Switch to mobile version
tree through roof

Raptitude’s birthday is March 15th 2009, but it was conceived in the last days of 2008. My job was extremely slow and I was aching for both a new hobby and new career, and ultimately I found both.

The central idea at the time was to do self-improvement experiments, and I did, but those later became secondary to my essays about the human experience.

I have a strange relationship to my experiments. They are many readers’ favorite part of this site but they’ve never been mine. I’ve done 21 over the last seven years, and about half the time they founder to one degree or another—I attempt to do some new habit for 30 days, get sick of it and throw up my hands or limp to the end. I do always learn something however—about my habits, my motivations, my values—that helps me find a more sensible place in my life for the activity in question.

People are always asking where I am with a particular experiment, so for the last post of 2015 I’m going to update you on all of them, right from the start, even the disasters. I hope you enjoy it, and maybe consider doing an experiment of your own this coming year. Read More

Post image for Camp Calm

The end of the year has a certain weary energy. All months have their own feel, and December’s is an exotic combination between the bustle and congestion of the holiday season, and the blank check of a whole new year lying just past it.

Somehow we’re only two weeks from the ball-drop, and it’s time to start thinking about what you want this next year—your 35th, your 19th, your 68th, whatever it is—to be like.

I’m generally skeptical of New Year’s Resolutions, not because the New Year is a bad time to improve ourselves, but because a once-uttered promise to ourselves doesn’t really change how we live. We need new, well-defined behaviors, applied consistently for at least three or four weeks, to give us a dependable chance at lasting changes.

In other words, it’s regimens, not resolutions, that create those dramatic improvements we dream about every December.  Read More

kitchen window

If you could somehow go back and review your life, the way athletes study game film, you’d notice a particular trait shared by all the moments in which you felt content.

Everyone knows the type of moment where everything is fine and nothing is missing. Often there’s nothing especially noteworthy happening. Standing on the porch as the rain turns from drizzle to downpour. Folding laundry on a sunlit bed. Making a sandwich in a hostel kitchen.

When you’re experiencing contentment like that, sensory details seem significant and beautiful. At a concert, you might be absorbed by the violet light and the bass notes in your chest. In the hostel kitchen, it’s the sun in the frosted window pane and the voices of the Dutch couple in the next room. For all their ordinariness, these scenes seem complete and feel satisfying.

In these moments—in all of our best moments—time is gone. It’s just not important, or even perceptible.

And I don’t think it’s just a matter of losing track of time. It’s just not included. Time is something we add to the present, an idea we map onto our actual direct experience of the world.

We had to invent time, at some point. Clearly we evolved from animals that had no concept of past or future. Life, to them, consisted only of what was happening. Gradually, they began to benefit from impulses that took advantage of the fact that conditions change—fattening up as the weather gets cooler, hunting more when the moon is bright. But they didn’t impose any math onto their experience. They certainly didn’t see a given sunrise-to-sunset experience as numbered rectangle on a grid.    Read More

solo musician

Lots of people ask me about getting over shyness, so I’ll tell you what I know. I’ll never be a center-of-attention type, but over the past decade I’ve gone from being too timid to even order food over the phone, to feeling like I’m the more assured one most of the time when I meet someone new. I believe this kind of transformation is possible for just about anyone.

Being shy and being an introvert are often conflated, so we should clarify the difference. An introvert is someone who is stimulated by the inner world of thoughts and feelings more than they are by external events. I am an introvert, and you probably are too—this blog has always been focused on that inner side of life.

Shyness is a self-reinforcing nervousness around people, especially people you don’t know. I don’t believe anybody actually likes being shy. Being reserved is one thing—I’ll always be a happily reserved person—but shyness is not a pleasant quality to bear. It’s a form of chronic pain.

Most people experience it to some extent, maybe only in certain situations. But for some people it is a pervasive, self-defining feeling. These examples from an older post may sound familiar:  Read More

Post image for Mindfulness is the Opposite of Neediness

Whenever someone tries to convince you that eating breakfast prevents weight gain or that cold weather makes you sick , just send them one of Tyler Vigen’s charts. He graphs strange similarities between seemingly irrelevant statistics, demonstrating that you can find apparent links between all kinds of unrelated events.

Per capita cheese consumption appears to mirror the number accidental deaths due to being tangled in bedsheets. The number of pool drownings rises and falls with the number of films Nicholas Cage has appeared in that year. Tyler has written a book on this phenomenon, called Spurious Correlations.

Still, we can’t help but notice patterns in life, and they aren’t necessarily coincidence. I don’t have any data to back this up, but I’m convinced meditation makes your phone battery last longer.

I’ve tracked this relationship informally over a few years, and I believe there’s a causal effect. Whenever I get away from meditation practice, my phone needs charging earlier in the day. During the summer, I got inconsistent with my practice, and my phone’s battery died really fast. Now that I’m back to two brief sessions a day, I don’t have to charge it until bedtime.

The explanation is pretty simple, but it hints at something more profound going on. A simple usage-tracking app would surely confirm that the more consistently I meditate, the less time I spend dicking with my phone throughout the day.

There are other behavior changes I’m sure are related. I’m eating less junk food, I make fewer dumb purchases, I get out of bed with less fuss, I’m more attracted to work.

Basically, I’ve been much less impulsive. And that’s because regular meditation makes me more mindful throughout the day. Whenever you’re being mindful, the present moment doesn’t seem to need improvement.

This means there are fewer moments that I feel could be improved by pulling out my phone and checking my Twitter. So my phone stays in my pocket, I stay in the moment, and my battery stays green.  Read More

iceberg with bird

Human beings make a big deal about being normal. We’re probably the only species for which it’s normal to think you’re not normal.

Every society operates under thousands of unspoken rules, and when you break them people get nervous. There are acceptable and unacceptable ways to stand in line at the bank, order at restaurants, and answer the phone. There are appropriate and inappropriate birthday gifts, wedding toasts, and hugging styles.

Every type of social situation has its own subsection of laws and procedures. You can make everyone around you instantly uncomfortable just by facing the back wall while riding an elevator, or asking a fellow bus passenger if they want to hear a story.

Miraculously, most of us have learned most of these rules by the time we become adults, at least enough to fulfill our basic responsibilities without causing a scene. The moment kids are born, they begin to absorb clues about what’s okay and what’s not by continually watching and emulating.

We learn some of these rules in explicit mini-lessons from our parents and teachers, and occasionally friends, when they pull us aside and tell us, “We don’t talk about pee at the dinner table,” or “We don’t bring up sports betting around Eddie.”

We also learn the location of certain boundaries when we bump up against them, by remembering which acts triggered dirty looks, and which got laughs, or no reaction at all. Over time, we learn that we can avoid awkward and painful collisions with these boundaries by simply doing what other people are doing, and not doing what they’re not doing.

Stand where the other people are standing. When other people are quiet, be quiet. When they’re eating, eat. When they’re being somber, be somber. When they laugh, laugh (even if you don’t get the joke).

This survival tactic eventually becomes a part of our worldview. Humans are an easily frightened, highly social species, and we put together a sense of how things are supposed to be—of how we’re supposed to be—by what seems normal for the people around us. How do you know if you’re in good health for someone your age? For some places and times in history, failing health at age 48 is expected; in 21st-century USA, it means something’s gone wrong.  Read More

bubble

There’s a fable about lying that I always thought was really impressive. A member of a small rural community was found murdered. His wounds appeared to have been inflicted by a common grain sickle. Every farmer in town was therefore a suspect, but they all denied it, and there was no evidence to suggest one over the other.

The local magistrate gathered the farmers and had them lay their sickles in front of them. None of the tools showed any sign of blood, which was unsurprising—the killer would have rinsed it off immediately. But the magistrate had them wait in the sun until flies began to gather on one of the sickles, feeding on the invisible remnants of blood. Its owner turned pale and confessed to the crime.

I always thought this story was from the Bible, but it was actually a real case from 13th century China, documented in a handbook for coroners called The Washing Away of Wrongs.

This story always moved me because of how the judge’s method cut right through to the truth, even though the killer surely thought nothing could connect him to the crime once he had washed his weapon clean. Because lying works so well, people often believe it’s possible to keep the truth off-limits to others, or even destroy it completely. But there is no real “washing away of wrongs”—whatever is true remains true even if that truth is currently hidden, and there’s no way to be certain that it can never be discovered.

To me, there was always something amazing (and strangely terrifying) about that idea. Imagine a world where lies simply didn’t work. People could still do bad things, but not with the expectation that nobody would know. In a world like that, the only way to be seen as good is to be good.

It would be a vastly different world than the one we know. As it stands now, lying is extremely common. A University of Massachusetts study found that 60% of people can’t go ten minutes without lying. When shown video of their conversations after the study, the subjects couldn’t believe how easily they said things that weren’t true. Lies are so ubiquitous that we take for granted that businesses and politicians will deceive us to the fullest extent they can get away with.

“It’s so easy to lie,” Feldman [the UMass researcher] said. “We teach our children that honesty is the best policy, but we also tell them it’s polite to pretend they like a birthday gift they’ve been given. Kids get a very mixed message regarding the practical aspects of lying, and it has an impact on how they behave as adults.”

I remember how easily I lied as a kid. A friend of mine once claimed that his dad was seven feet tall, and I instantly responded by telling him my dad was eight feet tall. There was no deliberation about this, it just seemed like the natural thing to say. I also remember claiming I’d seen movies that I hadn’t seen, and liking toys I didn’t like, because I knew I could avoid some annoying teasing that way. This kind of posturing seemed really important, and everyone I knew did it, except those hapless kids who didn’t know how things really worked.  Read More

palms silhouettes

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

Desktop version

Raptitude is an independent blog by . Some links on this page may be affiliate links, which means I might earn a commission if you buy certain things I link to. In such cases the cost to the visitor remains the same.