Category Archives: Philosophy

The most important thing I do

No posts next week. I’ll be incommunicado, doing the most important thing I ever do.

I’m working as “responsible adult” (or as I like to tag myself, an “allegedly responsible adult), chaperoning a church trip. 23 ninth graders will be going to the Hopi and Navajo reservations in New Mexico and Arizona.

They’ll learn how other cultures live… ‘cuz it’s one thing to be taught that some people lead their lives differently, and another to actually be there and see it.

They’ll learn how to live on a bus for 10 days without killing each other.

They’ll learn how strong a community can grow when people accept each other for who they are.

They’ll learn that they can show others who they truly are, and be accepted and loved for that.

They’ll learn that their greatest value and beauty comes not from fitting in, but from the things that make them unique.

The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few

The first year I did this, I was amazed at the creativity, strength, intelligence, and beauty of the ninth graders on that trip. I’ve since learned that every group of ninth graders is equally creative, strong, intelligent, and beautiful. I’m amazed every year at the potential and capacity in our youth.

I must conclude, by extension, that this same potential exists in everyone. That every person has an amazing soul with amazing capacity for beauty and contribution. The harvest of our future society is plentiful indeed.

But the workers are few. A huge portion of that potential is being squandered or outright squashed, simply because there’s no effort to develop their unique gifts. Our teachers are poorly paid, and working in a system that allows very little individualization. Our schools are aimed more towards eliminating creativity, initiative, and courage than developing them. Parents don’t have time — between making a living and recovering from making a living — to help their kids grow, explore, and learn. And no one’s even telling them that they have options other than soul-destroying 40-hour-a-week jobs.

I want to make a world in which these kids don’t have to trample their own inner beauty in order to make a living. I want to make a world where more people can afford to take the time to help them grow. I hope someday that this blog will contribute to that, but for now, I’m helping ninth graders, one 10-day trip at a time.

May your next 10 days be equally important.

Can we all be rich?

I want you to be rich.

That’s why I’m writing this blog; in hopes that I can help you stop trying to make money from a dead-end soul-killing job, and figure out how to instead make money in a way that puts your income, schedule, and activities under your control. From there, you can use that capability to set your own goals, and change the world.

“But Raina”, I hear you cry, “We can’t all be rich!”

Ahh… but I think we can. And here’s why.

We are all rich

As the global standard of living creeps up, it’s easy to forget that it is creeping up. But if you go back far enough, it becomes obvious that it has. Let’s go back to 17th century Germany….

  • In most households, somewhere between 70% and 100% of the family income goes towards food
  • Most houses have one room. Maybe 2.
  • Dental care, antibiotics, and the germ theory of disease are all unknown (translation: doctors don’t wash their hands before operating on you.)
  • Water must be fetched from the well.

All of the following were luxuries available only to the rich:

  • Individual beds for family members and multi-room houses
  • A diet that varies from day to day
  • Glass in your windows
  • Water that doesn’t kill you
  • Chocolate
  • Multiple sets of clothing
  • Travel beyond, say, 10 miles
  • A means of transportation besides walking

And these weren’t available to anyone, no matter how rich:

  • Water at the twist of a handle
  • Indoor toilets
  • Double-paned storm windows
  • Insulated walls
  • Air conditioning / Central heating
  • Advil
  • Penicillin
  • Sudafed
  • Transportation that goes faster than 25 miles/hour

So it’s pretty obvious that in actuality, we are all rich. Every single person in the US and Europe, and many people in South America, Africa, and Asia.

But that doesn’t count… I mean someone has to be poor relative to others

Sure, but let’s take a step back here. Why would you even want to be rich?

Some people are competitive, and care about being richest. Fine; feel free — doesn’t bother me. But for most of us, being rich is not a goal in and of itself. We want to be rich in order to have the time and money to pursue what we really care about… whether that’s time with our family, deeper spiritual development, or saving the [insert disadvantaged lifeform here]s.

In fact, we’ve seen a transition over the last century towards a more equitable and level distribution of wealth: in terms of buying power, there’s no one as rich as Rockefeller and Carnegie were at the end of the 19th century, but there are a lot fewer people who are as poor as people were at the end of the 19th century. Some people think we’ve seen the end of the super-rich, and that the wealth distribution of the future will be between those with enough, and those with more than enough.

No, we can’t all be the richest person in the world. But we can all be rich enough.

But there’s just not that much money floating around

Not necessarily true, but let’s ignore that for the moment.

Maybe you won’t ever have a trillion dollars in your bank account. But again, take a step back and look at the reasons you want to be rich. I suspect you’ll find that Robert Kiyosaki’s approach is a better definition for you than any arbitrary net-worth figure:

“Rich” is not measured in money. It’s measured in time. How long could you go without working? That’s how rich you are

By this definition Thoreau, with his $0/year income, was rich, because he didn’t spend any time earning income. He could do whatever he wanted with his day, because he had no outside obligations.

Note that there’s no guarantee you’ll get to laze about all day: Thoreau actually had time constraints in growing the vegetables on which he lived and maintaining his house, and so on. But he was happy with the work he had to do, and could schedule his time however he liked, and so he was rich.

That’s what I want for you: to spend the day doing what you’d like; either because doing what you like makes you money, or because your earning money is independent of what you do all day. (Or some combination thereof). If you can earn your living by doing what you want, then I’m calling it “rich.”

We can all be rich

So yes, we can all be rich. There’s nothing unsustainable about it.

Resources for Further Reading
Is it evil to make money?
Eat Pancakes and Change the World
Forget the Lexus; Buy an Olive Tree
Homework: What do you care about?

I Still Don’t Know What To Do

The last 3 posts have been part of a series aimed towards developing a modern vision quest: a way to figure out what your talents and mission are, so you can become an active, productive adult member of society.

I’ve told you why I think it’s necessary, how to start identifying your talents, and how to start establishing a mission. But odds are pretty good that you still feel lost and confused.

The problem is, we’re not describing something that is quantifiable. I can’t tell you how to measure your mathematical capability, or your spacial reckoning, or your athleticism. And even if each skill were measurable, I couldn’t tell you which skills to measure, for there are an infinite number of possible skills and talents. So even though I’ve asked you to write them down, they aren’t actually the kind of thing you can really write down.

So unlike the annual planning series, you won’t leave this one feeling like you really know what you’re doing. But at least you’ll be thinking about the right things, and moving in the right direction.

Let’s start a conversation about what else needs to be included. What have you found helpful in your search for a mission?

Resources For Further Reading
What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? A Stupid Question

What Do You Want From Life?

This post is part of a series aimed towards creating a modern vision quest: how to develop your unique talents, circumstances, and personality into a role for yourself as an adult in society.

Two days after I started writing this series, a friend gifted to me a book called The Rhythm of Life. The book begins by pointing out the quiet desperation with which most of us live our lives, and argues that the way to avoid that lifestyle is to become the best possible version of yourself.

Early on, the author tells the story of speaking to a class of high school seniors before they graduated. He looked out at the class, full of eager, hopeful faces, ready to go out into the great big world and become part of it, and asked them, “What do you want from life?” He got in response:

  • Uncertainty as to whether the question was rhetorical,

  • Vague answers probably instilled by society rather than from actual desire, like “I want a million dollars” or “I want a beautiful wife.”
  • Some pretty good answers like, “I want to be a doctor so I can help people, reduce suffering, and make money.”
  • One really good, fully-thought-out answer, from a young man who hoped to be president, and had a plan laid out for college, law school, military service, local campaign involvement, and internships on Capitol Hill.

Most of us have no clear answer to that question. And so you end up living a Jimmy Buffet song:

    “It seems I have a problem in my present-day career:
    My ship she has a rudder, but I don’t know where to steer.”

Of course we feel lost and confused; we are lost.

What does that have to do with my work?

During her year-long happiness project, Gretchen Rubin discovered a principle she labeled the first splendid truth: To be happy, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.” People like to make progress; we don’t like to do things that don’t accomplish anything. But one of the most common reasons for feeling like you’re not making progress is that you haven’t defined what constitutes “progress”.

And it’s not a quick and easy answer; success is different for each person.

Example 1
I recently spoke to a software engineer describing a conflict within his company: marketing wants them to build on successful past projects, developing new material for programs that they know sell. Operations wants to build brand-new stuff with inspiration and elegance. Marketing says, “I just want to make you guys rich.” And it’s a compelling argument, because following that advice would make all the programmers rich.

But for most of the programmers, being rich doesn’t count as success. Oh, they’d all like to be rich, and they’re certainly hoping to find a middle road that will allow them to be rich. But almost none of them, if they’d gotten rich by re-hashing old material, would feel successful. They know they can do better work than that, and they would be ashamed to sell anything less than their best.

Example 2
I’m about as introverted as you can get, and am fully satisfied with the circle of friends that I have. I’ve no objection to meeting new people, but I don’t feel any particular urge to seek it out. But I just spent the weekend with some friends who love people. They love to meet people, to learn about people, to spend time with people. And I believe that if, on their deathbeds, they could look back at their lives and say, “I made as many friends as possible” they would count themselves as successful.

There’s nothing wrong with being rich, or having a beautiful wife, or being a CEO. But please don’t believe that those things will automatically make you successful. Only you can define what will make you successful.

OK…So Now What?

Chapter 2 of The Rhythm of Life ends thusly:

    Put this book aside now — and before you read on, spend five minutes or five hours answering the question for yourself. What do you want from life?
    Maybe you have already thought long and hard about this question but have never written it down. On the other hand, if you have never taken the time to seriously address the question, don’t pretend that you have. Take the time. Think it over. Write it down.
    There are no right or wrong answers. Write quickly. Don’t think too much. Don’t analyze or edit yourself as you make your list. Write everything down, even the ones you feel are foolish. Your answers don’t have to be definitive. They will change over time. That’s okay. In fact, some of them will probably change by the time you finish this book. But it is still important to write them down now. It will help you as you read through the rest of this book, and as you venture through the rest of your life. So write your list, and when you are done, date it.
    Stop reading. Put the book down. What you are about to write on that paper is infinitely more important than anything else I have to say in this book.

Like defining your talents, this is not a one-shot, no-problem exercise. In fact, like every other part of the vision quest, this is an ongoing, never-ending exercise. Start now. You’ll never be done, but you still need to start.

Resources for Further Reading
The Power of Clarity
A refinement of my happiness formula
The Rhythm of Life

Talents and Skills

Many times on this site, in discussions of how to decide on a business or what you want to do with your life, I talk about your talents and skills. Since most people use these terms interchangeably, I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss what I mean by them.


I use talents in the same sense as First, Break All The Rules, Now, Discover Your Strengths, and Strengths Finder 2.0. That is, a talent is an inborn ability or tendency to respond in a given way. (Actually, they say, your talents are set at a young age. But since I assume anyone reading this post is more than 5 years old, you can think of them as innate.) Some people, faced with someone else’s distress, will automatically try to calm them down; these people should go into medicine or counseling. Some people, faced with someone else’s distress, will automatically tell them to quit whining and get back to work; these people should go into coaching or the military. Getting these two groups of people mixed up will do no one any good: the “coach”‘s patients will feel terrible and the “therapist”‘s platoon will be ineffective.

In this sense of the word, we obviously all have talents — it’s not just restricted to artists and athletes. And since talents are not trainable, it’s important to make sure that your talents are matched up with the job you’re doing. You may have dozens of talents to a greater or lesser degree, but you probably have 3-5 that really stand out, things that you do or handle or learn much better than most people.

My talents, for example, are

  • understanding relationships between things
  • memorizing data (especially what I’ve heard, as opposed to what I’ve seen or read)
  • communication


Skills, in contrast, are things that you have learned. Although they will often complement your talents, they aren’t things that you were born knowing how to do. You had to learn them, and you could probably figure out how to teach them to others.

Almost any talent can be learned as a skill, although some are more difficult than others. My cousin is enthusiastic as a talent: given a situation, she will automatically start looking for reasons it’s good, and for ways she can jump in and participate. I’m learning it as a skill, by practicing every day, in every situation, to ask myself “Why is this a good thing? What can I do to be part of this?” My boyfriend has adaptability as a talent; he just isn’t bothered by even dramatic changes. I’m slowly learning it as a skill, building contingency plans into my strategies and reminding myself that nothing is set in stone.

And some skills aren’t talents for anyone. Nobody’s born knowing how to ride a bike or balance a checkbook. A talent for athleticism or precision may help you learn them faster, but you still have to be taught.

For example, I have skills in using Microsoft Excel (greatly assisted by my talent for understanding relationships), test taking (aided by my talent for memorization, public speaking (aided by my talent for communication) and building a business (not particularly related to any of my talents).

Knowledge Skills

Knowledge skills are a special category of skills, things that you “know” rather than things that you “know how to do”. The primary difference is that knowledge skills are easily transferable. For example:

If you know how many free throws Michael Jordan has successfully made in his career, you can easily put that knowledge in my head: you tell me the number, and now I know it. That’s a knowledge skill.

If you know how to successfully shoot a free throw, it’s much harder to put that knowledge in my head. Actually, you can’t do it directly at all. You can help me discover it on my own, by making recommendations on my technique and advice as you watch me try, but you can’t put “how to shoot a free throw” in my head. That’s a skill.

Knowledge skills are things that you know that you could write down or easily communicate to other people. They’re encompassed more in data or information than in how-tos or understanding.

Most skills have a host of related knowledge skills that come along with them. So most people who know how to create a trial statement of cash flows can also tell you what a cash flow statement is. But someone who knows what a cash flow statement is doesn’t necessarily know how to make one.

So what?

There are several ways that knowing your skills and talents can help you. The first and most boring is in applying for jobs. Although most HR departments want a traditional resume rather than a list of talents and skills, knowing your talents and skills can help you to communicate them more clearly to the hiring manager. And knowing what your talents are (and are not) can help you avoid jobs that you’ll hate.

Knowing your talents is also helpful in starting your own job, or starting a business. In order to succeed, you’ll need to offer something of value, preferably in a way that your competitors can’t duplicate. And your talents are a great source of non-duplicable value; by definition, they are something that you do better than most other people, and so they point towards things that others cannot or will not do for themselves.

Having a current list of your talents and skills is also helpful in planning for the future or deciding what course to take. What do you want to do with your life? Your talents point towards things that you’re likely to enjoy and be good at. Once you’ve selected something you might like to do, determine what skills would be needed. Any skills that you need but don’t have, start work on acquiring them.

What Next?

Unfortunately, life doesn’t have a source code where you can go to get a list of your talents and skills. There are lots of sources for coming up with ideas, but ultimately you’ll have to decide what terms and definitions fit you best.

The Talents and Skills Worksheet can help you get started. Sit down and brainstorm areas where you have natural talent, and related skills that go with them. Go through past resumes and professional certifications for ideas on your skills; look for repeating themes in your skills and your work history to get an idea of your talents. Sit down with trusted friends, family members, or coworkers and ask their opinions.

Keep this sheet handy, and jot down ideas as they occur to you. Over weeks, months, and years, you’ll start to get a feel for what you have to offer.

Resources for Further Reading
Multiple Intelligence Theory
Disc Communication Styles
Is Your Genius at Work

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