Categories
the truth about life

Things You’re Allowed to Do, That I Would Recommend

Sell everything you own and buy a one-way ticket
Have a panic attack lying in a cheap hotel bed after you sold everything you own to buy a one-way ticket
Regard this as one of the highlights of your life

Buy a new book, even though you have a stack of books you haven’t started
Add the new book to the stack
Admire the stack from afar

Make a bunch of spreadsheets to critically think through your big life decision
Go with your gut feeling
Eat some chocolate, you deserve it

Take a walking tour of the city. It’s fascinating, everything you didn’t know about this place
Don’t take a walking tour of the city. Let it remain a mystery
Stay in your hotel. Browsing the internet in a new city is nice

Buy some crypto
Panic sell when the market crashes
Laugh about the silly internet money (that you no longer have)

Walk around every day with smeared eyeliner. It looks nice in the morning before it’s smeared
Admire women who don’t wear makeup
Buy nude lipstick

Resist the urge to take a photo of the pretty sunset. Just be totally present with this moment
Nevermind, take a photo of the pretty sunset. Living in the moment is on your to-do list
Set the photo as your wallpaper to remind your future self to live in the moment

Categories
contemplation 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 truth about life

Taking Slow Sips of the World

I’m only one person. I want to be of help to this world. I’m trying to be of help to this world. But I can’t do that if I’m paralyzed by taking in ever-more information.

After all, I’ve already got the plot: a runaway population of clothed apes have infested a rock spinning through space. These apes’ technical prowess has enabled them to conquer their environment. However they haven’t evolved skills of mass coordination and resource management, thus they are over-extracting their environment and causing the collapse of their ecosystem. Only some of these apes are aware that their ecosystem will not support their survival for much longer; the others are too preoccupied with pursuing their primal drives of acquisition, status, and reproduction.

Do I need a constant feed of further information to make a contribution to the world? Or do I rather need to spend time—lots of time—in contemplation and toil to figure out how I can help these apes mitigate disaster?

I think about how often our ancestors would have access to news. In the time of newspapers and telegraphs, they might have received news one or two times per day. In the days of Genghis Khan, a European may have heard no news of the great empire sweeping the land until many years into the conquest. And in hunter gatherer times, you’d likely only get information when crossing another tribe.

Not that those historic times were superior—we all cherish the benefits of the information age. But I wonder if information is a bit like food: having an adequate supply is important, but have too much and the body becomes preoccupied filtering it and removing its excess.

I can emotionally and intellectually process probably one fact about the state of climate change in a week. To sit scrolling through a barrage of takes, stats, and memes is more than I can digest. And such scrolling turns me into a willing participant in our modern dystopia where we sit glued to our screens, numbly refreshing for minute-by-minute updates on the world’s worst events.

So I’ve decided to do more to keep my mental space mine. Less newsletters, less social media, less—gasp!—internet. I’m also striving to improve my information diet quality: less knee-jerk Twitter takes, more long-form content from those who have taken the time to think through and emotionally process the data. And instead of blindly accepting a feed of information, I’m doing more to think what information I actually need and then search it out.

In short, I strive to take thoughtful, slow sips of the world—not blindly guzzle from its fire hose.


Further resources:

Cal Newport’s advice on how to stay informed but active:

First, check one national and one local new source each morning. Then — and this is the important part — don’t check any other news for the rest of the day. Presumably, time sensitive updates that affect you directly will arrive by email, or phone, or text.

This will be really hard, especially given the way we’ve been trained by social media companies over the past decade to view our phone as a psychological pacifier.

Which brings me to the second part of the solution: distract yourself with value-driven action; lots of action. Serve your community, serve your kids, serve yourself (both body and mind), produce good work. Try to fit in a few moments of forced gratitude, just to keep those particular circuits active.

Brenna Quinlan on doing something, not everything:


Thanks to Joe Green for the header photo.

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!

Categories
books contemplation habits ideas the truth about life

On forming Forever Habits

Several years ago, I found myself in the predicament of being unable to read nonfiction books. I could, of course, read the words just fine, but the act of sitting and reading one page after another stirred an overwhelming anxiety: I knew so little and learning took so long. Each sentence I read was a tiny drop in a bucket the size of a rapidly expanding universe (a metaphor which reminded me of astrophysics, another subject I’d like to learn, but how long would that take???). Turning each page felt like confronting the utter meaninglessness and pointlessness of my small, stupid existence.

So I’d shut the book and walk away.

When I realized I was stuck in a self-reinforcing cage of ignorance, I became motivated to overcome it. I decided that, no matter what, I would read for 30 minutes every day for a month. As a visual reminder of my commitment, I got a calendar and crossed a big X through each day after completing the reading.

And even though reading was still uncomfortable for the first few times, I got through my resistance pretty quickly. I stopped paying attention to my universe of ignorance and instead started paying attention to all the exciting new ideas rushing into my awareness.

The first book I read during this month was The Power of Habit. In it, Charles Duhigg argues that we have limited conscious attention and willpower to make decisions, thus the majority of what we do every day happens out of habit. He concludes that if we use our limited willpower to create our habits, we can effectively program our lives.

I was sold.

The author suggested you could form a habit in 30 days, so I got a big calendar that showed all 12 months at once. I made a list of 12 habits I’d like to adopt and chose one new habit for each month. And then I sat back to install 12 new habits, easy as crossing one day off after the next.

But… it didn’t work like that. Meditation didn’t stick around long once the 30 days were up. Journaling, gratitude, avoiding sugar… these too quickly evaporated from my life once I moved onto my next pet habit.

In fact, the only habit that stuck around from that year was my first habit: reading. But… that’s ok, reading has been a pretty great habit. Heck, if I could adopt one new habit every year as helpful as reading, I’d be thrilled.

But still, what happened with those other habits—why didn’t they stick?

The Power of Habit prescribes a cue, habit, reward formula. Cue is what reminds you to perform the habit. Then, after performing the habit, you’re supposed to get some reward to incentivize you to repeat the habit again. Y’know, like training dogs.

I peered into how that model was at play in my successful reading habit:

In my month of 30 minutes of reading per day, I had been quick to find a hack: audiobooks. If I just put audiobooks on while driving, I didn’t have to change anything else in my life to meet my reading time quota. Were audiobooks as nerd-sexy as the physical variety? Definitely not. But, whatever worked.

And worked it did. Quickly I found myself listening anytime I feasibly could—walking, driving, cooking, eating meals, cleaning.

So the cue for my reading habit was being a situation where my body was occupied with a task but my attention was free.

I didn’t need to ladle out treats after each reading session—the reward was intrinsic in the reading itself. Every time I read I would be rewarded by shiny, new fun ideas in my head. (This echoes Naval’s advice that, to build the habit of reading, you should read whatever you are most interested in, even if that means beginning by reading trashy novels. He advises to build up a sense of enjoyment of reading, so skip anything boring or tedious, and never feel compelled to finish anything.)

In the charmingly anecdotal Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin argues that you should never use extrinsic rewards to reinforce habits. From my own experience, I have found this to be very true:

One evening in high school, after reading something about using rewards to get yourself to do something, I ate a bowl of ice cream to prod myself into cramming for a pre-calc exam. Fast forward 15 years and I’m still unravelling the compulsion to pair the endorphin rush of a sugar high with tackling tough work. Looking back, I wish I would have instead committed to just 20 minutes of study (“it’s just 20 minutes, after that I can take a break”), set a timer, and afterwards reward myself by reflecting on how good it feels having faced a challenge head-on.

So when I was recently building a habit of regularly hitting the gym, I looked at how to build in a reward that would keep me hooked on the habit. I knew I didn’t want an extrinsic reward of, say, a smoothie at the end. So instead, when I was leaving the gym I would consciously think positive and affirming things. Like, “Wow, look how on top of things I am. Most of my life I’ve struggled to regularly work out, but here I am. Things must be going well.” So the reward became my feeling positive about my ability to achieve my hopes for my life, which was far more motivating than any treat. This reward also helped motivate me to go to the gym when I was tired or grumpy: I knew I would feel better after going.

The other thing that helped me form a gym habit was not making it too hard. Previously I tried to start an exercise habit by jumping into high-intensity programs that I would participate in with maximum enthusiasm until I overexerted myself and had to drop out due to injury or just having run out of enthusiasm for intense unpleasant experiences.

So this time I instead decided that I was forming a habit of going to the gym for the rest of my life. Because it was a lifetime habit, the intensity of any one workout didn’t really matter—what mattered was that I enjoyed going to the gym and that I worked out in a sustainable fashion. The goal became not to have a great workout but to just show up. My workouts weren’t efficient, I wasn’t getting ripped, but I was enjoying myself and coming back. And 20 years of consistent easy workouts will do me better than 20 years of occasional intense exercise. And so working out became less about the workout and more about the habit of arriving at the gym even if I didn’t feel like it.

This focus on the long view made me realize: I don’t want to focus on short-term behavioral change. I don’t want to do a Whole 30 or a sober October. I don’t want to prepare for a marathon or lose 10 pounds for a wedding. I don’t want to do anything where I use short-term enthusiasm for a short-term result. I want to use every ounce of my enthusiasm for better behavior to build permanent automatic daily actions.

Like with building the habit of meditation:

The day after completing my first 10-day Vipassana retreat, I committed to sitting for 45 minutes each morning and evening. I sat silent and virtuous, confident that my devoted meditation practice would become the calm groundedness I would build a meaningful life upon.

This routine lasted for a whole (very lovely) 1.5 days.

So when I took up meditation again, I took it up with the view of making it a forever habit. I decided that I meditate because I always meditate. If I stopped the habit, I would just start it back up again as soon as I noticed, just like how in meditation you come back to the object of meditation whenever you find yourself lost in thought. And instead of 45 minutes, I aimed for just 5 minutes. After all, unlike 45 minutes, I really can’t argue that I don’t have 5 minutes.

Interestingly, with the attitude of lifelong commitment, I finally started seeing benefits from my meditation practice. I started “waking up” in my everyday life. I would find myself standing in the kitchen drying my hands and I would just start watching, quietly observing. Or I would find myself in a surge of emotion and step back and watch my breath, waiting for the storm to pass. And one morning I felt an overwhelming sense of peace wash over me. I could see how one could remain calm and peaceful even as the world goes to hell. This was the peace described in all those books on meditation I had read in lieu of actually meditating.

I see habits now as a lifelong practice: Pick the habits you want to cultivate and do your best to water them every day. If you stray from your habits, come back and begin at them again, because they reflect your values and your values are always there, an endless source of enthusiasm for the activities that best reflect your authentic self.

Categories
books contemplation the truth about life

On failing to be the change you wish to see in the world

Chris Jordan, Midway

Several years ago after watching a video, I deliberately erected a bubble of ignorance around environmental issues. This video, not four minutes long, showed that birds on a tiny remote island were dying. Their corpses decayed to reveal a skeleton stuffed with an assortment of colorful plastic rings and caps and doo-dads.

I was depressed for months after watching it. I didn’t want to be in a species so careless and cruel. These birds… just following instincts to eat. And this plastic… used so flippantly, each piece just one thoughtless moment in one person’s life.

I resolved to stop consuming single-use plastic. I was determined. I would do it! And yet all that determination dissolved a mere 48 hours later, buckled by a mundane desire for some food dressed in plastic wrap.

But what was worse than my personal plastic consumption was my livelihood: my job was literally to sell (more and more!) glass bottles with little black plastic caps. Black plastic caps that would exist for thousands of years as false food for undiscerning mouths.

Here I was, the person stuffing an increasing quantity of plastic caps into these birds stomachs.

Hello, I am the problem. ????

**

I didn’t know how to deal with discovering I was the villain. I didn’t mean to be the villain—I had obtained that job from the sincerest desire to find a way to make a living doing something good in the world. The bottles I was selling were from a company trying to protect endangered plant species by supporting their sustainable agriculture. “People, planet, profit”—I thought it was possible. This job was supposed to be my way of making a difference.

With the new information about the problem with plastics, I should have dropped everything and devoted my life to pursuing better eco-plastic solutions and their adoption. But I was tired and busy and stressed, and honestly more than a little worried about money. The hard thing to do was figure out a way to help. The easy thing to do was to just shut my eyes.

I followed the path of least resistance. I made my eyes blur over environmental headlines. I found a few organizations working on solutions and sent money to those better, stronger people who were capable of keeping their eyes and minds open when looking at a problem.

And that’s how I lived with myself without changing much.

I told myself: things aren’t black and white, good and bad. It’s a complicated world in shades of gray.

I told myself: humans are just one step in the process of evolution, and we’re making all this plastic for a new type of microbe that will eat all the plastic and evolve into some new line of plastic-based life form. After all, we’re literally taking all the remains from species past and creating plastic with it. We are nature itself in the process of self-transformation. Yes, it looks like death and destruction, but this is how nature is. And the sun will eat the earth one day, anyway.

I told myself: everything will die and nothing lasts—why not sell some plastic bottle caps before the heat death of the universe?

These stories helped me hide from my disappointment that I was not a better person who would drop everything and spend my life fighting plastics in the ocean. I was no person of virtue; I actually did not really care; I was too weak to overcome the inertia of my selfishness, apathy, and averageness. And even this bitter news wouldn’t motivate me to change my behavior. I would suffer only the mildest of inconveniences to care for the earth and its beings.

I told myself: Only rare humans succeed in spending their lives doing something other than following their evolutionary impulses. My averageness really does make sense, statistically.

**

Several years later, I had made a nice life on this foundation of stories. It wasn’t perfect, but it was… good. I had puzzled out something of a career. I had discovered the lively and livable Berlin, escaping the US and the constant reminder of Trump’s election. I had even at last tracked down a shampoo that spun my frizz into ringlets 2/3 washings.

I was one of the billions whose life seemed to promise getting better. I turned the pages of Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, grinning at how lucky I was to be born at the feet of unrelenting progress. I drifted to sleep dreaming of how I would one day improve the conditions of factory-farmed animals, own an apartment, and cross Tokyo off my must-see list. The future was bright.

It was in this phase of optimism that I decided it was stupid to willfully keep myself ignorant of environmental issues. I was stronger now. I could handle the truth.

But, as I turned the pages of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, a book that translates the science of climate change into its likely consequences, I learned that while I had been getting stronger, the truth had been getting more unbearable.

Re-envisioning my future as a future with climate change felt a bit like a mother being informed she would miscarry. An expecting mother, excited for a beautiful next chapter in her life, receives news that there are… problems. That future she was so sure was right around the corner was… a dream. And while reorienting herself to this new bleak reality, it dawns on her that she still has to go through the motions of delivering a baby anyhow.

Likewise, the happy life I was looking forward to was in a world that would not exist. The world that would exist was one with increasing millions of displaced people, food and water shortages, and regular catastrophic weather events—all of these forces making peace and prosperity that much more difficult.

The world was fucked, and like how the mother of a dead baby had to deliver it all the same, I had to keep up the act of paying rent in an unfolding tragedy.

I had not taken action years ago, I had not helped humanity find a way to reconcile endless economic growth with a finite environment. And now we—everyone busy and stressed and tired and worried about money—are on a fast track to a really shitty reality.

And my life, if my previous actions are a reliable predictor, won’t help a thing.


Afterword: This post was written as an exercise to examine my frustrations and hopefully see beyond my blinding feelings of guilt and hopelessness. Writing it helped me to start letting go of my anger about my past inaction and renewed my commitment to help protect the environment. Instead of feeling like I have to do everything to help, I am focusing on what I can do right now. So for now my focus is on avoiding animal products, avoiding flying whenever possible, hosting clothing swaps to promote reuse, and donating a % of my income to organizations who are making meaningful change.

If you’re interested in these topics, here’s some things to check out:

5Gyres is an organization that helps spread awareness on the issues of plastic.

Cool Earth halts rainforest deforestation and thus climate change.

Giving What We Can is an organization that promotes donating 10% of your income as a way to create positive change. Giving What We Can was eye-opening to me because I realized that without changing much in my life now, I can work to empower others to make a difference.

The Uninhabitable Earth is a great article that covers the 101 of why to care about climate change. If you want to dig more into the details, the book under the same name is likewise stellar (and beautifully written).