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?
I failed the first time I tried to read this book. I had this idea that it would be soothing and deep and that I’d listen to it on audio before I went to sleep at night. Whoops. Dan Harris is so funny that I kept shaking with laughter. That’s neither meditative nor conducive to one’s spouse getting any sleep. It was too late, though, to switch to a text copy, because I was hooked on Harris’s delivery as much as his wisecracks and insights. I just had to settle for having him entertain me throughout the day. Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics is also approved for Restless Comedy Fans.
Harris does a pretty convincing job of casting himself as the last person to ever consider meditating. He is open about his personal foibles, including heavy drug use and workaholism. This makes it easy to hear him out about the benefits of mindfulness practice. If it worked for someone like him, then surely...?
Meditation is one of those things on the Obvious list, unfortunately; it’s right up there with “eat healthy” and “get plenty of sleep,” which means a lot of us automatically will want to rule it out. I find that when I try to sit silently, it opens the floodgates of creativity, and the result is that I wind up speed-writing a very lengthy list of ideas and tasks. Something I liked about Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics is that it offers various practices, not all of which are of the classic “sit still and empty your mind” variety.
Incidentally, there are a few things that can really help those of us who feel simultaneously drawn toward and repelled by meditation. (My draw is that I have a high resting heart rate, and I’m on a Fact-Finding Mission to do something about it). If you’re as fidgety as me - ADHD leaning, hyperkinetic and born restless - start with a vigorous and very strenuous exercise practice first. Dump all those excess yayas. Watch your caffeine consumption. Capture your mental lint first; I recommend GTD as a practice. Then experiment with time of day and just do little five-minute increments. Or one minute. My mantra here is “okay,” as in, “okay, let me think for a minute.”
Harris arranges Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics into a list of objections to meditation as a practice, and responses to those objections, both from himself and others. One such chapter is “Meditation is Self-Indulgent.” I’d like to focus on this because I think so many people (ahem, or I really mean to say WOMEN) feel this way about everything. Meditation is self-indulgent, and so is getting enough sleep, working out, eating a hot breakfast, peeing alone with the door closed... It’s a really weird idea that every single other person of the seven billion has to come first before a lady can spend so much as five minutes simply breathing. How can you possibly give anyone your best when you’re stretched so thin?
There is a real Dan Harris presence out there for those who can’t get enough. He has two books, a podcast, and even a meditation app. Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics is certainly a great place to start.
I’m a shy person, so much so that even standing up to say my name would leave me trembling and turning purple. Shyness has interfered with my friendships, my career, and my love life. A cute boy once asked me to dance, and I was so confounded by my attraction to him that I couldn’t answer. He shrugged and walked off. I’ve struggled even to share such information as whether someone had left their lights on in the parking lot. People who know me well will probably be very surprised by all this, because I’m fine when I’m with familiar faces. Shyness strikes at inconvenient and illogical moments. I didn’t want my shyness to interfere with my ability to make an impact on the world, so I’m pushing myself to learn to overcome these feelings. Maybe my efforts can help you, too.
First off, being shy is totally different from being an introvert. I’m a shy extrovert. It’s possible to be a shy introvert or an introvert who is not shy. Lots of introverts are very famous celebrities such as singers, actors, models, and comedians. They have no problem performing, as long as they get plenty of time to recharge alone. It seems helpful to distinguish shyness from introversion or extraversion, because while introversion is a character trait, shyness is an issue that can be mastered.
Two things have been helpful for me in getting a handle on my shyness. First, it takes a mission, a vision that is compelling enough to make fighting these feelings worthwhile. Second, much of shyness is physiological - it’s a physical state as much as anything.
How do you develop a mission? Many or most people have at least one cause that resonates with them, whether it’s feral cats, literacy, or protecting the Earth from asteroids. The sense of a mission starts to kick in when you start to realize that you can personally make an impact. More, you can influence others and bring them along with you. You don’t necessarily have to appear in public, perform, or give speeches to make this happen. Leading and organizing is based very much on Getting Organized.
I joined Toastmasters in January 2016 to force myself to overcome my intense dread of public speaking. It worked! The process is the same as what I’m learning in martial arts: stress inoculation. Exposing yourself to stress, fear, or pain in small doses can build your resistance and resilience, just like practicing a musical instrument or a foreign language in small increments increases your skill. Learning to give one-minute speeches led to four-minute speeches, then ten minutes, until I can now give hour-long workshops or speak on a microphone without those familiarly awful feelings of trembling, getting choked up, and turning colors.
Now I’m working on a leadership level called an Advanced Leader Silver. This entails an official role as Area Director, meaning I’m in charge of improving performance in five clubs in my area. I have to go to regular district meetings, respond to a certain volume of email, visit my clubs, and track a lot of information. Almost all of the work involved means processing email at home, listening, taking notes, and writing reports. For a shy person, 80% of the tasks are not a big deal. It’s the 20% that involves meeting new people, standing up to speak to them, and overcoming the ‘threshold anxiety’ of walking through a door and joining a group of people. The formalities of a training seminar or club meeting agenda are very helpful in facing this, because there’s a highly predictable structure, and almost all of it involves other people talking.
How is leadership different from anything else? Many people are acting in a leadership role somewhere in their lives, often without realizing it. The parent of a child plays ‘leader’ every day. Driving a car, ordering food, shopping and running errands - all require a certain amount of initiative and organization. Being the leader means taking an aerial view of a situation and spotting opportunities, bottlenecks, and pain points. A leader has a strategy. Here, again, many people have an innate critical mindset that they don’t realize could be useful in a leadership role. This shows up in lengthy product or restaurant reviews, for instance, or in any comments section. Someone always has a bunch of ideas for better ways to copy-edit something, introduce design improvements, or relate to other people or groups in a different way. Why not redirect that energy toward a group or organization that will actually be receptive to that input?
My approach toward leadership is strategic. My first instinct is to move toward the information flow. I want to figure out what the rules are, where I can learn more (handbooks, manuals, FAQs, websites, etc), who is where on the org chart, where I can find contact info, and how I can get to the locations where the action is happening. Other people will move directly toward the people, wanting to start by getting to know everyone, establishing connections, and forming an inner dossier of who knows whom and who does what. I’m most helpful in explaining things when people are confused, doing scut work, and encouraging people to do things when the only thing stopping them is nervousness. My way of earning loyalty is by demonstrating that I will show up, do what I was asked to do, follow through, get questions answered, and stick around to clean up after events. These are ways to get involved without being fried under the spotlight or having to pose for dozens of photographs.
The things we learn to do when we push ourselves are useful in every part of life. What I’m learning as I work on public speaking, leadership, and martial arts is that very few situations are inherently scary. It’s mostly a matter of building emotional intelligence and learning what makes other people tick. Feeling nervous and shy while meeting new people is a near-universal feeling, one that’s so common that you can count on sympathy when you express it. Find whatever means more to you than your physiological struggles with shyness, and you can defeat those feelings while making the world a better place.
Life is an endless tidal wave of BS. Accepting that is a great starting place. It certainly makes Stoic philosophy feel more relevant. There’s this other point, about the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, which I explain thus:
Sometimes, pain (trauma, drama, difficulty, suffering) comes in the form of natural disasters or external events of vast scale. We cope as well as we can. Usually, though, difficulty comes from within, from our expectations and assumptions. We cause ourselves significant grief by setting up a lot of demands and rules that other people and the world in general never seem to quite meet. This is part of how we convince ourselves to believe in difficulty.
It’s difficult when we want people to behave in a certain way, and they won’t.
It’s difficult when we expect certain actions to lead to certain results, and they don’t.
It’s difficult when we expect change to come on its own, in a form we find acceptable, and it doesn’t.
It’s difficult when we insist on getting the results without the effort, and we can’t.
What if, instead, we believed in ease? What if we believed that really, things are simple and straightforward?
Nobody is quite as good at overcomplicating and overthinking things as I am. See? I’ve claimed this extravagant level of difficulty for myself. I buy into it as a part of my identity. I’m proud of it in a way. Look at me! I’m an insomniac! I’m a stress case! I’m tightly wound! I have a thin skin, too! I pledge allegiance to my difficulties.
I got curious about all of this, and started wondering what would happen if I just tried to Do the Obvious instead. Whenever I wanted to try something new, I would first ask, what is the most obvious advice that anyone would give to a beginner? What’s the checklist? What are the obvious first steps? Is there a FAQ? Is there a manual?
It got even better when I started asking whether there were basic checklists for things I was already doing. What if I just looked at my daily life and tried making it as easy as possible?
That question led to the systematic application of minimalism to every part of my life. More love, less of whatever else this is. Wherever I can get rid of stress or self-imposed obstacles, that’s a place where I can let more love in and breathe more love out.
In a way, belief in difficulty is a belief in fate, in evil, and in hopelessness. Let’s throw our hands in the air and collectively sigh OH WELL. Nothing could be done. Well, that sucked.
I claim that with free will and determination, we can do anything. We can’t always stop every bad thing from happening, like a hurricane, but then not every natural disaster is “bad.” Is it bad when there’s a giant storm on the planet Jupiter? Is it bad when there’s a hurricane in the middle of the sea if it never reaches land? If we define something as “bad” only when it causes human suffering, then can’t we do more to eliminate the human suffering that we can affect today?
Starting with our own?
The thing about belief in difficulty is that it restricts us. When we feel caught up in stress and drama of the ordinary sort, we feel too burned out and powerless to do anything to change our own situation, much less anyone else’s. We can easily slip into a position where we’re making our problems INTO someone else’s. Our desire to vent and complain becomes someone else’s headache. Our refusal to address our own problems until they reach breaking point can become an urgent crisis for someone else. When we feel that we have no free will, then we feel like our actions don’t matter. As if that were possible. As if it were possible to even exist without making an impact on the world!
As an example, I had a bad breakup once, many years ago. Looking back, the immediate cause was that I got sucked into a lot of negativity and drama on an internet listserv. This was long before we had a pop culture understanding of trolling or flame wars. I didn’t have the perspective to see that the hours I spent reading and responding to these threads was a complete waste of time that did nothing to serve me or anyone else. My boyfriend was the one person I thought I could talk to, the one place where I went to process all this junk. He tried. He asked me why I was talking to these people and made a few suggestions, which I took to mean that he didn’t understand and wasn’t being a good listener. I bought into a reality in which an email list was more important than my romantic partner’s companionship. In retrospect, I never would have spent five minutes on this activity. Think of all the good books I could have read instead.
Life is easier for middle-aged people in so many ways. I’d never want to be that young again, or at least not without all my hard-won experience.
I no longer believe in the difficulty of feeding trolls. I no longer believe in the difficulty of reading the comments or engaging with naysayers.
I no longer believe in the difficulty of the chronic pain and fatigue that I suffered as a young person. This might sound cruel or flippant to someone who is currently living that reality. I only mention it because every source I consulted when I was ill affirmed that I always would be, and there was nothing I could ever do about it. This is patently false. I got better, and probably other people could, too.
I no longer believe in the difficulty of poverty, and again, see above. It wasn’t instant, but I eventually learned how to earn more and get a job with benefits. There is plenty for everyone in this world, and it’s only our belief in scarcity that restricts that natural abundance. We feel threatened by the very idea of having to share, and that’s the first sign.
I no longer believe in the difficulty of poor body image. That comes from strong self-efficacy. I have it within me to learn how to do anything, to eventually reach any goal I set for myself, to hold myself accountable, and to go after what I want. I’m allowed to build muscle, get sweaty and muddy, explore the world, expand my abilities, and look however I want. If someone else has a problem with that, why should I care? My body isn’t about you.
There are difficulties that still captivate my attention. As I recognize them, I work on them. I simply question myself, Is that really true? Do I want it to be?
Wherever I have a difficulty, it’s certainly a smaller, less significant one than someone else’s. If it’s difficulty that bothers me, then logically I should care about the worst difficulties, not just those that affect me. Injustice where it’s worst, not injustice that I feel personally. Crisis where it’s worst, not just mine.
There’s a guy sitting two tables from me who is wearing glasses with broken frames. One arm is completely missing and they’re sitting catty-whampus across his nose. He’s tilting his head to the side so they don’t fall off. This is a guy who believes in difficulty! Surely there are several charities that could help him, or maybe someone would be willing to fix his glasses for free if he asked nicely. Maybe he could buy another pair at Goodwill and scavenge an arm, or fit his existing lenses in different frames. Maybe he could find a twig or a piece of cardboard and tape it into place. A thousand things would be easier than what he’s doing right now. He’s playing with his smartphone, so I somehow wonder whether money is the problem?
Looking for a demonstration of a principle, evidence is usually close to hand. I feel lucky that I happened to be writing about this topic as this guy with the one-armed glasses sits nearby. Well, that was easy! I turn my attention to areas of life where everything is effortless and easy. I always have the opportunity to focus on my breathing. I always have the opportunity to appreciate my loved ones. I always have the opportunity to let go of my past hurts. I always have the opportunity to look to my own behavior, change my own perspective, and improve my own attitude.
The problem with this whole idea of Getting Organized is that it feels like work. It’s all about duties, responsibilities, aversive tasks, and backlogs. What fun is that? For chronically disorganized people, it’s hard to imagine how nice it will feel to have more mental bandwidth, to be able to relax while knowing there’s nothing else we “should” be doing. It all just feels like a giant boring chore. This is why I think we should link chores to fun stuff. Every day, let it be something fun and something done.
How does this work?
Let’s start with folding laundry. This is my most personally loathed chore. I often use a stopwatch to gamify my housework and fit it in between other things, and that’s how I learned that it takes about twelve minutes to fold and put away one load of laundry. That’s almost as long as it takes to clean my entire bathroom! I use that time to listen to podcasts. Sometimes I also find new combinations of outfits through the serendipity of everything being swirled together in the basket.
Email is another chore that really gets on my nerves. Every single day, I find that I have to unsubscribe from several unwanted, unasked-for lists and process a bunch of junk mail. There also tends to be stuff that deserves a considered reply, and the moment it appears is usually not the moment to write back. I deal with this by subscribing to several newsletters that I really enjoy! Every day there’s something I really look forward to reading, so that my email is about half fun stuff. I tend to go through it at breakfast and lunch, and I can bang out replies to important stuff while riding that swell of enjoyment.
Errands are outings. Any time I “have” to go somewhere, I make sure to do at least one fun thing on the same trip. That’s because we got rid of our car and it saves a lot of time to combine things in the same area. For instance, I often stop by the library on the way to or from the grocery store. Not my jam, but I notice a lot of people out there still playing Pokémon Go, and you can hatch a lot of eggs by walking around town. Riding a bicycle also has its way of making any trip feel like fun.
Kitchen cleanup is something I do while fixing meals. Most kitchen chores can be done in one or two minutes, if they’re done regularly. I might scrub the sink or wipe down the fridge door while waiting for the microwave. We were just given a countertop dishwasher, and I unload it while I’ve got stuff cooking on the stove. The anticipation of hot food on the way helps make these quick tasks feel like part of the game.
Cooking is something I’ve learned to enjoy, although I used to hate it. Knowing how to cook means you can make your favorite foods, exactly the way you like them, any time you want. Why wouldn’t anyone want to be able to do that? I think the major reasons why people don’t enjoy cooking are when they’re expected to do it by ingrates, and when the kitchen is so cluttered and gross that it has to be cleaned both before and after making a meal. 1. Don’t cook for ingrates; make them do it. 2. Get rid of half your kitchen stuff and just eat the backup food from the pantry until it’s used up. Or donate it to the food bank. Cooking can feel exciting if you let it.
Sometimes something pops up that isn’t fun at all, but can’t be avoided, like surprise tax correspondence or an unpleasant doctor visit. I try to have that be the only chore-like thing I do that day, my one-and-done. The last time one of these doctor visits came up, we went across the street to the park and watched ducks swimming in the pond for a while, then went out to lunch.
One of my all-time worst, most procrastinated tasks is making business calls. I just kinda have to force myself to do it. If I’m going to have to wait on hold for a while, I use that time to look at cute animal photos or read an article. If I’m calling for information about something, I’ll use that same block to check movie times, reserve a library book, or download an app or a podcast episode.
In the background of almost all my chores and dreaded tasks, I’ve got a podcast or audio book playing in my ears. Sure, sometimes I get stuck doing something really gross, like cleaning gum out of the treads of my shoes or dragging soapy hair out of the shower drain. I also have a parrot, and I’d rather not talk about what it’s like to regularly clean a bird cage. (She’s worth it, but). It’s not like pairing something fun with something unfun really takes away the inherent ick factor. It just helps to make it more bearable.
We’re talking about two things right now. One is the strategy of anchoring. Socks and shoes, peanut butter and jelly, burgers and fries, chores and games. Doing one thing helps you remember to do the other thing you’ve anchored to it, like flossing before you brush your teeth, or putting the heartworm pills next to the dog food. Anchoring chores to a favorite music playlist or errands to a favorite shop can help make the boring stuff more upbeat.
The other thing is that life can and should be more fun. Add more celebration, gratitude, and delight wherever you can. Why ever not? Life is 80% maintenance. Without the routine errands and chores and hygiene and repair and maintenance, we’d soon find that we couldn’t really even do the 20% of things that are more fun and meaningful. Let’s do whatever we can to keep things running smoothly. Something fun, something done.
Is there really such a thing as a “midlife crisis”? Jonathan Rauch explores this cultural concept in The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. Encore adulthood is a better name for this stage of life. Understanding that the midlife happiness slump is nearly universal and that it eventually gets better is a vision that we need for the reality of vastly increased longevity.
I’m forty-three, and my husband just turned fifty, so this is a timely perspective for us. Something really seemed to change for him around his milestone birthday. He fell in love with his career in a way I don’t think he ever had before. He seems lit up. His forties were more like I’m experiencing mine so far. Preoccupation with financial security, realization that the body is changing, wondering whether one’s life’s work will make an impact of any kind, and of course, constant depressing news that one’s friends and contemporaries are ill or dying. Add to that the bittersweet position of watching one’s child grow into adulthood and independence, leaving an empty chair at the table. These are the kinds of reasons why it can be hard to find gratitude and satisfaction, even when objectively life is pretty great.
It helps to know that people on average report feeling happier at seventy than they do at thirty, and happier at eighty-five than they do at twenty.
What provides life satisfaction, according to research? Social support, generosity, trust, freedom, income per capita, and healthy life expectancy account for three-fourths of reported wellbeing. Almost none of that has to do with material comfort or career success.
The Happiness Curve is absorbing, backed by research, and full of insights that would be valuable to readers of any age over maybe, say, twenty-five. I feel lucky that it was published in time for me to read it in my early forties.
We are in the process of adding perhaps two decades to the most satisfying and pro-social period of life.
I did not have a mood disorder. I had a contentment disorder.
“Happiness and mental health rise in an approximately dose-response way with the number of daily portions of fruit and vegetables”—all the way up to seven daily portions, which is about as much fruit and vegetable matter as anyone can ingest.
I call it “the gauntlet.” Every time I set out to do something athletic, there’s a voice inside me that pipes up, insistently telling me to quit. It’s gotten smarter over the years. This voice that says QUIT has tried science, philosophy, common sense, attention to minor physical twinges, and every manner of rhetorical technique to get me to turn around, go home, and get back in bed. The voice that says QUIT lasts at least ten minutes, sometimes closer to twenty.
Beating this voice is a good enough reason to keep going, all by itself, because I can count on this voice to try to ruin every interesting thing I ever set out to do.
The voice that says QUIT was after me when I started running, when I only set out to do a half-mile because that was all I had. The same voice was still coming for me the day I ran my first marathon.
The voice that says QUIT was after me on our first serious backpacking trip. This voice asked for a helicopter evacuation. Fortunately my frugality voice was also in attendance, and this voice carries a strong veto.
The voice that says QUIT seems to have a speaker installed in my martial arts bag. I hear from it on my way to class all the time. Oh, no, not today. You can skip class today, it’s okay. Nobody wants you there anyway.
These are the sorts of things the voice says when it wants me to quit:
You’ll hurt yourself
You didn’t hydrate enough
You deserve a rest day
You should eat another snack and try again in an hour
It doesn’t matter
You’ve done so much already, treat yourself!
Eh, you’ll be better next year, so today is just a drop in the bucket
Isn’t that a pain in your knee?
You’re going to get a headache
You’re just going to have to pee in a few minutes, might as well wait
What are you thinking? You’re too old for this anyway.
The voice that says QUIT was definitely up to its old tricks in the mat room during my Muay Thai belt promotion. We were only about 45 minutes in to what promised to be 3-4 hours of physical and psychological stress. I had a gauntlet moment. Imagine this:
It’s a hot, humid afternoon in mid-July. There are fifty people crammed into a room that’s about 20 by 30 feet. You’ve just spent half an hour doing 150 pushups, 50 squats, and a bunch of mountain climbers. There is grit, floor dirt, and anonymous hair stuck to your skin. Now you’re trying to execute a series of roundhouse kicks while your feet are slipping in a pool of someone else’s sweat that is nearly two feet across. Other people keep accidentally kicking and stepping on you.
An instructor comes over and corrects your form in such a way that you wonder, what on earth have I been doing for the last six months that nobody ever noticed this before?
You’re supposed to throw fifty punches, but because the instructor came over, you’ve started late. Every single other person in the room is already done. They start clapping and calling your name in what is meant to be encouragement - you’ve done it yourself for others - but which comes across as burning humiliation. I’m not slow! I’m not!
This is when the voice pipes up. Hey, it says. I noticed you aren’t enjoying yourself right now. Remember how you’ve only trained about one week out of the past month? Your stomach is bothering you, I can tell. You, you’re really just not up to this. Aww, poor dear. Why don’t you just tap out? You could just pack it in and try again in two months. Let them keep the $50. It’s not a big deal. Think how much easier it would be if you just quit now and train more for a few weeks? Don’t embarrass yourself. It’s fine. You can
I pulled myself together. Everything the voice says when it wants me to QUIT is technically true. Every time. It’s simply the voice of anxiety and it keeps careful records. It sometimes gets reinforcement from external sources, other people who heed that voice and who have the uncanny ability to echo its message.
Sometimes I appease the voice. I tell it that if I still feel this way an hour from now, maybe I’ll quit then.
It’s funny how this voice that says QUIT has never spoken up when I felt trapped in a dead-end job. This voice has never once told me to QUIT eating junk food. It’s never told me to QUIT when I was dating someone who mistreated me or broke my heart. It doesn’t tell me to QUIT when I’m staying up too late or procrastinating. On the contrary. It seems like I have a very persuasive inner signal to KEEP GOING whenever it’s something bad for me or something that will lead to even near-term problems.
I ignored the voice. I kept going. Moments later, it was time to trade places, and all I had to do was hold the pads for my partner. Then I had a long break while the people doing higher belt levels sparred with the instructors. Then my husband showed up - I told him to go ahead and skip the boring first half. That stupid voice that stupidly says to QUIT could have cost me this opportunity, all because of a few stressful minutes out of three hours.
I got that orange belt. It’s not about the belt, not really. The belt is just the key to advanced classes. Doing this ceremonial workout enabled me to get my schedule back on track, after a month where I was only eligible for classes on two specific weekdays. Quitting would have led to some serious annoyances and extended that weird month to three. I would have missed two months’ worth of opportunities to train in the advanced classes, hindering my physical conditioning and certainly not making it any easier “next time.”
The voice that says QUIT is persistent and persuasive. It says stuff like, “NOPE, nope nope nope. This isn’t for me. This just isn’t how I roll. I don’t need this. Screw this. I’m outta here. No, really, I mean it this time.” The way I ignore it is by reminding myself that I’ve made an informed, conscious choice based on my personal values. I’ve set goals along a timeline, and I’ve planned ahead to make sure I’ll be prepared. In most cases, I’ve already survived near-identical physical tests, and I can trust that I truly am ready. Since the voice that says QUIT never quits, I never do either.
They say there’s nothing free in this world, especially not a free lunch, but that’s not true. There are at least two things you can always get for free: other people’s opinions, and criticism. Often they feel like the same thing. People do tend to have positive opinions about things, like their favorite movie quotes, sandwich fillings, or Hollywood actors. They just don’t tend to share their positive feelings when they’re handing out free critiques. The question for anyone who has an interest in self-improvement or practical ethics is: When do you listen to advice, and when do you ignore it? What is your personal responsibility toward feedback from other people?
There is a lot of latitude in this question. For instance, we were at a Starbucks recently when an employee asked another customer to take her dog outside. It wasn’t a service animal and it was barking and making a fuss. The woman asked the employee whether she would make someone take their baby outside, because “this dog is literally my baby.” Um, you threw a litter? Am I getting that right? Regardless, this dog lover appears to be comfortable ignoring other people’s opinions about her training skills. Say we rate her at a 10/10 on the DNGAF scale.
(That’s “Does Not Give a Fig” for all you fruit fans)
How much responsibility we have for the behavior of our pets, children, friends, robots, etc is an area that we haven’t really worked out on a cultural level, so there will continue to be friction and room for interpretation there. The reason we feel free to push back about other people’s behavior is that there aren’t any hard rules for most things, whether it’s cell phone use, children kicking the back of someone’s seat, or carrying small dogs in your purse. It’s something to keep in mind - the feedback we don’t like to receive feels the same way to the person to whom we are trying to dish it out. And vice versa. When they serve us, they’re using the same scoop that was served to them by someone else.
Okay, back to the discussion. Which opinions do we hear out and which do we ignore?
Lectures from strangers?
Professional feedback, i.e. “telling me how to do my job”?
I try to pay heed to mainstream public opinion when I’m out and about, because I want to avoid confrontation with strangers as much as possible. I don’t tie my dog up outside the store because I know he barks about once every fifteen seconds the entire time I’m out of sight. I don’t kick people’s seats or drop litter and I always wipe down my table when I’m done. Of course this doesn’t make me immune to obnoxious strangers; a woman nearly hit me with the stall door in a public restroom and then cussed me out. It happens. I just make it a policy to avoid being someone else’s pet peeve as much as I know how. Less hassle that way.
I might take advice about my marriage, if it’s from someone who has been married longer than I have. I would ignore the opinion of a single person, someone who had been divorced more times than I have, or a married person who has marital quarrels in public and insults their spouse on social media. Otherwise, my love life is only relevant to my husband. I listen to his opinion because his opinion on our marriage matters at least as much as mine.
I might take financial advice, if it’s from someone whose net worth is higher than ours and/or someone who has a higher income. That would only be true if we share other values in common as well. I would ignore the financial advice of anyone who has no credentials, earns less, has spending habits that are not relevant to my interests (like gambling), or carries a debt burden.
I don’t have to take people’s advice on driving because we got rid of our car. I decided that having a “personal driver” was the first thing I would do if I ever got really rich, and that ride-sharing qualifies! Otherwise, well, I’ve never had a traffic ticket, so come at me.
I also don’t have to take people’s parenting advice because I can’t have children. Nevertheless, I’ve been cornered and lectured on how it’s my duty (not kidding) to have children, that I could still adopt, et cetera. Look, it’s none of anybody’s business who decides to have kids, or when, or why, or how, or with whom. I have a free opinion for you, and that’s to never make suggestions to other people about having kids. It might touch off some extremely painful emotions. Find something better to talk about.
I would probably take someone’s landscaping advice, if we owned a house. The neighbors would spend more time looking at our yard than we would, and they’ve probably lived there longer. To me that would be a very trivial way to earn major brownie points in the neighborhood. If they want me to take out a hedge, *shrug*, it’s out of here.
Fitness advice is one of those fountains that always flow. The fitter I’ve gotten, the more carefully I’ve listened when athletes are talking, and the funnier I think it is when anyone else is. I’ve been lectured about my diet and exercise habits from people who walk with a cane (more than once), people with heart problems, people with sleep apnea, people who are at least a hundred pounds overweight, and more and more. “Let’s go,” is what I say. If you can outrun me, I’ll hold still and you can tell me whatever you want. Let’s compare lab work, see who can run up a flight of stairs faster, who can do the most push-ups, who has the fewest prescription medications. On the other hand, I practically grow an extra ear when very fit people are willing to drop a few pro tips, especially when they’re past forty like I am. Please, by all means, tell me more!
About professional feedback, it depends. I once had a difference of opinion with my manager about my annual performance review. I had been commended by another manager for designing training materials that saved her team twenty man-hours, and my own manager rated me a Needs Improvement for the same project. Normally I’d say to do anything to make your boss look good and make your boss’s life easier. In this case, I immediately updated my resume, started applying for other jobs, and wound up promoting into a 30% raise. Bye-eeee.
Most people are average, by definition. We deflect our feelings about our own lives by critiquing others, even when we have no real expertise in the area. It helps us to feel smarter and more in control. We convince ourselves that we’re helping, even though we hate being on the receiving end of the identical behavior. We feel shamed and singled out when it happens to us, but we never realize that we can make other people feel shamed and singled out, too, unless of course we think they deserve it.
Overall, it helps to remember the difference between critique and criticism. It’s our job to receive critique graciously, if it comes from someone whose job description includes formally evaluating us. Criticism comes uninvited, from someone who has no official managerial, editorial, or coaching role over us, in a negative and demotivating way. We can still benefit from unsolicited criticism, even if it’s annoying, if we search out anything that would help us in our commitment to excellence. We’d do best not to ignore real critique, but we can, as long as we accept responsibility. Our results in life and work depend as much on the opinions we accept as the opinions we choose to ignore.
What better topic to read about, the week one turns forty-three, than the collected wisdom of people who are at least twice that old? I celebrated my birthday this year by reading Happiness is a Choice You Make, and I’m glad I did. I loved it, and I’ll probably read it again, although maybe ten years from now.
The book begins with a New York Times series that John Leland writes about people “85 and Up,” also known as the “oldest old.” He befriends these six elders, visits them at home, and meets their family and friends. It’s his way of reconciling his own mother’s aging. As he follows them through time, he learns their perspective, the way they deal with the unique problems and gifts of advanced years.
People in their nineties report greater well-being and fewer negative emotions than people in their twenties! This was one of the surprises of a delightful, moving, and provocative book. Leland’s affectionate gaze brings out some really excellent one-liners and wisecracks, yet also some moments of greater profundity.
Happiness is a Choice You Make, according to Leland and his elderly friends, and the book offers practical, philosophical advice about how to make that choice. Think about the type of old age you would want to have. If that includes strong relationships, build them now. If that includes living a life of purpose and meaning, start figuring out what that means to you now. It also wouldn’t hurt to think about what you can do now to give your older self more physical and financial strength to help you stay independent as long as possible. When Leland discusses finding a purpose in life, he says, “Kickboxing may not be a great choice,” but in fact I train with a man who is seventy-eight and can still get on the floor and do pushups. He punches like a freight train. Certainly I hope he’ll still be in class with us ten years from now.
I’ve always enjoyed the company of old folks, even when I was a little girl, and this is fortunate because soon I’ll join their ranks! What I’ve noticed is that most people seem to have no idea how much longevity has increased, and are therefore unprepared for the concept that they may well live fifteen or twenty years longer than they ever imagined. We often discuss the question, “What would you do if you had only one day (six months, whatever) left to live?” It’s a much more interesting question to wonder what we’ll do if we all live past one hundred. Better start contemplating that now. You’ve got plenty of time, so pick up Happiness is a Choice You Make and start reading.
“If you want to be happy, learn to think like an old person.”
“I know my time is limited, so the only thing I have to do is enjoy myself.”
“Work is happiness, to make you live longer.”
“...[g]enes account for only about one-quarter of our differences in longevity.”
“Did we really have to wait for word from our oncologist to live as fully as we were capable?”
This won’t be obvious in the future, so I probably shouldn’t even admit it, but I’m posting my blog hours late. For the first time in over two years, I completely forgot about scheduling a post! This is partly because of Vacation Brain, which is a known thing, but it’s also because my husband and I are in full-blown brainchild mode and working on a giant new project.
This is what happened.
We’re at World Domination Summit on Monday, our last day, and our suitcases are already packed to take to the airport. On Sunday, during the break between keynote speeches, there’s a lengthy break, during which anyone who wants to can propose a meetup on basically any topic. We had decided to do one together. This would be the first time we ever did a presentation or taught a class together. We put together an outline one morning at breakfast, worked out how much time each segment should take the next morning, and then divided which topics should belong to each of us. That was it.
The topic: Engineer Your Household.
This is something the two of us have developed organically over the course of our twelve-year relationship. His work as an aerospace engineer and my work as a writer, coach, and organizer merged with our mutual desire to not be, well, twice-divorced. We use the engineering process of relentless root cause analysis and corrective action to figure out points of friction in our relationship. That’s because it feels dumb to let housework and finances determine whether we are friends or not.
Don’t let laundry kill your love!
We arrived at our chosen location about 20 minutes early. That was long enough to work ourselves into a tizzy that nobody would come to our talk. We had so many concerns: that we’d interrupt and talk over each other, that our focus would wander and we’d let a bunch of non sequiturs fill up time, while forgetting our most important points. We’d wind up annoying each other while our audience gradually got up and trickled away.
Then, much to our surprise, almost everyone who showed up arrived in pairs! It had genuinely never occurred to us that married couples and romantic partners would attend together. We looked at each other with our mouths actually hanging open.
Our talk went so, so much better than we expected. We handed my iPad back and forth, going through our outline, while the other person would hold a phone with a stopwatch running. Not so polished or professional, but hey, we were standing in a park with zero staging, and it was also very us. That’s how we solve problems together, working as allies and teammates.
We were able to see that our new friends/audience were connecting with our message, laughing, glancing at each other, with a few nudges and pats of private meaning and connection.
We were also able to see that this core of our marriage - factory-level efficiency and scheduling - came across as genuinely original and surprising. Which I guess it is? This whole idea that we can create a system for dividing labor and negotiating authentically without driving each other up a tree. Acknowledging our frustrations and disappointments as commonplace! Just because laundry and weekday dishwashing are inherently annoying is NOT some kind of sign that you’re incompatible together. It’s a universal hassle that applies to single people, roommates, families with kids, polyamorous collectives, even colleagues in a coworking environment. Let’s treat it like a business matter and do it practically. Then we can actually be friends again and lounge around enjoying maximum leisure time.
At the end, people were asking if we had book recommendations, if we had a blog, if we had a podcast. I realized that this “do you have book recommendations” question comes up ALL THE TIME after I do a talk, and that each time, I pause and realize that, well, no. This is actually my own original material. In fact, it happened again during a meetup when I talked to a musician about mechanically inducing a creative trance state. Oh, wait, is that actually just a me thing?
I spend so much time working alone and talking to myself that I often don’t realize how very much I’m dwelling in an ivory tower of my own construction.
When we buy our tickets for WDS, we do it without scheduling or planning anything afterward. That’s because we know it’s a watershed in our year, that there’s a clear Before and After. We know we’ll learn something new, have a radical paradigm shift, or (AND/or) come up with a completely new approach to something. The stage was set and the structure was in place, waiting for the content, like a leaf waiting for a butterfly.
This year, the insight is that my husband and I should do a podcast together about marriage. Let me just say that that was NOT something that had ever occurred to us before. Look at your mate, if you have one, and ask each other if that would have popped up somehow over cornflakes... See what I mean?
At this point, our main decision is which day of the week we’ll use to record episodes. We already have quite a bit of content, a title, and a framework for how the different segments will line up. We have an idea of a series of guests (random private individuals) we’d like to have. We might spend a bit of time choosing some music (or pass on it) and getting a logo designed. There will be an accompanying website. Each of these pieces feels like a routine task, something that’s quite easy to accomplish.
It’s also felt straightforward and easy to say that I am closing the door on private coaching. I’ll go into it more at a later date, but basically, coaching doesn’t scale. If I spend even just an hour a week on one single client, that’s the hour a week I would have been using on THE ENTIRE PODCAST. The point is that the podcast could reach one or one hundred million listeners; it isn’t for us to guess, but it’s certainly going to be more people than I could coach individually. As soon as this clicked into place, I knew that the decision had been made and that I had no waffling or ambivalence around it. Finishing off one stage of life entirely, that’s what it is, in order to make room for something bigger and more interesting, something that will matter to more people.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.