The Paper-Napkin-Ball, That Rules My Life

I was sitting at a bar with my friend and his friends, which meant there were a lot of people who didn’t know me and would be confused about my life if they ended up asking about it.

Americans are heavily tied to their work identity. When we know what line of work someone is in, we can rest easy and assume we know the majority of their life, because we can picture their profession, and we’re pretty sure we know everything about everybody.

But people would ask what i do, and my work is entrepreneurial, and experimental. my work is trying to understand a variety of problems and then figure out the parts of those problems that I might be able to do something about. I don’t have a genie’s three wishes and I don’t have a huge audience i can throw behind my causes. my change has to be smart, and it has to be precise, and it has to employ a lot of leverage.

So one of the guys asked me what i do, and we had been drinking, and when he didn’t get what i was talking about, i balled up a napkin and shot it at him.

I said, “I’m getting myself ready to catch the ball when it comes my way.”

I have spent a great deal of time in philosophy, but I have not studied the ancient philosophers very much. So my understanding of Virtue Philosophers comes from television, and might be wrong, but it sounded like what my life’s code is, and it was helpful to have any kind of name for it.

Virtue philosophy is based on the idea that life is so complicated that measuring the cause and effect of every action will eat up a lot of your time and energy, and that’s time and energy that you could use to make yourself less incompetent today.

It really says, develop virtues in yourself, but that’s a bad word in our era, so I try to explain it instead.

Skill Up.

“Stop arguing about what makes a good man; go be one” Marcus Aurelius. I also got that one from television.

You look around the world and you see it crumbling. Or you see it as fine because your life is fine and you wish people would shut up about everything.

No matter what your complaints, if you are not completely satisfied by the way the world is run, if you are going to do something about it, you will need to be listened to.

It doesn’t matter how good your ideas are, if you can’t get anyone to understand how you see the problem and how you’re going to fix it, then you will have to work in solitude like a mad scientist in a movie.

“Stand up for what you believe in, but do it in a way that leads people to follow you.” -Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I read that one off of a friend’s water bottle.

If you are going to change the world, you can’t just be a complainer. You have to be someone who people will listen to and follow.

Even if you end up doing something related to neuroscience, or architecture, or plants, a limiting factor of your brilliance is going to be whether or not people feel you understand them and that you understand the problems that they want solved.

When I threw that paper ball at the near-stranger at the bar, I was young and frustrated and I barely understood what I meant.

Now I would explain that I needed to learn to write. I needed to learn to research. I needed to understand people’s emotional needs, if I was going to speak in a way that made people feel like I got who they are and what they need.

I needed to learn to self-direct.

I needed to learn to pick my battles.

I needed to learn how to heal up the old wounds that were holding me back.

I had many more screwups that I accomplished between that day and now. Many times that I had to learn the hard way what not to do.

I was getting myself ready, so that if I were given a shot, I could actually do something.

No matter what you think you’ll do with your life, it will be harder if you’re incompetent.

You might not know which things you can most easily take care of and which skills you can develop most readily in yourself, but you probably have a wild guess.

If you have a good support network: ask.

People want to help. They want to be invested in your life. Assuming you’re friends with people who are also looking forward and can support you (some can’t, so don’t ask just anybody for help with this; complainers gonna complain).

You can be more competent this year. 12 months from now, you can look back and realize you dealt with some facet of the incompetence that is holding us all back.

You don’t, and shouldn’t, go after everything at once (and if you want what I’d develop first? It’s always the ability to sit down and type out your thoughts so you can face what’s in your brain. Though I usually also suggest therapy alongside it because facing your brain brings stuff up.) but you can start something.

You can subscribe to a public speaking trainer on YouTube so that you get different recommendations.

You can switch from a podcast about nothing, to a podcast about people trying to make a difference. Doesn’t even have to be lofty goals; I’ve learned a ton from podcasts that are behind the scenes recaps of television shows.

You don’t have to hate yourself for the inability to change your world. You can instead, just work on the skills that make life livable.

We’re taught to read in school. Because generations ago they realized how important it would be as a skill.

We were not taught emotional literacy. We were not taught how to speak to your audience. We were not taught how to pick a project.

That’s why life is hard: the skills we were taught are not sufficient for the speed with which life is moving.

I live my life by the code that “Incompetence is almost always bad.” And that if you’re unsure what to do with your life, the best response you can have is to get yourself ready, in case the ball comes your way.

I hope you’re able to skill something up for yourself in the coming months, so that the opportunities you want, can’t so easily pass you by. One day, you could chime in, grab the ball, and run with it.

If you make yourself ready for it.

The above post was an entry for Paul Scrivens’ 30 Day Prompt Challenge.

“Prompt: Everyone lives by some sort of code. Even when they believe they don’t have a code, that in itself is a code. 

What is the code or codes that you live by and how did they come about?”