I was interviewed this morning for a segment on Yahoo Finance. It didn’t go nearly as well as I had hoped. I was nervous. I fumbled when I spoke. I couldn’t remember what I wanted to say, even though I was speaking about my own experience.

Preparing to be filmed for Yahoo Finance
Here I am, talking to thin air…

As I stumbled — stopping and re-starting my sentences again and again — I began to panic. What was happening? I’ve been interviewed dozens of times in the past year, and I’ve interviewed dozens of people myself. I never have problems. I’ve had several interviewers praise my poise recently, but poise was nowhere to be found today.

Searching for Answers

While driving home, I tried to figure out what went wrong. Jeremy, the producer, had been friendly and organized and very clear about what he wanted. I spent plenty of time reviewing the topic we’d be covering (my tax audit in 2014) and I felt comfortable with the material. When I reached the television studio where we filmed the segment, I spent half an hour chatting with the woman who was managing things on our end. Everything should have gone great!

But it didn’t.

“You know, I always suck at television interviews,” I thought. But I know that’s not true. Sometimes I kill it when I’m on TV. Sure, I’ve had several bad experiences before, but it’s not true that I always suck at television interviews.

So, what makes some of my TV interviews go well and others poorly? Was there a common thread? I tried to find a common thread.

“Well, my favorite TV segments have been the ones where I’m actually talking with a live person,” I thought. I remembered a bit I did on DIY Christmas gifts a few years ago. For that, I stood in a local TV studio and joked around with the program’s host. That was fun. Or once in Denver, I did a segment about Fincon where I chatted directly with the news anchor. That went well too.

But what about the times I’ve sucked? There was the time I did a piece for a station in Miami. I sat in a local TV studio and talked to empty air, staring directly at the camera. I bumbled my way through that one too. At the time, I attributed my poor performance to the fact I had a high fever, but looking back I now see similarities to today’s situation. In both cases, I was talking to nobody — looking into empty space while trying to act like I was an expert.

“Aha!” I thought. “This is similar to my public speaking problems. When I’m on stage speaking to an audience, trying to play the expert, I don’t do well. I get nervous. I stumble and lose my way. But when it comes time for questions and answers, I shine. I do great when I’m interacting with somebody, when there’s a give and take, a conversation. It’s tough for me when I’m left to ramble on my own.”

After experiences like this, there’s a part of me that wants to pack it in. I want to decline all future interview opportunities. But you know what? I’ve spent the past decade learning that in order to grow, in order to enjoy life, in order to become a better person, I have to do the things that scare me. I have to face my fears and act despite of them. Will I fail? Absolutely! Sometimes I’ll fall flat on my face. Other times, like today, I’ll shuffle and stumble and be awkward. But in the long run, these failures make me better. I improve by looking at what went wrong and trying to correct it the next time.

Never Give Up

Before the interview this morning, I was thinking about the notion of never giving up. My thoughts were prompted by a trivial experience.

Over the past few months, I’ve been playing a bit of Hearthstone, which is an online card game. I like to play in the Arena, which means I pay two bucks create a deck from random cards and then am matched against random opponents. I can continue playing until I’ve lost three games.

During my Hearthstone games, it’s common for me to fall behind early. It looks like I’m going to die an early death. It would be easy to quit when my opponent is crushing me after only a few turns. But here’s the thing: My style of play is slow and methodical. Despite falling behind early, I often rally to take control of the match. Longer ago, I did concede matches if I fell behind, but now I know never to give up. There’s a good chance I’ll rally for victory.

This “never give up” attitude applies to the game at another level. Sometimes when I build a deck, I’ll lose my first two matches. In the past, I’d just throw in the towel. I wouldn’t play a third match but would instead scrap the deck and build a new one. Not anymore. I’ve learned that even when I start 0-2, I can often finish with three or four or five wins. Yesterday, for instance, I almost gave up after being crushed in my first two matches with a new deck. Instead, I gave the deck another chance. I won. Then I won again. And again. In fact, I won six straight games, which earned me enough in-game currency to build a new deck for free. But I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I’d given up after losing my first two games.

“Never give up” is a common admonition in game and sports. “It’s not over until the fat lady sings,” we’re told. As many of you know, I’m a big fan of The Amazing Race. After watching 25 seasons of the show, I’ve learned a couple of things about the competition. The first rule of the Race is to always read your clues. (It’s mind-boggling how many people lose because they didn’t follow instructions.) But the second rule of the Race is to never give up. No matter how wrong things seem to have gone for a team, there’s always a chance they’ve been worse for somebody else.

In Praise of Perseverance

This “never give up” attitude is applicable to the real world too, of course, and in non-trivial ways. During the 1990s, when I was buried in debt, I wasn’t good at persevering. I’d spend a month or three trying to pay down my credit cards, but then give up at the first sign of adversity. I did the same thing with my fitness. I’d lose a few pounds but then return to my gluttonous ways at the first temptation.

It’s trite, I know, but when I look at the people in my life who have been most successful — by whatever means you want to define that word — they’re the folks who don’t let setbacks rule their lives. They fail forward, using mistakes and adversity as a launching pad to self-improvement. It’s all to easy to use mistakes and setbacks as an excuse to not achieve the things you want; but it’s better to take the tougher route, to wrestle with these obstacles and overcome them.

I’m curious to see how this morning’s Yahoo Finance interview comes together. Maybe the final product really will suck. Maybe I was so nervous and incoherent that the producer won’t be able to create anything worthwhile from the footage. On the other hand, it’s possible that there’s enough material there for him to make me look charming and insightful (ha!).

Regardless, I know one thing: I’m not going to give up. The next time an opportunity comes along to do a television interview, I’m going to do it — even if it means I’m talking to empty space again. Someday, once I do this enough, once I fail enough, I’ll be just as good at giving TV interviews as I am at writing blog posts.

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I stopped by to visit with my friend Amy Jo the other day. While reading this blog, she had noticed I made an off-hand comment about wanting to sell my old laptop. “I’ll buy it,” she said.

“Great,” I said. “And while I’m at it, I’ll bring Ossley some books. I’m purging again.”

Long-time readers know that I’ve been on a decade-long quest to combat clutter. Back when I was a spendthrift, I bought a lot of Stuff. When Kris and I were together, our house and garage and workshop were packed to the gills with Stuff. Even while we were married, I started the process of purging. The more I travel — and while doing so, survive with only a backpack of possessions — the more I realize that, despite having purged a lot of my things, I still own far too much.

Now that Kim and I are prepping to do a lot of RV travel, I’m even more motivated to get rid of the things I no longer want or need. When I stopped at Amy Jo’s place to give her the books and computer, we chatted about the whole de-cluttering process.

“We’ve been getting rid of things too,” she said. “We keep downsizing our home, so we have less and less space for stuff. Plus, we don’t like the mental burden of owning so many things.”

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying UpShe showed me a book that she’d borrowed from the library: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. “Have you seen this?” she asked. “It’s all the rage on the internet right now.”

I leafed through it while Amy Jo explained the author’s thesis. “Kondo says that you should only own things that ‘spark joy’ in your life. If you don’t love it, you should get rid of it. And you should get rid of your stuff all at once, not in stages. Anyway, I think you might like the book.”

That night, on my drive home, I stopped to buy a copy at Powell’s. Amy Jo was right. I like the book.

The KonMari Method

Marie Kondo is obsessed. She’s a clean freak. Ever since she was a little girl, her passion has been cleaning and organizing. She loves to de-clutter. And because she’s Japanese, her obsession is tinged with elegance and beauty. Here’s a taste:

An avid fan of home and lifestyle magazines since kindergarten, I would read a feature on how to put things away and have to try out each suggestion immediately. I made drawers out of tissue boxes and broke my piggybank to purchase nifty storage items. In junior high on my way home from school, I would drop in at a DIY store or browse at a magazine stand to check out the latest products.

As I say, she’s obsessed. In fact, some of her anecdotes are almost alarming.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a fun book, but its core concepts could easily be conveyed in a magazine article — or a blog post (like this one). Just as I believe money management is a psychological issue rather than a logical one, so Kondo feels about cleaning. It’s not enough for a space to be tidy. “Putting things away creates the illusion that the clutter problem has been solved,” she writes. But the problem still exists so long as you have too much Stuff. Kondo claims the real key is to discard as much as possible.

Here’s a rough outline of her method (which she’s named after herself, the KonMari Method):

  • Tidy up in one shot rather than little by little. Gradual tidying doesn’t solve anything. When you clean in one fell swoop, it’s like hitting the reset switch on life.
  • Start by discarding, all at once, intensely and completely. “Do not even think of putting your things away until you have finished the process of discarding,” she admonishes. If you start putting things away before you’ve finished purging, you run the risk of getting distracted. Plus, it’s only after you’ve pared down your possessions that you can decide how to best store them in your space.
  • Keep only those things that “spark joy”. I think this is the key to Kondo’s philosophy. She says that we ought only own things that make us happy. Most advice on de-cluttering focuses on whether items are used or useful. But Kondo argues that this sort of thinking leads us to choose what to get rid of rather than what to keep, and that’s backward. She wants readers to handle every item and ask, “Does this spark joy?” She writes: “Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.” Sounds lame, right? In reality, the advice is surprisingly effective.
  • Sort by category, not by location. “Tidying by location is a fatal mistake,” writes Kondo. Instead of cleaning one drawer or one room at a time, instead tackle one type of item at a time. She even recommends a specific order. “The best sequence is this: clothes first, then books, papers, komono (miscellany), and lastly, mementos…Sticking to this sequence sharpens our intuitive sense of what items spark joy inside us.”
  • Don’t let your family see. Tidy on your own. Don’t consult with your partner, your parents, or your children. Doing so will only cloud things. Work on your own.
  • Once you’ve finished discarding things — and by this, she means selling them, donating them, giving them away, or putting them in the trash — only then is it okay to store them. Even then, Kondo aims for joy. She wants readers to “store your things to make your life shine”. Follow the old adage, “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” That may mean changing some of your habits. (See below for an example of how I changed the way I’ve stored my shirts for the past 45 years.) In particular, Kondo recommends storing things standing up rather than flat.
  • Forget about “flow planning” and “frequency of use”. Kondo says that most organizational systems are based around how often things are used or how convenient it is to retrieve them. This is a mistake. If you need something, you’ll find it and pull it out. It’s much more important to make things easy to put away. She writes: “Clutter is caused by a failure to return things to where they belong. Therefore, storage should reduce the effort needed to put things away, not the effort to get them out.”
  • Eliminate visual clutter. I’ve always admired the Japanese aesthetic, and a large part of that is how clean everything is. No surprise then that Kondo applies this ideal to de-cluttering. Her advice: “By eliminating excess visual information that doesn’t inspire joy, you can make your space much more peaceful and comfortable.” Only display belongings you appreciate. Don’t clutter your shelves and floorspace with knick knacks and notes and piles and so on. Keep things clean.

Perhaps that all seems overwhelming. It’s not — or it shouldn’t be. It all boils down to this: Start by discarding. Keep only those things that “spark joy”. Work first with clothes, then books, papers, miscellaneous, and lastly, mementos. After purging, organize your space for maximum efficiency (and minimal visual clutter). Do this all at once rather than incrementally.

You’ve finished the process when everything is in its place.

Putting Theory into Practice

So, how effective is the KonMari method? From my experience, it’s awesome. Seriously.

Two weeks ago, I spent my Saturday morning applying Kondo’s ideas to my clothes closet. It took me three hours, but after I was finished I’d eliminated a couple of bags of clothes and drastically reduced the space I needed to store the stuff I kept. I was particularly pleased with how much I could fit into my dresser drawers after watching some YouTube videos about the best way to fold shirts, socks, and — gasp! — underwear. (I’ve always mocked people who fold their underwear. I take it all back. I’m one of those folks now.)

Look at this beautiful image:

My t-shirts, organized and pretty.
Forty-eight t-shirts, all in a row. (But who needs 48 t-shirts?)

I used to store my t-shirts in two messy, mounded drawers (one for cotton, one for wool). Now all of my t-shirts fit into a single drawer — and it’s easy to tell what’s what. (Yes, I know I have too many t-shirts. I suspect I’ll re-apply the KonMari method in a few months, focusing more intently only the shirts that “spark joy”.) Similarly, my sock and underwear drawers used to be disasters. Now it’s quick and easy to find what I want:

My socks, organized and pretty.  My underwear, organized and pretty.
By folding the socks and stacking them on end, I’m able to get my ties and belts in the same drawer.

It does take a bit more time to fold things properly, but I’m okay with that. Actually, I think it’s kind of fun to fold my clothes into tiny, tidy packages.

After sorting my clothes on Saturday, I spent four hours discarding and organizing books on Sunday. Then I moved on to records and DVDs and compact discs. When I’d finished, I’d packed my Mini Cooper with stuff to sell and donate. In the process, I freed up several bookshelves (enough to get rid of an entire bookcase!) and three entire cupboards in our living room. Wow.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up isn’t for everyone. If you’re naturally clean and tidy, there’s nothing new here. If Kondo’s “keep things that spark joy” message causes you to roll your eyes, you won’t have patience for this book. But I think that most folks could profit from putting the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing into practice.

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I’ve written a lot about building confidence and overcoming fear. It’s something I wrestle with all of the time. Despite all of the things I’ve accomplished, I’m always apprehensive about starting something new. People have liked what I’ve done in the past; will they like what I do in the future?

Via Andy, here’s an eleven-minute video that explores the fear and trepidation that all artists face as part of the creative process (and, yes, I just called myself an artist):

Give it some time. The video starts off talking about a joke, but eventually becomes a discussion of the creative process and the pains involved with it. It’s not earth-shattering, but it’s poignant.

I’ve done some reading recently about how artists struggle (and cope with their struggles). Why do super successful folks like Ernest Hemingway kill themselves? Why do some descend into addiction?

In Cheryl Strayed’s wonderful Tiny Beautiful Things, she shares some of the advice columns she wrote as “Dear Sugar” for a site called The Rumpus. One of the emails she answers is from a woman who is scared to become a writer. “I write like a girl,” says Elissa. She wants to know how she can move from being paralyzed with fear to becoming the writer she wants to be.

Strayed’s answer talks about her own struggles as a writer, about how she was afraid she was a failure when she hadn’t written a book by the time she was twenty-eight. (As most of us now know, she spent several months of that time hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.)

“I believed that I’d wasted my twenties by not having come out of them with a finished book, and I bitterly lambasted myself for that,” writes Strayed. She thought that she was “lazy and lame”.

Eventually, however, she “finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked.” And so, she wrote it. She describes the process:

When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O’Connor mentions in that quote I wrote on my chalkboard. And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge’s first product: humility.

Do you know what that is, sweet pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned 35 a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.

I’d finally been able to give it because I’d let go of all the grandiose ideas I’d once had about myself and my writing—so talented! so young! I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely no-where-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do.

In the end, Strayed says, what matters is that you do the work, whether it’s shitty or not. To become the person you want to be, you have to “get your ass down onto the floor”. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. If you want to be fit, you have to exercise. If you want to be a better parent, you have to spend time with your children. You cannot succeed if you do not do the work required to succeed.

I think Strayed’s point is that you have to let go of all of the excuses and actually make things happen. And that’s the theme of the video I shared at the start of this post. In it, a musician shares a year-long litany of excuses for not writing a song…until on the last day of the year, he confesses that he hasn’t shared a song because he’s scared to do so.

Strayed’s advice to Elissa, who writes like a girl, is to become resilient and to have faith. To become a warrior and a motherfucker. To have strength and nerve. “Writing is hard for every last one of us,” says Strayed. “Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig. You need to do the same…”

“So write,” she concludes. “Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”

Do the work, and do it to the best of your ability. Do it despite your fears and insecurities. Put in the days and years of toil and labor. That’s the only way to overcome your fears — and the only way to become the person you want to be.

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Recently, one of my readers pointed me to an old New Yorker article from Atul Gawande. In “The Checklist”, Gawande describes how one simple change seems to be revolutionizing medicine: the use of checklists.

Modern medicine is complicated. There’s a lot of stuff that doctors and nurses need to know and do in order to provide effective care. Health-care professionals are smart and capable, but they’re also human. It’s easy to forget (or casually neglect) important details during the heat of the moment or the crush of monotonous routine.

That’s where checklists come in: By creating and using checklists for important procedures, health-care providers can be certain that they haven’t forgotten to do something important. Gawande’s article explains that pilots have used checklists for decades to make sure they don’t forget about important steps in prepping and flying their planes. Now, hospitals are realizing that checklists can help them prevent infections and save lives too.

Gawande’s article is great — interesting and insightful — and you should read it if you haven’t already. (I readily admit I may be the last person on Earth to have seen it since it was published seven years ago.)

For me, this idea of checklists has more profound personal implications.

One of the side-effects of my ADHD nature is that I often forget to do the most basic things. I forget to brush my teeth, to wash my face, to comb my hair. I forget to close cupboards, put dishes in the dishwasher, pick up my dirty clothes. It’s not that I don’t care about these things — I do care — but that I get distracted and forget to finish what I was doing. (“Complete the cycle,” Kim tells me when she notices I’ve left something out on the counter once again. She means that I should follow one action complete to the finish before moving onto something else.)

It occurred to me after reading Gawande’s article that checklists might help me manage my life more effectively. One common ADHD coping mechanism, one that I’ve learned to love, is the to-do list. If something needs doing, it’s important for me to get it out of my head and onto a piece of paper because otherwise I’ll forget. I keep a running to-do list on a whiteboard in my office.

Actually, I keep three lists:

  • One list for high-priority tasks (“prep laptop to sell”, “do year-end business finances”).
  • Another list is for medium-priority tasks (“get maintenance on Mini”, “sort storage unit”).
  • A final list for low-priority tasks (“repair grandfather clock”, “learn three songs on guitar”).

My to-do list is great, but there’s a weakness. It doesn’t capture items that need to be done every single day. To that end, inspired by Gawande’s article, I’ve decided to adopt a series of checklists to help me stay focused, to help me establish a routine.

I have one for morning:

Weigh-in
Drink a glass of water
Wash face
Moisturizer
Take meds
Get ready for gym
Eat a healthy breakfast
Inbox zero
Brush teeth
¡Exercise!

I have one for during the day:

Eat a healthy snack
Drink greens powder
Take fish oil
Shower and shave
Read 30 minutes
Write something substantial
Eat a healthy lunch
Brush teeth
Drink a glass of water
Practice guitar
Practice Spanish
Run errands
Complete one to-do item
Inbox zero
¡4pm Clean sweep!

And I have one for before bed:

Perform a brain dump
Record calories and exercise
Flip checklist on computer
Brush teeth
Wash face
Moisturizer
Take meds
Drink a glass of water


As you can see, the things I’m asking myself aren’t tough. In fact, most are easy. For some of you, this may seem crazy. Checklists for basic life tasks? Who needs that!?! Well, I need that. In fact, even with checklists, these things can be a challenge. I can quickly become blind to the checklists, can begin to ignore them.

One of my goals for 2015 is to force myself to go through each list every day. My hope is that in time, all of this stuff will become routine. I realize that I probably won’t get every item done every day, and that’s okay. The important thing is for me to get in the habit of doing most of these things on most days. If I do, I’ll be a better man.

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10 December 2014

Buying an RV, part one: Searching for the Perfect Used RV

Last weekend, Kim and I moved from casually browsing RVs to searching in earnest. We spent much of Friday and Saturday touring coaches, both used and new, trying to learn more about what we do and don’t want in a rig. Part of the problem is that everything is theoretical at this point. Neither of […]

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4 December 2014

How to Become a Better Communicator

As I continue to do more public speaking — whether on stage, on air, or via recorded interview — I’m becoming interested in what does and does not make an effective communicator. But I’m not just interested in how to communicate with a passive audience; I also want to be a better conversationalist with my […]

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2 December 2014

Stumbling Toward Perfection: An Interview with Leo Babauta

In 2007, Leo Babauta started Zen Habits, a blog where he chronicled the changes he was trying to make in his life. For the past seven years, he’s documented his successes and failures as he’s striven to stop smoking, lose weight, get out of debt, and otherwise improve his world (and the world around him). […]

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15 November 2014

Announcing the Awesome People Project

I know lots of awesome people. So do you. We all do. At the start of her excellent writing manual, If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland states her premise: “Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.” That’s my premise too. The more people I meet, the more I believe that each […]

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14 November 2014

In Search of Sleep

It’s 4 a.m. on a Friday. I can’t sleep. After an hour of tossing and turning in bed, I’ve got up and moved to the couch so that I won’t wake Kim. Because I work from home, I have the luxury of catching a mid-day nap. She has to be up and out of the […]

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12 November 2014

A Conversation about Travel, Aging, and Happiness

Last night, we had our neighbors over for drinks. For three hours, we sat around sipping wine while chatting about life with Jan and Sheila. (Jan is pronounced “yawn”.) Jan and Sheila are both in their early seventies, about thirty years older than Kim and I are. But whereas some folks their age seem to […]

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