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Southeast Asia is always teeming with Western backpackers, and there’s a silent competition among them to appear the most relaxed. You can get an idea of who’s been “in country” for some time based on how unfazed they appear in sketchy situations. Something that rattles you on the first day in Bangkok—a taxi ignoring a red light, a housecat bedding down beneath your table in a restaurant, a motorcycle using the sidewalk to sneak past a traffic jam—seems mundane a week later.

So when you’re on an overcrowded boat that seems as if it’s about to capsize with every wave, some of your fellow passengers can appear almost supernaturally relaxed. It’s hard to know who’s truly at ease in the tumult, and who’s trying to look like they are.

But you know that some of them really have achieved a Keith-Richards-like level of easygoingness, because you start to see it happening to you. You learn you can actually relax on purpose. In fact, it’s necessary to some degree, because in a foreign country you are usually a passenger with no control. As you spend more and more time being chauffeured in unlicensed boats, taxis and tuk-tuks, it begins to dawn on you that the ability to enjoy yourself is directly related to your willingness to kick your feet up (maybe just figuratively) and relax into the warm bath of passengerhood.

You have to remind yourself to do this, otherwise your mind habitually retreats from the moment around you, into an uptight inner world of catastrophizing and contingency-planning. Instead of basking in the marine air or gaping at the jewel-blue Andaman waters—or otherwise doing what you came here for—your mind is straining for some sense of control over the uncontrollable, by quizzing itself on the Blue Cross emergency number, or gauging the swimming distance to the nearest island.

The essence of relaxedness is a “good passenger” mentality—a willingness to actively enjoy the moments between “destination” moments. We often fixate on future moments that promise resolution to our current needs, such as when you get to the front of the line, or the end of a workweek, or the far shore, as if it is only in those moments that you can drop your luggage and finally be where you are with your whole heart.  Read More

metal heart in hands

Last week at the supermarket, I felt a bit greedy when I noticed I was taking all the good brussels sprouts. Most of them had yellow, wilted outer leaves, which would have to be peeled off, and some had tiny black dots that were either rot or the entrances to bug-tunnels.

But a few dozen were almost pristine, and they were all in my bag. It occurred to me that if I wanted to treat others as myself, I should take no better than an average group of sprouts.

I reassured myself that it was perfectly normal to take the best available specimens in the produce department. In many areas of civilized life, we’re expected to aim for fairness or better. We’re supposed to let others enter doors before ourselves, and never eat a larger-than-equal share of the pizza, at least until grandma insists that she only wants half a piece and that you can go ahead.

But the modern produce department is more like the prehistoric savannah than Grandma’s house. The rule is to take all you want and all you can get, even though you are sometimes the victim of that policy, and even though we know society would be better if we thought about the people coming after us to the feeding bowl. Mother Nature supports this system, however—evolution would be nowhere without competition. And competition means feeling no shame about serving yourself—and maybe your friends and relatives—the best brussels sprouts you can get your hands on.

This is the sort of philosophical reflection I have about twenty times a day. So I didn’t think of it again until I read an article from the Guardian about a woman named Julia Wise, who had an unusual dilemma. She believed everyone’s well-being was equally important, and so it wasn’t right to care more for herself than for anybody else.

At first, that doesn’t seem unusual at all. It’s really just a rigorous application of the golden rule, or something like it—don’t put yourself before others—a maxim which many people think is just common human decency.

In reality, it’s not common at all. Almost nobody lives like that. Most of us wouldn’t think twice about spending fifteen dollars on wine, even when we know it could have protected a dozen kids from polio. We routinely pass up chances to alleviate great suffering for some real person somewhere, in order to pleasure ourselves in some small way.

Apparently, Julia did not experience this normal cognitive dissonance. It seemed wrong to her to pursue her own luxuries at the expense of others’ necessities, and so from an early age she knew she was morally obligated to spend much of her life helping others.

She and her husband decided they could live on half of his salary, and donate the other half (and the entirety of Julia’s salary) to the best charitable causes they could find. Still, they always wondered if they could do more. Regardless of how much they were already giving, five dollars spent on an unnecessary indulgence still meant someone would suffer needlessly.  Read More

Post image for Your Life is Always Just Beginning

Famously, The Sopranos ended in a way that infuriated a lot of fans. At an apparently critical moment in the story, the audio and video cut to black. After ten seconds, the credits roll.

The cut gives the viewer the sensation of a dead end. All the momentum and meaning of the story run straight into a wall, beyond which nothing can be known, creating a helpless feeling in the viewer. What happens next? Where did they go? [Despite the abundant criticism, this ending is actually brilliant, and is explained fully here.]

The opposite of this—a cut-from­black beginning—happens in every series and every movie. It has to, because the story has to begin somewhere.

At the outset, you know nothing. All you can do is watch what emerges from the darkness, and start to figure out where you are. In Memento, the first thing you see is a hand holding a Polaroid photo, shaking it to make the image appear. In The Godfather, the voice of a man with an Italian accent appears before his face does. “I believe in America,” he begins.

The standard movie opening is the opposite of a Sopranos-style dead end, and it gives us the opposite range of feelings. Instead of the sensation of running out of road, we get feelings of abundance and possibility. One of my favorite feelings in the world is settling into a couch, or a cinema seat, watching the opening credits of a movie. It’s like a newly-opened box of chocolates.

With a movie, you always have to put together the story from a standing start, because you’re already in the middle of the characters’ lives. You can’t actually see what happened before the first image appears, but you can piece it together through exposition. The character is shown in a divorce lawyer’s office. Another character asks him if his mother is still sick. His mantle is adorned with martial arts trophies. Everything you know about the character’s past is learned in the present.  Read More

post-its

My friend Cait and I have been exchanging zeros. I posted a screenshot of my newly empty Gmail inbox, and challenged her to do the same, and she did. Now we’re competing to get to zero as often as possible.

Email has become almost a breeze for me (after struggling with it for years) due to a discovery I made during my extreme decluttering campaign: having zero clutter is an entirely different experience than having a little clutter. The psychological effect of reducing any type of mess to zero is profound. It feels like a noisy fan has shut off.

Now I love the feeling of being at zero, and I never want to be far from it. Every neglected possession, unanswered email or open browser tab is like a little hook in your brain. There isn’t a huge difference in how it feels to have six of these hooks in your brain versus having eighty, but there is a vast difference between having some and having zero.

The decluttering post was an international mega-hit— 8,800 12,000 Facebook Likes and counting—which surprised me initially because it seems so pedestrian: arranging items in containers and tossing ugly clothes. But I think most people realize that it’s not really about beautifying your shelves. It’s about turning your home into a better habitat for the mind, one that minimizes the abandoned, the unfinished, and the out-of-place—and creating a lifestyle with fewer “mental fishhooks” snagging your attention.

Whatever is normal to us becomes invisible, no matter how counterproductive, and we’ve simply become accustomed to tracking too many ongoing concerns in our heads.  Read More

love window rainbow

One of the most difficult things to do as a writer is to rescue a worthwhile idea from a long-time association with kooky people.

Ideas that were once novel eventually become tiresome, then embarrassing, and end up embraced only by people on the fringes of mainstream culture. In 1967, young people could still speak without irony about uninhibited, indiscriminate love for all human beings. John Lennon believed catchy slogans could change the world, and his anthem “All You Need is Love” really resonated—the single went straight to number one and remained there for the rest of the summer.

But the feel-good energy of the love movement soon dissipated. By December 1969, when a gun-wielding concertgoer was stabbed to death by security in front of the Rolling Stones at the Altamont Free Concert, some people were beginning to feel embarrassed by the notion that all you need is love.

Every cultural explosion is naïve to some extent—in order to achieve any momentum, a movement needs to include a lot of supporters who aren’t thinking about it critically. But the ensuing backlash is usually overboard too. The naiveté associated with the movement is what’s remembered, and any valid or unresolved points are forgotten. (See: Kony 2012, Occupy Wall Street.)

Today, “All you need is love” is still a nice thought (and a great song) but it isn’t often seriously represented as a philosophy to live by, at least outside of the population’s remaining Hippie and New Age fringes.

Even though I write about human well-being, I try to stay far from vague concepts like energy centers, cosmic balance and spirit guides, and still write coherently about ideas that are often mentioned alongside them, like oneness, inner peace and the universe being conscious.

Some genuinely useful ideas are at risk of being dismissed because of their popularity among New Age quacks. I spent a fair bit of Making Things Clear reiterating that meditation is not a religious or mystical activity, despite its conflation with Eastern mystics and Western kooks. I’m sure many people have dismissed it solely because of that association.

One of these suspicious-by-association concepts is the idea that love is an effective response to nearly every problem. “All you need is love” is a bit glib, as are all slogans, but I don’t think it’s very far from the truth. Almost any situation can be improved with the clear-minded application of love.  Read More

bee and purple flower

Jerry Seinfeld joked that if aliens came to earth and saw people walking dogs, they would assume the dogs are the leaders. The dog walks out front, and a gangly creature trailing behind him picks up his feces and carries it for him.

Throughout my life I’ve had moments where I felt like one of these visiting aliens, where something I knew to be normal suddenly seemed bizarre. I remember walking home from somewhere, struck by how strange streets are: flat strips of artificial rock embedded in the earth so that our traveling machines don’t get stuck in the mud.

Everything else seemed strange too. Metal poles bending over the road, tipped by glowing orbs. Rectangular dwellings made of lumber and artificial rocks. The background noise is always the hum of distant traveling machines, and all of this stuff was built and operated by a single species of ape.

Even stranger was the fact that these strange things usually don’t seem strange. I know I’m not the only one who has felt this. A few people have shared similar experiences with me, and according to The School of Life, it was a central theme in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea.

Sartre apparently believed that the world is far stranger and more absurd than it normally seems. Most of the time, however, we ascribe a kind of logic and order to the world that it doesn’t really have, so that we’re not constantly bewildered by it. Sometimes we momentarily lose track of that logic, and the true strangeness of life is revealed. In these moments, we see the world as it is when it’s been “stripped of any of the prejudices and stabilizing assumptions lent to us by our day-to-day routines.” In other words, we occasionally see the world as if for the first time, which could only be a very strange experience indeed.

Although I know this experience isn’t unique to me, I had no idea whether most people could relate. So when I discovered the surprisingly popular podcast Welcome to Night Vale, I felt that a small but significant part of my experience had been understood. Night Vale is a fictional desert town, and each episode of the podcast is about 20 minutes of broadcasts from its public radio station. The host reads public service announcements, advertisements, community news and weather, and messages from the City Council.

That would be extremely boring, except that almost everything that happens in the Night Vale is incredibly strange, even impossible.

The first announcement in the first episode is a reminder from City Council that dogs are not allowed in the dog park, and neither are citizens, and if you see hooded figures in the park you are not to approach them. In an unrelated matter, there is a cat hovering four feet off the ground next to the sink in the men’s washroom at the radio station. It cannot move from its spot in mid-air, but it seems happy, and staff have left food and water for it.

Wednesday has been canceled, due to a scheduling error. There is a glowing cloud raining small animals on a farm at the edge of town. A large pyramid has appeared in a prominent public space, apparently when nobody was looking.  Read More

socks in drawer

I spent six weeks getting rid of several carloads of possessions, and three days arranging what was left. Now my socks are arranged by color, my apartment is way bigger, and being home feels like a vacation.

Some of you have been following my experiment with Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. For those who haven’t, it works like this: you go through every possession you own, hold it in your hands, and keep it only if it evokes some kind of “joy”.

That criterion sounds kind of flaky, but it works surprisingly well. When you hold an item in your hands, its psychological effect on you becomes clear in a second or two. The theory is that any possession that gives you bad or mixed feelings is too costly to have in your life, if it’s possible to get rid of it.

I ended up getting rid of hundreds of things. Now cleaning up takes five minutes, and everything I do in my home—cooking, recreating, cleaning even—has a fun, effortless quality to it. It feels like everything I own is on the same team.

I had achieved an “everything in its place” household before, so I’m familiar with the euphoria of having extra space and no homeless possessions. Tidiness simply feels great, on top of the practical benefit having more space and less clutter. But this time there’s a different kind of euphoria, because for the first time nothing in my house gives me mixed feelings.

Every possession is a relationship

Most of us own lots of things that make us feel bad. Unused gifts. Clothes that don’t fit. Supplies for hobbies you never really got into. Books you’ll never read. Plastic crap from the dollar store. When you hold a possession in your hands it becomes clear that it makes you feel something—joy, guilt, weariness, fear, very often mixed feelings—sometimes very strongly. If it’s normal to have hundreds or thousands of possessions, then we are each, at all times, bearing the weight of hundreds or thousands of these relationships. So it makes sense to very carefully consider what we keep in our homes.  Read More

Post image for How to Get Good at What You’re Bad At

It’s been almost two years since I’ve become my own boss, and I am still fairly bad at it. Any real boss would fire me. I take long lunches and don’t come back sometimes. I defer important tasks till the next day because it suddenly seems more important to go get groceries in the middle of the afternoon. It takes me eight hours to do three hours of writing. If you’ve ever emailed me, you may have first-hand experience with my near-glacial correspondence speed.

This is classic severe procrastinator behavior, and as bad as it is, it used to be worse. But I’m improving only about as quickly as a guitar player who takes six days off a week.

Not all areas of my life are as inefficient as my desk work though. When it comes to fitness I have become the opposite. For more than a year now I’ve been on top of my fitness programs, with no interruptions or start-overs. In the gym, I get my work done, with no compromises and no wasted time. I make real progress consistently and feel awesome about it.

I was talking this through with a fellow self-employee the other day, and wondered aloud, “Why can’t I be as good at my work-work as I am at my gym-work?”

Since then, this question—why does X go so well and Y so badly?—has become fascinating to me. Clearly something is seriously different about the way I approach each, the way I perceive the work.

You probably have a different X and Y than I do, but with a similar disparity in success at doing them. What part of your life do you handle well? What part are you perpetually botching?

It doesn’t seem like a comparison between lifting and working habits would yield any insights. Pressing a barbell over your head is nothing like outlining a book. But on a fundamental level, the two operations are the same: I have a list of stuff to do. At the gym I do it all. At my desk I don’t.

So I sat at the table with a cup of coffee and broke it all down. Why do I lift better than I work? Lots of reasons. Here are a few.  Read More

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

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