The Ides of March, again. Super bad day for Julius Caesar, but it was the day Raptitude was born.
My baby is two.
And how it’s grown. I’ve been spending more and more time responding to reader email, and I’ve had to cut down the length and depth of my responses. Often I answer the same questions over and over, so I figured it might as well post a list of frequently (and not-so-frequently) asked questions for curious readers.
In my first month of blogging a group of my fellow newbie bloggers got together to each post a “7 things you didn’t know about me” type of post. I ducked out of it and said I’d do it later. I guess this is that post, plus accrued interest. This is a long one, but it’s definitely the skimmable kind if you have to catch your bus or something.
Some of these questions are reprinted almost verbatim from reader emails, others are paraphrased because they get asked a lot in some form or another.
Somebody asked me what Raptitude is about and I wasn’t really sure how to answer. What would you say it’s about?
I don’t really have a snappy way of describing what it’s about. How about “Street-level skills and insights for contending with the human condition.” That’s not quite right either but it’s close enough for now.
It’s really about evolution, though I don’t always frame it like that because some people don’t like that word. At the moment, humans are just getting used to civilization, and we’re really not very good at it. Therefore the conventional wisdom about how we should live our lives is either old-fashioned and rife with pitfalls (try to dominate others, win the rat race, sign on with an organized religion) or too vague to be useful (try to be a nice person, try to be true to yourself, be one with the universe). I try to provide insights and techniques that are specific, unconventional and actionable.
We’re just now getting a taste of some of the higher qualities of human beings: forgiveness, nonduality, self-examination, compassion, and love — and we’re beginning to figure ways to mitigate and transcend the worst ones: reactivity, violence, self-loathing and attachment. We’re growing up as a species because individuals are making big changes in how they live, and that’s what I write about. There, that’s it.
Are you a Buddhist?
No. But Buddhism is a major influence in my life and my writing. It’s the only religion I know of that hasn’t completely lost touch with what it’s supposed to be: a set of personal practices for transcending the human condition. The other religions are hung up on ego tripping about being pure or worthy or favored, about possessing the truth, about being on the right team, about me, me, me. They’re lost in the pitfalls they’re supposed to help people overcome.
Buddhism hasn’t been immune to this kind of distortion, but it’s maintained its practical value and its identity as a methodology for personal transformation, rather than a partisan, self-gratifying institution. It’s a very systematic, unassuming approach to being a better human and its concepts are quite clear and consistent with each other.
I use Buddhist concepts and practices in my writing and in my life but I don’t formally practice the Eightfold Path, which I reckon is what makes a person a card-carrying Buddhist. I will take up the path one day in the near future as an extended experiment (probably for a year as opposed to my typical 30 days) but it’s not quite time for it.
Do you accept guest articles?
No. There have been three guest articles in Raptitude’s two years, and they’ve all been by invite. Two were from my friend Josh Hanagarne, the author of worldsstrongestlibrarian.com, and one was from my friend Lisis Blackston, formerly of questforbalance.com.
Do you have guest posts on other blogs?
No. I haven’t done any guest posting, which surprises a lot of people. Among bloggers, guest posting is lauded as the best way to promote your blog, and maybe I am crazy for not having jumped into it yet.
The main reason is that my writing process is slow. I write long posts, I throw out one or two for every one I publish, and I end up spending about 5 or 6 hours on a typical post, sometimes more. So adding another slew to be shipped out on top of my regular writing commitment (and my job, experiments and other projects) is something that’s easy to put off until I have “more time.”
Actually there is one guest post of mine out there. It’s on World’s Strongest Libarian, but it’s a bit of a departure from what I write about here. It’s about my first job ever, a two-day stint working in a traveling reptile show. You’ll probably like it.
Do you make a living from Raptitude?
No. The site has been big enough to generate some income for a while now, but I haven’t monetized it yet. I’ve been hesitant to employ some of the traditional methods of monetizing a site. I don’t want any paid advertising. There are affiliate products from other bloggers that I think are great and I could recommend here, but most of them don’t really relate to the subject matter and I don’t want to be too heavy-handed about it.
I will begin to monetize the site this year, but I’m committed to doing it in a way that doesn’t distract from the message.
I support myself with a full-time job as a field surveyor. For the moment.
Where are you going to take Raptitude in the future?
I vowed at the beginning of 2011 to make it a memorable year by reasserting the aggressive approach to blogging I had coming out of the gate two years ago. I had been complacent about blogging for about a year while I was backpacking, and while I was readjusting to the working world after I got home.
I’ll be expanding into other media this year and next. I’ll be releasing an official manifesto, some other long-form material, and a newsletter with content not available on the blog. I’ll also be experimenting with podcasts and videos. You’ll also see a blog redesign, at least an interim one.
And you’ll finally see some guest posts from me.
Are you going to write a book?
Sooner or later, yes.
What blogs are you currently into?
While I was traveling I didn’t read any blogs, but once I was back I noticed a pretty good crop of blogs had emerged while I wasn’t looking.
I have become a fan of:
Fabian Kruse, and his exceptional blog The Friendly Anarchist. I love his angle, and his logo.
Ashley Ambirge’s Middle Finger Project. As well-worn as the ass-kicking and goal-crushing theme has become in the last year or so, Ash’s confidence is infectious and she doesn’t pretend fear isn’t part of the equation.
All this time I guess I didn’t realize how good Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project really is. She takes a systematic, lawyerly (but still fun) approach to testing out different perspectives on happiness. It’s refreshingly free of fluff and wishful thinking, given its flake-prone subject matter. And her posts don’t drag on forever like mine do.
Karol Gajda’s Ridiculously Extraordinary is a consistent highlight in my RSS reader. It’s about personal freedom and how to get it, and he knows his shit.
Corbett Barr’s blog Think Traffic is a shining beacon in a niche that is so full of unqualified, derivative garbage. It’s about intelligent approaches to building an online audience.
And as always, I read Neil Pasricha and his 1000 Awesome Things.
There are others, but those are what came to mind first.
I have been struggling finding an audience for my blog. How did you get Raptitude to grow without guest posting?
People liked it and shared it. Other than tweeting my posts I didn’t really do anything to market it. If you want your blog to grow you have to post exceptional content. Not that the bar is all that high in the blogging world, but it really does have to be much better than average, and it has to be genuinely useful to people. You can’t sidestep this.
I had no experience blogging but I made a smart decision when I started: I signed up for a paid blogging membership site. It removed all confusion and indecision about what to do in terms of setting up the technical side of it, writing content that markets itself, and getting the word out there. I never had to second-guess anything I was doing.
The course was Yaro Starak’s Blog Mastermind and I’m still a huge advocate of it. Back in January 2009 I watched his promo video on Problogger, and he seemed genuine to me. It wasn’t cheap but I took the plunge and as it turns out, it was a pivotal decision in my life.
Without it there would be no Raptitude today. There are so many decision points involved that I would have gotten caught on a snag somewhere before it got going. Even if I got to the launch point, I wouldn’t have known how to build an audience. I would have eventually thrown up my hands and done something easier.
This is what happens to most blogs. I shudder when I think that Raptitude wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t burn the ships and commit myself to it by putting some money down.
If you’re serious about starting a blog of your own that will be read by a wider audience that just you and your mother, this is a major shortcut. The best content on the internet is not free.
Here is his sales page (aff link). If it looks a bit “sales pagey” to you, it is, but Yaro is the real deal and his help was critical for me. What he pitches is the profitability potential in blogging but the lessons are mostly about the process of building a popular site.
If you want to get an idea of what to expect without paying anything, he gives a surprising amount away for free in a PDF ebook that can be found here. You have to enter your email but you can cancel the newsletter right away.
So I did have a secret weapon, as some of you asked about :)
Growing up I remember the saying: happiness is having someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to. Do you agree with this?
No. That’s the conventional approach and I think it’s a recipe for a life of suffering. There’s nothing wrong with those things, and they feel good, but hanging your happiness on them encourages a lifelong preoccupation with reaching and keeping certain ideal circumstances. Eventually your loved one dies or leaves. Eventually you age and cannot do what you once did. Your thing to look forward to might not be what you expected or might never happen.
So that strategy doesn’t sound too wise. But it’s pretty close to the normal way people approach life. I think we can do better than that.
I have all three of those things all the time whether I’m happy or not. Happiness, to me, is being in the present moment without being preoccupied by a craving for some part of that moment to be different. That’s all it is. The circumstances don’t have to be any particular way if I am able to accept them in real-time without getting wrapped up in how I’d like them to be. To be a happy person is to get good at that.
I’ve been feeling stuck. What’s the most important thing I can do to make a turnaround?
I’ll give you two:
1) Stop blaming others. There has probably been no bigger hindrance in my life than the unconscious tendency to blame others for my situation or the state of the world, and I think almost everyone else is the same. You have to take responsibility for your happiness because nobody else will, even if they could.
Our culture encourages blame (just watch any newscast) and most people will spend their whole lives spinning their wheels because they think justifying blame is worthwhile. If you want to change you have to take responsibility for your lot in life no matter who had a hand in making it the way it is.
You don’t need the co-operation or permission of others. If you want to improve your life you can’t hang onto any need for others to behave differently. Until you begin to address this you can’t get anywhere. It’s the hole in your canoe.
2) Read. Read about how other people have dealt with the conundrum of being human. Your set of problems is just your own brand of the same dysfunctions we all share, which are part and parcel with being human: attachment, confusion, self-loathing, fear, mortality, death anxiety, rejection — none of this is uncharted territory! Billions of people have faced the exact same issues, and some of them have written some brilliant insights about how to deal with it all.
Tastes and styles differ, but the authors that have helped me most have been Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Eckhart Tolle, Richard Carlson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ken Keyes and particularly Douglas Harding.
And remember a turnaround can take years. But insights you put into practice now will have immediate effects on your life and will pay dividends forever. That’s outstanding ROI, for you investment-minded people.
How did you get interested in happiness and quality of life?
My story very briefly: life was great for me when I was a kid, then it started to take a dive when I was in high school, then I hit rock bottom in college. By then I was unfit for adult life, mean to my family, resentful of everyone, and had no idea how I got there.
Obviously I wanted to get out of that place, but I was also fascinated that a life could take such a drastic turn for the worse with no identifiable cause. There was no traumatic event that did it, no loss, no overt catastrophe.
So it became clear to me that it was some network of unseen forces that was determining my quality of life. It wasn’t the injustices in my life that were making it so hard, it was my dumb ways of dealing with it. I didn’t know how to contend with the problems that come with being human.
I read as much as I could about what makes people happy and unhappy — everything from self-help to psychology to religion. A lot of it was crap, but much of it made sense to me and worked when I applied it in real life. They each used different concepts and approaches, but overall they seemed to dovetail with each other. A clearer picture of human nature started to emerge, and life became less confusing.
I eventually crawled out of my bad place. Now I feel pretty well-armed for dealing with life, and I realized that so many other people are looking for these same kinds of skills and insights. I think that’s what the human world is so short on: not resources or policies, but these kinds of personal skills.
How can a person be happy in a world that’s cruel and violent?
Nobody is happy all the time, but if the entire world has to go the way you want it to in order for you to be happy, then the only time you can be happy is when you distract yourself from it. Making peace with imperfection is the only way to be happy without distracting yourself from reality.
It really helps to remember that people are animals, and animals have never been just. Civilization is super-new to us — a “thin veneer” as Freud put it — and we’re just not very good at it yet. If you want to help us get closer to social justice, your role should be not be the condemnation of others but the examination of yourself — learning what makes you justify hating and harming, what brings out the worst in you. If you can’t find something terrible and destructive in yourself, then you aren’t looking closely enough, and you haven’t got a hope of changing anyone else.
That is how we will evolve past our current problems: by understanding what makes ourselves tick, and then we can maybe understand injustices created by others. At the moment we’re still largely hung up on reviling people for what they do with virtually no interest in why they do it.
And stop watching the news. It’s addictive and shallow and keeps you from looking at yourself.
I’m so impressed with what you’ve done in your experiments and the turnaround you’ve made in your life. Are there any areas of your life you feel like you’re struggling?
Yes, and I’ll say right now that judging by some of the emails I get, I must come off as a fair bit more “together” than I really am. Since my medium is writing I have the luxury of being able to edit something until I’m comfortable with it, which might include the unconscious chopping out of parts that make me look bad. I try to be upfront and transparent but if something I write makes me feel like a douche then it might not survive my once-over.
I do talk a lot about my personal rough spots and long-time readers know this. The areas in which I struggle especially are productivity and certain kinds of social interactions.
For many years, as a self-defense mechanism, I was subconsciously trying to lower expectations in the people around me, and so I developed some insidious habits for getting very little done with the time I have. For example I have this bizarre aversion to finishing things, so I drag them out without really noticing. I am addicted to letting myself off the hook and doing stuff tomorrow.
As for the other one, I’ve often described myself on this blog as a “recovering introvert”, and while I’m light-years ahead of where I was ten (or even two) years ago, I still feel behind the eight-ball when it comes to certain social skills, particularly small-talk and phone conversations.
I have a particular aversion to making phone calls, even if it’s to my friends. I feel lost trying to communicate in real-time without visual contact. It’s super weird. Phones are my kryptonite. I avoid phone calls for reasons probably nobody else could understand, and it’s inhibited my working life and social life. I’m sure some people have been offended because they think I don’t want to talk to them.
And penmanship. My handwriting blows and I don’t think I’ll ever be even average at it.
What single aphorism would you impart to somebody who is unhappy about being bored and overeducated and uninspired and partied out?
There is no more rewarding a pursuit than learning why you do what you do.
And finally… a few times I have been asked the Proust Questionnaire, which is the one James Lipton asks on Inside the Actor’s Studio
What is your favorite word? quelqu’un (French for “someone”) All my favorite words are probably French words.
What is your least favorite word? utilize
What turns you on? Live music
What turns you off? Politics
What sound or noise do you love? Logs being split with an axe
What sound or noise do you hate? The sound of loud people entering a quiet room
What is your favorite curse word? Fuck
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Documentary filmmaker
What profession would you not like to do? Mover
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “You can go back anytime, but you don’t have to.”
Photo by Nicki Varkevisser