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October 2013

Post image for Use your privilege

One amusing part of blogging is that people are constantly reacting to things you said years ago. The medium requires you to leave a trail of opinions that don’t change as you change. Visitors stumble across different spots on this trail and react in their own way. Some people like what they find and they follow the trail back to its source, which in this case is a 33 year old white man sitting on a rock eating a banana. Others don’t like what they find and move on, but many people tell you what they think of you first.

There are two interesting consequences of leaving several years’ worth of opinions pointing to your name and face. One, you end up having misgivings about almost everything you’ve ever written — because no one thing you say quite represents you — and two, people expect you to defend every point you’ve ever made, as if you are delivering it live.

As it does on a fairly regular basis, my “Designed Lifestyle” article caught fire last week, when it appeared on a big blog. Many of you are probably reading this post only because you followed the trail from that particular three-year-old breadcrumb. Welcome.

I have misgivings about 95% of my articles and the Designed Lifestyle piece is one of them. It’s a bit glib in places , and it implies a simpler and more conspiratorial relationship between workweek culture and big business than is probably there. The gist is true, though: consumer-product companies certainly want you to be unambitious outside of work, accustomed to paying for convenience, gratification, and other unnecessaries — and that the forty-plus-hour workweek is the greatest perpetuator of this unhealthy norm. Very-high-level marketing does exist, and it works.

I do understand the criticisms, and agree with many of them. But if you skim through the 500 opinions in the comment section, there’s one recurring criticism that I think is out to lunch: that the whole thing is the limited perspective of a privileged white boy, who is complaining about the evils of being employed when he should shut up and be happy that he has a job at all.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m privileged and always have been. Having a supportive family and a fully-able body are immeasurable blessings I did nothing to deserve. Being born in Canada alone is a tremendous privilege.

Having a job at a time when others don’t could also be viewed as a discrete privilege on its own, but I think that’s a little shortsighted. The incredible rights and personal freedoms that allowed me to work at my then-new job (or not work there) are far greater privileges, which afford a person far greater possibilities than any particular job could provide. By becoming a complacent collaborator in a system that limits the growth of both my species and myself, I am taking my greatest privileges for granted.

In other words, I’ve always felt that achieving a “decent life” by everyday consumer standards is a pitiful use of the incredible privileges available to a healthy, self-directed person living in the incredible age we live in. Staying employed by a big company whose aims are irrelevant (or just as often, completely perpendicular) to your own values for forty years and retiring to a house on the coast is the epitome of taking one’s Western privilege for granted. I don’t begrudge anyone’s choice to do that, but they are almost certainly leaving most of their gifts on the table.  Read More

Post image for The elegant secret to self-discipline

Despite my lofty ethical and financial aspirations, I developed a tragic ice cream habit during the summer. There are all kinds of long- and short-term problems with this: it’s bad for my health, morally dubious to say the least, and totally anti-frugal — a big no-no for my new career as a tightfisted writer.

My justification was always pretty lame. I would explain to myself that I’m about to stop doing this, therefore it doesn’t matter if I do it right now. The Devil on my shoulder would only have to say, “But it’s just for now. Enjoy!” and I would already be on an unstoppable march to Safeway.

If I had given the angel on the other shoulder a chance to rebut, she would have explained the foolish tradeoff I was making. I gain twenty minutes or so of low-brow pleasure. All the benefit of this choice is gone after that. I lose, in a more lasting way, some of my money, my dignity, my sense of self-control, and my health.

Only a fool would choose the first option, but when faced with certain frozen desserts, or other present-moment incentives I often become a fool, and maybe you do too. The hallmark of the fool is that he borrows fleeting pleasures, at interest, from himself.

Self-discipline is time travel

I have a beautiful banana sitting beside my laptop right now. No black spots, no green tinge. It’s truly the perfect banana and I know it will fulfill my expectations when I do eat it.

It’s sitting about six inches from the edge of my desk and a foot from the front. I could move it to the other side of the desk, to the back of the desk or the front, and it would be the same promising banana. I could also move it in a third dimension by putting it on top of my bookcase, or move it across all three dimensions by walking it back to the fruit bowl at the center of my dining room table, and nothing of value will be lost.

I really want to eat this banana, and that desire distracts me from realizing that I could move my banana in a fourth dimension, by eating it in an hour, or four hours, and it would still provide pretty much the same levels of pleasure and dietary potassium. I forget that if I eat it now, Future David will have no banana to eat at all. So I am rewarding Right Now David at the expense of Future David.

Depending on the circumstances, Future David might even benefit more from that banana than Right Now David would. If it wasn’t quite ripe right now, there would be more enjoyment to be gained from it tomorrow.

Still, Right Now David has a considerable preference for himself, and in fact he is already eating the banana. As I mature, I notice Right Now David getting better at sharing with his Future-based colleague, and I hope one day he is able to treat all other Davids as he treats himself.  Read More

Post image for Whatever becomes normal becomes invisible

I spent Friday cleaning out my desk and leaving instructions for my successors.

Having worked as a field surveyor for eight years I had never spent so much of my workday in the office. On a normal day we prepare our field work in the office for the first hour, then head off to a job site. Surveyors are dirt-and-sky people, and tend to get stircrazy if it takes them too long to get out of the office in the morning. They’re allergic to cubicles and photocopiers, and will start to suffocate if they don’t get fresh air. On the rare occasions I’d be in the office in the afternoon, aside from that slow suffocation, it felt unnatural and slightly inappropriate, something like when your friend leaves you alone in his house for twenty minutes while he whips out to the store.

On this final Friday those feelings never arrived, even though I was in the office all the way to 4:30 pm. It felt like I could have been anywhere and it wouldn’t have mattered, like it probably feels in the first few hours after you successfully fake your death.

That feeling, I guess, was the sensation of being released from authority, a weight that had been resting on my mind for long enough for me to forget that it was possible to remove it. For the first time in a long time I didn’t have to answer to anyone. I knew my company-issue Blackberry wasn’t going to ring, I knew nobody was going to ask anything of me. It was like walking up to a glass barrier that had always been there and realizing it was only air.

The rest of the day was full of similarly weird sensations. When I parked my car outside my building, I mentally prepared myself to perform the getting-home ritual I’ve done hundreds of times: heave my laptop bag out of the backseat, collect my equipment from the trunk and farmer’s walk to the door, pin my GPS case against the wall while I fish out my keys, then open two stubborn glass doors, careful not to bang the case against the panes, then unlock my suite and shoulder the door closed before setting everything down in the permanent temporary pile of equipment beside the door.

I had all but done the whole thing in my mind when I realized I no longer have a GPS or a gigantic laptop, and I could just get out of the car and go into the building like a normal person. When I got inside I reached to my side for my Blackberry, to check email one last time (a ritual that sometimes prevented unwelcome surprises in the morning) and found that there was nothing there.  Read More

Post image for 6 helpful reminders for the overwhelmed person

One maddening tendency of any small electronic device is that whenever the battery is low, it wastes most of its remaining power beeping and flashing to tell you that battery is low.

Similarly, the human body comes with many self-defeating features. For example, whenever you’re low on oxygen, say while trying to recover your electronic device from the bottom of a public pool, the body goes into panic mode, raises the heart rate and burns away what little oxygen you have to work with.

The mind exhibits this kind of foolishness too. In has a cruel habit of misplacing its wisdom whenever you need it most. There are certain truths I really need to remember when I’m in a panicky state, which is exactly the time they are hardest to remember. So you may want to bookmark these gentle reminders, because the next time you’re overwhelmed you will never remember them.

1. The sky has fallen a thousand times already

I can’t count the number of times my world has ended. At least several dozen times in my life I’ve found myself in a situation so tangled and hopeless that I could not believe I would ever be happy again. Somehow, during each of those personal apocalypses, I forget that each of the previous ones somehow worked themselves out and are no longer relevant. Yet in real-time, the current catastrophe always seems to promise the death or at least permanent disfigurement of my entire life, and I crumple into despair and indignation. If only I could remember that almost all of the problems I’ve ever had are currently solved except the two or three most recent developments. This is just the way life moves along. It is my problems that are always marching to the gallows, not me.

I’m sure your sky has fallen many times before too. The overwhelmed mind underestimates the scale of a human life and therefore over-calculates the ultimate importance of any particular problem. Don’t be fooled.

2. Your problems are the same problems human beings have always had

You will never end up finding a way to suffer that hasn’t been fully explored yet. Heartbreak, death of loved ones, sickness and old age, chronic pain, shame, addiction, failure, poverty, and introspective nightmares are all realms that have been braved by people consistently and exhaustively for thousands of years, and to degrees much worse than yours. There are ultimately only a few basic kinds of human trouble, and they’ve all been suffered and confronted before.

Humankind’s vast experience with suffering is an asset to every one of us, because for every classic human problem there is a world of literature about the best ways to deal with it that other humans have found, and it’s never been easier to get access to this wisdom.
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