The rote sayings and adages that you hear as a broke person surrounded by broke people are completely different than the sayings that you hear uptown. For one thing, I’m finding that upper-middle-class people seem to talk about almost nothing but poor customer service, remodeling, and the bodily functions of their pets. As a kid, I often heard adults talk about being “a day late and a dollar short.” It’s an interesting exercise to think about the opposite of everything, and it intrigued me to start thinking about always being “a day early and a dollar up.” What would this mean?
The idea of being “a day late and a dollar short” is that even if I had managed to show up on time, to, say, the county fair, it wouldn’t have mattered. I couldn’t afford it anyway. Even if I had the money, something would have prevented me from getting there. I shouldn’t bother to get my hopes up or to set my heart on anything. This is the world of broke-ness. Your transportation is unreliable, you can’t depend on a predictable work schedule, the people you want to bring aren’t available for one of a thousand reasons, none of your stuff works, and every penny you manage to set aside is almost automatically burned up by pressing material needs. Fun is not for you. Resign yourself to deprivation and exclusion.
This is a self-perpetuating mindset.
The convenience store where I got my first real paystub job is still open at the same location. It’s still open all day, every day. There is still someone working there on the same schedule that I worked in 1993. It could be me. There are no practical reasons why I could not have spent the past 25 years standing in the same spot, wearing the same uniform, and presumably selling the exact same pot of coffee and the exact same four rotating hotdogs. Pumping orange nacho cheese out of the same plastic sack, selling the same blue-dyed frozen corn syrup drinks, peddling cigarettes, malt liquor, and scratch tickets to the same sketchy neighborhood dudes. I’d still have trouble making my rent, I still wouldn’t be able to afford a car, and I’d still wonder why toothpaste has to be so darn expensive. The simplest solution was always just to find a better-paying job somewhere else. Which I did.
Almost every problem I had in those days was a financial problem. The great thing about money problems is that they can be solved with money! A problem that can’t be solved with the application of cash dollars is a sad problem. Heartache, disappointment, grief, betrayal. Everything else is up for reconsideration. Having more money means being able to relocate, repair and replace things, hire lawyers or financial planners, get advanced education or professional credentials, take lessons, get medical care, make emergency travel plans, take time off work, help friends resolve their problems, and donate to various charitable causes.
Having money also means being able to plan ahead. One of the worst aspects of being broke is that your future timeline contracts. You start planning only a month ahead, or a paycheck ahead, or a week ahead, or a day ahead. You become unable to imagine what your life might be like in three years or ten years. Feeling like you have plenty of money and plenty of options helps to extend that figurative timeline.
I only worked at that convenience store for two months. I’m pretty sure I can still remember every minute of every shift. Purgatory looks a lot like a convenience store at 10 AM on a Sunday morning, with a never-ending line of people waiting to buy one cup of coffee and a newspaper. I had no idea what I would do with myself while I stood behind that counter. I had no idea how that job would ever lead to anything better. It never really crossed my mind to go back to school, which I eventually did, because I was so sure that college was out of my reach. My take-home pay exactly equaled my rent. I was living off microwaved baked potatoes with no butter; obviously I wasn’t saving money or planning for the future. When I got a full-time office job, I tripled my pay. SEVEN DOLLARS AN HOUR! I saved over 20% of my take-home pay every week. That’s when I started planning ahead and thinking that I could make goals.
One of the first things I did was to save money for my first international trip. I took three weeks off - insane for a nineteen-year-old - and went to New Zealand.
Last year, my husband and I went to Wyoming to see the solar eclipse in totality. We found out it was happening a year in advance and set a reminder for January to book tickets. I got the last available hotel room in Jackson and paid for it with reward points. We bought our plane tickets, still available and significantly cheaper eight months in advance. My husband put in his vacation request with plenty of time to spare. If we’d waited, we wouldn’t have been able to get there at any price. These are the kinds of things you can do when you save money and plan ahead. We did in fact get to town six days early.
The less FoMO we have, the less of a sense of scarcity, the easier it is to put money aside. We only take out our wallets for the can’t-miss stuff. There have been dozens of concerts we would have liked to see, sure, and nights we would have liked to go out and eat in a restaurant. Doing these things every time the urge arises means a strained schedule, burnout, debt, and weight gain. It’s not a relaxing way to live. We like to maintain our domestic contentment at home, inexpensively, and go out for the really great stuff. It’s a completely different experience to always feel like you’re a day early and a dollar up.
This is a story about desire, willpower, and self-control, although I’m pretty sure none of those words appear anywhere in the book. Cait Flanders has written a brave yet quietly modest account of her personal battle with addictive urges. While The Year of Less is an outstanding work about minimalism and financial independence, these are almost tangential to the struggle for self-mastery. Flanders makes a strong case that if she can do it, anyone can.
The Year of Less shows what happens when someone develops a bias toward action and plunges into something. Flanders sets a challenge that she won’t shop for a year, except for a few predetermined categories such as food. This is a process goal, rather than an outcome goal. Part of the magic of process goals is that it’s really hard to predict what will come of them, what will happen when we actually stick to the plan. Almost always, it far exceeds the original expectations. That certainly happens here. There’s something of a surprise ending.
There’s also a surprise middle. Flanders is partway through her experiment when she is poleaxed by some major family drama. She shares her anguish, and how it sends her into an emotional tailspin. It’s very impressive that she managed to stay on track with her project, and it’s also helpful to see how she did it, being honest and accepting support from some trusted friends. There’s also the deep hook of that public commitment to write about her progress on her blog, a commitment that eventually led to the publication of the book.
The insights that come from a long-term project of this nature tend to be of a different quality than the occasional sudden epiphany. Flanders realizes that she’s never thought of herself as a spendthrift because she’s not a fashion victim. Yet she’s able to cut expenses and earn enough from selling off her extra, unneeded purchases to fund a replacement bed. She winds up getting rid of about 80% of her stuff and saving $17,000 on a fairly modest income. Where was it all going in the years before? Living a default, everyday lifestyle probably never would have provided the answers.
An inside-out version of this book could be imagined, a version in which Flanders emphasizes the results of her Year of Less, with a few footnotes about the emotional component. There are dozens of books of this type already, training manuals for the DIY crowd. This book is special because it’s so personal. It’s about learning to face difficult circumstances and dwell in difficult feelings. With this, a handbook for emotional resilience, you could do anything.
Perfectionism is stupid. It’s stupid! Perfectionism keeps you from getting anything done, it annoys other people, it usually leads to zero results, it keeps you from being able to relax, and, did I mention, it annoys other people? I say all this as a recovering perfectionist. (I just totally typed that as ‘perfectionism’ and then I wrote ‘taht’ and it’s all getting marked down in my book of karma to work off in the afterlife). One of the many ways I try to trick myself out of this pernicious character flaw of perfectionism is to focus on output and results: quantity, not quality. Completion, publication, finishing, being on time. Another way is to adhere to my 80/80 rule. Eighty percent right, eighty percent of the time.
Why 80/80? Personally, I think it’s easier to manage than 100/50. 100/100 is foolishly impossible. The only thing I should do to 100%, 100% of the time, is to maintain my integrity. My punctuation and spelling are not a part of that.
80% clean, 80% of the time. That’s my rule for housekeeping. I do one room every weekday, and if that room gets messed up at some point during the next six days, I’m ignoring it. I clean the bathroom on Thursdays. If there are a few specks on the mirror or a few hairs in the bathtub, they can wait until next Thursday. A few specks and a few hairs may take my bathroom down from 100% clean (Thursday afternoon) to 98% clean (Wednesday). It’s not worth my time or attention. Even if we leave town or I get sick, and the bathroom gets skipped for a week, it’s still only going to be down to 80% clean by then. Come to think of it, cleaning the bathroom once a week may mean that it’s usually cleaner than 80% clean, more often than 80% of the time. Since it only takes me 15 minutes to clean my bathroom, I don’t really care to put more thought into it.
That’s the goal of having rules, guidelines, and policies. It means we don’t have to MAKE DECISIONS. Decisions drain mental energy. Decisions draw drama. Decisions make something emotional when it could be purely rational. Always save decision-making bandwidth for the truly major stuff, like whether to relocate, rather than the minor stuff, like whether to have cake for breakfast. Because guess what? If you’re deciding, then you’re going to eat the cake for breakfast. And by “you” I mean “I.” I am going to eat the cake for breakfast.
80% nutritious, 80% of the time. That’s my rule for food. Basically it means that my regular weekday meals need to be nutritious and not include junk or treats, unless we’re on vacation. On the weekends, I’m still eating nutritious main meals, but there’s also a little room for something like popcorn, hot chocolate, or breakfast out. The reason I don’t splurge more often than that is that I know full well what my physical tolerances are. I’d eat way more junk if I could get away with it. I’m the one who has to live with the consequences when I give myself a headache or night terrors from eating too much of the wrong food at the wrong times. Well, me, and anyone within whining range of me, like when I’m curled into a ball after eating too many curly fries at the fair.
The reason I respect my physical limits and plan what I eat is that it makes my life easier. I know I have zero willpower. I know I’m always going to eat one too many cookies. I know I’m going eat the whole portion when I could have saved half, even when I hit two-thirds and tell myself I know I’m full. I know I’m going to let my weight creep up until all my waistbands get tight and I stop being able to button my pants. I know all of this about myself. That’s why I have to set policies to stop myself. It’s like I’m really two people, Past Self, who knows the bitter truth, and Present Self, who has swirly eyes over some pastry case. Present Me always wants to disregard past data. Future Self, however, has some opinions about that.
80% good enough is usually good enough. Most routine things really are not urgent or important. They only start to get that way when conditions slip. For instance, most of the time, it probably doesn’t matter what your home looks like. It becomes urgent when you’re looking for your keys or your glasses and it’s time to leave. It becomes urgent when you get a surprise inspection notice from the landlord, or a maintenance person is coming over. It becomes important when it strains relationships with other people who live with you. It becomes important when it makes your life more difficult in any way. Being late all the time, bungling your commitments, feeling miserable, all are great reasons to start to picture what eighty percent looks like.
We’re only really happy when we’re living up to our own values. Our values are standards we set for ourselves, and if there’s a mismatch between our values and our behavior, then we have only ourselves to blame. The way we treat our bodies and our personal living environments are reflective of what we value. Whatever other values we might choose, at the very least, we’re saying, “This matters to me” or “This right here does not matter to me.” If our bodies don’t matter and our personal living spaces don’t matter, then what does?
It’s our regular morning get-together. You know, you need a little pick-me-up to start the day off right. Something hot and steamy for just us girls. Us girls and a heavy bag, that is.
By “heavy bag,” I don’t mean that giant tote with the powder compact and the travel-sized flat iron. I mean that big ol’ thing suspended from the ceiling, the kind you see in boxing movies. It’s for punching. And kicking. And generally being on the receiving end of chaos and mayhem.
You see it all, down here in the dojo. French braids. Fuchsia pedicures. Nose rings. Double pigtails. A variety of chemistry-enhanced shades of red hair. Yoga pants, called by that name only because ‘kickboxing pants’ has too many syllables. The only thing you don’t really see down here is acrylic fingernails. They don’t go as well with the boxing gloves.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are male students at our school. They’re even in class with us. It’s just that they tend to partner off with each other, and that means that for our purposes, they fade into the background. Sometimes there are half a dozen of us and only one of them, or rather, him.
It’s a brave man who walks into a room of women fighters and ragebeasts all on his lonesome.
If you haven’t trained with the competitive variety of female, then you haven’t seen competition. Remember that in any given yoga, spin, or Pilates class, at least some of the women have probably given birth. Once you’ve done that, you can do anything. Women are built for endurance and pain tolerance; otherwise, our species never would have made it. It’s a basic survival trait.
Never get between a mama and her cubs. That’s a law of nature. Certainly it’s at least as true for a woman as for an animal mother. Mess with her kids and any woman will end you. In fact, most of the parents I’ve met at my school have enrolled all their children, too. Give them a fighting chance, but let Mom get in the first lick.
We’re zero-sum competitors about other things, some of which would never occur to a man. Generally they don’t worry about whether they’re the prettiest or the cutest. I live at the beach, and it’s readily apparent that most men just put on swim trunks, shrug, and enjoy themselves being at the beach. They’re not going around giving each other side-eye and playing Who Wore It Best with their big ol’ khaki cargo shorts. They’re not making their own lives more difficult by trying to walk in four-inch strappy heels. When men compete with one another, it’s more likely about who’s the “biggest” or who earns the most money. Not who has more finesse with liquid eyeliner.
Not that there isn’t a place for the perfect cat-eye. One would simply have to reapply after practice.
We know pain. We’ve walked in the heels. We’ve worn the underwires. We’ve gone to work with cramps. We’ve tried all the crash diets. We’ve had various sensitive parts of our faces waxed or threaded, and someone explain to me the difference in sensation between having your upper lip threaded and being electrocuted. We know a heck of a lot more about the world of pain than we often realize, and if you test us, you can have a chance to find out, too.
I often practice with another gal, a single mom who’s a few years older. If she clears five feet or a hundred pounds, I’d be surprised. I mean, I’m small but she’s just little. I’m pretty sure she wears a size double zero. Kicks like a mule. It takes everything I have to hold the foam targets steady for her. More than once, I’ve failed and the target has popped me in the mouth. It just goes to show that you can’t always judge by appearances.
There are only two or three students in my school who look visibly menacing. One is a huge guy with a beard thick enough to hide a hand grenade. Who knows what he has going on. The other is ripped and has a crew cut, and you can see the whites of his eyes all the way around. He’s a beginner, even newer to class than I am. The one I’d be afraid of is the slender young blonde with the pink hair band. Or her friend, the one who takes conference calls during training without breaking her concentration.
Beware the multi-tasking woman. She can plan a wedding and kick you back into an alley without even adjusting her headset.
We’re so busy right now that we can’t even, so don’t start with us, okay?
Most of the people I see in training four mornings a week do not look like practitioners of the martial arts. It’s been my experience that elite fighters, and athletes in general, have left any sense of needing to prove themselves behind long ago. There’s no question in their minds about their relative rank or competence, so why should there be in yours? Did you really need to go there? It’s better this way, better to be placid and serene in your physical confidence. Stealthily chill. Here I am, minding my own, all on my loney. Checking my manicure. Don’t make me mess it up.
Here we are, every morning, lining up in our bright colors and our sweet smiles and our candy-pink boxing gloves. Eyebrows on fleek. Punching targets until sweat starts visibly flying across the room. Showing each other our pressure cuts and skinned knuckles. You thought we were fierce, and that was before you knew that we are in fact ferocious.
Nostalgia is a mystery to me. What’s so great about the past? I say this while waving my history degree over my head. There is no past era that I’d prefer to live in. There is no time, not even the 2000s, that I’d prefer to today. Throwback Thursday is wasted on me; I liked the music of the 1980s but not much else. From my perspective, every year that I’ve lived has involved more innovation, more books and music and movies, and better-quality food. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve benefited from getting my head straight and being less susceptible to emotional drama. I have more skills and I’m a better cook. These things are also true about my family and friends. Life is harder in most ways when you’re young. The future seems like an extremely exciting place to me and I can’t wait to see it unfold. This is a basic optimism that is the key to a happier life.
Optimism is a learned trait.
What is there to look forward to? Don’t you read the news? Oh, it’s awful, it’s awful.
I agree, there is all sorts of truly terrible stuff in the news every day. There always has been, because it’s much simpler to tell stories about terrible events day by day. The photographs are much more dramatic. How do you tell a story about the decline in extreme poverty with a photo? Take a picture of an ordinary, well-fed child who is studying in a classroom? How do you tell a story about the incredible decline in casualties from war? Take a picture of an ordinary town where people are working at their jobs?
That’s the thing about having a degree in history. I know too much. Our chances of dying from almost everything were much higher at any point in the past. Most people, statistically, would have died as infants. Epidemic disease, lack of sanitation, malnutrition, constant warfare, sieges, an extremely high murder rate, brigands, even attacks by various wild animals. We can only possibly feel glum about the present day if we try to compare our conditions with some imagined glory days from the twentieth century.
I grew up in a tenement apartment and I still had a lot of things that the Emperor Charlemagne did not have, that he could not buy at any price. Central heat. Ice cubes on demand. Legible penmanship. A public library and a fire department. Paved sidewalks. Electricity, including lightbulbs, a stove, and a refrigerator. Potable water flowing out of the faucet. A telephone and a television. My mattress and pillow undoubtedly kicked butt over his. Granted, I didn’t feel anywhere near as grateful for these modern comforts as Charlemagne would have. That’s because historical progress is driven by envy and dissatisfaction.
I say this is great. There’s no reason to envy someone if you can study what they’re doing and imitate it. This is obvious if you have a growth mindset! Assume that the envied person had to acquire that trait somehow. Also, you have to envy the complete package, not one thing in isolation. That means you can’t envy a celebrity without including the paparazzi and the haters. You can’t envy any individual person without including their entire personal history, their relationships, and their behaviors. Maybe their fitness level, financial success, or emotional intelligence would come easier to you than it did for them. Observing someone else means you can skip anything they tried that didn’t work. Let envy make you a better person.
We seem to be allergic to thinking about the future. Research shows that we think of our own future selves in the same way we think about total strangers. I think a lot of us are mean to Future Us. We set ourselves up in ways we wouldn’t treat our worst enemies. Hey, Future Me! Have fun trying to survive on the tiny fixed income I’m sending you. I hope you enjoy paying off our debts. Oh, and good luck burning off this slab of cake I’m eating. Maybe you can get rid of some of those calories while you clean out this garage I’m piling with stuff. And by the way, wash my dishes.
The most commonly procrastinated goals are planning for the future and dealing with health issues. In both cases, it would be easy for us if we realized that Future Me is the same person as Today Me.
Unfortunately, most of us are captivated by Past Self. We just see ourselves as cuter when we were younger. We think we had more fun and that life was better. We don’t like looking forward, because it seems depressing, but when we do, we’re oppressed by the idea that we “should” be planning, saving money, eating better, and being more active. Walking backward, facing the past, we’re going to bump into the future and feel it as a frustrating obstacle.
This is part of why people hang on to clutter. We haven’t spent any time thinking about what we’ll want or need just a few years into the future. We have this anxious sense of What If, while never spending any time gaming it out. Get specific about those What Ifs and plan around them! What If I turn into a bag lady? Well, what would need to happen to avoid that sad destiny? (Build relationships, build career skills, learn about financial planning, save money). What If my house burns down? (Get insurance, test your smoke detectors, make an emergency response plan). What If I need this later? Well, that decision is up to you. You’re creating your response to your stuff and your home. You’re creating your response to your money. You’re creating your response to food and to how it feels to live in your body. You’re creating your friendships and conversations. What your personal future looks like depends almost entirely on how you think and what you do about it, today.
The future is an opportunity. Even an hour from now: later today is the future! There’s always still time to call someone and say the things you haven’t said, like “I miss you” and “I’m sorry” and “I love you.” There’s always still time to learn new things, to travel, to try new foods and dance to new music. There’s always still time to try to be a better person, a better listener, more patient and forgiving. There’s even time to clean out the garage. Pick any single goal or any single square foot in your personal space, and do something today that will make it more awesome for Tomorrow You. The future can be whatever you wish it to be.
Apparently GOING INTO DEBT is the new way to “make the most of life’s opportunities and memorable moments.” At least, that’s according to the subject header of an email I got from the bank that issued my credit card. They want to sell me a personal loan for the sum of $21,900, at the bargain rate of 6.98% interest. Dude. First off. I am not in this to “make the most of life’s opportunities” - I’m in it to make the most of the reward points. If you aren’t offering 3x points on travel, I’m not interested. Second off. Debt is a shackle around the ankle that in fact destroys your ability to take advantage of opportunities and create memorable moments. Debt can poison every moment of happiness you might otherwise have had. It causes stress, insomnia, and, at least in my case, fits of uncontrollable weeping.
So yeah. Thanks for the invite.
What actually does create memorable moments?
Connection. Full engagement. Paying attention to your surroundings. Listening hard, really hard, creepy-hard, when other people are talking. Opening the gates of your heart. Living today like it really counts. Acting like you really mean it when you do and say things, even things like sitting on the couch wearing no pants.
How can we actually make the most of life’s opportunities?
What does this even mean?
It means we need to know what an opportunity even IS. It’s not just recognizing opportunities as they come up, because they’re available every single second. The road outside your front door has been patiently waiting there since the day it was paved. The internet hums around the clock, around the world, with all the information and maps and train tables you could ever need. You meet people every day, or at least you could, and any one of them could change your life with a word. Or you could change theirs, which is easier.
Show up. That is all that’s required.
Show up physically. Show up emotionally. Show up with your full and precious mental bandwidth attuned to live humans, face to face and in person.
Strip back your shields. Allow yourself to be bored or disappointed or annoyed or frustrated or insulted. Then go back and examine it. Is it necessary to take things personally, or can we take breaks sometimes?
Life gets so much more interesting when we pay attention to it, when we throw ourselves at it in a blindfolded, backwards trust fall. It gets predictable and yucky when we insist that it meets our limited expectations.
All my stuff needs to be cute and new! I only have to eat things that taste good! I decide what constitutes sufficient attention, affection, and respect! I must be entertained most moments! Nobody should ever disagree with, criticize, or otherwise challenge me!
Those are some fun moments. Yup. I can get them, too, with a paper placemat and some crayons. Hand me a bucket of action figures and I’ll get down on the floor and create a world that works my way.
The way to really make the most of life’s opportunities is to be ready, to recognize them when they pop up. It means we have to set aside the heavy bags, the bags of perfectionism and selfishness and impatience. When most of what’s left starts to feel like a heart attached to a set of floating eyes, that’s when we start to get somewhere.
As for the memorable moments, don’t wait around for them. Make them happen.
I wish everyone would read this book. The Fear Factor is that incredible thing, a highly readable popular science book that deserves to become a major cultural touchstone. I’m obsessed with making Alison Marsh’s research as widespread as possible.
Marsh studies both psychopathy and altruism. Who knew there would be such strong connections between them? As a true crime fan and compulsive news junkie, I was riveted. Putting psychopaths into an MRI machine turns out to have been a really great idea, and it answers so many questions.
Q: Why are they like that?
A: Amygdala visibly smaller, different brain activity than normal people
I don’t want to give out too many spoilers, but I had ‘aha’ moments on nearly every page.
As many questions as The Fear Factor answers about psychopathy, it has equally as much to say about altruism, which is a hobbyhorse of mine. Why has altruism persisted in both humans and animals if “survival of the fittest” requires individuals to be selfish? Why do creatures help each other across species?
A pervasive belief about altruism is that it’s actually selfish. Either the person is doing it biologically, to benefit kin; doing it cynically, to get attention; or the fact that altruism makes them feel good somehow invalidates the act. Marsh says that psychopaths don’t help other people - in fact, the opposite, because they find it entertaining to harm people - and if altruism were innately pleasurable, then psychopaths would do it, too. “The fact that, for most people, alleviating others’ suffering and bringing them joy can be a source of personal pleasure is, in my view, what distinguishes most of us from psychopaths—it is evidence that we have the capacity for genuine altruism.”
The title “The Fear Factor” has to do with a key difference between altruists and psychopaths. This is that psychopaths can’t recognize fear in themselves or other people, while altruists are more sensitive to fearful expressions. Part of what intrigues me so much about this is that altruists are instead less sensitive to anger! I’ve read elsewhere that most people misconstrue sadness as anger, seeing angry expressions and behavior where there really are none. This would definitely be a fascinating topic for further research of Marsh’s style.
The Fear Factor is a truly fascinating book. I enjoyed it so, so much and I really want it to be as widely known as it deserves to be. Please go out and get yourself a copy before you find me running after you down the street, waving one over my head.
“That’ll never work.” There is nothing that sets me off quite like this expression, or anything akin to it. I’ve learned not to be bothered much by critics, griefers, trolls, or haters. Naysayers, though, are in a class unto themselves. It’s not that I let naysaying stop me from doing whatever I want to do. It just boggles my mind that people exist whose default mode is to try to stop other people from doing things, usually for no reason. I’ve started to realize that naysaying is a helpful sign that I’m doing something interesting and worth the trouble.
Most people are caught up in default mode, and why wouldn’t they be? It works well enough. Do something you’ve done before, when other people around you are doing it, and you’re safe. This is the tribal mindset that has allowed humanity to survive, even though we’re weaker than every animal in at least one respect. No fangs, no talons, no prehensile tails, poor night vision, relatively unable to leap, swim, run, or climb trees... What we do well is to communicate and work in groups. That means the outlier who deviates from behavioral norms is probably either wasting resources, disrupting trust, or endangering group safety. Right?
Naysayers are trying to protect you.
Let’s do the taxonomy. How do naysayers differ from other types of critics?
Critique is constructive criticism that comes from an established relationship with a defined expectation of that critique. A teacher, boss, manager, mentor, agent, coach, trainer, choreographer, conductor, editor, or peer reviewer is formally required to critique your work, your presentation skills, and possibly your external appearance. Never accept anything less, because professional critique is the only path to excellence.
Criticism, on the other hand, is negative and demotivating. It’s personal. It’s designed to cut someone down, discourage, belittle, or insult. Worse, it almost always comes from people who do not have an established critique relationship. A critic is someone who has no business stating an opinion to this person, in this situation, about this thing. Criticism from critics can still be very useful, both from informational content and from the free practice session in building resilience and grit. That’s no excuse for the critic, though. Why not focus on improving yourself and lead by example?
A troll thinks it’s funny to upset people. Trolls love to start arguments for the sake of arguing. Trolling is making deliberately provocative statements in the hope that someone will take the bait. Trolls feel excitement, delight, and satisfaction.
A griefer seeks to disrupt someone else’s enjoyment of an activity. This is a gaming term, but it works in other areas. For instance, I used to have two young bachelor neighbors who would try to drown out each other’s stereos; the upstairs guy would even put his speaker facedown on the floor. Griefers feel vengeance, a sense of purpose, and sometimes triumph in addition to the usual feelings of trolling.
A hater is annoyed by the idea of other people enjoying themselves or succeeding in general. A hater prefers to dislike things rather than to appreciate them. Dominant emotions of a hater are disgust, irritation, and contempt.
A naysayer seeks to explain why something can’t be done, why it won’t work, why it’s a bad idea, or why a particular person will not succeed. Naysayers think they are intelligent; they’ve mostly stepped outside of emotion while naysaying.
What I love about naysayers is that, unlike the other groups, they usually aren’t doing what they do deliberately. Naysayers don’t know they are naysayers!
The other thing I love about naysayers is that, if you don’t tell them your plans, they can’t naysay you.
Let me go over that again, and make sure that what I am saying is perfectly clear. If you do not tell anyone what you are planning to do, then they can’t criticize you or try to talk you out of it. Therefore, the easiest way to avoid naysayers is just to carry out your plans without advertising them in advance. You don’t need permission (unless you do). Almost always, you can move right ahead and do what you want.
I’m a big believer in following all applicable rules and regulations. This makes my life really simple, straightforward, and easy. I’ve never had a speeding ticket because I don’t drive above the speed limit. I get to go in the short line at airport security because I passed the background check and became a Trusted Traveler. I have great credit, which basically allows me to do whatever I want and pay less while I do it. The interesting thing here, though, is that almost everything a person would want to do is legal. It’s allowed.
I’m allowed to sign up for any class I want. I’m allowed to buy tickets, get a visa, and travel almost anywhere I want. I’m allowed to eat anything I can put in my mouth and do any physical activities that suit the human body, including bend my knees backward, although I doubt I’d like that very much. I’m allowed to apply for or quit any job I want. I’m allowed to date or not date anyone I want. I’m allowed to adopt a kid or a pet, buy whatever I want, live basically wherever I want, and do whatever I want for entertainment. Why would anyone try to talk me out of any of that?
Why would they care?
Seriously. WHY WOULD THEY CARE?
I’ve had people try to talk me out of:
Enjoying particular songs or bands
Reading literary fiction
Going to college
Riding a bicycle
Visiting New Zealand
Keeping a pet parrot
Using Tabasco sauce
Going to Las Vegas
Moving to California
Eating Mexican food
Signing up with the organ donor registry
Using exclamation points
Renting a house
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera
On the other hand, people have tried to talk me into:
Joining their religion
Eating hot dogs at the fairground
Adopting a kitten
Wearing acrylic nails
Getting a tattoo
Getting up early to make their coffee
Allowing anonymous comments on my blog
Buying expensive nutritional supplements
Reading Fifty Shades of Gray
Switching to an Android phone
Buying things from mall kiosks
Renting to own
It’s almost like people think you should do anything and everything, as long as it was someone else’s idea, but think twice before you do anything that was your own idea.
When dealing with any kind of criticism or negativity, there are two important considerations: 1. Could this be true? 2. Does this person have any credibility or credentials? Just because someone is not a credible source does not necessarily rule out their ability to give helpful advice. Is it actually a valid point? If I hear the same thing from two people who don’t know each other, either they’re both right or it’s an example of mainstream groupthink. Or... both? Either way, it’s helpful to know where to find the baseline and recognize common reactions. Sort of like knowing the high and low temperatures for the day.
Naysayers are simply stating an opinion. They’re not the laws of physics. They’re not the law of the land, either. I believed the person who told me I shouldn’t wear red, until I did a modeling shoot and the designer told me that “red is your color.” After that, I realized I had based my wardrobe around the opinion of, apparently, the only person who didn’t like that color on me, or maybe just didn’t like that color. My husband loves it on me. Maybe naysayers are subconsciously motivated by envy; who knows?
Think about what it is that naysayers are trying to prevent you from doing. Going back to school? Probably envy. Traveling? Probably envy. Powerlifting, entering a competition, starting a business, remodeling a house? Stop and ask if there are other people successfully doing the thing you want to do. Then go and talk to one of them, rather than your naysayer, who is probably a blood relation or peer with no relevant experience. Naysaying is probably a sign that what you are planning to do is more interesting than anything your naysayer ever did. If that’s true, you should internally thank them for pointing it out, and then go and do it!
As long as it isn’t hurting anybody, go ahead and do whatever you want. There’s no reason not to, and it probably contributes to the economy.
A cocktail dress makes a certain impression, and never so much as when you wear it in the mat room at the gym. We’re having a special training week at my martial arts academy, when we’re encouraged to wear street clothes and practice fighting in real-world conditions. I take this seriously. It’s when I’m wearing evening clothes that I feel the most vulnerable. Exposed skin, tight skirts, and truly stupid shoes: this is stuff I only really feel safe wearing in the company of a group. I figure it will be good for me to train in something a little less comfortable.
Glamor is silly. It’s never ceased to amaze me that people fall for the trick where the plain girl takes off her glasses, shakes out her hair, and suddenly looks gorgeous. Can’t you see her? This is just a costume change. She’s still the same person under all that. Do people really only see cosmetics, clothes, and coiffures? Apparently so. I train with these particular people every day, barefoot, in yoga pants and a t-shirt. I walk in wearing a Lycra dress and a bib necklace, having spent five minutes flat-ironing my hair, and suddenly everyone is flustered. Rather than feeling nervous and constrained by this get-up, I start to feel more confident and stronger.
I’m new at Krav Maga, see. I’m used to being the slowest, clumsiest, and least experienced. Standing in the mat room in my workout clothes, I’m below average. Standing there in my Vegas clothes, I’m elevated into some kind of sultry Bond villain.
We train. Our warmup is twice as long as usual. I do pushups, my necklace clattering on the floor. I do sit-ups, my bike shorts doing exactly what they’d do if I wore them with a shirt instead of a dress. I jog around the room. I jump rope. A large rhinestone flies off. I stuff it down my top, to the consternation of the instructor.
“Or that’ll work,” he says.
What I realize, as I look around the room, is that I’m having an easier time than the students who wore jeans. Men and women both are constantly yanking at their waistlines. Jeans tend to be tight in some places and loose in others, yet not in any ways that are compatible with much jogging, kicking, or rolling around on the floor.
I get a male partner. I feel privileged by this, because we usually self-sort by gender. I’m in the room to learn not to be flustered or triggered by full-body contact, specifically from males. My partner shows his respect by treating me exactly like any other opponent. We straddle each other in full mount and take turns throwing each other around. “Now if you get attacked by anyone who weighs a buck and a quarter, you’ll be prepared.”
Training with men is great, actually. I’ve found it the same in the weight room, on the trail, and now in martial arts. The vast majority of male athletes are delighted to train with women.
I wish my mom
I wish my sister
I hope my daughter
Many men carry a ‘white knight’ image deep inside themselves. They’ve been waiting their entire lives to come to the rescue of a woman in peril. The idea of another man inflicting physical violence on a female is one of the worst things they can think of, something that fills them with intense loathing and disgust. This is why they’re so pleased when we train to defend ourselves. (I’m just as interested in defending myself against an attack from a wild animal, but). When we train together it’s a mutual triumph.
This is part of why I wasn’t surprised when I talked to my husband about my training. I asked him how he felt about me studying martial arts. “Relieved,” he said. RELIEVED. He travels on business, and every time, he worries about me sleeping alone. We practiced together a little, and it was funny to see how he lit up when he realized how quickly I’m improving, especially when I almost kicked him in the forehead. “That was a good one.” I’m just barely good enough that I aimed to miss, and missed. If he’d caught me a week earlier it might not have gone so well.
It’s already working. I’m learning that I can skin my knuckles and not feel it all that much. I’m learning that I can be tossed on the ground and jump back up, giggling and ready for more. I’m learning to stand still and hold the foam targets and brace myself against dozens of kicks and punches. I’m learning to boil away the part of me that freezes in fear. I’m learning to walk tall, knowing that the element of surprise is on my side. Already, if someone comes for me, I’ll have at least a few seconds to create a different destiny for myself. Not today, buddy, not today.
The next time I walk down the street in this particular cocktail dress, I’ll remember how I wore it today. Fifty snap kicks, a hundred palm strikes. Inside the dress I’ll know I still have full range of motion. Now all I have to do is reattach a few rhinestones.
The thing about little stuff is that it adds up. There are three occasions when this becomes clear:
The really insidious small stuff is the stuff we keep stored inside drawers, cabinets, cupboards, and containers. We don’t think about it because it’s hidden from view. It’s not until we have to take it all out, one by one, that we start to realize how much we really have. Then we wrap it up to keep it from breaking during the move, and the boxes somehow start filling up awfully quickly.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been able to relocate without having to stop and find more moving boxes.
Nobody? That’s what I thought.
Avoiding the accumulation of a bunch of small stuff takes a policy decision. Every single thing we bring through the door has to earn its keep. If it’s food, we’re going to eat it in the near future. If it’s a decoration, we have to believe that it’s worth packing and hauling and dusting for the next several years. If it’s a beauty product, we have to believe we’re going to use it up before it gets clumpy or congealed or whatever.
A bottle of sunblock lasts about one summer. A jar of nail polish has a lifespan. So does a tube of lotion or a bottle of perfume. Stuff doesn’t last forever. What would be the point of buying twelve of something when eleven of them are going to expire before we use them up?
We can think of small consumables in the same way we might think of packets of french fries. Sure, fries are good, but there’s no point buying thirty orders of them. They get gross, right? Buy one and eat it while it’s hot and fresh. Then buy another one for a different meal. Almost all of our personal possessions can be regarded just like french fries. That’s true whether it’s shirts or bottles of vitamins or cases of paper towels.
The other thing about little stuff is that it adds up and starts to demand storage and furniture of its own.
A case of paper towels has to have somewhere to go. Wherever we put it, nothing else can go there. We can’t go popping wormholes into alternate universes just because something was on sale at the warehouse store.
Start accumulating fabric, and suddenly you need an extra bedroom. That extra bedroom might displace so many other things that the garage is full. A full garage then creates the desire for a storage unit. The costs involved in having a storage unit and a bigger house then displace the funds that could have been used for a vacation. Or new furniture. Or a debt-free lifestyle. Or a comfortable retirement.
Collectibles ask for their own shelves or cabinets. Books obviously ask for shelves and more shelves and more shelves. “You can never have too many books” but can you really read more than one at a time? Every book you think you’re going to re-read one day is another new book that will be displaced. Each item we keep blocks another item from coming into our lives, or at least, from having a dedicated space to sit.
I work with people who are chronically disorganized, with compulsive accumulators, with hoarders, with squalor. My people really struggle with this concept that only one item can fit in one spot at a time. The disorganized people can’t quite wrap their heads around it. The accumulators are at the store anyway, distracting themselves from their overflowing homes by spending all their free time in well-lit, well-organized shops. The hoarders don’t care, there’s no way in this lifetime that they’re letting go of anything once they’ve imprinted on it. How dare you challenge MY STUFF! Anyone who lives in squalor is simply so adjusted to the feeling of being buried in stuff and things and objects and trash and junk that they barely notice one way or the other. They don’t even smell it anymore, so how would they start to see it?
Most of us haven’t crossed those lines. I estimate that about one in five people live in a chronically disorganized state. Probably half of us have so much stuff that it’s hard to keep track of it all. More like two-thirds of us who have a garage can’t use it for anything because it’s full of stuff. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could use our garages for something like an air hockey table or a kayak? Why do we create these annoying, embarrassing, unusable spaces in our own homes? Why are we willing to pay so much to keep them that way?
Take a look around. Are your kitchen counters open and available to make cookies? Is your desk clear and ready to write in a journal or make an art project? Is your dining table welcoming and inviting for friends and a seven-layer dip? Is your bedroom a relaxing oasis of serenity, or rather a haystack of impatient laundry?
There are two ways to go about solving the problem of too much little stuff. One way is to corral it in bigger stuff: armoires or bookcases or other attractive storage furniture. Sometimes selling some of it off can raise the funds to buy upgrades of this nature. The other way of solving the problem of too much little stuff is to get rid of it. Clearing all the flat surfaces in your home is an interior design upgrade that you can actually do without spending any money! If you want your place to look more selfie-ready, it’s easier and cheaper to do it by bagging up a bunch of small items. Which is it going to be, the little stuff, or your home?
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.