Don’t hate the player, Don’t even hate the game

Last weekend, in the deep Ozark woods of Missouri, my wife and I were unplugged. For a deeply relaxing day and a half, our technology devices became paperweights. The internet couldn’t penetrate into that holler. Not even a single bar of cell reception showed up onscreen. That may have been the very best part of the place we picked to camp and hike.

That spot allowed us to unlatch from the leash of the streaming information that we habitually tether ourselves to, in any given downtime moment.

I read a book. Almost a whole book. Between Friday night and Sunday morning. Since then I have read some more, but not too much more, back in the ‘real world’ of home and facebook and youtube too.

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis, has been sitting on my shelf for many months. I bought it after seeing Michael on Charlie Rose one night. He also has authored books that became famous movies, like Moneyball and The Blindside. Really interesting guy, who digs deeply into amazing true stories.

Flash Boys is a book about people using the stock market and technology to make untold millions and yes, billions of dollars. High frequency traders employ the fastest computer technology available. They exchange stocks in tiniest of fractions of time and currency. The risk is essentially low, and the reward is outstanding. They make money in down markets and up markets. They exploit new government regulations, and the result is a massive skim of the American investor since the mid 2000’s.

Actually, the skim and the loophole and the ‘gaming’ of the stock market system, is nothing new at all. One researcher in the book, has found evidence of these issues since the very beginning. This newest version, happens to be exponentially quick and extraordinary lucrative.

Really, the author’s research and the people he writes about, detail a complex picture of fantastically intricate moving parts, BUT, it all boils down to morality. The book paints a picture of Brad Katsuyama, he notices a problem. He cannot let the problem go un-investigated. He is troubled as he finds wrongdoing, he fights against it. He is one man, against an army. He builds a team. He searches out others who see the injustice. He eventually takes it upon himself to reinvent a stock-market exchange. They try to build an ‘un-gamable’ system. A place where fairness is simply the goal, instead of making money for the insiders.

‘The system’ is something that crosses my mind all the time. I have always seemed to want to question the structures and rules and reasonings that ‘the world’ around me seems to live by. I often find myself interested by conspiracy theories or radical reinterpretations of seemingly concrete truths. I love it when science, or the Bible, can re-frame a sturdy and unquestioned idea, and show me another view behind the curtain.

Hardly ever though, do I remember myself intentionally working and striving and trying really hard, to ‘game the system.’  I see the deceit and exploitation and card tricks maneuvering pointed out in this book, as something that other people do, and I don’t.

I’m probably giving myself too much credit here. I am sure there are times that I have tried to work the least amount, and to get the most money. I didn’t find myself with billions of dollars… darn. But, I’m sure I have done it on some level.

I find my management moments at work, concerned about these very issues however. What is the nature the systems we’ve created? Do they create a balanced and fair environment for the guests who dine with us, for our team, for the business itself? Are the systems in place, fortuitous in a healthy way for everyone involved? Is someone ‘gaming our systems’?

I certainly can see the distrust in some customer’s eyes, as they may think we are attempting to ‘game’ them. Some may believe that our small family run business is an actual gold mine. They may feel ‘took’ and that we have overcharged them, given an cheap product, and we happily haul our rewards to the bank. Actually, these moments are quite few indeed. But the idea exists, that businesses are inherently bad or crooked or somehow stealing people’s money right out of their pockets.

I actually laugh at myself sometimes, for noticing the hilarity in that thought, as it relates to our little restaurant. So much effort, tons of time and money investment is required to maintain quality and excellence. The rewards are easier to count in smiles and appreciation than dollars at the end of the day. Satisfaction of a job well done, is the best reward, when we sometimes, get almost all of it, almost all right.

I am now re-awakened to the idea that ‘gaming a system’ is part of our humanity. Trying to squeeze out the most reward for the smallest risk, is just something that seems to reside somewhere in our consciousness. How much of that ‘gaming’ we partake in, or allow to exist in our own world, shows our personal boundary set-points.

The hero of the book, Flash Boys, is Brad, and he is little David, standing against Goliath’s bigger, uglier and wealthier brother. But stand and fight he does. He is trying against amazing odds, to do the right thing. We all have a Brad inside us. He isn’t gaming a system for personal gains, he’s rebuilding the system to level the field. His purpose is noble and whatever the eventual outcome, he can rest at night, knowing he used is energy to try and serve his fellow man in a profoundly fair way.

May I be richer for knowing that courage does exist; David’s rock-and-sling courage, in the modern world. May it well up in you too, from the deepest springs. We all have a Goliath in our life, the battle is before us every day. Godspeed my friends.

See you here next week 🙂


Aaron Nichols

Running A-Way for Life

Of course, packing up for a weekend away makes me think of the upcoming birth we are expecting in August. I will probably pack bags, when it’s delivery time. I will probably pack bags and load them for a long time after that too.

We’re leaving in the morning to go to Johnson Shut-Ins State Park in Missouri.  I cram totes and duffels and snacks and a cooler into our truck and I am excited to be camping soon. I remember being a young kid and loving these kind of trips. I examine my choices of gear and of supplies, I remember my best friend as child, James Barkley.

We had great conversations together, walking home after school. Just a few blocks, literally over a (tiny) river and through the woods, to my Grandmother’s House we’d go. I remember talking about school, or testing out dirty cuss words, or planning out how we’d manage to get to stay that night at one or the other’s houses.

Also, I recall the exact feeling of our discussions about running away. At the time, we planned our escape riding a small four-wheeler. I remember wanting a little cargo trailer to hitch onto mine. I also spent lots and lots of time thinking about all the things I would pack into the trailer, and strap on the racks of the quad. I wanted camping stuff and food. Drinks and clothes and snacks. Probably a knife and an axe too. I wanted everything I might need for my journey, all lashed onto my go-anywhere vehicular rig.

Well, that is just about what I have, right now, sitting in my driveway. It’s not a quad-runner, but it is a 4Runner. I don’t have the trailer, but I do have plenty of room for my stuff. Speaking of stuff, I have a bunch of it; camping gear galore. I don’t have James with me, but my best friend in the world, Lindsay will be by my side. I can rest happy tonight, knowing we will ‘Run Away’, bright and early tomorrow morning.

We’ll even have our 20 week old baby on board 🙂

Packing up for a journey, makes me wonder about that little one. I wonder about the origins of life. I wonder about our souls. I question the biggest ‘hows’ that my mind can imagine. I have come across lots of different schools of thought, concerning how our lives work. Some seem sure that we pop out fresh; we have this one life and that’s it. Others seem confident that our essence has had many incarnations and repetitious spins around the carousel of life.

I know that Dr. Wayne Dyer’s words connected with me, years ago, when he marveled at the fact that we all started out as an impossibly small dot of existence. We then grow and double in size until eventually we become something amazing; a complete human being.

He illustrates that from an infinitesimally microscopic spec, the wholeness of our lives is produced. That tiny dot contains all the information needed to construct our entire being. Something thousands of times smaller than the period on this sentence was the source I came from, and you came from, and James and Lindsay and even this little new baby comes from too. Amazing. The journey, the adventure we embark upon, in this place we call the world, is compacted so simply, efficiently and elegantly.

I guess that the art of taking a trip is inherent, down to our core. Acknowledging our needs and our wants, making a plan, and setting out to see something new. It’s the kind of fun, that I habitually require. It may help explain the blueprint for our very existence: A self reliant but well-equipped adventure, forever created, ultimately and supremely by God.

Here’s to playing 12 years old again. Here’s to running away for a bit, and to coming back home, to begin again and again with the family I love.


Aaron Nichols

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Beware the Haze of Grey

The difference is the one thing that grabs our attention. We need contrast in the mass of vibrating static fuzz that seems to be everywhere we look. The more contrast the better. We need a stark difference, represented in pitch black and brilliant white. Without a scalpel sharp edge between the two, everything quickly bleeds together in a gray mass of mess.

A few weeks ago, a reporter from the Ottawa Herald called our restaurant on a Thursday as we opened up. He asked if I had time to talk. He was putting together some stories of local businesses…

Luckily for me, I have already settled into the Contrast of our place. I have already practiced and rehearsed sentence after sentence about it. The contrast, the difference, the un-grayness is all that I wanted to tell him about. I think he may have begun to ask me some standard restaurant questions. The history, our most popular meals, how we got our name, were the things I remember him requesting information on.

The ONLY thing I really wanted to tell him, was about the Contrast.

I knew that I must relay that information above all.

Last weekend, we got the front page. I have heard a lot of feedback from the public. Everyone so far, has said, “Real nice write up in the paper last week”, then they smile 🙂

Honestly, I thought I sounded like a goober. My vocabulary was super casual. I was just talking out my points off the cuff. I wasn’t planning on being directly quoted in this impromptu phone conversation. Anyway, I believe it was the CONTRAST, the difference, that I spoke about, that made any impact at all.

We use locally raised beef and pork. Most places don’t.

There. White and Black.

I wanted to MAKE SURE, that this point was printed, if anything was. And it was…

I want to keep this in mind, as I move forward in my world. The grey is so forgettable. The grey has no authority. It can hold apart nothing. It encompasses almost everything. It’s so blah and bluh and blaaaaaaand.

We need these clear definitions. We are so comfortable and calm, knowing the true darkness from the true light. We are nervous and anxious amidst the fog and confusion of the in-between. When we are everything to everybody, we are nothing to nobody.

Luckily, when the reporter called, I had my answer ready, about our restaurant.

If he had called and asked about me. The core of MY being. I would probably have rambled and stuttered and sputtered shades of grey into the receiver’s microphone. If I was claiming my own truth of blacks and whites, I probably would be claiming charcoal and eggshell at best. At worst, it would be pewter vs. dove grey.

No story to print there.

Not much of one here either.

Just a reminder to myself. Be aware of what I can say, for sure, that shows the contrast. Be aware of it, share it, exercise and paint life with it.

Play in the grey, and watch it all melt into the background. The deluge of the refuse awaits my mediocrity.

Until next week, be well my friends. I could not write this post, until I promised myself not to sleep without saying something. The commitment moment, made this week’s ‘something’ happen.


Aaron Nichols

I’m a Jerk. Want to Work for Me?

If I have recently spent a few minutes telling you all the worst things about being a ‘team member’ at our restaurant/The Brand’N Iron Bar & Grill… then you may have thought it was a very strange way for me to do a job interview with you.

After a couple recent false-starts with new employees, I have decided to adjust the way I approach the interviewing for new hires. I have recently begun to just give them negative and disappointing truths that are inherent with the work we do. The pay is not great, the work is very hard at times, it is dirty and greasy, our facilities are small and basic, we don’t do a great job at managing, or scheduling, or being consistent. I tell them that I can be a jerk, and I will be managing them. I mention all the things that have been said by complaining staff members, that I can think of… all in the first few minutes of our talks together.

Why not!

I would love to have this be the one time that these things are brought up. I would love to cover these problems before we ever start to work together. Wishful thinking 🙂

Maybe it’s a build up of recent stressful weeks of scheduling. Maybe it is me becoming more cynical and jaded, the longer I work at The Iron. I may however, be on to a much more freeing and fun way to start the conversation with a prospective employee. I do sort of enjoy watching their slightly anxious smile fall and that quizzical countenance take over, when I tell them I only want to give them reasons not to work for us.

I love the idea that I have already laid bare the downsides of this business and I don’t have to hide in fear that they may uncover these problems and threaten me with them once on staff. I have only tested this theory on three people so far, but I have enjoyed those three interviews enough, that maybe if one works out okay, it will be worth it overall.

Yesterday, I was recording a couple radio ads.Along with my cute cousin Tera, and our friendly KOFO queen Tiffany, we awkwardly recorded some promos ‘off-the-cuff.’ We just talked out a couple ideas and started recording. My favorite moments were the instances where I sounded ‘bad’ and the girls ‘messed-up’ the recording. I don’t want to broadcast completely un-professional spots, but the ‘real-ness’ of hearing a little mistake could be more memorable than a perfectly pronounced and polished piece.

We talked about the best ways to tell our little promotional stories. Instead of inventing a moment that never really happened, I much preferred to use the most truthful version that I could. I wanted Tera to really tell us her favorite meal, and how she really does like to order it. I wanted to say that we were in the KOFO studio recording an ad, instead of formulating a flowery verbal description of an imaginary restaurant conversation.

Why not just get at the tiny kernel at the core of the truth. In even these silly little examples: A job interview that I could handle a multitude of ways. A radio ad, that lasts only half a minute.

I may be doing these things as practice.

I know there are tons of examples in my life, where I dance and prance and skip and hop all around the central trunk of the truth of an issue. I know that I fail to really stab into and dig underneath, at the root. I need to practice this open-hearted honesty as much as possible. There are many things I still hide from.

I know that my courage, needs the encourage-ment of repetitive and deliberate exercise. I know that exposing my faults and failing to even dress up my shortcomings can cost me dearly. I could look and even feel like a fool, if someone wanted to use them against me.

On the other hand, if I keep in practice that I am willing to be quite open, quite honest and sincere, then maybe I have done us all a favor. I am not anywhere near as agile emotionally as I would like to be. I still tense up. The fear can gather like a storm cloud and envelope me completely.

I will continue to chip away though. I will try to remember in little ways, to show my hand. I will lay bare my failed attempts to win, then let the chips fall where they may.


Aaron Nichols