Around The Sun

The Doppler effect for time: when years are in front of you, they seem to stretch out forever. When they’re behind you, they seem like eyeblinks.

Happy birthday, my son. May those years in front of you turn out to contain all the joy that you see in them now, and more.

Up Position

My oldest daughter has had an exciting week! She was in a community theater production of Cats and then had a new belt test in karate. She absolutely nailed both, of course. She’s incredible.

A particular piece of wisdom came my way while watching her belt test. Her instructor was having them do push-ups and was (as all good instructors do) pushing them well outside of the number they were comfortable with. And as she was pushing them and counting their reps, she told them:

“Keep going until you can’t go anymore and you need a break. But remember: when you need a break, take your break in the ‘up’ position. Don’t collapse on the floor. That’s the kind of break you don’t come back from.”

Breaks are important. We’re not machines and we can’t work constantly at our highest pace. But oh what a difference there is between a break and quitting for the day (or forever)! And this is a powerful piece of advice about separating the two.

If I’m writing and I need a break, there’s a world of difference between a walk around the block and sitting on the couch and grabbing the remote. One is a break that keeps me in the ‘up position’ – thinking, active, brain still firing. The other isn’t a break at all; it’s me throwing in the towel for the day.

And when you need to throw in the towel – do it! That’s okay. But don’t lie to yourself. If you really only want a break and truly want to get back to it after a brief pause, just remember. Stay in the up position.

The Real You

Under all of your actions, all of your words, all of the ways you interact with your environment and society and self, there is…

…nothing.

There is no “real you” that’s somehow different from all the stuff you say and think and do. We are the sum of our deeds. If you think “if only people knew the real me, they’d treat me differently than they do,” then perhaps you should reflect on why people treat you that way in the first place.

Values need to become actions. If you want to think of yourself as brave, then you need to ask “What are the actions of a brave person?” And then you need to do those things. That is all you will ever have.

So the uncomfortable truth is that there is no “real you.” But the good news is that nothing is therefore holding you back from being anything you want to be. All the actions are there for the taking.

Parasite

Things that are poisonous don’t always look that way. Viruses hide. Parasites must, by their nature, hide that nature in order to get close to you.

In other words, not everything that can kill you is obvious about it. The social versions operate the same way.

Some creatures can only survive by feeding on you. Some creatures can only survive by destroying you. And some creatures bear you no ill will at all, but their nature is so different from yours that they’re toxic to you. And all of these people will look like they aren’t those things. They’ll tell you they aren’t those things, and they might even believe that they aren’t those things.

It is up to you to measure them. To hold your own values and your own life in high enough regard to be worth protecting even when the poison comes in an alluring package. We all want friends, relationships, social groups, peers that esteem us. We want those things, so when people come in those guises we are more likely to accept them – to bend ourselves to fit what they want us to be.

And then you have a tapeworm.

Shed the parasites. Give them nothing to feed on, and no room to thrive. Have only noble relationships to the best of your ability, and limit your exposure to the ones you must have that fall short of that ideal. Give your resources fully to those that deserve it (including yourself!) so that you leave no room at the table for the tapeworms.

The Turning of the Weal

What is best for you will not always be constant. Even if your values and goals remain largely consistent, the changing of your circumstances over time will necessitate you to approach the pursuit of those things with different techniques.

If you’re 18, and you decide, “I want financial success,” then what’s best for you is often to hustle your brains out. Work a lot, use that work to learn new skills and meet new people, produce more than you consume, build good habits, etc. But at a certain point “working yourself senseless” stops being a good way to approach financial success. Once you have a decent savings pool, network, and skill set it becomes about working smarter, investing better, leveraging your opportunities, and the like.

Same goal, but different things were best for you.

That’s why framing even your long-term goals as short-term ones can be very helpful. My biggest goal and most important value is “raise my children to be happy, competent superheroes.” But if I make the time horizon for that goal “my entire life as a parent,” then I’m likely to get stuck in ruts regarding how I approach it. The tools and techniques to empower toddlers are not the same ones that will empower teenagers, so I need to grow with my children.

So instead, I set the goal: “I will do everything in my power to make my 5-year-old reach age six with all the courage and wisdom I can help her gain, and then re-evaluate.” At her sixth birthday, I’ll be able to have some pride in what we’ve done together, but I’ll also have given myself the intellectual freedom to evaluate my methods.

Do the same with all your goals, even the ones you think you’ll pursue your whole life. May you always find the best that you can.

Mean Old Me

Sometimes I try to be kind to myself in advance. I’ll think, “music always makes me feel great, so since I know next Friday is a busy workday, I’m going to pre-schedule a little music break in the middle and give myself a little boost. You’re welcome, Future Me!”

Then next Friday rolls around, the day is busy, and I’ll come to that event on my calendar. And I’ll scowl, and I’ll say “Past Me was an idiot, I’m too busy for this,” and I’ll skip it to work more.

I’m a mean old man sometimes.

I hasten to point out: only to myself. I consider “Kindness to Others” not only a moral imperative but also one of the sincerest expressions of strength and confidence there is. Only weak cowards are mean to others unjustly. And opportunities to be “justly” mean are few and far between. If someone is deserving of your contempt, then the correct course of action is almost always to simply remove your association, not to actually act contemptuously.

But I can’t remove my association with myself, so when I think of myself as deserving of it, I’m downright mean to myself. Because in those moments, I am weak and cowardly.

I’ve allowed the busyness of my day to weaken me. I’ve allowed the doubt about the successful completion of the day’s endeavors to turn into fear. And then I allowed both of those things to come together to create a mean reaction to the very person who was trying their best to help Present & Future Me: Past Me.

Self-kindness isn’t just about your immediate feelings. It’s about protecting what those feelings support, which is a psychologically sound foundation for all your works. Guess what? That Friday sucked. I did a bad job, overall. I should have taken the music break. Either it would have helped me do a better job because I’d have felt better, or I’d have done just as badly but gotten to listen to music. Either would have been better.

Silos & Soapboxes

If you don’t brag about your work, your work will be worse.

People hate this; they hate self-marketing, they hate “bragging,” they hate living out loud. Some people are the opposite and like it all a little too much, but most people would rather fail than talk about their success.

But if you aren’t talking about your work, then you’re missing out on the greatest resource ever, which is the brainpower of other people. You’re living in a tower all by yourself and not only will your work have less reach, it will also be worse overall. Since I want this to be practical, I’m going to give you some tips on how to “work out loud” in ways that don’t feel like shameless self-aggrandizing.

  1. Ask questions. If you’re building a soapbox derby racer, even if you’re amazing at it, ask questions of a broader community. Share a picture of the thing in progress and say “what does everyone think of this wheel choice?” Post another picture next week and say “thanks for the wheel suggestions – now does anyone have any thoughts on spoilers?” You’re not only tapping the vast network of people with additional knowledge, but you’re also sharing what you’re working on. And you’re staying humble while you do it.
  2. Answer questions. Other people are doing #1. Join those conversations wherever you find them. When someone else asks about building material weight versus durability, answer them with what you know. You’ll be helping other people (in a way that they specifically asked for!), and you’ll also be sharing that you’re doing something similar. Especially if the platforms are connected (i.e. answering questions in the same forums or communities in which you ask your own).
  3. Give stuff away. You’ve been building that thing for a while now, and you have some leftover materials that you don’t need but are perfectly good. Post that you’ll give them away if anyone wants them. Or maybe you won the derby and you want to give away the blueprint of the final model so other people can build them. Whatever! Giving stuff away is great and helpful and fun, but it also lets people know what you’re doing in the first place. And you can feel good about it.
  4. Mentor someone. You feel bad about promoting yourself, but you probably feel awesome about building up someone else who’s doing great work – especially if they did you a big favor, right? So find someone else who’s doing what you’re doing, and offer to teach or share with them. Do that enough times and you’re not only helping the world and your own community, you’re also creating an army of cheerleaders for the work you do.
  5. Join a club. Look, there’s a club for everything. And the purpose of pretty much every club in existence is to promote the primary topic and the work of the members on that topic. So if you build soapbox derby racers, just go ahead and sign up for your local Soapbox Derby Club. It will definitely give you more opportunities to do #1-4, at least, and probably a few other things too.

If you do all of those things on a regular basis, then congrats! You’re engaging in self-promotion without ever having to be overly braggadocious. You can find fun, community-building ways to talk all about your soapbox derby racer without ever having to stand on a soapbox.

New Growth

My children have grown tomatoes.

For many people, this is an ordinary thing. But I have never grown anything edible in my entire life, and now my children have successfully brought edible food into the world from a seed in a packet. They dug the garden, they planted the seeds, they watered and nurtured. And then they ate the absolutely delicious fruits of their labor.

I am so very glad they did it. The lesson isn’t about gardening (although that’s great). The lesson is that we have the power to put things into the world that were not there before. We are not passive participants in a life that carries but does not include us. We lay our own path, brick by brick, unless we yield that power.

Don’t. Use your own hands, and your own feet, and your own brains. Use your own eyes and your own heart. Grow your tomatoes because it is good to remember that you can.

Not Succeeding is Not Disaster

Here is a skill: knowing when the worst outcome from a failed attempt is simply a return to the status quo versus when a failed attempt will result in a major loss.

You’d be surprised how often people do not make that assessment correctly. You’ve probably gotten it wrong many times; I know I have.

If you try a high jump to touch a high ceiling, you might make it or you might not. But you end up back on the ground either way. If you try to jump over a ravine and you don’t make it, you don’t end up safely back on your original side – you end up in a ditch.

That’s an obvious example, but plenty more are less obvious. This is a valuable skill because, by default, we all assume that “disaster” is the natural state of failure. We don’t even attempt things that wouldn’t have any negative consequences for failing because all we can picture is being in a ditch. This makes us avoid low-risk opportunities when we should be embracing as many of those as we can.

The next time you decide not to try something because you might fail, stop yourself. Ask yourself what failure looks like in this case. If it’s your body in a ditch, then sure – don’t do it. But if it’s just you back where you started – jump!

Apologies to Cheap Trick

There are a lot of “movements” and groups and things that, over the years, I’ve joined and left. Little (metaphorical) membership cards left discarded in my wake. Yet my preferences, values and desires have been largely very consistent for a long time. So why the mercurial associations?

Let me explain what happens. I think “One of my values is that I want more of X, both in my life and in society at large.” So I look around and I see a group of people who also want that! Great, I join up. Often this isn’t any sort of official “joining” (I almost never do that anyway), but rather I start thinking of myself as belonging to that group, I start joining in their conversations, etc.

Then, inevitably, I look around and I say “I want more X, and this group wants more X, but me belonging to this group isn’t actually getting me more X.” So I leave.

I love tacos, so I join a group that loves tacos. I join thinking that I will get more tacos as a result of joining this group, because they also want tacos. But it almost always turns out that what the members of the group actually want, is to want tacos.

They want the group more than they want the tacos, in other words. I get it, groups are important – we’re social creatures. But when you join a group because you want to join a group, but you say it’s because you want tacos, you’re creating all sorts of weird problems down the line.

All groups ultimately morph into a group whose only purpose is self-sustainment. Along the way, if you’re lucky, the group might solve some problems. It’s just that solving the problem won’t dissolve the group – even if they got tacos, they wouldn’t call it a day and disband their “Association of People Who Demand More Tacos.” So you should view all of these memberships as temporary – bind to solve a problem, then escape. When you make your groups, make them honestly. Make them just because you like the group.