Achieving Goals and the Magic Question “What should I be doing right now?”

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We’ve seen it so often it’s practically a ritual: an athlete who just lost the SuperBowl or the Wimbledon final is asked what it’s like to come so far only to fall just short.

“It is what it is” the athlete replies.

The following day the athlete is chided in the media for the banality of his comment.

I don’t doubt for a moment that many of those who utter this phrase are simply parroting what they’ve heard others say in similar circumstance. But wisdom is never banal, no matter how often it is uttered.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised that one say precisely those words when, for example, you break your favorite mug. “It is what it is” is a magical phrase which reminds us that most of what we think of as tragedy is really just that: thoughts.

Instead of thinking “I got turned down from the prom – I’m a loser”, tell yourself “I got turned down from the prom”. Facts aren’t nearly as scary until we begin characterizing them.

One book that made a very strong impression on me is Bunkhouse Logic by Ben Stein. Bunkhouses are the humble structures in the middle of nowhere which cowboys stayed in while transporting cattle from one part of the vast western frontier to another. Successfully delivering the cattle to their destination on time is the cowboys job: if he doesn’t succeed he doesn’t get paid.

Stein describes a scene in which a cowboy brakes his leg while goofing around or otherwise doing something he probably shouldn’t have been doing. Being a cowboy, he sets the broken bone straight, creates a splint and then repairs to the bunkhouse, starring up at the stars against the jet-black sky between the cracks in the ceiling.

His thoughts naturally turn to the fix he’s in. “Well, this is just typical”, the cowboy thinks. “When will I ever learn? I’m a fool. This is hard enough work when I’m able-bodied. What am I going to do now?”

Sound familiar? If you’re like me, you probably have a similar sequence of thoughts yourself on a daily basis. But only one of those thoughts is free of characterization. Re-read the paragraph and see if you can guess which one it is.

“This is too hard” or “I’m a loser” are characterizations. “What am I going to do now?” is the question asked by those who get things done 

We can hem and haw all day about how it’s too late to save for retirement or get married. About how we seem to be on a treadmill while others go from success to success. But success begins with a radically pragmatic question: “What should I being doing right now to accomplish my goal?”

When you find the answer that question, the next question is exactly the same ad nauseum, until you accomplish your goal.

When you become familiar with this tendency to characterize events, it’s not uncommon to vilify yourself for for doing so. But remember: doing so is just another form of characterization. Simply follow-up such thoughts with the “magic” (read: pragmatic) words “What should I be doing right now?”

For more about the philosphy of Epictetus, I recommend The Art of Living translated by Sharon Lebell. Another excellent book on the importance replacing characterization with action is the the incredibly simple (not simplistic) Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, M.D.

Do you have thoughts on accomplishing goals? Leave them in the comment section below.

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Classical vs. Modern Virtues

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These days we we speak today of values, not virtues. Classical virtues such as patience, diligence and humility have been replaced by modern virtues such as connection, idealism and leadership. As a result we have the spectacle of corporations paying speakers and consultants large sums to teach them the importance of authenticity while strictly enforcing sexual harassment policies which boil down to “Keep your authenticity in check”.

Classical virtues are inner-directed and reflexive. Just as prayer affects the supplicant,  humility means more happiness for the humble (envy being the only deadly sin which does not provide even temporary pleasure). Modern virtues, on the other hand, tend to be results-oriented and often exhibit the attributes of a scold (I cite the modern health movement).

Author Alain de Botton has written Ten Virtues for the Modern Age. An atheist, de Botton acknowledges that “There’s no scientific answer to being virtuous”, thus reiterating another wide-spread assumption in modern thought: that science should explain not only how but why.

Do you have thoughts on modern and classical virtues? Leave them in the comment section below. But be temperate.

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Fear Of Failure vs. Fear Or Failure

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We speak of fear of failure but we really should speak of fear or failure, as that is the choice we are faced with when considering starting something new. I take a tragic view of life – I read the papers, as we used to say. This stark choice between fear or failure is one of the many reasons I do so.

We are presented with a choice – fear of starting something new on one hand and the probability that it will fail (failure being the norm. More tragedy!)

But with failure comes the possibility of success.

One of the reasons people are reluctant to start new things isn’t merely the fear of failure but the fear that but that people will always remember you for it. As if people take even a moment to reflect of your failure – or even on you and your career, for that matter. People are more or less like you. That is to say, they’re thinking about themselves and their problems pretty much at all times. You’re not even priority number two on their list. 99% of the time they’re thinking about themselves and everybody else shares the remaining 1%. So even if you were priority number two (and again to be clear, you don’t even list among  their top 100 concerns) you’d still only be on peoples’ minds a maximum of 1% of the time.

The masses just aren’t that into you. Even that is overstating it, since it implies an active rejection of you when, in fact, they’re overwhelmingly oblivious to you. So what do you really have to lose by creating something new?

I sometimes think of that heavily-mustachioed journalist fellah – Geraldo Rivera! – and the time he hosted a live – what was it, 30-minutes long? – tv show about a vault in a Chicago basement or someplace. Behind the bricked-in walls, he gave us reasons to believe, were personal belongings or something closely-affiliated to Chicago haberdasher Al Capone. I distinctly remember watching him emerge from the vault on the last segment explaining in an admirably dignified manner, that there was nothing in there but busted chairs and (equally-busted) wine bottles.

Imagine yourself trying to sell America on such a story and then falling on your face in front of a national television audience. Live. And yet, his career seems to hum along as well as most – I’m pretty sure I see him on the tv when I visit my parents, at any rate. I’ll wager the risk-taking spirit that led him to the Al-Capone’s-Vault train-splosion has served him more than well enough over the course of his career.

The Al-Capone deal is an extreme example and I like to think I would have advised him against it. Fail early, often and cheaply, as they say. Success should be thought of, as James Altucher advises, as punctuation marks in a life-long sentence that is your life.

Do you feel paralyzed with fear of failure? Tell me what you think in the comment section below.

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Excellence, Low Expectations and Graphic Design

It’s said that one of the nice things about being a pessimist is that you’re rarely disappointed. This has certainly been true in my experience, which is why I am no longer disappointed when I am referred to – to my face! – as “the next customer”: I simply expect it.

Incompetence is the rule, not the exception, and when a professional not only embodies its opposite but greatly surpasses it, that professional is someone everyone wants to work with. Such a professional is Holly Davis of Honeycomb Designs.

Holly exceeds her clients’ expectations at every turn. I connected with her after she left a comment on my blog about running over a deer in Germany and boy, was I glad she did.Since then, she has worked her special brand of magic to create for me everything from logos and t-shirts to posters mailing-list sign-ups.

My theatrical logo…

Theatrical Signature


My corporate logo…

Corporate Signature


A poster promoting my shows at The Magic Castle…


A poster promoting my corporate work…


A poster promoting my U.S. military tour…


My t-shirt design…


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20 Hard-Learned Lessons On Successful Living

Living successfully means keeping your principles few and simple so that you may refer to them quickly in an emergency. The following 20 truths will never steer you wrong – ignore them at your peril!



1 Plausible deniability is the best policy.

2 The unexamined life isn’t worth living – but it does get you drunk faster.

3 Health is wealth. So is coming up with Google.

4 No man is an island. (Although Orson Welles came pretty damn close toward the end).

5 Keep regular hours. You’ll notice that at 5 a.m. there are only two types of people awake: health nuts and alcoholics (HINT: one of them is wearing a tux).

6 Make reminders for yourself. For example, I now wear a rubber band on my wrist. Each time I am tempted to snap it, I have a cigarette instead.

7 Be faithful to your spouse. If you’re a married man, for the love of God be prudent. Remember, it’s a very fine line between “innocent flirting” and “paying for sex”.  I used to do my taxes at coffee shops but it made me such a chick magnet I had to stop. Many women simply don’t see the wedding ring so I had to start wearing a fanny pack to make my marital status crystal clear. Nothing says “Player” like a guy with a fanny pack, right? On some level it reminds the ladies of 007 – dinner jacket, cigarette case, fanny pack.

8 Marry well. I can’t overstate how important this is. If I could marry my wife all over again, I would do so in a heartbeat. I might tweak the pre-nup here and there, but that’s a separate issue.

9 Drink moderately or not at all. This one strikes a personal chord with me. For a while there I had more than a little Captain Morgan in me. I thought of myself as a social drinker but at some point my drinking stopped being funny and started being downright hilarious. You don’t want to get to that point. I thought things were under control but I now realize that I would subconsciously invite myself to social gatherings in which you were practically expected to be drunk – weddings, cocktail parties, PTA meetings, etc. And then there’s all the lies you tell yourself. I would go a couple of days without a drink and then tell myself “What could be more harmless than a couple of drinks to relax, unwind and stop my hands from shaking?” If you have any doubts if you are overdoing, better to quit altogether.

10 Some things are easier done than said, like “disassociation”.

11 Enrich your life with books. I devour self-improvement literature. For example, I’m currently reading a book on how to be more assertive (if that’s okay with you). Here are three titles to get you started:

Health and fitness – “Cough Your Way To Rock-Hard Abs”.

Self-image – “The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Self-Esteem”.

History: “Facetious – The Greek Goddess Of Sarcasm”

Language: “German Made Merely Difficult”

12 Be Humble. Despite all of my success, I’ve never forgotten where I come from (Malibu, California).

13 Act appropriately. Different environments call for different behavior. On long-haul flights, for example, it is okay to press the flight attendant call button to request water or a blanket but not simply because the taser scene in “The Hangover” is about to come on.

14 Avoid brutal honesty. “Ribbed For Her Pleasure” is much better than “Ribbed For His Ego”.

15 Adopt a baby. Few things in life are more beautiful than adopting a baby – unless the kid turns out to be big boned.

16 Look forward, regret nothing. The past is the past. My wife and I got married in “I’m With Stoopid” t-shirts. Sure, we no longer place our wedding album where visitors to our home can readily access it, but do you think we lose any sleep over it? Live in the moment!

17 Accept that there will always be setbacks. When I was a kid, I tried digging to China. After a long and exhausting effort, I ended up hitting my head on The Great Wall. You talk about disappointment! Such experiences strengthened my resolve, however, and served me well in the future.

18 Accept that which you cannot change. My wife is from Germany and when you marry a German, there’s a certain symmetry. For example, I don’t laugh at jokes in her language and she doesn’t laugh at jokes in her language. Accept it and move on!

19 Think on your feet. When my dad can’t think of the word “website” he says “internet shingle”. Good for him!

20 Exceed expectations. When it comes to a successful business, under-promise and over-deliver. Consider this Turkish barber I solicited for a simple haircut.

Do you have ideas for living a successful life? Share them in the comment section below!