Cynics may be onto something. Romantic love, I suspect, is different now than it used to be, and I mean that in a chemical way. Not that romantic love is such a big deal - even in antiquity, people distinguished between the love we feel for our friends, our children and parents, our sense of home, and this other thing that seems to get all the fuss. Part of that is cultural; how quickly we forget that fictional representations of romantic love helped to destroy the age-old practice of arranged marriage in which women were legally regarded as property. Even the most skeptical and snarky amongst us could give a little nod to that. Love as a choice, love as an option, love even as an imaginary figment: surely that’s better than the alternatives?
What if it is chemical? So what about that? Aren’t ideas only electrical impulses? Isn’t speech just muscular contractions and sonic vibrations? Aren’t all emotions just chemicals, when it comes right down to it? Find consciousness, locate it in the body. Find heroism, find music. Somewhere in that jumble, love is probably in there, too.
This is what I think is different about love. I think that culturally we’ve been trained to seek out dopamine, in the same way that we would if we were gambling or shopping or eating chocolate. Swirly eyes. This thing about dating apps, where you swipe left or right depending on whether you think someone is cute, it’s really just catalogue shopping. It’s inconceivable that anyone could detect a spark or even a mental connection in the few seconds it takes to glance at a photo. How much of modern romance consists of objectifying someone you almost never see face-to-face, and then talking about it with other people who aren’t involved?
He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not.
It all looks different from the perspective of a middle-aged married person. When you look up one day and realize that you’re working on your second decade with someone, yet it still feels like you just met yesterday. Wait, what year is this? We’ve been together how long? Wait, didn’t our hair used to be dark?
Old love is about oxytocin. I’m convinced. I also think that old-fashioned romance had a better grasp of this.
Not to say that I’d trade today for yesterday. Any yesterday at all. There were too many weird rules in the past about who wasn’t allowed to love whom. Too much public shaming, too many secrets. Shut the door on all of that, and good riddance. Here’s to today and tomorrow, to a world with more love in it, more love of every kind.
We can still appreciate a few relics here and there, in context. Love songs, for example. So many love songs are a bit warped, with messages like “I can’t live without you.” Whatever emotion brought that on, I don’t want it. What I have in mind are the slow dance songs, like “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.” I think it’s this type of music, combined with the slow dancing, that was designed to induce oxytocin, the cuddle hormone.
This is objectively testable.
You can feel it, though. With focus, it’s possible to recognize the physical and emotional feelings that come with the different chemicals. Cortisol for stress, adrenalin for excitement, dopamine for cupcakes, oxytocin for snuggling. That last one is probably what drives our cultural production of cute animal memes. In the recent past, I think ordinary people got more of it from dopey stuff like holding hands, slow dancing, and leaning against each other.
This stuff works across species, by the way. I have a dog and a parrot, and the bird is obsessed with trying to snuggle with the dog. He’ll only let her do it if he’s under a blanket, when she’s allowed to stand on him and warm her scaly toes. One day, he fell asleep with about three inches between his back and the sofa cushions. She ventured into that temporary gap, chose a spot... and POOFED until her feathers were touching his fur. Possibly one of the best days of her fluffy life.
There was probably more social touching in the past. People shared physical labor and folk dancing. Communities were smaller, while households were bigger. Almost nobody slept alone; it was simply too cold. There were a lot of strange rules about ‘courting’ - the reason that young people spent so much time holding hands and, eventually, slow dancing - but casual, platonic physical contact was probably more common between everyone else.
Times have changed. I’m listening to my neighbors right now, walking a few feet over my head. Not only do I not know their names, I don’t even know what they look like yet. Proximity without connection. How much of that we have now. How often we look around and see strangers lined up, looking at their phones, barely noticing that there are other humans next to them in line or at a table a few inches away. How much more time we spend stroking glass than holding another human hand.
A lot of people hate Valentine’s Day because they associate it with unrealistic expectations of romantic love, plus crass commercialism. I don’t like those things, either. What if we just replaced them? Not to tear down 1/366 of a year with its associated candy, and replace it with yet another dull, ordinary day, but to rewrite it entirely; I think we can do that. Let’s just make it about every kind of love. Including the snuggly kind, wherever we might find it.
We moved this weekend. This takes up a lot of mental bandwidth, which is okay, because the thought and strategy that we put in has made it easier each time. Most people move frantically, procrastinating until the last possible minute, and then keep a bunch of unsorted boxes labeled MISC until the end of time. This is an expensive, time-consuming, distracting, maximalist way to do things. We do it in two phases.
In the first stage, we’re looking at all of our stuff and asking it to justify its existence. Why does this object need to be in our home? Is it worth the space? It’s our policy to live with a short commute, and that usually means a smaller living space. More square footage is the compensation that builders offer in exchange for spending your free time on the freeway.
Here are the assessment questions:
That first question is revolutionary, because at some point we realized that we could offload the cost of ownership of almost everything we possess. We need A bed, but we don’t necessarily need THIS bed, or our OWN bed. What would happen if we got rid of everything? We’d live in a hotel and stop owning furniture or housewares. No big deal really. In fact, we kinda talked about it on our honeymoon. The only real reason that we don’t do it is that hotels discriminate against parrots. Can’t imagine why! *wink*
Second question: Do we use it every day? This is somewhat subversive, because we often keep things that we think we SHOULD use every day, like a yoga mat. Asking the question reminds us that sometimes it’s better to rearrange our stuff and our schedule to accommodate the neglected item, the lifestyle upgrade.
Third question: Would we inevitably have to buy it again? For instance, we originally bought backpacking gear for our Iceland trip, even though we already owned quite a lot of car-camping equipment. The trip fully amortized the cost of the backpacking gear, but we continue to use it several years later. We could technically buy a new $250 backpacking tent and spend maybe a thousand dollars on new backpacks, sleeping bags, and gear every time we went on a trip. If getting rid of it all means we can afford a smaller apartment, and we save more than $100 a month on rent, then it costs us to keep it. Another way to frame this is, would it be cheaper or easier to, say, give away our bed/couch/whatever and order a new one to be delivered to the new place? Usually no but sometimes - YES!
Fourth question: Have we used this since the last time we moved? If the answer is no, then we’re virtually required to get rid of it. If the answer is no, we also have to ask, how about the move before that? When WAS the last time we used this thing? With each pass, fewer things get through the filter.
Fifth question: Will it fit in the new place? I had a lot of resentment and sadness about giving up my ten-top dining table, and the first time we moved it, you couldn’t open the front door all the way because the darn thing filled our entire dining room. Then we lived in that house for six months and had to move again. I hadn’t had a single dinner party and we hadn’t needed the table at all. I found acceptance and remembered that I can always buy another one for $400 at IKEA. Or we can rent a picnic area or take people to a restaurant.
Sixth question: How much would it cost to replace? We won’t live in a studio apartment forever. Well, maybe we will if Godzilla arises from the sea and steps on our building on the way to raze Los Angeles. One day, we’ll have a larger home and we’ll put more stuff in it. Probably. Getting rid of something now is just... for now. For this year. Every single thing that we have ever owned has cost less than what we’d pay in additional rent to keep it all. We’re saving over $8000 in rent this year due to our move, and that covers a lot of objects.
Seventh question: Is it going to survive the move? This question is why we avoid keeping sentimental objects. It’s simply too crushing and heartbreaking to watch something get smashed or ruined. Professional movers broke the teapot my grandmother made and they gouged a four-inch scar into the surface of my dining table. They’ve crumpled my original artwork, scattered my manuscripts and notecards, and generally caused me to swear off of professional movers entirely. I’d rather live out of a suitcase than pay people to wreck my favorite stuff. Which means if something is my favorite, I can’t keep it. Does that make sense? I have to preemptively detach my emotions from inanimate objects because they die on me.
Eighth question: Has it outlived its natural lifespan? A pair of socks is only good for so many wears. A spatula can only cook so many meals. Stuff is consumable. Moving is when we hold things up and assess them. Broken! Threadbare! Dangerous! Stained! Energy inefficient! Separated from its accessories! Past Me called and she wants her jeans back.
That’s the first stage of space clearing. We’ve basically gotten rid of everything that’s irrelevant to the way we live today.
Stage Two: Does it fit?
Stage Two is pretty straightforward. We have drawer dividers that don’t fit in the new drawers and shelf organizers that don’t fit in the new shelves. We have furniture that won’t fit due to door and window placement, ceiling height, or smaller rooms. We have power strips and lamps we don’t need anymore. We have art or decorations or throw pillows or other housewares that now clash with the paint and countertops. As we put things away, we set aside a staging area for stuff that doesn’t work. Sometimes it gets repurposed, like a plastic storage container that goes into a different room with a different category of contents. Usually, we find that we’re fully ensconced in the new place and there are a couple of bags’ worth of “organizers” we don’t need. We’re not emotionally attached to this type of object, so when we realize it won’t work in our newest home, we shrug and donate it.
As minimalists, we tend to see our stuff as a potential obstacle as much as anything else. Throughout the year, we’re culling and setting aside and pulling out various things. The cracked coffee mug, the shirt with the stretched neckline, the uncomfortable pants. Our baseline stuff has argued for itself. What may sound like a complicated process really isn’t, because 80% of our stuff is obviously necessary to a comfortable, efficient life. The two-stage moving process merely serves to slough off the excess. We stay light and unencumbered, focusing on the life we want to have, rather than the stuff we want to have.
Heads up, because I’m about to do something unwise and ill-advised. I’m about to step forward and proclaim that I make solid, reliable financial predictions.
I’m good at predicting and reporting financial trends! I put them in writing! I even make predictions with specific timelines and post them!
November 6, 2017. I published a post called “Crash is Coming.” In it, I wrote the following:
“It’s not like I’m foretelling the future when I say that the market is going to crash. I would be if I said I think it’s coming in first quarter of 2018. That would be a prediction. Making specific predictions is always a terrible idea because they’re virtually always wrong. Most people like to wait until after the fact to claim that they saw something coming. Putting it in print sets you up for failure.
In reality, I am planning for such an event.”
First Quarter isn’t over yet, and the outlook seemed to have improved at market open this morning, but I’m weighing in. On February 5, 2018, the Dow experienced the worst point drop in history. Not a “crash” technically, at least not yet. I don’t think we’re done yet, though. I’m bearish right now, which means I’m pessimistic about the near-term economic future. I’ll talk more about this after I pause to brag about my Bitcoin and cryptocurrency predictions.
January 22, 2018. I published a post called “We Passed on Bitcoin in 2013.” In it, I stated that I was skeptical about cryptocurrency for several reasons. Two of these were potential currency manipulation and the risk that crypto wallets could be hacked and robbed. I also said that the $14,100 valuation of BTC at the time of writing was probably a bubble.
Four days later, news broke about the biggest cryptocurrency hack of all time, in which $500 million worth of cryptocurrency had been stolen. Then, on February 5, news reports suggested that North Korea had allegedly stolen billions of dollars’ worth of Bitcoin. The value of BTC stands at just over 60% of what it was three weeks prior, when I wrote that it was a bubble.
I’m going to write more about the market and broader economic themes from now on. This is because they affect how we plan our personal finances and our life strategy. If financial independence is your aim, and if that aim includes a desire for freedom from stress and anxiety, then you need to be aware and informed of the world you live in. You also need to learn to form your own opinions and analyze trends based on how you believe they will affect you. If you’re skeptical about anything or everything I have to say, congratulations! That’s exactly what I want for you. Take that power of discernment and use it broadly, constantly.
Okay. Now for some more predictions.
I think we’re in for it. Over the next 2-3 years, a bunch of icky stuff is going to happen, and some of it has already started. The reason I think this is that we’ve seen these signs before.
Consumer savings are at their lowest in years
Real estate in many urban markets is stretched far past affordability for median-income households
Stock market is [was?] overdue for a correction
US Treasury is borrowing nearly a trillion dollars in 2018, increasing in 2019 and 2020
Novices are investing in financial vehicles they don’t understand
Unemployment is supposedly low, but I dunno if that means what they claim it means
For instance, we were riding in a Lyft recently on a Saturday night. The driver showed up in an immaculate, new car, which it turned out he was leasing by the week. He was engaging and intelligent, someone who would fit in well in our world of engineers and business professionals. We like to chat up our drivers, and this one grudgingly admitted that we were his 17th ride for the night. He’d made $60 and only three passengers had tipped him. I highly suspect that a lot of those high employment numbers reflect gig-economy “jobs” like this one. Also, those failures to tip represent something other than high consumer confidence.
Let me rewind and explain what I mean about novice investors. My hubby and I were sitting at a cafe table together, reading the news. I froze and got his attention so that I could read an article I found absolutely chilling. It was about single mums in Britain who were learning from their hair stylists or their middle-school children how to invest in Bitcoin. One said it was her only hope for eventual retirement. My hubby stared at me, his jaw hanging open. “Here it comes,” I said. We’ve been overhearing a lot of conversations lately in which obvious novices are discussing the stock market, real estate investment, startup funding, etc. Any seasoned investor will tell you that when you start hearing stock tips from your barber, watch out. Newbies buy high, freak out, and sell low. Enthusiastic novices become easily overwhelmed by BS and get sold on overvalued investments, “rental” properties with serious structural problems, junk bonds, and other detritus that more experienced investors will avoid. When a market is high in any sector, it can look like “easy money,” and that tends to turn heads.
Investing is a game in which a small segment of wealthy people with extraordinary math skills occasionally “win.” In this sense, “win” means that millions of people lose most or all that they have. It, ahem, trickles up. The average player truly isn’t playing the same game as they are, and not even on the same board. Wealthy people have access to funds and financial managers with a buy-in in the millions or hundreds of millions of dollars. We can’t get their rates of return because we can’t even make deposits in the same accounts that they can. We also can’t afford their lawyers, accountants, or financial planners. We’re on our own, and we have to use our wits.
There are three smart rules that I can give you, and they’ll work beautifully without further explanation.
If you earn 9% by speculating in the stock market, that’s fabulous. You can guarantee that rate of return by cutting what you spend on groceries, restaurants, booze, and coffee by 9%. You can guarantee 16% (or more) by paying off your credit cards. You can increase your employment income by anywhere from 20% to 200% fairly easily by learning more marketable skills and promoting yourself. Verbum sapienti sat.
You Do You. If ever there were a concept that this world needs, this is the one. Yet again, we have Sarah Knight to thank for explaining something so integral to a happy life, so carefully and yet so swearingly. This is the same author who taught us how to “give fewer and better fucks” in The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck and followed up with step-by-step instructions on how to Get Your Sh*t Together. Please can’t there be an illustrated children’s version?
Well, not really a “children’s” version. Just something with little anthropomorphized animals flipping each other off would be fine.
Let’s talk about Lowest Common Denominator Living. This is a theme in You Do You, and it gets its own acronym. This is what happens to us when we feel that we have to conform to external standards and suppress our individuality. No freak flags shall be flown. It always blows my mind when I hear people saying “society tells us” this, that, or the other thing, because I live in Southern California. I have honestly seen bare-ass naked men (plural) walking down the city sidewalk with their danglers hanging out, on more than one occasion. Nobody cares, at least where I live. I was on the bus the other day with a young gal combing out her massive four-foot-long hot-pink wig. There’s a guy in my neighborhood who rides around on a bike covered with rainbow lights and a full stereo sound system. My upstairs neighbor has a little white dog with lime-green highlights in its fur. If you feel stuck in LCD Living, spend a weekend in my town. Nobody is actually watching you, nobody really cares what you look like or what you do with your time, and you genuinely are free. You Do You, honey.
The biggest argument against being your sparkly rainbow self seems to be that it’s selfish. Hashtag ObligerProblems. On the contrary, it’s selfish to hide your light under a bushel and contribute to any vestiges of unhelpful social conformity. You were born with certain irreplaceable gifts and it’s your responsibility to fulfill your destiny, and if you refuse to step up and do it, you’re extremely selfishly depriving the world of those gifts, for all future generations. Geez. How dare you. If you aren’t you, well, then, who will be??
The core of the You Do You philosophy is to follow a social contract, so that you can express yourself and get your preferences met without being a psychopath. How do we deal with peer pressure, fear, and guilt? How do we deal with haters, doubters, and naysayers? This is a very hands-on manual in that respect. It has scripts! This could be the “He’s Just Not That Into You” of learning how to have awkward conversations about your agency and autonomy. (Pro tip: You don’t actually have to keep most people informed of your plans; if you don’t tell them, they can’t naysay you).
You Do You is a great, wise, hilarious gem. It’s a handbook for how to be a free elf and make your own decisions in life, while also participating fairly and altruistically in society. If this is the new wave of ethics and practical philosophy, why, I’m for it. Read it, and then run your freak flag right up the mizzenmast.
PS [Spoilers] Please tell me there isn’t actually a person who spreads pimento cheese on their Pop-Tarts!
What happens when you just jump into doing something new? When you decide that you want to test out this thing called ‘bias toward action’ for yourself, or perhaps debunk it? What happens when you breathe through your tendency toward analysis paralysis and start, ya know, doing stuff? When you make motions in the direction of a goal rather than waiting around for the willpower or the motivation to show up?
What happens is that you come up with more reasons to do it.
My philosophy is: Do Things That Are a Good Idea; Don’t Do Things That Are a Bad Idea. I know, I know, that sounds too meta and deep for the general user. How did I ever come up with that? From reading lots and lots of super-heavy philosophical tomes. Just trust me. I’ll explain it a little more, though, just to make sure it makes sense.
Do things that are a good idea: If something is a good idea, then I only need one reason to do it. My dentist told me to floss my teeth, so I do. I’m not going to spend any more time researching and reading articles about flossing, because it only takes me two minutes a day.
Don’t do things that are a bad idea: If something is a bad idea, then I only need one reason NOT to do it. Don’t put a fork in the electrical socket. Don’t slam your finger in a metal door. Don’t read the comments. Don’t wear tights that are an exact match for your skin tone.
Most people tend to do a better job avoiding things that are a bad idea, especially if they’ve done any of them. Not me, though. Today is perhaps the third or fourth time I’ve spilled green tea soy latte inside my work bag.
Apparently I need more reasons to sit and savor my tea slowly. ...?
Think of your favorite thing. It could be an object, a place, an activity, a song you play over and over on repeat, just something you totally love.
Okay, now think of reasons why it’s so awesome.
Fun, huh? If you did that exercise, I highly recommend doing it every day. It’s good brainstorming and it reminds you to do stuff you like.
I’ll share one of mine. I love reading. What do I like about it so much?
Can’t stop myself
Learn new things
Keeps me entertained while I do boring stuff
Or folding laundry
Or driving on a long road trip
Or standing in line
Always have a way to squash bugs
Handy way to repel unwanted attention of strangers
Keeps me from perseverating or pointlessly worrying
Way to connect with old friends
And make new friends
Always have something interesting to talk about
Share with friends and family who want a book recommendation
Way to keep papers flat in my bag
Reminds me of other books that I also loved, like in the same genre or series
Financially support my favorite authors
Cheaper cost per hour than going to the movies
What the heck else would I do with my time?
I could go into exhaustive detail if I wanted. If I started sharing what I loved about particular books or authors, this could go on forever. The point is that I love something so much that I’ll never stop doing it, and I’m convinced it will always be a part of my life. I can’t think of a single reason why I should ever stop.
What else can I do that with?
If I were asked to come up with reasons to do something I know nothing about, I’d be a bit stuck. Why should I... buy a luxury vehicle? Um... I guess because maybe it would impress people who don’t currently talk to the likes of me? Maybe it would make me enjoy driving? I dunno. You tell me. I have a bunch of reasons NOT to buy a luxury vehicle, especially because it would be out of my price range.
This is the position in which we find ourselves when we’re contemplating a change in our behavior.
Why should I start running? I shouldn’t! Running sucks!
Why should I go to bed earlier? I shouldn’t! Late night is my only time to decompress from being so burned out and exhausted all the time!
Why should I pay off my credit cards? I shouldn’t! Please allow me to unroll my lengthy scroll of unavoidable expenses and I’ll document them for you.
Status quo bias. We all have it, and it’s a supremely useful tool for making rational choices. Obviously the status quo is fine, because what I’m doing right now works for me. Why should I change anything at all?
Allow me to offer some More Reasons:
Because making even one tiny change in one area could make your life easier, better, more fun, or more interesting;
Because no status quo is permanent, meaning that change is coming for you whether you approve of it or not;
Because it’s generally better to plan changes for yourself rather than having to react to the changes that fate throws at you.
It’s also worth mentioning that we usually don’t realize how uncomfortable the status quo was until we find ourselves in a better situation later on. Certainly this feels like the story of my life. I never really realized I was obese until years after I started gradually losing the weight. I didn’t really realize how unhappy I was in my first marriage until quite some time after the divorce. Arguing for the status quo is, in some ways, slamming the door shut against serendipity, felicity, or simply a shift in perspective.
One way that I started to look for more reasons to do things that are a good idea was to read through lists of other people’s reasons for doing that thing. I do this with extra focus when it’s something toward which I feel a strong resistance. The more I reject something that other people like doing, the more I want to inquire of myself: what’s so bad about it? For instance, I’m very afraid of snorkeling, but I keep hearing that many people find it absolutely magical, even peaceful. If my list of reasons to try it keeps getting longer and my only reason not to try it is that I’m scared, then at some point I’m going to sign up for lessons. Why would I deprive myself?
The reason I seek out more reasons to do things I don’t already do is that I’ve ruled out the standard default mode. I am insufferably bored by sitting around watching TV and I lack all interest in gaming. If I don’t watch TV or play games, what else is there to do? Watch paint dry? Listen to the grass grow? I already know why I do the things I enjoy. For a more interesting life, all I need is more reasons to do the things that other people enjoy, too.
I broke my 415-day activity streak on my Apple Watch. By five calories. Why? I was distracted and didn’t notice the clock ticking toward midnight. Also, I was getting over the flu.
That blank space is all the different ways I tried to put into words the inchoate rage and bottomless disappointment I felt when I realized that there was no going back. My streak is gone and I can’t even pick it up again until March of 2019. No perfect week badge. No January 2018 badge. Two and a half years, and I still haven’t managed a perfect calendar year.
I feel significantly worse about this than I did earlier this month, when I realized I had paid nearly $40 for an online class that I didn’t need.
The work that goes into maintaining a 14-month streak. The focus. The dedication. The, shall I say it, obsession. I’ve maintained that streak when I was sick. I’ve maintained it when I was injured. I’ve maintained it while traveling across eight time zones. I’ve maintained it with house guests and on road trips. I even bought an extra $30 charger to keep from breaking the streak when I forgot to pack that key, irreplaceable item. On the way to a major family event.
It got really bad the first time I broke my streak, by one calorie, because I didn’t notice it was past midnight. I went out into the yard with my hammer and beat a foot-wide hole into our lawn. I’ve been less angry at being burglarized!
Why midnight? Why this arbitrary split second of a minute of an hour of a day?
Why can’t the user set when a “day” starts and ends?
Why isn’t there a reminder, like the stand-up reminder, to point out that the “day” is nearly over and you’re really close to closing your ring?
Why am I so susceptible to this digital brain-prodding?
Obviously, the reason to wear an activity tracker is to bring awareness to your activity level. This is great. Certainly the Apple Watch has done that for me. I can look and see that I walk an average of over six miles a day. I can see how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed, literal stairs, because I skip escalators now. I can see my average heart rate and all that awesome stuff.
The problem comes in for me, and I suspect for a lot of other achievement-oriented alpha types, with the badges and the streaks.
My desire for a complete collection of rainbow-colored virtual badges knows no bounds. I know that other people have hacked and cheated by setting their goals artificially low, or coming up with some other method to trick their tracker. You could shake the old pedometers and get the step count to go up. Apparently you can dangle your arm from a chair and convince the Watch that you’ve stood up. The badges redirect the focus to badge-getting. Whether that’s through fair means or foul, we want to get those badges. It can be hard to distinguish one form of gamification from another, especially if the user is also playing other sorts of games that come with badges. OOH PRETTY.
I’m a fairly serious amateur athlete. I ran a marathon, I take martial arts classes four hours a week, I walk everywhere because we don’t have a car, I routinely go on backpacking expeditions. Someone who does not have a digital hook in their brain may believe that a real athlete would simply focus on the activity and ignore those dumb old badges. Sure. That person probably doesn’t need or wear an activity tracker.
I’m starting to think that I can’t do anything that involves tracking a streak. It... activates something inside of me. Something very dark and negative and unhelpful.
I want to rage-quit. I want to crush things. I want to throw something off my balcony. I actually had a flash of an image that involved me breaking our glass sliding door with a hammer, just to exorcise the demon of BROKEN STREAK somehow.
Only a few weeks ago, I spent no fewer than three hours at the Apple Store, while no fewer than three separate geniuses sat with me and helped me transfer my iPhone 6 to my new iPhone X. The specific reason was so that I could keep my activity streak on my Watch. Nobody knew how to do it. Finally the floor manager came over and figured it out. I guess I let down the team. Sorry, guys.
I’ve felt less bad when I’ve shattered my phone screen. I’ve felt less bad when I’ve spilled dinner on the floor. I’ve felt less bad when I’ve gone to purchase airplane tickets only to see that the price has increased before the transaction was complete.
This is an entirely contemporary, artificial emotion created by technology. Or, rather, by the designers of it.
This isn’t the first time I’ve developed a little problem with streak maintenance. I was trying out a meditation app. I completed the meditation at 12:00 AM, and didn’t get credit. I had meditated for seven days straight and the app was only showing a two-day streak. There was no way to turn the feature off, so I wound up deleting the app. It struck me that a meditation app that generates the competitive streak feeling was counterproductive.
I want a cute little enchanting reward for doing well. Sure, of course I do. I want a collection of pretty, sparkly rainbow stickers to show off. Look how hard I worked! Straight As! Isn’t there a way, though, to set up those badges and stickers so they still reward the user, even if the clock has ticked past 11:59 PM? Couldn’t the rewards come for reaching mileage goals, or resting heart rate goals? Could a monthly badge come from the average daily activity rate, rather than an unbroken 31-day streak? Couldn’t there be a skip, or a make-up function, or a freaking doctor’s note?
The cruelty of the digital god. Applehovah.
I’m wearing this thing that I call The Overlord, feeling despondent and thoroughly demoralized. Do I actually want to keep wearing it? If streak tracking is going to mess with my equilibrium this much, shouldn’t I be wary of it? Maybe take it off? I looked through the other apps and features, asking myself if the other use cases are worth setting myself up for this kind of digitally mandated despair.
Maybe it’s just the flu, and I should have spent the day in bed, rather than trying to close all my rings.
Maybe there’s something fundamentally wrong with a system that incentivizes people to stay active even when they’re ill.
I’m an active person now. I didn’t start out that way. It wasn’t until my thirties that I stopped being almost 100% sedentary. Various digital displays have helped encourage and inspire me. I beat chronic illness and thyroid disease to become a marathon runner, and that’s saying something. What I want is a device that brings out the best in me. Not the beast in me.
Ooh, have I got some hot gossip for you! Just as I typed that, my little parrot said, “WHEW!”
Building maintenance just dropped by for a scheduled “pre-move-out inspection.” We’ve lived here for ten months and they’ve already had two inspections, supposedly to test the smoke detectors. This particular maintenance guy has been in our place a couple additional times, most recently when our neighbor’s sink backed up into ours and nearly flooded our kitchen with filthy brown water. Since we have a nodding acquaintance, I thought I’d take the opportunity to interview him a little.
He had a clipboard, and I could hear him scribbling notes. I was basically exploding with curiosity. What was he checking? Was he doing what I thought he was doing?
You know I spent an extra hour on housework this week, just to get ready. I think it would be easier for me to go out naked in public than to have my home inspected. The thought makes me completely paranoid. Are they going to check my linen closet and see if I’ve rolled all my towels in the same direction? Are they doing a white-glove check and making sure I’ve dusted the slats in the heat registers? Will they be pulling out the crisper drawers in my fridge?
I didn’t want to dump all this anxiety on the poor guy, who reminds me quite a bit of my brothers. I just wanted to open the door to chit-chat and hear what he had to say.
“Are you checking the power outlets or something?” I had heard him turning light switches on and off, and it would make sense that the electric outlets would be on the list.
He showed me the form and gave me a copy, explaining that we would get a rundown of the charges after we move out. They’re looking at whether they need to paint, shampoo the carpet, repair the kitchen countertops, or do any other obvious repairs. Fair enough.
Then I leaned in. “I work with hoarders? So I was just curious. A few of my clients have been evicted for hoarding at some point.”
Maintenance Guy grinned. He told me that the biannual “smoke detector inspections” are really “habitability checks.” They specifically do it to check for mice, rats, cockroaches, and any other vermin that would affect other tenants in the building.
He also told me that his dad used to hoard and that they worked on it together.
I KNEW IT!!!!
I freaking knew it.
Our complex purports to be a “club” and touts its resort-like setting. What that means is that due to the grounds, the amenities, and the location, they can charge top-end rents for what would be a sad shoebox anywhere else. These are tiny, dim rooms with low popcorn ceilings, shag rugs, ailing old plumbing, and no air conditioning. We like to think it’s to encourage everyone to hang out by the pool and avoid being indoors. All that being said, the owners clearly understand the value of beachfront real estate, and they protect their investment.
I guarantee that a hoarding or squalor case would not make it in this building past the six-month mark.
I have indeed worked with a few clients who have been evicted for hoarding. One of them has had it happen at least three separate times. It’s happened to a few people in my social acquaintance as well. While it is very sad, we have to understand that games have rules. We have to use our powers of discernment and do things that make sense in empirical reality.
Hoarding doesn’t just attract vermin. It can also damage the infrastructure of the building. Our apartment has three floors with eighty units, and probably a hundred tenants, plus a couple dozen dogs, cats, and my parrot Noelle. There’s a garage underneath. The floors of any building are only rated to support a certain amount of weight. Hoarding can stress joists and cause a floor to collapse. Maybe a home owner who lives alone can decide that that’s okay, a risk she’s willing to take. When you live with a hundred other people, you do not have the right to risk other people’s safety, or the physical integrity of a building that does not belong to you. So that’s one thing.
Stacks and piles can also obscure serious problems, such as water leaks and black mold, not to mention evidence of vermin infestation. Each of these is a problem that can and will affect neighbors, their pets, and their homes and possessions.
The scariest thing about hoarding, though, has to do with fire safety. A room that is packed with things (any kind of things) has a lower flash point. The flash point is the temperature at which the air in a room basically ignites. It can create a massive fireball. Now, the problem gets more complicated. A fire is going to start faster and spread faster in a hoarded room. That will be compounded if a lot of the material in the room is combustible, like cardboard boxes, books, magazines, papers, shopping bags, food packaging, and fabric. Even before adding thick, black smoke to destroy visibility, it’s going to be hard to get across a hoarded room and reach a door or window. The weight load will cause the floor to collapse more quickly. Add it all together, and it’s almost like someone deliberately set a boobytrap to kill firefighters and emergency workers. Oh, and neighbors.
I said that about a hundred people live in my building. About 3-5% of the population hoards, so we can guess that without the “habitability check,” three to five of my neighbors would be serious hoarders. Several of my neighbors are smokers, too.
There are a lot of buildings in this complex, and we’re packed pretty tightly together. We live in an extreme drought area, and it’s been this way for several years now. We had a dry winter. A fire that started in one building would put at least 1500 people at immediate risk. That doesn’t include any of the tourists or workers at the marina or the beach or the wedding facility or the hotels or restaurants directly adjacent to us. Only two months ago, my commute was delayed due to the Skirball Fire. We could smell and taste smoke from the wildfires while sitting in our living room. We made evacuation plans. Fire is not a hypothetical risk for us.
It’s hard to write about this topic, because I know from my work that hoarding and squalor are intertwined with toxic shame and trauma. My desire is to encourage readers to find the courage to rise up and break free of hoarding. You deserve better, and so do your neighbors. I just wish there were a guaranteed way to talk about distressing ideas, also known as “reality,” without possibly triggering someone into a shame spiral.
The thing about hoarding is that unlike many other struggles, it’s possible to do the external, visible work rather quickly. You can basically erase all traces of hoarding, unlike, say, cutting behaviors or track marks from IV drug use. Just release the excess stuff, do a deep clean, or maybe relocate. A property manager or developer can come in and repair flooring, walls, window frames, or any other damage. Good as new! For all I know, the person who lived in my current apartment before me did just that.
Expendable, or expandable? Most people somehow find themselves surrounded by more and more stuff every year. As the amount of stuff expands, it fills up the home. Eventually, either the place is hoarded or the family has to move to a bigger place with more capacity. What, do you think everyone with a three-car garage is filling it with... cars? That’s the difference with minimalism. We focus on our lifestyle. No single item rates above our experience of living in our home. What’s more, nothing we own has more clout than our strategic position.
Clutter means it’s getting in the way.
This is a concept that most people really, really don’t grasp. It doesn’t matter what emotion you feel while you’re holding an object. What the heck does that have to do with anything, unless it’s your engagement ring?
This is how we decide what to keep:
Are we in the optimal job?
If we’re in the optimal job, are we in the optimal home?
If we’re in the optimal home near the optimal job, can we do the things we need to do?
Do we actually use this thing?
See how these questions are radically different than our feelings about an object? Oh, how much did it cost? What color is it? Does it work with my interior design philosophy? Does it make me feel all sparkly inside? Getting emotionally caught up in small-scale objects like a book or a shirt is totally beside the point when we’re making decisions based on career path, financial independence, or domestic contentment.
These are the questions.
If a better job came along in another city, would we or would we not go after it? Our kid is already in college, we don’t own a house, and we can’t live near family due to my husband’s specialized profession. Since it’s just us and our stuff, why not?
Since we’re moving, what are we taking with us? What are the rents like in our new city? We realized several years ago that if we busted down from a full-size, 3BR/2B suburban house with a two-car garage and a yard, we could save a fortune. Was it really worth the extra tens of thousands of dollars in rent and the extra hours of weekend maintenance to keep up that lifestyle? We reconsidered and realized that in many ways, living in an apartment would be a lifestyle upgrade. No more yard work, lower utility bills, less housework, and access to a pool, hot tub, and gym!
At that point, the question becomes how we fit our household into a cute little apartment. Due to where we live, there simply are no larger places in our neighborhood. Even the multi-million dollar houses are really small. Requiring a larger place also requires a longer commute, which is the exact reason most people tolerate a long commute. Where else would we put all our stuff???
Now we crunch the numbers. We have to calculate rental cost per square foot. We have to calculate utility costs per square foot. We have to include incidental costs, like a larger moving van, more gas, and more boxes. We have to include the extra furniture that people buy for their extra stuff, like bookshelves and cabinets and vanities and entertainment centers and desks and armoires and filing cabinets. All of it costs, and much of it has extra carrying costs as well. That’s before you even calculate the cost of buying it on credit.
Due to our income tax bracket and the sales tax in our state, every dollar we spend basically costs us two dollars. It would be more if we carried a balance on our credit cards.
In our complex, a two-bedroom apartment that is barely bigger than our one-bedroom costs $4000 a month. If we’d insisted on keeping all our sparkly cute lovely things, we would definitely have needed that extra bedroom to store them in. But how would we have afforded that rent? It’s not like our stuff is going to go out and get a job and start contributing to earn its keep...
Actually, in rare instances, stuff does pay the rent. We rented a storage unit for about a week and a half during our last move. The manager told us that a few of the tenants used their units to store their work equipment. Landscapers, painters, contractors, people who needed somewhere to store their bulky equipment to earn a living. You can’t exactly keep a lawn mower on the carpet in your second-floor apartment. Or, I guess you can, but you’re probably paying to have that carpet replaced when you move out!
Our first consideration, when we decide what to keep, is what we need to do our jobs. Even if we went full nomad and lived out of hotels, we would keep our electronics. My husband has some active reference textbooks that he would keep. Obviously we would maintain our professional wardrobes, or what would fit in two suitcases, anyway. That’s pretty much it. Virtually nothing else that we own is directly related to our ability to earn money.
In my opening list of strategic questions was a hint about something. Can we do the things we need to do? What I mean by this is that we need to be able to sleep in the bedroom, cook in the kitchen, bathe in the bathroom, eat at the table, work at our desks, and live in the living room. That means that absolutely nothing gets to be in a stack or a pile. We value our space and the use of that space more than any amount of stuff. It doesn’t matter where it came from, how much it’s “worth,” who gave it to us, or how we feel about it. Even if it’s holding its little inanimate arms out and asking for a hug. If it’s in the way, it’s out the door.
Do we actually use our stuff? This question means that we focus on our enjoyment of the things that we do have. We invested in the most comfortable bed we could find when we were newlyweds. It’s kinda romantic that we’ve been together almost long enough to need to replace it! We also comfort-tested our couch. When you buy or keep very few possessions, you can afford to spend more and to put in a little more effort making sure that you really like something before you bring it home.
Here is the math concept behind why we say that our possessions are expendable. We know roughly how much it would cost to replace every single thing we own. If we ever took a job overseas, it would literally cost more to ship our stuff there than it would to give it all away and buy new furniture and appliances. (Plus we wouldn’t have the use of it for the two months of the voyage. If we can go two months without it, do we need it at all?). Renters insurance is mandatory in our apartment complex, and the minimum policy covers $10,000 worth of belongings. That’s WAY more than all of our stuff is worth! If something happened to destroy all our possessions, like the upstairs neighbor leaving the tub on until the ceiling collapsed, or whatever, it would be kind of amusing. Since all our photos are saved to the cloud, there isn’t anything in our home that we’d be devastated to lose. We’d wind up going on the biggest, craziest shopping spree of all time. I don’t even know how we would spend $10k on furniture, clothes, and housewares.
So many people spend more than that on their stuff, though. I have a friend who has spent more than $10,000 on a storage unit. No joke. She would have been financially better off just throwing all that stuff in the trash. Or she could have sold some of it and made a little folding money. The saddest thing in the world to me is that people pay to store stuff that doesn’t even have a resale value. I know because I’ve seen it. Boxes of school papers. Boxes of sentimental but grubby and worn-out dolls and stuffed animals. Garbage bags full of outdated old clothes. Worn-out mattresses and box springs. Boxes of paperback books. Boxes of funky old plastic storage containers with mismatched lids. Why would someone spend thousands of dollars to store stuff they never use?
They do it because they think their stuff is actually worth something. They value their belongings over their quality of life or their financial stability.
Possessions are expendable. As soon as you start to see that, you start to look around at all your stuff with new perspective. Hey, stuff, what have you done for me lately?
This book is not for amateurs. Or, rather, an amateur who picks it up is in real danger of abandoning amateur status. Jocko Willink is not messing around. Discipline Equals Freedom has the makings of a cult classic, the sort of book that is handed down from person to person, possibly to inspire a series of tattoos. For the standard-issue procrastinator, it could be fun to explore this as poetry. Regard it as a peek into the mindset of a hardcore, never-quit action-oriented achiever.
Stoic philosophy lives and breathes. It’s really the only difference between a super-achiever and an ordinary person. Discipline Equals Freedom is an example of that. It’s a common fallacy to think that a muscular person is dumb, that bias toward action is a demonstration of lack of depth or strategy. That’s because most people don’t talk and act at the same time, at least not at an extreme level. Even the fittest elite athlete in the midst of the most strenuous training period is still resting at least part of the day. What are they thinking about? Now we get a chance to find out.
I freaking love this book. I love it so much that I bought a digital copy to keep on my phone. I’ve been following my husband around, demanding that he listen to sections of it.
“Is this what I want to be? This? Is this all I’ve got—is this everything I can give? Is this going to be my life? Do I accept that?”
We’re both huge fans of the movie Full Metal Jacket, and we often quote whole sections of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman going off about something or other. “A jelly donut?!” This is how I got through my first mud run. “Are you quitting on me, Private Pyle? Are you quitting on me?” If only I’d had Discipline Equals Freedom; I could have had so much more variety in my self-talk.
Discipline Equals Freedom is divided into sections. The philosophy section is Part One: Thoughts. Part Two: Actions has more philosophy, and then it’s divided into nutrition, injury prevention and recovery, and workouts. The nutrition section is based on the Paleo diet. While I dispute the premise of Paleo, I wouldn’t let that mess with my appreciation of the book overall. I agree with Jocko on a few important points, namely that sugar is poison, that we need to take sleep seriously, and that we should be as physically active as possible every day. I haven’t eaten meat in twenty-five years, and almost the entire cadre of instructors at my martial arts academy are completely plant-based. Both locations. Our paths are different, but we both agree that the Standard American Diet will kill you.
As for the workouts, even the Beginner level is quite tough. Jocko has modifications for those of us who can’t do a pull-up, a handstand, or a regular push-up. I’ve been there, and it works. If you really want to be able to do a pull-up badly enough, you can make it happen, even if, on the first day, all you can do is grab the bar and hang there with your arms straight. The first time your chin clears the bar is a feeling of childlike dazzling joy.
People constantly say, “I wish I had your willpower” or “If only I had the motivation.” These are core misunderstandings of what makes other people tick. It’s self-discipline. It’s the inner philosophical alignment that says I refuse to accept inferior results for myself. If I want a better life, more grit and determination, more education, better communications and relationships with other people, then I can’t accept anything less from my own behavior. Discipline Equals Freedom is an instruction manual that teaches the mindset of self-discipline. Now read it, and liberate yourself.
If a goal doesn’t take at least four years to accomplish, is it worth doing?
This is the question I ask myself now when I choose my goals for the New Year. I’m on the challenge path. I keep my resolutions because the entire point of what I do is to feel like a failure, at least at the beginning. I know I’ve picked the right challenge for the year if I absolutely hate it for at least the first three weeks. There are all sorts of things I would hate doing, though, mostly because they’re bad ideas. Example: walk into the woods and eat the first mushroom you see! No, absolutely don’t do that.
Every day, do something that scares you, unless of course it’s scary for a good reason.
The premise here is to push yourself to do something that is challenging because it’s new to you, because the act of the challenge helps to make you smarter and more resilient and better at learning difficult new things. That’s valuable all by itself. In the sense of the challenge path as emotional training, as mindset development tool, it doesn’t matter what you pick. Challenge makes you better.
The next level of question is, if I did this thing for four years, where would I be?
Would learning about this alien new skill or activity for four years give me expanded options in life?
What kind of person would I be if I spent four years trying to get good at this?
What are the people like, the ones who have been doing this thing for at least four years?
Why four years and not forty years? Well, that’s relevant, too. Thinking about the challenge path in terms of novice to mastery, though, was too intimidating and off-putting. I could never think of anything specific that I wanted to dedicate my entire life to. My one and only life! Four years is a time span that helps me to feel curious. It makes everything accessible. Maybe I do it for four years and only then do I realize that I’m hooked for life. No beginner can genuinely know that, or at least that’s my opinion.
This is why I don’t really start a new goal in the month of January. I can’t “break” my resolution if January is the month when I do my initial research. I haven’t even started to build momentum until second quarter at the earliest. The first year barely counts at all. Learning to think in a longer-term perspective is how I take good care of Future Me.
Past Me worked really hard to get me a drivers license and a good credit score and visible ab definition. Past Self made me a marriage. I can’t throw all that away. I have to live up to Past Me’s standards and uphold our agreement to build a better life for Future Self. I make plans over a four-year event horizon because I believe in a future.
What kinds of things happen over a four-year timeframe?
Well, let’s see. I met and married my husband in that length of time! In four years, you can build a house, build a business, or get a university degree. You can build a boat. You can train a service animal or learn to dance. All sorts of stuff can happen in four years! It’s really a pretty long time, especially from the perspective of someone who routinely gives up on New Year’s Resolutions in four weeks.
The year I chose running, I only planned to run 2.25 miles by the end of the year. I visualized my progress literally in increments of a single sidewalk square. Imagine my surprise when I reached my goal three weeks later! “Now what?” I wasn’t into the whole four-year thing yet. That’s why it never occurred to me that I’d wind up running a marathon. Even more, it never crossed my mind that I’d become interested in the world of adventure races and ultra-marathons. I started as a hater and wound up as a true believer.
I chose cooking after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. This introduced the concept of the “10,000 hour rule.” The pursuit of mastery is more complicated than that, of course, but it did feel like an epiphany. What would I want to be good at if all it took was 10,000 hours? I couldn’t think of anything. How about 1,000 hours? Wait. How about one hundred hours, or ten hours?? As soon as the thought “ten hours” crossed my mind, it snapped into perfect clarity. Cooking! In reality, I was making much better dinners in under ten hours. It got better as soon as I started doing mise en place and working on how to sauté an onion properly.
In other words, I shifted from a fixed to a growth mindset. Almost instantaneously. I stopped thinking of, say, my cooking abilities as a fundamental part of my personality. Instead I started thinking of them as something I could (and should) improve with focus and attention. It was obvious that every hour I put toward learning such a basic skill would improve my life permanently. My skills would also improve the lives of other people around me.
That’s true of everything.
Learning new skills makes you useful to have around. Not only do you quit relying on other people to do these things for you, you can also contribute at a higher level. This is especially true when you work on mastering things like time management, getting organized, improving your communication skills, mood management, parallel parking, first aid, using a fire extinguisher... You get the drift.
Over the years, I’ve used my New Year’s planning process as a benchmark. What am I going to learn next? How do I assess how far I’ve come? What are my strongest and weakest areas? I’ve set out to learn so many things, from how to raise one eyebrow to how to read more complicated knitting patterns or make decent pancakes. I’ve learned how to balance the weight in my expedition backpack, how to plan a trip overseas, how to feed twenty people on a budget, and all sorts of useful skills. Everything builds on everything else. What started as something foreign and confusing and difficult turns into a basic skill I barely realize I’m using.
Why wouldn’t I want to learn this? That’s one question. Who wouldn’t want to be a good cook? Why wouldn’t I want to be good at distance running or three-day backpacking trips? Why wouldn’t I want to be good at public speaking?
I have a rough sense of some future challenges I may or may not take on one day. Right now it’s martial arts. In the future, it might be orienteering, or chess, or voice lessons, or welding. The basic rules are whether it will improve life for Future Me and whether studying it will force me to feel true humility, at least for the first year.
I can’t control the vagaries of fate. Things will happen in the world in general, and other things will happen specifically to me. That’s reality. What I can do is to continually push myself to face challenges, to learn new skills, and to be unafraid of being a beginner. Forever, forever and always a beginner. With every year that goes by, I’m better prepared to handle or even avoid the random accidents and crises of fate. This is how to create a destiny. Who do I want to be four years from now? Four years after that?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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