Matthew Dicks wears a lot of hats. Among other things, he’s a storyteller, communications consultant, writer, and schoolteacher. In order to excel in his professional life, as well as do what he loves in his personal life, he’s developed a set of strategies that help him be more creative and productive, and can be used by anyone who wants to start making the most of life.
Matt writes about these tactics and mindset shifts in his latest book Someday Is Today: 22 Simple, Actionable Ways to Propel Your Creative Life, and he shares some of them with us today on the show, including why you need to think in minutes, be an eagle rather than a mouse, practice deliberate incuriosity, and always do your best to act like a decent human being. Along the way, Matt and I talk about why you should floss in the shower and how restaurants that make guacamole at your table are a great example of the folly of making a thing, a thing.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Matt’s previous appearance on the AoM Podcast: Episode #462 — How to Tell Better Stories
- AoM Article: The 7 Habits — Begin With the End in Mind
- Matthew telling the story of how he was robbed
- AoM Article: Possibilities in Spare Moments
Connect With Matthew Dicks
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Listen ad-free on Stitcher Premium; get a free month when you use code “manliness” at checkout.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Matthew Dicks wears a lot of hats. Among other things, he’s a storyteller, communications consultant, writer and school teacher. In order to excel in his professional life, as well as do what he loves in his personal life, he’s developed a set of strategies that help him be more creative and productive and can be used by anyone who wants to start making the most of life. Matt writes about these tactics and mindset shifts in his latest book, Someday Is Today: 22 Simple Actionable Ways to Propel Your Creative Life. And he shares some of them with us today on the show including why you need to think in minutes, be an eagle rather than a mouse, practice delivered in curiosity and always do your best to act like a decent human being. Along the way, Matt and I talk about why you should floss in the shower and how restaurants that make guacamole at your table are a great example of the folly of making a thing, a thing. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/someday. All right, Matthew Dicks, welcome back to the show.
Matthew Dicks: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Brett McKay: So we had you on a few years ago to talk about your book Story Worthy, which is about how to tell better stories. You are an expert storyteller, you’re a math Grand Slam winner, and you’ve got a new book out. It’s not about storytelling, there’s lots of great stories in it, but it’s called Someday Is Today: 22 simple, actionable Ways to Propel Your Creative Life. You wear many hats. You’re a storyteller. You write novels. You are also an elementary school teacher, but you’ve also somehow managed to become a productivity expert, particularly for creative types. How did that happen?
Matthew Dicks: Well, because I’m standing in front of people quite a bit, whether I’m talking about my books or telling stories or delivering keynotes, that Q&A section always comes up, and when it does, they know all the hats that I wear. So almost always the first question I would get is, “How do you do all the things that you do?” And I always thought if you’d sit down with me for like 19 hours, I could go through a whole system that might help you do the same thing. But no one including my cats, wanna spend 19 hours with me. So I’d often just toss out the two or three strategies that came first to mind and I always felt like I was letting them down, like I didn’t really help them at all with that answer. So the book is the attempt to answer that question, how do I manage to do all the things that I do and also have a wife and two kids and a terrible golf game and a bunch of poker buddies and do all the things that I love to do while also doing all the professional and creative things I like to do. So I’m hoping when someone asks me that question in the future, I’ll say, “Just buy my book and that will guide you on your way.”
Brett McKay: Okay, so you start off the book laying some foundational principles for your approach to work in the creative life. And one of them is for people to develop what you call a 100 year old plan, what is that, and why does that help people start taking action on their goals?
Matthew Dicks: Well, I think that if you asked me right now, what would you do with the next 2 hours of your life? If I’m just basing it upon my current desires, I would say I’m gonna go play golf and eat a cheeseburger, that’s basically gonna be my always choice. But I think the problem is, when we choose what to do and how we spend our time and the decisions we make based upon this temporary time frame that we’re within now. Ultimately, we end up in a place we don’t wanna be in. When I was 22, I was involved in a really horrific armed robbery. And there was a moment during that robbery when I was absolutely certain that I was about to die. And in that moment, the thing that surprised me the most was that I wasn’t afraid or angry or even sad. The only thing I felt was regret about the fact that I was 22 and had yet to even begin to pursue my dreams. And really, that sort of was a hinge point in my life and I decided I don’t ever wanna feel that regret again. If you talk to hospice workers, they’ll tell you at the end of people’s lives they talk a lot about regret, the things that didn’t happen in someone’s life.
And I just, I don’t want that to be the case for me. So what I did is, I said to myself, “I need to be thinking ahead.” So when I have a decision to make, whether it’s how to spend this day or what door to open, what path to take, I look ahead to what I envision to be the 100 year old version of myself, the one lying in his deathbed. He’s binging Netflix because he can do nothing else, and he’s sort of winding down his time. And I ask that version of me, “How should I spend this day? How should I spend this hour?” And that version of me always has greater wisdom. That version always says to me, “Go outside and play with your son because he’s ten and he’s not gonna be ten forever or finish that book instead of binging the Netflix show. Because Netflix will always be here but you have a million stories to tell and time is finite.” So I think when we look ahead and we ask what we want that future person to be, when we ask that person, “How should I make the decisions today that will lead me to the place I wanna be?” The 100 year old version of us always has the better answer.
Brett McKay: Yeah, this is a lot… You talked about this, asking yourself what your 100 year old self would do is… It allows you to play the long game with your life.
Matthew Dicks: Yeah, exactly. It gets you to the place you wanna be, which is, I always say I’m chasing a horizon, but we need to ask the person sort of on that horizon what’s the best path or what we envision to be that person sitting on the horizon, because trapped in the day, there’s too many other easy choices to make to sort of placate immediate needs rather than long term goals.
Brett McKay: And like you said, this doesn’t just help you get going on your professional goals you might have, whether that’s to start a business or to write a book, but also it really can help you guide your family life, like you said, when your ten year old asks you to play, your hundred year old self is like, “Well, what I have wished to have spent more time working on my podcast or whatever, or would I rather play with my kid?
Matthew Dicks: Yeah. In fact, the 100 year old version of me, more often than not tells me to spend time with my wife and children or to say yes to dinner with the buddy, even though I know I have a deadline that… Deadlines will come and go and somehow we always seem to meet them, even if it means we’re burning the candle at both ends. But if you say no to that one time that your son wants you to play catch in the backyard or your daughter wants you to go to the ice cream shop, it’s just the kind of regret that I know I will have later in life.
Brett McKay: Okay, so think about what your 100 year old self would want and ask him that and then let that guide you on your decisions. Another principle you have is you want people to start thinking about their life in minutes. Why do you encourage people to think about their life in terms of minutes? Because I think most people, when they plan their day out, they’re thinking in terms of an hour or even days or weeks. But why minutes?
Matthew Dicks: I think it’s odd but true that so often people think that everything sort of takes 30 minutes or 60 minutes or 2 hours. And what happens when we think that we can only operate in those increments is we dither away precious minutes throughout our day. We find ourselves with 14 minutes between one thing and another thing, and if we’re not thinking in minutes, in other words, if we’re not thinking that that 14 minutes can be valuable, what we end up doing is we follow the path of least resistance, which is often there’s a phone in our pocket and there’s something to stare at that doesn’t make us feel good, other than possibly giving us an immediate dopamine hit, but nothing else, and not leading us towards our goals. If we don’t think in minutes, we waste those minutes, we throw them away like they’re nothing.
And again, that 100 year old version at the end of your life, 14 minutes is an enormous amount of time. What I’m suggesting is, take that view of at the end of your life, when you’re about to meet your maker, if you can have 14 more minutes with loved ones, you take it every time. So take it now and acknowledge those minutes are precious. I think the people who are most successful in life operate in this way, acknowledging that I can do something with 7 minutes rather than doing nothing or even worse, doing something that’s not gonna make me feel good.
Brett McKay: Well, I know I have the tendency to do that. If I have… Say, I have an appointment in 15 minutes, I think, “Well, I really can’t do anything in this 15 minutes ’cause I’ve got to… Somehow I think I have to get ready in that time for that next thing. But I’m not doing anything during that time.
Matthew Dicks: Right. I encourage people to make lists. I have a list of all the things that I can accomplish in 10 minutes. And once you internalize that list, suddenly, when I’m standing at the door and I’m waiting for my son to find his shoes so we can go, and they’re always in two separate rooms and he can never find them, rather than taking my phone out and scrolling through Instagram, I have a list of things that I can actually accomplish, as a novelist I know I can probably write three or four good sentences, which sounds crazy to a lot of writers, but I always remind those writers that, there was a time when men were in the trenches of World War I, wearing gas masks with artillery exploding over their head, and they were literally writing in little notebooks, hoping that the things they were writing would someday be seen by other people. And yet, when I tell someone “Well, go right for good sentences.” They say things to me like, “Well, I can’t really write unless I have a two hour period. And I really like to write with smooth jazz and a latte.” I think, well, that’s really nice, but that’s actually not reality. If you really wanna do something, you’ll steal every minute you can to do it and that’s sort of the idea of thinking in minutes.
Brett McKay: So what is on your list of things you can get done in 10 minutes? What’s on your personal list?
Matthew Dicks: A lot of the things that I do in those little bits of time actually are the tasks or the necessary chores of life that need to be done so I can do something better later on. So a lot of times what people also think of is, they think of tasks in whole parts. So if I can’t fold all the laundry, I don’t fold the laundry. Whereas I say, “Oh, well, in 10 minutes, I can probably get half of my son’s laundry folded.” Which means, I only have to do the other half later on. But oddly enough, people won’t do a thing unless they can do the whole thing. My wife has this beautiful walk in closet and it sort of became a disaster a few years ago. And she said, “I’m gonna have to commit a whole Saturday to cleaning out this closet.” And I said, “Well, actually, if you just deal with one item every single time you walk in, you’ll probably have it done in a month.” But for her, that just was ridiculous.
The idea that she will take those extra minutes and pick up a little bit of it was nonsense. She needed a whole day. And I say, “You give a whole whole day over to your closet, where I will give 2 minutes here and 7 minutes here and 3 minutes here.” So my list is a variety of chores and honestly, a lot of writing or reading of what I’ve written. I have a book by the door so I’m waiting for Charlie. I just picked that book up. It’s one of those books you can dive in and out of very easily that avoids me grabbing the phone and staring at something I don’t need to be staring at. I can at least be doing something a little more meaningful with my time.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve noticed that too, with the cleaning. So Saturday is our cleaning day in our family, and I usually just wait to do all my stuff on that day and it ends up taking forever. And every time I do, I’m like, “I should be doing this stuff throughout the week. I haven’t actually taken action on that. I’m a glutton for punishment.” And this idea of using the spare minutes for reading, that’s why… That’s the one thing I love about my smartphone is I got the Kindle app on there. So if I’m standing in line, I’ll just open it up and read a book that I’m prepping for, for a podcast.
Matthew Dicks: Yeah, that’s great. Yeah, that’s the perfect use. I think you’re the exception though, to the rule. I think most people think, “Well, I can’t read a book in the checkout line, but I can stare at Twitter and probably not feel better about the world as a result.”
Brett McKay: Well, this other idea of thinking in your life in minutes, you argue that it makes time probably one of the most important factors in every decision you make. How has that changed the way you make decisions, when you think about your life in minutes?
Matthew Dicks: I think that sort of the one equalizer we have with everyone on the planet is time. I have exactly the same number of minutes today as Elon Musk has. And so, it might seem like people sort of on the top of the mountain have reached a spot that is unattainable and unimaginable but if I remind myself that we have the same number of minutes now, he admittedly probably has people doing things that I can’t pay people to do at this point. But if I can be strategic and calculating in the way I spend my time, I can make up a lot of ground I really believe in terms of getting things done. So it’s a combination of thinking in minutes in order to fill those what my wife calls little black holes. She says I’m so good at filling the little black holes with something productive. When I do those things, the other side of that is to make sure that the time that we’re recapturing or the time that we’re saving, is then being transferred into something we really want to do, making those positive decisions. I think the tragedy of the world is that most people live lives following the path of least resistance.
They’re like water down a mountain. Their decisions are dictated by other people and the forces of the world. And I think that when people chase their dreams, they have to make hard decisions and most people are unwilling to make hard decisions. Instead, they make no decision and so I think that’s what people do with their minutes. I think that’s how they basically live their lives, is they don’t make active, productive decisions about their time. I just had a friend who changed his job and I said to him, the first question I said is, “What’s your commute?” And he said, “I don’t know.” And I thought, “You took a job and you don’t know how long it’s gonna take you to get to the job.” Because that’s an enormous part of the job for some people, whether you’re commuting an hour or 5 minutes can transform your entire life and he hadn’t even calculated the commute. He didn’t make the decision about how long… He didn’t make the decision to find out how long it’s gonna take him to get to that job. And I just thought “That’s insanity. That’s not thinking in minutes.”
Brett McKay: Well, you talked about one of the things you do to maximize your your minutes is to minimize the time it takes to get places, and something you’ve done you and your family have done, your wife is, you live in a place where you’re like… What is it? Like 5 minutes from the school you work at.
Matthew Dicks: Yeah, 5 minutes.
Brett McKay: Right, and you consciously did that and you could have probably lived in a bigger house or something like that with more land if you moved out an hour out of town. Again, because you’re a writer, because you’re a storyteller, that’s a priority for you and plus, you wanna spend time with your family, that hour is not worth it. You’d rather spend maybe in a smaller place with less of a backyard because it allows you to get to your workplace in 5 minutes.
Matthew Dicks: Yeah, 100%. In fact, we decided between the house we live in now and a house that was 15 minutes away from the school where at the time we were both teaching. And the house that was 15 minutes away had the guest room that we really wanted, and a couple other things, and it had central air. And ultimately I said, “Let’s take the house without the guest room. We’ll put people on the couch if they wanna stay and eventually we’ll have some central air put in or something to cool the house. Because I knew that even though it was 10 minutes, an additional 10 minutes to get there, it means 20 minutes over the course of a day. And you don’t have to multiply very long to realize. I’ve been doing the same job for 24 years and I turned that 15 minute commute into a five minute commute and it has gained me enormous amounts of time over the course of those years. So I’ll make choices based upon small amounts of time like that, understanding that time multiplies really quickly.
Brett McKay: One thing that I’ve done, ’cause I work from home, and so it wasn’t an issue for me. But the thing that I saw a lot of time saving is building a home gym. Because before going to the gym, it would be like I had to drive 15 minutes to get there, and you work out and it’s like another… It took like a half hour, sometimes, it could be even 45 minutes round trip. Now I just walk down to my garage, get my workout done and then I’m done. Plus, I don’t have to worry about getting ready because I don’t care how I look at all. That was a time saver and look, you don’t have to build a giant, huge garage gym, but you find out a way if exercise is an important thing for you, find a way you can spend less time driving to the gym. It could mean getting a kettlebell or doing a body weight session instead of having to go to a big fancy gym.
Matthew Dicks: Yeah, I agree. Before the pandemic, the gym that I chose was the gym that was closest to my house. That was the easiest decision. People said there’s a much nicer one in the next town, but I thought, “Why would I ever do that? I want the one closest to my house.” Then the pandemic hit and I couldn’t go to the gym. And I quickly transformed my gym workout to I ride a bike that I take out of the garage and I’ve learned every single street in my town now and I love riding the bike. And I’ve discovered that I can just do sit ups and planks and push ups. I don’t even need weights. I can go into my living room and while my son is sitting there doing whatever he’s doing, I can actually be with my son and exercise at the same time. So I am in full agreement that the pandemic awakened me to the fact that I don’t even need to do the five minutes to the gym, because you’re right, you get to the gym, you’re looking for a machine. It’s all that time that we waste that we could just be doing in our home.
Brett McKay: We know this idea of that thinking in minutes is, you encourage people to spend less time on routine task and fruitless pastimes. And whether your goal is to write a book or start a business, or if you just wanna spend more time with your family, how can spending less time on these routine activities give us more time for the stuff that’s important?
Matthew Dicks: Yeah, well, we can either we can look at these routine activities we have in lots of ways. So one of them was, I swore I would never have someone mow my lawn, for example, because I just thought it was foolish to not do it yourself. And then one day my wife did the did the financial calculation. She said, “You could write for an hour or you could mow for an hour which one actually makes more money for you?” And I quickly realized I should just be inside writing while someone’s mowing my lawn. It’s more profitable that way.
I also think that people get trapped in a lot of tasks and a lot of chores and routines that aren’t actually required of them. And they tend to build up and pretty soon you have a life full of chores rather than a life full of fun. I have a friend, I was just on the golf course with him the other day and we were talking about this book. His wife goes to seven grocery stores over the course of the week because she’s identified the right grocery store that has the best meat and the best fish and the best produce, and she goes to a farmer’s market and he read my book and he realized that the amount of time that she is spending on maximizing the quality of the food in his home is outrageous. That like if you can get fish, that is 89% as good as the fish at the best fish place, but you save yourself 20 minutes every week, again, it doesn’t take long for those minutes to start to add up.
So I think people have to take a serious inventory of the things that they’re doing in their lives and then determine, are you getting a decent return on investment? I don’t think anyone’s getting a good return on investment by going to seven different places to buy food over the course of the week. I have one place. I know the store perfectly, and I move through it quickly. I was actually… I was there the other day and I watched someone going through the parking lot and I walked right past them. And I’m always amazed how people stroll through a parking lot as if this is a the place to be. I always think, I’m in a parking lot. I need to get out of the parking lot as quickly as possible because this is the last place I wanna be. So that idea that turn those routines and those chores and those tasks into either something you can do a little quicker or eliminate completely. Suddenly, you’ll just have more time to do the things you wanna do.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I spend as little time as possible on eating, and you do too. You talk about, for lunch, you eat oatmeal every day, which takes two minutes, and I have… I eat oatmeal every day too. Literally takes me… I think it takes me less time. I do a minute in the microwave and then I’m done eating it in two minutes, ’cause it’s porridge. Shopping, I think a lot of people spend so much time shopping, not just for food, but for… I hate shopping. I hate shopping for clothes, so I end up not shopping that much. One tip, I think this is from your days, ’cause you were… You managed McDonald’s as a young man, so you’re really into being efficient and effective, but I like this tip. In the shower, you should floss. When did you pick that up? I thought that… I never thought of that ’cause everytime I go to the dentist, I always get sort of the tease tease from the dental hygienist, ’cause my pockets and my gums are bad ’cause I’m not flossing regularly. This is genius. When did you start this idea of flossing in the shower?
Matthew Dicks: It was probably like 15 years ago, and it was actually through a story. I always assumed flossing was to get rid of food between my teeth, and I’d always think, “Well, there’s no food between my teeth, why am I flossing? This is ridiculous.” And then one day, I happened to have a new hygienist and she was doing what you have all the time, whereas they tests you. And I said to her, I said, “I know, but is it really helping? ’cause it doesn’t feel like it’s helping.” And she explained to me that plaque is a microscopic organism that’s attempting to assemble in between your teeth, and every time you floss, you don’t get rid of the plaque, but you dissemble it. You cause it to be disorganized for another day so it can’t reassemble an attack. And I thought to myself, “That’s the perfect explanation as to why I should floss. Now I understand it, ’cause now I know why I don’t see anything between my teeth and yet I need to do it. And so I told her, I said, “Well, I’m gonna floss every day.” And she goes, “I really doubt you’re gonna floss every day.”
And I said to her, “I’m gonna attach flossing to something else I do every day.” That’s a way I sort of make sure that things happen in my life as I attach one thing to another. And by the time I had left the dentist office, I said to myself, “Well, the one thing I do every day in the bathroom is shower. So if I’m showering and I put the floss there and then I can learn to lose really quickly, which I now can, I’ll never miss flossing as long as I don’t miss showering.” And suddenly, those two things stacked on top of each other became one thing, and I have the best dentist appointments. My dentists love me. They’re like, “You actually floss.” And I said, “Yes, I do. I put it in the shower.”
Brett McKay: Okay. So the big takeaway there, start thinking of your life in minutes. Think that you can… There’s stuff you can get done even in five minute, 10-minute increments, it all adds up, and a lot of stuff you can do is just sort of daily routine stuff you have to do to maintain life so that you can have more time to devote to the things that are really important to you, whether that’s family, a hobby, spending time with friends or working on that new project you wanna take part in. A metaphor you use throughout the book to help people prioritize things, so they get the really important things done, is this idea of the eagle and the mouse. What is this metaphor and how can that help you figure out how to spend your time?
Matthew Dicks: Sure. Well, the Native American spirit, we all have four animals on it. There’s other ones, but the one I’m talking about now, and two of the animals on it are the eagle and the mouse, and each animal or embodies a certain quality in life. We determined, or actually, my wife determined that she is a mouse and I am an eagle, meaning she spends enormous amounts of time on very small details. She painstakingly examines and focus on and worries about the details of little things. And although I also do that, because you can’t be a novelist without worrying about the details, without the construction of sentences in a very particular way, I also really embody the spirit of the eagle, which is the idea that you fly above the world and you look down and you understand what is important and what isn’t important. It came to fruition one day when my wife was complaining to our principal that I did my report cards in an hour and it took her eight hours, and she said she wanted to kill me. She actually told my principal, “I don’t know how I can live with a man like this.”
And what he explained to her was, Matt understands what’s important about report cards, which is essentially, parents wanna know you love the kid, you see the kid and you’re gonna challenge the kid, and everything else is kind of secondary. Whereas my wife would sit there and calculate grades and carefully construct a paragraph and try to find the perfect anecdote, and I just understood what parents really needed, and that’s all I offered them. And so I think the trap for creative people, especially is as a creative person, absolutely has to pay attention to details. Whether you’re gardening or you’re making stained glass windows or writing a book, details actually matter as they do for my wife. But if those creative people can’t get above the fray every now and again and stop being in the weeds like the mouse, like my wife, then they end up engaging in things that aren’t necessary, waste time, and are utterly fruitless, projects that people think are important, that yield no results. So you’ve gotta sort of get above your life, and again, take that cost-benefit analysis, is the thing I’m doing yielding results for me, or am I just in the weeds worrying about details that are utterly irrelevant?
Brett McKay: Well, yeah, one thing you encourage people to do to be more eagle-like is to practice intentional incuriosity, a deliberate incuriosity. What does that look like?
Matthew Dicks: So it’s the idea that we worry about things or we get interested about things that don’t matter to us. I know, for example, that Johnny Depp was recently involved in a court case with either his girlfriend or his ex-wife, and I was aggressively deliberately incurious about that situation. I heard my friends talking about it all the time. I heard… People everywhere were sort of obsessed with whatever was going on in their life at the time. I acknowledged or I was aware that involving myself in this situation and becoming knowledgeable about it would not help me in any way, and frankly, I don’t need to be involved in someone else’s, I assume, love life or fracturing love life.
It’s not gonna lead me anywhere. And that incuriosity came to sort of a head at a birthday party I was at for my mother-in-law. One half of the room were all talking about Johnny Depp and his ex-girlfriend or his ex-wife, and I was on the other side of the room with my nephew and my son, and we were wrestling on the couch. And I remember hearing them talk about the Johnny Depp thing, and I remember thinking, “I’m so glad I have chosen not to be interested in that, and instead be interested in this instead.” So there’s nothing wrong with curiosity. It’s a wonderful thing when you’re curious about things that are meaningful and will produce results and make you happy. I think that’s fantastic. But I think what happens to people as they just… They get interested in things that are not helpful and utterly forgettable. Whatever happened to Johnny Depp and his girlfriend five years from now, no one’s going to remember it, and I never had to remember it to begin with.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Well, really this idea of becoming more eagle-like, you encourage people to kind of become a criminal and break rules or norms. And you have this one, I think really useful, I don’t know, principle for the person who wants to be more like a criminal eagle, and that is, don’t do something and see what happens.
Matthew Dicks: Yes, it’s that I’m not gonna do it, and we’ll see what happens policy. So I do it at work all the time. They’ll hand us a new spreadsheet and they’ll say, “We want you to enter all of your testing data into the spreadsheet,” and I know in my heart that half of the the spreadsheets I have entered data in are never looked at by anyone whatsoever. It’s just essentially checking a box off. And so I always volunteer for my colleagues to be the person who’s not gonna do it, and let’s see what happens. If ultimately it does need to be done, someone’s gonna come to me and say, “Matt, you didn’t do the thing you were supposed to do,” and I’m gonna say, “Oh, I’m sorry, and then I’ll do it.” But I cannot tell you how many times I don’t do something and nobody cares that I haven’t done it. You can just start doing it small if you’re sort of like… A lot of people are afraid to break rules. They’re really aggressive rule followers. My kids are. It makes me crazy. One of the things you can start doing is if you go to the doctor’s office and they give you four forms to fill out with all of those questions, don’t fill in your birthday, for example, on every form and see what happens, or don’t fill in your address on every form, and see what happens.
Pretty soon, you will realize that forms are filled with questions that nobody cares about, that some form maker added to the form, but nobody actually needed. And allow that to be of the small example of what the actual whole world is, which is, there’s confines that you are trapped in that you no longer need to be trapped in, and oftentimes, breaking a rule, if it’s actually a problem, only results in you saying, “I’m sorry, I won’t do that again,” and you move on with the rest of your life.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve got a friend who runs a business, and every now and then, he’ll do this thing where he just, for two weeks, he doesn’t do anything on his business just to see what happens. And oftentimes when he finds is that sort of benign neglect, he’s able to figure out what is essential, or not essential.
Matthew Dicks: That’s brilliant.
Brett McKay: Sometimes you realize, I don’t need to answer these emails cause they don’t do anything. Or if it is important, someone will follow up and usually people don’t follow up.
Matthew Dicks: Yeah, I consult with a company that decided they were gonna have Fridays… Fridays we’re gonna be meeting-less. No more meetings on Fridays. And what the CEO assumed was that the meetings on Fridays would move to other days. They would migrate the meetings on to Monday through Thursday. And what they discovered was 80% of those meetings just disappeared completely, and nobody cared that they were ever gone. And so then they went to no meetings after 12 o’clock on any day, and they realized that 60% of those meetings just disappeared, that somewhere down the line, someone started scheduling a weekly meeting because they thought it was going to be necessary and it proved to be utterly unnecessary. So start just doing those things you don’t need to do. You can declare email bankruptcy, just delete every single email in your inbox, if you’re not an inbox zero person. Just declare bankruptcy, send an email to everyone on your contact list saying, “I’m declaring bankruptcy. I’m erasing every single email. If you were waiting on something from me, please send it again,” and you’ll discover you’ll get almost nothing back in return, ’cause almost no one is waiting on you, even though you feel like they’re waiting on you.
Brett McKay: No. Yeah, I think a lot of people feel they’re waiting… But no one… No one cares.
Matthew Dicks: That’s it, it’s really… It all boils down to nobody actually cares as much as you think they care.
Brett McKay: So the common adage you hear for creative types or people who are trying to start a business or even just start a new hobby or whatever a new skill is don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But you say, That’s horrible advice. Why is that?
Matthew Dicks: I hate it, because don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good implies that what you will make is going to be good, and I think what we have to acknowledge as people who are trying to create things, whether it’s a garden in your backyard or a Fortune 100 company, we make terrible things all the time, and I think the problem with getting people to take a step forward is that desire for perfection, that need to have everything perfect or if not perfect, at least good before it gets out the door. I think that most creative people, if you examine their lives closely, you’ll discover that they make a lot of terrible things before they ever make something good, my favorite is Richard Branson, who’s sending people to space now, his first company was selling parakeets, and it failed because his parakeets bred too quickly, he couldn’t actually sell them, and he had more inventory than he had customers, and we don’t think about Richard Branson like that today.
We imagine that he landed on the top of the mountain, as if he was born there where so many… I think all of the people that we see as successful today in whatever realm you’re imagining, they all began by making terrible, ridiculous and stupid mistakes, but if we’re thinking that what we need to put out into the world is it at least needs to be good, we’re not gonna really produce very much, we have to acknowledge that we make terrible things and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Brett McKay: Right, so making terrible stuff is just part of the process, and you highlight some stories from your own life where you saw that in action. So before you were a school teacher and a storyteller guy, you actually had a DJ, like A wedding DJ business, and you talked about the first one you ever did with your friend was awful, it was terrible. The first one was okay, I guess the second one was really bad.
Matthew Dicks: Yes. The second one was terrible, and then, oddly enough, I think it was probably 17 years later, I was sitting at a storytelling workshop weekend with my teaching assistant, and somehow through the conversation we had, we realized that that second wedding… That woman, Jessica, was my teaching assistants cousin, and my teaching assistant was actually at the wedding. We didn’t know each other, it was almost two decades ago, and I said I was terrible, I ruined her wedding that day as the DJ. And she got on the phone and called Jessica and said, What do you remember about your wedding DJ? And she said, Well, I don’t really remember much. He played some music, everything went fine. She has no recollection that I was terrible that day, because in her mind, I got married, some music was played, we danced, everything was good. In my mind, for all of my DJ career, more than 20 years, I always thought I really blew that second wedding for those poor people, I feel so bad for them, and she had no recollection whatsoever of it, and I think that’s so true. I was talking to this executive who’s getting ready to put out a newsletter, and she said, I’m worried I need to get a few newsletters ahead because I’m worried what if I don’t put one out every Monday.
What will people think? And I said, Do you think they’ll think anything… Like if you put out a newsletter on a Monday and then you miss a Monday, do you really think people are at the computer waiting for your newsletter to arrive in their inbox every Monday, and that if it doesn’t arrive, they’re gonna think you’re terrible. She genuinely thought that. She really believed that if she didn’t hit her schedule perfectly, the people who are paying nothing for her newsletter will suddenly be angry with her, and I think that’s a perception people have all the time, that everyone is looking at what they’re doing and judging it when so often, this is just not the case, that wedding example was a real eye-opener for me.
Brett McKay: You talk about the spotlight effect, oftentimes, we think people are thinking about ourselves, they’re not actually, no one’s thinking about us, no. They’re thinking about themselves.
Matthew Dicks: It’s sad, but true. They do all these experiments where they’ll send a college kid into a classroom wearing the most ridiculous shirt they’ve ever had on in their life, and they’ll sit amongst 50 kids in a college class, and at the end of the class, the last… The kid wearing the shirt. How many people in that class do you think noticed what you were wearing, and the kid will say like, Well, almost everybody, I’m sure. And then they’ll interview the class and they’ll discover almost no one saw the shirt or acknowledged it in any way, but that’s how we live our lives because we are the center of our own universe, but for some reason, we then by extension, assume that we are the center of everyone else’s universe, whereas where is the truth is nobody’s looking at anybody. All you have to do is think about the last holiday party that you went to, like if you are a person who spends an enormous amount of time trying to figure out what to wear at a party, ask yourself now, if you were at a Christmas party, do you remember what you were wearing at the last Christmas party, and if you remember what you were wearing, ask yourself this, How many other people’s outfits yo you actually remember?
You probably remember none, and yet you thought everyone remembers yours, they don’t remember yours either, as soon as we acknowledge that no one’s paying as much attention to us as we think they are, we can move through this world with a lot more impunity and stop worrying about being perfect or even being good and will be more willing to put terrible things into this world until we find the a way to be good again.
Brett McKay: So another thing you encourage people who are… They’re trying to write a book or they’re trying to start a business or doing something where they are putting something out into the world is to record all of the compliments you receive. This is a practice you been doing for a long time. Why do you do that?
Matthew Dicks: Well, as an elementary school teacher, there’s a lot of science that shows that for human beings, a negative comment lands a lot longer in the mind of a human than a positive comment, we actually… The ratio tends to be about six to one, which means we need six positive comments to counteract a negative comment, so in teaching, I know that I have to say six positive things to every sort of corrective or negative thing I say, just to get back to neutral with a kid. And I think in life, we probably need the same ratio, and yet it’s almost impossible to achieve organically, we tend not to get six compliments for every negative remark that is directed at us, especially as creators, if you’re building anything, you’re invariably gonna get negativity. And so what I started doing, you’re right, a long time ago, is I started saving every email that I received that had sort of positivity in it, or every text message or every Facebook message, and I just created a long list where all of those compliments are collected so that if I wake up in the morning and I’m not quite feeling myself or I need to boost the positivity or someone has just punched me in the a psychic jaw and made me feel terrible about something I made I open up that list of compliments and I just scroll it sort of with my eyes closed until I land on something and I land on compliments from like a dozen years ago.
A compliment I have completely forgotten from a person I don’t remember, and now I’ve sort of doubled the power of that compliment, it comes back to me a second time. It reminds me that at some point in the past, someone thought I was good, so maybe I can be good again. And then with email, I love snoozing compliments. So when I get a… If I get an email from someone, what I’ll do now is I’ll snooze it, I will send it to the future so that it arrives to me on an unexpected day at an unexpected time, thus again, doubling the power of that positivity. I’m trying to get to that six to one ratio for myself. I think we sort of, as human beings, we just discard the things that people say to us that are kind, assuming they’re being kind, but not honest, and I think it’s a terrible thing we do to ourselves. So any way we can maximize the positivity that we receive in our lives, I think that will really help a lot of the, a lot of the people who are making things and get a lot of negativity as a result.
Brett McKay: No I… As someone who puts stuff out there… Yeah, one negative comment or something can just ruin my day and it’s so dumb. But knowing that, that I feel that, and knowing that people often when they reach out to you, usually something went wrong, knowing that I go out of my way to make sure if I had a good experience at a business or I enjoyed something, to let that person know. One of my favorite things to do is, as my good deed for the day, is just go to Google and leave a review for a business, saying, “This was a great ex… ” And also when you leave a positive view, I like to be effusive with it, ’cause often times when people leave positive views, it’s like, “It was good,” and that was it. The negative reviews are always, what was terrible, and here’s what was wrong, people get into detail when things are wrong, but I like to get into detail why I thought this business was great.
Matthew Dicks: Yeah, I love that. I write 100 physical letters every year as one of my goals to sort of put out into the world, and so many of the letters that I write are to a restaurant complimenting a particular server on a particular evening when they made our night. Everything was perfect and the meal was lovely, in part because that person took such good care of us. So I will write to the owner of that business complimenting that particular server. And sometimes, actually, more often than you’d expect, I get letters in return from these people telling me that no one ever says anything nice to me over the course of my work day, and to get a physical letter is really meaningful because it’s a tangible and permanent reminder that someone in the world appreciate you. I don’t know how many of those letters are saved, but when I get a letter, I have a box that all those letters go into, and again, it’s one of those things where if I need a boost of spirit, I can open up the box and just randomly reach in and pull something out and feel better about the day as a result.
Brett McKay: See this other idea in your book about not making the thing the thing. What do you mean by that?
Matthew Dicks: Yeah, it’s a phrase I use at work all the time, I say, Not everything is a thing.” It’s this weird thing that people do where every small problem or every little nuance of life is for whatever reason expanded into its greatest possible glory, and it just consumes our lives. I’m dealing with one right now, actually. As a school teacher, right around now, I just received it the other day, the schedules come out, there’s… I have three people who teach fifth grade with me, and so they send us three schedules. And so begins for so many teachers, the battle over who’s going to get which schedule, and I never battle it, I just say, “Give me whatever one is left over.”
All the schedules are completely balanced, we have the same amount of teaching time and prep time, and as I look back over my 24 years of teaching, a schedule has never changed my effectiveness or my feeling about that school year, and so I just don’t care about it. I don’t make that thing a thing, some people like, “But on Fridays, I wanna have the extra 30 minutes because it’s a… ” It doesn’t matter, you’re making a thing out of a thing, and so I’ve watched teachers battle for a week in the midst of their summer vacation over what their schedule will be next year. And some teachers genuinely get mad at me, I’ve had people say like, “You just don’t care,” and I always say, “I’m choosing not to care.” What I’m really doing is being the eagle there in the details, thinking that these details will ultimately matter, whereas the hundred-year-old version of myself says those schedules never meant anything, they were all balanced and fine, just let them fight over it, you go play golf, and when they’re done, take the one that’s left over, you’re happier than all of them anyway.
So we can’t… Whenever we can make something irrelevant in our lives because it doesn’t really have much meaning, we should make it irrelevant. We should not be turning things into larger things when it’s not necessary.
Brett McKay: You give the example of a thing becoming a thing, the guacamole made at your table side.
Matthew Dicks: [laughter] Yes, right. There was a time when they would just bring guacamole to you, and now, it probably happened to me last… It was a while ago, ’cause of the pandemic, I haven’t had this situation happen, but we’d be in a wonderful conversation at the table, and then suddenly a man would arrive with a mortar and pestle and avocados. And now I had to watch the guacamole get made at the table, which ceased the conversation completely and weirdly put food preparation on display when it just belongs in the kitchen. We didn’t need guacamole at the table being made a thing, that was never something anyone wanted or needed. Somewhere along the way, someone decided, “Well, this will make it seem fresher to the people who are coming to the restaurant.” It also stifles conversation, and it sort of awkwardly makes us watch someone do something that used to be done in the kitchen. So, there’s a lot of examples of this everywhere in the world, everyone is trying to make a thing into a thing to slow our lives down.
Brett McKay: You know where I’ve seen this, in sort of my domain with men, is making facial hair a thing, like it becomes their whole identity. I have a mustache and I really… I don’t think about my mustache at all. When it’s looking a little scraggly, I’ll trim it, but there’s guys out there that their whole life is around their beard and how trimmed it is and the beard oils, and they’re posting pictures of it on Instagram, talking about it. I don’t know, when I was a kid, most of the men in my life had facial hair, but I never once saw my dad… He never talked about his mustache at all, he just had a mustache.
Matthew Dicks: It’s a great example. I don’t drink coffee, I’ve never tasted it, but coffee is a thing. It ceased a long time to be a beverage, and now it is something people talk about so much, and it’s weird because they’re always so dissatisfied with this beverage. It seems like one out of every 10 coffees my wife gets is cold or not sweetened properly, or the foam is wrong. There’s a multitude of factors that determine the quality of a coffee, which is one of the reasons I’ve always stayed away from it. I just can’t get involved. But now the word coffee culture exists, the word culture should never be attached to a beverage, that is a thing becoming a thing in a way that it’s utterly unnecessary. But I ride my bike by the Starbucks in our town, and I see lines of cars, like 16 long, in the drive-through. There’s so many places to get coffee or get out of your car and walk in and get it, but it really has become a thing. So, whenever you’re moving through your life, you need to be asking yourself, “Did we suddenly turn a simple thing into a special thing, and did it need to be special?”
Brett McKay: Probably not, just get your coffee at Dunkin’…
Matthew Dicks: Probably not.
Brett McKay: Just go to Dunkin’ Donuts. So you have this other idea about if you’re in the creative business, whether that’s writing a book or starting a business, it’s important to not be an a-hole. Why is that?
Matthew Dicks: [laughter] Well, this is my agent’s insight. She was standing in my backyard and we were watching my kids play one day, and she just leaned over to me sort of out of the blue and she said, “Listen, don’t ever become an a-hole.” And I said, “Okay.” I said, “Am I?” And she said, “No, you’re not. And I really don’t want you to be one.” She explained to me that she loves my writing, she thinks I’m a brilliant writer, but she said, “Boy, is it easier to sell your books when the people I’m selling them to like you and genuinely think that you’re easy to work with.” And I think about that all the time now, the idea that when we move through this world, we have an opportunity to make an impression and a connection with people in a positive way or a negative way, and the positive will always outweigh the negative. I was actually in a McDonald’s yesterday, and I went into the McDonald’s rather than through the drive-through ’cause I had… I was doing TV spots for this new book and I had an hour between, so I said, “I’ll go to McDonald’s, I’ll get a Diet Coke and I’ll do some writing, and then I’ll go back to the TV studio.” And I went inside and the woman came up to me, I don’t know her name, but she came up to me and she said, “Why are you inside today?” And I don’t really go to that McDonald’s very often, often enough apparently that she knew me, and I said, “Oh, I have an hour to kill, I’m gonna go do some writing.”
And then she said to me, she said, “You’re my best customer.” And I thought, “I have done nothing to be her best customer.” And as I reflected upon it, all I do is I say good morning to her in the drive-through and I say, “Thank you” after I get my food, and I smile. And I just thought, how many people go through that drive through and treat her in such a way that she doesn’t love them. Now, that woman is probably not gonna be someone who gets me further in life or makes my life better in any way, but if you treat everyone like that, and you walk into a McDonald’s and they say, “You’re our best customer. You’re our favorite customer,” can you imagine as I move through my life, how many people are also getting that impression because I’m not an a-hole. But a lot of people, and the more successful they get, it seems, the worst they get as human beings. And my agent had a good advice for me that day, and I give it to people all the time, and I see people do it all the time, they’ll… They’re just not kind and they’re not decent, and I think it makes the road harder for you, and I don’t understand why anyone wants to make the road any harder than it needs to be.
Brett McKay: Well, you talk about some examples as a… Because you’re a professional storyteller, you’re a novelist and a writer, people come to you for advice, or they’ll ask you, “Hey, can you read this?” And you’re doing them a favor, but you also talk most… A lot of times people just… They’re really rude about it.
Matthew Dicks: Yeah, yeah, they get really upset if I… Sometimes I’ve offered to read something, but if I don’t get to it in a month, which is not that long of a time really, they’ll email me back and say, “Forget it, forget it. Don’t even look at my thing, if you can’t get to it within a month.” And I’m thinking, “Have you lost your mind?” I’ve published eight books and I offered to read the first chapter and have a 15-minute conversation with you, do you realize how I would have loved to have had that before I published a book? Like I would have died to have a published novelist give me some wisdom, and yet, because it’s not quick enough or because it’s not detailed enough or because I have to tell them that they need to work on something, instead of responding appreciatively, they respond terribly. And there’s the counter example too, where some people are the kindest human beings to me. I have a couple of people in my life who have sort of, for the past maybe five years, been sending me things to read, unpublished writers. And sometimes I get to it and sometimes I can’t, and they always respond with, “I realize you’re so busy and if you can’t get to it this time, that’s fine, I’ll come back to you in another six months if it’s not this one,” and those are the people I wanna read it right away.
I think that is the nicest way to approach that, and so therefore I will help you, whereas so many people sort of undermine themselves. I think it comes from desperation, frankly. I think it’s just the desperate need to be successful and not knowing how to get there and so they let their frustration out on the one person who might be helpful to them.
Brett McKay: So we’ve talked about different things to make the most of the day and make some day today. What’s one thing you think people can do today that will provide a lot of ROI, that’s pretty easy?
Matthew Dicks: I think that one of the great tragedies of this world is that we spend an enormous amount of time thinking about everyone but ourselves. We focus on our spouses and partners and children and parents and customers and clients and neighbors and everyone, and I think it’s a really rare person who sits down and only thinks about themselves for a period of time. As a storyteller, I do it all the time, and the storytellers I know who are good, they do because we’re deeply curious about ourselves, ’cause we’re always looking for the next story to tell on stage. I often say that storytellers are self-centered in a positive way, meaning they allow themselves to be the focus of their attention for at least some part of every day. I think that most people don’t do this, and then what happens is, they kind of end up in places that they can almost not explain, they don’t know how they ended up where they are. My favorite question to ask someone is not, “What do you do for a living?” but, “How did you end up doing the thing that you do for a living?” And so often the answer to that question is tragic because you realize they didn’t pursue the thing they wanted, and they didn’t really even choose the place they’re in, it was chosen for them by forces outside of themselves.
So I think if someone wants to make a real change in their life, the first thing they can do is take time today, lock your children in the basement, tell your partner to go get a coffee, and just allow yourself to be sitting in silence and think about yourself and ask yourself, “Where am I? Who am I? How did I get here?” And then most importantly, “What point on the horizon am I currently chasing?” If you’re not chasing a point on the horizon, if you don’t have a dream that you are pursuing, you are stagnant. And then what is probably happening to you is you’re living days that look exactly like the previous day, and the novel is probably not entering your life, new things are probably not coming into your life, and days are seeing relatively unremarkable. So just give yourself permission to think about yourself for a little while and just sit on your couch or whatever you have in your house, your bean-bag chair for 10 minutes and think about yourself and try to make that a habit. And I really think when you pick out that point on the horizon, your days are gonna get more interesting, your path is gonna become more interesting, it’s gonna become harder for sure, but, “The hard thing and the right thing are often the same thing,” as one of the characters in my novels once said. So find that point on the horizon, the next dream we wanna chase and get going.
Brett McKay: Well, Matthew, this has been a great conversation. Where do people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Matthew Dicks: If they go to matthewdicks.com, they can find everything there. My books are available wherever you get books. My wife and I have a podcast as well about story telling, so you can find that on my website or Speak Up Storytelling is the name of that podcast, so you can find me in lots of places.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Matthew Dicks, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Matthew Dicks: It has really been a wonderful conversation, thanks so much.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Matthew Dicks, he’s the author of the book, “Someday Is Today.” It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find more formation about his work at his website, matthewdicks.com. Also check out our show notes on aom.is/someday where you can find links to resources where we can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast, make sure to check at our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And, if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code “manliness” at check out for a free month trial. Once you’ve signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you would take one minute to give us your review on Apple podcast or Spotify, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thanks for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you not only to listen to AOM podcast, to put what you’ve heard into action.