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view from 30 rock

Time travel is just like regular travel, except you move around the fourth dimension instead of just the other three. I will explain how. It doesn’t take any special talent but you do need to practice it. You can do it anywhere, even when you’re regular-traveling.

The first thing you should do when you get to a new city, I remember reading in a travel guide, is find the highest point where you can see the whole thing. Before any other sightseeing, you’re supposed to get yourself up to the observation deck at the CN Tower, Christ the Redeemer, Top of the Rock or the Space Needle, and look at the city from there.

The writer claimed this ritual totally transforms a visitor’s experience of a city, because everywhere you go afterwards, you know roughly where you are in the landscape. Otherwise, knowing where you are is a completely abstract exercise. You’re picturing yourself on the map instead of in the territory, navigating colored lines and rows of rectangles instead of the actual streets, hills, waterways and boroughs that make up a real-life city.

This sounded like a great idea and I planned to do it in every city on my big backpacking trip. But I forgot to actually do it until years later in New York, near the end of my trip. I went to the top of 30 Rock and saw the city for what was, I realized, the first time. I took about 500 pictures, but none of them really capture the sense that the city is a great big physical thing, a surreal carpet of buildings growing over what was once probably a very quiet natural harbor.  Read More

Post image for An Open Letter to My 15-Year-Old Self Just Before the Start of High School

Dear 15-year-old self,

The first thing to know is that high school, and everything that comes after it, is impossible to get right. When you’re a kid you don’t have to be anything except what you are, a kid. But when you’re an adult, or training to be one, all aspects of life seem to become concerned with trying to be a certain way: sufficiently cool, successful, independent, respectable, charitable, productive, original, normal, healthy, sexy, or whatever else you currently are not. This impossible goal is the great joke of human life that I will try to explain in this letter.

In high school, this mostly means one thing: don’t try to be cool. You will not be cool until your late twenties. It isn’t actually possible to be cool in high school—all high school students are hopelessly uncool, especially the cool ones. This will be obvious the moment you graduate, but in the meantime you might have to make a point of remembering it.

None of the respect you earn in high school will buy you anything after you leave high school. It’s like working at Canadian Tire for a summer and getting paid only in Canadian Tire money. Waste no energy earning respect in high school. Spend it instead wandering every sidestreet of geekdom and subculture you pass by. Instead of finding scraps of approval from uncool people, you will end up finding something real and lasting in Brian Eno or Nietzsche or Margaret Atwood or Public Radio. Find those grooves of meaning that you can follow into adulthood. When people give you a hard time for liking what you like, that’s a sign you’re on the right track. You are uncovering veins of precious metals; they are scrounging for nearly-expired coupons.

Get a shitty job. Work in a grocery store, steering shrink-wrapped pallets of cola through cramped warehouses. Spend hours daintily arranging shelves that you will later see customers destroy in minutes. This will pay for your food court lunches and headphones, and also impress on you the nihilistic reality of most of the work out there. Get a good, long, nasty look at how impersonal and irrelevant your role on this earth can be if you’re not careful. Get your face right into it, right into the filthy shelves and bins of expired yogurt and the empty eyes of your manager and make a vow that whatever you do with your life you will always be moving away from all of that.  Read More

Post image for Out of Sight is Not Out of Mind

For a brief time in 2011, I had a place for everything. I discarded more than half of my possessions, with the idea of owning nothing that didn’t have its own hook, spot or shelf. Once everything had a home, I could put everything away in five minutes, and wake up to a clear space and a clear mind.

It took about a month to do — and about six months to undo. When I wrote about my success, I gave it the ambitious title “Everything in its Place, Finally and Forever.” Things eventually reverted to tolerable clutter. It never got back to a clothes-on-the-floor level of messy, but there are objects on the dining room table that are never used for dining, and books living on surfaces other than my bookshelves.

I have never forgotten the uncanny peace that comes from a home devoid of chaos. It’s a completely different home-life experience, free of a certain kind of tension that you only notice when it’s gone. Every item sitting out is an unresolved issue, both in the real world and in the mind. They give your day-to-day life a sense of perpetual unresolvedness, like you’re always in the middle of renovating or switching to new software at work.

I’ve been meaning to do it again for four years now, but it’s an enormous job, and the benefits seem to wear off too quickly. Unless you’re born organized, decluttering is a fight against gravity and entropy, and maybe some other inalienable laws of the cosmos.

The problem was my method. I thought tidying was just a matter of making things look nicer. While I was going closet-to-closet, purging and re-stacking, a tiny Japanese woman was developing a science around the idea of “everything in its place”. Now she’s got a million-selling book and a three-month waiting list for her services.

Her name is Marie Kondo, and she says our conventional notions of tidying set us up for relapse. When we’re children we’re told to tidy our rooms, which we know means “get everything off the floor and out of sight”, and we generally don’t develop the concept of “tidy” any more deeply than that.

Marie says tidying up is something that should done in one single, thorough effort, and it should last a lifetime, because it’s as much a rearrangement your philosophy as of your home. Our homes — and consequently, our lives — get messy because we have fearful and unhealthy relationships with our possessions. Where you keep your things is important, but it’s less important than which things you keep, how you feel about them, and why you have kept them.  Read More

Post image for Life is Easier When You Take the Stairs

Last week CTV News did a segment with a Canadian doctor named Mike Evans, who started a Twitter campaign to encourage people to take the stairs, park farther away, sit less, and walk more.

There’s nothing groundbreaking about this advice. Telling people to “be more active” is about as new to us as the automobile. But the way he put it — “make your day harder” — is different from the usual message, because it hints that there is something about difficulty itself that should attract us.

What he didn’t quite say is that making your day harder in these ways won’t just make your life better, but easier. We all know it’s “better” to eat quinoa salad than hamburgers, and to take the stairs instead of the elevator, but that doesn’t necessarily convince us to change. “Better”, in the exercise-and-whole-grains sense, has always been on offer, but this better life often seems harder than the one we already have, and the last thing we want is to make life harder.

I think what most of us really want is an easier life, not necessarily a more wholesome one. We want less trouble and more enjoyment, probably more so than we want achievement and virtue. But what we often overlook is that embracing difficulty in certain places nets us a lot more ease than our usual “easy” ways. Putting in three hours a week at the gym is easier than being out of shape 24 hours a day. Studying is easier than sitting in an exam room not having studied. Doing a good job at work is easier than wondering when they’ll finally fire you.

I’m used to thinking of ease and difficulty as a pretty straightforward dichotomy: we want more of one and less of the other. And maybe in a sense that’s true, but they are often found in the same place and come together as a package. A small amount of difficulty often serves as the gatekeeper to a large amount of ease. Read More

Post image for You Are Free, Like it or Not

One evening I went with my family to a Thai restaurant for dinner. They seated us near the back, not far from the kitchen doors.

A very bubbly waitress brought us our menus, filled our waters and told us to let her know if we needed anything, or had any questions about anything at all.

When she came back, we ordered. “Perfect!” she said with a huge smile, taking our menus. She went off to the kitchen. As soon as she was through the doors, her voice changed. She was chatting with the staff and we could hear every word.

“Oh my God, I was so sick this morning! I couldn’t stop puking. My boyfriend had to hold my hair back for me.” She went on about the trip to bar, the shooters, the cab ride, the stupid friends who didn’t show up. Lots of details and swear words.

Then she came through the doors again, her waitress face back on, and took orders from a few more tables. She went back into the kitchen again. More profane banter. When she brought out our food, she had a wide, wholesome smile, and it was really hard not to laugh.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Jean-Paul Sartre had written about a similar scenario to illustrate a human tendency he called bad faith. His waiter at a cafe seemed to be completely under the spell of his role as a server. He moved too quickly, too snappily. He spoke about the daily specials with an enthusiasm that no food could warrant in real life. His gestures were so ridiculously waiterly that he seemed to have lost track of the fact that he was a free-choosing person, as if there was nothing to him besides his current role.

Sartre believed that we have much more freedom than we tend to acknowledge. We habitually deny it to protect ourselves from the horror of accepting full responsibility for our lives. In every instant, we are free to behave however we like, but we often act as though circumstances have reduced our options down to one or two ways to move forward.  Read More

happy cup

The phrase “Don’t get emotional” implies that we normally aren’t.

Most of our news headlines can be interpreted as emotional responses gone overboard, becoming crime, scandal, corruption, greed, and bad policy.

The fact that these reactions are newsworthy seems to reinforce the idea that emotions are sporadic and exceptional, little whirlwinds that appear around significant events, making the odd day or week wonderful or awful.

But if you pay attention to your emotions as you read these headlines, it becomes obvious that even in our most mundane moments — reading the paper on a Monday morning — we are always feeling some way or another. Even a casual glance at a newspaper will begin to stir up familiar feelings like fear, amazement, disgust, admiration or annoyance. We’re never really in “neutral.”

We’re living through emotional reactions all day long, even to events as tiny as hearing a text message arrive, or noticing a fly in the room. Our emotions aren’t always overwhelming us, but they are always affecting us, coloring our perceptions and opinions about ourselves and our world.

This is the “fish in water” effect at work — because we are immersed in our emotions’ effects every moment of our lives, we tend to talk about them only when they’re exceptionally strong.

Even when it’s not obvious, though, emotions are the force behind almost everything we do. They’re the only reason our experiences matter at all. If every event triggered the same emotion, it wouldn’t matter to us whether we got out of bed or not, whether we were sick or healthy, or whether we thrived or starved. All of our values and morals, all of the meaning we perceive in life, stem from our knowledge that there are some very different ways a person can feel.  Read More

Post image for Making Things Clear

Yesterday I finally released my new meditation guide, via email, to the early-bird crowd. Feedback has been awesome again. Thank you everyone — I’m so glad you’re enjoying it.

So today, Making Things Clear: A Brief Guide For People Who Think Meditation is Hard is available to everybody else. Some of you have been waiting for this guide and already know what it’s about. If so, you can get it here.

For those who don’t know, Making Things Clear is a non-denominational, no-experience-necessary guide to meditation. It spells everything out in simple terms, with no spiritual pretensions. It’s meant for those who are new to meditation, or who aren’t but still resist doing it on a regular basis.

I’ve been singing the praises of meditation since I started this blog, and I know some of you do it regularly. I believe it’s one of the most versatile, universally beneficial activities human beings have discovered so far. Even our science community has gotten over its skepticism about meditation’s benefits. Read More


Here in the so-called First World, we give up a lot because of an exaggerated fear of a particular feeling.

It’s usually pretty subtle, but I see this fear made explicit whenever Mr Money Mustache or other early-retirement advocates get national news coverage. The comment sections of these major publications are always vile, and I don’t recommend you read them, but if you do you will notice a trend. Even when Pete explains the shockingly simple math that proves early retirement is possible for people of average incomes, commenters insist they would prefer to leave their lifestyle costs unchanged than retire twenty years earlier but “live a life of deprivation”.

This unexamined fear of deprivation has a huge effect on our lives. Consumers go into debt because they’re afraid of going without something they’re used to. We eat too much because we’re afraid of being disappointed by small portions. We continue bad habits for years because the thought of disallowing ourselves to do something we enjoy feels oppressive. “We deserve it!” we tell ourselves. Or at least advertisers tell us to tell ourselves that.

The strange thing is that usually it’s not even real deprivation. These are all choices. The big purchase, the extra calories, and the indulgent habit are always available to you to take or leave.

We’re faced with this kind of choice — “Do I let myself have it or not?” — all the time. Particularly when we’re in the midst of some kind of self-improvement effort, we often feel like we’re stuck between a familiar rock and hard place: do the unhealthy thing and feel guilty, or do the healthy thing and feel deprived. You can get the salad instead of the fries, but then you have to watch people eating their fries while you eat your sad little salad.

These kinds of lifestyle choices are about a lot more than simply weighing the respective costs and benefits of excess calories and culinary envy. Going the self-deprivation route feels like we’re renouncing pleasure and comfort as parts of our lives. Such a life of constraint seems awful, so we often choose what looks like freedom. And if freedom is deep-fried, then so be it.  Read More

lucky charms

When I was a kid in the 1980s, I learned from my television that Lucky Charms contained seven essential nutrients and was part of a complete breakfast. At the end of the commercial it would show this complete breakfast: a modest bowl of sugary cereal in the middle of a spread of traditional foods, including a plate of toast with jam, a glass of orange juice, a glass of milk and a plate of fruit.

I don’t think I ever had a “complete breakfast” as defined by General Mills, but that image is what appeared in my mind whenever somebody said, as everyone did, that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. I was never tempted to doubt that maxim, because I loved food so much that I couldn’t imagine somebody voluntarily going to school or work without eating something.

When I did my liquid food experiment last year, the response taught me something that seems obvious in hindsight. I learned how stubbornly people will defend their beliefs about food even when they cannot tell you why they believe those things. I found that the more certainty people expressed about their food beliefs, the less able they were to provide evidence supporting those beliefs when asked. Claims of certainty make me skeptical.

Where did the “three meals a day” axiom come from? It probably has more to do with what time daily mass was held in the Middle Ages than anything related to nutrition.  But tell someone you’re not eating lunch today, and they might prepare an intervention.

“If you can’t pronounce the ingredients, you shouldn’t be eating it!” is a more recent favorite. But it has some strange implications: well-read people can tolerate obscure ingredients that would harm others, and the illiterate shouldn’t be eating anything at all.

I am gradually coming to the conclusion that most of our popular notions about eating are nothing more than unexamined folklore — all culture and no science, bolstered selectively by food marketers wherever it suits them.  Read More

Post image for Freedom Comes From How You Live

Dan Harris, best known as the host of ABC’s Nightline, began his path to happiness by having an on-air panic attack.

He was reading the national news, live, when he lost the ability to speak coherently. For 35 awful seconds, he stumbled through a segment about statin drugs for cholesterol, saying related words but making no sense. With several stories still unread, he bailed out: “…that’s all for news right now, back to Robin and Charlie.”

The incident forced him to face his mounting stress problem. He explored the many forms of self-help, and during his stint as ABC’s faith reporter (even though he was a skeptic and an atheist) he found something that worked for him: meditation. Over the next few years he used it to transform his relationship to stress and his work, and still meditates daily.

But his go-getting type-A colleagues gave him a hard time for his “weird” habit, and he had trouble explaining to them what it did for him. To say it simply reduces stress was really selling it short; it does much more for a person than that. But to describe the benefits more specifically — that it allowed him to see the world the way it really is, or to see the mechanics of his bad habits, or to inquire into the nature of the self — hardly makes it sound attractive, and fails to convey its value anyway.

Eventually he came up with a stock response: “I do it because it makes me 10% happier,” although he admits this was both an understatement and an oversimplification.

Although I think his catchphrase makes meditation sound much less useful than it really is, I understand the problem he was trying to address. Meditation is still a hard sell in the Western world. It’s so unusual to us that it’s hard to make it appeal to materialistic Western sensibilities. But we all understand the value of a life with less anxiety and more happiness.

Meditation isn’t specifically about happiness, but more happiness is a likely side effect. One thing it does do, in my experience, is expand one’s freedom in a particular way, and this freedom can be used to pursue happiness and ease with much less trouble. I’ll show you what I mean.  Read More

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