Scott Hanselman

Relationship Hacks - Mindfulness - Don't live your life by default

March 09, 2017 Comment on this post [15] Posted in Musings
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Setting the DefaultsI'm setting a goal for myself to finish my half-finished book this year. In an attempt to make that happen (and because the recent podcast with my wife was wildly popular) I'm going to try to blog some guiding principles. Then I'll attempt to collect the feedback and comments, improve the posts, then move them into the book. Yesterday I posted about "An allowance system for adults."

In this post on I want to touch briefly on the concept of "mindfulness." When I was younger I didn't know this term so I said "don't live your life by default." Phrased alternatively, "don't let your life happen by default."

I mentioned it years ago on a podcast and Paul Apostolos did a very nice blog post where he paraphrased:

Teach your children to make life choices rather than just let life happen to them.

Now, to be clear, stuff happens and this isn't always possible. There's luck, there's planning, there's inherent privilege, but the root idea of mindfulness and awareness is crucial. As they say, "Luck Is what happens when preparation meets opportunity"

I met with a young mentee today who is considering not just leaving her job but also moving to a totally different career. What I appreciated about her perspective and questions was that she clearly was going into the future fully aware of the possibilities. She embraced both the potential good and bad possibilities with a conscious and mindful awareness that was inspiring.

She wasn't going to just "let whatever happen, happen." She wasn't going to just start the game and accept the defaults. She is opening up the options menu of life and trying to change the settings consciously.

I'm doing my best to teach my kids this, hopefully by example. Yes there are things they can't change about themselves, but the one thing they can change (or try) is how they think and how they act. I catch them saying things like "I'm not good at math." They have tapes that are already starting to run in their little heads that feed them negativity and inaction. The defaults are just doing nothing. Humans (myself included) can be very lazy. I want them to build up their reservoirs of self-esteem and "I can do it" so they don't accept the defaults.

Do you have any stories of where you "woke up" and realized you were coasting (perhaps for a week, perhaps for years) and were just accepting the defaults in your life? How did you break out of that thinking?

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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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March 09, 2017 15:25
Hey Scott,

Having a growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset) is key, like you mention from the kids example. From experience things that shake up your life can help, big stuff like death, huge changes, etc. It's taking the good out of the bad, or as I usually phrase it, challenges. A challenge can be overcome, and allows you time to work through it, while knowing deep down that you will prevail in the medium/long term. It happened to me a lot during my college years, where I coasted until I had to "wake up" and realize I was just wasting time, letting life deal all the cards, good and bad, not taking initiative. Hopefully it's a lesson that you learn once and sticks with you, usually because like I said, what shakes you out of that dormant state is something big (from experience and other people I know). There is always the risk of going like that for some time again, but once you take a growth mindset and a proactive way of living your life, which is also called just having a philosophy for your life, the chances are you won't be falling back again. Some simple resources without going into an Internet rabbit hole:

March 09, 2017 15:29
Great post and great advice, it's interesting to see these kind of default behaviours appearing in my children too ("I'm not good at X" or "I can't do Y"); they always remind me of Linda Rising's talks.
March 09, 2017 15:39
I lived the majority of my life up till about 29 this way. I started my work life in retail, and was basically selling one thing or another until the day I woke up. I was not good at sales at all, I was too honest and not very pushy. My customers tended to like that, but my bosses didn't. Anyway, one day I saw an ad in the newspaper for IT training, it was a software bootcamp type of thing many years before they were as popular as they are today. I'm dating my self a bit by actual reading a newspaper and reading an ad. However that ad in that paper changed my life.

I knew almost instantly what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a software developer. I wanted to solve problems, and get paid for it. I wanted to be able to create things. I wanted to help people. I obviously went to the bootcamp, worked my tail off, got offered a job shortly after the bootcamp, and I have been employed as a software developer for about 10 years now.

I'm constantly learning about software, business, problem solving, and effectively working with others. I plan to continue this journey for as long as I can. It has been a fun ride so far, and I'm excited for the future.
March 09, 2017 16:23
Interesting subject Scott.

I agree that the lack of mindfulness can impact directly on your life and your ability to detect and seize opportunities and that living your life by default creates an structure (or routine) around your life that gets harder and harder to break as time passes.

I've been through that on my professional life and I probably wouldn't be where I am now if I kept living my life by default. Mindfulness is a key skill for any career that evolves continuously (almost all I guess) because it helps to detect those life-changing opportunities that can lead you to a brighter and unknown future.

I worked for a tech company for 10 years and I got to a point where I could have kept going by default (I was earning enough money after all) but I realized I was in a stalemate: the world was moving forward and I kept using the same tools to build the same things over and over, if I didn't do something, I would probably be out of sync soon and jeopardize the future of my family (what if said company was no more?). I decided to study and improve my skillset on my own accord, which eventually led to a job offering that would challenge me deeply and would mean a shake-up in my whole living-by-default-structure and I took the shot, I knew the pros and cons and dealt with them because I knew that, at the end, it would be for the better.

This trend repeats itself (as history); you will eventually get to a stalemate and, you either keep going by default or decide to take the leap of faith (Indiana Jones style) believing in yourself.

I have three kids and I hope that I can teach them this by my example.
March 09, 2017 16:47
In my opinion most of these "I'm not good in ..." thoughts are created by being rated by someone. In most schools children get rated all day long. They get bad grades for some math tests and then they *must* come to the conclusion "I'm not good in math". But the key point is: they only did not fulfill the expectations of someone (the teacher who created the tests) on a certain point in time. The school grades really have nothing to do with your skills and your potentials. Perhaps at least bad grades perhaps show that someone failed to inspire you to discover your potentials.

Grades teach our children to believe that they are not good in this or that subject. And that's just not true in most cases and this prevents you to think openly and just go and find your way. Because for example for one way you may need math but you are not good in math so you can't proceed... and so on.

And this can be generalized in my opinion: don't rate others for what they are doing or what they achieved or for their failures etc. Think of yourself and all your failures and successes and accept others just as they are without rating them. Rate your children as less as possible. Accept them with their ideas and in their being and they will grow strong and will find and go their own way.

And this is, in my opinion, also a key point in having a good relationship to your wife/husband, to your children, your friends, ... Don't rate them. Try to learn who they are and what is important for them. That does not mean that the same things get important for you. Just accept them with their being.
March 09, 2017 17:34
I've found that when I keep a journal (yes, long form, 'dear journal' style, not just relying on my calendar to be my journal), that time of daily reflection is a great time to mindfully make your life happen.
March 09, 2017 18:16
I have the feeling there are plenty of people who have children because default.
You graduate, marry, buy a house and have kids.
My partner and I always have to explain why we chose to not have kids, but nobody ever has to explain why they did choose to have kids.
Also, please don't explain me why kids are great. I know :)
March 09, 2017 21:13
Scott, I appreciate your insights. I liked your thoughts on the "allowance system" and on consciously making life choices.

Ten years ago my wife and I participated in a program that helped us make a paradigm shift in this regard. In fact, it impacted us so deeply that we created a non-profit with a similar program for teens that we've been doing for several years now. Our mission statement: Enabling youth to discover their true identity, value, and significance. It's amazing to see what happens when a young person understands who they are and makes choices for themselves rather than blindly seeking approval from others.

I look forward to seeing you finish that book.
March 09, 2017 22:31
Great post Scott. I do think it's possible to take this too far though. As with most things, balance is key. Sometimes it's good to let whatever will happen happen. There's so much out of our control that we can beat ourselves up and get over anxious about things that we're powerless to change. It's about being mindful of both sides of the coin.

There's a great discussion of this idea on Brain Pickings: Stop Overplanning: The Psychology of Why Excessive Goal-Setting Limits Our Happiness and Success.

The Antidote, which that post looks at is a great book, by the way. Well worth a read.
March 10, 2017 0:23
Please excuse the novel...

I let life happen to me until probably about age 25. At that point, I had just graduated, gotten married, and I was trying to find a job in software development - not the easiest thing in the world for a guy who (until then) had ZERO experience in the industry (not so much as an internship, thanks to poor choices on my part) and no connections, in an area where there wasn't high demand for entry-level developers, whose past job history was comprised almost entirely of several years of mall security.

So my new wife and I picked up and moved across the state, because of the high-density of tech companies in the area; she immediately got a job at a non-profit, while I continued submitting resumes. What we didn't take into account when we moved is that there is a constant cycle of layoffs and rehires in that area, with an experienced pool of applicants to draw from.

Fast-forward six months, and I had part-time job as seasonal tech support, with another part-time IT contracting job to fill in the gaps, while I'm still looking for a full-time job (albeit not terribly hard, if I'm going to be honest - I'd about given up at that point). Then my wife got laid off. Well, what happens when two un(der)employed people don't have money to go out and do fun stuff? We stay in and do fun stuff.

So there we are, no money, no real job to speak of, and a baby on the way.

Something clicked. I realized, finally, that this was our family, and I had not been doing my part to help it thrive. I have never filled out so many job applications or shotgunned so many resumes so quickly before or since. I was applying for anything and everything, from forklift drivers to nuclear security to software development.

I got one callback. From a small financial services company in Lake Oswego, OR, looking for an entry level software developer. I don't even remember submitting a resume to them. God is good, yes?

I spent four years there before I realized I'd fallen into a rut again. I was comfortable, I liked the people, and I enjoyed the work. In my opinion, I was probably the best developer in the building (out of all five of us); this is not something I say lightly... I know I'm reasonably good at what I do, but I am also the humblest person I know :p (in truth, personal accolades make me uncomfortable - I'm part of a team) The work stopped being a challenge. I had stopped growing my knowledge, and allowed myself to stagnate. This is something that I didn't realize until after I had flown to TX to miserably fail a job interview: I may have been the best developer on the team, but I still had yuge gaps in my knowledge; I needed to grow.

After that realization, I started getting back on the horse - reading blogs, doing katas, attending code camps and user groups. About a year later, I got a new job - still there, in my sixth year. The work continues to be challenging, and I am most definitely NOT the smartest guy in the room, which is something that I absolutely love. Once I get to that point, once the work stops challenging me, and once I stop learning new things, I'll pick up and move on. I just got my own team, though, so I suppose I should add 'once I have nothing left to teach' to that list. It'll be a while before all of those conditions are satisfied.

Too, I'd like to acknowledge how awesome my wife has been on our shared journey through life. For seeing potential; for seeing what I could be, rather than the lazy schmuck of a security guard she married. She's been patient and kind. And completely and utterly unafraid to poke and prod and to give me a kick in the pants when needed. I love her for that.
March 10, 2017 2:39
Beautifully written, as always. This is such great advice and one of the most difficult skills to master, if such mastery is even possible. I've definitely had those moments where I wake up, as you say, and take stock of both surroundings and direction. I've certainly made choices in my life and I'm happy to say that a little more than half of them have worked out with the end goals I intended. I often think of the phrase "Sometimes the wrong choices for the right reasons lead to you to right place." It's my way of reminding myself to temper change with mindfulness but not be afraid to take a risk.

Thank you for sharing and I can't wait to read your book!
-- Stu
March 10, 2017 4:30
I want to echo Charles Roper's comment (and the Brain Pickings article about 'overplanning' which he referenced): I found much greater joy in life when I let go of planning so many things. Not only did I notice a huge decrease in my anxiety level, but I began to find more and more to be excited about in life. There are some who believe our minds crave novelty (count me in) and I can tell you that in letting go of the constant need to be in control of what happens to me, I find myself in more interesting situations now than I would have if I had planned.

It's good to make plans, but if we aren't flexible, we can end up causing ourselves unnecessary friction. Being mindful simply means being "present" in the "now" - we can still do that even when we haven't planned, and often, that's when the serendipitous things happen. Magic can happen when our minds are open to things we have not considered to be part of our plans.

For what it's worth, someone I work with is fond of saying, "Plans are often worthless, but planning is invaluable." In other words, often, it's the action of planning that has value; the plans, not so much. :)
March 10, 2017 13:24
So, how does this relate to your book? :)
I like it, that's not it, and I try to live by it. But could you be more precise on how this is a relationship hack?
March 14, 2017 22:51
Hey Scott,

I think I've been coasting/falling asleep on the wheel many times through my life.

Professionally, a few years ago I joined a company where I thought I'd be doing JavaScript (that was their hook) and web stuff. I ended up almost four years doing Silverlight. Three of those four years, I busted my ass working hard. My plan was to work hard so I could be reassigned to another project that was using JavaScript. I put my own time and even gave a lunch-and-learn at work. My idea was so bosses could see that I was dead serious. The part that pissed me off the most was that new people were hired, knowing little JavaScript, and put on the JavaScript projects.

I coasted thru that job (and previous others) thinking that if I worked hard enough, that I'd be assigned or work on that "cool projects". I swore to myself to never do that again. I will work hard but not at "110%" like I used to. I will leave some energy for me.

I've been doing a lot of mindfulness and self-reflection reading lately. I've discovered that many good and bad things in personal and professional life are my own doing.

I'm also teaching my boys what I'm learning.

One thing that stuck with me lately is:

"There are no good people and bad things. Just people and things."

And when having a rough day: I use the Serenity Prayer.
March 15, 2017 21:01
Honestly, I don't get it. What's wrong with letting life just happen? If you got a good job, place to live, food on the table, good relationship, that's more than millions could even dream of having.

So many people think they're stuck in ruts all the time, when that's essentially what life is, one big rut after another. It's almost like people don't want to enjoy life and just want to keep searching for the next big thing while never being satisfied. Sounds kind of selfish to me.

Sure, the place I work may not be as challenging or I may not be a millionaire, or I may not be studying every free chance I get. But I'm slowly, but surely, paying my bills and paying off my student loans, and contributing to society. That's more than a lot of people.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.