The Blog of Robin P. Zander

Habits for Grief

Two years ago, my best friend was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Two months ago, I went through a breakup. Whether personally or globally, challenges arise.

  • Someone you love dies.
  • A friend lets you down.
  • You’re forced to confront your own aging or an aging parent.

Grief is complicated. We aren’t taught much about it or how to deal with it.

It is important to take time to mourn a loss.

Here are some habits and practices that might help.

The role of emotions

Sometimes emotions are almost too much to handle. You’ll criticize yourself, or other people. You are less happy or healthy than you want to be. But, it turns out, without emotions, we are unable to function in the world.

There are some interesting studies done on the role of emotions. When someone suffers brain damage such that they can’t experience emotion, they are also unable to make decisions.

While you sometimes might prefer to do without emotions, the alternative is much worse. You can’t enjoy the beautiful things in life if you don’t also experience some of the challenges.

Habit: When you are grieving, find something in the same situation, however small, to be grateful for.

Take time to grieve

Grief sneaks up at random times. When you least expect it, you may see something that reminds you of someone who’s died and the upswell of emotion can be hard to handle.

It doesn’t have to be an actual death, either. The loss of a relationship, or even a missed opportunity can be something we need to grieve.

It helps to take time to grieve. Difficult emotions will still come up, but setting aside time does help.

Habit: During a difficult time, carve out at least one minute a day to be present to your emotions. I like to set an alarm on my phone as my cue. I prefer to write during this pause, but any reflective activity can help.

Don’t judge your process

Everyone’s process for getting over a challenging situation is different. It might mean going to therapy or bitching to a friend. I process emotions by waking up at 5 a.m. full of adrenaline and going for a hard run.

The key is not to judge yourself for the fact that you are grieving. Then you’re not only feeling bad, but you are beating yourself up about it, too.

Don’t judge your process.

Habit: Recognize what helps you. Take 10 minutes and write down a list of things that help you take care of yourself.

Grief takes the time that it takes

I was in a serious car accident last year. I knew that it would take some time to heal and I was gentle with myself for the first couple of weeks.

But a few weeks in, I started getting anxious to get back to my movement practice and the rest of my life. I wasn’t in pain, but I was still very shaken up and the added pressure didn’t help.

In all, it took more than six months to get back to baseline.

Just like healing from physical injury, grief can’t be rushed. Healing happens on its own time.

Habit: If you find yourself pressuring yourself to “get over it,” decide on a timeline. Give yourself one day, one week, or one month where you won’t pressure yourself to “be there” already.

Don’t use force

The Morningstar Company, which I wrote about in my book Responsive: What It Takes To Create A Thriving Organization, is one of the largest tomato manufacturers in the world. What makes the company unique is that it is self-managed by the employees.

One of the company’s two core tenets is “Don’t use force” in working with each other.

We’re accustomed to using anger, pressure, and blame at work – but at what cost? To the detriment of relationships, our own health, and building the habit of doing more in the future.

Instead of trying to force yourself to feel better, acknowledge your grief. Take time to feel what you are feeling.

Habit: You wouldn’t use force – physically or emotionally – with a young child or in an intimate moment with a partner. Treat yourself that same way, even if only for a moment.

We don’t get to control what happens to us or to the people we love.

(I can’t. If you’ve figured out how – please email me!)

But we do get to control how we respond.

Grief is a natural part of life. It is how we make sense of what’s happened and move forward.

When you’re going through a challenge, take the time to acknowledge your grief. I hope some of these habits help.

Do Hard Things. Move to the Caribbean!

My best friends are crazy.

I just returned home from a month living with some of my best friends on Vieques, a tiny island off of Puerto Rico.

They don’t live on “mainland” Puerto Rico. Instead, they’re on a tiny island, only accessible by an irregular ferry or an eight-seater airplane.

They are building a bed and breakfast overlooking a stunning 270-degree view of the Caribbean Ocean and the world’s most luminous bioluminescent bay. They are building out of concrete because anything not made of concrete gets destroyed by hurricanes. But getting concrete, or simply groceries, is a full-day journey that requires careful preparation and timing.

All the difficulties are exactly why my friends moved to Vieques. For the love of a challenge.

Do More Scary Things

I appreciate the irony. Do hard things, move to the Caribbean!

And while most of us probably aren’t going to move to a tiny island in order to make our lives more difficult, there are a lot of simple habits that can help.

Identify One Thing Every Day That Scares You

Identify something that scares you.

  • Notice someone you are intimidated by.
  • Recognize a moment when you avoided speaking up.
  • Identify one moment in your day when you feel physically nervous or afraid.

You don’t need to take action – not yet! Just bring attention to one uncomfortable moment.

Start with awareness.

A Daily Movement Practice

There is a lot to be said for daily exercise.

Exercise is hard. When you push your physical limits, you get better at pushing the boundaries of what’s possible everywhere else in your life, too.

Unfortunately, more than two thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, so clearly pressuring people to exercise doesn’t work.

My approach to movement is different. Having broken my neck on a trampoline, I also know the negative consequences of pressure. Instead, I make a habit of moving every day to build the confidence that I can learn new things.

If you’re interested, here’s a short video about my movement practice.

Coffee Shop Challenge (h/t Tim Ferriss)

Try this challenge: go to your local coffee shop and ask for a 20% discount.

The rules are that you are not allowed to give any explanation for why you are requesting a discount or any additional details alongside your request. If asked why, just say that you would like a discount and that is why you are asking.

The point of this exercise is that you are going to be uncomfortable. It will take you outside of your comfort zone.

Notice how it feels to make this request. Notice the tension in your body and your voice. It doesn’t ultimately matter if you get a discount or not, so long as you try.

(As a former coffee shop owner, please give that 20% back to your barista as a tip!)

Do Something Difficult Every Day

Do one thing today that is out of your comfort zone. It could be as small as a short exchange with a stranger, a much-needed conversation, or advocating for your opinion.

  • Thank someone in their native language – If you first have to learn to say “thank you” in a language you don’t speak, all the better.
  • Have a conversation with your spouse or a friend – You probably have something that you’ve been meaning to share, but haven’t gotten around to saying yet. Say it!
  • Try to persuade someone of something – We are all selling to and inviting each other constantly. Advocate for your preferred restaurant or movie.

When my friends first moved to Vieques, I was skeptical. I’m all for beautiful ocean views, but it was so remote and isolated. (And the hurricanes!)

Now that I’ve spent a month living in that remote paradise, I understand their motivation a little better. Living there is difficult. Every day is a stretch. And that’s the point.

In a world where I – and probably you – enjoy every other modern convenience, it is easy to get complacent.

Perhaps we could all use a bit more discomfort in our lives.

The Line Between Habit & Addiction

My grandfather and uncle died of alcoholism. I’m predisposed to addiction.

As I write this, I’m in the midst of my fourth 5-day water-only fast. When I began fasting, my friend Michelle warned me, “You be careful. You be safe!” knowing that my addictive tendencies might lead to extremes.

Given a predisposition and love of intensity, it has taken me decades to develop an appreciation of the fine line between habit and addiction.

What Is Addiction?

The DSM-5 defines addiction as a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by seeking and use despite adverse consequences. In other words, compulsive engagement in naturally rewarding behavior.

What’s complicated, though, is that what we call addictions aren’t necessarily problematic in moderation. There aren’t a lot of downsides to having two drinks a week. Short of sexual addiction, sex is great!

But to get the same positive experience and dopamine reward over time, we have to increase the stimulus. We need more alcohol, more drugs, more sex, or more exercise to get the same – or even a lesser – outcome.

There is nothing wrong with chasing naturally rewarding behavior. It is just important to choose the right ones!

A Little Escapism

Some years ago, I spent a night at Lake Titicaca in Peru. The locals were celebrating their annual harvest, which entailed getting black-out drunk for days – and nights – on end.

Growing up around alcoholism, I’d always judgmentally deemed alcohol as problematic. What I learned in Peru is that the locals were practicing a form of once-a-year escapism in the form of celebration and a significant cultural ritual.

We all need escapism, whether that is a die-hard devotion to a sports team, binge-watching Netflix, reading science fiction, or my own study of movement.

Altered States of Consciousness

We all enjoy altered states of consciousness.

Few things feel better than getting out of my 39 degree cold plunge after 3 minutes. As I’ve written about in Habits for Fasting, I enjoy the altered state that comes with fasting. Whether through a physical accomplishment or an emotional victory, winning feels good. (And can be made even better by Deliberate Celebration.)

It has taken me years to realize that the pursuit of an altered state – whether a slight alcohol buzz or exercise endorphins – isn’t harmful. And to identify two characteristics which help me steer clear of habits that could too easily spiral out of control.

How I Differentiate Between Habits & Addictions

The keys I’ve found to differentiate positive habits from addiction are in these two questions:

  • Is it difficult to do?
  • How do you feel afterwards?

Is it difficult to do? – The habits that I let myself pursue today are hard to do. Exercising is never easy. Cold plunging can be miserable. Fasting is the single hardest discipline I’ve ever attempted.

By contrast, drinking alcohol is easy. There’s very little barrier to entry, and the second drink is even easier than the first!

When something is difficult to do during the practice of that habit, you are much less likely (to be able to) abuse it.

How do you feel afterwards? – The second criteria is how you feel afterwards. Alcohol feels great immediately, but you can be sluggish or hungover the next day. Cold plunging is uncomfortable, but the endorphin high afterwards is exhilarating.

Fasting is the most difficult delayed gratification I know. But even more than the altered state of consciousness that comes during a long fast, I like how I feel afterwardsWith exercise, cold plunge, and many other pursuits, the reward comes after the effort.

This newsletter aims to be a tactical guide to good habits. As someone who has long been afraid of my own predisposition towards addiction, I’ve found it useful to recognize that when a habit is difficult to do and leaves me feeling good long after, I’m probably on a good path.

Until next time,

P.S. I’m not a medical doctor and nothing here should be construed as medical advice! If you are struggling with addiction, please consult with a professional.

Do What Matters

An Obscure Blood Test in India

I’m spending the month living with my best friend on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. My friend was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, so one of my goals this month is to get them access to a promising cancer detection blood test. Unfortunately, the blood test is currently only available in India.

There’s something absurd about attempting to get access to an obscure blood test that is only available from a single lab in India while living on a tiny Caribbean island. It’s is a big project with a lot of unknowns.

Whenever you are tackling a new project – starting a business, adopting a habit, or supporting a friend – there are a myriad of to-dos. The key is to pick the right one.

What’s Your Objective?

I have a clear objective. I want to get the patent holder of this blood test to test blood samples from the United States or to license their technology to a lab in the US.

There are ancillary goals, too. With several family members in remission from cancer, I’d like to get each of them access to this test. And, because I’m ridiculous, I’m considering turning this into a new business.

Knowing why you are tackling any new endeavor helps you to stay focused.

The Next Most Important Thing

When you are tackling any new project it helps to identify the single thing that most needs to be done. And in a world full of bright and shiny distractions (or is that just my ADHD?), it is easy to focus on everything but the most important task.

As I learn more about this obscure blood test, there are a hundred small tasks that I could spend time on:

  • How to get blood samples to India
  • US export and India import policy
  • How much dry ice is needed to transport blood vials
  • The cost of flights to India
  • How to set up a testing laboratory in the US

The list is endless, but there is always just one or two important things that need to be done to move a project forward. And, with a little introspection, we often know what those things are.

The question I ask myself is “What’s the one thing that if I do will move this project forward?”

Is it absolutely necessary that I learn about country-specific import and export policies or begin to build a website right now? No.

Today, there was only one thing that had the potential to make a big impact: connect with the Indian laboratory – in other words, a sales call.

The Hard Thing Is Often The Most Important

The first thing I did this morning was phone the laboratory in India that provides the blood test and speak to a representative. I didn’t know if anyone would answer, but that was the single most important task that needed to be done.

I was nervous phoning India this morning. Will anyone answer? Do they speak English? What do I say if they do? But phoning the laboratory was my next most important step. Since the laboratory is the only group that has answers about this blood test, that phone call was the single linchpin that has the potential to move the project forward.

The hardest thing to do is often the thing that most needs to be done.

The First Small Step

By working backwards from the end goal, you’re more likely to be able to do the single most important thing. And while I love attempting to do hard things, I prefer making those hard things accessible, first.

My call to India this morning was, in essence, a cold call. And to make that international sales call small enough to attempt, I did a lot of things to prepare.

  • I scheduled the call at an appropriate time – First thing in my morning is afternoon in India, which gives me the best chance of reaching someone directly.
  • I planned out what I would say ahead of time – I wrote out what I would say in advance, including my questions and potential questions they might ask me.
  • Then, pivotally, I took that step – Because the only way forward is by taking a single next step.

Today my most important thing was a sales call to a laboratory in India. Fortunately, I reached someone and I got a few of my questions answered.

Tomorrow, my most important thing may be totally different. But whatever it is, my most important task will be a linchpin that moves a project forward.

Until next time,

Beyond Fear

Earlier this week I signed up for an Ultra Marathon. I’ve never run a marathon before, or anything more than ten miles. And while I’m a strong runner, 50 kilometers is a big step. I’m afraid. And I’ve been reflecting that when I’ve been afraid, and taken action anyway, are the times I’ve experienced the most growth and joy in my life.

  • Learning to do a gymnastics giant.
  • Performing as an acrobat with the San Francisco Opera.
  • When I made the decision to start Robin’s Cafe. And when I sold it.
  • The times I’ve gone “all in” on a relationship. Even when it didn’t work out. 
  • Even when I started the Evolve newsletter!

Beginning something new never gets easy. But most good things come on the other side of fear.

Fear is an Indicator

My car indicates if there is something in my blind spot. It also indicates if my tire pressure is low or I’m out of gas. Fear should be treated like the indicator: neither good nor bad, but warranting further attention. 

Fear is always an indicator that something merits further consideration. It can be a good guide of the direction you want to go. 

Notice What You Are Avoiding

Pay attention to what you are avoiding.

There are always things in business that I would just as soon ignore and opening my mail is high among them. As I discussed in How to Reframe Failure, the reason behind my reluctance to open mail was fear of failure. By noticing the avoidance, I was able to identify the fear.

There’s often a hint of something that you are not wanting to start, or that you are afraid of in the tasks that you are putting off.

Get Curious

We treat fear as something to be avoided.

Whether the thing you are afraid of is asking for a promotion, starting a new business, a first date, or running an ultramarathon – get curious. That is a form of courage.

Curiosity is a way to channel your attention and take a small step. Though it doesn’t feel like action, bringing your attention to focus on what you are afraid of moving towards your fear. 

“Fear Setting” Exercise

Tim Ferriss popularized the idea of “fear setting” through this TED talk and the article Why You Should Define Your Fears. The purpose is to identify the worst case scenarios, which usually turns out to not be quite so bad.

The simplest version of this exercise is to repeatedly ask the question “What am I afraid of?” 

What are you afraid of?
Not being able to do an ultramarathon

What about this are you afraid of?
That I’ll try to run the ultra and get injured.

What about this are you afraid of?
That I’ll feel like a fool.

What about this are you afraid of?
Even if I don’t run it or don’t finish, signing up gives me an objective and six months to train.

And I recognize that my fear isn’t as big as I’d made it out to be.

Take a small action today

The final step towards accomplishing a big audacious goal is to take one incremental step. 

No one who has done something you admire got there in one big step. Unfortunately, we usually see the endpoint and not the journey along the way. 

Notice what you are afraid of, get curious, and then take some tiny action towards your fear.

Signing up for an ultramarathon when I’ve never run more than 10 miles might sound crazy. It is, as they say, “jumping into the deep end.” But I like to run. I’ve wanted to run a marathon. And the worst case scenario isn’t that bad. I’m excited to discover who I am as I go towards this thing that I am afraid of.

Do the thing you are afraid of. Take action. Fear is a good indication that there’s something there for you to learn.

My System for Emotional Self-Management

I spoke with an entrepreneur recently who described founding her startup as the loneliest of jobs. Elon Musk, somewhat more dramatically, said that “starting a company is like staring into the abyss and eating glass.” Running Robin’s Cafe was the loneliest job I’ve held. It taught me a lot about my own emotional management, which has made running companies since somewhat less difficult. 

Regardless of whether you are building a business, trying to get better at managing a tough situation, or starting something new, I approach emotional management in two stages: avoid the spiral and incremental growth. 

What is the Emotional Spiral?

Throughout the first few months of running Robin’s Cafe, I lived in a state of overwhelm. With everything that needed to be done, there were nights that I’d finish cleaning the cafe after midnight and then sit alone in the dark, too tired to go home.

That’s the emotional state I call the spiral. A state of overwhelm, of being upset about being upset, where it is impossible to make forward progress or to plan ahead.

How to Get Out of an Emotional Spiral

Recognize the spiral

During the worst moments of Robin’s Cafe, I often called my best friend and complained that I wanted to close the business. She would remind me that I could, in fact, walk away at any time. 

The reminder that I wasn’t stuck – that I had the ability to shutter the business –  allowed me to step outside of my emotional spiral and move forward slightly less overwhelmed.

I’ve described bystander apathy, the cognitive bias in which we assume someone else is going to take action. Just as the solution to bystander apathy is to remember that it exists, the path out of an emotional spiral is to recognize it. Simply identifying a spiral can serve as a heuristic to take action.

Take Incremental Action

One block from Robin’s Cafe is another cafe called Stable Cafe, which has been around for a decade and functions seamlessly. On my bad days at Robin’s Cafe, I would compare my business to Stable – and berate everything about my own small operation.

It is tempting to focus on goals and aspirations that are far out of reach, but the consequence is feeling bad about where we are. We amplify that which is at the center of our attention. Being stressed about being stressed results in even more stress! Take some small positive action to build momentum.

Begin by taking one small step in the direction you want to go. 

Take Any Small Step

Sometimes you don’t know what the right next step is. I didn’t know how to start a cafe! As I’ve written about in How to Conduct an Effective Interview, I had to interview a lot of professionals and then take some action. When you are in a spiral, take some action. 

Don’t attempt to solve everything in a single moment. Put one foot in front of the other. Make each step as small as possible. If you try to do something dramatic, you are more likely to fail and resume your spiral. 

Adjust Course As You Go

Think of a sailboat leaving San Francisco for Hawai’i. You don’t leave the coast, point the ship towards the Hawiian islands, and then stop navigating. You’ll get off course. 

The best way to navigate is to adjust course as you go. The best time to adjust your trajectory is while in motion. 

There were a lot of difficult days building Robin’s Cafe – moments of panic, overwhelm, and loneliness. The businesses I’ve built since then have gotten progressively easier. There are still incredibly hard moments, of course, but I don’t stay stuck.

I have more mental and emotional fortitude, better habits to avoid the spiral and to get out quickly. I hope this framework will help you do the same.

Habits for Combatting Resistance

As I discussed in last week’s article, “Resistance” was coined by Steven Pressfield to describe the inertia that gets in the way of our most important work. If you missed last week’s article on recognizing Resistance, read it here.

My own personal story: I’ve long had a writing habit. I like how I feel when I write regularly. Writing clarifies my thinking and makes the rest of my work better. And yet I haven’t written anything publicly since my last book in 2017. Why not? Because of Resistance. Here are some habits that can help.

Ask yourself “why”

Ask yourself why you are resisting. Despite writing on the Internet since 2007, I don’t create nearly as much as I want to. Among other things, I have a handful of books that have never been published. 

One reason I don’t share more is shame. I’m avoiding the shame I’ll feel when I publish this newsletter and find a typo immediately after, or when I declare something that, looking back a decade later, I’ll cringe upon re-reading. For me, examining that shame has been a key to unlocking Resistance. 

Another reason I don’t create more is that I frequently compare myself to other people. My father is a better writer than I am. My friend Todd is more even-tempered.  Ryan Holiday reads more than me. These comparisons put me down, without motivating me towards a path towards greater efficacy or change. 

What are the reasons that you aren’t doing your most important work?  The underlying reasons will be different for you, but the better you can get to understanding those emotions or motivations, the closer you’ll be to overcoming Resistance.

Make it tiny

I’m currently writing 2 hours every day, but I didn’t start there. A few months ago, I challenged myself to write for 10 minutes each day. That escalated pretty quickly to 20 minutes, and then eventually into an hour, then two. 

The key, throughout this process, though, is that my baseline has remained the same: 10 minutes a day counts as success. Otherwise, it is too easy to fall out of the habit and not come back again tomorrow.

For more on this idea, watch BJ Fogg’s Tedx talk on flossing one tooth.

Make the tiny habit inevitable

As my friend Michelle says, the goal is to make a habit so small, so tiny, that you can’t help but to achieve it.

  • Instead of trying to go for a three mile run, make a habit of stepping foot outside.
  • In lieu of aiming to clean out your entire closet, pick one item to donate each day. 
  • Rather than answering all your email, just read one.

I’ve been journaling for 30 minutes each morning for years. To start writing for a wider audience again, I substituted 10 minutes of journaling for 10 minutes of writing instead.

Make the small habit so small that accomplishing it is practically inevitable.

Stack your habits

To start a new habit, especially one you’ve been avoiding, add the new habit you just after something you already do regularly.  This is “habit stacking.”

For me, my writing habit comes just after journaling. I journal each morning, so it wasn’t all that difficult to add 10 minutes of writing immediately after my journaling habits. By stacking the new habit immediately after a pre-established habit you are better able to do it.

Decide what you are going to give up

I learned during my 30 days of mediation that to add something substantial into your life requires that you also give something up. 

To begin writing every day, I removed 10 minutes of journaling, so as to carve out the time. What are you going to give up in order to take on something new?

Whether you call it Resistance, writer’s block, or inertia, we all have habits we want to pursue and that we’ll go to great lengths to avoid. Identify those obstacles and then take small steps to combat Resistance, and maybe you’ll finally be able to begin. Thanks for following along! 

See you next week,

How to Create an Ideal Environment for Learning

In the fall of 2003 I broke my neck on a trampoline. (That sounds dramatic, I know, but isn’t uncommon in gymnastics). To heal, I began to study with a woman who specialized in working with kids with autism.

While her work focused on helping parents help their special needs children, I found it also helped me with my injury. Pretty soon, I too began working with autistic kids and traveling around the world to teach parents how to help their children flourish. In the process, I became a student of how different variables create a supportive learning environment for these children and families.

Even more than the rest of us, kids with autism respond to their environment – to the emotions of the people around them and the situations they are in. They don’t respond to pressure.

Learning is a vulnerable process that requires that we try new and uncomfortable things. But just like any other skill, you can get better at learning with practice. Today I want to share how to create an ideal learning environment. While most of us don’t require ideal conditions for learning, these tools are applicable everywhere.

Attention – paying attention to what is happening while it is going on

I found that kids’ attention was the deciding factor in their ability to learn. What we attend to, we make bigger, and this single notion is the bedrock for learning.

We live in a world where everyone, and everything, is vying for our time and attention. Advertisements, social media, push notifications all interrupt our focus for their own agendas.

Practice channeling your attention – whether for a few minutes or a few hours. Direct your attention to the things you are most interested in improving. The more concentrated attention you can bring, the faster you’ll be able to learn.

Slow – “Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast”

Moshe Feldenkrais, founder of the somatic discipline the Feldenkrais Method, said, “Fast, we can only do what we already know.” Learning demands that we stretch outside our comfort zones, and that is much harder under pressure, urgency, or force. Learning benefits from spaciousness and safety.

While it is counter-intuitive in today’s fast-moving world, slowing down is the best way to get faster. A similar idea comes from the Navy SEALS: “Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast.” Moving slowly means moving with intention and attention; it reduces the risk of making the kinds of mistakes that then would take more time to undo and correct.

Consider how you’d approach a skittish horse or a nervous child. The best way isn’t with force or aggression, it’s instead to approach gently and from the side. To move your hand slowly towards the horse’s muzzle or ask the child, in a quiet tone, how their day has gone.

In slowing down you are better able to absorb and make sense of novel information. You’ll create better conditions for learning and deeper integration.

Variation – playing with the variety of options available

When I was in university, I studied the impacts of variable practice. Here’s how it works:

You and I are on a basketball court, taking turns shooting hoops. You shoot from the free throw line while I shoot from all over the court. In effect, you are learning to shoot free throws – and only free throws – while I’m learning to shoot baskets.

Assuming we are starting from a similar baseline, your free throws will outperform mine during this practice period. You are shooting from a single location while I am shooting from all over, so you get more practice at the specific task.

But when we test at the end of the trial period – even as little as 30 minutes later – I have better performance. My performance is still better several days later, and from a variety of conditions around the court. Practicing with variation results in more learning.

This concept extends beyond the basketball court. When you are feeling stuck, try variations around the edges of what you can currently do to learn more thoroughly. Approaching the problem from a different angle offers the opportunity for more connections and perspectives.

Enthusiasm – enjoy the process

During the years I worked with autistic kids, I often attended training programs for parents of special needs children.

One day at a workshop, I walked into the dinning hall to see my friend Stan in the center of a circle of attentive parents. As I walked up, Stan paused what he was talking about and asked: “Robin, why did you come up?” I responded that I was curious what was going on.

Stan explained that he was being enthusiastic deliberately, so that the parents in the room would be excited to learn from him. He went on to share that this was what each of us needed to do to create the conditions for success and learning for the children in our lives.

It worked: when I was engaged, excited, and energetic, the kids I worked with were more engaged with me and our shared activities.

Even when you aren’t trying to teach or inspire someone else, you can be deliberately enthusiastic about what you’re learning. Excitement reinforces positive feelings about the process, which, as I’ve discussed in this essay about celebration, is a great way to incentivize behavior change.

Flexible Goals – be flexible in how you define “success,” especially during the learning process

Goals are great. They give you direction and motivation. But your goals need to be reevaluated regularly because every step you take provides more information about whether that goal is realistic or even worth your effort.

Most often, you are learning something new with a clear objective in mind. I worked with kids with autism to help them function more effectively. You practice shooting basketball with the goal of making baskets. We practice for the outcomes that practice gets us.

But if the metric of success is too narrow, it sets us up for a win/lose binary. Instead, working towards a goal is ultimately about practicing the skill of learning.

Growth is a vulnerable process. Take the pressure off and you’re better able to absorb new information!

I’ve long since recovered from my trampoline injury, and the years of working with autistic kids are also behind me. But when I’m feeling stuck or not learning as fast as I want, I incorporate more enthusiasm, flexible goals or variation into my daily practice. I invite you to do the same.

Everything Is Sales & You’re Doing It Wrong

Everything in life is sales. From inviting your child to do her homework, to deciding where to go for dinner, to encouraging a colleague at work, the situations we encounter daily are filled with the dynamic of sales and persuasion. And, unfortunately, most of what you know about sales is wrong.

What is Sales?

My favorite example of sales comes from a scene from the classic Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street.

In Miracle, the Macy’s department store Santa asks each child who sits on his lap what they want for Christmas. Santa then tells the family where they can purchase that toy at the best price, even if it means at a competing department store. At first, the store manager is outraged that Santa is supporting his competitors – until he sees enthusiastic customers returning to Macy’s because of the excellent customer service. The value to Macy’s of Santa’s recommendations is greater than the sale of a single children’s toy; it’s customer loyalty.

Sales is having a clear solution – a service, opportunity or opinion – that can help to solve somebody’s problem. Like Santa, good sales means aligning yourself with the interests of the person you are talking to, to discover if your solution is a good fit for them. If it is, invite them toward your solution, and if not, move on. 

How to Do It Wrong

Sales and persuasion are most often practiced with pressure and urgency.

Think of the reputation of a car salesman – pushy, fast-talking, deceptive. They aren’t considering what is best for the customer. They only want to sell a specific car at the best possible price. The result: nobody enjoys the experience and the customer won’t recommend that product or service in the future.

Pressure and urgency can work, but only in the short-term. They don’t increase trust or loyalty.

How to Do It Right

A Process of Discovery

Done well, sales and persuasion should be a process of discovery. Instead of using force, inquire about what your friend wants to eat for dinner. Get curious about why your colleague doesn’t want to do the work assigned to them.

When you start by asking questions about what someone is looking to solve – for themselves, their business, or their family – you’ll discover if what you are selling is a good fit for the other person.

People relate through the stories that you tell them, so share your experience, too. As I discussed in “Everything is Storytelling,” your story should be brief, personal and relatable. 

Useful Beliefs About Sales

Abundance – If the person you are talking to doesn’t want the solution you are offering, somebody else will. There are between 7 and 8 billion people in the world today. If the person you are talking to is not a good fit, move on.

Believe it – Believe in what you are selling. That doesn’t mean that it is valuable to every single prospective buyer, only they can tell you that. But believing that it is valuable in the world makes closing easier, genuine, and fun.

Decrease the stakes – There are very few game changing moments in life, and this specific sale isn’t likely to be one of them. Whether or not you make this sale today isn’t likely to matter over the course of your or your customer’s life.

Autonomy – Foster the belief that everybody knows what’s best for themselves. You aren’t trying to convince anyone, but rather inviting them to entertain if what you’re offering is a good fit for them.

Look for “What I’ve learned” – It is useful to hold that even if you don’t close a sale, you will have learned a lot along the way. This practice of iteration and repeated repetitions will make you better at closing future sales.

Put in the Reps

Improving at sales is a matter of practice and incremental improvement. Many of the most successful salespeople and deal makers in the world have practiced tens of thousands of times. Sales is as much a performance as trying out for a sport or auditioning for a play, and practice makes for consistency.

Your Attitude Closes Deals

Who you are and how you show up with a prospective customer is what will determine whether they buy. Who you are closes deals.

Maintain an attitude of enthusiasm and want what is best for the other person. You’ll have a better chance of having things go your way.

Next time you are debating with your spouse about the dishes, trying to get your child to do their homework, or asking an employee to fill out their hours, think of Santa, sitting in Macy’s department store, referring customers to the competition.

Until next time, Robin

How to Reframe Failure

There are a lot of things about being an entrepreneur that I avoid, but one of the silliest is opening physical mail. When I was starting Robin’s Cafe, I got a lot of mail – plans from the San Francisco planning department, legal documents, food permitting, alcohol permitting, pest control notifications, more.

I was so busy figuring out the day-to-day of running the business that I developed the bad habit of just ignoring mail and leaving the pile to build up on my desk for weeks on end.

When I finally got around to dealing with the pile, there was always a notice that I’d ignored for too long – a vendor I was late to pay, an IRS document I’d missed, etc. As we all do when a task is too big, I came to dread opening my mail.

Failure as discouragement

When you fail at a task, the experience is often one of discouragement, and that discouragement leads to a diminished desire to attempt that same task in the future. As I discussed recently, success is usually tied to positive feelings and the release of dopamine. Negative feelings often have the opposite effect and result in a feedback loop of negativity and failure. For me, that meant avoiding the mail until I discovered late bills, which meant I’d continue to dread opening mail and let it pile up further.

Failure is often a sign that the task you are trying to undertake is too big. A trick, then, is to leverage the cue of the negative feelings of “I can’t do this” into action and try again, but make the next attempt different. One way to do this is to break the task down into smaller parts.

Make the next step smaller

When you are overwhelmed by a new behavior, the easiest way to tackle it is by making the next step smaller.

I don’t need to open and respond to all of my mail on the day it arrives. A small step is to open every envelope, even if I don’t take the mail out right away. This small step moves things forward and makes the next steps – removing the contents, reading them, responding – easier.

Take your large goal and just take one small step in the right direction.

Create positive associations

I have a letter opener that I really love – it is a beautiful folding knife with an olivewood handle. I’ve learned, in the years since Robin’s Cafe, that I derive a particular delight in opening mail with this knife.

Look for ways that you can create positive associations around the edges of the habit you’ve been avoiding. Positive feelings equate to feelings of success.

Play more

Play and self-judgment are antithetical. When we are being playful or curious with a habit, it is impossible to regard an outcome as a “failure.”

The best way I know how to play – especially when I’m not feeling playful – is to get profoundly curious about the task I’m trying to accomplish. Another is to make a game of the process. Personally, I get delighted when I see weeks worth of dealt-with mail pile up in my recycling bin!

Look for a step by step breakdown

You can almost always find a step-by-step breakdown of the task you are trying to accomplish. Google “how to do x” or interview someone better at that thing than you are. If you’ve hit a roadblock and aren’t sure how to make a task more manageable, someone else has likely solved this problem before you. In writing this article, I asked a few friends about how they handled their daily deluge of mail and got some interesting ideas I’ll try in the future!

At Zander Media, I receive 10x less physical mail than I did at the cafe. And while there are still remnants of my avoidant behavior, I’m excited to reframe failure as a cue for novel action. These days, I look for areas of my life where I’ve historically failed and replace the cue of failure with the understanding that I haven’t made that behavior small enough, yet.

Until next time,