Today I set a new record for most consecutive days that I have been alive. That’s an old joke, but one that still feels funny. More interesting to me is that I can count how many days I’ve lived, but nobody knows how many days are still ahead of me. What’ll happen in the world? In my life? What kind of phone will Future Me have? Which of my favorite authors and musicians and filmmakers will put out new work? Will George R. R. Martin ever write that next Game of Thrones book? Future Me knows. Meanwhile, every day I’m Present Me. Present Self, living out whatever Past Self stuck me with, trying to make a better day for Future Self.
Since last year, I’ve done a bunch of stuff. I like to take the day to look at where my life is going, and whether it feels better or more fun or more interesting or more fulfilling. Have I made good use of my time on Earth?
I also do this process at the New Year, on my wedding anniversary, and on a smaller scale every quarter. Birthdays feel like a pretty significant milestone, at least to me. One day, maybe I’ll have my one-hundredth birthday, and if I do, I’d like to feel some sense of ceremony around it.
Since last year, I’ve moved to a smaller apartment, taken up martial arts and earned two orange belts, gained 15 pounds, promoted into a volunteer leadership position, and started riding my bicycle again. My husband filed his first patent, leading to some big stuff at work. My parents got a puppy for the first time in about forty years. These are all major changes.
Incremental changes have happened, too. We’ve made a bunch of new friends and acquaintances, and so has our dog. Due to our downsizing move, we’re financially better off. Our phones have better battery life. The addition of the extra muscle has happened gradually enough that new physical abilities seem to have magically appeared. I can open jars! My daily walking average has gone from 3.1 miles in 2015 to 5.2 miles in 2018.
A lot of stuff is the same as it ever was. Noelle just had her 20th hatch day and she still loves to shred paper everywhere and make a lot of beeping sounds. I still need more sleep. The blog continues to chug along.
Some stuff in our daily life is harder. Since we moved, we no longer have a washer or dryer, and all our meal prep has to happen in a single square foot. We’re continually unplugging and plugging things because of a shortage of power outlets. Our upstairs neighbors [*]. Someone down at the marina keeps setting off a propane cannon in the middle of the night. Life feels much busier.
From where we are right now, it’s hard to imagine where I will be on my next birthday. We’re planning to move when our lease is up, but where? Right now we’re living a combination of Best Location Ever and Worst Apartment Also. I intend to continue with martial arts, and that means moving into a physical reality I’ve never experienced. Looking around at the other women in my classes, women in higher belt levels, I see some astonishing speed, power, agility, and muscle definition. It’s somewhat alarming to think that this could be me one day, and all it takes is the schedule and the persistence. Continuing on my current plan, I ought to have nailed all the requirements for Distinguished Toastmaster. I should also have my student loan paid off, and all I can do is imagine what it will feel like to be debt-free and financially stable for the first time in my adult life.
So, what? This time next year: buff, debt-free, and living in a nicer place? Possible?
Looking forward three years, five years, and ten years, gosh. No idea. Talk about plot twists.
I celebrated turning 43 by finally getting my headstand, after working on it for two weeks. I plan to spend part of my day messing around and focusing on circus tricks. Depending on what kind of videos I find, I’ll either be trying to juggle, riding my unicycle, doing hula hoop tricks, or trying to turn a cartwheel. Then I’ll spend some time imagining what I want to learn to do before I turn 44.
How about you? What would you like to be doing before your next birthday?
It’s happening again! I went to a party and another woman showed me how to do something I couldn’t do when I was a little girl. Last time, it was spinning a hula hoop, which led to my immediate purchase of my own hoop(s), months of obsession, and a non-obvious segue into running. In a way, my first tentative spin of a hula hoop at age 35 led directly to running a marathon.
This time, it’s the headstand.
My inability as a child to do a cartwheel, spin a hula hoop, jump through two jump ropes, or do a headstand had nothing to do with lack of trying. If I’m anything, it’s persistent. I just couldn’t figure out how to model what other kids were demonstrating. This might be because, due to my late-July birthday, I was younger than other kids in my grade, and thus smaller and less developed. It might be because I’m still not great on proprioception, knowing where my body is in relation to the external world. I defined myself as bad at sports. I hated P.E. I was last picked for teams. All these childhood antics left me feeling excluded, clumsy, slow, weak, and sorry for myself.
In my forties, I’m finding those missing pieces. When I meet other women my age in a physical setting, we gravitate toward each other immediately. Just the other night in kickboxing, I had someone ask to be my training partner after someone else had already asked! These days, I’m first picked instead of last picked. (We had an odd number in the class so the three of us partnered up together. I would NEVER leave another girl hanging). Suddenly there’s this playfulness and fun in my life that once eluded me.
Now, about that headstand. What’s the secret?
It turns out that when people do something like acro-yoga or juggling, something that looks like magic, they’re doing extremely specific things. These movements can be broken down into micro-steps that can be learned and mastered one by one. Not everyone who is good at something is a good teacher, and it’s possible to do something without understanding how you’re doing it. It’s also true that lifelong athletes tend to underestimate how much baseline strength and cardiovascular fitness is required for certain things. In spite of all that, it’s always possible to find a good teacher or a video that demonstrates the steps.
It was no accident that I met my new friend. We were at the WDS opening party, a field day, and I spotted a group of people doing headstands at the other end of the field. After I learned a new hula hoop trick and taught another woman to spin two hoops at once, I wandered over there to see if anyone could teach me. I asked!
This is the magic part, really. My new friend showed me the initial stages, and I found that I was strong enough to easily do them. All of my work in boxing gloves over six months gave me a totally unrelated, non-adjacent ability. How crazy is that?? I went out and got myself bigger biceps, deltoids, trapezius, and lats, thickened up my neck a bit, and opened the door to acrobatics.
Step one: Kneel on the ground.
Step two: Put the top of your head on the ground.
Step three: Put your hands down about shoulder-width apart, halfway between your head and your knees.
Step four: Put your knees up on your elbows.
With me so far? While I was watching and listening carefully, I wasn’t really thinking about how much of my body was inverted and vertical. Put your knees on your elbows? Okay! Like this?
I had tried this in yoga class several times, even against a wall or with a partner, and it was definitely not happening. As a boxer, yeah, not only was it possible, it wasn’t even hard.
The next step is to raise your legs and straighten them out. I’m still working on this part. It’s given me a solid understanding of how much more core strength can do for my life. Comically, it’s become my major motivator. My arms, legs, and back are quite strong now, and I have some real muscle definition, but my belly is soft and slack. External appearances don’t matter much to me, but the ability to do not just the headstand, but other circus tricks actually does matter. If I can build up my abs and obliques, I can use that new muscle base to do other things, too. That’s probably the secret behind walking on my hands, riding a unicycle, and doing a cartwheel at last. Maybe I could also learn to do a backflip or other gymnastic moves.
What I’ve been doing is practicing my headstand for a few minutes every night before bed. I haven’t been this excited about anything since that first day with the hula hoop. I feel genuine anticipation when I get down on the floor, wondering if this is the night. The picture accompanying this post is from the one-week mark. As I post this, I’ve had an additional four days of practice, and I’m able to extend my right leg straight up. I estimate that it will take me 3-4 weeks to go from zero to sustaining a full headstand without immediately tipping over. Another way to put it is that, at five minutes a day, it has taken less than an hour to get one leg up and I’m guessing about another hour to get them both.
There was a rough moment. I was trying to impress my husband (while he was trying to brush his teeth) and I called him out to see how I finally had my leg up straight. Then I toppled over and landed on my back. Embarrassing! Apparently the impact caused my gluteus muscle to clamp up on one side overnight. I was limping and it was scary-sore. I took some anti-inflammatories and did my normal amount of walking, and within an hour or two it was fine. It’s only fair to say that falling over is a little more dangerous for someone with a fully developed skeleton; I weighed half this much in grade school. I just remind myself that one of my main reasons for choosing an impact sport like kickboxing is to build bone density while I still can, and that falling on the ground is literally the type of impact that helps with this. It’s also highly relevant that I’ve learned how to fall properly. A few hundred sprawls and breakfalls trained me, so that I fell in a straight line and didn’t twist or strain or sprain anything.
Be careful! They tell me to be careful when they wouldn’t tell a man. I AM being careful! I’m being careful to protect Old Me from falls, from osteoporosis, from sarcopenia, from heart disease and cognitive decline. I’m also protecting myself from regret and isolation. The moral of the story is, find something that truly excites you and strive for it in tiny increments, day after day. The thrill of finally getting that prize is something you can’t get any other way.
A funny coincidence came up the other day. Someone I’ve known socially for about a year asked what gym I go to, and then told me that he went to the same place for three years. Wow, really? It’s a martial arts school with a couple hundred students, not exactly a huge 24-hour commodity gym. He said he was in the best shape of his life at that time, and then added ruefully that he should get back on that. I paid attention to that, because he is at least ten years older than I am, and the older I get, the more I realize that matters.
Then I thought: What exactly does “best shape of my life” mean? When would that be?
Am I already there, was I there at some point in childhood, or is there still a “better” “shape” somewhere in my future?
I should throw in there that using the term “shape” is a bit ambiguous. It seems to refer to externalities like physical appearance, and that inevitably touches on What Other People Think. It’s much harder to discuss an internal sensation or overall experience of... what? Strength, agility, speed, power, peace of mind, potentiality...? Harder still when trying to get our heads around internal physical feelings that we may never have felt, like trying to explain a flavor or a musical genre without comparing it to other things.
I can easily imagine a few time periods that could compete for “worst” shape of my life. Crawling on the floor with the flu. Walking around during finals with my eyelid twitching from stress. The first time I ran down a flight of stairs and suddenly felt my back jiggle. The first time I walked up a flight of stairs and my vision started to go black. Swallowing radioactive iodine for my thyroid scan, and then struggling not to cough for an hour even though the enlarged gland caused a constant tickle in my throat. Being strapped to the table for my first nerve conductivity study. Et cetera. Hard times, scary times, sad times.
It’s because of this background of chronic pain, illness, and fatigue, though, that I’m so ready to embrace anything better. This is why I can’t give a care whether other people approve of my external physical appearance. Go ahead and fit-shame me; you won’t be the first. My health is somewhat fragile and I can’t live a conventional lifestyle in a conventionally relaxed, standard physique. I do what I have to do and that tends to result in certain external physical signs.
The body changes tend to be a mix of good, bad, and neutral.
When I was training for my marathon, my feet looked kinda terrible. They wound up growing a half size bigger and I had to get rid of every. Single. Last. Pair. Of shoes I had owned before.
Then I got more into backpacking and I wound up losing the nails on my two big toes. Took six months to heal.
As a cyclist, I learned that I always sweat out the crotch of my clothes first.
Now I’m boxing and doing martial arts, and I’ve had at least one visible bruise at all times since January. I’ve also scraped off my knuckles and broken off a chunk of toenail. Sexy stuff. I get teased because I have yet to find a successful method of controlling my frizzy hair during class, and I’ve resorted to wearing a dorky bandanna as a sweatband.
Athletic me: Frizzy, sweaty, bruised, muddy, looking like a laundry basket.
Ah, but then there’s the inner experience. It starts when the scary stuff gradually fades away. My thyroid nodule disappears and never comes back. I realize I haven’t had a migraine in a year, then two years, then three years, then four years. My shoulder quits spasming. I stop feeling like a human trainwreck.
Then I start to be able to keep up. I can keep up with the other students in class, I can do moves that would have left me quivering on the floor a month earlier, I can ride my bike or run at the same pace as my friend.
Then I start to notice that I’m doing weird things, like opening the pickle jar in one try, or running up a flight of stairs two at a time without losing my breath.
Then I start feeling very, very strange feelings, such as the desire to do core exercises. I read that an Olympian athlete does 700 sit-ups a day and I feel curiosity. Oh? How long does that take? All in one set or throughout the day? What else does she do?
In spite of all the evidence that my body is changing, because my experience of being in my body is undeniably different, it still surprises me when these changes show up on the outside. Brushing my teeth, I suddenly see the new definition in my triceps. Leaning forward, I’m surprised by the roll of my trapezius muscles. Getting dressed, I see the shadow marking my hamstrings. Whoa, what’s going on there?
Arguably, I’m in the best shape of my life right now. I’m about to turn 43. I can do stupid human tricks today that I couldn’t manage as an 8-year-old child. I still feel slow and ungainly in class, and I work out next to women and men who are as many as 35 years older than I am now. I can only assume that I’ll continue to improve, especially because I’m due to switch to advanced classes this summer. This makes me feel about 10% scared, 25% excited, and the rest just nonchalant, because it’s inevitable. What’s going to happen, though?
What will the best shape of my life look like, and when will it happen? How will I know?
I’ve Decided to Live 120 Years, and that decision made itself the moment I read the title of Ilchi Lee’s book. Longevity seems to be something that is creeping up on us unawares; I’m convinced that most people have no idea how long we’re really going to live, and we’ll find ourselves with fifteen or more extra years. What are we going to do with all that time? How are we going to prepare ourselves, emotionally, financially, physically, mentally?
Lee is a Taoist master, so there is a little bit of woo-woo in this book. Mostly, though, it’s a very practical look at aging from the perspective of a man in his sixties. We think of “65” as the magical year of old age because of a bureaucratic decision made in 19th Century Germany. Lee includes a poignant quote from a 95-year-old man who says he regrets wasting the thirty years of his retirement between 65 and 95. The man plans to study a foreign language so that he won’t reach his 105th birthday feeling that he’s wasted the previous ten years.
We look at that idea of the 105th birthday and smirk, thinking: Good luck with that one, old-timer! Then we read about Robert Marchand, who set a new world record in cycling at age 105 and raced as recently as February 2018, at 106.
I often ask myself, if a centenarian can do this, why can’t I? I’ll be 43 in July. There will come a day when I feel that 43 was young, oh so very young. I want to impress Old Me with how hard I’ve tried.
I know that Young Me had some really weird ideas about aging. Young Me thought that after I turned 30, I’d be “too old” to travel. Young Me never thought that I’d backpacking across Iceland and Spain after that age, much less that I’d run a marathon at age 39 or study kickboxing at 42. I feel physically younger now than I did at 20, and I have to assume that at 60, I’ll feel younger than I can imagine today. I want to make the best use of my time so I don’t look back wistfully, in regret and self-blame that I burned through so many years doing nothing.
Lee’s attitude is inspiring. He has a lot to say about letting go of the past, connecting with others and playing an active role in the community, staying fit, and not defining oneself as a frail, elderly person. His example of the older lady who gave away her recliner and her TV really lit me up! I’m going to do two things after reading I’ve Decided to Live 120 Years. I’m going to give my copy to my parents, and then I’m going to try to do wall push-ups like Lee does. He’s older than my dad, so if he can do it, why can’t I?
This is a story of a stack of money that could have disappeared, but didn’t. Granted, it might be more interesting to talk about that money if it did go bye-bye. Everyone can identify with that, right? There’s more value in the story that not everyone knows, the story of how losses can be avoided through strategy and careful study. If you’re tired of being broke, the first step is to avoid losing what you already have or getting into further debt. It can be done!
It’s IRA time. Before your eyes glaze over, let me quickly explain what that means and how it works.
Not too confusing, right?
I wish I had paid more attention to this sort of thing when I first started out, because I definitely would have found a way to come up with that money, and it would have turned into tens of thousands of dollars by now. I was saving $50 a week even when my take-home pay was $220. This is money I don’t have because I was too bored to read basic instructions or spend 20 minutes setting up an account. ANYWAY...
It’s close to tax time, and my husband reminded me that we needed to fund our IRAs so we can get the deduction. We are extremely serious about saving money, so much so that we live in a studio apartment and we don’t own a car. All we had to do was to transfer the money from our regular bank to E*TRADE, where we keep our retirement munneh. Takes like 10 minutes.
We’ve been talking about this pretty much for a year, so funding our IRAs was not a decision point. We didn’t need to discuss what we were going to do; we just did it. This is a massive, huge help. Taking action on something that you understand, when you feel confident that you know what to do, is just exactly as easy as ordering a pizza. Maybe even more so!
Our position is subjective. It’s a matter of personal opinion. It’s a policy decision that we’ve made independently, based on what we think about current events, the economy, future trends, planetary alignments, or whatever. Lots of other people can and do make different decisions based on their own personal opinions and positions. My husband and I both like pineapple on our pizza, while recognizing that lots of other people don’t, and that’s fine. The truth is that those people are wrong, pineapple on pizza is delectable, and it always will be. The truth about investments is that one position may pay off very well in one year, and not pay off in a different year, because conditions change all the time.
The main risk is in saving nothing. Living on 100% of what you make, or living off credit cards because you actually spend more than you earn. I’ve been there, I get it.
Back to the story. I now had $5500 in cash in my IRA account.
Nice, flat green American dollars.
Those dollars belong to Old Me. Future Me, playing with her Future Phone, riding around town in her flying car and wearing a metallic body stocking. You’re welcome, Future Me!
What I’m supposed to do is to then use my nice, carefully saved $5500 and buy shares of various stocks or funds or bonds (*snort*) with it. As that money sits in cash, it is not technically an investment. It won’t earn a single penny in interest, no matter how long I leave it there.
A lot of people do this on accident, not realizing that their IRA account is basically just an electronic envelope to hold their money. (Or collect dividends, which I think of as “money babies.”)
Okay, so. Here is where it starts to get good.
My hubby and I had both already decided to leave our 2017 IRA contributions in cash, because we anticipate a significant market drop. We have our own separate investment accounts, and we make our own decisions, because we earned that money from our own careers and we have our own strategies. This is a type of diversification. Cognitive diversification! We do our own research and our own analysis, and we trade notes. As it turns out, my investments outperformed his last year (heh heh heh) and sometimes he buys into some of the same stuff that I do. We high-fived after transferring the money.
THE VERY NEXT MORNING
The market tanked!
My 5500 nice flat green American dollars are still sitting in my cash account, untouched by the ravages of a 734-point market drop. (Followed by ANOTHER drop of 425 points the following day!)
If I had bought shares of anything off my shopping list, they would have been worth less later that same day. I would have lost a bunch of my IRA money within just HOURS of “investing” it.
Not sure if I would have cried or punched a hole in the wall, but...
Instead, I laughed. I laughed because this time I saw it coming. I didn’t know it would happen that fast, but I was stone-cold certain that in “the very near future” my shares would be worth less than they are now. In fact the value of my investment portfolio did drop over $1000 that day, but that’s okay because it’s still worth more than it was when I started. I also believe it will be worth more in three years than it is today. More importantly, I believe it will be worth more in 25 years, when Future Me comes to claim it.
I’m not good at math - if you don’t believe me, come out to lunch with me and watch how long it takes me to calculate the tip. If someone like me, someone who started out flat broke, with poor arithmetic skills, can learn how to invest, then probably anyone can. The main thing is that you have to take the needs of Old You as seriously as you take the needs of Today You. That tends to make you careful and attentive.
If you don’t have an IRA account set up, call someone at your bank, or if you hate making business calls as much as I do, you can probably do it on their website. If you want to get into investing for the first time, hang onto that money. Then start watching the headlines. When you start to see panic about record drops in the stock market, find a nice index fund and put your money into it. Pretend it isn’t there until this time next year. In the meantime, see if you can find a way to put aside $100 a week, or $20 a week, or $5 a week, or even $1 a week. Future You is going to thank you for it.
The rote sayings and adages that you hear as a broke person surrounded by broke people are completely different than the sayings that you hear uptown. For one thing, I’m finding that upper-middle-class people seem to talk about almost nothing but poor customer service, remodeling, and the bodily functions of their pets. As a kid, I often heard adults talk about being “a day late and a dollar short.” It’s an interesting exercise to think about the opposite of everything, and it intrigued me to start thinking about always being “a day early and a dollar up.” What would this mean?
The idea of being “a day late and a dollar short” is that even if I had managed to show up on time, to, say, the county fair, it wouldn’t have mattered. I couldn’t afford it anyway. Even if I had the money, something would have prevented me from getting there. I shouldn’t bother to get my hopes up or to set my heart on anything. This is the world of broke-ness. Your transportation is unreliable, you can’t depend on a predictable work schedule, the people you want to bring aren’t available for one of a thousand reasons, none of your stuff works, and every penny you manage to set aside is almost automatically burned up by pressing material needs. Fun is not for you. Resign yourself to deprivation and exclusion.
This is a self-perpetuating mindset.
The convenience store where I got my first real paystub job is still open at the same location. It’s still open all day, every day. There is still someone working there on the same schedule that I worked in 1993. It could be me. There are no practical reasons why I could not have spent the past 25 years standing in the same spot, wearing the same uniform, and presumably selling the exact same pot of coffee and the exact same four rotating hotdogs. Pumping orange nacho cheese out of the same plastic sack, selling the same blue-dyed frozen corn syrup drinks, peddling cigarettes, malt liquor, and scratch tickets to the same sketchy neighborhood dudes. I’d still have trouble making my rent, I still wouldn’t be able to afford a car, and I’d still wonder why toothpaste has to be so darn expensive. The simplest solution was always just to find a better-paying job somewhere else. Which I did.
Almost every problem I had in those days was a financial problem. The great thing about money problems is that they can be solved with money! A problem that can’t be solved with the application of cash dollars is a sad problem. Heartache, disappointment, grief, betrayal. Everything else is up for reconsideration. Having more money means being able to relocate, repair and replace things, hire lawyers or financial planners, get advanced education or professional credentials, take lessons, get medical care, make emergency travel plans, take time off work, help friends resolve their problems, and donate to various charitable causes.
Having money also means being able to plan ahead. One of the worst aspects of being broke is that your future timeline contracts. You start planning only a month ahead, or a paycheck ahead, or a week ahead, or a day ahead. You become unable to imagine what your life might be like in three years or ten years. Feeling like you have plenty of money and plenty of options helps to extend that figurative timeline.
I only worked at that convenience store for two months. I’m pretty sure I can still remember every minute of every shift. Purgatory looks a lot like a convenience store at 10 AM on a Sunday morning, with a never-ending line of people waiting to buy one cup of coffee and a newspaper. I had no idea what I would do with myself while I stood behind that counter. I had no idea how that job would ever lead to anything better. It never really crossed my mind to go back to school, which I eventually did, because I was so sure that college was out of my reach. My take-home pay exactly equaled my rent. I was living off microwaved baked potatoes with no butter; obviously I wasn’t saving money or planning for the future. When I got a full-time office job, I tripled my pay. SEVEN DOLLARS AN HOUR! I saved over 20% of my take-home pay every week. That’s when I started planning ahead and thinking that I could make goals.
One of the first things I did was to save money for my first international trip. I took three weeks off - insane for a nineteen-year-old - and went to New Zealand.
Last year, my husband and I went to Wyoming to see the solar eclipse in totality. We found out it was happening a year in advance and set a reminder for January to book tickets. I got the last available hotel room in Jackson and paid for it with reward points. We bought our plane tickets, still available and significantly cheaper eight months in advance. My husband put in his vacation request with plenty of time to spare. If we’d waited, we wouldn’t have been able to get there at any price. These are the kinds of things you can do when you save money and plan ahead. We did in fact get to town six days early.
The less FoMO we have, the less of a sense of scarcity, the easier it is to put money aside. We only take out our wallets for the can’t-miss stuff. There have been dozens of concerts we would have liked to see, sure, and nights we would have liked to go out and eat in a restaurant. Doing these things every time the urge arises means a strained schedule, burnout, debt, and weight gain. It’s not a relaxing way to live. We like to maintain our domestic contentment at home, inexpensively, and go out for the really great stuff. It’s a completely different experience to always feel like you’re a day early and a dollar up.
Nostalgia is a mystery to me. What’s so great about the past? I say this while waving my history degree over my head. There is no past era that I’d prefer to live in. There is no time, not even the 2000s, that I’d prefer to today. Throwback Thursday is wasted on me; I liked the music of the 1980s but not much else. From my perspective, every year that I’ve lived has involved more innovation, more books and music and movies, and better-quality food. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve benefited from getting my head straight and being less susceptible to emotional drama. I have more skills and I’m a better cook. These things are also true about my family and friends. Life is harder in most ways when you’re young. The future seems like an extremely exciting place to me and I can’t wait to see it unfold. This is a basic optimism that is the key to a happier life.
Optimism is a learned trait.
What is there to look forward to? Don’t you read the news? Oh, it’s awful, it’s awful.
I agree, there is all sorts of truly terrible stuff in the news every day. There always has been, because it’s much simpler to tell stories about terrible events day by day. The photographs are much more dramatic. How do you tell a story about the decline in extreme poverty with a photo? Take a picture of an ordinary, well-fed child who is studying in a classroom? How do you tell a story about the incredible decline in casualties from war? Take a picture of an ordinary town where people are working at their jobs?
That’s the thing about having a degree in history. I know too much. Our chances of dying from almost everything were much higher at any point in the past. Most people, statistically, would have died as infants. Epidemic disease, lack of sanitation, malnutrition, constant warfare, sieges, an extremely high murder rate, brigands, even attacks by various wild animals. We can only possibly feel glum about the present day if we try to compare our conditions with some imagined glory days from the twentieth century.
I grew up in a tenement apartment and I still had a lot of things that the Emperor Charlemagne did not have, that he could not buy at any price. Central heat. Ice cubes on demand. Legible penmanship. A public library and a fire department. Paved sidewalks. Electricity, including lightbulbs, a stove, and a refrigerator. Potable water flowing out of the faucet. A telephone and a television. My mattress and pillow undoubtedly kicked butt over his. Granted, I didn’t feel anywhere near as grateful for these modern comforts as Charlemagne would have. That’s because historical progress is driven by envy and dissatisfaction.
I say this is great. There’s no reason to envy someone if you can study what they’re doing and imitate it. This is obvious if you have a growth mindset! Assume that the envied person had to acquire that trait somehow. Also, you have to envy the complete package, not one thing in isolation. That means you can’t envy a celebrity without including the paparazzi and the haters. You can’t envy any individual person without including their entire personal history, their relationships, and their behaviors. Maybe their fitness level, financial success, or emotional intelligence would come easier to you than it did for them. Observing someone else means you can skip anything they tried that didn’t work. Let envy make you a better person.
We seem to be allergic to thinking about the future. Research shows that we think of our own future selves in the same way we think about total strangers. I think a lot of us are mean to Future Us. We set ourselves up in ways we wouldn’t treat our worst enemies. Hey, Future Me! Have fun trying to survive on the tiny fixed income I’m sending you. I hope you enjoy paying off our debts. Oh, and good luck burning off this slab of cake I’m eating. Maybe you can get rid of some of those calories while you clean out this garage I’m piling with stuff. And by the way, wash my dishes.
The most commonly procrastinated goals are planning for the future and dealing with health issues. In both cases, it would be easy for us if we realized that Future Me is the same person as Today Me.
Unfortunately, most of us are captivated by Past Self. We just see ourselves as cuter when we were younger. We think we had more fun and that life was better. We don’t like looking forward, because it seems depressing, but when we do, we’re oppressed by the idea that we “should” be planning, saving money, eating better, and being more active. Walking backward, facing the past, we’re going to bump into the future and feel it as a frustrating obstacle.
This is part of why people hang on to clutter. We haven’t spent any time thinking about what we’ll want or need just a few years into the future. We have this anxious sense of What If, while never spending any time gaming it out. Get specific about those What Ifs and plan around them! What If I turn into a bag lady? Well, what would need to happen to avoid that sad destiny? (Build relationships, build career skills, learn about financial planning, save money). What If my house burns down? (Get insurance, test your smoke detectors, make an emergency response plan). What If I need this later? Well, that decision is up to you. You’re creating your response to your stuff and your home. You’re creating your response to your money. You’re creating your response to food and to how it feels to live in your body. You’re creating your friendships and conversations. What your personal future looks like depends almost entirely on how you think and what you do about it, today.
The future is an opportunity. Even an hour from now: later today is the future! There’s always still time to call someone and say the things you haven’t said, like “I miss you” and “I’m sorry” and “I love you.” There’s always still time to learn new things, to travel, to try new foods and dance to new music. There’s always still time to try to be a better person, a better listener, more patient and forgiving. There’s even time to clean out the garage. Pick any single goal or any single square foot in your personal space, and do something today that will make it more awesome for Tomorrow You. The future can be whatever you wish it to be.
This book is a total trip. I follow Benjamin Hardy on Medium, so I knew that his book would be worth the read, but I have to confess that it blew my mind. Slipstream Time Hacking! I’m still processing it. I have the suspicion that it has permanently affected how I perceive the nature of reality. If this intrigues you, you should definitely read it even if I make a complete hash out of this review. It’s short but it has a lot going on.
Briefly, a slipstream is a way of rapidly jumping forward in time. Not on Star Trek but here, in our ordinary daily reality, we can time-travel. Time hacking means that we can change our results by looking at time differently and learning how slipstreams work.
Historian’s note: We ARE traveling through time. We’re just doing it at 1x speed.
Okay, now that I’m wearing my historian hat, I have to keep it on, because it always puts a dent in my hair. Let me give a bit of perspective here. Compare a kindergarten-age child of 2018 to a five-year-old child of 818 CE. Twelve hundred years ago, that typical little kid would be small and frail due to malnourishment and early fevers. He or she would have a household job, like knitting socks, fetching water, or searching for firewood. This child would never learn to read or write, and might struggle with basic arithmetic as an adult. Now, quick! Grab the little tyke and run for your slipstream! After the lice treatment, the vaccinations, a long, hot bath, and a couple of visits to the dentist, enroll the kid in a local school. A year later, this medieval child will be living twelve hundred years in the future, literally and physically, but also mentally. Open the slipstream and send the poor kid home to the thatched hut where you found him/her. The villagers of 819 CE would find this very confusing. Where did this kinda large, clean child with the sparkly teeth come from? Where did this child learn to read, write, and understand basic sanitation? Worse, what the heck is this kid saying about cars, electricity, airplanes, rocket ships, “other planets,” phones, microwaves, dinosaurs, and Hot Pockets? Somebody call a priest.
Now, forget that poor medieval child and turn your attention back to the kid who was born in 2013. This child is exactly like a medieval child that traveled twelve hundred years into the future: a little child that still needs naps and snacks, gets skinned knees, and plays with an imaginary friend. The human part of us is the same. The difference is the cultural context in which we live. This is the part of us that can time-travel.
Here is where it gets crazy, and where it’s helpful to read the book for yourself.
Everything you are trying to do with your life exists on a time continuum. For example, let’s say you want to pay off a $20,000 balance on your credit cards. At your current rate, you hope to be caught up in four years. If you win a contest and use the money to pay off your cards, you’ve effectively traveled to 2022! Monetarily at least, you’ve jumped ahead into the financially secure future.
Now, imagine something similar happening with all your other goals. What would you do if you suddenly woke up and you were already at your relationship, career, financial, fitness, and home improvement goals? What goals would you make then? Why not just make those goals today and skip the middle steps?
This is the reasoning behind working with a trainer or a coach. If you can move to a specific vision for the future more quickly with a little help, then it makes every kind of sense to seek out that help.
Hardy’s book goes beyond these basic, ordinary goals. How do people make groundbreaking leaps in business, sports, publishing, and other fields? What are the geniuses doing? How do they strategize and make their decisions? This is the part that’s messing with my mind. Now that I’ve read Slipstream Time Hacking, I have to ask myself: What would I be doing right now if I lived a hundred years into the future? What would my home look like and what would I be doing with my day? Is there any reason why I couldn’t be doing that right now?
If a goal doesn’t take at least four years to accomplish, is it worth doing?
This is the question I ask myself now when I choose my goals for the New Year. I’m on the challenge path. I keep my resolutions because the entire point of what I do is to feel like a failure, at least at the beginning. I know I’ve picked the right challenge for the year if I absolutely hate it for at least the first three weeks. There are all sorts of things I would hate doing, though, mostly because they’re bad ideas. Example: walk into the woods and eat the first mushroom you see! No, absolutely don’t do that.
Every day, do something that scares you, unless of course it’s scary for a good reason.
The premise here is to push yourself to do something that is challenging because it’s new to you, because the act of the challenge helps to make you smarter and more resilient and better at learning difficult new things. That’s valuable all by itself. In the sense of the challenge path as emotional training, as mindset development tool, it doesn’t matter what you pick. Challenge makes you better.
The next level of question is, if I did this thing for four years, where would I be?
Would learning about this alien new skill or activity for four years give me expanded options in life?
What kind of person would I be if I spent four years trying to get good at this?
What are the people like, the ones who have been doing this thing for at least four years?
Why four years and not forty years? Well, that’s relevant, too. Thinking about the challenge path in terms of novice to mastery, though, was too intimidating and off-putting. I could never think of anything specific that I wanted to dedicate my entire life to. My one and only life! Four years is a time span that helps me to feel curious. It makes everything accessible. Maybe I do it for four years and only then do I realize that I’m hooked for life. No beginner can genuinely know that, or at least that’s my opinion.
This is why I don’t really start a new goal in the month of January. I can’t “break” my resolution if January is the month when I do my initial research. I haven’t even started to build momentum until second quarter at the earliest. The first year barely counts at all. Learning to think in a longer-term perspective is how I take good care of Future Me.
Past Me worked really hard to get me a drivers license and a good credit score and visible ab definition. Past Self made me a marriage. I can’t throw all that away. I have to live up to Past Me’s standards and uphold our agreement to build a better life for Future Self. I make plans over a four-year event horizon because I believe in a future.
What kinds of things happen over a four-year timeframe?
Well, let’s see. I met and married my husband in that length of time! In four years, you can build a house, build a business, or get a university degree. You can build a boat. You can train a service animal or learn to dance. All sorts of stuff can happen in four years! It’s really a pretty long time, especially from the perspective of someone who routinely gives up on New Year’s Resolutions in four weeks.
The year I chose running, I only planned to run 2.25 miles by the end of the year. I visualized my progress literally in increments of a single sidewalk square. Imagine my surprise when I reached my goal three weeks later! “Now what?” I wasn’t into the whole four-year thing yet. That’s why it never occurred to me that I’d wind up running a marathon. Even more, it never crossed my mind that I’d become interested in the world of adventure races and ultra-marathons. I started as a hater and wound up as a true believer.
I chose cooking after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. This introduced the concept of the “10,000 hour rule.” The pursuit of mastery is more complicated than that, of course, but it did feel like an epiphany. What would I want to be good at if all it took was 10,000 hours? I couldn’t think of anything. How about 1,000 hours? Wait. How about one hundred hours, or ten hours?? As soon as the thought “ten hours” crossed my mind, it snapped into perfect clarity. Cooking! In reality, I was making much better dinners in under ten hours. It got better as soon as I started doing mise en place and working on how to sauté an onion properly.
In other words, I shifted from a fixed to a growth mindset. Almost instantaneously. I stopped thinking of, say, my cooking abilities as a fundamental part of my personality. Instead I started thinking of them as something I could (and should) improve with focus and attention. It was obvious that every hour I put toward learning such a basic skill would improve my life permanently. My skills would also improve the lives of other people around me.
That’s true of everything.
Learning new skills makes you useful to have around. Not only do you quit relying on other people to do these things for you, you can also contribute at a higher level. This is especially true when you work on mastering things like time management, getting organized, improving your communication skills, mood management, parallel parking, first aid, using a fire extinguisher... You get the drift.
Over the years, I’ve used my New Year’s planning process as a benchmark. What am I going to learn next? How do I assess how far I’ve come? What are my strongest and weakest areas? I’ve set out to learn so many things, from how to raise one eyebrow to how to read more complicated knitting patterns or make decent pancakes. I’ve learned how to balance the weight in my expedition backpack, how to plan a trip overseas, how to feed twenty people on a budget, and all sorts of useful skills. Everything builds on everything else. What started as something foreign and confusing and difficult turns into a basic skill I barely realize I’m using.
Why wouldn’t I want to learn this? That’s one question. Who wouldn’t want to be a good cook? Why wouldn’t I want to be good at distance running or three-day backpacking trips? Why wouldn’t I want to be good at public speaking?
I have a rough sense of some future challenges I may or may not take on one day. Right now it’s martial arts. In the future, it might be orienteering, or chess, or voice lessons, or welding. The basic rules are whether it will improve life for Future Me and whether studying it will force me to feel true humility, at least for the first year.
I can’t control the vagaries of fate. Things will happen in the world in general, and other things will happen specifically to me. That’s reality. What I can do is to continually push myself to face challenges, to learn new skills, and to be unafraid of being a beginner. Forever, forever and always a beginner. With every year that goes by, I’m better prepared to handle or even avoid the random accidents and crises of fate. This is how to create a destiny. Who do I want to be four years from now? Four years after that?
IT’S DECEMBER! And you know what that means! Two entire months of... NEW YEAR’S PLANNING!!! Oh, gosh, there’s nothing quite as magical and special as spending two months celebrating a one-day holiday. They won’t let me do full-on Valentine’s Mania for two months, so I’m going with the New Year. Obviously everyone is going to dedicate the month before the New Year to the big day. I’m just doing all of January because I can, because I never want the glitter to end.
Look at my shiny new day planner! LOOK AT IT!
I got this 13-month planner so I could get a head start on 2018. Holy smoke. I can’t think of a year I’ve wanted to get here quite as much as I’ve wanted 2018. An entire year loaded with potential. So. Much. Potential.
Seriously, this is a big freaking deal. They say only 8% of people who make New Year’s Resolutions actually keep them, and I’m definitely in that 8%. I’ve been doing this every year since I was 9. Take all your feelings about freshly sharpened pencils, crunchy leaves, rainbows, puppies, cereal for dinner, and new socks, wrap them into one feeling, and that’s getting close to how I feel about my strategic planning process for my annual goals and resolutions.
How does it work???
Start with optimism. Whatever sucks in your life, you can get rid of it. No matter how much you are annoying yourself, you can stop. Anything you want to learn, you can learn, because this is the internet, yo.
Identify your open loops. There are 31 whole, complete days left of 2017. That’s actually a huge amount of time for year-end closure.
For the last few years, I have been doing quarterly check-ins on my goals and resolutions. This is not just for public accountability; it’s also to keep myself focused. I want to at least REMEMBER the fabulous plans I made for myself. For 2017 I tried an experiment, breaking my annual plans down by the month. That was a pathetic failure. Granted, our personal life blew up in the first week of the New Year, but saying that is like blaming your tiles for losing at Scrabble.
The big thing in my year is that I committed to two major fitness goals, and I have yet to complete either one. I’m supposed to be able to run five miles again, and I’m supposed to do P90X, since I bought it for myself a few years ago and it’s still in the shrink wrap. Either I’m going to fail or I’m going to spend most of December hopping around and sweating.
I have a large piece of furniture that I want to get rid of, and now is as good a time as any. I also have a few things to sell on eBay, and the timing will be particularly good if I do it within the next two weeks.
Every year, I clean my home top to bottom. I open every drawer, every cabinet, every cupboard, every closet, and I look at the contents of every shelf. This is partly a time to tighten screws and spot-clean walls and carpets. Mostly, it’s time to throw away worn-out socks, check expiration dates, and consider what needs upgrading or replacing. On New Year’s Day, I like to wake up to a gleaming house with some free storage space, with nothing to do but lounge around reading all day in my pajamas.
Every year, I also like to go through all my papers and digital files. Above all, I want to start the New Year with the feeling of a truly fresh start. That means no loose ends in the form of incomplete applications, unpaid fines, unsorted papers, unanswered email, unsent letters or packages, or otherwise incomplete bureaucratic work. DONE is what I want. I don’t even want to be in the middle of reading a book!
I’m doing Fridge Zero (more to come on this topic), and since I know I’ll be throwing out any leftovers, I’m also planning meals around what we currently have in the fridge, freezer, and pantry.
Coincidentally, December First is a Friday this year, and it’s one of my husband’s alternating three-day weekends. He’s cheerfully agreed to do a strat session with me. He has this vile habit of making his goals and then crushing them within the first three weeks. Upholders! What can you do with them? It’s up to you whether goal-planning with your friendly local Upholder is motivating or demotivating for you. As for us, we’re going to spend part of the weekend getting a head start on the delectable, once-in-a-lifetime 2018 that is coming our way.
Oh, and someone’s gotta say it, so I will. It has been exactly one year since December 1, 2016, so... HAPPY NEW YEAR!
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.