Do Something Different to Improve

How can you improve by doing the same thing over and over?

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Copyright Dennis Mitton

GluteousHere’s a weird one but it gets to the point.

My butt is killing me. Right at the top where my gluteus medius attaches to the top of my pelvis. It a smaller muscle right at the top of your rear that helps you balance and controls sideways movement of the legs.

The muscle hurts because I don’t use it much and now I am. I like running which, obviously, is typically a forward-moving exercise. So I don’t use this muscle much compared to it’s larger and more famous partner the gluteus maximus. The maximus helps to pull my thigh upwards when I run.  I’m doing a new workout now with more lateral motion that puts this comparatively weaker muscle in play. So it’s sore.

Doing something different is the key to any improvement. It’s obvious when you think about it – how could we ever improve doing x by only doing x? This is why marathoners do sprints. They need more than the long drudge of mere miles to earn their best times. This is why we do word problems in math. This is why we experiment with whole wheat flour instead of using the bleached white stuff. Different results required different inputs.

How do you want to improve? What are you doing now to maintain your skills? What do you need to do in order to improve those skills? Whatever it is, it will be awkward at first. What you are good at felt awkward once. But keep at it and the new habit begins to feel comfortable. It starts to feel right. And then you’re on the track to improvement and accomplishment.

So have at it. Do something different. Put yourself in a weird place. Do something out of character. You’ll be better for it.

Living Long and Happy. Learn to Work Hard and Be Uncomfortable



The Story of Me. Ms. Haft and the Nasty Word

I haven’t a clue how she kept her job..

Copyright Dennis Mitton
I’m stretching it but you get the idea…

I was a junior and in love with writing and with science and, along with every other testosterone-sick guy in school, with Ms. Haft. She was freshly graduated from college and she wore her hair long and her skirts short. It’s still odd to me, but rather than standing or sitting, she would teach while kneeling on her desk. The younger teachers eschewed rows and columns and circled our desks around the perimeter of the room. One day – it’s one of the few clear memories I have of high-school – Ms. Haft walked into the room, climbed onto her desk, knelt down, and in the most droning, flat, and unemotional voice said “fuck”. Pencils, papers, jaws – everything dropped. Every set of eyes shot up from whatever they were looking at and turned to Ms. Haft. The air left the room. After a very long and very pregnant pause, she said it again. Fuck. And then again. Fuck you. Fuck me. Well, fuck it all.

All of a sudden, school got interesting.

She explained that today’s lesson had two parts. Part One was that we would circle the room and everyone would say Fuck out loud in turn. Just utter the word. Just form the sounds pushing air from your lungs and out your mouth. Touch your upper teeth to your lower lip and say it. Fuck. Good god. What harm can come from expelling air and forming a sound?

fWe went ’round our circle one-by-one. A couple students, pale and panting at the idea of letting such an abomination squeeze through their lips, shook their head No. I think one person gathered up and left. Some, given permission to swear for probably the first time, said the word over and over until told to stop. In the end, I think everyone in the room except for two or three, completed the odd lesson.

Lesson Two was much less interesting: words are meaningless. Do you imagine that ‘Fuck’ has any real meaning? Do you imagine that lovers would say such a word to each other? If we never bat an eye when the word is spoken would people continue to use it? Words only have meaning when we agree to their meaning.

But isn’t that exactly what culture is? An agreement that words and gestures and swimming pools and a dozen wives mean something?

The very purpose of words is to convey meaning and no word is meaningless. Words move us to great joy or to great pain. Words can elevate a nation. Words can change your life in an instant. “I’m leaving.” “I Have a Dream!” “Math is hard.”  How many girls have never forgotten when their dad told them that he loves them even though they are chubby? How many adults have never imagined what wonderful things they can do only because someone three or four decades ago told them that “you’re not good at that.” My own father remembered me at four-years-old reaching for his hand once to walk across the street. He said that he slapped my hand away and said “Big boys don’t hold hands”. It was meaningful enough for him to remember it fifty years later.

I disagree with Ms. Haft about the meaning of words but she alluded to something that I do agree with: dark things lose their power when exposed to light. I can’t help but think of this when I read the cuthat another group or government office has been ordered to cut off communication with the press or to shut down parts of their website. There might be a good reason for these actions but, without open and free communication, we can’t know.

I don’t know what happened to Ms. Haft. I don’t remember if she was there for my senior year. The last thing I remember of her was when she caught on that my buddy and I were the sole members of our high-school Maoist club. We dropped pamphlets and commie art in teacher’s mail each morning and beamed for days after Ms. Haft told us that the school board had called a special meeting to discuss ‘communist infestation’ at the school.

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Writers, Eaters, Success Seekers – Observe Trends with a Grain of Salt

Invest in trends only after exhausting the tried and true

Copyright Dennis Mitton

If your Twitter feeds looks anything like mine then you are inundated with advice from every corner. 6 Words To Avoid When Writing a Short Story! 18 Rules for the NEW Social Media! 5 Essential Trends in Exercise Marketing! It’s all hype. Most of it is the same-old-same-old junk repackaged by a ‘content marketing’ genius. Some of it is good. Some of it bad. Most of it is mindless filler intended to get you to click your mouse.

But remember this: the tried and true – the thing that works –  is a hard sell. Want to lose weight? Then consume fewer calories than you burn each day, every day. You will lose weight. It’s a law of nature. But no one will a buy a book with that title. Want to be a better writer? Then write more. And when you are done then write even more. Write until your fingers ache. There is really no other way to improve than to do more. Yet who pays for this advice? Who clicks on an ad claiming that “We Will Teach You French in Only Five Hours a Day!”? No one.

I’m not saying that everything new is bunk. Nor am I saying that everything old is genius. What I am emphasizing is that you should invest the time to know the merits of what you’re investing in compared to your long-term goals.

img_1437Take a look at the sad souls here. I don’t know who they are and I would protect their anonymity even if I knew. But I guarantee that they were trying to look the part. A manager or publicist told them that this is how they had to look. Go with the trends! Forget talent! Forget singing ability! Or magic or whatever they were doing. “Look the part and legions will flock to you!”. And maybe they did. For a night or a month or maybe for a year. And maybe it was a fantastic year? Maybe it was worth this hideous picture. But if you are looking for something lasting then it’s tough to beat whatever has worked for the successful who come before you.



A tale of three smokers…

This post is about lightening up a little bit and getting to know yourself better. It’s about me and two good friends. We all used to smoke. Not like a chimney or a vaper but smokers nonetheless. Truth is that few things in my life were as gloriously satisfying as a Marlboro Light. I looked forward to hopping in the truck just so I could light one up and enjoy a deep and long drag. 

Of course, I tried quitting. Several times. I had successes but never for more than a month or so. Finally I decided that I would never quit. Instead, I decided that I would take a year off. After a year, I could go and buy a carton if I wanted to. Well, I spent my year never even thinking about smoking. Somehow, for me, this little mind trick just removed the question from my brain. A year later, I actually bought a cigarette. (You could buy singles for seventy-five cents were I lived). It didn’t kill me but it had certainly lost its appeal. It stunk and tasted lousy and I didn’t want to spend the money on it. I’ve smoked a few times since then but just have no interest in it. 

My buddy PE quit in a single day. He was a navy man and bought smokes at the commissary. One he walked in and the price of a carton had jumped from about twenty to thirty bucks and he refused to pay that much.  He claims to have never smoked since. His tightwad habits saved him from his nicotine habit. 

AG tried quitting all kinds of ways. What worked for him was buying a book. It was about how tobacco companies use all kinds of fillers and chemicals to make their products cheaper and more addictive. I still don’t know how true it is – nicotine delivered in small, regular doses is fantastically addictive – but it worked for him. He was incensed for a year and vowed to never pay those asses a dime again.

There are two morals to the story. One is to know yourself. Try to figure out what drives you. I know that I want cookies and pie when I’m feeling lousy and that when I fight with my wife I retreat. Knowing that I gravitate toward these behaviors helps me to change them. The other message is to keep trying. What worked for Raoul might not work for Julie. What does not work for Julie worked wonders for Ilsa. It’s hard to know why but we are all different with different experiences. So be kind to yourself and give some latitude and you will finally stumble on what you didn’t know you were looking for. 


The curse of having to have something to say

Maybe I do my best thinking on my drive to work. Maybe not. I know I get more ideas than I can keep track of.

I listened to a podcast today about fitness. I won’t say who but they are a popular blogger about more extreme fitness and longevity topics. I couldn’t help but think of Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz. It’s the curse of having to have something to say. If you stick with science and evidence-based research, and if you are going to talk about being healthy rather than how to hop a hundred miles backwards on a pogo stick in twenty-four hours, you run out of topics pretty quickly. So what do you do? You veer into woo. You start flirting with advice that isn’t exactly supported by evidence but hey, the Russians do it and they will all the Olympics.

This is what happened to Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. Both were respected in their fields for doing good, solid work with excellent results. Both started out as guests on the Oprah show doing spots that showcased their expertise. Both ended up with shows that required them to be charming and insightful every day while keeping ratings high enough to argue for Oprah-sized ad rates. It can’t be easy. So now Dr. Phil, an apparent genius in reading people and in jury selection, talks to kids about why the hate cleaning their room. “And how do you think this makes your mother feel? he asks with a pained look. And Dr. Oz? Ugh. Painful. He has glommed on to so much pseudo-science that I expect he’ll be interviewing aliens about health issues on Mars before long. Too bad. By all previous accounts he was an excellent MD.

All of this to say two things: always weigh what you read or hear. Celebrity, even in technical fields, doesn’t confer universal expertise. And in almost everything, the steps to success are usually well known and much more simple than is presented. Accomplishing the steps might be difficult, but knowing what they are is easy.


Book Excerpt – How I Learned to Judge a Man by the Content of His Character

In the series Fathers and Sons I took about a year to publish installments about how my Father came to be who he was and how he passed life lessons on to me. Since then I’ve published the series in a book, also titled Fathers and Sons, in both Kindle and Nook platforms. In this particular story – I write about how Dad taught me to judge a man by his character and not by the color of his skin.

Mom and dad were sun worshipers. They loved to grease up and bake. When I was maybe nine or ten they decided that we needed a pool. A real pool. A little slice of sunny Palm Springs plopped down in misty Tacoma. Maybe they beat Kevin Costner to it and thought ‘ifIMG we build it then the sun will come”. These were days before credit cards or home equity loans so dad decided to start a lawn care business. We had the nicest yard in three counties so it was a good fit. Dad bought a truck – a green 1963 Chevy – a few mowers, lifted me into the truck to carry buckets, and we were off.

Business was good and we were busy. Once we had a call from a guy who was hosting a family get together on the next Saturday. Could we come over Friday and clean the place up – make it shine? We showed up Friday morning to see that he lived on one of those odd lots in Tacoma where the road is cut right through a hill. Backyards are flat and large and front yards are cliffs. Over the years – these houses were built in the ‘30’s – owners have terraced most yards to make them manageable. But not this one. The front fell right to the road with a grass carpet growing about a foot high. No one had heard of weed eaters yet so dad and the owner – who was maybe the first Black man I ever shook hands with – agreed to hit the back yard hard for the party and worry about the front another time. They shook on a price and we went to work.

It was hot and sometime around mid-afternoon the guy came out of the house with lemonade. We stood around for a minute cooling off and he dropped the bomb. “Hey. When you guys make it around to the front yard can you…” Dad busted right in. “We’re not doing the front. We can’t do the front. We talked about it.” The guy blew up. “Why in the hell would I hire a guy to do my yard and not do the front? You expect me to pay you for ripping me off?” He was yelling loud and waving his arms and even I knew we had been had. Without a word of discussion dad yelled to the sky “Den! Load up the truck. We’re outta here!”

I don’t remember anything else about the guy. I don’t know if he stayed in the yard and yelled back but I started tossing hoes and prongs and buckets in the bed of the truck as fast as I could. Dad tossed in the mowers and emptied the wheelbarrow on the lawn before putting it away. “Get in the truck!”

He’s a jerk but you don’t have to be one too.

We sprayed a little gravel and sped off. It was surreal for me as a young kid. We were working, sipping lemonade, and enjoying the day and in an instant it all fell away in a fury of arms and shouts. We drove about a mile or two and – it’s weird how memory works – parked in front of the Tacoma Public Library. I probably wondered if I was in trouble too. We sat for a minute while Dad kind of gathered himself up. Finally he turned to me and said, “Den? I want to let you know something. That guy back there was an asshole. (Now we were swearing together like men!) You’re going to meet all kinds and jerks and asses. It doesn’t have anything to do with him being Black. Asses come in white, black, red, yellow. It doesn’t matter. You’ll meet lots of asses and lots of good people and none of it ever has anything to do with their color. It comes from what’s inside.

Then we drove off. It’s the last I ever remember talking about it but it was an expectation in our home that people were judged on what they did not on what they looked like.

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Career plans for the New Year? Don’t be this person.

This comes from an article I wrote for another venue about something that seems self-evident when you look at the dolts around you at work but never when you look in the mirror. I’ve worked in science in academic, government, and  commercial settings and have owned a few businesses and hired plenty of people. What managers and employers want more than anything is to hire, then train as necessary, and then forget about you. In fact, I once told a hiring manager that if they hired me they would never have to worry about that position again. It worked and I was hired in a great position.

Copyright 2014 Dennis Mitton

Slower than a rolling stone.
Slower than a rolling stone.

I used to race bicycles and drooled over Bianchis and Guerciottis and those glorious European handmade racing machines. Who cared that they cost thousands of dollars? Well, I did and I couldn’t afford one. But in time I noticed something. I was showing up at races with my $200 Kobe (which needed a rebuild every weekend) and beating the Young Turks on their $2,000 bikes. It dawned on me: unless you are an elite among elites it is fitness and your ability to withstand pain that leads to success in cycling and not your polished titanium bar stem. It’s a good life lesson. You have got to master the basic virtues before anything else will add value. With that in mind here is a crabby piece where I outline why you (okay, not you but surely the guy in the cube next to you!) can ignore all the lofty and gilt career advice posted on Linked In by people trying to sell you stuff.

 You aren’t as good as you think 

Sorry but this is very likely true. There is so much more you can learn. There are new ways to look at things. You’ve been with the company for thirteen years? So what? You can be more efficient. You can better understand you role. You can work from home. You can learn new skills. You have got to have your job down pat before anything will add real value.

Co-workers come in earlier and stay later

Okay – so you don’t want to be married to your job. You want to spend time with your kids. You believe your real calling to be outside of employment helping in the community. That is all fine and balanced but there is a cost. Those other folks who are halfway through their morning’s report while you are brewing  your first cup of coffee? The boss sees that and thinks they are working harder and are more dedicated. It might not be true but appearances count.

Other people work harder

Even busy bees need a break right? Why?
Even busy bees need a break right? Why?

Sally comes in early,  stays late, and churns out paperwork like a Mississippi mill. She knows every computer shortcut and is the only one in the office who can get the printer back online. You enjoy an hourly smoke break, keep up with baseball scores on the web, and argue strongly and loudly about slave labor. Who would you hire?

Other people work more efficiently

I’m amazed how every time someone sits at my desk to show me how they do something I learn something new.  It’s part of the wonder of technology.   Yes, you can always hit the Do This button but other people have figured out a work around that saves four steps.  The seconds you save is immaterial but these folks are more engaged than you. They are thinking about how to make work easier and more efficient rather than simply plodding through their nine to five.

Other people are producing more

More efficiently, more time, more engaged: it all adds up to more production. And I don’t care what your company masthead says: you are hired to produce.  If you don’t think so try stopping production and see how quickly you get to talk to the principal.

Others know and understand what the company wants from them

Work-3Most people come to work expecting to be told what to do. Others know what will move the company forward and hardly need managing. Your manager expects that you will need training over the first month or so. After that if you are always sitting waiting to be told what to do next they will wonder why they hired you.

People play the game better

 Yes,  there is a game that is played out every day in corporate life. Some are experts at it while some refuse to even dip a toe. It can be played too well and the people who do this seldom win in the long term but you ignore the game at your peril. Learn the corporate ropes. There is a dress code. There is a vocabulary. There are expectations about what’s really important. Ignoring these subtleties can make you appear as an outsider who won’t join in.

Other people understand the nature of work 

Larry Winget wrote a book titled It’s Called Work for a Reason. It’s loud and brash but has a message that many people never ever understand: Your employment was never meant to provide you with friends, entertainment, volunteering opportunities, or invites to holiday parties. You are there to make money and to be productive.

Other people are cheery and enthusiastic

Just like you, these folks know that not every day is a holiday and not
everything goes as planned. But they refrain from whining and complaining and get back on track in a way that maintains the group’s good mood.

A Life Story

My dad was a high school basketball standout. A sophomore, he wanted to start on the varsity team. He talked to the coach who said that the senior in the position had earned the right to play. These were the days when winning often came second to loyalty and character. The senior had played all through high school, had good grades, and kept out of trouble – that Dad was a better player wasn’t the question. Dad complained to his dad who told him that if he wanted to start then he needed to show the coach, the players, the school, and the entire community that there was absolutely no question about who would start. You have to work  harder, come earlier, stay later, smile the whole time, and be so much better that questions about who starts are wiped of the slate. (From Fathers and Sons, cf here on Amazon.)

It’s great advice.

Wiki on Superiority Complex or the Lake Wobegon Effect

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To learn more about evolution, hack philosophy, health, and literature please enter your email address at the Follow button at the top right of any page. You can also follow me at Twitter and on Facebook. Thanks!