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.
Something is going on with my lungs all of a sudden again. It’s not great. I was feeling fine earlier in the week, climbing up on a chair to rearrange the kitchen cabinets. Then Wednesday, I was working, and one minute I was fine, and the next I felt feverish and like my lungs were congested.
It was bad enough that I thought, Oh no, am I going to die of this after all? Did I somehow get re-exposed to COVID? I was racking my brain trying to figure out when or how that could be.
But then I drank a few glasses of water, and ate some soup, and I felt less bad.
Some days my energy level has been up to maybe a 7 out of 10. Suddenly today it dropped back to a 4, a familiar feeling. It’s scary and sad.
Every time it happens, though, I remember how far I’ve come.
One of the worst parts of being ill was not being able to read. I couldn’t concentrate or follow a thread, and I couldn’t remember any details. It was... think of the most boring thing you could think of, and it was more boring than that.
Now, even on low-energy days, I can still read. (At least so far). The novelty has not worn off.
Not only that, I’m doing language lessons again. Io parlo Italiano!
Will I ever get my cardio endurance back? Will I ever be able to rebuild my lung capacity enough to go hiking again, or run another 5k?
I have to think, yes. I have to think of people like Theodore Roosevelt, who was basically an invalid in childhood but who overcame his asthma to become an athlete and wilderness explorer. If his lungs could heal, then possibly mine can too.
I also think of all the medical innovations that I read about every day. The only real silver lining of a catastrophe like the coronavirus pandemic, or the Civil War, is that it fast-forwards medical research and technological advances. What we’re already seeing, and will see more of, is research breakthroughs about the immune system, and vaccinations, and pharmaceutical development, and respiratory therapies, and all sorts of other things.
That’s what I’m hanging onto, the idea of a new treatment that can regenerate healthy pink lung tissue.
Any time I make a wish for something selfish like that, something that would benefit me, I also imagine how many other people it would help. People with lung cancer, or mesothelioma, or asthma, or emphysema, or cystic fibrosis, or sleep apnea, or who knows what else. Also the people who did that research could win awards, show up in the news, get promotions and raises, and feel the satisfaction of knowing that their work helped so many people. And their families.
This is one of those ripple effects that isn’t always appreciated. Think of the coughing person, and the entire family and friend group of that person, who are relieved and happy that the treatment is working. Then think of the family and friends of the medical researcher, who smile when they think of their person being so good at their job.
There are so many people working in concerted effort to beat this thing, and their work is going to touch off innovations in other related fields.
Maybe it won’t help me in my lifetime, but I’m fully confident that it will help people who live after me.
I think about dying a lot these days, which is at least as dreadful as it sounds. But then I think, everyone dies at some point anyway. There’s no way I’m going to be alive in, say, the year 2589. (Unless I’m reincarnated, but then, would I know??) I still like to think of those future people, though, and wonder what kind of shoes they wear, and how they communicate, and what they eat for lunch.
Life goes on one way or another. Not just my life, or the life of some human somewhere, but the life of a tree, a sea creature that remains unknown to science, perhaps a sentient being elsewhere in the universe. I try to pull back and remember that, to put it all in context.
I’m still an optimist, even though I’m still living through the aftereffects of a devastating thing. Even though I’m surrounded by mask deniers and people who do not respect the commons. Even though it’s plausible that a million Americans will die of this before it’s all over, and many of them will refuse to believe that it is what it is even upon their very dying breaths.
The truth is that there is always something terrible happening at the same time as something incredible.
This has been true throughout human history, and it was true before us when dinosaurs were doing some unutterably messed-up things to each other, and it will be true after we are gone when there is eventually a heat death of the universe.
It’s all about where we put our focus and our energy.
What optimism means is the belief that it’s always possible to think of another way to approach things. It’s always possible to keep trying, to keep making even the most feeble or misguided attempts to repair a situation or think of something better.
This is what separates us from the other animals.
To elaborate, in some ways, animals never quit because they have nothing else to do but try to survive through pure grit. I once watched a black beetle at the zoo spend over five minutes wriggling around, trying to flip itself over, because somehow it had landed on its back. It eventually did it, through sheer... not abs, but... thorax energy?
What is it in us that keeps us from quitting? When we have our imaginations and the ability to preserve thought after death through writing and other recorded communications? When we have so many pessimists amongst us to remind us that there’s no point, that everything is dire all the time?
Whatever it is that keeps us going, it’s gotten us out of the caves and the mud huts where so many of us coughed ourselves to death for so many millennia. Here we are, in the future-that-was, figuring our ways out of yet another disaster scenario. We’ll never give up because it’s in our nature to keep trying.
Even when I personally don’t have much energy left to carry on, I know that someone out there does, and I send that person my good wishes.
Spoilers, this post is going to touch on the Wonder Woman 1984 movie, so if you haven’t seen it yet but you plan to, come back to this later. The rest of you can read this whether you’ve seen it or not, because what I really want to talk about is the misunderstood art of wishing.
Okay, this is where the spoilers start, and I’m only belaboring the point because one of my wishes is that other people would work harder to avoid spoilers. H/T to those who spoiled my personal experience of the fourth Harry Potter book while I was still reading the first one, and the person who spoiled the ending of The Crying Game for me, and the person who spoiled the main plot point of The Walking Dead season 6. Geez you guys. Schtaaaaaap.
I have a serious problem with the wishing issue in WW84.
...wait, that looks wrong... not planning on eighty-four world wars... Whatever, I trust you can disambiguate.
There are two big problems with the way that wishing is portrayed in this movie.
First, it shows people getting their heart’s desire, which then makes them selfish and corrupts their morals.
Second, it shows everyone all around the world making purely selfish and destructive wishes.
I just don’t think people are that mean.
I also know that most people can’t really articulate a wish, not even a single one.
Perfect example: A couple hours before I wrote this, I was on a group Zoom call, and we were joking around about Conan the Barbarian. “What is best in life?” I quoted. Then I thought, what the heck, why not actually ask everyone this?
You next - what do you think is best in life?
Nobody asked me, although the answer is obviously “listening to audiobooks on triple speed while solving cryptograms.”
Everyone was stumped by this idea!
“Don’t you all like anything??”
One person said “sleeping” and another person said “vacation.” That was it. There were no other answers.
I was like: Coffee? Beer? Chocolate? Tacos? Baskets of puppies?
Why aren’t people better at wishing for things and having favorites and enjoying things?
I talk about this all the time, because I want to inspire more people to try it, but all my clients have universally quit on the “perfect day” exercise. This is a very basic thought exercise, the point of which is, what would you do on your perfect day? Because most of those things you could probably do every day.
The art of wishing is very closely connected to this concept of the perfect day.
I have a variety of “perfect days,” at least one of which I pretty much live out every weekend.
One variety is that I go to downtown Portland, have lunch, then spend about two hours wandering around Powell’s Books, after which I have dinner with my family. In normal times I would do this three or four times a year.
Another version is that I sleep in, have Fancy Breakfast with my husband, then take a three-hour nap, and then we go to the park for a while and walk down to the beach to watch the sunset, and then we eat popcorn and watch a movie. That’s the easy one, the one we do all the time.
I don’t see why my first wish, the wish about the bookstore and having dinner with my family, is such a selfish or mean-spirited wish that it would destroy the planet if everyone tried it.
In one way, it is a rather selfish wish, because I think the real heartfelt wishes that people do carry are much more altruistic.
Why wasn’t there a single example of a worried parent making a wish by a child’s hospital bed?
Why wasn’t there a single example of an estranged couple reconciling and falling in love again?
Why wasn’t there a single example of someone wishing for their dog to be cured of dog cancer and live another few years?
There are other wishes that I think real people have wished. Wishes for lost objects to be returned. Wishes for ruined or deleted photographs to be restored. Wishes to not have dropped one’s smartphone in the river.
I mean, those aren’t so bad, are they?
I was at the coffee shop one day, back in the good old days when you could just sit there with your entire face out and nobody would care. A grade-school kid was in line, asking his high-school-aged older brother for money for a hot chocolate. The older brother was like, Get lost, kid.
I reached into my bag and pulled out a $5 bill. I got up and handed it to the younger boy and said, “Here, you can get yourself a cocoa.”
I probably enjoyed watching him smugly order his drink in front of his brother more than he enjoyed actually drinking it. I’ve paid more to watch movies that were less entertaining.
The best wishes are simple and easy.
Realizing this has transformed my life. I’ve gradually become aware that not only is it straightforward to make many of my own wishes come true, but it’s also pretty easy and fun to grant wishes for other people.
That’s why I keep doing micro-lending, and why I sponsor a child’s education, and why I contributed to build a well, and why I do the giving tree thing in the winter. It is very satisfying to do nice things for other people.
Maybe you’d like to grant a wish? Maybe a wish for me?
Maybe to wear a mask when you go outside? Or if you don’t want to do that, maybe to get your COVID-19 vaccine?
Maybe better than that. Would you spend some time thinking about what is best in life, and what your perfect day would be, and what is something nice you would wish for someone else?
It seems to be the way of the world that people are better at wishing good things on each other than they are at wishing for anything for themselves. And that’s the movie I wish someone would make.
It’s been said that we create our own reality. I believe that is only true to a certain extent. It does seem obvious, though, that we can have more or less influence over our lives depending on how prepared we are.
Preparation, not prediction. It’s a futurism thing.
We can’t necessarily guess what’s going to happen next, whether in the near or distant future.
I didn’t guess that I would get COVID-19 last March, that’s for sure. As a senior in high school, I never guessed that I would wind up working in the space industry - since there effectively *was no* space industry at that time. Anyone who pauses to think about it can probably list of a bunch of events that were major surprises when they happened.
Everyone has major surprises at some point or other. Sometimes those surprises happen to all of us at once, like a category five storm, or a global pandemic. (Just because you don’t believe in it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t believe in you).
The question isn’t what happens, the question is how we react to what happens.
The further question is, what do we *make happen* regardless of external events?
Everyone responds to stress and trauma in different ways, and there’s no right answer. There’s no correct speed or reaction time when something goes wrong. I would never say otherwise.
Personally, though, I strongly resent being toppled by external events. Shocks in my life like my early divorce, an IRS error, or getting COVID have been deeply, shall I say, offensive and annoying. My response is to drag myself back to my feet and keep on pushing.
That’s why I applied for a job when I still wasn’t 100% convinced that I would survive COVID. I wasn’t about to quit setting goals just because I might die in a couple days.
(I tried. I tried to officially relinquish all my goals, but my system didn’t really accept it).
What if you can’t guess what’s going to happen next?
Well, you can. Anyone can take a wild guess. Can you get it right? By the time you know the answer to that, it’s a moot point because you already know the answer.
This is the inherent frustration of living in the place of uncertainty.
There are probably infinite ways to deal with the emotional load of being in the place of uncertainty. One of them is to shrug, and another is to go WHEEEEE and wave your arms in the air. Of course another is to curl into a ball with your hands over your head.
My preferred way is to go back to strategy.
The great thing about finding out that the rules have all suddenly changed is that, guess what? If the old rules no longer apply, then it’s likely that almost *no rules* apply.
You can step out of the maelstrom with a new identity.
Not to say that it’s easy. It’s not.
It hasn’t been easy, for example, to get onboarded at a new job while still recovering from a near-death experience. It’s hard to learn proficiency in half a dozen new software titles while still so tired that it’s hard to sit up straight.
It felt familiar, though. It felt a lot like getting back on my feet after my divorce.
This is why people who have lived through hard times can look back and say that it all turned out okay. Not that going through trauma has any sort of intrinsic value - I don’t think that it does at all.
It’s more like being backed into a corner by life forces people to be more decisive and bold than usual. We spend more time strategizing because that’s our only choice, and if we made it out, that’s why. We finally thought of options that normally wouldn’t have occurred to us, and did things that were out of character because that felt like the only choice that made sense.
This is where preparation comes into the picture.
What I did after my divorce was to eventually go back to school and get my degree. That put me in a significantly better position to deal with the next batch of high weirdness that life threw my way.
There is nothing about college that makes a natural and obvious connection to ending a marriage. “I have nothing, let’s add thousands of dollars in debt” is not an automatic response, right?
It just seemed to be the most obvious place to add skills, and adding skills is always a good answer.
I reacted the same way when I was bucked off my horse by COVID. Should I keep on doing what I was doing before? Not really, not when I had just had a universal reset.
Instead I thought, what is the most interesting thing I could be doing right now? And I got a new job.
Other people in other situations might have a natural “most obvious” repositioning station. For some, it would probably be moving in with their parents, especially if there was a need for a caregiver around the place. For others, it might be selling all their stuff and relocating, or taking some time off and getting their teeth fixed, or something else that feels more personal and necessary.
What is always helpful is to regroup and try to put things in their new, oddball perspective.
Remember, when times are tough, that every minute feels like a million years. It isn’t clear at all what the right choices are, or how things will turn out. That’s prediction and it isn’t something that humans are very good at.
In retrospect, though, what felt like forever might only be a few months.
Looking backward from whatever happened next in the storyline, whatever was going on during that time of mysterious transition won’t even be an interesting footnote. Nobody will care.
I could tell my story as “my husband left me and I lived on my friend’s couch for a year” - which happened over twenty years ago - or I could say, “I got a degree in history and then I became a futurist, and let me tell you what I think about lunar habitats.” Both versions are true.
That’s how preparation can turn into prediction. In that one sense, whatever you do to prepare for your next phase of life has the ability to predict how your life will turn out. You can shape it if you choose which direction you want to go and put yourself in motion.
Disrupt yourself or be disrupted. This is something I think about all the time. It’s probably more obvious, after this year of grace 2020, that it really does apply to everyone.
Whatever you’re doing, whatever your default mode is, something about it may be permanently affected by external circumstances.
This can be good or bad.
The same event may devastate one person, and it may be the making of someone else.
I’ll use myself as an example. I got COVID-19 early, before the shutdown, and it ruined my life. I’m still having heart arrhythmia and shortness of breath eight months later. On the other hand, I applied for my dream job while I was still sick, and now I’m making 50% more than I did at my last job.
There is something about feeling your life force draining away, feeling like you will probably be dead within two days, that has a tendency to reset your attitude toward life.
Not that this was a good thing, not at all. Being that ill was profoundly depressing. I felt that my death would be a sad and pointless waste, that I would leave my husband a widower for the dumbest possible reason. I went to brunch and then I died at age 44.
The world would simply go on without me and my existence would barely have mattered.
That was when I started wondering what I would do differently if I managed to survive. If I got up out of the bed and started feeling healthy again, what would I do?
Would I just forget it had ever happened?
Or would I use this terrible experience as some kind of pivot point?
The same can be true of anyone, about any awful thing.
We all have the power to determine our own attitude.
We don’t have the power to prevent terrible events. We can’t stop tornados or landslides or earthquakes or volcanos or hurricanes. We’re all, in some ways, at the mercy of economic, political and cultural forces.
For instance, nothing in my power was able to prevent the advent of leggings worn as pants.
I can’t do much about my slow healing process, either. I have spent most of this year trying to get better, resting and eating lots of cruciferous vegetables. It’s taking the time that it takes.
What I did was to ask myself, Can I handle working while I don’t feel very good?
If I felt tired and low-energy for the rest of my career, could I still do it?
It feels unfair to me to be in this position, but the answer is, Yes. I can get through a workday even if my energy level is like a 4 out of 10.
What changed after my brush with death is that I understood, in a deep way, how much more useful I am than a dead person. As a cadaver, I could not update spreadsheets or help people edit their technical papers. As a living person, even a low-energy living person, there were things I could DO. That was what I wanted for myself, to contribute in a way that a corpse could not.
See, I’m a whole body donor? But after COVID my poor organs are probably too chewed up and drooled on to be suitable as a gift to someone else. I didn’t have the consolation of feeling that my corneas might live on.
My mind would have to live on instead.
Not everyone will have my reaction, of course. By the end of this, probably at least two million people will have died of coronavirus around the world. Others have had limbs amputated, lost their hearing, had psychotic breaks, and all sorts of other side effects that are far worse than mine.
Arguably there are all sorts of things that are worse than being deathly ill for a month. I would never contest that.
For me, the perspective is, it’s bad enough that the terrible event happened. I had to give it what it demanded. After that, I’m reclaiming my time. It’s up to me to do whatever I can now.
Nothing specific about that word “do.”
Not “doing whatever I can” about my health, or converting COVID skeptics, or anything else specific. My position is simply to DO. To do anything a living person can do that a dead person cannot do any longer.
When I lay in my sickbed, I fantasized about being able to stand up and take a shower every day without leaning on the tiles. I fantasized about being able to get dressed and put on my socks without having to rest and catch my breath for two hours afterward. I fantasized about being able to make myself a sandwich.
I’m there now. I have those victories.
It’s a surprisingly cheerful place to be.
The novelty has not worn off yet. I’m still grateful to be able to shower and dress and make my own lunch.
I never thought I would be grateful about logging in to work and doing projects on a deadline. But I see it differently now. I still see it as my ability to contribute something and help other people get things done. Whenever someone thanks me for doing even a minor thing, there is still that little sparkle, that I did something a ghost could not.
Other people have had terrible experiences during this sad and terrible year. Others have lost close family members. Others have lost their jobs. Others have been evicted. Others are homeless. I would hesitate to give advice to anyone in one of those circumstances, but I would not hesitate to hear them out if they wanted to talk.
I’m also not sure if this would be helpful to anyone who is going through a hard time, even the same hard time that I had, because we all have different perspectives and different moods and different emotional settings. I would say, though, that it’s helpful to me to remind myself of all the problems I do not have.
In comparison, I have never managed to think of a hard circumstance that I would choose over my own hard circumstance.
I guess all I really wanted to say is that hard times don’t have the right to destroy us.
There’s got to be at least a little small part of a person that can remain bright and untouched, no matter what happens.
For me, that was the desire to be of service, to feel that I had done something to contribute to something larger than myself. I wanted to be back in the game and be a part of something. COVID-19 tried to take that away from me, but it failed.
What is that thing for you?
I feel super dumb right now, and I don’t know what to do with this feeling other than to 1. Broadcast it in public and 2. Come up with a plan to deal with it.
Why do I feel dumb? Because I’ve been taking math placement tests, and apparently I need to redo stuff I supposedly learned in fifth grade.
Is this an after-effect of COVID-19? Maybe?
Or is it more like all the other people around my age who are trying to help their kids do their math homework, only to discover they don’t teach it the way we learned it in the Eighties?
Either way, it’s basically like this. Either I sit down and shut up and start re-learning how to use decimals, or I give up on taking the GRE.
One way to look at it is that at least grade-school math should be somewhat easy. I can get math games with cute animals and fun sound effects. As far as I could tell, none of that sort of thing is available for adult-style things, like filling out more complicated tax forms for the first time or forming a corporation.
Another way to look at it is that I have spent the last several years forcing myself to take on the worst, most obnoxious challenges I could come up with, and that this is just the last one on the list.
What have been the hardest things for you to learn to do in your life?
For me they were learning to drive, getting over my fear of public speaking, and learning to take a punch in Krav Maga. I did all those things. The first one made me cry myself into a sick headache, the second one made me think I was going to faint, and the third one was, well, kinda awesome.
Maybe what is different there is that I found it humiliating to be so bad at driving, humiliating to be rendered so overwrought by the simple act of standing behind a lectern - yet martial arts made me feel brave and powerful.
(After, that is, I hit my head on the floor trying to do sit-ups).
This is just another one of those things that I do. I supposedly like to start from a place of abject uselessness and gradually work my way up to a level of basic competence. I can look back at all my hard work and confirm that it works, that grinding away at something will eventually get you somewhere.
More importantly, I can look at my new-found skill and think, I’ll never be as bad at this as when I started, ever again.
Why math, though? Or, rather, arithmetic? Why would I do this to myself??
What’s particularly rough about this is that I work with astrophysicists and aerospace engineers. Our shipping clerks and security guards are probably demonstrably better at basic math than I am today.
The other rough thing is that I’m a card-carrying Mensan. It doesn’t even seem to fit.
How does that even happen? Like my husband, I’m unusually gifted in one area while pretty average at another. For him, math is the big kid on teeter-totter, and spelling is the little kid about to get slammed onto the ground. For me, it’s more of the reverse. I can live-translate in two languages on the same afternoon, but I need total silence before I can calculate a tip.
Something weird about all this is that I am good with money, budgets, and estimating how much I’m spending at the store. It remains a mystery to me. Maybe I can find a way to financialize every math problem?
If I had to choose between being “good with money” and being “good at math,” I’d definitely pick the former, but perhaps that is a false choice and it’s possible to become equally good at both.
Anyway, here I am, facing my own inadequacies and frustration and embarrassment. About to step into the space of humility, for my own good. The way I do every few years.
How am I doing it?
I poked around for a few days, looking at various websites and apps, considering paper workbooks. I decided that I wanted an app that could track my progress and perhaps help point me to areas where I needed more focus, rather than a stack of workbooks that would not correct or even notice my many errors.
I looked at games, and what I found were games for really tiny kids, focusing on addition and subtraction. I was hoping for something like that touch-typing game that kills zombies while you build your typing speed. If you want an idea for an app to build, something that gamifies math from the earliest levels to the highest could potentially do well. Maybe help some junior math whiz learn pre-calc in her high chair or whatever.
I compared the various education apps I already have on my phone.
The app I chose was Khan Academy. You can start out with preschool math, if you want to, and take a test to see if you’re already done with that level.
This is where I was when I discovered that the skills I stalled out at in my earlier placement test are not 7th grade math, but 5th. Are kids getting smarter, or have I been getting dumber?
This is all a moot point, because the point is to develop and reinforce a growth mindset. WE CAN LEARN NEW THINGS! It doesn’t matter how bad I am at something today, if I’m willing to apply myself and keep learning.
My goal is to pass calculus, something I never did in high school. For that to happen, assuming I was a senior, I need to get through eight academic years. How long is it going to take me? My husband says I can blast through it in a few weeks. I know better, and I know that thinking that way is demotivating for me. I don’t want to feel competitive, I just want to make sure I nail this material so I never have to go over it again.
These are the levels:
Arithmetic, basic geometry, pre-algebra, algebra, trigonometry, statistics, pre-calculus, and then apparently there is more than one kind of calculus??
All right, I’ve just shown the world my dirty laundry. Now to you. Is there anything you’ve always felt a little inadequate about that you might be able to study? If you could magically give yourself one new skill, what would it be?
I stumbled across a random idea this week, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It’s a topic that deserves deeper reading, but sometimes I like to dash out my thoughts while they are raw and then go back and bake them later.
This random idea has to do with the concepts of learned helplessness and learned hopefulness.
Learned helplessness is mentioned over and over again in pop psychology. You’ve probably heard of it. Martin Seligman did some behavioral experiments with dogs back in the Seventies, where they were electrocuted and they had to try to jump away from the shock. (Like, was that the only possible way to test this concept, seriously?) If the pattern was inconsistent, most of the dogs would eventually just lie there and quit trying to escape. This was supposed to demonstrate the concept of learned helplessness.
Learned hopefulness, on the other hand, is the idea that creatures (including us) can learn to be more persistent in dealing with obstacles if they believe that eventually their efforts will pay off.
The insight that I stumbled across is that Seligman, after decades of research, has decided he had it backwards.
It isn’t that adversity induces learned helplessness. It’s more that creatures start out feeling helpless - the state of infancy - and gradually learn their hopefulness as they become more skilled in solving problems.
Doesn’t this make so much more sense??
A baby isn’t all that good at most stuff. A baby will never get up and make a pot of coffee. A baby can’t tie its shoes, set up double authentication on its passwords, win a chili cook-off, or fold fitted sheets.
When I thought about learned hopefulness as an aspect of growth, the first image that came to mind was of a baby bird. There are two kinds of chicks: the kind that can get up and run around as soon as they hatch, and the kind that are naked and blind. A baby chicken vs a baby parrot.
You can’t blame a parrot chick for being bald and wobbly, so helpless in comparison to, say, a duckling. On the other hand, you can’t blame a duck for not living as long or being as smart as an adult parrot.
Sorry, I just lost my train of thought after doing an image search of altricial and precocial chicks. Water rail chicks!!!
Obviously infants are dependent for some kind of reason. If it wasn’t a survival trait it would have faded out.
A fun thing about birdwatching is when the parent birds get tired of feeding their juveniles, who are old enough to fend for themselves, full-sized, yet still needy and asking for a few last handouts. You may have noticed this. The juvenile will hop up and start shimmying its little wings. The adult will humor this behavior to a certain point in the season, and then start chasing off these adolescent beggars. It’s nature’s way. They have to learn to feed themselves by winter or... or they don’t.
That’s the limit for wild creatures, though. Base survival. All they need to do is to get food, avoid predators, and hopefully reproduce. It’s a little more complicated for us, isn’t it?
I’ve come to the conclusion that solving problems is what human beings are for. We get bored very quickly when we have no problems to solve, also known as the state of having “nothing to do.”
“Solve the biggest problem you can,” says Nick Hanauer, and that has become both my motto and my boogeyman. I keep asking myself, This? Is *this* the biggest problem I can be working on, or am I selling myself short? Am I not aiming high enough?
The reason this attitude works for me is that it puts the focus on the thing that needs to be done and my possible contribution, not on my goals or personal growth objectives. If the thing I am trying to do is important enough, then I have reason to propel myself forward, to tackle it. I believe that if I set out to learn something and I am willing to spend enough time focusing on it, then eventually I can figure it out.
Am I good enough today? Probably not. Maybe in a moral sense, perhaps, sure. In the sense of skills that need sharpening? If that is the question, then why ever stop?
It is hugely helpful to see ourselves in the context of fumbling and bumbling creatures that can continue to learn new things every day. It’s not our fault that we weren’t born knowing everything. Nobody was. How could a baby come into this world knowing how to touch-type and chiffonade vegetables? How could a baby be expected to perform calculus, play the saxophone, and speak eight languages?
Yet, think about it. Anything that one human can learn to do, probably any human could learn to do. With the right teacher or the right YouTube video, why not?
I don’t know how, and that’s okay.
I don’t know how yet. Maybe I don’t even want to know how. But if I did, I could figure it out.
This isn’t even a question of forgiveness. There is nothing to forgive. It is not a mistake to not know something. It is not wrong to be new and awkward.
I like being bad at things now. After several years of pushing myself to always be in a position where I am terrible at something, being humble is the best default state. I can trust the process, that wherever I am, other beginners have walked in that door and eventually walked out with competence. In that room is the place to mess up and be lousy at something, yet have fun with it. I’d rather have people laugh at me for my earnest blunders while I learn something new, if they’re going to laugh anyway.
At this point in my life, I’m perfectly willing to draw that fire so that another newbie is more comfortable. Go ahead and laugh - and when is the last time you pushed yourself to learn anything new?
Let us all be a little less precious about how others perceive us. Let us spend less time blaming ourselves or comparing ourselves to others. Instead let’s remember that as long as we are alive, we still have the capacity to learn new things, and isn’t that the most exciting thing?
What are you going to learn next?
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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