Productivity

“The Space to Be a Person,” or Why You Need Slack Time

Call it idleness, slack, non-action, pausing, or just plain “doing nothing.” Whatever you call it, too frequently today it is skipped, degraded, and seen as a less than noble use of time. The United States of America — where I was born and have lived all my life — is especially known for its “never slow down” mentality.

I mentioned a few weeks ago in my annual review that I’d spent a long period of the summer suffering at the hands of (self-imposed) outrageous work requirements. And during that period, when I was taking ever less slack time and ever more time ostensibly working, I started to find myself more frustrated, frustrating, and most of all just wishing I had some time. “The space to be a person” was the phrase that echoed through my mind for months .

What “the space to be a person” meant to me then, and still does, isn’t about physical space — though that matters too — but about the sense of space afforded by time when there are no expectations of you and no tasks you’re supposed to be doing. In that kind of space, you really can just be. That’s one of those things that people frequently regard as new-agey and very “woo-woo,” or just simply vapid. But the difference between doing something and simply being is undeniable if you pause to consider it.

When you’re just being, you’re (forced to be) in contact with what’s actually going on. You’re made to feel that you’re restless or bored or whatever. You’re also, with that space, hopefully able to take some time to get intimate with that feeling and learn (or at least experiment with) how you can be and work with it effectively. And that stuff matters.

What’s more, slack time is time when you can pick up a task that hasn’t been done but should have been. A time when you can finish off that thing you were hoping to do earlier, or work ahead on that thing you anticipate being a time-crunch coming down the pike. But the important thing about slack time is that  you don’t have to do any of those things. It is fundamentally this allowance and possibility for a whole array of different tasks, doings, and non-doings that makes slack time so valuable.

When your time and life is scheduled end-to-end and you’re just barely able to do in a day or a month all the things that you have to have accomplished in that period, you feel like you don’t have space to breathe. And any small setback can easily accrete into a catastrophe that’ll throw everything else out of alignment.

Slack time is, in many ways, the ultimate wealth. Slaves never had it, because while they had periods where they weren’t working they weren’t free to do whatever they wanted with that time. And today, people forced by economic conditions to work two full-times jobs surely know better than most of the softer middle class the value of slack time. Throw in a houseful of kids and, well, this 20-something bachelor can’t even imagine.

But to the extent you can claim it, I really think you must build some slack time into your life. Hopefully regularly and in volumes high enough to really allow you to feel into it. An hour a day isn’t bad, but a few days of nothing per week is really the sweet spot. It lets you be yourself better, fulfill your responsibilities with more ease, and really be in contact with what your life is actually like.

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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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Life

In 2014, I was 28

It was my birthday on Saturday. I was born 29 years ago from the date. And to follow up a thing I started last year, I’m going to take it as an opportunity for some very direct navel-gazing.

Work & Finances

In 2014, I was making good money working in a company I co-own and excited about what I was doing. It was mostly a complaint-free experience. Fueled primarily by a single enthusiastic client for our consulting at Press Up — if you’re looking to solve a hard business problem and think web technologies could help, hit us up — I made a very respectable middle class income.

There was one less-bright part, though. In a tiny company, I was essentially at the mercy of myself as a boss. And I was an irresponsible one. I let myself drive a little too hard for too long on a specific project. The result was me putting too much of the rest of my life on hold and burning out a little too fast and hot over the summer months. Vacations postponed, workouts skipped, and social events suffered through with as much angry preoccupation as I could muster.

But it wasn’t all bad. More personally, I made some positive changes. I’ve made some (very modest) progress on what I hope will eventually be the best quotation site on the internet. I finally dropped from my regular time-sinks a project where I basically just linked to things on the internet. The time investment just ended up not feeling worth it. And I made my first ever microsite (which could use a more skilled designer’s touch).

Wholistically, career-wise, it was a good year. Fred and I were able to hire our first employee and she’s brought a welcome new energy to our work. We’ve made something more of a name for ourselves as well, not to mention starting to work on making our fractured attention across various side-projects start to resemble money-making businesses in their own right.

Health & Fitness

During my time being 28, I didn’t really lose weight which I’d hoped to. In fact I gained almost a dozen pounds (some of which I’d lost during the early part of the year). But what’s important to me is that I only gained about a dozen pound, and I know that I can get rid of them and keep them off. I know this because I’ve been successfully keeping off the almost-100 pounds I’ve lost over the last few years.

A large part of being able to have the confidence in keeping them off is that I’ve learned how I can effectively lose weight. And I know how to stay active. I love cycling and that’s one of the best things I’ve done this year. I really enjoy it. It took me far too long to learn, but exercising can be fun if you find something that agrees with you, and finding something that agrees with you is possible and a good goal for everyone. Hate jogging? Try other things that keep you moving!

Community & Relationships

I’ve lived an anomalously quiet and self-contained life thus far. This has its advantages, but in the last year I’ve much more consciously appreciated its limits and disadvantages. It’s not that you can’t go through life as your own little island — though really you can’t — but that your life can be so much richer and more interesting if you let people in.

My writing in the last few years has said these things more loudly than my actions have. While I penned a series on kindness in 2013, for example, I was still rarely making a strong effort with the people in my life. And I’ve hardly reached the level I’d say I’m proud of.

But I’m very proud of the progress I’ve made. Progress in being more available to people and in being more honest with them. Progress in actually attending social gatherings other than those of a few of my best-known friends. And managing to walk away from them happy that I’ve gone. Progress, even, in not having to drag myself mentally kicking and screaming to these events — though I admit I can still throw quite a “I don’t wanna” fit. But progress. Real honest progress in being more of the person I want to be.

If you’ve read this and want to help me meet more people, send me an email at david@www.frozentoothpaste.com. Or leave a comment. I’d love to know you better!

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Practical Philosophy

Your Body is a Resonance Chamber

Emotions are powerful. You love so much you think you’ll die without them. You hate so much you’re ready to resort to physical violence. You want something so bad that you’ll go to insane lengths to get it. You’re so scared you’re physically shaking with muscles tense in a situation where there is no physical escape.

At their root, emotions are mental processes. Thoughts. And yet we can find them in our body too. I feel love in my chest. I feel fear in my stomach. What’s going on with that?

Emotions are thoughts that, for evolutionary reasons, it was valuable to amplify. They’re thoughts that creatures over the history of life on our planet have done better when they took seriously and acted on quickly.

A caveman who idly thought “I’m scared of that lion” was a lot more likely to die than one who felt intensely the fear of that predator. A creature that casually feels the sting of the hatred engendered by being slighted by a rival is a lot less likely to outcompete that rival than one that feels it sharply.

Today, though, these resonant intensifications of certain thoughts tend to be out of proportion to their value. Most people, thankfully, don’t have to compete nearly as violently to succeed. Don’t need to be quite as scared as it served them to be when mortal danger was around every corner.

So, as I explored around anger, there’s a use to our emotions but they’re too primitive and dangerous for us to let them drive. Evolution’s not the most exact tool, and calibrations take thousands if not millions of years. So we’re prone to be too angry, too jealous, and too fearful.

Understanding emotions in this way doesn’t make them go away. Unfortunately, knowing how emotions work doesn’t give us the ability to just turn them off. Working skillfully with emotions is a life-long process. But knowing does help. It helps us know when and why we’ll get value from overriding the crude guidance of our emotions. Helps us know better when to take the bull by the horns. To feel the fear and do it anyway.

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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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Practical Philosophy

An Appropriate Response

There’s an old Buddhist story about an eager student asking the Zen master to distill the core teachings down to their very essence. The student was expecting a few dozen words that he’d not understand, but instead that master said simply, “An appropriate response.”

I think that’s something worth aspiring to. “An appropriate response.” To respond appropriately to whatever situation you find yourself in. In many ways, I see showing up as an exercise is always providing an appropriate response for the person you’re showing up for.

There’s also some substantial heft hidden in the idea of an appropriate response. It’s superficially simple, but one needn’t look hard to find places where the specifics of an appropriate response become unclear. The Nazis are knocking on your door and asking if Anne Frank is inside (she is). Is the truth appropriate? Is a lie better?

One thing that’s surely required to be able to offer an appropriate response is to know with clarity and certainty what is actually going on. If you understand the Nazis as the bad actors history now considers them, you’d behave differently than if you saw them simply as well-meaning agents of the local law enforcement.

Accurate perception of reality is where most people drop the ball on being able to provide an appropriate response. It’s certainly where I most often go wrong. It is in thinking that I understand something I don’t, or where I just don’t know a crucial thing that others do that I find my response to the world going wrong.

I forget that other people have different goals than I do and get angry that they aren’t acting in accordance with mine. I forget that my friend is doing their best, even when it sometimes looks like they aren’t trying.

But even without gaps in your understanding of the present it’s still not clear. The ethical dilemmas of life are hard, even when you’re not missing any of the facets of reality. This is what makes the idea of “an appropriate response” so simple and yet so complex. To offer one you must know both the entirity of the situation to which you are responding, and the wisest course through the mire of the present reality. It ain’t easy.

But it’s precisely because it’s so slippery and hard that an appropriate response is a good life-long target. Why it’s a sane place to put your highest aspiration, and to frame the entirity of your spiritual or religious life in terms of it. It’s real, important, and difficult: “an appropriate response.”

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Communication

What It Means to Show Up

It means different things to different people to “show up.” One doesn’t need to look hard to find the disparities. The mother “playing with her kids” while she’s frantically typing out emails on her phone. The father who’s at the soccer game but can’t remove the phone from his ear. The friend who makes it to your dinner party but takes no interest in your other guests. It goes on forever.

So what does it mean to show up? Does it require talking to everyone at every social gathering? That you never ever check your cell phone while your kids entertain themselves with Legos?

Surely, there’s a case to be made that that is what it means. It means being there as well as anyone could imagine. And for some people to not be a bubbly social butterfly who is 100% on just doesn’t cut it.

But even at my best I’m not able to be a bubbly social butterfly half as well as some are without any visible show of effort. Maybe for you, giving anything your undivided attention just doesn’t feel possible. So I think there’s something to be said for realism.

Whether or not you’ve “shown up” adequately is always a judgment call. You’ve got to make it for yourself, and others will also make it about you. The times when you think you’re being there for your daughter and she feels different are where the rubber of this whole thing meets the metaphorical road.

For me, showing up means making the best effort I know how, and hopefully to the satisfaction of the person or people I feel I’m showing up for. If I don’t feel I’m really making a strong effort but they feel I have, that’s nice but not sufficient. And if my best is not good enough to people in my life, I pray for their patience. And I’m open to making changes based on their advice.

What it comes to is that what it means to show up isn’t one thing. And this leads to a lot of heartache. But the solution to that heartache isn’t to define it down into some Platonic ideal. It’s to be honest, forthright, and ready to listen if someone asks to reconcile a disparity. And it means being willing to start that conversation, too.

What we need are frank discussions about what showing up means to everyone involved. To be honest and thorough and empathetic as we work through the difference of opinion. And showing up for that conversation is the most important thing in the world.

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Communication

Why You Must Show Up

One of the most banal but undeniable statements is that you can’t contribute if you aren’t there. That “80% of success is showing up.” It’s one of these stupid truths we think we understand until the days we just want to crawl back into bed and not get out.

But you simply must show up. I’ve spent long periods of my life opting out. When given a choice, I’d choose staying away. “Hey you should really come to this party, I’d love to see you.” “Thanks, but I’m washing my hair.”

There are people who will keep trying with you for a long time. They’ll encourage you to try to show up for your relationship with them. David Cain, over at Raptitude recently wrote about this issue, saying:

Whatever our reasons, I suspect most of us don’t pull our weight socially, and we depend, possibly without realizing, on that wonderful minority of people who are tirelessly connecting us freeloaders and cowards.

I think some of his language is drastic, but I can’t disagree with the core idea of social freeloading. I spent most of my life as a freeloader, and I can’t say I recommend it as a long-term life strategy. When you rely on other people to coax and coerce you into showing up for a relationship, you’re quite likely to wake up at some point to realize that they’ve given up on you and the relationship entirely.

Even the most saintly and generous people in the world get tired of showing up and doing their best when they’re not met with the same. It’s a real testimony to their generosity that they keep trying at all, at least for the most selfish and frustrating among us.

But you’ve got to show up for people. You’ve got to go to your son’s piano recital. Show up for your daughter’s soccer game. Be there for your wife at that doctor’s appointment she’s been nervous about. Help that friend move when you’ve got an idle weekend. Support a colleague’s adventurous idea publicly when she seems to be out on a hard-but-worthwhile limb.

This is how you help people: you show up, even when you don’t quite feel like it. Often you’ll find that in doing so you get over that not-quite-feeling-like-it if you’re sincere in your commitment to being there. And it feels good, being there. Showing up for people. Pulling your weight.

The world works best when people support each other. It’s really nice to have people show up for you. And so it follows that you’d probably do well to show up for others. To be there for them when it’s hard, and when it’s easy. To help them along, and to let them help you along. To do that, you’ve got to show up. No way around it.

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Communication

The Slow Revolutions of Love

Nonviolent revolutions aren’t clear and simple and swift; they’re typically exactly the opposite. Slow and halting and frustrating.

Violent revolutions have a clarity. A, typically abusive, power structure is forcibly displaced through the expending of material and life energy. This can have a certain effectiveness and speed, and so inspires hope. And there are places where it does, indeed, have a good outcome.

The American Revolution would probably be seen by most people throughout the world as a violent revolution whose outcome had good results. That is to say: the resulting power structure was generally as free, just, and fair as the one it displaced.

But most violent revolutions are more problematic. Violent revolutions have an understandable tendency to create power structures based in violence. Places where order is maintained not so much by the consent of the governed as their fear of the new occupants of the seat of power. The entire history of the Soviet Union is the most prominent and easy to read this way today.

One is tempted, when seeing injustice in the world, to want to counteract it as quickly and effectively as possible. And almost by definition, that action which is swift and decisive will be “violent.” But beyond the dictionary play, it is unlikely that you’re going to want to respect the power structure you see perpetrating an injustice. You’re going to want to overpower it; forcibly displace it; damage it.

The politics of love doesn’t work that way. Love is a slow process of transformation. It’s a revealing, and an opening, and at times it’ll halt and even seem to stop. Its triumphs are small and partial and imperfect. It is the Civil Right Act of 1963, but it doesn’t stop the madness of cases like Rodney King or Eric Garner. It is the fact that today at the end of 2014 gay marriage is legal in a majority of, but not all, US states. It is the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, but that Burma is not a well-functioning popular democracy. It is the fact that Tibet is still occupied by the Chinese and that South Africa still has crazy levels of black poverty.

Governments are at their best when they’re responsive to the actual will of the people they govern. And the wills of masses of people aren’t something that’s easy to change. Coercion can make a change seem to have happened from a distant perspective, but it doesn’t actually make it happen. Real change, at the level of the individual, is a slow, inefficient, and idiosyncratic process.

Democracies are at their best when they reflect the well-considered and high-minded will of the people. But the will of the people is not something that can easily be swayed by force, nor should it be. And so it’s partial and halting and incomplete, this quest for justice founded in love in the modern political epoch.

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