During the filming of the Tarantino film “The Hateful Eight” (not a film I’d recommend, incidentally) one of the props was a genuine 145-year old Martin guitar. There were also several duplicates on the set, and the plan was that they would shoot up to a point where the character played by Kurt Russell was about to smash the guitar, stop, and switch in one of the fakes so that the actor could complete the action.
Except they forgot to tell Kurt Russell about that.
So the actor just played right through, smashing the priceless guitar into smithereens. His co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh’s astonished, horrified reaction couldn’t have been more real, because she knew what had just happened.
When a friend and I were talking about this incident, I had a weird thought: What if that’s ok? What if it’s actually a good thing?
I mean, the world has a lot of stuff in it. I mean, a lot. Yes, this was a priceless, unique guitar…and there are literally thousands of other priceless, unique guitars along with quite a few pricey, very special guitars and certainly millions of very affordable, pretty good guitars. I have one hanging on my wall, in fact.
The Life of an Object
That particular guitar had brought joy to many people – probably first while being played, then as a key part of a museum display, and finally as an anecdote added to film history that will be re-told over and over.
That’s not too bad for an inanimate object. And I’m not saying that we should just go around smashing instruments. But I am saying that perhaps Mari Kondo is onto something when she talks about letting things go not with careless disregard but with genuine gratitude for the part it has played in our story:
The process of assessing how you feel about the things you own, identifying those that have fulfilled their purpose, expressing your gratitude, and bidding them farewell, is really about examining your inner self, a rite of passage to a new life. – Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
“Look Upon My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair.”
note: the intended relevance of this next section is directly proportional to how similar you are to me. Middle-aged white guy? Yep, I’m definitely talking to you. There are other demographics that have been marginalized to varying degrees for millennia. They still have a lot of well-deserved recognition due them for their work. This is not intended as advice for any of them except as they choose to take it, as I’m not remotely qualified for that.
Now, for the rest of you:
What if we could let go of the need for credit? For recognition? For relevance? What if, instead of worrying about what our “legacy” will be, or how we will be remembered, we could accept – or even embrace – that we won’t be?
” …on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The poem by Shelley is far more remembered now than the original statue, and both are certainly eclipsed now by the character by the same name in the popular graphic novel and movie Watchmen. And we’re talking about a king, a world-famous poet, and a blockbuster movie and award-winning comic book.
There have been entire nations, entire wars, entire languages that have been forgotten as if they never existed. The idea that somehow we are creating something that will last and be attributed to us…that’s kind of foolish.
The Witness Who Matters
This should not be discouraging. It’s kind of liberating, in fact. You still do have an effect on the world around you; you can see that, and you get to watch that with a kind of Machiavellian altruism. You have no control over who remembers you and how. So rather than try to control the things you can’t, you can enjoy the effects that you have.
You are the witness of your own life, and you are the one who, at the end, gets to have a satisfied smile knowing that you have been a constructive force. Sure, other people may remember you – but that’s a side effect, not an intention.
Here’s my challenge to you: try it out for a week, my privileged peers who are used to receiving the credit whether or not it is due. See if you can be a kind of ninja altruist, making good things happen without anyone knowing it was you.
Side note: you’ll be tempted to surprise people with a reveal. Ha! That was actually me! That kind of ruins the effect, but I understand the desire to tell someone. Feel free to email me your experience (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will absolutely congratulate you on your sneaky success.
At the point where you realize you don’t have to fight to be remembered – that you can be your own witness, and appreciate what you do for the effect rather than the credit – I believe there is a large weight of expectation lifted from your shoulders. I think that the actions become easier, because you’re less attached to the results.
A while back I decided to take up the practice of de-centering. That is, trying to be less the spotlight at events and such. I wanted to see if I could be a conduit, rather; a holder-of-space that would support the people who came to events. I worked just as hard, if not harder; I just tried to do it ninja-style, so fewer people would notice.
Part of that was withdrawing from an event that I’d conceived and made real with the help of several friends. It was a camping gathering and open space, where people could come and explore the things they were passionate about, share their practices and tips and tricks with each other, and generally have a good time.
In withdrawing, I passed on my part of the job – facilitating – to four trusted friends who I thought would do a great job. The people who created the event with me continued to do their part (more of the logistics and operations) and the facilitators would do their job and the event would go on without me.
I should note here: it’s not that it took four people to replace me. Actually we’d had four people plus me in the past, and things had gone easily; it was likely that they would be fine on their own.
And They Were!
The event came and went, and I kept myself busy enough that I mostly was able to keep myself away from the thoughts of all that I might be Missing Out from. I even managed to stay away from my Fear of Irrelevance. Occasionally on social media I’d see people having a good time, and I was happy for them.
A few days after the event, I came across a writing by an attendee who had been to the previous years, and was writing about how different this year was.
Of course a part of me was hoping it would go something along the lines of Dear Diary, Camp just wasn’t as much fun without Gray… but it didn’t.
I don’t have permission to quote them directly, so what follows is paraphrase:
This year was different from the very beginning, but not in a bad way. Instead, the campout seemed more open…more welcoming, as if it was making room to become exactly what we needed, a place where we could be who we needed to be.
That Was Crushing
They’d had a better time without me there. My worst fears – that my innate showmanship can tend to intimidate or repress people when I’m “on” at an event – were realizes. When I was gone, they had not only had a better time, they had been able to do more, be more, explore more, than the years when I’d been there…
…which was exactly why I had decided to withdraw in the first place! I was stunned for a moment: my plan had worked! Then I just about chortled with glee; I had created an event, and it had gone on beyond me, even better than when I was guiding it! Is there any other measure of success for a Man of a Certain Age!
But Now What?
After the surge of triumph, a weird, stranger feeling came over me, and it’s one that I suspect – that I hope, in fact – most men like me have to deal with.
If I’ve gotten out of the way…where do I fit now?
I don’t know the answer. I can’t just start another event – well, I could, but that would just put me right back in the cycle of being the center of attention, and there’s enough middle-aged white guys doing that these days.
But everyone, regardless, wants to find a place where it feels right, where they feel they are contributing.
I’ve been the lead in the dance of my life for a very long time…I don’t know yet quite how to be the follow.
It’s going to be an interesting – and very disquieting – time figuring it out.
There are a lot of blog posts about Imposter Syndrome. Most of them are probably better-researched, more aptly worded, and have prettier pictures than this one. I’m not really sure why I think I have anything to say about it. Certainly not anything in particular that is new, or thought provoking.
But it’s my blog, and I’m supposed to write about something, and the prompt I gave myself was “The Comparison Trap.” Funny thing: I’m not sure that was supposed to be an idea about Imposter Syndrome. But I wasn’t clever enough to write down what it was about – Past Me just assumed, erroneously, that Present Me would remember – and I’ve been running into Imposter Syndrome a lot this past week, and so…here are three worthless questions.
I say “worthless” because if you find yourself asking them, it’s very likely that it’s not a rational question, but rather something that your subconscious cooked up. I have some recommended answers to said questions, as well.
“If I do this, I might look stupid.”
Yeah, I used that word – or rather, the Imposter Syndrome fear will use that word, because it’s triggering in a lot of people. If you want, you can substitute foolish, silly, incompetent, take your pick. Basically it’s the fear that people (sometimes specific, sometimes general amorphous masses in your imagination) will see you trying something, and judge your performance.
- “Might? I hope I do look stupid! That will make them underestimate me!”
- “I’m the one in the Arena. Those spectators can say whatever the @#$% they want, until they get down here in the sand it’s nothing I have to listen to.”
- “Yeah, I’ll look silly. But I’ll look silly with panache.”
“Everybody’s going to know I’m faking it.”
This reminds me of a scene in one of my favorite science fiction epics, when the main character, upon becoming an adult and an officer, has the horrifying realization that along with the title, the uniform, and the responsibility, he was not suddenly also issued the wisdom, experience, and knowledge to do his job. Worse, he realizes: no one else had it, either. I can’t find the quote, but it was something like “nobody actually knows what they’re doing. We’re all faking it. We’re all making it up as we go along!“
Now, this is a horrifying thought when it comes to things like brain surgery and the Oval Office, but it’s also a liberating one. One has to remember that everyone was a beginner at some point, and the only way a few of them eventually started looking competent was by reflecting on their experience.
And one of the definitions of “experience” is “making mistakes.”
- “But no one will know that I know that they know I’m faking it. Or that I know they don’t know that they’re faking it too.”
- “As soon as they find somebody to replace me, I’ll not only get a vacation, I’ll get to watch somebody else fake it. Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy the perks.”
- “Fake it til you break it, that’s the Marine Corps motto. Wait, what?”
“Who am I, to think I can do this?”
Ah, hubris. It is not an attractive trait, and being “full of yourself” is a classic insult. I’ve always wondered: who else am I supposed to be full of?
If you’re in a position of privilege and about to give some opinion or take some action that is “outside your lane”, then yes, you may want to take this question seriously. For example, if I decided that I was suddenly going to produce a podcast about indigenous cultures’ religious practices, this would be an appropriate question to ask.
But more often this is a way for the Demon That Eats Your Self-Esteem to try and use a good trait (humility) as a weapon of self-sabotage. It’s basically a diversionary tactic that has nothing to do with the thing you want to do. You are who you are – who else would you be? And what does that have to do with anything?
- “What has that got to do with anything? I know who I am; let’s get to work.”
- “I dunno, but I know who I’m gonna be: I’m gonna be the Me that Did This.”
- “I’m the only person who can do this my way.”
Of course, none of these answers will stop Imposter Syndrome. I don’t know anyone – regardless of how talented or successful they are – who doesn’t feel this at some point.
Perhaps, though, a snappy answer can function as a battle cry that will take you past the moment of doubt into the moment of action. And that’s the funny thing about Imposter Syndrome; once you’re doing the thing, there’s really no room in your head for these kinds of questions. You’re too busy to have time to pretend you’re not supposed to be doing it.
And that’s a feeling worth pursuing.
What tricks do you use to get past those moments when the Demon That Eats Self-Esteem is facing you head-on? I’ve heard everything from high-intensity interval training to blanket forts; share what works for you!
There is one constant undercurrent to my journey learning to work within the visual thinking/graphic recording world.
I’m so far behind.
Reading the stories of other people who do this, there’s a recurring theme of I always drew things and I started working in design in High School and I started calligraphy when I was eleven and the equivalent.
Meanwhile, here’s me at age fifty trying to learn gesture drawing and left-handed brush-lettering. Don’t get me wrong: I’m loving every minute of it, and I’m absolutely being supported by my friends and loved ones. And I’m showing improvement, and things are going well.
There just keeps on being this whispering voice in the back of my head: Think of how well they’d be going if you had started earlier. Now, I’m familiar with that voice; I got a dance degree at the venerable age of 28, after all (“28?!? You don’t look THAT old!” I remember one fellow student exclaiming during technique class). I’m well aware that the voice lies, that the experience I have gained doing Other Things will continue to serve me well, and that It’s Never Too Late and blah blah all the other things personal development blogs will tell you.
It’s just another version of the aphorism about when the best time is to plant a tree: ten years ago. Second best time? Right now.
This isn’t about that. No, it’s one of those Hey, I noticed this thing about myself; you might want to check and see if it applies to you, as well.
See, here’s the thing: it’s not that I never drew things. My parents can attest to the constant rotation of Ed Emberley books I checked out of the library. I still have notebooks covered with doodles (swords and spaceships, mainly) and even early typographical experimentations with handwriting and lettering.
But at some point, I stopped. And I don’t know why.
Ghosting Your Own Joy
I’m not sure exactly when it happened. Somewhere in my early teens; somewhere in between the fading of my BASIC programming and D&D hobbies and the start of my musical and theatrical obsession in high school.
I can’t take the easy route and blame some authority figure in my life who told me art would not be a realistic career choice (though I do remember my mother asking me why I was so obsessed with this “computer fad” – why would anyone want one of those in their house?).
It may just be that I didn’t have time – <sarcasm>Unlike now, I was always finding new and interesting subjects to delve into and try</sarcasm>. Whatever it was, at some point, in my brain, I divided the world into two parts: those who make visual art and those who don’t. And I put myself in the latter category.
I wish I had kept it up, on some level. I wish I had kept that skill, even as a hobby, developing and growing. A daily sketch, even something like Patrick Rhone’s coffee cup, would have kept those particular creative juices flowing.
But I didn’t. And now, I regret it.
That’s the point of this post. Think about that thing you used to do, that you liked, that for some reason, you stopped doing.
There’s not much point in wondering why you stopped. Maybe, instead, you do it, just a little, again. See what it feels like. It’s possible within a few moments you remember exactly why you stopped, and that’s good to know.
But maybe it’ll be like a reunion with a best friend you haven’t seen in years. Maybe it’ll be the re-starting of a new passion, a new joy in your life.
Don’t you think you owe it to yourself to find out?
This is the first in a series I’m calling “HYLMN” (“How You Like Me Now?”) that I will do once a month with one of my posts from as far back as I can go. I’ve been posting since 2010, and there’s the question: how has the writing held up? Do I still believe in what I wrote?
Here we have the text of my post from August 22, 2012, called “Time-Bound” and an afterword as to whether I still feel like what I talked about was relevant:
That’s not writing. That’s typing.Truman Capote
Part three of the series (part one, part two) inspired by that awesome conversation on the front lawn has to do with a phrase that has been creeping into my vocabulary: Time-bound. Normally it’s just used to indicate a task or event that has to happen within a certain framework of time – either it takes a certain amount of time, or it needs to happen at a particular o’clock.
However, the word stuck around in my head and played around. Time-bound. Bound by time. Time as a substance that binds, that constrains. Hours, days, months and years as limits and containers and…
That’s when it hit me:
We Are All Time-bound
In fact, that’s the one thing that we can be absolutely, unequivocally certain of. All humans are not created equal – variations in environment, circumstance, genetics, climate, etc all imply differences both subtle and vast. However, assuming you were born on planet Earth (and if you weren’t, please contact me, I’ve been dying to meet you) you have exactly as much time during the day as anyone else. Most of the world chooses to divide it into 24 hours of 60 minutes of 60 seconds each, but larger than that things get a little more tricky, like in Asia (different calendar) or Indiana (who needs Daylight Savings anyway?).
That’s the one place we’re equal: we all have the same amount of time. Allocating it, now, that’s not so easy – certainly circumstances come into play there as well, such as needing to spend hours of your day walking to and from a watering hole in order to feed your family, versus simply turning on the tap. Still, you make choices, every day, as to how you allocate and spend your precious and irretrievable stash of time.
Futura: the Preferred Font of Astrologists
Make no mistake, you are bound by it. Bound for the future, that is! We are all time travelers, moving in the same direction at the same rate. Of course, that experience is subjective, much like getting on a bus you take to work every day and zoning out, suddenly realizing a quarter of an hour later that you’re there and not noticing any real passage of time. How it flew!
Meanwhile, the person sweating in the seat across from you is late for an important meeting with the boss which she is not prepared for, and the bus ride was the Longest Seventeen Minutes Of Her Life.
So: we are all both allocated the same amount of time, we get to choose how we allocate that precious store, and the experience is as variable as the progress of time is unstoppable. “Hold on a minute!” ain’t ever gonna happen, and “Just a second!” never really is. You can’t kill time or lose time, any more than you can peel off your shadow. Time was getting along fine before you were born, and tempus is going to keep fugit-ing on long after you die.
Since the only variables we have control over is how we allocate it and how we experience it, what’s the best thing to do? The answer is the same as the answer to the old riddle, how do you catch a very special rabbit?
Unique Up On It
Look, everybody’s got the same amount of time, but at the same time everyone is a unique individual. That means, I think, that the answer to “What is the best use of my time?” is Uniquely. In other words: what is the use of your time that is particular to you – that nobody else can do?
…the answer to “What is the best use of my time?” is Uniquely.
I’m not saying you have to be Michael Phelps and win more than anyone else, or be Tim Berners-Lee and invent something that would change the course of human history. There are many qualities of uniqueness, and there is something, some way of spending your time, that lends that inner glow to you. You know it when you do it – I get it, for example, sometimes when I’m writing for this blog. It’s that moment that you realize you’re doing what only you can do, and that’s when your time is best spent.
I believe that if you’re doing something that somebody else could do, you’re wasting time. More importantly, you’re wasting your time, and you’re never going to get it back. Let them do it, and get to work finding that thing that only you can do. If you don’t know what that is, then the best use of your time is figuring it out, because you’re the only one who can do that.
Gotta love consistently circular logic.
Drinking at the Task Bar
Please note, I am not saying you need to invent the great new successor to the wheel. I’m saying that there is something that you can do that is different than the way that anyone else does it. I’ll use the example of being an EMT.
The job of an emergency medical technician is relatively simple: keep the bag of bones & blood & air we call a human from leaking too much before getting it to a hospital and making it someone else’s problem. There are all kinds of procedures and nifty tools and devices that go bing! to help accomplish that, plus the shiny box on wheels you get to drive really fast with blinky lights and the woop-woop box that makes people jump. It’s fun! I miss being an EMT.
But it’s not rocket science – no, it’s biology, and there are specific steps and procedures you do to keep that bag of skin warm and not-so-leaky. Lots of people learn that. Lots of people do the job quite well, treating the patient and dealing calmly with the emergency and taking home their paycheck because it’s their job.
On the other hand, some people have the bedside manner. They treat the person, not the patient, and they treat the trauma, not the injury. Their words help to calm the victim, their support helps calm their coworkers, and the hotter the stress gets, the more they shine.
I’ve seen this. I’ve been on a squad where two people were doing the same job. One seemed born to the role; the other seemed bored, going through the motions. Both were eminently capable and competent, but one brought their own unique talents and qualities to their work, while the other simply went by the book and took home their pay because they couldn’t be bothered to do anything else.
Don’t Type. Write.
And that’s the danger: to be caught in a Vortex of Competence. That’s when you find something that you are good at, that you can do, that you don’t mind doing, and that will give you all the cultural reinforcement that you’re doing something really worthwhile. Steven Pressfield would call it a “Shadow Career”:
Its shape is similar, its contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us.– Turning Pro
Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean that something is good for you. Instead, that Vortex of Competence doesn’t eat you, it eats your time, and turns the journey of the time-bound into the equivalent of that mindless commute.
…that Vortex of Competence doesn’t eat you, it eats your time…
You can take small steps to change that – much like you can change a mindless commute into a pleasurable experience of an audiobook by a talented author. It may take nothing more than that whole idea of being more present in what you’re doing, of noticing what’s going on around you, how you are doing things.
Or, as I noted Monday, incremental changes may not work. You may need something more powerful to escape the Vortex of Competence, like moving across the country, or quitting your job, or leaving a not-quite-toxic-but-not-quite-healthy relationship. It’s scary! But if you’re going to be time bound, moving in the direction of greatest courage is usually a pretty good use of your minute-by-minute fuel source.
Here’s your homework; the due date is: whenever you want to stop wasting time:
Where are you time-bound?
How you like me now, Gray?
Well, as writings go, I’d give this a solid A-. The main criticism I would have of my young Seattle-living self was that I only paid lip service to the hard fact that while we have equal amounts of time, we are vastly unequal in our ability to utilize it in constructive ways.
I was falling into the “productivity trap” of people who pretend that writing three minutes a day will give you a masterpiece. It will give you something, sure, but it sure won’t be a beautiful polished work of art.
On the other hand, the conclusion I drew – that the best use of your time was to use it uniquely – is something I still very much believe, and have acted on.
I also like the idea of the Vortex of Competence. It fits nicely into the concept of Deliberate Practice, and the idea that we need to keep pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones and into the places where our courage is needed.
Hat tip to my friend, patron, and writing buddy Karl for the idea for this post!
You know why you’re not happy? It’s because you only think of yourself.
Sorry, I don’t mean to be cruel – maybe you are happy, and if you are, then there’s also the very real likelihood that it’s because you can think of someone else. It’s been shown that service is one path that leads people to satisfaction with their life (as noted previously, this is not the same as “being useful“). It’s also true that for a quick fix, doing things for other people will often increase the oxytocin in your bloodstream, which feels gooooooood.
But even in those situations, you’re still often thinking about things from your own perspective. My family and I have a useful phrase we like: being helpy. That’s when someone has all of the intention of being helpful, but doesn’t quite achieve that – and in fact usually ends up getting in the way. It’s a good way to check in on people who may share the Midwest custom of not bothering to speak up for fear of being impolite, especially when someone is putatively doing something “for” you.
“Ah. You’re being so helpy.” Try it out. It’s kind of like “truthiness“.
What does this have to do with being happy? Bear with me, I’ll get there. Being helpy comes from a lack of finding out what the other person actually needs. Instead, you try to imagine what they need, and provide that. Sometimes you’re right – and you’ve achieved “helpful”! Sometimes you’re wrong, though, especially if you don’t know the person very well, because you are limited by the fact that you can only think of things from your own perspective.
Some people think of empathy as the answer to that, and don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of empathy. But there’s a danger of relying on empathy: what happens when it doesn’t work?
What happens when you want to imagine what someone else is feeling, what they are needing, how they are hurting…but you just can’t? Does that simply mean you ignore them? Does that simply mean you are justified in trying something, anything, because at least you “made the effort?”
Nope. Because there’s something even better for understanding other people.
What’s Better Than Empathy?
Brace yourself: the answer is communication.
You ask the other person what they are feeling. What is hurting them. What they need.
I know what you’re thinking: Oh, that’s easy! I do that all the time! I’m a great listener!
Ah, but many people – more and more in this time of internet outrage – forget the other step:
You need to also believe what they tell you.
Yep. That’s right. You need to cultivate the attitude that, like a friend of mine tweeted a while back,
I don’t need to be able to empathize with someone or understand how they could feel a certain something in order to believe them when they tell me.
That means you cultivate the habit of watching for the warning phrases of deliberate ignorance coming out of your mouth or others:
That’s funny. I don’t feel that way.
Well, I don’t see why they don’t just….
You know, if it were me, I would…
Because it’s not your feeling. You can’t see it. And it’s not you.
And there’s a really good reason to cultivate that habit: as noted above, it’s the secret to happiness.
Shooting Yourself In Your Special Snowflake
Statistically, the surest way to be happy is to a) find someone who is similar to you who is happy, and b) do what they do. That’s right: there is no “three.” It’s really as simple as that.
Yet people are still unhappy. Why?
Because they don’t believe the other people.
All of us are conditioned to think – especially when something doesn’t make sense – that we are more different than we really are. Sure, they did that and they are happy – but that wouldn’t work for me. The reality, of course, is that the odds are good that we would be happier if we tried those things…but instead, we allow ourselves to be distracted by shiny outliers and statistical anomalies. “I can be Elon Musk! I can be Kim Kardashian! I can be John Scalzi!“
Sure, you could, if along with the ton of work all those people do you were also incredibly lucky.
Or you could set your sights on doing something that may not make intuitive sense, but based on the evidence before you, is worth trying.
Putting My Money Where My Blog Is
Want to come along with me on an experiment? I’m in the process of doing exactly what I’m describing.
See, in looking at various career options recently, I had considered the advice of a friend who said I would make a good “Scrum Master” (I know, even the title sounds strange, go ahead and google it and maybe you’ll understand it better than I did then. Here’s a hint: it has nothing to do with rugby).
I researched it, and thought about it, but in the end I decided that no, I am not the kind of person that would make a good Scrum Master. I decided to start a different kind of training, for graphic recording and graphic facilitation.
The first training I went to, I loved. I was interested, I liked the people, there was resonance and serendipity and connection…and 60% of them were Scrum Masters.
Another 20% of them were Certified Scrum Master Trainers.
And all of them were pretty happy in what they were doing.
Now: I still have my doubts about whether that’s the job path for me. But that’s a failure of my own imagination. The fact is, I don’t know enough about what it’s like to be a Scrum Master to really make an informed decision.
But I have seen a bunch of people who love what I love who seem to be happy doing exactly that thing.
So: in a month, I’ll be starting some Scrum Master training, and you, dear reader, will get to learn whether or not doing the thing that feels wrong but is probably right actually works.
And maybe, just maybe, it’ll help you figure out your own next steps…
I don’t normally call out my fellow personal development bloggers, but yesterday I read a post so headdesk-worthy that I knew, in an instant, that I had to write a response.
I won’t link to it here, but the gist of it was that we all spend so much time chasing the idea of “happiness” without knowing what it really is. Then he goes on to decide that the idea of figuring out why that is doesn’t matter:
Why do we do these things? To be honest, I don’t care what the exact reason is. I’m not a scientist. All I know is that it has something to do with history, culture, media, economy, psychology, politics, the information era, and you name it. The list is endless. Let’s just accept that. Most people love to analyze why people are not happy or don’t live fulfilling lives. I don’t necessarily care about the why.
Let’s paraphrase: I don’t actually have any knowledge about this, nor do care to take the time to get any. So rather than identify what we want to change, let’s just let speculation take the place of facts.
There are facts, by the way. People like Dan Gilbert and Brené Brown have done a lot of research figuring out the “why” of people’s happiness or lack thereof, and they’ve used that research to help find a few ways to help people be happier. And yes, one of those ways (indicated by the research of Dan) is to be of service to others. That has, in fact, made some people happy.
But it’s just one way. Not the way, and certainly not the “purpose of life.”
“The Useful Citizen”: a Dangerous & Stupid Idea
Of course, throughout history we have seen people who try to be useful. Look at the industrial revolution! Look at Manifest Destiny! At the invention of the automobile, and the pioneers and remember the Alamo…oh, wait. The Alamo was a bunch of Texans living in Mexico who were pissed off that they couldn’t own slaves. Well, maybe don’t look at that…in fact, those other things also weren’t so good.
And most definitely don’t look at the other system of government that tends to value people not for who they are but rather for what they can do. “ It reconfigured relations between the individual and the collectivity, so that an individual had no rights outside community interest.- Robert Paxton, defining Fascism”
But lest I get accused of taking things out of proportion (though in the current political climate, any discussion of fascism seems pretty relevant), let’s talk instead about the immense Dunning-Krueger trap that this idea of “a useful life” has built into it:
The idea that your purpose is to be useful predicates the idea that there are times when you are not useful. It promotes the idea that there are people who are, in fact, useless.
But who gets to decide? And when we say “useful”, the question also arises: useful to whom? I’m sure the people at a conservative political rally are very useful to the conservative movement; personally, I don’t find them very useful.
But remember, the Dunning-Krueger effect is about people who think they know more than they actually do. In other words, while I might not find them useful – I am almost certainly wrong.
The presumption, the arrogance, the ignorant overconfidence of thinking that you can tell whether anyone else is useful or not, or even whether your own actions are useful or not…it staggers the mind.
In the article, the writer suggests that instead of indulging in experiences like watching TV, going to a concert, or eating a fancy meal, we should occupy our time with tasks that would be “useful” to the people around us. I’m all for helping people, of course, but I’m wary of the arrogance of someone who thinks they know what someone else wants without taking the time to figure it out.
The author, if he’d taken the time to think about it, would probably have been better off to call the article “How to be happy by feeling like you’re useful. But that doesn’t get the clickbait.
Back to the point, it has been shown – repeatedly – that taking time to enjoy a fancy meal, to listen to music, to enjoy a good story, all of that is not only useful but it is essential to a healthy life. Oh, it also is useful, if you need to frame it that way, to the chef, the musician, and the actors, and everyone else engaged in producing these things – not because they’re useful, mind you, but usually because they make people happy.
What is the Purpose of Life?
Hate to break it to you, but my personal view is: there isn’t one.
Yep. Life does not have some grand plan, some ultimate framework of destiny in whose web we are all irrevocably entwined.
I don’t believe that for a second. And that’s great.
Because without some external purpose, the only rational thing to do is to live as well as you can. To enjoy things, to revel in this amazing and frustrating and beautiful world, to gawp in wonder at the cosmic coincidence that leads you into one magical moment after another.
Sometimes that’s a chord in a song.
It’s wiping a tear from a child’s face as they smile at the dinosaur bandaid you gave them.
It’s biting into a warm chocolate lava cake.
It’s feeling the burn in your legs as you help lift lumber into a truck.
It’s gasping as Supergirl is beaten by the villain on the TV.
It’s ink on paper, or pixels on a screen, or seeds in the earth, or words whispered in your ear.
The purpose of life is to live it.
If “feeling useful” is part of how you do that, great! But if you find satisfaction just laying there in the sun, enjoying the fact that you are alive – that’s great too.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Are you familiar with Hicks’ Law?
Also known as the Hicks-Hyman law, it basically states that the more choices you face, the longer it will take you to make a decision. In my house, we would call this the Netflix-Hulu effect: with so many different shows to watch (or watch again) we spend more time shuffling through menus and previews than actually enjoying the shows.
There’s an insidious side-effect of an abundance or growth mindset that allows the H-H law to hijack your brain. It goes something like this:
- “I’m going to reject the zero-sum mentality – the world and life are full of choices and resources, and I can even leverage my bad experiences into growing new things!”
- “Yes! I can do anything! I can become a coach! A programmer! A yoga instructor! A screen printer…a graphic recorder…a chef…a scrum master…um…wait…”
- “Ok, now, there are too many choices. And time is wasting! The available paths are infinite, but time and money and energy are not. I’m not getting any younger!!”
This is basically where I found (and, to be fair, still occasionally find) myself. When you embrace a mindset full of possibilities, it’s like a Netflix of your potential life choices. And that can definitely be paralyzing.
Design Thinking to the Rescue
Of course, there are a lot of resources out there designed to help you make that choice…so many, in fact, that the Hicks-Hyman Law once again can come into effect, with book after podcast after TED talk after blog post giving advice, to the point where you again wonder: which one should I pick?
Let me recommend one, because it’s the one that reminded me of an important fact (which I’ll get to soon). The book is called “Designing Your Life”, and it’s by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. They’ve talked a lot on podcasts and yes, TED Talks, so you can get the gist of what they say online, but it’s the book itself – and actually forcing myself to do the accompanying exercises and worksheets – that really made their way of thinking work to help me narrow my choices and escape the Hicks-Hyman trap.
“Design thinking”, as they teach it at Stanford in their class of the same name, is basically a several step process that includes things like creating an “Odyssey Plan” and more. Rather than do them the disservice of trying to sum them up, I’m going to simply strongly suggest you get the book, and work through it bit by bit. The first half will feel silly, perhaps, or even just the same-old-exercise kind of thing…but the second half of the book made me feel somuch better about the place I’m at, and I’m glad I kept going with their ideas.
The Big Secret
And what was that important thing they reminded me of, that helped me stop stressing about what would be the Best Choice for my next career? It’s simply this:
It doesn’t really matter.
OK, ok, they didn’t quite put it that way. They were more like “Stop worrying about making the “best choice”, and realize that there are lots of “good” choices. All you need to do is pick one of them. Even better, you can pick it, try it out, and if it doesn’t work, you can pick a different one.”
Now, obviously there is a bit of an assumed privilege there: when I was a single Dad raising my daughters and on welfare, I did not have the space or the luxury to pick and choose the way I do now. The book still would have been helpful, but would I have had the time to read it? Doubtful.
But right here, right now, I have the luxury of reduced obligations and an abundance of time. That means this book – and the choices I’m prototyping right now – helped me get past the obstacle of the Hicks-Hyman law and get things done.
I hope, whatever choices you have, that you can find a way to remember: it’s not about making the right choice. It’s about making one good choice, and trusting that there are a lot more where that one came from.
I had a weird experience at the airport as I was waiting on my flight from L.A. due to some vagaries of packing and space and the rules of carry-ons, I had no less than three yoga mats and two water bottles among the items I was carrying around the airport. I looked, in short, like a yoga bum, with a long tube slung over one shoulder and a large folding flat mat in my other hand as I filled my shaker bottle at the water refilling point.
It was false advertising, of course. I make no secret about how I feel about yoga; it is something I enjoy having done, never something I enjoy doing and that I certainly don’t look forward to. But I could see in the way people looked at me that not only was I sending out the message of “yogi”, I was interesting, because I don’t look like your usual yoga bum. I’m not slender, I don’t have a man-bun, and I was wearing combat boots, not sandals.
Eccentric yoga bum. I’m sure people thought I was making my way to Esalen or Goa or some other retreat. In reality, I was heading to Chicago to pick up my car and drive overnight back home to Madison.
But…what if I pretended?
The Subtle Seduction of Rock & Brew
I went to a brew pub – one I’ve been to before with my partner Natasha, in fact, called “Rock & Brews” in the terminal. I sat down, looked at the menu, ready to order my usual big hamburger and fries and maybe a lava cake for dessert…and suddenly this weird feeling came over me.
This isn’t what a yoga bum would eat.
I ended up ordering a Cobb salad.
I was going to go and sit and watch a movie on my iPad…but instead I found myself looking for an open space to do some inconspicuous standing stretches. I found myself checking my activity level on my watch. I drank more water.
In short, I acted like a yoga bum would act at an airport, short of actually unrolling my mat and going through asanas. Hell, I even had a freakin’ banana for dessert instead of Cinnabon!
I stood up during the flight to stretch my legs. That never happens.
It was weird. It was like a strange kind of cover identity, a secret agent disguise that didn’t let people know I was the real me who didn’t like yoga and ate his feelings.
It was kind of useful, to be honest. And when I landed, and went to the car, I picked up a monster energy drink to keep me company on the way home, and listened to 90’s pop songs with the bass turned up.
Because that’s how I roll, when I’m not in disguise.
Pick Your Cover
At the same time it was not lost on me that I ate more effectively at the airport than I really ever have before. I was better hydrated, I was less stiff, and in general I took better care of my body than normal.
Because I was wearing the disguise of someone who did that. It was quite useful.
It makes me wonder what other “lives” we can try on, just for a while, when we need to face a challenge. How would a scholar approach a research project? How would a hotshot entrepreneur approach making a budget? How would Mr. Rogers approach handling the kids tonight at dinner?
It’s all a projection, of course. A story we tell ourselves about how those people act. But sometimes it may be useful to borrow someone else’s story, for a while, so that you can give your own a rest.