Let’s start by doing a full-disclosure: if you decide to use this review to purchase Working on the Road, I will get a cut. In fact, I’ll get a bigger cut than the folks at Unconventional Guides (because Chris is cool like that). I also was given a preview copy of the Guide for review purposes. 

Nora Dunn's Working On the Road

It’s not real, but I WANT this travel case!

I didn’t expect to learn much when I opened up Nora Dunn’s new book. It’s subtitled “the Unconventional Guide to Full-time Freedom,” and that’s something that I pretty much already have. Nobody but me forces me to do anything, and as long as I’ve got my laptop and an internet connection (and sometimes not even that) I can earn a living. Heck, I write my own articles on how to travel and work efficiently! Plus, as books go, it’s relatively short…so how much could she really offer me?

Two hours later I had pages of notes and multiple tabs open on my browser. I had subscribed to her newsletter and only escaped her website through sheer force of productive will. I had also arranged for an interview with her (which you can hear part of on the Love Life Practice Weekend Roundup Podcast, and the whole thing if you become a patron).

Yeah, she’s that good. Every page – literally every page – had something of value for me, and I’m not even really her target audience. I travel a lot, but I definitely have a home base – but that’s just it: it’s not a recipe for a specific lifestyle, it’s the ingredients for lifestyle design. Like any set of ingredients, you can mix, match, and select according to your taste.

Designing the Possible

I was won over early on by the way Ms. Dunn introduced her journey. She talks about her current life, about the awesomeness that she experiences now – but she’s not preaching the one true way. She wrote this book because, in her case, “…it took time. I could have done it more efficiently.” She also readily admits that it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, and so throughout the book she interviews and uses examples from a huge variety of other professional hobos.

This means that there are parents with small children, parents with teenagers, solo travelers well past their sixth decade, young couples. There are people from a wide variety of classes, as well – such as Ms. Dunn herself, who sold a successful financial consulting business before beginning her travels, as well as people who just took a plunge and went on the road. It’s not all roses, either – one of the more refreshing aspects of the guide is the realistic attitude. One cautionary tale, for example, was a young woman who announced her intention to quit her job and support herself by travel blogging…but had no following to speak of, much less a stream of income.

Instead of just saying “become a writer!” (though she does say it’s one of the easier ways to support this lifestyle) Ms. Dunn instead suggests that you look at your own “mosaic” of skills and how they can translate into ways of supporting your travel lifestyle. I loved the metaphor of the mosaic (so different from the singular “find your calling“) and found her descriptions of her own skillset both fascinating and inspiring.


She also didn’t romanticize the actual work cost of being on the road. Yes, it’s pretty cool to pull out your laptop at the beach…but you’re still on your laptop. There is a social and personal cost to that kind of lifestyle. Her open and frank description of the difficulties of traveling with a partner – along with some suggestions for getting past them, of course – rang very familiar to me.

The Joy of the Pragmatic

That’s the big-picture stuff, though. I’m a fan of actionable items, of solid techniques that I can use immediately to make life better. As it happens, I got one of those before my last trip to San Francisco, taking her advice about “slow travel.” It made the trip both more enjoyable and less expensive, and it makes me look forward to an upcoming train trip with a new perspective.

It’s these kinds of suggestions that really make me recommend this book to anyone who wants to travel at all, not just those who travel full time. There are suggestions for how to manage money on the road, how to find both work and accommodations, what kinds of visas are necessary…the list goes on and on in my notebook. Of particular interest was the attention to traveling with kids – talking about schooling, medical care, visas, etc. Unlike a lot of lifestyle design books, this one is definitely family-friendly.

As I read, the list of things I need to get for the next time I travel kept growing – such as an International Driver’s Permit, and checking into her recommendations for Travel Insurance, and my favorite: creating my Top-Secret Encrypted USB Key. It’s positively Jason-Bournesque, and has demonstrably saved Ms. Dunn’s proverbial bacon more than once. I will increase the aura of secrecy by not going into more detail here, but you can hear a bit more about it on the podcast.

Better yet, you can read about it in the guide. Go on over to Unconventional Guides and check out Working on the Road. It’s a fast read but a slow journey. I’m confident you will find both new perspectives and solid tools that make your life’s journey better.

Gaming Your Practices

One of the ways to change your habits – whether to remove or add them – is to trick yourself into doing it by connecting it to some other abstract ritual. It feeds into our natural human tendency for pattern recognition – for example, the famous self-help guru Jerry Seinfeld recommends “chaining”, which is simply to put an “X” on a calendar everytime you do a particular habit that you want to continue. Did you exercise today? X on the date! After a while, you begin to see a chain of X’s for each day that goes by…and you feel a visceral desire to keep the string going. “Breaks” in the chain feel terrible.

It’s purely psychological – there’s not a physical connection between the X’s and the action you took, aside from the fact that you put it down. It’s the action of putting it down that reinforces the habit change, the satisfaction both of adding to the “chain” and then seeing the results of your actions. You can also see the results in a mirror, or in the way that you feel after working out…but those are less immediately rewarding as a big black “X” filling a square.

Thanks to our Amazing Electronic Devices there are also apps that “gamify” this kind of technique. They vary so much that you really can just pick the one that suits you. Are you very into the woo-woo style of daily affirmation? The friendly style of “Coach.me” might appeal to you, and they do have all the right buzzwords: Productive, challenge, skill, relationships, get fit. I confess to being a little skeptical in their recommendations of diets such as Bulletproof (which has been pretty thoroughly debunked) but they also recommend the Mediterranean diet, which my nutritionist recommends, so…

You see? How easily it happens? That digression into the rules, into the ephemera of the game. I remember arguing about interpretations of the rules of Dungeons & Dragons or the merits of the Smith & Wesson .45 vs. Beretta 9mm or whether Graham technique was superior to Cunningham. The only thing people like better than patterns, it seems, is arguing about what those patterns mean.

Role Playing, Old & New

Courtesy ABMann via Flickr; used by permission

I have a +2 Wallet of Cheapness, but I have to make a saving throw against industry because Netflix.

Of course, it’s not as if the iPhone invented this kind of idea. Before that there was Getting Things Done, and before that there was…well, let’s just skip all the way back to Franklin’s Virtues, why don’t we? My friend and prolific photographer/blogger ABMann is currently tackling his own version of living up to that list of attributes and is documenting his successes and failures over on his blog. Not because he’s being paid to, or because at the end of the book he’ll get a prize. No, because it’s fun.

Because that little book that Franklin kept, where he put in dots on the days that he did something right (or was it when something was wrong?), that’s just another version of creating a game out of your life, of trying to manufacture a “score” by which to measure life. I am pretty sure that if you handed Benjamin Franklin a mouse and showed him “HabitRPG” – a D&D-style habit journal – he’d be right at home.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that – really, it’s just trying to live up to your idealized version of yourself. For some it’s a Virtuous Man. For others it’s an 8th level wizard. For others it’s Jason Bourne. For the most part, I think it’s great to continually be improving yourself – why else would I be writing this blog?

But. There are two problems that I’ve found that happen when I’ve tried to gamify my goals:

  1. Guilt: Unless I’m really into the system, I start to feel added pressure during my time. I’ve had a very busy day, for example, and then suddenly my phone pings me saying that I need to workout. Or Coach.me reminds me that I set a goal to learn to how to code. Or MyFitnessPal reminds me that I’m 37 calories over my goal. It’s not that these are bad things – that’s what they’re designed to do. But for whatever reason I internalize them as stress, as failures, and that’s not a positive thing. I do a good enough job with my monkey mind yelling at me not to need another reminder.
  2. Layering: On the converse side, as I mentioned in my podcast with Elyria Little of Home Harmonizers, I tend to look at various kinds of organizers and motivational systems like some people look at porn – as an idealized version of something I will never have, where everything is perfect and shining. This can lead to kind of absurd layerings of organizational systems, like setting a goal in Coach.me to update my HabitRPG.com which has the task of doing my 5 minute Journal as a daily task. At a certain point, instead of doing life you are simply keeping track of it, and you end up with a recursive loop and the imminent collapse of the universe upon itself.

Or, maybe not. What it comes down to in the end is that you should use the practices that work for you and discard the ones that don’t. As I’ve mentioned before, the 5 Minute Journal? Rocks. For me. On the other hand, HabitRPG just seems too convoluted – while my friend Koe uses it with her sister and has a great time leveling up as she builds her own business.

It’s an ongoing exploration. I know that when I first found TheBrain (as recommended by the great Demigod of Organization, David Allen himself) I thought I’d found the holy grail. Then I saw the price tag, and thought “Well, nope!” OmniFocus for Mac didn’t work so well for me, but on the iPad, for a while, it was a godsend. And currently Trello has my attention for managing projects.

What tools have you used? What tools do you wish you could use?

This Love.Life.Practice Weekend Roundup podcast contains readings of the following posts:

This podcast was produced by Gray Miller Creative LLC.

Many congrats to our friends Will & Alyska who recently got hitched! It probably has more to do with their own brains and talent and less with the fact that they are supporters of Love Life Practice…but why take the chance?

Yes! I support LoveLifePractice!

Send feedback, questions, or suggestions for guests I might interview to gray@lovelifepractice.com.


If you like this podcast, would you please recommend it to your friends? Send them a link to iTunes or a link to the podcast feed – or tweet about it!

New Episode of the Love Life Practice Weekend Roundup Podcast!

Love Waits

About 30 years ago, maybe a little more, I sat in a room with a bunch of other teenagers putting on thick makeup, a top hat and tails, white gloves. I was nervous, because I was the very first opening for the production of 42nd St. Kabuki, an adaptation of the classic musical with a Japanese-style twist as concieved by the brilliant mind of my high school drama teacher, Eugene Olson (may he rest in peace).


I clearly remember the spotlight hitting my face, listening for the sound cues, and then lipsynching:”Who writes the words and music for all the girly shows? No one cares and no one knows…” It was probably then that I really solidified my desire to become a gypsy: I wanted to learn to dance, sing, act, and go off to Broadway and become a star.

Gang Aft Agley

It wasn't quite the straightforward path I'd expected. Sure, I was a dancing fool throughout high school, and even during a semester at Brigham Young University. Then my life took a very different tack: a child, the Marine Corps, marriage, more children. Knee injuries, divorce…the idea of being a dancer seemed to fade more and more with every year.

In spite of it I kept my hand in. Community theater (somewhere there's a picture of me doing a truly spectacular leap in Finian's Rainbow), serving as “Deputy Dance Minister in Charge of Left and Right” for my local SCA group. When I went back to school I tried to be smart, I did – but the theatre seduced me and I graduated with a Dance degree of all things. I reached the point of semi-pro: getting paid to be a dancer in the chorus of some summer stock companies, even with a few solos and features.

But did my love of dance look the way I'd expected or hoped it to? Not hardly. I learned to appreciate the involvement anyway, and took the movement arts into my own current job path, teaching workshops to cosplayers and role-playing enthusiasts and aerialists and burlesque dancers and combat re-enactors and anyone else who wants to learn. You have as much choreography in John Wick as you do in Burlesque, after all…


That Sweet Ache

And last night, thirty years after the curtain went up on me in the high school auditorium, I performed as “the Fishmonger” at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum opening of their Seduction exhibit. There were traditional Japanese theatre arts there right alongside neo-burlesque and poets and musicians and modern dancers. 2500 people paid to come to the opening, and we entertained them for four hours of environmental and traditional stage performance.


Today I am sore, tired, and jubilant. My love of dance and performing looks nothing like I expected it to, back when I was a teen. How could it? Many times I thought my love was hopelessly lost, many times I bitterly cursed it for giving me just a taste before disappearing…but it never really disappeared, did it?


No, it never did. I kept my love of dance with me, whether I was dancing or not, whether I knew it or not. As e.e. cummings would have said it, I carry it in my heart.


I don't know what your love is. I know of people, though, who have loves that they feel are forever lost. I can't say they're wrong…but I think it's not likely. I think that perhaps the most pernicious idea is that love is something we can lose at all. It's not something external; we bring it with us, whether we have time right now to indulge in it or not.


That thing you love? Don't worry. It's not gone. It's right there, in your heart. And when you do get to enjoy it, you will be as sap-happy as I am right now, and possibly write something almost as romantic.


I'll look forward to reading it.



Misremembering Life

There's a lot of hullabaloo recently about a reporter who misremembered some events during the Iraq conflict. Personally I tend to agree with the folks who rather bitterly point out that if the news media had been as careful with fact checking the actual buildup to the war as they are Brian Williams' story, many lives might have been saved…but I digress.

The problem people have with Mr. Williams is that, frankly, they don't believe that he “misremembered.” How could you possibly recollect events that you didn't live through? Especially things that were so visceral, like being shot at by insurgents. It seems impossible – but that's only because, unlike Bryan Williams, we don't usually have people fact checking us.

You know that great story you tell about your childhood? Odds are that if you went back and found someone else who was there – someone who has not been hearing your version of events over the years – they would have a pretty substantially different version of what transpired. Not necessarily more accurate – but that's the point, after all. What really happened is something that is imperfectly remembered by the human mind, at best.

Daniel Simons is an expert on memory, and via the You Are Not So Smart podcast he explained that “…memory is not like a videotape that we play back in our heads. It's more like improvising variations on a theme.” You can also read more about the phenomenon in his Slate article, How Not to Be the Next Brian Williams.

But that's not really what the point of this blog post is intended to be about. Rather, I'd like to share that you should be very glad that our memories are malleable, and that we have the flexibility to alter our memories – even the really intense ones – so completely.

courtesy Shonna1968 via flickr cc

Not me and Grandpa. But pretty close.

The Bad Grandson

My extended family and I do not share a common faith. I have been a practicing Zen Buddhist since age 19 when it helped me survive as a Marine, whereas most of my relatives belong to a fairly conservative Christian faith. It is a faith that believes very strongly in and promotes a particular vision of what a family should look like. I remember my Grandfather pointing out to me, on the wall, the proclamation by the church elders defining what this should be. “That paper there,” he told me, “is one of the most important documents ever written.”

I remember when he said that I just set my jaw and nodded – not in agreement, but in acknowledgement of his view. Because I love my Grandpa, and wanted to make him proud. At the same time, I was not the image of a grandson I think he expected. It took a few years of visits, as a youth, to recognize the look of disappointment on his face when he'd ask me about some sporting event and learn that I wasn't actually a fan. I began studying up in the weeks before I'd see him, following events and games and athletes, and yes, he absolutely beamed the first time I was able to comment about a particular baseball play.

But in some ways I was never going to be able to live up to what I thought were his expectations. I only lasted a semester at the University he and my parents approved of. I never made it to the missionary work that was so important to his religion. And in terms of that vision of family…that was never to be. At the time he talked about the Most Important Document I was freshly divorced with four infant children that I was struggling to raise as a single Dad. Ideas about gender roles and such pretty much just made me feel like a failure.

As I said, I set my jaw and nodded because I respected and loved him, and didn't want to be more of a disappointment to him. That was pretty much the last conversation I had with him before he died; it's certainly the one I remember the most clearly. One of the hardest parts of being at his funeral was the feeling that when he died, he had still been disappointed in me.

The Letter

Facebook is a wonderful thing. I know, that's not a usual opinion of mine, but thanks to the social network I have gradually gotten better acquainted with a particular cousin of mine who I met, at most, a handful of times growing up. Our interaction is a good argument for the theory of genetic influence, as we seem to be amused by the same things and have the same impeccable sense of humor.

I was the oldest grandchild, but he's not terribly much younger. We've also corresponded via email about more personal things, and during one of these exchanges he wrote something (which I have his permission to share) about our memories of Grandpa. He told me about a conversation they had concerning some of the religious rites of passage that my cousin had felt burdened by. Grandpa had told him

…it was a personal choice not a requirement. This completely floored me and changed my outlook on what was expected of me. Why do I now get the feeling that I have you to thank for that?


I don't know if I actually was an influence…but ever since I got that letter from him, that last sentence – Why do I now get the feeling that I have you to thank for that? – has been digging around in my head. Why? Because it implies that maybe I wasn't as much of a disappointment to my Grandpa as I feared. He certainly never gave me any indication – it was just something I assumed, because I couldn't live up to a set of words on a wall.

In spite of that, though, it is possible that my memories of what happened between me and Grandpa need to change. It's not a videotape, it's a theme, and suddenly, thanks to my cousin, that theme is completely different. It's hard for me to really express just how much those simple words affected me; the best I can do is say that it's such a huge burden lifted that I don't really have the chance to deal with it right now. I'm on a trip to do a performance at the Asian Art Museum, and while San Francisco coffee shops are known for their quirkiness, middle-aged men weeping into their coffee is probably pushing the limit.

No advice here; just an observation about my life, and if you find it useful, I'm glad.


Say it with me: "Wheeeeee!"

Thanks to Octavia, we also spent my birthday with friends in NYC!

It was a rough weekend. I was presenting at a conference in Rhode Island, and from the beginning – actually, from before the beginning – things just weren’t going right. I won’t go into the details of all what was wrong…but things were just off. Not in terms of individuals – everyone I met with personally, working for the convention, for the hotel, people attending my classes, reunions with old friends and even a couple of meetings with clients and colleagues were wonderful.

There were, however, many logistical difficulties. Email mixups, lost itineraries, unexpected costs…and it added up. There was a moment, early on, when I started having a very bitter and sarcastic reaction – in fact, I was this close to making snarky social media comments (the equivalent of the British “I’m going to write a letter!“).

I caught myself just in time, and I remember saying out loud to Natasha as we traveled through the hallways: “Active constructive. Active constructive. ACTIVE CONSTRUCTIVE!” just to try and put a different spin on things.

Not terribly successfully. I managed to stay polite, but as the errors and poor planning by committees began to compound, I found myself losing my ability to find the bright side of anything.  At a certain point I was following Natasha towards a classroom where I was to present on cigar mannerisms – and things were getting worse. We’d hoped to recoup some of our expenses for the weekend by selling some merchandise, but that’s dependent on class size and traffic. But she’d located the classroom earlier, and I could tell by her expression that she wasn’t expecting me to be happy.

Sure enough, we passed through the crowds…then the occasional few people…then just maybe a hotel staff member here and there as we moved further from the lobby. Down a dark hallway, past the out-of-order elevator and the stacked maid’s carts and and down a flight of stairs (marked Keep door closed at all times) and I finally started laughing.

She turned back to me with a questioning look. I smiled at her. “You know what?” I said. “I’ve just lost my last f*&k. I have no more to give. That was it, I’ve run out completely.”

Natasha gave me a bit of a worried look – I don’t normally say things quite like that – but I was also smiling and laughing, so we continued to the classroom. And there, before a group of about twelve people, I gave a fun presentation on the history and practice of cigars in social and theatrical contexts.

It was amazing how much easier it was to reach the active constructive response when I no longer was trying to control things, or even have any expectation of them going as expected or, really, well at all. It reminded me of a recent essay by Mark Manson which is as full of brilliance as it is of profanity, and if certain words offend you, you might NOT want to click on that link. I have put a filter on the pertinent section, though, because it is truly wisdom:

…in a strange way, this is liberating. We no longer need to give a **** about everything. Life is just what it is. We accept it, warts and all. We realize that we’re never going to cure cancer or go to the moon or feel Jennifer Aniston’s ****. And that’s OK. Life ****ing goes on. We now reserve our ever-dwindling ****s only for the most truly ****worthy parts of our lives: our families, our best friends, our golf swing. And to our astonishment, this is enough. This simplification actually makes us really ****ing happy.

And yes, that’s exactly what happened. The key to the active constructive response when everything – even the weather – seemed to keep me from it was being able to lose my last bit of hope. To give up and just go along with whatever was coming next.

Not sure if it’s possible to authentically reach that state without lots of meditative practice and probably a few episodes of satori. But I can tell you that it felt great. Certainly something worth cultivating in our efforts to reach that ACR state.

This Love.Life.Practice Weekend Roundup podcast contains readings of the following posts:

This podcast was produced by Gray Miller Creative LLC.

We also have another special guest: Kat, aka “Middle Daughter”, talks with me about some of the ways an Active Constructive attitude has helped her in relationships.

Send feedback, questions, or suggestions for guests I might interview to gray@lovelifepractice.com.

If you like this podcast, would you please recommend it to your friends? Send them a link to iTunes or a link to the podcast feed – or tweet about it!

Our patrons also help make this work possible, and you can become a patron for as little as $1/month, which gives you access to things like the dramatic reading of my post “Flowbane.”

Yes! I support LoveLifePractice!

New Episode of the Love Life Practice Weekend Roundup Podcast!

Tomorrow’s the Big V-Day. We’ve been avoiding the hype a bit here by focusing less on the Hallmark-Holiday perspective and more on the idea of creating your own custom-made Lover’s Day. First we focused on you; then on the object of your affection; and last week we started to put it all together in a coherent arc for the Day Itself.

In case you’re wondering, we didn’t save the best for last. No, we did better than that: we saved the easiest for last. In other words, if you’re like most people and have been putting things off until now, the day before Valentine’s Day (and Friday the 13th, no less, blast the luck) it’s ok. You can still make it all work, by using the power of theme.

How to Get the Academy Award for Love

“As soon as I figure out the theme of my play,
I type it out in a single sentence and Scotch-tape it to the front of my typewriter.
After that, nothing goes onto the page that isn’t on-theme.”

- Paddy Chayefsky, 3-time Oscar Winner (Writing)

We’re creating a day-long performance here. If you want to make the day really stand out, follow the rule of writing great movies, and pick out a theme and make sure that everything fits into that theme. If it doesn’t fit, you don’t do it. Period. While he didn’t intend for it to apply to love, my hero Steven Pressfield put it quite well:

…it has to have a drive and a momentum that carries the audience and holds their interest all the way. A movie is like sex. It has to build to a climax and that climax has to justify all the acrobatics that went before it…Hence unity of theme. Hence no time for detours, no matter how enchanting or diverting.

This is not a saturday, a work day, a day off. This is your Lover’s Day. It is 24 hours during which you are focusing on one thing: the object of your affection. By using a theme you are able to apply an external veneer to every experience of the day and that helps you maintain the focus.

Of course, first you have to decide on the theme. One easy way to do this is to imagine an “ideal” world. What is the thing that you and your lover wish you could do all the time?

  • Lego theme.
  • Off-the-Grid theme.
  • Pirate theme!
  • Classic Jazz theme.
  • Sushi theme.
  • Jason Bourne theme.
Yes, you can actually buy the bag. The contents, not quite as easily...

“I’ll pay you $10,000 to drive me to Paris.” Now THAT’s romance.

See what I mean? Once you have your theme, you can start with the easy stuff: We’re going to watch all the Bourne movies!* But take it further: I’m going to make a burn-bag like they had in the movie! I’m going to learn to say “I love you” in five languages! We’re going to go to a firing range! We’re going to turn the morning commute into a rally race! Heck, it could be as easy as telling your partner you’ve lost your memory, and all you have is this wetsuit with some bullet holes in it…

If you can’t think of an “ideal” example, then you do the opposite: pick something at random. Wake your partner with a rowsing “Yee-haw!“, take them to Denny’s for a Farmer’s Grand Slam and tell them: Darling, we’re going out to a thrift store because we need to get clothes appropriate for the square dance pot luck we’re attending tonight.

As Mr. Pressfield: it’s all about the momentum. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or not. One of the most significant dates I ever went on – with a woman who later became my wife – consisted of an absolutely horrible meal cooked by an incompetent cook served by a rude and inattentive waiter before attending the worstcoffeehouse open-mic I’ve ever heard (and as a former music teacher, I’m very charitable). The only bright spot of the night was that my sister was playing as well – but that meant that my date also got to meet my other sister, my mother, and (coincidentally) my ex-girlfriend at the same event.

It was our second date. It was wonderful, because it had a unifying theme of What else could possibly go wrong? that got truly hilarious, and because we shared it with each other, we were the closer afterwards for the experience. In fact, that remains the longest relationship I’ve ever been in.

Just remember that you have two choices for every single thing that happens: either you cut it, or you apply the theme to it. Yes, there are always tasks that have to be done – though I recommend you think hard before assuming that something is really necessary – but they can always, either subtly or overtly, be brought into the theme.

At the end of the day, your lover will be amazed either at the results, at the effort, or (best case) both. Creating a love-filled life is not a skill we’re born with; begin to flex those muscles carefully, and be charitable with your missteps, and remember that unlike V-day, you can decide to create a Lover’s Day anytime you wish.

What are you waiting for?

If you read the previous post, you heard all kinds of stuff about how being active constructive can improve your relationship. In fact, it’s the one thing that improves the chances of it lasting. Let’s save what that means for a later “Love” post; for now, let’s just say it’s a good idea. You can even hear me and my Middle Daughter talk about it in the upcoming Love Life Practice Weekend Roundup Podcast.

But what if we took that concept beyond relationships? Is there any way to use that strategy to improve daily life?

Everyone Isn’t Out to Get You

One of my favorite long-distance friends posted an article recently that made me think that yes, that’s exactly the strategy needed for a lot of life’s situations. In the eminently clickable 10 Ways You’re Making Your Life Harder Than It Needs to BeTim Hoch starts off the list with:

Another driver cut you off. Your friend never texted you back. Your co-worker went to lunch without you. Everyone can find a reason to be offended on a steady basis. So what caused you to be offended? You assigned bad intent to these otherwise innocuous actions. You took it as a personal affront, a slap in the face.

Happy people do not do this. They don’t take things personally. They don’t ascribe intent to the unintentional actions of others. (emphasis added)

In other words, it’s not actually about you. Things happen, sure, but since your mind loves stories it creates a vast conspiracy that doesn’t actually exist. The world is not out to get you; it has better things to do, like getting on with being the random concatenation of events it actually is. I get it – it’s not a cool a story as “the heavens aligned and for that one day I was unstoppable!

In fact, we’re very uncomfortable with the actual randomness of the world. In Thinking Fast and Slow Nobel laureate Daniel Kahnemann writes about the very human tendency for you to make up stories about the past, i.e. “that day that mercury was so in retrograde”:

The illusion that one has understood the past feeds the further illusion that one can predict and control the future. These illusions are comforting. They reduce the anxiety that we would experience if we allowed ourselves to fully acknowledge the uncertainties of existence. We all have a need for the reassuring message that actions have appropriate consequences, and that success will reward wisdom and courage.

What if there was a better way to deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?

The Banzai Sanshou Method

PERFECT TOMMY: "But why do I have to do, Buck?" BUCKAROO: "Because you're perfect, Tommy." - Good ACR!

A Model of ACR Life

“Banzai” is not, as is popularly imagined, a battle cry. It was part of a battle cry during World War II, but what it actually means is “10,000 Years of Prosperity!” Now that you know this, you cannot un-know it. And the next time you have something “bad” happens to you, let me suggest that you say the word “Banzai!” three times (that’s the sanshou part).

Why? Well, think about what you usually do: you either say a word synonymous with excrement, or a word implying a trip to Hell, or a word suggesting an act that is actually quite pleasant but which carries a lot of shame in contemporary culture (and is probably biologically unlikely in the way you exclaim it, in any case). Or you say “shoot” or “darn” or “fudge” because somehow changing the syllables but keeping the intent of the words makes it appropriate (I’ve never actually understood that logic, but let us not digress).

Instead, you say “Banzai.” Then you realize you didn’t quite give it enough emphasis, so you add an exclamation point: “Banzai!” At that point you realize just how fun it is to say the word and so you might even switch to all-caps: “BANZAI!

By that time, people are looking at you strangely (unless they either speak Japanese or are a fellow reader of this blog) and you have had time to realize that you’ve just wished 30,000 years of prosperity – five times longer than recorded human history – upon…who? What? Doesn’t really matter, but it’s an awful lot of good will. And it’s exciting.

And that’s exactly what the Active Constructive mode of interaction is about.

Active and constructive responses are characterized by sincere enthusiasm for the good event being described, by being excited and happy for the other person and by showing genuine interest in the good event being described.

-Asst. Prof. Shelly Gable, U.C.

Good Luck, Bad Luck, Who Knows?

I know what you’re thinking. “Good events, Gray. This is all about good events. How is this ACR stuff supposed to help when life throws us bad events?

And you have, with that question, fallen quite neatly into my little trap. Let me remind you of the immortal words of the Bard, who possibly said it best in Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” What the “Banzai Sanshou” method does is puts you in a positive frame of mind (unlike those other words) and gives you a chance to do your best Picard imitation and make it so.

It’s not really that hard to find the silver lining – in fact, it’s so easy that clichés like “silver lining” exist. But one of my favorite parables about it is an ancient Chinese folk tale – I first read it from the philosopher Chuangtse, but there are many versions. It goes something like this.

A farmer one day discovered a magnificent stallion in his fields, unowned and apparently his for the taking. He and his son harnessed it and led it to the barn, while the people of his villagers exclaimed “What good fortune!”

The farmer shrugged. “Perhaps,” was all he would say.

The next day, while trying to saddle the stallion, the son was thrown from the horse and broke his arm. He would be unable to help with the harvest, putting a huge burden of work on the farmer. “What ill fortune!” the villagers exclaimed.

“Perhaps,” the farmer shrugged.

The next day the army came to town, conscripting all of the able-bodied young men of the village for a far-off and unnecessary conflict. Because of his broken arm, the son was spared and lived a long and happy life. 


You see? You don’t really understand the past, and you can’t predict the future. So it’s just as likely that the guy who cut you off in traffic just saved you from the car accident two miles ahead. Your friend didn’t text you because they were trying to cut down on their phone addiction. By not inviting you to lunch, your co-worker saved you from the food poisoning at that restaurant.

The world isn’t out to get you. But with a little Active Constructive Response you can make it out so that the odds really do seem to be ever in your favor.

(They aren’t, by the way). They’re just odds. But it’s more fun to play with them that way, isn’t it?

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I don’t normally use clickbait-type headlines, but I recently came across some gold content buried deep in a great article in Business Insider. I know, you already visit B.I. for all your relationship needs, but in this case the article was long and in-depth and there’s no way most people would have read down to the part that was, in my mind, the most important.

They even say it themselves:

The psychologists found that the only difference between the couples who were together and those who broke up was…

The only difference. That means there was one thing that kept couples together – two words that were the key. And no, you heteronormative types, those words weren’t “Yes, dear.

They were active constructive.

courtest MTSOFan via Flickr CC

The Way to Your Heart

“Great!” I can hear you saying. “Now, what the frak does active constructive mean? Do we have to invest in Legos? Is this yet another tense I’ve forgotten from French class? C’mon, Gray, you’re past the first sub-heading and you still haven’t given us content.

True enough. So let me lay it out: Based on a study by psychological researcher Shelly Gable in 2006, the way that couples interact could be laid out into four basic categories. These were either active or passive and constructive or destructive. Here’s how it could work out:

Partner 1: “Honey, I’m home! Guess what? They’re sending me to Las Vegas to represent the company at a convention! Can you believe it?”

Passive-Destructive Partner 2: “I got the oil changed today. Can you chip in for half?” Note how by not even acknowledging Partner 1’s news, PD just nullifies it.

Passive-Constructive Partner 2: “Ah. I’m sure that will be…interesting.” (Goes back to surfing Facebook).  Partner 1 is acknowledged – sort of – but not in any way that matches the initial excitement, and in the hierarchy of attention the news is pretty low.

Active-Destructive Partner 2: “Las Vegas? You can’t afford Las Vegas – and how will you be able to represent the company? That’s a huge responsibility, and in that environment – do you really think you can handle that? Are you sure they picked the right person?” The reaction tears away at the news and seeds doubt and fear where jubilation used to be.

Active-Constructive Partner 2: “Wow! That’s a huge honor! They must really have confidence in you – and Vegas! Maybe you can go see Cirque du Soleil! What hotel are you in – I’ll look online to see what’s playing nearby!” Not only is the excitement echoed, but concrete support and steps to make it even better are created.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Others

Here’s the full quote that I excerpted from above:

Active constructive responding is critical for healthy relationships. In the 2006 study, Gable and her colleagues followed up with the couples two months later to see if they were still together. The psychologists found that the only difference between the couples who were together and those who broke up was active constructive responding.

Those who showed genuine interest in their partner’s joys were more likely to be together.

I added the emphasis to that quote above, because I think it’s that important. And it’s not easy – many people have the other three modes of interaction modeled to them from an early age by parents, siblings, teachers. It’s not necessarily their fault, either – while it’s not exactly abuse (at least, not in most cases) it is still something that is passed on from generation to generation. You can make all kinds of excuses for why you would respond in the other ways, from “I just didn’t want to build up their hopes” to “If what I said keeps them from it, I guess they didn’t really want it that bad!

You can even rationalize a reason not to use Active Constructive: “Well, I can’t fake being enthusiastic! I should be honest, right? And honestly I’m not that excited about it!” Here’s the thing: excitement is contagious. It doesn’t take much to get excited, even if you have to fake it ’til you make it.

That’s why this is a Practice Post. You need to practice the Active Constructive until it is a habit.

If that seems too much trouble, that’s fine. I agree, it can be a lot of work, especially if you have to change your default reaction or try to build enthusiasm for things that you feel ambivalent or even antagonistic towards. But I have to point out again those three words: “the only difference“. By making the decision not to cultivate Active Constructive behavior with your relationships, you are deciding to actively increase the odds that your relationship will not last.

Oh, and you’re also deciding to have a lot less fun. But hey, that’s up to you. As for me and mine – I like being excited about things. It’s cheaper than an iMax movie and less destructive to my clothes than base jumping.

Say it with me: Wheeee!

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