A few weeks ago someone commented on my new post, saying
they had just stumbled across my blog, and that it was “very old school.”
I took that as a compliment, and got to reminiscing about what old school blogging really felt like, compared to today. Something’s definitely gone missing—some quality that made it vivid and exciting, and I want it back.
When I started in 2009, and for years afterward, I just wrote stuff, having absolutely no idea if anyone would relate. I wrote as well as I could, but there was a wonderful off-the-cuff feel to the process. If it was interesting to me, it might be to someone else. So I would write something about it. The incomparable joy of campfires. The rich history of a particular dent in my car.
I just let the ideas fly. People did relate, usually, although—importantly, I think—sometimes they didn’t. That was okay, and expected. I was just saying things.
Amidst all this vigorous saying of things, strangers
appeared in the comments. You! You appeared, and you said things too, which made
it a conversation. We talked about parking lots. Music. Meditation. Friendships.
Kettlebells. The obscure details of being human.
The whole arrangement seemed so straightforward. We bloggers simply shared what we thought was interesting or helpful, and whoever agreed would congregate around, and we’d have a good talk about it, or maybe just think about it at work that day. The blog was just a microphone, and the internet only an aid to sharing our thoughts, like we had always done, in cars, in pubs, in school.
Somewhere along the line, at least for me, something got in
the way of that straightforward sharing. If you’re a regular reader you’ve
probably noticed I don’t post as often anymore.
Trepidation eventually sunk in around my writing and posting, especially when I started having mega-hits with hundreds of thousands of views. I felt pressure to follow up a hit with something just as good, so newcomers wouldn’t leave right away. It started feeling increasingly risky, even dangerous, to simply post my thoughts as I once had.
Writing time per post ballooned. For a few years I did little but try to write something profound every week. It had to be a life-changing bombshell or nothing. I stopped writing about niche topics that not everyone was into, even if they really mattered to me. I tried to please everyone, rather than just share what was in my heart that day.
Much of this complexity arose from my own neuroses and unchecked habits. But the internet itself has also changed. As one astute tweet put it, “1999: there are thousands of websites, all hyperlinked together. 2019: there are four websites, each filled with screenshots of the other three.”
I got caught up in the unimaginative tenets of the Age of
Content. It’s got to land. It’s got to pull in eyeballs. It’s got to be
shareable. Nothing too long, nothing too short. Nothing avant-garde. Facebook’s
share count will tell you how well you did.
My process filled with doubt and overthinking, and that really suffocated any sense that I was free to share whatever moved me. Yet the site is still the same thing it ever was, mechanically at least. It’s still just a web log where I can broadcast my thoughts.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I love you, and I love how we used to just talk. I’m going to approach blogging in the free-form way I used to. That means I’m going to be saying things more often, with fewer words, and with much less hand-wringing over those words.
I’m going to try new things, and some old ones. There may be some awkwardness. Like in a real conversation.
You’ve always upheld your end of it though. I can’t believe
that I can post something, on an old school WordPress blog, in 2019, and
dozens of people will comment on it. Thank you for keeping it old school.
By the way, I love it when you comment. Even if you seldom or never do, I’d love it if you’d click through and just say hi to everyone today.
Long live the blog. Long live straightforwardly sharing what’s in our hearts.
Camp Calm is back for summer.
Learn to meditate, make some friends, roast some
A group of fellow campers is hitting the trail on August 1,
but you can start any time.
For whatever reason, whenever I resolve to get good at
something, I habitually take a “boot camp” sort of approach. I draw up a
challenging regimen, to be followed by hell or high water—for 30 days or so.
The regimen is always way too much to sustain forever, and I
know that. The hope is that an intense period of focused striving will catapult
me to new, higher realms of prowess and confidence, so that when I return to
baseline, that baseline will be higher.
It works, sort of, sometimes. You can look at my experiment logs to get a sense of the mixed outcomes. Some have been abject failures, almost comically so. Write at least a thousand words a day! (Result: “Outright failure.”) Read a book a week for a year! (Result: “Catastrophe.”)
And those are only the immediate outcomes. Longer term, the
results are probably weaker. On many occasions, I soared through the boot camp
period, declared myself permanently improved, and then quietly slid back to the
baseline, which apparently had not moved.
For a long time I assumed that this pattern was due purely to my own personal bumbling, and not a problem with the method. After all, a boot camp style approach can be found for anything you want to get good at. There are programs that identify as “boot camps” for novel writing, personal budgeting, dating, poker, building a YouTube channel, reading the Russian masters, and of course hundreds of fitness programs.
These programs vary a lot in how they actually instruct. But I think the essential boot camp promise, the thing you think of when you see the words—strive hard, for a time, and end up lastingly better—is mostly a mirage.
The boot camp principle, inspired by military basic training
programs, makes sense. Run new recruits through unrelenting challenges they are
completely unprepared for, day after day, for a handful of weeks, and they come
out strong and resilient.
However, real military boot camps come with two additional
factors that make them work: once you sign up, you can’t slack or quit without
severe consequences. There’s no way forward but to suffer and adapt. Afterward,
you’re kept from backsliding by peer pressure and institutional standards, for
a few years. So they work really well.
A much less sexy approach to getting better at something is a “gentle ramping” sort of approach. You get yourself on a regimen where you do a little of the thing in question—writing, running, meditating, whatever—then a little more, and so on, always pushing the performance level slightly, without ever clobbering yourself with challenge. You gradually increase your mileage, reps, widgets, or some other metric, so that today’s target is usually just beyond what’s easy for you.
Rather than going for the maximum challenge you can handle (for
a mercifully short time) you’re looking for that “just challenging enough to
improve” window. And once you find it, you live in it.
I am, after fifteen or twenty serious campaigns to do so,
finally approaching a condition I would call “physically fit” for the first
time in my life, and I think it’s because I’m taking the gentle ramp this time.
I run three times a week and lift weights three times a
week, following a gently ramping program for each. My workouts aren’t very
One thing I had to get used to was not going all-out in my training. On most days, I was clearly doing less than I could have. I would do my scheduled sets or miles and call it a day, even though I could have done more. I wasn’t “leaving it all out there” or “giving every ounce” very often.
And precisely for that reason, I haven’t had trouble
sticking to it. There are extra-challenging days, but because they aren’t the
norm, I can always be ready to meet them. Excited even. The improvement has
been very consistent. There’s no more bargaining, no dread, and no compromise. I
can live here.
That is exactly the gentle ramp’s strength: you can live on it. You’re not trying to just get through it.
The gentle ramp demands things of you that the boot camp doesn’t. Staying on it requires you to develop certain aspects of character. You have to accept, for example, that when you’re on a sustainable trajectory, improvement takes time, and that time can’t be compressed with a blast of effort. You start to give up on notions like making up missed sessions on the weekend. The gentle ramp’s great lesson is that nothing really works but consistency over time, and that there’s no replacement for either.
In other words, the gentle ramp allows for that fabled
“lifestyle change” to actually happen. Your identity has time to catch up with
your aspirations. The effort required to advance along a gentle ramp is doable
for a regular person with other commitments and limited willpower, which
describes pretty much everyone. (When you get into advanced territory, you may need advanced
strategies, but by that time you’re far past where the toughest boot camp could
have taken you.)
The boot camp idea is certainly superior in one way: its marketability. It’s an ideal selling proposition—you’ll pay a lot now, yes, but reap great benefits ever after. Just get to the end of a short, painful “cost” phase and then enjoy your improved self. Temporary sacrifice, enduring benefit. It’s the same angle used to sell us luxury vehicles and granite countertops.
I know I’m being a bit hard on the boot camp notion. It does
have its place. But I think that place is mostly to get you onto some sort of gentle
ramp. Some place you can actually live, and enjoy.
If you time-traveled to the 1960s, or even the 1980s, and tried to describe smartphones to the people you met, they wouldn’t believe you.
It would simply seem too good to be true—an affordable, pocket-sized
device that provides:
instant telegrams or phone calls, from anywhere to anywhere, usually free
maps of virtually every city or rural area, even showing current traffic conditions
up-to-the-minute news about anything in the world
step-by-step instructions for doing virtually anything
quick translations between dozens of languages
endless articles, courses, movies and TV shows
a camera that takes stills and video, and can transmit them to anyone instantly
the means for anyone to create their own regular column or newsletter, or audio or video broadcasts
the ability to adopt new functions at any time, usually for free
These are just a few basic smartphone functions, but to your new friends, they would all sound like life-changing superpowers. Their imaginations would run wild at how much easier such powers could make their lives.
They might assume that due to these devices alone, people of the 21st century will be achieving their most important goals at multiplied speed. It would be hard for them to believe that even one of those superpowers—the ability to find decent instructions for virtually any task, for example—wouldn’t make a person vastly more capable and fulfilled. Imagine what would they pay for those powers.
They certainly wouldn’t guess that a growing number of 21st century people find these devices barely worth the trouble, and frequently consider getting rid of them.
Yet here we are. If you Google “getting rid of your smartphone,”
you’ll find countless personal stories, especially from the last three years, mostly
with few regrets.
The smartphone should be, and perhaps still could be, the most personally empowering device ever invented, yet many people are now trying to reduce or eliminate their role in their lives.
I’m one of those people, and I still wonder: why is it such a close tradeoff? Why do these superpowers outweigh the downsides by such a small margin that anyone would consider giving them up? The downsides must be pretty bad.
Our phones are in many ways empowering. They can help us do more of what makes us happier and more capable. They can (theoretically) save us a lot of time and trouble, making more space for family, friendship, creative work, study, or whatever else we find truly fulfilling.
They are also disempowering. For most of us, they easily soak up far more time than they save, capturing our attention dozens of times daily, and directing it to gratifying but mostly forgettable activities, usually infused with advertising. They get us repeatedly doing things we didn’t know we needed to do, such as perusing dozens of our acquaintances’ random photos several times a day.
It’s hard to separate the empowering functions from the disempowering ones. For me, Instagram (for example) seems pleasurable enough and relatively harmless. I can scroll through the new posts in a minute or so. This still makes me smile once or twice a day, and helps me feel a little more in touch with certain people. But I scroll through my feed not once or twice a day, but five or ten times, and more out of a lab-mouse-like pleasure-seeking habit than a conscious desire to connect.
And each of these seemingly harmless sessions may lead to an indefinite period of further low-level pleasure-seeking—flipping through screens for similar apps I haven’t checked in a while.
Even when I unlock my phone for a decidedly empowering use—looking up a fact, entering something in my calendar—it’s unlikely I won’t also tap on Instagram, and maybe Pocket, Yahoo Sports, or whatever other icons pull the eye in that moment.
It’s this reflexiveness, this hyper-conditioned way I’ve come to use the device, that concerns me most. I’ve spent most of my adult life, including ten years writing on this blog, learning to be more conscious, more present, more intentional, and less reactive, which has all been very empowering.
But my phone, at least the way I currently use it, works against all that. It’s so strangely resistant to conscious, intentional use.
Why is this thing so compelling?
It’s not because of its unprecedented usefulness. It’s because of its unprecedented salience. The smartphone is utterly magnetic to the mind and hands. It might be the most compelling object ever created (at least outside of a Tolkien story) and not because of its value as a tool, but because of its value as a toy.
I’m all for “play,” as a concept and a virtue. But I don’t think I want playthings mixed in hopelessly with my tools. If I’m going to play, I’d rather do it with some paper and drawing pencils, or a Frisbee and some friends in the park, than repeat the same engineered swipe-and-reward patterns another hundred thousand times.
We don’t play with tape measures, envelopes, maps, dictionaries, or calculators. We don’t go to staple something and end up watching a movie review.
We don’t play with our keys or debit cards when we’re waiting for the bus—but we do play with our telephones, because they are now 90% toy.
Our phones remain as powerful as ever, but every utilitarian function they have is compromised by the presence of these weirdly magnetic recreational functions. I can appreciate a slick, portable multi-tool, but I no longer want to carry in my pocket the most compelling toy ever created.
Separating Tool From Toy
Here’s my plan. I’m going to see if I can make my phone into the empowering digital supertool it would sound like to a 20th-century person.
I want it to be as useful, and as boring, as I can make it. I want it to be attractive for intentional, practical uses, but not for a reflexive diversions—a Swiss Army knife, not a carnival, in my pocket.
This is my latest lifestyle experiment. I will make my phone as utilitarian as possible, for 30 days, and see what I learn.
Aside from freeing up some hitherto poorly invested time and attention, and beginning to de-condition some of my information-age habits, I’m interested to see how hard this actually is.
Is it even possible to separate tool from toy? In the “attention economy,” app makers have every reason to mix addictiveness in with the usefulness—is some degree of mind-control always going to come with these digital superpowers?
Or perhaps I am personally too far gone to train myself out of reflexively cycling through my apps for sporadic lab-mouse treats. Seven years of daily conditioning will be hard to uproot in a month.
There will surely be moments of frustration, neediness, and FOMO. I expect to not know what to do with myself in certain situations, and that’s probably good. I’ll interpret these moments as simply what it feels like to re-adjust to living without a pocket supertoy (which is how I lived most of my life).
This experiment begins today. I’ll report my discoveries periodically in the experiment log, along with more details of how I’m actually doing this. As usual, you’re welcome to join me, and report your discoveries in the comments too.
The more unexpected difficulties this experiment entails, the more worthwhile it probably is to do. We don’t know how deep the hooks go until we try to pull away.
last-ditch effort to enjoy my social media experience again, I unfollowed 90%
of my Twitter feed—and I think it worked.
When I check
in now, in just a few minutes I catch up on everything said by the ninety or so
people I follow. I have time to consider what they say. I don’t leave upset.
It’s similar to how Twitter felt when I joined. In 2009, it really seemed to connect you to the pulse of the online world. That sounds like satire now but it really felt like that. The original concept was very modest—a tweet was only supposed to be the answer to the question “What are you doing?”
The banality of it was part of the fun. Ah, you’re working on a fantasy novel at Starbucks. Neat. I just read a blog post about stain removal methods, which you might enjoy. Here it is.
It was a novel way for often-online people (which was not yet most people) to check in on each other throughout the day. You could get little glimpses of many lives happening alongside yours. You could choose which lives to keep open windows on, and each person could choose what to display in their window.
It was mostly a pleasant and interesting—if not exactly focused—experience. Different people, living different but relatable lives, updating each other on their little corner of time and space. I imagined these tiny messages being delivered by little blue birds landing on windowsills.
The whole thing felt harmless and cute. Nobody was trying to get people fired, or break the internet, or explain campus political correctness in a thirty-tweet diatribe.
People in important positions, such as CEOs and presidents, did not tweet. The idea of a president tweeting, no matter who it was, would embarrass everyone. When they tried, it felt something like your grandpa showing up to a house party with sunglasses and a skateboard, assuming he would blend in.
Today, the signup page at Twitter doesn’t say “What are you doing right now?” as it did in 2009. It says, “See what’s happening in the world right now,” implying that your Twitter stream, in all its chaos and reactivity, somehow represents the world’s current state.
In reality, what we see in our Twitter streams can’t be “what’s happening in the world,” because each of us is seeing something different.
If you only follow news organizations, the world is violent and on the verge of collapse. If you only follow activists, the world is hateful and unjust. If you only follow The Onion, the world is a joke. If you only follow your grandmother, the world is kind and sweet.
Of course, if
like most people you follow hundreds or thousands of accounts, no matter which
accounts those are, the world is insane.
Luckily we can still dispel the illusion. If you’re a user of Twitter, and you find yourself perturbed by what seems to be an increasingly insane world, a drastic purge can restore a sense of sanity and connection.
How to make Twitter (and seemingly the world) sane again
Here’s what I did anyway. I unfollowed everybody except accounts who produce tweets I almost always want to see.
This is not
the same as following people and businesses you like. That was a big discovery for me: simply liking someone or
something isn’t a good reason to follow them on Twitter.
I like the author
and psychologist Jonathan Haidt. I don’t want to think about moral psychology
or campus political correctness every time I do my social media rounds.
I like a
local food truck called Red Ember. I do not need to think “Should I go get a
pizza?” several times a day.
I know and love many personal finance bloggers. I’m not interested in thinking about my finances every time I go online.
start going by whose tweets you like reading, as opposed to who you like for
other reasons, you will probably end up following way fewer people.
I know in real life (who aren’t in the habit of tweeting about horrible news
events they don’t plan to do anything about)
events in my city
shops and businesses I would like to visit more
kinds of humor
kinds of discussion about certain topics
This kind of curation is definitely not what Twitter wants you to do, so you’ll have to turn to a third party app to efficiently cull your feed. I used Tokimeiki Unfollow, which cleverly allows you to Marie-Kondo-ize your feed, asking yourself if each account still “sparks joy.”
You’ll know what you feel about a given account when you see its name and avatar. You’ll feel a lot of aversion and indifference, and small moments of joy. When in doubt, unfollow. I was ruthless and regret nothing. It took ten minutes.
Of course, in 2019, unfollowing is a political act, and some people will assume that because you unfollowed them you no longer like them. We can probably just let those little misunderstandings happen, see which relationships survive, and assume they are the important ones.
In fact, if
you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance I have unfollowed you. If you feel
offended, it may be an appropriate moment to re-evaluate your online life. And
I don’t mean that flippantly. I am doing this re-evaluation now, and this is
part of that.
Following a person, after all, isn’t exactly a major expression of interest in what they have to say. In fact it’s the smallest gesture of interest possible, essentially bookmarking a person for later, in case we want to engage with their real work or real self someday.
what we think of each other, maybe it isn’t at all important that I follow you,
or that you follow me. We are both elsewhere, in more complete forms. Let’s
find each other there.
I can’t believe this, but I did double-check the math: Raptitude first appeared on the internet ten years ago today.
That day it had one reader: my mom. But soon there was a little gang of eight or nine regulars. Then there were enough to fill a schoolbus. Then a plane, a concert hall, an arena, and a stadium.
There’s so much I want to say about this last decade—reflections, lessons learned, plans for the future—but I’ll do all that later. Today I just want to take a little tour of where we’ve been together.
Here are the biggest articles from each of Raptitude’s first ten years, in terms of reach and popularity. One of them is probably the first one you ever read.
The other thing I want to say is that I love you all very much. Whether you’re new to this site, or you’ve been here since the schoolbus days—connecting with you about the ups and downs of being human has been one of the greatest joys of my life.
A post about all the ways we tend to fall into our lifestyles rather than choose them, even when we have options. I don’t know quite what it was about this one that resonated so much – it’s probably something different for everyone.
I still love this one and its lighthearted, empowering profanity. Many people confuse me with Mark Manson because of his similarly-titled (and very good) article and subsequent bestseller. The only Raptitude post that includes a flowchart.
The direct results of my encounter with Marie Kondo’s first book, which was huge at the time but not as big as her recent Netflix show. I think it does a good job at showing the good, bad and ugly aspects of the “spark joy” method.
The post that sparked a thousand depth years. There is something about this idea that people were extremely ready for. So much of Raptitude is about the haphazard way our lifestyles come to be what they are, and this one hit on something close to many hearts.
People are also extremely ready to push back against another great mind-stealer of our time: the smartphone. This is my account of the surreal, time-travel-like experience created by a simple ban on phone use at a concert.
At the height of Summer, I try to go for a short run after
I’ve done some writing but before it gets too hot, which is usually about 11am.
The most uncomfortable part of the run comes at its very end, just after I step inside my front door, into the small, poorly ventilated foyer between the door and the stairs to my second-floor unit. Nothing happens in that space except the putting on and taking off of shoes.
As soon as I step into this hot, stagnant space, the
intensity of the whole run seems to congeal in my body, kicking on all the
recovery systems. The heart is still thumping, breathing still heavy, and the
sweat glands open up like faucets.
It’s gross and unpleasant. At that moment, there’s nothing I want more than to kick off my shoes, strip off my running clothes, and go sit in front of a fan with a glass of ice water. (I’m a reluctant athlete, descended from cold-climate people.)
The sheer force of impatience that arises in this twenty-second window is profound. But I respect my fancy runners too much to kick them off, so I make myself patiently bend down to untie and remove them.
It took a few tries to truly do this patiently—as in, to perform the task of removing my shoes without resentment
or scrambling. But as soon as I did, I
noticed it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it had been when I rushed through it.
There was still discomfort, but no awfulness
Because this experience was so predictable, it became a kind
of “patience ritual” I performed after every run. I could be ready, the moment
I came up my steps, to allow this sweaty scenario to unfold without resentment.
Perhaps most importantly, my patience ritual made the whole idea of summertime running a less daunting proposition, because the most intensely uncomfortable part stopped being dreadful.
I’ve come to call this small-scale, intentional non-hurrying
micropatience. The idea is that we
can be patient for just about anything if we know it’s only for a short amount
of time, and often that’s all that’s needed.
It’s a straightforward matter of intending to let those most
intense seconds simply happen—without succumbing to resentment or desperation—knowing
that there won’t be many of those seconds.
When you dissect any unpleasant task into its component pieces, you might be surprised to find that most of those pieces are trivially easy. Often there’s just one truly unpleasant bit, and it doesn’t tend to last very long.
If you know that bit is coming, and you do your best to not to hurry or resent just that part, you’ll probably find that you do have sufficient patience to get through the whole thing calmly. Or at least you can develop it in just a few tries. Then the task is no longer dreadful.
Historically, I‘ve felt a pang of aversion whenever it’s
time to take out the recycling. But what, exactly, am I dreading?
Picking up the blue box is easy. Taking it down the stairs
is easy. Putting on my shoes is easy. Going outside is easy (often enjoyable,
in fact). Walking around the house is easy.
It’s only the moment when I’m trying to simultaneously hold open the big bin and tip the blue box into it that is so annoying, and that little spike of annoyance has come to characterize the whole task in my thoughts.
Since I started applying micropatience to just that moment—letting myself perform, without resentment, the minor contortion that’s necessary to tip the cans into the bin—there is really nothing objectionable about the whole job.
Why micropatience? Why not regular patience? Well, as far as I can tell, patience can only be applied directly to the present moment, which is not very big. What else is there to be patient with, except an immediate, challenging experience happening right in this moment?
To be patient over days, or longer—waiting to hear back about a job application, say—really only entails being patient with those little moments when the discomfort around it spikes into prominence. Aside from those moments, we’re not really “being patient” in any discernible way; our minds are simply on something else.
A patient person is simply someone who’s in the habit of applying patience to these moments, which is to say they refrain from trying to be already past them while they’re happening.
So all patience is ultimately micropatience. If we learn to apply patience to the inevitable momentary discomforts peppered throughout each day, and we learn to do that habitually, we become a relatively patient person.
The “micro-“ prefix really just points to the doability of patience. It’s not some lofty quality we either have or lack. It’s an intention we can apply to singular moments—and this is especially doable with routine discomforts we know are momentary.
It’s just a matter of refraining from resenting reality for a short time. A little bit of mindfulness; an intentional staying-with, instead of a habitual pushing-away. Twenty seconds of this conscious non-resentment is enough bridge our usual reactions to spiteful loading screens, bubbly podcast adverts, awkward bin-dumpings, sweaty shoe-untyings, and many other everyday things that periodically drive us nuts. (Your peeves may differ.)
Patience, as a lofty moral quality possessed by some, is a myth as far as I’m concerned. We’ve been told our whole lives to “be patient,” but not what to actually do with our natural impatience.
As children, we were told to be patient during long car rides, or when we wanted to leave the dinner table early to go play. Of course, those commands didn’t actually confer upon us any capacity to be patient.
Quite the opposite, really. They were really just commands to stop complaining. All we could do was continue to suffer, quietly, from that persistent urge to somehow not be in that moment.
As grownups, we aren’t so stuck with that fate. We can understand
that uncomfortable, unskippable moments are necessary in life. We can’t always
be somewhere else. In fact, we never can.
So it’s always worth practicing as much non-resentment as we can muster in those moments, especially with the predictable ones. Twenty seconds of it, applied where we know it’s needed, can spare us a remarkable amount of pain.
The above post was adapted from one of bonus lessons in Camp Calm, a Summer-camp-themed online course I designed to teach the basics of mindfulness and meditation.
In his one of his many excellent columns, Oliver Burkeman offers a counter-intuitive strategy for those who have trouble sleeping: tell yourself it’s not a big deal. You’ll fall asleep when you fall asleep.
The point is that telling ourselves we must get to sleep right away—and that grave problems will arise if
we don’t—is probably the number one reason we can’t sleep. That doesn’t mean
sleep isn’t important, or that sleep problems are never serious, only that the
more vehemently we insist we must already be sleeping, the less sleep we will
This strategy acknowledges a subtle but important reality about the problem: we can’t directly control when we fall asleep. We really want that control, however, and we can make the problem much worse by grasping too stridently at it. And whether we do that is something we can control.
With practice, anyway.
We can make use of a similarly counter-intuitive approach for becoming generally calmer people in waking life.
We all want to be more calm. We want to spend more time
feeling peace and ease, and less time feeling anger or agitation. Naturally, we
try to experience more of the thing we like, and less of what we don’t like.
So, when calm is present, we try to keep it around, and when emotions like anger and agitation appear, we reflexively try to get rid of them. We try to fight them and push them away.
This pushing-away impulse is another instance of nature’s crude approach-avoid programming leading us astray. As you know by now if you read this blog, many of our reflexive responses to pain and adversity are tuned for survival rather than happiness, and lawless savannahs rather than modern life. By trying to steamroll our tough emotions rather than let them naturally arise and dissipate, we’re actually ensuring that they cause us more distress and stick around longer.
This habitual pushing-away tends to take the form of rumination. We try to neutralize the uncomfortable emotion with a firehose-blast of reactive thinking—mentally reliving the inciting event, rehearsing indignant speeches we’d like to make to certain parties, or otherwise trying to argue our way back to peace and calm.
But this habit only fuels the fire. Just like a
self-flagellating insomniac, we’re trying to assume a kind of direct control over
our experience that simply isn’t available, and that makes us feel even more
out of control. The emotion snowballs. The mental scenarios proliferate.
There’s a counterintuitive approach that works much better, as taught by some therapists, and every single meditation teacher:
When you feel an unpleasant emotion, like anger or agitation, instead of trying to get rid of it, try becoming aware of it.
But aren’t we already aware of it? I wouldn’t be upset if I
was unaware of my anger, right?
Well, no. When something sets us off, we might become briefly aware of the anger, for a second or so. But anger is unpleasant, and we don’t want to experience it. So our attention rebounds off it like a bullet into our thoughts, where we feel we have some control over what’s happening.
Once we’re preoccupied by the situation around the emotion, we’re no longer directly aware of the emotion. In an effort to immediately resolve the trouble, we madly rehearse imagined confrontations, fantasize about the cavalry coming, or explain to ourselves—or perhaps to some unfortunate person nearby—why we shouldn’t have to experience this.
But what if, once we recognized that anger (or any other strong emotion) is present, we refrained from engaging with those fantasies and narratives, at least for a few minutes, and instead just observed the emotional experience itself, in as matter-of-fact a way as possible?
By “the emotional experience itself” I’m referring to the embodied, physical part: the actual pit-in-stomach feeling, the heat, the raised heartrate, the various clenching and contracting that tends to happen. Although we often conflate them, the rumination and argumentation around the emotion are not the emotion. They’re reactions to the emotion. But they can fuel the emotion indefinitely, sustaining and deepening it.
If you simply did your best to observe and allow* the emotional experience itself, returning to it each time you got caught up in the surrounding story, how long do you think that emotional intensity would last?
The answer is: the
least possible amount of time.
You’d think that refraining from fighting the emotion would
lead to it ballooning uncontrollably until it took us over. But the opposite
happens. The initial heat and noise is intense, but without the fuel source of
rumination and rehearsal, the peak comes—and goes—relatively quickly.
Rumination, on the other hand, does tend to billow out until it consumes our entire experience. The inner arguing and rehashing provide a limitless fuel supply for the fire.
Don’t take my word for it, but doing this practice can help a person recognize that most emotional sensations themselves aren’t nearly as painful, or as long-lived, as the struggle to avoid feeling them. Once you take up that struggle, then you’re caught in a form of the insomniac’s paradox: inadvertently keeping the emotion wide awake by insisting that it must “sleep” immediately.
At its heart this is a simple trick, arising from a simple insight. Knowing that you can’t force unpleasant emotions away, try being aware of them instead of fighting with them. That’s it. Try it and see how the outcomes differ.
This practice, if you take it seriously, will make you a calmer person over time, guaranteed. That doesn’t mean you’ll never experience anger, or shame, or sadness, or any fewer than every single one of the emotions that make us human. But you’ll get caught in them for hours or days much less often. Rumination will still happen, of course, but you can come to see it as reminder that there’s an alternative.
Like many simple tricks—shuffling cards, poaching an egg—you can learn this to an effective level just by trying it a few times, while mastery might remain a lifetime away. Years into my mindfulness practice I keep discovering new layers to my reactivity and emotional habit chains, and as time goes on I can observe increasingly intense emotions in this way. (Of course I still get overwhelmed sometimes.)
It’s not an instant magic bullet, of course, it’s just the most sensible thing to do. It can be learned, and there will be as many chances to practice as you could ever ask for.
*I feel the need to point out that accepting the presence of anger (or any other reactive emotion) is not the same as accepting the situation that triggered the emotion. You still may want to take some sort of sensible action, which invariably does not require anger, nor is anger any help in deciding what’s sensible. In fact, in my experience, most emotional reactions are simply reactions to the possibility that there is a problem. Only a minority of the time is there a real problem that requires intervention.
A New Thing I’m Doing
Hey Raptitude readers.
I’ve made something new.
As you know I’m a huge mindfulness geek. My goal is to make it at least as popular as physical exercise. And it should be – it’s at least as beneficial, it takes less time from your day, and it’s less work.
In 2019 almost everyone wants to learn it anyway, and there
are tons of ways to learn. But we’re a very distractible culture, and many
people tend to bounce off their first attempts at mindfulness. They get the
apps and the books, and try them for a while, but get derailed before they
really get going.
So, with the idea of knocking the barrier to entry waaaay down, as low as possible, I created a tiny mindfulness course for anyone who wants it .
It’s completely free, barely takes any time, and is meant to be easy and fun enough that people might actually do it.
It’s called 3-Minute Mindfulness. (3MM for short.) It comes through your email: five quick lessons in five days.
Your homework is literally one minute a day.
It will teach you:
What mindfulness actually is
Three ways you can practice it anytime, anywhere
Why you might want to do that
After the course ends, I’ll encourage you to develop your mindfulness further, either through Camp Calm (my 30-day meditation course) or by any other means that appeals to you, along with some tips and insights that have helped me.
(If you just want to do the mini-course and leave it at
that—no worries, and no hard feelings.)
It’s available to everyone: Raptitude readers, total strangers, beginners, veterans, Camp Calm alumni, friends, family, pets.
Sign up and it will come straight to your inbox. You don’t need to do anything else.
A friend told me a touching story about his high-school classmate—a
story that I now believe happens, in some form, to almost everybody. It
happened to me, and probably to you.
The classmate was known as a gifted athlete and a bad student,
and acknowledged it himself. He played wide receiver on the football team, but
he had a maddening habit of lining up on the wrong side, and cutting right when
he was supposed to cut left. The coach kept him on the team because he was fast
and played hard, and his route-running mistakes could be corrected.
But the mistakes continued, and the coach quickly surmised that something else was going on. He eventually had the student visit a psychologist, and it turned out he was inverting the pass patterns because he was dyslexic.
This explained his trouble in the classroom too. He wasn’t a
bad student, he just had no idea he was experiencing schoolwork so differently
than everyone else. Once he was assessed, he (and his teachers) could finally make
sure he had the extra time he needed to do his assignments.
You can find countless similar stories of kids who were told
for years that they weren’t paying attention or weren’t applying themselves, when
they actually just needed glasses and couldn’t read the blackboard. What a world-shifting
discovery that must be for each of those kids, as well as for their parents and
I now wonder if most of us are, in some respect, the kid who needs glasses but doesn’t know it. It’s a phenomenon common to so many life stories: struggling desperately with something because you’re unaware that you’re experiencing it differently than everyone around you.
When we struggle with something that most people don’t seem
to struggle with, we start to believe the inevitable messaging that pops up in
response: we’re dumb, lazy, or just not cut out for the activity in question. We
need to focus, or put in more effort. We try.
A lifestyle develops around the story—one that leaves a wide berth around the problem, so as not to constantly trigger the pain around it. Someone who struggled in school, for any of a thousand reasons, might forever avoid intellectual challenges in every form, from attending college to attending barroom trivia nights.
That’s why these unrecognized differences in our inner experience tend to stay unrecognized—because we tend to live in ways that avoid making our struggles obvious. We avoid the situations in which we feel like we don’t fit, which prevents us from ever learning what exactly is happening.
The root of this oversight is that nobody can assess ease and difficulty objectively. Each of us gets to know the world and its challenges through a unique, private inner experience, which nobody else can see, so nobody has a direct view of what’s easy or hard in the experience of others. We piece together what’s “normal”—as in the benchmark we tend to compare ourselves to—by observing how others, on the whole, seem to be doing at the same challenges.
But here’s the kicker: they’re not necessarily the same
challenges. Trying to understand a blackboard lesson with blurry vision is a
much greater demand on one’s faculties than doing it with 20/20 vision. Dating
when you have an anxiety condition is an order of magnitude more difficult than
doing it without one, even with all other factors equal.
When we aren’t aware of a drastic difference between how we
and others experience a given situation, all parties tend to attribute the difference
in outcome to either innate talent, or vague, morally-salient qualities like perseverance,
self-discipline, or getting one’s “priorities straight.” There’s even a billion
dollar self-help industry largely focused on shoring up those qualities, as
though deficits in them can explain all of our shortcomings.
I believe this oversight has a huge impact on how each of us
sees ourselves and our possibilities, and not just in cases of diagnosable
conditions like ADD, anxiety, or dyslexia. Something can be ten times harder simply
because we don’t have a vital bit of information that others have.
When I first started playing guitar, there was a brief,
frustrating time when I just could not understand how people made most chords sound
good. I could make G major sound good, and C sounded okay. But everything else
sounded muddy, and even other beginners were so much better. I knew I had the
The problem was an extremely simple (but crucial) oversight:
you have to push the strings down to the fretboard, not just put your fingers
on them in the right places. A paradigm-shifting moment, albeit a small one. Suddenly
everything was possible again.
However big or small the issue, we stop looking for real explanations once we begin to summarize our struggles as “I suck” (or when others likewise summarize them for us.) Unfortunately that’s often the first and most persistent message we get.
I don’t mean to suggest that there’s always some hidden misunderstanding, or undiagnosed condition, corresponding to every single thing we struggle with. Sometimes the difference is a haphazard matter of luck, confidence, experience or some combination. But when the struggle persists over years and decades, I would bet there’s a major, difference-making factor present that accounts for most of the difficulty—and once we see it, the world changes.
These through-the-looking-glass moments can completely alter
your sense of identity, of how worthy and likeable you feel. And they can
happen any time.
I’m 38, and just this year I began to understand the magnitude of my social anxiety issues, particularly how differently I’ve been experiencing things like concerts, parties, phone calls, gift exchanges, interactions with bus drivers and a thousand other ordinary situations. My whole life, these and other everyday normal-person things have seemed like tremendous challenges to navigate.
To make a life-long story extremely short, I now understand
the extraordinary difference-making factor behind so much of what has hard for
me: I was operating, at all times, with a particular obsessive thinking habit concerning
how other people were perceiving me.
Now that I see it, I can account for it, and life is
changing rapidly. Goals and interests that seemed off-limits now feel as
available to me as they always seemed for everyone else, for the first time in my
Living almost to middle age without understanding this inner difference created all kinds of secondary complications for me: severe procrastination; cynicism about success; a sense of alienation towards crowds, events, and people having fun; questionable drinking habits; writer’s block; an inability to ask for help, and many more balls and chains.
Now I’m experiencing the fascinating and disorienting process
of reassessing my relationship to virtually everything I do (or have avoided
doing). It’s a new world, one that makes much more sense.
I guess I’m sharing this to get two bottom-line points
Firstly, that two people’s experiences of the same challenge can differ wildly, and that there’s so much more at play than desire, effort, and perseverance. Yet most of the messages we get about success, in school, at work, and in popular culture, minimize everything else. When we account for the unseen complicating factors going on inside each of us, nobody can ever tell you how hard or easy something should be for you. They don’t have enough information.
Secondly, that when we do start to discover how we differ
from most of the people around us, walls can come down.
When it comes to our lifelong struggles, what’s missing almost
certainly isn’t effort, or determination, or chutzpah or any of that crap. More
likely, it’s understanding—both from others and from ourselves.
Towards the end of last year I proposed an idea that unexpectedly caught fire: what if, for a whole year, you stopped acquiring new things or taking on new pursuits. Instead, you return to abandoned projects, stalled hobbies, unread books and other neglected intentions, and go deeper with them than you ever have before.
The “Depth Year” was supposed to be hypothetical—a
reflection on how our consumer reflexes tend to spread our aspirations too thin.
Because it’s so easy to acquire new pursuits, we tend to begin what are
actually enormous, lifelong projects (such as drawing, or language-learning)
too often, and abandon them too easily.
This chronic lack of follow-through makes us feel bad, but
worse than that, we never actually reach the level of fulfillment we believed we
would when we first bought the guitar or the drawing pencils. Instead we end up
on a kind of novelty treadmill—before things click, we’ve moved on to the exciting
beginning stages of something new.
People immediately resonated with this dilemma, and its hypothetical remedy. The original article was read by a million people. I went on national radio to talk about it.
But what surprised me most was how many people told me they intended to actually do this Depth Year idea. One reader started a Facebook group for people to discuss their year’s progress, and there are over 900 people in it now.
I felt somewhat responsible for all this enthusiasm, so I did
it too. It’s now the end of that year, and I can honestly say my life has
changed. Going deeper rather than wider for a year was indeed transformative,
but not quite in the way I expected.
Depth is a Mindset
If you read people’s accounts of their own Depth Years, on
their blogs or in the discussion group, the first thing you notice is that everyone
has a different idea of what “depth” means. To some it’s simply a strict moratorium
on new books and new hobbies. To others it’s a more general pruning of waste, a
suspicion of the impulse to acquire, and a refocusing on what really matters.
So it’s not surprising that people reported a lot of
different outcomes. There were a few common themes, however:
People started making
art again. Long-inactive writers, painters, makers and doers of all kinds
got their supplies out and actually made stuff again. Later on in my year I
started drawing again—after a 25-year hiatus. (There is definitely a curious link
between depth and creativity, but I’ll get to that.)
People reinvested in
their friendships and relationships. “Meeting new people” is something we
tend to try when we’re feeling isolated or stagnant. But there are already
great people in our rolodexes, and it’s easy to take them for granted.
People noticed how
much they already have. With depth as a guiding principle, we naturally
start to look for value in what’s already available to us—in our closets,
bookshelves, and address books—and invariably we start to appreciate how much was
That last one probably captures the central insight behind
the Depth Year experience: there are vast reserves of untapped value in what we
already have. We just need to cultivate it.
The unread stories on your bookshelf alone could change your
life—if you read them. You could spend the next few decades enjoying ever-new breakthroughs
in a single hobby, such as drawing, writing, piano, or yoga—if you went deeper with
those pursuits rather than taking on new ones.
Cultivating that dormant value, however, requires us to stay
the course through certain dry and tricky parts where we once stopped and did something
else. It is at those moments, those forks in the road between breaking new
ground falling back on convenience and predictability, when we can choose
My Depth Year
I didn’t follow the original premise of the Depth Year,
which is “no new hobbies, no new possessions.” Instead I simply tried to keep
depth at the front of my mind when I made decisions.
To my surprise, my habits began to shift quite naturally. Depth
wasn’t so much a game of persistently striving to top myself, it was more like a
new lens for looking at the tools and opportunities that had always been there.
Essentially, I saw more possibilities everywhere: in my pantry, in my wardrobe,
in my bookshelf, in my plans, in the different ways I might spend a spare hour.
Enjoying ordinary things seemed to take less effort. Without
anything resembling striving, I derived more satisfaction from meals, furniture,
cups of tea, walks to the store, hellos and goodbyes with friends, even odd details
like illustrations in books and the shape my own handwriting.
In hindsight I attribute this effect to a deceptively simple
shift in where I was expecting to find fulfillment: here, rather than there. As
I got reacquainted with the things and people already around me, I started to
let go of a certain background belief—pervasive in our consumption-driven
culture—that fulfillment is something whose ingredients still need to be
These changes were all positive and welcome. The real value
of my Depth Year, however, didn’t come from this new level of gratitude, or the
rewards of taking certain pursuits a little deeper. Something much more significant
Without going into the details, I’ll just say that this year,
several lifelong personal issues began untangle themselves in a way I didn’t think
was possible. I feel more free and more confident than I have since… jeez… childhood?
A number of factors contributed to this rapid untangling,
and the subsequent flood of epiphanies. It couldn’t have happened without the
Depth Year lens, though, because of a particular demand the pursuit of depth
makes on us: we can’t go deeper in a given area without coming to terms with why we were never able to before.
In other words, we end up having to figure out what’s really
stopping us. Why do we tend to back off at a certain depth? I assumed it was simply
because it’s always easier to spread out and enjoy the rapid progress at the
beginning of something else, than it is to tough it out with irregular French
verbs or tricky guitar chords.
Presumably, it is sometimes only that. But I think more
often we stop digging because we find something extremely painful about working
past a certain point, and we don’t want to sort it out. We don’t want to run
into our limits, we don’t want to feel dumb, we don’t want to get rejected. We
don’t want to put our hearts on the line if we don’t have to, and all the important
things involve our hearts.
Relationships, for example, can only go so deep when you’re
afraid to risk rejection, say what you really think, or reach out to people who
might respond badly, or not at all.
Creativity is easy to turn away from for the same reason. It’s risky. Trying to draw something for the first time in a decade is terrifying. Showing people your work is even scarier.
So we live in great danger of inadvertently keeping our most cherished pursuits, the ones that promise the most fulfillment, buried down there in the realm of “potential,” where they’re safe from the real world and its limitations. In the meantime, we find other things to do—things that offer less meaning, but more assured outcomes—and we just get older.
Going deeper means finally seeing what’s really going to
come of it. And that’s damn scary. Existentially scary. It is our one life,
This is all pretty new to me. But I can tell you two things:
as a rule, fulfillment awaits us downward from here, not outward; and from now
on, every year will be a Depth Year.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m a guest at a holiday get-together, once dinner is over and we begin to appreciate the scale of the impending cleanup, I’m always relieved to be given a clear job to do: collect all the wine glasses, wipe down the table, corral the recyclables.
Even scrubbing a stubborn roasting pan is a welcome assignment, at least partly because it relieves you from the alternative, which is to sit there feeling unhelpful while your host does everything. But even aside from that, there’s a certain pleasure to be found in the doing of a task, if you’re not determined to hate it.
Yet in other contexts, similarly basic tasks can seem annoying and unpleasant. Sometimes, out of protest, I leave a stack of stray books on the bottom stair for three days, or a basket of laundered socks unfolded until my sock drawer runs low.
Why not take the same pleasure in those little jobs? It’s all context I suppose—if life’s menial tasks could somehow all be part of a dinner party cleanup effort, every day would be a chain of small pleasures.
The habit of taking even mild pleasure in such tasks would be life-changing, because most of what we do during a typical day isn’t done for enjoyment’s sake: laundry, exercise, office work, dishes, dusting. We do these things because they make life better in some less immediate sense; they’re rewarding, but not necessarily as you do them.
How we spend our days is how we spend our lives, as the adage goes, and that means the majority of our lives are spent doing not-especially-enjoyable maintenance work (cleaning, earning, fixing, organizing) in order to support the especially-enjoyable stuff (leisure time, meals, get-togethers, creative endeavors and personal projects) we do with the remaining minority of our time.
We all want to enjoy life, and not just a fraction of it. But if you Google “How to enjoy life,” most of the images you’ll see are symbols of those exceptional, peak-enjoyment activities: hammocks, beaches, candlelit dinners, and scenic hikes.
Clearly the vision we have of enjoying life has nothing to do with the way we actually spend most of it: doing necessary but unremarkable things in front of desks, stoves, laundry baskets, sinks, and grocery store shelves. Sometimes this pile of necessary but unremarkable activities seems so great that there’s little time left for the enjoyment-and-relaxation type activities.
This is a false dichotomy though. Life’s enjoyment isn’t all locked up the things we want to do. There’s enjoyment available to us in almost all of the obligatory maintenance stuff too. It is possible to enjoy standing in line at the deli, sweeping the floor, turning the compost pile, sitting in traffic, and untangling Christmas lights—unless we see those parts of life simply as obstacles to the enjoyable parts, as we often do.
On some level we know that already. Even if it happens only occasionally, we all know what it’s like to enjoy unglamorous moments, such as the folding of a tea towel, the tying of a shoe, or the shining of a sink. But when we’re fixated on getting them over with, we tend to see our chores, obligations, and in-between moments as being devoid of enjoyability.
To the mind that’s looking for it, there is pleasure to be taken in the warmth of dishwater, the fresh air on a walk to the store, and the relaxing sensation of sitting in a chair, even if that chair is in the waiting room at the oil change place. We don’t do these things—or most things—for reasons of pleasure, but pleasure is available in most things.
There’s nothing tricky about finding this pleasure either, if the intention is there. A simple intention to enjoy the task or experience before you, no matter how dull it seems at first, is enough to illuminate its enjoyable qualities.
This hour you’re about to spend tidying the attic—what enjoyment can you find in it? Well, you might find that sliding the boxes into neat, right-angled stacks is satisfying. You might like the sensation of having cleared one side of the room so you can sweep the floor with ease. It may feel good just to use your muscles. Or it may just be a refreshingly quiet place to be working on something.
The enjoyable qualities in these tasks coexist with any difficulty or unpleasantness. Few of our obligatory tasks are purely difficult and unpleasant, but if we think of them that way, as we’re trained to by pop culture and many of the people around us, we’ll fixate on the crappy aspects and overlook the pleasure in it.
Quite often the tasks we regard as awful really only have one truly unpleasant part. Taking the garbage out, for example, only entails about five seconds I find objectionable: the moment at which I tie the bag shut, when my face is near the invisible stink-cloud that comes out. Everything else—carrying it to the door, putting on my boots, walking out to the back, depositing it in the bin, walking back—these are easy to enjoy, or at least not to resent.
There may not be as much enjoyment available in twenty minutes of waiting in line at the DMV as in twenty minutes of eating cake. But that doesn’t matter—given that we will spend most of our lives in those sorts of obligatory moments, we’re leaving way too much on the table by assuming enjoyment can only be found later and elsewhere.
All of this might sound ridiculous, or even desperate—trying to enjoy taking out the garbage or lint-rolling a sweater. But looking for enjoyment in unremarkable moments is no more radical than “Look for the good in people,” and is just as transformative. We just don’t hear it as often.
The pleasures you find may be mild, but the intention to find them makes a drastic difference to how it feels to do almost anything. You’ll probably discover that we have a natural appreciation for very subtle things—the click of a latch closing, the feel of laundered cotton, the evening din of a grocery store, the tiny punch of a thumbtack through notepaper—and that life offers hundreds of these pleasures daily. There’s even pleasure to be found in the simple motions of standing up, sitting down, and putting an object in its place.
The real transformative effect isn’t in the subtle pleasures you can find when you look (although they’re pretty great). It’s in the completely different way we’re aiming our minds in ordinary moments. We’re looking into our experience, not outwards from it, for interest and pleasure.
We can easily spend nine-tenths of our lives trying to appreciate the free time, hammocks, bike rides, and coffee breaks to come, or we can spend that time—which amounts to decades—appreciating what is already happening. And there’s nothing subtle about the difference it makes.