I'm a big fan of the writer Steven Pressfield. I've not read any of his novels (it occurs to me I should probably correct that soon), but his non-fiction really explains something I think is in all of us.
In what can really only be described as a trilogy — The War of Art, Do The Work and Turning Pro — Pressfield notes that the thing that keeps us from our calling, our love, whatever you want to call it, is Resistance. And Resistance can come in any form. Your family keeping you away from your easel. Your day job sucking up all your energy. Your overwhelming desire for a Big Mac being one more excuse to not sit down and write.
Anything that prevents you from doing what you really long to do, that's Resistance.
I was thinking about this in terms of Platonic ideals. If you're not familiar with this concept, here's a brief simplification. If you picture a tree, you form a picture in your head of a tree. You will probably never see a real (physical) tree that looks exactly like the tree you pictured, but based on the tree you pictured, you can classify real trees as being enough like the tree you pictured to determine they're all trees.
The tree you pictured was your Platonic ideal.
Pressfield imagines Resistance as a dragon, and you, as artist or entrepreneur or whatever, must slay the dragon to do the work you want to be doing.
I feel less Resistance than I used to. I'm certainly writing consistently. I've taken on some projects that I'm actually accomplishing. My money's being better spent than it used to be. I'm not sure what Resistance looks like to me, but it's getting weaker, or smaller. I don't know, maybe I don't need it to take on a form in order to defeat it.
What does Resistance look like to you? How can you defeat it?
The day after the Super Bowl, the pundits were talking about Peyton Manning's legacy. How, if he'd led the Denver Broncos to victory, we had to seriously think about whether he was the best quarterback ever. But because the Seahawks won, it now relegates Manning to maybe top five of all time, but there's no chance he's the best.
Here's the thing: WHO THE FUCK CARES? No question, Peyton Manning is one of the best quarterbacks to have every played professional football. It's not just his numbers that bear that out — it's also his on-field abilities and intelligence. But it doesn't matter if Peyton Manning is the best ever, or if Joe Montana is the best ever, or if Russell Wilson turns out to be the best ever.
If Peyton Manning is the best Peyton Manning he can be, he should be proud. If he's not the best Peyton Manning he can be, then he's got some work to do.
You, too. You don't need to be the fastest runner in your office or the best salesperson on the tennis court. You don't need to hit the longest golf ball, ski the steepest slope or play the loudest horn.
You just have to be the best you you can be. And when you get there, get better.
We're at the time of year in Central New York when the sky, roads and lawns all become the same color gray. The sky is gray with clouds, the road with salt and lawns with dirtied snow. It's dark late into morning and early into the evening. Businesses are struggling to hit their end-of-year numbers, and lots of people are running around hectic and haggard for their Christmas shopping (yes, Christmas shopping – if you're like me, you did your holiday shopping in preparation for Channukah, which is already over with no rush to worry about).
People are really unhappy. So, let's look at some simple steps you can take to get happy.
1. Own the bad to own the good
Don't like your job, location or the length of your holiday list? Your fault. Own all the choices you've made to this point that brought you here. And here's why: Love your friends, hobbies, favorite restaurant and cell phone plan? The same choices you made to get the stuff you don't like, you made to get the stuff you like. You can't take credit for the good stuff without taking credit for the bad stuff. Once you recognize the universe isn't out to get you and that you're responsible for both the good and the bad, you can make better choices to get the good you want.
2. Eat better and supplement your diet
We spoke last week a little bit about comfort and specifically things like comfort foods that lull you to complacence. Food is fuel. Do you really feel gassed up and ready to go after a big plate of mac n cheese and fried chicken? No, you feel like taking a nap. I've written before about getting foods with high oxytocin content into your diet (things like bananas, eggs, etc.), but there are ways to supplement your diet. Here are the supplements I use (I like use over take, because I need to be honest that anything that isn't food is a drug).
• Caffeine (year-round, daily)
• Ginseng (year-round, usually on work nights)
• BCAA (year-round, usually on work nights but sometimes also in conjunction with a hard workout)
• Dopamine (my pre-workout is a dopamine modulator – I try to take it only on days I work out, skipping at least once a week, and with a week off every month or so; dopamine is the happy drug you release from intense exercise and sex)
• Vitamin D3 (primarily fall and winter, on low-sun days – this is the vitamin you get from sunlight, and especially working nights, I get very little opportunity for sunlight directly on my skin from October to April)
• Vitamin C (primarily during cold season; since I started working from home, I'm exposed to fewer airborne particles, which means my immune system isn't working on new invaders all the time)
3. Drink more water
I average about four liters of water a day. Now, understand that I work from home at a sitting-down job and I'm not chasing children around or anything, so I have the time to drink four liters of water a day without thinking about it. That's probably more than you need anyway; eight, eight-ounce glasses of water is more like two liters. Anyway. You wake up dehydrated (you might not feel like it, but you haven't had any water for at least as long as you've been asleep). Take a few good long swallows of water when you wake up. And remember that in winter you're running your heat, which is drying you out, so drink more than you would in a milder season.
There we have it. The most difficult thing on that list is a change of mindset. And if you're not interested in a mindset change, well, good luck.
Tomorrow I wrap up my #100plus100plus1 fitness challenge. It's a month-long fitness streak, with 100 pushups, 100 situps and a one-mile run each day. How did I come up with those numbers? I don't know; they just seemed like nice, round numbers that would get me over the hump of a stalled fitness regimen. Plus, it would force me to run, something I've never liked doing. I even did a couch-to-5K program over the summer and promptly stopped running when I was done with it.
I still don't like to run, but at least I'm not afraid of it anymore.
I wound up doing some pushups that were modified to be more difficult, because by mid-month doing sets of 30 and 35 weren't that big a deal.
And my core got a lot stronger, which was a necessary quantity. I was worried during the first week I would injure my lower back with all the situps, but by the middle of the month I could 20 or 25 and feel it, but not hurt. At the end of the month, I actually feel strong.
The point really isn't that I did these things. It's that I did something. I could just as easily have done 127 pushups, 68 situps and a 1.13-mile run every day. Or walked six miles or climbed 1,000 stairs or played with the dog for three hours or spent 45 minutes combing my beard or pressed my mouse button precisely 1,283 times.
It would be something to get me out of bed/off the couch/away from the television.
Your turn. It doesn't matter what your goal is. Make it achievable, but make sure you have to work for it. Report back.
Important: This post is for people who are frustrated with where they are in life and want to make changes to turn that around. If you are medically depressed or suicidal, this post is not for you. Here is a list of suicide hotlines by state and here is a list of American Psychiatric Association offices by state. You'll still need to take the step, but one of those is a better direction for you than this post.
I've read a lot of motivational, self-help stuff. Not as much as some, but certainly enough to know that a lot of them assume that you are able function at the same pace and capacity as a person who is generally happy or that you have already reached that low that causes the epiphany that lets you say, "It starts today."
I'm going to assume that you're just in a rut; maybe you don't like your job, maybe you've got just enough debt that you'll never get ahead, maybe you're just going through the motions daily. Here are some actionable tips that I think will help change your attitude over time, and will push you in the direction of where you want to be.
I've implemented this stuff and I'm getting happier and stronger, and while I still struggle with some of the shit I had going on before, getting through what I need to get through seems wholly achievable, and I've been much more productive since putting these things into practice.
1. Eat high oxytocin foods. This was James Altucher's suggestion (full post here). I implemented it, and within a couple of weeks, I started back up blogging, we ramped up the wedding planning, I started making beer and I managed to get 75 bags of brush together and about 3,000 pounds of construction garbage piled so we could rent a roll-off. I still have a 9-hour work day and sleep a full night – I didn't get more time, I just got more energy and a new attitude. Altucher's breakfast suggestion is eggs + banana + pepper (it doesn't matter what kind of pepper – black pepper, bell pepper, hot pepper, whatever). Since I'm a big exerciser, I add some stuff; my normal breakfast is a pepper, apple and either onion or potato cut up in a 4-egg omelet, plus a banana on the side. Every day. I feel like Superman most days.
2. Drink more water. Start when you first wake up – you would be really thirsty if you went eight hours during the day without any water, and you just slept for eight hours without a sip. I drink about 4 liters (128 oz) a day (I also work nights and from home, so maybe that's going to be a lot for you, but I bet you can drink more than you do now). When we're dehydrated, our brains don't function as well as they could. And if you reach for something sugary or caffeinated instead of water, you're actually making it worse. Go ahead and have a cup of coffee, but drink water alongside it, and get hydrated in the morning before you start on the coffee.
3. Get some fresh air. You don't need a lot. I submit that 60 seconds of being outside and just breathing at the sky a couple of times a day is going to vastly improve your energy and attitude. Even on a cold or rainy day. There's still air out there. (Disclaimer, because we're stupid and litigious: If it's actually dangerous out there – hurricane, tornado, active shooter, stay the hell inside, moron.)
4. Get a little exercise. And I mean a little. You need to be a little more active than what you do at work. If you sit at a desk all day, a 20-minute walk will do you good. If you have to have a one-on-one meeting that doesn't require sitting at a computer, make it a walking meeting. Drop and do 10 pushups a couple of times a day. You'll actually become more popular in the office for that, as opposed to being the office weirdo. If you walk seven miles a day on a retail floor, a 20-minute walk isn't going to do it; you'll need to do something to get your heart rate up. Jog, jumping jacks, squats in place, that sort of thing. Again, you only need a few minutes. If you want something a little more difficult to start with, do a 30-day #100plus100plus1 challenge.
5. Create something. It could be a recipe, a painting, a spear. Whatever. Use your hands, and make it require some time. It could suck. It doesn't matter. You took some materials, put time in, and made those materials something else. Accept the success of completion.
6. Take care of something. When your dog has to pee, you have the option of either getting your ass off the couch and getting outside with the dog, or getting your ass off the couch to try to get pee stains (and smell) out of your rug. Which is more appealing to you? If something else is relying on you, you can't spend all your time being a selfish, miserable prick.
We've become quite the "right-now" society. We want everything, and we want it right now. Some things we want so right now we'll wait in long lines for them instead of just giving it a couple of days. All you people who updated to iOS7 right when it was released and spent two hours stalled in queue? I waited two days and updated in 10 minutes while I made breakfast. You got frustrated, I got to read my Flipboard while chowing on my giant plate of food.
We eat fast food, we prefer gas grills because we don't have to wait for the coals to get hot, and we'd rather microwave a cup of water with a tea bag in it for two minutes than take eight minutes to boil water and five minutes to steep loose tea, even if the second tastes so much better. We generate piles of garbage by using our one-cup coffee makers with K-Cups instead of waiting for pots of coffee to brew (come on, you don't drink four cups a day? yeah you do).
Home brewed scotch ale, maybe a couple of days early, but, well, yum.
I spent a large chunk of time this summer taking care of brush in the yard. And by "taking care of brush," I mean I filled 80 lawn bags with wood. Some of it I had to take a hand saw to. I've also, with a couple hours' help on some of the items I couldn't move myself, put together about a ton and a half of construction garbage that we'll get rid of after we rip up the carpet.
Could it have been done more quickly? Sure. But I committed myself to the process of getting it done. It didn't need to be done now, and it wasn't a skill job that I didn't know how to do, I just mustered the patience to let it take some time.
And then it came down to beer.
People have been drinking beer since someone in Egypt left a pot of grain out in the rain and went to go visit his in-laws. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it.) I enjoy beer. I've toured breweries, so I have a basic understanding of the process. I like to cook, I have some patience, and I was curious, so I started homebrewing.
This glass is from my first batch, a scotch ale. I started drinking it a little early, but there are plenty of bottles still gathering some carbonation. You can see that, even in a thick-walled water glass, it still has a little head on it with some lacing (that's when the head sticks to the glass). It looks like beer and behaves like beer. It also smells like beer and tastes like beer.
It's not amazing, but it's better than a lot of what's out there commercially.
I went in with low expectations (there's a lot of process involved and it was my first batch), but I figured if it came out awful, I could walk it back and see what I can do better, and all I lost was some time and five gallons of liquid I'd dump in the bushes and let the neighborhood fauna eat the solids. I didn't see as much fermenting as I expected, and there was a small leak in the bottling bucket that I had to contain. But it's a drinkable beer, and I'm happy with it.
I will certainly change up some of the process with my next batch, and there are some minor equipment adjustments I've made (bigger boil pot, for instance and a new bottling bucket), but really, all it takes is some patience. Once it's in the fermenting bucket, it takes a week or so. It may take a day or two or three in the bottling bucket. It should sit in bottle for a couple of weeks getting carbonated.
It's a long time to wait for something I could grab at the gas station, but I control the taste and get the satisfaction of knowing I did it myself. I'm sure somehow that makes it taste a little better.
Henry David Thoreau [WikiMedia Commons]
If it were awful, I'd know, because I'm also kind of a critic and my own worst enemy.
I've never been able to sit down and read Walden (kind of like watching "Last of the Mohicans," I just fall asleep every time I get started), but I listened to an audio version of it while I was working on the brush and the construction waste. It was therapeutic because I think Thoreau just got to the point where he didn't understand process anymore, and to keep his own work moving along, he had to go be self-sufficient for a little while.
I get that from the way he wrote of his neighbor, the man who worked hard and so had to eat a high-protein, high-fat diet to maintain his energy, and had to keep working hard to earn the wages to maintain that diet. A couple of hours on the pond, and Thoreau said he had enough fish for a few days, and he could grow most of the rest of what he needed, or buy it cheaply in bulk and store it.
Whatever his motivation, it's clear that Thoreau got satisfaction from doing stuff himself, and it motivated him to keep going. The bit about him building the chimney? That's appreciation of process, even from his hunt for materials that had previously served in a fireplace.
Did he know any of his undertakings would work? No, but when something went wrong, he tried again and again until he got it right. Nobody wants a roof to cave in or a chimney to collapse in the middle of a New England winter.
My challenge to you: Try something that requires at least a 48-hour process. You don't have to work for those 48 hours straight, you just have to handle some maintenance along the way. Cook something that takes a couple of days. Make a walking stick from a branch (including finishing it and attaching a loop or a top-piece). Make your next glass of wine yourself.
Some of the things I find most interesting in people are:
What they've tried
What they've failed at
What they've learned
What they enjoy
In the most interesting people I know, item four stems directly from the first three. And each of those stems directly from the one before it. Try something, make a mistake, learn, then weed out the stuff you enjoy.
The most interesting people I know seem to have the following two traits in common:
• Willingness to fail (or injure themselves, I guess, as a type of failure)
That's really it. You don't need anything else.
So why is it that so many people are so fucking dull?
It's because the majority of their knowledge comes from people more interesting than they are. It comes from listening to people's stories. From PBS. From The Discovery Channel.
If your story starts, "I once saw this show about a guy who...," I'd rather be talking to the guy who, not you.
Sorry not sorry.
So, my dog. He sleeps a lot. Typically I'm asleep six to eight hours, so I'll guess he's asleep for four to six of those. During my nine-hour work shift, he's asleep about six hours. During the other seven to nine hours of the day, if I'm home, he's asleep at least five. We're looking at 15 hours or more of sleep a day.
It must be exhausting being a dog.
Then again, I can see that it is. Dude checks out everything. Everything. He smells my pants as I put them on – no, really, I'll be sliding my right leg in and his nose is pressed up against my left knee – if a leaf blows across the yard, he investigates. He checks out the tree and the mailbox post on our front lawn at the beginning and end of a walk.
Each ingredient we pull from the refrigerator; every hammer, screwdriver or wrench we pull from the toolbox; every human who comes to the door, Rufus's nose is there, figuring out what it is and where it's been.
In fact, right now, he's sniffing at a closed door because he has to know what's on the other side.
He's curious about everything, and he investigates until he's satisfied.
You, on the other hand, just sit on the couch until you're satisfied you know enough about some other guy's trip to the Mojave to be interesting enough at dinner tomorrow to earn another invitation.
Here are some ideas for becoming a more interesting person. Report back if you try any.
1. Learn about something you use every day. Figure out how it works, why it does what it does, what its history is, when people started using it, and how you could make your own. Own that shit. Coffee, pencils, toilets, flowers, I don't care what it is. Get the first-hand knowledge, do your own research and experimenting.
2. Learn about something you have no interest in. It's going to come in handy someday. Electrical wiring, gravity, picture frames. Enjoy the process of learning. But do number one first – that you'll do for the joy of learning about the thing, this one you'll do for the joy of learning itself.
3. Make something. A website, a sculpture, dinner, a shirt. Do it from scratch. Learn the steps, put it together. If it's ugly, broken or disgusting, great. You still made it, and you learned something in the process. If it's amazing, pick something else. Keep making stuff until you fail. Every time you succeed, you put one more thing in your arsenal that you can do. Every time you fail, you put one more thing to improve at on your list.
That should be plenty for you to do for a while. Send me pictures.
Simon Rich is a 30-ish comedy writer (maybe not quite yet, since his bar mitzvah was in 1997). Two weeks ago, I'd never heard of him. I grabbed some David Sedaris off the shelf at the library and perused the new fiction racks, and picked up Rich's novel What in God's Name. It has an organizational chart on the back cover, with God as CEO of Heaven Inc. I figured I'd already read a book this year about Hell as a telemarketing firm and, well, I was at the library. If the first few pages were awful, I'd just return it unread. Wouldn't be the first time.
The premise here is that God created this company (Heaven Inc.) to farm xenon from the earth's atmosphere. It had some side businesses, too, but one day God was bored so he decided to create humans as a diversion. He then went and dropped Heaven's unemployment rate by drawing up all these different human-related departments like prayer intake (God never actually reads the prayers) and the miracle department, where angels work in cubicles to make miracles happen.
One day, frustrated with people, God decides he's just going to extinguish the human race. Forget about his beloved NASCAR, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Yankees. Nobody was listening to his prophet Raoul (who ran around the streets of New York in his underwear with a cardboard sign dictated by God yelling at people), and he was just tired of the enterprise. So God sends his company a memo saying that in a month, all human-related departments are going to close and most people working those jobs will be laid off (but they'd still enjoy some company benefits like discounted gym memberships).
God is going to, instead, open an Asian fusion restaurant called Sola.
Craig, a miracle department employee, convinces God to save the humans if he can answer one prayer. God tells him sure, he just has to call his shot. That is, if the one you pick doesn't work out, you don't get another chance. So Craig and his cubicle neighbor, the newly promoted Eliza, get to work on picking a prayer to answer.
They find what you'd think would be an easy one. A prayer from someone named Sam that he and a girl named Laura get to be together. OK, that's not so easy at first. But take, also, that it's stapled to a related prayer: Laura wants her and Sam to be together. Also, it turns out they live six blocks apart in lower Manhattan.
Obviously the world winds up saved, but the journey's fun, so pick it up and follow along. But here's the thing.
Laura wants to be with Sam, and Sam wants to be with Laura. They have a couple of chances during that month and both just make it awkward. This is apparently a frequent complaint for angels – they keep giving humans every chance in the world to make the right choice, and they keep blowing it.
They don't know it, but Sam and Laura need to kiss to save the world. They want nothing more, anyway, and to do so would literally save the world from extermination.
That thing you've been putting off because it's a little difficult and might perhaps be uncomfortable to start? What if it would save the world if you'd just fucking do it?
Happiness research is one of the things that pop psychology has done a lot of the past generation or so. They measure happiness through things like physiology – fatigue, stress levels, that sort of thing – and asking questions. The other thing many of these studies ask is "What would make you more happy?" Frequently the answer is something like more money or more stuff or less debt or more education or something like that.
But what people really want is more time. When follow-up studies are done after people have more money or less debt or more stuff or whatever, they're not showing increased levels of happiness. But when you give people time to pursue their hobbies and spend time with their families and friends, they're much happier.
I spent a lot of my 20s and the first few years of my 30s taking on a lot. Work, school, volunteer work, networking events – I would be out four, five, six nights a week until midnight or after, only to get up at 5am and do it all over again.
I was frequently exhausted.
And I get that way now sometimes, still, but I've done some things to make changes. I go to bed early. I set aside time for hobbies like reading, writing and recreational sports leagues.
Toward the end of getting rid of some of the sense of being overwhelmed that still creeps in, I read a lot of manifesto-type stuff. Things like TheMinimalists.com, Jeff Goins's The Writer's Manifesto, and if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I'm a huge fan of Steven Pressfield's The War of Art and Julien Smith's The Flinch.
One of my favorites of these is one I read recently called How to be Legendary by Johnny B Truant. Here's a guy who knows what it's like to start a novel and then leave it in the closet for 12 years before picking it back up. Who wants to improve his physique and pays a personal trainer a bunch of money to tell him stuff he already knows. Who really just needed to say fuck it and do what he needed to do to spend time with his family and enjoy his life.
One of the take-away quotes for me is this (emphasis mine):
Nobody has any right to tell you that you're going in the wrong direction or that you're not doing as much as you could do. It doesn't matter what you do or how much you do. What matters is that you do the best you can do relative to what you're able to do. This is not a game of money or material rewards or traditional definitions of success. It's a game of you vs. you, and only you have any business steering your own ship.
In other words, you decide what you're going to do and how much you're going to do, and fuck everybody else. You're the only one who can get in your own way, so stand back and let yourself rise.
I'm going to recommend this book for anyone feeling stuck, floundering, or looking to make some change. Also, it's free, so you may as well get the book and take a couple of hours of your time to make a difference in your own life.
It's the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks against the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and an innocent field in the middle of nowhere. Somewhere, there's a memorial service going on. Somewhere, someone's still applauding Clint Eastwood for blaming Barack Obama for sending troops to Afghanistan, which actually happened in December of 2001, during George W. Bush's first year in office, in the wake of those attacks. Somewhere – a lot of somewheres, actually – someone is crying for a lost family member, friend, or stranger who died that day. And somewhere, someone at a law enforcement agency is taking credit for stopping a terrorist plot set for the anniversary that may or may not have actually been in the works (it's tough when "success" means that nothing happened).
These are all fine ways to remember 9/11. Except the Clint Eastwood thing. That was just weird.
But a lot of people forget something else that happened immediately after the planes hit the towers that Tuesday morning. A lot of young people – the supposedly disengaged, video game generation, the first to grow up with the Internet in their homes and so supposedly with no real ability to connect with other humans face to face – became part of something bigger. They stood up and joined the military, said "never again" and went off to fight Bush's battles in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another group of the same generation picked up signs and joined their elders on picket lines and in getting arrested for the sake of peace – don't go off killing the vast majority of people in those countries who had absolutely nothing to do with any of it.
People got engaged. They made changes in their lives. And some people even started living like it could happen again, to them, and they were going to achieve their dreams so that if it did happen tomorrow, they'd be able to say they'd lived out those dreams.
And now we're back to moments of silence and the two-party blame game, and we're pretty much just sitting or standing around being armchair citizens and Monday morning political quarterbacks and we're just the same group of people who got attacked 11 years ago. Only more paranoid.
It's time to get back to living our dreams, to creating things, to being more awesome. Will that make people dislike us again? Probably, but if you're going to be hated, make it because people are jealous, not because you're stupid or lazy or disengaged. Today, get ready to do something amazing, because tomorrow, someone might fly a plane into your desk.
Like what you see? Buy me a cup of coffee. Or a nice dinner. Or a new car. You decide what the information and energy are worth.
• Savannah, or, a Gift for Mr. Lincoln, John Jakes
• Larceny in my Blood, Matthew Parker
• Crime, Irvine Welsh
• The Art of War, Sun Tzu
• ABCs of Relativity, Bertrand Russell
• The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon
• Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau
• Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin
• How to be Remarkable, Colin Wright
• Uncommon Sense, from the writings of Howard Zinn
• Running with Scissors, Augusten Burroughs
• The Secret Life of Numbers, George G. Szpiro