Love. Life. Practice.

Personal Development with Gray Miller

Archive for the tag “practice”

the practice of respect

“I don’t just give respect. You have to earn it.”

I’ve never understood that idea. It requires a level of magical thinking that just doesn’t work for me: “I expect you to understand what I value, what kinds of actions I admire, and act in accordance with them before I will recognize your worth and value.” How am I supposed to know that? Sure, you could tell me – but at that point, am I taking actions that are authentically motivated, or am I doing them in an attempt to buy your respect through my actions.

It’s a common trope in dramas: someone, usually a son, does some heinous action or some complex plot to finally get some father figure’s respect (Inception, I’m looking at you). Or the flip side, when someone, usually a woman, chooses to take independent action (often sexually related) and is asked “Don’t you have any self-respect?

Um, yes. In fact, I know for a fact that it was when I was trying to live up to external expectations that I showed the least self-respect.


courtesy grahamc99 via Flickr CC

Given, Not Earned

I would like to put forth the idea that respect is not ever something you can really earn from anyone else – not in any genuine sense of the term. Rather, I think that respect is something that can only be given. I can choose to respect someone, based on whatever criteria I choose. What is respect, anyway? I’m not going to choose the easy route and look it up – instead, just think for yourself: what does respecting someone mean? Here’s some of the things that I can think that it means:

  • Admiration, perhaps even emulation
  • Inherent Value
  • Acknowledging their right to self-determination
  • Seeking their counsel, or simply their presence
  • Listening to what they have to say, and seeking to understand it

Now, I’m not saying that one should admire everyone. Nor is everyone qualified to give counsel on any subject (present company included). But I also don’t think that there’s any reason not to acknowledge inherent value, a right to self-determination, and above all seeking to listen, not just hear, and to understand, not just respond.

I don’t see why that shouldn’t be a level of respect offered to any human being. Notice it did not excuse them from the consequences of their actions, nor does it have any expectation that they will extend the same respect to me.

They don’t need to. I have my self-respect, and part of it is the necessity of giving respect to everyone I meet and know, even those that I despise with a passion.

But it takes practice. Constant practice and vigilance, and there are times when I have to remind myself that respect applies even when someone is not present to feel it. Gossip doesn’t hurt only the subject of the comments – it lessens the people talking with each other as well.

If I were a better philosopher, I could probably draw some direct comparisons between “respect” and “compassion” – both as concepts and as practices. As it is, I just have this feeling that the two go hand in hand. On a hot July afternoon, that’s enough.

What do you think? Is it possible to earn respect? Or is it simply something that you can increase the odds of being given by leading a good life?

what I learned from Ignite

I realized the other day that while I had talked a lot about the Ignite talk I did here in Madison, I hadn’t actually posted the video.

Since giving the talk I also ran my own mini-Ignite event at a convention in New Jersey. The experiences had some interesting similarities as well as differences. Here’s a few of the thoughts:

  • Focus is exhilirating. One of the newbie mistakes I made with my first Ignite was trying to shoehorn an existing essay into the five-minute format. When I stopped and stood back and asked “What am I actually trying to say?” it suddenly all became crystal clear, and watching it all fall into place was immensely enjoyable.
  • Keep It Personal. The best talks were the ones that the presenter obviously was passionate about, and had a personal and direct interest in.
  • Rehearse, but not too much. The strongest Ignite talks that I saw were the ones that were not over-rehearsed – that is, they didn’t seem to have every word in place, or seem like they were just reciting from a script. It relates to the message being personal, and letting your feelings carry through.
  • Five Minutes is Enough. Every presenter was able to make their point within the time limit. Even extremely technical subjects such as nerve pathways through the arms were able to be clearly and dramatically expressed. This might hold some bearing the next time you or someone else thinks you need a long time to talk about something. Do you really? Especially when…
  • Five Minutes is Powerful. By the end of both events, my head was swimming with new knowledge, crammed into our brains by the presenters. It was like finishing a great book, or an engrossing movie, or losing yourself in some stage play where the actors really catch you up in what’s going on. If you really want to drive a point home, maybe it’s worth paring down the message to only five minutes, because the impact will be powerful.

What do you think of the presentation? Of the format? One last thing I found: it’s addictive. I can’t wait to do it again…

the practice of joy is hard

“Shared joy is increased…” – Spider Robinson

In some recent travels my co-presenter and I were discussing the idea of joy and misery. She remarked that there were times that the misery in the world seemed overwhelming because there was so much of it.

“But isn’t the world also filled with joy?” I countered. “Even in the most miserable conditions humans manage to find moments of joy, laughter, connection…that’s been proven time and again.” I’m a big fan of Maslow, as you might expect.

She nodded, but then shook her head. “I know. Maybe it’s just that I’m more sensitive to the misery…it’s just so much more noticeable than the joy.” It reminded me of my undergrad, when I was trying to create pieces about happiness and positive emotions in the midst of a cohort of angst-and-anger-filled dance students.

My professor at one point chastised me, saying that in order to make meaningful work I needed to stop chasing fluffy clouds. “Happiness is overrated!” he declared.

“Oh yeah?” I challenged. “Well, misery is easy!”

Something Happened

Of course, from a zen perspective neither joy nor misery are anything but the added layers of meaning we put onto things that happen. If I stub my toe in the night, is it because I was a clumsy idiot? Or because my partner thoughtlessly moved the table? Or because I’m starting to lose my eyesight, as indicated by my lack of vision in twilight?

It actually doesn’t mean any of those things – it simply means that the table met my toe at a moment in time. Everything else is a meaning that I give it, and even if it turns out that I am going blind, that is also simply a thing.

What that implies is that we do, technically, have the ability to remove the filter of misery from things that happen. I stub my toe, I say “OW!”, and that’s that. My toe and the table don’t benefit from worry, from blame, or made up stories.

But it’s hard to get out of the habit of dwelling on the misery, especially as you work to develop a practice of awareness. My co-presenter quoted a feminist slogan for me: “The Truth will set you free – but first it will piss you off.” The more you pay attention, the more awful and injust and downright bad the world can seem.

Practicing the Joy Filter

Plus, it’s entertaining. People want to hear about other people’s misery, hence the rise of journalism, reality TV, soap operas, epic fantasy, and the blues. We are surrounded by a miasma of portrayals of misery combined with marketing designed to convince us that we are also miserable – until we get that new phone, that new watch, that new thingummy.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t practice, once in a while, the joy filter. You don’t have to get all polly-anna-ish and declare only the good things. I think it can be more subtle than that. I think it has to be more subtle than that. One technique I’ve heard of, for example, is the practice of ending each day by writing down three things you’re grateful for. Supposedly that practice will change, gradually, your perspective on life.

It sounds worth it to me. Personally, I am currently in a place in my life where I’m more happy and fulfilled than I ever could have imagined. I look at my life just a few years before and wonder “What the heck was that guy thinking?”” Part of why I’m feeling so good these days, though, is because I was lucky enough to have the free time to really study how to be happy, and try to make it work.

Most people don’t have that luck. And yet even knowing this, I still sometimes fall into my old habits. If someone says “How’s it goin’, Gray?” my first reaction is to say something like I’m so busy! or Tryin’ to pay bills! or Overworked and underpaid!

Why is it so hard to just tell the truth: I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life, and it’s because of the people and work and play in it?

It’s because I’m out of practice doing that. So I try, in small steps. Sometimes when I’m heading off to some exotic locale (such as Piscataway, NJ, where I’m returning from as I write this) I hear someone make some comment like “Gee, rough life, eh, Gray?

I used to respond quite angrily to this: “I worked hard to get where I am! I have a right to what I’ve accomplished, and if you wanted it, you would do it too!” Thankfully I got over that, mostly, but then I would often respond with some long, drawn-out explanation of why this life is not actually glamorous, of the many pains and sacrifices and frustrations that come from self-employment.

But that’s not really helping either. I mean, if they look at my life and have an inaccurate idea of what it’s like, so what? By trying to correct their impression I’m just taking away from a happy thought.

So my conscious practice now is, when I hear someone say that, to respond with “Yes! I am a very fortunate man!” In my head this is said with cheerful smiles and a merry tone. In reality, according to at least two of my friends who heard me say it this past weekend, I’m still sounding grumpy and maybe even a bit whiny when I say it.

That’s ok. The practice of “fake it til you make it” is a time-honored method of habit change. It is a wonderful thing to remind myself that I have a great life.

After all, if you don’t notice the good around you, there’s no way you’re going to enjoy it. And wouldn’t that just be a shame?

What if you did it right, but actually planned it wrong?

via Jake VanderMolen (Flickr CC)

I keep forgetting #14. WHY CAN’T I REMEMBER #14!?!

“No kidding, there I was…”

I was lucky enough to spend the weekend at a retreat in Indeana with a few other performance art enthusiasts, including a very dear friend of mine from New York. He was talking about a recent show he did:

I really thought that was it – the best show I’d ever done, the most perfect expression of my art. It wasn’t until I got offstage that I thought of a couple of things that didn’t go the way I planned, two places where I’d done it wrong…

I looked at him and blurted out: “What if you did it right, but actually planned it wrong?

You Are Your Own Worst Back-Seat Driver

It’s not as though this was something that I’ve always known – it took hearing him say it in that way to make me realize it. When we are making plans, we are doing our best to predict variables that are, by their very name, unpredictable. Life doesn’t work like the old Mission: Impossible TV show, with every tiny step leading inexorably to the pre-planned goal. Life is messy.

It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan – it means that you should plan for everything, including the chance that things will happen that you haven’t planned for. There’s a strategy for that (OODA) which I’ll talk about next Monday. Right now, though, I want to talk about that evil version of yourself.

It’s the version of yourself that looks life and thinks that what happened should have matched what was planned rather than vice versa. It applies to more than performances; it applies to your entire life. I could sit here and look at how my career is nothing like the Web Design Entrepreneur plan, the Video Engineer plan, the Dance Technology plan, the Music Teacher plan, the Insurance Agent plan, the Emergency Medical Technician plan, the Career Marine plan, the Broadway Dancer plan, or even the Firefighter or Astronaut plan.

Should I really beat myself up because the plan that I came up with when I was 14 years old to get a senatorial recommendation to West Point didn’t work out that way? Was there any way anyone then could have predicted the variables, from the worldwide political landscape to the functioning of my thyroid gland?

More to the point, if I’m currently doing work that is meaningful and enjoyable to me, that provides me time to pursue other goals like family, friends, and movies, why would that be considered wrong?

It seems to me that if there’s anything that was “wrong” (such an unfortunate label) then it was the plan itself. That’s not really fair to the planner, though – would you let a 14 year old boy plan out the rest of your life? Why should the Published Novelist plan be any more accurate? It’s fine to have goals – but it’s not ok to beat myself up if life gets in the way.

There’s an old Zen adage: “Loose the arrow. What it hits, you call the target.”

Are you beating yourself up about plans that didn’t go right? Maybe it’s time to let that go, and look at it as practice for making better plans instead.

Connect Your New Habit to an Old One for Success

The key to strategy… is not to choose a path to victory, but to choose so that all paths lead to a victory.’

CaviloThe Vor Game

I hate writing.

But I want to be a writer.

But I really dislike writing.

But I love having written. Let me tell you, whether it’s a clever tweet, a ridiculous filk song, a particularly groanworthy pun, or a blog post or newsletter or story or even, once in a while, an entire book, I find that feeling of creation sweeter than just about anything.

Steven Pressfield would call it “the Resistance.” Twyla Tharp wouldn’t bother to name it, she’d just tell me to stop whining and get to work. And they’re both right. But I’m a clever bloke, and it sometimes takes a lot to trick myself into doing what I don’t want to do but that I want to have done.

I tried a few things – setting aside a part of my day for writing (didn’t work), setting up penalties for not writing (I absorbed them without effect, curse you, Resilience!) and even guilt from people who I respected (my powers of rationalization and busy-ness are formidable, I have to say).

But now it’s happening. I’m in the process of picking out a cover image and editing a fiction book, and my other book, The Defining Moment, is finally several thousand words beyond the Table of Contents and towards a finished work.

How did I do it? I cheated.

Introducing: The Remora Technique of Successful Behavior Modification

courtesy Brian Snelson via Flickr CCOk, it’s not really new, but I do think I’m the first one to include actual sharks in the metaphor. Basically, I took a look at a particular habit I already had that was working. Specifically, this blog: I’ve been remarkably consistent in writing it for well over a year now. I’m not sure why; it’s not like it’s remarkably broadly read, or remunerative (hey, see that Patreon link over there?).

It’s a habit that, for whatever reason, I don’t need to struggle to maintain. It’s like a shark: constantly moving forward, devouring the words I type voraciously along with your eyeballs.

Ok, perhaps the metaphor lost a bit there…the point is, I took the book writing goal and hitched it onto the blog habit. Every wednesday we write a little more, another section. At some point, probably next year, I’m suddenly going to get to the end of the Table of Contents and realize that all those Wednesday blog posts add up to a First Draft.

It’s not the finished product. If my other work is any indication, it’s going to be a lot of work getting myself to edit it beyond that draft. But that First Draft will feel really good.

My suggestion to you this day: take a look at what you want to do. Then take a look at what you already do. See if the two can be connected. It’s possible that it’s easier than you think…

celebrate your style

"Script Studies" by the talented Christopher Craig. Click to see more awesome!

“Script Studies” by the talented Christopher Craig. Click to see more awesome!

Use Papyrus. Go to Jail. It’s the Law - graphic designers everywhere

A font says a lot about a person. There’s a particular reason that this blog features highlights in serif fonts. In case you’re new to the font game, “serif” means that the letters have little curlicues and bulges on the ends. A sans-serif font would have “cleaner” lines, something like this:

Notice how pre-formatted text just has lines, no ornaments.

I have nothing against sans-serif. I use for the body of the posts because it is proven to be easier to read on the screen. There’s a reason the iPhone default fonts are sans-serif, you know. But unlike your phone, which is designed to be digested quickly and efficiently, I don’t want you to read my words fast. I want your eyes to linger on every     turn       of          phrase and play around with rhythm and pacing and -

So I use a sans-serif font for the body…but not the easiest one. And I try to slow you down on occasion with a switch to serif.


This blog is also (perhaps impudently) in the tradition of introspective writers like Thoreau, Emerson, Twain…and so using an older typeface that hearkens back to the print days seems appropriate. That’s why the colors are earth tones (if you’re reading this on the site) and why I tend to avoid l33t speak or txt abbreviations even though OMG! that would be so much more convenient. I also tend to stick to a Chicago Manual of Style for my punctuation, though I confess to being overly fond of commas and often needing to delete a couple of extra “!!” when I’m making a point. It’s not that it’s hard to be an expressive writer – it’s that there’s so many tools (look at that, I was lazy, used italics for emphasis instead of letting the language do it for me). And don’t get me started on the crutch of conversational tone, parentheses, and ellipses…

Not Just Your Words. Choose Your Tone.

If you’re not convinced, just listen to the way your mind changes the tone of words when SUDDENLY THEY’RE ALL IN CAPS. IT’S KIND OF ANNOYING, REALLY, AND EVEN WORSE IF SOMEONE SUDDENLY BOLDS THEIR ALL-CAPS. IT’S LIKE THEY ARE SHOUTING DIRECTLY INTO YOUR EYES. Whew. That actually makes my fingers hurt to type. The point is that just as our font, word choice, and grammar set the tone of our written communication, our appearance, posture, enunciation, and more are constantly setting a tone. Certainly that applies to the interactions with others, but you’re fooling yourself if you think it doesn’t apply to yourself as well. I’ve written before about the power of talismans, but in a sense you are your own talisman. The time you take to prepare your appearance for whatever task you have ahead makes a difference in the way you act. It’s part of the whole “enclothed cognition” idea, as well as a reflection of some of the principles from sites like “Real Men, Real Style.” It’s fascinating stuff. Take a white coat, give it to one person and tell them it’s a painter’s smock. They will perform worse on mentally challenging tasks than someone given the same coat and told that it’s a medical doctor’s lab coat. For a more personal hack, you can try one of Antonio Centeno’s suggestions for improving your style: lay out your clothes the night before.

Click to get your own!

Seems a small thing. But, OMG!

A simple thing, right? Even a little childish, perhaps. But as the Adulting Blog puts it:

Overall, planning your outfit ahead of time just shows how put-together you are (even if you’re not … yet), it eases your mind in the morning (because that’s one less thing you have to do before you walk out the door), and it can help you do feel more confident, more adult.

If you’re skeptical, I understand. I was too! Incredibly so. But I’m all for trying things out, and when I saw a valet for sale at a local thrift shop, I decided to give it a shot. That first morning, when I walked over to the corner of my bedroom where my shirt was hung, my pants draped over, my shoes laid out…it was transformative. Rather than grabbing and shuffling through my closet it was all right there, at my fingertips. I didn’t have to think about whether it matched, whether it suited my day’s activities – that was already done. So instead I had that much more brainpower to visualize the rest of the day, what needed to get done, how I was going to feel – in a sense, to psyche myself up. It was magnificent. It was selecting the right font for the right message I wanted to send that day. Right now, as I’m on an extended road trip, I’m trying to figure out how to do something similar while traveling. Maybe you want to try the whole “select your clothes” thing. Maybe you already do! Regardless of where you’re at, take a moment to be more aware of what kind of font people are reading on you – and that you’re reading on yourself. Let me know what you find!

how to be a skilled creator

This is not original.

Let’s get one thing straight from the get-go: this is replicative content. I read a nifty blog article about “How the Internet, Dopamine, and Your Brain are Working Together to Screw Your Potential“, and it inspired the content in this post.

But that’s ok.

There Are Two Kinds of Creation…

Well, ok, actually there’s a lot more than two. And there’s also no such thing as creating in a vacuum, so anything “original” has pieces of other things in it. But for the purposes of the article, Anthony Richardson divides the world into two parts: Replication Creators and Skilled Creators. What’s the difference?

If you’re on stage at a conference, you’re likely the SC. If you’re in the audience, you’re likely the RC. Same goes for blogs, YouTube, Wikipedia and so on. The way that you are facing easily indicates your position.

Anthony then goes into a very enjoyable tangent talking about brain chemistry (aka “awesome sauce“) and how our reward system gets tricked into believing that replication is a better high than skilled creation. In his opinion, it’s not, and I have to admit he’s probably right. Frankly, part of the reason I enjoyed the article so much was because it highlighted some of my own particular foibles in terms of overworking.

“But I Didn’t Get Anything DONE!”

I don’t have a problem with being a Skilled Creator (as Anthony defines it). In fact, I have the opposite problem: my brain craves the reward of original creation so much that it often won’t let me relax.

I have a schedule, and a to-do list. There have been days when I’ve risen before dawn, done morning protocols, blog posts, worked on my book, worked out, spent time with my family, produced a podcast, and then realize it’s 7pm, I’m hungry for dinner, but I don’t think I’ve earned it.

I’ve learned, to some extent, the skill of stepping outside myself and saying “If you knew someone else who’d done this stuff, would you think they deserved a break?” Usually that’s enough to get things done. I’ve also finally started playing video games – spent 45 minutes on “Batman: Arkham Asylum” the other day! I’m inordinately proud of that enforced leisure time.

However, while I seem to compulsively want to do source work (skilled is a little too elitist for me) I also understand the craving to do more. So I’m going to put down my top 5 Habits of “Original” Creation, on the off chance they might help you get out of some replicative rut you might not want to be in:

  1. Write It Down. That idea you have. The one you’re thinking of right now, as you read this, maybe with thoughts like “Oh, I wonder if he’s talking about…” YES. I am. Write that idea down, be it story, outfit, color, song, or performance sushi. Cast your net wide, and when it’s time to create, then you’ll have a huge catch to pick from. Which brings me to the second thing…
  2. Make the Time. My assistant has been given the task of setting apart 90-120 minutes a day for writing. That’s my content time. Sometimes it’s content for clients, which is not quite as satisfying as content for me, but the money does help. I also have an hour here and there for “Other Work” which gives me a chance to do…well, whatever I may think needs doing. Now, I realize that’s a huge privilege to have that kind of time – but I also know exactly what I’ve done in my life to create that space. Now, it’s just a matter of doing something with it.
  3. Courtesy of ABMann, who is always cooler than me.

    Courtesy of ABMann, who is always cooler than me.

    Do Other Things. We love hearing stories about how other writers do their work. One of my favorites was about how Thom Jones worked as a janitor and therefore spent much time in his mind – so when it came time to create, he was more than ready. One of the benefits I get from volunteering at the VA Hospital is boredom – I spend most of my time just standing there, waiting for something to do. By the time my shift is done, I’m so eager to get back to the work I love that I practically leap at the keyboard. So try doing things that make you bored, so you want to create instead.

  4. Take Small Bites. This was a hard one to learn, and I’m still working on it. I like to sit down, ride the rush of creation, and have the product spring fully-formed and perfect like Athena from the head of Zeus! Unfortunately, that’s not really how it works. I envy people like my friend ABMann who is not only working on writing – he’s working on penmanshipNow that’s some careful crafting. I am learning to take things a bit at a time, incrementally creating, editing, polishing, and finally even timing the release.
  5. Make Stuff You Want. I’m sure there are people out there who create things, original things, knowing that they are creating crap (how else could you explain Batman & Robin?). But I also know that the times I’ve used my skills purely for money – designing web sites to sell time shares, for example, or trying to write romance stories under a pen name – I was miserable, and my work, frankly, was crap. I get much more satisfaction writing about stuff that I would want to read, working on causes I believe in.

That’s my top five. What do you use to create?

getting to know fear


“I do not think you can get rid of the fear… but you can dance with it.” — Seth Godin

I came across this quote in the excellent 99U newsletter and it had a resonance to my mantra of “Dance, Don’t Scramble.” I almost hesitate to use it because of a single article: the quote mentions “the fear”, not just fear in general. What fear was Seth talking about? I was about to Google the quote to put it in context…when something stopped me.

Make your own context, a little voice in my head said.

“But…” I sputtered at the voice. “Journalistic integrity! Attribution! Ethical blogging standards!”

Pifflesticks, the voice said mercilessly. You’re dodging the question you should be asking.

What fear would you be dancing with, Gray?

That’s an uncomfortable question to ask oneself. But I know how to answer it, of course. Everybody knows what their fears are because it takes a helluvalotta effort to keep from looking at face-on. It’s exhausting, in fact, and requires a huge amount of social media, self-sabotage, and streaming video to avoid the quiet places where you come face to face with the fear.

The Most Dangerous Dance Floor

I’ve taken a lot of dance classes. I can tell you what happens when you’re learning: you find a space that is open. That is clear of other obstructions, of things that might clutter or get in the way of the dance you’re trying to learn. You make sure your footing is secure.

If you use music, then it is music that supports the dance you’re doing. Argentine Tango, the SugarPlum Fairy, the Rite of Spring…these have specific moves. Many modern dance classes have no music at all, though, teaching you to listen to your own body’s rhythms, to let your limbs and momentum and breath and heartbeat set the music. In really advanced dance forms you learn to ignore the music completely – I remember the unforgettable sight of my teacher Jin-Wen Yu doing beautiful tai ji moves while Stayin’ Alive thumped through the dance studio.

It’s hard to get past distractions. That’s why studios exist: to get rid of the lights, the audience, the world around and give a space where you can pay attention to the dance you’re doing, and, where applicable, the one with whom you dance.

So what happens with that partner is your fear?

Moving Through

I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
- “The Litany Against Fear”, Frank Herbert

Like any partner, you don’t just run at your fear. You both enter that space which you have created to practice your dance. You evaluate – first with your eyes, looking at the fear, getting closer and closer until you touch, in whatever way the dance calls for.

Gray Miller Dancing

Dance taught me to overcome obstacles like gravity.

Sure, some dances call for Footloose-style leaps and grande jetes over the abyss. But you don’t start there. You try smaller steps, you learn how to place your foot when you land, you gradually feel your partner get more used to you.

Eventually, with enough practice, you become so accustomed to how it feels to be close to your partner that you don’t even need to see them. The “inner eye” – or, in more dancerly terms, your kinesthetic proximal awareness – gets to the point where you know where they’ll be before they’re there, and you know without the need for sight or sound.

It takes practice. A lot of practice, if you want to get beyond the “two people moving around” and into “dance“. It takes letting go of egos, of releasing your sense of identity in the service of something greater, some piece of ephemeral beauty made up of movement and time. It’s not a performance, there in the studio; it’s practice. You would not believe the moments of transient beauty created and released in those spaces. It isn’t a performance, it isn’t “for real”, until you take it out of the practice space and into the space where there is an audience. Where you are comfortable enough to dance with your partner right there in front of everyone.

Dancing Around the Subject

Some of the more astute here will have noticed the 500+ word digression that still hasn’t answered the original question: What fear would you be dancing with, Gray? I’m not avoiding it; no, instead I’ve been using the practice space of this blank page to dance with it. We’ve been circling around each other, the fear and I, and we’re about to finally meet and touch and dance a little duet:

I’m afraid of missing out.

There. That’s it. Just another bit of “FOMO” (fear of missing out, or the yuppy equivalent of “YOLO”). In particular there’s a convention in a few weeks that I’ve gone to for ten years in a row, and this is the first time I’ll miss it. It’s a conscious decision, and a good one, but it feels strange. It triggers deeper fears, the typical fears of a mid-40′s man unsure of his contribution to the world. Is it enough? Or, what if it’s not, and I don’t have enough time?

Perhaps it’s triggered by smoking the last cigar bequeathed to me by a dear friend who recently passed away.

My fear, it has many beautiful and interconnected layers. It moves in smooth, strange, and unexpected patterns. It’s a worthy dance partner, and I’m very privileged to have this quiet stormy Wisconsin morning to play with it. For us to get the measure of each other, as I relax into it and learn that I won’t actually fall, or to lift it and discover I am strong enough to support whatever it does there in the air.

Of course, dancing is a time-based art; you can’t practice all the time. But that’s ok, too. When I spend enough time in the practice space moving with my fear, when I know it well enough to dance with it, the result is pretty predictable and obvious: it’s no longer a fear. It’s just a thing, FOMO, whatever name I want to give it. I can choose to come back to that space and dance with it some more…or thank it for the time and choose another partner. Or walk out of the practice space entirely, and just get on with the rest of life.

But the practice: it’s important. Because if you’re not dancing, you’re likely scrambling. Not that scrambling is necessarily bad. It’s just exhausting.

Aren’t there better things to do with your energy?

Postscript: For a cool imagining of the Litany Against Fear,
I highly recommend Zen Pencils’ interpretation.
However, it does have images of domestic violence,
so warn your triggers.

follow your principles, not your situations

The Basketball Bloggers

In a comment on my post about the L.A. Clippers, I read Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s TIME column on the larger issue of racism. He points out that there’s a pretty big disparity between the percentage of Black people who feel racism is a problem (49%) and Whites (18%). Mr. Abdul-Jabbar pointed out that even many of the most racist public figures – the Rancher Cliven, for example – don’t think they’re racist.

It reminded me of a strange moment this last weekend when I was watching some role-players practice their stage combat. The attacker was kicking, intending to hit his opponent in a large-muscle-group on her leg. She told him that his aim was off, and he was actually striking a rather painful nerve juncture (note: I am glossing over the actual language they were using. Live-Action Role Players aren’t known for their family-friendly language).

The conversation was kind of surreal:

OW! You keep kicking me here!

No I don’t – I’m kicking you there!

OW! See, you kicked me here again!

No, I didn’t!

It struck me as kind of ludicrous in a way that he was insisting that the thing he was doing was not affecting her in the way she was experiencing it. I tried to gently point out that he might get more effective combat knowledge by taking in the intelligence she was providing (“OW!”) rather than insisting that he only needed his own experience for an accurate assessment.

In other words, if the people who are directly hurt by racism are saying it’s a problem, then the people who are only indirectly hurt might find it worthwhile to listen, rather than deny it.

Translating Big Ideals into Daily Practice

Mr. Abdul-Jabbar goes on to talk about the reason that Mr. Cliven, Mr. Sterling, and others don’t think they’re racist. It has to do with “situational racism” – or “situational ethics”, for a larger expression. Mr. Sterling didn’t think he was being racist when he implemented housing policies that he was later convicted for – it just made business sense. The choice of a child’s school might be racist, but also motivated by what the parent believes is best for the child – and that takes precedent in their mind over the higher principle of valuing diversity. It’s an understandable decision; but, at least in my mind, it’s not the right one.

From the TIME column:

The truth is, everyone has racism in his or her heart. We feel more comfortable around people of similar appearance, backgrounds, and experiences. But, as intelligent, educated and civilized humans, we fight our knee-jerk reactions because we recognize that those reactions are often wrong and ultimately harmful.

And it goes beyond racism. It’s prioritizing environmental impact and ethical business over the mantra of “providing shareholder value.” It’s walking to the post office rather than driving. It’s examining every decision to see if it is in line with your principles, the things you know are important, rather than simply reacting to the urgency or convenience of the situation.

That, my friends, is a pretty intense and difficult practice to attempt. Personally, I plan on only trying it in small doses at first, until I get better at it. It’s pretty daunting to try and look at the world you’ve created for yourself with an evaluating eye that is not also critical and judging. Those latter two don’t help much. But to be aware of how your choices affect the larger principles you hold dear – bit by bit, I think that can help make everything better.

And that’s the whole point of this blog, right? Practical tools for making hard times happier.

What’s in your toolbox?

why cheat when you can win

“If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’!”

That sentiment, from one of my favorite close-combat instructors, is an incredibly useful mantra when in a struggle. It’s a reminder that in some situations, the only rules that matter are the ones that matter to you – and that playing by your opponent’s rules is giving them a pretty hefty advantage.

What about when your opponent is yourself, though? What if the battle you are fighting is the battle against binge eating, for example, or simply the struggle to eat more healthy in a world full of bad influences and temptations? In that situation, where you’re your own enemy, does cheating work?


At least it’s not broccoli (shudder!)

Many diets think so. Several years ago I went on the Abs Diet, pretty strictly for several months. Aside from a particular weight/situp regimen, it also has very specific low-carb diet suggestions – some of which have stuck with me (still love snacking on almonds and cranberries!). It also had a “cheat” meal – a meal once a week where you could eat anything you want. I remember planning that meal around my social schedule: “We’re going to have barbecue with Karl thursday night, that’ll be my cheat meal.” I remember looking forward to blissing out on ice cream sundaes on those meals, before grimly resuming my exercise and diet the next day. Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Body has a similar timed “cheat” day, and so do many others.

Which is why articles such as this one by Dick Talens (via Maneesh Sethi) exist: The Ultimate Guide to Cheating: Planning to Fail. Don’t worry, you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to, I’ll get to the point.

WORDS. They Have Meaning.

The gist of the article is the idea, backed up by scientific evidence, that two people who “break” their diets in exactly the same way will have entirely different results based on their mindset.

 If you “plan to fail” then you lose anywhere from 1-3 days of progress; however, you eliminate the risk of failing epically.

Failing epically.” Is it just me, or is the hyperbole rising in here? Here’s my question: if these diets are so difficult to maintain that you have to break them on occasion in order not lose them entirely…then is the problem actually with the people on the diet or with the diet itself?

Or, to put it another way: if, in order for the diet to succeed, you have to ignore it every once in a while…why is that cheating? How is that failing?

Or, to actually get to my point: why do we use words like “cheating” and “failing” to describe it? Words are powerful things; if the system is set up so that the only way to “win” is cheating, then there is something wrong with the system. I suppose there could be an argument that there is a mischievous joy in “getting away with it” when you break the rules of the diet – but if we’re trying to play with our brains in that kind of way, why stop at some negative feeling?

“…And therefore those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him.” – Sun Tzu

If you choose a route that requires you to cheat, to break, to “plan to fail”, I suppose that can work. Personally, I’d rather look at it as winning. I’m not breaking my diet – I’m planning on celebrating my hard work and discipline in the time-honored human fashion of a feast! Having rewarded my body all week long with healthy eating, I am now going to reward my tongue and every delicious bite of ice-cream-hot-fudge-skittle-truffle-banana-lava-cake will be a reinforcement of just how awesome I am at my diet!

Of course, a truly Enlightened soul wouldn’t be “fighting” the battle at all – which is most of what Sun Tzu actually talked about in The Art of War. But for those of us who still need the illusion of struggle to trick ourselves into right action, I think it’s time to stop playing other people’s games.

Who needs to cheat, when you can just win?

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