Identity

When one person is stranded on an island, there's no question as to whether he's an individual. It's a moot point--there's nobody else to make decisions for him.

Add a second person, however, and things get interesting. Now we have to give these people names, to distinguish them. Let's call our first guy Juan and his new companion Fiona. Juan and Fiona have different names, sure, but if Juan has no preferences or quirks of his own and lets Fiona make all his decisions for him, we don't really care what his name is. We could fully interact with him through Fiona. A person has to have personal agency to be an individual.

Fortunately, this never totally happens. While they may decide it's Fiona's job to decide what to eat for dinner for both herself and Juan, Juan probably makes decisions about other things, like what upgrades to make to their hut. Yet, with only one other randomly selected person on the island, it's unlikely they would find much in common. If Juan doesn't respect Fiona's culinary taste or Fiona doesn't think that a rec room is a pragmatic addition to their shared shelter, then they'll still have to make decisions for themselves. They mostly remain individuals.

Say Juan and Fiona are joined by a whole life raft full of survivors from a local cruise shipwreck. Now there are ten people on the island. Some of them want coconuts for dinner, some want mangoes. (Unfortunately, those are like the only foods readily available on the island.) Thus they separate out into a group of six, called the Coconuts, and a group of four, called the Mangoes. It only takes one member of the Coconuts to make decisions about dinner for the rest of that group, and if someone from the Mangoes is curious about what the Coconuts are thinking for dinner, she can interact with the whole group through any one of them. Groups are a kind of heuristic society uses to expedite the division of decision-making.

One's identity in a sufficiently complex society becomes just a list of groups determined by his preferences. Juan becomes an islander, because he prefers to live on an island (though not by choice), and a Mango, because he's sick of coconuts.

In my case, I'm an American, because I prefer to live in America, a Cornellian, because I prefer to go to school at Cornell, an AEPi Brother, because I prefer to belong to that fraternity, and so on and so forth. My "identity" is just a list of groups of people with whom I share preferences, and if you know my list, then you can know how I feel about everything by talking to people in my groups. That's why the Master of my fraternity can represent me to other fraternities, Cornell's President Skorton can represent me to other colleges, and President Barack Obama can represent me to other countries. I may not agree with any of those people about their preferences on many things, but I know I agree with them better than I would with someone who did not prefer to live in America, go to Cornell, or join AEPi. I'm only a 'unique' human being insofar as nobody else perfectly overlaps with all my preference-groups, though I'm not sure that's true.

Even when I'm not participating in groupthink, there's almost always at least one other person who agrees with me and who can therefore speak for me. I de facto engage in groupthink every second of my life by deferring decisions for almost everything to the leaders of the various groups to which I belong. What people call "Daniel Seth Lewis" is really just a list of other people to whom I defer responsibility for the various aspects of my life on earth.

Book Review: The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

As usual with my book reviews, I will examine the main arguments of the book and then try to apply its ideas to self-development and our own lives.

At some point in the pamphlet, Marx jumps off the deep end and demands that workers everywhere revolt and declares that such a revolution is inevitable. Either one would be fine - historians are allowed to make predictions and political thinkers are allowed to call for revolution. But if he indeed believes the revolution is inevitable, there would be no logical reason to call for it. It would happen anyways. One has to take the arguments in the pamphlet with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, the fact that Marx is illogical in one respect does not mean that he's wrong about everything else.

The cornerstone assumption of Marx philosophy is that the work we do changes us. Good work can change us for the better, bad work can change us for the worse, almost by definition. Then he extrapolates from there that when workers are forced, on threat of hunger or poverty, to do bad work--which is an inevitable consequence of their labor being commodified--they become terribly unhappy and seek a way out of the system that exploited them. The Luddites, Chartists, unionists, and communists were all trying out different ways of managing the exploitation of their labor.

Marx differed with the other counter-industrial movements by finding root causes for the ills of industrialism in capitalist theory. The Luddites were anti-industrial. Marx wasn't anti-industrial. He was anti-capitalist, fundamentally so.

Can we find any worthwhile lessons in the Manifesto if we are unwilling to denounce capitalism as a great evil? Maybe, though not without making Marx roll over in his grave.

For Marx, the sheer number of hours one works is not the problem. The very nature of being forced to do meaningless, uninteresting work is what corrupts man. No amount of money or vacation days could change that. I think he's right. For work to be good - that is, for it make its performer better, one has to choose it, be suited for it, and learn from it. There are all sorts of other ethical arguments that could invalidate working for Phillip Morris or Raytheon, but the actual work one does for them could still make one a better person. Thus, it would be good work.

Capitalism assumes that an individual can use any amount of capital combined with labor to create more capital. Marx counters that there's a threshold below which one does not have enough capital to get started, because machines are too expensive. Only a former landowner can afford to construct the machinery necessary to build a business. Whether or not he was right about the nature of capital in the mid-19th century, I don't think that's the case today. One needs only access to a computer to build a multi-billion dollar business -- if one already has the intellectual capital. Don't be discouraged by how little savings you have. Whatever it is, it's enough to get going.

I don't like Marx's fatalism. I don't believe capitalism is the source of our day-to-day problems, nor that overthrowing it would be a solution. There is not one course of action for workers who feel exploited by their companies, even if he's right that we're being sucked dry so that shareholders can amass even more capital and exploit even more people even more.

If you feel like you're being squeezed for your labor for someone else's benefit, what should you do about it?
  • Start your own company.
  • Negotiate a raise.
  • Find a way to do higher value work.
  • Buy some mutual funds so you're the one benefiting from others' getting squeezed.
I don't think overhauling the entire economic system is really a good option. When you try to do that, millions of people die.

Space

We know when we need space from others. Sometimes others are so talkative, we can't hear our own thoughts. Sometimes they make us so angry, frustrated, or disappointed that we just need to get away. Sometimes the presence of our former loved ones remind us of what we've lost and we need to leave to go grieve in private.

I really think we do a good job of being aware of those situations, possibly because they're so emotionally strong and socially salient, and dealing with them. There are other times, however, when we can become ambitious, overconfident, distracted, or rushed and we forget or refuse to give ourselves the space we need. Here are some of those things to be aware of, and how to deal with them. In general, build space through planning, awareness, and humility. Creating appropriate space is a tenet of both Zen and minimalism.

Physical Space at Work and Home


When putting together a workplace system on your desk or a living space at home, keep in mind the psychological importance of literal separation between areas and objects. Our brains sort our memories by location. They associate certain spaces with certain activities, objects, or events. These memories form better and sort better when there are clear distinctions between spaces. I can remember where my knives are (in a dedicated knife block) much better than I can remember where my peeler, ice cream scoop, or ladle are (jumbled together in a drawer). That's because the knife block forces me to keep space between the knives, while the drawer encourages me to just dump everything in there.

At work, I have a large desk, but for aesthetic reasons, I cram all my papers into the corner. I like the look of a superficially clean desk. But then when I actually need to use the papers, I need to go through them every time, looking for what I want. There's no space between them, so my brain can't remember where each document is.

Let's see how planning, awareness, and humility can deal with both the kitchen and the workstation problems.

Planning: Create a system that forces space between objects. Check out this awesome thing for a kitchen. For work, literally everyone who has a white collar job should have one of these.
Awareness: Pay attention when you do manage to find what you're looking for and when you put things away. Don't stack papers or jumble utensils. Give each item it's own area.
Humility: By definition, the more stuff you have, the less space there is between them (on average). So be humble when taking on projects or buying utensils. I probably use 5% of the utensils I own. I don't need a dedicated onion chopper, a dedicated garlic mincer, and a dedicated salad spinner. The list goes on and on of things one person in our house maybe uses once every other year. It's easy to be ambitious about what you can accomplish in the future when you're shopping. Past behavior is a better predictor of future behavior, however, than ambition.


Electronic Space on the Computer


When thinking about creating space on your computer, "space" can mean a couple different things. It can mean physical space on your Desktop or Documents folders as well as memory space on your hard drive.

There are two good philosophies when organizing files to maintain space: either don't put too many files in any given folder or don't even bother with folders and just use a good naming scheme that's easy to search. Our brains aren't really designed to keep track of electronic information and there's usually too much, anyways, to manage it. I went with the searchable naming scheme system. My system looks kind of like C:/Documents/Job/Year/Project/Name_and_Version.ext. That's a pretty complicated system for how few files I have. If you know you're going to have a lot of files for your work, home, or hobbies, consider investing in document management software. It may feel unnecessary in the short term, but don't underestimate the importance of a good system in giving you mental space.

As far as having enough space on your computer's hard drive, it really shouldn't be a problem if you have awareness and humility. What do you actually need to keep on your computer? Do you need five thousand photos of yourself fake-smiling at the camera from two hundred different parties you can't remember? Maybe print the best ten out, frame them, and archive the rest. Do you need those three hundred and fifty romantic comedies you torrented but never watched? What about the hundred thousand hours of music you've amassed? Who has time to listen to that? All this weighs on us and stresses us out. Consider doing away with the non-essentials. It will give you proper mental space so you can enjoy what pictures you do look at, the rom-coms you do watch, and the music you do like.

Space in the Calendar


Einstein taught us that space is time. And time in your day looks a lot like space on your calendar. We love to cram as many activities into our day and lives as possible, but it doesn't make us happier. And don't just "make time for the things and people that are important to you" as we're all told. Create space between that time. Give yourself time to clean up after yourself when you're done eating lunch. Give yourself time to walk leisurely between places, enjoying the sights as you go. Give yourself time to prepare for dates, to get cleaned up and excited. Give yourself time to contemplate what you accomplished during the day and to wind down for sleep. Give yourself time to stretch before and after working out, and then to shower and eat when you're all done. These are the things we sacrifice when we sign up for one more club, project, or outing.

Space in your Social Network


I'm not talking about Facebook. I'm talking about your actual, real life social network. The people you're friends with and the family you care for. We only have so much time for each person we love, and every additional person we befriend (or birth) takes away our time for those already in our lives. I spent all day yesterday with my parents and two of my best friends. And it was an amazing, wonderful day.

Beyond the time cost, I only have room in my heart for so many people. I can only keep track of so many others' lives and what they're up to. Friends are great, but there's such a thing as too much of a great thing.

Conversation Habits

Although I love my personality - I think scientifically, theoretically, logically, and systemically - when I'm with people who don't appreciate those traits, I can leave a bad impression. How I act does, and should, depend on who I'm with. When I'm not mindful of my outward behavior, I can come off cold, annoying, shy, mad, anxious, tired, etc. which is problematic when I want to make a good impression with a potential employer, professor, or new group of peers. There are a few things I've figured out of which to be mindful when talking with people you want to impress. It's not an exhaustive guide so much as a primer to make you aware of these things which are not so obvious if you've never heard this advice before.

Come in with High Energy


High energy can be annoying when you're trying to have a serious conversation with someone, but it's the best way to open up a conversation. What does high energy entail? Smile like an idiot. Laugh hysterically at even the dumbest jokes. Move your body a lot by gesticulating, shaking when you laugh, patting the others on their shoulder or back, or pretending you're playing charades when you're telling stories.

High energy behavior let's the other people know that you're excited to be there, makes you actually feel excited to be there, and brings up the others' energy levels, which feels good for them.

Sometimes people can act high energy in inappropriate ways, however, so take caution. Don't look around wildly, like you're the subject of a manhunt. Don't fidget, rub your face, or bite your fingernails. All these things, while high energy, convey a sense of anxiety, rather than positive excitement.

Down-talk


By down-talking, I don't mean talking down to people, as in condescending. What I mean is: shift the tone of your voice down at the end of each sentence. Practice it in the shower, because it's kind of hard, but it will make you sound respectable and confident. Radio personalities and news anchors all down-talk. Once you get the hang of it, it gets a lot easier and becomes second nature.

Down-talk is opposed to up-talk, which makes you sound anxious and needy, and mono-talk, which makes you sound boring. The extreme case of up-talking is the valley girl/squeaky toy dialect, where every single thing they say sounds like a question.

Challenge


If someone says something you disagree with, challenge it. This makes you seem confident and interesting, but it's also a mine-field. If you challenge someone on something they said about you, you may come off as defensive, which makes you seem like you have low self-esteem. If you challenge them on grammar, diction, or a trivial fact, you'll come off as nitpicky and bothersome. If you challenge them on politics or another topic that can invoke a lot of passion, be ready to have your ears boxed. If you challenge them on how they felt about something they experienced, when they're just trying to seek some empathy and comfort, you'll come off as know-it-all and emotionally unavailable.

So with all these potential mistakes, what can you challenge someone on? Anything playful is up for grabs. If you're talking about how you're going to go half-sies on a private island, feel free to argue over whether you want one off the coast of Ecuador or one in the Caribbean. If someone asks you for your opinion of two options, make up a third. There are a lot more good ways to challenge someone than dangerous ways, and the worst that happens is you learn from your mistakes, so don't be afraid to experiment with how you challenge people. I said it was a mine-field, but it's more like a blackberry bush with some thorns to watch out for.

Eye Contact. Eye Contact. Eye Contact.


This is self-explanatory and you've heard it a million times. Look people in the goddamn eye! Not at the bridge of their nose, not at their mouth, not at their shoes, or yours, or your fingernails. Just look them in the eye. It's easy to forget, granted, but it's also easy to do.

End on a Good Note


People base their analysis of you on the first thing they see you do, the most emotionally intense point of the conversation, and the departure. Give a firm handshake, whether you're male or female, smile, and leave with a joke related to what you talked about, no matter how inane the conversation or stupid your joke. This gives them a chance to laugh and it tells them that you were listening.

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I wrote up the scripts for my first two video blog posts yesterday. I'll try to prep, set the equipment up, film, edit, and upload within about a week, but I've got a busy week ahead, so don't hold your breath. Call it one week soft deadline, two weeks most-likely, one month hard deadline.

You Are Not Special

A lot of people want to be number one, or think they are number one. This probably isn't true outside of America, but where I live, most people wish they were the best at what they do. Early on in our lives we're told we're pretty good at something. Maybe we take a standardized test in fourth grade that tells us we have superior intelligence. Maybe we become valedictorian in eighth grade. Maybe we win the county high school tennis championship our freshman year. Maybe we get into the top art school. Whatever it is, it feels good, real good.

But then life moves on. Our teachers stop complimenting us on our quick thinking, not because we've become dumber, but because everyone knows we're smart and nobody really cares. Although the praise goes away, our desire for that praise sticks around. We want people to tell us we're smart, because our sense of self-worth has become predicated on being able to convince ourselves we're the smartest kid around. We never forget that in fourth grade we scored off the charts on some standardized test even when nobody cares. We still think of ourselves as smarter than anyone else. We think, because of our intelligence, work ethic, athleticism, or creativity, we deserve to be rich, famous, powerful, or popular.

Then the rest of our lives becomes a race to keep up with that ideal. We ask ourselves, constantly, am I number one? Who is number one? What do I have to do to become number one? Do I need a bigger house,  a bigger car, a bigger body? Am I on track to become number one?

Well, it's impossible to become number one because quality is subjective. How would you determine the answer to "Who is the greatest rock star?" We could look at how many albums a band has sold, the average attendance of their concerts, their net worth, how often and with how high quality women they get laid, their rankings on Rolling Stone or Billboard, the impact they had on the genre, the number of popular songs they put out within a certain period, and on and on and on. The fact is, there is no number one rock star because no one rock star ranks highest in more than one or two of these categories.

Let's ask a couple more interesting questions. Does ranking number one on any of these metrics make someone special? Would they think of themselves that way? The Beatles hit the top of the charts every time they put out an album. They made successful movies. They sold out standing room only baseball parks. They created rock as we know it today. Does that make them special?

Two of the four members of the band are dead, so I guarantee they don't think so. Paul McCartney couldn't sell out a baseball park anymore and Ringo Starr couldn't sell out Madison Square Gardens, but they probably have a good idea of the success they've had. Still - the four of them couldn't keep their band together for more than about thirteen years and they all used hard drugs regularly. They weren't superhuman, just really popular and creative.

It seems the best we can hope for is to accrue some evidence that we're number one and be able to jealously ignore any evidence to the contrary. Some people could probably do this, but I'm terrible at ignoring evidence. I will never be number one.

You can do the same thought experiment with political power: is President Obama more powerful than Representative Boehner, Senator Reid, or Justice Roberts? Even if he is, don't confuse political premiership with omnipotence. Obama doesn't have time to pat himself on the back and relax with the knowledge he's the single most powerful person on Earth. Nor will he ever be the most powerful human ever. Nobody can hold that title.

Whatever else we tell ourselves, we all die one day. We all can get sick, or shot, or hit by a car. We all live on a mote of dust suspended on a sunbeam.

When to Take it Slow

I worked on an organic farm in 2010 that grew produce for high-end gourmet restaurants in the Bay Area. Because we were selling the vegetables for use in haute cuisine, every single vegetable had to be carefully grown, picked, and packaged to maintain their pristine condition. Obviously, many vegetables didn't come off the vine perfect to begin with, so we only picked ones that looked perfect, but even then a lot of care went into the picking.

When we were harvesting the summer squash, we had to get down on our hands and knees and reach under large, thick bushes to get at the fruit. They were attached at the stem to thick, woody vines covered in thorns, meaning we had to use gloves and shears to get at the fruit.

Here's where things got tricky. The skin on squash is incredibly delicate until they've been severed from the vines for at least a couple minutes and there were a lot of pointy objects involved in the operation: the shears and thousands of thorns. Scratching the skin didn't ruin the squash, but it did ruin them for our clients. We had hundreds or thousands of squash to harvest and we would be able to sell most of them. The more we picked, the more revenue the farm brought in (it was non-profit, but we had a lot of costs). But the faster we picked, the more likely we were to ruin the squash. After ruining a lot, we opted for slow-but-steady-wins-the-race, or as the head of the farm said, "Take your time, get it right."

"Take Your Time, Get it Right"


If you have all the information, you can do a cost-benefit analysis of taking your time versus rushing through something. In the above example, if I have the following table, I can tell how fast I ought to go to optimize my productivity. All values are in squash per minute.


Obviously I should harvest four squash a minute to maximize production and minimize waste in this case.  Sometimes the solution is not so clear, however. This was simple because I knew how long I would be working for, this was our only task for the day (so I couldn't calculate opportunity cost), there was little chance of burnout, and only a couple of factors to evaluate (waste and productivity). It turned out that I should go relatively slowly, only cutting four squash a minute.

When rushing through a task can make you perform it sloppily, ask yourself whether that's acceptable, and if so, what pace can optimize your productivity.

Fast Start, Long Haul

What about when I'm putting my daily routine together? How much should I cram in there? Should I try to meditate, shower, make my bed, commute to and from work, plan my day in detail, work on five different projects, attend meetings, go out for lunch, write a blog post, lift weights, go mountain biking, cook dinner, read, learn new languages, build a website, learn Python, eat 3000 calories, drink two liters of water, meet new people, clean up, spend time with family, spend time with friends, and sleep 9.25 hours -- every single day?

Days are too short and life is too long to try to do everything you want to do all in one day. Rome wasn't built in a day, so neither will you be.

My suggestion is go for a fast start, getting a lot of momentum as soon as you can, and be willing to burn excess resources in the process. When you're studying a new language, spend two hours learning 25 new words and whole new grammar concepts every day, but make it the only thing you put that much effort into at the time. Don't try to learn any other difficult subjects for those first few days.

Then, dig in for the long siege. Slow down your pace to 5 new words a day, a bit of grammar review, and a little extra practice on the weekends. Or spend a couple hours a couple times a week. The best routine is the one you stick to. Make it fun and don't get burnt out. It will take five times as long to learn the language 5 words at time instead of 25 at a time, but it will happen. Unless you're at the Army's intensive language base in Monterrey and your teacher's threatening to make you run 10 miles if you slack, you're just going to give up once the novelty wears off. So dig in.

When you're trying to do something that will take years, take your time. Accept that it doesn't need to happen soon because if you try to make it happen soon, it won't happen at all. Accrue sustainable gains and build success slowly. Study a little, review a little. Study a little, review a little. Do that every day for twenty years and see what you end up learning.

Dealing with Deadlines


I'm in college, and although I'm trying to maximize my own productivity, my professors have their own pace they want to set so we can keep up with the lectures and problem sets so that I can get good grades. If I learn something a year after I get tested on it, that's not as helpful to me as learning it before the test. What do you do when those don't align?

You have a couple options. You can not care about the test, and just learn at your own pace. If you're not going straight to grad school or looking for those handful of jobs that care about grades, just don't worry about it. If you are going to grad school or looking for one of those jobs, maybe rethink how much you want them, but basically you don't have a choice. You just have to treat grad school like a drill sergeant who will make you run 10 miles if you slack. Try giving 1500 dollars to your best friend and have him donate 5 dollars to the political party you despise every day you don't spend 8 hours studying. Sorry, dude. That's what it takes.

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We're well into summer! Go swimming if you haven't yet. Life's too short to work all day.

Book Review: The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho

This book is like Oprah meets the bible. It's heart-warming, inspiring, a bit confusing, and kind of repetitive. You get the feeling as you flip it's unnecessarily expensive pages that you're touching something holy, even though Coelho wrote it in 1988. It was alternately heavy handed and delicately allegorical.

The main idea: at some point, early on in one's life, one has a dream of an incredible treasure that it is one's privilege to pursue. That pursuit is called one's "Personal Legend" and it will lead one on an adventure, teach one about love, the world, and a bunch of other important things. There will be internal and external obstacles, but ultimately, if one wants to persevere in one's Personal Legend, “all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

The book does a great job with examining certain obstacles to success, and I absolutely recommend the book, but it takes other things as given. The most glaring example of this is Santiago, the protagonist, discovering his Personal Legend (to go to the Egyptian Pyramids and find treasure) because he dreams about it a couple nights in a row. Well, jeez. I dreamt I was late for my Calc II final a couple nights in a row my freshman year of college. Is my Personal Legend to oversleep for an exam? I'm only half-kidding. Maybe if I were to do that, I would achieve outcome-independence or run into an old friend who offers me a job at Google or something. I don't know. I doubt it. If I do get offered a job at Google, does that mean it was my Personal Legend all along? There would be no way of knowing.

Coelho wrote the entire book in a couple of weeks so it's hardly a masterpiece, but it's been elevated to the level of scripture. It reads like a particularly good and drawn-out Brothers Grimm fable. In fact it has been criticized for having pretty much the same story has two or three other older fables, which doesn't surprise me. It was basically 'A poor boy leaves his father's home, and through courage, magic, and luck becomes as rich as a king and falls in love with a beautiful woman.' It just had a little more emphasis on believing in himself and following his dreams than most fairy tales.

There were plenty of actionable takeaways, but very few we've never heard before. All of these came from specific passages in the book, but I'm not going to bother quoting them because they wouldn't make sense out of context.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help from others. 
  • Don't be ashamed of working toward a dream you have. A crystal merchant in Tangiers mocks Santiago's Personal Legend, saying that the Pyramids aren't anything special. If others don't think you can do something, then they don't know what they're talking about. 
  • Money is for enabling you to do things, not for hoarding or spending on things you don't need. 
  • Be open minded - our own beliefs limit us more than actual obstacles. 
  • Your surroundings and the people you meet can teach you more than the books you read or the classes you take; they speak a different language that requires a higher level of awareness. 
  • It becomes possible to do things you could never even dream of doing when it's 'do or die.' 
  • A small obstacle becomes an immovable force when you're afraid of it. 
  • Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. 
  • Ignorance of the future is not an obstacle to action - a bird that never jumps out of the nest never learns to fly. Santiago spent all his savings and capital investment on passage to Morocco, but it turned out to be well worth it. 
  • Don't try to control the future because there is much outside your control. 
There were many more lessons, too, but you should really read the book. It's short and inspiring. 7/10.

Keep It Simple Stupid

In the name of keeping things simple, I'm going to keep this article simple instead of diving into one of my usual theoretical diatribes.

Take a Sheet of Paper and a Black Pen


Choose nice pens, with thick, felt tips that bleed when they touch the paper. With the black pen, write down everything you want to do in the next 5 years. Try to answer the question, "Looking back in 5 years, how do I want to have lived, what will I want to have accomplished, and where do I want to be?" I did use a couple of Sharpies and a blank paper, but I wanted to type it up. Here's my list:
  1. Work a full time job.
  2. Cut down on sugar and processed food in your diet.
  3. Major in Government.
  4. Minor in Creative Writing, Computer Science, History, or Psychology.
  5. Build a successful comedy website.
  6. Read a book a week.
  7. Write a daily blog.
  8. Write a book.
  9. Do a one-handed push-up with each hand, do a handstand push-up, and do a straddle planche push-up.
  10. Complete an IronMan Triathlon.
  11. Invest my savings.
  12. Conquer my fear of getting shots.
  13. Run a business.
  14. Sleep as much as my body wants to. Unless I'm trying polyphasic sleep again, in which case go for broke.
  15. See my parents and brother each an absolute minimum of once a quarter.
  16. Both give 20% of my income to charity and volunteer regularly.
  17. Learn to ride and buy a motorcycle.
  18. Cook at least once a week.
  19. Go to every continent. Well, we'll see about Antarctica.
  20. Win a fight against an evenly matched opponent.
5 years is a long time and this is not an exhaustive list. But by itself it's an utterly ridiculous number of commitments. Right now, working a full time job, I basically have time to work, eat, and sleep. And my job is only 40 hours per week. So it's really just absurd. This leads us to the next step.

Take a Red Pen


This will feel better if you use a felt pen that draws a thick line.

Look at your list. Pretty daunting, huh? I've got 20 items on mine and I'm starting to hyperventilate thinking about it all. Do I need to do all those things to find contentment? Of course not. After a good day of work, I'm happy to sit down and watch Arrested Development while eating pizza. I really am. I know I rail against the work-work-work-consume-consume-consume lifestyle as ruining the environment and making us stressed, sick, and fat, but it's pretty nice. Asking for too much more makes me anxious. I'm pretty content.

But--and this is a pretty big but--contentment isn't enough. This is paradoxical, so pay attention. Contentment isn't enough.

If I die having lived a long and happy life, that's just not enough. Being surrounded by people that love me, never having to worry about money, and healthy as can be isn't enough for me. It's not that I want fame, power, or fortune. That wouldn't be enough either.

So what do I need? I need to be utterly convinced that my mind and body have accomplished every single goddamn thing of which they're capable. I want to reach the peak of Maslow's hierarchy and plant my flag where so few have stood.

I don't need to do everything on that list within the next 5 years. If I tried to do so, I wouldn't be able to do any of them. So I take my red pen out, I circle the bare minimum, and I cross out the rest.

  1. Work a full time job.
  2. Cut down on sugar and processed food in your diet.
  3. Major in Government.
  4. Minor in Creative Writing, Computer Science, History, or Psychology.
  5. Build a successful comedy website.
  6. Read a book a week.
  7. Write a daily blog.
  8. Write a book.
  9. Do a one-handed push-up with each hand, do a handstand push-up, and do a straddle planche push-up.
  10. Complete an IronMan Triathlon.
  11. Invest my savings.
  12. Conquer my fear of getting shots.
  13. Run a business.
  14. Sleep as much as my body wants to. Unless I'm trying polyphasic sleep again, in which case go for broke.
  15. See my parents and brother each an absolute minimum of once a quarter.
  16. Both give 20% of my income to charity and volunteer regularly.
  17. Learn to ride and buy a motorcycle.
  18. Cook at least once a week.
  19. Go to every continent. Well, we'll see about Antarctica.
  20. Win a fight against an evenly matched opponent.
I'm left with eight items. One for my career, one for my diet, one academic, one intellectual, one for fitness, one for personal finance, one for sleep, and one for family. I'll admit that academics is career-related, so that's kind of doubling up, but I only commit to working when I'm not in school.

Anyways, it's a pretty drastic reduction. Only half of those are activities I need to do every day and sleep is sleep. So what I'm really saying is that, at the moment, all I'm trying to do on a regular basis is a) go to work, b) write for a little bit about self-improvement, and c) do some bodyweight fitness for half an hour. Just that is hard. It's enough. I made the mistake over and over again of trying to do to much, but I'm happiest and I accomplish the most when I try to do as little as possible! Another paradox.

Take stock of what you're trying to accomplish over the next 5 years. Kill your babies. Self-actualize.

Getting in State

I know I say a lot of things are everything (sleep is everything, hydration is everything, habits are everything, and on and on), but state is actually everything. When you're in state, it's like the whole world bows as you pass by. You're happy, confident, and enthusiastic. Whatever the question, you always have the answer. You're focused, determined, generous, witty, meticulous, unstoppable. State is also sometimes called flow.

There's been a lot written about state, so this isn't intended as a comprehensive guide. It's more like, if you haven't been in state in a while, here are some things to try.

Preparation


State comes from focus. To be able to focus, you need a) something to focus on and b) nothing to distract you. The object of your focus can be anything - a novel you're writing, a party you're at, the clothes you're trying on, the hill you're climbing, or even something as banal as a basic data-entry project. Once you have chosen the activity you want to get in state for, start clearing distractions.

I use the Pomodoro Technique when I'm at work. I close my email inbox, Facebook, news websites, and everything else that could distract me unnecessarily. I want to be able to be reached by certain people, so I'll only leave those channels open. When I'm out socializing, I'll put my phone on silent, turn it off, or leave it behind altogether.

For me at least, drugs can obstruct me from getting in state, both because they can mess with my brain function while I'm on them and because when I'm not on them, my brain will nudge me to get on them. I've tried to stay away from caffeine and sugar to help me focus at work. I also don't drink when I'm out meeting new people. All that stuff messes with state. Obviously I'm talking about drugs that have some potential to mess with state. Don't go off your antibiotics.

Choose a good location. Offices are good for work. Libraries are good for writing and research. Parks and gyms are good for working out. Parties, bars, clubs, malls, and festivals are great places to meet new people. If your location doesn't jive with your goal, even if you have all the actual resources you need, your brain's going to be fighting you the whole way into state.

The Warm-Up


Let go of anything you might be worrying about in the future. Getting in state can only happen when you're focused on the present. One of my favorite rules somebody came up with a couple thousand years ago on how to properly do Shabbat (the Jewish sabbath) is, and I'm paraphrasing, "Don't even think about anything that you have to do after Shabbat." Very observant Jews won't start cooking dinner on Saturday nights until Shabbat is over. I guarantee many of them are getting in state every single weekend.

Start your Pomodoro or timer and just do whatever you're going to do. Work for 25 minutes. Get up and move your legs if you were sitting, get some water or a snack, and then get back to work. If you don't enjoy what you're doing, you're not in state yet. Keep going. Just think of it as a warm-up. Don't even worry about accomplishing anything. You'll be so much more productive once you're in state that the warm-up becomes meaningless except as a stepping stone.

Nobody likes the first few minutes of anything worth doing. When I was working out earlier today, the first few minutes just weren't fun. It didn't totally suck because I was outside and getting a break from sitting at the computer, but it wasn't fun. It was only once the adrenaline kicked in and the analgesic effect took over that I was frickin' pumped. I got a self-esteem boost, Eye of the Tiger was playing in my head, and I felt ready to conquer the world.

Push Yourself to the Limit


We accomplish our greatest feats when we're in state, so don't squander this opportunity. Push yourself, hard. Work harder, run farther, accomplish more. If you're socializing, talk to someone you would normally never have approached. If you're doing pull-ups, try to break your record. If you're working, try to be more detail-oriented, creative, or efficient. Whatever your challenge, now is the time to face it.

However, even once you're past your warm-up and fully in state, make sure to take regular breaks. Depending on the strenuousness of the activity, take a five minutes every half hour, two minutes out of every ten, etc. If you're doing handstand push-ups, maybe even take a five minute break for every thirty seconds of being an incredible boss. You'll be able to prolong the state all day if you take proper breaks.

Watch your thoughts for distraction, anxiety, and worry. If you're trying to network at your friend's mid-summer barbecue, don't you dare even think about what you're going to buy your coworker for her wedding in September. If you become aware that you're trying to do a bunch of things at once, note it mentally, slowly breathe in through your nose, slowly breathe out through your nose, and really focus on the task at hand. The urge to worry will pass, I promise. If it's something you really don't want to forget, write it down somewhere.

Reflect on What You Accomplished


Look at you, being so productive. Feels good, doesn't it? Pat yourself on the back and thank yourself for giving yourself the opportunity to get in state. If you can, make some physical record of what you accomplished. This is to give yourself credit (reinforcing the good behavior), a record of what you did so you can measure your progress against it, and proof that you've done it so that it will be easier the next time.

If it's been a while since you've been in state, I encourage you to try it soon. This is what people love so much that they become workaholics. It really is addictive.

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I had a huge spike in pageviews on the blog today, but after a little investigating, I'm pretty sure it was just a spambot. So no worries, it was a false alarm. The blog definitely still has zero readers.

No Harm, No Foul

I'm going to take a break for a moment from talking about personal policy and talk about a public policy issue that's been on my mind lately. It's not something you'll hear about in the news or at dinner parties (unless you hang out with my kind of friends), probably because it's too big picture to be addressed by any one law.

The question is this: should an individual's actions which have no adverse effect on any other individuals be subject to state scrutiny? In other words, should we charge people with fouls when they didn't cause any harm?

Some reasons often given for doing so is that our society has an interest in protecting individuals from the harm they're capable of doing to themselves. It is understood that children cannot properly understand the risks of certain actions, so we forbid them outright from those behaviors until they're old enough to make the decisions for themselves. As a society, we've decided that sex and certain drugs (alcohol, tobacco, porn, and gambling) are too dangerous, and their inherent risks too slippery, for children to be allowed access to them. Of course, legally forbidding them from having sex or using those drugs does not prevent children from gaining access to any of them, especially porn and sex, which nobody has any real way of keeping out of their reach.

But what about adults? Are adults fully capable of assessing personal risks? If not, should we allow our legislative representatives and courts to assess those risks for us? Is there a legitimate societal interest in not allowing me to make decisions which can only harm me? I think, by definition, there is not. Though, whether there are in fact any actions I could take which would have absolutely no impact on others would be a hard thing indeed to prove.

For example, take Mayor Bloomberg's attempt to ban greater-than-16oz-sodas, which the New York Supreme Court ruled was "arbitrary and capricious." Mr. Bloomberg cited the obesity epidemic as a reason for the ban, which takes the question away from "No Harm, No Foul" since we as a society pay for the costs of obesity through Medicare/Medicaid/VA/insurance costs/a-million-other-ways even if we're not personally obese. However, we can ignore that for a moment and ask, "Is the fact that large sodas can make people ill sufficient reason to ban certain vendors from selling them?"

I say, no, not really. Would their lives be better if they stopped drinking giant cups of soda? Absolutely. Do I care about them and want what's best for them? Yes, yes I do. But do I think the state has any business making those decisions for other people in a free country? Not in the slightest.

Here are some steps I think it would be OK for the state to make to help people avoid the risks of drug use and related victim-less behaviors:
  • Education about the dangers, but also about the proper and safe use.
  • Regulation to keep minors not capable of deciding for themselves out of danger.
That's pretty much it. I think we should be able to poison ourselves as much as we want, up until the point we punish others for our sins (making them pay treatment costs, etc.). The state should only start criminalizing behaviors when those behaviors do damage to others.

One more thought: if we truly believe that children aren't capable of making the right decisions for themselves and that's why we prohibit them from certain dangerous behaviors, then we also should not punish them when they go around our back and do the behaviors anyway. That just makes it harder to regulate them. If you give a kid a Minor in Possession charge the first time you see him drinking, you'll never see him drink again. But he'll be drinking, that I promise. It will just be behind closed doors.

Sometimes Things Just Totally Suck

I had food poisoning yesterday. I won't say where because I'm sure it was just a fluke thing and I don't want to ruin any restaurants' reputations, but I will say the food was good and I didn't expect anything to go wrong. After lunch I sat back and watched The Dictator (that Sacha Baron Cohen movie) with some friends and I didn't even make it through the thing before I had to run to the bathroom to throw up. Again and again and again. And it sucked.

None of my habits did me any good. I couldn't meditate my way through it. The lunch I had had was actually pretty healthy: salad, veggies, whole grains, and a bit of cheese. Staying hydrated didn't help. The fact that I write every couple of days was worthless. Everything bowed before the involuntary vomiting reflex. Maybe working on my core strength helped a little. God knows my abs were hurting enough.

Self-help gurus tell us our lives are in our own hands. That if we want something, all we have to do is go out and work hard for it. That may be true for some things, but sometimes things just suck and will continue to suck up until they stop sucking. And all you can do is wait.

I'm mostly thinking along the lines of illness, including anxiety attacks, GI problems, depression, food poisoning, the flu, etc. Things can also "just suck" for a few days when you've just ended a relationship, been rejected, lost your job, etc.

What You Can Do When You Can't Do Anything and Things Just Totally Suck


Make sure you're not alone. Something really amazing happens when we're around others. It takes us out of our heads and allows us to see things more clearly. Also, others can make sure you're not in serious danger, bring you food or water, etc.

Wait it out. It will end. Everything that has a beginning has an end. And everything has a beginning. So don't worry. Distract yourself until it passes. Watch a Pixar movie. I've never felt worse after watching one. That's not something I could say for Superman movies. The last couple were disappointing.

Call a hotline if it's serious. 911 and poison control work for medical emergencies, but there are other hotlines for victims of crime, the suicidal, and drug addicts where you may just need someone to talk to or to get information about what you're going through.

Listen to your body. If you're feeling nauseous, go throw up. If you're feeling tired, go to sleep.

Don't stress out about things that can wait until after it's over.

Listen to music that is either relaxing or jives with what you're going through.

Have some chocolate and don't feel guilty about it. Lupin knew what he was talking about. Eat real food, too, if you can.

Sticking to whatever habits you have to the best of your ability will help, though don't worry about ones that are too hard.

Forgive yourself for doing anything that might have caused this. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault.

Things May Not Be OK Right Now, But I Promise They Will Be Eventually


Things may get worse before they get better. Things may get bad again after they've gotten good. But if your pain is all-consuming, I want you to know that your pain will lessen in time.Your life will go on, you'll have many great times and awful times. Both are part of life. Zen would tell us to find the good in the bad. It would say, as long as we can breathe the oxygen around us and wonder at the stars above us, life goes on. Maybe Zen is right. All I know is I wasn't thinking about the stars when I was throwing up all afternoon, but I got better anyways.

And I don't think I've ever felt better.

It's All in Your Head

"Whether you think you can or you can't, you're right." - Henry Ford

Your brain controls every aspect of your body. Even if you're not thinking about making your heart beat or digesting lunch, your brain is making sure that happens. Some things in your body are managed via the endocrine system's chemical pathways and some via the nervous system via both neurons and chemical pathways, but every action your body makes is controlled by the brain. (Technically, certain hormones originate elsewhere in the body and certain reflex pathways don't pass through the brain, but even those signals are indirectly managed by the brain.)

If you don't have as many friends or as large a network as you'd like, that also is controlled by your brain. It's not because you're ugly. It's because you're shy, are afraid to let others into your life, or lack social skills. And all those things come from your brain. Any effort at self-improvement must derive from, and largely take place in, the brain. You can accomplish much of what you're trying to change about yourself by sitting on the floor in the darkness and examining your thoughts. In fact, I recommend that.

Of course, Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintanence, famously explains that quality is at the intersection of human experience and reality, that is, it is some mix of objective and subjective. Everyone who looks at Brad Pitt is necessarily struck by his acting skill, intelligence, good looks, wealth, famous friends, etc. Everyone would basically agree that Mr. Pitt is a quality person. How can that be a subjective determination if everyone agrees? That's bordering on fact. Is quality a fact? That doesn't make sense on an intrinsic level. It takes human judgment to determine quality, so it can't be a facet of objective reality.

Where does that leave us? Even if Pirsig's right, that some aspect of quality resides in objective reality, to actually become quality still comes from the brain. I may be totally incapable of doing a one-handed push-up, but that weakness ultimately derives from my prior cerebral unwillingness to push my body to its limit over the last few years. I didn't identify as someone who works out, so I didn't work out. Or I was afraid of muscle pain, so I didn't work out. It was all in my head.

Sorry for the heavy theoretical bent of this piece. I've got a more practical piece lined up for tomorrow that just needs a bit more editing before it's ready.

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Working a full time job for the first time in my life is wearisome, but I'm learning a lot. I feel like I'm more committed to this job than I've ever been committed to anything. It's a good feeling.

Getting a Feel for It

When building a habit-system, which is what I call a whole collection of positive trigger-action pairs, you want to be able to go on a sort of auto-pilot at some point. If your habit system depends on you being able to constantly make decisions about the right and wrong action to take, you're never going to survivie a rough patch. This is why black-and-white habits work well. Even if there are some reasonable exceptions to your habit-rule, declaring that you will make no exceptions actually makes things easier when it comes time to actually figure out what exceptions you will allow yourself.

It's easier to consistently stick to "I will never drink soda" than "I will never drink soda that isn't on a special occasion or isn't a really cool, new soda." Is your birthday a special occasion? What if you're trying to get drunk with your best friend you only see once every January and the only mixer around is coke? Things get complicated and it's especially hard to make good decisions when we're drinking or under social pressure.

Besides simplicity, getting a feel for a habit-system requires patience. It's not going to happen at once, so don't bother waiting for it. But one day you'll realize that you have a pretty clear understanding of what behaviors are important to you. Even if your sweet-tooth never goes away, after a decent amount of patience, you'll find you have a deep understanding that you don't drink soda.

What I'm describing can take several different appearances. It can take the appearance of a new identity. You may be tired, low on blood sugar, and feeling hot, but if you're handed an open, ice-cold Dr. Pepper, you'll still think to yourself, "I don't want this because I am not the kind of person who drinks soda."

It can take the appearance of changing sensational preferences. Maybe you do crack and have a sip of that Dr. Pepper, but all you can think is, "This doesn't taste nearly as good as I thought it would."

It can take the appearance of independence. Whereas before you depended on sugar and caffeine to stay awake and feel good during the day, you've now learned to live without that crutch. And a crutch doesn't do any good to somebody with no broken legs. So, offered a Dr. Pepper, you think, "I really can't think of any reason why I would want that."

Finally, if you've already successfully built a lot of habits, self-trust, and confidence, you can develop an empowered sense of self-control. Even if you just decided to quit soda, have not yet built an identity without it, still enjoy it, and depend on it for giving you good feelings every afternoon, you can be so self-assured about your ability to build new habits that you fight off the desire to drink soda right from the start. This is a sort of meta-identity that comes from a long period of consistent effort at other habits.

And it feels better than sugar or caffeine ever will.

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Headed to D.C. tomorrow for a wedding and Independence Day on the Mall. It's been on my bucket list for a couple years now, so it'll be good to finally check it out.