fishbowl

When future anthropologists study us, they will learn a lot about what’s important to us by looking at our newspapers.

A minority of our news stories cover what’s truly new: scientific discoveries, thriving business startups, or groundbreaking legislation. But most of our news stories are about some human being (or group of human beings) failing, in a very familiar way, to be kind, fair, or honest. Politician caught lying! Violence erupts between Group A and Group B! Company misleads customers for profit! Details at 6.

If we sat down to think about what’s really important to us, we might come up with qualities like fairness, kindness, responsibility, loyalty, and mutual respect. It seems like all of the major problems in the world are caused by a small contingent of bad apples, who simply shun these important qualities and ruin it for kind, responsible, honest and fair people like ourselves.

I think this is wishful thinking. The truth is that all of us — even those of us who feel like good people — are almost comically terrible at achieving these qualities, yet we expect them as a matter of course from each other and ourselves. Our incredulous response to scandal and selfishness suggests that we believe any of us could, at any moment, snap out of our self-interest and dysfunction, and make the world the place it should have been all along.

What makes us distinct from other species, more than anything, is that we’re able to move beyond being impulse-driven, self-interested animals, at least a little bit. We can reflect, we can refrain, we can empathize, we can plan. We can feel our impulses while at the same time understanding that they aren’t always leading us to good things.

In the relatively short time we’ve been able to explore this higher territory, we’ve come to really value these lofty qualities, and we’ve become preoccupied with public figures failing to achieve them. After all, we know it is virtues like fairness, honesty, discipline and kindness that are going to make it easier to be human, to deal with suffering and loss and all the stark realities that come with knowing you’re a vulnerable, animated bag of meat. We desperately want to get ourselves (but especially others) to embody these higher human qualities, which promise to save us from cruelty and misery. But as much as we covet them, we forget that these new capacities are in fact skills, and that as a species we’re generally not very good at them.

Essentially, this higher territory is what we call morality, and I think we tend to greatly overestimate how good we are at it. We’re a species who, as I point out frequently, can barely uphold our New Year’s commitments to ourselves, yet we seem to expect everyone else to be more or less upstanding and incorruptible. Why am I so frequently appalled by how thoughtlessly other people park their cars, when I don’t think twice about spending thirty dollars on beer instead of feeding the starving?

You can make up excuses for this kind of behavior — cognitive dissonance, meritocratic economics, drop-in-the-bucket syndrome — but I think all of that is avoiding the truth about human beings, which is that we are pitifully underdeveloped when it comes to morality. We just happen to be living in that awkward and painful stage where we recognize its supreme importance to our well-being, yet we’re so bad at it we can barely stand ourselves.  Read More

empty hall piano

There’s no way for such an avalanche of unsolicited advice to come off as anything but preachy. But there’s also something appealing about the scattergun approach. Trying on a few dozen ideas in a few minutes will almost always leave you with something you can take to the bank, if you don’t get hung up on what doesn’t resonate.

Here are sixty-seven short pieces of advice I either follow, or probably should. Take from it whatever rings true to you, and don’t take the whole thing too seriously. Have a good week.

***

1. Ignore 1-star and 5-star reviews of books, hotels and products. The 3-star reviews will answer all your questions.

 

2. When you’re a host, use that experience to learn how to be a better guest, and vice-versa.

 

3. If you want to be fit, become someone who doesn’t skip or reschedule workouts. Skipping workouts is always the beginning of the end.

 

4. Learn keyboard shortcuts. If you don’t know what CTRL + Z does, your life is definitely harder than it has to be.

 

5. Become a stranger’s secret ally, even for a few minutes. Your perception of strangers in general will change.

 

6. Get over the myth that philosophy is boring — it has a history of changing lives. It’s only as boring as the person talking about it.

 

7. If you’re about to put down a boring a non-fiction book, skim the rest of it before you move on. Read the bits that still appeal to you.

 

8. Ask yourself if you’ve become a relationship freeloader. Initiate the plans about half the time.

 

9. Notice how much you talk in your head, and experiment with listening to your surroundings instead. You can’t do both at the same time.

 

10. Reach out to people you know are shy. It’s hard for them to get involved in social things without somebody making a point of including them.

 

11. Learn the difference between something that makes you feel bad, and something that’s wrong. A thing can feel bad and be right, and it can feel good and be wrong.

 

12. If you need to stop for any reason in a public place, move off to the side first.

 

13. Before you share an interesting “fact” on Facebook, take thirty seconds to Google it first, to see if you’re spreading made-up bullshit.

 

14. Clean things up right away, unless your messes tend to improve with age.

 

15. Consciously plan your life, or others will do it for you.

 

16. Be suspicious when someone uses the words “Justice” and “Deserve” a lot. Be suspicious when you use them yourself.

 

17. Get rid of stuff you don’t use. Unused and unappreciated things make us feel bad.

 

18. Expect people to get offended sometimes when you try to tell them what to do. Even if you think it’s good advice :)

 

19. Once in a while, imagine what it would be like if you really did lose all your data and had only your current backups.

 

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standing

The other night I had my first boxing class in almost three weeks. Throwing hard punches at a heavy bag might be, minute-for-minute, the most exhausting thing a human being can do. This morning I’m incredibly sore and I can feel it getting worse in real time. My forearms burn when I bend my wrists, and my lats feel like two great, triangular bruises.

Gym rats know this feeling as “DOMS” — delayed onset muscle soreness. Like many people I kind of enjoy the feeling of it, debilitating as it is, because it’s the feeling of getting back in shape. But the severity of it, after such a short layoff from the gym, is a stark reminder of how vigilant you have to be about putting your body to use when you work at a desk at home.

I’ve built a precarious set of habits to defend against the ever-present danger of sedentation. My five workouts a week (two boxing and three bodyweight training) form the bones of it. On top of that I’m always looking for any excuse to go for a walk. When these habits get interrupted though, as they often are during my annual Christmas illness, my activity level comes close to zero.

In Summer, as I mentioned last week, none of this is a problem. I’m outside several times a day, biking or running. Between November and April, though, both of these things become significantly more miserable and dangerous where I live.

Canadians are supposed to embrace the cold, but I don’t, and according to a recent CBC documentary, I am not unusual in that regard. We mostly resent and avoid frigid temperatures. Russians, reportedly, have a completely different cultural relationship to the cold, partly because it helped save them from both Napoleon and Hitler. They see the cold more as a national ally than a perennial enemy, as we tend to up here. So until I learn to like polar bear dives and winter hiking, I need to create habits that keep me from rusting in place in my desk chair.

Sitting is essentially what we do when we want the opposite of exercise, and the modern world has us doing it for long stretches. Much of our work and most of our entertainment is wholly mental now — we just need to park our bodies in front of the place where we need to use our eyes. Technology has minimized the role of the body in both work and entertainment to an absurd degree; using a mouse and keyboard requires only the wiggling of our fingers. Human beings have become an animal that is nearly always sitting.  Read More

balloon shadow

When one of my favorite radio hosts, Shelagh Rodgers (pronounced ‘Sheila’), announced on air that she was leaving her morning show to take some time off, her way of explaining why left a lasting impression on me.

She said that for years, a colleague of hers (Peter Gzowski?) insisted on making frequent trips to a remote cabin up North, where he spent the time chopping wood, reading books and walking with his dogs. When she asked him why this ritual was so important to him, he said, “Well… I guess I really like who I am when I’m up there.”

Rodgers explained her departure by saying that the morning show had made the reverse true for her: the job required her to wake up at 3:30am, shuttle herself to the studio, and force herself into professional-mode hours before the sun came up, and she didn’t like who she was when she was doing that.

When I heard her say that, I was sitting in my office at work, and realized I that definitely didn’t like who I was when I was in there. I didn’t like who I was when I was on the phone with clients, or out talking to contractors, or sitting at pre-construction meetings. Without any better ideas at the time, I imagined that eventually I would need to build a cabin up north and escape regularly to chop wood and read books by a fire.

That thought — Do I like who I am while I’m doing this? — has visited me a few times a year ever since, and I’m finally seeing how crucial a question it is. We ought to ask it about everything we do regularly in our lives. If the answer is “No,” then it makes sense to ask how we ended up making it a regular part of our lifestyle, and whether it’s necessary or worthwhile.

You might think we’d naturally gravitate towards whatever activities do give us this self-affirming sense, but we seem to be driven more by expectations, gratification and momentum. Between watching a bad movie for the third time, and calling up a friend, we’re often inclined to go with the former, not because it promises a better day or a better life, but because we’re usually operating from more immediate incentives: predictability, ease, freedom from risk. The idea of doing something because we like the person it makes us probably doesn’t enter the picture at all.  Read More

morts de rire

NOTE: Although feedback has been mostly positive, I have my misgivings about this post (as usual.) I don’t think I was as fair as I tried to be. Please just take it as another viewpoint among many different views available to you. Our right to access differing views, and to present our own, must be actively protected.

As a rule I don’t talk about current events on this blog, because they’re ephemeral, and I want readers to be able to draw something useful from every article I write, even if they read it years later.

Unfortunately, terrorism and threats to free speech aren’t strictly “current” events. They are also yesterday’s news, and will be tomorrow’s news too.

I’m not a journalist, and I have a lingering discomfort about publishing this post. But I guess I was more uncomfortable at the thought of not publishing it. Whenever people are murdered for expressing their opinions, the writers and creatives who survive them tend to want to say something about it, as we’ve seen. Bless them.

My hesitation wasn’t because I’m afraid of being shot, or flogged one thousand times, but because I’m always afraid of being wrong or unfair. This is a hyper-sensitive issue, and I want to be as fair and straightforward as I can.

Regular readers know I think all organized religion is fundamentally scary. It is terrifying to me that billions of people believe ancient books can give them absolute certainty about the fate of humanity, and that morality is a matter of obeying these books, rather than thinking rationally about the harm caused by our choices.

It is taboo to say that one religion is scarier than another, but there are noticeable and measurable differences between our religions, regarding the prevalence of certain beliefs. I am more worried about Islam in its current state than, say, Buddhism, as politically incorrect as it is to say so. But I think I have good reasons.

For what it’s worth, what scares me most about Islam isn’t terrorism, but the non-violent threat it currently poses to freedom of speech in Western countries. Polling data suggested that more than 75% of British Muslims believed that the Danish cartoonists should have been prosecuted for drawing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005. Flaming embassies aside, if that figure is even close to the truth, that is a genuine threat to freedom of expression (but by no means the only one) and we deny it at our peril.  Read More

black

When I returned from my first trip to New York City, the moment I dropped my bags and stopped moving, my suburban apartment struck me as unnervingly quiet. It made me realize that in every moment for almost four weeks, my ears had been filled with some kind of background noise.

There’s no true quiet to be found in New York. Even when you’re alone and you become perfectly still, there are always traffic noises and muffled voices in the room with you.

Sleep is no respite from this, because the sounds penetrate that too. My dreams always contained whatever sound I would eventually wake up to — construction noises, honking, shouting, appliances running.

We spend our whole lives at the end of a firehose of sensory experience. It seems like it would be healthy to step out of that stream once in a while, if it were possible.

One afternoon a few weeks ago, I made my first attempt to do exactly that. It involved sealing myself, naked, in a darkened sensory deprivation tank. There’s a business a few blocks from me that offers 90-minute sessions.

Inside the car-sized tank, there’s about a foot of water thickened by a thousand pounds of dissolved Epsom salts, allowing you to float on your back safely while relaxing all of your muscles. The tank is soundproof and lightproof and warmed to skin temperature. Once you settle into position, you no longer feel the water, because it’s the same temperature as both the air and your skin. Without this temperature contrast, or light or sound, there’s virtually no sensory input happening at all.

Even though it was totally different than I expected, it turned out to be a fascinating and wonderful experience, and I will be doing it again.  Read More

colored lights on building

I always liked the end-of-the-year programming on TV when I was growing up. Running through lists of the best movies and the biggest news stories — and which celebrities didn’t survive — somehow helps us to look at the year as if from outside of it. That way we can get a sense that things are unfolding on a much bigger scale than our normal day- and week-focused thinking suggests.

Although it seems like we’ve experienced this ceremonial turnover of one year to the next countless times, we haven’t. In fact, we each keep an accurate tally of them, and we derive a significant part of our identity from that number. I’m 34, who are you?

As we are sometimes aware, nothing special actually happens when the clock hits midnight. It just goes on to the next moment — we don’t actually zip back to beginning of the calendar, to some point we’ve been before. Time is a long, twisting, one-way trail, not a short, familiar ski run with a chairlift at the bottom.

In any case, our culture likes to think of years as meaningful divisions of time, so as individuals we tend to reflect on how we’re doing in life every December. Many of us will try to become someone completely different, in some respect, from the moment we wake up on January 1st. From couch-pilot to gymgoer. From smoker to non-smoker.

I’m suspicious of New Year’s resolutions, even though I am still sometimes tempted to make them. If they work for you, great, but they don’t work for the vast majority. I’ve explained why I’m not a fan:

The problem with New Years-ing your resolution is that it gives undue weight to the idea of a clean slate. It seems like January 1st really does reset something, and that it’s important to harness that rare chance.

But of course, it’s just another tomorrow. There are no clean slates. Past failures will still visit you in your head, from whatever year. Bad internal dialogues will still occur, and you’ll still have the same preconceptions about yourself and the kinds of outcomes you can expect.

All of this stuff is real, and it doesn’t respect the Gregorian calendar.

Now, I am a big advocate of annual goals, which are not the same thing as resolutions. With a goal, you’re aiming for a specific outcome — lose 20 pounds over the next six months, say — and the end of the year isn’t a bad time to think about goals.

Resolutions usually come from a more emotional than practical place, and often have no real-life destination. Start going to the gym again. Stop watching TV every night. Essentially we’re just grabbing our own lapels and scolding ourselves to stop fucking things up the way we usually do.  Read More

Post image for The Best Response to Criticism

I learned early on that criticism feels about ten times as bad as praise feels good.

For a while I assumed this was a neurosis only I and other recovering pessimists had. But when I started blogging, I kept hearing the same thing from other writers: one critical comment makes you forget a dozen positive ones.

It turns out this is normal for human beings. Criticism just weighs more on our emotions than praise does. We remember negative events more vividly than positive ones, and we give more emotional weight to a loss than an equivalent gain.

This makes sense from a survival perspective, if you think about it. There’s more urgency to remember dangers vividly than rewards. The trauma of negative events — whether it’s from a pointed criticism or a stubbed toe — teaches you how to stay physically safe and in good standing with the tribe. Positive events are beneficial when you have them, and it’s helpful to remember how you got to them, but there’s no benefit in staying preoccupied with them for a long time.

“Bad emotions, bad parents and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones,” wrote social psychology professor Roy Baumeister in a paper he co-authored, entitled “Bad is Stronger Than Good”.

A natural side-effect of this overvaluation of negativity is that we tend to be more passive in life than we would be if we weighed negativity and positivity the same. Bad outcomes seem to promise more in terms of punishment than good outcomes promise in terms of benefit, so it can seem sensible to speak out and try new things as infrequently as possible. As writer Elbert Hubbard put it, “To escape criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”  Read More

Post image for Working for The Man Should Be a Last Resort

The following post will appear as the foreword to Robert Wringham’s upcoming book Escape Everything!

Every time I write a piece advocating escape from corporate servitude, I receive a few emails that contain a particular kind of scolding. They tell me that only an entitled brat could be unsatisfied with a stable job and a roof, in a world where so many pine for only these things.

If that’s the case, then we live in world built out of, and for, legions of such entitled brats, whether they choose to actually implement their escape plan, or only think about it all day. For all the financial prosperity of the modern working world, there is a certain poverty in our willingness to take pay for performing activities that have, typically, almost nothing to do with our personal values. As if there were no better ideas out there, we take up this yoke by the thousand, slotting ourselves in grids of grey squares, stacked fifty to a hundred high, sealed with a shiny glass exterior. A small forest of these shiny stacks is the first image we think of when we picture a modern city.

Even while the internet and its emerging subcultures continue to hint at newer, smarter modes of working and living, you may still be told it’s vain to insist on a station more fulfilling than a permanent stall in a well-reputed grid. According to my critics, even if you find your standard weekday boring, painful or unfulfilling, you ought to embrace it, simply because a third-world coal miner would kill for your benefits package. When so many have so little, attempting to escape a situation in which you can reliably feed yourself and fund a retirement could only be an act of the utmost ingratitude.

A minority of us believe the opposite is true — that escaping from an unfulfilling mainstream lifestyle isn’t a moral failing, but rather a moral imperative. It’s precisely because we have all the necessary freedoms at our fingertips (and because others don’t) that spending our lives in the stable isn’t just foolish, but wrong. To remain, voluntarily, in a life where your talents are wasted and your weekdays are obstacles is to be humble in all the wrong ways.  Read More

Post image for A Common Habit That Costs Us Friends

Just in time for my final year of college, a number of independently-moving disasters all converged to create an almost perfect rock-bottom scenario. On top of it, I lost all my friends.

I was studying a subject I didn’t care about, with a GPA of two-point-something (and falling), and I just couldn’t see myself ever doing it for a living. Since my cleverness was always my main source of self-esteem, my unprecedented academic troubles translated to an unprecedented collapse of personal confidence. In addition to this, my dad was sick, my sister was overseas, my cat was dead, terrorists had attacked New York City and my mom was trying to hold us all together.

As if by conspiracy, my best friends all moved away around that time. One had already gone, after his employment had dried up here, to live with his parents in Calgary. Not long after, another pair of them went to work menial jobs at a ski resort in the Rockies. Then a fourth one, whom I’d introduced to those two, thought it sounded pretty good and joined them.

So within a few months, I ended up with no confidence, a fragmented family, and a bleak future on the career front. What I needed most during this period was friends, and fate chose this time to show me what it was like, for the first time, to have none.

Given this unlikely collision of circumstances in my friends’ lives, I’m tempted to argue that it wasn’t my fault that I ended up friendless. But I know now that it was — I was taking an enormous risk by living with a particular habit, and you may be doing it too. In fact, I think it’s something millions of people do.  Read More


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