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July 2012

Post image for The person you used to be still tells you what to do

Once my friends and I reached legal bar-going age, I watched as we split into two factions. There were the people who went out to clubs to dance, and the people who went to pubs to sit and drink and talk loudly.

I hated the clubs. The music was awful, thumping electronic noise. I think I made about three attempts to have fun this way, and then I made a long-lasting error in judgment. I made a conclusion about myself I wasn’t qualified to make: dancing is not for me.

As it turns out, much more investigation was required. But I didn’t bother. I thought I knew. I’d endured three dull nights drinking draft under sweeping blue lights, pretending I was happy to be out and about but silently wondering how anyone could bring themselves to flail their bodies to uptempo remixes of Ricky Martin. So without quite realizing it, I decided I am not one who dances. I love music, but not the music people dance to.

A sweeping generalization like that, if it concerns who you are and what’s for you or not for you, can affect you for a long stretch of your life. For the next twelve years all invitations to go out dancing were declined by default.

That’s all it takes to keep something out of your life, a single instance of telling youself, “This is not for me.” The problem is we don’t think much about what exactly constitutes “that” and so we’re prone to dismissing, just by association, a whole lot of experiences that maybe are for us. We lose track of our symbols.

Earlier this year it cracked — while traveling, which seems to be what I’m doing at all of the moments in which I become aware that a long-held misconception about myself has just died. I found myself sitting crosslegged on a friend’s floor, talking about music with a woman I’d just met. I liked her right away, and every time she mentioned an act I liked too, I felt closer to her.

When she mentioned she liked electronic dance music I felt a pang of disappointment — a bit less of a connection, momentarily. Somehow, nearly half a lifetime after I first rolled my eyes at a roomful of late-nineties club crowd, I figured some part of what I had seen and hated appealed to her.

And that’s because I already knew that is not for me. I’d known for years. I don’t dance. I think I said so.  Read More

Post image for What you want is never a thing

He definitely thought nobody was around, but the four of us could see his self-consciousness from across the lot even before he parked. He pulled up, popped the trunk, and left the engine running.

He was about five feet tall. From our distance he looked like a sweater with a beard. Using a plastic snowshovel he produced from somewhere, he started to scoop into his trunk fresh topsoil from the bathtub-sized planters on the boulevard.

It took me a moment to realize that what we were watching unfold was the premeditated theft of quality dirt. The planters had been topped up by the community centre maintenence guy earlier in the day. He had waited until it was dark.

“Who steals dirt?” my friend asked loudly to nobody in particular.

The bearded man paused, then with a conspicuous absence of haste, placed the shovel in the trunk and slowly drove away as if nothing had happened, even though the trunk was still open. We watched him continue down the block away from us, trunk gaping. He made a complete stop at the stop sign — a rare thing to see, at any time — making full use of his turn signals, and disappeared while we laughed.

For a moment I felt an odd hit of guilt, because we had spoiled his plan. Even though it was a stupid, selfish plan, I recognized that he was just trying to improve his position in life in some tiny way, and that’s what he came up with. Driving away like a fool with the trunk open while we laughed at him was a byproduct of a tiny thread of his overall life’s work — his own personal pursuit of happiness.

You could say that the pursuit of happiness ultimately drives everything we do, no matter how dumb those things are. This is a peculiar fact of life for our species: well-being is what we all want and need, yet it’s so delicate and fickle and overall we are embarassingly bad at achieving it.

At first thought it may be hard to believe that people can do terrible and self-destructive things in the name of happiness. Nearly everything we do can be attributed to a desire for feelings of either security, power, or sense gratification, all of which our bodies and minds tell us are the ingredients to happiness.

These three motives stem from the most basic and ancient parts of our brains — they are what promises a creature its best chance of survival and prosperity. They tend to trump everything else, and the behavior it creates is often so unconscious that we don’t realize quite what it is we’re after. Logic can’t compete with these drives, not without some serious internal work — self examination and practice, which are both still bafflingly underrated as tools for cultivating a richer life.

And so people do the stupidest things in the pursuit of happiness. Buy homes they can’t afford. Get into dangerous relationships. Spend thousands at Starbucks. Hoard so much useless junk in their garage that that can’t even put their car inside. Rob convenience stores. Blow up synagogues. Go to law school when they don’t want to. Drink and drive. Order the same thing on the menu every time. Fight people at drinking establishments. Go on Dr Phil. Let talents stagnate and dry up. Amass insurmountible debt. Live exactly like their parents did, and shame others for being different.

It’s so bizarre that we all have this single common interest, to find well-being, and that we spend so little time actually talking about it. You would think our schools would teach it.

We don’t, and it’s probably because we think we already know how to find happiness, which usually involves acquiring something we don’t have. More money, better security, more affection. In other words, we think happiness is created by making some kind of change in the material world. Putting something into our possession, eliminating a threat, seizing control of something.  Read More

For two years I have been trying to do most of my writing tomorrow. This has never worked.

I can’t think of a single time I’ve been able to do my writing any time other than today.

Historically, I’ve avoided doing it today (of all days) because I’m afraid of certain moments that can only happen when I write today. I can be halfway through an article and realize it’s going nowhere. Then it’s either toss it and start again, or try to massage it into something I don’t hate. That’s always a painful moment and I never want it to happen today.

Sometimes it’s an even more painful version of that moment. I might have the thought that not only does the current piece suck, but most of them do. I don’t usually think that but when I do it hurts.

Those moments aren’t scary at all when I know they can’t happen today. When they’re tomorrow’s problem they become remarkably easy to deal with.

So my strategy, most of the time, has been to write tomorrow. Normally I write today only when I have to.

Sometime Saturday morning I stopped wanting to write tomorrow. I only want to write today now. Mentally, it’s a really different place than I’m used to — much more upbeat, much more inspiring — and I landed there after finally facing a heavy, unforgiving fact: I can’t write tomorrow.

It’s a mechanical impossiblity. There is nothing you can do tomorrow. I have never done anything tomorrow and neither have you.

If doing it today might hurt, then either you open yourself to that pain or you decide it’s not something you’re prepared to do at all.

Maybe you don’t write, but I’d bet money there’s something important to you that you’re always trying to do tomorrow. Good luck. Tomorrow is not a suitable day for doing things.


Post image for Most lives are lived by default

Jamie lives in a large city in the midwest. He’s a copywriter for an advertising firm, and he’s good at it.

He’s also good at thinking of reasons why he ought to be happy with his life. He has health insurance, and now savings. A lot of his friends have neither. His girlfriend is pretty. They never fight. His boss has a sense of humor, doesn’t micromanage, and lets him go early most Fridays.

On most of those Fridays, including this one, instead of taking the train back to his suburban side-by-side, he walks to a downtown pub to meet his friends. He will have four beers. His friends always stay longer.

Jamie’s girlfriend Linda typically arrives on his third beer. She greets them all with polite hugs, Jamie with a kiss. He orders his final beer when she orders her only one. They take a taxi home, make dinner together, and watch a movie on Netflix. When it’s over they start a second one and don’t finish it. They have sex, then she goes to wash her face and brush her teeth. When she returns, he goes.

There was never a day Jamie sat down and decided to be a copywriter living in the midwest. A pair of lawyers at his ex-girlfriend’s firm took him out one night when he was freshly laid-off from writing for a tech magazine, bought him a hundred dollars worth of drinks and gave him the business card of his current boss. It was a great night. That was nine years ago.

His friends are from his old job. White collar, artsy and smart. If one of the five of them is missing at the pub on Friday, they’ll have lunch during the week.

Jamie isn’t unhappy. He’s bored, but doesn’t quite realize it. As he gets older his boredom is turning to fear. He has no health problems but he thinks about them all the time. Cancer. Arthritis. Alzheimer’s. He’s thirty-eight, fit, has no plans for children, and when he really thinks about the course of his life he doesn’t quite know what to do with himself, except on Fridays.

In two months he and Linda are going to Cuba for ten days. He’s looking forward to that right now.


A few weeks ago I asked everyone reading to share their biggest problem in life in the comment section. I’ve done this before — ask about what’s going on with you — and every time I do I notice two things.

The first thing is that everyone has considerable problems. Not simply occasional tough spots, but the type of issue that persists for years or decades. The kind that becomes a theme in life, that feels like part of your identity. By the sounds of it, it’s typical among human beings to feel like something huge is missing.

The other thing is that they tend to be one of the same few problems: lack of human connection, lack of personal freedom (due to money or family situations), lack of confidence or self-esteem, or lack of self-control.

The day-to-day feel and quality of each of our lives sits on a few major structures: where we live, what we do for a living, what we do with ourselves when we’re not at work, and which people we spend most of our time with.  Read More

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