The problem is the problem. What do I mean by this? I mean that the more attention we give to a persistent problem, the more we start to think of it as a powerful force in its own right, the more we believe that we’re stuck with it, and the less able we feel to eliminate it. When we fixate on a problem, we forget that other people may not have this same problem, so it never occurs to us to ask what they might be doing differently. We see everything in terms of the paradigm of this particular problem.
Probably the most relatable example of the problem being the problem is the example of the bad romance. I once loved a boy who was a liar and a cheat. He would cheat and lie, and then I would find out, and I would cry and feel totally nauseated, but then I would forgive him, and he would do it again. I’d rather not admit how long it took for me to realize that he was never going to change and that being with him was a trap. There was nothing I could do in the context of that relationship to be happy and satisfied. Middle-aged me looks back at dumb young me and wonders why I ever wanted that guy in the first place.
When I was in debt, it felt like I would be in debt forever. I didn’t earn very much at my job, and it felt like that would last forever, too. From my current perspective and my current income, it’s almost laughable how long it took me to pay off $1000 on two credit cards and a personal loan of $600. (My debt burden mostly consisted of student loans and a car loan).
When I was in pain every day, it felt like that was just my new reality. My doctors told me that my thyroid disease was genetic (maybe) and there was nothing I could do about it (false). Everything I read said that fibromyalgia was incurable (also false). Nothing I read or heard indicated that I could escape chronic pain through strenuous exercise, nutrition, and improved sleep.
When I was obese, I didn’t think I was fat at all. I thought I was just average, and in my circle of acquaintance, that’s probably true. I knew no athletes or even anyone who went to a gym. I didn’t think my weight had anything to do with anything. Now it boggles my mind that I could be 35 pounds heavier and not think it was a problem. It also astonishes me that I never realized the connection between my weight and my migraines, something that is clear and obvious to me after three years without one.
Almost all problems are universal. If other people aren’t facing a particular problem right this minute, they probably have at some point in the past, or they’re going to. Death of loved ones, illness, injury, job loss of someone in the family, gossip, rudeness, betrayal, injustice. We all feel the same emotions of grief, loss, disappointment, confusion, and hurt. As hard as it is to be crushed under the wheel of fate from time to time, it makes life even harder to tolerate the persistent problems in the background.
Follow the default lifestyle, get the default results. Complain and do nothing, hang out with other people who complain and do nothing, and ten years from now you’ll have the exact same problems. Hate your job, hate your boss, hate your coworkers, hate your customers, have constant power struggles with everyone close to you, and you are at the mercy of other people who control your happiness. That’s default. Complaining is a distraction. We seek out comfort, validation, and proof of personal loyalty, none of which are effective ways to eliminate persistent problems.
The real problem is that resolving problems takes 1. Decisions and 2. Actions, both of which will most likely be difficult and challenging. It’s the willingness to do difficult things that eliminates problems. But it will be HARD! It will take A REALLY LONG TIME! I’m NOT IN THE MOOD! A solution-oriented person understands that living with a persistent problem is harder in the long run than taking difficult action today.
Breaking up with the cheating boyfriend was hard, but it wasn’t as hard as living with the hurt and the indecision. Paying off my consumer debt was hard, but only for about three years, and from my current perspective I believe I should have done it faster with the resources available to me. Losing 35 pounds was hard, but if I’d known I could do it in a few months and be migraine-free forevermore, I would have done it years earlier. Living with chronic pain and fatigue was, well, it was dreadful really. It was complicated and it had multiple sources. If I knew then what I know now about picking apart my persistent problems and methodically eliminating them, I believe I could have beat it years sooner as well.
Root cause analysis is an engineering term that refers to the process of figuring out what is going wrong. It’s something that should be taught in every discipline.
Why does my foot hurt/oh, I stepped on a nail/because I walked through a pile of construction debris/and now I need to update my tetanus shot/and not walk there anymore/and look where I’m going.
I dated a cheater/because I never knew to set boundaries about exclusivity/or negotiate for my needs.
I’m late all the time/because I don’t know how long it takes me to get ready/and my stuff is disorganized.
I’m overweight/because I sit down with three cans of Pepsi and a can of Pringles when I study at night/and I have no idea what is the right amount for me to eat.
The first step to overcoming a persistent problem is to find someone who doesn’t have that problem, preferably someone who had the problem at some point in the past and found a way to solve it. I solved my cheating boyfriend problem after a conversation with a friend who said, “It sounds like he’s just being mean to you!” Ding! Why would I date someone who was mean to me? Dismissed. I solved my weight problem after talking to another friend who suggested that I keep a food log. Getting rid of problems means being willing to be wrong, being willing to receive annoying and unwelcome advice, and being determined to figure out a better way. The problem is only the problem if you believe the problem has power over you.
I have an acquaintance who told me something funny. She said she always tells people that she’d be vegan if I cooked for her. This is funny for several reasons. One, we don’t know each other well at all, so the idea that I’d drop everything and cook all her meals is kind of bananas. I mean, is she planning to come over and walk my dog every day or what? Two, it’s hilarious that my cooking would be such an enticement for a radical lifestyle change, rather than, say, my visible results. Three, it’s funny that anyone would claim to want a chef, because guess what? You can be your own chef! The greatest mystery to me is why anyone would refuse to learn to cook. It’s like willfully denying yourself the magical power of satisfying your taste buds three times a day, every day.
I have another friend who actually just said, “I’d eat healthy if I had a chef.” It’s true. I’m pretty sure she would. One of the major reasons that people eat the Standard American Diet, in spite of its many major flaws, is that they gag on the taste and texture of healthy foods. My friend was cheerfully eating kale with quinoa. She doesn’t have any food dislikes that I know of. If the only thing that’s standing between her and a healthier diet is her refusal to cook, hey! That’s a problem that can be fixed!
Another reason that a lot of people refuse to cook healthy food - or to cook any meals at all - is that their kitchens are cluttered and dirty. They can’t resolve the power struggles with their housemates (spouses, kids, parents, roommates) over who does the dishes. There’s mail all over the counters and the table. The counters are full of appliances and canisters and cookie jars and cookbooks, to the point that there’s no room to cook, even on a good day. All that stuff is out on the counters because the cupboards are chock-full of plastic cups and containers, preposterous amounts of mugs and plates and bowls, and expired canned foods. I wouldn’t want to cook in there either! The thing about chefs is that they do their own washing up. It’s a matter of professional pride.
Let me go over that again. Chefs do their own dishes and wipe down their own counters. Part of this is that they take full mastery of their work area. The kitchen is their professional territory, and they design it how they want it. It’s their happy place. They have a few high-quality implements like a favorite knife. They know how to turn simple ingredients into deliciousness because they’ve spent so much time and focus on building their skills. It’s also true that wiping down an uncluttered kitchen only takes a couple of minutes. A chef is going to wipe down the same area over and over again, because cleaning as you go is the only way to keep the cooking surfaces available for the next plate.
Most of us have kitchens the exact opposite of what a real chef would want. We have tons and tons of unnecessary stuff. We let our excess kitchen hardware encroach on work surfaces. We let those surfaces get greasy and grimy. We leave our sinks constantly full of pots and pans and dishes. We “stock up” on more food than we can eat, so the ingredients are never fresh basically by definition. We look at cooking as an unfair, unrealistic chore. We refuse to put in the time to learn proper knife skills or how to prepare basic ingredients, even though it would pay off immediately in faster prep and better-tasting food.
My friend has a perfectly adequate kitchen. Granted, it’s a bit small, but so is mine. So is the working area of most professional chefs in restaurant kitchens. My friend doesn’t have an issue with food hoarding (like I have had) and she doesn’t have tons of excess dishes or other hardware. If she wanted to learn to cook, she could start today. She could find a new recipe and be sitting down to something surprisingly good half an hour later.
I’m a good cook, but most nights I just make something quick. My husband and I trade nights, and we have a thirty-minute rule. If one of us (okay, me) wants to make something fancier or more time-consuming, then it needs to be on the weekend. Too many times I’ve decided to try a new recipe and we’ve wound up eating dinner at 9:00. If I want to play, I need to start in the afternoon. On an average night, we might well be eating something that takes only ten or fifteen minutes.
What we know that most people don’t know is this: almost all vegetables only take five minutes to cook.
You can do it even faster than that if you eat bagged salad. Just buy a bag and make sure you eat the entire thing that night. If you live alone, you’re totally allowed to eat it all by yourself. Just watch out for the dressing.
We literally will eat a microwaved vegetable with… whatever. The important thing is that we eat our cruciferous vegetables. We’ll have a head of broccoli one night, and we chop the whole thing up, microwave it for four minutes, and eat it. Probably I eat one-third and he eats two-thirds, which makes sense because he’s twice my size. Another night we’ll do the same thing with a head of cauliflower at seven minutes. When we get cabbage, it lasts for two or possibly three nights. Sometimes we’ll just eat it shredded raw as a salad, but usually I sauté it for about four minutes. Bok choy, kale, chard, collard greens, all about four minutes. (It averages out with that naughty seven-minute cauliflower). Almost all the time, whatever vegetable we’re eating cooks faster than whatever we’re eating it with, and that includes pizza pockets.
I hear a lot of people talking about how they’re trying to eat less processed food. Whatever they think that means, it seems to include depressingly long periods of kitchen prep. To my mind, chopping up a cabbage and sautéing it for four minutes is about as unprocessed as you can get. You can even cook it in water if you don’t want to eat oil. The only way to transition into eating healthier is to make that transition gentle and straightforward. Heap up a bunch of expectations of perfection and purity, and it’s simply too hard to keep the commitment.
The main differences between me and my friend who doesn’t cook are that I’m not obese anymore and she still is. We’re both married, we both live in apartments (hers is bigger), and we’re close in age. I like to cook because I like cooking whatever I want to eat exactly how I like it, and then eating it whenever I want. Anyone can quickly learn the skills and find the recipes to give that gift to themselves and others. I like to cook because cooking is its own reward, but I also like that cooking my own meals gives me the body I want to have. Healthy food freed me from the prison of four-day migraines, night terrors, and chronic pain and fatigue. Healthy food gives me the energy level I need to live a happy life. It got me my marathon medal. Sure, yeah, healthy food helped me lose 35 pounds and keep it off. That’s just a side effect.
Being a good cook comes from cooking a lot. Maybe some people who are super-learners could simply observe a chef very closely for a couple of meals, and then walk away with elite cooking skills. Not me. I did find that when I committed to just one hundred hours of deliberate practice, my cooking was already significantly better only ten hours in. That’s a couple of weeks of making thirty-minute dinners. Truly, truly not a big deal. I keep trying to come up with an analogy of something that’s as easy to learn as cooking, with as big a payoff, and I can’t think of one. It’s easier than learning to drive, at any rate. If you agree with the statement that you’d eat healthy if only you had a chef, you could be that chef. Your own personal chef could be yourself.
I need something to read and I need it immediately. I’m wandering around the aisles of Barnes & Noble, our closest physical bookstore, and I’m desperate. We’re going camping for a week. I love camping, but I’m feeling really emotional about not having backup ebooks, electrical power, or wifi. Anything I’m going to read is going to have to be on paper. Paper! I ask of you! Bulky, heavy, and incapable of being reloaded. The only thing a physical book does better than an electronic book is insect control. There’s another problem: I’ve basically read everything already.
What I’m looking for is what I call a BFB, or Big Fat Book. I can generally read a 250- or 300-page book in a day. I want something in the 600- to 800-page range that a) has a great reputation and b) has not already been feverishly consumed by Past Me. Past Me is extremely selfish about hogging all the good books.
I look at a table, thoughtfully labeled “Must-Reads.” I have read all but two books on the table, both of which are in the 180- to 200-page range. I’d stand here and read them right now, but I’m still in search of something for our trip.
I go to my husband, who is carrying a fantastic large book that I have, um, already read. He can tell I’m panicking. “What do I do after I’ve read ALL THE BOOKS?”
“That won’t happen.”
“I kind of think it already HAS happened!”
I start methodically winding through the aisles of Fiction/Literature, looking at everything thick, and big, and complicated like trig. Several of these books I read as ebooks, and I was a bit staggered to see how long they are. You could build a nice little igloo out of these things. There are some sentimental moments, moments when I see something I loved reading, and I want to shake Past Me for not waiting just a little longer. I’m promising Future Me that I won’t read any more BFB’s during daily life; I’ll save them for times when I need to read something in-tents.
I wind up with a copy of The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. This cheeses me off a little, because I know it’s available as an ebook. I somehow restrain myself from opening it on the bus ride home.
There is nowhere to put this one-pound, inch-thick paperback book when we get home to our 680-square-foot apartment. Well, technically there are several very inconvenient places to put it, such as on the bed, on the kitchen counter, or on the dining table. That would last for possibly as long as two hours. Why not put it on a bookshelf?
Well, um, you see, about that…
I’ve been consciously trying to divest myself of books for the past four years of our marriage. We move a lot, we’ve been downsizing, and books are really inconvenient (autocorrect suggests ‘inconsiderate’ and ‘inconsistent,’ the latter of which is demonstrably false because I have consistently always had too many books). I’ve sold some and donated some and given some away. They just keep getting in!
There are two types of book hoarders: the type who keep everything after they read it, and the type who accumulate unread books, often on the bedside table. I have no bedside table, so my unread books are in the bookshelves. Once I’ve read something, it goes into a box, to be evacuated as soon as possible. Right now, I’ve got this double-parking situation going on. It looks terrible and it’s driving me crazy. I’d get rid of them right now, except for the sad fact that these books aren’t available digitally. Can someone explain to me how this is even possible? With all of the spam email in the world, there is obviously plenty of text available.
The question being raised here is, if my house is so full of unread books, why can’t I simply bring one of them on our camping trip?
What are you implying? That I can just grab any old book that happens to be there, and just… just start reading it? Right now? Pfffft.
By number and mass, most of “our” books are my husband’s aerospace and robotics engineering textbooks. If you think I’m bad, look at him. I can’t even understand the titles of most of his books; I thought “Theory of Wing Sections” was an ornithology book, and by gum, it should be.
My books almost entirely consist of cookbooks; fitness reference manuals; business reference books; foreign language dictionaries; birding guides; and, yes, two novels I haven’t read yet, one in the 1000-page range and the other in two volumes at 2500+ pages. I can almost hear them chanting “NERDS! NERDS! NERDS!”
I had this idea of printing classic, pre-copyright books in tiny font on biodegradable toilet paper. Then you could take it backpacking, read it, and use it (AS KINDLING, OF COURSE) bit by bit. It is stunning to me that nobody is doing this, but possibly because someone typed Moby-Dick onto TP and it took four rolls. If someone could please take this on, I will be your first customer.
Most book lovers want to be surrounded by books at all times. We like to look at them and carry them around and surreptitiously smell them. Books are how we recognize one another. Although, how can I be friends with someone who is reading on the bus and refusing to hold the book at such an angle that I can clearly read the spine or cover? Come on! Inquiring minds want to know! We go to each other’s homes and turn our heads sideways, looking at each other’s shelves and noting which books we have in common. This doesn’t really work at my house. I’ve moved 28 times since 1993 and I’ve read over 4500 books in my life so far. If you want to know what I read, follow me on Goodreads or LibraryThing because I ain’t carrying those cartons up and down stairs just to satisfy your curiosity. This is my other invention: a custom poster with thumbnail icons of my top 500 favorite books. I can tape it to my wall, like, THERE! I just saved 300 pounds and half a moving van, while avoiding a herniated disc, and you can still find out that we both like Harry Potter. Like that was ever a question. You won’t even have to turn your head sideways.
One day there will be some kind of tiny device that stores books in a skin patch or something. It will run on body heat or the kinetic power generated by my pacing back and forth in a bookstore, assuming they still exist. I’ll be able to read just by staring at the palm of my hand and watching the text projected out of a ring or watch. And I won’t be able to use it because I will already have read everything.
I’ve told you about my jar of pennies, right? My fairy money jar? The one that has $66.30 from money I found on the ground? Usually I use my fairy money as an example of savings and possibility thinking. Today I’m going to use it as a negative example of short-sighted thinking and lack of strategy.
Okay, first of all, $66.30 is a lot more money than I would have had in savings during most of my life. I’ve had paychecks that were smaller than that. This is bad. This is supposed to summon up images of being in constant, every-single-second-of-the-day background financial stress. It’s supposed to call up images like the time a panhandler asked me for money, and I unintentionally barked laughter in his face because I didn’t even have 30 cents for a phone call, and his shoes and backpack and jacket were all in better shape than mine. From that perspective of extreme scarcity, $66.30 harvested from gutterpennies is a veritable leprechaun’s fortune.
Here’s the thing about pennies, though. I think pennies make sense to us because we can visualize them. You believe in my jar of pennies because I’ve shown you pictures of it and I talk about it a lot, but also because you’ve seen other people’s jars of pennies. You might even have one. There might well be pennies in your car, on your bookshelves, in your windowsill, on your nightstand and your dresser, and mixed in with the office supplies in your desk drawer. Pennies! They’re a thing!
What we don’t believe in are the big fictitious-feeling numbers we see in print, the numbers on our bills and our paychecks and our tax returns and in all of those news articles about retirement.
It’s this lack of faith in money we can’t see that is the reason we don’t take our savings seriously. Well, that and scarcity mindset and lack of belief in the existence of Future Self. Hey, Future Me! Say hi to the Tooth Fairy and Sasquatch! Hahahahahaha!!!
There’s another reason why we continue and continue and continue to procrastinate about saving for the future. That’s because we truly have no visceral sense of how it works when we invest. If we aren’t investing, and nobody we know is investing, and nobody we know personally knows anything about investing, how could we? Whatever we learned in school about personal finance then becomes about as relevant as whatever we learned about the First Continental Congress or polynomials or the noble gases or something. Just some random useless fact that doesn’t apply to me! “You’ll never use this,” as our motivational math teachers used to tell us, “but it will be on the test.”
I’m going to pull a little example out of my own portfolio. Now, wouldn’t it be great if, when I said ‘my portfolio,’ what I meant was my beautiful artwork? We should be so lucky. If I could draw as well as I can manage my investments, this would be an installation of a graphic novel instead of a blog. I didn’t really know what a portfolio was fifteen years ago, when I started with zero, and my first deposit was in the vicinity of thirty bucks. It hardly seemed relevant. Time has gone by, though, and I’ve started to develop that gut intuition about how investing works, simply by looking at my accounts. I never would have believed it no matter how much I read, because money didn’t apply to me or my life. N/A, not applicable. I was poor, I would always be poor, I would never be able to afford retir… wait a minute, what’s this?
Here’s an example. I bought stock in iRobot a few years back. I bought it contrary to the advice of my husband, because I’m extremely stubborn and because it was my own money that I earned and because I’m more interested in consumer electronics than he is. I bought ten shares, and I doubled my money, and then a few months ago I sold some holdings in some underperforming funds and I bought ten more shares. Now, picture two stacks of cash. In the stack on the right is $1277. In the stack on the left is $826. The stack on the right is my money, from the dollars that I put aside out of my paychecks for eight years. The stack on the left is also my money. It’s the return on my investment in iRobot. I continue to own the twenty shares because I believe that our future is going to be full of chorebots. If my speculations are correct, my shares will continue to grow in value gradually over time. If I guessed wrong, then at some future point, I will probably pull my hair and throw a tantrum about how I should have known to sell high.
Where did that eight hundred bucks come from???
Eight hundred bucks is a lot of pennies. Too many for my fairy jar! In the context of retirement savings, it isn’t much. If you visualize it as stacks of twenty-dollar bills, it ain’t nothing to sneeze at. Anyone would bend over to pick up eight hundred dollars off the sidewalk, am I right? This money came out of the economy. It came out of the weird mystical mojo that surrounds financial transactions like a shiny green aura. It’s like… money rain.
Now, the example of iRobot is unfair and not representative of the full experience of putting money into the stock market. I just like talking about it because it was my own special little decision, against the advice of the smartest person I knew, and I turned out to be right. I could also share about another stock I bought when it was at $2.20, and now it’s at $7, but again, only a fool cherry-picks the prettiest data and ignores the rest. Other examples would be that at time of writing, I am ahead $105.81 on my shares of Whole Foods Market and down $15.49 on Costco. (Those facts are related, and if you read the business press, you know why). It was a good day in the market, though, and I made like $240.
FOR DOING NOTHING.
I have to say, it aggravates the holy heck out of me sometimes. Now I can “”“earn””” (super-extra-sarcasm quotes) more in a day than I used to take home in a week, a week of commuting on the bus and standing on my feet all day and doing menial tasks for people who thought my name was Jennifer.
On the other hand: HEY, FREE MONEY!
Basically, as of right now, for every dollar I put into the market, I have gotten $1.50 back out.
If we’re visualizing this, there’s another stack of hundreds I should tell you about. That’s from dividends. Some, but not all, of my holdings pay a small percentage to shareholders. That’s our “share” of the profits. Dividends are directly deposited into a cash account in my brokerage account. When they add up to enough, once a year or so, I use the money to buy more shares of something. It’s like planting an orange tree that keeps growing oranges, selling a bushel of oranges, and then using the proceeds to buy an avocado tree. Right now I have $177 from dividends, which, in my area, is enough to buy TWO avocado trees!
The first time I realized how much money had been building up in my cash account from dividends over a few years, I was confused and I didn’t understand how it got there. Imagine, mystery money you didn’t even know was yours, just silently appearing in your account.
That’s the difference between saving and investing. When I save money, it just sits where I put it. I do still save money; that’s where my fairy money jar came from. Investing, though, is like putting pennies in a jar, and when you come back, they’re spilling over the sides and more keep bubbling up out of it. It’s a small way of contributing to the economy, putting your money to work to help build things and create jobs. It’s a way of building a better future, for Future You and for others, too.
Those of us who are awkward salute you, Vanessa Van Edwards, as our new queen. We have needed this book so much, but we never knew it. Ours is the tribe that openly claims to “lack social skills.” Why didn’t anyone tell us that this stuff could be learned? Captivate is the “missing manual” to that legacy of frustrating, disappointing, awkward, and humiliating social failures. That sounds awful. Let me start over. Captivate is a fun, entertaining guide to behavior hacking that can help anyone figure out how to actually enjoy social interactions.
I had the pleasure of hearing Vanessa speak at World Domination Summit this year. She is tremendous. It’s really hard to believe that she ever felt awkward, because she is so beautiful and funny and polished and engaging. Then she reveals that she owes it all to Spanx. Ugh, it’s not fair. How can she be all that and be so likable?
There’s this saying that “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” We have to take it on faith that Vanessa Van Edwards really was ever anywhere near as awkward as she claims. If that’s true, then her public persona and success at teaching people skills are proof that this stuff works. We can ask ourselves, “If it worked for her, will it work for me? Maybe even 1%?”
I think Captivate would even work for my autistic friends, because it includes extremely specific details, photographs, diagrams, and explanations of why people react the way they do. It has sample scripts of things to say in conversation. This is stuff that can be studied and memorized and tested.
I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum, as an empath. I always struggled with something that I never knew had a name. People would make microexpressions, which I find clearly visible, and then quickly, deliberately obscure those instantaneous reactions with something else. Part of my awkwardness was in wanting to talk openly about things that other people wanted to avoid. I didn’t understand why there needed to be this secret, hidden layer to people’s reactions and interactions. Too personal, too intimate, too quickly. Especially when I was young, I had to have social dynamics painstakingly explained to me. What a magical gift this book would have been for a weird little kid like me!
Something really struck me while reading this book, and it was the section on primary values. Everyone is in search of a primary value in every interaction. That’s going to be either love, service, status, money, goods, or information. My primary value is information, with a secondary value of service, while my husband says his is love followed by service. Aha. Can you tell me more about this need to feel accepted and liked by others? Because I’d really like to know! What struck me about this was that Goods are on the list right up there with Love and Status. THIS IS SO TRUE. This explains every last little thing that I wasn’t yet understanding about my work with hoarders! They actually think that Goods matter for some reason! Ahem. I mean. They have this trait in common with artists, museum curators, and archaeologists? *whistles, puts hands in pockets*
I was captivated by Captivate, and also captivated by Vanessa Van Edwards herself. This is a truly, truly remarkable book. For myself, I don’t even feel like one reading was enough; it feels like the more time I spend studying it, the easier my life will be. The same will probably be true for you.
Does jumping over open flame, climbing a rope, running a marathon, backpacking thirty miles off grid into the wilderness, hugging strangers, or entering a public speaking competition count as confidence? If so, then I guess I’m confident. Technically. I want to talk a bit about where confidence comes from and how many people are faking it.
I’m small. I was always one of the very smallest kids in my class due to my summer birthday. As an adult, I have a small frame, I wear a child-size bike helmet, bracelets won’t stay on my hands, and I even wear B-width narrow shoes. I’m a double-extra small person with a high, small voice. I feel my small size constantly, when I can’t reach cabinets, when I stand next to anyone, when I can’t reach stuff on the top shelf at the grocery store, when I fit comfortably in the middle seat on an airplane. (Okay, being tiny has its advantages). I sometimes wonder whether a large bird of prey could physically grab me by the shoulders and carry me off. I suspect yes.
It’s not just that I’m small and have always been small. I have some physical frailties and a history of chronic illness. I am by no means a robust person; I would never claim to have stamina. What I do have is mega-quantities of grit. I know my physical limits, and thus I’m willing to go without sleep, carry heavy weights, climb steep inclines, cover miles on foot, and venture into relatively dangerous terrain. I can push myself into certain scary situations because they are known quantities. Understanding what to expect helps bring experiences from the realm of danger into the realm of challenge, perhaps even over that boundary into adventure. Others feel the same activities as thrills or routine. I don’t have to be where they are to go where they go, if that makes sense.
Confidence, to me, means that I have a pretty good idea of what to do. It does not mean that I don’t feel nervous or downright frightened. Case in point. The day I wrote this, I was accosted by a large, angry, insane shirtless man while I was trying to catch a bus. Freak magnet, that’s me… I assessed the situation and determined that there was a greater than thirty percent chance that this man would physically interfere with me. This did not fit my plans for the day. I pulled out my phone and started mapping out the next bus stop up the street, from whence I could place calls without being obvious. Before I could finish, two police vehicles pulled up, caging us in. I found myself in the midst of an arrest; the large, angry, insane shirtless man had evidently been threatening passersby with a screwdriver shortly before I walked up. A cop shouted at me. (It’s okay; later he apologized quite sweetly and I thanked him for doing his work). Was I afraid for my personal safety during that five-minute window? Yes, of course I was. I’ve worked with insane people in a variety of contexts. Most crazy people aren’t really scary, just unpredictable. This particular guy was predictably dangerous, looming into my space, shouting at me, staring at me from no more than four inches away, gradually ratcheting up his behavior. My confidence came from experience; I knew not to engage, respond, or make eye contact. If this man did grab me or touch me in any way, I was prepared to escalate. I was already implementing my exit strategy. The element of surprise is on my side, because anyone who is threatening me has assumed that he will prevail.
What actually happened at that bus stop? What happened was a typical urban encounter. We were surrounded by dozens of people (in cars and buildings; on the sidewalk across the street) with space-age communications devices. They handled it. I had no idea that help was already on its way. (We were also literally across the street from the Supreme Court building). Was I really ever unsafe? Probably not. I even caught my bus on time.
Most situations that make us nervous are not physically threatening at all. They just feel that way. We feel the same physiological responses that we would if we saw a saber-tooth tiger sauntering up the street. We’re afraid to flirt, we’re afraid to go on job interviews, we’re afraid to go to parties where we don’t know anyone, we’re afraid to negotiate for raises and promotions, we’re afraid to ask people on dates, we’re afraid to try new foods, we’re afraid to start our own businesses, we’re afraid to wear two-piece swimsuits, we’re afraid to try new dance steps. What we’re really afraid of is not physical danger at all; it’s social danger! We usually only lack confidence when it comes to interacting with other humans. Think about it again. How many times is someone in a job interview or on the dance floor going to act like the large, angry, insane shirtless man?
I was bullied pretty intensively as a child. I grew up feeling like a social pariah, which is sad and tough on a little kid. All I wanted was to have friends and people who liked me. Then I got a little older. I figured, if people were going to be mean to me no matter what I did, then why should I care anymore what they thought of me? I learned to steel myself against taunts and just do what I wanted to do. As an adult, I give zero fox. If you don’t like me, neat. Go… go Netflix and chill or something. I have things to do. There are seven billion people in this world, and the number of fellow humans who are going to appreciate me is a statistical anomaly. My real friends know that I’m a funny and sweet person who will cook for you when you’re sick, help you move, fly across country for your wedding, and show up when you really need me. I have nothing to prove to anyone else. And that’s why I get to do what I want, all the time.
I feel physiologically anxious and nervous all the time. I mean, speaking as a person with a tendency toward night terrors, most people probably have not felt as anxious as me! Try waking up shaking and crying in your living room with no idea how you got there. When I walk down a flight of stairs, I always worry that I’ll fall headlong. When I go hiking, I always worry that there will be a cougar or a bear. When I give speeches, my feet sweat and my hands shake. These feel like reasonable responses to me, the same feelings that almost anyone would have in the same situation. Feeling anxious and worried is just like being impatient in a long line or being annoyed when someone bumps into you. Universal human response. Being confident doesn’t mean that you don’t feel those feelings; it means you expect them and you believe you can handle it anyway.
If you’re reading this, you’re alive right now. (Well, um, I assume so!). That means you’ve survived literally every single thing that has ever happened to you. It also means you have survived every random thought you ever had, wondering about all the million and five possible calamities that never befell you. Chances are pretty good that you’ll continue to survive all of your worries and anxieties and concerns and what-ifs. I think it helps to just tell yourself, Eh, I can handle this. Because you most likely can, and besides, that’s what everyone else is doing.
Food is love. Sugar is love. If you believe this, how old do you want to be when you get your diabetes diagnosis? I just blurted that out, didn’t I. Let me dial back a bit and try to be funnier, okay?
Do you know about this thing called love languages? It’s a concept developed by a man named Gary Chapman, and his book has probably saved more marriages than television and separate bathrooms combined. One of the greatest things about it is that it’s a relationship manual that actually appeals to garden-variety straight guys. The premise is that people can get along better if they understand each other’s love language, trying to appreciate each other’s needs and save our efforts for things that will actually please each other. For instance, my husband’s is words of appreciation, something that is very easy for me to offer, but also something that I find kind of annoying to receive. Words of praise and appreciation make me nervous, thinking that someone is trying to flatter me due to ulterior motives. Don’t try to butter me up! What are you doing with that butter? Put it down!
The five love languages are:
Acts of service
Words of appreciation
Note that ‘food’ is not on there!
When we say that we associate food with love, it’s going to be either because we prepared it for someone or because they prepared it for us. Or, I guess, because we’ve come to a place where food is the only thing that truly, deeply matters in our lives. Pfft. Everyone knows the answer to that should really be OUR PHONES. I mean, duh. Seriously, though. It wouldn’t hurt to look at this a little further, right?
I’m a food pusher. I admit it. I have been known to spend three days cooking before hosting a family holiday dinner. I cooked for eight people for my own birthday dinner last month. I will notice every last molecule of uneaten food on anyone’s plate, and I will not-so-secretly feel proud when anyone takes seconds. Or especially thirds. I’m watching you!
I don’t actually believe that food is love, though. I’m a quality time person. I want to make sure that everyone is having an amazing moment. When my friends and family are with me, I want it to matter to them. I want them to be making good memories. I want photos. Food is one way that I know of to put people in a relaxed and happy mood. A good meal, followed by a good dessert, means laughter and long conversations.
I also cook because my secondary love language is acts of service. I like doing nice things for people. I will try to anticipate your needs, if I can, and do anything that I think might make your life easier. This is part of why I memorize my friends’ food preferences, likes, dislikes, and sensitivities. I know who is allergic to yeast and who hates cooked tomatoes and who avoids canola oil. I’ve spent hours devising menus that accommodate all of those individuals at once. To me, cooking something special for someone with a complicated diet is the ultimate act of friendship. I see you and I am willing to meet you where you are.
These two love languages combine to mean that I try to feed people Health Food. If I care about you, I want you to live a long time so we can pull pranks together in the nursing home.
On the receiving end, I have to say that I am always bowled over by anyone who is willing to cook for me. I’m a vegan and my default expectation is that people will avoid even inviting me to any occasion that involves food. It annoys people and I know it, sadly. So for someone to reach past that social chasm and make something for me will impress me more than anything else. The first time I went to a social event with my husband’s ex-wife, she made me my own batch of vegan cupcakes, with a V on top in icing so I could tell them apart. What. A. Woman. Now that’s what I call noblesse oblige. They were good, too! Then I found out that she even adapted the recipe herself. I’d basically do anything for her now. Well, except for give my husband back. Finders keepers.
The thing is, food is not the only thing that shows love in these situations. We’re genuinely glad to see each other. We care about each other and what happens in each other’s lives. We make eye contact. We listen closely. We laugh in delight and appreciation. We share stories. We tell each other how glad we are to see each other. We tease each other, reminding each other of inside jokes and how well we know one another. We stand up for each other. We show up. Sure, there’s food there, but in the absence of love, it would just be food. The same food you can make in your kitchen or buy at the grocery store 24 hours a day.
I think a lot of the time, we make comfort foods because we’re lonely. We’re searching for those feelings of affection. Confections when we really want connections. So often, we’ve been disappointed by misunderstandings, by reaching out and not getting the responses we were hoping for. Well, it’s not hidden in the bottom of a brownie pan and it doesn’t have frosting on it. The only way to feel love is to feel it, the love you feel inside yourself for others. You can know and understand and believe and appreciate that someone else loves you, but you can’t truly feel it. It’s the love you give and share that fills you up.
Or tater tots. I guess that works too.
I have a mental exercise that I never do. Every single time I’ve suggested it to myself, my response has been to take action in a completely different way, which is fine, because any action has more information to reveal than a state of inaction. At least I can learn from mistakes, whereas the status quo never has anything to teach whatsoever. This exercise that I keep refraining from doing is to take a total and complete inventory of all my personal possessions.
I have this idea that an inventory of my belongings could be revealing in some way. Maybe I’d learn something about myself. Maybe I could publish it. Maybe I could illustrate it and market it as a book for insomniacs, who would surely fall asleep by the fourth sock photo, although considering my sock collection, which includes some profanity, maybe not so much on the socks. Maybe more on the glass baking pans? Really, my ideas of having a stuff inventory come from a mild paranoia that I might need it to Prove Things to our rental insurance provider.
Mmhmm, yes, I definitely owned some towels and a spatula. Can we get on with the compensation part, please? Because I’m finding that a life with no towels and no spatulas is an inconvenient sort of life. How hard is it to do comedy with no towels (see the complete Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) or spatulas (see the classic Weird Al movie UHF)?
There’s a paradox here. What is the point of owning so much stuff that we can’t realistically keep track of it all? We’re so attached to it, we feel so completely saturated with emotions when we even consider releasing any of it, but why? Can we really be so connected with inanimate objects when there are more than we can count or name?
Here’s an exercise for you. First, go to a neutral second location. A coffee shop, the library, the backwoods, your friend’s house, anywhere other than, say, an underground parking lot, because creepy. Sit there with a notebook and a pen. Try to write a list of everything you own. Okay, too hard. Pick one category of things that you own, and try to write a list of just those things. Shirts? Books? Stuff in your purse? Stuff in your medicine cabinet? Stuff in your kitchen utensil drawer? If you’re artistic, make a drawing. I surely would like to see it.
Make this list a numbered list. Quickly start to see how many, many, many objects there are in your world.
Why number and list things? What’s the point? The point is that it’s really hard to get a neutral, objective perspective on our surroundings. We start to take our background wallpaper for granted. This is how clutter blindness develops. It’s also how life blindness develops. Years can pass and we won’t realize that things have Happened to us. That’s where three-foot-high piles of laundry come from - from the Happening. That’s how we’re able to lose our keys. That’s how we’re able to dig deeply into debt, gain disguising* amounts of weight, and discover that somehow, somewhere, we seem to have misplaced our passion and sense of purpose. We have to find a way to puncture our unawareness, to snap ourselves awake, to sit up into alertness. Any kind of metric, a self-imposed metric, can be a way of injecting some rational thought and structure into this dizzy miasma of vagueness.
Touch everything you own. Touch it once and consider it. Where did it come from? Do you remember? How much did it cost? Was it a gift? How long have you had it? Why do you have it? Do you use it? Do you like it? Is it getting shabby? Does it smell weird? Would you buy it again today at full retail price? What is the name of the feeling you feel when you think about not having it anymore? (Grief, loss, anger, panic, confusion, relief, gratitude, disgust, longing, hunger, numbness, a combination of factors, something?)
Ideally, you touch everything you own almost every day. Hopefully, you’re surrounded by comforts, useful things that make your life easier and happier every day. The finer things in life are really pillows, towels, soap, toothbrushes, bowls and spoons, pots of oatmeal, chairs and tables, floors and ceilings and windows. The more time you spend living in a tent and sleeping on the ground, the more aware you are of these truths. It’s the stuff we add on top of the basic comforts that has the potential to pass the threshold of comfort. It’s when we have so many clothes that it’s physically impossible to keep up on the laundry, when we have so many dishes and plastic containers that we can’t use our kitchen counters, so many papers that there’s nowhere to sit and sort through them, it’s at those times that we realize our stuff is not helping.
The exercise I do instead of inventorying my stuff is to just get rid of more of it. This works in the exact way that a food log works. If I don’t want to admit to it by writing it down, I just skip eating it. Never do anything you’re ashamed of, or, putting it more positively, only do things that make you feel proud. We can also say about our stuff that we keep only things we use, things we like, things that reflect our values. Hopefully those values include interacting with people more than interacting with our favorite inanimate objects. Touch everything you own, but first, hug everyone you love.
* I just realized this might look like a typo for ‘disgusting’ but I really did mean ‘disguising.’ As in, looking like one is wearing a disguise, being unrecognizable, or like one’s original appearance has been disguised and hidden.
Money is like a car, and it’s like a car in more than just the obvious ways. The first, most obvious way to compare money to automobiles would be to ask, if my life were a car, what kind would it be? I hate this question because I can’t make myself care about actual cars. You can test this out if you drive me anywhere. When we walk back out to the parking lot, I won’t remember what make or model you drive. Not only that, I won’t even remember what color your car is! I’ll probably remember whether it was a sedan, truck, or van, but other than that, I got nothing. I recognize vehicles by what kind of clutter is hanging around on the floor and seats. That’s another good life metaphor for ya. I travel quite a bit, but the majority of miles I cover do not happen in a car. If I’m not in a plane or on a bus, I’m walking. I say that money is like a car because all it does is help us to get from one place to another.
How can money help you get to where you want to go? That depends on where you want to go, and that raises the question of whether you want to go anywhere at all.
Not everyone does want to go anywhere. This is true in the actual as well as the abstract. Some people loathe traveling. Most people, it transpires, hate change of any sort. Some people are wired in such a way that they feel nostalgia for their old beater cars, even if the rustbucket completely broke down and died and the replacement is a much nicer ride. Gee, I miss having my transmission die and leave me stranded by the side of the road… *sigh* I loved that car…
In those cases, nostalgia comes from the experience of driving the car, of inhabiting it as a sort of auxiliary living room. We love the feeling, or at least the memory of the feeling. The music we played! The feelings of anticipation as we drove toward potential fun! The newfound independence and expanded social opportunities! The way we felt back when we were young, the potential was still mostly unrealized fantasy, and our friends still wanted to hang out. As we get older and more settled, we don’t even feel our relative prosperity. We just notice that once people get into their thirties or older, the invitations to hang out or go to a party or a concert seem to start dwindling. Earning more money, or even just going back to school, can involve a lot of real tradeoffs, mostly in our relationships.
If money is a car, where are we trying to go?
Money can get us to a place of further education. Sometimes that’s a goal in itself, in which case it raises some questions. Living on campus, actually or metaphorically, can be seen as an attempt to sidestep the need for financial transactions (or a vehicle). I remember marveling that I could go days at a time without even thinking about cash, because everything I needed was available on campus. Then the bills started coming due. Future Me (or, actually, Present-Day Me) realizes that the more money I have, the more books and tools and educational opportunities I can afford.
Money can get us into particular neighborhoods. The most significant thing I’ve noticed as I’ve climbed the socioeconomic ladder is that the more money I have, the safer the neighborhood I live in. We can actually have packages delivered while we’re out of town and find them still waiting for us by our front door! The side effect of this is that we rapidly adapt every time we have a lifestyle/neighborhood upgrade. Money removes annoyances more than it adds perks and pleasures. It’s sort of like how driving removes the need to wait at bus stops, although it still includes waiting at stoplights and experiencing every bump and pothole in the road.
Money can help us travel, just like owning a car and having plenty of gas money. Indeed, the more money you have, the farther you can go and the longer you can afford to stay. It turns out that two of the biggest obstacles to travel are being able to take the time off work and, if you have them, paying to have your pets boarded.
Money can fill our time. We can structure our free time around recreational shopping in the same way that we might aimlessly go out for a drive with no destination in mind. In this case, we may be living out the full quota of materialism without any of the benefits of greater earning power.
Money can turn into an identity, just like many people associate their car with their personality. This is another thing I’ve learned as I’ve become more financially prosperous. As far as I can tell, upper-middle-class people spend a great deal of their emotional energy thinking about money. I’ve sat in a hot tub at a five-star hotel listening to another guest rant about food stamps, because yay, that’s exactly what I love to do on vacation. I’ve been subjected to lectures about how I need to learn how to boss my cleaners and landscapers around properly, because otherwise they will “take advantage of me.” (I could have cleaned my own bathroom in less time than one of these conversations dragged on). I’ve been given more advice about which hotels, restaurants, stores, and salons are the best places to spend my money than I even know what to do with. The tenderness with which people list off the specifications of their beloved cars defies description.
Money is at its best when it solves problems. Having a car can solve a lot of problems, like how to carry a bunch of groceries when walking, riding a bike, or taking the bus just won’t cut it. (Having a car can also cause a lot of problems, such as how to pay for new tires or a new transmission when money is tight, two classic examples of how having money makes life easier). So many of our problems and our feelings that we lack options can be solved by the application of more money. “Can’t afford” adequate medical or dental care, educational opportunities, safe neighborhoods, reliable transportation, functional appliances, nutritious food, lifestyle upgrades in general. Being broke is tedious. Money can be like a magic wand or a power tool in its mystical ability to make problems go away.
Many of us associate money with negative traits like greed, or boring other people to death by insisting on such conversational topics as Good Help is So Hard to Find or I Shouldn’t Have to Pay Taxes. It’s helpful when we instead regard money as a means to an end. What is it that we specifically want? A teenager on a bike or a bus usually tends to see a car as FREEDOM made manifest, just something hugely better than the current situation. We don’t have to know exactly where we want to go or what we’ll do when we get there; we can simply focus on that increased power and sense of opportunity that more money can provide.
What would you do if you knew you only had twenty-four hours to live? This question is right up there with “What would you do if you won the lottery?” and “If you could only bring one thing to a deserted island, what would it be?” What we should probably be asking are the opposites: “What would you do if you knew you would never have any money you didn’t earn at work?” and “If you could be happy with only one thing on a deserted island, why do you have so much stuff?” And, of course, “What would you do if you realized you were going to live to be at least 95-100 years old?” Suddenly the questions about money and possessions start to look less frivolous and more literally relevant. The 100-Year Life makes the extremely provocative case that human longevity has been stealthily increasing on us, and that we need to reckon on it in our future plans.
People do not want to believe that they will live to be very elderly. This seems surprising. We always complain that we don’t have enough time to do what we want. Yet my clients are all convinced that they’ll die young. They resist any suggestion to the contrary, refuting it by proclaiming the ages their various relatives were when they died. As The 100-Year Life makes abundantly clear, this is irrelevant. Lifespans are increasing across the board. An example of this is that in only the past decade, the number of UK citizens living to their 100th birthday increased 70%.
Oh, no no no. Surely this doesn’t apply to me. Why should I care? I am absolutely stone-cold certain that I’m not going to live past… Um… past… ?
We have to care about our extended lifespans because we have to plan on how we’re going to take care of ourselves when we’re too old to work. Generally people roll their eyes in resignation and “joke” that they’ll just have to keep working, but in reality, 55% of Americans quit working sooner than planned. Either our health collapses, or we aren’t able to find work. We pin our mental “retirement” age at 65, but if we actually live to be 95, that’s THIRTY YEARS of retirement we’ll need to fund. Surely we don’t think we’ll still have jobs at 90? If we hate what we do for income now, how much more are we going to like it after being in the workforce for seventy years or more?
The picture of advanced aging presented in The 100-Year Life is only bleak for those who have zero intention of either preserving their health and fitness or of saving money. (That’s what procrastination is for; the two most commonly procrastinated goals are saving money and getting healthier). A cool feature of the book is that it offers three separate models of aging, one for Boomers, one for GenXers, and one for Millennials. These models show a few pitfalls, yes; mostly, they envision lives with more time. Time for education, time for leisure, time for more interesting career arcs, time for more involved intergenerational family models.
The average 40-year-old has a 50/50 chance of living to be 95. I just turned 42 this summer, and I believe it would be foolhardy to assume I’m in the bottom half of that distribution. Sure, maybe I die later today, and that’s why I do my best to tell people I love them and avoid leaving loose ends in my life. The bigger risk is to outlive my expectations, my teeth, my health, and my money. Assuming we’ll live to be 100 isn’t optimistic (if anything, it might be pessimistic!). It’s simply an objective part of our baseline reality now.
This book is an incredible, fascinating, even mind-bending read. I really kind of want everyone I know to drop everything and read it as fast as possible, so we can start having a prolonged conversation about it.
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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