Post image for Fear is your mind at its dumbest

If you’re a normal person, you probably suffer about a hundred times as much from fearing bad outcomes as you do from the ones that do happen to come true.

And it’s unlikely that the sleepless night spent fearing a bombed job interview served as useful experience for when it did happen. It probably made it worse, and maybe even caused it to happen in the first place.

You probably didn’t notice that the 99 other things you feared that day never became real. If you had a ledger for all the fears in your life, and on the left you wrote down the what you feared would happen, and on the right you wrote down what actually happened, anybody reading it would laugh.

There are no real outcomes anyway. We worry so much about “ending up” in a particular bad way. But even the fears that do (more or less) come true have no finality about them, they’re just a new place from which to work for now. For all you know this new place sits on a better path than the result you had hoped for.

Was sadness and disappointment the final, permanent outcome of your rejected novel? Was it the end of happiness in your life? The “outcome” of any particular endeavor is just another middle chapter, just another starting point for something else. There’s nothing damning about the middle of any story, and unless you’re dead, you’re in the middle. (So I guess there is one true outcome, but there’s no uncertainty about whether it will happen, and it has the virtue of ending all your worries anyway.)

Everyone has a past riddled with bombed exams, awkward job interviews, bad dates, lost wallets, and birthdays with low turnouts, and few of those fears-come-true continue to cripple us today. Mostly they consist of an awful few minutes followed by an ordinary bad mood, maybe an inconvenient new errand to complete or a new parameter to work under, and some unpleasant rumination later on, if you choose to bother with that.

Of course, most of the unpleasant developments in life are the ones it didn’t occur to you to worry about anyway. They “blindside you at 4pm on an idle Tuesday,” as Mary Schmich put it in her famous column-turned-book. (The one about wearing sunscreen.)

When you decide you’ll walk into your moments of truth — your project launches, race days and blind dates — with an unconditional willingness to see what happens, fear doesn’t have much to do.

For some reason we interpret the presence of fear as a trustworthy reason to be tentative, to delay our arrival at a result. This gives fear time to make the unhappiest possibilities bigger in our minds, seemingly more worthy of respect. Yet fear is your mind at its dumbest and least articulate. All it knows how to do is shout “Get away!”  Read More

Post image for Two ways of viewing the world

There are two utterly different ways to view the world around you in any given moment. We can call them Inward and Outward.

An Inward orientation is noticing as much as you can of the moment. It means being receptive to what’s there, being interested in what’s there. Inwardness means you’re primarily observing — bringing the world into you.

An Outward orientation is applying your views and wishes to the moment, by adding your opinion to it, or trying to change something about it, or evaluating whether it’s probably good for you or bad for you. It means you’re seeing the world (or at least this instance of it) in terms of your interests, where it fits in your story. Outwardness means you’re primarily assessing and commentating — putting your interests out into the world.

Talking is an example of outwardness, listening is an example of inwardness.

Watching inwardly is simply observing. Watching outwardly is hoping.

Viewing the world outwardly will inevitably add anxiousness to our lives, because it keeps us looking to judge, modify, improve, comment on, approve of or disapprove of what we see. This creates a background of neediness to most moments, because we’re invested in seeing them change in a certain way, or stay the same in a certain way.

Viewing the world inwardly is simply doing your best to see what’s there before we make any judgments, to simply observe how it looks, feels, and sounds. All you’re applying to the moment is attention.

Neither is a strictly good or bad thing, and we need to employ both to some extent. An inward orientation has the virtue of reducing neediness and angst, because we’re refraining from making value judgments when not necessary. We need to adopt an outward orientation, however, to establish goals, make improvements, build a vision for our lives, or even just to assert things or ask for things.

But we do those outward things ultimately so that we have an easier time living inwardly later. Some unconscious part of us knows that real happiness and equanimity only come when we find ourselves completely inward towards the moment — completely receptive to how it is right now. Our brains know, on some level, that with certain goals achieved and certain arrangements made, it will be easier to do that.

It’s not unusual to work 50 straight weeks in an outward mode to be able to buy two weeks in a place that almost forces one to experience that time inwardly: a place with palm trees, pools, servants, drinks, or anything else that’s hard to find fault with or improve upon.  Read More

Post image for Effort alone isn’t enough

When you decide to become somebody who goes running three days a week, your first real test will probably be when one of your running days lands on a rainy day.

This is where the running newbie begins bargaining. He bumps the commitment to the next day, with a vow to give it an extra special effort. Then it rains that day too, and he’s essentially back to non-runner status until he decides to start again.

Meanwhile, to veteran runners it’s just another day, because they’re runners, not wanna-be runners.

But this creates a bit of a paradox when it comes to getting from beginner to veteran, in running or anything else. You want to develop enough discipline that you can run when you don’t particularly feel like it — but to do that, you have to run when you don’t particularly feel like it.

This is what makes major changes so difficult to pull off — every new pursuit seems to be at its most “uphill” at the beginning, when you have fewer skills and less confidence than you’re likely to have for the entire rest of the path (assuming you make it anywhere.)

The traditional approach is the “baby steps” philosophy, where each time, you do a little bit more than feels comfortable and natural to you, and gradually, what was once difficult and intimidating becomes manageable.

Most people who are already good at something will tell you that baby steps is how they got there. But this approach still takes a considerable level of discipline at the outset — you have to consistently draw more from yourself than feels natural. It requires you to find willpower every time you look for it, and doing that probably requires some unseen luck.

The real difference-maker

Two equally talented, equally motivated friends living in different cities decide on the same day to begin a running regimen. (Apologies for the running theme if it isn’t your thing — substitute anything you like.) A year later, Friend A has become an experienced runner, and Friend B has reverted to couch potato, and is about try to “get on the wagon” again. The difference was only that Friend B began his endeavor when his city was experiencing a brutal cold snap, and therefore much more willpower was required of him than was ever required of Friend A, in order to get to cruising altitude.

Meanwhile, both of them now believe B is just intrinsically lazy, and that A “has what it takes.” Both are unaware that circumstances ultimately made the difference in this case, because they had the same capacity for effort. Friend A goes on to run marathons. Friend B goes on to build a Blu-Ray collection.  Read More

Post image for In defense of the serious bucket list

Waking up is a wonderful experience when it’s a day you’re going to do something on your bucket list. An impending check-mark is what made a rainy morning feel like a sunny one when I opened my eyes in a downtown Sydney hostel four years ago.

It never occurred to me that I might actually fail at doing this task, given that it was hands-down the easiest item on my list, and that I’d set the entire day aside for it.

Every bucket list item, if it’s a half-serious list, comes down to an actual moment in time when you realize you’re in the midst of the thing. It’s never quite like you expected but there’s a wonderful consciousness that this is it — you made this one thing, if nothing else, real.

And sometimes it is transcendent. I’ll never forget seeing the Manhattan skyline come into view as my cab rose onto the Williamsburg Bridge, or the Student Loans clerk congratulating me over the phone when I made my last payment.

Not that these goals have to be difficult. My objective that day in Sydney was to simply see a movie by myself. There’s nothing at all hard about it, but it seemed like an important symbol of having graduated from the severe self-consciousness that made it seem unthinkable when I was a teenager.

I bought a ticket to see a 3D surfing documentary at the IMAX at Darling Harbour (which is the biggest cinema screen in the world) and when I went up to stand in line, I happened to run into six people I knew, even though I only knew about eight people in Australia. “How great is this?!” one of them said. “You can see the movie with us!”

Anyway, people have been asking whether I’ve abandoned my bucket list, because I took down the link on my nav bar above, and also because I still haven’t gone to see a movie by myself.

The list is still alive and well. It did need a major edit because it was starting to get crusty with goals that seem silly or unimportant to me now. (Eat a baguette in France?) Anyway, I did those edits and the list is up hereRead More

Post image for What inner peace actually is

If you’re someone who reads books or blogs about well-being or spirituality, one idea you’ll run into a lot is that there’s a background of peace or stillness behind everything, and attentive people can “tap into” it or “vibrate” with it or otherwise experience it.

This is enough to trip the BS-alarm of many people, because it suggests some kind of benevolence or personality behind the universe.

But in my experience there’s definitely something to this notion. I do find this “background peace” on a regular basis, and it doesn’t seem to matter much what’s going on in the foreground. When I’m upset or otherwise inattentive I won’t find it (or remember to look for it.) When I do locate it, it’s just as likely to be behind a busy street scene as a quiet park.

I think the “out-there” status of the peace-in-the-background idea is just another example of kookiness-by-association — many people who talk about it might also talk matter-of-factly about healing crystals and communion with trees, and so the skeptically-minded person sees it as more of the same. A lot of useful ideas probably get dismissed this way.

But there’s no reason to take it as a supernatural claim. It’s just a shift in our way of observing, similar to how we can shift between perceiving the plot of a novel and words printed on its pages.

I remember riding in a car somewhere with three friends, and two of them were in a heated argument. I could feel myself getting perturbed by the increasing anger and noise as they carried on. We’ve all had this kind of contagious chaos happen to us, by hearing a violent news story or the radio, or just being around vindictive people. Upset in the world around you tends to stir things up, correspondingly, inside you.

But then something shifted in my perception and I felt this link dissolve. I slipped back into tune with whatever peace or quiet was there before my friends started up, because it seemed to be still there behind the words and noise.

With this anecdote I’m not trying to describe some life-changing moment, just one example of hundreds or more, of touching this background peace. Sometimes it finds me by accident, but more often I find it because it occured to me at that moment to look for it.  Read More

Post image for How to get un-stuck in about 20 minutes

After we read the diary of Anne Frank in junior high, I started my own diary because I figured it would make me more interesting than I felt at the time.

It was really boring, describing the TV shows and street hockey games that constituted my life at the time. After a week or two, it occurred to me that it would never be studied and admired by future students, and that nobody was even going to read it, including me. So I stopped.

It was years before I could even begin to understand why anyone would write in a journal if they weren’t hiding from an occupying army. Clearly I was missing the point. Journaling has a much more immediate and universal benefit.

One of the most common questions I get emailed about is how to get “un-stuck,” in the general life-situation sense, and I’ve been promising to write about it for a while. These days I do a certain form of journaling, which is by far the most consistently effective way I’ve ever found to get over the feeling of being stuck. It works every time unless I forget to do it. I kind of stumbled across it through blogging but anyone can do it.  Read More

Post image for Why the hell would anyone want to live on Soylent?

Soylent has become a mainstream topic, mostly thanks to a recent feature article in The New Yorker.

For those who don’t know about it, Soylent is a nutritionally complete drink invented by Rob Rhinehart, a Bay-Area engineer and entrepreneur. It comes as a powder you mix with water and oil. Theoretically, it contains everything the body needs to thrive, without much of anything else.

Rob announced his invention in a blog post a year ago, entitled How I Stopped Eating Food, claiming that he had not eaten a bite of food in 30 days and felt better than ever.

After a lot of experimenting and refining, Soylent is officially on the market now, and customers are now experimenting with it. It’s early, but their results seem generally positive.

I first heard about it late last year from a friend of mine, who’s different from most of us in that she often finds eating to be a chore. She doesn’t particularly like preparing food for herself (although she does like preparing it for others) and usually only eats for sustenance. So to her Soylent sounded like a dream come true, and she’s been following its progress ever since.

When she told me about it, my reaction was, “That’s neat, but no thanks. I like food.” In fact, I like food so much that I want more opportunities to eat it, not fewer. Why would I want to waste a chance to eat by filling myself with an engineered bio-fuel, when I could be making a curry or fresh bread? Later I would find some compelling reasons.

The most hated beverage on the internet

After reading the New Yorker article, I spent quite a while on the web reading people’s opinions of Soylent. They seem to be mostly negative (although the accounts of early users are mostly positive.)

In the gloves-off world of internet “discussion,” most of the criticisms were, predictably, empty ad hominems directed at Rhinehart and the people who like his idea — “Too lazy to cook,” “Hate life so much they detest even food,” “Self-loathing hipsters who would give up their last remaining joy to find 90 more minutes a day to work on their iPhone app,” and even, “Just eat. Stop normalizing anorexia.”  Read More

Post image for The missing ingredient to happiness

Once my father was diagnosed we started having a lot more family dinners together.

We all knew quality time was a priority, but it never felt like we were trying too hard to make it happen. We didn’t have to talk about it, stressing how important it was to “make this time count” or anything like that. Over those few years, we just all had dinner together on a regular basis, and let other commitments get in the way much less often.

I remember how easy it was to be happy at these dinners. There was nothing particularly different about them than the thousands of other family dinners we’d had up till then, except that we were probably all less preoccupied, and when we were done eating nobody was in a rush to leave. Most of the time afterwards we would stay at the table for a while, telling stories and laughing about stuff.

It wasn’t sentimental or heavy at all, it was just nice. I really wasn’t thinking about the larger context of life and death or carpe diem or anything like that. My attention was just on the food and the people in the room.

These are the simplest and greatest luxuries. That table in that old suburban house often felt like the best place in the world to be. You’d think that it would be more common to experience this unfettered “niceness”, at least when you live a first-world life in which it’s never hard to find good food or good people to eat with.

We’ve each had the experience many times, of a moment that’s truly, perfectly fine, but this state is the exception, not the rule, in most people’s lives. Much of the rest of the time it seems like something needs to be fixed or addressed before the moment can be enjoyed for what it is.

When I was reading about personal finance a couple of years ago, I remember being confounded by another blogger’s brilliant question: “If you feel like your income is too low, how much more do you think you’d need before you don’t feel like that any more?” Often it seems like just a bit more (another 10k a year?) really would let you finally be happy with your finances. But then you remember that you probably thought that when you made half as much as you do now.

Something in us, some self-defeating thinking pattern, is constantly putting contentedness just out of reach, just behind a particular to-do being done or a particular problem being resolved. Yet all of the times you’ve felt contentedness, your life certainly contained unresolved problems and unfulfilled desires.

So if you’re not happy right now, what specifically is it that’s missing? What’s the thing (or things) that, if added to your current lot in life, would allow you to feel that “This really is nice and I’m very lucky to be here” feeling?

Usually the question, “What more could you need?” usually only comes up when you’re sitting by a pool with a friend and a margarita. And it’s meant to be a rhetorical question you’re not supposed to try to answer. But it’s a telling question to ask of yourself when you aren’t happy with the present. If this particular moment isn’t enough, then what is actually missing? Could you write it down?

Most of the time it seems like there really is some identifiable condition that stands between you and your being happy right now, as if your unhappiness has been well-examined and is truly justified. But what is this alleged difference-maker? Would your financial situation have to change in a certain way? Would a particular health issue have to go away? Would a certain person have to apologize to you?

This is an revealing exercise if you actually try it. You may notice how silly it is to insist on some particular change to the moment before you’re prepared to appreciate it. Maybe if you had that thing it wouldn’t change anything. Or maybe you can’t think of what it is at all.

Maybe something really is making it impossible to be grateful right now (perhaps a nail sticking through your foot) but often it’s just our habitual human pettiness making a dealbreaker out of a small preference.  Read More

Post image for It’s okay to be here

There are those of us who hate being late so much that we’re sometimes absurdly early for things, and have to walk around the block or sit in nearby parks until our appointments begin.

Yet sometimes even these people find themselves late. Most of my life, being late for work was a torturous experience for me. Stuck in construction-addled traffic, I’d watch the clock as I missed my target: 7:47, then 7:54, then 8:04, and I’d still be crawling along. I’d feel my insides start to boil. I’d get mad at whoever was causing the slow traffic (because it’s somehow easier if it’s someone’s fault.)

One day I was particularly worked up, still on the road to work at 8:15, and with my windows up I remember saying out loud, as if to explain to the traffic around me, “Hey! I need to be at work right now!”

It was such a dumb thing to say, and it struck me, somehow only for the first time, that it wasn’t true at all. I didn’t need to be at work. I couldn’t truly need to be at work at that moment, because I wasn’t — I was here, in my car. And aside from my super angry and fearful feelings, there was nothing particularly objectionable about being here.

Being where I actually was at the time (in the car) was an option after all, and in fact it was the only option. Obviously, at that moment I would have preferred to be at work over being in slow traffic, but it was really just a preference, not a need. I was in the car, and therefore at that moment it was impossible to be anywhere else. If it’s impossible, how could I need it? It would be like insisting I need a unicorn just to carry on.

Had I ever actually needed to be anywhere other than where I was? I guess not, because regardless of my preferences, I don’t believe I have ever, even once, been anywhere other than where I already was.

I had also never truly needed a coffee, or a hug, or the Seahawks to pull it out, or my stomach ache to go away, or any other form of having the moment go my way. I have certainly wanted all these things, sometimes very badly, but I’ve never needed them. And this was proven every time I didn’t get them.  Read More

Post image for The frightening thing you learn when you quit the 9 to 5

As most of you know I quit my day job last fall to transition to making a living through my writing.

When I was preparing to give my notice, I met a UK-born writer named Robert Wringham, who publishes an independent magazine for workforce escapees such as myself (or those who are thinking about it), called New Escapologist.

I loved it immediately: it’s smart, advertising-free and perfectly square. Given that I was in the “great escape” chapter of my own story, he asked me to write a piece for the magazine, which appears in the latest issue. I’ve reposted it below (edited slightly to fit a blog format.)

The months following my escape consisted of one lesson after another, as I expected, but the biggest lesson was quite a shock — and it’s something all 9-to-5ers should learn as early in their lives as possible. This piece is my warning to would-be escapees who are eternally waiting for the right time.

***

After leaving a jobsite, I drove to a nearby field and parked my car facing a row of corn. It was afternoon, on the day that I’d picked to finally do it, but I was still nervous. I sat there for about half an hour before pulling the trigger.

I phoned my boss and told him I was leaving the company to work for myself. I’d rehearsed for a confrontation, but he was very professional and understanding. The moment I hung up, laughter exploded out of me, like I’d just gotten a joke told to me years ago.

The drive home was euphoric, as I expected it would be. But two weeks later I would discover an unsettling side-effect of having been an employee so long.  Read More


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