As a divorced person, I understand the cynicism. What's so inherently wrong with a holiday about love, hearts, and flowers though? Seriously? Once we cut through the consumerist message from advertisers, we can make it whatever we want. Who says our pets or our friends can't be our valentines?
I can't have children, but I don't begrudge people who celebrate Mother's Day or Father's Day. I haven't eaten a traditional turkey dinner since 1992, but I still celebrate Thanksgiving by cooking huge meals for my family. I like the concept of having half a dozen special days during the year as an excuse for get-togethers and decadent food. In some ways, Valentine's Day is my revenge for having to wait out three months of tacky Christmas displays.
My husband is not a lover of holidays, or at least he wasn't. After ten years, he's starting to come around. I make it a practice to think of things he would like and to do little favors that would appeal to him. Part of what's wrong with the treacly, smarmy consumerist V-Day is this sense of generic, all-purpose gifts. Not everyone likes or wants champagne, chocolate, red roses, stuffed animals, or helium balloons. If my man brought me a $60 bouquet on Valentine's Day, I'd kick his butt. We have to demonstrate that we know each other better than that.
That's why, on Valentine's Day one year, I bought him an anvil.
Being a dream date for someone is extremely, meticulously specific. Nobody has the same dream. The core idea is that you are curious about this person who is spending time with you. What are you like? What DO you like? What's your favorite sandwich? What's your guilty-pleasure musical playlist? It's fun to be able to spoil someone and surprise them in a way that nobody else would know how to do properly. There's no reason why this person has to be a romantic or sexual partner.
The other night, I was coming home from my walk when a woman pulled up in front of my neighbor's house. She had a small crate with a helium balloon tied to it, a balloon shaped like a monkey wearing boxer shorts with a heart pattern. She set the crate at the gate and dashed back to her car. I peeked at the crate as I walked by, and it had a pair of wine glasses and a teddy bear, among other things. My neighbor is a nurse and he often works the late shift. I begrudge him nothing. It's cute to see people in their forties finding love, especially when at least one of them works a non-standard schedule. Good for them. How likely is it that this gal would go out of her way to drop off a package like this on an ordinary work night?
There are some elements of romantic love that we can keep, even while ditching traditional gender role stereotypes and creepy stalker-ish love songs. The idea of committing to a relationship with someone, even when that person is occasionally annoying or confusing, can be rather inspiring. There's a potential for deep dives into extended philosophical conversations that can't be matched through most other types of relationships. Being 'with' someone over a period of years is a way to have a mirror, someone who knows you better than yourself in some ways, someone who will call you on your BS and help you to be closer to the ideal version of yourself. I don't feel that I know any of my friends or relatives anywhere near as well as I do my husband, and I doubt they'd want me to.
I "got me a man" by wearing comfortable shoes and completely eschewing cosmetics, by being extremely opinionated and having a big mouth, by Reading All the Things and completely being myself all the time. This is the best policy. When you always act like yourself, you wind up with people who like the you that you are. We were both single for a long time and would never have settled for just anyone. Not much about conventional romantic advice would have worked for us.
Just be a human and do what you want, and when you find someone interesting, be a good friend and leave space to talk to them. True friendship is a miracle, something worth celebrating, and if it turns into something a bit more schmoopy, allow it. We are social animals, and this world could certainly use more love in it. What else are we going to do in February anyway?
I was just reading an old post from Mr. Money Mustache in which he describes ironing his five-dollar bills and putting them in a photo album. Immediately I was paralyzed by a fit of laughter. I have a relative, who shall remain nameless, who also used to iron his/her dollar bills! I wondered for just a blip whether this story was true, but it has to be, because who would make that up? American currency does contain fabric content. Money, you so... crispy... Oh dear. I am undone. Let me see if I can write this without guffawing again. Can you be here with me? Can you be in a space where thinking about money gives you feelings of amusement and delight?
The great thing about money is that it's a symbol, whereas our problems are so darn specific. Here I have some money. What can I do with it? Can I use it to solve a plumbing problem? Yes. Can I use it to get some dinner? Yes. Can I use it to send a present to my friend? Yes. Can I use it to get help when I am stranded at the side of the road? Yes. Can I give it to charity? Yes! Whereas, all of these problems are more complicated without money. If you don't have money, you'd better have skills, and if you don't have skills OR money, you'd better be a pretty darn top-notch friend or be really good at wheedling. If you have a problem, and you don't have money and you don't know how to solve it yourself, then you probably still have the problem. Contrariwise, if you have skills and friends and you can do things by yourself, then you can keep your money, and you'll probably wind up with both more skills and more friends.
It's much more fun to be the SOLVER of other people's problems than to be the CAUSE of other people's problems, always needing them to bail you out.
You know what's fun? Anonymously sending money to your hard-up friend is fun. You know what else is fun? Sneaking over to the till in a restaurant and picking up someone else's check. Another fun and sneaky trick is to see someone who looks broke, go up behind them, and pretend to pick up money that "fell out of their pocket." "Excuse me, sir, I think you dropped this?" There are few facial expressions more full of surprise than the one when someone receives a surprise $20 bill. I stuck a twenty in a bag once for a homeless kid who asked me to buy him some cheese and crackers. He looked in the bag and did a triple take when he saw the money. Tee hee hee!
These are some uses of cash that are harder to do with digital transactions. If you slip some currency into someone's house surreptitiously, you have plausible deniability and no paper trail. They can't prove it was you. It's like reverse stealing. This is the kind of fun you can have when you know you have plenty for yourself and that you can always get more.
What does all this have to do with ironing your money? It depends on how you feel about ironing. My brother and I used to bicker over it when we were kids. We both enjoyed ironing, and when one of us would get the ironing board out, we would try to get the other to hand over whatever it was they were planning to press. "I'll do it for you." "No, no, that's okay." No, I insist! There is just something so satisfying about a freshly pressed shirt. I draw the line there; I wasn't the one who ironed my jeans, just saying! Ironing says intention. I planned it this way. I found every little wrinkle and smoothed it out. I took care over this job. I'm proud of what I have, whether that's my pants or my pelf. My slacks or my greenbacks. My duds or my ducats.
My brother who loved ironing always looks sharp; sharper than me anyway. He's still in his thirties and has already met with a retirement planner. Our unnamed relative who ironed money retired early, having opened a brokerage account while working as a bagger at a grocery store. This is what happens to you when you like ironing. How you do one thing is how you do everything.
(Or it can be, once it occurs to you that you can transfer your skills and focus from one area to other areas).
(If you're not sure what a brokerage account is, keep following me. I'll get to that in a future post).
Most people treat money with at least a certain amount of vagueness. Thinking about it too closely can lead to panic. Retirement? But I'm still in debt! I can't even get to ZERO! This is what happens when we avoid and resist. We get a muddle. The harder we try to avoid and resist, the bigger the muddle. Mental clarity is a major part of solving any persistent problem. Getting a solid mental grasp on reality is the only way to improve that reality. I see this with my clients all the time. They've got coins scattered all around the house, on the bathroom counter, on their dressers and nightstands, on the kitchen counters, in shopping bags and in their boxes labeled MISC. There is cash mixed in with unpaid bills, uncashed checks are mixed in with collections notices, expired coupons are mixed in with expired gift cards. When part of your clutter is made of actual money, there's a problem.
The first step is to choose one spot to respect your money. A jar? A shoebox? A fireproof safe? A big envelope? Gather all the coins and currency and checks and gift cards into one space as you turn them up. Go through your wallet and stack up all your bills so they are facing the same direction. Smallest denominations on top. That's how we do it in the cash register. The reason is that it makes it easier to tell how much you have at a glance. Eventually, you'll have a rough idea of your financial standing at all times, without having to check or give it much thought.
Peace of mind doesn't happen by itself. A cloud of vagueness and a faint intention to maybe think about something a few decades from now is not the same thing as peace of mind! Financial problems are completely incompatible with peace of mind. It means there's something wrong, an imbalance of energy exchange with the world. Financial problems also generally stop being your problem and drag in other people, turning your problems into their problems. Clarity with money can quickly turn into an action plan, and action plans can quickly turn into cash. Currency has magical powers. It can buy peace of mind for yourself and it can also buy peace of mind for others. Ironing your money may seem like a silly thing to do, but anecdotally, it's better to have your money under pressure than to feel pressured by money!
If you've tried other organizing and decluttering books and been stymied, then you need Scaling Down: Living Large in a Smaller Space. While the book is aimed at a more mature audience who are downsizing to smaller homes, the way it addresses the thought processes and emotional work of decluttering would be good for anyone.
The authors, Judi Culbertson and Marj Decker, have been professional organizers for many years. They have obviously heard it ALL. Scaling Down includes many anecdotes of various people who succeeded (or failed) at downsizing in different scenarios. There are cartoons and a lot of humor, although there are some sad moments. For instance, it never ceases to amaze me how grown adults will allow a trivial family trinket to destroy relationships, and there are examples of that here.
The most valuable part of the book is the way it walks through the way to make different kinds of decisions about stuff. Not just physical possessions, but downsizing to a smaller home, clearing out storage units, disconnecting from a career at retirement, setting boundaries in new marriages or with adult kids, and more. There is a chapter on dealing with the possessions of an older relative who has become incapacitated or passed away. For those of us who haven't yet had to confront the types of issues that are common to senior adults, it brings true perspective to the effort of downsizing. Future Self is simply not going to need all this stuff. It's so much easier to make the decisions and do the sorting now, while we're relatively hale and hearty.
I'm currently living in a space slightly less than half the size of the house we moved into as newlyweds. We've had to downsize the kitchen four times in seven years of marriage. We've found that we prefer a cozy, snug, human-sized space, the type that was common in the early 20th century. It feels more homey. It's also easier to clean, easier to find things, and cheaper to heat and cool. With two middle-aged adults and two messy pets, we can attest that everything in Scaling Down is true.
Whenever a choice point comes up, it can be regarded as a crossroads. The options are either to continue forward, or make a turn. Turn right or turn left, and the turn will be in the exact opposite direction as the other turn. Which is the right direction? This is where most people tend to get hung up, unable to make a decision, and that's because they think there is a right answer. There isn't. Every turn leads somewhere. It's always prudent to pull over and look at a map. Most choices are even better documented than most maps, with more predictable results.
Let's go over some typical crossroads moments.
Relationship drama. The three options are to stay together, break up and be alone, or break up and wind up with someone else.
Job drama. Similar story, because dating and job hunting are almost perfectly identical in every respect. The three options are to stay put, quit and work for yourself, or quit and get another job somewhere else.
Not enough space. The options are to continue to live in cramped quarters, get more space (bigger house or storage unit), or get rid of a bunch of stuff.
Body image drama. Keep doing what you're doing, decline, or grow stronger.
Where does this road go? If I make one turn, where will I wind up? If I make the other turn, does it go anywhere interesting?
These are challenging questions when we're caught up in it. It's hard to read a map when you're driving through life at freeway speed. There are a lot of tired old jokes about people who refuse to stop and ask for directions, but we don't like to do this in a metaphorical way either. The problems and choices that seem to torment us are usually simple and obvious to everyone else.
Break up with him! Apply for another job! Have a yard sale! Love it or change it!
Of course, we always think other people's problems are easy to solve, while having a tough time with our own. We don't like thinking that there are clear patterns to our behavior. We generally don't like thinking that our behavior is the root cause of anything, preferring to lay the blame on fate or the machinations of others.
I've come to regard choice points and crossroads as triggers for automatic strategic planning breaks. I have left the city limits and I am about to cross another border. This is why we get rid of more stuff and get a smaller house every time we move. This is why every time I hit a snag in my workout plan, such as an injury or a long trip, I come back aiming at a more intense level. This is why I now believe that a change in management at work signals a time to revamp my resume. When something changes, it's time to ask, Would I get into this situation if I had to do it over again right now?
Would I date someone who acted the way my partner is behaving these days? Would I have taken this job under these conditions? Would I plan to make a new house look this way? Did I plan to look this way? Did I plan to wind up here, doing this? Was this intentional?
It's a mystery to me why most people seem to do the opposite. Start quarreling with someone you used to love, and then fight more and more often, being nastier and meaner to each other, until nobody can figure out why you would live with someone like that. Hate your job and then just stay there, miserable, with no plans to leave and no plans to increase your job skills. Hate your body and then just become more passive and gain more weight, even when the health problems start to show up. Hate housework and then make your life harder by leaving everything to pile up. It's like pulling up to the crossroads and parking there. Keep moving and leave this town in your rear view.
This analogy works well for me because I've moved so many times. I can associate any given street address with a particular job or relationship or haircut.
Learning to recognize choice points as crossroads can start to make a lot more choices a lot more obvious. Do I move in the direction of a bigger life or do I retreat? Do I move in the direction of improvement or decline? Strength or weakness? More options or fewer options? Debt or financial freedom? Mess or order? Creativity or stasis? Am I passing up awesomeness in favor of imagined security? Am I simply nervous about going somewhere I've never been before, even though I heard it's great? Moving in the direction of greater awesomeness is always recommended.
Would you slap a bratty child? Yours or someone else's?
Assuming the answer is no, congratulations! You have just demonstrated a healthy regard for social norms, self-restraint, and willpower. These are superpowers. They can be used in all situations.
Assuming the answer is yes, of course you would slap a bratty child, let's do another one. Would you rob a bank? Hmm, wait. That might be the wrong kind of question to ask someone who would slap someone else's kid. Would you... would you pee your pants on purpose rather than wait in line at the restroom?
Let's just call that a No and move along. Of course not. Not only do you have self-restraint, willpower, a healthy regard for social norms, and control over your voluntary bodily functions, you also prefer to avoid doing things that are against your obvious self-interest.
If this is true, then you have the power to do and achieve anything.
What it comes down to is that we will not do certain things under any circumstances, because we do not give ourselves permission to do them. Some things we will not do out of disgust, like eating furry blue leftovers. Some things we will not do out of contempt for "people who do those things," like late merge, even though it's purpose-built for the greater good. Some things we will not do because they make no sense, like cashing out our retirement funds to buy a jet ski. Some things we will not do because we just have no urge to do them, like murder or arson. We can thank Past Self for avoiding these things.
We are smart. We have plenty of self-control. We easily do what two million incarcerated people evidently cannot do, which is to stay out of trouble.
Why, then, do we think we have so much trouble with "willpower" and "motivation"?
If we can refrain from punching annoying customers, why can't we refrain from eating that second slice of cake?
If we can avoid shooting heroin, why can't we stop drinking soda?
If we can resist setting our boss's desk on fire, why can't we resist the siren song of the sofa?
It really comes down to what we give ourselves permission to do. We give ourselves permission to eat things that taste good that we want to eat, especially when they're free. We give ourselves permission to lounge around when we've made other commitments to ourselves. We give ourselves permission to abdicate on responsibilities, even when they are congruent with our core values. We are perfectly happy calling ourselves lazy, or claiming we have no willpower, when really we're talking about the same exact self-discipline that allows us to control our bowel functions.
What is behind this, I suspect, is that our defects are our charms. Flaws make us relatable. Get too perfect, and we quit having so many friends. We bond over the things that annoy us, frustrate us, the things we hate. Where is the benefit in suddenly having less in common with other people?
Don't you dare start eating healthy. I need you to have my six when I want to order dessert.
You're making the rest of us look bad.
Now, I'm a contrarian, or so they tell me. My main motivation is curiosity. The more I feel that something is unexplored territory, the more something seems taboo for some reason, the more I think about it. Fact-Finding Missions are my brownie bites. I have to know. If I married Bluebeard, I wouldn't have waited until he left the house to try to unlock that last door. In fact, I wouldn't have married him until after I'd seen it, but anyway. Divorced people are suspicious. I give myself permission to experiment, research, and check out things I want to know, like: what does it feel like to be strong and fit? Sometimes other people have a problem with this. Anyone who is put off by my appearance, my activities, my thoughts, or my conversation is unlikely to be happy with anything I do after the first five minutes regardless.
What I've learned is that whatever you are doing at any particular point in time, however you are dressing, whatever music you are listening to, a group of people will gather around you. What annoys one group will be cheerfully embraced by another. This is why I don't let crowd response dictate what I do.
In the words of my dad, don't do anything illegal, immoral, or just plain stupid. I agree. Everything else is on the table.
I give myself permission to do what I want. I go where I want. I wear what I want. I read what I want. I eat what I want. Surprisingly, I very rarely say what I want, but I say plenty, and it's fair to keep my thoughts to myself. Perhaps because I am a free elf, I do not give myself permission to overeat, stay up too late, spend money frivolously, be overweight, or watch dumb stuff on TV.
Other people will not give themselves permission for other things. To go out without wearing makeup. To tell missionaries to get off the porch and never come back. To wear comfortable shoes. One person's freedom is another person's asceticism. One person's prison is another person's freedom.
Fourteen-second rule. Do you do it? Do you eat food that hits the floor?
Eating grapes while shopping for produce, or taking samples from the bulk bins. Do you do it?
Texting and driving. Do you do it? I sure as [unprintable] hope not.
Being late. Forty minutes? Twenty minutes? Ten minutes? One minute? How often?
Ask around. The answers to these questions are highly personal. Most people will recoil in shock or disgust at one thing, but shrug and admit that they do another, while the person standing right next to them will do the exact opposite. We don't always agree on how these behaviors fit into civilization, or what constitutes a social norm.
What we do generally agree on is that it's okay to break New Year's Resolutions. It's fine to overeat and struggle with weight and body image. It's totally ordinary to have piles of laundry laying around. It's expected to be disorganized. It's practically required to blow off going to the gym. It's somewhat uncouth to have read the entire book before the book club meeting. It's standard to carry debt and have no retirement savings, even when you're fifty. Even though these common areas of attempted resolutions involve the same self-discipline as obeying social norms, they are not regarded AS social norms, and thus they are fair game.
What we have to ask ourselves is which we prefer. Do we prefer fitting in and living the conventional track? Or do we prefer solving what we have felt to be a problem in our lives, at the risk of no longer bonding with people about the problem? Is the tradeoff worth it? What do we give ourselves permission to do or not do?
There must be something symbolic about containers. My people love them. They're everywhere. I believe that no Danish butter cookie tin in the history of cookie tins has ever been recycled. This is why food manufacturers keep putting out expensive commemorative tins and jars: they're like crack. Forget the cookies, give me the containers! Jars! Boxes! Baskets! Barrels! Buckets! Bins! Tubs! Hampers! Lunch boxes! The dream of antique library card catalogs! If I can only finish soaking the label off this, it'll look great on the shelf with all the other ones... The bewitching thing about containers is that they're always so full of potential.
Containers are constraints. They can only hold a certain amount of stuff. Therefore, they wind up being used to store whatever item is closest to that volume. (That's assuming they are being used at all). Let's take the butter cookie tin as an example. It starts out as the "sewing box." It's big enough for scissors and a pincushion and a needle case and some thread. It starts to fill up. The materials accumulate. They no longer fit in the cookie tin. The cookie tin, though, is now an official bodily organ. It cannot be removed. Additional incoming sewing supplies have to go somewhere else. They start filling up other containers chronologically. Not by use, not by volume, not by color, not by application, but by whatever container happened to turn up around the time that another container was needed. That's why all of my people have so many shopping bags with stuff in them. This is the "bottom up" method. What do I do with the stuff I have?
The "top down" method looks completely different, and that's why we have Pinterest. We start with the questions: What works? and What looks good? Design starts with the room, its function, and its appearance from a macro, interior design and ergonomics level. People gasp when they see rooms that were designed from the top down, and they also gasp when they see rooms that were "designed" from the bottom up, but for different reasons. "Wow!" Versus "What the heck happened in here?"
Containers ask to be filled. When we're charmed and delighted by them, we keep them for their own sake, putting them everywhere they will fit. In the windowsills. On every available shelf and flat surface. On top of the fridge. On top of the toilet tank. In closets. In boxes in the garage or storage unit. We can't even bring ourselves to get rid of travel mugs with cracked lids, or mismatched, melted Tupperware, so how could we possibly get rid of these super-cool awesome decorative containers?
The troubles are many. We can't see inside and we can't always remember what's in each container. When they're displayed next to each other, they don't match, because we appreciate almost every possible style of home decor. Country cute meets Victorian meets Asian meets baroque meets cardboard carton. Somehow it's all coated with a furze of dust, strands of cobwebs, and a thin veneer of grease. Each individual container is fascinating in its own way, even as it makes it harder to find stuff and harder to clean house.
One of the fetching charms of containers is that they represent aesthetic values in a scaled-down, affordable version. I can't afford a castle, but I can afford something that looks like it could GO in a castle! I can't afford antique furniture, but I can afford this vase. I can't afford to travel the world, but maybe I can afford this steamer trunk. The heartbreaking part of this is that the cost of all these items, added together, might be enough for that round-the-world ticket, or the antique armoire, or, if there's a storage unit in the picture, the down payment for that dream house. Containers are aspirational.
My people are dreamers. They're quite bright and sensitive, as a rule, and usually have a very strong design sense. It's hard to tell what that is, though, because they are Rescuers of Things and they like to run Stray Stuff Homes. Come to me, battered brass and chipped porcelain, and I will display you forevermore. My role as organizer and coach includes drawing out that love of beauty and appreciation of the finer things. What would your house look like if you planned it? What would 'intentional' look like for you? It's like carving Mount Rushmore out of living rock. Mount Stuffmore. Find the style under the clutter.
There are other ways to think about containers. Furniture can also be a container. Finances are always, always an issue with my people, and that's why they don't go straight out and buy a furniture solution for their container needs. A dresser, an armoire, a standing bookcase, a chest, or a cabinet with shelves can all hold a lot of bits and bobs that are currently distributed between uncountable smaller containers. I suspect that a lot of people could hold a yard sale and come up with enough ready cash to buy such an item. Most of my people already have at least one piece of furniture that would do the job, but of course it's already full of stuff! Downsizing even a couple of small items from every container can free up enough space to redistribute everything. This is why decluttering always comes before organizing.
Containers are meant to contain things. My people, like nature, abhor a vacuum (and so do their cats), and any container cries piteously in loneliness until it is filled with something. It's helpful to think of the room itself as a container. A home is a container. A home contains your life and your loved ones. There needs to be enough room to live and to welcome guests. A home is the most fascinating, lovely container of all, because it contains you. Let that be enough. Get rid of the symbolic containers and see whether the potential starts to show up.
Nobody starts out knowing anything about money. We all start out as tiny little helpless babies, and if we've survived and become literate, then we did it in a world of astonishingly magnificent abundance. Adults gave us food even when all we gave them in exchange was bodily fluids. Adults gave us shelter even when we kept waking them up all night long. Adults clothed us even when we spat up on them. Adults carried us from place to place and taught us to speak. By the time we learned to read, we had already accrued years of debt from unearned altruism. Part of the job of being an adult creature, of any species, is to repay that debt to future generations, to help them survive in the way that we were helped to survive. We pass it on.
We contribute to the world in one way or another. If we're meerkats, we do that by taking our turn at sentinel duty. If we're ravens, we alert the flock to the presence of a moose carcass. If we're humans (which I assume you are, but if you are a literate non-human, please, by all means PM me), we contribute to the economy in some way. It is virtually impossible to step outside of that constraint. I would argue that it IS impossible to step outside the economy, because if you save up and buy property to live off grid, you just lost the game, and that's assuming you didn't bring any supplies or materials produced by anyone else. Anyway. Whether we think money is involved or not, whether we think a job is involved or not, we're in the game. The better we get at understanding the rules of the game, the better a job we can do in participating. A meerkat should be a good meerkat. A raven should be good at being a raven, which may be different from being a "good raven." A human should be a good human, and contributing to the world is part of that.
We start to think in terms of net contribution. Am I smiling at others as often as they smile at me? Am I listening at least as much as I am talking? Am I helping at least as much as I am being helped? Am I producing as much as I am consuming? Am I providing value or extracting it?
Money is simply an abstract way of exchanging energy. We can use it to buy goods or services from anyone in the world, helping them to provide for their families, which we can only do in person if we live near them. We can use it to support performing artists who can't possibly visit every area where their fans live. We can use money to help people in charitable ways that we couldn't do even if they were our neighbors, lacking the skills or physical abilities they might need. Money can help us to act like incredibly fast and loudly cawing ravens or incredibly tall meerkats, helping the rest of our flock or band even when we've never met them.
We start to think of money as a way to give back to the world. Money is a way to share. Money is a way to make other people's lives better, and our own. We start to think that work at our maximum capacity for contribution is a great gift we can give.
When we're working at a level lower than we know we can, we're taking up someone else's spot. Someone else who can, at least right now, do no better than the job that we currently have. We have to get out of their way. We have to advance and make room. We probably have no idea whatsoever how much we can really do, but we do at least know that we have more to offer than the current job is using. This is like the wolf bringing home a shrew for her cubs while the owl's owlets wait in vain. Animals do better at adulthood than we do. They wake up and go straight to work because their survival is on the line. Not just theirs, but the future of their species. They don't have snooze buttons. They also don't have debt.
It would be nice to think that most of our contribution to the world is not fundamentally economic in nature. This may be true for parents of young children. The rest of us have something to prove. Are we really spending the majority of our free time comforting the sorrowful and caring for the sick and elderly? Are we spending our spare time teaching adult literacy? I know I'm not. My contributions are limited to the occasional surreptitious sandwich handoff, my pro bono work, a check to the soup kitchen, or my monthly auto-payment for the student I'm sponsoring in Zambia. Oops. Economic contributions again. Must work on that. Alas. Even if I give my time, I'm making an economic contribution, because what I'm really giving is labor. There is no escape!
I like thinking of myself as a leader, a giver, a maker, and a builder. I have all kinds of practical skills and I will readily teach them whenever I am asked. Or sometimes when I am not asked! I love mentoring young people. I love pushing my close friends to chase their dreams and get their passion projects into reality. These are much nicer feelings than the feelings of helplessness and futility and despair I felt when I was broke and constantly in need of rides, meals, loans, and sometimes places to sleep. Now I can give what I used to need. I give because I feel the need to give. I feel an internal pressure that never relents. I also feel that money is merely one aspect of a fountain of energy that I can tap at will. It's a shortcut. It's a force multiplier. I can give money to far more causes and purposes than I can give of my personal presence and personal attention. The more I earn, the more I can share and give, and the more natural it feels to do so.
If I were a goose, I'd want to be a fast goose, so a slower or older goose could fly behind me in formation and feel less wind resistance. Animals cooperate for the greater good of their species all the time. All I can do as a human person is to work. I can do a lot for my family and close friends, but it's finite. I'm not called upon for all that much hair-stroking and hand-holding. What I can do by working is to provide value through my work, and then take the money I earn and use it to provide value again. It's not perfect, but it is a pretty interesting form of cooperation, in the context of what can be done by members of the animal kingdom. We are the money animals.
The Slight Edge is a great candidate if you're looking for just one self-improvement book to read this year. It touches on everything I would want to say to someone who is struggling in some area of life and looking for a way out. Jeff Olson's message is that the little things we do every day make more of a difference than larger-scale efforts, whether for good or ill.
Olson starts out by describing his "day of disgust." That's the day he became fed up with himself and knew that he needed to change his behavior. I had a day like this while journaling, and I've known others to have their day of disgust and quit smoking, quit drinking alcohol, and vow to permanently lose the extra body weight. The triggers in those cases were seeing a bunch of smokers standing in the rain by a dumpster, spending a night in jail after a DUI, and being insulted by a friend. I feel fortunate that my day of disgust happened while I was comfortably ensconced in my own bedroom! People often refer to this kind of moment of clarity as "hitting rock bottom" - but one person's rock bottom is another person's starting place. We can let go of the idea that external input needs to bonk us on the head before we make the firm decision to be accountable for our own behavior. We can just decide to change.
The Slight Edge includes some great graphics. The success curve chart made a lot of sense to me. Success is determined by whether a person takes full responsibility or blames something or someone else instead. My clients always blame themselves, among other people. They believe they're lazy and lack willpower. They wallow in shame and guilt many times every day. They constantly insult themselves. Blaming someone else might at least offer the motivation of revenge, of "I'll show YOU! You have no idea who you're dealing with!" Blaming ourselves is a sure-fire way to fall down the well and get stuck down there. Accountability is a route out. Every time we figure out a way to solve a problem, every time we think more of the future instead of the past, every time we work toward something positive rather than sitting and perseverating in negativity, we move upward on the success curve.
The most interesting part of The Slight Edge for me was the idea that "the size of the problem determines the size of the person." The specific example was the way that the type of problems we are solving at work determines our income. The biggest problem I ever had during my old day job was getting a paper cut on my eyelid. If I could have solved larger-scale problems such as program management, I could have been earning three times as much and delegating the paper-cut-getting to someone else.
The Slight Edge, according to Olson, is all about what we do when nobody's looking. Do we make the incremental choices that lead toward our goals, or do we let ourselves off the hook? Can we keep ourselves focused even when we're not seeing results yet? The results of the success curve only become visible 80% of the way along the curve. (I ran a marathon four years after I went out the door and couldn't run around one single block in my neighborhood). Can we hang onto a dream, or do we talk ourselves out of wanting it because we don't trust ourselves to work for it?
Olson suggests a 250-day program, which is one year with 115 days off. That means following through roughly 2/3 of the time. For any goal, whether it's reading more, going to the gym, or brown-bagging your lunch, 250 days is enough to make significant progress. Another suggestion is to do that which 95% of people aren't willing to do. I will vouch for that, also. I've been free of consumer debt for a decade because I'm willing to live in a small house with one bathroom, share a vehicle, and go without cable TV or a storage unit. I went from obese to a size zero because I'm willing to keep a food log, and I ran a marathon because I'm willing to exercise in the rain. I didn't run every day and I didn't meet a strict calorie goal every day; two-thirds of the time sounds like my reality. I fully agree that the Slight Edge is a mental adjustment that can easily solve any problem, and I highly recommend the book.
Groundhog Day. An American tradition. A marmot-based weather forecasting device. Also one of the best movies ever made. If the only thing you do today is think about Bill Murray, consider this a day well-lived. Watching Groundhog Day would be even better. What would be even better than that would be to consider today to be a Second New Year, another chance to live up to your expectations for yourself.
A quarter of people who made New Year's Resolutions quit after the first week. That's according to statistics. I think it's because people get all wound up and perfectionistic, and punish themselves for not having an instant 365-day streak of success. My way around this is just to not count January.
January is for: getting a cold; staying home and trying to catch up financially after the holidays; decompressing after holiday travel and Fourth Quarter workloads; thinking about putting away decorations; and maybe realizing how crowded the gym is for two weeks of the year. The weather is so bad in most of the Northern Hemisphere that, if you're ever going to spend a month bundled in a blanket on the couch, then January should be that month.
My Januaries are a bit different, because New Year's is my favorite holiday and because I'd rather be lazy in the summer. I use January to finish any projects or books left over from the previous year, research my new resolutions, purge my closets, and level up my workout. By the time February rolls around, I have a sense of how I'm going to make progress on my resolutions. Then it's just business as usual, the new normal.
The worst mistake people make about habit change is to moralize. We blame and punish ourselves. We insult ourselves, saying we are lazy and that we have no willpower. We think we're weak. It's really more like learning to tie your shoes or ride a bike. It's more complicated than it looks, and just because other people can do it easily doesn't mean we're going to get it right on the first try. We'll make our changes eventually, but only because we keep trying over and over and over again. We'll change only when we really want to and when we're convinced that it's a good idea.
Plenty of people don't wear shoes with laces and don't know how to ride a bike. Clearly you can live your entire life without learning certain skills or doing certain activities. All it means is that if you can't tie your shoelaces, you'll have a tough time going hiking, or running, or wearing the most comfortable shoes. All it means is that if you can't ride a bike, then you can't go anywhere on a bike, and if you're invited to ride somewhere then you'll be left behind. If you never make the habit change you resolved to do, you can go right on living the same way you did before. All that will happen is that you'll continue to be excluded from activities that involve those skills and abilities.
Continue not to study a foreign language, and all it means is that when you meet people who speak that language, you won't be able to talk to them. If you travel, there may be situations that would have gone differently if you had the right language skills, but you'll never know.
Continue to maintain your body image, and all it means is that you'll continue on the same vector toward old age that you're on now. You might have had totally different life experiences if you were fit and strong, but you won't be finding out this year.
Continue not to be organized, and all it means is that you'll have a certain number of preventable disasters where you're late to your commitments, can't find things when you want them, and have to pay the occasional fine or fee.
Continue not to pay off your debts or save money, and all it means is that your debt will snowball. The interest charges will add to your balance and your minimum payments will gradually increase. It'll wind up costing you more and more the longer you wait. If you've been in debt a long time, this may add to your sense of futility and disempowerment, but if you're good at ignoring it, then maybe it won't.
None of these things make you a "bad person" or "lazy" or "unmotivated" or whatever. I don't believe in laziness. I think that when people don't do something that is a good idea, it's either because it never occurred to them, they don't know how to do it, or they're focused on something else. New Year's Resolutions imply that an idea has occurred to someone and that there is at least a little bit of focus on it. If the resolution isn't happening immediately, that's a good sign that it's unclear how to proceed. If it's a part of a big enough vision, then it may require more research and testing than other, lesser aims.
When I choose a resolution for the year, I pick something that I believe will give me an easier or more interesting life. I imagine that by next December, this new thing will be a regular part of me. It'll be something I know how to do, somewhere I've gone, or something I've done. I'll cook recipes I've never tried before, go to cities where I don't know my way around, get down on the floor and do exercises I've never tried, pronounce words I've never said before, and try to learn how to do complicated new things. If I've chosen something really juicy, it might take me all year to learn how to do it. Why would I quit doing something in January when the year has barely gotten started? On February Second, only nine percent of the year has elapsed. There's still PLENTY of time left. Maybe the groundhog will see his shadow and there will be six more weeks of screwing off. Get started in mid-March, then. Otherwise, spring into action and be awesome.
Do you believe in love at first sight? Soulmates, destined to be together, who spot each other across a crowded room and instantly merge spirits until the end of time?
Do you believe in genius? Iconoclasts hatched from special eggs who come like Prometheus to grant innovation to the masses?
Do you believe in Sasquatch? How about fairies? Rodents of Unusual Size? Trickle-down economics?
Okay then. Let’s talk about motivation. Because I do not think it means what you think it means.
People often tell me that they wish they had my motivation. Chances are, they actually do. I mean, I don’t seem to have any laying around. I may have had some back in the 90s and it got thrown in with a bag of Goodwill donations. It sounds like something people associate with youth and vigor, anyway.
When I’m “motivated” I’ll quit procrastinating. I’ll start eating healthy and going to the gym. I’ll get organized. I’ll plan my retirement. One day, when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, I’ll wake up and everything will be different! Basically my entire personality will change! Everything I hate doing now will suddenly be bathed in sunbeams, emanating prismatic rays of cosmic power! A magical sword will float up from a lake, activated solely by my aura! Doves will fly over my head, carrying an embroidered banner that reads TODAY THOU ART MOTIVATED! Flowers will sing Hosanna! A unicorn will gallop by with a tray of refreshments strapped to its back! I will suddenly sprout defined abdominal muscles!
Or maybe there was just some ergot in my muesli. It happens.
[Note to self: draw this as soon as there is sufficient motivation]
Allow me to present my credentials. I ran a marathon. I am at my goal weight. (I in fact actually have visible abs.) My house is both clean and organized. I do my art every day. I publish on a schedule. I’ve been earning (extremely tiny sums of) money off my writing for five years. I’m actually one of those people who grows and cans our own produce. Arguably, there are no things that would require motivation that I don’t do on a regular basis. I know whereof I speak.
What I have to say is that I don’t have any feelings other people don’t have. As far as I know, there are no ecstatic, mystic states where you 1. Meet a giant caterpillar smoking a hookah and then 2. Suddenly feel an intense satisfaction related to scutwork and drudgery. I was never allowed into the Archives of the Motivation Cabal, where they possess the last remaining copy of the Codex Mirabilis, handwritten in ink made of crushed scarabs, meteorites, and wormwood, the mere sight of which permanently etches epiphanies into your pineal gland. I don’t even have any level-ups or extra lives.
In truth, I am a lazy person. A tightwad. Too stubborn for my own good. I do the things I do out of a belief that they are good ideas in the long run, that they save time and money and effort, and that it’s easier to do them than to suffer the results of not doing them. It’s three times harder to burn off a pound of fat than to put on a pound of fat, and probably five times harder to add a pound of muscle than to maintain it. Cleaning a cluttered house takes 40% more effort. The longer things go between cleanings, the harder they are to clean. The benefits of being fit and organized are obvious the moment you experience them. Do what’s necessary for long enough, and it becomes so automatic you forget there was ever another way. You can coast. It’s not motivation you want, but momentum.
The secret is not woven in gold thread into a flying carpet. It’s not hidden in a cave at the top of an uncharted mountain. You don’t have to carry honey cakes to feed to a three-headed dog. You don’t have to click your heels together or talk to yourself with your eyes closed. All you have to do is to realize that there is really no such thing as motivation, and just get started doing things whether you want to do them or not. Just get started.
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.
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