The Self-Love Experiment is a story about Shannon Kaiser’s exploration of self-compassion. This is a very raw, immediate, real look at what it’s like to do deep inner work. It will speak to anyone who has body image issues or who struggles with self-loathing. Hence, nearly everybody.
Self-compassion is the antidote to shame. Unfortunately, the first level of defense that comes from toxic shame is to convince the ashamed that they are undeserving of compassion, or anything good in this world. It always boggles my mind when I work with clients who are so convinced that they are terrible people, even though everyone else around them sees them as kind, sensitive, caring friends. Trying to love yourself when you feel unlovable must feel like ripping off your own skin, like a nakedness beyond nakedness.
Shannon Kaiser talks openly about her issues with depression, eating disorders, drug addiction, and body dysmorphia. If she could learn to love herself while fighting all of these demons, then surely there’s something here for everyone.
Something I found really intriguing in The Self-Love Experiment was the differentiation between the “rebellion self,” the “reward self,” the “protection self,” and the “lonely self.” These are aspects of the personality with different drives, and they explain a lot about coping behaviors.
This is a very approachable, yet multi-layered and complex book. There’s enough here that some chapters could keep someone busy for a year. If you’re a Feeler, if you’re dissatisfied with your life, or if you are ever mean to yourself, it would be a self-compassionate act to read this book. Try the Self-Love Experiment for yourself.
It never occurred to me that trying to change my outside world was a desperate attempt to feel better on the inside.
To stop loathing myself is to reduce the negativity and pain in the world.
Despite what you might believe about yourself, you are not broken, you are not your problems, there’s nothing to fix, you’re not off track, there isn’t something wrong with you, your insecurities are not hindering you, and your flaws don’t make you weak, unlovable, or unsuccessful.
Learning to distinguish between different types of inner and outer voices is a key skill in learning how to think strategically and get better at making decisions. What are these thoughts that bubble up? Whose are these opinions that are floating around in my consciousness? Are these voices actually wise, or even correct? Which voice is truly my own voice?
What’s left of this identity known as “me” if I remove all of the anxiety, worry, received wisdom, memes, quotes, naysaying, and other external opinions?
My people tend to be almost unbelievably reluctant to make decisions. Sure, everyone can hesitate over the truly big stuff like whether to marry someone, have a child, or go in for surgery. I’m talking about whether it’s okay to throw away a receipt for a single bottle of water or whether it’s okay to delete a junk email. Utterly trivial non-decisions! This hesitation comes from total lack of trust of one’s own intuition, feeling that making personal choices is not permitted, absence of future vision, and emotional overwhelm. The ability to distinguish between the various types of inner voices can help with this.
First, let’s identify some external voices.
Family naysayers. The closer someone is, the longer they’ve known you, the more negative they are likely to be and the harder they’ll try to quash your every dream and wish. What makes them experts? What credentials do they have? What outcomes and results are they living?
Pop culture. News articles, blog posts, memes, posters, t-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, fortune cookies, and basically anything with writing on it will peddle generic pedestrian beliefs. Anything that commonplace is probably more valuable as a basis for “Do the Opposite” thinking exercises, because that’s the only way any original thought can be extracted from them.
“Authorities.” Interestingly, a Realtor will advise you to buy the house, a stylist will talk you into a shorter haircut that requires more visits, an orthopedist will recommend one more MRI, et cetera. Consider whether the person advising you has a vested financial, professional, or reputational interest in that advice. Get a second opinion, preferably from someone in a different field.
Note: Just because advice comes from a parent, authority figure, or a poster with a kitten on it doesn’t necessarily rule it out or make it wrong. Please first spend some time using your powers of discernment before relying on a single source.
Now let’s talk about inner voices.
Professional expertise. People who work in different fields tend to look at every problem through the lens of their professional expertise, which may be excellent most of the time and disastrous part of the time. Many great jokes are based on this problem. We want to pause and remind ourselves that in any given situation, an engineer, a lawyer, an accountant, and an astrologer will probably give predictably specific advice. It’s important to trust your own professional expertise over that of unqualified outsiders WHEN it’s your own field. When it isn’t, don’t let yourself be distracted by your own feelings of certainty and competence, which may be fallacious.
Anxiety. Anxiety correlates with intelligence. This means that the smarter you are, and/or the more educated you are, the more likely you are to talk yourself out of anything that feels risky. Where you identify risk depends on your personal temperament. For some people it’s romance, for others it’s finance, for others it’s physical. For my people, the voice of anxiety very firmly orders them to hoard material objects, avoid leaving the house, manipulate their emotions with food, and obsess over rejection and criticism. If the message is “stay awake far into the night perseverating” then it’s the voice of Anxiety that you’re hearing.
Legacy. “If you can read, you can do anything” is a bit of legacy wisdom that I carry from a great-grandparent. Legacy is neutral. Sometimes it’s incredibly toxic, sometimes it’s obsolete, sometimes it’s harmless, sometimes it’s like rocket fuel that can propel you to the heights of happiness and accomplishment. Sometimes legacy voices can compete and give contrary, mutually exclusive advice. (After all, decisions are choices and strategy is guesswork. There are no correct answers).
Conscience. Attending to the voice of conscience will serve to increase conscientiousness, which is one of the Big Five poles of personality. (The others are openness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism). Conscience asks us to be more thoughtful and considerate, to care for others, to contribute, to apologize, to give more than we take, to act with integrity, to avoid regret. My fascination is when someone reports that the voice of conscience is asking more in a certain situation than the voice of legacy would.
Desire. Desire, like legacy, is neutral. Following your bliss is usually harmless, totally fair, fun, and ultimately in service of the greater good. Desire, though, does not always lead to bliss in either the short or the long term. An example would be the massive YES that I felt toward a rental house when my husband and I first got engaged. It cost 25% more per month than the house we moved into. But I waaaaaaaaaant it! Inside of many people is a spoiled wannabe celebrity whose demands will lead to chaos and disaster, no bliss in sight. The voice of desire often pops up as “my body wants.”
The Id. The voice of the id is selfish, narcissistic, greedy, restless, jealous, and destructive. The id is obsessed with “respect,” attention, and procuring shiny objects. I saw a gannet bird pick up a slice of pizza on the sidewalk in Iceland one day, and try to swallow it whole, pointy end first. That’s a pretty solid image of what happens when the voice of the id takes over.
Certainty. Oooh, poison. The inner sense of certainty is what we want the most when we try to foist our decisions onto others. My students, clients, friends, and occasionally family members try to abdicate decisions onto me all the time. Probably half of my text messages and DMs are of this nature. TELL ME THE RIGHT ANSWER! People absolutely stone-cold hate having to make their own decisions and live with the consequences because we hate the idea that we’re choosing our own future outcomes. It’s a rejection of the gift of free will. Certainty tends to equal stubbornness, stasis, stonewalling, fixed mindset, and, well, simply being inaccurate and incorrect. The only way to predict the future is to create it.
The Muse. Many artists of different fields talk about being in a creative state in which the work seems to produce itself. The book writes itself, the painting paints itself, the character takes over while the actor is merely the vessel. I suspect that this is the pre-verbal right brain being tapped. It doesn’t speak in text. Sometimes people refer to receiving this voice as “being in the zone” and I think it also relates to System II thinking.
Spirit. Here is where I talk a bit about what I call ‘woo-woo.’ The voice of Spirit speaks infrequently and usually in a baffling, unpredictable way. Spirit tends to demand things of us that are uncomfortable, confusing, challenging, and inconvenient. For instance, I knew it wasn’t Spirit encouraging me to pressure my newlywed husband into a house we really couldn’t afford; it was just desire. Spirit has pushed me to befriend people when I wasn’t in the mood, give money when I felt stingy and broke, and go out for errands at odd hours that then led to weirdly serendipitous meetings. The last time this happened, I went for a walk at 10 PM, gave someone directions, and then found a $20 bill in a bush five minutes later.
For the curious, there are perhaps other varieties of inner voices out there. The daimon, as referenced by Steven Pressfield. A tulpa. Ancestors reaching out from the other side. Maybe all of those things at once, in the craziest multi-dimensional cocktail party of all time! It could be fun to pretend, anyway.
Ultimately, no matter what inner or external voices someone might be hearing, what matters is how we react. What choices do we take? What actions do we make? Just because a random thought crosses your mind doesn’t mean it’s necessarily your thought, or what I refer to as your “final answer.” It’s unlikely that every possible voice will suggest the same course of action. This is why it’s sound policy (see what I did there) to distinguish between them. Give them names, draw pictures of them, assign them theme songs or mental ring tones. With experience and practice, your own true inner voice will start to speak more clearly and project more volume.
High Performance Habits is destined to be one of the ten best self-improvement books of all time. I’m not saying this lightly. This book is really amazing. It’s based on years of research and input from thousands of people. Even if you’re already a high achiever, you’ll learn something from this book. For the rest of us who still struggle with stress, low energy, lack of focus, or anything else holding us back, there’s even more to be gained.
Brendon Burchard has personal credibility. He survived a near-fatal car collision. As if that weren’t enough, he also got a concussion in another accident, and he mentions in passing that, oh, he had a spinal birth defect. If the habits that he teaches have been any help to him, then there must be something to them.
The core message of High Performance Habits is that we can direct our behavior by priming our own emotional state and acting in accord with our values. High performers are happy instead of stressed. They’re able to sustain their results over the long term without burnout because they manage their emotions and their energy level. Burchard studies how people are able to do this, and his claim is that anyone can adopt these habits and this high-achieving mindset.
Reading this book made me realize that while a lot of things I’m doing are on track, there is so much more I could be contributing and accomplishing. I like that the message is strong on personal ethics. I highly recommend High Performance Habits and I believe it’s Brendon Burchard’s best book so far.
“I’m scared to go to the next level... because I’m barely surviving this one.”
What’s achievable is not always what’s important.
...only you are in charge of your enduring emotional experience.
“What’s the positive thing I can focus on and the next right action of integrity I should take now?”
...no one credits fatigue and a bad mood for their world-class performance.
Whenever I hear the phrase “that’s not realistic,” I roll my eyes. Mainstream opinion gets mainstream results, and another way to say that is, no results. Change in its nature is radical, not moderate. Moderation is the way to keep from rocking the boat. Moderation is maintenance. Unless you want to maintain what you have right now, what good is moderation going to do you?
Having a baby. Where is the moderation in “zero to new human in nine months”? Labor, delivery, sleepless nights?
Remodeling a house. Do you really want to go the moderate, incremental route?
House-training a pet. Stop thinking outside the box!
When we’re sure about exactly what we want, it’s obvious that we’d rather get it done and get our results quickly. Waiting at the DMV - get it done and get out of there. The dentist. Again, please let’s just get this done so I no longer have five instruments and a fist crammed into my mouth. Travel. Four hours in an airport or stuck on the freeway is clearly not the same as a four-hour visit to a monument or landmark.
When we genuinely want change, we’ll do it as quickly as we can. As long as we understand what to do, nothing will stop us.
See this in action every time a new movie, game, or consumer product comes out and the mega-fans camp out overnight in the parking lot. Watch how long people will hold still for tattoo artwork. Desire is powerful. We’ve all felt this overwhelming desire for something, at least once in our lives. When we want it badly enough, whatever it is, we will go after it. We will persevere until we’ve got it.
Why can’t we seem to harness this power of desire for all our goals?
It’s always going to be either one of two things. Either we don’t know exactly how to do it, or we don’t really want it.
When there’s a situational obstacle, that falls under knowledge. We don’t know how to continue to go after the goal when something gets in the way. How do I do it when my schedule has changed? How do I do it when my location has changed? How do I do it when I suddenly have more demands on my time? How do I do it when the rules have changed? Nothing about the desirability of the goal itself has changed - it’s simply an unforeseen detour that temporarily blocks our path and obscures the view.
Persistence will eventually find a way around every obstacle. Asking for help is one form of persistence. Simply find someone who has the results you want, and ask, “How did you do it? What’s your secret?”
This is where the paradox comes in.
Most of us actually do know everything we need to know in order to get what we want. We just aren’t willing to do anything unless it’s “moderate.” We don’t want to have to concentrate, or focus, or stop doing other things we like doing, even temporarily. We don’t want to suffer. I CAN’T DEPRIVE MYSELF.
How can you deprive yourself of your goal?
Why would you do that to yourself?
The truth is, we like our comforts more than we like our goals.
We’ll give all our focus and attention, all our time, all our desire and all our money to certain treasured goals. A phone upgrade! A signature beverage at least once a day! Pets ‘n’ vets, that is, emergency veterinary expenses. A trip, a cable package. Some things our kids begged for, but not others. There are at least a few special things that we will never cut from our budgets or our schedules under any circumstances.
Where are the areas we’ll always quit on? Where are the areas where we insist on moderation and nothing more? Where are the areas where we allow for the most exceptions?
Cleaning the garage, perhaps?
Turning in overdue library books?
Tolerating chronic issues like neck pain or sleep deprivation?
Everyone knows at least one person who is one semester or one term away from a college degree. Only a little over half of college students graduate within six years. Completion rates seem to be a bit higher for master’s programs, but fall back to a little over half for doctorates. One message we can take from this is that we should forgive ourselves for not going farther than we did. There’s another message we could take away, though. Those completion rates could jump much higher. What if everyone with only one term to go somehow found a way to finish?
The two most commonly procrastinated tasks are planning for retirement and dealing with health issues, the latter of which is mostly a euphemism for burning off excess body fat. Fully 70% of Americans over age 20 are overweight now. We’ve collectively shrugged and decided that 25 pounds overweight is now dangerously thin. Let’s not even talk about our savings habits. About half of American households have no retirement savings at all. Nearly two-thirds say they couldn’t handle an emergency expenditure of $1000. This is what all our talk of moderation gets us.
MODERATION IS FRUSTRATION
What are we moderating? What are we maintaining? At least we’re all in it together, but what is it that we’ve collectively agreed to tolerate? Constant financial dread, chronic low energy, and poor body image. That’s what moderation gets us.
Radical change is possible, and it’s not even unimaginable, much less unrealistic. People clean out their garages over a weekend, and it happens all the time! That delayed college degree could be completed in three months. It’s possible to lose a hundred pounds in a year, or pay off tens of thousands of dollars in debt. It’s even possible to retire in eleven years (or fewer), and there are many examples of that as well. Radical change is simply the “rip off the bandage” method. Decide that you want it, make a plan, and then launch. Do it as quickly as possible and get it over with. Moderation is maintenance, and you should only maintain the results you want to keep. Radical change is what gets things done.
Possibility thinking is not the same as optimism. This is a common misconception. I consider myself an extreme optimist, yet it’s not for amateurs. Extreme optimism can lead to really poor outcomes when it’s based on denial or refusal to confront reality. Possibility thinking is a skill that requires acknowledging the possibility of the worst outcomes as well as the best. The Stoics called it premeditatio malorum, or thinking of evils in advance. This is why pessimists can gain at least as much from the discipline as natural optimists can.
I know a few extreme pessimists. I keep them in my social media feed because I find them oddly endearing, at least in small doses. These super-pessimistic friends don’t know each other, but they have a lot in common. One of the main traits that they share is that they are nearly impervious to support, compliments, and expressions of empathy, even as they complain that nobody is ever there for them. Another is that they are virtually incapable of gratitude. They are quite angry whenever anyone dares to suggest that something might be going well for them. These are dangers inherent to extreme pessimism. Alienating people who want to be your friends will inevitably shrink your pool of allies and emotional support. It also eliminates the vast majority of opportunities that other people automatically receive from being part of a more conventional social network.
Simply stop rejecting other people’s offers, and things start happening. People vouch for you. People introduce you around and you form more loose social ties. You start to make more friends and acquaintances, you start to get invited to more events. You start hearing about more opportunities, like job postings, vehicles or stuff for sale, road trips, roommates, pets that need a home, maybe even a future spouse. A crotchety, curmudgeonly person loses out on all of this. Over the years and decades, it really builds up.
Possibility starts with pessimism as soon as someone realizes that pessimism is only one of the many responses that are available. Attitudes are not set in stone. Perspectives are infinite. Negativity itself can come in uncountable forms, and one particular negative response is only one option. See?
Pessimism is a smart place to start with strategic planning. It’s just not a smart place to end.
Travel. Start with the assumption that every single thing will go wrong. Assume you’ll forget your passport and your ID, assume you’ll get to the airport without your prescriptions or your glasses, assume you’ll lose your keys and that someone will steal your wallet and your luggage will get lost. Assume that every single leg of your trip will be delayed and every connection will be missed. Assume that your hotel rooms will all be given to others and you’ll have nowhere to go at midnight. Assume you’ll show up on the wrong day. Assume you’ll get food poisoning and the flu. Assume you’ll fight with your travel companions. Assume you’ll come home to a burst pipe and an insect infestation. Pessimistic starting assumptions are part of how you learn to foresee issues and form multiple backup plans. These negative forecasts also help you learn to appreciate how special and rare it is when everything works properly. Most of all, pessimistic assumptions help to generate an attitude of acceptance instead of outrage, dark humor rather than disappointment.
Romance. Start with the assumption that your crush is a bad person with a lot to hide. Do your due diligence. Assume that this person does not share your values and is not safe to introduce to your family, friends, neighbors, or coworkers. After my early divorce, I used to say that I would never get married again without a credit report, a criminal background check, a psychiatric assessment, and a blood test. This impressed my future husband, who says this bizarre boundary meant he would get the same information from me that I was demanding from dates. It helped him to trust me. When you do find someone solid, someone who has passed all the gates, then you know to appreciate and respect this person as a worthy mate.
Finances. Start with the assumption that you’ll outlive your money by at least fifteen years. Inflation will come for you and you’ll be physically unable to work about ten years earlier than you had thought. Assume that various bad actors are out to defraud you, sell you things you don’t want or need, and trick you into paying hidden fees and high interest rates. Know that the stock market will crash, defined as a 30% decline in value, at least two or three times between now and your desired retirement date. Believe that you have an inner spendthrift, that you will constantly try to delude yourself by rounding your income up and your expenses down. Optimism is a good propellant for pursuing career advancement, but it’s probably more dangerous around the topic of money than anywhere else.
Health. Start with the assumption that all the research about longevity, fitness, and nutrition is true. Assess what you know about the individuals in your family tree and assume that their health problems will also be yours. Here is where pessimism should stop. It’s a fixed mindset fallacy that genetic tendencies are fate, carved in stone, when really a tendency is just a tendency. We have information and interventions that were not available to earlier generations, and it’s prudent to make use of it. Pessimistically assume that one day, Future You will berate Today You for not trying, for abdicating and procrastinating and passively awaiting the worst outcome. Isn’t it more pessimistic to regard Present Self as an ignorant, lazy procrastinator who avoids the necessary hard work and self-discipline, than to see a more efficient body as somewhat attainable?
There’s no particular reason why any individual person couldn’t... let’s see... go on a trip, meet a new love interest, pay off debt, start a business, or get stronger and more agile. The same person could also move to a new home, adopt a pet, study a musical instrument, or learn a new language. Why not? Really, why not? A pessimism that denies options is not realistic or pragmatic. Pessimism can be a useful tool, but it’s only one of many among a thinking person’s cognitive assets.
How do I write about hedonism without making it sound all sexy? This is a serious question. In fact, there are few things that are more serious than the ways that pleasure overlaps with morality, and we tend to oversimplify all of that by making it about sex. I’m a very shy person, and I have no intention of going there on this blog. What I have noticed, though, is that my people (my clients, my students) are really poor at identifying things they like and enjoy. They’re also really poor at imagining a positive future for themselves. Here are some of the hardest things I’ve asked them to do:
Describe your perfect day
Make a list of things you enjoy
Tell me your favorite
What would you like to happen between now and this time next year?
This area is wide open for research. Is it something about depression and anxiety that prevents people from enjoying themselves and imagining better times? Or is it this disconnect from pleasure that perhaps leads to anxiety and depression? Does this all just have to do with the amygdala being activated or something? I think these ideas are objectively testable. As with everything, of course, we can test ideas on ourselves. Say it with me: does it work, or does it not work? Does it work for you, or does it not work for you?
One of those ideas we can check is the idea of sin, or morality in general. I’ve noticed that my people tend to moralize about things that simply aren’t moral issues. “I was bad.” Ooh, naughty. One of those areas is housework, another is money, and another is food and body image. A close friend of mine was trained from childhood that a clean house is morally virtuous and that household dirt is shameful, perhaps evil. THIS IS A MATTER OF OPINION. I keep a clean house because it’s a cheap workout and because otherwise I can’t find anything or think straight. I also like how it looks, feels, and smells, and more on this later. Many people have been taught that money leads to evil, which is a bummer, because most of these same individuals would probably be terrific at fundraising for charity if they allowed themselves to think that way. A million volumes could be written on all the ways we’ve been taught that certain foods are “decadent” or “sinful” and how we’re “bad” or how we’ve “been good” for eating in certain ways. If we want to be decadent and sensually indulgent, my dears, there are so many better ways...
There are zero, zero rules for what you can find pleasurable or not pleasurable. Nobody else can tell you whether you like something or don’t like it, just as they can’t tell you what emotions you are feeling. As you learn to inhabit your body more fully, you’ll be more aware of what you do or don’t like and what you are sensing and feeling. Not knowing is a promising sign that you have a lot of fun experiments ahead!
Also, it’s nobody else’s business what you enjoy privately. The reason so many people cherish time alone is that this is when we get to do all the stuff we like to do. For instance, when my husband goes on a business trip, I watch horror movies and eat eggplant for dinner, because we don’t share those delights in common. It’s nobody else’s business what you listen to on your headphones, how you season your soup, or what you choose for your favorite colors.
There are a bunch of things that are commonly perceived to be pleasurable or fun, things that I personally dislike. Start with the word “pampered.” UGH! That will only ever make me think of disposable diapers. Also, I despise being waited on or having very attentive customer service. I’m shy and independent, and I distrust flattery. I’ve never had a professional manicure or pedicure, although I’ve bought them for men I’ve dated, because it sounds awful to me. Two words: toenail fungus. In fact, just stop at the word ‘toenail.’ Let’s see, what else? I don’t like alcohol or coffee, I think cheese is revolting, and there are a lot of desserts that turn me off. I don’t like croissants, gummy candy, or anything with powdered sugar or syrup. I don’t care for chocolate either.
Each and every one of those items that I dislike are things that another person would love. That’s awesome. More for you!
I’m attentive to what I dislike or find ‘blah’ or uninteresting, because one part of expanding into pleasure is avoiding the icky stuff. This is an existential position. Practical philosophy! I believe that I have the right to move toward things I love and enjoy, and the right to say a firm NO to things that I don’t. This is a radical, revolutionary position. A lot of us don’t necessarily believe that we really exist, that we have a right to our own opinions. This is something that can take a lot of work, something that is worthy of exploring with a counselor or therapist. Why shouldn’t you wear socks in your favorite color, listen to your favorite musicians, or say “no thank you” when you’re not interested in eating something? Huh? Why shouldn’t you?
The biggest thing I’ve learned from coaching is that each of my clients has a highly idiosyncratic, negative story behind whatever painful, ineffective thing it is that they’re doing. That’s why I really mean it when I mean that you should put serious thought into why you think you’re not entitled to basic pleasures or basic, fundamental boundaries. Because you are. Of course you are!
As a matter of fact, the vast majority of pleasurable things you can indulge in won’t affect anyone else in any way. They don’t even have to know. If you like cutting your sandwich on the diagonal one day and horizontally the next, go ahead!
I’ll go on to say that claiming pleasure for yourself has a positive ripple effect on others. It helps as a foundation of strength, something that supports you as you do difficult things, like contributing at work, serving others in your life, volunteering, being a good citizen, or taking on challenges and quests. Pleasure nurtures you, helping you to avoid burnout, draining the boil of irritation or futility that you might otherwise spatter on others, venting and complaining about various miseries. It’s pretty hard to feel pleasure and annoyance or disappointment at the same time. Trust and believe that most people would rather hear about something enjoyable you did than something that frustrated you, unless of course you were able to make it into a funny story.
Spending time in nature, either physically or virtually. The phases of the moon, sunrise and sunset, clouds, stars, the weather. Trees, landscapes, flowers. The sounds of wind, water, birds - I’ll never forget the first time I heard a fox bark. Pictures of mountains, the ocean, the surface of Mars, anything that increases your sense of awe and delights your eye.
Visual delights. Color. Symmetry or asymmetry. Scrolling through museum collections online. Gazing into the middle distance. Changing your phone wallpaper a lot.
Music. Which is greater: the pleasure of listening to a beloved song over and over, or the pleasure of hearing something that captivates you for the first time?
Fragrance. Gardens in your area. Soap. Lotion. Candles. Spices. Home cooking. Removal of bad smells. Nostalgic scents like pencil shavings.
Sleeping. Probably the single most underrated pleasure of them all.
Exploration. Adventure. Learning new things. Anything that you find inspirational, anything that ignites your sense of curiosity, anything that impresses you or makes you want to know more, should be pursued. Learning new skills is an entirely distinct pleasure, the satisfaction of efficacy.
Storytelling. Story sweeps us away like nothing else. The great thing about the internet is that there’s so much out there, from blogging to fanfic to podcasts. Not everyone likes comedy but most people appreciate storytelling.
Connection. Snuggling with pets. Dancing. Working in groups. Singing in a choir, or so they tell me. Hugging - some people like it! Deep listening.
Pleasures of the body. This is a subject for a book of its own, but food is only one of the many, many ways the body can experience pleasure. I think it’s actually the weakest and fundamentally the most boring. Describing the pleasure of waking up as a well-rested, nourished, fit, active, strong, supple body is like giving people directions to the unicorn rides. Nobody believes you. It’s like a religious experience that you can only understand by living it for yourself. Shake it off and think of something else. Physical warmth, massage, stretching, working out a kink in your neck or shoulder. Sighing, deep breathing.
It’s possible to live surrounded by beauty, indulging in pleasures throughout the day, and still be a productive, caring, ethical, morally correct person. This is an affirmation. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it because it’s what your friends and loved ones would want for you. Do it because it sets a good example for your kids or for other young people, for other humans in general. Do it because it’s good for the economy. Do it because nobody would begrudge it of a shelter dog, so why not you? Do it because nobody else will notice and nobody else will care. Do it as an experiment. Do it in the nature of philosophical exploration. If you can’t bring yourself to do anything else, at least just pause, stretch, take a deep breath, and allow the idea that pleasure is okay for someone, somewhere in the universe. You think?
The only thing better than a book by one of your favorite bloggers is when the book turns out to be even better than the blog. Eric Barker is in my top ten list, along with probably everyone else’s, and Barking Up the Wrong Tree has just locked that down. This is an incredibly fascinating read that may turn everything you think about pop psychology upside down. It is indeed, as the subtitle says, “the surprising science behind why everything you know about success is (mostly) wrong.”
Why is this book so great? It’s because Barker has been researching and writing in depth about these topics for years. More than that, he has a knack for illustrating concepts with historical examples and storytelling. Where else are you going to find anecdotes about submarines, drug cartels, mixed martial arts, Genghis Khan, Spider-Man, and Batman all in the same book?
The research behind Barking Up the Wrong Tree is bound to stir some inner resistance in most people. There are so many findings that contradict common wisdom, and that will probably also conflict with some closely held values. One is that making your boss happy is more important to your career success than your actual performance. Essentially, if you please your boss, even mediocre performance won’t matter, and if you annoy your boss, excellent performance won’t matter either. I can practically feel the temperature rising as steam comes out of ten thousand pairs of ears.
There’s so much to surprise, delight, challenge, confuse, frustrate, and ultimately impress readers. Optimism and pessimism, introversion and extroversion, grit, creativity, altruism, willpower, networking, success, and even hostage negotiations have their place here. If you’re ready to have your mind changed about a wide array of cultural assumptions, make sure you’re not Barking Up the Wrong Tree and read this book.
“Cognitive biases prevent us from understanding cognitive biases.”
“TO-DO LISTS ARE EVIL.”
Perfectionism is stupid. It’s stupid! Perfectionism keeps you from getting anything done, it annoys other people, it usually leads to zero results, it keeps you from being able to relax, and, did I mention, it annoys other people? I say all this as a recovering perfectionist. (I just totally typed that as ‘perfectionism’ and then I wrote ‘taht’ and it’s all getting marked down in my book of karma to work off in the afterlife). One of the many ways I try to trick myself out of this pernicious character flaw of perfectionism is to focus on output and results: quantity, not quality. Completion, publication, finishing, being on time. Another way is to adhere to my 80/80 rule. Eighty percent right, eighty percent of the time.
Why 80/80? Personally, I think it’s easier to manage than 100/50. 100/100 is foolishly impossible. The only thing I should do to 100%, 100% of the time, is to maintain my integrity. My punctuation and spelling are not a part of that.
80% clean, 80% of the time. That’s my rule for housekeeping. I do one room every weekday, and if that room gets messed up at some point during the next six days, I’m ignoring it. I clean the bathroom on Thursdays. If there are a few specks on the mirror or a few hairs in the bathtub, they can wait until next Thursday. A few specks and a few hairs may take my bathroom down from 100% clean (Thursday afternoon) to 98% clean (Wednesday). It’s not worth my time or attention. Even if we leave town or I get sick, and the bathroom gets skipped for a week, it’s still only going to be down to 80% clean by then. Come to think of it, cleaning the bathroom once a week may mean that it’s usually cleaner than 80% clean, more often than 80% of the time. Since it only takes me 15 minutes to clean my bathroom, I don’t really care to put more thought into it.
That’s the goal of having rules, guidelines, and policies. It means we don’t have to MAKE DECISIONS. Decisions drain mental energy. Decisions draw drama. Decisions make something emotional when it could be purely rational. Always save decision-making bandwidth for the truly major stuff, like whether to relocate, rather than the minor stuff, like whether to have cake for breakfast. Because guess what? If you’re deciding, then you’re going to eat the cake for breakfast. And by “you” I mean “I.” I am going to eat the cake for breakfast.
80% nutritious, 80% of the time. That’s my rule for food. Basically it means that my regular weekday meals need to be nutritious and not include junk or treats, unless we’re on vacation. On the weekends, I’m still eating nutritious main meals, but there’s also a little room for something like popcorn, hot chocolate, or breakfast out. The reason I don’t splurge more often than that is that I know full well what my physical tolerances are. I’d eat way more junk if I could get away with it. I’m the one who has to live with the consequences when I give myself a headache or night terrors from eating too much of the wrong food at the wrong times. Well, me, and anyone within whining range of me, like when I’m curled into a ball after eating too many curly fries at the fair.
The reason I respect my physical limits and plan what I eat is that it makes my life easier. I know I have zero willpower. I know I’m always going to eat one too many cookies. I know I’m going eat the whole portion when I could have saved half, even when I hit two-thirds and tell myself I know I’m full. I know I’m going to let my weight creep up until all my waistbands get tight and I stop being able to button my pants. I know all of this about myself. That’s why I have to set policies to stop myself. It’s like I’m really two people, Past Self, who knows the bitter truth, and Present Self, who has swirly eyes over some pastry case. Present Me always wants to disregard past data. Future Self, however, has some opinions about that.
80% good enough is usually good enough. Most routine things really are not urgent or important. They only start to get that way when conditions slip. For instance, most of the time, it probably doesn’t matter what your home looks like. It becomes urgent when you’re looking for your keys or your glasses and it’s time to leave. It becomes urgent when you get a surprise inspection notice from the landlord, or a maintenance person is coming over. It becomes important when it strains relationships with other people who live with you. It becomes important when it makes your life more difficult in any way. Being late all the time, bungling your commitments, feeling miserable, all are great reasons to start to picture what eighty percent looks like.
We’re only really happy when we’re living up to our own values. Our values are standards we set for ourselves, and if there’s a mismatch between our values and our behavior, then we have only ourselves to blame. The way we treat our bodies and our personal living environments are reflective of what we value. Whatever other values we might choose, at the very least, we’re saying, “This matters to me” or “This right here does not matter to me.” If our bodies don’t matter and our personal living spaces don’t matter, then what does?
Apparently GOING INTO DEBT is the new way to “make the most of life’s opportunities and memorable moments.” At least, that’s according to the subject header of an email I got from the bank that issued my credit card. They want to sell me a personal loan for the sum of $21,900, at the bargain rate of 6.98% interest. Dude. First off. I am not in this to “make the most of life’s opportunities” - I’m in it to make the most of the reward points. If you aren’t offering 3x points on travel, I’m not interested. Second off. Debt is a shackle around the ankle that in fact destroys your ability to take advantage of opportunities and create memorable moments. Debt can poison every moment of happiness you might otherwise have had. It causes stress, insomnia, and, at least in my case, fits of uncontrollable weeping.
So yeah. Thanks for the invite.
What actually does create memorable moments?
Connection. Full engagement. Paying attention to your surroundings. Listening hard, really hard, creepy-hard, when other people are talking. Opening the gates of your heart. Living today like it really counts. Acting like you really mean it when you do and say things, even things like sitting on the couch wearing no pants.
How can we actually make the most of life’s opportunities?
What does this even mean?
It means we need to know what an opportunity even IS. It’s not just recognizing opportunities as they come up, because they’re available every single second. The road outside your front door has been patiently waiting there since the day it was paved. The internet hums around the clock, around the world, with all the information and maps and train tables you could ever need. You meet people every day, or at least you could, and any one of them could change your life with a word. Or you could change theirs, which is easier.
Show up. That is all that’s required.
Show up physically. Show up emotionally. Show up with your full and precious mental bandwidth attuned to live humans, face to face and in person.
Strip back your shields. Allow yourself to be bored or disappointed or annoyed or frustrated or insulted. Then go back and examine it. Is it necessary to take things personally, or can we take breaks sometimes?
Life gets so much more interesting when we pay attention to it, when we throw ourselves at it in a blindfolded, backwards trust fall. It gets predictable and yucky when we insist that it meets our limited expectations.
All my stuff needs to be cute and new! I only have to eat things that taste good! I decide what constitutes sufficient attention, affection, and respect! I must be entertained most moments! Nobody should ever disagree with, criticize, or otherwise challenge me!
Those are some fun moments. Yup. I can get them, too, with a paper placemat and some crayons. Hand me a bucket of action figures and I’ll get down on the floor and create a world that works my way.
The way to really make the most of life’s opportunities is to be ready, to recognize them when they pop up. It means we have to set aside the heavy bags, the bags of perfectionism and selfishness and impatience. When most of what’s left starts to feel like a heart attached to a set of floating eyes, that’s when we start to get somewhere.
As for the memorable moments, don’t wait around for them. Make them happen.
I wish everyone would read this book. The Fear Factor is that incredible thing, a highly readable popular science book that deserves to become a major cultural touchstone. I’m obsessed with making Alison Marsh’s research as widespread as possible.
Marsh studies both psychopathy and altruism. Who knew there would be such strong connections between them? As a true crime fan and compulsive news junkie, I was riveted. Putting psychopaths into an MRI machine turns out to have been a really great idea, and it answers so many questions.
Q: Why are they like that?
A: Amygdala visibly smaller, different brain activity than normal people
I don’t want to give out too many spoilers, but I had ‘aha’ moments on nearly every page.
As many questions as The Fear Factor answers about psychopathy, it has equally as much to say about altruism, which is a hobbyhorse of mine. Why has altruism persisted in both humans and animals if “survival of the fittest” requires individuals to be selfish? Why do creatures help each other across species?
A pervasive belief about altruism is that it’s actually selfish. Either the person is doing it biologically, to benefit kin; doing it cynically, to get attention; or the fact that altruism makes them feel good somehow invalidates the act. Marsh says that psychopaths don’t help other people - in fact, the opposite, because they find it entertaining to harm people - and if altruism were innately pleasurable, then psychopaths would do it, too. “The fact that, for most people, alleviating others’ suffering and bringing them joy can be a source of personal pleasure is, in my view, what distinguishes most of us from psychopaths—it is evidence that we have the capacity for genuine altruism.”
The title “The Fear Factor” has to do with a key difference between altruists and psychopaths. This is that psychopaths can’t recognize fear in themselves or other people, while altruists are more sensitive to fearful expressions. Part of what intrigues me so much about this is that altruists are instead less sensitive to anger! I’ve read elsewhere that most people misconstrue sadness as anger, seeing angry expressions and behavior where there really are none. This would definitely be a fascinating topic for further research of Marsh’s style.
The Fear Factor is a truly fascinating book. I enjoyed it so, so much and I really want it to be as widely known as it deserves to be. Please go out and get yourself a copy before you find me running after you down the street, waving one over my head.
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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.