Books: The Problem — And Solution to — All of Life’s Problems (Part II)

You are 100% right…”

People read, and then onto the next.” – Sol Orwell.

Self-help books are bullshit.

You have this problem that you need to solve, so you pick up a book on [blank], hoping that by the conclusion your problem will be a thing of the past. You finished the book, which feels like an achievement, and you have this invigorating aura about you as your synapses surge with electricity and hope.

It feels like an accomplishment.

Another badge of honor to pin to your lapel, another trophy for the bookshelf.

You feel like, this time, things will be different, because now you know what must be done to change your life.

And then a few days pass.

The feeling is still there, but it feels far away. The ideas feel stale and begin to fade as new, more immediate priorities surface. That fleeting dopamine rush you felt from the surge of ideas, tactics, and strategies has flat-lined. You need another fix, another dose of inspiration, another promise that your life is about to change.

And you pick up another book.

Reading a book leaves you filled with wishful thinking; “feel-good” platitudes that create the illusion that change happens magically. Positive thinking is great (The Secret sold how many millions of copies?) and coupled with the intention of action, only then can you evoke change in your life and bridge this treacherous gap between inspiration and action.

Activationists, you remember from this post, are people who DO things, not think happy thoughts in their happy safe place.

This is a cycle I’ve experienced many, many times. Maybe you have too. In fact, if I’m not careful, books can be a kind of coping mechanism when the thought of taking action is just too hard or scary. Rather than doing things or interacting with the real world, my default has historically been to retreat and bury myself in knowledge; merely spinning my wheels like a hamster in a cage, indulging in a kind of mental masturbation.

This is an excerpt from The Road to Character by David Brooks:

Your willpower is not strong enough to successfully police your desires.  If you really did have that kind of power, then New Year’s resolutions would work.  Diets would work.  The bookstore wouldn’t be full of self-help books.”

You’d need just one and that would do the trick.”  

You’d follow [the book’s] advice, solve the problems of living, and the rest of the genre would become obsolete.”

“The existence of more and more self-help books is proof that they rarely work.”

This is a crude chart, but it gives you a pretty clear indication that the market for self-help books is vast.

 Books containing the phrase
Books containing the phrase “self-help” over the years.

Brooks was right: we’ve become a society that produces more and more books on helping ourselves, but how many people actually heed the advice they are given?

How many people actually make the leap and bridge the gap between inspiration and action?

The Gap

Everyone knows about the gap.  It’s the gap between inspiration and action.  We read and we get inspired.  New ideas and promises illuminate our consciousness, and for the first time in forever we have hope. We believe this time will be different.  But instead of using what we just learned, we let time pass, and we move on to the next book.

Yes, while the impediment to action advances action, says Marcus Aurelius, I think in many cases books are simply an impediment to action.  

Full stop.

I love reading, and there are few things I treasure as much as my personal library, but it’s important that you take a moment and consider why you’re reading in the first place.  Or if it is truly the time for new knowledge, or if it’s time to finally use the knowledge you already possess.

Do you just want to enjoy a novel and be entertained? Do you want to learn for the sake of learning?  Do you read because you want people to think you’re smart? Cultured? Erudite?  Or maybe reading is just a coping mechanism to avoid taking action, like I’ve often done.

This gap is characterized by two closely-related, yet critically distinct ideas about learning:

First, you have Passive Learning.  Example: Reading a book about how to do a backflip.

Then,  you have Active Learning.  Example: Going outside and trying to do a backflip.

Put the two together and you have a recipe for growth and improvement.

In his newest book, Born For This, Chris Guillebeau uses this flow chart on the learning process involved in taking action, making progress, and becoming successful:

If we make one modification and incorporate a stage of passive learning (reading), the chart would look like this:

If you remove the action component, you’re left with a broken model with a glaring gap between where you are and what you want to accomplish. You have the road map (pure knowledge), but don’t know how to drive the car (action).

Reading is great, and reading simply to learn something new is still a big reason why I read, but when it comes down to it, books are tools. These days, before I buy a book, I try to ask myself: “what problem is this book going to help me solve right now?”

Or, using the tool analogy: “How can I use this tool to make me more effective at the action I am about to take?”

Read books. Learn from them, set forth and do things with what you learn, but your first instinct should always be action.

Always keep moving.

For it was not so much that by means of words I came to a complete understanding of things, as that from things I somehow had an experience which enabled me to follow the meaning of words.” — Plutarch

 

Refocus: How to Plug Your Leaks, Identify Your Strengths, and Spend Every Waking Moment with Purpose

I’ve been working through this course called Refocus over the last few months.  I’m usually a skeptic when it comes to online courses and boot camps, but the reason I paid attention to this one was because it’s run by two guys that actually lead successful lives and do work that helps people.

I’ve been following Nate’s material for years now. Nate works for Precision Nutrition, has a blog, and generally churns out insightful content on fitness, nutrition, and living the good life.

And Lensgstorf? Well, he’s done work for John Romaniello, and other figures in the fitness biz, and let’s just say any friend of Nate’s is a friend of mine. In that weird internet-acquaintance-fanboy sort of way. Plus, he writes a lot about working remotely which is something I have had my sights set on recently.

Long story short, these guys are great; they do good work all in the name of helping struggling people like me figure out how to help themselves.

There are a million books out there with advice on productivity and getting focused. There are even some good ones like Steven Pressfield’s ‘trilogy’ on resistance, and Cal Newport’s books on doing deep work and upregulating your creative output. Books are cheap, and in most cases are only useful when action steps are taken, and this course cost a few hundred bucks.

I was considering my decision, and before clicking “purchase”, my thought process was as such:

If I put down this money, I sure as hell want a substantial return on my investment. Plus, if I do this, I’m more likely to see it through and put in the work expressly for the fact that a decent chunk of change is on the line. That’s called incentive. Let’s go all in.

The course isn’t about hacking productivity or regurgitated “advice” from your favorite lifestyle guru. Rather, the materials in the require you to sit down and do the inner work of examining yourself and your life. No easy task.

This course is actually an opportunity for you to front load the work in outlining the finer details of a life well lived, and however you choose to define it, that means living more purposefully.

In this post I’m going to break down the core aspects of the course and how they’ve helped me in my life.

The Five-Day Time Journal

(Not to be confused with the Five-Minute Journal, which is completely awesome in a different sort of way).

Do you remember what you did yesterday?

You might remember the major events; going to work and eating dinner, or grabbing a drink with friends, but can you account for your time down to the minute?

Was every moment being used purposefully?

What was your ratio of dead time to alive time?

The first exercise in the course will help you answer that very question.

For five whole days you’ll keep an excel spreadsheet and record everything you do during your waking hours. Everything. Unless you’re some sort of superhuman, I guarantee you waste a lot more time than you realize. Whether that means you were sort of working on a few different tasks haphazardly instead of focusing on just one, or maybe you were compulsively checking your Instagram feed or trolling Facebook on your lunch break.

Ask yourself: How do I really spend my time?

At the end of the five days, you will have the honest answer to that question, and you might be uncomfortable with what you find. With this information, you’ll identify your Leaks — the things that drain you of your time and energy (oversleeping, mindlessly checking social media). You will also identify your Bright Spots — the things in your day that made you feel good, fulfilled, or productive (reading, working out, focusing on a project, or spending time with friends).

One of my biggest leaks was playing with my iPad. I wasn’t even playing games, because that would have actually had a purpose: entertainment. No, I realized that during most moments when I wasn’t focused on a singular task, I was idly browsing social media apps on my tablet.

Over and over again.

Completely mindless.

The cumulative amount of time I spent just doing this over the course of five days was staggering.

Why do I keep doing this? What could I be doing instead?

You’re going to have some leaks, and that’s ok. Because knowing, as they say, is half the battle. At this point, I condensed all of my bright spots into a document and organized them by common theme, ultimately turning them into personal statements.

Here were mine:

  • I Put My Energy Into Meaningful Work
  • I commit to Growth
  • I Socialize Regularly
  • I Make Time to Disconnect
  • I Prioritize Health
  • I Prime to Start the Day
  • I Make Time for Guilt-Free fun

What Are You Actually Good At?

The first part of the course is about identifying your bright spots — the things you value in life on a daily basis. The next step is all about helping you identify the skills you already have so you can focus your energy and contribute in the areas you’re most effective in.

These are your Prime Movers.

This next part will help you figure out what you are truly skilled at, but it requires some courage. You will be asked to reach out to people who know you well and ask them what they think are your best qualities or skills — and they must be brutally honest.

At the end of the exercise you’ll feel pretty great. All of these people saying nice things about you and what you can do is an amazing feeling. The feedback you get will help you identify your prime movers.

Here are the themes I saw in my responses:

  • I Learn with Purpose
  • I Get Shit Done
  • I Take Action to Make the Necessary Changes in My Life
  • I Structure My Days Around Important Tasks and Activities

To identify my prime movers, and make sure I wasn’t just being flattered, I needed proof that these responses were verifiable.

What were some of the things I did that made people say this about me?

What actions did I take?

What results do I have to show?

In answering these questions you’ll have clear examples from your life of times when you demonstrated the actions, qualities, or thought processes that other people believe to be uniquely yours.

Collectively, your bright spots and prime movers will be your Acceptance Criteria, and they will serve as your internal compass, guiding you towards the ideas and opportunities that you should pursue, and those that are probably better suited for other people with different skill sets.

Priority, or Priorities?

Whenever he needs a new opportunity or idea to run with, James Altucher has a daily practice he calls Idea Sex. This is where you mash together two or more seemingly disparate, unrelated ideas, and spawn beautiful new ones.

Unlike Altucher’s assertion that the more ideas, the better, if you already have a bunch of great ideas, you probably just need choose one and focus on it exclusively.  As Highlander famously put it: “there can be only one.”

In the Highlander technique, instead of letting your ideas have sex with each other, you break a stick in half, toss the resultant sharp objects in the arena, and have them engage in a gladiator-style fight to the death.

Idea Sex = several ideas enter, several more ideas leave, and then some.

Highlander Technique = several ideas enter, ONE idea leaves.

This technique is about identifying your Priority (singular), not priorities (plural).

My main priority was to see if I liked freelance work and whether it would be a viable stream of income.

One of my bright spots involved having the flexibility to schedule my day around around the things I like and value, and one of my prime movers was my ability to perform research, collate information, and produce a concise report of my findings. For the past month or two I have been working with clients on freelance projects including writing blog posts for health, fitness, and nutrition sites. Conducting research on products for nutrition supplement companies, as well as doing research for high quality health-oriented websites like this one.

The freelancing has been a neat experiment. I’m able to work anywhere, anytime, do work I’m good at, and get paid to do it. Pretty sweet.

Outline the Steps to Your Success

Once you have your Priority, you’ll put together an action plan to get the idea off the ground and figure out the steps you need to take in order to see the project through. This is called the ATOM Technique. This step entails listing all the steps that are Actionable, Timely, Ownable, and Measurable. This technique is infinitely reusable and can be applied to just about any task you can think of. It’s helpful because you’re forced to front load the work and develop an actual step-by-step plan to get it done. Then all you have to do is follow the steps.

The Five Enemies of Effectiveness

The last part of the course is about using habit to your advantage, and working with your natural rhythm of productivity throughout the day so you can push through the five enemies of effectiveness.

Enemy 1: Willpower

Solution: Find a window of time each day when you are most productive. For some people that means waking up early when their willpower is naturally at its highest, for others that means staying up late at night when the rest of the world is asleep.

Enemy 2: Lack of Clarity

Solution: If you’re feeling unsure that you’re spending your time in the best possible way, remember your acceptance criteria, that should help clarify things.

Enemy 3: Lack of Urgency

Solution: Implement self-imposed constraints that will encourage you to complete your work quickly while avoiding wasted time or unnecessary stress. This can be a timer, or a ‘hard-stop’ like a scheduled appointment or social event that you can’t blow off.

Enemy 4: Distraction

Solution: Use your natural rhythm of productivity during the day and schedule short blocks of time (60, 90 minutes) to work. This will help you do the deep work you need to do, while minimizing interruptions. Additionally, web-blocking software like freedom can help remove potential distractions so you can get to work.

Enemy 5: Resistance

Solution:  Resistance happens because doing good work is hard. It requires effort, persistence, and focus. Rather than clash with it, you need to find a way to push through it. Develop a ritual so you can sit down and get to work; make it a habit so every day at X time you know it’s time to get to work.  Since you only have one priority, you already know what you’ll be working on. Also, create the optimal working environment, whether that’s a home office or the coffee shop down the street. Experiment and find out what kind of environment works best for you.

Wrapping Up

Overall, I had a really good experience with the course. Nate and Jason give you the tools to identify the specific themes and activities you value in your life, and help you figure out what you’re actually good at. The most beneficial part of the course for me was parsing out what I actually want my life to look like, and letting myself believe that those things are valid. If you enroll in this course, you’ll have to ask yourself what success really looks like, to you.

I think most people have a vague idea of what they want their life to look like and how they define success for themselves. How the day-to-day would actually play out in a perfect world,  but who actually puts pen to paper and sketches out what that looks like?  

An even more important question, how can you build the life you want if you don’t even know what that looks like, down to the fundamentals?

This course will help you do exactly that, if you’re ready.

To make this work, you have to do the hard work and really look at yourself and your life. You have to identify what’s working and what isn’t. What you truly value and the things that just get in the way.

In short, Refocus exists to answer the why

Why you work.

Why you do what you do.

Why you love what you love.

In answering these questions and following the modules in the course, you will have the tools to construct a life of balance, to engage in activities and work opportunities with purpose, and to find meaning in what you do, in work and in play.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Books: The Problem — And Solution To — All of Life’s Problems (Part I)

Books are awesome because they are condensed packets of wisdom, and the ideas therein have the potential to help you solve real and immediate problems in your life.

Ideas have power.

Good ideas have tremendous value and potential.

Regardless of how good an idea is, if it isn’t placed in the power of intention, it’s likely to fade and be forgotten, keeping you exactly where you were before you cracked the book open in the first place.

Why Do You Read?  

Seth Godin said: “If you spend twenty dollars on a book and get one idea from it, that’s a bargain.”

I read all kinds of books for a variety of reasons, but the core reason I pick up a book these days will fall under one of two categories.  

1.) To learn something specific that I can apply to my own life right now to improve it in some way.

2.) To expose myself to new ideas and knowledge.  In other words, to expose myself to ideas and perspectives that will help me live a richer, more purposeful life.  Books on philosophy by Montaigne, the Stoics, etc., for instance.  Books written by people much wiser, smarter, and more experienced than I am.

Ryan Holiday has this to say about the value of reading:

 Ryan Holiday, Author of The Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, Former Director of Marketing for American Apparel
Ryan Holiday, Author of The Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, Former Director of Marketing for American Apparel

The purpose of reading is not just raw knowledge. It’s that it is part of the human experience. It helps you find meaning, understand yourself, and make your life better. There is very little else that you can say that about.”

“Very little else like that under $20 too.”

 

A few months ago I had some books on investing in my cart on Amazon.  I was 1 click and 2 business days away from opening a box of books that would teach me to invest my money and watch it grow.

Tony Robbins’ Money was in there. One Up on Wall Street too. The Intelligent Investor, and a few others would have showed up at my door in less than 48 hours.

But before I placed the order I had this thought:

Hang on a second, I don’t have any fucking money… what business do I have reading a single one of these books?

Even if I did read all those books on investing with the intention of actually using the information at a later date, when future-Me has some funds to play with, there’s no way I would even remember a damn thing I read.

Ask yourself this question for every book you pick up:

What is this book going to do for me right now?

As an experiment for this blog, I decided to reach out to dozens of successful people I look up to and ask them about a time when a book helped them solve a real, immediate problem in their life.  

I sent out emails to bestselling authors, entrepreneurs, CEO’s, leading figures in fitness, nutrition, marketing, and business.  

The common theme among everyone who responded is that they are all activationists: they are people who do things.

In other words, they all read, they all get shit done, and they all accomplish great things on a regular basis.

Nate Green is a great example.  

Nate is an author, speaker, and marketing and ideas guy for Precision Nutrition (he also launched this cool new course called Refocus which teaches you how to spend your time more purposefully and be more focused).  

This is what he had to say about using books to help solve problems.

I’ve found it helpful to do two things

 Nate is an Author, Writer, Marketing Strategist, and Fitness Expert.
Nate is an Author, Writer, Marketing Strategist, and Fitness Expert.

1.) “Limit the amount of non-fiction books I read (especially self-development and business books). I find that reading more than one a month leads to information overload and no action-steps. Sometimes I go a few months without reading any kind of “business” book. I find it much more effective to consistently practice the stuff I already know versus always learning new things.

2.) “Every book ends with ONE action step. If I read a book about writing, I try to implement just one suggestion on how to become a better writer. If I read a book on business I try to do just one thing the author suggested. This allows me to actually get demonstrable value out of the book instead of simply “learning cool stuff.”

Also, by focusing on one action step, I increase my chances of actually following through with it.”

I like Nate’s minimalist approach because it allows you to rig the game so you can win. If you take one idea from every book and run with it, that’s probably more than most people ever do.

Ideas and Actions

Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” – Victor Hugo

James Altucher has talked a lot about how ideas are the new currency of the 20th century, and it makes total sense.  Everything around you, every accomplishment, invention, or creation in the world is a result of an idea acted upon.

An idea set in motion and a vision realized.  

As I said before, I believe good ideas have tremendous value.

Sometimes a good book will plant the seed of an idea in your mind.  If properly cultivated and cared for, that idea can guide you towards making better decisions, ensuring you trend towards accomplishing your goal, one decision at a time.  

Chris Guillebeau, New York Times bestselling author of The Art of Non-Conformity and The $100 Startup read a book that planted an idea in his mind that inspired him to keep asking himself one critical question as he was in the planning stages of his first book project:

 Chris is a Bestselling Author, Entrepreneur and Speaker.
Chris is a Bestselling Author, Entrepreneur and Speaker.

When I read Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, I felt challenged by the true story of Dr. Paul Farmer. Here was someone who had given his all in pursuit of bringing healthcare to Haiti—and at a high personal cost. I knew I couldn’t do something like that, but it inspired me to keep the question of “What am I contributing?” front of mind as I planned my initial Art of Non-Conformity project.”

People need inspiration.  

Without inspiration — without that spark — I wouldn’t have started this blog.  I wouldn’t be into fitness or meditation. I wouldn’t have had the courage to reach out to all these cool people that I look up to for advice.  

For me, books have always been my number one source of inspiration.  

Success is inspiring.  

Wisdom on life and love and business ignite possibilities in our own lives that urge us to scratch our curiosities to see what we can actually do if we dare to try.  

Sol Orwell is a guy who seemingly knows no fear and fears no failure. He’s a successful serial entrepreneur whose LinkedIn title currently reads: “Quasi-Retired”.

He’s not even thirty years old.

Sol launched Examine.com which was recognized by Fast Company as a Top 10 innovative company in health and fitness in 2015, and was profiled on Forbes as a seven-figure entrepreneur. He is a master networker (seriously, he knows everyone) and marketing wiz, and all around effective human being.

When I asked him about a time when a book spurred him to action, this is what he said:

 Sol Orwell is an Entrepreneur and Business Developer. He also really likes cookies.
Sol Orwell is an Entrepreneur and Business Developer. He also really likes cookies.

Honestly – I think the best book that made me move was Robert Caro’s biography on Lyndon B Johnson. It just showed that the man was absolutely relentless, knew how to leverage his position, and did amazing customer service even back then (he was an aide to a congressman, and made sure that every single letter was personally replied).

 

I think books are one of the best ways to spread wisdom, but most people who actually have wisdom to share probably don’t have the time, or confidence, or energy to put pen to paper and bust out a 200-word book.  

And in this day and age, they don’t have to.

There’s this great company called Book in a Box, and their mission is to attract clients who have wisdom and expertise to share with the world.  

Their mission statement?  Turn Your Knowledge Into A Book. In 12 Hours.

In under 12 hours, the company will get you to spit out all your ideas and wisdom, and turn that knowledge into a book. We all have ideas, and good ideas should be shared, but we can’t all write books.

Book In A Box exists to solve that problem.

They take your knowledge, wisdom, and expertise, and turn it into a book, and make sure the book finds it’s way to the people who need it.

Since this whole project is all about books, I asked a few people from Book In A Box about a time when a book helped them solve a problem in their own life.

Tucker Max read a book called Trauma of Everyday Life:

 Tucker Max, #1 New York Times bestselling author, CEO of Book In A Box
Tucker Max, #1 New York Times bestselling author, CEO of Book In A Box

 

The book helped me really make a leap in my meditation practice, and understand it well enough to actually do it right.”

 

 

To improve how the team conducts meetings, Co-Founder Zach Obront, read a book called Meetings Suck:

 Zach Obront, Bestselling Author, Co-founder of Book In A Box
Zach Obront, Bestselling Author, Co-founder of Book In A Box

 

Most recently, I read Meetings Suck and completely revamped the way our company does meetings. It’s made a huge impact on our productivity

When I asked Kevin Espiritu, this is what he said:

 Kevin Espiritu, Head of Marketing at Book In A Box
Kevin Espiritu, Head of Marketing at Book In A Box

Reading How to Win Friends and Influence People helped me defuse a hot scenario between me and my landlord. He had concerns about the setup of the garage (I had a home office in there at the time), and I was able to figure out what he was really upset about, address it in a casual and upfront way, and completely resolve his anger.”

The common theme among these guys is that they each read a book and took action.

Tucker sought out a book to improve his meditation practice and implemented what he learned, Zach read up on increasing meeting efficiency and overhauled the way their team conducts meetings, and Kevin used Dale Carnegie’s timeless advice on the power of influence and social intelligence to smooth things over with his landlord.  

The kinds of books Book In A Box churns out are created with the intention that the information in the books will help solve people’s problems. Plain and simple.  Here are a few case studies of clients who have had great success in spreading their wisdom to the people who need it.

Human beings have been recording their knowledge in book form for more than 5,000 years. That means that whatever you’re working on right now, whatever problem you’re struggling with, is probably addressed in some book somewhere by someone a lot smarter than you.  Save yourself the trouble of learning from trial and error-find that point. Benefit from that perspective.”

– Ryan Holiday.

*More to come in part II: the gap between inspiration and action, how books fit into the trial-fail-succeed model, and more insightful blurbs from people who do interesting things.

 

False Praise is a Death Sentence

“Good game out there, buddy, have a trophy”, said my football coach.

I think his name was Terrance. And this was minutes after he brained me in the face with a football from about 40 yards away.  

Full bore.  I was 8 years old.

I put my hands in front of my face, squinting behind the spaces between my fingers, but missed the catch and  — BAP! — the pigskin smashed me in the face, warping my glasses, and yet, in my dizzying state, I was awarded a trophy.  

It was on this particular day that we were all winners somehow.

When I was in third grade I played flag football after school at the local community center across the street from my elementary school.  My parents made me do it, just so I would have something to keep me busy after school before they came to pick me up. I’ve never really been into sports. I was more into activities that involved sitting down like video games, eating breakfast cereal, or… sitting down.  So, no, I’ve never been a big sports guy and yet at the end of the game, to my surprise, I got a shiny trophy. Shiny little football guy on top and everything.

The coach just handed it to me.   

Me and every other kid who played that day.  

Both teams, actually.

It is human nature to want to feel important, and that’s great. We want to feel accomplished. Capable. Special. We want to be recognized for these attributes and contributions in the world. These things help make the bizarre experience of life worth the struggle; things that feed our motivation to work hard and build the kind of life we want for ourselves.  We all crave appreciation and recognition, but one thing nobody ever wants is false-praise, which is exactly what I got after Terrance smashed me in the face.

I played football in fourth grade as well, and at the end of a game, Terrance handed me the exact same trophy; a congratulatory token for merely showing up and existing on the same patch of grass where a football game had transpired.  Before he handed me the trophy I was probably wondering whether the post-game snack would be Teddy Grahams or Goldfish, or thinking about what new video game I wanted to save up for. Or boobs.

Anything but football.

There’s a weird thing in our culture where we award people simply for participating or completing a task. The gold stars on homework assignments or scratch and sniff stickers on tests. Trophies and plaques for recreational sports. My-kid-is-an-honor-student bumper stickers and on and on. You get the idea. As a culture, we tend to coddle our youth, doling out “participation awards” just so we don’t hurt anybody’s feelings. In doing so we condition each other to believe that, why, yes, you are amazing and gifted, which in turn imbues a false sense of confidence stemming from this flattery and false-praise.  

Everyone wants to be special and unique.  We all want our talents and efforts to be recognized and celebrated — me included.  But suppose you get your wish.  What if tomorrow everyone started telling you that you are amazing, and that you are gifted, or that you are good enough?

How do you know? Who’s to be trusted?

King George V had a set of six maxims displayed on the walls of his study at Buckingham Palace.  One of these maxims said:

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Teach me neither to proffer, nor receive cheap praise.

This is almost always what the gold stars, the stickers, and goofy trophies are — cheap praise.

Looking back on it, my experience in graduate school was largely based on cheap praise. The feedback I got was valid, sure.  Valid within that fabricated bubble of an environment, but not necessarily in the real world.  During my graduate school years, I would work so hard for the carrot on the stick that was the final grade. I put in the reps, did the hard work, and if I got an A, I felt really good about myself. I would experience a slight uptick in how confident I was in my abilities.  Whether it was a carefully written essay or well-delivered presentation, a single day after the due date, it was as if it never existed.  The more A’s I got, the more confident in my abilities I became, yes, but this sense of achievement really only existed in a microcosm; a hermetically sealed ecosystem of rules that don’t apply to life outside the bubble.

If it wasn’t good enough to spread around to peers or colleagues, or even attempt at being published, was it really an A paper?  Did it really have a lasting impact on anything but itself?

Epictetus has this somber take on flattery which I really like:

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Crows devour the eyes of the dead when the dead no longer need of them. But flatterers destroy the souls of the living and blind their eyes

Shortly after graduation I was talking about future plans with a coworker and I told him I wanted to write about nutrition for a living.  Paul started asking me questions about the quality of my writing and whether I would start a blog or do something else entirely.  I was so convinced of my writing abilities, so utterly blind to the reality of the situation, that when asked about my level of competence, this is what I said:

“My writing speaks for itself.”  

Come again?!

The arrogance.  

The ego.

The delusion.

I feel so terrible knowing that I actually said those words.  And meant them, no less. I was an arrogant, self-centered dipshit with an inflated sense of importance. Still am, to be honest, but I’m working on it.

“My writing speaks for itself.”

Oof.

I made plenty of A’s in graduate school, so, naturally, I thought I could actually compete in the real world right out of the gate. Graduate school taught me some valuable skills, to be sure, but without real world application, it was just practice.  Child’s play.

This was a lesson I should have learned after graduating from college, but it took getting my Masters degree to get the message.

Fool me once, shame on you.

Fool me twice…

One of the main lessons I learned from formal education is that ego is the enemy, and I’ve been trying to deflate that bastard ever since I realized it was a problem.  False praise and flattery are harmful because they imbue you with a confidence that hasn’t truly been earned.  The ego is fertile soil for false praise — it lives off of it — and the more you internalize this form of deception, the faster your ego will grow out of control, unchecked, like a weed. That’s what happened to me at least.

The bigger the ego becomes, the less receptive you’ll be to sincere praise or constructive criticism when you need it most.

It’s like Adam Smith said:

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Undeserved praise is a reprimand — a reminder of what I could be

When we receive false praise, we are in effect being reprimanded, and the results can be destructive.  Suppose you want to be a writer.  Now, to get better at writing you need to do two things.

  1. Write constantly.

  2. Receive ruthless feedback on your work.

Anybody with the determination can do the first part, and you’ll get better to a point simply by doing the work.  But, you need to stretch your abilities to truly excel, and to do this you need the objective, honest feedback to help you break through your plateau and graduate to the next level.   

A few weeks ago Tucker Max wrote an article called Who Should You Ask for Feedback on your Writing?  When soliciting feedback from someone, Tucker advises that that person be from your specific audience, or someone credentialed and experienced in writing or editing.  And even then, there are no guarantees.  I can’t put words in his mouth, but I’d bet that Tucker would agree that false praise is a death sentence.  Hell, he started a business that is contingent on creating consistent, high quality work; the result of honest communication and constructive criticism between the client and the team at Book in a Box. If honest feedback from the right people wasn’t a cornerstone of his business, the resultant books might just be mediocre, and mediocre businesses usually fail.

You need people to tell it to you straight in life.  They aren’t always easy to find, and I struggle with this too, but you should try to be around people who are better than you; people that can show you a mirror of yourself and help you fix the mistakes you’re making.

The point is, there is a fine line between appreciation and flattery. In contrasting this difference, Dale Carnegie said:

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One is sincere and the other insincere. One comes from the heart out; the other from the teeth out. One is unselfish; the other selfish. One is universally admired; the other universally condemned.

When someone appreciates your efforts, acknowledge it, but also study it.  Be mindful of the compliments you receive and the criticisms of your work, but learn to discern between authentic appreciation and flattery.   There’s a time and place for giving people compliments to console or cheer them up. Some flattery is just social pleasantry, like paying someone a compliment.  If the feedback puffs you up with confidence and pride; if it feels too good to be true, well then, it probably is.

 

You Are What You Eat (this is not a food blog)

[The writer] is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know

This quote by Annie Dillard reminds me of the adage: you are the average of the five people you most associate with.  

I agree with Annie Dillard’s quote, but I think there’s more to it. Lately I’ve been focusing on this idea instead: you are the product of whatever you allow into your consciousness.  In today’s society our attention is pulled in every which way by television shows, movies, books, music, podcasts, friendships, relationships, activities, and more, not to mention work obligations. These things battle for our attention, all day, every day. There are only so many hours in a day, and how you prioritize those things is up to you.

People get the mind and quality of brain that they deserve through their actions in life

– Robert Greene.

Neuroscientists have begun to learn that the brain is actually quite plastic – that our own thoughts can determine our mental landscape. People who are passive about what consume on a daily basis create a mental landscape that is barren. Due to a lack of experiences and action, they stagnate and all kinds of connections in the brain die off from lack of use. It’s only through action that you can cut through the passive trend and work to cultivate the mind you want, and in turn, become the person you want to be.

Think about it.

Eleanor Roosevelt famously said: “great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

What do you talk about in your immediate network of friends?
 

These are hypothetical questions, sure, but the underlying conceptual basis is sound: you are what you eat.

Today, we are a society encumbered with a plethora of choice. And while it is the ability to choose that makes us human, as the American novelist Madeleine L’engle said, we should choose carefully.

But how do you know what to choose?

As a rule of thumb, when taking an active approach to managing your daily consumption, go first class. Go first class for everything you do. Go to the best sources. Read the best books by the brightest minds, eat healthy food, surround yourself with things that reflect success, knowledge and wisdom. Going first class means surrounding yourself with the best that has been written and said by minds far greater than your own.

In Essentialism, Greg McKeown argues that in becoming an essentialist, “you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, [so you] can make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.” This principle of essentialism can be applied to your own life too. it is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at your highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.

In this way, the crux of essentialism can be distilled down to one simple question that you must repeatedly ask yourself: Am I investing in the right activities?

You know that you are inevitably a product of your environment, and the ecosystem you construct for yourself will, in some way, permeate your consciousness and bleed into your work; everything you do. Going back to the Annie Dillard quote from the beginning, you should be selective of what you allow into your consciousness because that is what you will learn, and what you will know, and therefore, who you will be.

Whatever I’m going to create will be a reflection of how these things have shaped my life, and how I’ve learned to channel my experiences into them” – Twyla Tharp

Twyla Tharp is a world-renowned dance choreographer, a true creative genius. She starts every new project with an empty box. Over time, the box gets filled with tangible items that remain true to the fundamental theme of the project. Twyla actively ‘scratches’ for ideas, and when she stumbles across something that rings true to the spirit of the project, it goes in the box. Once the box is full, the project is complete. With all of the raw materials in the box, all she has to do is make them play nice together. The box is not a catch-all for ideas, but a deliberate receptacle for only the most cogent, productive ideas that collectively spawn the creation of a single cohesive piece of art.

What if that box was your brain?

Imagine for a minute that one day’s worth of your stimuli – thoughts, messages, and knowledge gleaned from that which you watched, listened to, read, or thought – could be placed inside the box.

What’s in your box right now, as you’re reading this?

Twyla has a box for every one of her projects. She has over 130 of them. That’s 130 boxes, each with a singular theme and vision. You? You only get one box for one project – your life. You can put just about anything in your box — in your mind — but if you’re selective about it, if you pick only what is essential and first class, you set yourself up for success. Your mind is fertile soil; sow it with respect.

Read books that remind you of who you are, in truth. Spend time with people who inspire and reflect the source to you. Meditate, contemplate… steep yourself in the source”. — David Deida.

If you want to be ‘the hero of your story’, and you should, start doing the things that the best version of yourself would do. Watch the movies and documentaries the best, most action-oriented version of you would watch. Read what they would read, or what those who you aspire to be like read. Listen to music that inspires and motivates you. Listen to podcasts that inform you or change your perspective and challenge preconceived notions. Stretch your mind and spend time with people with different occupational and social interests, who can help you think of new ideas, and new ways of doing things. Collectively, these things will push you to the next level.

Ultimately, you cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything; “these influences are acting on you, consciously and otherwise. Guiding your decisions, winnowing your worldview, eating up your life

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take the Service Job

At the height of his success at Standard Oil, John D. Rockefeller said, “the ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee. And I will pay more for that ability”, said John D., “than for any other under the sun”.

I never thought I’d say this, but working in the service industry is probably one of the best things that ever happened to me.  As someone with a long history of social anxiety, there’s no doubt in my mind that working retail has been the Archimedes lever to uplift my people skills from “100% awful” to “meh pretty good.”

And to me, pretty good might as well be perfect.

It has taken me a long time to realize this, but my social ineptitude has been dragging me down my whole life.

When I was younger, I was this human chameleon type character, like Woody Allen’s Zelig, or Mystique from the X-men.  I was utterly incapable of forming anything beyond surface-level relationships with other people.   There were times in college when I’d be hunched over my computer in my dorm room when my roommate’s girlfriend would come in and say hello to me in passing — as a normal person does.  Instead of saying “hello” or something equally polite; a simple “how are you?” perhaps, I would just mumble “mmhm” like a neanderthal. Or literally just say “yep”.

Yep!?!?

It was bad. Red alert, full-retard bad.

I became even more aware of this uncouth social behavior after college when I started going on dates with women.

You read that right: after college.

Fed up with a lifetime of failure with women, I was determined so “solve” dating once and for all.  I wanted to get better with women, but little did I know, what I needed was to get better with people.  So I joined an online dating site, and it took months before a single woman would talk to me.  I read books about how to attract women online; what to say in messages, how to craft a good profile, stuff like that.

Eventually I landed my first date.

*presses nerd glasses firmly to face*

The first dozen or so dates were like interviews.  Bad, stale interviews.  Questions about employment, schooling history, favorite this, that, and the other thing.  All staples of first date conversation, but in my case, the conversation never really developed beyond surface-level facts. And when it did, I tended to linger on topics for too long.

What do you mean you don’t want to talk about Arrested Development anymore?!

I was on a first date at my favorite wine bar, and after the usual rigmarole of Q and A, the topic of conversation shifted to our experiences with online dating.

Well, I mean, I was never great at dating, so I’m just trying to get better at it, y’know?,” I said, in an earnest display of vulnerability. “I guess I’m just trying to get better at interacting with women and having more engaging conversations.”

I told her I was basically going on these dates for practice; to make up for lost time and missed opportunities. To catch up to everyone else, essentially.

Oh, ok so you’re autiiistiiiic“, she said, tilting her head back with drawn-out, smug conviction.

What?!  Not really… I mean… well… umm…

Then, she eased back into her bar stool and took another sip of pinot and scarfed down a wad of cheese mashed into a piece of crusty dough bread.  

Autistic, she said.

I’m not really autistic, but needless to say, there was no second date.

It was around this time that I began doing these “experiments” with women that I started working in the service industry. What began as a part-time grad school job somehow evolved into a full-time gig as a manager with modest benefits.  The real reason I still work in the service industry has nothing to do with the industry I’m in, or the work itself. The reason is that the day-to-day grind of working retail has given me — and continues to give me — the opportunity to develop and hone my people skills, skills that are majorly lacking.

Simple as that.

On a daily basis I am forced to bust out of my shell and engage with people all day long, whether I’m in the mood to people please or not. Whether I’m feeling outgoing or reserved, I’m forced to connect with strangers, build relationships, and sell some shit.

Ignore the Immediate Payoff, Focus on the Long-Term

Robert Greene said: “when it comes to practical life, what should matter is getting long-term results… that should be the supreme value that guides people’s actions.”

There’s an undeniable stigma attached to working service jobs.  People might think they’re lowly jobs that don’t pay much (which they usually don’t) or that they’re somehow not “real” jobs (which is hokum).

I think everyone — especially young people — should have to take a service job at some point in their life.  In fact, they should want to. Whether that means working retail, bartending, or being a server at a restaurant, doesn’t matter. What does matter is the rationale for why you’re taking the job in the first place and the mindset you adopt. All service jobs are opportunities to cultivate and hone valuable people skills — skills which are arguably the most important skills you’ll ever need.

Do you know what the best part is?  You get paid for it.  You get paid to develop the skills that will help you in every conceivable way moving forward in life.

Every single way.

Think about it this way: you can view your job as a daily grind where you wake up every morning to suck the day’s dick, as the crude phrase goes, to a place in which the sole objective is to punch in, punch out, and collect the paycheck.  That’s what a job is to a lot of people: a burdensome means to a monetary end. Life and work two separate, clashing realities, with eyes ever-fixed on the almighty dollar. The short-term payoff.

Or…

Consider this:  your job is a landscape — a playground or a laboratory — to experiment in developing your people skills and honing the craft of human interaction.  When you’re at work, rather than complaining about your position in life, consider what skills you can work on immediately, right in front of you. In the case of service jobs, if you pay attention, you’ll see opportunities to build people skills — skills that are immutable to every industry conceivable

For example, in a retail environment you can:

[*] Practice active listening

[*] Adjust your energy (posture, vocal intonation, eye contact etc.), studying how people perceive you and using that information as feedback so you can adjust accordingly.

[*] Practice assertiveness and displaying confidence (another skill you’ll develop)

[*] Cultivate empathy and a genuine interest in others

[*] Build real relationships built on mutual trust and respect

[*] Practice story-telling and keeping the listener’s attention; engaging the person you’re talking with

[*] Study how you react to disagreements, criticisms, or disgruntled customers

The common theme in all these examples is self-monitoring.

Use the examples above and think of the daily grind as a constant feedback loop where every day is an opportunity to experiment with being and acting a certain way. If you can confidently check off every box, you’ll be at an incredible advantage all anything you choose to do.  

Keep going and keep improving.

Remember: everything that happens to you is a form of instruction if you pay attention. Your whole life is really one long apprenticeship to which you apply your learning skills.

So pay attention and think about the long-term.  Sure, you probably won’t make a ton of money, you might not have the prestige and sense of importance that you’re looking for, but again, consider the bigger picture.  What’s a few months, a year, maybe more, of working one job in the grand scheme of things? Tending bar is not a career for most people, neither is being a server or customer service rep. Most people have dozens of jobs during a lifetime, and you can always do something else.  

Treat the service job as a valuable stepping stone, then take what you learned and apply it to the next job, the next big thing, getting better with each step forward.

Sure, I’m not making a ton of money, but I’m making enough to survive. Maybe I don’t have a prestigious job, but I’m 26 years old, and have no plans of doing this forever. I know that by putting in the reps now and investing in people skills, I’m setting myself up for success in later jobs and life in general.  Having good people skills is in my mind the single most valuable skill there is because I know what it’s like not to have them; it makes you feel crippled and incapable. It feels like how I imagine drowning might feel: helpless.  The only fix to this is action, and in this case, you can get paid for it.  Don’t think about your job as just another job.  Consider what skills the job can teach you, regardless of the amount written on the paycheck.

 

Stop Doing Nothing, and Start Doing Something. Anything. Now.

Without passion, all the skill in the world won’t lift you above craft. Without skill, all the passion in the world will leave you eager but floundering…” – Twyla Tharp

Twyla Tharp is one of America’s greatest choreographers. She’s a true master of her craft, having created over 130 dances, and winning armfuls of awards along the way. She knows that hard work and passion are requisites, but without skill, you can only get so far.

If you read this article, you know that when it comes to success, “follow your passion” is bad advice. Passion can be a helpful spark to ignite the powder keg, but it must be tempered with clarity of purpose and valuable skill. This form of self-indulgence goes hand-in-hand with the timeless confidence of youth. The confidence that, despite our present condition, everything will magically turn out fine – this is the millennial way.

The Millennial Quandary

32% of millennials between the age of 26 to 33 have a four-year degree or more, making them the best-educated cohort of young adults in American history. The thing is, only about 50% of college grads are satisfied with their jobs, and an equal number think their education didn’t prepare them for their current job.

Yipes!

In fact, only a little over half think they even have the education and training to get ahead in their field. Yet, despite the financial burdens and job dissatisfaction, endemic of the millennial generation, more than 8 in 10 think they have enough money to lead the lives they want, or expect to in the future.

I can’t tell you how many people I know who believe their “future self” will have it all figured out; that expectations will match reality.  When I was in grad school my classmates ranged from sprite young college grads in their early twenties, to those nearing retirement age. It didn’t matter if it was the twenty-somethings just getting started, or the career-changing mom. The message was always the same – “present me” doesn’t have a coherent plan of action, but “future me” will have it all figured out.

How many people do you know that speak of the future in this way? Are you one of them?

To be perfectly honest, I was guilty of this too.  Still am to some degree, but I’m working on it every day. For most of my life, admittedly, I simply went through the motions, living my life on unconscious autopilot, assuming a college degree was a guarantee of a certain quality of life; a job coupon as it were.

I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” – Carl Jung

Talking to millennials about the future is like listening to someone trying to describe a dream they had two nights ago; it’s a hazy recount of snippets and incomplete thoughts. It lacks clarity and precise detail; an incomplete puzzle.

It’s something many shrug off, sigh, and wistfully mutter under their breath “some day”. Then gaze longingly off into the distance with dreams of a brighter future, and no clearly defined path to get there.

The common error among millennials is that they’re stuck in a holding pattern. They’re spinning their wheels, waiting for the future to happen to them, instead of facing reality and making a calculated effort get the ball rolling. To get the job you want, or build the career you think you deserve, you need to develop your skills and get better.

Much better.

The way to build the valuable skills – the career capital – is through deliberate practice.

Wishing is a way to remove oneself from what is going on now…”.

In this book, Cal Newport argues that it’s not passion that’s a reliable metric for future success, but skill. Deliberate practice is a strategy to help you acquire the rare and valuable skills in your field. It is “...above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in”.

By adopting the deliberate practice strategy, you literally force the skills to come.

Showing up and working hard will only get you so far, but you’ll eventually plateau. To excel in something, to surpass the threshold from good to great you need to stretch your abilities and become better – this is the point of deliberate practice. By first actualizing your goals and discerning the specific skills necessary to help you achieve those goals, you can implement deliberate practice as a strategy to build career capital, which will help you advance farther faster in your field.

Stop Doing Nothing, and Start Doing Something. Anything. Now.

The way of the millennial is to do nothing after graduating. You probably majored in something fulfilling and stimulating, but after graduating you couldn’t find a job in your field. Sound familiar? We’re in a recession. This presents a certain set of obstacles, but you find a job, any job that will pay the bills, and statistically, you’ll probably make that your career. Instead of implementing deliberate practice, and acquiring skill to help you fulfill your purpose, you stagnate and do nothing.

This should be a familiar example:

Ashley is 25 with a Master’s degree from a reputable school. She’s been out of school for three years and still retains a vivid conception of the kind of work she wants to be doing, but isn’t. Instead, she came to work a retail job with me – a low-stress job with decent pay for me during grad school. She so desperately wanted an academic career in criminal justice policy, specifically with the prison system in the U.S. – a pretty specific niche in academia. When talking about our hopes and plans for the future career-wise, her utter frustration with her current position in life would bleed through her words. She felt overqualified and underpaid for her current job. She was constantly applying for jobs in her field of interest, but nothing would take, so she bounced from temp job to temp job.

I asked her if there was anything she did in her free time – writing, blogging, volunteering, anything. Anything to try and bridge that gap; to invest in herself and develop the skills to help her stand out from the pack, and break into her field.

“I CAN write, but if I’m not getting paid for it, what’s the point?  I don’t have time for that noise. I mean, I’m more than qualified for the kind of work I want to be doing! It’s just frustrating”.

When she wasn’t working at the shop, she was either bar-hopping with friends or binge-watching shows on Netflix most days of the week, and playing D &D or hitting more bars, brunches, and bad dates on the weekend.

“I mean, I have good grades and a Masters degree, that should be enough!”.

In her mind, if she wasn’t getting paid, what was the point?

Therein lies the problem. Rather than getting to work now, she did nothing.  It’s as if she was a robot, deactivated outside of the hours from nine to five.

It doesn’t matter whether this is the worst time to be alive or the best, whether you’re in a good job market or a bad one… “ – Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way.

If you’re in your twenties, your career capital is effectively nil, and your skills desperately need developing. You do this through deliberate practice – with or without the paycheck. As David Deida said, “every moment waited is a moment wasted, and each wasted moment degrades your clarity of purpose.”

Find a way. Now.

Deliberate practice helped me get my top choice for an internship (two, actually) this past Spring. I applied for the intern position for a company in D.C., and sent over my CV and requisite materials, following standard procedure. It was touch and go at the beginning, but we scheduled a phone interview, and they asked for more writing samples. I sent over more academic papers, and just for the hell of it, I sent over blog post that I was proud of.

Another week went by.

After a second phone conversation it turned out I wasn’t a good fit for the structured, internship program they had in place. I was neck-deep in the throes of grad school, and on top of that they wanted me to quit my job and commit full-time to an unpaid internship. The money didn’t matter to me, but since I could barely make rent as it was, I couldn’t make it work. Bummer.

Two weeks later.

I get an email from a name I don’t recognize. Turns out, it was from the senior director of the company. Evidently, my writing samples made their way to her desk, and she liked what she saw. It wasn’t the wealth of dry, academic papers I’d accrued in grad school, those are a dime a dozen, but it was the lengthy blog post I had written in my free time. The post captured my years of experience in nutrition and fitness, and critical actionable steps for people getting started. My story wasn’t special or unique, but it offered my personal perspective and struggles. It also showcased my authentic voice, which hardly seeps through in objective academic writing.

As I neared graduation, writing papers, grant proposals, and collating research became as natural as breathing. Everything could now be completed on autopilot – I was no longer growing, no longer stretching my abilities. The internship was an opportunity for me to accrue 200+ hours of deliberate practice in a type of writing that desperately needed improvement. I worked closely under an editor who scrutinized my work. I was given assignment after assignment, producing draft after shitty draft, writing and rewriting until I got it right, forcing me to get better.

Remember: you must stretch your abilities beyond where you’re comfortable and receive ruthless feedback on your performance.

This is embarrassing to admit, but it wasn’t until I graduated from college that I realized being passive didn’t lead to success – not until I graduated from college! In my half-retarded brain, I used to think life was something that just happened to people. If you’re anything like I was, you thought you were supposed to go to college, get a nondescript job in a box somewhere. You wear a tie, a pair of khakis, move up the ladder, maybe meet a nice lady, have some kids. Then you die, more often than not, with your song still inside you, to paraphrase Thoreau.

Unless you take the initiative and invest in yourself, life will pass you by. To succeed in life and move closer to reaching your goals, you have to fucking work, but you also have to get better. Work smarter, not harder. Employing deliberate practice as a strategy for pursuing excellence “is to embrace a long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity”.

As Robert Greene put it, “direct yourself toward the small things you are good at. Do not dream or make grand plans for the future, but instead concentrate on becoming proficient at these simple and immediate skills.” Rather than fixating on the future, forgoing action in the present, focus on finishing the smallest task you have right in front of you; finish it well, then move on to the next thing. That’s how you get better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Be Alone

Nothing, to my way of thinking, is better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop where he is and pass some time in his own company”. Seneca.

For most of my life, I’ve relished in the quiet moments behind closed doors. Completely immersed in private doings of my own choice, shutting out the external noise and incessant distractions that characterize life in the modern world. As a kid I remember coming home from school and making a b-line for my bedroom, dropping my backpack, and locking the door behind me. This feeling of relief would wash over me because I knew I had finally returned to my own private realm; the place where I recharge my batteries and work and play in solitude.

To quote the author Chris Guillebeau, “without the energy I derive from being by myself, I know that I wouldn’t be of much use to anyone else later on”.

I couldn’t have said it better.

The French essayist and philosopher Montaigne believed everyone should have what he called a ‘back shop’.  This room — this back shop— was a private room reserved for stoic detachment from the external world. In his mind; a place to learn and reflect.  The idea was not to run away from your problems, your family, or social life, but to have a place, free of distraction, to look inward and think about your life.

The back shop is where you practice solitude; where you can explore your inner world, which in turn will help you make sense of the external world.

Yet, solitude, I believe, is something most people secretly dread.

The Disconnect

Today’s society puts a premium on individuality.

Now, more than ever in history, we display our unique gifts, talents, and skills like badges on our sleeves; seeking to differentiate ourselves through these various attributes, yet, in reality, we are leery and skeptical of people who stray too far from the herd and actually practice this autonomy and self-fulfillment we all claim to want. Everyone wants the freedom to live life on their own accord; the kind of freedom that is inherent to solitude in many ways.

So why is everyone so terrified of being alone?

I don’t mean in the romantic or existential sense — alone — but in the physical act of spending time alone in one’s own company for any amount of time.

Still.

In their own quiet thoughts.

We say we want autonomy, but for some reason we frown upon those who embrace solitude as a part of their lives. We think they’re fringy, creative types. Loners. Social deviants and miscreants. We call them antisocial and introverted. We believe they’re sad, even when they tell us they’re happy. We call them hermits.

Or worse, sociopaths.

There is a persistent stigma attached to this reverence for solitude despite such a ubiquitous thirst for individuality in our culture. If you replace ‘solitude’ with ‘single’, you’d run into the same issues. In generations past, and still today to a lesser degree, there is a social expectation that as you get older, you’re supposed to find a partner and settle down.

And if you don’t?

People will think something is deeply wrong with you.

Happy single people value the freedom to live life on their own terms, just as people who like spending time alone value the autonomy and creative freedom that comes with solitude.

Whether you’re an aging spinster or reclusive hermit, you know the path to freedom, and travel it in spite of cultural expectations.

Still, why the disconnect?

The answer surely involves fear.

Fear of idleness and what it may lead to. Fear of focused self-analysis and delving into strange or uncomfortable feelings, or more than likely, it’s the fear of loneliness. Despite all this, deliberate bouts of aloneness — active aloneness — are crucial for producing meaningful, creative work, as well as cultivating self-mastery and self-control. Self-awareness, really.  It’s not always an easy habit to cultivate but, really, what habits are?

In my experience, the benefits of spending some time by myself and enriching my inner world far outweigh the negative consequences (which are very real). I’m not saying you need to retreat into the woods for two years like Thoreau, or sequester yourself indoors like Howard Hughes, collecting pee in mason jars and hoarding toenail clippings, no, these are the outliers; the former who produced timeless prose that enriched the lives of countless readers, and the latter who, well, lost his marbles and became a famous recluse; an undeniable icon for the archetype (he did some remarkable things in his life as well).

Solitude doesn’t have to be this drastic life shift, it should be a deliberate practice; something you incorporate into your life on a regular basis. Think of active aloneness as a tool to explore the depths of yourself, undistracted, which in turn will help you live your most authentic life and better serve the world.

This is about a practical way to incorporate the benefits of active aloneness into your life without sacrificing relationships, mental health, or the most precious thing of all — your time.

There’s a gaelic expression for the kind of aloneness I’m advocating and it goes like this:

quietness without loneliness”.

Alice Koller said it well: “being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others… solitude is an achievement”.

On Solitude and Living a Meaningful Life

In explaining why he decided to isolate himself in a cabin on Walden Lake for two years, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”. Thoreau lived alone in that cabin to distill life down to its indivisible essence; to “learn what [life] had to teach”, in his words.

I did not wish to live what was not life”, he said.

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”.

Similarly, the US admiral and explorer, Richard Byrd, spent the winter of 1934 alone on the southern polar ice cap of Antarctica.

I wanted to go for experience’s sake,” he explained.

One man’s desire to know that kind of experience to the full… to be able to live exactly as I chose, obedient to no necessities but those imposed by wind and night and cold, and to no man’s laws but my own.”

Thoreau and Byrd exemplify what we all want: to live an experientially- rich, meaningful life. Retreating to a cabin in Connecticut worked for Thoreau, and Byrd found serenity in the bitter cold nights in Antarctica.

You don’t need to travel that far or that deep into the wilderness, but you do need to delve that far and deep into yourself.

The thing about solitude is, unless you have a proclivity for it, you will likely struggle in the initial discomfort of learning how to be alone. It’s sort of like meditation, except instead of trying to empty your thoughts, you are gently analyzing them; letting them trickle to the surface where you can pick them apart, parse them, and play with them. And ultimately, find meaning.

Know Thyself Through Solitude

It is a vile ambition in one’s retreat to want to extract glory from one’s idleness… you should no longer be concerned with what the world says about you, but with what you say to yourself.

Active solitude is all about cultivating a healthy relationship with your inner world, discovering the things that make you tick, and observing your thoughts. Active solitude is really a form of self-therapy, an opportunity for dead-sober self-talk.

In 1913, the German psychotherapist Carl Jung developed a new method of do-it-yourself therapy called reverie. For one reason or another (read: war), most of Jung’s connections were severed, including his friendship and mentee relationship with Sigmund Freud. As a result of this impasse, Jung was left all alone, and began to have a sort of breakdown; “a horrible confrontation with the unconscious”, in his words. He began hallucinating and hearing voices, and soon enough he feared he was becoming psychotic. Despite his harried situation and shaky mental state, Jung decided to turn his misfortune into an opportunity by practicing self-analysis and a little introspection. To work through his semi-psychotic state, Jung began to deliberately and detachedly work through memories, experiences, dreams, and events, as well as his own reactions to them, in a meandering, dream-like state.

He wrote down his emotional reactions in journals and studied them closely, and eventually, after seeing the value of this deliberate self-analysis, he incorporated the technique — reverie — into his practice.

After graduating from college I had a similar experience. I just graduated, had no real job prospects, broke up with my long term girlfriend, cut off most of my friends (related to the girlfriend situation) and ultimately isolated myself for a little over a year in my dingy roach-infested apartment, determined to sulk forever or drink myself to death. College was over and I felt like I was starting from the beginning; thrust into the real world to see how far a fancy piece of paper with my name on it would get me. My year of solitude was a humbling time; a huge and necessary strike to me ego, senselessly hitting me over the head: “you thought college was the hard part? Time to wisen up and get to work.”

I was a fool in college, squandering my time and failing to plan for the eminent future after graduation. I thought a college degree was a job coupon.

And so it began.

It was during that year of solitude that I really became self-aware. For the first time ever I could see the hand I had been dealt in life. I acknowledged my anxieties and insecurities, and weak spots, which helped me develop a blueprint of the kind of person I wanted to become. I saw who I was in the moment, envisioned who I wanted to become, and used that self-awareness to pave a path forward.

Like Jung’s experience when he unknowingly developed reverie, it was through the struggle and the discomfort of confronting myself that I was able to find stable ground during shaky times. Solitude was crucial in taking an honest look at myself; taking an inventory of my strengths, weaknesses, fears, insecurities, anxieties, and life experiences, and ultimately, figuring out how to move forward from that place of sure-footed honesty and acute self-awareness.

Epictetus said, “first know who you are and what you are capable of”.

In Mastery, Robert Greene echoes similar sentiments on the importance of inward-learning:

The first move toward mastery is always inward-learning who you really are and reconnecting with that innate force. Knowing it with clarity, you will find your way… and everything else will fall into place.”

Everything great you will ever do will come from this place of self-awareness. And conversely, I think most missteps and wrong decisions spur from a lack of self-awareness.

It all starts there.

You have to take an honest inventory of yourself before you can move forward.

When you spend time alone, listen. It’s during those moments of stillness and quiet that you can hear the soft, still voices that come from the depths. Acknowledge them and analyze whatever comes up. After doing this long enough, you’ll start noticing patterns and begin to see yourself with more clarity. Then from the knowledge you gleaned from this place of detached objectivity, paint a mental image of the kind of person you want to be. What attributes does this person have? How does she treat other people? Herself? Equally important to the specific character traits and attributes, think about why that idealized self is so beholden to you. What does this person have that you don’t? What to they do differently than you do? This is a process of laying the groundwork for bridging the gap between the present self and the upgraded self that you aspire to become.

Solitude will help you know yourself, and it will also help you identify what you want out of life; what you naturally gravitate towards.

Elle Luna wrote a wonderful book called the Crossroads of Should and Must. In the book she helps the reader discern between the things in their own lives that they should be doing (for work, societal norms, perceived obligations) versus what they must be doing; what they know deep down will be their unique gratifying contribution to the world. Luna argues that being comfortable alone is a crucial piece in the process of identifying your ‘must’.

Solitude is how we quiet the voices, the incessant chatter”, Luna says. “It’s how we create the necessary calm, empty spaces. Vision needs solitude. Leadership needs solitude. Courage needs solitude. Because when our choices evolve from an internal place of sure-footed, rooted knowing, we become resilient, emboldened, and focused”.

This excerpt captures the essence of active aloneness. It’s through the self-analysis and inward-learning that can be accomplished during quiet moments of solitude that you take an honest inventory of yourself, laying out the cards as they lie, and connecting the dots on the path towards becoming the person you want to become.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Frozen Water Pipe Burst in My Room

“You don’t want to go down there, man”, my roommate Kyle said, as if some grotesque crime had happened.

“It’s like a lake”

“Everything is ruined.”

As I’m writing this, everything is frozen outside.  My car: camouflaged as a mound of snow. This crazy weather and snow reminds me about an experience I had around this time last year when a water pipe froze and burst through a wall in my room, leaving everything an icy, bloated, soaking, annoying mess.  The pipe burst while I was at work, and it wasn’t until hours later that my roommate found out and shut off the water.  Kyle, the roommate I mentioned above, literally stopped in the doorway urging me to brace myself for the news. I went downstairs to my room in the basement and found a gaping hole in my wall where the surge of water punched through, still seeping through the plaster and trickling down the wall, the way blood trickles out of a gunshot would that has yet to clot.  It looked like the aftermath of a sprinkler having run strong for a few hours.  Everything was drenched and waterlogged; colorful ink bleeding down the covers of my records, and all my books flimsy and warped, pages stuck together. My rugs had absorbed so much water that they turned into sponges. My bed, by some miracle, was one of the only things that was actually dry.

“A lot of my stuff is ruined”, I thought, standing ankle-deep in water, trying to decide where to focus my clean-up efforts.

“But these are just things”.

Like Tyler Durden said, cliché as it may be at this point: It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.

So it goes.

After several hours of mopping up cold water with towels, mops, and raggedy t-shirts, and layering books out to dry by the crackling fireplace, the ordeal was over. Rather than fester in self-pity, freaking out about an unfortunate situation, I accepted it, cleaned up the mess, and moved on.

There is nothing either good or bad,” Shakespeare said, “but thinking makes it so.” Adversity is a normal part of life. Bad things will happen to you and that doesn’t mean it’s good or right, just that it is, for better or worse, normal.   If you acknowledge that adversity is a natural part of the human experience, then all you have to do is act accordingly when obstacles arise.  A long time ago, Marcus Aurelius said “if you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now”.

My initial feelings of panic and dread were quelled only when I consciously meditated on two important things:

The First Thing

    Sometimes bad things happen that are out of your control, but how you react is up to you– act accordingly.

    During certain times in history, you weren’t considered fully human unless you were able to master your thoughts and feelings. In Confucian China, ancient Sparta, Republican Rome, in the early Pilgrim settlements of New England, and among the British upper classes of the Victorian era, people were held responsible for keeping a tight rein on their emotions. Anyone who indulged in self-pity and let instinct rather than reflection dictate actions, forfeited the right to be accepted as a member of the community.

    You can’t control everything in life, but you can control:

    [*] Your emotions

    [*] Your judgments

    [*] Your creativity

    [*] Your attitude

    [*] Your perspective

    [*] Your desires

    [*] Your decisions

    [*] Your determination

    This idea — to feel the troubles, but overcome them — is the main tenet of stoic philosophy. Practicing stoicism doesn’t mean you have to live like an emotionless robot, never experiencing deep feelings of joy or sadness, but it’s to first reflect, and then act rationally.

    Marcus Aurelius believed any obstacle could be overcome by following a simple three-step process:

    1. First, see clearly

    2. Next, act accordingly

    3. Finally, endure and accept the world as it is

    The Second Thing

      Most material possessions aren’t integral to my survival – I will probably be just fine without them, and I should remind myself of this often.

      The Quality of American Life survey that was published over two decades ago concluded that a person’s financial situation is one of the least important factors affecting overall satisfaction with life.

      You’ve heard this before that things don’t make us happy.

      Adam Smith knew this. He believed that the potential for ruthless ambition and the quest for material wealth is corroding our souls; that there is an undeniable emptiness that characterizes excessive materialism. Smith knew that happiness and inner tranquility came from within, that external conditions and pursuing wealth and material possessions with the hope of finding happiness was a futile endeavor. King Midas learned this lesson the hard way. Determined to become the richest, and therefore the happiest, man in the world, he made a deal with the gods who granted his wish that everything he touched would turn into gold. All the food and wine that touched his lips turned to gold before he could swallow them, and he died surrounded by golden plates and golden cups.

      In stark contrast to Midas’ hedonism, the stoic philosopher Seneca ardently believed that to be truly happy and free in life, you should “regard [material wealth] as being on the point of vanishing”. Seneca was one of the most wealthy men in the world, considered to be a living god in ancient Rome. Despite all of his wealth and prestige, Seneca believed it was important to cultivate a poverty mindset. Once a month he would leave his quarters, wrapped in coarse raggedy clothing, and wander the streets as a homeless person, eating only the plainest food he could scavenge. He did this to remind himself that even though he lives a life of fortune right now, it could all come crashing down at any moment, and to cultivate a relationship with poverty is to prepare for difficult times of hardship and scarcity.

      As I get older I try to live with less, shedding as much junk as I can bear to live without, which is quite a lot, as it turns out. I value my water-logged book collection and the ideas they contain, my notebooks, and the records I had to replace, a few sentimental items, but beyond that, it’s just the essentials that I need. After the pipe burst in my room I learned that the less stuff I have, the happier I am and the more clear my thinking is. It’s as simple as that. I also learned that unfortunate things happen to everyone and we should feel the troubles we’re faced with, but overcome them with action and grace. 

      Accept them and move on.