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February 2013

Post image for When things go terribly right

I just answered a huge batch of emails, and there’s a question that keeps getting asked:

“How did you learn all this [stuff you write about on the blog?] Did it come to you in one big epiphany, or a bunch of little ones? Was there a *big* one?”

I’ve been totally fascinated by the topic of human quality of life for twelve years now, and I’ve been writing about it for four. Throughout that stretch of time, I’ve had lots of little breakthroughs and each one left something to build on.

The biggest one of all happened last fall. The feeling of being me changed drastically, over only a couple of days. Life lost its normal mildly-threatening background hum. Today, in almost any given moment I actually feel prepared for the rest of my life. That used to be a rare feeling.

It happened to me when I was experimenting with the much-maligned Law of Attraction, which I am still agnostic towards, but I hit on something that was very out-of-character for me at the time.

I decided to expect everything to go well, for no reason at all.

And generally things did. Everything generally went very well for no discernible reason. Almost everything I did ended up being easier than I thought and more rewarding than I thought, once I decided not to bother thinking about things going badly.

That sums up the best advice I could give anyone: think a lot about what you want, and think only sparingly about what you don’t want.

My whole life I felt like I had some sort of duty to think about what I don’t want, as if it must be helpful in some way, or that somehow it’s healthiest to keep a “balanced” outlook by tempering positive expectations with negative ones.

For about four months I’ve refused to entertain thoughts about what I don’t want, as a rule. I wanted to see what would happen if I just ditched them all as soon as I noticed them.

Instead of everything falling apart, everything started coming together. I found myself doing things I’d been afraid to do for years. It started to feel good to wake up — throughout my whole adult life my first waking thought was almost always a worrisome one.

Normal moments became easy and beautiful. Tough moments tend to make me lucid and patient now. Almost all my remaining social anxiety disappeared. My aversions shrank, my attractions grew. The outside world at large became damn attractive to me, when it used to feel vaguely menacing most of the time.

After thirty years of taking negative thoughts seriously, I felt a little like the doomsayers must have after the recent Mayan non-apocalypse — my model of reality was wrong, and I’d be embarrassed to have wasted so much energy on it if I wasn’t so thrilled to finally get it right.

I can’t believe how prominent imaginary bad outcomes were in my life. Most of my life was spent picturing every kind of disaster, from embarassment to maiming, virtually of it habitual, draining and useless.  Read More

Post image for Five self-help books that actually helped

There’s something about self-help that is fundamentally uncool. Being into coin-collecting or Dungeons & Dragons is an order of magnitude more socially acceptable than having titles like “How to Get People to Like You” and “You Can Be Happy No Matter What!” staring out from your bookshelf.

Somehow it isn’t yet obvious that a persistent interest in self-improvement is probably the defining trait of the interesting and accomplished person. Self-help literature, though, is a particular kind of self-improvement. Turning to self-help is admitting you don’t quite know how to drive a regular human life. It’s like designating yourself with a voluntary “special needs” status.

I don’t think the need for some intentional re-balancing is special though. None of us are born knowing how to drive. It’s probably not unusual to feel like you’ve never been taught quite how to steer a human life competently, but it may be unusual to admit.

I think what makes us most suspicious of self-help is that we’ve all seen people who are constantly absorbing it and not changing a thing. There are self-help junkies out there — people who get high on the feeling that their life is improving simply by reading the book, yet never actually address their habits in everyday life. They get high on the feeling of possibility, and when the feeling fades they buy another.

Their mistake is simple: they’re missing the “self” part of self-help. Insights by themselves are useless without action, which is what changes lives. But you can get the self-help high just by reading, and that high is enough to make you feel (for the moment) that nothing needs fixing.

The self-help junkie habit is obvious and ugly to everyone else, and so the whole genre is reviled for its empty promises, rather than the reader for his total lack of responsibility. Consequently, self-help remains so uncool that even hipsters won’t touch it.  Read More

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