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 do what I want in all situations. This is because I believe in free will. I happen to things. I may not be able to control everything that befalls me, but when events occur that I did not initiate, I still have the option to do what I want. Doing what I want doesn't always mean that I get what I want, although I usually do eventually. Doing what I want means that I recognize my ability to catalyze, initiate, maintain, or exit situations. I expand my center of power. I am the decider. I am the boss of me. The woman who does what she wants has a different experience of life than people who do not realize they have permission to do the same.
Ethics are a natural law. Whatever we do has ramifications. Consequences may be instantaneous, they may be delayed, they may build up over time, and they may be disproportionate to an action. I do what I want, recognizing that constraints apply to me. If I want to breathe underwater, I'll need to bring equipment. If I want my knees to bend backward like a perching bird, I'll need to use photo-editing tools. If I want total freedom to do what I want in society, I'll need to do it in the most effective way, which means abiding by applicable laws and regulations. I respect natural limitations because it's more convenient. Doing what I want means doing it over the long term. No fines, no fees, no asterisks.
I follow the categorical imperative. This means that anything I do should be something I would approve as policy if everyone else in the world did the same. I aim to treat others with civility. I clean up after myself. I work to increase my self-discipline, because it increases my personal power overall. Doing what I want does not mean being rude to other people, disrespecting boundaries, or taking things that don't belong to me. I don't need any of that anyway. My power comes from myself and my abilities, not from diminishing anyone else or misappropriating resources. It isn't necessary.
Doing what I want has almost nothing to do with anyone else.
I eat what I want, sleep when I want, wear what I want, and go where I want. I read what I want and listen to what I want. I definitely think whatever I want. How does a single one of these things impact anyone but me? I say what I want, which is not at all the same as saying whatever I think, and other people are free to react however they want. I associate with whoever I want, presuming the feeling is mutual.
I'm married. I married a man who appreciates that I do what I want. He does the same. He has always supported my endeavors and encouraged me to push my boundaries and abilities. It pleases him when I do well and learn new things. This is mutual. I inform him when I'm going to leave town, and he returns the favor. We ask before we use each other's tools. We teach each other things. We are friends and allies, like we were before we developed romantic feelings for each other. We talk and spend time together because we want to. We're in a committed, exclusive relationship because we want to be. Not everyone who has been in a relationship for over a decade can say the same.
There is a certain amount of naysaying around the idea of women doing what we want. Doing what we want is selfish; we're only allowed to put others first. Which others? All seven billion, of course. The second level of naysaying is that it's dangerous and we must Be Careful. I'm careful enough or I wouldn't still be here. I travel alone. I walk and run at night. I go on backpacking expeditions where I encounter potentially dangerous wild animals and fresh bear scat. I light fires and use power tools and sharp instruments. I know what I'm doing. Pretend I have a Y chromosome if that will make it easier for you to watch me doing what I want. The third level of naysaying is that women with children cannot do what they want. Please don't do this to your kids. Children need a grasp on reality to operate, and eventually they will discover the existence of women who do what they want, including moms. This will break their hearts because they'll feel that they stole your freedom and gave you half a life. Do what you want for yourself, for your kids, for your marriage, and for the rest of humanity. You're allowed to do things alone, to do things with only one child at a time, to do things with your friends, and to do things alone with your partner. If you can't bring yourself to do what you want, at least stand back and accept that others can and will. Doing what you want allows you to release your loved ones to do what they want.
I do what I want as a gift. When I am out and about in the world, I am available to make myself useful. I have helped people who have fallen on the street, I have called 911, I have stood up for people who were being bullied, I have chased after people with dropped mittens and wallets, I have grabbed kids who were running toward physical danger. It is a natural impulse. If I stayed at home feeling trapped and complaining about my life, I would not have been there to do any of those things for other people. I want to exert altruism. I want to collect heartwarming experiences of human connection. I have a custom FREE HUGS t-shirt that I wear on special occasions, and another that says LET'S MAKE FRIENDS. I want to rebuild the world my way, and that means taking the risk of trust. Trusting strangers.
I do what I want because it is nobody else's business but my own. If I want to make art, I decide whether it is art. Other people can think whatever they want about it. If I want to relax, I decide what I'm going to read or play and where I'm going to go. It's unlikely that anyone else will notice or care. I dress however I want, knowing that other people will have their opinions and that those opinions will all differ. Trying to please everyone means pleasing no one. I clean my house and exercise however I want, knowing that opinions vary about what is the correct way to do these things, and not caring. If I want to publish a book, I publish a book. If I want to go on a trip or run a race, I book the tickets and sign up. Again, most people will not notice. If I wanted to study martial arts, buy a horse or a house, start a new business or take voice lessons, I would, and someone would step forward to provide these services to me for an appropriate fee. Doing what I want is good for the economy if it affects anything or anyone at all.
I do what I want. I don't get a lot of complaints. This is because I don't wait for approval. Whatever you do in this world, someone will be interested and someone else won't. It's not their life. If I am bored or dissatisfied, I have only myself to blame. If I fail at doing what I want, it's good information for the next time I do what I want. I do what I want, and I think you should do what you want, too.
Luck and good fortune are just as distinct as fate and destiny. We don't always recognize the difference, either in ourselves or in others. We attribute the good fortune of others to luck, just as we attribute our own circumstances to fate. They get all the unfair advantages, while we are subject to all the crises and disasters. Only when we learn to recognize the hidden patterns and choice points and systems followed by the Fortunate Ones do we discover that we have the power to join their ranks.
Let's all pause and lift a glass to the memory of our medieval ancestors. Most of their children died before age seven. Almost all of them were stunted and wizened from early fevers and malnutrition. This can clearly be seen when visiting historic buildings, with their tiny low door frames. However we may feel about our own situation, we can grudgingly admit that we are unlikely to be enslaved, forced to build roads, put in the stocks, starved in a siege, or dead of an epidemic like the bubonic plague. If we were living a thousand years ago, we would probably each be illiterate, smelly, and sleeping on a bed of straw at night, waking up to intermittent toothache. In this context we can feel a sense of our good fortune. The 21st century is a fabulous time to be alive.
Extreme poverty has been cut roughly in half in the past 25 years. Many of us may see the total elimination of extreme poverty in our lifetimes. When we consider our own good fortune, it increases our sense of abundance, from which the wellspring of charity arises. I have been sponsoring a student in Zambia for the past 4-5 years on what I used to spend on soda: a dollar a day. I am fortunate to be able to do this, just as my chosen student is lucky that I saw her photo instead of someone else's.
It was good fortune that gave me access to an excellent public education; it was luck that assigned me to certain teachers rather than others.
It is good fortune that I am employable; it was luck that placed me in the temp assignment where I met my future husband, rather than the real estate gig across the hall. (Where, three years later, the housing crisis would have certainly impacted my job, if I had still been working there).
It is good fortune that I have full use of all my limbs and faculties; it's luck when I find money on the sidewalk or cross paths with someone I know. These lucky incidents happen more often, because I spend comparatively more time walking outside, because I choose not to own a car.
I'm lucky that I have survived various accidents and routine trips without permanent injury. I create my own good fortune by eating a nutritious diet and constantly increasing my fitness level.
It was bad luck that the IRS erroneously billed me for $8000. I created my own good fortune by disputing the claim successfully, by avoiding consumer debt, and by pushing to expand my career opportunities and income. What I do to earn and manage my income over 25 years has far more impact than a random expense.
Fate gives us one family heritage instead of another; destiny is what we create through our own actions. We can mangle a good reputation, burn through a trust fund, or develop an addiction no matter how grand a family we were born into. We can rise from poverty and dysfunction to any height based on how we shape our character around the events that befall us.
I was unlucky one day, and I fell over backward in my office chair and got up with a dislocated hip. That accident seems to have been the triggering event that led to my developing fibromyalgia. Bad luck! What those years of pain and fatigue and general suffering did was to give me an endlessly burning motivating force to maintain a higher level of health and fitness. Because I know how bad it can be to wake up in a broken body, I will never stop pushing for something better. I wasn't lucky to run a marathon; I was fortunate that I could (and did) plan and save and train for it for four years.
Adversity teaches us either gratitude or helplessness. Shared adversity both builds and destroys relationships. It's not the event so much as the interpretation of the event, not the timeline but the perspective. Whenever I feel sorry for myself, I think of Stephen Hawking, and how I'll never suffer five percent of what he has, or produce five percent as much that benefits posterity.
I am incredibly fortunate to have an education, to be of sound mind and body, and to be happily married. I'm fortunate because I was able to overcome all the bad luck that came my way. But the happy part of my marriage came about through communication and attitude, not luck. My fitness level came about through a thousand workouts and ten thousand meal choices, not luck. My higher education came about through half a dozen side gigs, dozens of all-nighters, hundreds of pages written, thousands of pages read, and a lot of effort, not luck. Overcome the bad luck, amplify the good luck.
It's part of the human condition to trust untrustworthy people, to get ill, to stumble through collisions and spills and falls and accidents, to incur unanticipated expenses. Strife is mandatory. We are given neither the day nor the hour, and we get one lifespan, length variable. This is why we learn, with imagination, to choose gratitude. Acceptance, at the bare minimum. If we can't accept that we have the power to make things better, at least we can acknowledge that it could always be worse.
'Husband' is a verb, meaning "to use resources economically." Strangely, the verb form of 'wive' means either "to marry" or "to supply with a wife." There has always been a double standard going on here, and there probably always will be, so we might as well run with it. I think of "wife" as a pretty specific job description. A wife is a useful person to have around the house. I think of this role in a positive way, and that's why I like the idea of being my own wife.
First of all, I made my first romantic commitment to myself. That is to remain true to myself until the end of time. No matter who else comes along, I'm going to be waking up to myself each morning. I could never give my heart to anyone who didn't match up with my values, anyone I didn't fully respect and admire. Why would I ever let myself down by settling for someone I had to make excuses for? It's my job to build my world, and I have to vouch for anyone I let in.
Second, I live with myself no matter whether I live alone or with several other people. No matter where I live, I am going to have to cook meals, wash dishes, scrub toilets, mop floors, wash windows, clean the lint trap, scour drains, clean the oven, knock down cobwebs, and ever so much more. Therefore, I accept that this is simply part of the fate of being human. If I were a badger, I'd be happy to dig a hole in the ground and live there and eat voles. If I were a puffin, I could live at sea. Alas, I have this human failing of wanting to live in a house with a roof and a floor, and I am sensitive to odors that might delight other creatures. Someone had better darn well be a wife around this joint, and I'm still waiting for the talking animals to show up, so it might as well be me. I lived alone for several years, and I really don't care that it takes 40 minutes a day to clean house.
I'm my own husband, too, if that means something as specific as 'wife' does. I have cleaned up dead vermin. I carry my own spiders outside. I can fix the toilet and unclog hairy drains. I have confronted scary unidentified sounds late at night. I've taken a few self-defense classes, and it's a good thing, because I have been attacked on the street more than once and had to get myself out of it. I have negotiated discounts on major purchases. I research my own investments for my retirement account. I have put on my own snow chains while nearly being blown off the road. When you live alone, you have to do all of the strenuous, dangerous, scary, and icky things yourself. It tends to lead to immense gratitude when someone else shows up and is willing to share some of that load.
My dad taught me how to pitch a tent, use a hatchet, identify and use every tool in the toolbox, troubleshoot technical problems, and avoid getting poison oak, all of which skills are useful to me today. My mom taught me how to clean house, make hospital bed corners, sew a button, iron shirt collars, write a resume, and bake a cake, all of which skills are useful to me today. I'm pretty sure both of my parents have all of the abilities listed, which were transferable across genders even then. I came from a practical, hands-on family and I grew up to have a lot of practical skills. I see no reason why I shouldn't be just as proud of my ability to can my own jam and pickles as I am proud of my ability to use shop tools and assemble furniture.
I draw the line at crocheting doilies, although I could do that, too.
There is a lot of resentment out there about traditional gender roles. I have a degree in history and I could teach a course on all the reasons why this makes sense. In my own personal life, I like to imagine what I think I would do if I were male, and then see if I want to do that thing, whatever it is. Often, the answer is that I would speak up more, take fewer things personally, or take up slightly more physical space. I don't think I would do less housework, probably because my husband, my dad, and my brothers all cook and clean house. Who wouldn't? When it comes down to it, almost all of our scutwork is done by labor-saving appliances. All we really have to do is to put away the clean dishes and laundry, and start the robots.
I like the romantic, starry-eyed vision of a "wife." I see this as a person whose job it is to create a sense of warm hospitality, to make an empty building into a home. When people do it in the workforce, they are known as restaurateurs, hoteliers, interior designers, caterers, event planners, and more. We see that this work can either be treated as drudgery or as a high art. It's my choice to see my kitchen as a playground that I share with my husband, and sometimes with family and friends who like to cook together. It's my choice to see my home as a place of refuge and pleasure, rather than a battleground of power struggles, resentment, and bickering. It's my choice to treat my home as a gift that I can offer to my friends. I felt this way when I was single, and it helped me to attract a mate who also appreciates a comfortable home. I am my own wife, and I'm his wife, too.
The highest-order compliment I give is to designate someone as Useful. This means that the person is a worthy candidate for my zombie squad. It's a simple shorthand for a complex set of attributes. It's entirely possible that I don't meet my own standard for Usefulness.
The first component of being Useful is to be a strategic thinker. The Useful person sees problems before they become problems. This is why the Useful person tends to know when to open doors or grab the other end of a heavy object. A full-on Useless person, on the other hand, tends to spend a lot of time in exactly the wrong place. Useless people cause accidents and spills, and stuff tends to get broken around them due to their inattentiveness.
My dog is both Useful and Useless, which is allowed because he's an animal. He is Useful in that he's vigilant, he eliminates vermin, and he always lets me know if a package has been delivered. I have watched him crush a spider with his paw, note that it was still moving, and crush it some more until the job was done. He also has a habit of trying to walk between my feet, especially when I'm carrying groceries or a laundry basket. He has knocked me over. He likes to dig up fresh seedlings from the garden. When he was a puppy, he destroyed nearly a dozen pillows. All of these things are pretty darn Useless. He likes to sleep on my feet in the winter, though, and that's so Useful that it balances the accounts.
A Useful person tends to have interesting skills that I don't have. I am a gleaner of skills, and I will try to absorb these abilities as quickly as I can. Often, though, I'm weak in an area and will have little hope of mastering it in this lifetime. Orienteering is one example. I have trouble telling left from right and I have no innate sense of direction. It's Useful to me to have someone around who is good at these things. I can offer a skill that seems like it would be closely related, but isn't: I have an eerily photographic recall of where objects are stored. I can remember the location of every object in my house and most of the visible objects in every house where I have spent significant time. I have helped people find their keys and other possessions over the phone from 3000 miles away. This is Useful for my work as a professional organizer - I can still recall the positions of visible objects from a Level 3 hoard. I can't navigate but I can find all the stuff, and my husband is the opposite.
A Useful person is solution-oriented. This means the focus is always going to be on solving a problem and moving forward. A Useless person prefers to vent about problems, cultivate allies who have an opinion about problems, and create drama about problems, while the problem continues to fester. The two groups tend to have mutual antipathy. Sometimes solving a problem looks a lot like "judging" anyone who didn't contribute to the solution. Why, I don't know. In my roster of Useful people are a few people who are abrasive, occasionally annoying, yet I can appreciate that they will reliably solve problems and get things done.
A Useful person lets the results speak for themselves. Useful people are often very surprising. You might know them for years and never know that they have a bunch of Useful traits. I was rocked back on my heels one day when I was walking with a friend and he ran into someone he knew from an old job. Suddenly they started signing to each other in ASL. Never thought to mention it, huh? Having a set of skills builds confidence. You can go through your day having interesting conversations or kicking back and relaxing. It may not occur to you to mention the skill to people. Maybe years will go by and you won't need to demonstrate the skill. Suddenly, bam, Useful!
Useful people are altruistic. This is part of why I fell in love with my husband. He took night classes and became an Emergency Medical Responder, just because. Since then he's been first on the scene at a couple of traffic accidents. I've been with him on a couple of occasions when someone collapsed, at the coffee shop and on the bus, and it's awe-inspiring to see that shift into superhero mode. We are fortunate enough to have several friends who have been Useful when someone else was in trouble. It makes you love them all the more for the way they unselfishly come to someone's aid, and also because they've just demonstrated that they deserve a spot on the zombie squad.
My most Useful moment was probably late one evening, when my friend's car had broken down in a small town where everything had already closed for the day. He was trying to replace the fuel filter, and the single tiny nut that held it in place fell into the gravel. We were parked at an abandoned gas station. There were about forty million bits of stray hardware in that gravel: springs, washers, screws, paperclips, bottle caps, bits of alien spacecraft, you name it. Somehow, with the sun going down, I FOUND that nut. My freakishly keen eyesight and ability to pick objects out of undifferentiated piles became my superpower that night.
Sometimes we're Useful without realizing it. I was waiting at a crosswalk one day with about a dozen other people. Almost everyone jaywalked. I always wait for the light, because I don't trust automobile drivers at all, and I would hate to be blamed for being pasted by a car. When I crossed the street, the last remaining pedestrian spoke to me. He was an elderly man and his eye was running with fluid. He told me that he was partially blind and that he counted on people like me to help him know when it was safe to cross the street. I hadn't even noticed him until then. I can't take credit for it; all I can do is to proceed with others in mind. Try to be the person that Future Self will need in times of frailty.
I hope I'm Useful at least some of the time. I don't want to be a "consumer." I don't want to be a complainer or a whiner. I don't want to get in the way. I don't want to annoy people unintentionally. (If I do it, hopefully it's on purpose!). At least I can try to be neutral, offsetting the irritation of my very existence by the occasional helpful act. At best, I'd like to be the one people count on when they think, "Who would I want with me during the apocalypse?"
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.