Can’t

I wanted to talk about one of my least favorite words today – can’t. It’s such a small, seemingly harmless word. We use it all the time. And yet, it can be an incredibly debilitating word. It’s one of those words – like fail and hate – that we adults, sadly, teach our kids. It can be a dream killer. It’s also one of those words that directly gets in the way of change.

Can’t and I go way back. I’ve heard this word a lot in my life, though thankfully almost never from my parents. “You can’t get into Stanford.” “You can’t get a graduate Biology degree without doing ‘wet’ biology.” “You can’t get an internship at Microsoft your first year here [in a graduate design program].” (In fairness, the latter was an example of can’t’s close relative, you won’t be able to. And so on. These were all statements from folks like high school principals, department chairs, and deans.

Fortunately, can’t is a word that has the power to motivate me beyond almost any other. I’ve never accepted the power of its hold. It’s something I’d like to help our young adults learn. Like many people though, I need to do a better job myself using it.

There are really two ways to look at can’t. One is with the meaning you are not able to. It’s the dangerous one I point to above. The other is I don’t want you to. For example, “You can’t go out until your homework is done.”

I have to admit that I use the latter form fairly often. The problem with this is that it gets the word can’t into frequent use. Even in this context, I think I tend to overuse it. If I truly want to treat my young adults as adults, I should let them have the choice about when they do their homework, right? We try to do this as much as possible with Aidan and Nev. It mostly works. Mostly.

It’s the first version of can’t though that really irks me. If you watch most younger kids, they seem to have an immunity to can’t. They’ll keep trying something until they figure it out. Sure, there’s frustration at times. But I don’t think that the frustration stems from an innate belief that the kids truly would not be able to do what they are trying. They just want it to happen quickly, but that’s another story.

If someone else, especially an adult, tells them that they can’t do it, that’s where can’t can become disempowering. In a way, it gives someone permission to stop trying and give up. And then they start using can’t themselves and come to believe that they really can’t do something. What an insidious cycle.

I started thinking about can’t recently because I’ve been hearing it a lot at work. Too much. We are going through a transition involving a lot of necessary change. As I mentioned in my last post, most people really dislike change. That’s when I started realizing the broader impact of can’t.

When people start saying that they can’t do something, they (perhaps unintentionally) give others permission to not try. And when you are collectively going through a process of difficult change, can’t makes it easy to not try. It helps people resist change. And that can be infectious.

Conversely, I didn’t hear can’t very much in the startups I worked in, at least not in terms of our ability to do something. In fact, if it wasn’t possible to do something, we’d often just find a different way. Startups are the children of the corporate world. Anything is possible. Somewhere along the line, established companies, like many adults, seem to lose that.

Change needs a fertile environment of the possible, much like startups. Can’t gets in the way. You don’t hear dreamers and visionaries using the word very much.

The destructive power of can’t on the process of change is a newly-found realization for me. Maybe change can be helped along a bit with the elimination of a single word. I’ll give it a try. It’s a nicely “off path” strategy. Pura vida.

Change

At the very beginning of our adventure I wrote about complexity and change: when there is a lot of complexity involved in something, it’s hard to change. As we’ve gone through our transition from our Costa Rican adventure back to Seattle, and as I’ve started working for a company that is itself in transition, I’ve thought about change (a lot) and how to think about it. It’s a bit fitting that I return to that subject now as I transition the blog from the way we were “intentionally off path” before and the way we are “intentionally off path” now. If you noticed, this is the first post where I didn’t start with a sentence that snuck in a link to “our new adventure.” Change is good. But not everyone thinks so.

Perhaps because my brain is back in a more creative, problem-solving space every day now, I started thinking about how to categorize change. It worked in my noodling on engagement so I figured I’d try that again. The model is really simple. It’s a triangle – ironically, the most stable of shapes. And here, I’m looking at how people approach change.

change triangle

The Ridiculously Simple Triangle of Change

Resisting Change

People generally don’t like change and resist it. I see it all of the time in what I do. Change can be scary. Change takes effort. And it sometimes takes knowledge I don’t have. It’s easier to just stay the same. It’s safer not to change. It’s comfortable and safe. What happens if… And so on.

Is it any wonder why three of the biggest causes of stress involve major change – a new job or loss of one, a marriage or divorce, and moving? For many people, these don’t come around that often. Even if you are “practiced” in change, they can be very difficult. Often in these cases, though, what adds to the stress is that these changes may not be choices fully under one’s control.

Even when change would be extremely beneficial, some of us still resist it. It explains things like people staying in dead-end jobs they dislike, or abusive relationships. It might even explain the pattern of Italian men who still want to live with their mothers well into their thirties (52% according to one report). Sometimes, a well-known, familiar, if very unsatisfying situation is far less scary than what might be “out there”.

Even if we resist change, many of us will change if the alternative of staying where we are, in our view, is much worse. The metaphor that comes up in business a lot is the “burning platform.” It’s a situation ‒ a crisis ‒ that is so scary that it forces change.

The origin of this story, as I learned in writing this, came from Daryl Connor. There was a tragic oil platform fire in 1988. People who were on that platform had to essentially choose certain death on the platform or choose possible death by jumping into the freezing water. It’s been used a lot to describe situations where a company’s business situation is so dire that it must embrace change. As an example, you might remember Stephen Elop’s email to Nokia employees after he moved there from Microsoft and had to turn around the failing business.

The burning platform situation is a bit extreme, but it does highlight just how wed we can be to things remaining the same. I find it ironic that we as human beings, arguably the most adaptable of species, resist change so often. I think it’s because we are out of practice – but more on that in a bit.

Trying Change

The middle layer of the triangle brings up an interesting conundrum. Is “trying something new” a way of embracing change? I think so. I’m talking about human behavior here, so I do think it applies. After all, some of us go to the same stores and restaurants every time. Others of us actually like to try something new every now and again.

It boils down to the same situation: the “tried and true,” safe choice or the new, unknown, and perhaps scary, one. The basic behavior is fundamentally similar whether the situation is dramatically important or much lighter.

I find it compelling that children try new things constantly. That’s one of the ways they learn, whether it’s trying a new food or a big scary trick at a skateboard park (not that that‘s ever happened!) Kids also aren’t familiar with the concept of “failure” – until we adults teach it to them. You’re just trying stuff and sometimes it’s better and sometimes not.

This experimental attitude that is fundamental to kids sadly seems to get lost somewhere on our journey to adulthood. And like many things about our bodies, when we don’t keep something in shape through practice, well, it gets a little flabby. Somewhere along the way we reduce our appetite for taking risks and trying new things. Things that could lead to change.

Risk is indeed at the heart of change. Years ago I read a fascinating article about researchers using the TV game show Deal or No Deal to study economics (thanks to the Internet, I actually found it again here). In this worldwide show, contestants start with nothing and then choose among many suitcases, each of which has money. Each round, they can choose to stay with what they have, or trade for a different one. When people have nothing, they take risks. Then, when they have a lot to lose, they don’t. The same behavior that got them the money in the first place makes them very conservative and cautious. The researchers had a perfect “sandbox” for studying and explaining why we often make the choices we do.

As we get older, we do have a lot more to risk. Our appetite for risk, and for change, goes down sharply. We stop taking bigger risks and we stop making big changes, even though we might continue to take and make smaller ones. We “settle in”. But, this is something that we can change through a little practice. With apologies to Nev and Aidan (because they hear this a lot), to get good at something, you need to practice.

And when you practice change a good deal, the top layer of the triangle isn’t so daunting.

Seeking Change

As I think about change, “seeking change” isn’t about being satisfied with trying new things or embracing change when you need to. It’s a mindset. And it’s one shared by most kids. In my view, it’s a worthy state to achieve.

There is an element of constant exploration at this level of change. For any early explorer, whether the very early people who confronted a boundless ocean to see what’s across it to the brave folks who embrace “the final frontier” of space, exploration, by its very nature, is at peace with change.

Kids, too, seem to be in a constant exploratory state. It’s in their nature. It’s one of many things I think we can learn from them.

I’m not advocating that we all make major life-changing decisions every day. I am suggesting that developing a comfortable relationship with change has a number of advantages. One of the best in my mind is that it keeps us open to differences and learning new things. And that is something our world needs a lot more of.

I have heard a lot of people, inside and outside of business, use the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” as a rationale not to do something – often something that might lead to change. I never liked that phrase. It is so…static. Permanent. I work in innovation and that phrase pretty much kills the soul of innovation. More than anything, it set’s the bar of acceptability at “not broken.” There is so much more beyond that.

And looking at this simple triangle model, the way to get there is pretty straightforward. Start in the middle and try something new. Practice. Rinse and repeat. It does get easier.

This might sound a little too simplistic coming from someone who along with his family left everything and spent a year in another country. But it wasn’t always this easy.

Many years ago I worked at Stanford after graduation. I was married (the first time). I felt stuck in a relationship that wasn’t working but had a great job. I even turned down some pretty nice jobs because I enjoyed just going out and playing soccer at lunch most days. It was easy. I was settling. I didn’t want to change what had become very comfortable. I was open-minded to change, but not motivated.

Then, my marriage ended and I decided to move halfway across the country, quit my job, and go to graduate school. I met my soul mate and proposed 7 weeks later. Perhaps it was my “burning platform.” I’ve never looked back and now have a more fulfilling life than I ever could have imagined.

In the succeeding years, Deb and I “practiced” change a good deal. And it got easier. It was one of the big reasons we wanted to take the young adults to Costa Rica. Change isn’t something to be afraid of.

Now, in many ways, things seem to be settling into our pre-Costa Rica life again. Most of the big changes have been made. I’m not worried about becoming complacent though. We all, I think, have emerged from our adventure with a more flexible mindset about things. The more I think about it, the more I see change built into much of what we do over the next year and beyond. There are so many things to try and explore. It’s almost like we were kids again. Pura vida.

Differences (so far) – Part 1

Differences (so far) – Part 1

Day 50 of our new adventure in Costa Rica. It’s hard to believe it’s only been 50 days. In some ways, it feels like we have been here longer. In some ways, it still feels like a beginning, which it really is.

I’ve been writing down things over the last month or two that are different here compared at least to Seattle. Some are harder or more expensive. Some are easier, cheaper or better. I’m sure I will add more things as we go along but I thought it would be fun to share some of these, especially for those who are thinking about coming here for a trip or longer.

I’ll split the list in two and start with things that are better, easier, cheaper or just more exciting. A few caveats: these are coming from a former Seattleite, Chicagoan, and Californian who is living in a small town on the coast of Costa Rica, and not working. The comparison is clearly not “apples to apples”. And these are mine – I won’t speak here for Aidan, Vie or Debbie.

  • Sun
    I can’t even begin to say how energizing it is to see the sun and feel its warmth every day. Vitamin D is a wonderful thing too. I won’t belabor the point for our Seattle friends going through winter right now. 
  • Auto mechanics
    While cars and parts may be more expensive, auto mechanics are much cheaper. Tomás, our mechanic for Moose, is replacing shocks, engine valves, suspension struts, fixing all the electric windows, repairing the back door handle and adding new tires all for the price of about 3 hours (or less) labor in Seattle terms. It offsets the cost of owning a car a bit.
  • Produce (of the types that are available)
    On the up side, the types of produce you can find in Costa Rica are plentiful and cheap. We have a great local produce stand about 2 blocks away owned by Rafael. He’s such a nice guy and is always giving us a new interesting thing to try. One recent discovery – Peruvian cherries.
  • Futbol (soccer)
    Soccer on a grass field in the warm (OK, hot) sun at sunset playing with Ticos and learning their moves. In contrast, this last week it was 28 degrees at night when we would normally be playing soccer in Seattle. I don’t miss the rainy, cold, windy games (though I do miss our team immensely).
  • Medical professional access
    It is very easy to talk to your medical professionals here. We found great doctors. They gave us their email addresses so we can contact them through email if it was more convenient. What a concept! What is really surprising, though, is that they gave us their personal cell phone numbers as well.
  • No commute
    This one is low hanging fruit, I know, compared to Seattle and the Bay Area. While I loved my MINI Cooper Coupe, I don’t miss the quality time I spent with it every day in commute traffic in Seattle.
  • Beach volleyball
    I love beach volleyball. In Seattle, we had indoor volleyball, which was fun. We also had beach volley ball in a very cold indoor arena on imported sand. What can I say about getting back beach volleyball on a real beach in the sun. Like most activities here, though, you stop between 12 and 3 because the sand and the temperature are way too hot.
  • Speaking Spanish
    There is something very empowering about learning to speak another language. We are still working on fluency right now, but Deb and I have reasonable conversational skills. It’s been challenging at times, but very satisfying.
  • No American fast food
    The nearest American fast food chain is 90 minutes away in the closest big city, Liberia. No McDonalds, Burger King, Jack, KFC, etc. All the places here are local and we eat locally whenever we can. Of course, Vie does mourn the loss of access to Starbucks.
  • Soccer on TV
    It’s so great to see soccer on TV. Every night. And I don’t mean only during the World Cup on cable channels or the final World Cup matches on a major network. Almost every night we can choose from UEFA Champions or Europa league games, European premiere leagues, Mexican, South American, or Central American league games. The latter are usually live.
  • Not having to drive everywhere
    We only got a car to get to good surfing. Everything else – food, bars, grocery stores, the beach, yoga, soccer, haircuts, the doctor, etc. are all within walking or riding distance. We love not needing to burn gas every day.
  • Seeing Deb in her bikini every day
    This one is clearly personal, but I just had to list it. Life is good J
  • Surfing
    I never surfed in Washington. It was cold. More importantly, on northern Washington beaches you see trees thrown up on the shore from the surf, so that means as a surfer you’d be competing with trees! A more realistic comparison is snowboarding though. Surfing and snowboarding are nearly even. If I really had to pick one though, it would be surfing. Warm sun and warm ocean say it all. Oh yeah, and you can walk 10 feet to get a Margarita without having to take your equipment off compared to making it to a lodge on a ski slope.
  • Powdered Gatorade
    We do have powdered Gatorade in Seattle, but we had never tried it. We live by it here. Vie and I go through 6-7 bottles per day. Between the cost difference in powder vs. liquid and the fact that we grocery shop on bicycles, powdered Gatorade has become a necessity. One nice discovery is that you can make it a little sweeter. Sometime in the 2000’s I remember Gatorade tried out an “endurance” formula that was a bit sweeter and thicker. I loved it but they stopped producing it. I’m pretty sure was simply more concentrated and now we can make that ourselves.
  • Knowing a bunch of people in the area
    It is striking how quickly we have gotten to know a lot of people in our community. We walk down the street and see someone we know now and stop to chat. Whenever we go to one of our hangouts, like La Perla, The Shack, or Maxwell’s we know most of the folks there. It is a small community to be sure, but it is wonderful to have a community.
  • Pura Vida
    I’ll end with the most profound I think. Pura vida truly is a way of life here. It is one that we are loving every day. It’s difficult to describe just how completely different attitudes are here and how people approach life. Seattle and Silicon Valley, two places where I’ve lived a long time, tend to be very fast paced and intense. Yes, it can be exciting. It can also be complex, stressful, and overscheduled. I always felt behind no matter how much I got done. Time was a rare commodity and far too much of it seemed to be focused on work (including getting there and back). Going to and from places, we seemed to be focused on getting there; rarely saying “hi” to people and stopping to smell the roses. Even schooling is getting to be stressful and all-consuming.Here, everyone says “hi” to each other on the street (or “pura vida”). You get to know people quickly and easily. There is time to take time and smell the roses. One could argue that my comparison of my current and former lifestyle isn’t exactly fair, and it isn’t. But, I would argue that the “pura vida” attitude is that it is important to slow down and live life. It’s important to take the time. It’s important to enjoy doing things. It might be tough to make this work in a fast-paced, high-tech lifestyle, but I believe it is possible. I know “pura vida” is already having a welcome effect on me. And change is something to embrace.

Look for the List, part 2, coming soon.

Updates

We are settling into our new adventure here in Costa Rica. The bigger things in our lives are underway now, particularly our young adults’ unschooling journey. Amid the nooks and crannies of the last few weeks, we have some more mundane, but fun updates that we wanted to share.

We are now more mobile! We just got four bikes for all of us – three mountain bikes and one beach bike which we call the “grocery bike.” While in Tamarindo, we found a bike shop and got a great deal on them. This is a huge help for us since we had no other transportation and a very limited budget for car rental.

We had been walking everywhere, which is great to an extent. For some context, Surfside, where we live, is very small. It has a few fun bars, a grocery store or two, and a nice beach. Playa Potrero is the closest town. It’s about 20 minutes away and is also a small town. Playa Flamingo is bigger and has a hardware store, bank, rental car place, doctor and pharmacy, etc. It is about a 35 minute walk. Brasilito is about a 50 minute walk and Tamarindo (and surfing) is probably 3-4 hours walking.

The bikes give us convenient access not only to things like groceries but also our growing list of activities, starting with yoga. Deb and I found an amazing class in a huge cabana overlooking the beach. We go several days a week now. It’s not as challenging as P90X but it has its tough spots. We love it. And, well, you can’t beat the view!

I’m really excited about finally finding soccer! There is a pickup game in Playa Potrero Tuesdays and Saturdays. It starts late and ends when you can’t see the ball anymore. I’m the only gringo, though Deb will start going too.

Soccer here, as you might imagine, is very different from the league games we usually play in in Seattle. The group ranges in age from teenagers to someone else in their 50s besides me. Most are in their early 20s or 30s. And there are no women. The play is much more centered around fancy footwork, as you might expect. It is also very hot still late in the day and so this focus keeps the running more minimal. Of course, that’s not how I play. I play more like an American – lots of running and speed, far less on the fancy skills front. I was exhausted at the end of the game (not to mention the long walk home). But, I think I surprised a few of them. It was fun to hear a few whistles (more derision of someone who got “beat” than for the person who did it) when this 52 year old gringo beat several of the 20-somethings to the ball or took it from them and ran. J But, I’m looking at this as a great opportunity to learn the Tico way playing. Did I mention that I don’t miss the cold, freezing rain?

We found a gym in Flamingo so that Vie and I can start working out. Vie wants to start getting more toned. The bikes will make this much easier than the long walk there and back. It will be very hot working out there – so hot that they close from 12-3 every day. It should get us fit fast.

We also found some more hang-outs, each with their specialties. We initially found Maxwell’s and it is still our go-to hangout. It has karaoke Tuesdays, poker on Thursdays (yet to be tried) and the best dollar tacos on Fridays. La Perla, one of the oldest places, has karaoke on Saturdays and that’s a fun time. As an aside, karaoke seems big here. So do country songs (I better get my twang on before I try it). The Shack has really great food and gets local musicians in weekly. Our yoga class also eats breakfast there. It was started by a restaurateur from New York. On Sundays, El Coconut Beach Club has live music and dancing. We don’t go there for the food, though.

One of our most mundane, but fun activities is coming back from doing something hot and sweaty – which is pretty much everything here, including a bike ride to get groceries – and jumping straight into the pool. You can’t imagine how refreshing that is!

We’ve started finding a great rhythm here now. We’ve met a lot of fun people around town too and we see them everywhere (except soccer). It also underscores that Surfside/Playa Potrero is indeed a small town. Everyone knows everyone – and evidently everyone knows everyone’s business.

While we expect that we will mostly bike, we did have a transportation dilemma. Having no car means we can’t surf easily. Our beach really has no waves and isn’t even good for boogie boarding. Tamarindo and Playa Grande on the other hand are two of the best short wave long board surfing spots on the planet. Robert August (famous from Endless Summer) ranks Tamarindo as #1. And, Deb and I have become completely enraptured with surfing after we recently spend a few days learning to surf at the famous Witches Rock Surf Camp.

We have a budget for rental cars, but not enough to surf as frequently as we’d like. The rates also go up from $30/day to $150/a day in high season, December and January. Cars here are ridiculously expensive here – up to twice as expensive. One example: our yoga teacher is selling her 2006 Jeep Cherokee for $13,500. We can’t imagine though living here for a year and not surfing a lot. We love where we are and don’t want to move. Tamarindo is too touristy. What to do? Enter “Moose.”

Now everyone knows that if you find a dog (or rabbit, bird, etc.) that has no home, don’t name it. It is a sure sign you are going to keep it. Well, it works for cars too, evidently.

We found a car that looks like it belongs in the jungle, and that it’s been driving in the jungle for decades. It’s pretty beaten up. It has many beauty marks, missing pieces, and lots of character. We found it in a Facebook ad, took a test drive, had a mechanic check it out, and then, we kind-of named it.

moose

The picture we have here really shows Moose in his best light. Moose doesn’t have any computers (our MINI for example had 40), which means it is easy to fix. Moose is Japanese (a 1990 Mitsubishi Montero). In Costa Rica, Japanese cars/trucks are the best to own because the parts are easy to get, reasonably cheap, and the mechanics all know how to fix them. We expect to have to feed Moose many parts over time (in contrast, Jeep parts – and we love Jeeps – are crazy expensive). Moose was $3000. That’s actually less than what we budgeted for periodic rental cars, even when you add in needed repairs. And Moose comes with a mechanic, sort of. The person coordinating the purchase for the SUV is a fun Austrian mechanic named Tomas.

So, we are taking a plunge, and a risk, and buying Moose today. We have papers to transfer. In Costa Rica, that involves a lawyer. Then, Moose gets to go to the doctor and have a few things fixed. He probably needs a good bath after that as well. He’ll be our surf car. Once we have him back from the doc, add a few surf stickers, a surfboard rack, and some boards. Then, we’ll look like real surfers. We just need to get our skills on par with the look!

Pura Vida!