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.


It’s Just About Time and Attention

It seems that we only have control over two things in our life: the hours allotted to us, and the things we put our attention on in those hours. But that’s a fact that’s easy to miss.

We worry about how pretty we are. About how smart we are. About how kind we are. About what people think of us. And what we’re worth. But none of those things change the heart fact that we’ve only got control over our time and attention.

We can spend time and attention to get smarter. We can spend time and attention to work on being more kind, or fit, or to have a bigger bank account. We can spend it being entertained by the latest novels or the dumbest television. But fundamentally what we’re doing here is taking the time we’re given and spending it on the things we give our attention to.

Want to be more productive? Think seriously about where you’re actually putting your time and attention and where you’d feel most productive putting your time and attention. It seems almost comical in its simplicity, but that’s really all that productivity comes down to.

The heart of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, for example, is a study of why people are really bad about managing their time and attention and spend it in all the wrong places. When we’re not strategic, we can easily drain of our time and attention rehashing the same decisions over and over again rather than acting. Or when we make ourselves remember tasks to do, we waste energy (which is essentially the compound form of time and attention) on the act of remembering.

I’m ever more certain that all things that matter in life are stupidly simple. But that simple doesn’t mean easy. And the fact that productivity comes down to the decisions and stratagems that we use to decide how and where to use our energy seems to fit. You don’t get to make more time, and you may sometimes find it hard to control your attention. But realize that those two things are just about the only variables you really control and you’ll find yourself ahead of the game.

Practical Philosophy

The Value of Curiousity

There’s a saying I don’t much like; maybe you’ve heard it. It says “curiosity killed the cat.” The reason I don’t like it is pretty simple: it’s wrong. It drags the good name of curiosity through the mud for the sake of some supposed safety. It’s possible that curiosity contributed to the cat’s death, but it’s impossible that simple curiosity ever killed anyone or anything.

The reason I am so certain is that curiosity is only a desire to find out. Foolish curiosity may well have killed the cat. But that’s because a desire to find out can be carried out in a flawed and dangerous way, not that the desire on its own causes any harm.

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Taking Care of Yourself First

All my life I’ve wanted to go change the world. Make it better, more like I thought it should be. And it took my a long time, but I finally know something about that process of changing the world: it starts with you.

The single thing in the world you have undeniable influence over is yourself. Your mental and physical reality is the only thing you have meaningful control over. Getting that in order is a great first step for putting the world in order.

One of things I always wanted to change out in the world was that I saw conflict and strife cropping up in places it wasn’t necessary. Misunderstandings have an amazing tendency to become emotional or physical conflicts between people, groups, and nations. It’s always seemed an insane and unnecessary process.

And I saw the urgent need to change that in the external world. But it took me a while to realize that right in my own life this very problem, which was so obvious in the wider world, was operating. Emotionally, I’d regularly find myself out of control and blowing a simple misunderstanding well past its proper proportions.

What I came to realize is that it’s nearly impossible to reasonably expect others to respond calmly to situations when you can’t do it yourself. I wanted other people to check their understanding before they got angry, but I’d myself regularly failed to do it. I’d fly off the handle and not realize it.

So I’ve spent the last few years working on myself. I’m less prone — though I still have some distance to go — to fly off the handle and find myself out of control. It’s a gradual process, bringing more peace into yourself, but it’s made a difference. Numerous people in my life have noticed and commented on the change, so I’m confident in it even as I’m sure it’s not complete.

My whole life I’ve heard a direction about oxygen masks on airplanes: in the case of an emergency, parents should put on their own first before they help their children. To the untrained observer this may read as cruel or stupid: a child is more vulnerable and in need of help. But a parent who passes out from oxygen deprivation trying to save their child is of the least possible use to their child. So you work on yourself first.


Life Below Your Radar

Obviously, you glibly reply, it’s worth taking an interest in people. Especially the people you see regularly. These are the people who make up your life, and knowing what they like, what they don’t, what they’d love to help us with, what they’d love help with, is all just the way you do it.

But almost everyone has “invisible people” in their life. Maybe it’s everyone just beyond the ten people you’d “do anything” for. Maybe it’s only the cleaning person at the shop you go to every once in a while. I’m confident, though, that no one, not even the most extroverted can confidently claim that no one is below their radar. That they know as much as they could about everyone they ever share a room with.

Now I’m probably the last person in the world to tell you that’s a problem. I’ve spent most of the last decade glibly considering almost everyone in my life below my radar. And even as I’m feebly endeavoring to change that pattern, I still do it quite a lot. I’m introverted and shy. It’s a convenient excuse, but it’s also true.  Making conversations that don’t feel totally necessary is not my strong-suit. It’s not really my suit at all.

And there’s also the practical argument: do we really have time to get to know everyone we encounter? Maybe, when you’d cross paths with 100 people in the course of a year it made sense to get to know them all. But today, when the average pedestrian commuter in some cities brushes past more people on the way to work than a serf would encounter in her entire life, you just can’t do it. Attention doesn’t scale.

I’m not going to spend time disputing those points: after all, they’re essentially correct. There are reasons, both personal and practical, that some people are below your radar, that some people will always be below your radar. It’s not a problem that we’re selective about our attention—no one is happier than I when America looks away from the dumb Reality TV sensation of the week and gives a bit of attention to things that matter—but I just think we should acknowledge that we’re doing it.

And I think it’s useful to bring some curiosity to what’s below our radar. Why are we spending our time on this? Why aren’t we spending our time on that? There aren’t right and wrong answers to these questions. But that’s precisely why they’re worth spending some time with.