There are roughly a hundred days until the New Year, and I stumbled across this book while making my year-end plans. What a great idea! Let’s find out. Can You Be Happy for 100 Days in a Row?
Dmitry Golubnichy designed this book as a challenge. It includes a hundred perfectly valid, often unexpected ideas. They should be regarded as a jumping-off place, with plenty of room to revamp and customize.
The happiness prompts in the book are occasionally weather-related, meaning that they might be challenging to do in order, depending on when someone started the book. It’s definitely worth skimming through it first to see what’s coming up in the schedule.
I just posted my own list of things to do for the last hundred days of the year. Mine included quite a lot of organizing tasks and ordinary household chores, as well as meal plans that we rarely cook. As such, my personal list could probably use less planning and more fun.
What do we mean by happiness, though? This is another area of customization, I think, because what will lead one person to happiness may be a bit more of one thing than another. Domestic contentment is where I put much of my focus, because without it, it can be very hard to maintain any other type of happiness. Joy, celebration, companionship, anticipation, awe, curiosity, adventure, tranquility, wonder, delight, and laughter can be attained as well. Notice that different types of happy feelings may arise from totally different types of activities, often without much overlap. The happy feelings that come from doing something kind are different, for example, than the happy feelings that come from learning something new.
Can You Be Happy for 100 Days in a Row? Yep! It takes a little planning and remembrance that there can still be happy moments, even when most of life is totally routine and ordinary.
“If you lower your standards, then your standards are lower.” We were setting up for a day-long meeting and debating whether the nearest cafe was close enough to give us time to grab breakfast. One guy rejected the coffee at the event, saying he didn’t want to lower his standards. I responded in the manner above. We made eye contact, burst into simultaneous laughter, and instantly became friends.
I don’t even drink coffee.
The reason my new friend and I connected was that when you share a philosophy, it often takes only one sentence or one behavior to make that connection. A lot of people signal this sort of thing through their clothing, which is of course why they wear it. (Otherwise, wouldn’t jumpsuits, togas, or Star Trek-type uniforms be so much more convenient?)
Context says a lot all by itself. Here I am at seven AM on a Saturday, an hour before this day-long event, with maybe a half-dozen other lost souls. My very presence says a series of things about my commitment, interest level, ability to be organized, and willingness to volunteer for thankless tasks. Add in my wardrobe choices, facial expressions, vocal tone, posture, and mannerisms. You can’t tell everything about me, but you have a lot to go on. Maybe you don’t have enough information to figure out biographical details like whether I have kids or what kind of car I drive. You do know a few things, though, about my values and my behavior.
I was blind to all of this as a young person. When I look back, I can’t help but wonder how different my career path might have been if I’d understood at twenty what is now so obvious at forty-plus.
At that age, I would have been seriously offended by the implication that I had low standards.
As the Future Version of that callow youth, I can only laugh. Young Me DID have lower standards in all sorts of ways. Young Me was a terrible cook, for instance. Young Me accepted dead-end, low-paying jobs when she could have gone for more. Young Me neglected to advocate for herself in obvious situations when she could easily have negotiated better. Young Me tolerated shabby treatment from friends, coworkers, bosses, and boyfriends. Young Me wound up taking jobs, renting rooms, giving door keys to roommates, signing contracts, and doing favors for friends in situations that Today Me would never consider for five minutes.
Not only did Young Me have no clue how to negotiate, Young Me also had no idea how she constantly demonstrated that she was not a “first in line” first-choice kind of person.
Waiting by the phone for calls from a selfish, inconsiderate young man when we both should have known better.
Accepting the first offer from the first employer who called, with the first wage they suggested.
Being there, over and over, for friends who vanished rather than reciprocate.
Tolerating bad behavior, like stealing my laundry quarters or bouncing rent checks, not knowing what to do other than feel hurt.
Young Me saw a lot of specific incidents as misfortunes, rather than as indicators of an untrustworthy person or red flags for obvious behavior patterns. It took a lot of disappointment and a few very nasty surprises to start developing some street smarts and setting better boundaries. Today Me knows to ask more questions in the first five minutes.
Today Me still does favors for people, although usually they are different kinds of favors. Today Me gets asked to be a reference or review resumes for job-hunting friends. Today Me evaluates a lot of speeches and holds a lot of volunteer offices and staff positions. Today Me will still visit people in the hospital, help people move, pet-sit, or occasionally slip someone a secret envelope if they’re having cash problems. Having higher standards and better boundaries does not mean being more selfish, cold, or unkind. It means being more discriminating, offering help where it can make a real difference. Feeling taken advantage of can only happen if you have certain expectations or if you come from a position of scarcity. Offering a gift of time, energy, or resources comes from a place of love, and that means no strings.
There are, of course, many other areas where Today Me has higher standards. Young Me was a walking disaster in some ways, chronically disorganized, constantly late everywhere, and helplessly lost in the professional wardrobe category. These are not moral issues and they are not character issues. It still feels unfair sometimes to be judged by what are really superficial traits. They are, though, extremely potent signals that show whether someone is operating in the same system or not. I always believed myself to have a strong work ethic, to be committed and dedicated, bright and sincere. In some ways, it’s convenient to have ways to demonstrate that visually, just by walking in the door at 7 AM on a Saturday and making a single comment.
If you lower your standards, then your standards are lower, whether that’s your standard for how you behave, how you speak, what you believe is an acceptable work product, how you treat others or how you allow them to treat you. It’s also true that if you raise your standards, then your standards are higher. This is how you can personally contribute to a better world. If you raise your standards, you can improve your own behavior, speak kindly, influence and inspire others, create amazing, beautiful, and useful things, set the tone at an event, and ultimately contribute to the culture of a community or organization, however small. How you do one thing may actually be how you do everything. It’s an interesting project to see how raising your standards in even one area may affect everything else in your life.
Something momentous happened. My husband signed up to join my martial arts gym.
This isn’t a huge surprise; after all, we’ve been discussing it since I joined back in January. I’ve been talking him up to the instructors, and he’s met them and some of my friends either at promotions, around town, or at the summer barbecue. He has some martial arts experience and is generally about ten times the athlete I could ever hope to be.
Still, it’s a big thing when two spouses join a gym together. It’s even bigger when they’re on different schedules. Most of all, it’s really something to consider when there’s a ranking system involved, and one is a beginner while the other is advanced.
If you’ve ever tried to teach your spouse something, or been on the receiving end of any kind of lesson, solicited or otherwise, you probably know exactly what I mean. Tutorials that are interesting and helpful when coming from anyone else can be unbelievably obnoxious when taught by the one you hold most dear. This is exactly why my ex-husband and I wound up not ballroom dancing together; he couldn’t stand my being better than he was, and even more, he couldn’t stand the idea of me dancing with anyone else. It seems like maybe the reason a lot of people give up on hobbies and interests when they get married is precisely this, the skill differential and the attendant ego conflicts.
What I’ve learned is to be patiently available on demand, if I have a skill that my (husband, friend, relative) wants to learn. Otherwise, I stay well the heck away and keep my opinions to myself. It’s hard to do, a skill available only to those more advanced in age.
Mentoring people is fun, and it’s a big part of my life. That makes it easier. I have plenty of outlets to evaluate others in their speaking skills, or help encourage newer students at our martial arts school. I’m much more proud of my ability to cheerlead and inspire others than I am of my own skills, wobbly as they are. I know my husband will quickly surpass me as a boxer, and it’s exciting to me to know how quickly he will develop. He’ll learn from the same teachers as I did. I trust their teaching abilities, certainly more than I could my own.
Okay, so we have some hiccups in his onboarding process. He has his gym bag all packed and ready to go the day after Labor Day. He gets to work, only to find out that he’s expected to travel out of town later that same night. He has to come home after lunch, pack his suitcase, and turn around and fly out of town. Winds up traveling a few days every single week for six weeks and counting. Finally, I convince him that it’s worth it to meet me at the gym one weeknight to take advantage of a promotional discount. I bring his gym clothes and a water bottle and agree to wait and ride bikes home with him afterward.
Having your spouse watch you through a window while you plank and do crunches, that’s quite an act of courage, am I right?
So I’m standing in the hallway, grinning through the window, having already done my own workout earlier that morning. It’s uncommon for me to hang around in casual clothes; one of my classmates doesn’t even recognize me. He comes up and asks, “Do you do this?” Um, we’ve met? We’ve spent hours training together? The guys start asking questions.
Why aren’t you in there with him?
You know you can go in there, right?
(Advanced students can attend beginner classes, but not the reverse).
These are all guys around our age or a little older. As far as I know, all of them are either married, or used to be. I think they know better, and they’re just curious what I’ll say.
“Look, we’ve been married for nine years. I know how this works. If I went in there with him, his first class would be his last class. I need to give him space to do things his way, on his own time.”
One of the guys says his wife refuses to train with him. I have trained with him myself, and I don’t tell him, but I totally understand why. He’s super bossy!
Another guy just smirks knowingly. He’s with me.
See, I’ve already won the game. He’s signed the contract, bought the gear, invited me to watch him train, and now he’s actively in there dripping sweat on the mat. He’s doing exactly what I would wish he would do, which is to commit and form his own relationships with the instructors and the other students.
I prove my point two days later, when he puts on his school t-shirt and goes to Saturday morning class without me while I sleep in.
It wouldn’t be helpful for me to step in and try to correct his form, teach him basic combatives, help him put his gear on, or otherwise Tell Him What to Do. He’ll have most of that down by the end of his third class. Learning from the trainers and fellow students is a completely different experience than having his wife stand over him and boss him around. What I can do is to listen with genuine interest and full engagement, nodding and laughing because I know exactly what he means.
Also, I can create opportunities for him to make observations and teach me things. This was really tough for me when I first started running and asked him to coach me. He told me I was untrainable. I learned how challenging it is to humble yourself before someone close to you and allow them to be the expert. I also learned how much he loves coaching, how very good he is at it, and how silly it is of me to hang onto my precious ego needs when I could be taking notes instead.
Part of what makes us work as a couple is that we bring non-overlapping skills to the table. We’ve learned to respect one another’s expertise. We’re also really good at exploring new things together, being willing to be a good sport when the other wants to try something. In this case, I can expect that my hubby the lifelong athlete will be able to help me work on my form and some of the technical skills that have eluded me. This is leverage. This is a valuable opportunity for me to take leadership toward the goal of greater fitness for both of us.
If I went in there with him, with the goal of showing off, I’d fail. If I went in there with the goal of impressing him, my classmates, or the instructors, I’d fail. One day, a few months from now, we’ll go in there together, both in orange belts. We’ll go in as equals. If I go in there with him, we’ll probably still be training together a year later. That’s how the match is won.
I used to live in Santa Rosa. Areas where I lived, worked, rode my bike, ate lunch, and visited friends burned flat last year, and the same region recently came under threat again. The photos and videos of devastation are heart-wrenching and chilling. Whenever something like this happens, there are two things we can do. We can try to help, and we can review our emergency preparedness. Every person who gets out quickly is one less person for emergency responders to rescue, and one more person who can volunteer. Channeling our feelings of helplessness and sorrow into a plan of action may never be truly necessary - but it might.
One way of doing this is to make our emotional decisions now, while everything is fine, so that if a crisis does happen, we’re not distracted into foolish or deadly attempts to save our stuff.
People, then animals, then things.
Not everyone made it out of the Sonoma County fire alive. That’s because the fires sprang up so quickly and spread so far and fast that not everyone could outrun them. If you’ve ever spoken with someone who fled a wildfire, there is no time. THERE IS NO TIME. There is no time to wander around flapping one’s hands and trying to load up a bunch of bags and boxes of memorabilia. Every single time there is a natural disaster or catastrophe of some kind, people panic and start trying to bring all their favorite stuff. Just assume that if you do this, a firefighter will die. Let it go.
Most of us are in a good enough headspace that we can accept that yes, we might lose our homes and appliances and all our worldly goods. Some of us have already lived through such an event. A trauma like that is often a moment of crux, when we realize that we really are lucky to be alive and that if our loved ones are okay, then we’re okay. We realize that stuff is just stuff, and that we’re fine without it. Others go through a trauma and “lose everything” (read: material goods) and become ultra-attached to their belongings from that point forward.
What does it mean to “lose everything”? This expression makes me think of Alzheimer’s disease. You lose your memories, you lose your ability to recognize even your closest friends and relatives, you lose all your skills. You lose your vocabulary and your ability to read. You lose your ability to care for yourself or be safely alone even for brief periods. You lose your ability to understand what’s going on, so that even a routine doctor visit becomes confusing and terrifying. This is my definition of “losing everything.” I think about it a lot because it runs in my family and I worry it will happen to me.
This is when I start thinking about photographs. When my Nana was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, old photographs were one of the few things she still understood. Pictures can have meaning.
Not just photos, really, but other memorabilia, too. Anything that exists as only one copy, anything that is richly saturated with memory and legacy, anything that rightfully “belongs” to an entire family. These are items that can be preserved and stored in multiple copies in case anything happens.
Anything: anything at all. Fire, flood, mold, theft, termites, anything.
Not every photo is deeply meaningful. I tend to keep a dozen nearly identical versions of family photos, deleting only the ones in which someone’s eyes are closed. I must have thousands of family photos from the advent of the digital camera. No, I know I do! I have thousands per vacation or wedding! Many of these are landscape shots. Back in the days when we bought film by the roll, a dozen photos might cover a period of two or three years. Preserving photos takes some curation and editorial decisions, especially because we probably have more photographs than the rest of our possessions combined.
The best way to do this is to send digital copies of important family photos to every family member. Then it’s a simple matter of sending copies back if someone’s hard drive crashes or a hotel sprinkler goes off.
Older, print photos can be scanned too. My husband’s photo albums from the Seventies have started to deteriorate; the glue on the pages has become brittle and the photos have started to fall out. Others have stuck to the pages or to the glass of picture frames, causing them to tear if we try to remove them. In my organizing work I’ve seen entire bags of photographs pancaked and stuck together by moisture, moldy and ruined. Photographs do not last forever. The work of redundancy may do more to protect photos against ordinary entropy than against catastrophic loss.
Many people find that taking a picture of a sentimental item creates enough of a record to allow the original item to be released. Children’s artwork, trophies, worn-out concert t-shirts, lucky running shoes, old quilts or afghans, all of this stuff could potentially be digitized. The memory is preserved and the relic can be let go for recycling.
As an historian, the idea of families recording the artifacts of their daily lives is really interesting. I’d love to see decades’ worth of family albums recording the layout of furniture in each room, pictures of favorite family meals, pet beds, and all the other stuff that usually fades into the background. What I would not want to see would be family genealogies recording the deaths of people who ran back into a burning house in a foolhardy attempt to drag out a paper photo album.
Fall and winter are good times of year to sort and scan photos. At least in the Northern Hemisphere, the weather is cold and wet and the days are shorter. We can bundle up, drink cocoa, and look through old prints. As the various holidays come up, we can share albums with friends and family. We can do the emotional homework of detaching from material objects and making stronger connections to our beloved people and pets. Let us be grateful that we have these bright spots in our lives. Let us be grateful that we have the comfort and leisure to preserve our memories today.
I realize that this is equivalent to a full season, over a quarter of the year, but still. There’s something exciting about a countdown, isn’t there? Today is a Monday, and we now have one hundred days until New Year’s Day. How are we going to use the time?
I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, because I’m obsessed. I do almost all my planning around the New Year, and it’s a major milestone for me. Almost anything fun or interesting that I do is a result of this regularly scheduled strategic session. Working backward from there, I also get really into Thanksgiving meal planning, and I spend the full month of October wallowing in Halloween everything. Planning ahead is a way to remind myself to make time for celebration.
Also, I hate cold weather. The only advantage I see is that it’s finally cool enough to use my kitchen. Planning is a way to see myself through to sunshine.
I’ve come around to the idea that the main function of a calendar is to make sure the positives happen. Somehow or other, we’re going to get groceries and do laundry and clean hair out of the drain. All the crises, bills, chores, interruptions, and urgent demands see to themselves. Then time passes, and we realize we’ve gone at least a year without going to the beach, or three months without touching base with a friend, or that we can’t even remember the last time we made cinnamon rolls.
I’m “naturally” a wing-it kind of person. I’m a night owl, I lean toward ADHD, I’m a right-brain creative, and I’ve spent much of my life chronically disorganized. I have basically no concept of time and I’m useless with maps. I started picking this stuff up from my husband, who is an engineer and the kind of person you can literally set your watch by. While I’ve helped bring some spontaneity and flexibility to his life, he’s taught me that there are advantages to this clock-oriented, calendar-focused mentality. Plan ahead and you get the good seats. Show up early and you have plenty of time for the extras, like dessert. Book in advance and you get everything before it’s sold out.
There’s a whole new category of life that’s available to the advance planners. I had no idea. Restaurants you can never try if you wait until that night. Shows you can never see unless you’re willing to wait three years. Hotel rooms that are booked a year ahead. It’s an even bigger deal than the day I figured out how to put books on hold at the library.
That reminds me. I need to make some dinner reservations.
Let’s work backward, shall we?
We’re tentatively planning a vacation in spring, so we leave March and April open. That means it’s important not to put any boring stuff in for those months. We can use February as a “get it done” month, with vacation anticipation as our motivation. (How’s that for syncopation?)
Also, our lease is up in January, and more likely than not, we’ll be moving. As a favor to Future Us, we’ll push any “get it done” stuff further back. We know not to inflict anything like that on ourselves from mid-November through the New Year, because of weather, finances, and holiday traffic. This is how we start to realize that it actually matters what we do in autumn. We have the power today to make our upcoming move a little less shambolic, with the reward of a smoothly planned vacation to follow.
October is my Halloween Month. This began with an all-day Halloween horror binge, and gradually extended because I couldn’t contain myself, couldn’t force myself to wait until the 31st. Because this is super-fun for me, I can use it as both a deadline-enforcing tool and a reward system. If I know I’m going to treat myself to a scary movie or dole out episodes of a show like American Horror Story, I can assign myself an obnoxious chore earlier in the day. Maybe I’m down on the floor, grumbling and organizing the cleansers under the sink. Before I know it, I’m done, everything is wiped clean, it really only took eight minutes, and I’m wrist-deep in a bag of candy, frightening myself half to death. Yay!
Let’s run through a sample countdown. These are just ideas, many of which won’t be relevant to anyone other than me. Use it to spark your own list, and make sure you fit in plenty of time for fun and celebration, okay?
100. Make list of celebrations, traditions, and fun stuff for the rest of the year
99. Write down spring and summer highlights and wistfully missed opportunities for next year
98. Round up all unread books-in-progress
97. Clean out pool bag
96. Inbox Zero
95. Throw out old, partial bottles of sunblock
94. Write third-quarter 2018 progress report
93. Start a Halloween entertainment list, reserve and download as appropriate
92. Plan costume, convince hubby to wear couples theme costume. Squirrels??
91. Try on winter coats and jackets; check pockets for surprise cash
90. Sort through scarves, hats, gloves, and umbrellas
89. Sort through sock drawer
88. Shop for cardigans
87. Look through digital photo album on phone
86. Go through phone and delete unused apps
85. Trade in old phone (and PREVIOUS old phone, *blush*)
84. Sort through chargers, cables, and backup batteries
83. Practice a new hula hoop trick
82. Sort through pet travel bag
81. Sort and clean costume jewelry
80. Wipe down shelves in medicine cabinet
79. Try a new soup recipe. Tortilla soup?
78. Confirm plans with Halloween party committee
77. Trade in bag of books at used bookstore
76. Work on costumes
75. Make special dessert for party tomorrow
74. Costume party!
73. Make pot pie
72. Wash pillows and summer bedding
71. Sort cabinet under kitchen sink
70. Track down hubby’s favorite candy rarity as a Halloween surprise
69. Sort cabinet under bathroom sink
68. Cull summer clothes
67. Costume party!
66. Go out for hot cocoa
65. Personal candy shopping for Halloween candy bender
64. Go to movie theater and watch a horror movie
62. Kitchen inventory; start using up contents of fridge and freezer
61. Try a new soup recipe. Maybe pho?
60. Book tickets for Thanksgiving visit
59. Put heated mattress pad on the bed
58. Vacuum out kitchen drawers
57. Mushroom barley soup
56. All-candle evening
55. Museum field trip!
54. Watch The Princess Bride for special project
53. Acquire cranberry sauce for sandwiches
52. Make stew with dumplings
51. Plan a New Year’s Resolution workshop
50. Drink chai tea while gazing out the window
49. Pull together vacation ideas for our next status meeting
48. Visit a library branch where I’ve never been
47. Make some cornbread
46. Plan our vacation for next year
45. Try to teach my dog to jump rope again
44. Trade foot massages
43. Come up with my next ten speech topics
42. Last day to shop before holiday shopping moratorium. Need anything?
41. Thanksgiving Day
40. Family board game marathon
39. Put together my holiday wish list for hubby
38. Come up with gift ideas for hubby, who is hard to shop for
37. Go to parking garage and practice unicycle
36. Learn about palmistry because why not?
35. Sort and back up digital contacts
34. Purge/transfer files on old laptop
33. Curate/transfer digital photos from old laptop
32. Panini for lunch!
31. Start writing down pent-up New Year’s plans for 2019
30. Start accumulating list of 2018 highlights
29. Round up list of unread books in any series I’d like to finish
28. Make a lasagna
27. Drop off pre-New Year’s Eve dry cleaning
26. Annual file box purge
25. Scan and shred relevant paper documents
24. AC/DC and Van Halen Appreciation Day
23. Secret craft project marathon day 1
22. Secret craft project marathon day 2
21. Secret craft project marathon day 3
20. Secret craft project marathon day 4
19. Secret craft project marathon day 5
18. Secret craft project marathon day 6
17. Lounge around reading all day long
16. Practice a new updo for New Year’s
15. Work on vision board/planner for 2019
14. Breakfast for dinner
13. Tabs Zero - what are all these webpages and why did I open them?
12. Inbox Zero - hopefully enough to coast through until the New Year
11. Festivus - feats of strength
10. Festivus - airing of grievances
9. Do some cryptograms
8. Make cinnamon rolls
7. Sew buttons back on fancy winter coat
6. Pack clothes and planner for New Year’s trip
5. New Year’s trip travel day
4. Talk about highlights of the year with hubby
3. Write up New Year’s blog post
2. Confirm New Year’s goals and resolutions
1. HAPPY NEW YEAR! Start as you mean to begin! In other words, sleep in, lounge around in pajamas reading, and put off all your self-improvement projects until tomorrow.
Karla Starr set out to learn “Why Some People Seem to Win More Often Than Others.” In her position, I believe I would have done the same thing: Her research was spurred by a series of epic bad luck, including serious injury and financial ruin. Can You Learn to Be Lucky? Before reading the book, I would have said yes, and I would have said that that attitude of trying to turn disaster into a learning opportunity is fundamental to the process. Now that I’ve read the book, it’s nice to know that research backs that up. Others might appreciate that the book focuses on hard data and neuroscience more than it does on pop psychology.
From my perspective as an extreme, off-the-charts optimist, the majority of this book would seem to resonate with a more pessimistic viewpoint. Guess what? Humans are subject to many layers of profound bias of varying types, and certain rare specimens benefit from that, leading lucky lives without hardly trying. A fixed mindset would skim through this material, sigh heavily, and resign itself to mediocrity. It would take a highlighter pen or call-out boxes to turn this book into a motivational handbook, but it could be done.
(There’s room in this world for Karla Starr calendars, t-shirts, and mugs!)
There are always at least two ways to tell the same person’s life story and have it still be true. You can make bullet points of all the person’s worst moments, crises, disappointments, tragedies, losses, and rejection, also calling forth this sad individual’s character flaws, blunders, and failings. Then, you can highlight the same person’s good fortune, privilege, support network, gifts, merits, charms, good deeds, and serendipitous connections, meticulously detailing the benefits of having this person around. It takes imagination to find that thread, but it’s there for everyone. The trouble is that we as humans despise being reminded of our privilege and resent having to cough up a little bit of gratitude for how great our lives really are.
[Here I note that I looked the author up on Twitter, and almost every mention of her book that popped up was snarky, sarcastic, and exactly the kind of attitude that would personally cause me to write off that individual from my favors-and-references list. Sarcastic people cannot possibly have any idea how many opportunities they lose through their mean remarks].
Can You Learn to Be Lucky? It depends on how you define ‘luck,’ doesn’t it? Are lottery winners lucky if they declare bankruptcy, get divorced, and can no longer trust their relatives or friends? Are celebrities lucky if they wind up in rehab or if their supposed friends betray all their secrets to the paparazzi? Just asking. But then there’s a difference between luck and good fortune.
This book is full of truly fascinating research. Two things I learned: There are two different types of dopamine receptors, explaining why some people are more motivated by rewards and others by avoiding punishment; there is a thing called ‘allostatic load’ that represents cumulative stress and trauma. With the way neuroscience is growing as a field, maybe one day we’ll simply be able to put on a brain-scanning helmet that will show us the seats of our pessimism and intellectual laziness, lighting up to demonstrate when a mental shift is moving in a more effective direction. A lucky one.
Can You Learn to Be Lucky? is a tour de force. It’s a book that deserves to be taught in schools. We can only hope that Karla Starr feels as lucky to have found her agent, her editor, and her publisher as we do, having found her book.
Cultures set the stage for our beliefs about how much we can control life.
Our brains are lazy and our time limited, so as we get more options, we become more superficial—about everything.
Confidence... makes it infinitely easier to be lucky.
Being lucky depends on saying yes to life.
Why not assume good things about others and your future? That things will turn out well? That someone has your back? Isn’t it more illogical to deny yourself the benefits of simply shifting your attitude?
It wasn’t a problem until it was a problem.
See, I have this crazy belief that as a citizen and taxpayer, I have the right to go about my business every day. I have the right to walk around town, engage in commerce, visit public buildings, and do whatever I want, as long as it’s legal and it doesn’t bother anybody. I persist in believing this even when I’m honked and shouted at by Rude People out of their vehicle windows while I’m running, bothered by barbarians on the bus, or pestered by perverts at the public library. What is a genteel lady of mature years to do?
Plan ahead, that’s what.
A lot of things changed for me when I took up martial arts. I started to feel more strength and self-confidence. I started to be more situationally aware in a new way. I also began to realize that the vast majority of belligerent people are shouting or posturing to appear threatening because they are afraid and don’t actually know how to fight. As I practiced various techniques like escaping from chokeholds, I started to watch action movies and crime shows from a completely different perspective. I began to reassess my assumptions about my public life.
That process is ongoing. It certainly wasn’t complete the day I realized I had a problem at my local cafe, a place where I do hours of work every week, a place I consider to be a safe haven.
The first time, I was deeply absorbed in my writing when another customer demanded my attention. I looked up, assuming he had some very important and urgent reason for interrupting me. “You look good,” he said, leering. Um, thanks? I didn’t ask? I’m a married, middle-aged person in sub-casual clothing, sitting in a back corner of a coffee shop. What about me says PLEASE INTERRUPT ME, RANDOM PEOPLE?
Okay, whatever. Back to work. Trying to flag down another train of thought since the first one has left the station and is no longer in view.
The second time, I happened to be sitting in the same spot doing the exact same thing, which was 1. Minding my own business 2. Not bothering a single soul on this sweet earth and 3. Obviously working. I had a timer to remind me that I needed to call a Lyft and get to a business meeting. As I gathered up my things, a voice came at me from my elbow. I didn’t even realize it was directed at me, because why would I? I was alone and the only people I knew were the staff.
The voice repeated itself. I looked up, only to realize that the same Interruptor from the previous week was sitting not an arm’s length away, turned sideways in his chair and spying on me. Possibly even reading my screen. He had a broad grin and looked delighted with himself.
I understood several things at that moment. 1. This person recognized me. 2. This person believed he had a right to interact with me, sit near me, speak to me, and press for an acquaintance. 3. This person may indeed have been on my turf hoping to run into me again. 4. I had no idea how long he’d been there. 5. This person now knew something about my schedule and habits. 6. If I wanted to avoid him, I’d either have to give up my cafe habit altogether or start going to the location two miles away.
I really did have to leave within a few seconds. I didn’t say anything; I did what I’ve done so many times and simply held up my left hand, showing my wedding ring.
“That’s good,” he said, “that’s good.”
I left, feeling flustered and grossed out and annoyed.
A week later, I realized that I had unintentionally upended my work habits. It clicked that I was creating reasons to avoid my natural stomping grounds. Since I had just come home from a lesson in advanced Krav Maga, I also realized that I was being dumb and that they call them ‘stomping grounds’ for a reason.
No way am I letting some old lecher scare me away from my three-square-foot corner of the neighborhood. No way am I letting this person establish himself as a behavioral norm. What if he moves on from bothering me to bothering someone younger and less secure? Or lots and lots of others?
See, this is more of a Boomer thing. I’m forty-three today, and over the past thirty years of my life, the vast majority of men who have taken it upon themselves to aggressively “flirt” with me have belonged to the same generation. There’s a certain cultural assumption about thinking you should shoot your shot with someone ten to thirty years younger than you. I had always assumed I’d eventually age out of this sort of thing, that I’d become blissfully invisible. Instead, it continues to happen, and all that changes are that both parties are incrementally older. I still think it’s presumptuous and annoying and they still think they’re doing me a favor by “flattering” me in some way.
I’ve had these conversations. If you get mad, they think they’ve got a chance because they’ve obviously aroused your tempestuous, passionate nature. Either that or you’re a bitch. If you ignore them, they think they should just keep trying, because you haven’t asked them to go away yet, and even if you did, well, you’ve noticed them and that means they have a chance. If you get nervous, that’s just proof of your innocence and purity, and boy could they change that for you. There’s no response in that echo chamber that comes across clearly as GO AWAY AND STAY THERE.
My husband offered to come down and “take care of things” for me. He didn’t take it well, the thought that random ruffians would bother me even though I wear the world’s most unambiguous wedding ring.
I told him I’ve got it. As soon as I realized I was psyching myself out and changing my patterns to avoid someone else’s inappropriate behavior, I knew I had to take a stand. I started rehearsing.
The truth is that this sort of thing happens to people all the time. It isn’t always an overconfident, entitled dirty old man. Sometimes it’s a rude sales clerk, a notorious gossip, a religious missionary, or an aggressive panhandler. The more timid among us retract ourselves, living in a smaller world rather than pushing back against the obnoxious behavior of others. We forget that in reality, there is always an ally nearby. A bus driver, security guard, waiter, or even a passerby will stand with you when you speak up. *Nobody* wants unacceptable behavior, especially if it might lose them customers or create a legal liability. If someone else is acting up, the majority will be on your side when it’s time to put an end to it. This may not be their first offense, but hopefully it will be their last.
There are a bunch of ways I can easily make it clear to the cafe creeper that he should probably get up and leave if he sees me coming.
I haven’t seen the cafe creeper in weeks now. I’m starting to relax and feel like maybe brandishing my wedding ring actually did the job. I still feel a little anxious when I think about going to the cafe alone on weekday mornings. Then I remind myself why. I’m a good customer, and, like the majority of customers, I spend money quietly without detracting from the atmosphere. I have the right to the occasional use of a table from time to time. If I need to, if it ever comes to that, I also have the right to cause a minor kerfuffle. If you don’t like it, then mind your own business and don’t interrupt people while they’re working and you’ll be perfectly safe, just like the 99% of other people in the room.
On social media, a lot of people spend a lot of time saying a lot of things that make them indistinguishable from bots. There could be entire predictive text buttons with these bumper-sticker sentiments. You could even write a script that posted them for you while you went off to make a sandwich. Of all these repetitive, commonplace reactions, Quit Posting Your Workouts is one of the most common. After consideration, I tend to agree. I used to post my workouts to Facebook, and I quit... Facebook. If you’ve been frustrated by this particular issue, pro or con, maybe my outlook will be interesting.
Here’s the thing. Everyone does something that is interesting to some friends, irrelevant to others, and annoying to yet others. If we remove all of these topics, what could there possibly be left to talk about?
My workout is a significant chunk of my day and my life. It’s an enormous part of who I am. It’s how I beat illness, it’s a constant research topic, it’s an area where I explore and learn new things, it’s where I see and hear much of what I find interesting. It’s also where I now make most of my friends. Asking me never to share about this part of my life is precisely like asking someone else never to talk about their kids, their job, their home remodel, or any of their hobbies. Wouldn’t it be nicer to just unfollow, scroll past, or otherwise ignore posts that don’t interest you?
Maybe, like me, you’ve posted about workouts in the hopes of connecting with your other friends who also work out. Maybe, like me, some of your friends cross-train, and thus can’t capture everything we’re doing through an app like RunKeeper. Maybe, like me, you have a years-long running conversation with a small group of friends who are constantly exploring different types of workout. Maybe those conversations are one of your main reasons for ever logging on to social media at all. If there’s ever a more suitable social media platform for us, one without all the non-workout BS, we’ll all stampede toward it and never look back.
Or maybe you’re one of the forty percent of Americans who never do any kind of exercise whatsoever, not even walking for fifteen minutes. Maybe all this talk just irritates you to no end. I dunno.
What I found was that sharing my workouts tended to generate friction for a variety of reasons. It brought up disagreements and mean comments from people who I had previously liked, people I considered my actual friends before social media came along and ruined it. I exercise because when I don’t, I suffer physically, and I don’t really feel like I have an option. For whatever reason, other people interpret this as body shaming, as buying into the beauty myth, as some kind of psychological problem, as proselytizing, or as just being a terminal bore. I started to realize that it really wasn’t worth my time to engage in discussions where words were put in my mouth. Why go there if my character was going to be brought into question or my motives were misinterpreted?
This is part of the picture when people say that when your energy changes, your friends change. It’s not always that you become some sort of social climber and abandon your previous loyalties. It’s more that your new thoughts, behaviors, and conversation topics annoy your old friends, who can no longer stand you and don’t want to socialize with you unless you go back to your old ways.
If you want to know, my weekday workout typically looks like this: Ride bike along the beach to martial arts gym while listening to an audio book. See my friends. Crush it for an hour, learning new things, surprising myself with what my body can do that it couldn’t do a month ago, bonding with people from all walks of life. Gossip in the changing room. Ride home along the beach again. Walk the dog. Do an hour on the elliptical, reading articles about space, biomimicry, and robotics for my tech newsletter. Stretch for half an hour. Shower. Sometimes this all starts in the morning, sometimes in the evening.
Some days I work out for nearly three hours. That might sound extreme, but I do longer workouts a few times a year. Distance days for marathon training were two to three hours once a week. Martial arts belt promotions go for four hours. I’ve gone on four-hour bike rides many times. When I go backpacking, we typically hike for six hours or more. On vacation I walk eight to ten miles a day, basically from morning til night except for meal breaks. For someone who enjoys endurance sports, “time on feet” is a valuable training metric. I’ve had several jobs where I stood for forty hours a week. I think back to our pioneer ancestors, who walked thirty miles a day on the Oregon Trail, and I seriously question a modern society that thinks sitting or lying down for 20-22 hours a day is somehow normal. The more I find that I can do routinely, the more I wonder how much is out there for me.
In my life, what I do for exercise is equivalent to what I do for reading. I see both as exploration and adventure, as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. Both are endlessly fascinating and irresistibly attractive to me. The alternative to both I see as “sitting in front of a television for five hours a day,” which is something I did throughout childhood and now find impossibly boring.
I took everyone’s advice and quit posting my workouts. I write about them, sure, and if someone wants to touch base with me and find out what I’m doing these days, Wednesdays are the day for that. Otherwise, some of my most interesting conversations are happening in person, live, in my gym. For those of you who are likewise confounded by constant social pushback, don’t let it get to you. Just move the conversation to a place where it’s appreciated and leave everyone else to go about their business.
Probably I’d be more productive if I ever quit experimenting with productivity techniques and just settled on a system. It’s fun for me, though, and often I learn something useful that seemed counterintuitive at first. An idea I’ve been playing with is the concept of Calendar Zero.
‘Calendar Zero’ means you schedule every hour of your day in advance, including fun and relaxation.
This was revolutionary for me. I tend to procrastinate more on relaxing than on anything else. It goes along with my tendency to buy some kind of trinket for myself, never open it, and then either give it to a friend or donate it to charity without ever using it. I also often keep desserts until they get stale or freezer-burned. Maybe I should put ‘enjoyment’ on my to-do list.
Here’s how I began my experiment. I made a list of ‘Ten for Ten’ projects, with hour-long time slots running across a long workday. I like things like read-a-thons, and games like this feel exciting. I figured I would probably wind up veering off my schedule at some point, due to an interruption or miscalculation of how long it would take to do something. Also, I was still recovering from a cold, which gave me a free pass on running out of energy.
On my list:
Take out trash and recycling
Work on blog
Talk to hubby (out of town on business trip)
Balance bank statement
Much to my surprise, I did everything on my list except for making the soup. (Hubby called at a different time slot than I expected and I wound up eating something else). I also found myself spending extra time on my financial chores, which are very boring in my world, and did a few other random electronic administrative tasks.
Something else relevant about this Calendar Zero experiment is that I found myself indulging in something I almost never do. I sat on the couch and binged three episodes of a true crime show that I had been wanting to watch for about six months. This is why I did more admin stuff than I’d planned, even at the end of a busy, low-energy day. I got into a groove, and it gave me an excuse to pair the work with something I consider frivolous.
My list started with my absolute most-hated chores, but also included a few hour-long fun breaks, some stuff I don’t mind doing, and some things I’d been procrastinating. It worked so well, at least from the variety, that I immediately made a different list for the next day.
What I normally do is to schedule my days by time blocks. Laundry on Monday and Thursday, like that. It works for exercise and regular chores, but I didn’t have a formal routine for the sort of odd, anytime projects that might linger unfinished for weeks or months. I didn’t even have a formal routine for kicking back and relaxing, which of course is much worse.
What’s different about this method of leaving no time unaccounted-for is that it forces you to make room for the fun. You have to write in when you’re going to bathe, eat meals, talk to your friends, and walk your dog. It gives a sense of having plenty of time. For instance, knowing you have a full hour to shower, get dressed, style your hair, and get your bag ready completely eliminates the feeling of being rushed. It even gives the sense that maybe you have a little extra time to do something extra, like spending ten minutes on a crossword puzzle, playing with a hula hoop, finishing a full episode of a podcast, or learning a new way to wrap a scarf.
The other thing about scheduling every single hour of the day is that often, the scut work takes less time than you had allowed. You’ve folded and put away all your laundry, and you still have time left to mess around! If you’ve already done everything you needed to do, then you know you’re free to fully make use of the remaining time doing a headstand or whatever you want.
In the week that I’ve been playing with Calendar Zero, I’ve done all my ordinary work and chores, sure. I’ve gone to my usual meetings. I’ve also fit in an extra conference call, done two weeks of newsletters, blasted through my email and news queue, gone shopping, and rearranged my closet.
Probably the main feature of Calendar Zero, the thing that works, is that it crowds out the junk hours. You know, the time you spend unintentionally scrolling (scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, keep those junk hours rolling) whether it’s through social media, online shopping, or entertainment options. For instance, I can easily spend half an hour or more trying to choose my next audiobook, when I could have read an entire chapter or a magazine article on paper by then. There’s certainly plenty of time in the day to be idle like this, with the difference being that we ANTICIPATE IT pleasurably and CHOOSE to indulge in it purposely.
Now, when I know I want to scroll around idly downloading podcast episodes, or ordering something off a website, I can choose to do it while I eat lunch and take my own sweet time on it.
The novelty hasn’t worn off my Calendar Zero game. That’s great, because I still have a few odd tasks on my list to knock off. I’m going to keep using this system and see how much more playtime it builds into my day.
One percent? One percent of what? How can one percent possibly make a difference?
What we’re talking about is the simplest way to start getting a handle on your finances when you feel like everything is impossible. Hopeless! It’s hopeless!
It’s not hopeless.
The way I started running in my thirties was that I visualized adding one sidewalk square per day. I was sure that no matter how tired I felt, I could always make myself trudge along another couple of feet. One sidewalk square was a measurement I could visualize and understand. It worked; I never realized on that first day that I’d wind up running a marathon four years later. In fact, if I’d thought of that kind of distance, I would have quit before I began, because it just sounded like too much.
That’s why we’re starting with one percent, because it’s small. That’s one penny out of a dollar. A dime out of ten dollars.
Little by little, though, it adds up. Also, it teaches us to think of large amounts in small, manageable chunks.
When my husband and I first met, we bonded over our finances. I was fresh out of college, and my student loans literally got bigger every time I made a payment. He had only been divorced for a year, and he wasn’t very far into the alimony and child support process. We were both broke. We also both enjoyed talking about the intricacies of finance.
That’s why it surprised me so much when he shared that he wasn’t contributing to his retirement.
“WHAAAAAAT?!?” I squawked.
He vented a bit about the alimony, child support, basically paying for two households.
I wasn’t about to hear it. I reminded him that I earned barely over a quarter what he did, but I was maxing out my retirement contributions. After paying my rent, student loan, and car payment, I barely had enough left for groceries. “You can’t even save one percent? I don’t buy it.”
He retorted that I had “small money problems” while he had “big money problems.”
Later, he confessed that he’d thought about what I said, and he went into HR and filled out the forms to start saving toward his retirement again.
I feel pretty smart about this now, considering that we eventually got married! We weren’t even dating at that time, but the tens of thousands of extra dollars he saved because of my rude lecture are now growing nicely. That conversation is also part of why we got married. Frugality that comes naturally to me is highly attractive to my spouse as well.
At that time in my life, I picked up coins in the street (still do) and I would deposit them into my checking account along with my paycheck every week. Maybe thirteen cents here and forty cents there. This paid off several months later, when I got hired permanently and had to wait three weeks between checks. I overdrew my account by eleven cents, and because of my habit of going into the bank in person every week, I talked my favorite teller into waiving a $22 overdraft fee. If that overdraft were a few dollars more, maybe that negotiation wouldn’t have gone in my favor. Too bad I didn’t find an extra quarter one day.
I kept a spreadsheet in those days. It was the only thing that helped me feel like I had any control over my situation. I would have roughly thirty dollars left at the end of the MONTH. I was using credit cards just to buy food, and just as I’d pay off the balance on one card, I’d run it up on the other. The best I felt that I could do was to get the total balance a few dollars lower every month. I set my sights on getting hired permanently from my temp assignment, on promotions and raises.
In the meantime, I made a little here and there. I sold a few things on eBay, my roommate and I had a yard sale, I joined her when she got a table at the flea market. I cleaned houses and babysat just like I always had. I beat down those credit cards little by little.
I didn’t buy things. When I say that I didn’t buy things, I mean that I didn’t buy things! I wore the same outfits over and over and over again. I had two casual sweaters to wear on winter weekends. They drove me crazy, and I felt like burning them in the parking lot by the time I could finally afford to replace them. I went to the public library and brought home books and DVDs. Sometimes I just went to bed early. I worked overtime, sometimes clocking in early and staying late on the same day because it was that kind of job.
The thing about starting with one percent is that it forces you to get out a calculator if you want to do it right. You have to start getting more specific about real quantities and real dollar amounts. It’s just a way of being honest with yourself and the world. It’s a way of making sure you don’t make any commitments you can’t keep. It’s a way of protecting Future You from having a worse situation than you do today. At least when you’re treading water, you’re not going under.
Starting with one percent means you’ve made a decision. It means you’re going to get more serious about your finances. It means you’re going to pay attention to your income and your expenses. It means you’re willing to adjust how you spend your time and energy to free up more cash flow toward your savings and debt repayment. It means you’re not allowing any more blind spots in your behavior.
Starting with one percent is a start. Maybe it’s only one penny out of every dollar. That’s okay. It’s also one dollar out of every hundred! When you’re used to it, you can stretch a little and make that one percent into two percent. That sense of manageable amounts is what you can use to go as far as you like.
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.