Monthly Archives: April 2013

Less Pain, More Gain

As of today I’m 4,421 words into a book I’m writing. One of two books I’m working on right now actually. Honestly since I’ve started this blog and committed to developing as a writer I think I’ve written about as much as I had in the previous 4 months combined. I should note that I go to art school, we don’t do a lot of writing here. I think most of my writing since coming to this school has been facebook and emails.

Still, while I’m happy about this I’ve had this gnawing annoyance in the back of my mind over the fact that I’m being so productive in this area while stagnating or slowing down in others. My plan for the books I’m working on was always to pluck away here and there over the case of a few years, between three and ten, I have more time sensitive goals.

Part of the reason for this motivation is probably novelty, for me it’s always easier to work in the beginning when everything’s fresh and new, but my interest drifts quickly.

Then I realized what I was doing, I was being productive by procrastinating. I was actually putting off other work that I had set in my mind as high priority to “goof off” writing. This isn’t to say it’s a great thing, I really should have been more focused on my homework today, but it reminded me of something Khatzumoto at All Japanese All the Time talks about, the more practicing a skill feels like playing, goofing off or procrastinating the more likely we are to do it. The more we put it up on a pedestal and start putting this crazy pressure on ourselves the more likely we are to avoid it, if simply to avoid the mental anguish of dealing with the stress we’ve burdened ourselves with.

This isn’t to say that everything in life can or should be like just like play, firefighters, surgeons and front-line soldiers certainly can’t enjoy this luxury. But the more we can approach our life with this attitude the more we’ll want to work toward our goals, while conversely the more we make our goals super serious and super important the more our natural laziness can push back.

The goal isn’t to pretend reverse our natural stream, to swim against the current of our nature, but to go with it while consciously channeling it where we want to go. Of course there will always be times when we absolutely have to get serious, but if you’re like me you can only be serious and focused so long, the trick is minimizing the time we have to spend in this mode while still constantly growing.

If you want to exercise try signing up for a sports league rather than just going through the motions on the machine, or do what I’ve seen online and place a treadmill in front of your TV and play video games while running so you can have your digital cake while burning real calories. If you’re studying a language start watching TV, listening to music and playing video games in that language. Or you can just watch stupid youtube videos in that language. If you’re a writer think of your story like you’re watching a movie and the only way to see what happens next is to finish the next page. Or imagine you’re doing a TED talk and your words are being eagerly devoured by the crowd.

These are just suggestions off the top of my head, every person is different and works slightly differently so your milage may vary. Once again, sometimes pain is unavoidable and should be faced, but I reject the idea that just because something is painful it isn’t magically the right way to do things. If that were the case we should all still be hunter/gatherers.

It’s the people who had lazy minds who still put the work in who made life what it is today. You just need to find a way to use your laziness rather than letting it use you.

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Watching Your (Information) Diet

It’s been 5 days since my last post. 

I feel like I should have some really good reason for not taking 30 minutes and writing even a quick post these last 5 days, but I don’t.

Honestly I have trouble keeping track of the amount of time I waste with fluff and junk media.  I define fluff media as stuff like TV, movies, internet and the like that aren’t particularly bad, but aren’t particularly helpful either. I’m a pretty big sitcom fan and I’d put most of them in this category. We might need some of this stuff to give our minds a break, but I think most of us could do with a little to a lot less. My main source for fluff is reddit, which is a great site  in short bursts but it ultimately is a bit like drinking your media out of a fire house. After a while everything blends together, after 2 hours of reddit I’d have a hard time naming more than a tiny fraction of what I actually saw while browsing the site.

Junk media is like junk food, it actually hurts us. Lately I’ve been thinking of the news more and more as junk media. It seems like every morning I check the news and I’m hit with a torrent of bad news that just makes me feel bad. I already know the world can be a harsh place, is reading about the latest abuses all around the world really helping me? Some of this stuff is necessary in small doses so we have a better view of the world, but you can definitely get hooked on it and end up with a skewed view of the world.

Frankly I need to admit I’m an internet addict and cut back on it. Ultimately I think I can achieve moderation, but right now I’m having trouble. I’m going to cut myself from the internet for 3 weeks, until the end of my school year.

I’ll still be updating this blog, I need to get online to check a few things a day but ultimately this should only take 15 minutes. I’ll just write my blog posts in word and copy and paste them rather than writing them online like now. 

Ultimately though I want to be more conscious with my time and my media intake. Just like we need to watch what we put in our mouth if we want a healthy body I think we need to watch what we put in our head if we want healthy minds. 

I’ll leave you with the three broad

  1. Quantity
  2. Quality
  3. Usability

Basically the ideal items of a media diet would be thinks that are high quality while taking up a minimum amount of your time and being applicable to your daily life. This isn’t to say that you need to take a zero tolerance attitude, sometimes you just need to turn your brain off and give it a rest, my main suggestion is to simply try and be more conscious about what you’re taking in rather than going about it mindlessly.

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What do you want your memoir to say?

Usually you hear the question in the title posed something like,”how do you want your eulogy to read?” Or, “What do you want to be remembered for after your gone?” If this line of thinking  inspires you, then by all means think that way.

I personally find this line of thinking kind of morbid, and I’m a naturally morbid person. I honestly don’t think I’ll care that much about my eulogy or how historians will talk about me centuries from now, I imagine I’ll be too dead to pay attention to the world of the living. Instead I’m interested in what people will say about me when I’m living. I chose memoir rather than biography because frankly, I’m the person who I most need to impress.

Think about the celebrities you know of, about all those behind the music documentaries you might have seen. You probably noticed, like me, that the people we as a society heap praise upon the most actually have the hardest time living with themselves. Even if they somehow are able to thrive off the approval of strangers there inevitably comes a day when things begin to change. Old fans move on, critics sour, the sales go down, the list goes on and on. Think of the groups that used to play stadiums that now tour state fairs. 

This isn’t to say you should straight up ignore what other people think, we’re social beings and we need each other to make it through this life. By all means care about other people and try to do your best to help them, but don’t rely on them for your self worth. I’m not a parent, but I know from experience as a child that the job can be thankless. You can sacrifice everything for your kid and they might still resent you. The trick, as I understand, is to believe in yourself and what you’re doing.

I have to admit, I need to work a lot on this. I barely know the meaning of the term “self esteem.” A dear friend of mine had me repeat positive affirmations with her and it physically hurt to say them. The simple words “I am not a bad person” felt hollow and painful. Lately I’m moving forward bit by bit, it’s hard but I feel like I’m headed in the right direction.

One step I’m taking is working on a memoir. I’m still young, no matter how I feel, and I’ve seen so little that the thought of writing it kind of makes me laugh. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, I like writing and searching through the past for the story I have to tell is helpful, and I think it’s bringing some things into clarity that will help me further on.

I want to write more about this later, but for now I’ll leave you with these thoughts: What do you want your memoir to say? Why aren’t you writing yours now? If you said it’s because your life is too boring, what are you going to do to make your life a story worth hearing?

If you trust this site the average human life is 28,000 days long, and I’d wager every life that long has a book worth of stories in it if someone would just take the time to dig in and pull them out. And until your dying day you’re shaping that next chapter, make it a good one.

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Devising a Game Plan

Looking into successful people over the years I’ve noticed a number of common traits. The one I want to look at today may be one of the most important, and that’s planning. 

In the immoratl words of Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”

Almost every successful person had a plan, very few just lucked into where they are and I wouldn’t put much faith in that sort of thing happening to me. The important thing is focusing on what we can change, and luck is not one of those things. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a very complicated plan, I’m sure you could cite some artists who think they never planned but just made their art, but I’d say that their dedication to art amounts to a certain plan. What we focus our thoughts and energy on is in essence our plan, the question is whether or not your plan has been consciously shaped or simply arose out of chance and habit. The problem with the second variety is that we tend to take the path of least resistance  you’ll probably get by this way but end up with a lot of regrets if your a person with ambitions.

I know this from experience, I’m a guy with lots of ambition but I have a problem with follow through. Right now I’m pretty darn proud that this blog has lasted a whole week, I usually drop projects faster than that. This isn’t chance, this blog is a conscious choice on my part to try and point myself towards the life I want, forcing myself to take the little steps that will hopefully add up. 

The first step in making a plan is deciding what you want. The trick is deciding where you want to end up and then figuring out step by step how to get there. People usually just do one or the other and just end up frustrated.

With that in mind I’m going to list the things I want to make priorities in 2013:

  1. Graduate from School
  2. Move to Japan
  3. Learn 10,000 Japanese sentences
  4. Finish my Animated short film
  5. Finish making a mixtape with my rap group
  6. Lose 20 pounds through diet and exercise

I kind of want to include something about this blog, but I’m honestly not sure quite yet what I want this to be. In the back of my head I want to add something like, “write 500 words a day,” but that doesn’t really fit because of how I’m approaching this.

You see I think good goals are tangible. They actually have an end point. When I originally wrote this list point 3 was simply “learn Japanese.” The problem is that goal is incredibly poorly defined, it could mean any number of things. Instead I went with a system that I can break down into steps, that I can measure and that I can really appraise myself based on. The 10,000 sentence plan comes from a website called All Japanese All the Time, I’ve been stuck around 2000 for far too long, but so far this past month I’ve come back in a big way.

Looking at the list and thinking of everything I want to accomplish seems daunting, until I do the next step, which is to break down my plans into doable chunks. For example, with my Japanese studies I’ve committed to studying 35 new sentences a day, which is doable and will get my to 10,000 by the end of the year. The thing is, if I had kept up my studies I would have been there by now even doing 15 a day, which goes to show that slow and study beats uneven bursts of studying.

Well, it’s time for me to go get myself something to eat and then do some more studying. My parting question is, what sort of things would you like to do this year? What would you like to create? What skills would you like to develop on your way along the Renaissance path?

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A Hell of a Week

It’s strange, I want to say it’s been a hard week for me, but honestly it hasn’t. Well, relatively speaking, it’s just that so many people have had to undergo such horrors this week that to claim that I’ve even merely been inconvenienced seems almost disrespectful.

Let me get this out of the way, I’m an internet addict. I’ve been trying to kick the habit, but it’s so ingrained and things keep dragging me in. This week it’s been the news. Monday when the bombs went off I was in class when my friend the next seat over announced that there had been explosions at the Boston Marathon. The air was sucked out of the room and our teacher stopped everything to give us a break to look at the news, knowing full well that productivity would be zero until we had. At that moment I was hooked, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen for fear of missing any new information.

I must have spent almost 20 hours of the last week reading about everything that had happened, not just the bombings in Boston but also the car bombs in Iraq, the ferelizer plant explosion in Texas, the ricin scare and the earthquakes in China. I honestly don’t know if it was all worth it, but I am strangely proud to say that as I was listening to a police scanner during the last hours of the search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev I was fortunate enough to be one of the first people to hear that he was in custody. But this was the culmination of almost 8 hours of not leaving the couch, so I’m not sure if I’d say I’d do it again but one way or another it’s what I did.

As I’ve mentioned, I struggle with depression. I’m drawn to the darkness in the hearts of man. I think to some extent this is natural, I mean one has to look at the news to see that CNN, MSNBC and FOX know that many people are addicted to this sort of thing. There’s that old saying, “If it bleeds it leads.”

With that said it’s important to put things in some perspective. The Atlantic has pointed out that on average American deaths by Terrorism are comparable to deaths by falling furniture. This seems callous to point out because clearly deaths caused by terror are incredible tragedies, there’s no denying that. But I would say every death is tragic to me, and I would not like to play any sort of game where we way one cause of death against the other on the tragedy scale. My point is simply that we don’t let other, more common threats, get to us like terrorism. This makes sense because terror is horrifying and I completely understand the urge to eliminate it, but at some point we have to admit that it might just be a fact of life that we can minimize but probably won’t ever be able to solve.

What we need to do is to shift the focus from the evil in the hearts of men to the goodness that exists. I would deeply suggest listening to this talk with Steven Pinker on his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. He makes a compelling case that we are living in one of the most peaceful ages of history. The problem is one of perspective, once upon a time we only ever heard about the places right around us. You might never leave your village, people only a half hour walk might be completely alien to you, to say nothing of people all around the world. Now we’re completely connected and so we hear about all the greatest tragedies of the world, and we can focus on them 24/7 thanks to around the clock news stations.

It’s easy to lose hope, I know I have many times. Human beings are capable of such evil acts that it can be hard to forget that on measure there are many more people out here who love their children than those who hate. There were far more people rushing to help the victims of the Boston Bombings than there were cowards setting up bombs. It’s not just for your mental health that I tell you this, it’s so that you can keep up the good fight, no matter how insurmountable it may seem. If Steven Pinker is right, and I think he is, then we very well be winning, no matter how are gloom and doom media may make it seem.I leave you with this song, “Let me Dream” by Josy. It always makes me feel hopeful, even when I feel like giving up.

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Excuses and the Renaissance Lifestyle

Stone-Steps

The idea of living the Renaissance lifestyle, trying to master multiple skills and become a more well rounded person, can seem like a daunting proposition. I completely understand this, sometimes when I think of the width and breadth of my aspirations I want to give up.

The two most popular reasons to give up on such dreams are a lack of time and a worry that these efforts will be wasted. Both these objections are reasonable, but can be overcome. I would say the answer to both of these objections is fairly simple, baby steps.

It’s easy to think of a big project and feel totally beaten down just by the thought of the amount of work to be done. The problem is that there is a disconnect in our minds between how we think of things being done and how we actually do things. In our minds we tend to think of things like a montage or a marathon. When we’re dreaming up everything we think like a movie montage, we blur all the steps together and just imagine things happening sort of magically. Then we start actually taking steps and realizing that it will take a long time to finish. Suddenly we start thinking like a marathon, like everything needs to be done all in one long stretch.

Instead we need to think in bite size pieces. You’d be amazed how much you can get done just by working 5 minutes here, 15 minutes there, maybe an hour here, and so on and so forth until you get where you want to go. This thought process has totally revolutionized how I’ve gotten things done. Suddenly now that I’m learning Japanese my goal isn’t necessarily being fluent, but just studying at least 15 minutes. Sure, it will take a while for me to learn at that pace, but I find that if I do something for 15 minutes it’s easy to do it for 30 minutes, and if you do 30 minutes then an hour isn’t that hard, and so on and so forth.

So if you’re thinking that by trying to learn many skills you’ll end up mediocre at all of them, I would suggest that you don’t start studying and practicing many things at the same time, try steadily building up little habits, one at a time. This minimizes necessary time investment and allows you to try out, drop and emphasize certain skills as you broaden yourself out.

Also, these little portions mean you can can fit them all throughout your day. I listen to Japanese lessons on my ipod as I commute around town, I study Japanese flashcards on my phone whenever I have a free moment, the little things go on and on. The trick is starting and slowly building up, baby step by baby step of trading good habits for bad habits until you’re the best person you can possibly be.

I’m not saying you’ll be a Michelangelo working 15 minutes a day, but I ask you, do you think you’re as good as you can be? We’re all the product of the tiny choices we’ve made, and as long as you’re alive it’s not too late to start making different choices.

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Difficulties are real, excuses are not

Image

The title of this post was inspired by the tagline for the upcoming Will Smith movie, After Earth. In the trailer his character says “Fear is not real. It is a product of thoughts you create. Do not misunderstand me. Danger is very real. But fear is a choice.” 

Now, when I heard that in the theater the philosopher in me went crazy. Sure, fear is a product of the mind and not real in the way that a pizza might be real, but if fear isn’t real then neither is love, hate, happiness, pain, etc. The list goes on and on.

 

But then I decided to look at it in a slightly less literal manner. The point he seems to be making is that there is a difference between the things we have no control of, in this case the dangers the character faces, and the things that we can control, our fear. Humans have a habit of mixing these things up, just look at the industries that have been built on our desire for easy, instant fixes. Wouldn’t it be so much easier to take a pill and watch the weight drop off than actually being forced to watch what we eat and start exercising? We treat the laws of nature like the thing we need to be changing when the real answer is that we need to be changing our habits and thought patterns.

I think one crucial area this manifests itself in is how we deal with difficulties in our life. I don’t think anyone in this world was born into a perfect life, we all have to deal with the bum cards we’ve been dealt. My heart goes out to people who deal with racism, sexism, religious discrimination, homophobia, the list could go on and on. Too often people who aren’t in a similar situation don’t realize these things can actually be problematic. That’s understandable, most of us view the world through a fairly narrow lens, focused mainly on our self  What is really problematic is that we tend to try and argue away the problems of others to avoid guilt or try to motivate. I’ve heard white people say “racism is over” because Obama was elected president. Sure, things are better, but far from perfect. We can’t just will away the problems of this world, my firm belief is that if we want to make the world a better place we need to acknowledge the truth, even when it isn’t something we’d like to face.

With that said, some people take the difficulties of this world as an excuse to resign themselves to whatever they end up with. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I know that I’ve fallen back on this far too often with my struggle with depression. I use my pain as an excuse to wallow rather than try and better my situation.

Note, I’m not trying to be judgmental here. Like I said, the difficulties you face are real. I know well that there are people who aren’t in your situation who will say that this is all in your head and that you just need to snap out of it. This approach may work for some people, but for most of us I think it’s hard to ignore the brute forces of reality. I’ve tried to pretend to be happy, and it works for a while, but eventually I feel like I’m living a lie and experience a crash. The trick is aknowleging reality while doing what we can to make things better.

The perfect example is to look at people who have lost their legs, yet have taught themselves to walk and even run marathons without legs. Sure, they could have used their lack of limbs as an excuse to stay still for the rest of their life and no one would judge them. The problem is, this would for the most part just be pity. That’s what you’ll get if you cling to your excuses, if they’re good then most humane people will not say you’re a bad person but the only thing you’ll get from them is pity. I’ve spent too much of my life looking for pity, and I’ve gotten plenty of it, but laying awake at night knowing you have the pity of a bunch of people isn’t much of a motivator.

If you don’t want pity you have to leave the shallow waters of your excuses and venture out into the seas of risk. Like I said, I won’t blame you if you stay where you are because your situation is holding you down, but I’ll only really look up to you if you tell the world that you’re not going to take what you’ve been given, that you’re going to do what you can with what you’ve been given.

People have a bad habit of comparing themselves to the most successful people they know. The problem is that no one is successful in a vacuum, Malcolm Gladwell’s great book Outliers makes it clear that success, especially at the highest level, has as much to do with the situation as the work put in. We forget that a lot of people who are successful right now were at the right place at the right time to some extent. This isn’t to discourage you, just to try and put things into perspective. I have more respect for the immigrant who started out almost penniless halfway across the world and worked his ass off to get to America and work in a gas station for just over minimum wage than I do for the trust fund kid who lucked into owning the whole station chain. Even if they both put in the same ammount of effort my respect is still with the man or woman who had to overcome the most to get where they are, wherever that is.

You may never be at the top of the world, there is real discrimination out there, but you can be some place better than you are now. The difficulties you face are the truth, but the excuses don’t need to define you. In the end who you are is up to you.

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