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Post image for Feedback is What Makes Everything Work

The other day I closed a savings account at a tiny credit union branch. I expected it to take about five minutes, but the teller took so long that I started to experience time distortion.

I knew it had been at least fifteen minutes, but perhaps it was much longer. Twenty-five minutes? Forty? There was no visible clock, and I didn’t want to take out my phone. The young teller seemed to be Googling how to close an account while maintaining her professional bank teller countenance.

I waited patiently, occupying myself with an eyes-open meditation practice, and didn’t complain.

I did feel self-conscious though. There were only two tellers, and half of them were dealing with me while the other one, clearly more experienced, handled the rest of the line one at a time.

Another customer did complain, to the other teller.

She said, with an edge to her voice, “I would suggest that if a transaction is going to take more than ten minutes, it should be done by appointment,” and then went on to make a few more suggestions. The teller cited extenuating circumstances (scheduling problems, somebody is on lunch) and also said she was very sorry about that a few times.

Everyone in the tiny building heard this exchange, and it made for an uncomfortable few minutes for all of us.

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Post image for Nobody Knows What’s Going On

A major online publication once reported in a profile on me that I had retired at 33. A few old friends and acquaintances reached out to congratulate me on my financial independence.

I think it was an honest mistake on the part of the reporter. I told her I had quit my job to write full time, and I guess she thought that meant I must have millions of dollars.

To be clear, I was not then, and am not now financially independent. The 100 or so people that actually know me could discern that just by seeing my kitchen. Yet perhaps 20,000 people read somewhere that I am. That means potentially 200 times more people are wrong than right on this question, because of an inference made by a reporter.

This scenario, in which there’s much more wrongness going around than rightness, is probably the norm. People make bad inferences like that all day long. These wrong ideas replicate themselves whenever the person tells someone else what they know, which the internet makes easier than ever.

Consider the possibility that most of the information being passed around, on whatever topic, is bad information, even where there’s no intentional deception. As George Orwell said, “The most fundamental mistake of man is that he thinks he knows what’s going on. Nobody knows what’s going on.”

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Post image for When Matters as Much as What

Sometimes you really can trade lead for gold. You may have noticed, for example, how much of a time-saver it is to stay a little late to finish a task today that you could finish tomorrow instead. Somehow that last little bit, which would only take a half-hour now, will eat up most of tomorrow morning if you leave it till then. It’s the same work, but somehow its size and complexion change drastically depending on when it gets done.

There should be some metaphysical law that stops you from getting such a good deal, but there isn’t. So you should go for it, and also become a hunter for such deals.

A lot of variables come together to make this sort of transmutation happen. If you’ve been working on something for an hour or two, your system is warmed up in all the right places. You have the relevant information loaded up in your mental RAM, the body is tuned into the relevant actions (flipping between spreadsheets, folding clothes, whatever) and the mind has dropped most irrelevant thoughts. What would take thirty more minutes in this state might take two hours from a cold start tomorrow.

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Post image for We Are All Surrounded by Immense Wealth

Everybody used to be naked, all the time. Naked at birth, naked at death, naked while sitting around with people, naked while meeting strangers, naked while preparing and serving food.

This condition is hard to imagine, because everybody you’ve ever met has been in the habit of wrapping themselves in woven fibres. Coating our bodies with textiles is such a useful thing to do that everybody does it now. But the technology to do that had to be invented, and many people lived their whole lives before that happened.

In fact, many people lived and died before any material goods had been invented — at least anything more complex than sharpened sticks or stones. Biologically, those people were basically the same as us. They still had to stay warm, they had to keep their kids safe, and they had to eat. Just with no stuff.

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Post image for Discipline is Underrated

One thing humans do sometimes is attribute undesirable qualities to a person who’s doing something that seems overboard or unnecessary. It’s still common to hear that people who work out a lot are “obsessed with their bodies,” or that people who drive expensive cars are snooty or vain.

I’m sure I’ve thought and repeated these things myself, and a lot more. They’re flippant judgments to make, but they seemed true enough, from what I knew.

One inference I made a lot was that super-organized people who keep strict routines are “control freaks” or are otherwise anal-retentive. They must be afraid of to the tiniest amount of uncertainty or disorder. I always believed a more relaxed, free-form approach to work and household was healthier – not letting things fall completely to the floor, of course, but also not needing to have every little thing in its place all the time.

I didn’t see a connection at the time between my dismissive opinions on this subject, and the fact that I had always suffered immensely from my own inability to stay on top of my basic affairs of work and household.

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Post image for The Ancient Art of Turning Walls into Doors

Last year I wrote a post asking readers to consider how much they’d pay for a hypothetical miracle medicine that lengthens your life, makes you happier, reduces anxiety, lowers risk of disease and injury, increases personal confidence, and literally makes you more attractive, along with dozens of other benefits.

The only catch is that you can’t pay money for it, not directly. You gain and maintain access to it by doing a few hours of manual labor per week.

The punchline was that this miracle medicine deal isn’t actually hypothetical; it exists in our world and is available on precisely the above basis. It’s called “regular physical exercise.”

Not everybody takes this deal –- a few hours of labor per week for incalculable benefits – which is crazy when you frame it this way. We pay a lot more for things that don’t provide anything approaching the same return. But humans are like that.

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Post image for Where All the Time Went

Time always feels like it’s speeding up, but you might feel like time has been going exceptionally quickly these past few years. The first few days of a new month quickly become the 11th, then the next day it’s the 23rd, and then your credit card is due and it’s a new month again.

It might also be hard to remember, when people ask, what you did with those weeks and months. “Oh, I’ve just been, uh, working and stuff, I guess” you might say, when you bump into an acquaintance at the grocery store.

For some of us, the 2020s have also come with a certain lingering mental fog, or poor memory, which is another reason it can be hard to generate an interesting report about what you’ve been up to.

Naturally I have a theory about this, maybe even a cure. The hypothesis I’m about to share is not entirely crackpot — there is some scientific evidence behind this, but I’m mostly going off of my own intuitions here. Tell me what you think.

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Post image for The Shortcut is Probably Too Long

For a few years in my 20s I was determined to learn French. This endeavor began one day when a friend and I were camping, and our campsite was sandwiched between those of two German backpackers and a French tourist.

Sitting around a fire with our new friends that night, they told us to visit them if we ever came to Europe, and we said we would. My friend and I promised each other that he would learn German, I would learn French, and we’d make a trip there a few years later.

My friend did not learn German and to my knowledge never gave it another thought. (In hindsight I remember one of the Germans saying, “Oh, but you won’t be able to learn German! It’s too hard!) I did try in French though. I attended classes for a few years, bought flash cards and Michel Thomas CDs, and joined whatever mid-2000s language-learning websites there were. I was really into it.

I studied regularly and with great passion for the language, and also for my vision as a person who spoke impeccable French and maybe lived in Paris half the year. However, I didn’t do most of the things language teachers say to do, such as reading French news articles, or having conversations in French with native speakers. That stuff seemed a little extreme to me, or at least a little messy. I would do it later perhaps.

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Post image for How to Feel 20 Percent Better

On a whim I decided to commit to three small changes for the remainder of Lent, not because I’m religious, but because I like the idea of temporarily renouncing things.

I kept the changes small because small is easy, and might still be worthwhile. First I renounced the scrolling of Twitter and Reddit, because I kind of got into that again over the winter. I just took five minutes to block them on my phone, and I don’t miss them. I also started drinking more water again. I’m not sure when I got away from actively drinking water, but now that I’m doing it again I feel more energetic. Lastly, I stopped pushing my bedtime past my old bedtime by 15 or 20 minutes. I forgot that I used to be more strict about that. Again, I’m not sure when that happened, but I was able to correct it in a day.

That’s it. There’s no attempt here to “reach my potential” or “turn the corner” or become a “new me,” I just decided to change these little things and keep them going at least until Easter.

My expectation was that such small changes would yield proportionately small benefits, maybe worthwhile enough to keep doing afterward. But I feel like I’m getting way more out of them than the small effort I’m putting in.

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Post image for There is No Future, and That’s Good

Next month I’m going on a trip to the US, but I won’t know the destination until I’m in the cab on the way to the airport.

A friend and I hatched this “surprise trip” idea a few years ago. One person chooses the destination and books flights and hotel, staying within a certain budget and other agreed parameters. The other person packs for any destination in the United States, and doesn’t find out where until shortly before going through airport security.

Most people probably wouldn’t want to travel like this, but it works for us. We both like surprises, and we both know how to have fun almost anywhere. We did it once already in 2018. I was the planner and my friend was the surprisee, and we had a great time touring Boston. This time I’m the surprisee, and anticipating this trip gives me a feeling I haven’t quite felt before.

It’s interesting because I’m looking forward to the trip, but I have no idea what I’m looking forward to. Thinking about it brings no images to mind, just an exciting void. Mostly I end up thinking about Boston, one of the few places I know we’re not going.

When my mind fails to find an image, a seed from which to envision this upcoming trip, it feels something like I’m standing on a cliff, looking out into impenetrable darkness. Nothing can be seen that way, and right now there is nothing that way, but it’s still the way I’m headed. The landscape will form just as I move forward into the nothing.

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