Monday, July 26, 2010

You don't have to be an expert to find meaning in life.

Life this week took some interesting turns. The LDS music workshop I attended last week included an optional recording competition; participants record the competition song in a studio and the top ten singers of each gender perform on an upcoming CD. Tyler Castleton and Jenny Phillips are the judges. Tyler coached me at my recording session and seemed pretty happy with my performance; the contest results will be posted in two weeks. I'll attach an .mp3 file of the song I recorded. There are a few things I would change – the second verse is too loud, for example – but it's pretty good either way. And the experience was a blast.


Since I've begun asking for help here in my letter, I've found that it has become easier to ask people for help and advice in person, as well. The combination has opened floodgates. I'm grateful for everything each of you does in my life. A few of the things on this week's schedule thanks to outside help: A meeting on Friday with the co-founder of a consulting firm in Provo. A studio session to record a professional demo CD on Monday. And a compelling TV program that may change my life (who knows?) on Tuesday night.


Last week I mentioned that I was planning to better understand where my book fit in the publishing world. This week I tried to put my plan to the test. After scouring a Seagull bookstore for books like Watching Cookies in the Oven, I caved in and asked an employee (who had already asked three times if she could help me) if any books like mine existed. Now don't get me wrong – there was an aisle and a half devoted solely to the Inspirational and Self-Help genres there. But, as far as I could see (and the employee agreed on this aspect), every inspirational book was written by someone who had a claim to being a 'popular expert' – holding a major calling in the Church, having a PhD in a relevant topic, teaching in the field for 30 years, or going through some massive perspective-changing experience like cancer or motherhood.


But I didn't write Watching Cookies in the Oven from an expert perspective. It doesn't include proven methods to overcome life's problems or checklists that will instantly turn you into a better person. Why? Because I don't believe you need to be an expert to learn or apply the things I've learned. That's where my book is different. Underlying the monopoly of inspirational books written by BYU professors and Church leaders is the belief that normal people can't have sublime experiences. I believe that we are each individual children of God… and that we can each have sublime experiences each and every day. Do I think that reading my letter and applying the things I suggest will make you happy? No. In some cases the Spirit will inspire me to write about something particularly applicable to your life. But my stories are my own – and while I've learned great things, hopefully my letters inspire you to look at your own life and learn directly from the Lord, not to rely on my 'expertise.' The message of my book is that you don't need to go through cancer, childbirth, and war to become a better person; you just need to go through life. The Lord designs our lives with the perfect mix of experiences to help us turn to Him. For me, that's a lot more compelling than anything an expert could teach me.


The employee at Seagull book suggested that I try to get endorsements from experts to make my book more marketable. The Spirit confirmed then and there that it was a good idea, so my personal feelings on the matter have been quelled. That brings me to my request for help this week: If you know any experts on life, think of them. Otherwise, think of people who might enjoy reading this letter. Forward this letter and a copy of Watching Cookies in the Oven (attached to last week's letter) and ask them to write about their experience reading.


Just a few weeks ago I had no idea where life would take me. This week, I still have no idea. But something is different; I know that the Lord is involved in my life and I feel peace. And I have things to do in the meanwhile. I've wanted to do a demo recording session for years… but never felt it was worth the money or time. Maybe I'll find a job with a consulting firm. Maybe I'll dedicate a huge part of my life to music. Maybe I'll live in Utah or anywhere else in the US. Maybe none of those will happen. Hopefully I'll know in the next few weeks.


When life is hard and I'm waiting for something, it can be hard to focus on anything else. Days seem to slowly creep by… and I wonder if I'm actually accomplishing anything worthwhile. But I'm in charge of my life… and so I should be able to find something to make life worthwhile. When I find things to do, dreams to fulfill, challenges to conquer, then life falls into place. And the waiting happens while I'm engaged in something else more meaningful. It's like a principle I learned at home. When you've lost something, pray for help and then clean the house. If you spend your time cleaning, then when you finish at least you have a clean house. Often you'll find what you're looking for. If you just look, on the other hand, then at the end you may just end up being more frustrated because you couldn't find what you were looking for, and you just wasted hours searching fruitlessly. If you just wait for the Lord to answer your prayers, then life will probably be miserable. So that's my suggestion for this week. Look at your life and the things you are waiting or searching for. Find something else that will help you accomplish your goals and also take your mind off less desirable tasks. And then do it. Be actively involved in shaping the direction of your life as you wait on the Lord to fulfill His promises. You deserve to be happy. Really.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sharing the Fire Within

I attended the LDS Music Industry workshop Saturday. One of the keynote speakers was Michael McLean, who spoke about his musical journey. He had worked for years trying to make it in the music world, and after dozens of defeats and living in abject poverty (according to his wife) he took a class at BYU from a famous professor with the intent of getting final input from someone who knew. If his professor approved, he would keep going. If not, he would go back to school so he could eventually pay the bills. At the end of the class, he asked his professor if he would ever make it in the world of music. "I don't know if you'll make money, Michael – I have no clue how that works. There are musical geniuses who have died paupers and people without talent who are millionaires." "But," he continued, after a faltering pause, "if you stopped making music, for me, it would be a personal loss. I don't know how to explain it… but your music speaks to me." Michael was shocked. That was a life-changing experience that gave him the courage to move forward. He continued his presentation focusing on the importance of sharing our personal message with the world – of being true to the thing that is burning deep inside each of us.

As he spoke, I wondered about my own life. What is the message I have to share with the world? Do I even have one? I've done so many different things and felt pulled in so many different directions. What makes my heart burn? What is it that gets me up in the morning? It's definitely not physics… that's for sure. And, smiling at the irony of the location for this thought, it isn't music, either. I looked around the room full of aspiring label artists and studio musicians and wondered how many other people were realizing that their callings in life weren't directly tied to the musical world. So what is it? And, if it really is my passion, I should be able to see how it has colored everything else I've done in my life. But is there something that ties it all together? It would be totally depressing if I couldn't find anything that continually inspired me. But what could it be? Even though I have a broad array of things I can do well, my passion for everything – dance, music, physics, horticulture, food storage and even changing the world of education waxes and wanes with the tides.


My heart perked when I thought of how much I love to write, but it's hard to imagine writing being the main focus of my life. It had something to do with teaching, performing, writing, and having long conversations with friends and strangers.


As I thought, I realized that I already knew the answer… just that I hadn't recognized how much it truly did affect every part of my life. My passion in life, perhaps one of my few real passions, is changing people's lives – enabling them to make better decisions and achieve higher goals. When I studied physics, it was to understand it so that I could apply it in my own life, and then help others do the same. It was the same for dance, music, and everything else I do. That's the only thing that keeps me going and the guiding force in my life – helping people and organizations move forward… essentially, being a missionary.


I've known that my need to help others is central to many of the things I do. But, simultaneously, I held on to the belief that, since you can't get paid for missionary work, I really can't change the world as an information kiosk attendant, and the Lord steered me away from being a Seminary teacher, I needed to find a career I could enjoy without constantly changing lives. And so I worked in game design, teaching high school, writing, film and stage acting, educational research, food service, technical support, print/media/training development… I've had almost every dream job I ever wanted. And while each one worked partially, the Lord helped me realize they weren't for me.


I think I am finally coming to grips that I probably won't be happy with a career until I find one that matches my greatest passion. I have only one passion, so that probably means I need a career where I am meeting new people and helping them improve their lives, their organizations, and their communities.


My next dream schedule? Work each day at a full-time job in consulting, public speaking, or some field where I can constantly help people improve. Teach a few classes on the side – where I can teach anything – not just physics, where I can inspire students in their pursuit of everything in the world. Write inspirational books and share them with the world – different books for people who are on different places on the pathway to conversion. Sing music and share it with the world. Maybe do occasional inspirational speaking & music firesides and help others live the gospel that way.

Which brings me to my request for help this week. Hopefully, someday, asking for help won't make me feel like a total loser or like I am loading people up with massive burdens. Whatever. I need to get over it. Watching Cookies in the Oven is a 98-page book based on some of the more compelling topics I addressed in the first few years of these letters. I'm trying to better understand what the book needs to be published. Maybe I just need to find the right publisher. Maybe I need to self-publish it. And maybe I need to be famous before anyone would buy it anyway. This week I'm contacting publishers and bookstore owners to better understand the market and where my book fits. I also need wider feedback and I'm trying to put together some music & speaking firesides. I can't just post it here on the Internet, so I'd like you to email me, ask for the manuscript, then read Watching Cookies in the Oven and identify which chapters really speak to you – things you would be excited to hear about at a fireside or other event, plus any other feedback you have. If you know anyone else who might want to read it, send it to them, too. And if there is nothing really compelling as relates to your life, let me know.


Deep inside each of us, there is something burning. It's the fire that pushed Michelangelo to sculpt the David, da Vinci to paint the Mona Lisa, Edison to invent the electric light bulb. It's the motivation that gets us out of bed in the morning and the essence of our dreams. And, I think, it's different for everyone. My invitation to you this week is to look inside your heart. Find the fire that is burning there and make a goal to share that light, in some way, with the world. One of the reasons we are here on the earth is to learn to be happy. If you will turn to the Lord and share the passion He has given you with others, you will become a greater force for good. And as you better understand your unique purpose in life, it becomes easier to live it… easier to share it… easier to find peace and happiness in the world.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The hardest puzzle in the world

Life is great. This week I went to a family reunion, went camping, spent days filling out job applications, and drove for hours and hours. Someday I need to invent a good driving autopilot. But life is still great.

After Church yesterday, we spent some time with extended family. My uncle had a tower / cube puzzle that was labeled “the hardest puzzle in the world.” Some people, he explained, had proven puzzles like it to be physically impossible, and only a few people had ever solved this one. That was enough to turn on my one-track mind. There’s nothing like a challenge.

The game was called “36 cube” and held an array of 36 squares – 6 by 6. Each spot on the array was a tower base that held a tower of a certain height. In each row and column, there was a base that held a tower that was one square tall, two squares tall, all the way to six. And there were six different colors of towers. The goal was to line up the towers on their respective bases so that every row and column had exactly one tower of each color – sort of like a massive Sudoku puzzle.

I threw myself into solving the problem by moving forward as if it were a Sudoku. After about 15 minutes, I had placed 34 of 36 towers, but the last two towers wouldn’t fit. It wasn’t exactly like a Sudoku. So I looked at the puzzle like a Rubix cube – trying to see if I could manipulate the different towers to get the last two to fit. But for every tower I moved, I had to find new spots for two more… then four… then eight. It definitely wasn’t like a Rubix cube. It didn’t look like any puzzle I had solved before.

I realized that I was at a point where I couldn’t go any further, so I paused to reflect on the things I had learned and tried to determine what I needed to understand in order to solve the puzzle. It was somewhat painful when I decided that I needed to start over, but I really wanted to solve it. So I dumped off all the pieces and simply looked at the board itself.

My uncle had mentioned that some of the towers were different from the others – one had the ability to be placed on multiple sizes of bases. That was interesting, but how could it affect the outcome of the puzzle? And how would one tower affect the entire outcome? I found the tower and placed it on a base, then realized that the puzzle would still be impossible. I had just used a 5-height tower on a 6-height base; I didn’t have enough 6-height bases left. Unless, I thought, there was a piece that would reverse the trick somewhere else. It took me ten minutes to find the other part of the trick. But, with those two pieces set, I played the game like a 6x6 Sudoku puzzle and finished a few minutes later. Puzzle solved.

“The hardest puzzle in the world” is actually pretty similar to the challenges we face in life. Life presents us with massive, complex, overwhelming problems. People around us may claim that it’s impossible to solve the issues we face – that it’s not worth trying to keep the commandments, raise a happy family, or change the world – and, in reality, they are partially correct. By ourselves, it is totally and completely impossible to be truly successful in life, just as it’s impossible to solve a 6x6 latin square. We can try and try, and ultimately there is no simple solution. But when the board is rigged in our favor, then the game changes… and it becomes possible. Possible to have a happy family, overcome our trials and temptations, and to be a force for good in the world. It just takes time to figure out how to solve the seemingly impossible problems… and a willingness to, when necessary, scrap everything and start over.

I’ve got two issues I’m currently trying to solve – finding a job (the same as last week), and determining the next step with a book I’m trying to publish. As far as the first one, thanks for the advice and leads so far. I’m including a copy of my resume attached to this week’s letter. With my book, it’s based on the letters I’ve written over the last few years – Watching Cookies in the Oven. I’m not sure if I just need to find the right publisher, or if it needs to be re-written in some way, or if I need to wait, or if I need to self-publish it… This week I’m planning to talk with some bookstore owners and maybe contact my publisher to see if they can give me some advice. I’ll send a copy of my current manuscript next week; in the meantime, I’d love your thoughts or advice.

Life is truly amazing. You look at it and it seems overwhelming and impossible. And then the Lord, through family, friends, or divine revelation, shows you how you can make the impossible possible. I know that God lives and that He loves us. He gave us this life so that we could solve the hardest things – to find the answers to the impossible questions. My invitation for you this week is to do the seemingly impossible. Look at your life, your work, or your family and identify something that you want to change. Something that seems impossible, challenging, or complex. Turn to the Lord and ask for help… and I know that He will bless you and help you move forward on the path to the best solution. Will it take work? Definitely. Will it be hard? Of course. Might it take a long, long time to figure out? Yes. But it is possible. Then go share the solution with the world. Go out and be missionaries!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Progressions in Life

When I was little, I tried to follow the ‘leave no trace’ camping motto of the Boy Scouts. But I mistakenly applied it to the wrong facet of life – social relationships. I was successful, bright, and inquisitive, but I thought that very few people wanted to be my friend. So my goal was to move into and out of people’s lives without leaving a trace. In most situations, leaving no trace wasn’t really possible. And even when it was possible, it wasn’t the right decision. There are countless things I wish I could change about that time. After years of struggling, the Lord helped me lift my sights and switched my relationships motto to reflect (interestingly) the other, newer Boy Scout camping motto – ‘leave each person (campsite) better than you found him.’ In the years since, that has been my goal. It drives everything I do, from choosing a career to writing this letter. And it translates directly into missionary work – helping others to come unto Christ and improve their choices in life. That’s my goal in life – to be a lifelong missionary. With that goal in mind, I thought I had all the pieces put together.

But there is still a piece missing. And this piece, I have just realized, is so important that my eternal progression depends on its successful implementation.

This is hard. I’m trying to articulate, and change, something that has been a part of my life for longer than I can remember, and I’m having trouble pinpointing exactly what it is and how to describe it. It’s the reason that I don’t like answering phones or calling people I haven’t met. It’s the feeling that sometimes makes my stomach drop as I knock on a stranger’s door or even when I push “Send” on this letter. And, at its core, it’s the motivation to not ask for help in my life when I need it even though others are willing and anxious to help me. It’s like trying to put myself on a pedestal – trying to help others solve their problems but never letting them help me solve mine. You can even see it in how I write this letter. I talk about a problem or experience that I’ve had, how I turned to the Lord to solve it, and what you can do to relate it to your life. And there is nothing wrong with that; turning to the Lord to resolve my problems and achieve my goals has taught me important lessons that shape how I view the world today. But the issue is still there. I write Ensign articles instead of letters. There isn’t really a compelling reason to write back, because there are no questions, no problems to solve, no asking for advice. I invite others to be a part of my life and then they find the only open spots are for spectators on the stands. Maybe it’s a form of pride, or an internalized belief that I should be able to handle my own life by myself. I think that sounds pretty accurate. Inside my head, I believe that if I can’t do it by myself, or accomplish it through prayer and fasting, then maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. Other people just don’t factor into the equation. For whatever reason, I still hold to a piece of the ‘leave no trace’ mentality. I don’t believe others really want to be involved in the sticky affairs of my life; they have problems of their own and they don’t want or need to worry about mine. They can’t really help me, anyway and, even if they could, they would rather see me optimistic, happy, and shining on a pedestal, right?

Deep down, I know that is completely wrong. At least now I do. Other people do factor into the equation. People want to be involved in my life. Especially when I face sticky problems, they want to be more than just spectators on the stands. My greatest passion in life is mentoring others, helping them overcome problems, and enabling them to achieve their goals. My family and friends share that passion. And I can’t be truly successful in life, become my best self, or achieve my goals without the help of others.

And so here’s the commitment that I’m making… and another part of my heart that I’ll wear on my sleeve. Starting today, the pedestal is gone. Wow. That was hard. I think it will be hard to implement. To me, that means that my beliefs are changing. I no longer believe that I can be totally self-sufficient; instead, I realize that people are an essential part of my life. And, because of that, I need to involve them more in every aspect. My first change: I’ll add another part to this letter each week to make it more like a letter and less like an article – in addition to sharing something I’ve learned, I’ll ask for advice or help on something in my life. I could write about how I don’t want to impose on your life or give you more to worry about, but that would totally defeat the purpose. I need to trust you to make your own decisions. So here it is. The biggest issue I’m facing right now is trying to find a new job. I think I want to find one in the organizational consulting field – maybe working as a lower-level consultant – helping businesses and organizations become more effective and better meet their goals. I just finished updating my resume. The job could be anywhere; location isn’t an issue. Wow. This next part feels a whole lot harder than it should. Who do you know who could help me find a job in that field? Or what advice would you give me?

I think it’s interesting how the Lord guides us individually to do the hardest things for us personally. I started out as a total child hermit, desiring nothing else than to be completely alone without influencing others. I progressed to want to be a missionary – to reach out and change others’ lives and bring them closer to Christ. And, finally (though there is probably another step… and another… that I just don’t see yet), I realize that I need to involve others in my own life. It still terrifies me. But it’s happening. I’m changing and becoming a better person. It has definitely taken me long enough. Each of us has personal progressions in life when we are guided by the Lord. He invites us to change who we are so that we can come closer to Him. And, the most amazing part – He enables us to change. We can change our natures, become new people, and someday, along with the people around us, overcome each of the obstacles that we face. My invitation for you is to turn to the Lord and ask Him for the next step – the next progression in your own life. Turn to Him, and turn to the people around you, and you’ll be blessed. You’ll see your own life change. Go out and be missionaries!
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