April 2011

Post image for The Enormous Role of the Little Thing (and Cavemen!)

My friend Neil makes an interesting point about happiness: those “peak” moments in life — the big achievements and big releases that we imagine to be exactly what happiness is made of — will never amount to more than a tiny proportion of a person’s life. They are infrequent and quickly give way to the ordinary again. We invest a lot of energy getting to those exceptional highs, but they are exactly that: exceptions to the normal course of life.

In between these “violin crescendo moments” life unfolds without much fanfare, in its familiar way. But within these ordinary stretches of life lie frequent, intensely gratifying moments that arise out of the most mundane activities: waiting in line, parking your car, watching a TV movie.

Even in the context of a really bad day, there are humble little details that seem to hit some kind of “smile” button in the brain, and for those moments, life is unfettered. It’s great. Life is great just knowing that each day will contain them no matter what else the cat drags in.

Other than Ben Franklin’s two dreadful certainties, nothing in life is guaranteed — except (if you’re paying attention) that there will be a steady stream of these humble little awesome things, regardless of your situation, as long as you live. This is a powerful thought and even throughout the worst days I’ve never been able to forget it for long because the reminders come along so frequently.

Ever since I included him in a quick piece on three extraordinary blogs two years ago, Neil has been a friend of mine. I love his perspective on gratitude — it recognizes that the present moment really is the place to find everything you look for in life (and not just “in theory”), yet doesn’t stray into ego-dismantling, self-mortification or Stuart Smally-like affirmations. It takes playfulness, rather than determination.

I am not his only fan. Neil’s blog, 1000 Awesome Things hit its stride pretty quickly in 2008. He won the Webby Award the following year for Best Blog, leading to his first book The Book of Awesome, which became an international bestseller. Its sequel, The Book of (Even More) Awesome launched Tuesday.

There is something about couch cushion forts and the other side of the pillow that huge numbers of people seem to be able to identify with. I don’t recommend many (any?) products on this blog, but I’m all over this one. In terms of a practical, non-striving approach to cultivating quality of life, it’s hard to do better than to learn to celebrate these very things, just for what they are. Read More


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Post image for Four Words That Make Me Suspicious of Myself When I Say Them

There are a few words that raise a red flag when I catch myself saying them, at least when I’m not totally preoccupied.

Not that all instances of these words are dubious, but I do find I that whenever I need to make use of them, there’s a good chance I’m being at least a little presumptuous, simple-minded, or sneaky. They raise a similar red flag when I hear or read them too.

They aren’t “bad” words, but they do lend themselves to a certain kind of self-deception. They often hint at more going on.

“Wish”

I find myself using the word “wish” when I’ve decided I don’t like something the way it is, yet I’m not actually doing anything about it. There’s no real reason to declare my wishes. Whenever I start a sentence with “I just wish…” feel free to ignore me, I’m only wasting your time. My whiny face has probably made you tune out anyway.

Whenever I let the phrase “I wish” escape my mouth, all I really have to say is this: “I’m not happy with things the way they are. I would be happy if they were like this. So there.”

Not only is it useless for changing the circumstances, but it reinforces the myth to which I’ve momentarily fallen prey: that my happiness is dependent on my circumstances only and has nothing to do with my attitude. It’s a bitter little plea that life isn’t what I want it to be in this particular moment, and a dead giveaway that I’m not prepared to do anything about it right now.

Wishing is a desperate, self-defensive behavior. It gives you a little hit of relief from a reality you don’t want to deal with, but it sure doesn’t move things along.

Of course, in those moments, I’m too consumed by my fantasies to see that my attitude is usually the biggest and most damning feature of the present circumstances. If my attitude sucks, the circumstances suck. But acknowledging that would mean I have to be responsible for it, and it’s easier to instead wish for the cavalry to appear on the horizon and save me.

“Try”

I don’t know about you, but I know I insert the word “try” into a sentence when I’m not actually willing to take on the responsibility of promising I’ll do something. Yet I’m still willing to pretend I at least have the intention of doing it — somewhere in my mind.

I’ll try to call and ask about that. I’ll try to exercise every day. I’ll try to get it done on Friday after work.

It means: I might end up doing that if it’s easier than I expect it to be. Read More


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Post image for The Thing That Makes This All Happen

How many times in my life have I stood with four or five strangers at a street corner, waiting for the pedestrian light to change? 2000? 5000? Who knows. But I do know that in almost none of them do any of us want to be precisely there.

It’s the sort of moment that has a distinctly “in-between” character to it. It feels like a necessary but boring preamble to a more ideal moment which seems to be waiting for you somewhere across the street, but is really only in the mind.

Most moments are like this. Which means, of course, that most of human life is like this: not where we want to be. It’s mostly in-between.

If you could divide a human life up into two parts: the time spent feeling a sense of in-between, and the time spent feeling a sense of “arrival” I’d bet the proportions would be staggering — certainly 90-something percent “in-between”, probably closer to 100 than 90.

We share a lot of those kinds of moments with other people, even though the experience usually feels like a rather individual one, and we’re unlikely to think much about the others in it. Waiting in elevators. Going through the motions at work at 2:27 on an idle Tuesday. Riding the bus, again.

The “in-between” character present in the vast majority of our moments is created not by the moment’s actual details but by the persistent state of preoccupation of the person experiencing it. Preoccupation is the typical human experience, and it’s nothing other than the experience of an abstract past, future, or hypothetical moment in the mind stealing your attention from the one that’s really happening.

I’ve long believed that tedium is only a pattern of thought, not circumstance.  Boredom is never a situational reality, only a self-defeating way of relating to the moment at hand, which always contains more detail and possibility than you could ever explore.

Again, this is normal. So my state of mind — I can’t speak for you — isn’t always receptive to the freshness and magnificence of “mundane” moments, even though I am now convinced that those qualities are always there behind my preoccupations.

But depending on the intensity of the preoccupying thoughts, I’ve found there are some pretty reliable ways of tapping into those qualities, even when the present moment is of that archetypal, in-between type you find in parking lots and waiting rooms.

An example from work: I often find myself at site meetings, which typically take place in a boxcar-sized field office, around a collapsible table with plastic folding chairs, populated by a handful of contractors, engineers, surveyors and developers. These meetings have a very predictable dynamic, with everyone waiting for a chance to bring up their biggest concern, nodding impatiently while others bring up theirs. They have a predictable, tired vocabulary (working days, “mobilizing”, change orders, tie-ins, inverts, grades, quantities) that seems to blur countless past and present and future moments together as if they are one indistinguishable, perpetual scene with no real unique characteristics and certainly nothing to feel and wonder or excitement about.

These patterns, if you experience them every day (and your workplace certainly has its own) can become almost unbearably ordinary. If you can somewhat imagine what a tax accountant feels like this time of year when they look at yet another T4 or a W2, or what a McDonald’s employee feels like when they come back to the same fries smell after two weeks off, then you know the stifling feeling of over-familiarity I’m talking about.

At this recent meeting, perhaps the tedium hit a breaking point in me and I slipped into a genuine recognition that behind those boring patterns, right in the room with me, was a damn miracle.

Eight beating hearts.

All the over-familiar talk in that room, all the annoying jargon, the impatience, the endless dialogue about construction schedules and the state of the industry, was the product of something truly astounding and humbling. Every instance in that scene of someone getting quietly worked up, getting self-righteous, getting talked over — or getting bored — was driven ultimately by one of eight beating hearts. And each was driving its owner to something. Some action, some attitude, some thought. Only because that’s what it does.

Why did the chicken cross the road? A beating heart, no other reason. Read More


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Post image for I’d like your input on something

Of everything that’s happened since I launched Raptitude, what I’m most proud of is that I’ve attracted a such an intelligent and discerning audience. That flatters me to no end and assures me I’m doing something right.

I feel extremely lucky to be able to bounce ideas off a large group of particularly thoughtful people. I’d like to hear your thoughts about something.

I’ve been approached by major publisher asking if I’d thought about doing a book.

Something may or may not come of this, but I’ll be writing a book sooner or later anyway. Thematically, there are lots of places to go with it. Essentially Raptitude is about human evolution through personal evolution, but that includes a lot: living in modern society, contending with the human condition, courting habit change, honing quality-of-life skills, fluff-free spirituality, self-reliance, self-examination, practicing sanity in its various forms, and even making cookies.

So I have three questions for you. I’d appreciate your answer to any or all of them, as well as any other comments you might have.

1) Would you read a Raptitude book?

2) What is Raptitude about, to you?

3) What would you like to see in a book?

Even if you don’t normally comment — and I know the vast majority of readers don’t — I’d like to hear what you have to say about this.

Thank you. You guys are the best.

Photo by David Cain


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