I started cooking around 5, unaware it would start an argument. I was in Auckland, running out of money, overwhelmed by the prospect of a job search with no contacts in a foreign country. My whole life, job searching had terrified me at the best of times. This was not the best of times.
I’d been loafing in the same K-Road hostel for about three weeks, and with both my cash and confidence dwindling, the best part of my day had become the hard-boiled egg with spaghetti and pesto I had for every dinner.
“Dinner at 5? Not very sexy!” the Italian girl said, hovering behind me somewhere. I didn’t disagree, but I don’t eat dinner to be sexy. Before I could think of something clever to say, the middle-aged Bostonian appeared at the counter.
“Oh, we know, you Europeans are very uptight about appearing relaxed, and so you eat when the people you think you’re superior to are thinking about going to bed. Americans eat at six o’clock.” He looked to me and nodded.
“Five is too early. Six is too early,” said Tommy, the Irishman who funded his travels by live betting on soccer and cricket. He was glued to the TV but listening.
“I’m hungry,” I explained.
I could hear Alessandra roll her gigantic eyes. The American repeated himself, this time thumping his fist on the counter for each word. “Americans eat at six o’clock.”
Alessandra flung her hands up in the air and called us “Fucking yankees,” which was the second of three times I would be called a fucking yankee on that trip.
“I’m Canadian,” I said. “But I eat when I’m hungry, which is usually six o’clock.”
She started into it again and I left it to the the Bostonian. In the ensuing argument a whole list of stolen Italian cultural icons came up from both sides: espresso, gelati, mafia archetypes, Christopher Columbus, sports cars. I wished they would leave. They were ruining the best part of my day, which was already pretty bleak.
This inane, inter-cultural debate was the last thing I remember before I was struck with what might have been the biggest revelation of my life. I remember tuning out the arguing, and staring into my pesto, and having an extremely dark thought: after I ate my dinner, the best part of my day would be over, and it was all shit until the next time I made dinner.
The thought made me so sad I felt dizzy. I went out on the balcony even though it was grey and drizzling. I breathed and reminded myself just to watch my breathing and let my thoughts talk themselves in circles if they wanted to.
In a minute or two, (or ten?) the jabbering of the argument in the kitchen seemed like a long time ago and the ambient sound of the city took over. Cars driving on wet streets, distant honking, wind.
My mind was clear and I could see that the look and sound of the city represented the facts of things, and the mess of fearful thoughts that had momentarily left me represented the negative spin I habitually put on all of it.
I had always assumed I was an optimist, because I was so hopeful. But clearly I was preoccupied with the negative side of everything and had been all my life. This was a shock to me but it sure explained a lot.
Life is where the weight is
On this blog I’ve often said “Insight is not enough.” We’ve all had breakthroughs in our thinking, but they only make our lives change if they make our behavior change. I’ve known I veer strongly toward pessimism for over two years now, but I am still in the habit of seeing every new development in terms of its potential pains and difficulties.
Clearly one mindset is more empowering than the other and I want to move in the direction of optimism. I am and always have been surrounded by opportunity and advantage, and I’ve given up so much of what I want because I overestimate the costs and risks of everything I want.
What pessimism amounts to, at least for me, is a preoccupation with thoughts about what I don’t want. I have always given these thoughts more weight than thoughts about what I want.
And that leads to long-term complications, which can send your entire life to places you might not want to go. There are a million examples, but here’s a prominent one in my life: I would very often decline going to a social event because I feared I’d get bored, or spend too much money, or have trouble finding a way home, or feel underdressed, or have to meet a ton of new people. Now, ten or twelve years into proper adulthood, I have a way smaller social circle than I want, I still have to push myself to speak up, I am still socially dependent on other people to make most of the plans, I am still envious when I walk by a house party strangers are having.
Abundant socialization is hugely important to me, I discovered years later, and my pessimism has put me into a position where I have to claw uphill in order to live the way that feels natural and right for me, now that I know what I want in that area.
Maybe I’m way off but I think most people veer on the side of avoiding pain as opposed to fulfilling desires. Among the people around me, I see a general conservatism about actually taking on big plans. Excuses get made, as a rule. Everyone experiences a different balance of motivations, but I think the real go-getters and unshakeables we hear about so often in inspirational stories are pretty rare. And not because of who they are, but because of how they go about things.
The Excitement Ritual
The difference is that desire-driven people think about what they want more than what they don’t want. For people with a bent toward pessimism, turning an insight into a real change means that person has to learn to think about what they want as habitually as they now think about what they don’t want.
About the much-gushed about (and much-criticized) “Law of attraction” — many people believe thoughts themselves have transformative effects on the universe around you. Positive ones manifest beneficial events and negative ones manifest problems. I understand that this can be an empowering mindset, but I want to be clear it’s not what I’m talking about here. I am still running on the assumption that it is only behavior that can be counted on to change your life. Thoughts obviously can have a huge effect on behavior, but I’m not trying to transmute anything with my mind, only to change my motivations.
I used to think fear and desire were the same thing, but they’re really opposites. Desire has direction, fear is just an impulse to get away — to be anywhere but here. Fear is directionless by nature.
In the personal development world, Steve Pavlina is a controversial figure. He’s nerdy, flippant, successful enough to make you sick, unshakeably happy, and really wordy. I don’t always agree with him but I know he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to thinking about what you want.
He’s written several huge articles on the topic, and they reach well beyond the standard self-help doctrine of “fill yourself with happy thoughts.” He explains thinking about what you want as a method of self-arousal that creates perceptible changes in your physical inclination to take risks and take action.
I’m guilty of rolling my eyes at the idea of visualization, but I’ve been experimenting with it and, wow, I can’t believe how different it makes the world look. I sit for twenty minutes and dive into some aspect of an ideal vision of my life — abundant relationships, abundant income, a lifestyle that leaves more time for creative work.
“Self-arousal” is really the crucial concept here. When you think about an experience of sex, particularly if you envision its details, it actually creates physical changes in the body. Blood will move, you will feel physically different. Sex isn’t the only experience that makes us feel aroused. Concerts can do it, getting a raise can do it, having a great coffee chat with a friend can do it, making a new friend can do it, wearing a sharp suit can do it.
This arousal is real and can be triggered by focused visualization about the details of those experiences. If you keep from letting it get abstract, and just dive into the details, you will be physically and emotionally moved by this exercise. That’s the point, to be moved by where your life is heading if you are taking action to bring it there.
You can make yourself feel really, really good this way, and you’re left with what is for a pessimist a rare and powerful commodity: desire that is much stronger than fear. Imagine what a change it would make in your moment-to-moment disposition if you made sure to do this every day.
So I am. This is Experiment #13. The terms will be a twenty-minute visualization session every day, for 30 days. I’ll report on my findings every few days. It begins tomorrow, May 28, 2012.
Note: If you’ve been following the previous experiment, you’ll notice it never really ended. The goal of writing 1000 words a day was really pretty insane for me at the time, I lost momentum quickly and ended up avoiding writing even more than before. Once #13 is underway, I will proceed again with #12, but instead of using a word count quota, I will commit to simply sitting down and writing for at least 30 minutes. That was the point all along. Experiment #13 will remain the priority throughout.
If you want to it too, I’ll have you read this article of Steve’s, rather than rehash exactly how to do this daily “excitement ritual.” I’d love to hear about your experiences with it in the comment section of the experiment log page.
I’m curious, what do you think you think about more — what you want or what you don’t want?