Is this the right person? It always boggles my mind when people ask me this. How am I supposed to know? Especially if I haven’t met him, if I don’t know anything about her? What do YOU know about ME and MY relationship that makes you think I’m a good source of advice? All I can tell you is that if you have to ask, then No, the answer is no. If you feel like you need to ask other people whether you’re in the right relationship, you’re not.
You’re the expert.
YOU are the one who has to be with this person. This person is waking up in your bed, not mine. This person is sitting on your couch, using your wi-fi, and leaving dishes in your sink, not mine.
A lot of stuff happens when you date someone based on what your friends and family think. You start making your decisions based on how they will look to others, on what sort of comments you’ll get, on what you think people will say if you get married/break up/separate/shack up. This is not a path to happiness. It’s not even a way to make a relationship last in the long term.
Whether you’re with someone who is “right” depends 100% on your inner feelings.
Also, there’s no one “right” person because a relationship is not about someone’s personality. It’s about their behavior. It’s about what happens between their behavior and your behavior when you’re interacting with each other. It’s about communication, about how skilled you are at sharing your feelings and setting boundaries and negotiating for what you need, and about whether this person is willing to come to the table with you and do the same.
If all people were perfect communicators who did their share of the housework, etc, then it would be more of a question of personality. Mostly, though, it’s about whether you can live together without driving each other nuts.
Traditional romance asks a lot. It asks that you settle down with one person and that you are perfect roommates, friends, lovers, and business partners all in one. Maybe add parenthood and home maintenance to that. Quite a job description, no?
Oh, right, and then you’re supposed to make all those things work for fifty years or more.
Comparing your relationship to others’ relationships doesn’t really work. It doesn’t work because you only see the part they make visible while you’re there. Most people have the great good sense not to fight in public (because why humiliate each other in front of an audience?) and because of that, you can’t have a realistic picture of their shadow couple.
If you swapped mates, the person who seems wonderful with your friend might be terrible with you. Does that make sense? There is no “one” perfect person because it’s all about the combination of that person’s behaviors with someone else’s.
For instance, my husband is great for me because we have twelve years of history adapting to each other’s preferences. We know how to wait on each other and accommodate each other’s weird ways. If you had him, he wouldn’t know your drink order or favorite sandwich or whatever, and believe me, you don’t want mine. You wouldn’t be able to use our lexicon of hand gestures, code phrases, and emojis because it would take you those twelve years to learn them all. All the things he does for me that make me happy would be useless for pretty much anyone but me.
I sometimes spend a moment thinking on my friends’ husbands or boyfriends and, no. Just no. The guy who insists on playing the radio next to the bed all night, every night. The one who chews tobacco. The one who sleeps with three dogs on the bed. I can’t. No. I don’t care what they look like or how fun they are to talk to, I could never live with these particular behaviors. It wouldn’t be fair to ask someone to stop doing something that is part of his best life, the very thing he’d do on his perfect day. Easier just to pick someone whose wackiest habits are okay for me.
I see my hubby sitting there in his reading glasses, poring over another robotics textbook, and my heart beats a little faster. When I was a little girl, I always knew my future husband would wear glasses and read a lot. Something about him in his natural state clicks with this innate hunger I had. He looks right. Yeah, there are a million men our age who wear glasses and like to read, and obviously I only wanted one of their number. It’s just a side benefit that helps me feel like we’re on the same wavelength.
What I like in a relationship may not be what other people are looking for. What works for me is friendship first. I married my husband because I realized that no matter where we went in the world, I would always wonder what he was up to, what he was reading, what he was thinking, and what projects he was working on. I realized that if we lost touch, I would miss him. Whenever anything interesting happens, he’s the first one I want to tell. Sometimes we start laughing at the same thing without even making eye contact or touching each other. He’s also the first person I think of when I’m stuck on a problem, because I’m always better off when I take his advice, and how many people can say that? I feel like he sees me the way I see myself, that he gets what I’m about. We have different or opposing outlooks on a lot of stuff, and we can actually wind up appreciating each other more after discussing them. I feel like I’m more interested in him after thirteen years of friendship than I was when we first met.
Is he the right person for me? Well, he is now, anyway.
You can have physical chemistry with someone who will break your heart. You can have a public-facing relationship that looks great in photos and drives you up the wall when you’re alone. You can have a fantasy romance that exists almost entirely in your own mind. Probably, though, you have friendships that work great. Compare your romance to your friendships and that will start to give you a better idea of whether you’re with the “right person.”
We didn’t spend our anniversary together this year. How could we, when my husband was off on a business trip? It’s hardly the first time this kind of thing has happened: he’s been sent on travel on our anniversary, on his birthday, on Valentine’s Day, and he was even in China on my birthday one year. That’s okay. At our stage of life, we fit in marriage where we can. We’ve been together long enough that we’re clear on our priorities and how we fit together.
There’s a bit of a lie in the previous paragraph. True, we weren’t together on the date of our anniversary, and it’s also true that we barely saw each other the last half of the month. First I was out of town, then he left a few hours after I got home, and there hasn’t been a 24-hour period where we were both at home together for two weeks. We did, though, take off for a two-day weekend in Las Vegas - before he had to leave again the day after we got back.
Why Vegas? That’s the first place we went on our first trip together, and we’ve gone back every year, either for our anniversary or his birthday or something. We know our way around. We have favorite restaurants and shops. There are memories behind practically every doorway. The rest of our vacations are all about adventure, but Vegas is where we go to relax and play. We remember ourselves as a newly dating couple, as newlyweds, at all the milestones of our time together.
We celebrate that we still enjoy each other’s company. We celebrate that we still have chemistry together, that we’re at least as physically attracted to each other as we were when we started dating, and possibly more so. We celebrate that we agree on how to save and spend money. We celebrate that we can plan and carry out trips that we both anticipate.
After nine years, we’ve learned to appreciate more and more how rare it is for a middle-aged married couple to continue to have fun together.
We don’t fight - we make policies. For instance, I made us late for dinner reservations because I took too long to get ready. (Step 1: Be the first to take ownership when you are at fault). Then we reframed it. Policy: When we go out for a special occasion, I need an extra 15 minutes for hair and makeup.
We divide the labor. I’m in charge of researching restaurants (because of my fringe diet) and choosing shows (because let’s face it, I’m the best). He’s in charge of choosing our seats because 1. He cares more and 2. He has an easier time reading the seating chart.
We pack light. We’re both one-bag travelers. We help each other pick items for our respective capsule wardrobes. We backpack together. On Vegas trips, we check an empty suitcase, because this is where we do the majority of our clothes shopping for the year. Also, we both believe in the possibility of carrying an empty suitcase without encroaching on it.
We help each other put on our sunblock. That’s an especially big deal since his squamous cell carcinoma! I guarantee that nobody else would be as careful in applying *my* sunblock as *he* is.
We budget. OUCH, right? Not really. We save 40% of our income, and that’s after factoring in our vacation splurges. We’d simply rather live in a dinky, no-frills studio apartment on 20% of our income, and go on the occasional lavish vacation, than the alternative of paying double on rent, being in debt all year, and having to pinch pennies.
I have this thing about the hedonic treadmill. That’s what they call it when you adjust to a lifestyle upgrade, it becomes your new normal, and then you don’t even find it fun anymore. It’s really important to me not to become jaded or to expect luxuries as my baseline. I want to make sure I ENJOY THE HECK OUT OF my splurges. I’m pretty sure I can remember almost every dish of our fanciest meals, even years later, and that’s because we only indulge like that two or three times a year.
Frankly, this is part of why I’m married. Once I asked my husband why he married me, expecting that he would choose my sense of humor or my sweet nature. “Your frugality,” he said. Respecting your partner’s financial efforts, concerns, and priorities is the bedrock of marriage, unless you’re so rich you literally don’t have to care, which, that isn’t us or 95% of the world probably. Showing you don’t care about your spouse’s money worries is a fundamental rejection of what matters to them. Would you feel the same way about their health, their family relationships, their dreams, or their friendships?
That’s the other thing. We care about each other’s personal life, and we believe that we’re each entitled to one. We’re entitled to visit our families by ourselves. We’re entitled to have our own private friendships. We’re entitled to travel alone. We’re entitled to our own work projects and side hustles. We’re entitled to equal physical space in our home for our personal interests. We’re equally entitled to make requests about how we spend our time and resources as a couple. We support each other, because we each want the other to have the maximally fulfilling, fascinating life.
This is why it doesn’t bother me that I’ll spend my wedding anniversary alone. Our wedding day wasn’t our marriage, and neither is our anniversary. We’ll spend the day doing all of the things we’ve agreed on. He’ll give his utmost to this, his favorite and most interesting job of his career. I’ll bust my rump at the gym with my gym friends and work on my public speaking challenge. We’ll be faithful to each other and our budget. We’ll send texts back and forth throughout the day and discuss pictures of our pets. We’ll plan our next vacation and our next project together. We’ll try to decide what we want to do on our next milestone, our tenth wedding anniversary.
Better get it in the calendar now, or otherwise, who knows what we’ll both be doing?
Sometimes I feel guilty about it, but I simply can’t bring myself to log on to Facebook. I’ve tried. A couple of times in the last few years, I’ve put a bunch of thought into it and resolved that I should force myself to check in, at least once a week or so. Then I log in and remember why what used to be fun is now so repellent to me. Since I’ve replaced it, I don’t miss it. There are a million more satisfying things to do with my time instead of Facebook.
When I first got an account, I didn’t understand it or what it was for. I feel the same way about Snapchat today. Huh? What? As time goes by and I get older, I’m sure I’ll gradually become infinitely less hip and I won’t even know the names of the newest forms of social connection.
One day, I sorta figured out the kind of thing one would post on Facebook, and I shared my first link. Instantly it returned a lot of laughter and commentary. For me? Gee whiz! I felt like I was part of a conversation. It was exciting and gratifying to make my friends laugh in multiple cities and states at the same time. I could see why people liked doing this kind of thing.
Then I visited my family, and one of my relatives was playing FarmVille. I should do that, I thought, as a favor. I could reach out from a thousand miles away and do little chores or send little gifts, a minor way of waving hello. It would give me a reason to log in more often and connect better with my friends.
File under: BIGGEST MISTAKES IN LIFE
I utterly failed to understand why most people loathed social gaming. I had no more hook for gaming in general than I ever have had for coffee or booze, but this thing got into me. I lacked the social awareness or sophistication to see how obnoxious I was becoming. It wasn’t until more features were added to the game that I lost interest in it and never logged in again. Too late, of course, to repair my reputation with various people. If I’d never set up a Facebook account, I would have blissfully gone through life never becoming addicted to an electronic game, and that alone would have been enough reason to stay away.
For a few years, I checked Facebook several times a day. I would look up and two hours would have disappeared.
Again, arriving late to the party, I didn’t understand that certain online behaviors were already cliched. I believed that my “friends” were actually my “friends” and I kept trying to make emotional connections that blew up in my face. I reached out, looking for connection and validation.
Years later, I finally saw the pattern for what it was. I would always, always feel worse after logging in to Facebook than I did before. I never felt that I got back what I was putting in.
Social comparison wasn’t the problem. I like my life, my real life anyway, and in many ways I’m doing better than most people I know. I would see someone fighting in public with their partner, or complaining about their cat barfing on the carpet, or some other problem that I don’t have. Whew, I would think, that would definitely be annoying, glad that’s not me. Sorry, hon.
I had a series of problems that stemmed exclusively from Facebook, problems that were never a part of my life beforehand and have never been a problem since. I’ll list them in increasing order of salience.
Ten, a close friend cut off relations with their extended family. I knew this had happened, and that was enough for me; it’s none of my business WHY a friend is or isn’t talking to someone. I just respect their wishes and their privacy. That’s why it was so incredibly creepy when a member of this extended family reached out to me with a long letter, wanting me to intercede in some way. This never could have happened in person, with a distraught and sketchy stranger showing up on my doorstep. Likewise all the icky ‘friend’ requests from bots or horny strangers.
Nine, a steady stream of pictures of meat. Pictures of food in general.
Eight, Throwback Thursday. I have no nostalgia for any period prior to, say, 2008, and even then I was dealing with a lot of health issues. Let’s keep it to the current year!
Seven, rants from people about game invites. I saw about 10:1 “don’t invite me to games” rants for every game invite I personally received. Can’t you just... spend one second blocking each game as it pops up? She said defensively.
Six, no matter what I shared, there would always be someone who believed that nobody should ever share that category of thing. Don’t share your workouts. Don’t share schmoopy pictures or posts of you being happy with your husband/date/handsome cardboard cutout/invisible friend. Don’t share your charitable contributions. Don’t share vacation photos. Don’t share party photos. If you accidentally had a good time one day, don’t tell anybody.
Five, spoilers of the two TV shows I actually watch.
Four, bizarre anti-information, conspiracy theories, rants, baseless opinions, and pseudoscience. Nobody thanks you for Snopesing them. I guess we just live in a world with seven billion parallel alternative universes now.
Three, constant super-hyper-extra-polarized political everything.
Two, the meanness. Piling on, chastising, lecturing, pedantry, flaming, trolling, and outright insulting of fellow humans. It didn’t feel any less bad to see friends of friends doing it to each other than it did to see people try to do it to me. It just made this seem more pervasive and inescapable.
One, it made me like people less than I did before. It permanently destroyed friendships that were perfectly fine out in the real world. The intense, unprecedented pain of being UNFRIENDED. A.k.a. “You’re dead to me.”
What do I do instead of Facebook? I hang out with actual real physical people in my community. In person. In real time.
I started taking classes at a martial arts school. Unlike most other gyms, we partner up, and the close physical work has a magical way of creating bonds unlike anything else I’ve ever done. I feel that I’ve formed true friendships there, and even better, the kind of friends you know for a fact would physically have your back in a crisis.
I joined Toastmasters, a public speaking club. Right now I’m a member of three clubs and I have a total of five under my directorship. Unlike anything else I’ve ever done, Toastmasters has given me the stories of my new friends. Deep listening to someone else’s story drives home empathy and compassion. It can’t be helped. It’s innate to how our brains work. This is where you find out how fascinating and lovable your neighbors really are.
In both martial arts and Toastmasters, I’m spending an hour at a time with people of every age, race, gender, sexual orientation, education, income level, and many linguistic and cultural backgrounds. I don’t usually know what my friends do at their jobs, how they vote, what their homes look like, or what car they drive. Instead, I know more about what lights them up, what makes them laugh, and what interests them.
Instead of Facebook, I talk with other people in person. We hug, we laugh, we high-five, we trade stories, in some cases we kick each other in the thigh and throw each other on the ground. What we never do is to talk politics, insult each other, rant at each other, criticize each other’s punctuation or spelling, or permanently shun each other socially.
Social media had infinite potential to change the world and build community. It also has endless power to annoy people and lead directly to misunderstanding, misinformation, confusion, and hurt feelings. Instead of Facebook, what if we reach out and spend more time getting to know our neighbors?
Is there a “One”? Is there one true romantic partner, a specific someone you’re supposed to meet? There is a nuanced difference between this and the question of whether you believe in love at first sight.
What if there is a “One” but you’re only able to recognize it over a long period of time?
What if love at first sight is real but it can happen with multiple people?
What if both are true, we’ll know our One True Love at First Sight, and we should thus be celibate until that lightning-bolt moment?
What if neither are true, and the only way to be happy with a love is to be casual friends first?
What if one or another of these modalities is true for some people but not others?
These questions are something like wondering about the afterlife, if there is one, because both determine our outlook and behavior to an extent. I think it’s something of a moot point whether there’s an afterlife or not, because wouldn’t you want to be a good person and get the maximum out of life no matter what? What are the arguments in favor of unkindness or playing small?
Our beliefs about romance, though, very much impact what kind of partners we choose. Who are we noticing? Are we open to certain approaches and not others? Is what we’re asking for really what will ultimately make us happy?
Soulmates. There’s a concept for you. It always seemed so restrictive and unimaginative. Why would there only be one soulmate? Why would it only be a romantic partner? What if there really was a karmic relationship between two people, but it was meant to be teacher/student or artist/muse or parent/child or neighbor/neighbor? Why not business partners? This kissy-kissy thing can only go so far.
The trouble with this idea of the One True Love is that it’s a fixed mindset concept. There’s you, and there’s this other person, and you meet, and sparkles shoot out, and you live happily ever after. Nobody ever has a bad day or a headache or food poisoning, and nobody ever leaves dishes in the sink or gets snappy or has any annoying relatives. Theeee End.
Look, real love takes effort, just like real friendship. Human frailty! The hidden flaw in the idea of the One True Love is that there’s this person who will love me as I am, think of me as delightful and perfect, and yet somehow never do any of the exact same annoying things that I do on my worst days. I’m supposed to be able to behave like a one or two, you’re supposed to love that kind of treatment at an eight or nine, and your own behavior should always, always be a ten.
The main value of a romantic partner is that you have someone to call you on your BS. Unlike family members, your lover is with you by choice, and hopefully has more affection and desire for your company. This person will eventually know you better than you know yourself, and can thus step in as an advisor in ways that nobody else can. This is the fast track to personal growth. It’s not that your partner loves you as you are, but that they see both your best and worst self.
Understanding your craving for revenge, but coaxing you not to waste time indulging it. Sympathizing with the keen terror you feel at applying for that promotion, while knowing you’ll be great and that you’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t go for it. Hearing you out while you vent about your friends or family, and then talking you through some better boundaries. Being your mirror, seeing you the way you see yourself, yet also seeing more.
It’s being well loved that teaches you how to love better. It takes realistic expectations, a strong sense of humor, the ability to generously blow off the occasional bad day, knowing how to forgive and how to give a precise apology. It takes a backbone. Love takes strength and courage as much as it takes softness and tenderness.
The idea of a One True Love is bad writing that encourages laziness. It also kills a lot of opportunities, when what could have been great love stories never get started because they don’t look cute and they don’t fit some checklist of perfection. On the other hand, the idea of One True Love is great when you gradually realize that you feel that way about your long-term partner.
Speaking from experience, the person who feels like the Love of Your Life doesn’t start out that way. At least, if it does for some people, it didn’t for me. We were both still flinching from rotten divorces, and we were cynical about the prospect of dating, much less marriage. We were both obese, in debt, and not having all that much fun. Our general crankiness helped us bond as lunch buddies. When we realized we were becoming real friends, we were both surprised, but not as surprised as we were when those romantic feelings started bubbling up. We argued about it. We still don’t agree about whether there’s such a thing as a soulmate or not.
Yeah, I believe there’s a One. At least, there’s one in my life now. After twelve years with one person, there’s really no one else who could compare. That hypothetical person would have to have more intrinsically great traits, be in a better situation in life, AND somehow have so many positives that it more than made up for the twelve years of trust, memories, and inside jokes that I have with my husband. Having met thousands of people in my life, there’s just no way that an ordinary human being would ever be “worth” blowing up my life and throwing over my best friend. The point is that what makes that One True Love is the buildup over time.
Q: What has eighteen legs and four wheels?
A: My family, sharing a rental car on vacation.
Frugality can be taught. It’s a pleasure hanging out with other people who get this, because you can enjoy each other’s company without feeling like you’re going broke. Most people seem to feel that peer pressure only works one way, that there’s this thing called “keeping up with the Joneses” that leads directly to spending. The answer to this is leadership. If you’re feeling broke, step up and become the frugality leader of your group.
The simplest and easiest way to become a frugality leader is to invite people to a gathering with low or zero cost.
The slightly more complicated way is to just be honest and say that you’re worried about money these days, and THEN invite people to do something inexpensive and fun.
When I had my first apartment, I could barely keep a roof over my head, but I was one of the few people in my friends group who had my own place. People would call and invite themselves over all the time. We’d just hang out and talk. Sometimes we’d sit on the floor and play cards for hours while lip-syncing to the radio. In college, I started a weekend card party that expanded to as many as seventeen people and went on for hours.
The difference between those days and now is that we have access to more types of card games and our friends all have dining tables.
We like potlucks. A potluck is a big improvement over a restaurant in many ways.
One night long ago, a large group of friends met at a cafe. There were about fourteen of us. We hung out for two hours, and then the engineer among us got out his calculator and carefully worked through the wad of bills and pile of coins to make sure we got the tip right. It took nearly fifteen minutes of making sure everyone had put in enough. As we were leaving, one of our two waitresses chased after us and yelled at us for stiffing them on the tip! We were pretty darn sure that her colleague had snagged the whole amount for herself, but it was also possible that a random loser had stolen it. This kind of thing does not happen when you stay home and host the party at your own table.
My feeling on “going out” is that it’s better for the economy when we go to higher-end places less often, rather than cheaper places more often.
It’s also true that I can cook for twenty people at home for what I might have spent on dinner for two at a restaurant.
When my husband and I first got married, we’d have an open house once or twice a week. I’d make a giant vat of soup or a couple of pans of lasagna, and we’d have a big bowl of salad and a couple of loaves of French bread. Sometimes we’d have pie and ice cream, or a cake, or a big fruit salad or a watermelon. I’d make a cake if someone brought in straight A’s, and they got to choose the flavor. This wasn’t terribly expensive for us, and it was arguably more fun than going to the movie theater or hanging out in front of the TV. Offering a hot meal meant our friends could “afford” to spend time with us as often as they wanted.
Except that sometimes, they were low on gas money! We had a running list of chores if anyone wanted to come over and earn $20 now and then. Having broke young friends means you always have someone to hire as a house sitter.
There are other ways to be a frugality leader besides hosting a potluck. These days, we couldn’t really do that because we live in a tiny studio apartment. We can, though, demonstrate that we aren’t competing with anyone through conspicuous consumption. We don’t own a car and I’m not a recreational shopper. I don’t color my hair, get manicures, or wear a diamond ring. We socialize with people who share our sense of humor, and that’s pretty much the baseline requirement.
If anything, what’s conspicuous about us is that we choose to highlight our frugality. We’d like our younger friends to know what we didn’t at their age, which is how quickly someone can become financially independent given the knowledge and focus. We’d like friends of our own age bracket to know that it’s not a big deal to dial back, downsize, and find some peace of mind around the concept of impending retirement. “We save 40% of our income” explains a lot about our lifestyle. It can also be really instructive to find out who else is into frugality and what they know that we don’t.
These are some of the things we have done for fun with our fellow frugal friends:
Go to book signings
Movie night with homemade popcorn
Hiking at the bird sanctuary
Teaching someone to use shop tools, the sewing machine, or a stock pot
Honestly, my model of hospitality is my grandma, who said that her friends would often come over and find themselves napping on her couch. Another delightful image is some characters from Anne Lamott’s Crooked Little Heart, who came over just to read quietly together. Friendship is best when it’s about talking, laughing, and hanging out, not silently burying ourselves in debt and social comparison. Those who disagree will take themselves and their big-spender ways elsewhere, and the rest of us can get down to chillaxing.
If ever there has been a misunderstood idea, it is the concept of setting boundaries with other people. The reason for this is that each of us has a burning, shameful memory of a bad interaction with another person: a failed friendship, a betrayal, a bad breakup, a layoff, or some other interchange that has emotionally scarred us for life. We feel this way even though well-negotiated relationship boundaries might have prevented such a wound in the first place.
For me the killer memory is of another driver shouting an unprintable and probably physically impossible imperative command at me out of his truck window in 2005. I went home and sobbed for two hours, considered relocating back to my home state, and eventually just decided to quit owning a car! So, thank you for that, truck-driving Rude Man; you’ve saved me tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of freeway commuting. Any unfortunate events that have befallen you in the past thirteen years, go right on ahead and chalk them up to car-ma.
Back to boundaries. Why on earth would I let a random troll infect my peace of mind? Why do it at all, but especially, why remember it for over a decade?
So many things have gone well in my life since that day: I joined Mensa, remarried, reached my goal weight, ran a marathon, adopted a parrot, traveled to two additional continents, changed careers, published a book, and all sorts of other things. The truth is, no amount of achievements or accomplishments really feel like they matter when we’re mulling over a relationship misfire.
The reason for that, I suspect, is that other humans are our natural predator. We are each other’s biggest evolutionary threat and most terrifying enemy. Communicating, collaborating, and cooperating with other people is our safety, our strongest survival trait. We like to think it’s using tools, but when we catalog all of the tools that we personally can use, we start to understand that we rely on each other’s skills more than we’d like to acknowledge. Nothing else can mess with our equilibrium as much as relationship drama, just like nothing else can help us succeed as much as feeling like our friendships and family connections are strong.
This is where boundaries come in.
The first principle of boundaries has to do with accountability. When we accept total and complete personal accountability in every aspect of our lives, this gets easier. We become trustworthy and reliable. It also becomes difficult to maintain relations with people who are not completely accountable themselves. That’s mutual. Those who don’t like being held accountable start to avoid those who expect integrity.
(Personal accountability is not the same thing as the misguided belief that we somehow bring 100% of our trouble and drama upon ourselves. It just means that when bad things happen, we deal with them. Not my fault, still my problem).
The second principle of boundaries is that each person brings 100% to the table. When we focus on giving, on listening, on being present, on connecting, then we can control those inputs. We can only feel the love that we feel, the love that we cause to well up inside ourselves. We can know, trust, and believe that others love us in return, but we can’t actually FEEL it. It’s up to us to give the love, affection, trust, and respect that we wish to receive.
The third principle of boundaries is that everyone gets twenty-four hours in a day. Thus, we have only so much precious time to spend. Every minute we spend with a random stranger, troll, or anonymous commenter is literally stolen from those we love the most. We are required by the laws of physics to prioritize time for our loved ones, and that means spending less time with people we don’t care about as much.
This is where we start to get into trouble. People start working themselves up over hypothetical situations, rather than picturing their own literal, actual loved ones. We count imaginary hurt feelings rather than counting the calendar minutes we’ve spent talking to, say, our grandparents.
It’s not that I don’t care; I just don’t care.
I don’t care about anonymous commenters as a policy. Any second of the day, I can go to a news article, blog, or Twitter and read anonymous comments. No scarcity there. I don’t allow comments on my own blog because 1. I don’t have to, 2. Moderating comments would create an entire second job that I don’t want to do, and 3. I want to protect my more sensitive readers. Anyone who sincerely wants to talk to me can email me or tweet at me using their actual name.
I don’t care about insults. Trolling is a hobby these days, a stupid one. Trolling is proof that the troll literally has nothing better to do. This is definitive proof that this person’s opinions are worthless. I can’t care about a troll’s comments any more than I can care that a random dog barked at me.
I don’t care about naysayers. Regardless of my goal, regardless of the relationship I have with the naysayer, it’s my time and energy to waste. If I want to do something, how is it hurting that person? The easiest way to avoid dealing with naysayers is simply not to talk about your plans until they’re finished. Inform people after the fact. Hey, I went to Morocco. Hey, I placed a product in stores. Hey, I had a conversation with someone in Spanish. Naysayers never seem to care about goals that are already complete.
I don’t care what conversations or social occasions I’m missing. There are always going to be infinite possibilities that I can’t fulfill in one lifetime. People I’ll never meet! Parties and weddings where I wasn’t invited! Concerts I missed! I refuse to whip myself with Fear of Missing Out. I’m having the conversation I’m having right now. I’m living my life right now. Thus, I spend almost no time on social media.
Also as a policy, I will help anyone I can in any way I can. If it’s specific, count me in. I grade myself on whether I’ve fulfilled my obligations, followed through, filled in for someone else, helped get something done, kept confidences, and shown up when I said I would. That doesn’t insulate me from trolls, haters, or critics - nothing would - but it does allow me to set my own values and measure my own adherence to them.
The truth about setting solid boundaries with people is that they usually don’t even notice. We aren’t usually as important to others as we would like to think. As a rule, we spend more time dwelling on our hurts than those who have insulted us ever did with their casual cruelties. Other people spend their time thinking about themselves, just like we do, and it’s likely that the only memories of our past wounds exist in our own minds. More likely, most of our emotional scars come from our interpretations of others’ words and actions, things they never meant to cause any pain at all, things they have long forgotten or never noticed doing.
What the heck is a boundary, anyway? A boundary is an expectation. We decide who hears our secrets, who gets to be inside our house or vehicle, who gets introduced to our friends, who uses our stuff or has access to our passwords, who we would vouch for, lend money, or travel with. In all of these areas, I tend to err on the side of caution.
The minimalist way to set boundaries is to count your top five people. By ‘top’ this means you would consider donating an organ to this person, picking them up in the middle of the night if their house burned down, or bailing them out of jail. They’re on your zombie squad. For this small number of people, show up and be your best self. Be the best friend you know how to be. Make sure they know how much they matter to you. With the time that’s left in your day, consider how much of yourself you want to make available to the other seven billion people on the planet.
You should have done it already. You know you should have. It’s lurking there, like a swamp thing at the bottom of a murky lake. Waiting for you. It will never let you have a moment’s peace until you deal with it, but you just can’t seem to make yourself. You can’t seem to make yourself open that envelope, listen to that voicemail, make that phone call, schedule that appointment, get that thing repaired, fill out that application, have that awkward conversation, turn in that assignment. WHY? Why do you keep doing this to yourself?
You’re not alone. Everyone procrastinates. Sure, some people claim they don’t, but the two most commonly procrastinated tasks are planning for retirement and dealing with health issues. Mention that if anyone tries to grief you about this.
Procrastination is a secret shame. There are a lot of different kinds. Don’t stress out about it. Imagine being a hit and run driver who never told anyone. (If that’s you, well, heck. Tell someone). Procrastination is really pretty mild in the grand scheme of things.
Whenever you have a secret shame, it’s the shame and the secrecy that are the real problems. Everything else is generally a simple matter of routine work.
An unpaid bill is just cash.
Something broken is just a repair.
A stain is just a stain.
An incomplete task is just something that could be finished.
It’s never the thing itself. It’s always the feelings of shame, guilt, incompetence, dread, anxiety, confusion, and What If that are the real problems.
Most of the time, it isn’t too late. Whatever is being procrastinated, the deadline hasn’t passed yet. There’s still time. Even knowing that, it can still feel impossible to just get started. Just start. Just start. Why aren’t you starting?
All it takes is to tell someone. Tell someone you know and trust. Tell someone you don’t know, like a stranger in line behind you at the post office. Tell someone anonymously on the internet. Tell a crow in the parking lot. Tell the Great Pumpkin. Just tell someone.
Give a name to what’s bothering you. Describe it. This helps to put some boundaries around the nameless ick that is destroying your peace of mind.
“I never sent those thank-you notes.”
“I’ve had this overdue library book for eight years.”
“The floor is ruined and I’m afraid to tell my landlord.”
“I’ve been getting calls from collections agents and I’m not even sure how much I owe.”
“The quarterly report is due and I haven’t even started yet.”
“I’m supposed to get a biopsy and it’s been over a year and I still haven’t made the appointment.”
(That last one was me BTW).
If you’ve picked the right person, you’ll probably hear a similar story in return. Everyone but everyone has done something like this. I accidentally melted a chocolate Rollo candy into my roommate’s couch. (So that’s where that went!). People procrastinate and make foolish mistakes and do embarrassing stuff all the time. That’s why it’s so funny and such a huge relief to hear that someone else is doing it, too.
Many people who have trouble working alone will push through for hours without a break if they have someone to sit with them. It’s a well-known phenomenon. The companion is called a “body double” or “shadow.” I think the lack of a buddy is the root cause of procrastination for a lot of people. (Probably most of them are Obligers). This is part of why it helps to tell someone when you feel like you’re in trouble and unable to face a problem by yourself. If all you need is someone to keep you company, that’s really a very minor favor to ask of someone.
Who could you get to sit with you?
A business partner? Your neighbor? Your kid? Your spouse?
A fellow procrastinator?
There are all kinds of book clubs, right? (I used to belong to three at one point). Lots of people play racquetball or tennis together. Bowling leagues. Choirs. You get where I’m going here? Why shouldn’t you have a partner or a club to help you focus and get stuff done? It’s entirely possible that someone among your friends or acquaintances is in just such a situation as you are. That person would probably be thrilled to have some help. You both just sit down together and make a pact that you’ll work on your secret shame until it’s done.
The backlog of unbalanced bank statements (which someone at your bank will do with you). The 30,000 unopened emails. The grocery sack full of unopened envelopes, which I guarantee are almost entirely junk mail. The incomplete expense reports. The blank thank-you notes. Whatever it is, it’s not exactly movie-of-the-week material, now, is it?
The funny thing is, it’s possible that you and your friend have non-overlapping projects, as well as non-overlapping skill sets. For instance, I absolutely hate driving, but I’m really quite good at organizing and I don’t mind disgusting cleaning tasks. I would totally trade someone a job like mending or scrubbing out a gross fridge for driving me around on some errands. Other jobs I hate that might make a good trade are wrapping gifts or giving my dog a bath.
It’s also not morally wrong to just hire someone. Hire a local high school kid. Hire someone through Craigslist or something similar. Calculate a subjective estimate of the cost of this looming dread that’s constantly hanging over your head, and then how much you’d be willing to pay to be rid of it. Is this a $25 stress? A $200 stress? A $20,000,000 stress? For instance, I can wash a pretty vast pile of laundry at the laundromat for about $8, but when it’s piled up that much, it feels like at least a hundred-dollar annoyance. (Would it cost $100 to buy a top-to-toe outfit if I ran out of clean clothes?). For a lot of people, putting a price on something can help to rank it and compare it to other problems. It can also be a motivator for getting it done rather than spending that kind of money.
Dread and procrastination and secret shame will destroy your peace of mind like nothing else. Life is too short to feel that way another day. Tell someone and don’t suffer alone.
Done right, mentoring can be one of the most fun, intriguing, and satisfying ways to spend time. Unfortunately, there are a million ways to mess it up. I try to always be in both the teaching and learning positions here, to remember how much there still is to learn and how tricky everything is before it becomes obvious. Which is better? Hard to say. Best to keep on trying at both.
Anyone who reads any business book will see a lot about how important it is to choose a mentor. LIES! The person you want for a mentor is most likely far, far too busy to spend time actually mentoring someone. Worse, the more successful this person is, the more people will chase after that elusive mentorship opportunity. What makes this person great is the ability to focus on a few very important things. There are plenty of successful people who enjoy mentoring, and you’ll know because they’ll single you out. They come to you.
The way you get the attention of your potential mentor is by:
What you’re trying to do is to demonstrate as much commitment to the project as your mentor has. This can be quite shocking. Trying to show up as early as they do and stay as late as they do is a project in itself. Successful people tend to put in very long hours behind the scenes. You have to know what it is that you think you’re asking for, and if it’s a responsible position with real leverage, then you may as well start training yourself for the endurance aspects early on.
“Pitching in” almost always means doing menial tasks. That could be anything from rearranging tables and stacking chairs to passing around sign-in sheets, with every administrative task imaginable in between. This is how you learn what’s involved. It’s also how you develop a keen eye for detail. A single mistaken date, forgotten object, or misspelled name can make the difference between sale/no sale or success/fail.
As a young office assistant, I once got reprimanded because I had collated a stack of documents, and the copier punched a staple that stuck out funny. I didn’t notice. The court clerk cut her finger on it and bled on a document. I wasn’t even there, but I got to hear all about it. From then on, I flipped over every stack of copies I ever made and checked that the staples were pounded flat. Still do.
The most important thing I learned from doing menial service work for so many years was to BE KIND when explaining anything. I would do anything for the staff members who were nice to me, and I never forgot a moment of rudeness or impatience from those who had less self-control.
I’m also remembering, now that I don’t have to sort other people’s mail or run other people’s errands any more, that people are the only reason to do anything. Any product or service is useless unless it benefits someone, somehow. There’s never any point or any excuse to berating or chastising an “underling,” because it sets you up for an inevitable slip if you think your “people skills” have a limited field of application. If you think there’s such a thing as a peon, move back to square one.
These are the things I keep in mind when I’m mentoring someone. If I can explain things well, then my young friend may be able to skip through years of servitude and move straight to a more impactful role.
As a mentor, it isn’t up to me who is tuned in to my channel. I’m not always going to know how much a younger or less experienced person knows. I’m not going to know how far this kid is going to go, or whether she or he will ultimately stay on the same career path. Those things are none of my business. They don’t belong to me. They come and go on their own schedule and their own agenda.
When I’m working with teenagers or college-aged kids, my main value is as a warm, friendly non-parental adult. Parents tend to go temporarily nuts when their kids reach adolescence, and they can become unrecognizably critical, emotional, and erratic. Strangely, the same kid whose parents think he’s incorrigible and headed straight to a penal colony will cheerfully wash dishes and take out the trash at my house! The same girl whose mom wants to put her in an ankle monitor will sit at my table and pull out her calculus textbook. Part of what works when mentoring young people is to have a group of them. They’re highly attuned to peer pressure at that age, and they teach each other the house expectations. (No talking about post-industrial politics, no dating within the group, no insults, eat your vegetables, everyone helps clean up). They also peg their progress against one another, barely noticing that they’re surrounded by high achievers.
They laugh three times more than middle-aged people. They’re idealistic, passionate, curious, and quirky. They keep us up-to-date on slang terms and pop culture. They help us set up our electronics. This is part of the secret to attracting a good mentor: be useful and fun to have around.
The stuff that young people want to know can cover a really broad range. How do I choose a major? What field do I want to work in? Should I date this person? How do I know when I’m in love? How old should I be when I get married? Should I go on the trip or take the job offer? What is the stock market? Do I enlist or get my master’s? Is it worth applying for this patent? Can my friendship survive renting a house together? Does this sound like a viable business plan? How do I make a soup?
Over the years, my young people have gone to boot camp and grad school, gotten married and started families, adopted dogs and cats, bought trucks and motorcycles, relocated, traveled the world, and surprised me a thousand ways. Over the same time period, I’ve sought out mentors and learned about publishing, screenwriting, podcasting, product development, branding, event planning, management, and a variety of athletic endeavors. Mentoring is mostly a way to make friends of different ages and keep life interesting.
They say there’s nothing free in this world, especially not a free lunch, but that’s not true. There are at least two things you can always get for free: other people’s opinions, and criticism. Often they feel like the same thing. People do tend to have positive opinions about things, like their favorite movie quotes, sandwich fillings, or Hollywood actors. They just don’t tend to share their positive feelings when they’re handing out free critiques. The question for anyone who has an interest in self-improvement or practical ethics is: When do you listen to advice, and when do you ignore it? What is your personal responsibility toward feedback from other people?
There is a lot of latitude in this question. For instance, we were at a Starbucks recently when an employee asked another customer to take her dog outside. It wasn’t a service animal and it was barking and making a fuss. The woman asked the employee whether she would make someone take their baby outside, because “this dog is literally my baby.” Um, you threw a litter? Am I getting that right? Regardless, this dog lover appears to be comfortable ignoring other people’s opinions about her training skills. Say we rate her at a 10/10 on the DNGAF scale.
(That’s “Does Not Give a Fig” for all you fruit fans)
How much responsibility we have for the behavior of our pets, children, friends, robots, etc is an area that we haven’t really worked out on a cultural level, so there will continue to be friction and room for interpretation there. The reason we feel free to push back about other people’s behavior is that there aren’t any hard rules for most things, whether it’s cell phone use, children kicking the back of someone’s seat, or carrying small dogs in your purse. It’s something to keep in mind - the feedback we don’t like to receive feels the same way to the person to whom we are trying to dish it out. And vice versa. When they serve us, they’re using the same scoop that was served to them by someone else.
Okay, back to the discussion. Which opinions do we hear out and which do we ignore?
Lectures from strangers?
Professional feedback, i.e. “telling me how to do my job”?
I try to pay heed to mainstream public opinion when I’m out and about, because I want to avoid confrontation with strangers as much as possible. I don’t tie my dog up outside the store because I know he barks about once every fifteen seconds the entire time I’m out of sight. I don’t kick people’s seats or drop litter and I always wipe down my table when I’m done. Of course this doesn’t make me immune to obnoxious strangers; a woman nearly hit me with the stall door in a public restroom and then cussed me out. It happens. I just make it a policy to avoid being someone else’s pet peeve as much as I know how. Less hassle that way.
I might take advice about my marriage, if it’s from someone who has been married longer than I have. I would ignore the opinion of a single person, someone who had been divorced more times than I have, or a married person who has marital quarrels in public and insults their spouse on social media. Otherwise, my love life is only relevant to my husband. I listen to his opinion because his opinion on our marriage matters at least as much as mine.
I might take financial advice, if it’s from someone whose net worth is higher than ours and/or someone who has a higher income. That would only be true if we share other values in common as well. I would ignore the financial advice of anyone who has no credentials, earns less, has spending habits that are not relevant to my interests (like gambling), or carries a debt burden.
I don’t have to take people’s advice on driving because we got rid of our car. I decided that having a “personal driver” was the first thing I would do if I ever got really rich, and that ride-sharing qualifies! Otherwise, well, I’ve never had a traffic ticket, so come at me.
I also don’t have to take people’s parenting advice because I can’t have children. Nevertheless, I’ve been cornered and lectured on how it’s my duty (not kidding) to have children, that I could still adopt, et cetera. Look, it’s none of anybody’s business who decides to have kids, or when, or why, or how, or with whom. I have a free opinion for you, and that’s to never make suggestions to other people about having kids. It might touch off some extremely painful emotions. Find something better to talk about.
I would probably take someone’s landscaping advice, if we owned a house. The neighbors would spend more time looking at our yard than we would, and they’ve probably lived there longer. To me that would be a very trivial way to earn major brownie points in the neighborhood. If they want me to take out a hedge, *shrug*, it’s out of here.
Fitness advice is one of those fountains that always flow. The fitter I’ve gotten, the more carefully I’ve listened when athletes are talking, and the funnier I think it is when anyone else is. I’ve been lectured about my diet and exercise habits from people who walk with a cane (more than once), people with heart problems, people with sleep apnea, people who are at least a hundred pounds overweight, and more and more. “Let’s go,” is what I say. If you can outrun me, I’ll hold still and you can tell me whatever you want. Let’s compare lab work, see who can run up a flight of stairs faster, who can do the most push-ups, who has the fewest prescription medications. On the other hand, I practically grow an extra ear when very fit people are willing to drop a few pro tips, especially when they’re past forty like I am. Please, by all means, tell me more!
About professional feedback, it depends. I once had a difference of opinion with my manager about my annual performance review. I had been commended by another manager for designing training materials that saved her team twenty man-hours, and my own manager rated me a Needs Improvement for the same project. Normally I’d say to do anything to make your boss look good and make your boss’s life easier. In this case, I immediately updated my resume, started applying for other jobs, and wound up promoting into a 30% raise. Bye-eeee.
Most people are average, by definition. We deflect our feelings about our own lives by critiquing others, even when we have no real expertise in the area. It helps us to feel smarter and more in control. We convince ourselves that we’re helping, even though we hate being on the receiving end of the identical behavior. We feel shamed and singled out when it happens to us, but we never realize that we can make other people feel shamed and singled out, too, unless of course we think they deserve it.
Overall, it helps to remember the difference between critique and criticism. It’s our job to receive critique graciously, if it comes from someone whose job description includes formally evaluating us. Criticism comes uninvited, from someone who has no official managerial, editorial, or coaching role over us, in a negative and demotivating way. We can still benefit from unsolicited criticism, even if it’s annoying, if we search out anything that would help us in our commitment to excellence. We’d do best not to ignore real critique, but we can, as long as we accept responsibility. Our results in life and work depend as much on the opinions we accept as the opinions we choose to ignore.
Why do we do what we do? What’s the emotional reward supposed to be at the end? Everyone is looking for something, whether that’s safety, respect, revenge, approval, power, or proving a point. We tend to see the end game as something less abstract: a group of friends, money, a sexy body, a big house, fame, that special someone saying, “I admit it, I was wrong.” It can be fun to simply acknowledge these desires, name them, and see if maybe they’re attainable.
Complicated, ill-advised, over-rated, we don’t really know until we’ve spent a little time indulging in these common fantasies.
Me, I’ve always just wanted to get into the room with the smart people.
That’s my motivation. I want to produce something, at some point, that is so cool that the thought leaders I respect will want to meet me and hang out.
My idea of fame isn’t about adoring crowds. It’s about walking up to a small gathering of people I admire and having them turn and say, “Hey, there you are!”
What I’m working for isn’t just a seat at the table. You can get that seat if you’re willing to take dictation and you can type fast enough. I don’t even want to be acknowledged as a peer. I want to be over there cracking jokes!
I’ve met a couple of these specific individuals already. You can do that if you go to their public appearances and stand in line long enough. You can also capture their attention simply by saying, “Thank you for coming to our city.” Nobody really does that, apparently.
There you have it, my dirty little secret. I don’t work for money or fame. I’m essentially just curious whether I have it in me to put something big into the world and then use it as a passport into a new social group.
Wanting to be in the room with the smart people is broader than that. It’s a general life philosophy. If I’m the smartest person in the room, then I’m in the wrong room. I always want to be in a position where I’m learning as much as I can. I want to push my limits. I want to surround myself with people who are achieving various things at a much higher level, whether that’s fellow home cooks or fitter people in my gym class. Ideally I’m not only avoiding being the smartest people in the room - ideally I’m the LEAST smart person in the room!
By “smart” I mean “knowing things I don’t know” and “proficient at things I can’t do.” Not native intelligence in the sense of IQ - that I’ve got covered. By “smart” I mean savvy, skilled, clever, wise, and focused.
My main drive here is curiosity. What are you like? What do you know that I don’t know? What projects are you working on? What do you think about all day?
Second to that is a moral conviction that I should do the most I can with my life. I should always be trying to learn more, do more, and love more. That includes making new friends and being a bigger part of my community, even when I feel shy and don’t want to talk to anyone. Like, ever.
Whether it’s moral or not, I’m not totally sure, but I do have another conviction that I should keep myself humble. It just seems like a good idea. Reminding myself that I have yet to contribute to society in any meaningful way, that I’ve barely done anything with the talents and resources that I have, that everyone around me has something interesting to teach, gives me a sense of urgency. Without that, I have a tendency to sit around my house reading and eating cookies, a tendency that I find makes my life fundamentally boring.
I made a tough decision two years ago, to take up public speaking. I would snap awake on Wednesday mornings in a cold sweat, knowing I’d have to walk into that meeting room later in the day. Sometimes I would procrastinate and not go because I had made myself late. It was physically and emotionally difficult for me in a way that’s hard to describe without using the phrase “projectile vomit.” I did it, though. I kept going until I started winning award ribbons, and then I was chosen as vice president of the club. I knew I was in the room with the smart people. I was the least among them, shaking like a leaf, barely able to stand up and speak my own name. They let me stay. They let me take a seat at the table and keep coming back until I got better. Now I’m one of them.
This year, I did it again. I signed up for martial arts lessons. I couldn’t do a proper sit-up on the first day. I can barely tell my left from my right. I have a bad tendency to step forward when I ought to step back. Sometimes I would throw a punch and miss the practice pad entirely. I’m more dangerous on accident than I am on purpose. When I showed up, I was definitely the slowest, weakest, and least coordinated. Now I can crank out thirty pushups and throw a spinning back elbow. Oh, and I got my orange belt.
The respect that I have in these two wildly different groups comes from my complete willingness to put myself out there, be terrible at something, and cheerfully keep trying. I’m genuinely grateful to receive advice because I see it as a gift. I’m in the room with the smart people, and that proximity is a privilege. Please, by all means, tell me everything I’m doing wrong! I’ll get it eventually.
Ultimately I want to be a cool old person. I want to meet Old Me, the Future Me who knows the most, the version of me who has seen the most of the world and met the most interesting people. Hopefully Old Me has made good use of our time in this world. Hopefully she’s in the room with the smart people. Which ones, though, and what are they doing?
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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.