Categories
contemplation ideas

Act as though you have the winning ticket

Are you ruminating over what could have been had you turned left instead of right? What could have been had you kept the guy or girl, made the move, or quit the job? 

But hypothetical grasses are always greener—you don’t know how these other choices might have turned out. And besides, you’ve already had such an exceeding deal of good luck: food in your belly, the ability to read this blog, and the time to fritter away doing so. It probably doesn’t matter what you choose—any route you go down you can probably still sit around and gawk at what a wondrous life you live. 

So make a new choice:

Act as if everything up to this moment has been absolutely perfect, and that now you have the perfect hand to play. Because how do you know that all your fumbles and misfortunes were not winking parts in some grand perfection?

How would you act if this very moment, this very self, and this very situation were your winning ticket?

How would you act if the game has not been lost—no!—and you have everything you need to be the hero of your own life, en route to slay the dragon and win your dreams?

How would you act if the very situation you find yourself in now is the first chapter of the best part of your life?

Categories
contemplation the truth about life

The Secret to Dancing

I discovered the secret to dancing one night. I had been looking forward to dancing all day as I stared out my office window, click click clicking away at the keyboard. Finally I arrived at the dance. But… it wasn’t right. The music just wasn’t good. And I discovered my feet tired, my mood melancholy. I figured I might as well go home and call it a night.

But then… I let myself, just for a moment, suspend my complaints and criticisms, and look to see if I could find anything pleasing in that moment. At first my mind resisted, reeling like a car transmission forced to shift several gears. But my eyes caught on a string of lights. “Oh, pretty,” I thought. Then my eyes noticed the burnt orange of a man’s shirt (so nice, and so unusual, that color). Then I noticed a tiny pleasure in the way I moved my leg to the right, and the left, in rhythm to the beat. And appreciation into appreciation cascaded until I found myself moving in a trance of delight.

Had the music shifted, or was it just me? Whereas at first I wanted to go home, that game of attention brought me to the most transcendentally joyous evening. 

Since then I’ve noticed that the secret to dancing is the secret to a lot of things. I came to call it “giving love to the altar of the moment”—a micro-ritual to notice what is good in the immediate moment, and keep noticing, and keep noticing. Every moment has a gift to give and if we can leave it sacraments of our loving attention, I believe doors open to very exquisite moments.

What can you appreciate in this moment? 

Categories
books Buddhism contemplation

What Thich Nhat Hanh Taught Me

I used to know for certain there was a living buddha in the world. Then Thich Nhat Hanh passed away.

But in his writing, he was clear that he would not die. He told a story of how a student had prepared a place for his remains. He laughed and said he would not be in this place. He would be with us in our mindful breaths, in the peace of the cloud.

I used to think I had a peculiar relationship with Thich Nhat Hanh, that I was especially touched by him. When he passed away, I discovered that very many people love him just as I do. When they speak about him, I know their love is the same as mine. It’s very beautiful, finding the same love that’s in your heart in someone else’s.

In Buddhism there’s talk about taking refuge in the Buddha, but Thich Nhat Hanh the buddha pointed to this current-breath-right-now as the place of refuge.

He said something I’ll never forget. He said that if he found meditation to be arduous, he wouldn’t do it. He meditates because he finds it enjoyable. He likes to sit with his breath.

From that, I meditated in a new way. I gave up the self-bludgeoning trying. I breathed and listened for peace.

Ah, there it is.

Last night his words taught me something else. He said we can be free while living our lives, doing good in the world, and tending to what needs to be done. We can be free if we are breathing mindfully in the present moment. We don’t have to be captives of our circumstance, always waiting for some outer situation to change. If we are present with the breath, we are free. ☁️

If you’re interested in knowing Thich Nhat Hanh, I really loved his books The Art of Communicating and The Art of Living.

Categories
contemplation favorite posts the truth about life

Letter to My Younger Self

Dear Younger Self,

I’ve got good news and bad news.

The bad news

You’re not a special snowflake. You’re not especially pretty, or smart, or talented.

You could take this news in stride, but American society has convinced you that you need to be special, extraordinary. Yet the odds of being extraordinary are slim to none, and the dice have not rolled in your favor. Your ancestors’ gifts to you were merely to ensure survival: a chronic fear of everything, a preoccupation with what others think, and a nagging self-concern that buzzes around your thoughts like a trapped mosquito.

You’re also not brave. You prefer to live in your cozy mental assumptions than interact with the world to discover how it really is. 

For example: 

You decide (without asking) that Jordan from geometry class is not interested in going to a movie with you. In your beauty magazine logic, you decide that he would ask you out, if only you were thinner. So you dedicate most of your waking hours to achieving a thigh gap, never questioning whether this is a worthwhile goal. Your thighs eventually stand apart. He doesn’t ask you out.

But your biggest issue is not that you think the best way to woo someone is through silent starvation. No, here’s the rub: the universe is chaos. It’s immune to your affirmations. It will not rearrange itself to suit your fancy.

Your hard-won thigh gap gives way to entropy.

The good news

It turns out the beauty magazines were mistaken. Millions of years of evolution have ensured some opposite-sex members of your species will be attracted to your fleshy, fertile-looking body. Unlike your female ancestors, your poor judgment about who to mate with won’t haunt you. Your fear of everything, which ensured your ancestors lived to reproduce, now ensures you remember to take your birth control. First your ancestors were freed from hunting and gathering and then farming; now you’ve been freed from church and children.

So while you may not be extraordinary, this world and the time you were born into are. While your ancestors didn’t gift you with remarkable wit or beauty, they did suffer through disease, birth, genocide, poverty, and war to grant you a body so that you may stand, now, on this spinning rock.

Maybe you shouldn’t be so concerned about your thighs.

It turns out society is mistaken, too. You don’t need to be extraordinary. You don’t need to be lauded by thousands to feel loved; you’ll be content with a handful of genuine friendships. Nor do you need fame or fortune to feel fulfilled; just helping one other person will suffice. 

The world is far bigger and weirder than what you’ve seen on TV. Those ideas of better and worse are all made up, and you can author your own. For example: that the pinnacle of beauty is luscious, ample thighs.

And while you may ultimately be average, in the 21st century that entails being extraordinary. You can summon any piece of humanity’s knowledge by typing the right words into a search box. You can sit in a big metal bird and chomp bubblegum while flying over mountain ranges that armies once died trying to pass. There’s so much for you to see and learn and do. 

So please, don’t waste your time worrying that you don’t measure up to some societal ideal. Be glad for the lucky shoes you stand in. Walk those shoes out past your fears, past your self-concern, and right out the front door.

The world awaits, and you’re every bit good enough for it. 

Love,
Alex

Categories
contemplation

The value of €10

Someone on the street asked me for change. He hadn’t had a coffee yet, he explained. As a fellow caffeine addict, I empathized. On a whim, I gave him a ten.

The man blinked in surprise. I could see him trying to figure out what to do.

“I’ll buy you a coffee,” he said.

I pointed out I already held a coffee in my hand.

“I’ll think of you,” he said.

The ten meant a lot to him. But it meant a lot to me to be able to help someone, at least for a morning. He got some food, I got some meaning. This sense of contribution would hold me over, at least for part of the day. And I knew no matter how my day turned out, this would be the most meaningful experience in it.

I thought about all the times I told people “sorry, no” when they asked for change. I could have been having this experience. How much would it cost me to have this experience every day?

Oh yeah, €3,650.

I thought what I could buy for €3,650 that would be better than having this experience 365 times.

I couldn’t think of anything.


I’m not sure when it became the norm to tell people no when they ask for money, walking past hungry people in our rush to make our nice lives perfect.

Don’t we have enough money to feed someone, at least for one morning?

Categories
contemplation the truth about life

10 Questions for Finding Your Calling

Some quickly find their calling—they find a career that engages, satisfies, and pays them. But for many of us, it’s not that simple. We end up drifting about, meandering down one path and then another, always wondering what it is we’re really meant to do.

After many years of having only a vague sense of career direction (and often grateful just to make ends meet), I pondered a series of questions and finally reached clarity about what I want to do.

But before sharing the questions I used, I want to point out that it’s perfectly fine—and often part of the process—to not be clear on what you want to do in life. Life is not a straight line from A to B, and sometimes you need to go through several transformations to gain the necessary context to find your calling.

During times when you’re unclear, the following advice may be helpful:

  1. Follow your curiosity, as Elizabeth Gilbert says. I’ve had several life junctions where I felt an overwhelming desire to study something, spend time with someone, change cities, or travel. Those whims often didn’t feel logical at the time, but pursuing them led to opportunities and insights that brought me further down my path.
  2. Put in the hard work to gain valuable skills. Cal Newport argues that ‘follow your passion’ is bad advice, and advises instead to “put in the hard work to master something rare and valuable, then deploy this leverage to steer your working life in directions that resonate.” His book So Good They Can’t Ignore You and the tl;dr blog post version are highly recommended.

Without further ado, here are the questions for finding your life’s calling:


1. If I died today, what would I be sad that I didn’t do?

Imagine you were to die tonight in your sleep. What are you most sad you didn’t get to do?

Another way to approach this: “If I were to die happy and satisfied, how would I have lived?”

2. What did I like doing when I was young?

Reflect on your childhood and see if any memories call to you.

I have a vivid memory of coating an elementary school worksheet in stripes of glitter crayon. I was worried that this act would be admonished, but I couldn’t resist making the drab worksheet more attractive. It turns out that this root desire to make ideas and information more alluring is my calling!

3. If I had all the money I needed, what would I do?

Often our sense of career is deeply intertwined with the obligation to make money. While of course our career must sustain us, this question can help us see past any money issues that may be skewing our perception.

4. What brings me satisfaction?

This question helps calibrate the previous one. If in the last question you pictured yourself laying in a pool sipping champagne, you’re unlikely to envision the same in this one.

Related questions: “What do I feel proud of?” or “What would I feel proud of?”

5. What do I do where I lose track of time?

Losing track of time lost in an activity happens when you are in a “flow state.” This state is often deeply satisfying and brings about our best work, so your answer to this question may indicate an activity to double-down on in your professional career.

6. Where do I gain energy, and where do I lose it?

Do you gain energy from working with people or working alone, or in a particular combination? What sort of challenges inspire and motivate you, and which drain your batteries? This question is posed to help you find a sustainable work situation.

7. Whose life am I jealous of?

I found this question after becoming green with envy upon hearing Tim Ferriss’s writing schedule. His schedule was something like waking up, taking a swim, doing writing, eating the same daily lunch, reviewing writing, and then meeting up for friends in the evening. I wanted that life so much—me against a blank canvas, every day—that I realized I should orient my career around that sort of “maker” schedule.

Related question: “What does a perfect Saturday look like?”

8. What am I good at?

Alternative questions: “What do friends ask me to do for them that I find easy?” and “What am I bad at?”

9. What are my “factions,” and what do they want?

This question is a way of finding a calling that encompasses all the different aspects of you.

I have three factions—aka inner drives—that are often in conflict with each other:
The caring faction that wants to save the world.
The artistic faction that wants to excel at creative expression.
The fearful faction that wants to be secure.

If I spend too much energy tending to any one or two factions, the omitted factions will start rebelling and demanding all of my energy.

Many times I’ve tried to go a path that only satisfies one of the three (e.g., a high-paying job for the fearful faction, or renouncing financial security to live a life of service), but inevitably I become unhappy because I haven’t fulfilled all of my drives.

10. What would I do if I could start over?

You might resist your calling because there’s a sizable gap between where you are now and where you would need to be to pursue that calling. Perhaps that’s a gap in skillset, knowledge, degree, network, funding, or identity. This question is a way to get around any resistance of the “but I don’t have X so…” or “but it’s too late to…” variety.


You may find as I did that the answers to these questions may not come all at once, but after many months of reflection.

What questions and processes have you found helpful? Please comment below!