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David Cain

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

Post image for The Hole Where All The Success Leaks Out

Each of us has a few professional-level skills—usually ones relating to our jobs, or hobbies we’ve been trained in formally. But when it comes to everything else we do, we’re amateurs.

Being an amateur just means below pro level—you may do some aspects quite well, but you still muck things up that a professional never would. For example, there are dishes I can cook pretty well, but I’m no chef. I chronically overcook vegetables, serve things I haven’t tasted, and who knows what else that would make a proper chef cringe.

There’s a huge upside to being an amateur, however. On the excellent Farnam Street Blog, Shane Parrish dusted off a brilliant insight about effectiveness and expertise, which he found in an old “get better at tennis” book from the 1970s.

Shane isn’t particularly interested in tennis. Neither am I, and chances are you aren’t either. But this insight is so powerful and universally applicable that anyone could use it to drastically improve their performance at virtually anything—any job, any art, any sport, any skill at all.  Read More

Post image for Why The Other Side Won’t Listen to Reason

At some point during your first year as a human being, the adults throw a real curveball at you. They expect you to start understanding what right and wrong mean.

These lessons come in the form of mysterious reactions that follow certain things you do. After you pull all the books from the bottom shelf onto the floor, quite a feat for a one year-old, they scold you for some reason. When you pee in the correct place, they praise you.

It’s completely baffling, but over time you get a sense that adults are extremely preoccupied with classifying actions into two broad categories: okay and not okay, or good and bad.

You quickly gather this is how the world works. And there is some logic behind what’s rewarded and what’s punished: “bad” actions are usually (but not always) ones that hurt, annoy or inconvenience other people, and “good” actions usually (not always) help in some way, or at least don’t hurt anyone.

This classification system is so strongly emphasized by the adults that you develop a keen sense of it yourself. You see rights and wrongs everywhere, particularly where you stand to gain or lose something personally: in the fair distribution of treats, in acknowledgement for chores done, in which cartoon characters deserve to be happy (or in a police wagon) at the end of the episode.  Read More

Post image for Four Things Procrastinators Need to Learn

One litmus test for being a serious procrastinator: there are items on your to-do list that were there a year ago.

A year is more than one percent of even a very long life—what could be so difficult or intimidating that we’d avoid it for that long? For some of us, anything really: making a doctor’s appointment, cleaning out the trunk, fixing a leaky faucet.

To be a chronic procrastinator is to be fooled repeatedly by the same illusions about how your mind works and how things actually get done. You hit the same ruts, spin out in the same place, and misunderstand what happened in the same way as every other time.

Once in a while, you spot one of these mirages right before you step into it again, and finally see the truth behind the illusion. Here are four such truths about I wish I could tell my younger self.  Read More

Post image for Why There’s Too Much On Your Plate

The great complaint of our time seems to be “I’ve got too much on my plate.”

I wonder how long people have been saying that for. When did plate room, whatever it is, become the thing we can’t get enough of? It’s hard to imagine our hunter-gatherer predecessors keeping multiple-page to-do lists, or perpetually pushing back their actual hunting and gathering because of incessant meetings.

Presumably, we stack so much on our plates because each item returns something necessary for the life we want, something pre-industrial people wouldn’t have had: more security, more luxury, more fun, more fulfillment.

Yet we can’t seem to refrain from stacking things too high, and suffering the resulting stress, overwhelm and sense of falling behind.

Modernity has brought unbelievable benefits to us and we shouldn’t take that for granted. I’m not pining for the days of rickets and involuntary fasting. But it is amazing to me why it’s so chronically difficult for us not to overfill our plates with obligations, diversions, work, and projects, given all the technological advantages we have over our ancestors. Read More

Post image for The Art of Enjoying The Burn

After inspecting my ankle, the doctor told me to strengthen it by doing a hundred calf raises a day. I try to do them whenever a few minutes present themselves: when soup is heating, coffee is brewing, or something is downloading.

After a few dozen reps, the calves really start to burn. I hadn’t done calf raises for years, and it turns out my relationship to that burning is very different than it used to be. Having done a fair bit of weight training since then, I hadn’t quite realized that I now enjoy the burning sensation of fatiguing muscles. I’ve come to know it as the feeling that goes with getting stronger.

I used to hate this same feeling. It was the feeling of slogging through the final laps in gym class, dying to hear the buzzer go. It was the feeling of awkwardly holding up a plank while I waited for my dad to put in all the screws.

Interestingly, the physical side of this muscle-burn feeling is the same as it ever was. It’s still uncomfortable. It’s still a relief when I can stop and rest. But my psychological relationship to it has completely reversed.

Instead of trying to escape from, ignore, or stop the burning, as I once did in Phys Ed class, I settle into it willingly, like the heat from a sauna. I let it build and intensify as I push on, without trying to defend against it, and that intensity is exhilarating. Even though it burns, it feels like strength, capability, progress.  Read More

Post image for The Value of Practicing Awareness

Last week I sang the praises of the countless tiny, private experiences that enrich our day: the stripes of sunlight that fall on the staff room table, the steam billowing from your coffee machine, the warmth of the cat in your lap.

We all love that stuff, and it’s happening all day long, even on “uneventful” days. Every day contains potentially unlimited objects of gratitude, but connecting with them requires a somewhat persistent awareness of the present moment.

This persistent awareness doesn’t come naturally to us. Typically, for 21st century adults, any free attention is usually captured by habitual thinking—an ongoing, meandering inner monologue about things that will happen later, or have happened already, or should happen. Worries, rehearsals, diatribes, imagined conversations.

Maybe it sounds dramatic, but I see this the great tragedy of the modern human mind: we miss the moments that make up our lives because our attention is dominated by remembered or imagined experiences—hypothetical moments we’d like to have, or more often, avoid having.  Read More

Post image for Gratitude Comes From Noticing Your Life, Not From Thinking About It

Every gratitude exercise I’ve ever done asks you to think about what you have to be grateful for. In other words, you brainstorm reasons you ought to feel grateful, whether or not you do.

You’ve probably done one of these before: writing five things you’re grateful for every night, recalling past good luck during difficult moments, or trying to remember, as often as possible, your privileges and advantages in life.

These exercises might be worthwhile on some level, but most of the time they don’t create much of a real-time, felt sense of gratitude. They just remind you of certain encouraging rote facts: on paper, your situation is pretty good; many parts of your life would be enviable to others; things could be worse.

As you might have noticed, simply making the case to ourselves that we have reasons to feel grateful doesn’t necessarily make us feel grateful.

Gratitude, when we do genuinely feel it, arises from experiences we are currently having, not from evaluating our lives in our heads. When you feel lonely, for example, simply remembering that you have friends is a dull, nominal comfort compared to how wonderful it feels when one of those friends calls you out of the blue. Reflecting on the good fortune of having a fixed address is nice, but stepping inside your front door after a cold and rainy walk home is sublime.  Read More

Post image for It’s Time to Put The Internet Back Into a Box in The Basement

My first online interaction, circa 1992, fascinated but also terrified me. I should have taken it as a warning.

At the time, computers were just machines you had in your basement. They had programs in them, and you would sit in a chair and use those programs for a while, then go do something else. The whole time you used this machine you remained, both physically and psychologically, in your own house.

Nobody had the internet yet really, but there were Bulletin Board Systems. Your computer could phone another computer, presumably in someone else’s basement, and access a virtual space for posting messages, designed by that computer’s owner. No images, just bare text. Only one person could visit at a time, because it occupied the owner’s phone line.

One time I was using a BBS, believing I was alone in my basement, when some strange text started appearing on my screen, letter by letter. Someone else was typing—on my screen, in my basement. The text asked if I was enjoying his BBS.

My heart pounded. What was happening was impossible. Seeing that alien text crawl onto my screen felt like a seeing ghost appear before you inside your locked bedroom.

I did not yet have any sense of what it meant to be “online.” At the time, everything was offline. Life consisted of physical objects in physical locations. (We had TV and phones of course—which must have similarly amazed and unsettled those who were alive when they were introduced—but in my case they were an established part of the universe from birth.)

Still, for years afterward, going online was something you did in one place—at the home computer, or more likely, at the one in the school library—for a small part of the day, if at all. The online world was a novel and small part of life, and you almost never thought about it when you weren’t sitting in a computer chair.

Twenty-some years later, the internet seems present in almost every room, vehicle and public space—and I want that old feeling back. I want life to once again feel like it takes place in an immediate, local, physical world.

While living in this physical world, you can, if you choose, occasionally use a special computer device that allows you to look things up, learn a bit of news from afar, entertain yourself, and send important messages.  Read More

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