Where do people learn to say “Neener neener neener”? Who was the first person to actually say that to someone? It could so easily have gone the other way - someone looks at someone and says “neener neener neener” and the other person just looks back and says, “Huh? I don’t understand what you said.” Or, “Stop trying to make ‘neener neener neener’ a thing.” It spread so quickly because it’s just the most effective way to taunt people. There will probably be drone toys at some point that will play robot keep-away with us, while going ‘neener neener’ in a digital monotone. Anyway. There are a lot of flippant formulaic responses of this nature, phrases that are used to dismiss or refute what someone is saying. One of these phrases from my childhood was “How does it feel to want?”
Ice cream truck drives up the street
Child: Uh! I want ice cream!
Adult: How does it feel to want?
Child: I want ice cream!
Adult: Yeah, well, I want a million dollars.
Child: I wish I had some ice cream.
Adult: Wish in one hand, spit in the other, which one fills up first?
This is the demographic reality. For anyone below the economic median, one of the most vital lessons an adult can teach a child is how to deal with frustrated desires. Stoicism 101. You just have to learn to deal. Disappointment is your lot in life. Once you can learn that ice cream is for everyone but you, you can start to find inner strength and grit and the pride of being above that sort of thing. Right? This is why kids in my milieu got the “how does it feel to want?” message from random adults, not just parents or relatives.
While it’s true that chasing after every ice cream truck would be really distracting, and that deferred gratification is one of the fundamentals of adulting, let’s go into this a bit more.
How does it feel to want?
Usually when I think I want ice cream, what I really want is something else. Joy. Rewards. Validation. A shared social experience. Distraction. Escape. It’s not usually just that I want to stimulate my tongue. Surely I’ve realized by now that only the first three bites really taste like anything.
The other thing about ice cream as an example is that it’s something I can get 24 hours a day for about a dollar. I can keep ice cream in my freezer - I can fill my entire freezer with ice cream if I like - and I can get up and eat a bite of it every 20 minutes if I so please. So what?
What could possibly, possibly be more boring than a life of total hedonism?
We ought to be wanting more. Something bigger. Something that a six-year-old probably wouldn’t think of. Such as: I want to build my own sailboat, take sailing lessons, and sail around the world.
Actually, wait. That kind of does sound like something a six-year-old might want.
Kids are better at big dreams than we are. Another way to put that is that we start out with vast amazing dreams, and they’re trained out of us. We’re carefully taught to quit thinking that we could actually have that, live that, be that. It’s selfish and delusional! Give up already! Who do you think you are??
Aw, don’t cry. Have an ice cream.
The truth is that people’s dreams tend to be tragically under-wrought. We get stuck on “lose weight” and “get organized” and “pay off debt.” Yeah, and then what? You could do all three of those things in one calendar year if you wanted. You could completely empty a hoarded three-story house, lose a hundred pounds, and pay off $50,000 in debt if you decided to do it. What are you going to do the year after that?
What would you ask for if the fairies came and told you your wishes would all be granted?
So you want to lose weight. If you woke up tomorrow with the body of an Olympic gold medalist, what would you do?
So you want to get organized. If you woke up tomorrow and learned you had won an executive assistant, professional organizer, interior designer, chef, maid, and chauffeur for life, what would you do?
So you want to pay off your debts. If you woke up tomorrow and, instead of debt, that number was your cash balance, what would you do?
What would you do with unlimited strength, vitality, mental clarity, and financial wealth?
What a bummer it would be! Because what I really, really want most of all is for someone to listen raptly while I share the minute details of why I Am Annoyed or That Person Hurt My Feelings.
It’s even harder to image the possibilities there. What if I woke up tomorrow and people didn’t annoy me anymore? Not that they learned to behave themselves, because come on, that’s never going to happen. Just that when people got up to shenanigans, it didn’t bother me anymore. What if people kept saying rude things the way they do, refusing to keep their commitments the way they do, and it just rolled off my back? What if I found that I no longer reacted to emotional bombardment?
I’ve been practicing wanting more, and it’s really hard. It’s hard to come up with ideas. Basically right now I’m stuck on “buy new socks when I wear holes in the toes of my old socks without feeling guilty about it.” When I turn on the fantasy faucet and try out different images, I keep getting stuck on stuff that involves someone waiting on me, which I reject. Other people adore being waited on: getting manicures or spa treatments, breakfast in bed, having drinks brought to them. I have to train myself not to let my resistance to this feeling block my imagination from thinking of desirable things that don’t involve over-the-top service.
What would be some things I could want?
To be better at wildlife photography, which probably means buying a better camera and spending more time in nature
To be fluent in a foreign language, which means restructuring my schedule and giving myself half an hour a day. And then finding someone who doesn’t speak English and talking to them.
To spend time just staring at the ceiling and listening to music, the way I did quite naturally as a teenager
Yep. Those are things I can allow myself to want, things that are in my reach right now. To look at that list reminds me that I don’t direct my time toward my dreams. I spend so much of it in passive entertainment or rehashing the events of the day or grumbling about what is in my life that I don’t want. I can’t push myself to want things that I can’t imagine, things that would be so awesome that they would upend my entire sense of who I am.
What else could I want? To fit in and feel comfortable in a higher stratum than I ever had before? To feel more like myself in a stronger, more active body than I’ve ever experienced? To feel confident and powerful whenever I think about my finances? To feel the drive to move toward my goals and steamroll right over my anxiety and lack of assurance? To feel compassion or amusement instead of frustration with other people? Could I actually want to feel like I really have free will? The hardest thing to want is to want total accountability, the responsibility to create our own conditions. It’s hard to want the choice.
Cinderella never really fit in. She got her prince, but he liked her best when she was either singing or silent. She didn’t catch all the references and cultural allusions at state dinners. Graceful as she was, she never really nailed the protocol. Sometimes, when they were alone, she’d get moody and start reminiscing about her past, and though he tried to be sympathetic at first, it started to wear on him. It seemed that no matter what he said, no matter how many dazzling gowns and jewels he bought her, no matter how many servants she had to wait on her hand and foot, he could never really dispel her melancholy. He caught her chatting with a scullery maid one afternoon. She didn’t really have any friends in the palace. Cinderella, lovely, lonely, and bored.
Crossing socioeconomic boundaries, in either direction, is an under-explored emotional challenge. Oh, sure, there are always plenty of stories about people who formerly had money or nice homes, only to have the rug pulled out from under them after a financial setback. What we’re missing are the stories of those of us who have risen past our original level. Nobody tells us that it can be confusing or that we may have negative feelings about it.
Survivor guilt is a real thing. It holds us back. We feel guilty if we are more financially successful than our parents, if we go farther in school, if we wind up living in a nicer home. This can come from external sources as well, if siblings or extended family start calling and dropping by with their hands outstretched.
For the record, my brothers are both extremely hardworking, and neither of them has asked for a nickel since maybe the age of eight. Our parents did a stellar job of raising frugal, industrious kids. One of my main drivers toward success is the desire to compete with my brothers, who have in fact mocked me and laughed until they fell over sideways when I was underemployed and struggling. “Do you want a ride in the WAAAAAmbulance? How about a whaaaaburger and French cries?” Everyone should be so lucky.
Seriously, familial attitudes about money go bone deep. Most of us probably aren’t even aware of the messages we carry around about how money works, how the economy supposedly works, and what exactly constitutes a work ethic. The same is true about what marriage means, how to raise kids, how to eat, how to clean house, what are acceptable house rules for Monopoly, whether a gentleman may wear a short-sleeved button-down shirt to a wedding, and a million other things.
Scarcity mindset clamps on like the claws of a crab dragging another crab back into the crab pot. Have you seen this? A dog will help another dog get through a hole in the fence, but crabs will unite to drag a brave escapee back into the bucket. If you know what I mean by this, then you know what I mean.
It’s hard to go back to the old neighborhood. Everything looks so small and shabby. Then it gets into you. It gets in like an evil fog, that feeling of how things used to be, and then you have to go home and look at your new life with old eyes, the perspective of everyone else in your old stomping grounds.
I was at the DMV one day, coincidentally the same one where I got my first provisional driver’s permit (first of three). For some reason, someone in line said something positive about Californians, and the guy behind me in line said, “Yeah, but they’re arrogant though.” This was a mind-bending moment for me. I felt recognition and total sympathy with what the guy was saying, while also instantly judging his clothes, his personal hygiene, and his teeth. Arrogance is what happens when your car runs reliably, you can afford to go to the dentist, and none of your clothes or shoes have holes in them. I mean, yes, there is arrogance in that, and even as I say it, I feel the heartlessness of it. Having everything in your life work correctly without constant obstacles could be the baseline for everyone in the world, but instead, it’s pretty much upper-middle-class. (Middle class is the same thing, only with debt and no retirement savings).
I remember. Every appliance and piece of plumbing has a chip or a dent or a malfunction, or all three. Nothing matches. Everything is broken down. If it isn’t melted, scratched, or crooked, it’s held together with duct tape or JB Weld. You just keep your head down and make do the best you can. Eat it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.
Being the crab who crawls out of the crab pot isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. (See what I did there). You feel bad for the other crabs. You’re also outside of the crab pot, alone, with no crab friends to drag you down all the time.
The thing is, whatever compassion and guilt we may feel for anyone who gets left behind, sabotaging our own success won’t help them. Succeeding is what helps them. First off, we stop being the one who needs to be bailed out all the time. It’s worth doing anything that means you aren’t someone else’s problem. We set an example. We develop connections that we can exploit for the benefit of anyone we can help, which middle-class people do as easily as breathing. They call it “networking.” We take point, going ahead down the trail and figuring out how things work in this alien land called Notbrokeistan.
Class means two things: how much money we have, and what values we carry. It’s started changing recently, but most Americans will describe themselves as middle class, whether they earn $20,000 a year or $200,000. I believe this means that most of us mean “I value having a family and a house and a Puritan work ethic.” It’s funny that as I’ve risen up the ladder, I’ve started to see home ownership as a liability and credit as a useful tool, both attitudes that completely mystify almost everyone I know. I never saw myself as middle class when I was poor, so it wasn’t all that difficult to shake off what I always saw as a distinct package of ideas. I see upper-middle-class and upper-class ideas about money as other distinct packages, and poverty ideas, too. They come in sets.
Do you know what’s true about poor people? Poor-poor and homeless-poor? They’re much friendlier than everyone else. They know each other and they stop to say hello. Homeless people keep track of each other and look out for one another. This is part of what makes it difficult to climb out of the crab pot. You “think you’re too good for us” all of a sudden while also never quite figuring out the shibboleths and unwritten rules of the next level.
It’s your duty to rise as high as you can go, and do you know why? Because otherwise you’re taking someone else’s spot. The spot you are in right now IS the highest spot that someone else can reach, at least for now. The minute you jump for the next highest branch, they put out a Help Wanted sign and your successor reaches a hand up. The minute you give notice to your landlord that you’re moving out, they put out a Vacancy sign and the next tenant puts on their happy playlist and starts packing, ready to leave their old place, for which someone else is also waiting. So get out of the way already.
The problem is the problem. What do I mean by this? I mean that the more attention we give to a persistent problem, the more we start to think of it as a powerful force in its own right, the more we believe that we’re stuck with it, and the less able we feel to eliminate it. When we fixate on a problem, we forget that other people may not have this same problem, so it never occurs to us to ask what they might be doing differently. We see everything in terms of the paradigm of this particular problem.
Probably the most relatable example of the problem being the problem is the example of the bad romance. I once loved a boy who was a liar and a cheat. He would cheat and lie, and then I would find out, and I would cry and feel totally nauseated, but then I would forgive him, and he would do it again. I’d rather not admit how long it took for me to realize that he was never going to change and that being with him was a trap. There was nothing I could do in the context of that relationship to be happy and satisfied. Middle-aged me looks back at dumb young me and wonders why I ever wanted that guy in the first place.
When I was in debt, it felt like I would be in debt forever. I didn’t earn very much at my job, and it felt like that would last forever, too. From my current perspective and my current income, it’s almost laughable how long it took me to pay off $1000 on two credit cards and a personal loan of $600. (My debt burden mostly consisted of student loans and a car loan).
When I was in pain every day, it felt like that was just my new reality. My doctors told me that my thyroid disease was genetic (maybe) and there was nothing I could do about it (false). Everything I read said that fibromyalgia was incurable (also false). Nothing I read or heard indicated that I could escape chronic pain through strenuous exercise, nutrition, and improved sleep.
When I was obese, I didn’t think I was fat at all. I thought I was just average, and in my circle of acquaintance, that’s probably true. I knew no athletes or even anyone who went to a gym. I didn’t think my weight had anything to do with anything. Now it boggles my mind that I could be 35 pounds heavier and not think it was a problem. It also astonishes me that I never realized the connection between my weight and my migraines, something that is clear and obvious to me after three years without one.
Almost all problems are universal. If other people aren’t facing a particular problem right this minute, they probably have at some point in the past, or they’re going to. Death of loved ones, illness, injury, job loss of someone in the family, gossip, rudeness, betrayal, injustice. We all feel the same emotions of grief, loss, disappointment, confusion, and hurt. As hard as it is to be crushed under the wheel of fate from time to time, it makes life even harder to tolerate the persistent problems in the background.
Follow the default lifestyle, get the default results. Complain and do nothing, hang out with other people who complain and do nothing, and ten years from now you’ll have the exact same problems. Hate your job, hate your boss, hate your coworkers, hate your customers, have constant power struggles with everyone close to you, and you are at the mercy of other people who control your happiness. That’s default. Complaining is a distraction. We seek out comfort, validation, and proof of personal loyalty, none of which are effective ways to eliminate persistent problems.
The real problem is that resolving problems takes 1. Decisions and 2. Actions, both of which will most likely be difficult and challenging. It’s the willingness to do difficult things that eliminates problems. But it will be HARD! It will take A REALLY LONG TIME! I’m NOT IN THE MOOD! A solution-oriented person understands that living with a persistent problem is harder in the long run than taking difficult action today.
Breaking up with the cheating boyfriend was hard, but it wasn’t as hard as living with the hurt and the indecision. Paying off my consumer debt was hard, but only for about three years, and from my current perspective I believe I should have done it faster with the resources available to me. Losing 35 pounds was hard, but if I’d known I could do it in a few months and be migraine-free forevermore, I would have done it years earlier. Living with chronic pain and fatigue was, well, it was dreadful really. It was complicated and it had multiple sources. If I knew then what I know now about picking apart my persistent problems and methodically eliminating them, I believe I could have beat it years sooner as well.
Root cause analysis is an engineering term that refers to the process of figuring out what is going wrong. It’s something that should be taught in every discipline.
Why does my foot hurt/oh, I stepped on a nail/because I walked through a pile of construction debris/and now I need to update my tetanus shot/and not walk there anymore/and look where I’m going.
I dated a cheater/because I never knew to set boundaries about exclusivity/or negotiate for my needs.
I’m late all the time/because I don’t know how long it takes me to get ready/and my stuff is disorganized.
I’m overweight/because I sit down with three cans of Pepsi and a can of Pringles when I study at night/and I have no idea what is the right amount for me to eat.
The first step to overcoming a persistent problem is to find someone who doesn’t have that problem, preferably someone who had the problem at some point in the past and found a way to solve it. I solved my cheating boyfriend problem after a conversation with a friend who said, “It sounds like he’s just being mean to you!” Ding! Why would I date someone who was mean to me? Dismissed. I solved my weight problem after talking to another friend who suggested that I keep a food log. Getting rid of problems means being willing to be wrong, being willing to receive annoying and unwelcome advice, and being determined to figure out a better way. The problem is only the problem if you believe the problem has power over you.
Does jumping over open flame, climbing a rope, running a marathon, backpacking thirty miles off grid into the wilderness, hugging strangers, or entering a public speaking competition count as confidence? If so, then I guess I’m confident. Technically. I want to talk a bit about where confidence comes from and how many people are faking it.
I’m small. I was always one of the very smallest kids in my class due to my summer birthday. As an adult, I have a small frame, I wear a child-size bike helmet, bracelets won’t stay on my hands, and I even wear B-width narrow shoes. I’m a double-extra small person with a high, small voice. I feel my small size constantly, when I can’t reach cabinets, when I stand next to anyone, when I can’t reach stuff on the top shelf at the grocery store, when I fit comfortably in the middle seat on an airplane. (Okay, being tiny has its advantages). I sometimes wonder whether a large bird of prey could physically grab me by the shoulders and carry me off. I suspect yes.
It’s not just that I’m small and have always been small. I have some physical frailties and a history of chronic illness. I am by no means a robust person; I would never claim to have stamina. What I do have is mega-quantities of grit. I know my physical limits, and thus I’m willing to go without sleep, carry heavy weights, climb steep inclines, cover miles on foot, and venture into relatively dangerous terrain. I can push myself into certain scary situations because they are known quantities. Understanding what to expect helps bring experiences from the realm of danger into the realm of challenge, perhaps even over that boundary into adventure. Others feel the same activities as thrills or routine. I don’t have to be where they are to go where they go, if that makes sense.
Confidence, to me, means that I have a pretty good idea of what to do. It does not mean that I don’t feel nervous or downright frightened. Case in point. The day I wrote this, I was accosted by a large, angry, insane shirtless man while I was trying to catch a bus. Freak magnet, that’s me… I assessed the situation and determined that there was a greater than thirty percent chance that this man would physically interfere with me. This did not fit my plans for the day. I pulled out my phone and started mapping out the next bus stop up the street, from whence I could place calls without being obvious. Before I could finish, two police vehicles pulled up, caging us in. I found myself in the midst of an arrest; the large, angry, insane shirtless man had evidently been threatening passersby with a screwdriver shortly before I walked up. A cop shouted at me. (It’s okay; later he apologized quite sweetly and I thanked him for doing his work). Was I afraid for my personal safety during that five-minute window? Yes, of course I was. I’ve worked with insane people in a variety of contexts. Most crazy people aren’t really scary, just unpredictable. This particular guy was predictably dangerous, looming into my space, shouting at me, staring at me from no more than four inches away, gradually ratcheting up his behavior. My confidence came from experience; I knew not to engage, respond, or make eye contact. If this man did grab me or touch me in any way, I was prepared to escalate. I was already implementing my exit strategy. The element of surprise is on my side, because anyone who is threatening me has assumed that he will prevail.
What actually happened at that bus stop? What happened was a typical urban encounter. We were surrounded by dozens of people (in cars and buildings; on the sidewalk across the street) with space-age communications devices. They handled it. I had no idea that help was already on its way. (We were also literally across the street from the Supreme Court building). Was I really ever unsafe? Probably not. I even caught my bus on time.
Most situations that make us nervous are not physically threatening at all. They just feel that way. We feel the same physiological responses that we would if we saw a saber-tooth tiger sauntering up the street. We’re afraid to flirt, we’re afraid to go on job interviews, we’re afraid to go to parties where we don’t know anyone, we’re afraid to negotiate for raises and promotions, we’re afraid to ask people on dates, we’re afraid to try new foods, we’re afraid to start our own businesses, we’re afraid to wear two-piece swimsuits, we’re afraid to try new dance steps. What we’re really afraid of is not physical danger at all; it’s social danger! We usually only lack confidence when it comes to interacting with other humans. Think about it again. How many times is someone in a job interview or on the dance floor going to act like the large, angry, insane shirtless man?
I was bullied pretty intensively as a child. I grew up feeling like a social pariah, which is sad and tough on a little kid. All I wanted was to have friends and people who liked me. Then I got a little older. I figured, if people were going to be mean to me no matter what I did, then why should I care anymore what they thought of me? I learned to steel myself against taunts and just do what I wanted to do. As an adult, I give zero fox. If you don’t like me, neat. Go… go Netflix and chill or something. I have things to do. There are seven billion people in this world, and the number of fellow humans who are going to appreciate me is a statistical anomaly. My real friends know that I’m a funny and sweet person who will cook for you when you’re sick, help you move, fly across country for your wedding, and show up when you really need me. I have nothing to prove to anyone else. And that’s why I get to do what I want, all the time.
I feel physiologically anxious and nervous all the time. I mean, speaking as a person with a tendency toward night terrors, most people probably have not felt as anxious as me! Try waking up shaking and crying in your living room with no idea how you got there. When I walk down a flight of stairs, I always worry that I’ll fall headlong. When I go hiking, I always worry that there will be a cougar or a bear. When I give speeches, my feet sweat and my hands shake. These feel like reasonable responses to me, the same feelings that almost anyone would have in the same situation. Feeling anxious and worried is just like being impatient in a long line or being annoyed when someone bumps into you. Universal human response. Being confident doesn’t mean that you don’t feel those feelings; it means you expect them and you believe you can handle it anyway.
If you’re reading this, you’re alive right now. (Well, um, I assume so!). That means you’ve survived literally every single thing that has ever happened to you. It also means you have survived every random thought you ever had, wondering about all the million and five possible calamities that never befell you. Chances are pretty good that you’ll continue to survive all of your worries and anxieties and concerns and what-ifs. I think it helps to just tell yourself, Eh, I can handle this. Because you most likely can, and besides, that’s what everyone else is doing.
World Domination Summit is in full swing. I woke up at 4:30 this morning, for no particular reason other than that I was so keyed up. It’s possible that WDS actually stands for We Don’t Sleep. We’re riding the bus downtown, getting ready for a full day of academies, a meetup, and dinner with my family. That’s a relatively mellow day! This is just one day in a busy week during which almost every minute is scheduled to the hilt. It’s when we have this intense desire to take in every scrap of information and engage with every possible opportunity that we feel like we’re drinking from the fire hose.
The more options we have in any arena, the more likely we are to feel a sense of FoMO. I’m doing everything, but somehow there are still things I am not doing! I wasn’t there! I missed the punchline! Everyone was partying without me! I’m not in the group photo!!! Wait, was there… cake??? I don’t care what they say, I CAN be in three places at once. I am omnipresent. I can apparate at will. I am somehow going to sit in this chair in this room, stand by that window in that other room, and get swept away by a conversation over there in the stairwell. ALL AT THE SAME TIME!
The brain wants what the brain wants.
When I feel this way, I try to pause and remind myself of the existence of this magical thing called the Internet. I can never possibly watch every video, connect with every person, read every article, look at every meme, follow every blog, or use every app. Even if I somehow thought I could, the moment I blinked there would be a trillion new uploads. I’m able to rest with this. Still I struggle with the bleak reality that I will never be able to read every book ever written.
…actually, I need a moment. I think there’s something in my eye.
We were talking the other day about how much I need a time turner (although I’m not Hermione Granger; I’m really more of a Luna Lovegood). I said, “The first thing I would do is leave it in my pocket and accidentally run it through the washing machine.” Accepting that we have to do all this stuff in the time dimension is something of a lifetime-level emotional project.
I’m looking at things differently after leading my own workshop. It’s a peek behind the curtain. As much as I feel FoMO about all the stuff I’m missing and all the things I won’t have time to do, I now recognize that all the speakers and presenters are also feeling a certain amount of FoMO about all the stuff they wish they had said. There’s a whole ocean of information behind the stream that comes out of that fire hose. Spending an hour or three hours in a classroom is only the tiniest drop of what that person could teach, given more time.
MORE TIME! I NEED MORE TIME!
I gave my workshop yesterday. In Toastmasters everyone always says there are three speeches: the speech you wrote, the speech you gave, and the speech you give in the car on the way home. On the surface, mine went well enough. People stayed for the whole thing, they took tons of notes, they laughed, they asked questions. I ran long, fifty percent more than scheduled. Still a half dozen people hung out afterward to ask more questions. As far as listener engagement, I did well. I’m trying to acknowledge myself for that. But…
There was so much more I wanted to say! There were entire sections of my supposed “outline” that I didn’t even touch on! I went totally off-grid, off-script, although fortunately not off-topic. (If I’d started talking about money it would have all been over). Part of why I woke up at 4:30 was that my feeble mortal brain immediately started spinning over all the things I wish I had said. Where’s my rewind button?
That’s not how it works, though. We have the moments we have. It’s life that we’re living, not waiting for the real thing to start, but the actual real thing. That’s the magnificent flaw, that we never realize until later that there was this moment, here and gone, this one half-fledged moment we had to connect and engage and experience. It’s flown off with nary a feather left behind. The rightnow bird is always on the wing.
Usual disclaimer: This post will contain foul language, and I’m assuming that if you’re put off by that kind of thing, you quit reading when you saw the text on the book cover. The rest of you, since you’ve kept reading, fuck yeah! Let’s do this. Read this book. You’ll love it. Mark Manson is one of the smartest people on the internet, one of the few writers who reliably floors me and fascinates me. There are other books about learning how not to give a fuck, but The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life is a book of a higher order. Original thoughts FTW.
BTW: For at least a year, I thought ‘FTW’ meant “Fuck The World” rather than “For The Win.” I’d keep reading statements like “Nachos FTW!” And I’d be like, “Well, it can’t be all that bad, at least you have nachos.” That’s what happens when you put fucks where they don’t belong.
Where do I even start with this book? It’s full of truth bombs, for one thing. If you can read it unflinchingly and recognize yourself in even one chapter, if you can say, Ah, yes, so this is the name for my problem, then you can walk away with total freedom. Another interesting thing is that, for a book with so much cursing, drugs, sex, nihilism, and poor choices, it has a secret upbeat message, like the core of a Tootsie Pop, except that the lollipop is glass and you don’t get the candy until the middle.
Stop caring about stuff. Accept your flaws. Admit it when you’re being selfish. Life is pain and most goals won’t get us what we really want.
I often measure my interest in a book by how many pages I’ve bookmarked. I counted, and I averaged one every two pages for The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. I can’t not give a fuck about this book! It’s so quotable. There could/should be a cottage industry of Mark Manson shirts and coffee mugs. (I checked and I’m not coming up with anything, except that apparently a few people have searched on ‘Mark Manson shirtless.’) This could be because Manson is a confirmed minimalist. The thought of one’s personal philosophy generating a bunch of clutter is sort of crazy-making, like marketing Happy Meal toys from the movie Wall-E.
“Practical enlightenment” is the message. It’s easy to take because Manson makes it so funny, provocative, and totally compelling. He walks us through the process of choosing our values and setting boundaries. He clarifies some of the most confounding problems of philosophy, such as how to find meaning in suffering and whether we are responsible for everything that happens to us. This is a topic that tends to lead to a lot of wrong thoughts, and I found Manson’s take to be refreshingly mature and nuanced. More like this, please.
I highly endorse this book and I wish I’d written it. Instead, I’ve made this little drawing of Disappointment Panda as a tribute to Mark Manson.
Some favorite quotes, but not all of them, because SPOILERS:
“…negative emotions are a call to action.”
“…the more uncomfortable the answer, the more likely it is to be true.”
“With great responsibility comes great power.”
“…there is little that is unique or special about your problems.”
Change is hard. It shouldn’t be, though! Changing from the status quo to something more positive should be the easiest thing ever. It’s like going from a state of hungry/no taco to holding a taco. It’s like being tired and then falling asleep. It’s like being all sweaty and then stepping into a relaxing hot shower. Why on earth would we ever think that positive change is hard?? The reason is that we start out in love with the problem.
We’re so in love with our problems that we think we need our own obstacles. We think the things that hold us back are actually going to help us. We think we’ll be rescued by our demons.
As an example, I used to have a problem with dizzy spells. I also had a general lack of energy and strength, chronic migraines, insomnia, pain, and fatigue. I was a mess. I drank soda and ate junk food. I would explain (carefully, as though anyone actually cared) that I “needed” to drink soda and eat greasy and salty food because I had low blood pressure. Is there such a thing as a mega-facepalm? I can look back and listen to myself blathering on, and know that I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. It’s true that food was the solution to my problem, but it wasn’t the food I was inclined to eat - far from it. It wasn’t until I quit thinking I knew what I was doing that I was able to get answers for my various health issues.
In my world, meticulous explanations are a dead giveaway that I’m trying to convince myself of something I wish were true. Nobody else cares. Nobody but me cares what I eat, how much I sleep, how fit or fat I am, what I wear, what I listen to, what I read, what job I have, how much money I make or what my debt level is, whether I succeed in my plans, or whether I’ve been procrastinating on things. Other people only care about my problems if they are directly affected by them. They only care if I’ve made commitments to them that I am busily breaking. They care if I’m rude or if I’m late or if I’m a bad listener. Otherwise, I’m on my own, free to screw up or succeed however I like. Other people are not in love with my problems the way I am.
It’s true that money can solve debt problems, and that money is the root of debt problems.
It’s true that communication can solve relationship problems, and also that talking can cause relationship problems. (Try listening).
It’s true that food can solve health problems, and that food can cause health problems.
Thinking that stuff can solve organizing problems tends to contribute to those organizing problems.
Problems exist along a spectrum, with a polarity at each end. Take the stuff problem. On one extreme end is hoarding, and on the other extreme is destitution. A person with no bowl and no spoon has a problem, while a person who can’t find a clean bowl or spoon in the mess has a similar problem. No bowl, no spoon. It’s possible to get stuck in a problematic rut, such that we are oblivious to other ways of framing a scenario. The old “when all I have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” problem. If I’m preoccupied with body image and food as a reward, I’m missing all the people I know whose biggest rewards are friendship or dance or music or personal expression. If I’m preoccupied with my lack of money, I’m missing all the ways that my needs can be satisfied without money, and I’m probably also forgetting to be grateful that I’m not a medieval serf. When I am fixated on lack of anything, I am blocking my ability to find and acquire what I need, whether that's peace of mind, appreciation, or anything else.
Every minute I sit there complaining that I don’t have a taco is a minute I could be making, buying, or ordering a taco for delivery. Or bartering for one. Or just asking nicely, which works far more often than people realize.
I worked with a client once whose desire was to organize her email. The moment she showed me her inbox, I understood her problem. She would cc: herself on every single message she sent so that a copy would appear in her inbox. I asked her to walk me through how this helped her and why she was doing it. I showed her the Sent folder and demonstrated that every message she sent automatically appeared there. Explain me why you are doubling the amount of mail you need to read and sort? She got befuddled and could not explain a clear benefit to her practice. Did she stop doing it? Of course not. Of course not. For whatever reason, she had developed a sense of security from duplicating her mail. Changing might make her life easier, but she wasn’t going to be so dumb as to risk finding that out.
Another gentleman in the same company printed paper copies of all his mail and all his work product. He was the only person in the department with paper on his desk, and there were several stacks of it 3-4 feet high. His colleagues whispered to me that this paper hoarding was his idea, not something required by the nature of their work. This man probably wanted job security, a sense that he was indispensable or wise or useful in some special way. Instead he made his work area look like a cartoon.
Scarcity mindset is the hidden source of all these problems. I’m worried I won’t be okay and I can’t handle it and there won’t be enough. I need these emails to prove my point of view, if only I can find them. I need this paper to prove how smart and hard-working I am, which people would see if they ever quit talking about how inefficient my system is. Scarcity mindset is the root of FoMO, Fear of Missing Out. As long as I operate from a position of scarcity, anxiety, fear, or envy, nothing will ever be enough. No expression of appreciation, no amount of food or money or stuff, no position of prestige will ever satisfy me. I’m looking for the lack. I may even be caught up in problems of my own creation that would cease to exist if I quit thinking about them for five minutes.
Most of my job as a coach consists of rooting out the weirdly unique ideas people have about their problems. The organized life is really, really easy. You just follow a schedule and a budget, only make commitments you can keep, only have stuff you really need, communicate clearly, and respect your biological needs. Simple, right? It’s when we start explaining in minute, exquisite detail just why these simple structures won’t work for us that we start revealing the many ways in which we are in love with our own problems.
The only thing I knew about Kyle Cease when I picked up this book is that one of my friends adores him. The next thing I learned was that the book includes a picture of a taco. Color me impressed! You have my attention, taco. I mean, Kyle. I read along, giving the benefit of the doubt to this funny little thing called I Hope I Screw This Up. Then something happened. Somewhere near the end of Chapter Three, I started bookmarking things. I started bookmarking more and more as the book went on, and then I knew he had me. Kyle Cease, you have completely, utterly failed to screw this up. I mean, what were you thinking, seriously. Santa is not going to put any failure in your stocking this year. Back to the drawing board.
I Hope I Screw This Up is a tricky book, a lighthearted and approachable introduction to some very deep spiritual work. Study went into this. Apparently Kyle Cease does two-day workshops, and I can easily see that he has tons of material to draw on. One brief book really isn’t enough for a complete, encyclopedic treatise on these topics. Learning to recognize our inner hater, tapping our passion and creativity, letting go of old outdated stories about ourselves, figuring out what meditation is for… These are really just the beginning.
Who am I if I’m not my body, my beliefs, or my emotions? This is a lifetime-level question. As Cease asks, “Will I risk letting go of my old limiting story to leap into my infinite potential?” Oh dear. Will I? Will I?
I loved this book. In many places, I felt that it was written specifically for me, which is not a feeling I have often, especially if I’m reading a book with a lot of car chases and people hanging out of helicopter doors. Fortunately this isn’t that kind of book. It’s one of the rare few that has had me typing out quotes in all caps, which is my signifier for PUT THIS ON YOUR LOCK SCREEN WHERE YOU’LL SEE IT EVERY DAY. Kyle Cease, if you’re reading this, the only way you can screw this up is by writing another book with no tacos.
“When I’m happy, things will happen.”
“Very often we keep things that we think will get us what we want, but they’re actually keeping us from getting what we truly want.”
“…when you’re justifying or explaining something, you don’t actually want to do or have that thing in your life.”
I was talking to myself on the bus, and this lady got up and changed seats. Oh, neat! I've reached the stage in life when I am virtually indistinguishable from either a crazy person or a person in an advanced state of inebriation. Another interpretation would be that I was quietly rehearsing a speech. I'm drunk on public speaking! I'm crazy about... oh, never mind. The point is that talking to yourself can be useful, and even more useful if you do it in the privacy of your own home. If you're not already into talking to yourself, it can help to learn the difference between different types of self-talk.
The most common type of self-talk is hateful, sarcastic, critical self-talk. "Nice job, idiot!" If you talk to yourself like that, I have a suggestion for you. Get some broccoli. Take the big, thick rubber band off of the broccoli stalk. Eat the broccoli, obviously, but then save the rubber band. Put it on your wrist. Every time you hear yourself saying something to yourself that you would never say to anyone else, pull the band as far as it will stretch and then let it go. SNAP! If you're going to hurt yourself, might as well make it physical. When you see how much your skin gets marked up, you'll have a graphic representation of what you've been doing to your own heart and spirit.
More helpful is motivational self-talk. "You can do it! Great job!" Research indicates that motivational self-talk is the most helpful for endurance athletes, like marathon runners and cyclists. I can speak from experience and say that this feels true. I give myself motivational speeches when I run all the time. "You got this, you're crushing it, up up up up that hill!" Of course, I also mix the motivational self-talk quite freely with self-insults and boot camp-style smack talk. "Are you quitting on me, Private Pyle? Are you quitting on me?" This serves three purposes: distraction, humor, and reminding myself that I COMMIT, NEVER QUIT. I guess it also serves the purpose of inuring myself to rude language, so that when I chance to overhear it, it doesn't bother me as much. I might hear an insult from someone and think to myself, "Oh, good one. I can use that later." The important point is for me to keep going, keep going, develop more grit, and keep going. The less I like doing it, the more important it is for me to do it, whatever it is, because it builds the "don't feel like it" muscle.
What we're going to focus on now is instructional self-talk. This is when you explain what you're doing to yourself in technical detail. Many of us may have turned to this type of self-talk while learning to drive, reminding ourselves to check the mirrors, release the parking brake, etc. Research shows that this type of self-talk is helpful for sports with intricate physical skills, such as tennis or golf. "Roll your shoulder forward." As I learned this, I realized that I talk myself through things all the time, especially when it's something I don't like doing or when I'm trying to focus my mental bandwidth. "I'm checking that the dog door is closed and the heater is off and I'm putting the tickets in this pocket and my keys are going on the clip" and on and on. A recording of me might sound like pure lunacy, but it would also be a good transcript of exactly what I was doing on the small stage of my tiny apartment.
Working with chronic disorganization, hoarding, or squalor requires learning a lot of new skills. Fortunately or unfortunately, these are very repetitive skills, and thus they're ripe for instructional self-talk. I am holding my breath and I am picking up this dripping bag of trash and I am walking it out to the curbside bin and I am throwing it away and I am patting myself on the back and GASP breathing fresh air! I am folding this shirt and I am folding this other shirt and I am folding this shirt and I did not actually die and my arm didn't fall off. Good job, me. You're welcome, Future Me, you ingrate. It's boring and I hate it but I'm doing it and I'm getting it done and look at that! It was the longest 12 minutes ever but now I'm done and I can go watch otter videos.
Sorting and letting go of excess clutter requires its own motivational and instructional self-talk. I am looking at this and remembering that I really, really liked it when I brought it home, but I never use it, and even though it's cute, it doesn't look cute ON ME, and I'm ready to pass it on to someone else. I want to be able to use this room and fit everything in this closet and only one dresser, and that means half of this stuff has to go no matter how much I like it. I'm trying this on and acknowledging that it isn't doing me any favors. I am reminding myself that I care more about my friends and my pets and reading and listening to music and eating nice meals than I do about some old shirt. I am not my stuff, and my stuff is not my personality. I'm talking myself through this awkward, time-consuming process of releasing myself from my emotional attachment to mere material possessions. There will always be plenty more in my life and Future Me will be just fine if I let this go today. I am not losing anything and I am not missing out - I am using my imagination and working to make a more inspiring space. I am focusing on all the things in my life that are more important than a bunch of old stuff.
Not everyone is going to get much use out of verbal, out-loud self-talk. Some of us are more suited to journaling, which is really self-talk on the printed page. The process of writing in longhand seems to do something positive in the mind. We talk our way or write our way to a new way of thinking, convincing ourselves as we go. Some of us, the rare few, will simply be able to sit back with an epiphany, a new realization that everything is different from here on out. Now that I've seen a different way of seeing, I can never fall back to sleep and start seeing things the old way any more. I've taught myself how to change, and I've changed.
When people say, "I wish I had your willpower," or "where do you get the motivation?" I think the quality they're actually imagining is grit. Grit is the ability to do things you don't want to do, when you don't feel like it and you're not in the mood, even when it's really hard - and to keep on doing those difficult things over and over again for as long as it takes. Authors Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Kovel bring us Grit to Great, an approachable book filled with real-life examples of people who used grit to accomplish the seemingly impossible.
Grit makes a handy acronym for the traits of Guts, Resilience, Initiative, and Tenacity. Just reading these words makes me sit up a little straighter. You have to be brave enough to face things that scare you, flexible enough to deal with all the unpredictable frustrations that come up, bold enough to pursue your own ideas, and stubborn enough to never, never quit. The image from Grit to Great that brings this home to me the most is the story of James Henry, an illiterate fisherman who decided to learn to read at age ninety-two. If you're reading this, imagine not being able to. Suddenly life seems pretty cushy.
High IQ is not a significant predictor of success. Grit will outdo intelligence every time. People with higher education tend to be outperformed by less-educated entrepreneurs over and over again. The smarter we are, the more likely we are to find reasons to talk ourselves out of doing things. The larger problem is that of the fixed versus growth mindset. When we've always been told that we're smart, that we're good students, that we're well-behaved, etc, we tend not to push ourselves as hard. Expanding out of our comfort zones puts us at risk of failure, of challenging that image of the perfect A+ student. People with grit never quit. The desire to always be learning and improving and meeting new challenges means more failure on the small scale, but ultimately more success over a broader range.
I got a lot out of this book. I'm a big believer in the power of grit, but I hadn't realized all the ways that this quality is expressed. It made me determined. The example of Nick Wallenda caught my attention. He practiced walking a tightrope in 90-mph winds to prepare to cross the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. I also took heed of Jia Jiang's practice of Rejection Therapy, and Lee Yoon-Hye, a petite axe-wielding flight attendant who carried passengers to safety on her own back. These are the kinds of brave people I think about when I have to do something really hard, like fold laundry or wait in line. I can make my bed every morning, just like a Navy SEAL! (Except probably not as flat).
"If you want your dreams to become reality, wake up already."
"Happiness is not the absence of problems. It's the ability to deal with them." - Behavioral scientist Steve Maraboli
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.