2013

Post image for 16 things I know are true but haven’t quite learned yet

There’s a difference between knowing something and living as if it were true. At the end of 2013, these truths are all lingering on that awkward threshold, for me anyway.

1) The sooner you do something, the more of your life you get to spend with that thing done — even though it takes less effort (or at least no more) than it will later. It’s the ultimate sure-thing investment and I pass it up all the time.

2) I never regret working out. I can’t count the number of times I’ve negotiated with myself to work out the next day instead of today because I’m worried it will be a “bad workout.” I seldom have a bad day on a day that I work out.

3) Whenever I’m playing with my phone I am only shortening my life. A smartphone is useful if you have a specific thing you want to do, but ninety per cent of the time the thing I want to do is avoid doing something harder than surfing Reddit. During those minutes or hours, all I’m doing is dying.

4) Nothing makes me more productive and in-the-moment than a clean house. There is mind-clearing magic in cleanliness. Waking up in a house where everything is put away is a glorious feeling. There seem to be more possibilities in the air, and all my things seem more useful.

5) Minute-for-minute, nothing I do is more rewarding than meditation. Even after just a very short session, it reliably makes me better at everything, especially making decisions. It lets me do my best. Yet I still do it only intermittently.

6) Creative work is something that can be done at any time. It’s no different than any other kind of work. Inspiration is nice but completely optional. I’ve almost completely come around on this one in 2013. But sometimes the Four Horsemen still trick me.

7) Acting the way you want to feel usually works. When I feel crappy just before I have to go do something, if I decide to act as if I am happy for a while (even though I’m not) I usually end up feeling happy after not too long, or at least much less crappy. This is straight out of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and it’s an extremely powerful thing to experiment with. [More on this in an upcoming post.]

8) Ninety-five per cent of my happiness comes from having a home, a functioning body and something to eat. I live in utter luxury, by any sensible standard of what “luxury” is. If I am unhappy it’s because I’ve lost perspective about the other five per cent.  Read More


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Post image for Why I like something as dumb and meaningless as professional sports

For some of us it’s the most wonderful time of the year. If you spend time in a house crowded with relatives this week, chances are that somewhere the house a small group has gathered in front of a screen, to watch grown men throw balls or try to stop other men from throwing balls.

Millions of people take these activities as seriously as elections and wars. If you don’t, you may wonder why these professionally-performed made-up activities compel anyone at all.

From Tim Pirolli’s brilliant article in The Onion, “Professional Sports is Very Interesting”:

Whenever a ball is hit, put into a hoop, or carried to a particular point of significance, my mind instantly races to consider all of the action’s possible ramifications: “How will this affect future hittings, throwings, and carryings of other, different balls?” I wonder to myself. What a joy it is to closely follow a random group of men thrown together in one geographic location working together to win contests of athletic ability.

Although I am probably more devoted to watching inane ball-throwings on Sundays than most people are to their churches, I think the article is right on. Professional sports is exactly as ridiculous than that.

But I love it and there are of hundreds of millions like me. Non-sports people often look upon us as easily-stimulated meatheads, and some of us are, but clearly many intelligent and discerning people watch too. I will try to explain why this is so.

I’m not trying to convince anyone to watch, only explain that there is something there to get, well beyond what you might get from a three-hour action movie.

Viewed without context, yes, it is silly that anywhere on this earth there are angry young men with blades on their feet and crooked sticks in their hands, competing to fling a hardened black disc into a drape of nylon mesh. It seems sillier still that millions of dollars of infrastructure are built to house these thoroughly artificial and arbitrary competitions.

I’m not concerned by the ultimate meaninglessness of ball-throwings and trophy-hoistings any more than I am with the ultimate meaninglessness of the tides and star-circlings that constitute the natural world. If there’s some kind of beauty in their unfolding then that’s enough for me.

The ultimate inanity of the whole thing is what allows for its beauty. Because it’s a completely artificial plane of competition, there’s a fairness and transparency you don’t have when human beings compete at anything else. Each sport is a well-refined, self-contained universe governed by laws simple enough that anyone can know and understand them. Nowhere else in the human world are the goals so sharply defined and the parameters so firm. This gives the viewers and participants inside the sphere a unique clarity about what is possible, and what is truly good and bad. Read More


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Post image for How to stand up straight

Quick one today. A few days ago I baked my first ever loaf of bread, and although it was flat and a bit undercooked, I knew I was entering a new era in a small aspect of life. It’s very early in this culinary expedition, but the storebought bread phase of my life seems to be over. Making my own was easy and fun and way cheaper.

In this last quarter of 2013 I’ve quickly strung together a few of these kinds of “changes to go” — the ones you can make in a short amount of time, yet can apply to the rest of your life. My sixteenth experiment is quickly turning me into a daily reader. And after struggling for years, my writing process is a lot more structured and efficient, and I think the product turns out better too.

Last week I warned against trying to do too much at once, but I’m really on a roll with personal growth and I think I can fit one more lasting improvement into 2013 before the box is sealed. I’m not worried that this one will dilute my other efforts, because it’s very simple and it takes no time at all.

Before the end of the year I want to learn to stand up straight. I have a tendency to slouch. My head just pokes forward by itself, only because that’s where the involved muscles feel most at home. There’s nothing addictive or gratifying at all about slouching, I do it only because it doesn’t occur to me to stand up straight. As soon as I do, I feel better, healthier, more confident and for some reason even a little smarter.

In cases like these all you need to make a change is a way of remembering to do a particular thing differently. My mother has reminded me to stand up straight several times a year for thirty years now, but that’s not enough.

My girlfriend offered a simple and seemingly foolproof idea for remembering to stand up straight, and it will be my seventeenth experiment. I’ll just put little stickers (the dot-shaped ones you see on the spines of library books) in places where my eyes will naturally fall throughout the day: the end of my hallway, the corner of my laptop, the tiles behind my sink. Whenever I see one I’ll remember what they’re there for and I’ll stand up straight. Soon my muscles will prefer to settle into a more upright place. Read More


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Post image for Find balance over your years, not your days

The other day I sorted through five years of weekly to-do lists, which were almost identical to each other except for the date.

There were items I had been attempting to address for years, but somehow I had never actually done any of them to the point where they didn’t need to be on a list any more.

You may have experienced this familiar cycle. On a weekend, after a disappointing week, you write out a list of things you’re going to start doing, for real this time, on Monday. Working out. Practicing an instrument. Writing a bit every day. Reading a bit every day. Initiating plans with friends more often. Getting organized.

You’ve probably done a lot of each of these things at some point, even regularly for a while, yet for all their persistence in your mind they never really established themselves in your routine. You keep writing them down because you’re not prepared to let go of the idea that you will one day be fit, organized, and good at what you want to be good at.

When you’ve been writing down the same resolutions for years and they’re just not happening, two ugly possibilities may come into focus. Either these pursuits are not that important to you, or they’re too hard for you to pull off.

Chances are neither is true. The problem isn’t that they’re too hard or not important enough, it’s the opposite. They’re all perfectly doable, and we know that because other ordinary people do them. And they’re so important to us that we never put down any of them completely. We can’t accept any of these goals as optional, so we think it’s reasonable to progress a little bit with each at the same time. Just a ten minute workout every day. Just 250 words before breakfast. Reach out to one friend a week. Meditate for just five minutes.

The point is to achieve “balance”, which is a concept we seem to value even if we can’t really say why. It seems reasonable to presume that if the person you want to be does all these things, you must always be doing these things, otherwise you’ll never get there.

I think I have finally accepted that this doesn’t work. It dilutes your resolve too much. There’s never enough progress in any area to keep your enthusiasm renewed, and there’s a much greater chance of missing your standards.

It makes way more sense to keep most of your plans for improvement boxed and shelved at any given time. Pick just a few, maybe just one, to take out of the box. And do something significant with it. Read More


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Post image for What to get everyone for Christmas

Every Christmas, after the initial flurry of present-opening, we’d toss all the paper into the biggest box we could find. Sometimes the cat would make a bed of it, and she seemed pretty comfortable. So when I’d walk down my back lane to learn what toys other kids got, I’d imagine gathering every family’s paper in one giant pile and jumping into it like raked-up leaves.

If the homes on our little street would have made a pile the size of a minivan, then the entire city’s paper would surely make a pile the size of a small office building. You could jump from a plane into it and be fine. Each city in Canada would contribute another building-sized pile, every year, until you had an entire city of crumpled gift wrap. The paper from the US would make it ten or twelve times larger. A decade’s worth would be unimaginable.

It occurs to me only now that the gifts that came in that paper would make an astronomically larger heap — an entire Death Star of toys and kitch, having come at a cost of about 5 trillion dollars.

Gradually I began to realize that while having new toys is a wonderful feeling, nothing was quite as wonderful as unwrapping them. The high topped out in the morning hours and wore off faster each year. By January, our family’s joy level was always about back to normal, maybe a little lower, and the decorations and ads that were still around by that time only made me sad it was over. The new stuff was still around, but it was no longer so new, and Christmas didn’t leave me with the net gain it seemed to promise. What we were really buying was the swell of awesome feelings that crested at about 9am on the 25th and then gently drained back to sea level.

The items we end up giving or getting at Christmas are usually entirely ephemeral. A typical American or Canadian has received thousands of dollars in Christmas gifts throughout his or her lifetime, and would be hard pressed to remember getting the vast majority of them, let alone tell you what those gifts are doing for them now. Ultimately they’re bought to stir up the magic and promise of Christmas, and they do, but often that’s all they do.

The bulk of consumers’ Christmas trillions is spent trying to buy an intangible thing we can call The Magic of Christmas. Some of this Magic certainly comes from outside the shopping aspect — the closeness of family, the warmth of sweaters and boozy board game sessions — but that’s the free part. The vast majority of the spending arises from chasing the ecstatic feeling of Christmas morning one felt as a child, even if you’re grown up now and only want it for your children.

The rest of the year we would call this feeling abundance. It’s not a feeling particular to Christmas, but for a lot of kids Christmas morning represents the abundance feeling at its peak concentration. The first days of Summer break gives a similar high, but it’s spread over a much longer period and so it’s never quite as dazzling. There is also a minor spike in the fall, the evening of Halloween. In each case the abundance feeling is glorious, but fades quickly.

I don’t want to dismiss the lasting meaning of this Magic, or these gift-opening experiences. Some of my best memories are of those glowing days surrounding my childhood Christmases. But the gift-receiving part was absolutely central to making those days glow for me, and I think this is true for almost every child. Experiences of abundance are intoxicating and unforgettable, and we seek them everywhere in life, but for many of us we never find them so dependably as we do at Christmas.

There are ways to create abundance that are far less costly than through traditional Christmas shopping though, and which keep it going much better. Only later in life would I start learning to get that abundant feeling from simple luxuries like walls, socks, food and visits with loved ones, and would it appear more evenly throughout the year.  Read More


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Post image for The Four Horsemen of Writer’s Block (and how to defeat them)

Getting myself writing used to feel something like trying to start an old lawn mower. Occasionally I’d get it running right away, but most of the time it would take at least a few rips at the cord, and I was always aware that I might not get it to turn over at all that day.

This made it feel like there were days I could write and couldn’t write, and I could never do much more than hope it was the right kind of day. Some time in the last year I lost most of my fear of writing, or at least by now I’ve experienced enough of that fear that I can see it has a rather simple and predictable structure.

I’m not saying I’ve defeated it, only that I understand it enough that I can always get myself to the point where I actually write something. I still encounter creative fear every day, but it arrives in only a few predictable forms and I know what to do for each one.

There are four forms, and almost every day they ride out to confront me in the same order. I call them the Four Horsemen of Writer’s Block, but they are undoubtedly the same evil forces that stifle creators of all types.

Initially they come in disguise, seducing travelers away from the creative path. Often they defeat you without your even knowing it. Once you know their names and their strategies, you begin to see your encounters with them as an everyday part of your job that need cause you little trouble. But be careful. Even if you’ve defeated them a hundred times they will still be capable of tricking you — in fact, my overconfidence allowed the first one to outsmart me yesterday on the piece you’re reading.

Know which you’re dealing with and what to do for each.  Read More


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Post image for Accept it whether you can change it or not

The most valuable part of my post-secondary education happened during the ten hours a week I spent riding the bus between the campus and my suburban home. For a shy, high-strung, claustrophobic young man, these crowded bus rides served as an intensive hands-on program in acceptance.

The older buses were unpleasantly warm in the summer, but much worse in the winter. The driver sits next to the front door, which must open every other block to let in a few more people. Even though it was often thirty below zero, he would always be wearing only a company-issue fleece — his parka would take up too much of his limited workspace. With each opening of the door comes a blast of arctic air, and so in order to stay halfway comfortable the driver keeps the heat dialed up all the way.

This creates, for the passengers in the back of the bus, a microcosm of runaway climate change. As the bus creeps across town, it fills up with Gortexed students until they are bulging against the yellow line at the front, and the temperature inside each parka rises to tropical levels. Nobody dares open a window because it would it would mean the person sitting nearest to it would have his face frozen even as the rest of his body sweltered.

Faring the worst is the person who lets himself get angry at this arrangement, because this sends him down an even steeper spiral — he fumes into his parka and long underwear, cooking his body faster and bringing his mind to a full boil. Then he is defenseless against everything, inside his mind and out. He is physically trapped, and the context of this powerless feeling expands to the rest of his life. Academic worries descend on him. His relationship suddenly seems unsatisfactory. He begins to hate the institutions which torture him like this every day: the transit service, the college, the commercial sector for which he is going to school to please, and all of their unsympathetic expectations.

He may, at this moment, remember a familiar prayer along these lines:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

But he finds this does not help him accept his physical state, or the chaotic life situation swirling around it. Acceptance of this sort is not something he tries to do often, because it doesn’t occur to him except in moments where he feels powerless. He has been trained that acceptance is difficult, and is always an act of great willpower.

He may learn, after a few years of crosstown winter bus rides, that acceptance is more of a learned reflex than anything, and shouldn’t be reserved for things that cannot be changed.  Read More


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Post image for What would you like to see?

Dear Reader,

By the time you read this I should be somewhere in Colorado, taking photos and helping Mr. Money Mustache build things.

I had just gotten back from a bucket-list-related trip to Minneapolis, and hit the road again three days later. When I get back from Colorado I’ll begin stockpiling tea and used books, settling in to brace for the harsh Canadian winter, given that my next trip is a whole six months away. So for the first time in my life I’ll have ample time to write, which allows me to tackle topics that I had never had the space to address thoroughly.

There are a lot of directions to take, and so to reduce option-paralysis it would help if you’d tell me what topics you’re most interested in reading about. It could be something I’ve written about before, or something new. Different readers can be interested in totally different things, from Buddhism to capitalism to antidisestablishmentarianism, and I want to know what -isms, -alities and -nesses I’m neglecting in the eyes of the general audience. If I wrote, say, a 3000-word piece on floccinaucinihilipilification, and most of you have been dying for me to comment on the process involved in overcoming asseocarnisanguineoviscericartilaginonervomedullarial issues, then that is a missed opportunity for all of us. Or perhaps many of you suffer from hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia and I’ve been inadvertently terrorizing you with my choices. Such perfidiousness on my part! So the more responses, the better for everyone.

So far there have been a lot of requests for more on procrastination, Douglas Harding, non-religious spirituality, lifestyle design and overcoming shyness, but I want to lengthen the list. That way I can queue up topics and keep going with another article as soon as I’m finished one.

Please tell me in the comments what you would like to see more of here. Even if you never comment, I would love to know what I’ve written about that you’ve especially liked, or what I haven’t written about that you wish I would. A one-liner is fine.

Thank you for your contributions, you make this place what it is.

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Photo by David Cain

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Post image for Use your privilege

One amusing part of blogging is that people are constantly reacting to things you said years ago. The medium requires you to leave a trail of opinions that don’t change as you change. Visitors stumble across different spots on this trail and react in their own way. Some people like what they find and they follow the trail back to its source, which in this case is a 33 year old white man sitting on a rock eating a banana. Others don’t like what they find and move on, but many people tell you what they think of you first.

There are two interesting consequences of leaving several years’ worth of opinions pointing to your name and face. One, you end up having misgivings about almost everything you’ve ever written — because no one thing you say quite represents you — and two, people expect you to defend every point you’ve ever made, as if you are delivering it live.

As it does on a fairly regular basis, my “Designed Lifestyle” article caught fire last week, when it appeared on a big blog. Many of you are probably reading this post only because you followed the trail from that particular three-year-old breadcrumb. Welcome.

I have misgivings about 95% of my articles and the Designed Lifestyle piece is one of them. It’s a bit glib in places , and it implies a simpler and more conspiratorial relationship between workweek culture and big business than is probably there. The gist is true, though: consumer-product companies certainly want you to be unambitious outside of work, accustomed to paying for convenience, gratification, and other unnecessaries — and that the forty-plus-hour workweek is the greatest perpetuator of this unhealthy norm. Very-high-level marketing does exist, and it works.

I do understand the criticisms, and agree with many of them. But if you skim through the 500 opinions in the comment section, there’s one recurring criticism that I think is out to lunch: that the whole thing is the limited perspective of a privileged white boy, who is complaining about the evils of being employed when he should shut up and be happy that he has a job at all.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m privileged and always have been. Having a supportive family and a fully-able body are immeasurable blessings I did nothing to deserve. Being born in Canada alone is a tremendous privilege.

Having a job at a time when others don’t could also be viewed as a discrete privilege on its own, but I think that’s a little shortsighted. The incredible rights and personal freedoms that allowed me to work at my then-new job (or not work there) are far greater privileges, which afford a person far greater possibilities than any particular job could provide. By becoming a complacent collaborator in a system that limits the growth of both my species and myself, I am taking my greatest privileges for granted.

In other words, I’ve always felt that achieving a “decent life” by everyday consumer standards is a pitiful use of the incredible privileges available to a healthy, self-directed person living in the incredible age we live in. Staying employed by a big company whose aims are irrelevant (or just as often, completely perpendicular) to your own values for forty years and retiring to a house on the coast is the epitome of taking one’s Western privilege for granted. I don’t begrudge anyone’s choice to do that, but they are almost certainly leaving most of their gifts on the table.  Read More


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Post image for The elegant secret to self-discipline

Despite my lofty ethical and financial aspirations, I developed a tragic ice cream habit during the summer. There are all kinds of long- and short-term problems with this: it’s bad for my health, morally dubious to say the least, and totally anti-frugal — a big no-no for my new career as a tightfisted writer.

My justification was always pretty lame. I would explain to myself that I’m about to stop doing this, therefore it doesn’t matter if I do it right now. The Devil on my shoulder would only have to say, “But it’s just for now. Enjoy!” and I would already be on an unstoppable march to Safeway.

If I had given the angel on the other shoulder a chance to rebut, she would have explained the foolish tradeoff I was making. I gain twenty minutes or so of low-brow pleasure. All the benefit of this choice is gone after that. I lose, in a more lasting way, some of my money, my dignity, my sense of self-control, and my health.

Only a fool would choose the first option, but when faced with certain frozen desserts, or other present-moment incentives I often become a fool, and maybe you do too. The hallmark of the fool is that he borrows fleeting pleasures, at interest, from himself.

Self-discipline is time travel

I have a beautiful banana sitting beside my laptop right now. No black spots, no green tinge. It’s truly the perfect banana and I know it will fulfill my expectations when I do eat it.

It’s sitting about six inches from the edge of my desk and a foot from the front. I could move it to the other side of the desk, to the back of the desk or the front, and it would be the same promising banana. I could also move it in a third dimension by putting it on top of my bookcase, or move it across all three dimensions by walking it back to the fruit bowl at the center of my dining room table, and nothing of value will be lost.

I really want to eat this banana, and that desire distracts me from realizing that I could move my banana in a fourth dimension, by eating it in an hour, or four hours, and it would still provide pretty much the same levels of pleasure and dietary potassium. I forget that if I eat it now, Future David will have no banana to eat at all. So I am rewarding Right Now David at the expense of Future David.

Depending on the circumstances, Future David might even benefit more from that banana than Right Now David would. If it wasn’t quite ripe right now, there would be more enjoyment to be gained from it tomorrow.

Still, Right Now David has a considerable preference for himself, and in fact he is already eating the banana. As I mature, I notice Right Now David getting better at sharing with his Future-based colleague, and I hope one day he is able to treat all other Davids as he treats himself.  Read More


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