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Post image for Five Things I Learned From Not Drinking for Four Months

I had my first drink of 2017 on the third of May. Last December I realized how uncomfortable I’d become with my eighteen-year habit of drinking to excess once or twice a month.

Aside from being expensive and unhealthy, I could no longer deny that alcohol often made me into a person I needed to be drunk to tolerate: snarky, flippant and oblivious.

So I decided to take four months off the drink, to evaluate what it was doing for me, or to me. I also wanted to finally learn how to operate as a non-drinker at parties, concerts, and other get-togethers for which I’d normally get drinks. Would these occasions still be fun? Did I know how to be sober?

The four months was easy. I liked being sober. There were only a few instances where I envied the drinks of people around me. Most of the time I had little desire to drink.

The final act of the experiment was to drink again—two drinks in the first session, and a few more in another session—to see where alcohol and its effects stand with me now, after four dry months.  Read More

Post image for How Billionaires Stole My Mind

You may have fallen into the same trap as me, and I want to help us all get out.

You use your phone as an alarm clock, and because you do, the first thing you learn, every morning, is that while you were sleeping someone messaged you, Liked you, or Mentioned you.

The one-second task of turning off the alarm leads to ten or twenty minutes of swiping and scrolling through pictures, messages, memes, jokes, diatribes and recipes. Maybe you find reports of a violent attack somewhere, or a gaffe by a politician, or a GIF of a baby goat. Or all of those things.

You learn some things your friends have been up to—someone checked in at Olive Garden, someone ran in a 5k fundraiser, someone bought tickets for Yo-Yo Ma, someone doesn’t like some country’s labor minister, and someone plans to make cake pops later, or is at least thinking about it.

This ritual seems benign enough, but sometimes you think it takes up too much time. Twenty minutes a day (if somehow you only fall into this pit once daily) adds up to a lot of your life gone.  Read More

Post image for The Art of The Hard Part

I was always moved by a particular line in The Godfather: “Mister Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately.”

The line stuck out to me because it was so clearly the opposite of my natural tendencies. I always tried to move away from unpleasant realities. When I started to worry about money, for example, I avoided looking at my bank balance. When one of my friends was mad at me, I would avoid talking to them.

This is an almost perfectly terrible life strategy. Virtually every personal victory I’ve had amounted to doing exactly the opposite—finally confronting some reality, or some experience, that I had historically avoided. Monsters grow in the dark, so if you like your monsters small and manageable, you probably want to go and meet them at your earliest convenience.

The story arc of my adult life has essentially been a long process of learning and accepting that fact. A few weeks ago my friend Hélène taught me something that brought this principle to a new level of clarity. Her suggestion not only destroyed a specific problem I was having, but also seems to be a master key to all sorts of long-standing problems in other areas of my life.  Read More

Post image for Join Us This Fall At The Center of the World

Last year in Ecuador I had a transformative experience participating in a type of retreat called a chautauqua. I gushed about my discoveries here, but suffice it to say that the experience left me with a new level of clarity about how I want to live.

Six months later I still have that clarity, and it’s made the time since some one the most productive and creatively fertile periods in my adult life. I still feel a certain warmth whenever I think about the retreat, or any of the people who were there.

That is the basic goal of a chautauqua (sha-TAWK-wa) — to create a kind of “meeting of minds”, where a small group of twenty or so get together in a naturally beautiful place to discuss big ideas and big plans, intentions for their lives, and values they want to live by. Over the course of the week, there are a few presentations, some day trips, group activities, lots of time for reflection and rest, and many, many interesting discussions.

Everyone comes away with renewed clarity about how they want to live, and some specific ideas about how they’re going to achieve those changes. It works so well because the attendees come from all over, bringing different perspectives and different kinds of expertise, but unlike so many social situations, everyone cares how the experience goes for everyone else. It’s a uniquely supportive environment, and I’ve never felt that sense of mutual openness anywhere else.

The resulting explosion of great ideas and plans and epiphanies is quite incredible, and you can feel it happening all around you. Everybody gets to know everybody so quickly.  Read More

Post image for How to Do It Tomorrow Instead of Never

My Dad had a clever way of getting me to do the things I typically avoided, like homework or cleaning my room.

When he interrupted my Nintendo-playing to remind me of the task, I would explain that while I absolutely intended to do it, I was simply planning to do it later rather than now.

Rather than argue, he would say, “That’s fine, you don’t have to do it now. All you have to do now is tell me when you will do it.”

I hated this tactic. Giving later a definite time spoiled my true plan, which was to do it never. I preferred later over now not because 2 o’clock the next day is a better time than the current time, but because from where I was sitting, later seemed closer to never than now did.

Or in other words, if you squint just right, shirking your responsibilities for another day vaguely resembles having no responsibilities, which is what I always wanted.

But my Dad’s clever question of when dispelled this mirage. Later is just a different now, and there’s no good life that’s free of responsibilities.

Unfortunately, I didn’t internalize this wisdom. Instead I saw his question as one of the shrewd tactics of the opposition in my war against responsibility. I became a dedicated procrastinator and difficulty-avoider for a host of complex psychological reasons I may never fully untangle.

I get more emails about procrastination than any other topic, even though I only write about it once or twice a year. Apparently there are many, many adults who suffer from an uncanny inability to do what it seems like every grownup should be able to do: simply work through a to-do list with the time they have.

Seemingly, most adults can move steadily through their day-to-day workload as though it’s a pile of logs to be split—the only limitation being time and energy, with nothing psychologically fraught about it, and no self-sabotage or existential fears involved.  Read More

robot hand

When I was a kid in the early nineties there were no apps to remind you of things, so mostly you just hoped would remember. In particular, I hoped I would remember to check, on the futuristic date of August 29th, 1997, if Judgment Day had indeed occurred, as Terminator 2 said it would.

In the movie, that was the date a military artificial intelligence called Skynet became self-aware, according to time-travelers who had been there. The A.I.’s first decision, when it realized it was a thing, was to start a nuclear exchange in the hopes that it could eradicate human beings before they could unplug it.

I’m not sure what I ended up doing that day—today you can recall what happened on a given date by checking what emails you sent and received—but I don’t think I remembered what day it was supposed to be, and I am sure there was no nuclear holocaust.

Human beings are not great at predicting the future, but we have had a long-creeping suspicion that at some point overly smart computers will cause us huge problems. 1997 is now twenty years ago, and while our computers haven’t started any wars yet, they have begun to take our jobs.  Read More

garden tools

A tiny article about Stoicism has had a significant influence on my life since I read it. Maybe for the first time in my adult life, I don’t feel like I’m wasting much of my time. I feel unusually prepared to do difficult things.

It was a short personal essay by Elif Batuman, about how reading Epictetus helped her through a strained relationship, political turmoil in her country of residence, and other messy or insoluble worldly concerns.

It also prompted me to start reading what are sometimes called the “big three” Stoic works, The Discourses and The Enchiridion by Epictetus, and The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, who in his spare time was the Emperor of Rome.

I knew the basic idea of Stoicism, and it made sense: don’t freak out about what you can’t control. It’s perfectly logical. But logical isn’t always practical, at least for a species whose members typically can’t even fulfill their own new year’s resolutions.

Humans have never been short on sensible-sounding advice: spend less than you earn, don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today, be patient, don’t drink coffee after 6pm. What we’re short of is whatever quality it takes to get ourselves to do those things.

But I wasn’t giving the Stoics enough credit. So far, their advice is very practical—more self-improvement suggestions than philosophical ideas.  Read More

camping desert

I received a little hailstorm of lessons in being human this week.

Aside from the everyday stuff, Raptitude went down inexplicably Monday, right as I released a new article. Then Wednesday there was a major server outage—apparently caused by a single typo—and half the internet went down. My first response was to make coffee, and instead of pouring water into the coffeemaker I poured it into my electric coffee grinder.

After some significant cleanup efforts, the website, the grinder and I survived, and Camp Calm’s doors are open again.  Read More

curly plant

The worst period of my life ended shortly after I made a key discovery: most of the difficult experiences in my life arose directly from my desperate need to avoid difficult experiences.

At the time, I was flunking in school. I was a bad student because I avoided asking for help or revisiting concepts I hadn’t grasped the first time. I avoided those things precisely because they made me feel like a bad student.

It was a perfectly self-defeating strategy, but of course I didn’t realize what I was doing until later.

I had inadvertently made certain emotional experiences—in particular, the feeling of being seen as incompetent—so unacceptable that I’d do anything to avoid them, which is precisely why they continued to dominate my life.

The light came when I discovered a simple principle that’s sometimes described as “exposure therapy”. You experiment, a bit at a time, with letting yourself feel the things you’re afraid to feel, and watch them lose their power over you.  Read More

mini self

Imagine, for a moment, that you could see your own life from above, as though your home, neighborhood, and workplace were little dioramas with open roofs.

Your miniature self isn’t aware you’re watching, and exhibits all the habits you do. With a kind of embarrassed concern, you watch your hapless self wake up, hit snooze a few times, then sit up and read Reddit on your phone for twenty minutes (or whatever you normally do). You watch as you interact with the world, making some good decisions and some bad ones.

You’d learn a lot about yourself just from seeing your everyday behavior from the outside. How much time you actually spend staring at electronic devices. How you’re more argumentative than you thought. How often you cut your workouts short so you can get on with lunch. How you almost never clean behind the couch.

Now imagine you could intervene in subtle ways, not by making choices for your mini-self, but by changing the surrounding environment. You could move an object in a room your mini-self will visit later, maybe putting a bag of cookies in the cupboard that would otherwise be sitting out when you get home from work. You could position a birthday card where it might remind you to call your mother. You could quietly delete Reddit from your miniature’s phone.

Over time, small changes like these might be all you need to guide your mini-self to a significantly better life. None of them give your mini-self any more resolve or willpower, but they do set up a different succession of triggers throughout each day, each of which leads to predictably healthier behaviors, and a predictably better life.  Read More

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