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David Cain

Post image for Gratitude Comes From Noticing Your Life, Not From Thinking About It

Every gratitude exercise I’ve ever done asks you to think about what you have to be grateful for. In other words, you brainstorm reasons you ought to feel grateful, whether or not you do.

You’ve probably done one of these before: writing five things you’re grateful for every night, recalling past good luck during difficult moments, or trying to remember, as often as possible, your privileges and advantages in life.

These exercises might be worthwhile on some level, but most of the time they don’t create much of a real-time, felt sense of gratitude. They just remind you of certain encouraging rote facts: on paper, your situation is pretty good; many parts of your life would be enviable to others; things could be worse.

As you might have noticed, simply making the case to ourselves that we have reasons to feel grateful doesn’t necessarily make us feel grateful.

Gratitude, when we do genuinely feel it, arises from experiences we are currently having, not from evaluating our lives in our heads. When you feel lonely, for example, simply remembering that you have friends is a dull, nominal comfort compared to how wonderful it feels when one of those friends calls you out of the blue. Reflecting on the good fortune of having a fixed address is nice, but stepping inside your front door after a cold and rainy walk home is sublime.  Read More

Post image for It’s Time to Put The Internet Back Into a Box in The Basement

My first online interaction, circa 1992, fascinated but also terrified me. I should have taken it as a warning.

At the time, computers were just machines you had in your basement. They had programs in them, and you would sit in a chair and use those programs for a while, then go do something else. The whole time you used this machine you remained, both physically and psychologically, in your own house.

Nobody had the internet yet really, but there were Bulletin Board Systems. Your computer could phone another computer, presumably in someone else’s basement, and access a virtual space for posting messages, designed by that computer’s owner. No images, just bare text. Only one person could visit at a time, because it occupied the owner’s phone line.

One time I was using a BBS, believing I was alone in my basement, when some strange text started appearing on my screen, letter by letter. Someone else was typing—on my screen, in my basement. The text asked if I was enjoying his BBS.

My heart pounded. What was happening was impossible. Seeing that alien text crawl onto my screen felt like a seeing ghost appear before you inside your locked bedroom.

I did not yet have any sense of what it meant to be “online.” At the time, everything was offline. Life consisted of physical objects in physical locations. (We had TV and phones of course—which must have similarly amazed and unsettled those who were alive when they were introduced—but in my case they were an established part of the universe from birth.)

Still, for years afterward, going online was something you did in one place—at the home computer, or more likely, at the one in the school library—for a small part of the day, if at all. The online world was a novel and small part of life, and you almost never thought about it when you weren’t sitting in a computer chair.

Twenty-some years later, the internet seems present in almost every room, vehicle and public space—and I want that old feeling back. I want life to once again feel like it takes place in an immediate, local, physical world.

While living in this physical world, you can, if you choose, occasionally use a special computer device that allows you to look things up, learn a bit of news from afar, entertain yourself, and send important messages.  Read More

Post image for If It’s Important, Learn It Repeatedly

A little more than a year ago, a friend took me for lunch in downtown Toronto, and we talked mostly about what we’d been reading. Immediately afterward she marched me to a nearby bookstore and insisted I buy Cal Newport’s Deep Work.

She was the second person that week to describe it to me as potentially life-changing, so I bought it with great enthusiasm. Later that day, I sat reading it in a tea shop for two hours, riveted by the possibilities of working in the uncompromising, undistracted way Newport described.

I’ve had that feeling many times while reading non-fiction books—the “hot lightbulb effect” of being aware you’re reading the right ideas at the right moment in your life. I’d stopped in Toronto on the way home from an inspiring chautauqua experience in Ecuador. The trip that had culminated in an unforgettably moving group discussion, during which each of us declared heartfelt resolutions about how we wanted to live the rest of our lives. I was determined to return to work with unprecedented focus and clarity, and now I’d found the perfect guide to doing exactly that.

The window to act on a timely idea is very small. The heat of inspiration only lasts a few days, or even hours, and if it runs out before you’ve formed and implemented a plan, you’re essentially back at the status quo.  Read More

Post image for Mine Your Acre of Diamonds

The response to last month’s “Depth Year” article caught me off guard. It went viral immediately and quickly became the most popular article of the year.

I’m still sorting through emails from readers sharing their intentions to go deeper instead of wider with their pursuits in 2018: reading unread books, tuning up the piano again, resuming Spanish lessons, calling up old friends. Someone even started a Facebook group to discuss Depth Year plans with others.

This level of enthusiasm made me feel a bit sheepish, because I intended it more as a thought experiment than a serious proposition. I wanted to point out the mirage of novelty—that emotion of newness and possibility we get when we start a new project, buy the supplies for a new hobby, or order a new book.

Novelty—essentially the feeling of “Oh how life will change now that I’ve added this to it!”—is a very gratifying emotion, and we experience it frequently in our consumption-focused society. But it usually contains a vital miscalculation: acquiring access to some new thing doesn’t guarantee we will ever enjoy its full value, or even a fraction of it.  Read More

Post image for How to Treat Yourself in 2018

At the end of every year I write something about the great recurring problem of holiday baking.

For many people, it’s a time of year when it’s easy to become surrounded by dangerous snacks. In fact it’s a mathematical certainty—each attendee at a Christmas gathering brings a week’s worth of caloric energy, and it would be a shame to let it go to waste.

In my family, someone has a birthday in mid-December, which means we get an early warning, in the form of cake, about the impending invasion of dessert foods. This year we had a beautiful carrot cake. It was delicious and well-made, and after we each had a piece, we tried to make each other take the rest home.

Eight-year-old me would have found this scene hilarious—everybody trying not to eat the cake! To a kid it’s the perfect comedy sketch.  Read More

Post image for Go Deeper, Not Wider

I keep imagining a tradition I’d like to invent. After you’re established in your career, and you have some neat stuff in your house, you take a whole year in which you don’t start anything new or acquire any new possessions you don’t need.

No new hobbies, equipment, games, or books are allowed during this year. Instead, you have to find the value in what you already own or what you’ve already started.

You improve skills rather than learning new ones. You consume media you’ve already stockpiled instead of acquiring more.

You read your unread books, or even reread your favorites. You pick up the guitar again and get better at it, instead of taking up the harmonica. You finish the Gordon Ramsey Masterclass you started in April, despite your fascination with the new Annie Leibovitz one, even though it’s on sale.

The guiding philosophy is “Go deeper, not wider.” Drill down for value and enrichment instead of fanning out. You turn to the wealth of options already in your house, literally and figuratively. We could call it a “Depth Year” or a “Year of Deepening” or something.  Read More

Post image for You Aren’t In the Crowd, You Are the Crowd

For almost ten years I had a job that required incessant driving. I crossed the city by every possible route, often under time pressure. During one of the countless CBC radio interviews I absorbed during that period, the topic turned to coping with rush hour traffic. Someone on the panel offered a novel concept:

“You’re not stuck in traffic, you are the traffic.”

Luckily, I was stuck in traffic at that moment, so I had plenty of time to ponder the thought.

We tend to think of “traffic” as synonymous with “lots of cars in the way.” You’re trying to get somewhere so you can fulfill your responsibilities. Other parties have competing, perpendicular interests, and that slows you down. There’s you, and there’s traffic—traffic being the obstacle.

As obvious as it seems in hindsight, I hadn’t often thought of my own car as the anonymous, other car it always is to everyone else. It’s never anything but in the way, unless you’re me. And that’s a fact essential to understanding what the everyday problem of traffic actually is—we’re all trying to get home, and we’re all in the way.  Read More

Post image for Making Peace With the First Moment of the Day

I’m not the type to sleep late—seven o’clock is late for me—but I don’t like waking up. Being pulled from the womb of sleep by an alarm clock is almost always a jarring and disorienting experience. Unfortunately, almost every day, it’s the first thing that happens.

Each day begins in a small cloud of mild existential confusion, as it takes a few seconds to remember where this morning fits in the context of my life—what day it is, what happened yesterday, and which of my apparent life circumstances were just dream figments. Oh good, I didn’t ruin my laptop in a bubble bath yesterday. Oh right, I didn’t co-host a dinner party with Patrick Stewart last night. *This cloud of confusion can be almost comically extreme for me; optional anecdote in footnote.

Each day begins with two simultaneous upsetting developments. Not only does the glorious experience of sleep come to an end, but you’re summoned to the captain’s chair of waking life at the exact time your mind and body are least interested in the job. In a flash, the comfort and freedom of sleep transmute into the thankless conundrum of being a person who has work to do and responsibilities to attend to, the first of which is getting your groggy body to its feet.  Read More

Post image for The Danger of Convenience

The other day I saw an ad for Google Home which, even five years ago, could have passed for their annual April Fool’s joke. (You can see it here.)

A woman is getting comfortable on a couch, as a friendly voiceover relates a supposedly-common dilemma:

“You know when you’ve got Chinese takeout on your chest, and the blanket around your feet, and then you realize the remote is on the other side of the couch? Just say ‘Hey Google, play Stranger Things!’”

I appreciate ease and convenience (and Stranger Things) as much as anyone else. We should be grateful to have access to ingenious devices that relieve us from having to do laundry in a stream, heat water by the potload over a fire, and other laborious, dangerous, and time-consuming tasks.

But when we’re also employing futuristic devices to do the easiest imaginable things, we’re probably making our lives worse. How convenient do we want things to be, really? Would we eliminate all bodily movement if it were possible?

If a remote control sitting on the far arm of the couch has become a dilemma we want technology to solve for us, we may be heading straight into the realm of Wall-E, or a similar dystopia. Convenience tech has a way of giving ourselves a fish, so to speak, at any cost. The more we rely on technologies to stand in for our own abilities, for what our brains and bodies know how to do, the worse we get at using those brains and bodies on their own.  Read More

Post image for The Joy of Opting Out

Sometimes, improving one small, seemingly obscure skill can make you better at dozens of things at once.

One time at a backyard get-together, I was chain-eating potato chips, when a well-meaning friend made a useful observation. At a natural break in our conversation, he said, “You’re a sucker for bowls of chips aren’t you?”

He meant no offense by this, and I took none—we are both observers of human behavior. I knew I liked chips, but I hadn’t realized quite how unhinged my chip-eating is compared to the people around me. Most people will graze on chips when they’re around, a few at a time, but I tend to fall into a whirlpool of near-continuous chip eating. I spoil my appetite. I park near snack tables and mingle from there.

Interestingly, I wouldn’t describe myself as a fan of potato chips, and I only really eat them at get-togethers. I don’t derive any real joy from eating them, the way I do with chocolate, or spring rolls. For whatever reason I just have a repeating, mechanical habit of reaching into nearby chip bowls when they’re around.  Read More

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