Tiny Homes I’d Like to Live In

At ~1,500 square feet, our family’s townhouse is like my jeans: although not tight, a little extra room wouldn’t hurt. I don’t want a bigger home for status. I’d just like more room to store skis and bikes. (We live in Vancouver, and spend a lot of time playing in the mountains.)

But, I’m of two minds. Another part of me wants to get rid of our house, buy a camperized Sprinter, and explore the country. In ways, these two desires are similar. I want our living arrangement to help facilitate more outdoor activity for our family. This is a common topic of discussion, for me—and I often find others share these sentiments.

For example, Mark and I had a conversation on Twitter about how to make our homes and workspaces smaller. Later, he pointed me to Tiny House Swoon: a microblog that showcases very small homes. Treehouses, bunkers, yurts, movable homes—so many possibilities!

Japanese Forest House
Japanese Forest House
Jenny and Michael’s Tiny House
Jenny and Michael’s Tiny House
Denver Treehouse
Denver Treehouse
Spindrift Cabin
Spindrift Cabin
Malibu Yurt
Malibu Yurt
My favorite: A Small Life Airstream
My favorite: A Small Life Airstream

Goals, Objectives, Habits, and Triggers

Image from Pyramid Building, by William J. Cromie, courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images
Image from Pyramid Building, by William J. Cromie, courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images

In yesterday’s post, I talked about resolutions. My post was incomplete, though, as I only touched upon how to make your resolutions real. Now, I’ll outline a mechanism you can put into action today.

The problem with most resolutions is that they’re extrinsic in nature. Your resolution might be to lose weight, be more successful, or earn more money. If so, I’d question whether you’re trying to live up to ideals that aren’t your own. I’m not passing judgement—in fact, I’ve had similar hopes in the past. But these sorts of desires are hard to realize—because they aren’t based on what moves you.

A way to get around this trap is to ask personal questions about the goals you set. For example: Why am I doing this? Why is this goal important to me? Why am I willing to dedicate all my energy to this?  You should ask these questions to avoid finding out that you’ve spent your life chasing something you didn’t actually want. And, if your goal is about changing how others see you, it deserves more thought.

Goals are more about direction than destination. Yours might be to live a healthier lifestyle. Your reason for doing so could be to experience life more fully. The point of this sort of a goal isn’t about “arriving.” Instead, it represents a state of being that you’ll likely want to remain within.

An objective is different; it’s something you’ll complete, and then replace with another. Think upon objectives like milestones. On your path to a healthy lifestyle, you could set an objective of participating in a 5km fun run. After you finish that race, you might ramp up to a 10km. Each of these objectives supports your larger goal. Try to limit your objectives to a small number (i.e. 1 or 2)—as more than this will become overwhelming.

Goals work over the long-term; objectives are more mid-term. In the meanwhile, you need to do something that starts moving you down your path. This is where habits come in. Habits are the bricks that you build your tower with. Even when individual acts feel inconsequential, they have enormous cumulative power.

If you want your habits to work, make them small. This allows you to repeat them without much strain. “Run 10km every morning” seems like a fine habit, but could be hard to repeat after a few days. So, try something smaller like, “walk to work.” Once you’ve done this for a few weeks, it’ll start to feel normal. This is important, as it represents the rewiring of your rituals and expectations. Soon, the notion of switching your morning walk to a run won’t seem like a big deal.

None of what I’m saying here is groundbreaking, or in any way new. Many have written about goal setting, habit formation, and the like. The part that has made a difference for me, though, gets less attention.

I’ve set goals. I’ve found excitement in objectives. But, I’ve had a tougher time with habits. I think this is because habits need time to become established as part of your daily routine. You’ll find that triggers will help with this.

Triggers are the small things you do to set yourself up for more automated actions. This might sound weird, so allow me to rephrase. If you need to think (at all) about your habits, you’re less likely to act on them.

Want to walk to work? Set aside your shoes, rain gear, and dry clothes (for after your walk), in advance. That way, all you’ll have to do in the morning is slide into your gear, and go. Want to eat a healthy breakfast? Put your smoothie ingredients in the blender the night before. That way, all that stands between you and breakfast is flipping the switch.

You can achieve almost anything you’d like. The problem most folks encounter occurs when they set goals that aren’t their own. Additionally, some fail to identify the small steps required to make those goals achievable. Meanwhile, some set conflicting directives—like wanting to earn more money and be less stressed-out. These mixed desires are an unintentional form of self-sabotage.

Find goals that matter to you. Choose objectives to work toward. Determine daily habits you can live with. Set up triggers that make action easy. Along the way, you’ll slip. That’s OK. Your setbacks are just temporary glitches—and not a matter to obsess over. But, every time you practice a habit, you achieve a small victory.

Just Eat It

As a kid, my parents had a rule: We could choose how much what we wanted to eat, but none of it was to go to waste. I appreciated the sentiment, and their belief in the value of food. As such, buffets still leave me dreading the amount of that food will end up in a dumpster.

Turns out, this is a legitimate concern. Approximately 40% of the world’s food goes to waste—which seems like a great travesty. Fellow Vancouverites Grant Baldwin and Jen Rustemeyer made the issue personal. They quit grocery shopping for six months, and survived only on discarded food. They documented the experience in their film Just Eat It.

The film is succinct, clear, and accessible. I watched it with my sons (5 and 8 years old). They enjoyed the film, and it changed how they think about food and waste. I highly recommend the film. It’s the sort of story that has the power to change behaviour.

Canadians can watch Just Eat It for free, courtesy of The Knowledge Network. Others can find a screening on the Food Waste Movie website.

Your Resolution

Photo: Gerry Brady

A new year brings possibility: a clean slate; a reboot; a chance to start over. For the first few days of one, you might feel equipped to make a change.

As days pass, the halo of newness fades. Your resolution starts to feel pointless, foolish, or hopeless. You realize you aren’t going to do it. You choose to be more “realistic.” This one’s too big. Besides, you don’t believe that you deserve the rewards that’d come from this change.

Others compound your doubts. Misery (or, complacency) loves company. Your peers worry that if you do as you intend, you’ll leave them behind. So, they repeat phrases like “resolutions never work”—because it’s easier to be cynical than take a chance. The pressure to abandon your resolution increases.

Let me draw you back. Your resolution isn’t unrealistic. Your goal is not unattainable. It isn’t a threat to who you are, nor to your friends. You deserve what will come from it. All that stands in your way is fear of change—but you can overcome that.

So, start with this: Find the smallest thing you can do to move yourself closer to achieving your resolution—and do just that. You needn’t do anything more. This small act is ample. Tomorrow, you’ll take the next step, and the day following, another. It needn’t happen fast—just keep going. (And if you fumble, start again.)

Trust me. You’ve got this.

The Shopping Maul

Photo: Celso Marchini
Photo: Celso Marchini

The following is a guest post, courtesy of Eric Benson.

In Canada and America, “Black Friday” (the day after Thanksgiving) is fast approaching. The ominous sounding name is hardly a bad moniker for multi-national corporations, as hoards of consumers flood parking lots, lining up sometimes as early as midnight to gorge themselves on salivating sale items. It’s the biggest shopping day of the year, and that means seemingly everything to most of the country. Black Friday was named in 1961 Philadelphia as city policeman used the term to describe the unorganized mess of people and cars lined up to shop early for the holidays. “Black Friday” slowly grew in popularity and was strategically marketed as vital to American culture (and more covertly necessary for economic prowess) until it secured the honor of “holiday” around 1975.

When director George Romero introduced the modern idea of the zombie in 1968, he created an enduring metaphor depicting the societal impact of rampant conspicuous consumption. His allegory for the consumer is a mindless empty shell connected to its fellow man only by its incessant need to be satiated by living flesh and blood. The zombie ingeniously represents the demise of free thought and critical analysis in society. Romero shows the horrors of humanity as well as the isolation and banality of our existence in a corporate-driven world. His 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead was set in a bustling shopping mall. It was not by accident that he chose this setting to broaden his commentary on the mindless consumption that drives much of humanity.

Romero uses the phrase “they’re us” to describe the zombies. He doesn’t say they “were us,” but instead makes the distinction that we have become inhabited by corporatism mindlessly needing to devour. So consumed that on “Black Fridays” all over the country, violence is common. Shoppers have been beaten, trampled, mauled, and pepper sprayed by their own in order to be the first to feast on the best deals of the day. So consumed that “Black Friday” now has spawned cousins like “Black Thursday” and “Cyber Monday” allowing the masses more opportunity to satiate themselves on the sales that help promote quarterly shareholder profits and CEO bonuses.

It is human nature to need; however we are being tricked to buy more than we need. Advertisers have been complicit in the creation of the droves of rabid consumers that pile into malls and big box stores on Black Fridays (and others) in America and Canada. Marketing and advertising help encourage the public to gorge themselves on beautifully packaged products through irresponsible messaging tapping into human psychology of wants and needs. The desire to fit-in and to feel confident and attractive are preyed upon to create the need to want more and fill those empty voids. Corporate powers facilitate the citizenship to ravage all the pretty objects in their path. Designer John Wood writes that “(i)n 2012, while consumers are clearer about their rights, rather than their responsibilities, Utopia and Oblivion remain equally probable. In this increasingly commercial world, the citizen’s economic duty is to shop until s/he drops.” Our hunger for more seems to overpower our critical thought, rendering humanity less likely to ask, “why are we consuming?” and instead leaves us as a form negated of content, searching for some new piece of technology to keep us happy until we are hungry again.

The GDP, created by the world through sales of our consumable goods, has put humanity on an economic pedestal we have yet to see in history. However James Gustave Speth (Vermont School of Law) writes in his 2012 book, America the Possible, that “while economic output per person in the United States rose sharply in recent decades… levels of distrust and depression have increased substantially.” It seems that personal belongings have surpassed valuing personal relationships and experiences. Speth further argues that “(d)ominant American values today are strongly materialistic, anthropocentric, and contempocentric.”

Oblivion seems possible as humanity currently exhausts to so much of our natural resources that we’d need 50% more Earths to fulfill our desires. The notion of an economy based on the type of growth demanded by our economists and bankers on Wall Street and beyond (3 – 4% annually forever) is fantasy. The 2009 film Collapse wisely proposes that when, “the infinite growth paradigm collides with finite resources and energy… the economy loses.” The planet simply does not have infinite materials and supplies of clean drinking water to support the conspicuous consumption that the “Black Friday” melee advocates. Mindless consuming in Romero’s mind is the definition of a zombie. We are those zombies he portrayed in his films gorging ourselves on the red sale items at Macy’s and the flesh and blood of our future. “They’re us.”

How You Will Die

Illustration: Gray’s Anatomy

Every time the flight attendants act out their safety instructions, I feel as though I’m partaking in something risky. Odds of dying in a plane crash: 1 in 400,000.*

Meeting one’s demise at another’s hands isn’t an uncommon fear, but it also isn’t that likely. Your probability of getting murdered: 1 in 16,500. (Perhaps higher in Detroit.)

Meanwhile, we may all be free of ever needing to ask Bruce Willis and Bill Bob Thornton to detonate a bomb on a rogue hunk of space-rock. Apparently, the lifetime risk of a catastrophic asteroid strike has dropped to around 1 in 200,000. Whew!

While few of the above would be pleasant ways to check out, neither do they represent significant threats. What’s bewildering, is that we concern ourselves with these improbable fears, while ignoring the most conceivable ones.

Taking top spot on the list of things that will kill you? Heart disease. No plane wrecks, hostage taking, or outer-space thrills—just a boring old case of the pump getting clogged.

Like so many things in life, we complicate matters by treating edge cases as high probabilities, while skipping the obvious (and easy to remedy).

The good news? By leaving work early, walking home the long way, and enjoying a good dinner, you’re taking direct action against public enemy number one. Isn’t it a pleasant surprise to find a remedy so appealing?


The risk ratios above are based on per-year calculations. These numbers shift over a lifetime (and seem to vary greatly depending on the source). For the sake of this post, I utilized data from the article Don’t Be Terrorized by Ronald Bailey.

Blisters, Wind, and Gnarly Drivers… A Cycling Odyssey

While you were sitting on the couch, watching True Blood, Geoff was busting his ass. Cycling across the country—from Vancouver, BC, to St. John’s, Newfoundland—he covered a total of 8,400 kilometers, over 81 days. He also took a few (85) stops, all while celebrating his 50th year on the planet.

Twin Hills

Eric: So, you’re on the road right now. Tell me where you are, and what you’re doing.

Geoff: We have been slowly making our way back to Vancouver. We are currently in Niagara Falls. VanGo, our 1984 VW camper van, decided to entertain Canada Customs with a steam and antifreeze show as we crossed the border. So we are “camping” in the Canadian Tire parking lot hoping that they can fix a blown radiator hose tomorrow, a Sunday. I think that this is VanGo’s sixth visit to the mechanics along the route.

Eric: That sounds unpleasant. Ever thought about upgrading your ride? 

Geoff: We bought VanGo shortly before starting this trip. The form factor worked well for us but it turned out that this one was not so good. We have stayed in a lot of campgrounds over the summer and have looked at and discussed the pros and cons of various vehicles that we have seen. Aside from a more reliable RV, we think that a slightly larger one would have worked better. Our current thinking is that something based on the Daimler-Chrysler Sprinter would be a better fit for us for long-term touring.

Eric: This comes after a trip you took on your bike. Can you tell me a little about your journey?

Geoff: Starting on May 20, I rode for 81 days, 16 weeks of elapsed time, and a total of 8400 km from Vancouver, BC to St. John’s, NL. My wife Rochelle drove VanGo as a support vehicle. The route took as many back roads as possible and often zigzagged as we tried to visit as many friends and relatives as possible along the way.

Eric: What compels someone to do such a thing?

Geoff: It was really a number of things that came together at the right time. The initial spark came from Rochelle who wanted to do something special for me for my 50th birthday although she had some other ideas, including driving Formula 1 cars in England. I have often admired stories of others that have done cross Canada bicycle trips but never thought of it as something that I could do. Last fall, I came across a blog post by Brek Boughton, who was attempting to ride to the Arctic Ocean and back from Vancouver in the winter! While that just seemed suicidal to me, he had mentioned riding across Canada a couple of years ago. This fit perfectly into the hole of “what to do for my 50th”. It also reminded me of my cousin, Tim, who did the ride 5 years ago before succumbing to cancer. I just had to do it.


Eric: Tell me about Tim.

Geoff: Tim was actually the son of my cousin and was diagnosed with leukemia at age 14. At 17, the leukemia was gone and he did a cross Canada tour in support of childhood cancer call the Spokeman Tour and it was very successful. He was seen as a real hero in Airdrie, AB where he grew up. Not long after the tour was over, the cancer came back and he eventually succumbed to it 3 years ago.

Eric: A friend recently took a long bike trip. He thought it would give him time to think about his life. Instead, he spent the whole time thinking about his cadence and the next hill. Was this the same for you?

Geoff: Not really. I wasn’t expecting to think about anything in particular. I’ve always found cycling to help me think though things that are on my mind. As a software developer, a couple of hours of cycling have often helped me to resolve technical or design issues that I had been working on. I did some of that on this trip. I would work though some designs while on the bike and then work on implementing them afterwards.

I have also gotten into listening to technology-related podcasts while riding (using a single headphone for safety) in low traffic areas. This allows me to keep up with technology and get some exercise at the same time. I listened to a lot of podcasts on the trip.


Eric: I’d imagine that Rochelle had a lot to do with this trip being a success. Can you tell me a little about your relationship, and how she contributed to the journey?

Geoff: Rochelle was a huge part of the success of this trip. The trip was originally planned as a self-supported trip. That would have been a lot tougher. Not only would I have had to carry everything that I needed, Rochelle and I would have been apart for long periods of time. That is not something that either of us wanted. As it turned out, her summer freed up and we changed the plans to have her drive a support vehicle. She did just about everything other than pedal the bicycle. She managed our overstuffed van, keeping it stocked with food, cooking great meals, making sure she caught up with me a couple of times a day to make sure I was well hydrated and feed. When I would arrive at the campground in the evening, she would be there to welcome me with the van all set up for the evening and a hearty meal.

She was also great at encouraging me when times where hard. We work really well together and I think that we do a good job of supporting each other when we need it. This summer, I needed a lot of that kind of support.


Eric: What were the hardest things about the trip?

Geoff: Wind was by far the hardest thing. Riding east was supposed to provide me with more tail winds than head winds but that didn’t seem to be the case. I would guess that I had 3 days of big head winds for every day of big tail winds. The winds across the prairies were the worst. The days where I fought head winds all day were not fun.

There were also a lot of highways that were not great. A few times, I ended up on roads that had heavy traffic and little or no paved shoulders. When I could, I would get off of those roads and find some alternate route but sometimes that was not possible. Riding for hours on a road with cars flying by you at high speeds within inches was nerve-racking.


Eric: Got any blisters you want to tell us about?

Geoff: Surprisingly, few blisters. I started the ride with a well broken-in pair of cycling shoes and my brother-in-law bought me another pair in Detroit as we passed by his place. Both pairs of shoes worked well. The most problematic part of my body was my hands. I did get a few blisters on my palms and built up some pretty good calluses. I completely destroyed two pairs of cycling gloves along the way. I think that I probably lean too much on my handlebars.

Eric: Did you ever just want to pack it in?

Geoff: The only thing that had me thinking about packing it in was VanGo. The constant worry about a breakdown and the disruption of the breakdowns we did have was more troublesome than anything else on the ride. Spending 5 days in Grand Forks, ND, 5 days in Fredericton, NB, and another 7 days in Vermont waiting for repairs were not great for the spirit.

The actual riding went along pretty smoothly. I only had 6 flats the whole trip and had to replace the rear wheel after hitting a bad series of potholes. Even the 5 straight days of 40+ °C weather went remarkably well.


Eric: Conversely, what were the best things?

Geoff: Spending the summer on an adventure with Rochelle was the best thing!  Setting an outlandish goal and accomplishing it was amazing. I also had 81 days of riding into what was almost completely unknown territory for me. There was always something new to see around the corner. Nothing was ever repeated.

Eric: Did you learn anything about Canada that you didn’t know before?

Geoff: Lots of little things but nothing that really stands out. About a third of my trip was in the US and there were some pretty eye-opening things there. The incredible poverty and abandoned neighbourhoods were very disturbing.


Eric: If you were to return to one part of the country, to spend a summer, what would it be?

Geoff:  The Maritimes and Newfoundland. It was my first experience in that part of the country and I felt that I only just scratched the surface. The coastline and various little villages were amazing.

Actually, one of the problems with doing such a long trip was that there was very little time for side trips, or to stop and look at anything in more detail. We tried to be nimble and changed our route several times to get more out of the trip but there were still so many things that we just passed by in order to cover enough distance each day.


Eric: If one of the readers were to be interested in taking a trip like yours, how would you suggest they prepare?

Geoff: A lot of people have done similar trips so there are many blogs on the Internet describing each of these journeys. There are lots of good tips in those. I found Quidi Vidi, the place that I “dipped my wheel in the Atlantic” that way.

Some training is required but you can ramp up to a reasonable pace while on the trip itself. I have been a regular recreational cyclist for most of my life but I really only started to train for the trip about 4 months ahead of the trip. By the end of that training, I was only doing about 1/2 of the 600 km weekly distance that I hoped to cover on the trip itself. For the first week, I was a little behind the pace I had planned but the rest of the trip was better than my plans.

Eric: What does one absolutely need to own for this kind of a bike journey?

Geoff: Obviously a bicycle. It doesn’t have to be particularly special, just something that you are comfortable with and of good enough quality that it will hold up reasonably well given the distance. I used a MEC cyclocross bicycle that I had been riding for a year. Most would go for a touring bike but I just rode the bike I had.

A variety of cycling clothing. There were a lot of cold and wet days at the beginning and end of the trip. Leg and arm warmers and layers that allow for quick adjustments were really helpful. I used a backpack with a 3L water bladder in it. That provided me with most of the water I would need for a day, if it wasn’t too warm. With the bladder full of ice, it made 40°C days bearable. I also used 3 rear flashing red lights and 2 flashing front lights. I wanted to be as visible on the road as possible. I also had mostly bright cycling clothing for that same reason.


A smart phone mounted on the handle bar was really valuable. Rochelle and I used Google Latitude to keep track of each other and we used Latitude to put a real-time map of where I was on the website. The Google maps were great for finding a good route each day, I did frequent posts on Facebook. I also had my podcasts on the smart phone. Dealing with cellular coverage issues in two different countries was a challenge. We ended up with 4 smart phones, 3 MiFis and a variety of accounts with a lot of different carriers to be able to keep contact with each other and to continue to run our business as if we were not travelling. Still, we found many areas where there was no cellphone coverage, let alone cellular Internet.

Eric: So, what’s next? Any big trips/adventures in the works?

Geoff: I had to think about this one for a bit. The short answer is “no” but there are lots of ideas brewing. There are no plans for another bicycle trip across another continent although I wouldn’t completely rule that out. Maybe in a couple of years I will have that urge again. I would very much like to do some more focused rides such as the Kettle Valley Railway or riding though the Alps and Pyrenees in Europe. I have found that riding through mountains, both on and off road, is one of my favorite things to do. I am also looking at joining the BC Randonneurs and doing some of the extremely long rides that they do.


It is interesting that our 4 months in a little camper van was something that both Rochelle and I enjoyed. A VW Westfalia is really too small for an extended trip like this, at least for us, but it did give us a sense of what a modern nomadic lifestyle would be like and we really liked it. Now that we are home in our 1,200 sq ft apartment, it seems so big and unnecessary. We are now contemplating downsizing and going permanently mobile. We could travel throughout Canada and the US using the weather and interests to guide us. I could do some cycling much like this summer’s trip but there would be no hurry and no real goals. We could stop and hang out at interesting places for an extra day or an extra month. On our trip, we met a Swiss couple—Kathrin and Peter—who had put their vehicle in a container, sent it to Halifax and were on a year-long North and South America adventure. I could see us putting our vehicle in a container and following it to other parts of the world. It will take a lot of reconfiguring of our lives to get ready for this, but we are working our way towards that goal. This summer’s trip was a huge first step in that direction.

Eric: Thanks for sharing your trip with all of us, Geoff! 

Geoff: Thanks for the opportunity to share my story!  I hope that it inspires others to do something special. The important lesson from my trip is that a 50 year old, with no special abilities in cycling, could tackle and complete such an outrageous goal.


What’s Your Escape Plan?

Photo: The Library of Congress
Photo: The Library of Congress

Imagine being on a run-of-the-mill flight and suddenly finding yourself torn from your seat and pushed out the door. The recent economic collapse was a bit like this for some. A lucky few were fortunate to realize that they had a parachute, and that their new destination was more agreeable than where they had previously been headed.

We often gravitate toward comfortable situations and find ourselves taking the familiar for granted. This can lead us to miss out on experiences, while simultaneously robbing others of having their kick at the can.

Consider your job. Upon being awarded the position, you were one happy camper. You called Mom to tell her the news, met friends for celebratory drinks, and experienced the light euphoria that a new adventure brings.

Day by day, the position became more comfortable. You started to feel at home in it. The things that intimidated you became commonplace. Eventually, it didn’t even seem that exciting; instead, it was just a job.

Given a long enough time span, any activity will lose its luster. Your actions at these times make the difference between leading a brilliant life or an ordinary one. Thoreau puts the odds against you, noting, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I say it’s more a matter of learning to recognize situations and deciding to react to them deliberately. More than that, I feel we all need to have an escape plan.

Nothing gets you down like thinking that you don’t have options. This belief will form an invisible cage around you, leaving only a shadow of your former self. You have been, or seen, this person before. Their eyes are deadened, they move without spirit, and they wear no joy on their faces. This is no way to live a life.

For those individuals being tossed off the plane, there was likely a moment of sheer horror at the outset. This likely gave way for those who learned of their parachutes. Imagine the excitement and thrill of realizing that they were OK—and that they had a world of opportunities unfolding before them.

An escape plan is a blueprint for an alternative path. Having one doesn’t mean you’re leaving behind, or that you dislike, where you’re at. Instead, it’s a continual reminder that you have options. Knowing this leads you to prepare (e.g. saving a little money, should you need to act) and provides a potential course of action for any dire situations.

It also slows you from taking today for granted. What you’re doing will come to an end. In the meanwhile, you’d best learn from it all you can. This means you can be here now, and move on to new experiences having wrung all the life you could the times that came before.

Along the way, you might even like to plan some mini-escapes in the form of walkabouts, sabbaticals, and unexpected excursions that force you to explore new territory.

There’s nothing wrong with a little comfort, just so long as it doesn’t become suffocating.

Life is a Laughing Matter

Photo: State Library of New South Wales
Photo: State Library of New South Wales

It shot up at a 90 degree angle. After 3 or 4 inches, it banked hard and raced back—paying little mind to the bald crater it could no longer mask. This Brylcreem-dependent pompadour was a curious thing; it served as my introduction to an equally curious man.

Gene and I never really “clicked.” I was young, somewhat abrasive, and my humor favored the absurd. This left Gene ill at ease. For the next five years, he’d find amusement in teasing me about how he loved steak (I didn’t eat meat, then). I, on the other hand, took enormous pleasure in offering him a hug. This left him flustered and sometimes angry.

One day, Matt (our IT guy) called me into his office. He wanted to show some VNC software he had been testing—something rather novel, at the time. It would allow him to log in to company machines remotely, when issues arose. At some point in our talk, we found ourselves connecting to Gene’s computer.

(This seemed like a delightful opportunity.)

We first opened a folder and closed it. No reaction. We then pushed things further, randomly resizing images he was scanning, and forcing them to open/close without him prompting such actions. After a while, Gene piped up, “Uhh… Matt… I think my machine has gremlins or something. Can you take a look?”

As the newspaper’s tech, it was Matt’s job to make these things run smoothly, so, he made his way to Gene’s machine. Upon his arrival, it (surprisingly) resumed normal behavior. I tried—not so successfully—to mask my laughter, as Matt stood patiently beside Gene, waiting for the computer to show another sign of this strange bug.

Finally, my fellow prankster made his way back to his office. We sat quietly for a while, in an effort to maintain the jig, and then resumed our shenanigans.

For the next hour, the game continued, with Gene little the wiser. To his credit, computers were somewhat foreign to him, which likely made the notion of a remote session almost inconceivable. Still, I thought we were throwing him a bone, when we opened a plain text document and started to type (and repeat) the words, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Alas, no.

Finally, we fessed up to our prank. Gene was confused by the whole matter and returned to his station. Most everyone else found it quite funny.

My role with this company was so tedious that I rarely gave times like this much thought. I wanted to move on, do more exciting things, and take on a position that challenged me more. This left me treating my time there like a layover, instead of seeing it as a significant part of my life.

Last week, Matt was caught in a freak accident. His car collided with a semi, killing him, his wife, sister, and his two teenaged children.

Your life is not a dress rehearsal. The moments you have are exactly what they are. You cannot script, edit, or revisit them. The only chance you have of living a full life is to appreciate experiences for what they are.

Sometimes, this means enjoying a good joke with a friend.

Is There a Method to Achieving Happiness?

Every once in a while, I think I’ve heard enough about Stefan Sagmeister. The darling of the design community, many of his efforts have become seemingly ubiquitous in design annuals, shows, and publications. Then, he turns around something like the visual system for Casa da Música, and I’m blown away by how bright and limitless the man’s work can be. Recently, I reconnected with him to discuss his latest project: a film about happiness.

Eric: Are you happy?

Stefan: Yes, quite, in the last months I scored a 7.9 (out of 10) in July, a 7.4 in August and a 7.0 in September.

Eric: You have spent a lot of time contemplating happiness. What led you down this path?

Stefan: I was always interested in how design touches me emotionally, and eventually put a talk together titled “Design and Happiness” (which had slowly evolved out of another presentation called “Can Design Touch Someone’s Heart?”). We’ve received a lot of excited feedback about that talk. During the last sabbatical, when I looked for something meaningful to do with my time, that same subject came up again.

Stefan Sagmeister wants to give viewers a kick in the ass to explore their happiness.
Stefan Sagmeister wants to give viewers a kick in the ass to explore their happiness.

Eric: Tell me about the film you are making.

Stefan: When I did research for this film and read many, many psychology books on happiness, I found that whenever a scientist talked about something that had actually happened to her, a personal experience, I took this much more seriously than when she wrote about a survey she conducted. So I changed the direction of the film from a general documentation on the subject to focus mainly on personal experiences, hoping that viewers would have the same reaction as I had.

The film in itself will not make viewers happy (in the same way as watching Jane Fonda exercise wont make you lose weight), but I do hope that it might be the little kick in the ass to some viewers to explore these directions, like meditation or cognitive therapy.

Hopefully it will be a proper look at major strategies serious psychologists recommend that improve wellbeing; they include meditation, cognitive therapy, and psychological drugs. I will try them all out and report back on the results.

Eric: What stage is it at? When will we be able to see it?

Stefan: The film will be visually driven and should be done by fall 2013. We’ll submit it to festivals around that time.

Eric: How is the process of making a film impacting your journey to understand happiness? Is it a distraction, or is it adding to the journey?

Stefan: The film is a huge part of it! I would have never had the stamina to read 3 – 4 dozen psychology books and visit research psychologists without the project of the Happy Film on my hand. I selected the topic in part because I hoped that the journey of the making of the film would be exciting in its own right. This proved right.

Eric: Hillman Curtis was working with you on the film. All of us who had followed his work were shaken by his recent passing. How do you continue a project like this with your collaborator no longer being there?

Stefan: This was such a very sad story. And a rather odd one too, considering Hillman knew for a long while that he was not going to be alive much longer and nevertheless worked on the Happy Film right up until the end. We had talked about it and he really wanted to be part of it. We will continue, albeit of course, in a very different way as we just don’t know how to replace him or his tremendous contribution. We’ll have to make do.

A still from Stefan’s new project: The Happy Film.
A still from Stefan’s new project: The Happy Film.

Eric: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned through your exploration, so far?

Stefan: That film is really, really difficult to do, and, that my visual background amounts for very little when it comes to crating a 90 minute piece. Also, that serious effect on wellbeing can be brought on by very tenacious training.

Eric: What makes you unhappy?

Stefan: Being around a lot of unhappy people at airports (it’s infectious). Having to do things again because of bad organization. Answering long interviews. Actually, no, I like answering interviews. It’s very easy.

Eric: Have you discovered new ways to make yourself happy?

Stefan: Nothing new, just confirmation of the old: Falling in love makes me happiest.

Eric: Through your studies, is there something that you’ve uncovered, relating to how we misunderstand what we’re meant to do? Allow me to clarify: After all that thinking about happiness, is there something you see everyone else doing that makes you wonder: “Are you crazy? Why do you keep doing ____?”

Stefan:  For me, 15 minutes of running in the morning has a bigger positive impact on my well being during the following day than 30 minutes of meditation has had. When I told this to a bunch of neuroscientists at Columbia they stated very matter of fact that most authoritative research would back me up on this.

Eric: If you were to give advice on happiness—and I acknowledge that this is a tough question—is there one thing you’d suggest?

Stefan: Write down 3 things that worked for you each evening, things you might be thankful for. I started an iCal calendar that contains this and I just spend 5 minutes each night doing it. This is an exercise from Marty Seligman, the founder of positive psychology. It works.