Personal Development

You Can’t Skip Rookie Year

You know what sucks?! Being new at things. Having to flail and try hard and still have little or nothing to show for it. But that’s basically what it’s like to be new at things. Rookies are a specially-named-class in the world of sports and beyond because while they may have done similar things before they’ve never done the real thing. They’re new. They’re unpracticed.

But no matter how much wishing and hoping you do — and I’ve done plenty — it turns out you can’t skip rookie year. Not in your love life, not in your work life, not in your academic life, not anywhere. And you can’t skip being a rookie even if you only do that thing for a little while. You’ll still have that new awkward hard painful phase.

That’s how things go. You don’t get to be an experienced expert at anything without having done it a first time. And then a second and a third. Once you’ve done it a few dozen times you’ll feel like you’re maybe getting the hang of it. At a few hundred you may start to have a comfort and familiarity with it. Keep going, and eventually you’ll forget entirely about all that pain and heartache you had as a rookie. You may even be one of those people with no sympathy for a rookie.

But no matter what it is or why you’re doing it, you’ll never be able to skip rookie year. To be good at anything you’ll have to bear with the painful, awkward, hard, scary parts. That’s how the world really is. No one who’s skilled and experienced at anything has managed to bypass it, and no one ever will.

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Personal Development

Humans on Autopilot

Planes have had autopilot for a few decades now. Cars are just now starting to get it. Some people think we should skip the assisted-human-driving that’s creeping in now and remove humans from the car-piloting process entirely as soon as we can.

And all of that is mostly irrelevant to my topic. What is relevant is that most of us humans, most of the time, are doing things in the same basic way we did them before and getting the same sort of results we’ve always been a little disappointed by. But we keep doing things that way nonetheless.

We’re on autopilot. One of the more interesting ideas about planes is that mostly-automated plane flight is the worst of all worlds. The reason: human pilots who are habituated to computer control will be out of practice and fumble when put back into control of the plane when a human-intervention-required emergency occurs.

This basic mechanic applies to less life-threatening scenarios too. If you suddenly decide to go to a new restaurant for eggs in the morning, you’ll probably feel a bit flustered and disoriented the first time. The same is true when you try to exercise for the first time in a while. Or when you try to have a conversation with the friend or neighbor you’d been benignly neglecting.

There are good things about living your life on autopilot. If you had to consciously think through every action and reaction you completed, you’d be a dead human. Not only would a lion or hippopotamus likely have killed you, but you probably wouldn’t have been able to keep yourself fed if they didn’t. By using autopilot for less-complicated tasks, we leave ourselves space to work on the really mind-bending ones.

The issue is that, as with human pilots, as we get older we tend to get more complacent and let autopilot drive more things. This is part of an old complaint I had about “flow traps,” and it’s also one of the reasons so many older humans are moderately dissatisfied all the time.

What’s necessary to get away from the seemingly chronic problems that haunt your life — those forty pounds you can’t shake, that relationship you wish you had but don’t, that bank account that just always seems to be a little emptier than you wish — is to turn off the autopilot that you might not even recognize is driving you back to that same places all the time.

It’s easier and more convenient to glide along guided by your autopilot — those same decision-making processes and decided truths about yourself you laid down days or decades ago — than it is to take control and fly to some place new or in some way new. But real change comes when you turn off your autopilot. You have the override, you just need to remember to use it sometimes. Keep your skills sharp.

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Personal Development

You’re Either Make the World Closer to Your Ideal, or You’re Not

There are two things about categorical statements: all of them are wrong, but some of them are useful. And so at one level, I think this piece’s title is clearly wrong: some actions don’t quite make the world better or not, they just kind of happen.

But that being said, it’s clarifying to realize that fundamentally this is a choice that every action you make can be categorized into: either it makes the world more like you’d like, or it doesn’t. Either you’re having a positive transforming impact, or you’re not.

One of the complicating factors on this simple dichotomy is that we all want the world be different in some very big and some very small ways. For example, I’d like to know that I was definitely not having an negative impact on the global environment. I’d also like to be able to get to a conference across the country next weekend without having to rely on only my own muscles (and perhaps a bicycle) to get there. What do I do?

Another great example is that I’d like to look like a Greek god. 5% body fat, big (but not obscenely large) muscles. “Ripped.” But I also like the taste of pies, chocolates, and other unhealthy things. And I don’t particularly like to perform all the exercises (in either their specific motions, or the quantity) required. Plus, as much as I’ve learned to like the flavor of vegetables, I couldn’t stay happy for long on those alone.

So what gets in the way of making this a simple and concise hueristic by which you change your actions and thus simply transform the world is that there are these different time horizons where our desires for world transformation operate. Maybe I’d like to lose 10 pounds, but dislike the feeling of hunger. Maybe I’d like to gain 10 pounds, but just can’t fathom how people eat that much food.

This balancing of all the different horizons of our desires is an art, and a constant dance. Like balancing a stick above your hand, it requires continuous adjustment. Sometimes you’re in a place where your short term desires and your long term ones align. Sometimes you’ve got to put your short-term ones on hold to pursue the long ones, sometimes the opposite. It’ll never feel perfect and natural, but the balancing of it is what living is.

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Personal Development

Things Don’t Change Unless Something Changes Them

It’s one of those things that seems so obvious that we don’t think about it. But it’s also true: things don’t change unless something changes them. The rock that you see today will be the same forever, unless (as is likely to happen) wind, water, people, and other entropic forces eventually change that rock.

This is more useful as it comes closer to the realm of human life. Unlike rocks, our bodies are self-sustaining agents of change and chaos. We eat, drink, sleep, move, and breathe — processes of transformation. Our living body is always in flux. So we’re bad at noticing all the things that don’t really change.

The mental stuff — how I think, act, and react to the world — doesn’t change fast. The way that I feel about myself is unlikely to change without effort. If I see myself as a stupid fat ugly worthless person it’s very likely that, save for the interaction of a saintly other stepping into my personal psychology and helping me out of that darkness, I will stay convinced I am that until I die. We like to think that our minds are powerful agents of change — they can be — but they’re also habit-driven robots that tend to live in their own ruts.

Your ownership of your relationship to yourself is obvious; after all, you’re the only one in that relationship. And the something that changes a relationship with another I rely on or care about can be the other person. Because of that you’ll often find it even easier to believe in your impotent powerlessness. It’ll be easier for you to just say, “I guess this relationship can never work,” than to take responsiblity for changing it.

But the thing that’s true — about a relationship on the rocks, your negative and problematic self image, or the simple fact that your socks are currently scattered all around your house to the chagrin of all the people you live with — is that the facts of those situation won’t change without something changing them.

And that thing that changes them can be you. Even when others are involved. You can seek the counseling you, or that relationship, might need. You can work, on your own, to change it. You can go pick up your socks. You don’t have the ability to dictate the final outcome. But the closest and most reliable change-agent you’ll ever have control over is yourself.

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Personal Development

“Fake it ’til you make it”: The Best and Worst Advice in the World

I was just talking to someone, and the phrase “Fake it ’til you make it” came up. This is simultaneously the most useful and the most damaging piece of advice in the world. It is both one of the few things you need to understand to be successful at anything and a potent formula for self-alienation and collapse.

Why “Faking it” is Good Advice

The thing that I think is potently, powerfully good about “fake it ’til you make it” is that it encourages you to just act. It knows that it is action — even if directed by a sense that you’re just “going through the motions” or “play-acting” — that really moves things forward. The phrase is a reminder that you can’t just sit there and think about how you’d be a good father, sister, friend, coworker, or whatever. You’ve got to actually go out in the world and do those wise things.

What’s more, experience has shown me that you can fake some things into being true. For me, smiling — when I’m in the right mood — can actually make me feel happier. And going through the motions of starting a workout can end with me very glad that I did. The same happens to me a lot around social occasions — I have to cajole myself into going, and then I have a great time.

Faking it is great because it trades on this wisdom and experience that doing things makes things change. And that sometimes just trying to do a thing is enough to make it actually become true. You can fake your way into being a better friend or life-partner or whatever just by continuing to go through the motions that you know a better friend or life-partner would.

Why Faking It is a Terrible Idea

So faking it can lead to action, mood-change, and wise actions. Good things, right? What’s bad is that if you “fake it” too hard and too long, but it never changes — you just keep feeling like you’re play-acting your life — it can feel so devastating. Like you’re a failure and a fraud and, by the way, no one has ever really loved you.

“Fake it ’til you make it” can be read to encourage unhealthy levels of self-deception. And self-deception is a great recipe for self-alienation, which is itself a giant black hole. A hole which can lead you into some very dark, brutal, hard feelings.

When you accept yourself as you are, you love yourself. When you love yourself, you remain in touch with those traits that make you worthy, lovable, and interesting to the world. When you’re faking it, you’re forced to (at least a little bit) reject the part of yourself that feels that you’re faking it. And that level of self-rejection can easily lead you to violent full-throated self-hatred.

How To Balance the Good and the Bad

You’ve got to keep aware of both halves of this dichotomy. You’re best served by staying aware that faking it is great advice when you don’t know how to act in a given situation: pretend that you’re the perfect person for that situation and then do what you envision them doing. But you must always realize that what you’re doing is an abnormal stretch, a risk, and something that hasn’t touched the core truth of who you are: a lovable, worthy, intelligent, and adaptable person doing the best they can in a world where they sometimes feel out of place.

Self-acceptance and self-love are absolutely essential if you’re going to stay a strong, resilient, and up-beat person. But you must also, as a strong, resilient, up-beat person take risks and act in situations where you feel out-of-place and uncomfortable. That’s the core pair of facts that makes “fake it ’til you make it” the best and worst advice in the world. Or to borrow a phrase from Colin Marshall, “cargo-cultism you can use.”

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Personal Development

It’s Easier to Say Wise Things than Do Them

It is so much easier to say something sage-like and wise than to live out the implications of that wisdom. I touched on this a bit in my yearly review from last week, but it’s one of the core things that reading through this site regularly reminds me.

Doing wise things requires actually facing up to the reality of a situation and putting your base responses aside. To act wisely you must understand a situation fully, and act on that knowledge coupled with your highest, most noble understanding. And then you must take an action unimpeachable even from a great distance of time.

Part of the reason many people so love giving advice to others is that we know somewhere inside of us that this difference between speech and action is real. When we give advice, we don’t have to bear any of the responsibility for the wise action. We’re just responsible for seeing the situation clearly and having an opinion about the best way through it. The hard part of making that real in the world is left to the advice’s receiver.

I wrote last year about how gratitude is so important. I advocated for cultivating gratitude as it makes life better and easier and all that. And yet I just recently realized that I had been missing — for most of the period since that piece was published — all the small miracles in my life. I hadn’t forgotten the power of gratitude, but I only knew it in an abstract, academic way. I’d forgotten to actually live it regularly.

But living it is what life consists of. Learning to live the things you know. Learning to manifest in the world the beauty that is in your heart. There are few lines from 13th century Persian poet Rumi (translations differ) that go:

May be beauty of what you love be what you do
There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground

At heart, what we must regularly remind ourselves of is this: what we love, what we want the world to be like, what we wish were true — all of it — is our responsibility. We change the world by changing ourselves. Not just in what we think and say, but in what we actually go and do in the world. It is wise action, not wise thought or wise speech, that makes the world better.

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Personal Development

Armored Against Intimacy

In life, we inevitably get hurt. Maybe the hurts are big, or maybe they’re small. But anything from a small social slight to violence inflicted upon us hurts. And so naturally, as much as we can, we’ll try to protect ourselves. Put on some armor so we can’t get hurt that way again.

And armor can do us a great deal of good. In the worst possible situations, there really is no better course for you to follow than armoring up. It’s the obvious way to cope. And even where you have a better ability to cope — where you’re not in mortal danger but at risk of a bruised ego — you’ll still probably get meaningful benefit from some armor.

So this kind of psychological armor is hugely beneficial in the short term. It keeps us safe, it protects us, and may by extension protect others. If your way of dealing with your anger at someone used to be physical violence, an armoring device where you instead just shut down or flee is an unquestionable improvement.

But armor blocks intimacy. And makes it hard for us to reach our full potential as self-aware, useful, complete, and kind human beings. When you head out to the world in a suit of chainmail, the closest you’ll ever get to those you’re helping is “not very.”

For a long time, my armor was a steadfast silence. For fear of being judged, or gossiped about, or seen as weak or dumb, I’d just not say anything. Ever. To anyone. About anything.

I’m exaggerating a bit, but I rarely divulged more than the bare minimum about me to anyone. So people who tried found me quite frustrating to talk to. But it worked, in a matter of seeing it. That coping strategy did protect me from some gossip that might have happened. But it also blocked a lot of relationships in my life from ever reaching past the most superficial level. Or existing at all.

Armor’s a useful thing. But it’s also isolating. The knight inside all his layers of metal is rather safe, but he’s not going to be known, loved, or more than superficially cared for by anyone that way. So when you can, you must learn to drop the armor. Or to let it aside, even just a little, so that so that a deeper relationship becomes possible. It’s not easy, but it’s the way you grow.

Armor keeps you safe, but it also keeps you small. Just as those plates and chainmail keep the world out, they keep you from growing in size and strength. They keep you constrained, and afraid. They’ve got a time and place, but they lock you off from the real depth of life and relationships. So as much as you can, when you can, let them go.

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Personal Development

You Are What You Repeatedly Do

I’d bet you’ve heard the phrase “you are what you repeatedly do,” or a variation on it, at least once before. It’s one of these profound but banal truths that I think are so important, those things that are simple but not easy.

It’s got such a simple purity that it’s almost impossible to dispute. But its simple clarity makes it really easy to forget about. And its implications are deep and important; foundational to what I believe to be a good and well-lived life. But it’s really easy to just look past it and do what is easy: to keep on watching television, playing video games, eating that bag of candy you indulgently bought, or anything else.

Surely not everyone has complete control over all the things they end up repeatedly doing. Some people have actual uncontrollable psychological or physical disorders that make them repeatedly do things against their active will. And obviously some people, because of age or poverty or having lost their awareness of their own agency, feel that they have to repeatedly do things that they think are bad and wish they didn’t.

But most people in most conditions most of the time have a lot of ability to change the things that they repeatedly do, but they don’t. Habit formation is hard work. It is not breezy, simple, and effortless fun in the way that eating a pint of ice cream while watching a Law and Order or Threes Company marathon on TV is.

The reason that we like to ignore this nearly incontestable reality that we are the results of our regular behavior is that it implies pretty directly and indisputably that what we lack in discipline or physique or career is not because the world is set against us, but because we don’t regularly exert enough effort toward those goals. (Though we should always keep in mind that we only control what we put out, not what we get back.)

I realized recently that in the course of my recent weight loss journey, I’ve kinda become a little scrawny and chicken-armed. I don’t want to be scrawny and chicken-armed. But the only step I’d taken to not be scrawny and chicken-armed was to do about fifteen push-up and fifteen chair-dips a day. And I’m sure even the most die-hard proponent of body-weight exercises would concur with my recent conclusion that that simply won’t cut it if one wants to have sizable (but not Mr. Olympia scale) arm muscles. I could read my scrawnier-than-I’d-like arms as an indictment of my genetic inheritance, or my career, or something else equally disempowering, but I feel pretty sure that it’s just telling my that I’m not repeatedly doing enough muscle-building arm-work.

This is really the choice you have about most facts about life: they can be great information to help you build to a new thing, or they can be disempowering truths about what is inherently wrong with you. The more I look, the more I see that the way you repeatedly make that choice to see determines almost everything about what else you repeatedly do in life, and thus almost exactly what you are. Learn to repeatedly do things that are hard but important, and I’m starting to wonder if there are any limits to the things you can accomplish.

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Personal Development

Taking Responsibility for What You Control

I’d realized before that one of the most powerful things in the world is understanding the difference between the things you do and don’t control. It’s only recently, however, that I’ve really grasped the importance of taking full ownership of those things that you do control. Seeing yourself as completely responsible for the things you truly control is as or more important a skill than understanding the distinction between what you do and don’t control.

I’ve known for a while about the fact that there’re many things I can’t control. And that trying to take ownership of those things that I do not control was simply a great way to go crazy. The distinction between those things is hard to see completely clearly, but I’ve been polishing that skill for a while. That however isn’t my focus here so we’ll set it aside.

What I want to talk about here is realizing the other half of the power of the distinction between the things you can and cannot control. That is: once you understand what you do fully and completely have responsibility for, you must see yourself as the one responsible for its upkeep.

It’s only in the last few years that I’ve learned how to really take responsibility for the things I can control. And it is in taking on that responsibility that I have become healthier, happier, and much more certain about my ability and value.

It was only when I really learned that I was the only one who was feeling the anger that I felt that I realized I was the only one who could decide how I dealt with it. It seems kind of obvious looking back, but my anger at various things in the world — my position in life, unfairnesses directed at myself or someone else, the opinions espoused by political opponents, etc — was only experienced by me. And that when I tried to spread this anger to other people they didn’t experience a conversion as a result.

I now know that it is impossible to convince someone with your anger. And I also know that being angry is a really unpleasant experience. So whenever anger starts to rise in me, I take responsibility for controlling and reducing it. It’s not an easy journey, but with time I can confidently report that taking ownership of my anger is the only thing I’ve ever found that made me less angry and more productive in addressing the causes of my anger and frustration.

It’s not easy, but knowing what you control and taking responsibility for those things is one of the most powerful things you can do as a person. I’m no master, but I know with certainty that this is something that all masters know and do.

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Personal Development

The Power of Understanding the Different Levels of Knowing

We humans are complicated and intelligent creatures. We know a lot of stuff. A lot a lot. We can name hundreds of different plants and animals. We can cook. We can speak a language. We can read that same language from symbols put on paper. We can make paper. We can understand what it means to make things. We can understand abstract concepts that have no relationship to the physical world in which we live.

But we know these things in different ways. Some things we know so well we can do them without thinking. We can eat, breathe, and move without even thinking about it. We know those things so deep we almost never think about the act itself.

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