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Post image for The Simple Joy of “No Phones Allowed”

A few nights ago I saw Jack White in concert. It was a wonderful night, and a big part of that was due to a new rule he has imposed on all his tour dates: no phones.

When you arrive, you have to put your phone into a neoprene pouch, supplied by a company called Yondr, which they lock and give back to you. If you want to use your phone during the show, you can go into the concourse and unlock it by touching it to one of several unlocking bases. The concert area itself remains screen-free.

The effect was immediately noticeable upon entering the concert bowl. Aside from the time-travel-like strangeness of seeing a crowd devoid of blue screens, there was a palpable sense of engagement, as though—and it sounds so strange to say it—everyone came just so they could be there.

People were visibly enjoying the opening band, at least in part because that band no longer compete with the entire internet for the crowd’s attention. Even the crowd’s milling around and chatting between acts was so much more lively. People were either talking to their neighbors, or taking in the room. And everyone taking in the room was taking in the same room. It felt great.  Read More

Post image for It’s Okay to Feel Bad For No Reason

From my teens through my early thirties, I spent a lot of family dinners trying to pretend I felt okay.

It’s not that my family made me miserable, not at all. But throughout those years I just felt inexplicably bad some days, and I couldn’t duck out on plans with my family like I could with my friends, at least not without arousing concern.

This feeling was characterized by pit in the stomach, elevated self-consciousness, and a strong urge to go home and get away from people. Not exactly despair, but a version the sort of wounded feeling you might get after giving a bad speech, or getting reprimanded by your boss.

Looking back, I can’t believe how often I felt like that. Each time, all I knew is that I needed to either act normal, or provide an explanation for my low-spirited state (I stayed up late; I didn’t drink enough water today).  Read More

Post image for The Only True Story

In September, for the first time in nine years, I took a month off writing. I spent half of it traveling abroad, and the other half completely riveted by a particular story—a true story, one which I had always intended to get to but hadn’t made time for.

This kind of story isn’t consumed in the usual linear manner of fictional novels and shows. Instead, it’s a vast network of interconnecting characters and events, whose facts you establish in the same manner a detective reconstructs a crime.

At first you can see what happens only in haphazard, singular moments, as if you’re looking through keyholes at scenes without context. But as you peek in on the proceedings at different times, in different places, plotlines and personalities emerge, and those isolated scenes gradually connect in unexpected and poignant ways.

Also, I am in the story. And you are too.

Those of you who share my new hobby will have already guessed that the story I’m referring to is my family history. I’m aware of how dull that sounds.

It’s not, and I will do my best to prove that. But in the mean time you should know that it’s your family’s history too. That’s how genealogy works—there is really only one family history. One vast story. If you trace the action back far enough, all the characters and plotlines connect.  Read More

Post image for The Problem Is That We Are All Stupid

The question “What’s wrong with the world?!” is usually more of a statement of exasperation than a question. But it can be treated like a question, and it is a good question.

Clearly something is wrong, at least with the human world. Even if you don’t trust the news to tell you how the world really is, we all witness too much pettiness, unfairness, and dishonesty to say with a straight face that nothing’s wrong.

However, I’m not sure you could rewind us to a point in the last 10,000 years when we wouldn’t feel the same way. Our complaints today are about corrupt leaders, unfair systems, unscrupulous merchants, religious demagoguery, and everything else that has happened perpetually since we freed ourselves from picking berries all day.

In a recent article about the “What’s wrong” question, Masha Gessen got me thinking that the answer is quite straightforward: we’re all stupid. Contrary to popular belief, stupidity isn’t only present in some of us, it’s a universal human trait.

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t also smart—we simply exhibit both qualities. As intelligent as we are in certain ways, each of us is also very stupid in other certain ways, and the powers conferred by the intelligent, inventive part can increase the amount of damage the stupid part can cause.  Read More

Post image for Your Whole Life Is Borrowed Time

I can’t remember if this is a real movie plot, or if I just want it to be.

A man with a boring job is on his way to work when his attention is caught by some unexpected detail in his otherwise familiar routine—a peculiar insect, a pattern in the concrete, a cryptic slogan on a t-shirt.

This detail seems extremely significant to him, but he doesn’t know why.

The strange sight wakes him up from the autopilot-mode by which he has been living his life. He is suddenly aware, for the first time, how complex and interesting his local high street is, and he stops to take it in.

Around him pass hundreds of distinctly different people, each a unique individual, driven by some unseen personal motivation. Shops are filled with thousands of trinkets, tools, snacks, and books. Delivery trucks roll past, music plays from somewhere, buildings rise above him. The scene is miraculous to him.

As he surveys the street, he witnesses something surreal: another version of himself is walking away from him, towards his usual bus stop, evidently not having had this same moment of self-awareness. For reasons he is never told, at that moment his life had apparently split in two.

However, his double does not make it onto the bus: as he waits, an air conditioning unit falls from a window above, killing him instantly. In a very unexpected and unstorylike way, his life ends.

The man has no idea what has happened, and never receives an explanation. The authorities never identify the person beneath the air conditioner, and the man never tells anyone what he witnessed because nobody would ever believe it.

There is nothing to do but carry on with his life. But he is a changed man.  Read More

Post image for How To Let Go

The easiest advice to give—and the hardest to use—is “Let it go.”

Didn’t get the job? Let it go. Still thinking about your awkward speech last week? Let it go.

All the Paul McCartney tickets were bought up in seconds by scalper-bots? Let it go.

Life will go on, after all. Just put it out of your mind!

Of course we’d let go if we could. If we had the ability to simply drop worry, or anger, or a throbbing in the temples, we wouldn’t need to be told. And being told to let go tends to make the feeling even more stubborn.

Letting go is possible. But it’s done differently than we usually think.

We humans tend to overlook a very useful fact: every experience does go, at some point. Every sight, sound, taste, or feeling you’ve ever had is gone, except what’s happening right now as you look at this screen.

The pleasure of the last chocolate treat you ate… where is it now? The pain of the last time you singed your finger on the stovetop… where is it? Itchy mosquito bites, stress over past deadlines, uneasiness about where that wedding toast was going… gone.  Read More

Post image for There Is No Right Decision

I sometimes get bogged down on major purchases, for months even. If I don’t find a printer or pair of runners that feels like the right one (for me at least) I usually retreat to go gather more information.

I look up more reviews. I ask the advice of friends who seem less tormented by the prospect of shoe or printer shopping. Mostly I just let time pass.

A couple of years ago, after a month of needing but not buying a printer, I tweeted something like, “So I’m looking to buy a printer, but don’t know where to start… any advice?”

Moments later, my good friend Nate responded, with something like, “Here’s how to buy a printer: you go to the store and get a printer.”

I did that, and I have to admit his strategy worked at least as well as my usual three months of contemplation. I chose one of the printers they had. It prints.

So I did end up getting the right printer, but at the time I felt like I just got lucky. I didn’t know it was the right choice, I just went ahead with something. It was a measured risk that happened to work out.

Much of the stress and difficulty of life comes down to making decisions, big and small, and they never stop coming. What’s the right call? Fix the old car or spring for a new one? Stay with your job or quit and go freelance? Cut your hair short or rearrange what you’ve got? And how confident do you need to be before choosing?

It sure feels good to get it right. We’ve all had the sense that we picked the right hotel room, or the right career path, or the right movie for this particular date.

We also know the unmistakable feeling that the wrong choice has been made: law school was a mistake; the “hip and cozy” Airbnb turned out to be a closet overlooking a perpetual traffic jam; the Seahawks passed when they should have run.

Whether a decision was the right one or not, life goes on. If it was the right one, great. If it was the wrong one, at least you learned a few more red flags.

Recently I was exposed to a brilliant idea: there are no right decisions.

There’s no right call, and there never has been. All the time we’ve burned and heartache we’ve suffered trying to figure out the right reponse, the right outfit, the right bathroom tile, the right movie—it was all a wild goose chase.  Read More

Post image for A Complete Guide to Getting What You Want

Note to reader: This is a long post – 2200 words – so bookmark it if you need to, but I think you’ll find it a worthwhile read if you apply this strategy even a single time.

***

It’s not always polite to say it so plainly, but we all want things.

The objects of our desires differ, but we all spend much of our lives preoccupied with obtaining, having, achieving, and enjoying things, of both the material and abstract sort.

Our species wouldn’t have survived if we didn’t have powerful wants, but we’re still often embarrassed by them. Everybody wants more money, but we’re not supposed to say that. We want recognition from others. We want to work less and relax more.

We want dessert. We want sex. We want ease, freedom from obligation, and advantages that might seem unfair if someone else had them. We want to be hot.

Desires are taboo in human cultures, and not without reason. Because desires are what motivate human behavior, we know they can motivate violence, depravity, addiction, and hatred. Every religion seems to devote a lot of its scripture to desire-management strategies, urging restraint and renunciation, and punishing covetousness, or at least warning us of its consequences.

However, no matter what taboos we live under, we all have desires, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed about that basic fact. It’s okay to want things.

It can even be okay—depending on how we go about it—to try to get those things.  Read More

Post image for Two Ways to Stop Caring What Others Think

At the retreat center I just visited, the automated coffee machine worked on an honor system.

It dispensed coffee whenever you pushed the button, but you were expected to put a two-dollar coin into a little nearby box to cover the costs. I didn’t have change, so I put a twenty in on the first day, intending to use it exactly ten times.

Since I was meditating many hours a day, I was very aware and easygoing, but I still felt a faint pang of self-consciousness each of the nine times I got a coffee without putting money into the box. A casual observer might think I was stealing.

Interestingly, the fact that they’d be mistaken about that didn’t seem to matter much. I didn’t want to be seen as sneaky or selfish, whether or not I actually was.

We all worry, in our own tiny ways, about how we’re being perceived. You might worry than an email you sent came off as too harsh, with all those stark periods and no smiley face to soften the tone. Or your first trip to the gym may be nerve-wracking, as you try not to look too clueless.

We’ve evolved to be self-conscious in this way, continually monitoring how we think we’re being seen. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, being disliked could be dangerous.

Society, for them, often consisted of a nomadic band of maybe a hundred people, so it really mattered if someone thought you were lazy or untrustworthy—especially if they might convince others of that.

Having offended just that one person, you could wake up the next day and learn that twenty people—twenty percent of your society, perhaps including the people that make the decisions—want you expelled from the tribe. These are super high stakes, so it’s no wonder we’re so frequently wondering how we look to others.  Read More

Post image for How to Slow Down Time

As I moved from my twenties to thirties I noticed a certain psychological miscalculation happening more often: a day that feels like it was three or four months ago was actually a year ago.

Or I would think back to what I was doing this time last year, then realize that what I’m remembering happened two years ago.

Almost everyone says this effect only gets stronger—time seems to speed up as you age, right until you die. Apparently, by the time you’re ninety, you make breakfast, and once you’ve tidied up the dishes it’s mid-afternoon. Then you read a book for a bit, and when you look up it’s dark.

Supposedly, this speeding-up sensation is unavoidable, because it’s linked inextricably to how increasingly small a year is in comparison to your age. To a one-year-old, a year is a lifetime, but to a fifty-year-old, it’s only 2% of a lifetime. This growing disparity makes it feel like time is slipping away ever more quickly.

That’s the popular explanation anyway—the one I heard, and repeated, for years.

But it’s pure bunk. It doesn’t make any sense when you think about it. How long an hour, a week, or a year feels is something that changes all the time. Five days spent traveling in a foreign country tends to feel much longer than a regular workweek. An hour spent coping with tragic news can feel deadeningly slow, while an hour of frantic cleaning before guests arrive slips away like draining bathwater.  Read More

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