I believe you.
Can you think of a happy revolution?
It’s not a rhetorical question. It occurred to me during the whole “Feel the Bern!” rhetoric of the Democratic primary. I kept hearing people calling for “Revolution!”, and I began to think about all the revolutions I could remember from my history studies.
They all had two things in common:
- A lot of people got hurt or killed
- The goals of the revolutionaries were not realized, but were replaced by a follow-up government.
Sometimes that follow-up government was very similar to the goals of the initial revolutionaries…but usually not so much. And before you go saying something like “What about the Industrial Revolution?” or some contrarian stuff like that, let’s acknowledge a couple of things: I’m talking about political revolutions, and also, there are some pretty similar phenomena in those kinds of revolutions, as well. Or do you think that the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution actually intended for the air in Beijing or Denver or L.A. to be unbreathable a significant portion of the time?
Revolutions. French? The Terror. Russian? Led to Stalin. Hitler came to power through a rather peaceful revolution in the German government. Haitian revolution had perhaps the noblest of intentions, but hasn’t worked out so well. Pol Pot? Bad news. The United States? Ask the Native Americans just how “wonderful” that revolution was for them. Sorry, you can ask the DAPL protestors how wonderful it is for them. And buy them something, while you’re at it.
The Revolution is About You
Thing is, revolutions are not the only way things change. There’s a whole school of thought called “incrementalism” that is about doing things in small steps. There’s a recent Freakonomics Podcast about it, and even a thrilling novel about a secret group of incrementalists working to save the world!
The problem, as the podcast points out, is that we tell ourselves stories about these great moments when everything changed. Bunker Hill! Tianmen Square! The Million Woman March (the real one, not the sad copy)! We hear that we should do our part, that we need to do more, and so we imagine ourselves in those stories – a part of the Revolution!
We all like a dramatic story. But things don’t happen out of the blue, and it’s so interesting to get a true picture of why change happens, rather than this sort of phony all of a sudden picture. – Linda Hirshman
The fact is, most things that change do so incrementally. Civil rights. LGBTQ rights. Gender equality (yes, I know it’s still not great. But it is better than it used to be, and it is improving – at least, in some countries). As a grandpa, I see this all the time – especially days like today (it’s my grandson Harvey’s birthday). But what holds true for kids holds true for everything. The frustration that a lot of people have about the process, though, is the danger that incremental change can become an excuse to do too little, or even nothing at all.
I can accept that as a danger – it is a requirement for vigilance, certainly. For constantly asking yourself “What have I done today to make things better than yesterday?” But the alternative – to look at a shining, noble goal far off on a hill and say “I don’t care who gets hurt, I don’t care what it takes, I’m going to get us there!”
That’s you deciding you have to be a hero in the story. That you have to be the one to see the change happen. That dammit, it’s not happening fast enough for you, and you’re stamping your metaphorical foot (or maybe literal one) and saying “Hurry up with making the world a better place, dammit!”
Never Be Satisfied
Now I’m not saying that we should be satisfied with things the way they are – hell, I wouldn’t have started this blog three years ago if I was all about “Life is good, just take it as it is.” But I think it’s worth trying to take your ego out of the equation – to be your own secret cabal of people who are trying to make the world better, bit by bit.
Sure, big changes are sometimes necessary. But they’re also painful, and they reveal some pretty awful things about the way things are going. Read through Quinn Murphy’s excellent tweet stream on the subject:
Heroes are great! But what leads to the great heroes we venerate? Great trouble.
— Quinn Murphy (@qh_murphy) November 21, 2016
Don’t be a hero. Be something better: an agent of change, knowing that you are making things better, bit by bit, every chance you can find, and take the ego out of it. It’s not about you. It’s about all of us doing what we can for those of us who need it most. If you keep your head down, inching towards daylight, when you lift your head up you’ll find that you’ve come further than you think.
But you’ll also notice that we still have a long way to go.
Following up a bit on the last post about potential, let’s go big-picture for a bit.
- The Universe is really big, with lots of stuff in it. Some of it is really big rocks.
- These rocks are tiny, as compared to the universe, but they’re traveling really fast, and there are a lot of them.
- Because the Earth rotates within a fixed orbit around the sun, it makes for an easy target.
- In fact, the rocks have hit and left giant craters at least 100 times, sometimes even hitting people.
- Because I live on this planet, there is the potential that I could be hit by one, or be around when it happens again.
Now, does this mean I’m going to dig a bunker and blog from there for the rest of my life? Probably not. Then again, an in-ground Tiny House is kind of tempting…no, the point I’m trying to make is that there is the potential for this kind of catastrophe inherent in my environment – in my life. By being alive, there is the potential for things to happen that I have no control over whatsoever.
However, what about the things I can control? How can I increase the potential for things that I do want?
Potential & Kinetic
In terms of that “potential” that we talked about on Monday, the idea is less about physics and more about life in general. Namely, when we are at rest – when there aren’t a lot of things happening – that’s when we’re storing up potential. That’s what people see in kids when they say that awful thing: “you have a lot of potential“. That is because they are looking (whether accurately or inaccurately) at the qualities of you in relation to your environment. Much like astronomers talking about space, they are making educated guesses based on probabilities and experience.
But if you are the person? Well, if you’re the ball in the diagram, you can’t necessarily step outside of yourself and see the “potential” there – especially if this is your first hill. Instead, you just know where you are (a flat place where you don’t move) and then some drop ahead of you.
Ah, but then something happens – you’re “acted upon by an outside force” to put it in Newtonian terms – and you start to move. Things start to happen, and you’re in the middle of it all, and Whee!
I’m tempted to call this “frenetic energy”, best typified by Kermit flailing his arms around, but that just makes the metaphor complicated. When we’re in motion – when stuff is happening – the kinetic energy could be positive (OMG OMG THIS IS AWESOME!) and it could be terrified (OMG OMG WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!) and it might even be both (OMG OMG THIS IS AWESOME AND WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!).
It’s also worth noting that at any point on the way down the hill you have both potential and kinetic energy. That’s something that can be hard to realize on the way down, but it makes sense. If we stopped ourselves partway down the hill, we would still have all the potential that was left. We would, however, be out of the frenetic “OMG” zone, and that can give the opportunity to stretch the metaphor: build wings. Create a safety net. Change the path of the ball, or join up with another ball and work together to join potentials.
Or even put yourself on another hill. See, that’s the thing: some things, like being on an insignificant rock rotating a minor star on a nondescript spiral arm of a galaxy whirling at incomprehensible speed towards the inevitable heat death of the universe, you can’t change. There are potentials you can’t stack.
But there are some you can. You can increase the potential for a good night’s sleep by decreasing screen time in the evenings. You can increase the potential for intimacy by being honest and vulnerable with your partner. You can increase the potential of being a published author by writing each day. You can increase the potential of writing each day by setting aside time to do so. You can increase the potential of that time being used for writing by having someone hold you accountable to it. And so on.
It’s not about just doing one thing and it’s all done – it’s about stacking up the things in your life so that you create the hill that lets you turn that potential a frenetic “Wheeeeee!!”
Now, for those of you who may feel that you are the ball at the bottom of the hill – the one with neither kinetic nor potential energy – I guarantee you aren’t. Even if it feels like the it, you are absolutely not at the bottom. I know that because it is true: WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE! And that is when we actually stop having potential (or, at least, stop being aware of it, depending on your belief).
But if you ain’t dead, then you, my friend, still have potential. I know, that can really suck to hear – but the question is, what kind of hill are you gonna build?
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Shortly after writing my post about de-tolerating your environment, I took on the elements of my desk that were most aggravating me:
- I dusted the swords on top.
- I found a better place for my glasses.
- I used an old IKEA shelf as a cord manager.
- I found better homes for both my hard drives and for my fancy poker chips.
And that meant that when I sat down at my desk, those five things that had been bothering me were gone. That meant that I could work in idyllic peace having achieved my productive utopia, yes?
No. But, Kinda.
Here’s the thing: much like the point of this blog, which is practical tools to make hard times happier, the point was not to make everything perfect- it was to make everything better. To create a bit more of a buffer between me and the shocks that may come, and increase the “slack” available in my work environment. Think of it as the “broken-window theory” writ small.
The thing is, I actually had a physical manifestation of it working while I was making the changes. You see, I had a cup of coffee on my electric mug warmer, and while fiddling with the cables and such I knocked it over – spilling it across my desk. Thankfully not across anything that would have been damaged, but it was my last cup of coffee, and it was exactly the kind of thing that would make someone swear, decide it was a bad day, throw up their hands and yell out “F*** MY LIFE!” in First-World angst.
At least, that’s how I sometimes react. Maybe it’s just me. I certainly started to react that way – it’s that whole “amygdala responds first!” thing, and given the choice of fight, flight, or freeze, I tend to lean towards the former – which is why anger management was the first life hack I experimented with. I felt the surge of adrenaline, I felt the flush of anger – and then I laughed, because how silly would it be to get angry while you’re doing things designed to de-stress your environment? Ridiculous!
I chuckled, I got a towel, I cleaned up the coffee, and finished arranging the cables. The shelf is wonderfully convenient while hiding the cables I do use, and the tray for my glasses is both convenient and aesthetic. They are tiny things, and no, they haven’t made my life the perfect incarnation of workplace bliss – but life is made up of tiny things, many of them, and every one I can improve also improves me for the trying.
How about you? Any tolerations you’ve banished? How did it go?
This morning I went out to my bicycle with a small set of tools because I had some adjustments to make.
I turned the high screw on the front derailleur a turn and a half to the right. I lifted the seat about 3/4 of an inch higher. I checked the tension on the rear derailleur and tightened it slightly. All of this gave me an immense amount of satisfaction, because while I’ve been riding bikes for about four decades, for the first time I feel like I understand them.
Or, at least, this one. I built it.
By the Grease on Their Hands Shall Ye Know Them…
I spent about 9 hours total last weekend at the Freewheel Bicycle Collective, conveniently located a few blocks from my house. There a volunteer mechanic walked me and a few others through a “Build-a-Bike” workshop. First we picked out a frame – and I do mean just a frame, as you can see to the right – and then bit by bit we scrounged through parts that had been donated or discarded at the co-op.
As we went along, we also learned how to do things – the instructor wouldn’t just show us how to do what was needed on our own particular bike, he showed us the variations as well. There was a “learn one-do one-teach one” attitude as well, such as when I used a special tool to take off my crank and was immediately told to go help a fellow builder do the same.
By the end my knowledge of bicycle mechanics was increased exponentially – certainly enough to let me know how much I don’t know, but also enough to make me confident that I can build my grandsons’ bikes when they get a little older.
More to the point, there was an indescribable feeling of independence when I rode my bike across town. I was not dependent on gasoline. I wasn’t even dependent on the money it would usually cost to purchase a bike like this – no, I had created it with my own hands, out of things that foolish wastrels had considered detritus! I was a Thoreauvian Velocipede, visions of the Kevins (Bacon and Costner) dancing in my head as my grease-stained fingers shifted smoothly through the gears…
Then my chain fell off.
So I stopped, and put it back on, and adjusted the front derailleur so that it wouldn’t happen again.
Henry David Thoreau is famously held up as a rugged icon of independence, building a tiny cabin and spending a year out at Walden Pond reflecting on the solitary life. Amanda Palmer, in her book The Art of Asking, reminds people of a few truths inconvenient to that myth:
What he left out of Walden, though, was the fact that the land he built on was borrowed from his wealthy neighbor, that his pal Ralph Waldo Emerson had him over for dinner all the time, and that every Sunday, Thoreau’s mother and sister brought over a basket of freshly-baked goods for him, including donuts.
The idea of Thoreau gazing thoughtfully over the expanse of transcendental Walden Pond, a bluebird alighting onto his threadbare shoe, all the while eating donuts that his mom brought him just doesn’t jibe with most people’s picture of him of a self-reliant, noble, marrow-sucking back-to-the-woods folk-hero.
By the same token, that vision of building a bike from the sweat of my brow has a few other things to consider. There’s the fact that I live in a culture so rich that people can literally throw away enough parts of bicycles that I can assemble one. There’s the business that sponsors Freewheel by providing space, as well as the bike mechanic who gives away years worth of knowledge for nothing. There’s the precision tools and instruments that have been donated to the shop for use by anyone.
There’s the fact that I have a flexible schedule of work which lets me spend hours in a bike shop. There’s living in a city which spends lots of money maintaining bike paths. There’s my partner Natasha who brought me a protein shake in spite of the downpour outside. There’s the upper-middle-class family that raised me, with my parents giving me just enough motivation to figure stuff out myself while also often providing instruction for how things worked. That attitude of “I can figure this out…” is probably the single most valuable attitude they instilled.
In other words, yes, I assembled and fine-tuned the bike, and that knowledge is a powerful thing. But to pretend that I did it independent of a huge infrastructure of (yes, I know it’s a dirty word) privilege would be pretty hypocritical of me. It’s fine to feel more self-reliant, but people who are truly required to be self-reliant are usually in pretty dire circumstances – such as survivors of the Nepal earthquake.
I’m not sure what the phrase should be – “gratefully self-reliant”, perhaps? Maybe “realistically Libertarian” – acknowledging that yes, people should be responsible for their own lives as much as possible, which includes helping others when they need it. Like the folks at Freewheel, like my father when he was a volunteer EMT, like the Marines who gave their lives trying to help the Nepalese earthquake victims, a part of being self-reliant is recognizing that we are all connected to each other. Helping you helps me, even if indirectly, because it makes the world we both live in a better place.
The next day the derailleur had to be adjusted the other direction due to some other chain frictions, but it wasn’t too bad. There was a thrill to not just being aware of the problem but also knowing how to fix it. And knowing that at some point in the future there will be someone else’s bike with a problem that I might be able to fix. And I will do so happily.
You can rely on that.
As I fight the urge to buy yet another bluetooth keyboard, to start yet another exercise routine, to learn yet another language (“Wouldn’t it be cool,” I asked Natasha the other day, “if my grandsons were bilingual in English and Klingon?“) I wonder at my own dilettante nature. Jack-of-all-trades has always been my mantra, and I am, to some extent. Certainly in my work. I blame Heinlein, to be honest:
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”— Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love
Buying a Better Saw
You’ve seen this quote, right?
See, that’s what all this life-hacking business is about. It’s not about “the new shiny” all the time – sometimes it’s about trying to find the life that fits, in the same way that you try to find clothes that fit.
And yes, it’s certainly a luxury. When I was a struggling data-entry slave trying to hold down the job for the insurance so my wife could safely deliver twins I wasn’t really concerned with whether or not I should learn Klingon. Yet even then I was sneaking into the bathroom as often as I could to put in a little t’ai chi in the stall, just to keep it in my head. As any school with a uniform code can show you, humans will almost always put their own style on whatever they are given.
We Are Customizers
This is possibly more than social. In the book The Happiness of Pursuit, (by Shimon Edelman, not Chris Guillebeau’s by the same name) the philosopher talks about how our brains are not made up of solitary functional parts:
…becasue even minimally complex minds simultaneously track multiple aspects of the environment while at the same time controlling multiple means of acting back, their innards must be distributed. This means that minds are composed of at least several – and possibly very many – interacting but distinct functional parts.
He emphasizes the difference between “functional” parts and “physical” parts – illustrating it with a vehicle analogy, where the functional part “support” can come in many physical forms: wheels, treads, sled runners.
The functional parts, their relationships…and the interconnections and interactions among themselves and with the outside world together determine the kind of mind that arises from all this bustle.
A lifehacker is nothing but a gearhead who is tinkering with her mind instead of her ’65 Mustang! We swap out parts – Daily Routines, meditation practices, nutritional methods – because we’re trying to either improve the efficiency or the enjoyment of how our mind experiences the world.
Which makes this blog, I guess, the equivalent of Car & Driver for your brain. I can live with that.
So don’t feel guilty the next time you feel the urge to add some metaphorical fuzzy dice to your life. It’s not only ok – it’s what your brain evolved to do.
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.
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.