook and twitter to publish posts like these. And I still check email (twice a day). But the difference is, I no longer allow these things to control how I feel. They work for me now, not the other way around. And now I feel much better. 

I know I'm not alone, that's why I'm sharing this. Hope it helps. 

Your Friend,

Matthew Cooper

A Sense of Security

Years ago, I received a discouraging email from someone I know. His email was full of serious talk, suggesting I go back to college and look for a job with a sense of security. Pointing out the unpredictable nature of show business, and how it couldn't promise a steady financial return. This deeply affected me because I'd just turned 20, dropped out of art school, and moved to NYC with no money.

Although I was young and stupid (still am), I wasn't too naive to think I was making the right decision. And it didn't help that I was living next to the projects, in an old factory converted into bedrooms with plaster walls. A place I shared with eight other roommates, and nine cats. To top it off, my building was a known source of a major bedbug epidemic in Brooklyn. So yea, it crossed my mind that I might have made a bad decision.

My feeling of uncertainty doubled when I saw my friends posting photos of their college careers on Facebook. Was I supposed to be doing what they were doing? Should I go back to school? Should I get an office job with health care and benefits?

The first year wasn't easy. Especially when it got hot, and I couldn't afford an air conditioner. As a solution, I started cooling my underwear in the freezer before bed, to lower my temperature enough to fall asleep. That is, if my neighbors didn't throw another weekday party. Otherwise, the bass would vibrate my walls, making it impossible to fall asleep.

(The image above is me in that apartment, on one of those loud nights.)

Thankfully, things have shaped up since then. But that doesn't mean I was right for moving to NYC and taking a risk. My best answer to anything that happens in my life, good or bad, is "who knows? Maybe, maybe not..." Who knows if this thing will turn our to be good or bad. Who's to say what would have been if this, that, or the other thing happened. It's impossible to know how things would have panned out for any circumstance, even if we follow the straight and narrow. So we might as well do what we want, because there's no guarantee anyway. Or as a friend of mine pointed out, you can fail at what you don't like doing too, so you might as well do what you want.

Of course, there are more rational, safer, and time tested methods for getting by in life. At least that's what I used to think. But in my generation, jobs have never been a guarantee. Growing up, I saw adults losing their "secure" office jobs, and finding it difficult to find new ones. Even friends, who spent a lot of time and money getting their degrees, had to move back home and fight off a wall of debt.

Don't get me wrong, I can appreciate the feeling of security. I'd rather feel secure, than feel like I'm bailing out water of a sinking ship my entire life. We all want to feel like we're secure, like we're the captains of our own ship. But we should never forget the powerful and unpredictable nature of the sea. Where at any moment, our sense of security or the illusion of control can be crushed by a midnight storm. 

Truth is, I've never felt a sense of security in my job, and never will. Not because of the nature of my job, but because of the nature of nature. But I do feel a sense of security in my life, and in taking responsibility for myself. I feel secure knowing my job is up to me, and the only person who can let me go, is me. I feel secure in knowing that no matter what, there's always a way forward. It may not be ideal, but in someways, the most difficult times in life, give us strength to feel more secure further down the road.

A sense of security is just how we feel, not something a job provides. We should always be aware of how quickly things can be taken from us. And the only thing worth feeling secure about, is our will to do, and to be, whatever we want.

Your friend,

Matthew Cooper

The "If You Do What You Love" Myth

To whom it may concern,

"If you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life." This phrase was hammered into my head all throughout grade school. But I no longer think it's true, because I'm just now starting to question it. I'm questioning most things now, which I've always held to be true, for no other reason except for we just keep saying them. So when it comes to a common phrases like this, which is rarely given a second thought, here is my second thought.

Who decided work was bad? Is work really something to be avoided? Isn't work part of the human experience? Getting our hands dirty, using our minds, solving problems, using tools -- these are all valuable human experiences, aren't they?

Oh sure, easy for me to say, Mr. Show-Biz-Corn-Fed-White-Boy over here, who's never worked a "real job" a day in his life. Which is true -- guilty as charged. And I'm not pretending to know what it's like to have a "real job" (meaning, something I don't want to do, but have to). But I do have friends in the service industry who tell me horror stories, which make me grateful to be in my particular line of work. I'm not comparing jobs, because I simply don't have the experience or ego to presume what I do is harder -- I know it's not. But I'd like to point out what I think is a misunderstanding in the phrase, "if you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life."

From my experience, when you do what you love, you end up working harder than ever before. At times, it can even feel like pushing a boulder up a hill, the only difference is, you want to push the boulder up the hill. Because the boulder is more like a soul, rather than a meaningless piece of earth. Loving what you do isn't easy. It's full of fear, pain, hardship, time and effort. But it's also full of life, energy, pleasure, etc. In fact, a good indicator of how much love someone has for what they do, is noticing how much work they put into it, or how much they persevere. Which is a good thing. This isn't a complaint about work, it's a celebration. 

When I first started, I used to think the path of least resistance, or a life of leisure, was the ultimate goal. But I don't anymore. After all, what is a life of leisure but an endless stream of boredom. In fact, the only way to enjoy leisure, is to know what it means to work for something. I've done the leisure thing, I've taken 3 months off to do pretty much nothing. So I can assure you, it gets boring, fast. 

Work is engrained in our DNA, and without it, there'd be a huge piece missing from our sense of identity. Just ask any rich bored person. Even Bruce Wayne had to find something to do, so he became a vigilante! The hope is to find more reasons to work on something, not less. To want those calluses, to seek out vulnerability, to push ourselves to the edge of our comfort and see what we come up with, what we make, what we do, or discover. To feel like we couldn't possibly give anymore of ourselves to our life's work, and then realize, we're only just getting started. That's what it feels like to love what you do. 

So if you really do love what you do, you'll end up working your whole life. Not because you have to, but because you want to.

Your friend,

Matthew Cooper

Don't Be Yourself

Dear Reader,

They always said "just be yourself", which is helpful, but there's a problem. Maybe I'm over analyzing this, but if I'm always myself, how could I ever be a better man? What I mean is, "myself" is flawed because I'm human. Humans are selfish, so I'm selfish. I've been known to be defensive. Sometimes, I won't stick to my promises, even those promises I made on myself. I'm too opinionated and give advice when it's not requested (case in point). Then there's my whining and worrying about petty problems. In other words, being myself only works when it's reflecting the better sides of my nature.

Of course, I understand the sentiment of "be yourself", but for the sake of being contrarian (another flaw), here's an idea. "Don't be yourself, be the version of the person you want to be." Sure it's long winded, but works. Just do things according to your better version. Imagine your life as a movie, where you're the hero instead of the villain.

When you feel the urge to say something mean behind someone's back, consider this character. Think about how he/she would act. Picture them being nice, even when they have every reason to be rude. Consider how this version of you, would live your life. I think this works for one simple reason. You're getting outside of your head, detaching from a self centered point of view, and thinking clearly about who you want to be.

This not only improves your well-being, but the well-being of those around you. Because we could all use better versions of ourselves. We have enough critics, enough anger and enough animosity. We have too many villains. So don't be yourself, be the version of the person you want to be. 

Or don't. I'm trying to stop telling people what to do. So do what you want.

Your friend,

Matthew Cooper

Some Unlikely Advice on Creativity

Sometimes, good advice is found in unlikely places, from unlikely people, at unlikely times. Like one substitute art teacher I had in high school, who really seemed to hate his job. But despite that, the only words out of his mouth during our 90 minutes together, was a great piece of advice on creativity. He told us to "sit down, shut up, and get to work..." I'll never forget his words of wisdom, even if they weren't meant to inspire. 

If you consider yourself a creative person, then you've had creative blocks before. Because creating something from nothing is always hard work. It's not only time consuming, but there's no promise of it being any good, and it just might be a waste of time. So instead of creating, I'll end up consuming. Maybe a snack or another episode of "Narcos". Because consumption is passive, easy and satisfying. Where creating is long, difficult and frightening. But also, consumption is boring, lazy and empty. Where creating is engaging, enriching, and life affirming. 

So I've come to realize, being blocked is not something which happens to me -- it's a decision I make. Because the only way to create something good, is to create something in the first place. I'll even give myself permission to create something bad, if only to have something to fix. So the antidote to feeling blocked is to sit down, shut up, and get to work. Day in and day out, no matter what. Just keep making, keep creating, keep doing. I'll say it again, sit down, shut up and get to work. You can throw in "no whining", too. 

It's always better to wake up with something to do, to mold, to write, to design, to rehearse, to fix, etc. To do something which gets the juices flowing. And if you decide to not do anything, that's still a decision (albeit, usually a bad one).

You don't need motivation to start anything. Nine times out of ten, motivation happens after you start, not before. You don't need a muse, you don't more time, you don't even need an idea! You just need to sit down, shut up, and get to work. This may be an over simplification, but sometimes it can be helpful to see through all the nonsense, and realize it's just about knuckling down.

No longer is creativity up to the gods, or the weather, or a mood. It's up to me, and it's up to you. So sit down, shut up, and get to work. 

Then smile, because you're way ahead of the game. 

Sincerely,

Matthew Cooper