Kerrying On

The Fast Track to Joy

This article was originally published September 18, 2012.

When I was seven years old, I learned how to ride a bike. I learned on my brother’s old, stripped-down, J.C. Higgins. It was a pathetic little thing possessing no fenders, no handle bar grips, no hand brakes, no . . . just about everything. Then, of course, I wanted to ride the bike every chance I could get, but since it was my older brother’s pride and joy, well, you can guess how that worked out.

Yearning for a vehicle of my own, I tried to save money to purchase my own bike, but at age seven, I only earned 50 cents a week allowance and I usually spent 40 cents of it on a trip to the movies. Every week, I was torn between watching Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, and the other heroes of my youth—and saving for a bike.

Mom saw my dilemma, and after watching me eyeball my brother’s bike for the thousandth time, came up with a plan.

My grandmother had recently married a rather wealthy lawyer who was so desirous to show his love for her that he gave her a 200-pound ironing machine (the kind usually used at hotels). Grandma appreciated the gift, but had other ideas. She figured she could use her newfound wealth to send her laundry not through a giant ironing machine but to a professional establishment. So, Grandma hired a moving company to haul the thing to our house.

“With your bad back and all,” Grandma explained to my mother, “I’m betting this newfangled contraption will be just the ticket.”

In truth, the machine was absolutely terrific—if you happened to work for Barnum & Bailey and needed to touch up a tent. Unfortunately, the huge appliance was hard to operate, “ate” shirts and blouses, and only made Mom’s back feel worse. Eventually, the monster was moved to our basement where it sat next to my brother’s bike—the one I so sorely coveted.

“I bet,” Mom explained one night over dinner, “we could take that silly ironing machine that is just gathering dust in the basement and auction it off.”

“We could certainly use the money,” Dad replied.

“Yes, and I know just what to do with it. Billy has grown too big for his bike so I figure we can sell the ironing machine at auction and then turn around and buy Billy a bigger, better bike.”

This wasn’t going well for me.

“And then Kerry can have Billy’s old bike.”

Things were looking up.

Now, you might be thinking: Why did my mom’s plan end with me owning the hand-me-down bike while my brother Billy, who already had a bicycle, would get the new (to him) bike? Those of you who are a younger sibling know the answer. As a kid brother, it was my job to recycle cast-offs. My clothing store, for example, was my older brother’s chest of drawers. And when it came to sporting goods, well, I was thrilled with the idea of getting my brother’s bike. It was a bike. I didn’t have a bike. Was there any other way to get one?

Two weeks later, when the local auctioneer placed the ironing machine up for bid, Dad turned to me and explained that, judging from the crowd of hayseeds that had gathered, it was doubtful that anyone would want the curious offering we had placed on the block.

“We’ll need to get about fifteen dollars if we expect to turn around and buy one of the bikes that are going up for auction,” Dad explained. “I don’t think anyone around here even knows what that machine is.” Now I was worried. Would I ever get a bike of my own?

Dad was right. At first, the curious apparatus just sat there while people poked at it with their index fingers. Perhaps a carburetor had fallen off a passing spaceship. Eventually, the auctioneer read the instructions from the metal plaque soldered to the body. “Why, it’s a fancy ironing machine,” he announced with an air of achievement. Soon the bidding was off and running until a woman with a large feathered hat bid fifteen dollars.


When we returned home later that day, my brother Billy jumped for joy at the sight of the second-hand Schwinn bike Dad had purchased while I rushed to the basement to claim my windfall. I was ecstatic. At last, a bike of my own!

Unfortunately, I couldn’t ride my bike just then because it was now raining and the dirt road in front of our house had turned into a river of mud. Since the bike didn’t have fenders, if I ventured out onto 25th street, it would paint an ugly brown stripe up my back, neck, and head.

Finally, after a week of unrelenting drizzle, the sun dried the road enough to be useable. I hopped on Billy’s old bike (I still thought of it that way) and rode around frenetically while shouting and yipping for joy. It was a dream come true. For about five minutes. Then I came to the realization that I didn’t really have any place to go (I was seven. Where would I go?) Nor did I have any smooth surfaces to take me there—just a bunch of rutted hills that led to more rutted hills. Plus, the bike only had one gear. It was really hard to pump. In fact, it was so hard that one day, as I tried to get up speed to shoot across the slimy, hand-hued wood bridge that crossed the creek near our house, I skittered off the bridge and into a muddy stream—turning myself into a ball of mud and slime and ruining my brand-new white corduroy pants. So, I parked the stupid bike where the ironing machine once sat until I eventually outgrew the thing and my mother gave it to Goodwill.

This wasn’t the last time I yearned for something I was convinced would bring me happiness, only to discover I was dead wrong. (If you’ve ever saved up for a Slinky, you’ll know what I’m talking about.) You’d think that after a string of disappointing purchases we’d all have learned that owning things doesn’t exactly guarantee happiness.

Unfortunately, the vivid advertisements that pump out of our TV sets at the rate of about 100,000 a year continue to preach otherwise. Copywriters tell us that buying things will bring us all sorts of spectacular benefits. For instance, when I was a teenager, the hair product Brylcreem was said to make you so attractive that women would chase after you, wrestle you to the ground, and run their fingers through your hair—something that I thought sounded mighty promising at the time—but that never actually panned out for me.

But then again, it’s not as if having more money (and the things that go with it) never helps. For instance, a recent study revealed that happiness does actually go up with income—to a point. And then it levels off. Not having enough to pay the rent or get your teeth fixed wears on you, so happiness rises with an infusion of cash. But when you reach a certain level of owning stuff, your happiness quotient stays the same. More stuff doesn’t boost your score. That is, researchers found, unless you do a couple of different things with the extra money. You can use it to create memorable family experiences or to help others. When you do one or both of these, more money can indeed yield more happiness.

At some level, we all understand this concept. But then again, at a deeper, more visceral level, we think: Yeah, I know more money won’t make me happier, but with more money I’d be in Paris being the same degree of happy, and maybe even driving a sports car. It only stands to reason that driving a sports car in Paris creates a higher order of happiness than driving a Honda in Omaha. Meaning, of course, that try as we might, we can’t find a way to believe that owning more toys doesn’t guarantee more happiness.

Last week, I witnessed for myself the serving-others aspect of the recent research finding. My twelve-year-old granddaughter, Rachel, was dusting shelves for her mother while her friend stood by in tennis gear waiting to go play doubles at a nearby court. Rachel’s three-year-old sister, Lizzy, was toddling behind her, and after Rachel dusted each shelf, Lizzy would plead: “Help me!” Rachel would then lift Lizzy who, in turn, would drag her miniature duster over the same surface. To me, it was precious. Nevertheless, you’d figure that since Lizzy wasn’t actually helping move the job along, Rachel would ditch her baby sister in favor of finishing sooner and playing tennis. But she didn’t hurry. You could tell by the broad smile on her face that she took genuine pleasure from indulging her little sister.

“Rachel enjoys helping others more than doing just about anything,” her mother explained. “She learned that at an early age.”

What a blessing to have learned at such a young age that serving others (be it with your extra resources or your time) can be a great source of happiness. This idea, of course, can’t be sold through infomercials nor sponsored by celebrities, so it won’t spread across the country like the latest design in running shoes. In fact, unless the world experiences some sort of cataclysmic upheaval, one of the most important principles ever known to humankind will continue to be overshadowed by a deluge of messages that suggest we can’t really be happy unless we own things.

But then again there’s no knowing for sure. An ironing machine might be just what you need. A new bike could really help you out. The hair product might even make your hair shine. But then again, maybe all of these things will let you down. Most assuredly, none of them can be counted on to bring you anything as important as happiness.

You want happiness? Use your time and resources to genuinely and freely serve others: visit a shut in, read to a sick friend, compliment a coworker on a job well done, write a thoughtful note, or take homemade cookies to your grandparents (one of Rachel’s favorites).

In short, find a way to bring others happiness. It’s the fast track to joy.

Getting Things Done QA

How to Manage Emergencies and Still Stay on Track

Dear David,

What is the best way to manage true emergencies? My weekly review doesn’t account for those times people come bursting into my office with a fire that only I can seem to put out. When I spend time on these seemingly legitimate emergencies, it can derail my week and put me behind on the tasks I had planned to accomplish. What is the best way to manage this part of life that likely won’t ever change—despite my best efforts to plan?

Pin Ball

Dear Pin Ball,

I certainly empathize with the frustrations that can emerge when your best-laid plans get thrown off the rails, especially when you have invested time, energy, and thought into those plans. However, banking on a world void of surprises is obviously a futile exercise. This is especially true today when the rate of change is accelerating in virtually every professional environment. Thirty years ago, conventional wisdom suggested that at least 40% of your workday would be consumed by unexpected tasks, request, and obligations. Likely, this ratio can only have increased.

So, what’s the cure?

Let me start with what may seem like some hard news. There are no interruptions—only mismanaged inputs. Whatever you are allowing into your universe is either something you are accountable for, or it’s not. If it ought to be dealt with by another role or individual, you need to reroute it appropriately. If something has escalated up or over to you that you really aren’t responsible for, then you have an organizational issue that may need to be solved with a crucial conversation.

If, on the other hand, the input actually is something your job commitments require you to deal with (your “legitimate emergencies”), so be it. It could be that it’s simply a reality you need to accept. If the situation seems unacceptable, your options would be to change your role or work to reconfigure it. The latter case should happen if dealing with the “emergencies” is preventing you from fulfilling the primary responsibilities of your role.

If you really don’t think those changes to your role are workable solutions, take a lesson from none other than the fire department. Why not? Their job is to put out fires. What you might not know is the vast majority of fire alarms are false ones. Talk about a reason to feel frustrated! However, I doubt you’ll see fire fighters throw up their hands and complain the next time an alarm sounds because there’s a high probability it’s a false one. Instead, the fire department is structured to deal with surprise. When they’re not fighting a fire, fire fighters are cleaning up, organizing, and getting themselves ready for whatever real or perceived emergency might come next.

So, just like the fire department, we also need to be prepared for surprises. How do we do that?

Well, when I’m not doing anything else, I’m cleaning up my backlog—emails, notes, new inputs. I’m getting all my in-baskets to empty and current with all my commitments. Why? The smaller my backlog of un-captured, un-clarified, unorganized stuff, the more comfortable I am receiving anything new. Also, because I regularly ensure I have a complete inventory of my projects and actions (through emptying my “ins” and doing Weekly Reviews), I am able to assess the relative importance of the new thing in my world much more intelligently.

If you are not doing those best practices to keep things clear, the volume of lurking “unknowns” in your psyche will continue to grow. When this happens, any new input feels more like a distraction than an opportunity. You will have this gnawing sense that there’s something more you could, or should, be handling. And while you’re not exactly sure what, you’re certain it’s more important than the emergency. This uncertainty creates the sense of breaking agreements with yourself—one of the greatest sources of stress.

We all have important priorities and responsibilities we need to attend to. And, we should keep our focus on the most meaningful of those. This means we need to stay focused on our desired outcomes while navigating the bumps (and surprises!) in the road.

David Allen

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Advocate for Your Needs With Your Spouse

Dear Joseph,

I love my wife dearly and enjoy spending our dinners and late nights together after our long work days and putting the kids to sleep. However, I have learned after careful experimenting, over a few weeks now, that my wife has endless spunk, energy, and interest in telling me what is on her mind—mostly work-related issues—and literally falls ill once I begin to share mine. For multiple nights, I have listened to her speak with zest for over an hour and then when I attempt to share a thought, she says she is too tired, it is too late, remembers a sale, a forgotten chore or task, gets pains, needs a drink, a sweater, etc. So, I let my thoughts slide. But, in due time, she finds her way back to sharing what’s on her mind. Once again, I’ll listen and try again to share a thought of my own and like clockwork, on comes the pain, tiredness, thirst, and anything to end it—until she starts back on her own thoughts. How would you handle it?


Dear Shunned,

I’ve got good news. While some conversations have a low likelihood of success and a high likelihood of turmoil, I predict good things for yours. Here’s why:

  • You “love your wife dearly.” The fact that your disappointment has not turned into disconnection gives you the kind of emotional climate within which she might be able to open up with you.
  • You are catching it relatively early. Many people put off addressing issues until they are good and mad. Or they wait until the patterns—and their reactions to them—are so entrenched that mutual stories and justifications get deeply ingrained. You say you have been experimenting for “a few weeks.” Good for you!
  • You have facts and frequency. You have good, concrete examples to share with her so she can understand the topic you are raising, and that seem to be circumspect about describing the frequency of the behavior without exaggeration.

The mistake you’re making is that you continue to address content rather than pattern. In other words, you’re attempting to open up conversations about your own thoughts and feelings but not addressing your real concern: the fact that she diverts the conversation when you make these attempts. That is the crucial conversation you need to hold.

The predictor of your success is your ability to come from a place of love, courage, and curiosity. Love—in that you see the goodness in your wife. Courage—in that you are willing to advocate for your own needs as strongly as you respond to hers. Curiosity—in that you have no idea why she is doing what she is doing. Surrender any stories, speculation, and judgments you may have, and enter the conversation like a caring scientist—wanting to understand her behavior without personalizing it.

You might get it going as follows, “Sweetheart, I have noticed something in our conversations over the past few weeks that I’m really curious about. It involves how you respond when I begin to talk about some of my thoughts and feelings. When you feel comfortable doing so, I’d like to describe what I’ve seen and try to understand if there is something going on for you—or that you see in me—when this happens. When can we do that?”

Notice how I ended the invitation. I am trying to give her enough information that she doesn’t feel blind-sided. But I’m also assuming the very pattern you describe might emerge as you offer this invitation. That’s why I’m suggesting ending it with a request for an appointment, not an immediate demand. Hopefully, that gives her enough emotional flexibility to time it according to her needs.

If she fails to respond, I suggest you make two more attempts using largely the same script—so she sees that this is important enough to you that you are willing to lovingly, courageously, and curiously advocate for your need to have the conversation.

If, after the third attempt, she similarly fails to respond, you have a decision to make. You need to take responsibility for your own needs. If being able to share equally in conversation is important to you, you will need to move the conversation to the relationship level. This means that you need to let her know that this affects you to such a degree that you must find a way to address it. Be open to options she suggests. Perhaps she would prefer to do so with the help of a counselor, at a different time of day, in a different setting. But be sure to let her know that this is important enough that you want to find a way to discuss it.

I am almost as curious as you are about what is going on. I suspect when you create enough safety and demonstrate enough sincerity in desiring the conversation, you will learn something important that will help you better connect with your wonderful wife.


Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at