In the urgent care examination room, I read a poster on the wall while the nurse took my vitals. There wasn’t much else to do while simultaneously wearing three pieces of medical equipment, trying to hold still for a pulse ox, thermometer, and blood pressure cuff.
This poster outlined the clinic’s policy for pain medication. It was pretty long!
I happened to be in a pretty distracting level of pain myself, due to a sports injury, and it had gotten worse during the hour I had just waited. As a routine part of the exam, the nurse asked me to rate my pain on a level of 1 to 10. I told her ‘4,’ on which I will elaborate.
Then I mentioned the poster and how it put things in perspective for me. I don’t like being in pain, but I also have no interest in a prescription painkiller habit.
“I’d have to be screaming on the floor before I would want painkillers,” I told the nurse. “I have enough to deal with right now. It’s like you walk in with one problem and walk out with two problems.”
She laughed ruefully. Nurses are prone to dark comedy. With her level of experience she likely dealt with patients trying to score extra pills on a daily basis.
I avoid painkillers for many of the same reasons that I avoid sleeping pills. I have a firm conviction that almost all medical issues originate in a person’s daily habits, and a prescription is a short-term fix for what most likely started as a long-term problem. I’ve had sleep issues since I was seven, for instance, and these issues are poorly understood. The most common medical solution for night terrors like mine is a prescription for barbiturates.
Okay, great. Two years later I’ll still have a sleep problem, and also a pill problem. Thanks. (No thanks)
I used to work at a drug rehab. The program was court-mandated, meaning that over 99% of our clients came in to avoid jail time. Many of them were clean-cut and looked like any other suburban business professional. They got busted by having multiple prescriptions at multiple pharmacies. It could happen to anyone, I’m convinced of that.
I had oral surgery a few times this year, and I was not offered painkillers. I didn’t take anything stronger than ibuprofen, even when I had sutures in my mouth and couldn’t eat solid food.
I’d rather spend a week thrashing around in mind-numbing pain than spend years fighting an addiction.
This is a philosophical position, and by no means something that I expect to appeal to anyone but me. Painkillers are there for a reason, and it is possible to die of shock. I don’t blame other people for succumbing to what is a built-in risk of a rational, legal, and standard choice. I know this is a neurochemical thing, not some... “willpower” thing or what-have-you.
I don’t believe in “willpower.”
I do, though, believe in the Pain Scale.
Sitting in a veterinary office one day, I saw a little poster on the wall. It was a pain scale for animals. It impressed me that veterinary science had worked out a way to rate the pain of animals who can’t speak or write. We can tell how they feel by looking at them, by the way they behave.
According to this poster, a ‘10’ for an animal might show up as loss of consciousness, convulsions, and possibly death.
Whoa! I thought. Good point. I know I have never experienced a 10 on the pain scale in my life. It occurred to me that few people probably have, even if they’ve been in labor or had major burns.
The pain scale I’ve seen for humans is subjective. It asks us to rate our pain according to what we have experienced before, or whether we feel it is ‘severe.’
A stubbed toe rates as a 1, according to one scale. Everyone has stubbed a toe at some point, and the universal reaction is to hop around swearing a blue streak. This is one of the three reasons I haven’t owned a coffee table for the past twenty years. We don’t call 911 when we stub our toes, though, because we know it will only hurt that much for a minute or two. Acute but brief and not dangerous.
Chronic pain is what tends to get us into trouble. I started getting migraines the same year I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a long time ago when there weren’t any reliable prescription drugs for either condition. Those were some tough years.
I figured out along the way, though, how to avoid flare-ups. Everything I ever did that worked was a permanent, often quite radical, lifestyle modification. I figured a lot of things out accidentally, coincidentally, and sometimes by trial and error. Problems like these are systemic, and they are hard to treat because they are the result of multiple inputs. Changing even three things might not be enough to make a difference, and they might not even be the right three things.
If I’d gotten some prescriptions, I’m convinced that I would not have pushed through and figured out how to leave the pain state. I would have thought of myself as a sick person who needed to take pills forever.
Pain is an invader, but it’s also a messenger. Pain tells us, Hey, whatever you’re doing, knock it off. Pain is an opportunity to learn something.
Not everyone is interested in receiving the message from pain. Emotionally - why do we continue to interact with people who hurt us or betray our trust over and over? Mentally - why do we dig in and double down on ideas after we’re exposed to contradictory evidence? Physically - why do we keep eating foods that make us ill, deprive ourselves of sleep, or ignore doctor’s orders?
When I’m in a difficult situation, I like to ask myself, What would an ordinary person do right now? Sometimes I can say, Okay, that’s what I should do, and other times the response should obviously be, Okay, definitely don’t do that. It depends on whether the standard response seems to lead to good or bad results. If the standard response to pain is to get a prescription for painkillers, and a common response to painkillers is to develop a tolerance, then I want to avoid that common outcome.
When I think of the pain scale, my personal version of it, it helps me to stay in my right mind and think about Future Me. The truth is that Future Me has probably already gotten over this.
1 - stubbed toe, paper cut
2 - headache, common cold
3 - migraine
4 - distracting pain
5 - “better get that looked at” pain
6 - “incapable of doing anything else” pain
7 - involuntary sobbing pain (antibiotic eye drops)
8 - cry yourself to sleep pain (losing a fingernail in a metal door)
9 - uncontrollable screaming
10 - unconscious, seizure, coma
I survived an 8, my personal 8, and that was a level of pain that made me believe that torture works. It also helps me to believe that there are of course worse levels of pain within human experience. Maybe I’ve already experienced the worst pain I will ever feel in my life! At that level, I could still speak, could still get up and walk, could go about my business without pain treatment. I knew that my body can heal, that my brain can eventually tune out pain, that this too would pass. Not a single one of the most painful experiences of my life is bothering me today.
I believe that there is a natural neurochemical response to pain, and that this neurochemistry can be permanently disrupted after even a short period of using various pharmaceuticals. I don’t trust them at all. I trust that I can handle almost any painful experience that comes my way, and that almost anything is easier than fighting an addiction.
Jealousy is the parking space; envy is the car.
Envy is what we feel when someone else has something that we think is out of our league, that they got it and there’s none left. Jealousy is when we feel that someone else has intruded on our turf or taken something that belongs to us, like cutting in front of us in line.
Jealousy is probably one of the most misused emotional terms out there. We tend to say it when envy is what we’re really feeling. Many people won’t cop to envy at all, and it seems to be the hardest of the “seven deadlies” to admit.
This is how it works.
My pets are totally capable of jealousy, and they act it out all the time, but I don’t think envy applies to them. Jealousy is when you believe that something belongs to you and that someone else is threatening something of yours. Example: ALL THE SCRITCHES.
If my parrot is getting a scalp massage, the dog will launch himself onto the couch and belly-crawl up to whoever is doling out this attention, then nudge for some of his own. It’s not like “You have a free hand, you can pet both of us.” It’s more like “stop paying attention to her! ME NOW!” And vice versa, of course. “Oh, anyone can pet a *dog*, but not just anyone gets to touch feathers. But you need to give it your full attention, so why not kick him onto the floor?” They’re constantly trying to bulldoze each other out of the way.
Does he wish he could fly? Does she wish she could catch a ball? Not really. Animals don’t feel envy - because they believe they are magnificent. They do feel jealousy because if there are scarce resources around, then they want it all for themselves. They don’t even feel guilty about it.
This is helpful as a demonstration of abundance mentality.
When am I going to feel rabid with jealousy?
When someone else takes the last slice of pie
When I see someone else in a restaurant or store that has locked its doors before I got in
When someone is sitting at “my” table
I don’t feel *envy* about pie, because I can either get the recipe and make my own, or I can order one. It’s just when I’ve got that hankering for yummy leftovers and someone else beats me to it. I also wouldn’t feel envy about someone else walking into a store or a restaurant, because I know they’ll serve me, too. I’m jealous when I feel entitled to a limited window of opportunity that has closed to me.
A few times, I have had the misfortune to meet a woman who is obsessively jealous over her boyfriend. (This is far less common with husbands, because the commitment has been made official in public). In the mind of one of these women, HER man is the BEST man and every other female in the world wants to steal him.
I don’t work this way, at all, and I’d venture that most people don’t. Why on earth would I want someone who was willing to cheat and lie?
Also, why would I want someone with fresh breakup cooties? Dealing with someone on the rebound leads to nothing but trouble, gossip, and drama. Ick.
The funniest part about the jealous lover is when the person they are clinging to so tightly is not a catch. Like, seriously, I got a man, and have you met him?? Off the top of my head, I can think of three instances when a specific jealous woman thought I was after her specific man.
Two of these women finally wound up marrying their man, which, good for them. The remaining one was finally presented with irrefutable evidence that he cheated, broke up with him after many years together, and wound up happily married to someone at least 3x better looking.
I would never feel either envy or jealousy about someone else’s relationship. It makes no sense. The way one person gets along with someone is no guarantee that they would get along in the same way with me! If two people are having what looks like a fascinating conversation, I might find that it’s a topic that doesn’t interest me at all. Dating and marriage are the same way. Hey, have fun talking Inside Baseball over there, or comparing your favorite craft breweries. Bye now!
Envy is an arrow pointing in a great direction to go.
If I envy someone’s house, vacation, or job, that’s my sign to figure out how they got to where they are. Worst case scenario, I could always hire an architect and copy their floor plan, maybe try to get their landscaper to come over and do my place. (I actually live in a small apartment). Whatever their job is, unless they are Beyonce then someone else out there is hiring for that job description.
Celebrity is the most widespread thing there is. If someone is singing then there’s a demand for that genre of music. If someone has a bestseller, then there’s a tested audience for that type of material.
Caveat: Only envy someone their fame, wealth, or number of downloads if you are 100% certain you have fully documented the number of hours/years they put in and that you know you are willing to work at least that hard.
I saw an extremely famous and very talented Hollywood actress in a bikini once. I sat up straighter, feeling great pride, because I knew I had better ab definition than she did. I have no interest in being an actress, but I liked how it felt to compare our gym ethics. I can’t even afford a trainer!
Envy and jealousy are both about social comparison, and social comparison is a killer of happiness. There is only one way to live comfortably with it, and that is to compare downward.
Nobody feels envy toward someone else’s quarrels, their veterinary emergencies, their mess, their debts, their low moods or poor self-esteem.
Personally I love comparing my life to what I read about celebrities, because fame seems to trap them at whatever emotional age they were when they got famous. They often act like bratty children or out-of-control teenagers. I’ve never wrecked a car, slapped a cop, thrown my phone in someone’s face, tried to get a gun through airport security, or been sent to rehab.
I might not be a multi-millionaire, but I can go to the grocery store in peace and there are no paparazzi following me. I know how to live my private life in quiet dignity. Envy that!
For all the advice out there to Find Your Passion or Follow Your Bliss or whatever, there is very little recognition that most people don’t actually know what they want. Most people don’t have a passion! Rather than feel motivated or inspired by this kind of talk, they feel inadequate, like they’re missing something. The truth is that it doesn’t require anything like passion, motivation, or inspiration to find happiness and live a pretty great life.
Also, it isn’t as hard as it seems to figure out what you want.
What most people do, when asked what they want, is to start talking about what they don’t want. Seriously, if you charged them a hundred dollars each time they said what they DON’T want instead of what they do, they would notice and they would keep doing it anyway.
It’s simply the natural reaction when people don’t have a clear picture of something they would like better than the status quo.
This is why it’s so helpful to write these things out on two separate and distinct pieces of paper. Paper, so you can put them in your journal, tape them to your wall, clip them to the visor of your car, carry them in your wallet, post them on your fridge, or pin them up in your cubicle at work.
What’s your favorite color? Okay, that’s the DO WANT list. If you don’t want to use a solid color of paper, then make a colored border around the edge or use colored ink. Or not. This is your first choice, your first opportunity to express your preferences.
What’s a color you don’t like? Can’t think of one? Okay, then use beige or gray. That’s the DON’T WANT list.
Every time you think of something that you DON’T WANT, write it on the ugly page with your don’t-wants.
The pretty page is only for stuff you know you DO WANT.
Whenever you start getting wound around the axle about things you don’t want, you can put the ugly page and the pretty page next to each other, then drag them farther and farther apart. Remember that what you do not want has nothing whatsoever to do with what you do want.
When you go out for tacos, you don’t have to think about pizza or sushi. It’s not on the table. It’s not up for consideration.
You’ve chosen. It really is that simple and straightforward when you know exactly what you want.
Almost all choices are non-zero-sum. That means that just because you choose it, does not mean you’re locked in. If you get tacos on Tuesday, you can have sushi on Wednesday and pizza on Thursday. No problem. You can even do one for lunch and one for dinner, or go nuts and have all of them on the same plate!
Almost all choices are minor and inconsequential, as well. Whatever it is that you’re planning to eat for dinner, it will only change your life if you get food poisoning. If you’re the kind of person who worries about that as a legitimate option every time you go out to eat, maybe you could… learn to cook your own meals? Just saying.
Worrying about What If all the time tends to destroy most options. Decision paralysis can take so long that the option expires.
My brothers and I got into an argument one evening. The one didn’t want to go to a restaurant where all three of us had been recently. Fine, we said, Where do you want to go?
I don’t want to go [there]! he replied.
Right, fine, we’ll go anywhere you want. You pick. Where do you want to go?
We went back and forth like that about eight times, and finally we agreed that we would just eat separately. It was nuts. Now, when the three of us get together, we often cook at home. It turns out that my brother’s “I don’t like that restaurant” energy was really more of an “I am willing to make my own beer-battered onion rings and bake my own bread” energy.
This is why it can be tricky to differentiate between the do-wants and the don’t-wants.
“I don’t want to be single anymore” is very different from “I want to marry someone who already has at least two kids” or “I think I might be into polyamory” or “Hmm, maybe I should get a roommate.”
The more specific you are, the easier it is to get what you want - because you know what it is!
One great way to break free from a stuck paradigm is to start asking people about themselves. If you can’t think of what job you want to do, get everyone you meet talking about how they chose their job and what they like about it.
If you don’t like your town and you think you want to move, ask people what they do and don’t like about their hometown. Weekend trips to various cities can be similar in cost to a weekend of going to the movie theater, getting brunch, and going out for drinks back home.
Try things out! It’s a good way to get information without feeling forced into a commitment.
I’m an extremely decisive person and I feel like it makes my life much easier. None of my choices are the end of the world. My clothes, what I eat, what I read, what music I play, what movie I will see, all of these rate an absolute zero on difficulty of choosing. I did put a lot of thought into it before I got married for the second time, but I haven’t regretted my choice of husband or my choice to remarry. That’s because I knew my page of DON’T WANTs was only 10% of the information, and I needed to be clear about the DO WANTs.
Knowing what you want is fine. It does not have to be selfish or greedy - and remember to write down all these negative thoughts on the DON’T WANT page. Good information. What job you have, where you live, your choice of workout, and what you like to eat really don’t impact anyone else. It doesn’t take anything away from other people when you get what you want. It is perfectly okay and safe to have preferences, and if all you’re doing is writing them down, then nobody even has to know.
Oh, it’s happening. It’s going down. I’ve got my Halloween costume and my bags of candy and my full game-day agenda.
What, for the kids? What kids?
Oh no no no. This candy is for ME.
Candy isn’t good for little kids. Why would I give it to THEM?
I look forward to this day all year long. It’s the ultimate cheat day. I’ve spent enough years waiting around all night with twenty dollars’ worth of candy only to have two kids knock on my door. If they want candy they can go to the fire station down the street.
One year I waited around to hand out candy. I wore a plain black cotton dress and I took a strand of my roommate’s fake cobwebs and stretched it into a shawl. Some kids knocked on my door and I gave them each a handful of candy.
“You’re scaring us,” said one little boy.
What, in this? I don’t even have scary makeup on. You should see what I wear on laundry day. Or is this about having to talk to a childless woman?
Hey, it’s not my fault you had kids, don’t blame me. I wasn’t there.
Anyway. Back to my candy.
I really don’t eat candy most of the time. Usually it’s too sweet, and a lot of it is just gross. For instance, I am not a fan of gummy candy or Swedish fish or any of that nonsense. Chocolate doesn’t impress me and I don’t like sour flavors. I also tend to hoard a bag and want to nibble at it over months, but at that point even peppermint candies have started to dissolve. Either it goes in the freezer or it goes in your mouth, right?
Planning a single day for major candy consumption requires forethought and planning. Over time, I’ve probably spent more brainpower thinking about my Halloween candy than I did in planning for my marathon.
For instance, I’m not very well going to be mixing peanut butter cups with fruity candy, am I? There are rules about these things.
Last year, I spent a month accumulating and organizing my candy. Then I ate only a small part of it on Halloween. I still had some of it six months later and my husband made fun of me.
I’ve decided that instead I should just splurge and choose one flavor. Eat as much as I want on Halloween, and then I’m done.
People tend to associate “willpower” and “self-control” with this kind of behavior. That’s inaccurate. First of all, I have no willpower. That’s the entire point of this exercise. Second, it’s not self-control if you just don’t like something. I’m sure everyone can easily think of something they don’t want to eat.
Cold greasy fries
I eat oatmeal every day for breakfast and I get “eww gross” commentary about that all the time. Basically anything with dietary fiber goes on most people’s yucky list, and that’s why 95% of Americans don’t get enough of it.
Ask yourself, does it take willpower or self-control to not eat things you think are gross? No it does not.
And you know what’s gross to me?
That’s my name for the feeling I get the day after I eat a bunch of candy. Actually sometimes it’s the same day.
A sour, stale, thoroughly non-delicious feeling.
Halloween mouth is the reason I don’t go crazy eating candy all the time. I have a vivid memory of the consequences that I refresh every year.
There are similar reasons why I don’t eat certain other foods. Fast food french fries tear up the roof of my mouth. I’ve cut my lip on corn chips. Popcorn bothers my gums. Pop Tarts, on the other hand, are simply nasty. Some foods I have thought were gross beyond words since childhood. Even as a kid I didn't like syrup, marshmallows, or popsicles.
I’m allowed not to eat things, especially when those things are treats that other people are delighted to have. Someone else always drinks “my” beer on race day, because why would I want to punish myself after all that training by drinking a beer?? Of all things???
Yes, I like candy, sometimes. It’s available to me literally twenty-four hours a day, every single day. It’s small and portable and a lot of people give it away for free, like at our veterinary office. If you plan your route you can get free candy every day and you don’t even have to say Trick or Treat, or ask anyone to smell your feet, although I suppose they might at the podiatrist.
For these reasons, I don’t need to feel scarcity around candy. Just like any other snack or dessert food, if I wake up at 4 AM with a craving, I can walk across the street and satisfy it. I can order it and have it delivered. I could keep it in my kitchen all the time, although that isn’t really fair to my husband.
A lot of people will eat whatever is in front of them, and eat it until it’s gone. I’m not like that because my memory is too good. I remember that while I *have* eaten an entire large pizza, or a family-size bag of chips, or a pound of candy, I didn't like how it felt afterward. Why do that when it’s actually better to have just the right amount? It’s not like pizza is canceled after tomorrow.
That’s why on Halloween I eat all the candy I want. I know at a certain point I’m going to go “You know what? Bleah” and seal the bag. As a child I was rationed to two pieces of Halloween candy a day, and that made it last until Easter, when, guess what? More candy!
My fun and holiday indulgences are not limited by availability, by cost, by tradition or by social pressure. I could literally have a piece of candy in my mouth every waking moment, and nobody would say anything, unless maybe I happened to be meeting the Pope. It is completely up to me to decide what I think is fun and how I like to celebrate. My limiting factor here is Halloween mouth. I respect my natural limits, and that allows me do whatever I want, all the time.
Ryan Holiday has mastered the art of making the wisdom of antiquity sound and feel current. It’s incredible to think how many fantastic books he has already written, and even more so to think that they just keep leafing out of him like a fruit tree. Stillness is the Key to his writing prowess and your autumn reading list.
Stillness is hardly a hip, cutting-edge quality. It’s the missing piece we had no idea we were missing. One might think that in an age when apps and labor-saving appliances can do everything for us, we’d have copious leisure time that we could use to cultivate tranquility. Instead it seems that the faster we can go, the slower we feel we’re going.
I have a robot vacuum cleaner and a personal secretary in my pocket that can take dictation. Does this help me feel peace of mind? Laws, no. Why not, though?
Holiday has answers for this, timeless answers that paradoxically make even more sense now than they did in the past. (Isn’t it funny that a man who advocates for stillness goes through life with the name ‘Holiday’?) Take the time to pause and reflect. Take the time to remind yourself of your values and whether you are living up to yourself. Take care of yourself before you burn out.
At one point in the book, Holiday discusses having a higher power. I always thought it was funny that so many people get hung up on this, because to me it is a one hundred percent secular and rational concept. Most powers are higher than me, and I couldn’t be more grateful. When I get my teeth cleaned, my dental hygienist is my higher power. When I read a book, both the author and the publisher are higher powers, powers that do things I cannot do. I also don’t have to make the plants grow, take charge of gravity, or even remind myself to breathe when I’m asleep. Of course my puny human mind is not the highest power! Why would anyone think that, or want that?
Stillness is the Key to so many good things in life. Whatever you are missing, if you’re modern, it’s probably sleep, time for strategic thinking, and tranquility among everything else. This is a great companion, a book to carry around with you or keep next to your bed, a book to read when you could use a pause from the business of everyday life.
We sign up for endless activities and obligations, chase money and accomplishments, all with the naïve belief that at the end of it will be happiness.
Who is so certain that they’ll get another moment that they can confidently skip over this one?
Both egotistical and insecure people make their flaws central to their identity—either by covering them up or by brooding over them or externalizing them.
No one will stop you, most of the time. This is one of life’s biggest secrets. No matter what you are doing, whether good, bad, or ugly, nobody will stop you. You’re free, like it or not.
Sure, people might sometimes try to interfere with you. Usually they only do it when you’re doing something positive and constructive, though. It helps to keep that in mind. It also helps to know that their ways of being your obstacle are pretty predictable.
Tantrums. Usually that’s the method of choice. Someone will bawl you out or get angry and start shouting or slamming things around.
Maybe they’ll give you the silent treatment or be passive-aggressive instead.
When someone behaves in such an immature and loud way, it’s never going to be for a good reason. Nobody throws a tantrum to convince someone to donate blood or get an early start on filing their taxes. Nobody throws a tantrum to convince someone to eat a taco or help themselves to another slice of pie. They throw tantrums to Get Their Way.
Why does someone care whether you do or don’t do something? Either because they think it will prevent them from getting something they want, or because they simply don’t like the thought of you doing it.
What are these things, these things you might want to do that someone else might not want you to do?
Have a successful friendship
Go back to school
Go on a trip somewhere
These are things I’ve found that other people will try to talk me out of. I’ve also found that I was able to do all of them, often more than once, and nothing bad happened. The tantrum-thrower eventually gets over it. Don’t expect them to ever admit that they were wrong, because it won’t happen, but do take note that you got away with it.
As much as people love to insert their opinions, there are other areas where they won’t. I’ve found myself in a couple of situations (going on a date, taking a roommate, moving into an apartment complex with a reputation, eating at Chipotle) where I would have appreciated knowing what my friends already knew. They only admit afterward that they didn't think what you were doing was such a wise idea.
This basically depends on whether you are talking to a group of people who freely share their opinion, or a group who generally choose to “stay out of it.”
There may also be something in there about whether you thought to solicit their specific individual opinion before or after the fact. Some will seek to punish you for your supposed lack of deference.
Yes, yes, you must run all your choices by me in advance. I am the arbiter of all decisions, group or individual.
What I’ve found is that if you simply don’t tell anyone your plans, you can pretty much do what you want all the time.
Often you can also avoid telling them after the fact.
There are two things I chose to do that seemed to arouse the ire and wrath of many of my friends and family like nothing else. Nobody had an opinion (with one exception) when I married my ex-husband. Everyone had an opinion when I 1. Chose to deliberately lose weight and 2. Took up distance running.
I was baffled by this at first. Then I found out that the furor only comes up when you're in the contemplation and beginning phases of something new. After you’re up and running on your own, they lose interest and find some other scandal to occupy themselves.
The next phase of realization set in when I discovered that I could do the exact same things, privately, and if I didn't tell anyone, then nobody had a comment.
Rearrange my furniture? Try a new recipe? Color my hair? Go to Morocco? Read a banned book? Fortunately, because we are a free people in a free country, I did it all. I did it all and nobody said a word because nobody knew.
Another secret to doing what you want and having nobody stop you is to move to a new area. If you have no track record there, nobody knows your backstory. If nobody knows your backstory, then nobody knows whether what you are doing is out of character or entirely consistent with your past behavior.
There is a dark side to this, of course. Pretty much nobody will stop you if you develop an addiction or embezzle money or engage in any other sort of risky behavior. You’ll only be stopped by the natural consequences of your actions, whether legal or merely predictably unfortunate.
You can go out and get a bad haircut or wear unflattering pants or start a project you’ll never finish. You can buy a ticket to a boring movie with a weak ending. You can hoard up your house or go three years without cleaning your bathroom. You can do a lot of stuff that isn’t really all that great an idea, and no one will stop you.
What this all means is that it’s up to you. Whether you love your life or shuffle through it in boredom and resentment is up to you. Whether you live out your dreams or cringe in avoidance of someone else’s disapproval is up to you. Whether you transform your body or go back to school or change careers is up to you. You have choices and you have the power to take action on them. No one will stop you. Let your path be dictated by your own insights, not your naysayers.
It’s that time again. I went to the grocery store, walking in behind an employee with a massive display arch of helium balloons, because I live in a musical and that kind of thing is happening around us all the time. Out front the hay bales had already been set up. Technically it’s still summer, but the winds have changed and autumn is coming.
School is back in session and the pumpkins are out.
The winds are changing, blowing through, sweeping old dust out of the corners wherever they can.
What’s different this year compared to last year?
I’m a summer person, and in a lot of ways, fall makes me antsy. I know the days are getting shorter and the cold, wet weather is coming. I also start to count off the weeks that are left until the New Year. That’s my ultimate watershed moment, the way I measure whether I’m doing as well as I want and whether my plans are working out.
I also feel the glimmer of possibility, that what felt like an endless summer on an 80-degree day is now about to run out. Any warm and sunny day seems more valuable, perhaps the last chance to run around and enjoy it until next year. Have I had a picnic, have I sat under a beach umbrella, have I sauntered along in the park?
Those in the Southern Hemisphere can use my wistful feelings of summer passing toward planning fun things to do in the coming months. Please do!
There are other ways besides seasonal change to take notice when a fresh wind blows in. What’s changing around us? Is this indicative of a trend?
Your boss or a former colleague gets a promotion
Someone you know is getting divorced
One of your friend’s kids suddenly becomes a teenager, and how did that happen??
Someone is moving
The neighbors are cleaning up their yard
We bumped into one of our young ones at the coffee shop. She’s excited because she just started taking a class on American Sign Language. I showed her the few pathetic signs I learned in childhood, when my mom’s best friend happened to be Deaf. Cookie, I’m sorry, bathroom, parachute. Useful signs for a four-year-old! A wind blew in with her, a breezy possibility of learning new things and making new friends.
Why didn’t I take the opportunity to learn to sign more from my mom, my ex-husband, or any of my other friends or boyfriends who know how to sign? My dusty old brain needs sweeping out.
Like everyone, I’m surrounded by fresh opportunities all the time. Some of them I notice, some of them I don’t, and some of them I don’t even recognize or understand. Whenever a breeze kicks up it’s my job to perk up and pay attention.
This is something we feel in our new apartment, in our new neighborhood. The microclimate is ever so subtly different than it was in our old place, two miles away. On the top floor instead of the ground floor, we’re now able to get a great cross-breeze day and night. We actually have more than one window. This makes our daily life feel wildly different, even though we’re in a similarly sized place, quite nearby, with the same job and the same friends as before.
It’s always surprising how many people never open their windows. One of the indicators of hoarding that I notice in my ambit is when drapes are never opened, but are visibly pressed against a window by the stacks of clutter behind them. A dim and dusty room should never deprive a person of fresh air and sunlight, no matter what the neighbors might think.
We’ve just moved, into a place that feels breezy and bright, and it’s changing everything. We’ve rearranged our furniture four times in a month, constantly reconfiguring as we cull our stuff and adapt to the new conditions. We invited our friends over and the room filled with laughter, wall to wall. The best kind of breeze of all.
What if a wind blew in and it changed everything? What would that be like?
What if everything around us was arbitrary and subject to change? What if our petty annoyances simply blew away? What if we realized that our biggest problems were secretly only problems of perspective? What if the wind changed, and then our minds changed too?
I’ve felt this in my life, as I’ve relocated, traveled, changed jobs, transformed my body. Body transformation is probably the weirdest one, wandering back and forth over eight clothing sizes, but it tends to show that anything is possible. Paying off debt is possible, training for a new career is possible, finding love is possible, forgiveness is possible. Certainly unloading clutter and redesigning a room is possible, and it can be done in a day with a little hustle. Bustle and bustle, hear the leaves rustle.
If you’re big into the holiday season, now is the time to start getting ready. There is still plenty of time to make space, to design a Halloween costume, to plan a Thanksgiving menu, to finish off some New Year’s Resolutions. All the stuff you will wish you had done the week before, you can start doing now, as a cute and fun gift for Future You.
Social deadlines are the best deadlines, as long as we’re doing something appealing and we’re genuinely looking forward to it. Decorating, hosting a party, and breaking out the special holiday treats are all excellent motivation for getting stuff done. As the wind blows in, telling me that fall is here, I’m looking forward to a full month of Halloween. I’m clearing the decks and making sure I have no reason not to indulge myself.
Open the window. Do you feel the wind blowing in?
Work is that place you go where everything drives you nuts and you can’t tell the truth about it. Right?
It’s a truism that most people are going to work because they have to, for the money, in spite of every possible discouragement: Being simultaneously overworked without challenge, bored but unable to take time off, wasting time at pointless meetings, having no creative input, with a micromanaging boss who is an obstacle to productivity, all with a long commute. Yay hooray.
Does it have to be that way, though?
When I got my first office temp job, I was so excited I didn’t know what to do. My previous job had been at a convenience store, so go figure. Literally anything is better than wiping up day-glo nacho cheese while listening to a hyperactive child play with the doorbell. This was a purely entry-level job, standing in front of a photocopier. Other temps had walked off the job on their first day. One of them quit after two hours, remarking, “I don’t have to do this.”
Faced with one of the most boring possible things, the human mind will wander, looking for some way to add excitement. I saw it as a great big video game that generated money. Try to beat the copier and keep it going so you don’t have to wait while it warms up for a new cycle. Count how many copies you make and try for a new high score.
My positive, upbeat attitude attracted the attention of the staff. They taught me things. I caught on quickly, and more people taught me more things. Their backlog disappeared. I started supporting two dozen people with basic administrative tasks.
Obviously other people would look at this as servitude, which it was - doing other people’s scutwork for low pay and no benefits. Seven dollars an hour was better than minimum wage, but it didn’t go very far. Ah, but almost everyone I knew in those days worked in either retail or food service. I had what almost none of my friends or acquaintances had. I had evenings and weekends off! I could predict my schedule months in advance! I didn’t have to hustle for tips, wear a uniform, or get pulled in to cover other people’s shifts.
Also, the basic skills I learned are skills I use every day, in my personal as well as professional life, skills that neither my family, high school, nor college had to offer.
The fact-finding mission of my first office job ever was to find out, What is it like to work in an office in a professional setting?
I liked it. I always have. I love the business world for so many reasons, the predictability and structure most of all. It is hilarious and surreal in many ways, a self-parodying comedy machine in which we’re never supposed to break character or peek through the fourth wall. Yet overall it’s a clean and well-mannered place to spend time.
Right now I’m on a bit of a true crime kick, and it has struck me that it might be very interesting to work in a law office. That’s one of the few fields where I have never worked. Suddenly it clicked that I could easily get a job as a paralegal, where I would learn everything I want to know...
And unlike school...
THEY would pay ME!
There may well be someone reading this who has a job as a paralegal. “You can HAVE it!” this person is thinking. Scoff scoff. This hypothetical person already knows everything that I do not know, and is thus no longer approaching the job with curiosity. I understand that as many people leave the legal profession every year as those who enter it, that it’s draining in the long term. It doesn’t bother me because I don’t want or need an administrative support role in the long term, and I would openly state as much in an interview.
“I will work for you with great curiosity and interest, and you will throw everything you can at me as my incentive. If and when it quits working out, no harm no foul.” Or something along those lines. I can speak business jargon at least as well as anyone else.
Literally every employed person has the option to replace one job with another. We’re all free to bring in whatever attitude we choose. We just don’t realize it.
So you replace one boring, unfulfilling, low-paid job with another. What have you lost? If you already know your current position or field depletes your energy, why stay?
I think what gets most people is interpersonal dynamics. We start feeling crushed by management, by bureaucracy, by colleagues, by clients or patients or customers. What makes the day difficult isn’t the work itself, it’s the social atmosphere. Mood, in other words. The thought of revising a resume, going after new credentials, or interviewing fills us with dread.
I’ve never had a client who was willing to do a job search - the very thought makes them quake with terror, even if their job is the worst part of their life.
It’s the key to freedom, though!
You can’t go on a trip without booking the tickets. You can’t move to your dream home without packing and changing your address. You can’t find romance without introducing yourself to your future sweetheart. You can’t get your dream job without that pesky old interview.
Every improvement comes from change.
It’s possible that someone who has been languishing in a soul-crushing job could transform it by turning it into a fact-finding mission. Possible? Trying to figure that out is a fact-finding mission all on its own. It’s worth a try.
The ultimate fact-finding mission is to figure out what it is that makes other people fulfilled and satisfied, even invigorated, by their work. Are we doing what they’re doing? It’s when we’re most engaged that we’re offering the most, and getting the most in return.
Passion is overrated. This is the message of The Passion Paradox. This research-based book helps to distinguish between different types of passion, positive and negative, which is something that pop culture could really use right now. We can thank Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness for offering a message that is much more nuanced and interesting than a million memes and fridge magnets.
The term ‘passion’ originally had dark and religious meanings. It wasn’t a feeling that people would associate with a dream job, say, or interior design. Passion was (and probably still is) a form of suffering, just as nostalgia was considered an illness. I can tell you, as a person afflicted with a lifelong passion for birdwatching, that I do sometimes question why I am bushwhacking through brambles and waist-high weeds just to look at a bird for a few minutes.
Dopamine, that’s why. There are biological reasons why some people are ‘passionate’ and others less so. There are also psychological roots, and passion can lead to obsession and addiction. Whatever else it does, passion does not guarantee a path to happiness; it’s not comfortable.
Two ways that the search for passion can mess us up are the destiny belief of love and the fit mind-set of passion. The first is the belief in “soulmates” rather than that relationships take work, and the second is a sense that there is a “dream job” out there for everyone. These beliefs convince us that any difficulty, awkwardness, or less-than-perfect feelings mean a job or relationship aren’t right for us. This in turn can lead us to quit rather than putting in any effort, meaning we destroy our own chances at happiness before they have a chance to get anywhere.
The Passion Paradox does more than identify problems with our pop culture perception of passion. This book teaches ways to deal with hedonic adaptation and fear of failure. Unexpectedly, it suggests that we seek out ways to experience awe and develop a greater perspective. It also encourages enhancing our self-awareness. Ultimately, we can incorporate a health and balanced passion into our very identity.
Everyone tells us to find our passion but no one tells us how to find it, let alone how to live with it.
After a massive achievement or a devastating failure, getting back to work serves as an embodied reminder that external results aren’t why you are in this.
Be most intent not on winning or losing, but on becoming better—stronger, kinder, and wiser—than your past self.
You simply cannot be deeply passionate and balanced in combination.
Boredom is one way to avoid the fear of missing out. Simply don’t care about anything and have no interests. Problem solved! For those of us who aren’t really capable of feeling bored, FoMO can be a real problem. No matter what we’re doing, there is always something else going on that sounds amazing, there are always tons of choices and alternate paths, and always the potential sense of loss for the roads not taken. It can eat a hole into any experience.
Fortunately all it takes is an attitude adjustment.
There are a bunch of ways to do it:
First and most boring, we can try to remember how lucky we are that we’re doing this right now instead of, say, lying in bed with the flu, getting a root canal, or loading a moving van. Oh yeah! Suddenly I am remembering what a great day this is!
Funny how we only feel like we’re missing out on the variety of appealing options, not the depressing or scary options...
We can try to remember that no matter what we’re doing, someone somewhere else in the world is doing something equally interesting. That person might happily trade places with us. Desire for novelty is built into the human system, and in that way we have much in common with crows. Just because we can see the attraction of something else does not mean that the other thing is superior to what we have in front of us.
I had occasion to think about this while walking in London. My husband and I passed a pair of Brits. He wore a Los Angeles sweatshirt and she wore a Disneyland t-shirt. They’d gone all the way to our neighborhood at some point, because it is so great, and we had packed up and met them all the way in their neighborhood for the same reason. Hook arms and do-si-do, swing your partner round and round.
We can try to remind ourselves that we can always make plans and come back again another time. Travel is simply a question of priorities. There are tons of ways to make it happen, from relocating or working in a travel-related field to house swapping to saving money, and lots and lots more. People are doing it every day.
One way of looking at vacation FoMO is to regard it as a sign that we are enjoying ourselves and we’ve discovered something that we like. Not everyone has a passion, not everyone is very much in touch with their sense of fun or their heart’s desire. Longing to stay somewhere or to go back again is a bright blinking arrow pointing in a clear direction.
What I’m working on right now is the sense that, rather than missing out on something or anything, I’m really just constantly surrounded by almost infinite possibilities. Every time I read a book, I’m not missing out on a hundred million other books, I just happen to be into that one at that moment. Every time I have a conversation with a friend, I’m not missing out on conversations with other people, I’m just fortunate to be catching up with this particular friend at this moment. When I’m somewhere on vacation, likewise, I’m not missing out on anything.
Even though it feels that way sometimes!
This FoMO feeling, it’s insidious. It’s like a leak in the ceiling.
Everyone told us, when we asked where we should go in London, “Oh, you should definitely see the Sky Garden.” Never mind that it turned out to be booked solid for the entire window of availability. Same thing with the Buckingham Palace garden tour. If we were to shed a tear every time something like that happened on a trip, we’d never have any fun at all.
Instead we realize that a place like London is absolutely full of magnificent parks and gardens, most of which are free to visit, have no lines, and include plenty of places to sit.
We find ourselves in Kensington Gardens, with ringneck parrots landing on us and eating out of our hands, something we had no idea would be a possibility on our trip, or in this lifetime.
FoMO is a denial of serendipity. Ultimately it’s a way of trying to control that which should not always be controlled. The point of travel is to see the world the way it is, not the way we’ve imagined it from our sofa cushions at home. It works so much better when we leave room for a bit of magic. In that sense we’re only really missing out when we stay at home and refuse to disrupt our boring old routine.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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