Removing Plants: A Metaphor

Here’s the scenario: You have a flower bed. It’s empty right now, but once you plant anything in it, other things will start to grow spontaneously (don’t measure this against a real garden it won’t help the exercise). Also, you’re only allowed to grow two plants at any given time. In order for two plants to live there must be no other plants in the shared soil. You pick whatever plants you want (an orchid and a strawberry plant for example). Once you plant those, in order to keep them alive you have to do all the typical things you would think of like water them, but also, you have to constantly be uprooting and removing other plants that try to grow there.

The physics of the flower bed (again, not real) only allow for two plants to grow. Once a third, fourth, or fifth plant begin to grow, all the plants die and you’re stuck with a flowerbed full of dead plants.

Sounds simple enough, right? Just plant two things and then remove anything that comes up. No big deal.

So, now let’s leave metaphor land and go to real life. The flowerbed is your life. The plants are your goals. As a limited singular human being you can only accomplish x amount of goals at any given time. I used the number ‘2’ in the metaphor, because I think that’s what my brain’s capacity is, but you can judge that for yourself.

If you’re like me, you wanna do a bunch more than two things. I wanna act, write, sing, do stand up, improvise, teach, do voice over, hosting, etc. But I have proven to myself that when I choose to pursue more than two goals all of them suffer. This is the classic idea of ‘spreading yourself too thin.’ I’ve heard it my whole life. I believed it to an extent. But I still wasn’t growing in any venture to the extent I wanted. Why was that?

The reason is because while I was focusing all my attention on just a few goals (watering just two plants) I failed to remove other growing plants. I gave up stand up when I moved to Chicago to pursue improv. So, I removed a plant. But what I didn’t do was go on active patrol for emerging plants. I said ‘yes’ to everything that came my way. I performed so many shows for so many entities – some of which I didn’t really want to do. But I didn’t know how to say ‘no.’ I didn’t even know how to assess what I should say ‘no’ to.

Before I knew it I was constantly busy, but doing very little advancing.

My point is that you have to be in charge of not only pursuing your goals, but also of eschewing the things that look like good ideas, but do not help your goals. They are well intentioned, but they are distractions. Would you rather look like the circle on the left (that has sent many arrows a small distance) or on the right (that has sent one arrow and only one arrow a far distance)?

The circle on the left has a bunch of arrows, but has only sent each one a short distance. The circle on the right has sent one arrow a far distance.

The circle on the left has a bunch of arrows, but has only sent each one a short distance. The circle on the right has sent one arrow a far distance.

Don’t just water and take care of your plants by focusing on them. Take care of them by removing the others vying for space in your limited flowerbed.

Thanks, y’all!


PS. The image comes from the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown that I highly recommend to everyone.

Happy 420 Day!

I rarely advertise my use of controlled substances. I mostly don’t want to sound like some douchebag stoner who pushes my agenda. But today, I’m going to suspend that personal policy and risk the fear.

Today is 4/20. I’ve read a lot about the potential origins for the term 420 as it applies to marijuana and the consensus seems to be: no one knows for sure where it came from. However, much like many other phrases and holidays that we don’t know (or don’t care to look up) the origin of, this ‘holiday’ is firmly entrenched in the current popular psyche.

Growing up in the Reagan years I remember hearing ‘just say no’ so often. I was part of the D.A.R.E. to keep kids off drugs program. I looked down on anyone who did drugs. I did so  without knowing anything other than the anti-drug propaganda information.

I never did drugs in college. I don’t recall being offered any now that I think about it. I may have been at a party where a few ‘weirdos’ were smoking in the back, but I can’t even say that for sure.

My first drug experience was when I was (wait for it) 29 years old. I didn’t have my first drink of alcohol til I was 26 either. So, I’m a late bloomer to both vices.

I remember being really scared. ‘What if I have a bad reaction?’ ‘What if it changes my fundamental personality?’ ‘What if outcomes unknown happen that are ultimately bad?’ I wasn’t even really sure what I was scared of. I was just scared of the potentially unknown harm.

Well, I’m 33 now and I can tell you that nothing that I can think of happened that made me regret it. I’m not addicted. I know, because I’ve researched a lot about addiction and I don’t seem to fit any of the signs. I take a week or more away from pot every 6-8 weeks for no other reason than to prove to myself that I can. I look at weed like working out. I can go a few weeks without working out, but I don’t like to and I’d rather not. Of course, I don’t believe that pot has as many benefits as working out, but I do believe it has some.

I’m a writer (not a professional yet, but a writer all the same). And I’m also super easily distracted by facebook, email, youtube, my puppy, Netflix, and any shiny object that crosses my vision. Writing takes focus. I don’t need to be high to write (I’m not high right now for example), but when I’m feeling really distracted or jittery pot really helps me. I don’t drink coffee, so I don’t know this for certain, but my friends who drink coffee sometimes say that they have a much more difficult time in the morning if they skip their wake up drink.

I try not to judge people for drinking coffee or anything else. And for the most part the people who I love and care about either don’t or likely won’t judge me for knowing that a few hits of a joint help me to write or relax. Keep in mind, I also use it recreationally. I’m not making the case that I only use it for purely pragmatic reasons. I also sometimes just enjoy being high in a social situation.

Marijuana is not a perfect substance. Neither are hot dogs or bottled water or sugar free gum. There are drawbacks to everything. But at the end of the day I see no evidence to dissuade me from consuming pot. I don’t let it get in the way of my work. I don’t feel that it hurts me in any measurable way. It might. And I’ll be the first to read whatever article/study you send me about it and reconsider my opinion.

However, I feel that the tide has started to turn on pot. It’s recreationally legal in four states and the capital of our country. It’ll be on the ballot for several more soon. In my current state of California it’s recreationally legal in every sense but name.

So, if you don’t use pot that’s totally cool. I don’t want to ‘sell’ you on doing it in any shape, way, form or fashion. But I would like to sell you on the idea that judging others or worrying about others who do use it is unnecessary. Sure, there are some potheads who need to get their act together. And maybe part of that process will involve giving it up. I have to limit my time playing video games to once a week, because I get addicted to playing them and everything else suffers. However, many people can use pot as an enhancement to their lives without letting other parts suffer for it.

As someone who rarely drinks alcohol, I’m still happy to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. I just won’t be at the bar when I’m supporting your right to get drunk at 11AM (this is particularly true in Chicago where I lived for 8 1/2 years).

So, I say to all my fellow pot-heads, occasional users, former users and non-users…

Happy 420 to everyone!

Thanks, y’all!

Middle School Me (Writing Your Life)

I love to write. I’ve written stand up jokes, songs, short stories, novels (as of this writing none are finished, but I will finish one soon), sketches, video game ideas, pilots, short screen plays, full length screenplays, fake speeches, corporate comedy sketches/jingles/workshops and probably other things I can’t think of. Oh, well…blogs. I write blogs too. Duh.

So, I would like to write my life, please. You see, in addition to being a writer, I’m an improviser and improv teacher. And I realized that I’ve been improvising my life. The problem is, I’m not nearly as good at life improvising as I am with on stage improvising. I’m halfway decent at the latter. The former…well, let’s just say after filing my taxes (Thank you for all your help, Mom!) I discovered I made less money than the poverty line last year.

Don’t panic. This isn’t a blog asking for money or even complaining about it. That’s just an indicator of how my life could possibly be better than it is at the moment. No need to worry. I don’t feel bad about it. I actually feel better internally than I can ever remember. Things are good, even though circumstances aren’t perfect.

So, using money as an example, if I wrote my life, I would make my character a billionaire. Or at least someone who could consistently make more than $20,000 a year. How would I do it? Lots of ways. I could write a scene in my life where I get cast as a spokesman for some big company like Snapple or one of the thousand insurance companies who seem to spend more on advertising than any other industry (I don’t know that as a fact, I just feel like I see more insurance commercials/ads than any other type).

I could win the lottery, finish and sell my novel, get cast on a sitcom, sell a pitch, etc. To me there are endless ways to imagine myself making money. But let’s go deeper shall we? Let’s go back and write a new Rich Baker narrative from…middle school. Why then? *shoulder shrug* Why not? Gotta pick sometime. I feel like I could have made a lot better choices back then.

First of all, I would write myself as learning that I was lactose intolerant earliery in life and that I actually made the choice to avoid dairy as opposed to eating ice cream and cake frosting and cereal and all the gooey delicious cheese. I miss it so much. When I was young, I was told that it wasn’t good for me because my body didn’t produce a vital enzyme for dairy digestion. Did I listen? Nope. Caused a lot of medical problems. I didn’t kick dairy completely until five years ago.

What would have been different? Maybe I wouldn’t have struggled with so many stomach pains and would have stayed in shape longer because I didn’t have the excuse that ‘my tummy hurt to much to workout.’ Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten as sick as much and would have kept singing after high school. Maybe my adherence to a dairy free life would have sparked an earlier interest in health & food and I would have not eaten Jack In the Box all the freakin’ time when I was in and during my first year after college.

What else? Going back to middle school, maybe I write that I stuck with the piano lessons and made a real concerted effort to become great at it. What would that have gotten me? Maybe I would have been a double threat as an improviser and a music director (if you don’t know the improv world, this is a person who plays improvised piano or guitar or whatever instrument to aid in improv scene work, become stand alone music pieces in the show, or even score a whole improvised musical). Maybe I would have been able to play for a piano bar or on a cruise ship or something like that and that could have changed the whole course of my life?

Maybe I write the middle school version of myself as someone who wants to read more and watch MTV less. I mean, it wasn’t even that good. Looking back I realized I was just depressed a lot and watched TV as a drug to help me escape the thoughts of me. And on that note, I would write myself as not ever suffering from depression. Or if I did still write me as depressed I would write in someone to properly diagnose me and get me some good therapy to teach me how to deal with it. Real life me didn’t get therapy until I was 33 (six months ago).

How different would my life had been had I felt less depressed and therefore did more with my time? The possibilities are endless. Just changing that one thing might have automatically fixed or lead to the fixing of some of my other character flaws

Fictional middle school me also wants to learn Spanish, get a Dallas agent and try to book commercials as a teen actor, encouraged my parents to send me to some kind of camp at some point so I could have the camp experience. I went to summer camp once. It was awesome. I was 17. How much cooler had it been if I had the summer camp experience at age 11?

Fictional middle school me writes every day. He writes in a journal and/or on a piece of fiction. He establishes a good work ethic young, so that he can become more successful in life. He spends less time caring about what is popular and judges things by whether or not they actually make him happy. He realizes that girls really are just people and there’s no reason to be super nervous or scared of them. Just talk to them. Some are really cool.

Fictional me doesn’t make fun of his best friend, because some popular kid was doing it so he decided to cave into peer pressure and join in. Fictional me shows more respect and appreciation to my parents and my brother and many other amazing people I took for granted. Fictional me is still obsessed with the Simpsons. That was a good call. Fictional me reads great authors who aren’t assigned in school like Douglass Adams, Jack Keruac, Noam Chomsky, Charles Dickens, Frank Miller, Garth Ennis, Carl Sagan, and so many others.

I could go on. When I think about it I would write a version of me who gets a lot of the stuff that I get now, but does so in middle school. And by doing so, I would have likely made a slew of different choices.

But at the end of the day, I can’t write my life. I honestly don’t know what I would do if a magic genie granted me the ability to transport current day mind equipped with all memories and coginitive abilities into middle school me. Part of me says, “Yeah, change it up. Make everything awesome.” And then part of me realizes that doing so would erase all the experiences I’ve had. They would still be memories, but not actual events. Because in the new middle school me those haven’t happened yet. And because I’d be changing things up, they likely never will happen to me. At least not in the same way.

I doubt there is any magic genie (or magic anything) that could ever grant me that ability. So, I’m not too concerned with how confident I am in my ability to know what choice I would make. But with what little thought I’ve given it, I feel 50/50 that I would take him up on his offer.

My point, however, is that I know something now that I’ve never known before. Well, I’ve known it in a sense. If anyone would have asked me about it I would have had an answer. But I didn’t have it in words or on the forefront of my mind. And that something is that I have the ability to write the next phase of my life. I still don’t know the future, but I know how to manipulate myself so that I increase my chances of a particular outcome. For example, If I want to be a guy with a completed manuscript for my novel then I know I have to write everyday. I haven’t done that yet. Currently, I’m writing more often than I ever have on a long term consistent basis, but I know that it’s not good enough. I need to make it a daily habit. So, I’m working on it.

I’m writing my own life.

The ironic thing is that I tell my improve students that their best chance of success on an improve stage happens when they get to a point that they have no idea what’s come next. But in life that doesn’t seem to always be the case. I think more people would want to write their lives than are currently satisfied to continue improvising their lives.

Because in order to improvise (at least in the way I define it) you cannot know what’s going to happen. The minute you think about what might happen or how you could make it so something particular will happen, you’re not improvising. You’re what I call “insta-writing.” You’re writing a line or two (or even as little as a word or two) ahead of what you’re doing and saying. Insta-writing isn’t a bad thing by any stretch. I personally don’t think it’s the best way to perform improv comedy, but I have to do it when I improvise rap. And many people do it when they speak to others in a social setting. My point is not to judge one over the other, but to say that in their definitions they are incapable of cohabitation. You can’t improvise and write ahead by definition.

But in life, I think there’s a balance of both. I think some insta-writing is good. Like when you apply to colleges in the hopes that you’ll one day graduate from college. Or when you propose to someone hoping that one day you’ll have children with them. I think there are many good reasons to write ahead.

Yet at the same time, I think being completely mindful of the present moment and not looking ahead can be used for other situations. Maybe when you talk to your friends, or watch a movie, or read or meditate, etc. it’s better to purely improvise and not think ahead at all.

My problem is I haven’t been writing enough of my life and I’m also not a terribly great improviser when it comes to my life.

So, my new goal is to find that balance. It’s going well so far. I’m not there yet, but I’m writing my story to say that I will find it. And that’s helped. =)