About Tommy Tomlinson
ommy Tomlinson spent 15 years as a prize-winning local columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He writes for magazines including Sports Illustrated, Reader’s Digest, ESPN the Magazine, Southern Living, Our State and many others. He has also written for websites including Sports on Earth and ESPN.com.
His stories were chosen for the books “Best American Sports Writing 2012” and “America’s Best Newspaper Writing.” In 2005, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in commentary. He has also taught writing at Queens University in Charlotte and at workshops across the country.
He is a graduate of the University of Georgia and was a 2008-09 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.
Tommy hosts a podcast called SouthBound, which he started in fall 2017 in collaboration with WFAE, the NPR station in Charlotte. It’s an interview show where he talks to notable Southerners about how this part of the world shapes who they are and what they do.
Lesson 1: Keep your word. Do what you’re say you’re going to do. Be where you say you’re going to be 09m 38s.
Lesson 2: Life is baseball. You’ll take some losses 12m 40s.
Lesson 3: What works in the short term rarely works in the long term 15m 48s.
Lesson 4: Endings are more important than beginnings 18m 13s.
Lesson 5: Look up at the world, not down at your phone 21m 06s.
Lesson 6: The easiest way to get out of a rut is to change your routines 25m 45s.
Lesson 7: When you can choose, don’t spend time with jerks 30m 42s.
Lesson 8: Nobody dies wishing they’d worked more36m 00s.
Lesson 9: Call home on your sister’s birthday (h/t Jason Isbell) 38m 46s.
Lesson 10: Nobody does great work alone 41m 27s.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:00:00] All the little, short term solutions that we have for our money problems or our relationship problems or any of those things, the things that sort of our short-term fixes almost never solve the long-term problems. And so, as I’ve gone forward, I’ve tried to think pretty carefully and not just in my health, but in the rest of my life, you know, what am I doing to look at the long-term and, and make fixes and come up with ideas and solutions that will be long-term solutions because the short-term ones fall apart fairly quickly.
Duff Watkins: [00:00:34] Hello. Welcome to the podcast, 10 lessons. It took me 50 years to learn, where we talk to leaders and luminaries, sages and gurus, writers, and raconteurs.
Sometimes they’re all the same. As we asked him to express the wisdom that they’ve gained in their life, provide a shortcut to excellence for you. Dear listener. My name is Duff Watkins, and I am your host. Our guest today is writer, author, commentator, podcaster, Tommy Tomlinson and Tommy. Welcome to the show.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:00:58] Thank you, Duff.
Thank you for having me. I appreciate this.
Duff Watkins: [00:01:00] Let me tell listeners, what you do for a living.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:01:04] You’re a writer.
Duff Watkins: [00:01:05] you for 15 plus years, you’ve been a columnist. You originally wrote for the Charlotte observer, North Carolina, which is where I came across you, you wrote for Sports Illustrated, Reader’s Digest, ESPN the magazine, you write for the website Sports on Earth.
Espn.com. There is a sports motif coming up, here folks, your writing, your stories have been included in best American sports writing and also. America’s best newspaper writing. You are a finalist for the Pulitzer prize. You’ve written a book called elephant in the room one man’s quest to become smaller and a growing America.
And we’ll talk about that in just a second. You host your own podcast called Southbound, but most importantly, you’re a guest here on this podcast. So once again, welcome. Thank you. Speaking of podcasts, tell me about Southbound.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:01:51] Well, southbound is an idea that I had several years ago. Yeah, I’m from the south.
I grew up in Georgia. I live in North Carolina now I’ve lived in the south for all, but one year of my life. It’s a place that always has had this duality to me of a place that I really love. I love the people, I love the setting, the nature. But I also know that the history here and a lot of the current policies and procedures of the way we do things are wrong and things that I’ve been against my whole life.
And so, there’s that push and pull of, I love the place and I hate it sometimes. And I wanted to talk to other southerners about their feelings about the place and how it influenced who they are and what they do. And so that’s what I’ve been doing for the last four years on the podcast is talking to southerners who are, some are sort of famous.
Some are not, some are entertainers, some are politicians, some are preachers or social workers, or all those sorts of things about how the self-influences their lives and how they struggle with the same things. That I’ve been struggling with about the south.
Duff Watkins: [00:02:58] Do you remember the Ken burns documentary about the civil war?
Oh, sure. Yeah, it was shown, I was, I I’ve been living in Australia for 40 years, although I’m in Brazil now, but that documentary was shown in Australia back whenever it was eighties, nineties, and I went to graduate school up north. I mean, I traveled a bit and when I saw that documentary within the first hour, I realized I’m a southerner.
I am at my core, a southerner. And I didn’t know it till that specific moment. Now that can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. I think, you know, for ignorant people that means, you know, southerners are redneck ignorant, fools, racists, et cetera, et cetera, that of course is not what I’m talking about.
So that podcast of yours resonates with me because it’s really hard to describe to somebody. And sometimes you don’t even know you’re a southerner until all of a sudden you do.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:03:50] You’re right. That other people sort of look at the south in many ways, this is sort of backwards place. And in some ways, it is, but it’s a, it’s a place that I still love and old deep feelings for.
And I think a lot of people who the south has treated even more badly, still feel those things too. And that’s kind of hard to resolve that when, you know, it’s like having a bad parent or something, and it’s apparent that you still love and care about, but it doesn’t treat you well off. And it doesn’t. It doesn’t give you the sort of background in life that would be useful and helpful.
And so, I think all of us, many of us here at least struggle with that love and, and hate of the place that we’re from. I think maybe more than other places in the, in the country. I’m not sure about that. I kind of feel that. And, and so I thought it would be interesting, kind of deep, rich material to work with.
And I think that’s proven to be true. A lot of people I’ve talked to have the same. Who faced that same dilemma that I do about the south and, and they find their own ways of working through it. Well, good luck with the
Duff Watkins: [00:04:53] podcast. Sounds good. Now, let me mention your book as well. Elephant in the room.
It’s one man’s memoir about being an obese person in the U S and as we were discussing off air. Obesity is a problem. It’s a problem in Brazil. It’s a problem in Australia. It’s a problem in the U S problem in the UK. It is a problem for a variety of reasons. Don’t get me started on it. But and I was saying I was a fat kid, you know, I know I don’t have any positive memories about it either.
So, tell us a bit about your book, which by the way, I highly recommend I listen to it as an audio book version, but of course it’s available and we will have an image on. On our podcast.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:05:30] Well, I thought, you know, so one of the things that you always hear as a, as a creative person, especially as a writer is, you know, tell your own story and the story of my life, really the overarching arc of it is that I’ve been overweight my whole life ever since I was a kid.
And so, it took me a while to kind of work up the courage, I guess. To write about that and to talk about it. Cause it’s obviously a painful subject and a lot of ways and something that I, I didn’t want to discuss in great detail with lots of people, including the people who are closest to me. But over the years, I decided and came to realize that there might be some usefulness in telling that story, not just for me to sort of get it off my chest.
But for other people who are struggling with not just their weight necessarily, but other sort of obsessions and addictions and any, anything that you find impedes your way to a better life. And so, I went back to the very beginnings and talked about, you know, being a fat kid and my mom and dad who were, who came from a big, a big rural Southern family, where.
Big meals were the rule rather than the exception. And then moving on to when I had my own money and sort of supplemented those big Southern meals with burgers and pizzas and beer and all that sort of thing to that till, I got to the point about eight or 10 years ago now where I weighed 460 pounds, which was my high point,
Duff Watkins: [00:06:54] that’s over 220 kilos.
I’m just converting that for metric.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:06:59] Good I’m glad you’re converting it. And then the story from there is about sort of realizing that if I kept doing that, if I kept living that way, I wasn’t going to live much longer. And so, the story was about sort of trying to work my way back down the scale.
And I’m still working on that. I’m still a big guy. I’m still, I’m doing it very slowly, intentionally because I think most diets don’t work very well. And, but I, I have a much healthier life. And a much more productive and fruitful life now than I did before. And I hope that that story is useful to other people as well.
Duff Watkins: [00:07:34] Well, and what has the feedback been so far about the, well, for example, how were the book sales going?
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:07:41] Well, yeah, the book sales did well, it did didn’t quite make the bestseller list, but I think it got pretty close and the publishers, some issues they were very happy with it and. The feedback I got was just tremendous.
I’ve gotten thousands upon thousands of emails, Facebook messages, texts, phone calls, letters. My favorite was I got a letter from a guy in Austria. I didn’t even know the book was for sale in Austria, but apparently, he got ahold of it and sent me like a four-page handwritten letter about it. And what was really gratifying to me about that letter was that he doesn’t struggle with his weight.
The issue he has in his life is depression. But he saw so many parallels between my story and his story that he said it was really helpful to him to try to figure out how to work his way out of his depression. And I think that’s true in, in general terms, the, if you’re a drug addict or an alcoholic, or you’re addicted to shoplifting or whatever it is, the symptoms and the things, aren’t all the same between that.
And somebody who’s really obese, but they rhyme. You know, there’s a lot of a lot of similarities. And so, I think hearing my story and telling my story helped me understand how there’s so many similarities out there and, and how there’s similarities to sort of working your way free of those. Well, I think,
Duff Watkins: [00:09:00] The book is also similar to this podcast, the essence of the book and my Psychological perspective, as it talks about incremental progress, which is the best kind of safest kind, the surest road incremental progress. You don’t do it all one day. And that by the way is how wisdom is accrued. Elephant in the room by Tommy Tomlinson. I urge people to have a look at you can find an excellent review of it by me on amazon.com.
Let’s talk about the 10 lessons that took Tommy 50 years to learn.
Number one. Keep your word, do what you say you’ll do be what you’ll say you’ll be.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:09:34] Yeah. In that form you just said I first heard from a writing teacher at the Charlotte observer, the paper I worked out the longest, there was a guy named Foster Davis there who had been a war correspondent.
It was a really great writer, and it became the sort of writing coach at our paper. And when we took classes from him, that was one of the first things he would say. Be where you say you’re going to be and do what you say you’re going to do and what, you know, what he meant by that is just keep your word be reliable.
And one thing in my career, as a journalist and as somebody who makes deadlines and, and, you know, fits, fits word counts to what the editors are asking for my wife was a long-time editor. And from talking to her and hearing her deal with other writers and things, I came to realize that that’s not always the case.
People are not reliable. A lot of people do not do what they say they’re going to do. And they don’t, you know, they’re not where they say they’re going to be. And if you’re just, if you just do those things, even if the work itself is not that great, you’ll kind of put yourself ahead of a lot of the other people in line.
A lot of editors, a lot of bosses look for people that they don’t have to worry about. You know, they don’t have to always figure out like, where’s that project or when’s that story come in or whatever, if you can just do what you say you’re going to do, be where you say you’re going to be, keep your word.
When you make a promise to somebody about something that puts you so far ahead of the game. And it, it took me a long time to, to realize that not everybody does that.
Duff Watkins: [00:11:02] How old were you when that lesson sunk into you?
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:11:05] Oh, I was into my, probably 30 at least. Before I heard it in that form and older than that, you know, my wife and I didn’t get married until we were in our mid-thirties.
And as I was listening to her, come home at night and talk about basically people who worked for her, who did not keep their promises about when they were going to file a story. For in the newspaper business, of course, the later you turn in your story, that means the later that everybody behind you has to work as well.
And so, there’s a domino effect, and so I realized that people often did not just keep their promises. And that was something that had always been drilled into me from the time I was young, you know, from my mom and dad, that if I, if I commit to doing something, I better do it and don’t just walk away from it.
And don’t make excuses if you don’t do it, or are you just. Do it. And so, in some sense, that was for me in me from the beginning, but it really didn’t sink in until I started talking to my wife about it. And then even more when I, I taught for a while to see students who didn’t follow through on their commitments and that sort of thing too, was really frustrating to me and made me realize even more that. This is not something that everybody just does by default.
Duff Watkins: [00:12:17] Yes. I’m with you. It took me. I don’t remember exactly when it sunk in, but it’s not a given. It’s not and everybody doesn’t share that. So that’s why it’s a useful lesson to remind people. Mm.
All right. Lesson number two, life is baseball you’re going to take some losses.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:12:35] So I don’t know how much of your audience knows American baseball. Maybe most of them knew, but the one thing about baseball, you don’t have to know anything about the sport itself, except for this point, it’s a long season. There are 162 games in a baseball season. The very best baseball teams only when maybe a hundred of those games.
So even the best teams, 60 times a year, They go home as a loser. And I think that’s a very good life lesson is learning how to accept the inevitable losses in life. And this really hit home to me as I was really making the first dedicated efforts to lose weight and get in shape. And I thought about it at first as being this unbroken string of days where I was healthy and exercise and did everything perfectly.
And the first time I back slid and had a day where I didn’t do things well, it’s, it’s easy in those moments to sort of fall off the wagon and to say, well, I screwed up today. I might as well wait till next week to start over next month. You know, when you’re, when you’re in the throes of an addiction or a compulsion or whatever tomorrow is always the golden day, you can always start tomorrow instead of just doing it today.
And so, I realized. Fairly quickly as I was doing this, that there were some days that I was going to mess up and my long-term success depended on how well I accepted those days, where I sort of took a loss and was able to rebound and start fresh the next day. And so, nobody’s going to have a life.
Nobody’s going to have a program where they’re ultimately successful every single day. You’re going to blow it sometimes. Circumstances are going to happen. They’re going to throw you off track. And the key is how do you get back on track? And how do you stop in that moment except the loss for what it is not take it too hard and keep going.
Duff Watkins: [00:14:25] Your comments, Remind me of the legendary basketball coach, Dean Smith, the university of North Carolina, when he retired, you know, this, when he retired, he’d won more basketball games than any other coach, but he said you never want to make winning a basketball game, a matter of life and death, because you’ll be dead a lot.
I think he won about almost 900 games, but I think he lost about 300 as well. So, to your point, I mean, and you can’t play the next game if you’re dead.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:14:54] I think about one of his great players, Michael Jordan, who often, you know, was known for making. Game winning shots. But Michael Jordan said one time, you know, nobody thinks about it, but I’ve missed a lot of game winning shots too.
And part of the being a great player is even though, you know, you’ve missed one being willing to take the next one. And so, I think that’s a useful skill sometimes when you think, when you fail in a day, if you come to think you’re a failure, Because of that, then that can have some long-term aftereffects.
But if you think I just lost today, that doesn’t mean I have to lose tomorrow. Then it’s a lot easier to sort of get back up and keep
Duff Watkins: [00:15:36] all right. That takes us to lesson number three, what works in the short term? Rarely works in the
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:15:42] long term. Yeah. So, I learned this, I, I known this for a while as somebody who had tried and failed at a lot of different diets, but it really hit home as I was doing research for this book studies of the diet industry, studying the science behind weight loss.
And all that sort of thing. And basically to, to sum up a huge amount of material, very briefly the diets that are the best sellers on the New York times list, the ones that are at the front of the book section. If you go to the bookstore, almost all those diets will work for you. If you have like 20 pounds to lose because they’re all designed to give you short term success. If you have 200 pounds to lose, like I do almost all those diets fail because they’re not designed for a sustainable life. And. And so the, you know, all these fad diets, I do really well that people have success with, if you go back to those same people, six months or a year or two years later, what science has found and studies have found is that many of those people, if not, most have gained all the weight back because those diets that are designed for sort of a rapid, brief weight loss. You can’t live that way year after year after year. And so, I think this has applications to larger life to that, that all the little, short term solutions that we have for our money problems or our, your relationship problems or any of those things, the things that sort of are short-term fixes almost never solve the long-term problem.
And so, as I’ve gone forward, I’ve tried to think pretty carefully and not just in my health, but in the rest of my life, you know, what am I doing to look at the long-term and make fixes and come up with ideas and solutions that will be long-term solutions because the short-term ones fall apart.
Duff Watkins: [00:17:36] Yeah, well, you know, going back to died.
So, we use it as an example, incremental success day by day advancements. I mean, you cannot lose. 60 pounds or 30 kilos, you lose half a pound every day. You can’t, you can’t lose it at once.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:17:50] You know, it’s right. And it’s this, it’s this slow building or unbuilding a sense that, that accumulates over time.
Duff Watkins: [00:17:59] Okay.
Lesson number four endings are more important than beginnings.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:18:05] Yeah. This slowly dawned on me. As I developed as a writer, you know, in the newspaper business were taught to set the hook as soon as possible to put the best stuff in the story, right at the beginning to make sure the reader doesn’t go away.
You know, the, the associated press, the big wire service that provides most of the news to the world. I guess even as a structure it’s called the inverted pyramid. It’s like an upside-down triangle where the best stuff is at the very beginning. And then with each succeeding paragraph it’s less and less important.
And that was designed in a way that if people had to fit a story onto a printed page, they could cut it from the bottom and know they wouldn’t lose the important stuff. But if you think about what you respond to, as somebody who consumes stories, movies, plays, books, that sort of thing. I find that what you take away most of the time, it makes you the most satisfied is a good ending.
So, if you tell a story that has a slam bang beginning, but it sort of peters out of the end, that sort of, you know, that leaves you walking away unsatisfied. But if a story has even sort of a mediocre beginning, but a really powerful, satisfying ending, then you walk away feeling much more satisfied. I think of Casa Blanca, the movie, the other classical movie, everybody who’s watched Casa Blanca and even people who haven’t know the ending.
You know, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, you know, the two star crossed lovers breaking up at the airport and that sort of thing. Nobody remembers the beginning of Casa Blanca. It doesn’t matter when the beginning is because the ending is so powerful and satisfying. So, as I’ve written stories in my career, I take great pains to make sure that the ending is good, because I want people to walk away from what I’ve written, when to read the next thing there. And then I think that also has some translations into, into life. I want, when I see somebody that I’m friends with, I want that meeting to end well, I want phone calls with people to end well those sorts of things, and if it ends well, nobody knows or remembers or cares much.
About what the beginning is. Like. I think a lot of times people hesitate for example, to do something like call an old friend. Cause they don’t know how to start that conversation. If you haven’t talked to somebody in 20 years or something, well, the truth is it doesn’t matter how it starts. What matters is that you do it and how it is.
And so that’s, that’s where I try to draw that.
Duff Watkins: [00:20:48] Thank you. It’s good. It’s good one
lesson number five look up at the world, not down at your phone.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:20:54] This is advice for me as much as anybody, because I am.
Duff Watkins: [00:20:58] I thought you were talking to me personally on that one.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:21:01] Yeah. I I’ll tell you the, the talk about a hack. It’s not really a hack.
It’s more of a change in lifestyle. One of the things that I’ve done in the last year or so that has made my life 20% better immediately, is that I don’t keep my phone by my bed anymore. So, it used to be, I I’ve, I’ve come to believe that the most insidious feature of the modern smartphone is the alarm clock, because for many of us, we use that as the.
As the clock we used to wake up in the morning. And so, when you wake up in the morning from the first moment you get up, that phone is in your hand. And many, many people me included for, for the longest time, once the phone was in your hand, it was hard to get it out, right. You just didn’t put it down. And so, I have an old cheap sort of digital alarm clock that I use to wake up in the morning and I charged my phone in the other room.
And so often I don’t see my phone or don’t pick up my phone and I’m an hour or two in my day. And that always makes my day better. And so, one of the things that I’ve talked about a lot when I’ve taught classes, especially to, you know, 19, 20, 21-year-old students who grew up with phones in their hands from the times that were from the time they were born, basically, is that in every.
In-between moment, you know, every, every pause in your life does not have to be an occasion to pick up your phone. You know, I would teach a class and there would be like a 10-minute break in the class. And during that 10 minute, every single student would pick up their phone. And I would say just, let’s just take these this 10 minute and look at something else, whether you just look staring outside or you’re talking to your friends, or you go out for a walk, you to just take 10 minutes and do that. And it’s hard, right? That phone is constantly calling you like all the information in the world is in that phone.
And so, I I’ve tried to practice with limited success, but also certainly preach the idea that your, your phone is an incredible tool, but it does not have to be your constant companion. And when you can put it down and look up at the world and see things and notice things that other people aren’t noticing as a practical matter, It sort of puts you ahead of everybody else as an observer.
And I, I, you know, talk about this to potential writers. People will be storytellers if, if 99% of the world’s looking at their phone and you’re looking up at the outside world, you have an advantage because you’re seeing things that they don’t see. And you’re able to tell stories about those things. When all they can tell about is what was on Twitter that day.
And so, I think about it as sort of a practical matter to get ahead in the world, but also just a philosophical thing to divorce yourself from this, this, you know, lamprey, that’s attached on onto so many of us.
Duff Watkins: [00:24:00] I have a story to tell you about that. You sent me that list weeks ago, weeks ago.
And I, I was reading it and then it’s look up at the world, not down at your phone. And I thought to myself, because you don’t find fulfillment on a phone. So, I wrote that down and it happened to be Easter. Easter weekend and Good Friday. And I post things on LinkedIn regularly daily, usually management business related career related career advice.
And I had a cartoon and Jesus is coming out of the tomb on good Friday. And instead of, and all the people there taking photographs and selfie, and when they’re turning away and looking at the camera, but everybody’s looking at the camera, not at Jesus, it’s a cartoon folks. And so, the message was.
Whatever your spiritual beliefs life is meant to be experienced, not photographed look up and live. And I got thousands of people liking and comments and stuff. So inadvertently you kind of hit a nerve. And I think the nervous people know that they’re not. And by the way, those phones are made to be addictive.
All those games and all the apps. So, they’re really exploiting our neuro systems. So, so it, but there’s just no substitute for live human interaction, human engagement. And you’ve made that point a couple of times, and then this point, but anyway, I just thought I’d share that your point took on a new life via my LinkedIn post good.
Lesson number six, the easiest way to get out of a rut is to change your routine.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:25:31] I think this is sort of linked to that, the phone thing too. We live much of our lives on autopilot, you know, pre pandemic. Before most people stayed at home. Most of the time, you know, people have commutes to work, or they take their kids to school or they, you know, run errands and that sort of thing.
And I think if you ask most people about those things, you ask them how they get to work every day, they will tell you they, they drive or commute. They do the exact same thing. Day after day after day, they take their kids to school on the same route every Saturday it’s grocery day or it’s laundry day or whatever it is, there are these built-in routines and those routines make our lives more efficient and easier, but they also, they sort of disengage our brains for our daily activity.
I don’t know if you’ve had this experience. I know lots of people have. I certainly have, you’re driving down the highway. And you get sort of lost in thought or you’re, you know, that you’re, you’re just on this interstate is big straight highway and all of a sudden you look up and you’re not exactly sure where you are, you know, you don’t did I miss the exit I was supposed to be on, and it takes a little while to sort of get reoriented.
I think when you go through, when you have certain routines in your life, you don’t even see what’s around you, you know, as you drive to work every day, for example, because you’ve driven that same route 2000 times, and you’re just not paying attention anymore to anything except your destination. And so. I tell students in writing classes, the easiest way to sort of re-engage your brain is to build different routines or to mix them up.
So, you drive this way to work every day of your life. Drive a different way. You get groceries at the same place. Every Saturday, go to a different grocery store. This time you sit in the same. Pews are the same seats at church for every, you know, every Sunday or whatever, you go sit in different place this time.
And what all those things do is it tells your brain to pay attention. I’m doing something different this time. And when you tell your brain that your brains is incredible attention, pain machine, and when you turn it on, you see things that you didn’t see before, and you experience these things that are so familiar to you.
In different ways. And so just getting out of those ruts, that sort of daily ruts that we build for ourselves, I think is an incredible way just to see the world differently and to engage your active mind in a way that, that many of us don’t day to day.
Duff Watkins: [00:28:05] Your words, remind me of the philosopher, Henry Nelson Wyman.
He wrote about the importance of ruts and trailblazing. We need those ruts because somebody gone before. So, it’s just faster. It’s just easier to stay in these ruts. However, however, somebody somewhere, sometimes you will have to deviate from that and blaze a trail. Now blazing a trail takes some exertion, but you need both.
You need to blaze the trail. Otherwise, you won’t have a rut. And so, you spend a bit of time doing, doing both. The other thing that reminds me of years ago, I decided I want to get up and develop a new habit of going for a morning walk. I was in Sydney at the time. So, I would get up in the morning and then I would go have a cup of tea, check my email, or this just reply.
I wonder what the basketball score is. And I would just, you know, took me forever to get out the door. So finally. I talk with myself. I said, self, come on. You’re an educated person. You’ve got a high school diploma. I’m not making this up. Tell me I had to take my shoes, put them by the bed and my shirt and my pants.
I had to, you know, first thing in the morning had to put them on and had to go out the front door, which I never do instead of the side door, because otherwise I’d get distracted and derailed. And then once I got out there, everything was fine and it, I don’t know how long it took, but it just took. What seemed to be an enormous exertion at first to deviate from my rut.
And I had no idea how powerful the rut was. And I suspect that’s what you’re saying about people in the ruts we’re in.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:29:36] We build these sorts of efficiencies into our lives, where there it’s sort of automated in a way where you don’t have to think about it. And I think that can be really useful a lot of days.
Right. But it also tells our brain, you don’t have to. Pay attention right now. I know what I’m doing. And the more we do that, the less our brain and, you know, there’s some atrophy involved there. And so, I’m what I’m saying is from time to time, it’s good to kind of poke your brain and say, okay, you, you need to work for a little bit.
Duff Watkins: [00:30:07] There are psychological benefits to that, including using different words than you normally use, by the way. So, what you’re saying is psychologically verified many times,
Lesson number seven when you can choose, don’t spend time around jerks.
Now, Tommy, I suppose you’re using jerks in a generic sense, I suppose that includes assholes dickheads and obnoxious people of all types, right?
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:30:31] Well, Duff I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to say it that way, but yes, that’s exactly.
Duff Watkins: [00:30:36] We’re not a family podcast. We talk straight.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:30:39] Yeah. Well good. So, a friend of mine is a guy named Michael Shore who has developed. Several really wonderful American TV shows parks and recreation. He did the American version of the office.
The good place of many of those kinds of shows and his overarching rule when it comes to working with actors, directors, creative people, or whatever is no assholes. You know, no matter how talented you are, if you’re an asshole, if you’re a jerk, he’s not going to work with you. And I’ve found that to be the case for me too, as much as I roll over the process.
And so, as an employee or that sort of thing, you don’t have much control over the process, but as much as in my life, As I’m able to control it. I keep jerks, assholes, dickheads, whatever out of my life, especially my creative life, because it’s just, it’s such an energy drain. And, you know, even if the person is talented, what they.
Take away from the process is almost always so much more than they add to it. And so, I, and also there are so many good creative people out there who aren’t jerks. And so, I want to work with them. And so, as I go through life, say I’m doing magazine pieces or whatever. I want to select editors that are really want to work with who I think are good and creative will make me better, but are not jerks.
As I’ve looked, as I talked to people from my book, I, one of the editors that I talked to was really seemed like a really wonderful person who had great creative ideas. That’s the person I want to work with. And I want also, you know, a part of that answer, a part of that. That life lesson is to be that kind of person in other people’s lives.
Don’t be an asshole. Don’t be a jerk, don’t be a diva or whatever it is. Use your talents wisely and, and understand the nature of collaboration. And. Be a good partner in creative work and love and everything just don’t be an asshole. It seems like that would be a simple thing, but obviously considering the experiences, almost all of us have had working with other people.
It’s not a simple thing. And so, to the extent that I can do it, I try to. Avoid those folks as much as possible.
Duff Watkins: [00:33:01] Okay. To a young person who says they’re listening to this podcast, they say, okay, well, yeah, it’s easy for you Duff, it’s easy for you Tommy to say that, but I’m a young person in this big company I’m surrounded by jerks.
I mean, assholes a bound. There’s a plethora of dickheads in my office. You know, what am I supposed to do there? What do you say to the person like that?
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:33:22] Well, I, I think you, first of all, you become the kind of person that you want other people to be. You sort of model good behavior. You align yourself to the extent that it’s possible with other people who you feel like model that good behavior as well, to the extent that you feel like you can.
You gently push back when people are other people are being jerks, you know, you’ll have to navigate the workplace in different ways, but I think some people feel like they just have to sit there and take it in that may, might not always be true. And then if it’s really overwhelming to you. You start trying to find other places that, and it may be other places, even within the company, you may, you may find that there’s a really good boss somewhere.
Who’s not your boss. And maybe part of what you do is figure out how can I work with that person? What would it take to get maneuver myself in that direction? And so again, this is to go back to one of the other points it’s, short-term thinking versus long-term thing. The short-term thinking of course is how do I survive the day with this bunch of jerks and that can be difficult, but the long-term thinking is how do I move maneuver myself so that I’m not working with those people anymore. And I’m working with people I want to be around more often. And so that’s. You know, you have to kind of work on two tracks.
Duff Watkins: [00:34:43] and that’s important.
One of the biggest psychological insights I’ve come across in the last decade is the importance, the power of the environment upon you or me or anybody. We like to think that we’re all rugged individualists and impervious character, but the fact that we’re pretty permeable and it does affect us a lot.
So, you’re suggesting aligning yourself with the forces of good makes perfect sense. And not only does it make sense, but it’s just damn good survival.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:35:11] strategy, valid strategy. And in the long-term my belief is that people who do that make. Create better things anyway, that the people who are jerks, even if they’re talented, their stuff, isn’t as good as the stuff that people who care about each other make.
Duff Watkins: [00:35:28] well, speaking of work that takes us to
lesson number eight, nobody dies wishing they’d done more work.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:35:36] Yeah, that’s an old joke. You know, an old, an old saying that nobody on their death bed, they say, if you have you any final words. Yeah. I wish I wish I’d worked more hours. You know.
Duff Watkins: [00:35:45] I wish I’d sent more emails.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:35:48] Yes. I wish I’d read more corporate reports. You know, again, this is short-term thinking versus long-term thinking, and this is another one that’s designed for me to remember as much as anyone we can.
All, I think most of us, especially if we do work, we like can devote our whole lives to it. We can get absorbed in it. You know, I, I work in a field where there’s not really set hours. I don’t clock in and clock out every day. And I’m excited about most of the work that I do. I enjoy it. And so, some days I find myself at 11 o’clock at night, still sort of grinding away on something.
Or up at four in the morning, kind of grinding away on something. And even if it’s enjoyable work, it’s not the same as taking a break, taking a vacation. My wife and I were talking about this just last night. We haven’t taken like a serious vacation in about three years because we both have jobs that are both demanding and jobs.
We enjoy. And so, we can day to day get so absorbed in the work that we forget to have more of a life outside of work and that’s become especially true. I think in this last year of the pandemic, which I know affects different countries in different ways, but here in the U S you know, we’re still fairly locked down here and just now working our way towards some sort of closure on the pandemic. And so, most of us have been sort of hunkered down for more than a year now. And in that time, I think a lot of us have gotten even more absorbed in our work because we can’t go out and do the things that we used to do. And so, I find that I find myself thinking a lot now about what I’m going to.
Be like when I’m 75 or 80 years old, Hell I wish I would have lived differently. And I think part of that for me, is going to be a big regret is going to be, I didn’t put down the computer enough and go out and see the world and take vacations and take a breather. Good point.
Duff Watkins: [00:37:45] I got hooked on cruises a few years ago. I went to a conference, and I always thought I dislike it intensely, but I got hooked immediately.
And more than once what I people have told me and I’m so glad that I did it then, and we’ll do it when I’m allowed next, you get a chance to see the world before you’re too damn old to enjoy it or walk around it or get off the ship. And I didn’t plan that. It just happened that way, but I am just so glad I didn’t put it off.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:38:13] It’s good advice.
Duff Watkins: [00:38:15] Lesson number Nine. Call home on your sister’s birthday.
First of all, Tommy, I guess you’re talking to me and secondly, you haven’t met my sister, have you? Yeah,
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:38:27] well this, this is a song lyric. Actually, there’s a song. A singer songwriter.
I really love, I think he’s one of the best writers in the world today. Got him, Jason Isbell and Jason Isbell has a song called outfit. And the song is written as a father’s advice to his son, a son who’s growing up and getting ready to become an adult and go out in the world. And it’s funny in that most of the advice is sort of referring to our last point, like get out and enjoy yourself.
Don’t. Don’t do the kind of work you hate and all that sort of thing. It applies to a lot of the stuff that you and I have already talked about, but one of the lines there is, you know, call home on your sister’s birthday and what he means by that. I think in general terms, even if you become one of those people who grows up and goes away, don’t forget to.
Reach out and stay in touch with your family and your friends and the people who are, who are close to you back then don’t get too detached for the people who made you, who you are. I think about that in a very personal way lately because my sister died a few years ago, back in 2014 and I would call her on her birthday or in later years text her, send her a Facebook message or something like that.
And I really wish I could do that now. You know, and I miss those moments when I, we reached out and talked, even if it was just for a minute. And so, I think many of us, most of us leave the nest at some point go often, far away from where we grew up and where our parents are and all that sort of thing, or our friends from our youth are. And I know, and I know as I say this, that some people have really fraught relationships with their families, and it’s really difficult to make those calls and to, to reach out and that some people have decided to permanently detach and that’s understandable in some cases, but I think it is also true that people just lose touch with people they care about.
And this little piece of advice, as a reminder to me, to reach out to those people you care about and stay in touch with them while you can. We take for.
Duff Watkins: [00:40:36] granted a lot of those relationships, but they all need cultivating. They all plants need cultivating and, and relationships are no different. Exactly.
Right. Even the people you’re living with need relationships need, need to be cultivated.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:40:50] Yeah. That’s very true. Hmm.
Duff Watkins: [00:40:53] All right.
Lesson number 10. Nobody does great work alone.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:40:58] I think you could probably go back and find some great artists, some great creator who basically did it by themselves. I always like a Mozart who seemed to be this fully formed, incredible composer when he was like nine or 10 years old or something like that.
And there are just moments of genius like that, that, that are sort of inexplicable. But I think if you. Go into the backstories of almost any other famous successful person from Michelangelo to Steve jobs or whoever you want to talk about. All those people had mentors, all those people had collaborators, all the sort of self-made men and women that we think about are not self-made they’re made by the collaboration and.
Help of many, many other people. That’s absolutely true for me. You know, my name’s on my book, but not only was my book, a creation of many people in the publishing business, in the book business, but it was sort of the culmination of. All the people who’ve taught me things my whole life from my mom and dad to teachers in school, to friends and family members and mentors along the way, every person’s output is a result of many, many people’s input.
And I think sometimes people who have bigger egos or whatever, you know, it’s Barack Obama said during one of his. Presidential terms that when people say I built that, no, you didn’t, you didn’t build it yourself. You know, we built that together. We did this, we did things together and everybody is a, is a mashup, a, a culmination, a creation of all these other people who helped them or taught them something along the way. And so, I think what that lesson to me, it comes out of that is not only do we not do the work alone, but we can’t get through life alone, either that sometimes we stuff, all this stuff. Bad stuff inside us because we think nobody else understands.
I felt that way a long time as an overweight person, even though it would be clear if I just looked around there other overweight people who would have some understanding of what my life is like, but always thought nobody understands what it’s like to be me. And the truth is that when you open up and when you tell your story, you find out that there are millions of other people who are like you and understand you and can, can, if not in the exact precise same way, but it’s certainly with enough common points that you can have great conversations.
And so, I feel like there’s so many. People who are depressed, lonely isolated, especially during this pandemic because they feel like their, lives are just them. And what this, what I’m trying to make in this point is that nobody is truly alone. We all have other people around us who can influence us, who can help us in some way.
And I think it’s a really useful and wise thing to remember that.
Duff Watkins: [00:44:09] in business. It’s always, we never, I. Because it’s always a collaboration of things. You mentioned Mozart. He was born into a highly professional music family. So, he had a running start. I just finished a biography of DaVinci. I mean, He’s always going to be the smartest guy in any room he’s in, he built upon and borrowed upon the work of everybody.
He was a great and pretty generous with credit as well. But so, you’re quite right in history of inventions. Nobody knows it’s never two guys in a garage inventing something. It’s two guys in a garage with government funding inventing something. That’s true. You know, so that’s a good point. So, there is a nexus.
That exists between among all of us, whether we recognize it or not. And if you do, you’re better off for recognizing it. Let me conclude with one last question. You’ve been sharing your wisdom for us. Let me ask you one more question. What have you unlearned lately? Something you absolutely positively knew to be true, but now realize it’s not the case.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:45:17] Well, that’s a good question.
I, the first thing that comes to mind. Is that, is that the work I put out in the world needs to be polished. That’s something I’ve had to unlearn. Let me try to explain that. So, the podcasts that I do, for example, for the first. Two or three years that I did it. We did it in a studio at the radio station where I work. Top of the line equipment.
The other person, if they weren’t face-to-face in front of me, they were probably in another top of the line studio. And the sound quality was pristine. It, it sounded like the person was right in front of you as you were talking to them. And we. You know, spent a lot of money on equipment, spend a lot of time and editing to make that sound like studio quality, like the most polished product that you could imagine.
Well, the pandemic just took all that and threw it out the window. So, we, we don’t go to our studios anymore to work. We all work from home and we’ve all sort of scrambled to figure out. How to make these conversations. First of all, it took a while to figure out just how to record things. What, what software we wanted to use and how to do these things remotely.
There were, I know a couple of pieces of software. We tried at the beginning that ended up being just terrible. And that sounded like we were talking out of tin cans or something. And for people who are used to this very polished studio process, it was awful. It was so jarring. So now most of us, I think like most of the rest of the world, like you and I were talking on zoom, and we’re used to it by now, cause it’s been a year and it’s going to sound just fine to our ears when it comes out.
But if you play this next to one of my pre pandemic podcasts, you would notice a huge difference in the sound quality, just because of the equipment. Right. And I’ve had to let go of the idea that it needs to be really polished and beautiful. And I’ve had to let go of that with some extent in my writing too, I’ve written things more quickly and put them out there faster than I did before.
For a while during the pandemic for the radio station, I wrote a column every single day during the first, first, several weeks of the pandemic. And so, I didn’t have a chance to Polish it and make it as nice and ship-shape as I normally wanted to, because we were just trying to get material out there and, and get, you know, build an audience and pull people together during this, this really uncertain time. And it hurt me, you know, physically to put something out there that was not as good as I can make it. But I’ve, I’ve learned. I think it are unlearned that it has to be perfect or close to it to be good. And I knew that already.
I mean, I, I knew the perfect is the enemy of the good, but I haven’t had to practice it nearly as much as I’ve had to practice it in this last year. And at some point, I don’t really know how far along into it. I just sort of relaxed and, and sat with it and realized it’s okay, everybody else is dealing with the same stuff.
Everybody else is living these imperfect day-to-day stumbling through our lives. And that’s true in the long-term as well as the short term, but certainly in the short term. And it’s okay to be unpolished. It’s okay. To be a little ragged. It’s okay to be. You know, not as great as your best, every single day.
And so, I’ve had to unlearn that, and I think it’s useful. I think it’s a good thing to carry forward. Certainly, when I’m able, I want to Polish stuff up and make it as nice as I can. And as I’m working on longer-term projects, I’ll definitely try to do that more. But from day to day, man, we’re all just trying to get through it, you know, and I could apply that longer-term thinking to the stuff that we’ve talked about before to my longer-term projects, but in the middle of the day, it’s okay. Just to hit, send and put it out there and say, this is what I am today. And I hope you like it. But if you bring in tomorrow and we’ll try again,
Duff Watkins: [00:49:27] It sounds like you’ve detached yourself from the notion of having to be perfect or more importantly, having to appear.
Perfect. One of our previous guests said one of his wisdom was, was. Perfect is a poor target. Perfect is not an entity that exists.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:49:45] Yeah. I’ve always felt that way. But I think like, I, I, I I’ve, I’ve never been under the illusion that anything I produce is perfect, but I have been really dedicated to making it as good as I can make it.
Right. And so, I think I’ve had to strip away a layer to a veneer from even that to say, this is what I got right now. You know, deal with it and knowing that everybody else is kind of doing the same thing. And so that’s been a useful lesson for me, is that to put yourself out there as stumbling around and just trying to do your best from day-to-day that’s enough.
And because that’s how other people are approaching it too. And I think that sort of unvarnished version is often as beautiful if not more so than the more polished.
Duff Watkins: [00:50:36] Well, as I learned recently, Tommy life’s like baseball, you know, you got another game coming up, so you’re going to win some and lose some.
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:50:44] Whoever said that was really smart.
Duff Watkins: [00:50:46] Yeah, I think we’ll have him on the podcast, and I think, I think we’ll conclude this podcast on that note. Tommy what’s coming up for you. Any books, any what’s the, what’s your new endeavor?
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:50:56] Southbound is still available on any podcast provider you use, just look up southbound in my name, I write a weekly commentary for WFAE.
It’s a wfae.org. It’s usually on issues that are more local to Charlotte, North Carolina, but sometimes bigger issues. And that’s a radio station in Charlotte. That’s a radio station. Yes, the national public radio station in Charlotte. Yeah. And the bigger project I’m working on is a book on the Westminster dog show.
Which is the big dog show in America, a really popular, I’ve always been fascinated by dog shows and dogs in general that the sort of communication that dogs and humans seem to have that connection that we’ve made with each other over thousands and thousands of years and how it plays out in this little world of the dog show, which is a very sort of artificial world compared to how most of us deal with our dogs.
Hmm. And so, I’ll be following sort of the dog show circuit around the country starting this, starting this June, and I’m really looking forward to that. And that book will probably be out in two years.
Duff Watkins: [00:51:58] All right, sounds good. Thank you. Do you have a working title for it yet?
Tommy Tomlinson: [00:52:02] Don’t you know, the people in the dog show world, they call that world the fancy.
In fact, that’s how there’s a sort of phrase called you’re a dog fancier, or you’re a baseball fancier or whatever. That’s where that comes from. The fancy is a term for the people in the dog world. It’s something like among the fancy or something might be a good title. I’m still working on that. All right, we’ll
Duff Watkins: [00:52:26] look forward to it.
We’ll finish on that note. You’ve been listening to the podcast, 10 lessons. It took me 50 years to learn. Our guest today has been Tommy Tomlinson host of his own podcast. Southbound author of An Elephant in the Room and a regular columnist for various newspapers. This episode is produced by Robert Hossary and as always sponsored by the professional development forum, which exists to accelerate the performance of people in the modern workforce.
You can find them online, profesionaldevelopmentforum.org, and they offer webinars, social media discussions, podcast, parties, anything you want, everything you need and everything they offer is free.
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