Passion is overrated. This is the message of The Passion Paradox. This research-based book helps to distinguish between different types of passion, positive and negative, which is something that pop culture could really use right now. We can thank Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness for offering a message that is much more nuanced and interesting than a million memes and fridge magnets.
The term ‘passion’ originally had dark and religious meanings. It wasn’t a feeling that people would associate with a dream job, say, or interior design. Passion was (and probably still is) a form of suffering, just as nostalgia was considered an illness. I can tell you, as a person afflicted with a lifelong passion for birdwatching, that I do sometimes question why I am bushwhacking through brambles and waist-high weeds just to look at a bird for a few minutes.
Dopamine, that’s why. There are biological reasons why some people are ‘passionate’ and others less so. There are also psychological roots, and passion can lead to obsession and addiction. Whatever else it does, passion does not guarantee a path to happiness; it’s not comfortable.
Two ways that the search for passion can mess us up are the destiny belief of love and the fit mind-set of passion. The first is the belief in “soulmates” rather than that relationships take work, and the second is a sense that there is a “dream job” out there for everyone. These beliefs convince us that any difficulty, awkwardness, or less-than-perfect feelings mean a job or relationship aren’t right for us. This in turn can lead us to quit rather than putting in any effort, meaning we destroy our own chances at happiness before they have a chance to get anywhere.
The Passion Paradox does more than identify problems with our pop culture perception of passion. This book teaches ways to deal with hedonic adaptation and fear of failure. Unexpectedly, it suggests that we seek out ways to experience awe and develop a greater perspective. It also encourages enhancing our self-awareness. Ultimately, we can incorporate a health and balanced passion into our very identity.
Everyone tells us to find our passion but no one tells us how to find it, let alone how to live with it.
After a massive achievement or a devastating failure, getting back to work serves as an embodied reminder that external results aren’t why you are in this.
Be most intent not on winning or losing, but on becoming better—stronger, kinder, and wiser—than your past self.
You simply cannot be deeply passionate and balanced in combination.
Boredom is one way to avoid the fear of missing out. Simply don’t care about anything and have no interests. Problem solved! For those of us who aren’t really capable of feeling bored, FoMO can be a real problem. No matter what we’re doing, there is always something else going on that sounds amazing, there are always tons of choices and alternate paths, and always the potential sense of loss for the roads not taken. It can eat a hole into any experience.
Fortunately all it takes is an attitude adjustment.
There are a bunch of ways to do it:
First and most boring, we can try to remember how lucky we are that we’re doing this right now instead of, say, lying in bed with the flu, getting a root canal, or loading a moving van. Oh yeah! Suddenly I am remembering what a great day this is!
Funny how we only feel like we’re missing out on the variety of appealing options, not the depressing or scary options...
We can try to remember that no matter what we’re doing, someone somewhere else in the world is doing something equally interesting. That person might happily trade places with us. Desire for novelty is built into the human system, and in that way we have much in common with crows. Just because we can see the attraction of something else does not mean that the other thing is superior to what we have in front of us.
I had occasion to think about this while walking in London. My husband and I passed a pair of Brits. He wore a Los Angeles sweatshirt and she wore a Disneyland t-shirt. They’d gone all the way to our neighborhood at some point, because it is so great, and we had packed up and met them all the way in their neighborhood for the same reason. Hook arms and do-si-do, swing your partner round and round.
We can try to remind ourselves that we can always make plans and come back again another time. Travel is simply a question of priorities. There are tons of ways to make it happen, from relocating or working in a travel-related field to house swapping to saving money, and lots and lots more. People are doing it every day.
One way of looking at vacation FoMO is to regard it as a sign that we are enjoying ourselves and we’ve discovered something that we like. Not everyone has a passion, not everyone is very much in touch with their sense of fun or their heart’s desire. Longing to stay somewhere or to go back again is a bright blinking arrow pointing in a clear direction.
What I’m working on right now is the sense that, rather than missing out on something or anything, I’m really just constantly surrounded by almost infinite possibilities. Every time I read a book, I’m not missing out on a hundred million other books, I just happen to be into that one at that moment. Every time I have a conversation with a friend, I’m not missing out on conversations with other people, I’m just fortunate to be catching up with this particular friend at this moment. When I’m somewhere on vacation, likewise, I’m not missing out on anything.
Even though it feels that way sometimes!
This FoMO feeling, it’s insidious. It’s like a leak in the ceiling.
Everyone told us, when we asked where we should go in London, “Oh, you should definitely see the Sky Garden.” Never mind that it turned out to be booked solid for the entire window of availability. Same thing with the Buckingham Palace garden tour. If we were to shed a tear every time something like that happened on a trip, we’d never have any fun at all.
Instead we realize that a place like London is absolutely full of magnificent parks and gardens, most of which are free to visit, have no lines, and include plenty of places to sit.
We find ourselves in Kensington Gardens, with ringneck parrots landing on us and eating out of our hands, something we had no idea would be a possibility on our trip, or in this lifetime.
FoMO is a denial of serendipity. Ultimately it’s a way of trying to control that which should not always be controlled. The point of travel is to see the world the way it is, not the way we’ve imagined it from our sofa cushions at home. It works so much better when we leave room for a bit of magic. In that sense we’re only really missing out when we stay at home and refuse to disrupt our boring old routine.
Naysayers are going to tell you that the pursuit of happiness has something wrong with it. It’s deluded, it’s selfish, it’s impossible with the world in the state it’s in. They think they’re being contrarian. On the contrary, that is the default view. It’s contrarian to stand up for happiness as a worthy, even necessary, moral goal and ethical - well, I won’t say ‘duty’ - ...option. Ethical option. Part of this is because of all the negative things that happy people don’t do.
Happy people don’t act up.
Let’s catalogue this.
Happy people are not belligerent.
Happy people don’t vandalize things.
Happy people don’t abuse their kids or hurt animals.
Happy people don’t spread negative gossip.
Happy people don’t sabotage others’ happiness.
Happy people are not motivated to cause harm.
See what I’m saying here? A person who did engage in these negative activities would, ipso facto, not be a happy person. Someone who is content, grateful, even cheerful, would not be inclined to do these things. Probably the thought would never cross their mind.
This is a good measure of whether something is a wise course of action or not. Is this something happy people do? Or is it something a happy person would not do?
‘Happy’ does not necessarily mean ‘carefree.’ A counterargument could be made that a ‘happy’ person is a hedonist, a sloppy and irresponsible person who leaves a trail of mess and debt. Really, though? Such a person would eventually start to receive increasing amounts of criticism and disrespect, and that is not consistent with longterm happiness.
An inconsiderate person is missing out on the happiness of doing nice things for others. There is also a missed opportunity for earning respect and gaining an excellent reputation.
Not that striving for reputation is all that good an idea. Depending on the opinions of others is not the path toward happiness, it’s rather a narrow and muddy track into the brambles. Happy people are happy because they have found something inside themselves that makes them that way.
Probably a lot of widely different things make happy people happy. Speaking for myself, I find that things that make me happy aren’t always on other people’s radar. They aren’t noticing things that are, for me, a constant wellspring of delight.
Delight is certainly one ingredient of happiness!
There’s a corollary to the idea that happy people don’t do certain things, and that is that unhappy people also don’t do certain things. Seeing a quadrant diagram here... Happy people do things that unhappy people don’t do, etc.
Unhappy people don’t delight in small things.
Unhappy people do not seek out awe-inspiring experiences.
Unhappy people do not create their own atmosphere of domestic contentment.
Unhappy people are not consoled by nature.
Unhappy people do not spread good cheer to others.
You never know when a single comment or facial expression can make the difference in someone else’s day. Anyone who has ever worked in customer service can testify to this. People have their reasons for being rude or throwing tantrums, and maybe they’re good ones, but probably they’re not.
A single kind remark or empathetic gaze can make someone feel connected and cared for. Far more often, all sorts of sniping cruddy little bits of sarcasm or dirty looks are going to be fired throughout the day. It tends to spill over onto innocent bystanders.
You never know when the person on the receiving end just got fired, got a bad diagnosis, or had a death in the family. You never know when someone overheard something snappy at a low moment, and it contributed to their overall outlook on life. Unhappiness spreads like mold spores, and unhappy people like it that way.
On the other hand, you never know when a simple smile or word of courtesy is going to make the difference. It may be the first time someone has made eye contact with that person and smiled at them all day. It may be the first time someone has spoken directly to them or treated them kindly all week. It may be the first compliment they’ve ever received in their life.
Unhappy people don’t think about these things. Unhappy people think about themselves.
It’s possible to shake out of a mental spiral. Disrupt it. The quickest way to do that is to do something nice for someone. Thinking about someone else is a minute you didn’t spend thinking about your own problems. Maybe you still have the same problems you did a minute ago, but something positive has come from it, and nobody can take that away.
Happy people have this built into their worldview. Most of the nice things that happy people do are instinctual and don’t require a moment’s hesitation. Happy people don’t wait to be kind.
Because happy people believe in happiness, they are much quicker to fix small problems before they become bigger problems. Unhappy people believe in unhappiness, and problematic situations fit well in that worldview. Happy people don’t tolerate persistent problems.
It’s possible to stay unhappy while fixing persistent problems, if you want it that way. When I was young and poor, I would come home and scrub the bathtub whenever I’d had a rotten day. I figured I could be sad with a clean bathtub or a dirty bathtub, and at least I could have a nice soak in the clean bathtub. On the worst days, at least a depressing mess isn’t contributing to everything.
I believed in my ability to affect my own circumstances. Therefore, I did.
Happy people don’t quit trying. Happy people know there’s a better way, and they’re not going to give up until they’ve made it back. This is why happy people are the ones changing the world.
I like a good euphemism, especially for self-talk. When I tried to come up with a better way to think about oral surgery, the term “dental reset” came to mind. Works for me. There’s a lot going on, and I wish it was already over (and paid for), and grouping several procedures into one batch is helping me deal with it.
Dentistry is amazing from an historical perspective. I remind myself of this. Not very long in the past, the best available option for even the wealthiest person would be to have a tooth removed without anesthesia of any kind, that or let it decay in place over a few years. Poor dentistry was probably a factor in decreased longevity because of infection and the difficulty of eating while mostly toothless.
That’s why I can still smile while signing off on a copay of over a thousand dollars just to not be awake for all this.
I’m straightedge, I won’t drink a beer, but go on ahead with that IV and the oxygen!
My image of a root canal, before I had my first one last month, was a vague and nameless horror. People speak reverently of root canals in the same way they do of automotive collisions. All I knew to expect was misery. IT WASN’T THAT BAD THOUGH!
Resorption repair: not that bad either.
In neither of these procedures in my dental reset have I been offered painkillers, which is great because I wouldn’t want them anyway. I was prescribed Vicodin for the extraction of my wisdom teeth, and I quit taking it on the second day because it made me feel so ill. That, and my mom found me passed out on the bathroom floor... In my opinion, painkillers don’t treat pain, they just make a person too incoherent to complain about it.
Sometimes you have a problem. Then you get a prescription and you have two things: the original problem plus a pill problem.
I woke up in the same dental chair where I started, which was an improvement over my wisdom tooth experience. Then I had been taken to another room and laid out on a cot, which was disorienting and upsetting. Waking up alone in a strange room without being told this would happen! This is why I think one of two things. Either anesthesia has improved as a practice over the past 25 years, or I’m better at tolerating it.
Or my endodontist is a genius, which is likely in either case.
Okay, so the anxiety. We got home from the airport after 11 PM, knowing I would have to be in the dental chair at 8 AM the next day. The first thing they told me was that they might not be able to save the tooth and we’d have to deal with that later.
Hitting all my buttons:
Large bills, due in full
Dying under anesthesia
Being moved around while unconscious
Going around toothless, even for a day
Wondering how much more of this I will confront in the next 40-50 years
Teeth are the sine qua non of the middle class. I really didn’t want to be losing three teeth, especially not on the same row, and I didn’t feel all that impressed with the alternatives. Isn’t 43 a little young for a bridge?
Basically what happens with resorption is that the tooth starts to sort of dissolve. It doesn’t hurt and you can’t see it with the naked eye, so the only way to find out it’s going on is with an x-ray and a smart dentist. I love horror movies but come on. The procedure involves cutting into the gum tissue to fix the damaged root and then voila, sutures in your gums.
The biggest struggle with willpower that I have ever had in my life has been to keep my tongue away from those sutures.
I sat in the dental chair and, I kid you not, the song playing was “Band on the Run.” Paul McCartney singing:
IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE
I woke up and they helped me into a wheelchair, where I immediately started shivering, an aftereffect of sedation.
I felt basically fine, though I think my appearance alarmed the rideshare driver.
My husband had to take the day off work to be with me, which was actually good because he was able to catch up on work email accrued during our trip. It turns out it was also helpful because he paid attention and remembered all the specific details about flossing and brushing and anti-inflammatories and the prescription medicated mouthwash.
I didn’t realize until about twelve hours later, after sleeping off the residual anesthetic and reading all my brochures, that there are a lot of reasons why someone can’t be alone right after this stuff. Apparently anesthesia makes a lot of people violently ill and it can even make you stop breathing. Yikes!
In actual fact, I had some of the best sleep I’ve had all year and woke up feeling refreshed. I went to check myself out in the mirror, expecting bruising and puffiness and circles under my eyes. Since all I did all day was drink fluids and nap on and off, I looked... rather dewy. If anything, if there is any swelling, it seems to be making me look younger.
If you’ve been contemplating this kind of endodontic magic, obviously your experience might not be the same as mine, but don’t be scared. I haven’t really been sore, or dizzy, or nauseated. I’m hungry and not loving the soft foods diet, and the suture is mildly distracting, but I’m sleeping fine. I can get the stitches out next week.
It seems fair to mention that, especially for my age, I’m in pretty great shape. I didn’t have any of the health problems listed on the intake form, such as diabetes or heart disease. I’m at a healthy weight. I work out. Circulation and respiration matter here. I also suspect that I’m having a relatively easy time because I’ve been a vegan for 22 years. I may not be experiencing the standard amount of inflammation as someone who regularly takes in a lot of sugar, coffee, alcohol, salt, and saturated fat. No idea.
They were able to save my tooth! Sweeter words were never heard. This is probably the best and smartest thing I’ve spent money on all year.
Root canal: Fine
Resorption surgery: No big deal
Crown: To be scheduled
It was certain doom when we realized we were both marching band geeks. My husband and I still sometimes go around whistling Sousa marches together. He played tuba and I played (but you knew this) clarinet. Therefore we can do a reasonable rendition of Fairest of the Fair.
Our musical training also helped when I taught him various ballroom dances. He knew what I meant when I taught him to swing dance and suggested we try double time.
Then, triple time!
I kinda do everything triple time now.
I just discovered that one of the library smartphone apps I use offers a higher playback speed than the other one. For the enthusiasts, that’s Hoopla vs. OverDrive. Although I was in public at the time, I bounced in my seat and let out a little ‘woohoo!’
Earlier this year, I finally figured out the secret of how to input ebooks into my speed-reading app, Outread. Depending on what it is, I can read at triple or quadruple speed.
This is probably why I have little patience for TV or movies. Sometimes I want to watch something terrible purely for pop culture reasons, and I feel stuck at regular playback. It creates a weird paradox, where it takes me longer to absorb something that doesn’t really interest me than it does to indulge in something I enjoy.
Note: I have seen some unbelievably, staggeringly bad horror films...
...a genre which, at high speed, might quickly morph into screwball comedy.
It often does at my house, because my little parrot likes to walk behind me on the couch, making smooching sounds and imitating games of ping-pong.
Doing things faster is funny. Sometimes, when I bust through my chores, I think of Lucille Ball stuffing chocolates into her mouth.
The way we look at our daily routine is entirely our own choice. It’s equally as possible to take great pride in drudgery as it is to resent even the lightest duties. That’s because we don’t necessarily care about the nature of work; we care about whether we feel like it’s our choice or someone else’s.
Example: I find nail art mystifying. I utterly cannot understand it. I once had to wear a coat of clear nail polish for a gig, and I was counting the hours until I could remove it, because I couldn’t escape the smell. If I had some job where I was forced to sit still and have nail polish applied on a regular basis, and then wear it all day, I’d be climbing the walls. Yet a lot of people wear it for fun. Go figure.
We should all be more aware of what we enjoy for its own sake and what we’d rather trade off for something else.
I like hustling and bustling around, getting things done. It doesn’t even really matter what I’m doing, because I’m listening to a book. Might as well keep busy.
Often, I play Beat the Clock, trying to get a set number of tasks done before a timer goes off. That’s because I no longer have a washer and dryer.
Don’t get me wrong - there’s little that annoys me more than folding laundry. Carrying fifteen pounds of sweaty workout clothes across the apartment complex, and back again when it’s clean, is not my idea of a fun time. Sixteen washers and dryers are shared by 332 units, which is probably 400-500 tenants. This creates some interesting constraints, and constraints are all you need to make up an interesting game.
Can I find a block of time when two or three machines are available? How much can I get done in 28 minutes while waiting to put the wash into the dryer? How much can I get done in 44 minutes while waiting for the dryer to finish?
Part of my game is refusing to do housework on the weekend, and that includes Fridays. I try to avoid Mondays as well, because several holidays include a Monday. And I’m busy on Wednesdays.
Okay, to tell the truth, I only really do housework on Tuesday and Thursday.
Most of it on Thursday.
My game of doing things on triple time means that five or six days a week, I don’t have to do anything but walk the dog. No laundry, no errands, nothing!
Imagine that. Five or six days a week, I have zero stress about cleaning my apartment.
Oh, but you don’t have kids, I hear. Yeah, I’m about to turn 44. Most people don’t have little kids around at my age. Also, both of my parents saw children as little mini chore machines. My mom would tape a chore list for each of us on the front door every morning. We weren’t allowed to go out and play until our chores were done, and this started at kindergarten age. We were gradually considered competent to do every single household task except cleaning the bathroom, and I took that over in high school. I won’t claim that my brothers and I looked forward to doing chores more than any other kid, but I will certainly say that we did our share.
If you live in a home, and your chores stress you out, well, it’s your own home. You’re in charge of creating the rules there. If you insist on burnout, resentment, and annoyance, that is your seigneurial right. Far be it from me to tell anyone to quit being irritated or exhausted if they want to be.
There are lots of games that can be played with task lists. Chores can be regarded as claiming or expanding territory. There can be a race between players or against a timer. There can be bonus points for one thing versus another. Something like a list of business calls can be regarded as a treasure hunt or Mission: Accomplished. Kids are great for this as well, because their ability to continually generate new games is more or less infinite.
Triple time is irresistible to me. It puts a spring in my step. It adds a bit of interest and excitement to what could easily be a boring, routine day. It’s not for everyone, obviously, but... why not one and a quarter time?
As a news junkie, I’ve noticed that news consumption increases to fill the time available. I would find myself reading the news over breakfast, over lunch, or even while brushing my teeth. The more I read, the more important it felt to read yet more. No matter how many sources I followed or how many versions of a story I read, I never felt like I knew enough about whatever it was. It never stopped, it never even slowed down. It took a week of vacation to step back and realize that this wasn’t a positive habit. What I needed was a news upgrade.
There are lots of approaches to upgrading a news habit. One is to replace it with something entirely different, like a cooking class or an extra hour of sleep. Another is to switch to books. Often reading a non-fiction book about a topic can bring clarity to a subject in a way that a dozen news articles never could. (A biography, the history of a particular country or region, an explanation of the stock market or self-driving cars, any number of topics could be an improvement over a news habit). One of the easiest ways is to upgrade the news itself.
What I did was to rearrange my news sources. I did this in several ways.
I have a side project, a tech newsletter that I put out on weekdays. This requires me to stay current in a few fields that are outside my area of expertise. The advantage of my layman’s perspective is that I bring in a broader range of material in adjacent subjects. I’m stronger in trend analysis than I am in STEM. Working in this field reminds me that ‘trend analysis’ is valuable and interesting in its own right, and it helps me to reinterpret what is meant by ‘current events.’
What do I cover? Robotics, astronomy, biomimicry, technology, and science news are my working categories. All of these fields are booming. Usually it feels like I can barely keep up, that there’s too much happening to fit within my remit. As with everything else, the more I know, the more I want to know, and the more I get out of what I read. Often, I’m reading about things that were pure science fiction in my childhood. I’ll think, “Wasn’t this a movie back in the Eighties, but now it’s real?”
Admittedly, science news is often over my head. That’s why I married an aerospace engineer, so he can interpret this stuff for me. (Joke). I can only handle so much in a day. That’s where the news aggregators come in.
A news aggregator pulls news on various topics from multiple sources. I simply made sure that mine included more non-current-events, non-political topics and more neutral sources.
Some of my topics? Dinosaurs, archaeology, ornithology, longevity, tiny houses, and Alzheimer’s research, among other things, fill out my news feed. For some reason, I also get quite a lot of articles about snakes and alligators.
Pulling news from international sources can be intriguing, especially when it’s health news. I’ve found that the British or Australian take on health research can be really punchy compared to the mainstream American perspective.
I read plenty of political news, and I certainly follow the headlines, but I’ve found that it isn’t productive to let this dominate my news consumption. I utterly refuse to discuss modern US politics. The reason is that it tends to destroy friendships. We have this absurd idea in our culture that “a debate” is the only appropriate format for a political conversation, and I can’t seem to dispel this notion. I don’t owe anyone a debate on any topic, from whether I have the right type of phone to whether tights qualify as pants. If I talk about politics with people who agree with me, it reinforces what I (and they) already think. If I talk about politics with people on “the other side” (as if there were only two sides, which is too silly for words), they always want to argue. I say, fine, I’ll talk pre-Industrial politics with you. Which do you prefer, antiquity, the Dark Ages, the Reformation? When someone asks which way I’m voting, I say I’m voting for myself as a write-in candidate. When in doubt, go with theater of the absurd.
What we do well to remember is that passive news consumption isn’t actually doing anything about anything. Arguing with our friends, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues doesn’t move the needle. Getting worked up about a topic and ranting about it all around the house doesn’t even qualify as a good workout. Staying informed is only useful if we do something with that information.
It also helps to remember that everything humans are doing, in every sphere of activity, qualifies as ‘current events.’ An invention that helps people with paralysis to walk, or congenitally deaf children to hear, is relevant. These advances are more likely to change the course of history than most election results. Every day I see news about archaeology or paleontology that claims to be one of the most important finds of the last hundred years, and that’s relevant too. I see news about space exploration and technological innovations that about blasts me out of my chair. The world is going to be nearly unrecognizable in twenty years once all these trends combine along their current arc. It’s relevant, it’s newsworthy, but are we noticing it? Or are the settings on our news feed causing us so much stress and distraction that we develop a misleading picture of the world? Upgrade your news habit and find out.
I grant wishes. It’s a fun way to think about life. This is partly because people are generally bad at knowing how to make a proper wish, and partly because almost every wish is easy to grant.
Here’s an example.
I was at a business event, working with a stressed out and chronically disorganized person who was ready to have a fit because she couldn’t find her business cards.
What do they look like? I asked.
Like, I know what a business card looks like. What I was asking was, are they still in their box from the printer, do they come in a plastic holder of a certain color, are they laid out on perforated printer pages in a folder? What shape of object are we trying to find?
The flustered stress case described a stack of cards held together with a rubber band.
I held up one finger - Wait a moment - and walked ten feet away. I pulled up a tote bag from where it sat between a table and a pillar. I reached into the bag and pulled out - the missing business cards!
My colleague’s jaw fell open. She gasped. “You’re magic!”
She started to turn away. “Don’t be dumb,” I said, “make another wish!”
“Five million dollars!” she blurted.
First off, five million dollars isn’t what you think it is. Shave off about half for taxes and you’ve got two and a half. Invest that conservatively and live off the interest at four percent per annum. You’ve got an income of a little over eighty k. Enough that you don’t have to work again, at least for the next twenty years until inflation starts to erode it, but in our region not really enough to support a partner and children. Just you. And you don’t get a house, a car, or a vacation. Or you could take the house, car, and vacation, and then keep working like normal. That’s... sort of a boring wish.
What I had to offer was something a little juicier.
Due to the nature of our business relationship and my precise skill set, I could grant a number of other wishes. Finding other lost objects? Handling tricky conversations or negotiations with other people on site? Executive coaching? Setting up a filing system? Taking inventory and labeling things before they get crammed back into storage? Running filters on your email?
All of those things?
Say the word and an hour from now, I could permanently lower your stress level. You could Get Organized, one of the great conspicuous luxuries of our era. Maybe you could go on to leverage that into a five-million-dollar business income.
Wishing for money or a lottery win is an indicator of a lack of imagination. Okay, and then what?
Note that many lottery winners wind up worse off than when they started. Bankruptcy, divorce, a parade of con artists, ruined relationships, and the inability to trust most of your friends, neighbors, and relatives. No thank you! Money out of context can be a really destructive force.
Not that I wouldn’t be perfectly delighted with five million dollars. I know exactly what we’d do with it. My hubby and I would start our own engineering firm. How fun would that be?
The trouble with wishing for money is that it isn’t specific enough. It can also be a distraction.
When I was young and poor and crying myself to sleep at night over my student loans, money would have solved most or all of my problems. I wouldn’t have known what to do with five million dollars, though. Not then, not at that stage of my life.
I would have paid off my credit cards and my student loan, and I would have gone out to lunch, and then I probably would have gone straight to the bookstore. I would have assumed that I should probably buy a house, but... Where? What kind of house? How many rooms? I wouldn’t have had the first clue what kind of furniture or window treatments to get, and I know for sure that it really would have stressed me out. I know that because I have more money now, and the idea of buying and furnishing a house still stresses me out!
There are a lot of things that I think are more valuable than money, mostly because they can’t be bought at any price.
Good relationships with your family
A strong marriage
Peace of mind
A high energy level
Education can’t be bought - just access to it. Plenty of people pay for that access and then squander it.
I’ve tried to figure out ways to buy sleep, and as far as I can tell it can’t be done.
Physical fitness can be bought, in a roundabout manner, but it’s easier to do for free. Quit paying for extras like snacks and junk food, then get down on the floor and do a bodyweight HIIT workout, saving yourself both a gym membership and the commute. Boom, done. If you can’t start there, then start by walking and staying on your feet an extra five minutes a day. Surely you’ll agree that you can’t simply hand over a wad of cash and receive defined abdominal muscles in exchange.
I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want out of life. For instance, if I want to “give to charity,” then which one? If I want to volunteer somewhere, then where, and what do I want to do? The way to get clear on wishes is to imagine what emotional state you want to be in on your ideal day.
‘Excitement’ is different from ‘contentment’ which is distinct from ‘sense of purpose.’ Right?
We like to think that something like winning five million dollars would provide a transcendent emotional experience. We like to think that it would solve all our problems and we could be carefree forevermore.
Really, we could be carefree today if we chose to, if we knew how.
We can solve all our problems with our own ingenuity and dedication, which are the same qualities we would need with or without a giant seven-figure cardboard check.
I’ve been having some oral surgery lately, so that’s fun. You can sort of expect it as part of your standard midlife crisis package. A little fear of mortality, some financial dread, and a happy little root canal to round it all out.
Actually, it wasn’t all that bad.
I wish I’d known that going in. ‘Root canal’ is right up there with ‘audit’ and ‘summons’ on the list of Things to Avoid, definitely above ‘going to the DMV.’ Legendary. I can tell you right now, root canals are overrated.
Based on my experience, it was much like getting any other filling. You open your mouth, and then they put in a tennis racket, a toaster oven, and a monkey wrench, it smells like burning, and then you’re pretty much done.
All joking aside, I have some strategies about dentistry that I think really helped me get through a potentially rough situation with comparative ease.
My mom taught me to never annoy anyone who puts sharp things in your mouth. She believes that if you’re late to your appointments or otherwise high-maintenance, medical professionals will take it out on you during your visit. I think she has a point. My whole family went to the same dentist starting when he first graduated from dental school, with his wife as his receptionist. He’s retired now! In our world, dentist = family.
My current dentist grew up in the same small town as my husband, and they’re both hundreds of miles from home. We were quick to capitalize on that sentimental attachment. We always talk about hometown news, the scenery, the weather, etc. Therefore when he’s looking into our mouths it gives him waves of nostalgia.
If it weren’t that, it would be something else. If you’re going to spend hours with someone during your lifetime, especially if they’re wrist-deep in your face, might as well make friends.
I trade book recommendations with one of the dental hygienists and give investment advice to another, who wants to become financially independent. When I show up, at least three people pop their heads out to say hello.
A few years back, I had a different dentist in a different region, and he of course had a different staff. There, we all talked about bicycling. One of that crew regularly destroys me at Words With Friends several years later.
Okay, wait, what does all this have to do with getting a root canal again?
The point is that someone who has warm and friendly feelings toward you is going to give that extra 5% of care. ‘Care’ is their profession, but carING comes from the heart. The only way to make someone genuinely care about you is to show caring toward them first. Give what you wish to receive.
Thus, I walk into the endodontist’s office with feelings of curiosity, awe, respect, and gratitude.
Do you know much about traditional, premodern dentistry?
For that matter, do you know much about 1960’s dentistry??
I made a few observations and jokes during my exam, with the theme of “wow, this is such a fascinating and cutting-edge field.” It really was a remarkably shiny, new office full of cool tech, and as someone who hangs out with a lot of engineers, I was impressed. I follow the corollary of ‘if you don't have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” which is:
IF YOU HAVE SOMETHING NICE TO SAY, SAY IT!
I commented that most people throughout history didn’t have access to dentistry, and how lucky I feel that I get to keep my beautiful precious tooth.
“In the past, you would have been standing on my chest with a pair of pliers!” (Probably true)
“Hand me that drill and let’s see what happens.”
The endodontist paused and looked at me. Then he said:
And we were friends.
During the exam, it looked like I would need a root canal in one tooth plus surgery for the resorption on that one AND a second tooth. Worst case scenario, the tooth couldn’t be fixed and I would need either an implant or a bridge.
I came back for the root canal. It turned out he was able to save the tooth AND do such a tidy job that I wouldn’t need the additional surgery.
Let’s pause on that.
This is going to save me significant pain and also a lot of money. We’re already a thousand dollars into this process, and that’s just copays. I’d rather spend that money on vacation, but when I compare it to the cost of an implant, I feel like throwing a block party with a live band.
When I compare any of that to the very vivid image of walking around with a big hole where my molar used to be, I want to kiss this man’s feet.
A 44-year-old woman at most points in the past would look and feel elderly. A big part of that would be her failing teeth. Imagine the shocking pain of gradually having your teeth rot out of your head throughout your adult life. Wild animals starve when they grow old because they lose teeth and aren’t able to chew their food. Horrors!
I feel such tenderness and adoration toward my tooth, I want it to stay with me always and be my tooth forever and ever. Also all the other ones.
Can I say this? I got a root canal, and it didn’t really hurt, not even the shots. After the Novocain wore off, it didn’t bother me at all. I didn’t even take the Advil that was recommended. They warned me it would be sore, but it isn’t really.
There are always multiple ways to look at a situation. (They often say “two” but that is very lazy accounting). One way is to ask, Why does all this stuff always happen to me? Boring. Another way is to be scared and anxious, and that’s relatable. There are undoubtedly other ways. I chose my own way.
I chose to go into a scary situation, something I’d heard a lot about, and bring curiosity and a positive attitude. It worked the same way it did when I had a tax dispute with the IRS. It was totally fine and interesting, and everyone involved was nice, friendly, professional, and efficient.
I went to the endodontist and got a root canal. My positive feelings helped me relax and build mutual trust and respect with the staff. I was treated well. The experience was relatively quick and painless and had great results. I went home on time and cooked dinner for some friends, who were amused at how challenging it is to drink water when half your mouth is numb. It was fine.
Doesn’t it just make you want your own happy little root canal?
I won my election as Division Director in Toastmasters!
This is the first time I’ve won an elected office. Another kid encouraged me to run for class president in sixth grade, and I didn’t win. Since that time, I’ve held a number of offices in various clubs, but never in a contested election. I’m not a very competitive person; in fact, I have a distaste for competing and I tend to prefer to serve in the background.
I’m motivated mostly by two forces: curiosity, and a feeling of duty. As long as I’m interested in doing something, I feel like I might as well be helping out and contributing.
This is why you’ll often see me moving tables and chairs, picking up litter, or submitting reports. Not only do I not need to be in the spotlight, I actively avoid it. At least I used to until I decided it was time to get over my aversion to public speaking.
Did I say ‘aversion’? Another way to say it is that I began with a level of stage fright that I have only seen surpassed by three or four people.
It turns out that in an organization like Toastmasters, this willingness to work hard, coupled with the drive to push yourself past your comfort zone, is recognized and rewarded. This makes it dangerous for a shy person who wants to avoid the spotlight.
As an area director, I was asked to apply for a position as division director. Sure, I thought, if you need me, I can at least go through the motions.
Then my application was approved.
Then I did my panel interview, and I was nominated unanimously.
I wrote my candidate statement and designed my campaign poster and had it printed and mounted.
Embarrassed every step of the way! The last thing I wanted was to be putting up a big old poster with a head shot of myself on it. I moved from a desire to do a competent job.
As far as I knew, I was running uncontested.
The day of the conference arrived. I was fighting a cold and short three hours of sleep, but I arrived early for the business meeting. Let’s just get through this and then I can focus on preparing for next year’s term, right?
The way this typically works, one candidate is nominated for each of a slate of positions, and the elections are somewhat of a formality. Everyone knows each other, and everyone on the slate has just spent at least a year serving the district in one office or another. We’ve had plenty of time to form impressions.
There’s an opportunity for other members to run a “floor campaign,” in which they submit the appropriate paperwork and then have a club officer nominate them from the audience. Sometimes the candidate knows there will be a competitor months in advance. Other times, the floor campaign might be a surprise.
This is what happened.
First, there was a floor campaign for Program Quality Director, and the floor campaign won.
Then, there was a floor campaign for one of the division director positions, and the floor campaign won.
The nominated candidate for that division, having lost his election, suddenly decided to run against me and try to win my division.
This is technically perfectly legitimate, and it’s been done before, although I did not know this at the time. In practice, it rarely works.
Rationally it makes sense: games have rules.
Physically, my body reacted as though I had been attacked. My heart hammered and all the blood drained from my face. Alphabetically I’d have to go first. I understood that I had approximately one minute to prepare to give a campaign speech, walk up onto the stage, take the microphone, and speak in front of over two hundred people.
Are you kidding me with this??
Emotionally I felt one thing. BETRAYAL. What a weird and medieval word. In my mind I fully understood that this was *not personal.* In point of fact, I had helped this man with his campaign. I had noticed that he didn’t have his poster made, and I went out of my way to help him with resources. I knew he had nothing against me, that this was about him and his personal ambitions and the rules of the game.
The undeniable fact that my body was flooded with stress chemicals, and that my emotions were thoroughly activated, was irksome to me. I hardly needed the distraction of my emo, weepy inner child when I had a speech to give.
But my heart was still pounding so hard I could barely see straight. My arms were shaking, not trembling but shaking.
I took the mic and walked out, feeling utterly unprepared, with my natural hair. Yet another emotional hot button for me. If I had understood that I would be performing this morning, I would certainly have gotten out my flat iron!
I gave one of the most lackluster speeches of my speaking career.
No idea if anyone else felt that way, but I know that I did not meet my own standards. Tired, kinda ill, frumpy, shaken up, such a frazzled mess that I actually... said... ‘um.’
(I’m legendary for my almost perfectly clean speeches and lack of vocal tics).
I’d just heard my rival speak. He wore a suit, and he was so vibrant and charismatic, I knew I couldn’t match his performance on my best day.
I spelled out my platform and how glad I was to work with such fine people in such a fine district, one with such high standards.
My speech was probably too short, but I just wanted to be done and go sit down before I fell down. I felt like I might faint and I didn’t want to do it up there.
Then my opponent spoke. He looked great, he owned the stage, he sounded completely pumped. My heart sank.
Then they went off to count the ballots, and the next ten minutes felt like ten hours. My arms were still shaking.
I won. I had 39% more votes.
My rival hadn’t gained a single vote.
This basically meant that everyone who voted for him the first time voted for him the second time, which is great. He’d successfully built a base of people who knew him and respected his work.
The contest was between his clearly superior performance on stage and my carefully developed platform. His ambitious power move and my reputation. It’s entirely possible that some of the votes weren’t so much for me as they were against my opponent’s strategy.
Afterward, a number of people came up to congratulate me and, in some cases, dish about what happened. I realized that time after time, I was talking to someone I had helped in some way. We had worked together side by side and I had shown up for them, as they were showing up for me.
My rival came up during lunch to shake my hand and say, hey, no hard feelings. I reminded him that on the bright side, he was now eligible to compete in speech contests again! I told him he was twice the speaker I am, and I encouraged him to compete next year.
The reason I am not competitive is that I don’t think it proves anything. If I’m up against someone and they win, then I’m not learning by competing with them, I’m learning by watching them. If I win, then it might just be because I’m more experienced or because someone else had a headache that day. Winning doesn’t help me improve; improving helps me win. If I’m truly focused on improving, then winning one day is irrelevant for the next day.
I play the long game. When I’m in, I’m in for my own reasons. The competition is between Yesterday Me and Tomorrow Me, and Tomorrow Me had better come out ahead. The real game is building allies, working together for a common cause. I never know where I’ll be in relation to everyone else three years from now.
I do know where I’ll be next year, and that’s filling out a ballot to help choose my successor, because hey! I won my election!
Would anything have been different if I had known sooner?
I went to a destination wedding with my family. I was about to turn thirty. I was painfully single, at least as broke as I had ever been, and recovering from an illness in which I temporarily lost half my lung capacity. As I sat in a rental car with five relatives, it felt like I had nothing going for me.
Little did I know, in exactly three months I would meet the man who would become my second husband.
I had no way to know that not only would I get my breathing back, I would eventually go on to run a marathon.
I couldn’t really imagine it at the time, but I would also pay off my student loans one day. My credit limit on one card would be higher than my loans ever were.
I didn’t even know that I would one day live with my little love, my gray parrot Noelle.
I couldn’t see three months into the future. It just felt like one day after another, the same the same the same, with this little blip of the family vacation. I felt like I would always be broke and single and ill.
This is why I wonder what would be different, if I had known what was coming.
If I’d known I would eventually be debt-free, would it have helped me sleep better at night?
If I’d known I would get my health back, and fairly soon, would I have started working out sooner? Would I have started losing weight sooner? Today I understand that having an extra thirty-five pounds on my chest wasn’t doing my lungs any favors, but I didn’t then. I would have been shocked and angry if anyone had suggested it. If I had seen the future, would I have taken action?
If I’d known I would meet a future husband in only three months, would I have felt less lonely? Would I have skipped the handful of painful blind dates? Would I have avoided dating the couple of guys I dated in between?
What would I have done? What would I have done with the time that I spent crying at night? The time that I spent writing hundreds of pages in my journal, trying to wring something out of my existential pain?
There were a few things I did that worked very well. These were things I did for myself, comforting actions born of optimism. These things helped set me up when I did embark on the relationship that became my second marriage.
The first of these optimistic actions, the one that mattered the most, was to pay down my debt. My frugality and focus on building financial security helped me to feel stronger and more confident. It also turned out to be the single factor that my hubby found most attractive! For anyone over 35, every decade that goes by makes this even more important.
Any marriage-minded person has to take into account the question: Did I save enough for TWO retirements and can I afford to pay off someone else’s debt as well?
(Hint: probably not)
The second thing I did for myself that paid off in my future relationship was to fight for my health. When my hubby and I met, we were both... well, to put it bluntly, we were both fat, broke, and angry at our exes. In other words, we were on the same emotional wavelength. Getting fit together helped to build our friendship. I was trying to get both lungs back and he was recovering from herniated disks in his spine. Two wildly different problems both helped by increasing mobility and cardio endurance, and dropping body fat.
Now we spend our vacations walking 8-10 miles a day, climbing multiple staircases, and backpacking into wild areas. Old Us couldn’t have had this kind of fun, either alone or together.
The third thing I did for myself when I was single and lonely was to prioritize domestic contentment. This is by no means the only type of love and romance in the world, but it’s a pretty darn good one. I had my own apartment again for the first time since I was 19, and I definitely made the most of it! When I signed the lease and got the keys, I showed my landlords the door, shut it behind them, and started doing the Sound of Music twirl through all the (four) rooms. I believe I even rolled around on the carpet and kicked my feet.
What attracts a friendly kind of romance is that confidence and domestic contentment. If you don’t like your life, why would anyone else? If you aren’t happy by yourself, how could you be happy with anyone else? Domestic contentment is the radical act of taking responsibility for your own happiness. Guess what? Having a partner means that your happiness is still just as much your own personal obligation and responsibility as it was when you were alone. You can’t outsource it, you can’t delegate it, and you can’t abdicate either.
Three months from the click, the main emotional commitment I had made was a solemn belief in poverty, illness, loneliness, and misery. All I thought I had was myself and I didn’t even want me.
Three months from the click, I had a travel disaster. I wound up spending the night in a downtown hotel that I couldn’t afford. A kindly desk clerk shifted a few things and got me a half-price room. In the room that night, at the end of my trip, I soaked in the bathtub for two hours. I made myself the internal commitment that I would do whatever it took to improve my situation. I couldn’t know just how much better things would be in three months. As a matter of fact, everything got at least ten times worse shortly afterward! It wasn’t certainty in a brighter future that brought me that future. It was nothing more or less than a blind commitment to work at it. To keep my head up and to keep trying.
The question that arises out of all this is, if I could see three months into the future (or three years, or thirty), what would I do differently today? Am I doing everything that I know I can to move me in that direction?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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