Archive for the ‘Frozen Toothpaste’ category
There’s a seldom-discussed secret I want to let you in on: changing your life is not all that complicated a procedure. You just need to do these three things, in approximately the order I list them and you’ll be able to accomplish the change. Ready? Here are the three steps:
See how simple that is? You just do the thing laid out by those ten letters and you’re on your way to the life of your dreams.
You may have been able to read that I’m embellishing the ease with which you can execute these three steps to achieve great fame, riches, or wisdom. But I stand whole-heartedly behind the fact that those three steps are the actual procedure by which every substantial change is accomplished — either by a single person or a group. You’ll find very few accomplishments that can’t be made to fit within this basic rubric.
Now obviously when you reduce something so much it starts to get hard for most people to see the connection behind the simple concepts they’re looking at and the complicated things they perceive to be going on in their lives. One of the ideas I cling too with the greatest fervency is that the profound truths can all be reduced to banalities. And this is no exception.
Each of these words could have whole books written about them. And the response to those books could sanely be “there’s nothing new here”. But it’s still completely true that the ways the world changes are rarely more complex than this.
So let’s get to it and start fleshing out this procedure. I’ll be writing an expanded post about each of these steps in the coming weeks, but I do want to give you a sense of the idea before we get there.
So first, care. The part that’s easy about caring is that if you’re thinking you want to change your life in a given direction, you likely already care. The hard part about caring is that you have to care very deeply and sincerely for that caring to really lead to a life change. A vague sense of “It would be nice if…” is simply not strong enough fuel for you to change your life. To care enough to really change things something more like “the current situation is a disaster and cannot be allowed to continue” is required.
Then planing. As we’ve said, planning can be deceptively easy. If you want to be a millionaire, you could write up a plan that says “Earn at least one million dollars”. And that is, by some definition, a plan. But to actually have a plan that is likely to lead to the kind of change you seek you need a strong and executable plan of step-wise actions you can take that will lead you to the kind of change you want. And you need to be ready for the inevitable road blocks and detours that even the most robust plan is likely to hit.
Finally, doing is easy. Right? I mean you just do the thing that you cared enough to plan. You just iteratively do all the steps in your plan, taking the time to re-plan when you hit an impasse. But obviously, that kind of doing can be boring, like the labors of Sisyphus. Or it can feel dangerous, maybe even like you’ll die from the difficulty imposed upon the plan by yourself or others. But you can’t change anything if you don’t keep pushing and doing until the thing is done.
Changing your life, changing the world, changing anything, it’s all really simple. And it’s also the single hardest thing in the world. And that, quite simply, is the reason it’s worth spending a month on. I hope you’ll join me.
In life, we can be certain of two things:
- Things will change
- Some of those changes will be in a direction we wouldn’t have chosen
From those two certainties, you can build a whole philosophy of life. I’d maybe even go so far as to contend that the only valid philosophy of life grapples with those two facts. That the only wisdom that exists in the world is those two statements said differently, or compiled in new ways.
But how am I so certain of those two things? Frankly, because I’ve been alive for 27 years, and in that time I’ve gotten nothing but constant reminders of their accuracy. But I think I can also empirically argue for them.
Change is a bit self-evident. The mere act of continuing to read this essay is to cause a change. You’re going from not having read this essay to having done so. Surely at some time far out into your future, it may be the case that this change has faded entirely into the background (which would itself be a change), and you no longer register its impact on your life, but it doesn’t alter the fact that the change did once occur.
We can even explain change differently, in the negative. Let’s posit a universe where nothing changes. Today is like yesterday is like tomorrow. Matter never moves, no energy is transferred, and you self-evidently aren’t born. To be born into such a universe would be to have always existed in it, which is definitionally impossible.
It’s also worth noting that I’m not arguing the stronger, and probably defensible point, that everything changes. Though that logically grows directly from the argument that “things change”, it is a different and more complete point. I bring this up only to make clear that the attempted refutation that “X thing doesn’t change”, were it successfully argued, would not refute of my first certainty.
Again, in my second certainty there are stronger statements I might make, but chose not to. One such formulation is: “You will not like some of those changes”. I think that’s probably true, accurate, and defensible. But it’s also possible to formulate a story in which that is falsifiable. As the old Buddhist saying goes, “The great way is not difficult for one who has no preferences.”
But the claim that some of those things will go in ways you wouldn’t choose is simpler. Quite obviously, one can posit a being who controls all changes in our universe and for whom all changes can go in the direction they chose. We’d generally call such an omnipotent being God, and few people consider themselves such a being.
Positing that we truly had no preference is a bit of a more interesting problem for this certainty. After all, one who was truly without preferences would inherently not make a choice in the face of options. That is to say: no preference, no choosing. But the universe, as we know, must change. And per my formulation, one who doesn’t choose is making a choice against an inevitable change, and therefore events will have proceeded in ways they won’t have chosen.
So what of all this philosophy? I’ve made a claim that I’m certain about two things, I’ve defended that claim, so the questions then becomes, “Why make these claims?”
- Knowledge, or true philosophical claims, is a basis for action
- Knowledge about reality is the basis for wisdom
I think if we truly know and understand these two things, we’ll find life far more agreeable and pleasant than we will in denying them. The good and wise life is built above a thoroughgoing knowledge of these claims. So my hope is I’ve given you some good and useful knowledge, and that can help you cope as you move through the world.
In a former job — at a company large enough to have thought a lot about institutional support materials and goals — I was being preened for a promotion. In this company, you become a “leader”, not a “manager” and so the conversations focus around the values of good leadership. I was handed a document called “Leadership Expectations”, and at first I was dubious. But as I read, I was shocked to see almost exclusively qualities I cared about outside of the workplace listed. Things like “listening attentively”, “being resilient”, and “collaborating effectively”.
It took a while to coalesce, but now I’m pretty sure of a few interesting details about this. First, and perhaps most interesting to me, if that for whatever set of reasons “leadership” is (or perhaps has become) the place where conversations around life goals and values seem to most frequently occur in formal secular society. There’s a lot wrapped up in that, much of which I’m not sure I want to discuss in this essay, but very rarely if you’re talking about “safe” topics in public, will things like listening well and dealing with adversity come up.
And this is a huge loss to society. We’ve decided, for reasons I don’t fully grasp, that we can’t talk openly or regularly about what it means to have a good life. My working theory is that such conversations are frequently tied into religion, a topic almost no one seems able to comfortably discuss, that the conversations are just not had for fear of wading in.
And so this little strange island of “leadership” is the sole beachhead for public conversations about the really important and positive qualities of people. This is the one place where you can get some sense of what values and traits make you really valuable in society. And generally I think it’s great that the conversation are being had there; not because it’s an ideal venue for them, but because there exists almost no other.
I see now, in retrospect, that “leadership” answers a longing I’ve had for years — which I recall manifesting most clearly here in the essay “Reclaiming the Human Condition“. I was was aware of a huge vacuum for that kind of discussion in the culture. That vacuum is the same essential problem that I perceive lead Alain de Botton to write Religion for Atheists, a book I read eagerly though I don’t identify as an atheist.
I have no structural critique of the society that has created this problem to launch into. (Though I can pretty easily see the three connections someone would have to make to go there.) I just wanted to tell you that I’d noticed this thing: “Leadership” is a secret code word that allows for conversations about the qualities of good people. In naked view of secular society, it’s the easiest clothes to put over your conversation about how to live.
Please excuse the profanity of the title, but it’s one of those things that’s stated so simply and undeniably by someone else that I’d be a jerk if I changed it solely for the sake of propriety. Jesse Thorn penned the tweet from which I tore this title over three years ago, and it still sticks in my head.
He said it about interviewing, which is his profession, but it stuck in my head because I’ve been slowly learning for at least half a decade that most enjoyable conversations have a lot in common with well-conducted interviews.
I’ve discussed it more than a little in the posts on this site, but for a long time I struggled to have normal enjoyable conversations with people. That makes me sound a bit like a social retard, but that’s essentially because I was.
I didn’t relate to it as a handicap — I thought of it as a sign of my highly advanced intellect — but it was. The fact that I didn’t have the skill to find other people interesting really stopped me from forming productive relationships with people. And the lack of those in my life really made it harder for me to build the kind of support network that leads a person to thrive.
But, I’m slowly learning its true. All you have to do to have an enjoyable conversation with someone is to “give a shit and try.” It’s another one of those simple statements that covers over massive complexity, but it is that simple.
For a long time I just neglected to care about the person before me. I was so wrapped up in my own heroic struggle that I didn’t really care about anyone else’s. So I didn’t try.
But my last decade has been a slow and valuable sensitization process. I’ve learned so much about the value to others and myself of being there with them, paying attention to them, and having them reciprocate that attention. I look back on myself ten years ago and know without a shadow of a doubt that upon meeting my decade-younger self I’d think “what an asshole”. I hope I’d have some sympathy for the myopia that led deacade-ago me into being an asshole, but that’s harder to say.
There doesn’t seem to be a nice bow to tie this meandering into. I suppose it’s just this: give a shit and try, and you’ll soon find your world to be chock-full of nice and interesting people. And that’s a great world to live in.
Anyone who’s been reading Frozen Toothpaste long knows all too well about my theory that just about every important truth about life can be quickly reduced to a statement so banal that people ignore it. The classic example I reach for is “money can’t buy happiness”, which almost everyone acquiesces to at some level. Few people dispute the truth of the idea, and yet people run themselves ragged in dogged pursuit of money.
What I’m starting to come around to is the idea that it’s not simply that these cliches are cliches that makes people struggle to understand and and act in accordance with them. Rather, there’s a whole second level of the complexities of “money doesn’t buy happiness” that people don’t ever consider.
Commuting is a prime example, as it’s received a lot of study in the last few years. It turns out, most people dislike commuting, but they’re terrible at factoring that into their decisions about where to live and where to work. In a recent Wall Street Journal story, this fact was cited:
A person who commutes an hour each way has to make 40% more money to be as satisfied with life as a person who lives near the office.
Obviously there’s some fuzziness in that statistic, so I’ll avoiding prodding it too hard. But it makes my point: should you take more money and drive farther or have the less remunerative job that you can secure a few minutes walk away? Probably the latter. But get near a place with a large density of offices during rush hour and you’ll get a good sense of how most people answer the question.
What you start to realize as you think hard about these things is that “money doesn’t buy happiness” can be understood at many different levels. People understand and agree with it at the high theoretical level, but they never even engage with in when they’re burning the midnight oil, neglecting their relationships, and generally sacrificing their personal mental health in the pursuit of a promotion. They’re caught on the game-y nature of money, thinking about how big a difference that raise will make to their financial future; not engaging at all with the issues of happiness: what it means, where it comes from, and how it is maintained.
There’s a point where you just want to throw your hands up and proclaim “What fools!” After all, all the secrets to life can be extrapolated from a few stock phrases everyone knows. But that does a disservice to the huge complexity involved in all decisions, and the myriad factors that complicate every choice.
Wisdom is, more than anything else, about learning how to balance the complex factors at play in a given situation and distill the real issue from them. It’s an exceptionally hard skill to develop. It’s so easy to ignore complexity, and so hard to simplify it once seen.
So if you seek to have a happy and wise life, be on the lookout, always, for the complexities answered by simple principles. And for the simple principles which can wisely guide your actions in complex situations.
I suspect that one of the most pervasive and damaging problems that people face is their inertia. Surely in some situations there are actual formidable forms of social or political opposition which cause people real harm but outside of that, inertia comes first.
Most people, myself included, have a thought inside their head of the kind of life they’d like to be living. And they have this life, usually at least some distance removed from that ideal, that they’re actually living. They may spend time, a lot of time even, fantasizing about how to bring those two halves together.
The thing about fantasies, imagined trajectories, plans made in the air, are that none of them will ever cause anything to change. Only taking action — doing the work to take what is inside your head and making it concrete and real in the world — can ever make anything change.
It’s possible that a few people, in the entire arc of history leading to our present situation, have had the ability to change the world without the hard work of doing it being their responsibility. Most of these people were born lucky, which typically means that were born rich.
But for the rest of us, the vast unwashed masses of us, it’s pretty much on our shoulders. If we’re lucky we’ll find a few people who’ll help along the way. People who will help us polish our vision, make it stronger, make it realer. But it’s hard for changes to reach that stage. It takes a lot of demonstrated value and progress for someone to throw their lot in with you and help you make your dream real.
So mostly, it comes down to you. It will be your choices and actions determine the course of your life. The sun does shine brighter on some fields than others, it’s undeniable. But whatever field you find your self in, the beauty and brightness of your flower is pretty much up to you. You control if you bloom, when, and for how long.
There’s a saying I’m quite fond of: “Never compare your insides to anyone else’s outsides.” There are a million variations on the theme, but the message is always the same: your internal experience and the outward behaviors you notice and find notable in others aren’t really the same process or a reasonable basis for comparison. They are the proverbial apples and oranges.
This is undeniable to anyone who stops and thinks about it for a second, but it’s one of those hard-to-appreciate banal truths that form the most sound basis for understanding reality.
Even when we know about this, and have some understanding of it, we’re still apt to get it wrong. Apt to look to exemplars of kindness like the Dalai Lama or Desmond Tutu and think “well it all comes so easy for them.” Even the less famous people you notice as exceptionally kind in your everyday life may have you thinking similar thoughts. “Well she just likes people a lot.” “He’s just really outgoing.”
It’s easy to get frustrated when seeing someone else demonstrate the kind of kindness you don’t have the strength to offer. To feel like you’re just not cut out for that whole kindness thing and let yourself off the hook. (It’s a bit off topic, but “that whole kindness thing” can be changed to many other variants: the running a business thing, the reading big important books thing, the being devoutly religious thing.)
We let ourselves mistake people doing things for them being easy for them to our collective peril. When we leave the responsibility to try to be kind or generous or and wise to others, we leave society a poorer place.
The path to a kind an generous world is not to elevate to sainthood — no offense to Catholicism — those few people who achieve some heroic standard of morally exemplary behavior. Rather a world permeated by kindness comes about from everyone making an effort everyday to be just a little kinder than they would otherwise be. For some, that means giving away the clothes off their back to the poor homeless woman they meet. For others that means only spitting on the homeless man rather than physically assaulting him. But both shifts are commendable and essential to moral progress in the world.
We must be our own moral idols and exemplars. We must learn to act kindly for its own sake, not so that others will look up to us as models of kindness. “There is nothing noble in being superior to some other person; true nobility is found in being superior to your former self.”
Vulnerability is scary.
Whether you’re a wildebeest parching your thirst from a possibly-crocodile-infested pond or a person sitting in a room about to tell someone a truth that you’ve hidden for a while, it’s frightening stuff. Your heart races. Your skin shines. Your muscles tense. Your voice shakes.
The truth of a situation is naked. Vulnerable. Exposed. We spend most of our life trying our best to avoid situations where we must admit the truth, see the truth, or otherwise open ourselves up to things that scare us.
But we run from vulnerability to our peril. There is fundamentally no way out of situations that require vulnerability. We are vulnerable creatures, each one of us fundamentally unable to create the world we want alone. Something will always be different than we’d choose — whether it’s sickness, weakness, or an urgent need for help. We simply are not omnipotent.
We can try to escape this reality, but only by fleeing into vices that distract our mind from it. You can get drunk. Get high. Get distracted. Get fat. Get conceited. Get selfish. Get mean. Get quiet. Get isolated. But none of those gets rid of the vulnerability that caused you to seek escape. They only mask it.
Kindness is about saying things people may read as weak, or stupid, or weird. About doing things without any guarantee you’ll receive anything in return.
Coping strategies put a rug over over the hole of vulnerability. It superficially seems we’ve rid the area of that unsightly hole, but someday when we’re not careful that hole will catch us. And then we’ll be at the bottom of a hole with a huge rug and anything else that rug brought down with us. We’ll be stymied down there in the hole, wrestling with all that stuff before we can even think about how we can get out.
Kindness is hard. And it is fundamentally about vulnerability. About laying yourself open, if only the smallest bit, so that someone else can accept that opening. Kindness is about saying things people may read as weak, or stupid, or weird. About doing things without any guarantee you’ll receive anything in return. You simply cannot do those things while you’re scared of being vulnerable.
Opening to vulnerability requires tremendous awareness. It requires you to escape the invulnerable bubble of your regular stories and patterns and actually sit there and keep going as your pulse quickens, your mind races, and you want anything to not have to go through with this thing. But you do it, not because it’s easy but because it’s important.
There is, to my knowledge, no quick shortcut to empowering brave vulnerability. You must try and you must feel the horror and you must, sometimes, feel stupid and foolish for having made the effort.
But sometimes you will also feel stupid and foolish for having found the effort so hard, because no catastrophe befalls you. And sometimes great things come from the effort. And as those experiences accumulate, you get more comfortable. You’re better able to be open and fully present and kind in the world. It’s hard work, but I’m not sure any work is more worthy.
Fundamentally, nothing can respond to a stimuli it doesn’t perceive. Whether a robot car, a wolf, a rose bush, a person, or a rock. Not a single one of them can respond to things they aren’t aware of.
Bubbles limit kindness, primarily because they inhibit awareness. When you’re caught in your own story about how broken American politics are, triggered by the stupid bumper sticker you saw on an ugly, beat-up old car that shouldn’t even be on the road, you’re a lot less likely to notice the ducklings trying to cross the street in front of you. And you can’t brake for ducklings you don’t see.
Frequently, when I reflect on a time when I felt I was unnecessarily rude, mean, or harsh in either speech or action, I find that the reason is that I wasn’t really there for the encounter.
We are tremendously sensitive when we focus. Most of us can tell that another person is even slightly uneasy in a situation when we make the effort. We can tell in all the micro-cues something about their internal state that they probably wouldn’t disclose, and may not themselves be aware of. But we have to be paying attention to notice it.
And we have to be paying attention to notice how the reality of their reaction feels to us. If you’re not careful, noticing someone uneasy in your presence can set you off in any number of directions.
And we have to be paying attention to notice how the reality of their reaction feels to us. If you’re not careful, noticing someone uneasy in your presence can set you off in any number of directions. Maybe you yourself suddenly feel uneasy. And that can becomes its own cycle, spiraling toward any array of emotions, from fear to anger. None of which you formally choose. You’ll just later find yourself in one.
Awareness is an incredibly hard thing to cultivate. When you start trying, you’ll likely find yourself frustrated by just how little active awareness you have in a given moment. And that can becomes its own cycle, spiraling toward any array of emotions, from fear to anger. None of which you formally choose. You’ll just later find yourself in one.
But awareness of the present situation is utterly essential if you’re going to find a way to act kindly inside of it. So you must, if you truly aspire to be your kindest self, cultivate it. Call it mindfulness or presence or awareness or embodiedness or prayer or whatever you want. But work on it. Make it something you aspire to do, that you spend time getting better at.
You can start now. Just notice your breathing. You’re breathing in, you’re breathing out. Don’t try to change your breath, just notice it passing in and out. When you notice that you’re no longer noticing it, return. Stay with your breath as much as you can. When you drift away, don’t fret or analyze — that takes you back into your bubble. Stay with the breath. In. Out. In. Out. It’ll go like that until you die, so you can always come back to it.
Breath meditation seems a bit dull, but it’s the simplest and best tool you have to cultivate awareness. Awareness that can stop you from suddenly waking up in a state of fear or anger you haven’t chosen. Awareness that can enable spontaneous kindness you can’t possibly imagine.
You live inside your head. It’s fundamentally true: try to define who you are without including the large mass behind your eyeballs and you’ll flounder. But for most of us, most of the time, we live inside our head in a more casual sense. We’re caught up inside the machinations of our neuroses, missing most of what happens in the world.
The pattern is so common I may not even need to tell you about it. For a while, you’re paying attention to the things unfolding around you. And then one of the things you’re observing triggers some path in your brain — a memory, a latent idea, a thought — and you follow that path for somewhere between one millisecond and thirty minutes. Then you snap back to observing the present reality.
This pattern builds our bubbles. I’ve spent a great deal of time inside the bubble of my worldview. This bubble is more than just a given set of well-trodden mental paths. It is the environment around that, populated by all the triggers and loops that can pull you onto these well-worn paths. That environment defines borders around itself to keep safe.
For me, one of these borders was that strangers were scary, complicated, and unworthy of my time. This was different than the quixotic “stranger danger” about which children are warned. And this wasn’t, though it may have had similar results, some kind of deep fear of social contact and an inability to cross the border. For me it was an unwillingness to give most people the metaphorical “time of day”; a deep conceit that defined most of the world as unworthy of my time and concern. So most people “in my life” were well below my radar.
Retrospectively I’d guess that it was safer for me, and my self image, to disregard people who might later shun me than to hope for something from them and not get it. It’s not the worst imaginable coping mechanism, but I don’t recommend it. This personal bubble with sharp boundaries, learned after years of training, is one of the primary reasons that I find kindness to be difficult.
People weren’t allowed in my bubble unless they’d proven to me that they were interesting and worthy of my time. It allowed me to conserve tremendous amounts of time and energy in the short term, but it closed me off to tremendous possibilities and powers that come with being open and kind as you move through the world.
The puncturing of the bubble that isolated me from the world has been a slow and on-going process. I’d say I’m wearing away at the bubble that makes it hard for me to be kind rather than that I can or am ever likely to remove it entirely.
But to be as consistently kind as I aspire to, I have to get through that bubble. It’s essential to be available and in the world to be kind to the people in it. It’s a slow process, but I think leaving the bubble makes a big difference.
Your bubble may be different. Maybe you don’t even have a bubble. But if you ever find yourself stifling an impulse to engage with a person you see before you, there are few better questions than “Why?” Why am I closing down? For me, the protective bubble in which I’ve lived so long is regularly the reason.