When I finally got a chance to visit my friend in the hospital, the first thing I thought was, Wow, he is in the exact reverse situation I was in last year. The more I thought about it, the more true it felt.
I got COVID-19. Nothing was visibly wrong with me, but I was having serious problems with my heart, lungs, and some neurological stuff.
My friend was hit by a car. He broke both legs (one in two places), fractured his hip, broke his arm, dislocated his shoulder, chipped his teeth, had facial fractures, and sustained nerve damage to one eye. He also has some large and very dramatic scars and a lot of road rash. Fortunately, he had no internal injuries or brain trauma.
We were both temporarily ruined. His brain and internal organs are fine, while almost the entire structure of his body is trashed. All my limbs are fine, while I’m still not sure if my internal organs will ever be the same. It’s like we had the exact opposite experience.
There are two things we have in common.
My friend was innocently using the crosswalk when he was hit by someone breaking the speed limit, running a red light, and who did not even have a driver’s license. It was a hit and run. It was caught on multiple cameras. The police know who did it but haven’t been able to arrest him yet because he’s on the lam.
I got COVID from someone who left the house with a sore throat, during a pandemic, at a time when that was one of the only confirmed symptoms of the emerging coronavirus.
In both cases, the “other guy” should have known better. Not “could have” but *should* have.
We both have reason to carry a grievance against someone who did us considerable harm when we were following all laws and social norms.
Can you see, though, that my friend has a lot more to complain about than I do?
If you were ever to go to another person and tell them, Hey, thanks, I am gaining personal growth from your tragedy. Thanks for going through all that, it definitely had a purpose because it is meaningful to me - I somehow think they wouldn’t find that very helpful. It probably wouldn’t cheer them up all that much.
My friend and I have other things in common. We both think of ourselves as runners, even though neither of us is going to be running very far in the near future. I told his wife, I’m probably the only person he knows who is slow enough to train with him when he’s ready in two years.
The other thing we have in common is that we are both optimists even under dire scenarios.
We both believe he’ll be running again in two years.
He’s been crushing it in rehab. Model patient in every respect. I doubt he’s complained even once. All his conversation is about going home again and processing paperwork, strictly business. The only things he wanted were some Swedish Fish and some new podcasts to listen to.
I thought about his recovery, recovery from multiple surgeries, the knitting of bones, removal of staples and sutures, healing skin. I guess it will probably take a year for him to recover back to a basic level of functioning, and then another year to rebuild his athletic abilities.
Probably the same for me, post-COVID.
Beginning my second year, I can climb flights of stairs and carry boxes and go on long walks. I don’t have to lie down and rest between putting on articles of clothing.
Hopefully by the end of Year Two I’ll once again be able to do a pull-up or run five miles or do fifty push-ups.
There really is something about comparing my situation to that of my friend that is helpful for me. At least I don’t have metal rods in my legs, I say to myself. At least I don’t have a broken arm. At least I can use both my hands.
At the same time, I wonder if it would help my friend to think of me while he does his physical therapy. At least my heart and lungs are still in good shape, he can think. At least I don’t need an inhaler. At least I’m not on a third course of antibiotics. At least I’m not having tachycardia.
This is the process of creating counterfactuals. Depending on how it’s done, it can either be helpful or it can be messy.
The messy way is along the lines of, Maybe I blew off my PT but at least I don’t smoke.
Is the counterfactual statement helping us find gratitude when it’s impossible, or is it more along the lines of soothing our fractured egos while we continue to annoy ourselves with our own problematic behavior?
In my own life, I have always found perspective in comparing my situation to someone else’s. This is why I like to read memoirs and true crime. No matter what has happened to me, there is always someone whose situation was so bad at some point that I would never want to trade places with them.
Gee, I guess I’m lucky to be me after all.
I know my friend in the hospital is the same stripe as me, because we’ve spent time together having philosophical conversations along these lines. It’s why we like each other.
You know what my friend thinks about being knocked into next week by a hit-and-run driver?
He feels lucky, so lucky.
If he had stepped off the curb a quarter-second earlier - this is a quote - he would have been under that car. There’s no way he would have lived.
I told him, you had a karma force field from all those times you donated blood. He laughed.
When serious bad luck has come your way, which it does sometimes, it’s your choice how to react to it. My friend and I both chose the same attitude, which was to be grateful it wasn’t worse. This is not a requirement, but it is an option.
We could have sat around bewailing our fate, and I can certainly be documented as having indulged in that quite a bit. It just isn’t all that satisfying and it doesn’t change anything. Complaining is often justified. There are, though, other options available to us if we choose to try.
What if you want mutually exclusive things?
I think this is one of the major issues with the art of wishing. On one end of the spectrum is the lack of a wish - all the people who don’t know what to want or where to start. On the other end is when someone wants something, and also wants something else, but it’s impossible to have both of those things at the same time.
Or at least, we think it is.
An example of this would be a friend of mine who wanted to travel full-time as a total nomad, but expressed that she also wanted a house and a long-term committed relationship. More on this later.
Another example would be my current situation, where I wasn’t sure whether to wish for my little parrot to live (no matter what - the Monkey’s Paw wish) - or to wish for her ultimate peace and release from suffering. Fortunately for all concerned, I dithered long enough that the trend line revealed itself, and she seems well on her way to recovery.
We’ll do a few more of these, because it helps to start learning the paradigm and recognizing it in more of its hidden forms.
The point of this is: Are there any mutually exclusive, competing wishes in your own heart?
And what are you going to do about that? Go along with neither of them?
There are ways we express this concept, such as “having your cake and eating it too.” I never understood that one as a kid. If it’s my cake, then of course I can have it! What it means is that if you eat the cake, then you no longer have the cake.
My answer to that was just to eat half and save the rest for later. ‘Cake’ in this context is a non-count noun, so if I eat half, both the wedge I ate and the part I saved would still qualify as ‘cake.’
The situation we’re talking about, with the dual wishes, is more like not being able to decide between lemon cake or chocolate cake because you know if you eat a bite of one, you won’t want a bite of the other, at least not at that sitting.
I want two things. I want to drop a bit of pandemic weight and I also now want to eat cake.
I want to hoard up my vacation time and yet I also want a vacation, one where I can sleep twelve hours a day and not care.
I want to go back to grad school, and yet I also really want to continue to avoid math classes.
There are a lot of tricks to learn about wishing, when the apparent double bind can actually be subverted in some way. Maybe the feeling that these wishes are mutually exclusive, maybe that feeling is fake?
Let’s go back to my single nomadic friend’s dilemma. She actually had another single gal with her, someone who lived the same way and loved it. They were “just passing through” many cities in the same way they were passing through certain life situations, such as being forty and still being just as wild, free, and untrammeled as a person of twenty. By the time they got to my house, they had spent hours in conversation about the attractions of married life.
This was not harmed in any way by the home-cooked meal they ate at my table, surrounded by pets and young people and guests, since it was open house night.
“How do you do it?” they wanted to know.
“You don’t actually want this,” I told them. I explained how challenging it would be to meet someone - in which city? Who had to move - you or him? What would he do while you continued to travel all around the world - would he stay at home pining for you, or would he go with you? If he went with you, would he just be bumming around because he was independently wealthy, or would he also have a travel-based job? If he traveled for work, how would you manage to be in the same cities at the same time?
If you gave it all up to “settle down,” how long would it take you to start climbing the walls?
The truth is, my answer was a test. For the type of love that could survive constant, chronic long distance, these sorts of questions must simply be answered by the individuals involved. Maybe there IS an independently wealthy fellow out there with a gorgeous house in exactly the right city, who is equally willing to stay home and wait or follow along, and maybe you’ll both be blissfully happy doing that. Why not??
Why ever not. That is the most important question in the wishing discipline. Is there legitimately any reason at all why I, or anyone else, should not have this wish?
Most wishes have a secret loophole in which you can indeed have both. Or more than both - all the infinite permutations of the wish.
An example of this would be jam or soap. I used to get a different flavor or fragrance any time I bought either of these items. I never “stocked up” because I looked forward to selecting my next choice on a whim. These are low-stakes choices that help build up your wishing capabilities.
Going back over my previously cited wishes, is it possible to eat cake and still drop a bit of weight? Yup. Is it possible to get a math requirement waived and go to university? Yes indeed - I did this when I got my bachelors. Is it possible to hoard vacation time and also take time off to sleep ludicrous amounts? Yes, with a certain amount of planning.
The thing about these darn wishes is that they take a lot of specificity.
This is the trick. Get up close and personal with your wish. Spend more time learning about it, thinking about it, mapping it out in intensive detail. What would having your wish actually look like? Why not make it come true right away?
What would you do if you were twice as smart?
The first person I asked this raised his eyebrows.
The second person responded that it would make it harder to deal with idiots.
(Would it, though? What if being twice as smart suddenly made it seem obvious not only how to deal with them - if there is such a thing as an ‘idiot’ anyway - but also how to change their perspective in such a way that they quit annoying you?)
The more I thought about this question, the more I wondered whether I would still be working on the same problems in my life that I do now.
For instance, would I still have a backlog of reading material? Probably. Would it be twice as long as it is now? Equally probable.
Would I still struggle with insomnia, probably yes, possibly more so.
On the other hand, if I were twice as smart, maybe I could finally figure out the answers to certain problems that I now find pressing, such as the desire to overpack on trips or try to do “one last thing” before leaving, making myself short on time. Or the pull to visit more and more attractions on vacation, thus changing cities too often and stressing myself out.
My image of being twice as smart is one of frenetic mental activity.
What if it were the opposite, though? What if being twice as smart meant more mental calm, as I realized that there was no reason to stress about certain things?
How about you? How do you imagine being twice as smart as you are today?
Another way of thinking about this mental game is to change the attribute. Instead of ‘smart’ we can think about being ‘attractive’ or ‘rich’ or something else. Funny?
Thinking about having twice as many family members, roommates, or pets would clearly be a little messy, even if you also have twice as many bathrooms.
Two parrots, two box forts...
Going back to those other suggestions, personally, I would not want to be “twice as attractive.” Presumably that would put a lot of people within range of a professional modeling career. I have always thought that being so physically attractive that people would insist on stopping you and demanding your attention - I have always thought that would be completely awful. The very Hollywood concept of being “discovered” was something I found alarming as a child.
You’re just sitting there minding your own business, and then someone comes along and wants you to stand still for hours so they can take pictures of you or film you? Do your hair and put you in false eyelashes?
Actually that sounds like something that people do for themselves these days, trying to become social media influencers, and it still sounds just as boring and unfulfilling to me today as it would have in the 1930s.
No thanks, I’d rather be ordinary looking.
“Twice as rich” is another interesting concept. For most people on the planet, doubling their net worth would still not make them “rich.” If I had twice as much money, I still couldn’t retire yet. Worse, I still couldn’t buy a house in my neighborhood, either.
This sort of raises the question, if everyone on Earth doubled some characteristic such as wealth, beauty, or intelligence, would it be noticeable?
Think about this for a second, if you haven’t already. If everything in the Universe doubled in size overnight - would anyone know? How could you prove it, if even your tape measure had also doubled in size? Relatively, everything would still be the same. Your car would still bump over the same potholes and your cat would still want the same amount of treats.
Would a cat sleep twice as much? If it could? That’s basically 24 hours a day.
Some of us could probably sleep twice as much, and it might not be a bad thing. Those of you in the sub-six-hour range might give this some thought.
Some of the same people could probably consume half as much caffeine at some benefit to themselves.
This idea is infectious. What if I spent half as much, or twice as much, of my attention, time, money?
Thus we return to the concept of being twice as smart, and what it would change.
How much celebrity gossip would Smarter Me follow? Is there something that I don’t find all that interesting today, that Smarter Me wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about?
Would Smarter Me still be into gator news? Yes, of course, who wouldn’t be?
Right now something interesting is going on at work. Well, lots of things are, most of which I probably don’t know about. One of them, though, is that my boss told me to follow up and file an invention disclosure on an idea I had.
This is not something that I currently know how to build. I am not an engineer. But innovation doesn’t work that way. You don’t have to have a working prototype, or even be totally clear on how to make something, in order to get a patent on it.
I love my idea. I am sure that if I were twice as smart, I would be building it. I don’t know how to make it right now - material selection, design, etc - but I like to fantasize that if I were twice as smart, I would.
I often quote Nick Hanauer with a directive that I use as my personal motto: “Solve the biggest problem you can.”
The trouble here is that you have to choose your problem - unless it chooses you, which problems often do, in the same way that a stray cat might choose you, only with less purring.
This is why I work where I do. I figured my company deals with the most interesting problems. I could be working at the animal shelter, or I could be working here, and there are plenty of other people drawn to the rescue space who could not or would not do my job.
I assume that if we were all twice as smart, we would be solving some of our biggest personal problems by working in jobs that are appropriate to our gifts. We would all choose to go toward the problems that we find the juiciest. Instead of feeling stressed by our bosses and our commutes and our colleagues and our customers and money and all of that, we could instead be animated by interesting challenges.
Or maybe not. I don’t actually know, because alas, all I have are the mental gifts that I have today. And all the rest. Just the one life, no doubling of anything that I have noticed.
Unless the entire Universe did get twice as big, just last night.
What is the thing that you would protect at all costs?
I’m not talking about your phone - although honestly, that’s the obvious one - or your kid or your cat. I’m talking the secret little thing that you do, the part of your life that you will make happen no matter how weird things get.
Morning cup of coffee?
Afternoon chocolate bar?
Reading a little before bed?
Everyone has something. One of mine is taking pictures of trash. My hubby knows I may suddenly stop in the middle of the sidewalk, even when we’re on vacation, or go back several paces so I can get my shot. It’s just part of the deal.
We know how to protect our assets when they’re important enough to us.
I was reading a time management article in Fast Company that introduced this concept in the sense of time management.
Ah yes, I thought, that is a brilliant way of looking at it. For instance, I will not go anywhere without breakfast, preferably a hot one. Doesn’t matter if we’re on the way to the airport for a redeye flight, preparing to drive a moving van several hours, or even if we’ve spent the night in the emergency room at the hospital. I am going to eat breakfast so don’t even argue.
Then I realized that this concept of protecting the asset is the difference between tidy people and... my people, the chaos club.
It’s a matter of mindset, like most things.
Many of my people associate cleaning up and getting organized with punishment and trauma. They never learned to do these things the easy way, it could never feel like a natural part of their life because it only ever happened under high-stress, emotional conditions.
On the other hand, the sort of people whose homes look like they could be on the cover of a magazine? The HGTV people? They don’t think this way at all.
What is going through their minds is more like “let’s make this pretty.” Or “I’m framing this shot so the composition is not disrupted.” They’re not focused on the drudgery at all - they’re simply restoring their environment so that it more closely matches their aesthetic vision.
...I know, right??
It actually irked me when I learned that chefs clean their own kitchen area every night. Argh, I thought, don’t let my husband read this! I was firmly of the opinion that after I slaved away over a hot pan, someone who was not me should do the cleanup.
(We’ve gone back and forth on that over the twelve years of our marriage. Some years, one of us cooked and the other cleaned, and then we would trade the next night. A few of these stints, we’ve done both the cooking and the cleaning on the same night, which is where we are now, and we still trade nights).
As my cooking improved, though, I started to feel it. I started to feel that resonance with the kitchen counter and the sink and stove as my work area, my artist’s palette. As I wiped things down, what I’d be thinking about was the next recipe I wanted to try, and how much easier it always is to walk into a spotless kitchen and get started.
Who was I doing it for? Myself.
Protecting the asset is, in one sense, my gleaming sink.
In another sense, it’s the precious bubble of my desire to compose delicious meals. For myself, and, incidentally, my husband, or sometimes my family or friends as well.
This is the biggest difference between me and a burned-out stay-at-home mom.
Well, besides the facts that 1. I can’t have kids and 2. Most 45-year-olds don’t have little kids at home.
I know that no matter who lives with me, I live there too. No matter who else is eating, this is my meal. This is my own lifestyle.
My asset, in this sense, is my sense of my own home, my household, my lifestyle, my daily routine. I live the way that I choose to live, and unfortunately that takes a certain amount of labor.
Some are willing to put nearly infinite time into their hair, their eye makeup, their nail art, their fashion choices, maintaining their shoe collection. Others put that time into gaming and creating a virtual universe for their avatars.
This is an affirmation that whatever it is that we truly love to do, we should raise it up and enjoy it. Own it, declare it - in the secrecy of our own hearts if we don’t literally feel like telling anyone else about it.
What I’ve learned to love are fine home-cooked meals and an intentional living environment.
One of those is a sort of natural outgrowth of loving a parrot.
She’s a whirlwind of loose feathers, shredded cardboard, and nibbled kibble that she’s somehow flung six feet in every direction. She is so unfathomably messy that it’s impossible to coast along and ignore it. My fluffy little gray asset.
The other thing about choosing to accept domestic scutwork with good grace is that it helps to hide my little secret. That secret is that I live for books, always have, always will. Scooting around cleaning is my way of ensuring that I have at least a little time to myself to get into my audiobook.
The asset, the asset. If I didn’t have a certain amount of private time to read every day, I would lose my mind. I honestly don’t know how other people survive without it.
This idea, of framing things as assets and putting the focus on that - rather than problems - can change your life if you let it.
The assets of mental bandwidth
The assets of relationships and long conversations
The assets of the physical environment - the soft bed, the sparkling kitchen, the reading chair, the indulgent bathtub, the desk where interesting things happen
The asset is anything you want it to be, anything that you choose for yourself. There’s no reason to limit yourself to just one. What if it was an asset of entitlement to something like privacy or creative expression or advanced education?
What’s on your mind?
Is it a problem or a project?
Something I decided, when I was young and broke, was that I was better off struggling with a clean bathtub than struggling with a grimy bathtub. At least at the end of the day I could soak and cry in a nice hot bath.
When you’re young and broke, there are a lot more things outside of your control to drive you crazy. It’s one of the advantages of middle age that you know how to handle more stuff. You’re better at setting boundaries and avoiding the avoidable kinds of drama.
Ah, but what do you do when you don’t know what to do?
What if your problem is that a situation is out of your control?
What I’ve found as I’ve gotten older is that most of my problems are other people’s problems.
Then the problem becomes, Is there a way to help this person? Can I personally do that thing? Would they want me to?
Usually the thing to do is just to be a good listener. That doesn’t even count as a project. Simply avoid the long list of terrible, insensitive things that other people are known to say. Try not to create a new one.
It seems that the cultural rule is, your problem does not count. Only grievances, not trauma. Only anger, not sorrow. Do not expect comfort or sympathy under any circumstances, because that is weak and we practice individualism.
It’s easier - or at least slightly less hard - when you realize that most people are never going to say the right thing. If you gave them a printed checklist, they still couldn’t do it. Given many chances, they still will somehow bungle the opportunity and fail to say anything helpful.
This is when it starts to feel like a better idea not to confide in other people. At least then you can continue to view them the same way that you did before. You don’t have to mess up your impressions with the single worst thing you’ve ever heard them say. You don’t have to witness them failing at emotional support.
And this is where it can be so helpful to have a project.
I used to have a craft project that I would bring for awkward visits. I could avoid many hours of political debate or unpleasant topics by just being deep into my work. I could pretend to be a person with no opinion.
Nobody is entitled to my opinion.
It makes sense to me. Don’t try to talk about all things with all people. Don’t expect all people to be equally good at support, sensitivity, or rational discourse. Try to appreciate people for who they are and what they can give, without holding them to standards that they didn’t sign up for.
Sometimes what a situation needs is just time to think it through.
That’s another time when it’s helpful to have a project. It’s good to have your hands on something that you can do something about. Sometimes focusing on something practical is good for focus, when everything else in the world seems very much out of focus.
It’s also true that our external surroundings can play their own part in a stressful situation. For instance, it was hard to deal with a death in the family when our loud upstairs neighbors kept banging around from 6 AM to midnight every day.
All we could do about that was to move, which eventually we did. I’m sure those people are still banging around and keeping the same hours that they always have. They’re just doing it with different people living underneath them now.
The only guarantee with problems is that there is no upper limit to how many you can have.
In fact, problems tend to compound. One of the reasons for this is that we accrue the problems that pertain to our mindset, our boundaries, and what we are willing to tolerate.
A person who has trouble setting boundaries will probably be taken advantage of by various people, over and over again, until finally they realize they don’t have to put up with that.
A person with a high standard for domestic chaos will live in it.
A person with a blind spot around money will be in perpetual debt.
A person who is at war with the concept of biologically imposed limits will suffer preventable health issues.
Sometimes, a shift in mindset can basically cause a whole set of problems to evaporate. Change the behavior and the problem falls away.
Other times, it takes a bit more hands-on effort to resolve a situation. This is where the projects come in.
The tricky part is to make sure that the project fits the problem. Or rather, that the project will mitigate or eliminate the problem in some way, and not merely serve as a useful distraction while the problem continues.
(Although sometimes a useful distraction is all we can hope for).
I’d always rather have a project than a problem. It gives me something to do rather than sit and cry on my shoes. It also gives me something to talk about when I don’t want to tell anyone what’s really on my mind.
What project are you working on next?
I’ve been on the fast track before and I think it’s overrated.
It’s fairly easy to stand out in most endeavors, if you are a person of ambition. Show up to everything, and show up prepared. Pay attention and take notes when someone offers to explain something to you. Make yourself useful. Remember people’s names.
If you have intrinsic motivation - that is, your own personal internal reasons for being there - it will show. That motivation attracts people like a beacon. It doesn’t take long before opportunities start being handed to you every time you turn around. The more you do, the more you’re asked to do, and you start getting increased responsibility.
That’s the fast track.
The trouble with the fast track is that it doesn’t give you time to build relationships or get to know the deep culture of the organization.
That’s why I decided that the next time I took something on, I would do it the slow way.
I had to realize, for my own good, that every time I get involved with something I wind up in a leadership role. Not because I have massive charisma or anything - in fact, probably quite the opposite. The problem is more that when I get involved with something, I start noticing how much work it takes, and I start picking up litter or stacking chairs.
The grunt work is how you meet the real movers and shakers of any organization.
It turns out that it’s nearly impossible to do a lot of service work without getting noticed. If your goal is invisibility, there has to be a different way.
I realized that I don’t know how to be involved in a recreational activity just for the fun and relaxation of it. I don’t know how to just buy a ticket, have a nice time, and go home. I keep finding myself on the cleanup crew. Or, worse, the steering committee.
After finding myself on the board of two separate organizations in a row, I finally had to accept that there was a theme in my behavior. 1. I would get involved in something, 2. I would start volunteering to help run it, 3. It would take over my life until I was doing something org-related every day of the week.
That was when it hit me, if I was going to work rather than play, then I might as well start getting paid for it again...
I took a job.
A paid job!
I sat myself down and said, Self, it’s probably going to happen again. You’re going to do what you always do, which is to get curious and start asking questions. Then things are going to start rolling.
I’ve started to think in the four-year time horizon. If I start throwing myself into a new activity, even if I am truly terrible at it in the beginning, within four years I tend to have a pretty solid grasp of how things work. That seemed completely plausible in a new role at a new company.
I have probably twenty years of career arc ahead of me. A lot can happen in twenty years.
This is, by the way, a very difficult mindset for a twenty-year-old kid to hold. At that age, I would not have had the patience to think, I may be in this role for four years, and that’s okay. Also I couldn’t afford it. At the beginning of my career, I didn’t think in terms of skills or certifications or increasing responsibilities. I thought in terms of my rent taking up over 80% of my income.
Now I have the time and the wherewithal to relax and look around a bit.
There are certifications I could run out and get for myself over a long weekend, or perhaps within six weeks. There are a bunch of things I could cram for in a very short time that I could tack onto my resume. If all I wanted was more money, I could target a search for open roles and start shooting my shot.
This is somewhat of an experiment, but I don’t think that’s actually the fast track. In some ways, I think it’s faster to go slower.
One thing that money cannot buy is reputation.
Reputation is the slow track.
When I was young, I used to wonder why So-and-So got a promotion. Or not really wonder, just hear about it and get mad. Isn’t it obvious that I’m the one who really needs that money! That was an improvement over my original idea, at 18, which was, Isn’t it obvious that I’m the smartest person here??
(If you’re so smart, why aren’t you the one getting the promotion?)
Now, I actually wonder. That is, I ponder over what skills that person has demonstrated, what types of problems they are known to solve, and how they earned their reputation. If A, that person has definable traits that got them a promotion, and B, I can figure out what those traits are, then C, I can work to acquire those promotable traits.
It’s also slightly more complicated than that, in the sense that not every promotion is one we would want.
I’m finally in a place where I can be glad for someone who got promoted, and also realize that I myself would never want that particular job.
Part of the slow track is figuring out how the organization is run, what roles it takes to get everything done, and then where you do and do not see yourself eventually.
For instance, in the space industry, there are a lot of jobs in shifts all around the clock. I sometimes think, I bet someone else absolutely hates working in the middle of the night, but they do it because it needs to get done. I, on the other hand, am a born night owl. Wouldn’t it be nice for everyone if that was my job?
I haven’t been at my current job for a year yet. I’m still figuring out how they do things. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in five years.
That’s okay, though, because on the slow track you can take your time to figure it out. All I need to know is that I like this place well enough that I might still be there in twenty years.
I was inspired by a question in James Clear’s newsletter this week: “What 6-month period of your life was the most energizing and fun?”
Huh. I have no idea.
I turned and asked my husband. Huh. He sat back and did not have a quick answer.
We happened to have our Toastmasters meeting, and I decided I would have to ask the group. Most of us have been meeting every week for a few years now, and we know each other fairly well, but I didn’t have the faintest inkling what my club friends would have to say about this.
Six months, you say? The most energizing and fun?
If you’re a Toastmasters geek, this is something that we do sometimes when nobody has a prepared speech. We do an “extended Table Topics” of 3-5 minutes, and everyone answers the same question. Everyone gets a chance to speak and we skip the individual evaluations.
The meeting flowed smoothly, as I asked who wanted to go first, and after one person spoke, someone else would feel moved to take a turn. Nobody competed and there was no dead air.
Preparing for a mid-life wedding with the adult children as the wedding party.
Preparing for a friend’s wedding, only to meet his future bride during the ceremony.
Preparing for an international adoption.
Childhood travels to visit family all over the country.
A winning football season.
Being a college student in a filthy apartment, eating junk food, and having fun, not even realizing the responsibilities of being a husband, father, and business owner that would come. (That one was pretty funny).
What struck me, listening to everyone else’s stories, was how much they all revolved around relationships and a state of anticipation.
Who has been feeling that lately? The anticipation of being able to socialize with people we haven’t seen in a long time?
The thing about choosing a six-month period is that it might involve a string of events, but it also might incline someone to pass over some of the biggest highlights of life. Something significant and exciting might happen as a flash in an otherwise humdrum time.
Six months can be a long time.
I racked my brain.
You’d think that someone would have chosen a point in childhood, like learning to walk or ride a bike, or learning to read!
Strangely, though, the moments that are probably most exciting to our parents as we grow from infants to accomplished little kids, the moments that fill our early photo albums, are most likely to be times that we take for granted.
The times we learn the most and physically change the fastest, meh. Not so interesting.
I had a suspicion, going into the meeting, that nobody was going to pick childhood, and I was right.
It was also compelling to hear people speak on these topics after having met them in the context of work. These are people with advanced degrees, patents, and academic publications in some cases. I happen to know that a couple of them have been commended for pretty impressive stuff. But nobody talked about that type of success.
Do we not think of our professional or academic accomplishments as “energizing” or “fun”?
I was still quizzing myself about what six-month period I would choose, when a last-minute guest popped in just in time and used the last speaking slot. We were out of time, and it was my privilege as toastmaster to hand over the lectern and escape without sharing my answer.
Then I thought, well, I shall ask my readers. Why suffer this question alone? Perhaps the lot of you will spend the weekend mulling it over.
When, indeed, was the six-month period of your life that you would describe as the most exciting and fun?
I passed over college. The time when I was writing my final history paper was pretty exciting and fun, but then, my roommates had to short-sell their house and I was technically homeless for a couple months, and in that time I also got a nasty respiratory infection and coughed up blood. That actually looks more dramatic in print than it felt at the time! It was, though, a heady mixture of intense stress mixed in with the fascination of researching my topic.
I passed over the time I started dating my husband, although I think that time period came close to meeting the six-month mark. That was when I moved into the first apartment I had to myself in many years, and the crack-smoking parolee moved in upstairs, and I quit sleeping and my hair fell out.
I passed over the time I was training for my marathon, because actually I overtrained and blew out my ankle and had to quit running for a couple years. Then I thought maybe I’d pick 2011 or 2012, when I was running in the regional park by our house all the time and feeling quite fit. But our social life was sort of a mess at the time, and that’s a lot of what I was thinking about those days.
I settled on the summer of 2019, when I was finishing my DTM and campaigning for my election, we went to World Domination Summit, moved to our new apartment, went on two international trips, and had a housewarming party. At the end of that six-month period, we visited my family for Christmas - and little did I know, that remains the last time I’ve seen them. It was the last normal six months.
That’s why this was such a nice topic for everyone to speak about at our meeting. We were all able to cast backward with nostalgia and come up with happier times. Everyone softened, and what we remembered were parties and group photos and road trips and plane rides and planning, planning unencumbered with worry.
There’s something instructive in choosing for ourselves, out of our own experience: what six-month period was the most... energizing? Fun? Some other characteristic or qualifier that is meaningful to you? It tells you something about yourself.
For my own life, I have realized that I seem to have a preference for times of transition, times when I am working really hard on some big challenge and I’m about to level up. Not the time of accomplishment, not basking in the results of whatever big project, but the strenuous uphill phase.
What is it for you? If you had trouble choosing, is there anything that your bright windows of life had in common?
What would it take to create similar conditions in the future?
It’s always a good idea to think a little bit before making a big decision, although unfortunately I think it’s common to use those transitional moments to avoid the choice. Most people tend to talk themselves out of stuff.
I don’t think the stress of making a decision is all that big a deal. I think transitions are interesting.
The stress I’m worried about is the unknown attitudinal changes that will be required after making the change. If ‘then’ is going to be different than ‘now’ - then how?
What information will I have then that I don’t have yet?
What will Post-Decision Me wish I’d known?
Is there anything useful I can find out from anyone else who has already done this?
Is being in the new place going to affect the way I make decisions from that point forward?
I hear a lot of people talking themselves into making some kind of big change by saying, “I’ll still be the same person.” This has always seemed very strange to me. What is the point of making a change if you’re going to be the same person afterward? Isn’t the entire point to become someone new, at least in a small way? Someone better in some sense - stronger, braver, more experienced, more skilled, more interesting?
One of the worst things I can think of is to always be the same person, forever. I mean. What if we were all still stuck with the musical tastes we had at age twelve and the culinary preferences we had at age four? The driving skills we had at fifteen? I don’t particularly think that my listening skills, ethical framework, or storytelling abilities were better at any earlier age than they are now, so why would I want to be stuck at that point of development?
This is what it sounds like when I try to talk myself into something.
I think what some people want to hang onto is actually a certain skeptical outlook, which is all well and good. It’s good to be rational when making choices and doing research. Personally, though, I’d rather be swept away and smitten by something when I’m exploring something new.
That is how it happens for me - that I get a mental crush on something and throw myself at it, learning as much as I can, until I develop a certain level of competence or knowledge. Then it generally becomes something that I follow on more of a maintenance level.
This is the feeling that I’m hoping to generate as I contemplate going to grad school.
There are other things I’m contemplating, one of which is the possibility of moving up a level at work. Okay, maybe not right this minute - but I have a solid twenty years of career arc left ahead of me on the traditional timeline. That is plenty of time to work one’s way into a leadership position. It isn’t wrong to declare an intent in that direction.
That would be one of the main points of getting a doctorate as well - some sort of role as a thought leader.
I’ve never had a true profession. It staggers my imagination that I am still in a clerical role at 45, although it’s something that I chose and chased down for myself, believing it to be a foot in the door of an organization that has captured my attention. One way or another, I will vault myself up and out at some point.
What I am starting to realize is that there are mindset shifts that must occur between one level and the next.
“What got you here won’t get you there.” Yet there’s sometimes a Catch-22, in that you can’t really know what you need to know until you’re able to find it out.
I often feel that I finally know enough to start whatever it was that I’m doing, six months or a year later. For instance, it was only after six months of Krav Maga that I felt physically fit enough to start taking the classes. If only I’d known to start doing fifty push-ups before I came here...
The question is always, What is the ‘fifty push-ups’ of this discipline going to be?
I hope it’s public speaking, since I already trained on that. But what if it’s statistics, or pivot tables, or calculus??
I’ve always been a grind, and it never really bothers me to have to grit my way through something. When I think about competing with kids twenty years younger, I laugh. Not a single one of them can out-read me. There is no way anyone in their twenties can possibly compete with the discipline and focus of someone in their forties. Sorry, kiddos.
There are other advantages of mid-life, few of which would be apparent to a younger person. For instance, a lot of major decisions have been crossed off my list that can still completely derail them. I know where I want to live, whether I want to get married (yes) and have kids (no), and I know how to cook and manage a household. I know there’s no reason to go to late-night parties, at least for me; it turns out the same people exist at 8 PM as exist at 2 AM.
So many of the temptations of youth haven’t panned out. I’m at a stage of life when that feels satisfying rather than disappointing.
When I think about going back to school “at my age” it is, in many ways, a relief. I have gained so many competencies that were not in my arsenal 25 years ago.
In other ways, I remember how tired I was after studying all night, and I wonder whether I really have even one all-nighter left in me.
What I look for is the person I will be on the other side, the career she will have, and the outlook on life that she will have earned. That is not a tired woman who pulls all-nighters.
What I try to do is to put on her insights as an imaginary thinking cap. What attitude would she have toward these decisions, Future Me? What advice would she give me? How would she respond to the situations that currently stress me out?
This is what makes me think that it’s a fair trade. The stress of today, the decisions and the transitions that lie before me, in a transaction that buys me the comparatively stress-free position that Future Me will have earned.
Is the glass half empty or half full?
I’ve always felt like the basic formulation of the “optimist vs pessimist” question - is this glass half empty or half full - was designed by a pragmatic, convergent thinker.
Who cares what’s in it when you have the glass itself?
Think of all the things you can do with a glass!
If it’s completely empty, you can hold it against a wall and eavesdrop on people.
You can have a wedding ceremony and have someone stomp on it.
You can use it to roll out dough and cut nice, symmetrical biscuits.
You can fill it with flowers.
You can draw a picture of it - or if you’re not great at drawing, you can use it to draw circles.
Then you can use the glass to hold the corner of the paper down.
Or let’s say the glass is half empty. It has something in it, say your favorite juice, but - it’s almost gone! *schnif*
Woe, woe, the way of the world, my glass is almost empty, isn’t that always the way
But the very existence of the glass refers to the availability of a million different kinds of beverages out there in the world.
Free, sanitary tap water!
The cleanest the world has ever known!
Inexpensive industrial beverages, available not only at every single grocery store, convenience store, and gas station, but in vending machines as well.
And you don’t even need a glass to drink them!
Then it only makes sense to think, this darn glass is still half full. All this liquid is getting in the way of all the other potential beverages that could be in here. Won’t someone please come along and empty this darn glass so I can refill it with something I like better?
Chug it and empty it yourself, drain it to the last drop, knowing there will always be more where that came from!
The truth is that an empty glass is a call for hospitality. How many parties, weddings, even funerals are there where someone walking up with an empty glass will quickly have it filled?
Even the most begrudging people would probably still allow you to fill this glass from their garden hose, and that’s not nothing.
A stranger holding a glass in hand is basically crying out for someone to come up with another glass and clink it, Ting!
This is something my little parrot loves to do. If you meet her, she’s going to want to know if you ting. Take turns tapping the glass and holding completely still, listening for the ringing sound until it fades away, then it’s the next bird’s turn to go ting.
See, a drinking glass is not just good for a philosophical construct. It is an interesting material object in its own right, and of interest not just to humans but to other species.
Why, just set it down on a table and find out what a housecat will do with it.
Thus is it clearly demonstrated that it doesn’t matter one whit whether the glass is half empty or half full. The very existence of the glass itself is a testament to the problem-solving and creative nature of humanity, our ability to continually generate new ideas and new ways of doing things, making them decorative in the process.
Anyone who sees less is just too impatient to apply a bit of imagination to the question.
People be out here listening to their craziest friend. I am very curious as to why.
This is genuinely what seems to be happening. If the rule is, Anything mainstream is automatically suspicious, then the most paranoid person suddenly seems like the wisest and best strategic thinker.
I like this sort of thing for comedy value. In practice, though, I have questions.
It used to be that you could go to people and ask them about their experience with something, and they would tell you a story about what happened to them, and you would be smart to follow their example.
For instance, I was at a meeting the other day where people were trading tips on which DMV was the fastest, how to get an appointment, and what to bring with you. If someone shared information that turned out not to be true, the next person to go there would quickly find out. Then they would tell everyone. The first guy would lose a bit of credibility and would probably be expected to give a sort of apology. Whoops, my bad.
That is how social proof works.
People are constantly asking each other for social proof. What restaurant is good. Did you try that flavor yet. Is that breed of dog good with kids.
That is the entire premise of everything having star ratings or likes or product reviews. We want to learn from each other what things work as promised.
What we’ve all learned from a couple of decades of rating everything, from movies to salad dressing, is that some reviews are not worth reading because the reviewer obviously has a screw loose. Giving something a one-star review because you had problems with the shipping is not helping anybody.
We’ve all quickly learned to skim through the page-long rants because it seems pretty clear that that person’s deranged opinion is not going to affect our experience of the local dry cleaner or veterinarian.
The trouble is, we don’t seem to be quite as savvy about topics that don’t involve consumer products or local businesses.
I wonder why that is?
I was talking to a friend the other day and she said her parents aren’t planning to get the COVID-19 vaccine because of the “long-term effects.” It turns out my friend’s mom’s friend’s... son? Neighbor? works in a hospital. In the mom’s mind, this makes him a nurse. Supposedly he said something about Bell’s palsy, which she heard as Ball’s palsy, which then somehow morphed into the story, “Nurses are saying that the COVID vaccine causes cerebral palsy.”
Bell’s palsy, by the way, can be caused by viral infections. It’s a temporary facial paralysis that resolves in six months. Yeah, I wouldn’t want it, but it is far less frightening to me than the idea of getting COVID again! And it has nothing in common whatsoever with cerebral palsy, which only happens to kids under age three.
What this sort of anecdote comes down to is, I heard something that made me nervous from someone I know, therefore I am 100% opposed to it.
Even though I can’t even remember the exact details and I’ve never even met the first guy who said it.
The “long-term effects” argument sounds perfectly reasonable. A lot of people are skittish about getting the vaccine because it was developed so quickly. They think that must mean that there can’t be enough testing information from humans, and they don’t want to be that first penguin that jumps in and gets eaten by the leopard seal.
Okay, then, you want more information about “long-term effects” before you’ll take it? What timeframe are we talking here? One year? Five years? Twenty years?
That means you would literally rather the pandemic continue to rage unchecked all around the world for whatever length of time than have a vaccination program in 2021?
What year, can you tell me? What timeframe do you think would be long enough?
Also, could you give me numbers on the number of sick, hospitalized, or dead people that you find acceptable? Like, maybe if the numbers stay low enough we could all wait even longer?
It took over two hundred and fifty years to go from variolation in North America to the elimination of smallpox. (1721 to 1974).
Is that long enough?
I go back to what I was saying to my hesitant friend. If vaccines caused some kind of long-term health effects, we would be seeing that reflected in the longevity data. Vaccines appear to have added thirty years to the average human lifespan just in the last century.
If you think that lifespan increase was due to something else other than vaccines, what do you think it was? Television? Microwaves? Air pollution? 5G?
The most surprising thing to me about vaccine hesitancy is when you hear about it from people who were previously fine with it. People who were vaccinated as kids, who then took their own kids to get their shots, people who were maybe even getting their flu shots up until recently. What changed?
Why are there so many Boomers out there who are nervous about vaccines, when they saw smallpox completely eradicated in their adult lifetime?
Oh, and polio! How many Boomers knew someone who caught polio?
The biggest question of all to me is this. Why would you think that vaccines from 40-60 years ago were somehow safer or better than the vaccines that we have today?
Think it out. How many stories have you heard in your lifetime of people who survived breaking their neck or having a stroke or heart attack? When you were a kid, wouldn’t you have expected that all those things would have killed someone?
Medical science has improved. If you stop and think of all the anecdotal evidence you have of various people surviving accidents or surgery or crazy illnesses, most likely you will be able to come up with a bunch of interesting medical miracles. For instance, we had a neighbor who survived meningitis and another who had a quadruple bypass. I know at least four people who have had brain surgery.
On the other hand, your memory is probably also full of every story you’ve ever heard under the category of Disaster.
It’s a survival trait to trade disaster stories. We don’t want the same thing happening to anyone else. “Don’t eat that, it gave me food poisoning” is probably one of the very first folktales that humanity ever told.
This is where we stand today. We’re constantly bombarded by information from literally millions of possible sources. It’s too much for us all to do due diligence on all of it. The way we cope is by relying on people we can vouch for, people within two or three degrees of separation from us.
We like the stories that come from our craziest friends because they are more memorable and because they seem more trustworthy than whatever we’re told by any kind of larger organization.
We’re at a crossroads where we have to choose what we think is true, and base our actions on that. Unfortunately, the consequences for turning in one direction or the other are more serious than usual. I hope that the path of documentable results becomes more well-trodden and that it starts to be more obvious which way to turn.
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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