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?
This won’t be obvious in the future, so I probably shouldn’t even admit it, but I’m posting my blog hours late. For the first time in over two years, I completely forgot about scheduling a post! This is partly because of Vacation Brain, which is a known thing, but it’s also because my husband and I are in full-blown brainchild mode and working on a giant new project.
This is what happened.
We’re at World Domination Summit on Monday, our last day, and our suitcases are already packed to take to the airport. On Sunday, during the break between keynote speeches, there’s a lengthy break, during which anyone who wants to can propose a meetup on basically any topic. We had decided to do one together. This would be the first time we ever did a presentation or taught a class together. We put together an outline one morning at breakfast, worked out how much time each segment should take the next morning, and then divided which topics should belong to each of us. That was it.
The topic: Engineer Your Household.
This is something the two of us have developed organically over the course of our twelve-year relationship. His work as an aerospace engineer and my work as a writer, coach, and organizer merged with our mutual desire to not be, well, twice-divorced. We use the engineering process of relentless root cause analysis and corrective action to figure out points of friction in our relationship. That’s because it feels dumb to let housework and finances determine whether we are friends or not.
Don’t let laundry kill your love!
We arrived at our chosen location about 20 minutes early. That was long enough to work ourselves into a tizzy that nobody would come to our talk. We had so many concerns: that we’d interrupt and talk over each other, that our focus would wander and we’d let a bunch of non sequiturs fill up time, while forgetting our most important points. We’d wind up annoying each other while our audience gradually got up and trickled away.
Then, much to our surprise, almost everyone who showed up arrived in pairs! It had genuinely never occurred to us that married couples and romantic partners would attend together. We looked at each other with our mouths actually hanging open.
Our talk went so, so much better than we expected. We handed my iPad back and forth, going through our outline, while the other person would hold a phone with a stopwatch running. Not so polished or professional, but hey, we were standing in a park with zero staging, and it was also very us. That’s how we solve problems together, working as allies and teammates.
We were able to see that our new friends/audience were connecting with our message, laughing, glancing at each other, with a few nudges and pats of private meaning and connection.
We were also able to see that this core of our marriage - factory-level efficiency and scheduling - came across as genuinely original and surprising. Which I guess it is? This whole idea that we can create a system for dividing labor and negotiating authentically without driving each other up a tree. Acknowledging our frustrations and disappointments as commonplace! Just because laundry and weekday dishwashing are inherently annoying is NOT some kind of sign that you’re incompatible together. It’s a universal hassle that applies to single people, roommates, families with kids, polyamorous collectives, even colleagues in a coworking environment. Let’s treat it like a business matter and do it practically. Then we can actually be friends again and lounge around enjoying maximum leisure time.
At the end, people were asking if we had book recommendations, if we had a blog, if we had a podcast. I realized that this “do you have book recommendations” question comes up ALL THE TIME after I do a talk, and that each time, I pause and realize that, well, no. This is actually my own original material. In fact, it happened again during a meetup when I talked to a musician about mechanically inducing a creative trance state. Oh, wait, is that actually just a me thing?
I spend so much time working alone and talking to myself that I often don’t realize how very much I’m dwelling in an ivory tower of my own construction.
When we buy our tickets for WDS, we do it without scheduling or planning anything afterward. That’s because we know it’s a watershed in our year, that there’s a clear Before and After. We know we’ll learn something new, have a radical paradigm shift, or (AND/or) come up with a completely new approach to something. The stage was set and the structure was in place, waiting for the content, like a leaf waiting for a butterfly.
This year, the insight is that my husband and I should do a podcast together about marriage. Let me just say that that was NOT something that had ever occurred to us before. Look at your mate, if you have one, and ask each other if that would have popped up somehow over cornflakes... See what I mean?
At this point, our main decision is which day of the week we’ll use to record episodes. We already have quite a bit of content, a title, and a framework for how the different segments will line up. We have an idea of a series of guests (random private individuals) we’d like to have. We might spend a bit of time choosing some music (or pass on it) and getting a logo designed. There will be an accompanying website. Each of these pieces feels like a routine task, something that’s quite easy to accomplish.
It’s also felt straightforward and easy to say that I am closing the door on private coaching. I’ll go into it more at a later date, but basically, coaching doesn’t scale. If I spend even just an hour a week on one single client, that’s the hour a week I would have been using on THE ENTIRE PODCAST. The point is that the podcast could reach one or one hundred million listeners; it isn’t for us to guess, but it’s certainly going to be more people than I could coach individually. As soon as this clicked into place, I knew that the decision had been made and that I had no waffling or ambivalence around it. Finishing off one stage of life entirely, that’s what it is, in order to make room for something bigger and more interesting, something that will matter to more people.
We’re going to World Domination Summit for the third time. At our first event, we had the opportunity to buy tickets for 2017 while we were still sitting in the auditorium. We took one look at each other and launched. Now it’s a core part of our vacation planning. This is a life philosophy thing. Plan your desired vacation first, then your desired retirement, and build the rest of your lifestyle around those poles.
How do you afford that vacation?
There are tricks to it!
The first thing is to focus on what you personally enjoy doing, and to realize that this may not look anything like someone else’s dream vacation. For instance, my husband and I usually go somewhere rainy on vacation, because we live on a Southern California beach where it’s summer nearly every day. Why pay more to go through TSA and fly to an island with lots of sun and sand when we can just do that at home? We’re willing to ride a bus and camp out in a tent in the rain because it enables us to travel longer. We like going to museums, exploring local grocery stores, and visiting historical sites. We don’t spend money on booze or dance clubs or shopping because we don’t care about those things.
On this particular vacation, we’re staying at my parents’ house. We’re able to roll WDS into a family visit. Granted, we’re almost never there, but there really is something special about being able to hug your parents in their kitchen on a regular workday.
We paid for our plane tickets with reward points. This comes about because our first financial priority is to maintain good credit, and because we systematically earn and burn those travel miles.
Here’s the thing. None of that constitutes a ‘trick.’ Anyone can fantasize about the perfect vacation, learn how to use points and miles, or cajole a friend or relative into playing host for at least a little while. The tricky part is that whole thing about building your lifestyle around your vacation.
We save 35-40% of our income.
That’s part of it. We simply refuse to spend money in ways that we find boring, unfulfilling, or unnecessary. We live in a studio apartment and we don’t own a car. The money we saved the first two months of car-freedom more than paid for this WDS trip. That doesn’t even begin to include what we saved by lowering our rent and utility bills for the year. I don’t spend money coloring my hair, getting manicures, or going for “retail therapy” because I see that as stealing from our vacation fund. We both went to Morocco for a day for $65, money that I could have easily spent on a single pair of shoes or pants that I never even wore.
Another part of “affording that vacation” is to build the idea into your life and make it a part of your identity. Travel is part of what my husband and I do as a couple. We decided to define ourselves that way, and make sure that other people see us that way. It’s fun to teach other people how to travel on a budget. A lot of the things we do on vacation have filtered into our daily life, such as our habit of having strategic planning meetings at breakfast. If more of your ordinary days feel like vacation days, then eventually it feels like you’re on vacation all the time. What that means is that you’re creating an intentional life. You see the potential in each day and the special things about your current location. You look at the world with an attitude of open wonder and adventure.
That’s what makes money and savings feel somewhat irrelevant.
I don’t feel “deprived” by not having cable television or a wine budget because those things don’t interest me, especially not in comparison to the awesome things that money can buy on vacation. I love the sense that we’re nearly always in vacation planning mode, that we always have a new trip to anticipate and research and plan. What amazes me is that people feel like they can “afford” routine daily and monthly expenses that I see as both extravagant and dull.
The other thing about “affording that vacation” is that it gave us the ability to make a radical decision. We live in a studio apartment that is, in point of fact, smaller than some of the hotel suites where we have stayed on vacation. We jokingly refer to it as “going back to the room” to remind ourselves that it’s temporary, and that it’s a choice. We deliberately live a minimalist lifestyle full-time because it provides the leverage for more interesting things. All we really do at home is to cook dinner, sleep, shower, and store our stuff. Why pay for the biggest, fanciest place we could possibly stretch to afford when we’re gone most of the day anyway?
What we want to be doing, as often as possible, is exploring the world. We like to be close to nature, watching the sun set or watching a crow toss food wrappers out of a trash can. We love the feeling of having hours to lounge around, deep in conversation, and we do that most weeknights. All of these are cost-free; they’re mindsets that anyone can adopt and fit into any lifestyle. Peace of mind, close connection, a feeling that the clock is turned off and that the next moment is full of potential. You can afford all of that if you choose to look at it that way.
It’s been over a dozen years since I was on the dating market, so when I read dating manuals, it’s always with the question, Would this work? Often that’s followed by the question, Would I even want it to? I distinctly recall reading The Rules and throwing it across the room. I also followed my husband around a bookstore, reading sections of Fascinating Womanhood aloud and making him shudder all over. It’s in this context that I say I think The Love Gap is an excellent, very smart book that could really lead to a strong marriage, a win for both partners.
For context, I’m the sort that author Jenna Birch refers to as an “End Goal” woman. I’m a Mensan with a degree in History. As a bachelorette, I had already paid off my consumer debt, and I had a really cute apartment where I did a lot of recipe testing. I knew where my life was going, and after an early divorce, I was in no hurry to remarry. My current husband had only been divorced for a year when we met, and he was still in the midst of a custody battle. Simply put, when we met, we were on different tracks and not in the same emotional reality. The Love Gap makes a lot of sense for anyone trying to evaluate the potential of a romantic prospect in a challenging situation.
What does Birch mean by the “Love Gap”? It’s the reason why men don’t always pursue the women they claim to want, namely the smart, independent, successful ones. There’s a gap between their desires and their actions. What sets The Love Gap apart from earlier generations of romantic advice is that it holds these men accountable for their cognitive dissonance, immaturity, and poor behavior, rather than burdening women with doing the emotional homework for both sides. The major lesson of the book is in how to evaluate a man’s readiness for a relationship, and then plan accordingly. Read: avoid all the heartbreaking nonsense.
The Love Gap includes research and profiles of relationships from all levels of commitment and long- or short-term results. The premise is that a smart, independent, successful woman can be herself, live a full life, and still build a relationship without compromising, settling, or selling herself short. A marriage of equals is possible, and it’s a lot more likely when we’re not wasting our time tolerating shabby treatment. I recommend buying several copies and using them to replace any old copies of The Rules that might be lurking on a shelf somewhere.
You’re settling if you feel like you are.
...love is the most idealistic of all our goals.
If you never see a flaw, it’s not real.
If you live and die by the health of your relationship you’re not in the best position to be in one.
Least favorite quote:
“...no matter a woman’s level of physical attractiveness, the researchers found men rated optimal intelligence level to be right around 7 out of 10.” [Though I can’t blame the author for this].
There are two obstacles to finding love: Not being emotionally available, and locking yourself up in a non-loving relationship with the wrong person. That’s it. Both are equally likely to lead to long-term loneliness. Not being open to love harms two people: yourself, and your potential mate who lies awake at night in a state of longing. Being in the wrong relationship harms at least four people! You, the person you should be with, the person you are with incorrectly, and the person your wrong partner ought to be with. It may also ripple outward, teaching a lot of bad lessons to anyone who sees how wrong you are together. This is why it’s a good idea to consider falsification of your relationship.
Falsification is the process of proving yourself wrong. For instance, if I see my husband talking to another woman, I could have several reactions. I could think, “That cad! I married a womanizer.” I could think, “That man-eating wench! She is trying to steal my husband.” I could think, “That must be his new intern.” Or I could think, “My husband is having an interesting conversation; I bet I’d like her.” I need more information about the situation before I automatically assume that I understand what I think I’m seeing.
Who are you going to believe, me, or your own lying eyes?
I look at my marriage as a blood oath. I took this man, and that day, I took his family as my family. Anyone who belongs to him belongs to me. As such, if anyone in my new extended family needs me, I’ll do anything I can, in any way, to be there for them. ‘Wife’ is a job, just like ‘husband’ or ‘parent’ is a job. It’s my mission to be the best wife I can be, to be supportive and to further his interests and back him up in every way. I’m on his side and he’s on mine.
However. If the contract is ever broken, then all bets are off.
I would instantly break off a relationship with any man who scared me, threatened me, or physically attacked me. Once. That’s a 100% dealbreaker. I would also break off a relationship with a man who lied. If I don’t have total honesty then I don’t have a relationship, I have an association. I’d stay with him if he went to prison, but only if he was innocent; if he committed a crime I’d drop him like a hot rock. My love is based on the belief that I’ve chosen and married a good and honest man. If he lied, attacked me, or committed a crime, any of these actions would falsify my belief in his fundamental character.
As a rational person, I have to accept the statistics. A marriage between two people who have both been divorced previously is statistically unlikely to last. A second marriage between divorced people over a certain age is even less likely to last. Our chances are low. Knowing that going in, we have to be more careful. In the back of our minds, we both have this little closet of All the Bad Thoughts. Cheater. Liar. Betrayer. Spendthrift. Screamer. We both had our series of little tests that we put each other through, up to and including blood tests and credit reports. Are you worthy of my love? Can I trust you?
The sad truth is that a lot of people are not trustworthy at all. They may wish they were. They may have made a bunch of promises to themselves. When it comes down to it, though, they revert to type. Over and over again, they’ll hurt different people in the same way that they’ve done before. Cheaters cheat. Liars lie. Most people do neither. I mean, who needs that kind of drama? Tell the truth and you don’t have to keep your story straight. Be honest and faithful and you don’t have to explain where you were the other night. Integrity is just easier.
What are some ideas about romance that we should attempt to falsify?
Nobody will ever love me/Nobody except this person will ever love me.
Not only is that a ludicrous thought, but if you’re with someone because you think that nobody else will ever love you, then you don’t love that person. That “reason” has nothing to do with this partner’s qualities as a human. It’s a selfish thought based on insecurity and scarcity mindset. I need to cling to this person so I won’t be alone? Don’t do them any favors.
I missed my chance.
As we get older, it’s true that we’ll never look like Romeo or Juliet again. Thank goodness! In my late twenties, I got down on my knees and prayed that I would never feel infatuated with anyone ever again. I wanted a mature love, not a teenage crush. I wouldn’t want to have to go through my teenage skin, my teenage cluelessness, or my general teenage incompetence ever again. Give me an adult and a practical, long-term love! I’ve always looked forward to the sweetness of elderly romance, and I hope my hubby and I make it to our fiftieth anniversary, even though we’ll be well into our eighties when it happens. I’ve met a few couples who fell in love and married in their sixties and seventies, and if anything, the romance is much stronger later in life. People of every age are single and looking to mingle.
I “always” wind up with [a cheater, someone who can’t commit, whatever].
This kind of thought makes us emotionally unavailable. What, some kind of fate sends us only people from the Cheater Store? What happens is that we communicate with other people based on our expectations of how other people behave. We may close ourselves to certain types of relationship; we may even provoke people into uncharacteristic behavior based on our own words, beliefs, and actions. When we fixate on how someone is inevitably going to mistreat us, that is cruel and unfair to that person, an honest bystander who probably started out with genuine attraction and pure intentions. It’s like starting an exciting new job and constantly having your supervisor accuse you of embezzling from the company.
What I have to expect from myself is that I have a loving heart which is sometimes fogged in by my personal, idiosyncratic history and beliefs about romance. I may be reacting to fantasies and images of my own creation, then projecting them and overlaying them onto an innocent person who has no idea what’s going through my head. I need to be aware of how this person is actually behaving, not falsely blaming them for my anxieties, and also not giving them undeserved credit for being a great partner based on wishful thinking.
What has this person actually claimed about our commitment?
What has this person done to demonstrate caring, affection, and reliability?
What are the reasons I find this person to be endearing, fascinating, and irreplaceable?
If we broke up, would I be sad? Scared? Angry? Relieved?
Do my friends and family like this person? If not, do people who don’t know each other have the same issue with this person?
Is it possible that this person is something of a con artist?
Do I trust this person enough that I feel safe to be fully honest about my life?
When I think about us being together ten years from now, how does that feel?
Rejection is one of the greatest miseries. Why is it that we can remember every time we’ve been rejected, dumped, or excluded, but not every time we’ve been approached, befriended, and included? As painful as it is to be unfriended or rejected, I’ve come to appreciate it as fair play. Why would I want to be friends with someone who doesn’t want to be friends with me? In some ways, if someone declines to make friends, it’s actually doing me a favor, because I’d rather deal with the relatively minor pain of that brush-off now than with a bigger, more painful break further into a deeper friendship. It also makes sense to me, because I have my own set of standards for why I would avoid spending time with someone. Sometimes we just have to cross people off the list.
Standards of behavior are slightly different depending on the type of relationship. For instance, the list of reasons why I would quit going to a restaurant is not the same as the list of reasons why I would break up a romance or quit speaking to a family member. I once moved out of my apartment because my new upstairs neighbors ran a CPAP machine ten feet above my head every night. I couldn’t blame them, but I couldn’t sleep, either. We never met so I doubt I hurt their feelings. Ultimately, everyone is just as free to avoid me as I am to avoid them.
I’m not generally going to ask people why they don’t want to hang out with me. I’m going to assume that we’re just not on the same frequency. There are over seven billion people in this world and not everyone can be best friends with everyone else.
Okay, so what gets people crossed off the list?
These are my personal standards. Other people will obviously have standards of their own.
Angrily yelling at me. I believe people should only yell if they’re cheering or if there’s an emergency. I don’t care who it is, if I make you mad, just tell me and I’ll make it right. I don’t yell at you, so don’t yell at me.
Arguing about politics. People have the right to believe whatever they like, and I have the right to spend my precious free time not discussing it. I refuse to participate in political “debates” or arguments, and in fact I prefer that nobody actually knows how I vote or what my political views are.
Drug use. Pot smoke is a migraine trigger for me and cigarette smoke gives me nosebleeds. Anything else, I used to work at a drug rehab and it’s just not my scene. When the pipes come out I stand up and say goodnight. I’m not necessarily going to not be friends with someone who uses legal weed, I just ask that they not partake while I’m around.
Being rude to my other friends. Absolutely not. If you don’t like someone else who comes to my open house or game night or potluck or whatever, either avoid them or tell me why. If I have twelve friends who get along and one who doesn’t, I have to ask what’s wrong with that picture.
Being a taker. I’m a giver, and I prefer it that way, but it needs to be my choice to give the gift. Someone who never reciprocates or goes out of their way to do things for other people is not on my wavelength. I’m not looking for a quid pro quo, I’m looking for a kindred spirit who is altruistic and generous.
Jealousy. If you need to control someone then I am definitely not the girl for you. I am monogamous by nature, but I come and go as I please and I have a lot of platonic male friends. If you have a problem with not owning my time, may I recommend meditation?
Trying to badger me into kinky stuff I already said I don’t want to do. The less said, the better, but I am in fact a person and not a vending machine.
Lying. Why? To make yourself look better? To trick me? To be free to do what you want, because you know that if I knew the truth I would have a problem with it?
Selfishness. For those who’ve asked: No, I’m not going to sew your Halloween costume / go to your baseball card convention / clean your apartment on the weekends I visit after cleaning mine during the week / get up half an hour early to make you coffee, because I don’t even drink coffee / give your junkie brother a job reference / drive two hours to pick you up from the airport / pretend we’re not dating in public / have unprotected sex / do all the traveling in our long-distance relationship / stand around while you talk to your friends without introducing me. I hate to ask, but what have you done for me lately?
I used to say that I would never get married again without a criminal background check, a blood test, a credit report, and a psychiatric assessment. That’s sort of true. I did remarry. We had done a full open-book financial planning meeting together (his idea) a few months before he proposed. We shared our credit scores, bank statements, credit card statements, and retirement account balances. We also ran up forecasts for our investment returns under different scenarios. I knew about the background check because he had Secret clearance for his job, and he knew about mine because I was a notary public. We both did a full STD and HIV screening when we started dating. Part of why we work as a couple is that we both agreed on the basic common sense and fairness of all this disclosure.
I won’t go into it, but I have cut off family members before. Just because we’re blood doesn’t mean I endorse everything you do. Ethics still apply. The reason so many people get burned by their relatives is that if they weren’t related, they would never tolerate the shenanigans, whether that’s verbal abuse, fraud, theft, violence, false witness, or any other kind of high drama and hijinks.
I quit a job because the owner and manager kept going upstairs to snort cocaine together. One day I found some of their paraphernalia in my work space. I quit another job because my manager wanted to break labor law and have me oversee it. There’s always another job up the street, especially for an ambitious person.
Living consistent with your values means you proudly work for or with organizations whose values you support. Your romantic partner, if any, also shares your values. Your friends and associates, again, basically live in the same ethical universe. You teach your kids your values and explain why they are so important. Your pets mind their manners the way you taught them. When everything in your world is there by choice, because you endorse it and support it, you have massive leverage and very little drama. Anyone who operates by values that are inconsistent with yours can go about their business elsewhere, and that’s why they’re off the list.
Looking back, certain patterns tend to stand out. Once you’ve learned the pattern, you can start to see it from the front, recognizing it and avoiding it. I thought about this quite a bit as I listened to the Dirty John podcast. [Don’t worry, this post is spoiler-free]. How can such smart women be hoodwinked by a dishonest man? More to the point, how can we start to figure out what questions to ask so we can rule out the bad guys? Let’s make sure we know who we’re dealing with before we give our hearts away.
When I was young, I was in love with love. I used to write in my diary about boys I liked, boys I was dating, and the inevitable breakups. This was very fortunate because processing my seemingly endless heartache gradually led me to realize: I could have seen this coming. I won’t say I “should” have seen anything coming, because it’s not like I can fly back in time and give Past Me all the information that Today Me just figured out. It was enough for me that I realized there were red flags in people’s behavior, and that I could spot them pretty quickly after meeting someone.
Time after time, though, the root cause analysis of why I got my heart crushed was that: I bought his BS. A guy told me a story about himself, and I believed the story. Sometimes this story was the result of lack of insight on the guy’s part; he just didn’t have a very good understanding of his own motives or patterns of behavior. Other times, the story was a carefully crafted tool that an experienced manipulator used, with full knowledge that it worked better than the truth.
Let’s take my ex-husband as an example.
When we met, he was living with his mom. I was 21 and he was 24. I had been supporting myself since I was 18, so I had my opinions about this, but he had an explanation. He had just broken up with his live-in girlfriend because she had allegedly cheated on him with his best friend. There he was with nothing to his name but six boxes of possessions, two of which were fireworks. He basically had no friends, and this was explained by the bad breakup. To sum up, he had a job but no apartment, no car, no stuff, and no friends.
We moved in together two months after we started dating, and we were legally married several months after that. We eloped and didn’t tell our families.
When I look back, I ask myself, what the HECK was I thinking? I knew nothing about this guy, or rather, what I did know didn’t make a strong case for how great he was.
It wasn’t until later in the relationship that I gradually learned more about my new husband. I won’t go into it here, but all of it was troubling and none of it aligned with my personal values. Then he told me that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
(Not that there’s anything wrong with that, just that I now consider it an item of mandatory disclosure before signing a marriage contract, at minimum. It is fully unfair not to tell someone something this important about your life).
Let’s fast-forward to roughly ten years after our divorce. I sat next to a cute guy on a plane. We talked through the whole flight and then he gave me his email address. I was in a relationship at the time, but I stumbled across that email some time after the breakup. I wrote to him on a whim and we met up for a couple of dates.
This guy made some claims that had caught my attention. When we met on the plane, I told him I had just gotten my acceptance letter from Mensa. He said, “I used to be in Mensa.” Oh, really?! No way! He said his dad had him tested when he was a kid. Oh my gosh, what an astonishing coincidence. On one of our dates, he told me he was a real estate investor. I happen to know a bit about real estate investing myself, so I immediately asked, excited, “Can I see your business card?” He paused, patted his pocket, and said he didn’t have any on him. Something else weird came up. On our third date, he invited me to spend the night at a Motel 6. (IKR???) I thought, “I have my own apartment, and supposedly you do, too, so why not just invite me home or ask to stay at my place?” Not that I was anywhere even remotely in the vicinity of wanting to spend the night with this guy - it just made me wonder why he would pay for a cheap motel when he had somewhere better to go.
Or did he?
At this point in my life, I had an automatic screening process. As much as I really wanted to be in a relationship, as much as I might be physically attracted to a guy, I had a much stronger desire to know I was safe with someone. I was prospecting for certain specific information and I was not going to relax my guard until I had it.
When I look back at my first marriage, I want to slap my forehead. In fact I’m sure I have. Today Me would hear, Oh, you just had a bad breakup? And that would be enough information to pass for now. No rebound guys. If I heard that he was back living with his parents, even in our early twenties, I would have passed. Call me when you get your own place and we’ll talk.
When I look back at Motel 6 Guy, I’m proud of myself for getting out before I got emotionally hooked. I think of this guy as a “pathological liar” although he was probably just an opportunist. I’m sure he lied about being a real estate investor and even more sure that he lied about being a Mensan, partly because there’s a greater than 98% chance that he wasn’t. (By the numbers, only 2% of the population qualifies, and only about 10% of those who qualify are actual members). Why wouldn’t he invite me to his home? Could be any number of reasons, from being married or having a girlfriend, to being ashamed of where he lived, to being technically homeless. Essentially, he said a lot of things but didn’t verify any of his claims. Once I became suspicious of one thing, it cast the whole package in a different light.
What we expect from romance is the quick spark. We want to be swept off our feet. We believe in these strong waves of emotion. What I’ve come to prefer is a slow start that gradually builds into friendship. Trust and respect build slowly over time. I’ve been with my current husband for twelve years now. We were friends for about a year and a half, then dated for three years, and then got married. Slow love is the love I trust, a love for decades, not for drama.
Moms attended free at my martial arts school this month. Moms of active students, that is. When I heard the news, a laugh escaped me, which is dangerous because it could easily have resulted in my doing extra burpees. Kickboxing is very far down the list of things my mom is likely to do. Organize a blanket drive for the homeless? Sure. Give someone a ride to the airport? Gotcha covered. Roundhouse kick? Not so much her department. That’s probably true of most women of her generation, because there were a lot of things girls simply were not allowed to do back then. I’d love to have the opportunity to train with my mom and her sisters, to show them how fun it is and give them something they never had.
I’ve seen four sets of parent and child at my gym: two moms with daughters, one mom with a son, and one dad with a son. There are probably a lot more, but the kids’ classes are in the middle of the day and most parents go to the night classes. My guess would have been that a lot of dads would enroll their teen daughters, since my husband put my stepdaughter in tae kwan do.
The first parent I met was a mom who has two teenage sons enrolled in the school; it may have been their idea. One kid apparently has ADHD. I identify with that myself; I wish I’d discovered athletics when I was younger, because it’s such a huge help in taming that inner restlessness. This mom is very petite and very serious about training. She often goes to class twice a day. For her it seems to be a mixture of alone time, stress relief, walking her talk with her kids, sharing an experience with them, and maintaining her ability to show who’s boss. Outsized, outnumbered, out-testosteroned, she’s not going to let teenage boys intimidate her.
The second parent I met was a dad who brought his college-aged son to class. This dad is an advanced student, and he came to the beginner class for the occasion. The son was clearly very reluctant, overwhelmed by the warmup, and looking for any reason to escape. He left the room twice in an hour. It’s none of my business, of course, although what could possibly be more fun than judging other people’s parenting? But if this dad genuinely wanted his son to pursue martial arts, it didn’t seem to be working. Why? Maybe because Dad was in the room, observing and giving out instructions? Maybe because Dad isn’t exactly in peak physical condition? The truth is that what we do is extremely physically challenging even without an audience. Taking an attitude that “I can do it, it’s not so hard, what the heck is wrong with you?” doesn’t seem to work very well. [I could probably goad one of my brothers into training with me through this tactic, but not the other, and certainly nobody else].
The third parent I met was the mom of one of the instructors. Like the dad with his son, she came to the beginner class. The mom reminded me very strongly of my own mother: strikingly similar build, coloring, hairstyle, and gentle demeanor. She would do palm strikes with about the intensity you would use to make cookies or give a massage, pat pat. She smiled and laughed softly, nervous and out of her element, but willing. Clearly she was only there to show how proud she was of her daughter’s strength and hard work.
The fourth parent I met was a woman who works in the building. She brought her teen daughter, which I figured out because I could hear them arguing in the hallway while I was in the changing room. Stage mom with aspiring actress daughter decides that daughter is going to learn martial arts; daughter wants nothing to do with it but Mom always wins. The mom peered owlishly at us through the window through almost the entire class, her mouth so pinched that I almost laughed out loud. The daughter was like a Greek chorus, questioning and complaining about every single warmup and training exercise. She declined to tie back her long, thick hair, which was perhaps the only free individual choice she was ever allowed in her young life. She utterly refused to jump rope. I mean, she’s right, warmups suck and they’re uncomfortable and sweaty and they make you look dumb. They work, though! We don’t do it because we want to or because we enjoy it; we do it because we want the results.
Krav Maga is considered the world’s number-one deadliest martial art. Can I just say that it isn’t something to force, coax, goad, or compel someone else to study?
Many of the guests who come to class once or twice are never seen again. This is so far true of all of the guests I’ve described here. The reluctant son of the overbearing dad never came back; if I recall correctly, he didn’t actually finish his first class. The instructor’s proud mama never came back, but she has the distinction of a daughter with enough agency, initiative, grit, and self-discipline to not just train, but teach as well. The daughter of the stage mom never came back, and my guess is that an unconstructive rebellion will quickly arise within her. The only parent-child relationship I’ve seen endure at this school seems to be the one in which the sons asked to join, and the mom wholeheartedly jumped in with them. She has rapidly become one of the fittest and strongest humans I’ve ever seen.
I came to martial arts in midlife because I wanted something that would bring me humility and self-discipline. Probably any form or any school will deliver if these traits are the goal. Having been the step-parent of a teenager, my opinion is that these traits are challenging to inculcate in a child through any means other than personal example. Initiative is not developed by ordering a kid around. Agency is not developed by making decisions for a kid. Of course we want to raise kids who take total personal accountability, kids who are responsible and decisive, kids who are closers and finishers, kids who are doers and makers, kids who keep their commitments. Then we try to stuff these values into their spines by authoritarian methods, external input, and strict rule-setting. I grew into an independent, powerful individual partly through challenging my parents and giving them a lot of trouble!
One day, when my stepdaughter was a young teenager, we went to a party in a park. She wandered off without saying anything. When she came back, I pulled her aside and said she was free to go where she wanted, but she needed to take ten seconds to inform us first. What if someone threw her in a van? I wanted to teach her to escape at least a wrist hold. Let’s role-play: I’m the kidnapper and OOF! She simply punched me in the sternum and knocked the wind out of me. Point taken. Good girl. She’s been supporting herself for a few years now, ever since she was nineteen. When we want them to be independent and powerful, we have to allow independence and power, even when it’s uncomfortable.
It’s too late for my grandmother’s generation; they’re gone now. They had dress codes and they were legally barred from joining many male-only clubs, schools, and organizations. My mom’s generation was prevented from doing a lot of things, too, and even my generation couldn’t do such basic things as join a basketball team. What I do now, I often do with thoughts of my forebears, the ladies who weren’t allowed. I’d fight with my mom if I could, if she wanted to. Maybe it’s enough that I can, and that the next generation can, too.
Postponed decisions are the root cause of procrastination. Many of us who would never procrastinate on anything else will procrastinate about social engagements. One of the easiest ways to solve a problem of indecision is to waffle about it until the date has passed. Until this happens, there’s an open loop, a loose end that takes up at least part of our mental bandwidth. That feeling of nagging incompletion is really unpleasant. If it weren’t, the decision would be fast and easy to make, like the decision not to eat your least favorite vegetable. We get stuck in the doorway, unable to decide a Yes or a No. That’s where policy comes in.
Policy means two things. It means you never have to make a decision about that type of matter again. It also means you don’t have to put any thought into your response. It’s simply something you do, or something you don’t do.
It’s easy when you know how. For instance, you don’t donate money to causes that you don’t support, such as the rival political party. You also wouldn’t go to a random event rather than something important. If a tractor sale conflicts with my brother’s wedding, well, I guess I’m not buying a tractor that weekend.
There are clues here about how policy choices are made. It has to do with your personal values.
Your values are yours to decide. Not your relatives, not your friends, not your neighbors, not even your spouse. Other people may be shocked or disappointed, but they don’t have to wake up and be you every day. You do. You’re the only one who has to meet your own eyes in the mirror.
The reason this is important is that we have to decide how to spend our time. If we fritter away our time on anything that anyone ever asks us to do, then there won’t be any left to support our values. It’s not so much that most things are going to conflict with our values, as that it’s all the neutral penny-ante stuff that eats up our schedules. Weeks, months, years can go by, and we may never have found a minute for what we thought was so important.
Every minute I spend talking to a troll on the internet, every minute I spend reading anonymous comment threads, is a minute I’m not talking to my grandma. The time I spend with casual acquaintances is time that’s not available for my closest loved ones. I’m basically letting random people steal from the most important people in my life.
This is how policies are made. We decide which types of situations are always going to be a Yes, and which types are always going to be a No.
Graduations? Whose kids?
Birthday parties? Whose?
Festivals? Street fairs? Carnivals?
Karaoke night? Trivia night? Movie night?
Town hall meetings? School board meetings?
Helping someone move?
Visiting someone in the hospital?
Multi-level marketing “parties”?
Always means always. When it’s always Yes, this means this is a top-ranking event, and anything else that conflicts is going to be a No. I once got two wedding invitations for the same day, one for a close friend and the other for my younger brother. That was not a decision. It was policy. If it had been the close friend and a more casual friend, then that also would not have been a decision. There are only 52 weekends a year, and not everything gets to be a Yes.
Saying No to the casual or random stuff is the only way to say a full and complete Yes to the important stuff. We cherish our loved ones by being there for them, and that means the other seven billion people in the world will have to wait.
There are other ways to say Yes besides going somewhere in person. We can send a gift. We can call. We can send a card or a letter. We can send flowers. We can send a charitable donation in someone’s name. We can do a favor. We can offer another get-together on another day. If this truly is someone who values the friendship, it will work out.
Sometimes, we find that the relationship is more casual on that person’s end than we had realized. When this happens, it’s good. It’s a good sign when someone is willing to be honest and set clear boundaries. It helps us to relax and refocus our attention on our inner circle.
One quick and easy way to make a decision about social engagements is to consider how you found out about it. If the first you heard about it was through the mail, it’s probably a No. The people who are closest to you probably would have told you that they were getting married or having a baby shower before the invitations went out. Communication has changed so much over the past couple of decades that the old ways are more or less vestigial remnants at this point.
Here are some rough guidelines on how to start setting social policies:
“Everybody’s invited” social media invites: probably No
If it’s on a work night: probably No
If it involves out-of-state travel: probably No
If it’s in another city: depends on what, where, and when
If it’s a “buy stuff” party: definitely No
If it’s child-free: Yes, because I don’t have kids at home
Wine tasting: definitely No
Sportsball: definitely No
Restaurant: depends entirely on the menu
If it runs past midnight: No
Backpacking trip: probably Yes
Basically, if it’s not awesome it’s a No. On a scale of one to five, with five being awesome, the two- and three-star events are going to be a No. Pass. I’m not doing anybody any favors by reluctantly showing up and being a wallflower at an event that doesn’t enthuse me. I’ll make you soup when you’re sick, I’ll help you move, I’ll come to visit you in the hospital, but I’m not going to come over and order out of your catalog.
There are about eight people on my Always list, and another half-dozen on my Yes, If Possible list. They know who they are. In order to be totally available for my Always people, I have to cut other events. That means calendar time, and it also means money. My savings buffer includes enough for a round-trip plane ticket.
Until the day when we can make clones on demand and appear to be in two places at once, we have to make choices. Choosing Yes to too many things means that suddenly, there’s no money and no time for the big stuff. Say No more often to say Yes when you really mean it.
Everyone has some kind of checklist for deciding whether to date someone. Sometimes, granted, that checklist isn’t very long. Sometimes it’s just, “Did they ask me out?” I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s only one trait that really, truly matters. Without it, no relationship has a chance. With it, nearly anything is tolerable. The trait is kindness.
I tell all my students, “Only date people who are nice to you.”
Unfortunately, in the short term, it’s possible to be hoodwinked by a skilled manipulator who is deliberately faking you out with superficial charm. This is why it can be more helpful to watch for the person to show kindness to someone else.
There are four types of undesirable lover. One, the narcissist. That’s estimated at about six percent of the population. Narcissism is a personality disorder, and it’s considered more or less untreatable, mostly because narcissists don’t think anything is wrong with them. Two, the sociopath, at about three to five percent of the population. Three, ordinary selfish people, and four, ordinary people who resort to violence. No idea how many of those there are out there. Kindness is nice on its own, and I think it’s also a fairly reliable way to weed out all of these four types of people who will inevitably be mean.
Mean to us, mean to our kids, mean to our friends, mean to our neighbors, mean to our pets, mean to our parents, mean to random passersby - it doesn’t really matter. Any or all of those scenarios are drama that we don’t need.
I once had a boyfriend who picked up my earring off a table and crushed it out of shape. It was pointless and unprovoked. Looking back, I wish I had broken up with him on the spot, because it wasn’t the last time he did something dumb and mean. Looking back, I’m also hard pressed to think of a single time when he did something nice for anyone. It’s an interesting exercise. What are some nice things that my ex did, and what are some mean things?
Part of what made me want to be friends with my current husband was that he would leave little uplifting notes on my desk. I still have a couple of them in my wallet a dozen years later. I saw him stand up for other people and do sweet things for his kid. I started to trust him. I’ve seen him help lost kids and stroke victims, break up a fight, tie heavy furniture onto a girl’s car in the IKEA parking lot, help various people get jobs and promotions, and one day he even saved a couple of little frogs from dying of dehydration. Once an Eagle Scout, always an Eagle Scout, what can I say?
As I was writing this, he popped out the door with the bag of laundry that I had planned to wash later this evening. He has this habit of sneaking off to do my chores. What’s worse, if there’s burnt toast he always takes it. I find myself having to bend over backward sometimes to keep up with him.
The thing about kindness is that it’s hard to fake because most of the opportunities are not obvious. Well, they’re obvious to a kind-hearted person. If you make it your mission to hold the door for people, always try to make eye contact and smile at everyone you pass by, and get a laugh out of every business transaction, you recognize those moments. Not everyone notices, though, when someone at work could use a pep talk, or when a tiny kid gets separated from her mom, or when someone is struggling with a heavy load. You can always label an act of kindness after the fact, but you can’t always see them coming in advance.
There are romantic gestures that don’t necessarily count as kindness. For instance, I once had a boyfriend who would ride his bike seven miles across town to see me. This was impressive, but more of an act of valor than anything else. Mix tapes, well, I don’t know if people make those too often any more, but there’s a big difference between whether they represent the giver’s taste or the recipient’s. I would be seriously surprised if someone were able to put together a playlist of music fitting my tastes or bring me a book relevant to my interests that I hadn’t already read. Gifts and photos are also usually more revealing of the giver.
One of the main reasons I fell for my ex-husband was that he cooked for me. He really was a fantastic cook! As it turned out, he just preferred his own cooking (understandably) and refused to eat mine (even more understandably). What I interpreted as kindness turned out, in our relationship, to be a power play. He had learned that if he made all the meals, he could walk away from a kitchen disaster that someone else would have to clean up every night. That’s not necessarily a big deal, but his constant insults, criticism, and mind games were. If I had been as good a cook back then as I am now, I wouldn’t have fallen for a few great dinners. I would have looked further. I wouldn’t have written off a few early, telltale incidents of rudeness as “not a big deal.” I could have saved both of us from those three wretched years.
People tend to outgrow early selfishness as we age. The drama and bad habits we may have exhibited in one relationship are lessons we can learn so that we don’t carry them forward into the next match. This is part of why we shouldn’t reward unkindness, selfishness, cruelty, or mistreatment. Sometimes people need a little time on their own to work things out, and other times, maybe they never will.
Kindness is an upward spiral. It ripples outward, touching everyone who experiences it, even second-hand. The uplift we get from these altruistic acts can be enough to inspire us to do kind deeds for others. We learn to trust each other and we seek to impress each other. It gets easier and easier to be generous and rely on the expectation of mutual sweetness. That’s where long-term love resides.
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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.