Ticket to a Better Life: Articulating Your Intentions

I’ve recently been able to put into words something that has made my life happier and more stress-free, and it’s simple and effective if you commit to it. I find that having a strong ability to articulate your intentions to others and provide honest context towards your situation and thought process makes for a life where misunderstandings drop like flies. 

You see, humans are social animals, and much of the stress that we build up relates to other people and the feelings of unfairness, guilt, uncertainty, and tension that can arise through our interactions with them. A lack of open communication is the root cause of these negative sentiments. Whether it be in the office environment, living with a roommate, or trying to agree on a fair price for selling used furniture, people often avoid disclosing their true feelings or intentions because it makes them feel vulnerable. The thing is, people actually respect honesty, and if you can put all your cards on the table and show that you’re seeking a reasonable and mutually beneficial outcome, you can get to places that you never thought you could with people. New and creative solutions can arise when people know exactly what you’re working with and can sense that you are being genuine. The best part is, you don’t have to worry about feeling guilty that you weren’t as forthcoming as possible, because people now know where you stand. 

The one condition to this framework is that your intentions have to come from a genuine place. You must seek positive outcomes for everyone involved. Explaining to someone that your honest intention is to rip them off isn’t going to fly too well. Dissolve the ego. People know when you’re bluffing and can tell when your intent is pure–it’s in your eyes! Ironically, shrinking the ego and the unwavering sense of self-interest that plagues so many of us is the first step in having a happier and more well-connected life. Taking things personally is not a helpful activity. 

Life can be surprisingly simple when you remove a lot of the excess nonsense. Be straightforward and honest in your actions and you won’t have to worry about a thing. Surround yourself with people that aren’t concerned with who is right and who is wrong. Default to clarity. Let me let you know where I’m coming from. I’ll listen to your side of things, I promise.

I spent the first six months of 2013 studying abroad in New Zealand through Boston University, but studying at the University of Auckland. To cap off the year I put together some of the footage I took there into a bit of a montage. Due to unfortunate circumstances, I lost my GoPro about a month and a half in to the trip, so keep in mind that this video only showcases about 25% of the time I spent in New Zealand.

If you have the opportunity to go abroad and are considering doing it, DO IT. The more strange and foreign the better. Life is short, get out there!

Good Listeners Are Important

It’s easy not to be a good listener—half-paying attention to the other person as you prepare the next detail of your life to share once their mouth stops moving. I catch myself doing this from time to time, despite the fact that I consider myself a pretty positive and caring person. We’re all guilty of it at some point. It’s the ego-driven conscious mind convincing itself that the other person will be impressed or take away more value from you if your problems or successes (life’s extremes) appear granular, important, or irregular.

But when I think about the nuances of a real friendship over time, it is much less about having an impressive or hardworking friend and more about feeling listened to. Understood. Thought about. Good listeners break down something they’ve heard from you and present the subject matter in different and thoughtful terms. Friends show empathy; they show that they are fully attentive, and over the long-run this draws people closer.

A friendship where both people talk at each other, waiting impatiently to share their queue of thoughts that will be verbalized no matter what is said directly before, is hardly a friendship at all. An outside observer might remark that no one is really bringing value to the other. To an insider in this conversation, it’s much harder to see when they aren’t taking the time to properly listen. In these situations and conversations it’s really healthy to step back and think through, “Am I enriching this person that I call a friend? Am I more focused on wanting them to listen to me?

Sharing pieces of your life with others is not a bad thing, it’s a really great thing. It’s part of how we connect as humans and find out about each other. But the other piece of the connection puzzle is the listener’s internalization of this sharing. True connection is hard found between two people with constant and inflexible senses of “I”.

Good listening is a practice. The best way to see its value is to be conscious of it next time you’re talking to with a friend. Give a bit more energy to understanding what they’re saying and try to jump in their shoes a little more. The majority of the time this will result in an instant shift in your dynamic. What impresses me most about my friends isn’t their achievements, successes, or their ability to handle a busy schedule. It’s their genuine willingness to look me in the eyes and listen.

Start the Conversation

“Gifts are the essence of art. Art isn’t made as part of an even exchange, it is your chance to create imbalance, which leads to connection.
– Seth Godin

A few weeks ago I sent a letter to two friends I hadn’t talked to in a while. Granted, I’ve been in New Zealand for six months, but we hadn’t really communicated for quite some time before I left. I have not written a letter via Pony Express since… shit, I don’t even know if I’ve ever legit sent someone a thoughtful note in the mail EVER… at least not since I was inviting kids to my birthday party in elementary school and even then that was barely personalized. I wrote a pretty in depth letter, the main message being that I was thinking about them.

I was feeling a little bit disconnected that day, and was open about my thoughts on certain things and events that had occurred between us. There was really no reason not to be forthright, but I almost didn’t include some of those thoughts. After Googling the current stamp price (45c) and rummaging through my house to find some 22 cent stamps, I slapped two of them on the envelope and dropped it off in the mailbox. Given the fact that I was one cent short of the USPS’s asking price and that I hadn’t even been witness to how mail-sending actually worked in ages, I figured I’d have about a 70% shot of the letter actually getting to where it was supposed to. That didn’t really matter though, because I felt a small tinge of connection; that no matter if anyone actually laid eyes on my note, I was still happy I’d written it and gotten my thoughts out on paper.

Completely forgot about the letter until about a week and a half later when I got a response in the mail from one of them. Just seeing it in the mailbox, completely contrasted from the pile of bills and random coupons, made me a happy guy. Not something from a company… something from a human being, intended just for me. The response was equally as long as my original message, and I was told that my letter had come at the perfect time due to a couple of recent misfortunes in their life. At the end of the letter she gave me some perspective on the events I brought up that I hadn’t even had a clue were going through her mind at the time. Bottom line, she was glad I brought them up, and she got to say some things that she hadn’t felt comfortable saying in any other setting so far.

This was sort of a mini-experiment for me but got me thinking about that Seth Godin quote, and how many awesome things can come from creating imbalance. Since writing the letter, I’ve made it a goal to be more open with people and to take the initiative to start conversations that never would have occurred otherwise. Life is too short not to let people know how you actually feel. Genuine thoughts breed genuine thoughts. One of the biggest joys in life (at least for me) is being surprised by someone you haven’t heard from in a while. Sometimes when you get stuck in a frustrating situation or are just feeling weird about your connection with certain humans, it feels really refreshing to out of the blue find out that you HAVE been in people’s thoughts. I’m definitely going to send more letters, but my challenge for you is to think of just one person that would be overjoyed to hear something you never shared with them and shoot them a note that they’re not expecting (preferably by mail). I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

Must-Asks for Moustache: investigating the branding behind NZ’s best cookies & milk bar

Moustache caught my eye and stomach at the same time. In my half-year venture to the land of New Zealand, I had the pleasure of discovering the milk and cookie shop and indulged myself on more than several occasions. The interior is a real experience, with milk bottles creating a chandelier of lights, reminding me a lot of the effort Johnny Cupcakes puts into their physical stores. The employees are genuine, going out of their way to converse, and the branding of the shop has been pulled off beautifully.

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Moustache has used Facebook to consolidate a community of cookie-lovers and sees a striking level of traction within. The impressive part: they have only been open for eight months. The master-mind behind all this baking glory is entrepreneur Deanna Yang, who lit the fuse less than a year ago. Coming across a successful business that maintains its generosity and organic vibe is a special thing, and it became immediately apparent to me that Deanna just “gets it” when it comes to branding. I felt almost obliged to reach out and soak up some perspective, which Deanna provided me with during our chat last month. I wanted to know, HOW?

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People First
It’s pretty evident upon meeting Deanna that Moustache is her brainchild. Her personality is as warm as her cookies and she says that the first ingredient in creating something like Moustache is a passion for people. Right down to the hiring process, Deanna favored personality over experience, and it makes sense. Customers want to spend time in the shop, and this is because the right people are inside creating an inviting and engaging environment. Case in point, when I arrived to chat with Deanna, there was a line out the door of hungry people and it took me five minutes to even get inside.

“Sometimes we get so busy and you serve hundreds and hundreds of people and if you don’t like people or you’re not passionate about them, you’re just going to be grumpy all day. So I think the most important thing is a love for people. Everything else you can kind of teach”

Humanizing Social Media 
Deanna had the personable and consistent social media strategy down from the jump. Moustache’s Cookie of the moustache squiggleWeek is wildly popular and the status to the right is just an example of the traction each post gets.  Over 1,000 likes on one post out of the 13,000 something fans sure isn’t bad. My initial observations of the brand led me to believe their Facebook fan-base had accumulated pretty linearly after perhaps taking a couple months to even gain any awareness at all. On the contrary, Deanna says, “in the first month alone we had over 7,000 Facebook likes”. That astounds me. On why she thinks the page blew up like it did:

“Originally it was a novel idea. It was fun and everyone could get attached to the idea. After that, people could see that it was a small business, and it was genuine, and we use quality products. As we developed the social media page, you could see our quirkiness and character come through. I think two weeks after we opened we had an ASPCA drive where if you brought in a can of cat or dog food you got a free cookie. A lot of people feel a much stronger community connection from things like that. People don’t get attached to business, they get attached to people

True story.

Consistent Design
Milk+Cookies. Simple but immediately recognizable, this no-brainer combo gives Moustache a much more self-identifying character than if they were framed as another cookie shop. You don’t even HAVE to get milk, but the celebration of the pair triggers something in my mind. Maybe it’s nostalgia for the ‘dunk’, or maybe it’s the combo I enjoy at home but have yet to see explored in the service industry. Either way, Deanna had a definitive vision for the theme and aesthetics of the shop that came from her childhood fervor for the duo. Every physical piece in the shop ties into a dependable environment which radiates an upbeat, ’90s New Zealand vibe. Deanna admits she had almost no money for designing the shop, but her unique vision clearly made an impression on a local architectural company who drew such an interest in the project that they were willing to do the design work for free. That’s gotta be pretty validating.

“A lot of the design is based on my childhood in 1990s New Zealand when we used to get milk delivered in bottles. The back wall is all yellow because yellow is my favorite color. It is quite happy feeling, which is a reflection of my personality. Whittaker’s is my favorite and that’s why I only use Whittaker’s chocolate. All along I wanted it to be a little shop and to be super aesthetically pleasing.”

moustache inside

Humanize your business. Have a vision. Keep it simple. Moustache had these ingredients on lock immediately and I’m genuinely excited to see where Deanna will take her vision in the months and years to come. You can find out more about Moustache at moustache.co.nz and follow Deanna’s blog at moustachenz.tumblr.com.

Exercise in Perspective

Remember that kid from your elementary school who peed his pants during show and tell? Or how about your cousins’ standoffish neighbor with the intense veggie garden whose backyard you would always accidently kick the soccer ball over the fence into? They probably haven’t crossed your mind in years (unless you were that unfortunate kid with the Chia Pet), but I want you to think about this person for a moment. Envision their physical attributes, try to hear their voice; give this person way more mental energy than seems necessary. Whoever this embodiment of “that random person from my childhood” for you may be, try to give some serious thought to this question: what are they doing right now?

By now I don’t mean what career path have they chosen or how many kids they have, but I mean: what are they doing at this very second? Right now. They could be uttering the word “lollypop”, performing 3 Card Monte in the slums of Mumbai, or even cracking open a beer, but the fact is that this person who you have not acknowledged (and have had no need to acknowledge) is existing somewhere and doing something at this very moment.

I do this exercise with myself a lot and it never ceases to boggle my mind. Think about Camera Man 3 from mothereffing Hollywood Squares; what the hell is he doing right this instant and why am I thinking about him? There are heaps of implications that percolate through my brain when I take this kind of perspective, one of the main ones being just how self aware we are as humans. I can take a step back and acknowledge that I have everyday motivations, fears, and goals that propel me to action in a complex way that I so deeply understand and contemplate but that good ol’ Dr. Kazley, my childhood orthodontist, hasn’t given a neuron of thought to in the last decade. This is far from a depressing moral; there is absolutely no way of keeping tabs on everyone you have met, let alone the billions (soon to be kajillions) of people on this planet you’ve never encountered, but it is essential to maintain an objective awareness of how you fit inside this puzzle of a universe. It’s hard for me to take my inhibitions so seriously when I know that proportionally to the infinite universe, NO ONE IS WATCHING. This exercise in mindfulness and being aware of the triviality of life inspires me to take risks, and plus, who doesn’t find it fun to imagine what the voice of Apu in the Simpsons finds himself doing in his spare time?

Ah, the beauty. This is my destination next January. If all goes well, I will be in New Zealand hanging with kiwi birds and bungee jumping for the first six months of 2013. Looking forward to experiencing life outside the US for a while.

Watch this, and then watch it again, and then again. There’s a really cool story in it. Anthony F. Schepperd did an amazing job with the animation.

Remember those Choose-Your-Own Adventure books? I loved those, the ability to be the protagonist was so novel to me. As I was reminiscing on them yesterday, I had the idea of creating a modern equivalent, where the protagonist is an aspiring Entrepreneur faced with a plethora of business, character, ethical, and relationship decisions. There are so many creative routes this idea can take form, and I am excited about linking up with some talented designers to brainstorm. Until then I might just pick up one of those Choose-Your-Own Adventure books just for nostalgia’s sake.

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