This Wasn’t on the Program

“I haven’t heard anyone say anything bad about him. He’s never caused any trouble.”

That’s essentially the comment I remember reading from one of my classmates in the closing days of high school. Graduation was looming, and people were going around saying their I’ll-miss-yous and this-isn’t-goodbyes (and, in some cases and in hushed tones, good-riddances). In our class, one of our closing exercises was to write whatever you could say about your classmates and give it to them on a strip of paper. I forgot how exactly, but we did it in a way where the person will not know who wrote the comments about him. Lots were involved.

I struggled to think of things to say. I was never one to mingle or mix, electing instead to stick to my primary role of studying;  looking back, I’d probably describe myself as a ghost, following rules and staying out of people’s way just so they’d stay out of mine. It was the courtesy of giving space, the practicality of avoiding friction.

I don’t remember what I wrote about others (though I know I didn’t think or say anything bad about anyone). I don’t even remember what people said about me, exactly. But that one sticks out.

At the time, I was proud of that.

***

“You can’t live your life in the baby seat,” the Barenaked Ladies sang from the radio as I drove around campus (slowly, because I was a newbie driver), collecting the various signatures that I need to get cleared. It was time to graduate again–this time, from college. Earning my degree had been a challenge, sure, but it had not felt like an ordeal, exactly. It was just another item to check off on my what-you’re-supposed-to-do-in-life list.

Was I happy about it? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I was staying with the program. Keep your head low; nose to the grindstone, eyes on the books; keep your GPA up; don’t let others down; don’t rock the boat; don’t push other people; don’t invade others’ space; keep your elbows in, and don’t shove as you walk through the crowd.

I drove back to Albert Hall, where I got the last set of signatures I needed. All the blanks were filled.

Mission accomplished.

***

While complying can be an effective strategy for physical survival, it’s a lousy one for personal fulfillment. Living a satisfying life requires more than simply meeting the demands of those in control. Yet in our offices and in our classrooms we have way too much compliance and way too little engagement. The former might get you through the day, but only the latter will get you through the night.

I read that passage from Dan Pink’s book Drive, and it hits me like a liver blow. Three decades in, and I still haven’t found what I’m looking for–mainly because I haven’t thought about what it should be yet.

Around me, I see people getting married, building careers, making names for themselves, nurturing connections.

“I noticed tonight that the world has been turning while I’ve been stuck here dithering around,” the frontman of Keane croons through the speaker of my smartphone.

Dreams, it turns out, are not distractions. They are not beside the point. They are, in fact, the point.

***

So to you, whoever you think you are–brother, sister, friend, lover–I say: learn the lesson I did not. Don’t build your life around the convenience of compliance and avoiding offense. Wander a bit, determine your passion, and don’t waste your opportunity to pursue it…

…because “I haven’t heard anyone say anything bad about him” makes for a poor eulogy.

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The Pursuit of Happiness(es)

We’ve heard it said that “life is like a marathon”. In both cases, you have goals. Also, in both cases, you need energy to get to those goals, so you need some way of producing that energy. In marathon running, runners switch between two types of respiration; in life, people switch between two ways of pursuing happiness.

Gratified or Fulfilled?

Let’s consider two types of happiness as discussed by Greek philosophers. The first is hedonia, the root term for hedonism. Basically it’s the happiness associated with more immediate self-satisfaction and gratification, with little regard for long-reaching consequences and with a priority on minimizing pain. Want to engage in retail therapy? Want to party till the sun comes up? Want to make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young? Find yourself wanting to indulge in the excesses similar to popular musicians like David Bowie, P Diddy, and Steven Tyler? That’s hedonia, baby.

Life is like a box of chocolates: onnomnomnomnomnomnom.
Life is like a box of chocolates: nonnomnom.

Eudaimonia, on the other hand, is a more long-term kind of happiness. It’s happiness that is associated with fulfillment, with self-actualization, with getting to your highest level of potential. It’s the kind of happiness that accepts the possibility of taking a few licks along the way, and you don’t have to really “feel good” all the time to be happy. Just getting back up when you’re down and making yourself a little tougher as you go on your way  to becoming the best “you” can make everything worth it, and much more. Eudaimonia involves more self-building habits: the satisfaction from making or fixing things yourself; the joy of learning things; the empowerment that comes from acting to change yourself or your circumstances for the better.

horizon
“Lord don’t move that mountain; just give me the strength to climb it.”

The thing about eudaimonia, though, is that it relies on inspiration. You need to care about your self-fulfillment in order for that mode of happiness to matter to you, and that can be hard to do when times get tough, when you keep failing over and over again, and when it seems like the values you hold most dear don’t hold any worth in the moral or ethical economy that you are having to transact in. In those cases, you need something to pick you up. When your inspirational beacon seems to fail in those hours of darkness, you need a little short-term, doesn’t-really-matter light. And for those times, I can see the value in hedonism.

spark
Oooh, pretty!

So, conventional wisdom holds that people can approach happiness in only one way or the other. There’s one side, which favors pleasures enjoyed by yourself or with someone else; and there’s the other, which favors personal fulfillment over short-term satisfaction. But in reality, you’ll most likely need to switch from one mode to the other as you go through life’s ups and downs.

What’s Your Mix?

So here’s the kicker question: how should you mix your happiness? What proportion of your life should you devote to eudaimonia, and what should be left over for hedonia?

The answer, of course, is that there is no one answer. People are all different from one another. Some people may get more out of the partying, getting-high, intense-stimulation or heavy-escapism lifestyle, while others may look for the more calm, placid, chill contentment that comes from a purpose-driven life. Don’t expect all people to fall within these two categories, however; we’re more likely to fall within a spectrum of these things. To get to your way of happiness, you have to find your own blend. For those who want that put in a psychology-meets-economics kind of way, here’s a blog post with a chart and a scholarly reference.

What kind of happiness do you think works for you? Why does it work? Do you think your preference will change anytime soon? Let me know in the comments!

Score Points with Your Future Self

We all have a problem with immediate gratification, I think. No matter who you are or what your situation in life is, there’s always one indulgence that, despite your rational mind instructing you otherwise, you cannot resist. It could be video games. It could be watching movies. It could be sports, or drinking, or eating, and you just can’t get enough… or at least, you just can’t get it soon enough.

The thing is, when you make a choice to indulge yourself, you have to give up time and effort that could be spent some other way. There may be other productive things you could do. Maybe you have homework to do. Maybe there’s a project you have to get to, a deadline you have to beat, or a test you have to prepare for. And maybe, just in that moment, you decide to blow it off in favor of indulging yourself, because your future self can take care of it.

"Y'know who I think we should let deal with this problem?" "Who?" "Future Ted & Future Marshall."
“Y’know who I think we should let deal with this problem?”
“Who?”
“Future Ted & Future Marshall.”

Don’t Deny Your Gratification…

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with decompressing. We’re human beings, and we all need to decompress from whatever pressures we deal with in our day-to-day existence. It’s all part of us being multidimensional and being something beyond our work or obligations.

Imagine what life would be like if we did nothing but fulfill our obligations every day. We’d eat not for the pleasure of it, but for the energy that it gives us to do our job; we’d have no awareness of anything that doesn’t concern protocols, procedures, and productivity. We’d be no fun. And probably a bit weird or sociopathic.

Just Delay It

However, what I do suggest is that when we do something to gratify ourselves immediately, let’s consider whether there would be any repercussions to our future selves. If there’s an immediate choice I have to make between binge-watching a series or working on a project I absolutely must finish, I should think about what will happen if I go for option A. Will my future self still be able to beat the deadline?

Whenever we make these kinds of decisions, we have to look back and see how much we’ve done to curry favor with our future selves. Did I work on the project enough over the past few weeks that I can afford to take a break? Have I crossed enough milestones that I can afford to walk or jog a little and still finish the race within the time I set for myself? If the answer is “yes”, then by all means, go for it.

So, whenever we feel like doing something that has an immediate payoff, let’s consider the future costs that we must pay when you do it. We should think about our future selves; hold ourselves accountable to them if necessary. It can take some getting used to, but if we let our future selves have a say in our present decisions, then I think we’ll all be better off.

Three Cases Where “Defying Your Limits” May Be a Super-Bad Idea

I’m a runner. Or at least, I’d like to think so. With the number of hours I’ve spent just running on my own, plus the number of running events I’ve joint, I’m pretty sure I’ve earned the designation.

When you join a race or marathon, you generally get a race kit, which could contain any variety of running-related items. Among the stuff I’ve collected is a lanyard that says “defy your limits”. Now, this is great, motivating stuff for those with a sports mentality. With taglines such as “Impossible is Nothing” or “Just Do It”, sporting goods companies tap into the psyche of their target audience and earn their loyalty through an “I totally get you” kind of social proof. Whether this ends up as a prescription for on top of being a description of their audience’s attitude is anyone’s guess, I suppose.

As we are bombarded with images of successful athletes pushing themselves to an almost self-flagellating degree in order to be the best in their arena, it’s hard to see anything wrong with the “no limits” mindset. However, if one takes a second to think, one will realize that this is not always helpful.

Some Physical Limits Are Real and Unpushable

Let’s start with the obvious: the very reason they are called “limits” is that you could not or should not go past them. Consider what you have to invest when you train: you invest time, money, and energy. There are only 24 hours in a day, and the body needs a certain amount of that for rest and food intake. Obviously, you can’t train if you’re not properly refreshed and fueled up. So basically, “eat food” and “sleep” are some non-negotiables.

Also, you have to accept your own personal physical limits. A heavyset person will probably not have a good chance as a sprinter, just like how a skinny person will probably not do well in Highland games. Short people usually don’t have a good chance of making dunks in the NBA. Of course, you may talk about people who defy the odds and set physical records in spite of physical limitations. I’ve been guilty of seeing a news item about a disabled person running a marathon and telling myself “what’s your excuse?”, and some short basketball players would want to point out players like Spud Webb or Nate Robinson and expect themselves to do as well. However, I’d like to think my comparison is more reasonable: all I care about is that if a person with physical challenges can push himself, so should I. I don’t expect myself to set dunk records because of some exceptions to the rule about short people not dunking.

The problem is that people often don’t remember the basic principle of “ceteris paribus”, meaning “all other things being equal”. So while it might be fair to point out that other people have overcome physical limitations to set records, you shouldn’t expect yourself to do as well as they do because, let’s face it, they may just have won a genetic lottery to get where they are. Not accepting that could lead to serious consequences.

Some Limits Can Be Pushed at Your Risk/Expense

People often admire athletes for their ability to override their pain and their fear. In a stressful, high-pressure situation, we admire those people who, with odds stacked against them, channel the most ruthless, cold-blooded sense of competition they can muster and will themselves to perform beyond limits and pull off a victory. Heart, guts, nerves, backbone, stomach: all parts of the anatomy, all what we expect from a real competitor.

However, pain and fear are there as controls to keep you from acting like a suicidal maniac. In fact, the brain is wired to respond more to negative stimuli than positive stimuli. This is called negativity bias, and this is what allowed many of our loinclothed ancestors to avoid getting killed and make babies. Despite this evolutionary tendency, some people still deviate and develop a higher appetite for risks. They want the rush, the thrill, and the excitement, to the extent that they might get themselves hurt for not much good reason.

And this point is not all about fighting or contact sports. Consider our earlier point that people need rest and food, so you can’t do without it. If you’re a smart aleck, you’d probably ask “How little food and how little sleep can I do without? Maybe I can push it down to two hours’ sleep a day and just one meal to max my training time”. And to you I’d say “Have fun with that, you crazy anorexic insomniac gym junkie”. Like most people, you’d probably train yourself sick, injure yourself, or burn yourself out. You can push the limits, but the more they’re pushed, the more your choice becomes a dangerous tradeoff.

But again, there are exceptions. Consider Randy Couture, whose body basically says F.U. to lactic acid buildup, or crazy/lucky SOB Dean Karnazes, whose body has developed to the point that pounding out a marathon causes it no more stress than walking down a hall:

There are other examples of exceptions, and these should come not just with a “do not try this at home” disclaimer, but also possibly a “try body-swapping with these guys first” disclaimer.

Pushing Some Limits Doesn’t Make You Better

Imagine you’ve got a friend who’s simply insufferable when it comes to running. He talks everyone’s ear off about his training regimen, he always brags about his personal records, and he doesn’t let you forget that you’ve never, not once, gotten a better time than his in an official running event. Wouldn’t you want to shut him up? Wouldn’t you want to do anything possible to get yourself to the point that you can beat him and tell him to go suck an egg?

Not that you haven’t tried: you’ve trained yourself to the limit, you’ve tried different drills and workouts and routes, but you still can’t outdo him. And it’s eating you up.

Some elite athletes, those with an extreme “whatever it takes” mentality, will feel the exact same thing, only much, much worse. And they’ll resort to unethical means to perform better. They’ll do anything to get that edge, whether it’s through performance-enhancing steroids or some other non-training-related enhancement like blood doping:

Bottom line, they resort to dishonest tactics to push their limits. That’s not fair to the fans, that’s not fair to their competitors, and that’s not fair to the sport they’re a part of. And even discounting the moral angle, these methods can also cause significant harm to the user: the side effects of steroids are well-known, and there are also risks associated with blood doping.

So basically, like any type of advice or word of wisdom you encounter, take this with a pinch of salt. Feel free to defy your limits, sure, but consider carefully which hurdles to take on.

The Case for “Sad” Songs

So, still continuing my musings on sadness. I just came from a party this past weekend, where I had the most fun I remember having had in a while. I acted like an idiot for a while out of my week, and it was great. It’s nice to think sometimes that nothing matters, and you can act any way you want, no matter what it looks like. I may act serious, but there are moments when the prospect of just letting go of inhibitions, having fun, and not caring about appearances or formality, is something I fantasize about.

drunk businessmen without inhibitions
Clearly, these are men to be envied.

But not caring how you act or what you look like can go both ways. Sometimes you want to be just really out-of-your-mind happy, but other times, you just want to vent all your frustrations, your sadness, and your worries. You may not be able to find the solutions within your sphere of influence (hence your frustrations), and sometimes the only way to let go of them is to just express them all away, however you can manage it.

drunk businessmen without inhibitions
Again, men to be envied.

Sadness: One mood, multiple coping mechanisms

And that’s the thing about sadness. The cure for it isn’t always to find something else to think about, talk about, write about, or sing about (though that’s a good approach to take a lot of the time; I’m writing this blog post to occupy my thoughts and distract myself from other things for a while). Sometimes, the cure is to create a picture of the problem, make it as clear and definite as possible, so that you can wrap your head around it and see its actual scope. Then you can start to deal.

Now, not all of us have that gift or ability to define our own problems. When you’re in the thick of something, you’re living a moment, it’s not easy to create that picture. Not everything can be captured in selfies or other pictures. So, you have to find a way to express your sadness without expressing it yourself.

That’s where sad songs come in.

It’s Catchy because It’s True

“Forget You”. “Some Nights”. “King of Anything”.  “Hey Ya”. What do these have in common? They’re all sad songs. Oh sure, they sound upbeat, but if you look at the lyrics, you’ll see that they’re not purely happy. Don’t believe me? Just Google it for a bit. I can wait. If you can spare a few more minutes (and aren’t squeamish about mature situations or slightly blue language), you can read this article on upbeat but depressing songs while you’re away.

The thing about songs is that they can be very twisted. They describe sad or frustrating situations, and they’re camouflaged in toe-tapping and sometimes downright infectiously dance-inducing beats. Songs can have incredibly multiple layers of meaning, which is just another way of saying that songwriters can mess with people through their songs.

But even if people recognize these songs to be depressing as anything, they still like them. Why? Because they describe pain and frustration, and they describe them in a way that the average human being cannot ever manage by himself or herself… not within five minutes, anyway, which is the time most of us truly have for moping around. No sense in waiting for a thunderstorm or spending hours walking head-down around town. Oh sure, the weekends and Friday nights are there for clubbing, drinking, parties, and such, but until then, how do you cope? By blaring loud music into your listening holes. Heck, even the downright depressing songs can be cathartic. No matter what genre or artist people prefer, everyone gets sad, and music can be surprisingly effective in chasing those blues away.

18917974_s
Creative rendition only.

Some people may be saying “I don’t need those sad songs in my playlist. I have a perfectly happy life, I’m a happy person, and I have happy relationships that will never be sad, so there’s no need to bring those downers and bad vibes in”. Well, I can’t really contest those people; I can never know about their life for sure. But I think that situation of perfect happiness is highly unlikely. If there are people who claim to live such lives, I suspect they deserve congratulations for living in the most insulated, hermetically sealed emotional bubble ever. Or for being delusional or in some sort of denial.

Worth is Worthless without Risk

Yes, I understand, you wretched person. You are faced with choices and challenges every day; you have to make decisions, to determine where you will invest your time, money, effort, love, and other God-given resources. And what if the choice you make does not work out? It has happened before. You were left broken, helpless, lost, questioning every choice you made. You made a very bad bet, once in your life, and you are still paying the interest.

And so here you sit, still as a stone, for fear of knocking over the precariously piled-up stack of chips that you have successfully gathered over the years, adding to it one chip at a time, terrified of the possibility that it all comes crashing down.

Get Over It

But here’s the thing: it is not the tower itself that has value, but the individual chips that make it up. Whether they are in a stack or in a heap, a thousand chips is a thousand chips. Should the tower collapse, as long as none of the pieces are lost, nothing is lost.

And should you make a wager once more, and once again it does not pay off, the game goes on. You can get back what you lose, and then some. It’s all about learning from your losses.

And should you encounter a situation that you never have seen before, and you fear you don’t know how to approach it, approach it anyway. When has opportunity ever presented itself in a form that was not different from other chances that have presented themselves to you previously? If it were exactly the same, it would not be an opportunity, but another version of the sameness that you find yourself stuck in, day in and day out.

Become a Better Better

Be not afraid of what comes. Be willing to take big punches to dish out big hits. Go all in once in a while. Trust in your judgment. Trust in your worth, and in your ability to create and accumulate worth.

Your willingness to risk what you have is, in some respects, what shows others that it has value.