I’m not trying to steal your boyfriend, I swear. I got a man.
This is one of life’s great mysteries. Why are so many people so jealous and possessive? Not just of their romantic partners, but of their children as well. In a world so demonstrably full of affable, friendly people who just want to chat, we feel so much suspicion and unease. It really doesn’t have to be this way.
I have two brothers and a posse of male cousins. I’ve always had an easier time making male friends than female friends. My husband has a brother and, like me, no sisters. While he’s a classic guy’s guy, playing hockey and riding motorcycles, he has an easier time making female friends. That’s how we met. We’ve never been jealous of each other because we’re not jealous people, but also because we understand what platonic friendship looks like. Everyone thought we were dating long before either of us had romantic feelings for each other. Just because people think something is there, doesn’t mean it is there, although the fact of our later marriage might tend to call that into question in our case.
When I see my husband talking to a woman at a party, I think, “Oh, good!” If he likes her, I’ll probably like her, too. If I saw a woman sitting in his lap and playing with his hair or something, I would crack up laughing. We both make a practice of mentoring young people, both formally and informally. He refers to some of his as Padawans. Some are girls. This could be uncomfortable for some women. I helped raise his daughter and I recognize the paternal impulse. I once dated a soccer coach who was the same way; he had various students running up to him all around town all the time.
Part of this is an extrovert thing. I’m barely over the line into extroversion, so most people on my side of the fence are more extroverted than I am, but I get it. It’s fun to meet people and get to know them. Everyone is chock-full of fascinating stories and interesting perspectives. Meeting people is how we pick up new jokes, travel tips, movie recommendations, and… friendships! We like introducing people to each other, hooking people up with job offers, helping people sell their cars or find homes for their pets. I’ve given up on matchmaking because every time I’ve tried it, the interest has either been nonexistent or one-sided. Sparking a romance is much more challenging than it appears, even when the potential couple seems to have so much in common.
Maybe it’s better that we leave it be. There are these cultural expectations that everything is about sex and that everyone should be constantly paired off, like animals escaping from the Great Flood. I think this is a post-Freudian thing. We believe that innuendo is everywhere and that if it isn’t overtly about sex, then it’s suppressed, like a radio that can be either turned on or off (see what I did there?) but can only be tuned to one station. I think it’s clear from history and anthropology that people spend huge amounts of emotional and mental energy thinking about 1. Survival 2. Religion 3. Food 4. Gossip 5. Sports and 6. Making or buying stuff. Are you with me that given a choice between a brownie or sex with an average-looking stranger, almost everyone would take the brownie?
It’s also an age thing. In my 20s, I spent most of my time worrying about money or reading, but what was left went to relationship drama. After my divorce, I wanted nothing to do with relationship drama whatsoever! My next heartbreak put me off infatuation entirely. I got down on my knees and prayed to any force that might be listening to please, please make sure I never had a crush on anyone again. It worked, and I wish I’d done it when I was 15. The pain and heartache it would have spared me… and others… That feeling of obsession with someone you barely know, based on guesswork, chemistry, and pure fantasy, has absolutely zero to do with the feeling of contented married compatibility. Now that I’m 40, I size people up with an eye to who they’ll be at 60. At 25, it’s easy to think, “Ooh, intriguing.” Experience tends to lead more to the thought, “Uhoh, that’s one way to ruin Thanksgiving – forever.”
Like the occasional story of someone who breaks up a marriage to run off with the spouse’s sibling. Seriously? That is the worst idea ever. Now you have the same exact in-laws, but they hate you. If I met two brothers and felt profoundly attracted to both of them, and I was single, I’d never see either of them again. Since I’m married, it wouldn’t matter, because I’m perfectly capable of keeping myself to myself. There is no mystical tractor beam that drags people unwittingly into an affair. Grownups see that sort of thing for what it is and shut the door on it. Affairs are for bored people who are dissatisfied with life.
What’s with jealous people? Demonstrating jealousy is the single fastest way to kill a relationship. Why would I be with someone who couldn’t trust me? I know there’s nothing to worry about on my end. I had a jealous boyfriend when I was 19, and I knew that if he felt that way, he didn’t know me at all. He didn’t have an accurate read on my emotional world. What I thought was a meeting of the minds obviously couldn’t have been. Nothing I said could assuage his paranoia. It made me stop liking him, much less loving him. The whole thing was confusing. I’m not that good-looking and I never have been. That’s been the case the handful of times another woman has demonstrated jealousy of me. Um, I’m not all that hot but your man isn’t, either! Trust me, take an objective look at him for five minutes. I’m talking to him because he’s a nice person and he’s interesting, but if he takes his shirt off, I’m out of here.
I had a great conversation with a guy in Vegas once. It was obvious why he wanted to talk to me – I was standing in a casino, wearing a cardigan and reading a book on my phone. He opened the conversation by asking if that was my husband gambling behind me, then indicated that his wife was off doing whatever. Boom, bona fides established. We’re two average-looking, middle-aged married people who want nothing from anyone. We spent the next five minutes in absolutely hilarious repartee. I wished he was my next-door neighbor. Then he made a gracious exit and I never saw him again. I don’t think we even traded names. That’s what platonic interaction looks like. A nice man made a friendly gesture, chivalrously amusing me and keeping me company for a few minutes, and then went on his way. This happens on subways, buses, and airplanes all over the world. It comes naturally to babies and preschoolers. We believe in it when we see elderly people doing it. There are decades of age range, though, that are more or less empty of companionable chatter between strangers. Is it age, or is it generational zeitgeist?
Our culture trains us to search for clues to unsavory behavior, and we’ve lost the ability to believe in innocent curiosity. Part of this is from pervasive marketing, religious proselytizing, etc. If someone were to sit next to you and say, “You look like an awesome person. Want to be friends?” what would you do? I would love to be able to do this and know it would go over well. I often see people carrying books I’ve read, and sadly, just walking by and saying, “Great book,” can make people flinch and withdraw. What do you want from me?? “Friend” means something different now. It means we have a social networking connection that might very well cause us to be irreconcilably annoyed with each other by the end of election season.
Our grandparents and earlier generations had vastly more casual social contact. My grandparents had a long list of social activities, probably far more than I’m aware. He was a Mason, she was very active in the church, I believe both of them were in a bowling league, they had regular card parties, etc. My parents would invite neighbors over for card parties even in the 80s. I know the names of 7 of 8 of my nearest neighbors, but we don’t invite each other over. I’m nervous about this kind of thing, too; the last time I got friendly with a neighbor, she started expecting free babysitting within days. That kind of relationship only works when there is mutual reciprocation. When my neighborhood was built in the 1930s and 40s, neighborly reciprocation was likely the rule, not the exception. People knew each other for decades and watched each other’s kids grow up. You didn’t just know the names of your neighbors, you knew the names of their pets, horses, etc. People looked out for each other. We were more likely to think “that person is in trouble,” than to think “that person looks like trouble.”
Can we bring it back? Is it possible to turn to the person on the left or the right and think, “Hello, new friend”? Can we be better listeners? Would we melt if anyone ever smiled at us the way they smile at their phone? Can we even sustain eye contact anymore? Do we have the room in our frantic schedules for more casual get-togethers with lower expectations? There is a kind of relationship that involves simple regard, a kindly, benign interest with altruistic tendencies. It would be nice to see more of it.
Humbly admitting to yourself that you don’t know as much as you thought you did is one of the very toughest experiences for the ego. It’s almost as tough as giving a sincere apology. When I think of this practice of dumping inaccurate, mistaken, preconceived, or unhelpful information, I refer to it as emptying the cup. It comes from a Zen story about a know-it-all novice monk who wouldn’t listen. I see my personal mental teacup as one of the traditional Asian variety; it only holds a couple of tablespoons! If I want fresh, hot tea, I need to routinely drain my cup and make room for more. It takes discipline to Snopes yourself all the time and let go of incorrect stories. I’m going to walk through my process of doing this, specifically for the category of physical fitness.
A “factual statement” purports something to be objectively verifiable. “The Moon is made of green cheese.” “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” There are probably a million times more pseudo-facts than there are actual facts. Misinformation is much easier to find than accurate information. My first task is to lay out what I think I know. Then I need to pick through what’s working and what isn’t working.
Unfortunately, I know from experience that I tend to cling desperately to the least effective things I’ve been doing, while strongly resisting exactly the new information that would be most helpful. Resistance tends to pop up in response to unfamiliar new information, not incorrect or inaccurate information. It feels like boredom or disgust. That’s my flag. Resistance means I’m onto something! Resistance means it’s time to activate the ignition on my curiosity. As I learn around the edges of a new topic, it starts to become more familiar, more interesting, and more appealing. Some of the very things that are most interesting to me now began as things that totally repelled me before. (Cooking, mud runs, the world of finance).
My original attitude toward physical fitness was that it was the consolation of idiots. I thought certain people were born smart and others weren’t, and that the drive to work out or play any kind of sports was a signal of cognitive deficiency. I was so smart I wound up spending years trapped in chronic pain and fatigue. It was my comeuppance. You think you know so much? Here, have a four-day migraine! Discovering that I could control my illness through physical inputs really knocked me down several pegs. I was finally ready to listen.
I started running on a whim. The decision came out of nowhere. I just turned to my husband and said, “You know how I do something new at the New Year?” “Yeah?” “Next year, I think it’s going to be running.” His head rocked back. “Really?” I felt a little sick as I realized what I was doing, but I felt the commitment in my gut. “Yeah, I think so.” I started a couple weeks early. On the first day, I literally couldn’t run around the block without stopping. I had to lie on the floor until I stopped seeing black spots. At that point, I understood in a visceral way something that I never could understand in an intellectual way. I was NOT in good shape for a 35-year-old. (I try to think of my body from the perspective of 80-year-old Future Me).
“I guess I know what I’m doing tomorrow,” I thought.
I learned a lot over the next four years. I learned how to fit workout time into my schedule. I learned that it didn’t matter whether I ran in the morning, afternoon, or late at night. I learned to plan routes and gradually increase my distance. I learned that my weight was determined 98% by what I ate, and that my workout had virtually nothing at all to do with whether I lost or gained. I learned how to sign up for races and attach a race bib. I learned that the time I saw on the clock as I crossed the finish line was not my actual time, and that I could check for my true time online. I learned what arrangements of workout clothes worked for me in different weather conditions. I had to re-learn how to tie my shoelaces, and if you ever want an exercise in being more humble, that is a good one.
My dog learned to distinguish the word RUN in normal ape conversation, such as, “I’m going to run some laundry.” He would come around the corner so fast he would skid out on the tile. He would show up ready to RUN even when he’d already RUN six miles that day. (He’s a master at recovery; he sprawls on the floor after a workout and sleeps).
I became one of Those People. I started fantasizing about running. I would think about my next run while I was still on the trail during my current run. I would look out a window, see someone running, and want to jump up and join her. I scoped out people’s gear. I read running magazines and books. I watched running documentaries. I took pictures of my race medals. I secretly hoarded my worn-out running shoes. I had lucky socks.
Then the almost-inevitable happened. I got sidelined by an overuse injury. It happens to 8 out of 10 runners at some point.
The pain in my ankle became so intense that it would wake me in the night. It felt like someone was kicking me in a specific spot with a cowboy boot. I learned that the analgesic effect of distance running that had helped me overcome chronic pain could also mask the pain of injury. I didn’t notice something was wrong until it was really, really wrong. I learned all about physical therapy, foam rollers, ice massage, kinesiotherapy tape, and ace bandages.
I’m starting from zero now. Well, not zero, because my base fitness level is in the stratosphere compared to where it was when I started. I think of myself as a runner now, rather than Not Applicable or Haha, No. Where I’m starting now is the place of the empty cup.
My prior routine was to suit up, run whatever route suited the distance I felt like running that day, shower, change clothes, and Eat All the Things. I had read that stretching had either no discernible effect or could actually lead to injury, so I didn’t do any warmup or cool-down. I knew there was this thing called “cross-training,” and that there were specific strength training exercises that runners could do to help their performance, but I shrugged that stuff off. Not interested. I had seen such amazing changes in my body from running that I didn’t think I needed more. What I’m doing works for me, so shut up. My cup was full.
It turns out that I was in a dangerous position. I had personal experience up to a certain point on the growth curve. I thought I knew everything I needed to know. I wasn’t a coach or a trainer. I had no experience in organized athletics. What I was doing “worked” until it quit working. I was like a novice driver with a new car, going along great until the engine ran out of oil. In retrospect, if I wasn’t going to work with a trainer, I should have come up with a more organized plan before I began training for a marathon. I doubled my distance, changed my shoes, and started training on a different surface all at the same time. Too many variables. When the injury started surfacing, I didn’t recognize it for what it was.
Fast forward 18 months.
I’m desperate to get back out there. Default Me is downbeat, moody, and tightly wound. Running Me is cheerful and energetic. Running Me sleeps better. Running Me is more productive. Running Me is less triggered by interpersonal drama, more forgiving, better at listening. There is no substitute for cardio. If it came in a pill it would be more revolutionary than antibiotics. That’s why I want to be doing it in the long term. I want to run another marathon, and next time, I’m going to do it without having to drag my leg the last 8 miles.
I took careful notes in physical therapy. I learned that I have weak glutes. This corresponded with how I felt after my marathon. I was sore in certain areas but not others. I worked one hip flexor to failure, and this helped me understand that I was probably running a little heavier on one side. Strengthening my glutes and hip flexors should help steady my stride. I also learned that my calves are extremely tight, something that probably affects that tendon in my ankle. I need to work my core and my quads. Now I have independent sources corroborating the same information: running manuals, a physical therapist, and sensations in isolated muscle groups that I can physically feel in my own body. It’s easy to nod along and think, “Duh, obviously.” It’s unforgettable when you try to step into the shower and have to grab your thigh with your hands and pick up your leg because your foot won’t respond to your command.
I have another couple of weeks before my toenail finishes growing back (long story) and I’m going to use that as study time. I’m starting from the perspective of a Sadder But Wiser Person Who Wants to Avoid Injury. Fortunately/unfortunately, there is a cottage industry for middle-aged athletes who want to come back after various overuse injuries. Not only do I want to proceed without my ankle acting up again, I want to make sure I avoid developing any “new and different” injuries to other parts of my body. Rather than skimming or skipping the diagrams and chapters on sports physiology, I’m going to read with a highlighter behind each ear. I’m going to stick post-its everywhere. I’m going to take written notes in an actual notepad. I’m going to slap myself whenever I catch myself feeling resistance or lack of focus. If I really think I’m so smart, I’m smart enough to pay attention and recognize I can benefit from learning more.
The first day I show my dog his harness and ask if he’s READY to RUN, I’m going to make sure I’m really ready, too.
I scrubbed a lot of toilets to put myself through college. Okay, technically I took out a couple of giant loans to put myself through college, but I did also work as a maid. Years earlier, it was one of the first jobs I did as an independent adult. A friend’s mom ran her own cleaning business, and I would occasionally fill in when my friend didn’t want to go. I come from a blue collar background, and I have a real chip on my shoulder about being good at Doing Things. I use shop tools, I do my own minor repairs, I sew, I pitch my own tent, etc. Also I am extremely good at swearing. It seems incumbent upon me to establish my credentials before I embark on a discussion involving socioeconomic class.
The first reason I don’t have a maid is that I’m paranoid. The thought of letting someone else wash my dirty clothes is unsettling. The thought of someone else folding them and putting them away is barely tolerable. Sometimes my mom washes my clothes, if one of us is visiting the other, but I’ve trained my husband not to do it. I just don’t want anyone else seeing or handling my dirt. There is a strong image of someone holding up my workout top and making a disgusted face. Nope. Nope, nope, nope. I have a total double standard. I don’t care about cleaning up after other people, but I don’t want anyone else cleaning up after me. I also have a thing about letting strangers into the house. It creeps me out. It’s stressful for my animals. It’s stressful for me when I think of trying to train someone to do things My Way.
Another reason I don’t have a maid is that I can do a better job, faster and cheaper. It’s exactly like cooking dinner. I like my own cooking better than what’s available in about 80% of restaurants. I can feed 12 people on what it costs the two of us to go to a restaurant. (A giant pot of soup, a couple loaves of nice bread, and a fruit crumble). I enjoy cooking. I can’t claim to enjoy cleaning – does anyone? – but I don’t mind it. Almost every task takes 5 minutes or less. I spend roughly 45 minutes a day cleaning my house, mostly in short blocks. According to my time log, in 2015 I spent 167 hours cleaning house, 194 hours on Facebook, 309 hours on personal hygiene and getting dressed, and 674 hours reading. Why cleaning house is such an ordeal for people is beyond me, but then I’m experienced. I have a system and I move quickly.
I don’t have a maid because I think it’s a BS job for anyone to have. I’ve never met anyone who cleaned for a living who wasn’t fully intelligent and hard-working enough to do something else. (Including me; I’m a Mensan, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has cleaned for a living). You know how much you hate housework? Imagine if that was all you did 40 hours a week. Then picture the shambolic misery of, say, the restroom at your local movie theater, and imagine that your whole career was to be trapped in there, trying to maintain basic sanitation and prevent the spread of epidemic disease. I mean YIKES. It’s unfair. Part of why being a maid/janitor/custodian sucks so much is because so many people are sloppy, because they know someone else will clean it up. “It creates jobs.” Yeah? What if it was a job to be a human welcome mat and let people walk on you? Someone would always be hard up enough to have to do it.
I don’t have a maid because I have ROBOTS. A Roomba costs the same as a Wii and less than a Playstation. In fact, it’s cheaper than most upright vacuum cleaners, and in my experience, it does a better job. A Braava is cheaper than a low-end stand mixer or an iPod Touch. Whether they are expensive depends on one’s perspective; they are certainly cheaper than marriage counseling! Many people won’t get one because they know it would only work if they unclutter the house first. We mistake ‘moving clutter around’ for ‘cleaning,’ which is merely removing dirt from surfaces.
I don’t have a maid because my husband is a good roommate. I married him that way. By no means did we share the same housekeeping standards when we crossed the threshold together for the first time. We have had arguments about it, one of them involving me pretending to be R. Lee Ermey. We talked about our concerns before we got married, since we have both been divorced and we knew a happy, long-term marriage is a rarity. My biggest worry was that I would have to choose between doing all the work myself and resenting it, or living in a frustrating personal environment and resenting it. We’ve changed our division of labor several times, as we’ve moved and had schedule changes over the years. It’s one of the many things we discuss frankly, in the same way we discuss money and travel planning and holiday arrangements, all of which can be awkward. Not as awkward as swallowing our emotions, trying to read each other’s minds, or settling for compromises that leave both of us unsatisfied. The marriage default is to get into stalemates over unresolved power struggles. We know this, so we work hard to keep the communication channels open and create a space where we both can be happy.
I don’t have a maid because I’m “caught up.” I follow a weekly schedule. I used to have more monthly and quarterly tasks, but gradually it dawned on me that most of those things could be turned into weekly micro-tasks and rolled into my routine. I’ll never have to spend a weekend cleaning again. I can’t bear spending two solid hours on cleaning; it feels like I’m wasting my life. It’s wearying. I can fritter away the same amount of time in small pieces, like when I’m waiting for something to heat up in the microwave, and barely notice I’ve done everything already. We keep a minimalist house; there is no clutter to clean around. Our garage will never be on a magazine cover, but the work bench is fully functional and in regular use. We don’t have a “honey-do” list. If you come to visit and call to say you’ll be here in half an hour, I’ll be ready with a smile, having done nothing more than empty the compost and wipe the dog hair off the couch.
It’s funny to me that people fantasize about having a maid, when they don’t fantasize about having a financial planner or personal trainer or interior designer or, heck, a massage therapist! Any of these professionals can create a lifestyle upgrade. In fact, it would probably be cheaper to hire an interior designer once than to pay for regular maid service. A professional organizer or a couple of cleaning robots (battery-powered scrub brush: $15) would also go a long way. That being said, a maid service is probably cheaper than most people realize. (Exactly what I don’t like about it). Especially if it’s a splurge that is only indulged once a season, it’s probably within range for a lot of families. Get rid of the clutter permanently, bring in a team to do a deep cleaning, and get some robots to carry on from there. Most of us probably already have appliances that do most of the work; we just resent loading and emptying them. The key question is, what kind of environment do we want to live in on a daily basis? How many different ways are there to make it happen?
[Warning: this post contains a few curse words].
The word ‘idiot’ is my pet peeve. I don’t get called an idiot very often, although it has happened, in spite of the fact that I carry my Mensa card in my wallet. It’s not about me. I don’t like hearing people calling other people idiots. It’s a sign of a particular way of thinking that is particularly unproductive.
Let’s do a thought experiment.
Someone is an idiot. Then what? What is your request? What is your desired course of action? Do you want this person put in the stocks? Are “idiots” supposed to wear a special t-shirt or have their driver’s licenses revoked? Are you simply trying to warn other people to stay away from this alleged idiot? Are the people you are telling about the idiot running any risk of encountering this person, or was it merely a passing encounter? Do you want someone to reimburse you for the time you spent thinking about the idiot in question?
Someone is not actually an idiot. Then what? Is your idiot detector malfunctioning? Have you been bamboozled by a master of disguise? Could it be that the “idiot” is actually a highly intelligent, effective person and you aren’t clever enough to realize that you are in fact in the presence of greatness?
Someone is an idiot, but you are, too, sometimes. The only answer for this debacle is gladiatorial combat.
Does ‘idiot’ have a clinical meaning? I’m a firm believer in the concept that Words Mean Things, and I like to be precise. I’m currently at work on a thesis parsing the difference between a dumbass, a dumbshit, and a dumbfuck. It’s a hot topic in the field of linguistics. Theory would indicate that the grammatically permissible options of ‘dumbhole’ and ‘dumbbag’ lack sufficient punch and would only qualify as insults through backformation. Anyway, back to idiots. An ‘idiot’ is a type of person who suffers from low intelligence, acts in a self-defeating or counterproductive way, or says or does stupid things.
Hmm. Maybe I am an idiot. I do and say stupid things every day!
Technically I do stupid things on accident, and say stupid things on purpose, except for when I don’t. I’m not scared. Stupid things happen when you leave your comfort zone sometimes. Experience has taught me that the lessons I learn through stupid mistakes are permanent, while the lessons I read or see tend to get forgotten and fall by the wayside. Knowledge is fleeting; insight is forever.
I fell up a flight of stairs in front of a group of people once. Well, I’ve done that more than once. This particular time, I was walking and reading a book at the same time, and I fell because I wasn’t looking where I was going. It was really stupid. I didn’t get hurt, though (or quit doing it), and several years later, technology caught up to me. I started listening to podcasts and audiobooks while I walked instead. It was this new habit that helped convince me I could train for a marathon without getting bored. It’s not idiocy, it’s a bias toward action!
I’m not defensive about doing and saying stupid things because that’s how I learn new skills and languages. It’s the gauntlet that must be passed on the way to mastery. You can’t get to 100 without starting at zero. Everyone was born into this world a naked, clueless baby, too dumb to tie a pair of shoes or spell its own name. Babies are also terrible drivers. They can’t figure out which way to turn a screwdriver. They don’t clean up after themselves, they never apologize, they have no manners whatsoever, they’re hopeless at writing succinct email, and they’re totally unproductive. Talk about someone who needs constant micromanaging. Babies, I tell ya. I wouldn’t hire one.
That’s the thing. If a person truly has low intelligence, where is the blame? I haven’t seen someone mock a mentally handicapped person since middle school. That’s about the lowest, meanest thing anyone can do. What are they supposed to do about it? Snap their fingers and get smarter? How very, very unfair. Someone who is below average intelligence deserves compassion and the occasional helping hand. Someone who hassles that person instead deserves a kick in the ass.
Or does he? Could it be that someone who ridicules others doesn’t know any better? Maybe that person has always felt rejected and insulted, and doesn’t know of any other way to behave. Maybe that rude person is on a fruitless quest for respect and doesn’t understand how dignity works. Maybe that person has never seen compassion in action, or has, but didn’t understand what was happening. Adding contempt to contempt doesn’t seem like it has ever done much good.
Most of us know better than that. I assume we’re only using the pejorative term ‘idiot’ when we believe the target subject is of at least average intelligence and is misusing this native gift. This is when we reach the part of the definition that includes acting in a self-defeating or counterproductive way. Again, are we assuming this person is doing it on purpose? I deliberately popped myself in the eye with an umbrella handle because that’s my idea of a good time? I sat in grease at the movie theater because I saw it in the seat and thought, “Ooh, what larks!”? I walked around with static-cling nylon panties hanging out of my sweater all day because I was hoping someone would take my picture for the yearbook? I threw my keys in the dumpster because it’s part of my CrossFit WOD? I could go on; I did state clearly that I do stupid things all the time, and I also said I like to be precise. Do I do counterproductive things? Like procrastinating? Never! DEATH FIRST! I never do counterproductive things, and neither does anyone else. That’s why gaming is a $90+ billion dollar industry and snack food is over $370 billion.
Self-disclosure: I’m a life coach. It’s my vocation to work with people who struggle with things that come easily to others. My people are all not just above average intelligence, but in the top tier. That’s because intelligence has nothing whatsoever to do with success. Intelligence doesn’t have anything to do with friendship, romance, body image, or lots of life’s prizes. My people tend to have some issues with organization, something that never came naturally to me either, and they also have a lot of problems with shame. They feel like failures, like their efforts never amount to anything. Whenever we encounter insults, trolling, sarcasm, snarkiness, or even pointless one-star product reviews, we think, “It’s true, we are all swimming in an endless sea of criticism and contempt.”
It is true. We are.
The main reason not to talk about idiots, other than the fact that it’s cruel and leads to a heartless, cold world, is that it wastes time. Why would I spend my time thinking about people who are doing dumb things, much less talking about them? Don’t I have better things to do? Well, it depends on the nature of the dumb thing. A lot of idiotic things are hilarious to watch and some are a lot of fun to try. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where there was no room to be silly. Unfortunately, it’s too late; I already live in a world where there is no upper limit to criticism, mockery, ridicule, or public shaming. That’s why I’ll never stop doing and saying stupid things. It’s the best way to always do what I want and live without fear. It’s also a great way to help other people not to feel alone when they occasionally screw up or get unintended results.
If you think personal finance is boring, and therefore don’t know much about it, Ramit Sethi is your guy. He’s hilarious, though totally not PC, and he knows his stuff. I Will Teach You to be Rich is the kind of book that is still constantly being recommended and mentioned by, like, everyone in the Universe, even though it was published in 2009. If I meet him, I’m definitely going to ask him to put on a Speedo and feed me peeled grapes while we talk about finance. He’d probably do it, too, because that’s his type of humor. Maybe we could get other luminaries of personal finance to join us in a hot tub, like Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey. When audience members would tell us about their poor spending choices, we could pelt them with the grapes.
Anyway. I have no claims to fame, but if I did, one of them would be that I broke even in the crash of 2008. I would say that everything in I Will Teach You to be Rich is consistent with what I did to achieve that. I had to read every single personal finance book in the public library, though, and you can skip all that simply by reading this one volume.
I presumed that Sethi’s book would be about marketing and business development, and that made me skeptical. Instead, it’s about managing the money you have once you get it. There are a lot of counterintuitive, contrarian elements about this book that I really like. For instance, the advice that home ownership isn’t for everyone tends to make people start going “But but but” like a little outboard motor.
What I liked best about the book, besides the fact that it made me laugh until I snorted, was that it’s loaded with insights I had never seen in a personal finance book before. Most importantly, Sethi opens by talking about how people prefer to debate minutiae rather than take action. We get caught up in analysis paralysis. He goes on to suggest ways to open discussions about debt with your parents and with anyone you’re thinking about dating. That is SUCH a good idea. If I had had the conversation I had with my second husband, with my first husband, then my second husband would have been my first husband, if you get what I’m saying.
The gist of I Will Teach You to be Rich is to spend several hours apiece doing a bit of research, making some major decisions, and then setting up a simple system. It works. It works in the same way that physical fitness, housework, and interpersonal boundaries do. You figure out what you want, talk it out with anyone who needs to be involved, execute, and then get on with things. This book is so approachable and funny that you barely notice how much you’re learning. If you want to empower yourself and you’re not sure where to start, start with the money.
All right, lovelies, if you’re planning a wedding right now, take a deep breath and read this. You can spare ten minutes for yourself.
You are not having a wedding. You are getting married.
If you’re marrying the right person, at the right time, for the right reasons, the ceremony and reception will make up about .000015% of your marriage. (I calculated that assuming 4 hours of partying and 30 years of marriage). It’s a blip. A wedding is a speedbump.
The wedding is something married people don’t spend much time thinking about. What do we think about? What to make for dinner. What’s chewing holes in the chard. Whether we can put off going to Costco another week. Whether to watch a second episode of Game of Thrones or go to bed early.
There are a lot of things we don’t think about or notice. For instance, neither of us really noticed how gray we were both getting until we were looking through some photos from the 1990s, and remembered we both used to have very dark hair. We don’t always notice when we somehow merge consciousness and wind up wearing the same color shirt, even though it happens at least three days a week. We probably don’t notice when we complete each other’s sentences or take over telling each other’s stories because the other one tells that part better.
I married my best friend. He’s a smart person. That being said, I strongly doubt he remembers our wedding vows, although he keeps them. I know he doesn’t remember the song from our first dance, because every time it comes on the radio, I have to nudge him. I would be astounded if anyone who went to our wedding remembered any of the dishes from the reception or the flavor of the cake. Probably nobody still has our wedding favor or the invitation. That’s fine. It worked out the way everyone would have wanted, which is that we’re closing in on eight years of marriage and still together after over a decade. The woman who caught my bouquet was the next to get married, but I don’t need that to be part of the story of her marriage. I won’t be wearing my dress at a future anniversary, because I lost 25 pounds and it wouldn’t have fit. Everything about our wedding is a memory, except the rings.
The ring has been everywhere. I’ve never taken it off. It’s been to seven countries and three continents so far. I wore it on our backpacking trip to Iceland. I wore it through my entire history of running, from my first failed attempt around the block to my first marathon. I wore it to a Warrior Dash and washed the mud out from under it afterward. I wore it the first time I climbed a rope. I wore it when we climbed the Rock of Gibraltar. I was wearing it when I published my first book. I also wear it when I fold laundry and take out the trash.
Marriage is about a lot of things. A wedding ceremony, not so much. I eloped with my first husband and we got married at the 24-Hour Church of Elvis. We both wore black. I had never laughed so hard in my life. I never cried so hard as the month he asked for the divorce. I thought the whimsy of our wedding would represent something about us, but the truth was I didn’t know him well enough before we made the commitment. The wedding isn’t what makes you married. Marriage is something that comes about when you realize you’re entwined around each other and you’re not even sure exactly when it happened. Hopefully that started before the proposal. A wedding isn’t a way to jumpstart the process. It’s just an extremely expensive party with some paperwork.
Don’t do it if you have any doubts. I mean it. Anyone who has been married will tell you that, and anyone who has been divorced will tell it to you with the thousand-yard stare of a survivor. If you’re marrying the right person, it will still be the right person later. Signing the marriage license does something to you inside. It flips a bunch of switches that neither of you ever realized you had. Subconscious ideas about what marriage means and what husband and wives do will float up from the primordial ooze. Some of us think marriage means neither of you will ever change. Others of us think marriage means it’s time for both of you to change – but mostly the other. Some of us have profoundly traditional ideas about who does what. When I got married the first time, I thought marriage meant I had someone to love and support me no matter what I did – so the first thing I did was to gain about 30 pounds. My ex thought marriage meant sex on demand. I also thought marriage meant that we shared the same financial goals. Imagine my surprise when I learned he had cleaned out our house savings in only two months. Marriage isn’t always all hearts and flowers. It can be an existential struggle that will teach you things you will wish you never had to learn. You have the power to bankrupt one another, financially and emotionally. You have the power to cut psychic scars that may never heal. Marriage is something to enter trembling with awe at the forces you are about to unleash, in each other’s lives, across the lives of your family and friends, possibly even in the form of new humans yet to be born.
I believe in marriage. I believe in love. I believe in the power of a family to become the cornerstone of a neighborhood. I believe everyone should take all of these things more seriously. I don’t believe in the wedding industry. I don’t believe in starting a life together with debt. I don’t mean tens of thousands of dollars of debt, I mean any debt. I paid for my half of our wedding in cash as the expenses came up. I bought my dress (for $36), I bought his ring, I laid down the deposit on the reception hall, I found the officiant and paid her. I had zero credit card debt and zero car payments when we got married. If we’d waited another year, I wouldn’t have had any student loan debt, either. Debt is a way of making sure you’ll always have something to fight about. If anything takes you down, it’s almost certainly going to be money worries, and if it isn’t that, it will be fighting about housework. Figure that stuff out and don’t let it poison your life.
You want a partnership, not a party. You want a life together, not mutual debt bondage. Run away together in a nice tie and/or a pretty sundress you’ll wear for an entire summer. Invite your loved ones over for a yard party. Do a Google search on the kind of epic three-week vacation in four-star hotels you could be going on for the same price as the wedding. Or the car (or matched motorcycles) you could buy. Or the entire houseful of new designer furniture. Or the interest you could earn in your retirement accounts. Think about how old you think you’ll be when you die and add 15 years.
If you’re going to do this thing, put your back into it. You’re going to be together even on days or months when you annoy each other. You’re going to be together when you have to do things you don’t want to do and when you’re not in the mood, whether it’s for cleaning the gutters or going on a long road trip in the rain to visit your in-laws. If you can pull it off, the benefit is that you’ll develop a deeper relationship than you have with any other friend or relative you’ve ever had. You can help each other not only to be the best possible versions of yourselves, but to go beyond anything you had ever imagined. If you see the future shining in your lover’s eyes, it will be the task of a lifetime to bring that future into being.
Best of luck to you.
There is only so much time. We have only so much space. We have only so much mental bandwidth and psychic resources. Anything we do, say, think, feel, and keep displaces other options. The truth of this is evident when I bring out the Bucket of Racquetballs and start tossing them to my dog. He can only fit one in his mouth while trying and failing to pick up a second ball. When the third, fourth, fifth, and twelfth balls start bouncing around the room, he gets so overwhelmed that he runs outside. One ball is plenty to entertain him. We can learn a lot from this. I do better when I focus on one thing at a time, whether that’s listening, working on a project, or looking where I’m going. This simple insight could have come to me many years sooner, but my life was so convoluted and hectic that I couldn’t figure it out. A lot had to be subtracted before I could add in focus and mental clarity.
What are things we can subtract in order to add something better?
Subtract debt to add financial security
Subtract clutter to add simplicity
Subtract options to add decisiveness
Subtract grime to add sparkle
Subtract selfishness to add compassion
Subtract resentment to add affection
Subtract excess body fat to add agility
Subtract self-pity to add grit
Subtract a feeling of scarcity to add generosity
Subtract anger to add tenderness
Subtract certainty to add curiosity
Subtract opinions to add freedom
At the time that I started eliminating the chronic pain and fatigue from my life, I had no idea how many beliefs I held that were contributing to my problems. I let them go and changed my mind only very slowly and reluctantly. Looking back from my pain-free perspective, I feel so sad for my past self. My mind was so rigid I couldn’t take in the pieces of information that set me free. I believed my condition was incurable, I believed that most activities would make me feel worse in both the short and long term, I believed I was an expert on my condition, I believed I knew everything there was to know about it, I believed it was my job to educate everyone I met about [fibromyalgia in my case], I believed that I was living out a sad fate, I believed that anyone who challenged my statements or beliefs about my illness was criticizing me rather than trying to help me. I believed I was entitled to sympathy and special consideration. I believed I should not be obligated to carry the same load as other people whom I perceived to be stronger or luckier.
Subtract all that. Now I believe different things. I am getting different results. I believe that I have the power to change every aspect of my body in many ways. I believe that sleep, hydration, micronutrients, body composition, sedentary behaviors, and range of motion are seriously, devastatingly underestimated as factors in healing. I believe that chronic pain and fatigue, like other illnesses, are the complex result of many factors. I believe that the medical establishment does not have all the answers and that I am a pioneer with a lot to teach. I believe that what worked for me is worth attempting if it might free anyone else from pain and exhaustion. I believe that I am obligated to share my story far and wide, on the off chance that a single person might be relieved of a single minute of desperation and futility (much less pain and fatigue). I believe that I have come a long way, and that there is yet more road ahead of me to explore. I believe I am getting physically stronger and healthier every day. I used to believe that I was remarkably ill and frail for someone so young. Nearly 20 years later, I now believe that I am remarkably fit and healthy for someone my age. I can’t wait until I have “the body of a 20-year-old” and the HAIR of a 60-year-old! Won’t that look amazing!
It’s like this. I used to be in so much pain every day that I needed help to get out of bed. Now I’m a marathon runner and backpacker. I used to get four-day migraines. Now I haven’t had a migraine in over two years. I used to get night terrors. Now I’ve had a single episode in over two years, and I know why it happened. I used to feel that I was stuck with “the body I had.” Now I know that I have total power and that I can have as much flexibility and strength as I’m willing to earn. (Speed, maybe not so much – still working on that one). Maybe I’m completely deluded in my beliefs. Maybe cruel and erratic gods have influenced my life by giving and taking with alternate hands. OR, maybe I’m onto something and what I’m doing is working. My attitude of experimentation and continual willingness to empty my cup (subtraction) in favor of further wisdom and knowledge (addition) seems to be paying off. My results may not impress anyone but me, but they don’t have to. I’m the one who has to wake up as myself every day. I’m the one who has to live with myself. I’m the one who reaps the harvest. I need to attend to my results, reinforce what works, and let go of my attachment to anything that is not producing the desired effect.
I used to be very attached to my physical possessions. I had boxes upon boxes of books and papers. As I subtracted them, I added space for my own writing. I subtracted the words of others and made room for the words I had to speak. I had so many clothes that my closet rod snapped. As I subtracted them, I made room for physical change. I subtracted my old, familiar look and added the fit, strong body I could barely recognize as mine. At first. I’ve added body pride and physical comfort beyond what I ever believed was possible. I used to have a packed pantry. I subtracted the sense of scarcity and added space back to my kitchen and money back to my bank account.
I used to be poor and in debt. I subtracted my fixation on the red ink in my account and entered the place of uncertainty. I started to wonder what wealth felt like. I added the sense that I have the power to earn more money, build my skills, become employable at increasingly higher levels, succeed at things even when I began with no experience, and that it is okay for me to have lots of money. I believe that my bank will never run out of zeroes to tack onto the end of my bank balance. I believe that as money comes my way, I will find places to put it! I believe that I can always, always afford to contribute to charitable enterprises, as volunteer and cheerleader at the minimum, and that the more I give toward a better world, the more freedom and abundance I feel in my own life. I believe that my current feeling of financial comfort can ripple backward through time, coloring my attitude toward my own past, changing my memories and perceptions of myself into something stronger, more empowered, and more endearing.
I don’t have much nostalgia for my younger self. When I look back, I see myself as endlessly stubborn, blind, self-absorbed, clueless, clumsy, and inconsiderate. I could have saved myself so much stress, heartache, pain, and confusion if only I had been less attached to my opinions and beliefs. What I wish I could have subtracted was foolish pride. Every day, I want to add more listening, more caring, more receptivity, more kindness, more humble effort, more attention, more affection and consideration. More strength, more health and vitality, more money – those are fine too!
I have a little problem. You see, it’s still second quarter and I’ve already been on the road 32 days this year. I spend a lot of my time on the road with patchy or nonexistent internet access. How do I keep this blog running five days a week, plus a weekly newsletter, other writing, and of course coaching?
I like to write every day, although it’s not always possible. Sometimes I have good days when I’m able to write two or three articles. I always make the most of those days. If I write seven days and post five, it doesn’t take long to start building up a little savings account. Within a year, I had six weeks’ worth of backup material. I generally post a week at a time, formatting and auto-scheduling. Before our trip to Spain, I had the bulk of three weeks posted; I had to format a couple of days from cafes or hotel rooms. If I’m working from the road, I really prefer that I’m writing for the future, rather than scrambling to catch up with something I had planned to do before we left.
Trying to meet deadlines from the road is completely unreliable. There are issues with wi-fi access, with bandwidth, with battery life, with access to electricity, with website maintenance. The last time I wanted to post from a hotel room, the hotel was fine, but my laptop wasn’t. It chose that precise moment to force a software upgrade. It took ten minutes, and we were frantic to get checked out and meet a tour bus downstairs. We made it with three minutes to spare, but it was really annoying and frustrating. When I work from the road, I prefer it to be strategic planning or content creation – Quadrant II activities, not QI or QIII.
Most of the time when we’re traveling, my husband is still on duty with his office. This works well for me. Any moment that he’s on the phone, calling in for a meeting, doing timecards, or working on email, I’m at my keyboard. Sometimes I almost wish he had some reason to spend an hour on his laptop so I’d have an excuse to work on mine! We’re both on the same wavelength when it comes to packing chargers and connector cables and backup batteries. We don’t have to explain or apologize or negotiate – we just sit down and commence working.
When we travel with my stepdaughter, it’s the same, because she’s in college. We just pull up a third chair.
There’s work and then there’s homework. We still have to maintain our basic infrastructure no matter where we are. Bills have to be paid, accounts have to be balanced, contracts have to be renewed, appointments have to be booked. Our dog gets a shot every five weeks, an odd timespan for planning purposes. Most of these things can be handled from the road. Some, like receiving updated debit cards, still involve physical mail. That can be frustrating if, as we just experienced in April, something shows up in the mailbox and you don’t find out for three weeks. Hopefully future innovations will eliminate this type of situation. Being a real nomad with no strings might not be possible anymore, not if you rely on a phone and its attendant phone bill.
We do still have a house. We even live in it most of the time! There’s work, there’s homework, and then there’s housework. Stuff still gets dusty even when nobody is there. The physical structure still needs care and maintenance. We set up a drip system for the plants, and the garden mostly cares for itself. It’s funny to come home to full-grown plants that were tiny sprouts when you left. Boom, kale! We tend to come home with two loads of laundry. I like to set up the house so that there are clean sheets on the bed, clean towels on the rack, and clean dishes in the cabinets. Empty wastebaskets and an empty fridge are the bare minimum. Then there’s the problem of coming home to that empty fridge and going grocery shopping, even when that’s the last thing you want to do. Garden plus freezer can be a reasonable option.
A systematic approach really helps. See that my husband and I both have certain structures for our work. We know and expect that we will have to deal with certain issues before, during, and after a trip. Travel can mean a lot of extra work. The only way it can be done in a minimalist manner is to cut away anything unnecessary, unimportant, or less interesting. I run around like a crazy person in the three days before a long trip, because I know that anything I leave for when we get home is setting me up for frustration and exhaustion. Opening the door and dragging in a suitcase full of dirty laundry is not a moment when you want to see an overflowing sink, scary laundry hamper, and biohazardous refrigerator. Spend enough time in squeaky clean, streamlined hotel rooms, and it’s hard to open the door to homegrown clutter and excess. I really like that hotel feeling of always having a clear desktop, shelf space in the closet, and some empty drawers. There’s no reason I can’t have that at home, and I do.
What I’ve learned from systematizing my life is that there’s no end to it. It frees up mental bandwidth, and that creates opportunities for more interesting ideas to materialize. The better we get at creating routines, the higher the level at which we function. We have almost no discussions about housework or “honey-do” tasks, because we both just get that stuff done. Since we have a weekly status meeting for strategic planning, logistics, and finances, we don’t usually talk about those things the rest of the week. Rather than distract him when something crosses my mind, I add it to our agenda where he can read it. We respect each other’s right to High Quality Leisure Time as well as unbroken blocks of time for System II thinking.
We’ve reached a place where work and vacation intersect. It has its upsides and its downsides. Preferring work to most other activities is an enviable position. It tends to lead to advancement in life. Complaining and “not feeling like it” expands to fill the space available. Making the decision to simply do what has to be done and get it over with is a really fast way to cut a lot of grievance and hassle out of life. Just do it and don’t let it annoy you! Working in this way also means the backlog of necessary yet dreaded tasks is shorter, or nonexistent.
If we were billionaires, we’d probably still live in much the same way. We’d probably stay in nicer hotels and have better laptops. Otherwise, we’d be spending time managing our philanthropic activities and investments. We’d still have to spend a certain amount of time directing our staff to make our travel arrangements and schedule our appointments. There isn’t really a version of complete idleness and indolence that sounds like it would work for more than a few days. What we’re searching for is a fantasy lifestyle that really functions. Our current balance of work and leisure is getting pretty close.
After every trip, I like to spend some time going over everything that worked and anything that didn’t work. A plane trip home is a great time for this. My husband and I spent about an hour and a half going over our two-week trip to Spain, brainstorming and comparing that trip to our Iceland trip four years earlier. What works in one season, climate, terrain, culture, or linguistic setting won’t necessarily work in another. The post-trip rundown helps us figure out what questions to ask when we plan our next trip.
What kinds of sights will we see? What kinds of activities will we want to do?
When we went to Iceland, we had plenty of time to see and do everything because 1. We had three weeks, 2. The country is not all that big, and 3. Most of the towns were very small. We hadn’t dealt with the problem of FoMO before. Almost every city we visited in Spain could easily have kept us busy for a month. We tried to cover too much ground and see too many things, and as a result we felt simultaneously rushed and like we were missing out. Sometimes we wanted to do mutually exclusive activities, and choosing one would feel like a loss to the other party.
Lesson learned: Plan at least three days per city with a full day of transition in between.
Lesson learned: Choose at most two sights or activities per day, one in the morning and one after lunch. Anything else should be a bonus approached with a sense of relaxation and ample time.
Lesson learned: Focus more on things we both want to do, and acknowledge tradeoffs.
How organized and prepared do we need to be in advance?
What we’re talking about is the difference between planning and the wing-it method. When we went to Iceland, I spent weeks putting together a spreadsheet of our itinerary, and about 85% of it wound up being accurate and useful. For the trip to Spain, we decided to arrive in Barcelona with no plans, tickets, or reservations of any kind. This was about 80% successful. The “fails” in Iceland were all the result of using a 4-year-old guidebook and encountering museums or tours whose days of operation had changed. Buying a brand-new guidebook for Spain was a $25 fix for a $500 annoyance. The “fails” in Spain had to do with not being able to find special fuel canisters for our backpacking stove, getting behind on laundry, delaying too long on grocery shopping, not being able to find bus stops, and running out of cash.
Lesson learned: Experiment with backup cooking methods, such as an immersion coil and/or hot plate.
Lesson learned: Carry one extra meal’s worth of “emergency rations.”
Lesson learned: Carry an extra $50 or equivalent in “emergency cash.”
Lesson learned: Always ask about laundry facilities upon checking into a new campsite.
Lesson learned: Check addresses using independent sources.
Lesson learned: Avoid having a time crunch when looking for a new bus stop. (Not sure if there is a way to find specific bus stops in every transit system worldwide by using an internet search).
Lesson learned: Focus on listening comprehension, safety/transportation vocabulary, and nouns. Know the names for all our gear, such as ‘tent’ and ‘propane canister.’
What is the minimum amount of gear we can get away with?
Backpacking is a great teaching tool for building discipline in minimalist packing. No, you really don’t need that; no, it won’t fit; no, you shouldn’t bring it. After you hike around carrying a third of your body weight up several flights of stairs in the Metro station, you finally understand why.
What I’ve found on every trip I’ve ever taken is that I’m never warm enough. It’s pointless for me to bring shorts, sundresses, or tank tops “just in case.” We live south of every single city in Europe, and I rarely wear those clothes even at home. I just bought a warmer backpacking jacket, and eventually I’ll upgrade to a warmer sleeping bag as well. I also always use all the ink in every pen I bring.
My pack weighed 35.5 pounds, and my husband’s weighed 42. Our goal is to get to 35 pounds for him and 30 for me. This time, I carried 5 lbs 8 oz of electronics and 1 lb 10 oz worth of gear that I never used. Most of this extra weight came from my laptop and five backup batteries for my phone. The laptop was for a single specific work purpose that couldn’t be automated at the time. As it turns out, I never needed more than two of the backup batteries and might have gotten by with one.
The way I rate what I need is simple: As I unpack, I look at each individual item and ask myself: “Did I use this or not?” Everything I never used goes into its own pile. The items I did use are rated by whether I could have made do without them or whether they were redundant. I take notes and review them before the next trip.
There are certain things we always bring, and if we don’t have an opportunity or a need for them, that’s fine. Swimsuits are so small and lightweight that they’re worth carrying. Not using a first aid kit is cause for celebration. Same with a space blanket and repair tape.
Lesson learned: Don’t wear white on the plane because the meal always has a sauce.
Lesson learned: Don’t bring canned food of any kind because security always throws it away.
Lesson learned: Don’t bring any clothes that need to be drip-dried.
Lesson learned: Banks and phone passport will not accommodate spontaneous plans to add a new country or continent to the itinerary. No data, and no access to debit, credit, or ATM.
Lesson learned: Always go for the bigger data plan.
Lesson learned: Pack journal in a zip-lock plastic bag.
Lesson learned: Bring double the amount of socks and underwear.
Lesson learned: Always bring the Therapik, a 9V battery, and insect repellent no matter what.
Lesson learned: Wear slip-on shoes to the airport.
We’re already tossing around possible locations for our next trip. The more we tighten up our planning, the more secure we are when we encounter unexpected obstacles. We’re getting closer to hassle-free all the time. These are skills that are good for travel, and also for life in general.
Walter Mischel is a benefactor of humankind. By that I mean more than just giving marshmallows and Oreos to appreciative preschoolers. His decades of research into self-control have had an immeasurable impact on the developing field of positive psychology. The “marshmallow test” in particular is cited constantly in books, articles, and various TV shows; he’s even influenced Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the “marshmallow test” is only the beginning, and that as much as I had heard about this groundbreaking experiment, it was really only an appetizer. It’s a terrific, funny, and thought-provoking book.
Marshmallows are revolting, as I’m sure everyone agrees, and I always thought, “Oh, I could resist a marshmallow all day and all night.” I have a lot of grit and I’m extremely stubborn. If there was a prize or cash on the line I’d still be there four days later, just to make sure I held the record in perseverance. I’d love to tell myself that I have total self-control. As a middle-aged person, I know better. Where we cave and allow ourselves complete leeway varies by individual temptation. I don’t give a care about food “treats” but I am almost completely powerless against books. I tried not reading books for a month and it was so depressing and awful that I’d never do it again. I also have a terrible time admitting that my news queue or to-be-read stack is past capacity. What would I have to recast in my identity to feel less hot temptation around the printed page?
The introduction to The Marshmallow Test cites Adam and Eve in the Bible. Lack of self-control is our original sin. It seems that developing control of our emotions and impulses may be what separates us from other primates. I often wonder what chimps could do if they weren’t constantly distracted by interpersonal drama, and that of course raises the question whether humans hamper our achievements in the same way.
A fascinating point that Mischel cites is Carol Dweck’s research around willpower. Not everyone’s self-control is diminished after a so-called depleting experience. It depends on whether the person believes that certain types of experience deplete energy or willpower. This clicks and feels highly relevant to me. On a daily basis, I hear people saying they wish they had more willpower or motivation or that they can’t deprive themselves. It’s a story people latch on to that helps them bond with others who feel the same way. I think it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have to believe that the rewards of waiting and deferred gratification are better than the rewards of immediacy. Most of us probably aren’t convinced.
There is a mathematical formula in Chapter 19 that explains why procrastination feels like a rational act. I won’t spoil it, but it was a jaw-dropper for me. It helps to address Dr. Tim Pychyl’s point about why a rational person would behave irrationally by choosing something as the most important and valuable course of action, and then deliberately avoid doing that thing. Behavioral economics is rapidly assembling a body of research that explains this pretty clearly.
The Marshmallow Test is an excellent book that was worth the wait. It explores the current research around self-control. It goes beyond this to practical applications for everyday life. Don’t deprive yourself; read it right away.
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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