T-shirt sales plummeted in 1934 after Clark Gable appeared bare-chested in the movie It Happened One Night. Sales soared after James Dean appeared in a T-shirt through most of Rebel Without a Cause. Artificial Christmas tree sales were destroyed for decades after A Charlie Brown Christmas came out. Bambi affected hunting and Jaws affected beach vacations.
Life is holistic. It occurs in multiple dimensions and is experienced by 7.5 billion humans in 7.5 billion different ways. But we pay attention to one thing at a time and we remember things, which I would suggest is the way we REALLY experience life, as stories where we (usually) are the hero.
In fact, stories are super-powerful and it’s really important to pay attention to the stories you are telling yourself. Stories are all artificial so there’s not one objectively true story. I don’t mean that facts can be invented but facts are just a small part of a story. Stories change profoundly depending on who the hero is, when it starts and when it ends and how much you know about the motivations of the characters.
Here’s a fun example. In my film class I show the movie The Big Sick so I’ve seen it several times. If you haven’t seen it you can read about it here. Basically it’s a real life story about how Kamail Najiani and Emily Gordon fell in love. Kamail is a Pakistani-American stand-up comic and at one point he tells a joke about how if he was cast in a horror sci-fi movie, his character would be the first to die. For his character, the movie would be very short and be about the cat that was missing from the lab.
In another scene from the movie (The Big Sick, not the movie from Kamail’s joke) Emily wakes up from a medically induced coma to find that Kamail, who had broken up with her before she went into the coma, has fallen more deeply in love with her while she was unconscious. She explains that while he was at her bedside going through all this emotional stuff, for her they broke up in a big fight and then she woke up and he was all lovey-dovey.
Very different stories.
I say all this because I have been having a bit of a minor midlife crisis brain worm.
Let me explain what a brainworm is because I just invented the term (as far as I know). A brainworm is like an earworm. An earworm is a song that you can’t get out of your head for hours or days or weeks. (“Too Much Heaven on Their Mind” from Jesus Christ Superstar has been the soundtrack of my life for the last 8 days). A brainworm is a thought that keeps coming up over and over again.
This brainworm is insidious. I hear about how this successful actor or that successful writer started their career doing almost exactly what I did and they didn’t give up and found a community and now they’re a successful creative professional. The brainworm is basically regretting that I wasn’t more self-promotional and more focused on my own creative career. I had a blind spot about being a creative professional when I was in my twenties and thirties. My vague plan was to forgo the whole existing entertainment industry and create my own creative communities. I was very successful at that, actually, but there’s little to no money in small theater or short films. When I think about it, I wouldn’t change a thing but when I don’t think about it I wish I was making a million dollars an episode on the John Sylvain Show.
This is a debilitating story. Regret filled stories almost always are. The problem is that the unhappy ending is in the past and now we’re living in the aftermath. It’s much better to reframe the story.
When I was young my friends and I started two small theaters that are still chugging along creating fantastic art and engendering life changing relationships. I have lost track of the number of children that were born from couples that met at Annex or Sacred Fools. That’s a powerful story with a happy ending.
Now I’m living a new story where a fifty-something has a remarkable new creative career.
That’s it for today. Right now I’m going to put on a T-shirt, store my artificial Christmas tree (don’t judge) and then go hunting on the beach.
I’ve been working my way through 12 Rules for Life by Jordan B. Peterson and it’s very interesting and entertaining. It’s pretty wild and different from most of the self-help books I’ve read. If you read this blog you know that I’m very interested in happiness, creativity, and productivity. As such I read a lot of behavioral psychology, spirituality and self-help books. I aslo use an app called Blinkist to listen to summaries of many more books.
Most self-help books have one or two ideas in them and they tell stories and cite studies to support their idea. You can just read the summary and you’ve got it. Most of the material seems to be there to add to the page count. The prose is prosaic and there’s not a lot of meat on the bone.
By contrast, Peterson, a psychology professor, writes astonishing, illuminating essays chock full of amazing observations, connections, and ideas about each one of his rules. The rules are fine on their own but Peterson uses them as launching pads to explore a wild multiverse of ideas. Readers are tugged along in his wake like giggling waterskiers.
Peterson’s 12 Rules:
Rule 1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back
Rule 2 Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping
Rule 3 Make friends with people who want the best for you
Rule 4 Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today
Rule 5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
Rule 6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world
Rule 7 Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
Rule 8 Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
Rule 9 Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
Rule 10 Be precise in your speech
Rule 11 Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding
Rule 12 Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
In his essay on the first rule, Peterson connected the mating rituals of lobsters with self esteem. In his essay on the second rule, he looks to the two, competing stories of creation in Genesis (yes, there are two – read it) and the competing archetypes of chaos and order to figure out why people take better care of their dogs than themselves.
He then goes on to point out that the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is not really an exhortation as much as an equation. In other words:
Treat others = Treat yourself
He makes a great point that this doesn’t necessarily mean try to make everyone happy all the time. Children like candy but it would be irresponsible and unloving to give them candy all the time.
So the takeaway is: take care of yourself so you can take care of others. How do we do that? Apply his second rule:
” Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping”
I want to talk a bit more about positive feedback loops. I touched on the idea in yesterday’s post and I’ve been thinking more about it today because I’m in a downward spiral at the moment.
Here’s a terrific definition of a positive feedback mechanism:
“the enhancement or amplification of an effect by its own influence on the process that gives rise to it.”
Here are some examples of positive feedback mechanisms.
Warming causes the reduction of ice and snow covering the planet which causes warming because there is less white snow and ice reflecting heat and light away.
If you enjoy playing music you play more which increases your skill which makes you enjoy playing music more so you play more.
Panicked cows start running which panics other cows who start running which panics more cows.
Smiling at someone causes them to smile back which causes you to smile.
Drinking leads to physical, social and psychological effects that stress out the drinker that leads to more drinking.
Sleeping in makes it harder to go to bed early which leads to sleeping in.
As you can see, positive feedback mechanisms can be good or bad. The word positive in this context means additive rather than good. Of course this is very different from the positive feedback you get from someone who reads your blog and likes it. That’s a separate animal altogether.
But enough about cows, let’s talk about me. This is my blog, after all!
Positive feedback loops can be good or bad and the effects tend to grow.. If they are good they lead to an upward spiral. If they are bad they lead to a downward spiral.
Obviously we want to encourage upward spirals and discourage downward spirals.
I am experiencing two spirals right now. My first downward spiral looks like this:
I don’t sleep well.
I have less energy and/or I get up late so I have less time.
To compensate for less energy I drink coffee.
Because I have less energy and time I forgo exercise and meditation.
Because I drink coffee and sleep in AND because I don’t exercise and meditate I don’t sleep well.
My second spiral is related and intertwined with the sleep spiral:
I feel overwhelmed with stuff to do.
I don’t make a plan to get things done because I feel overwhelmed and exhausted (see above).
I don’t get things completed.
Things pile up and I feel overwhelmed with stuff to do.
Underlying both these spirals is a very simple, universal positive feedback mechanism that can go either way for everyone.
Keeping My Word
Say I’ll do something (even to myself)
Define myself as someone who keeps their word
Say I’ll do something
Don’t do it
Define myself as someone who doesn’t keep their word
It’s very clear that I need to break these spirals as soon as possible. I have a huge number of exciting projects on my plate. If some of them work out it could change my life. On the other hand I have tremendous responsibilities that I need to take care of. If I ignore those responsibilities it could change my life in a bad way. I have my own business and I don’t have a source of income that keeps coming in if I relax.
In other words, getting out of this downward spiral feels like a matter of self definition. Getting back into an upward spiral could be profoundly transformative for me and my family.
The first step in the three simple steps is to Step Back. In this case create a goal. My goal is to get better sleep and be more effective.
The second step is to Step Up. Take responsibility and create accountability. To this end, I’ve created a page on this site (I call it Life Graph) to keep track of the vital inputs to better sleep and measure my effectiveness.
The third step is to Step Forward. That means taking action. So I’m going to take action by keep my Life Graph updated and doing what I say I’m going to. Today I’m going to meditate for at least 20 minutes and exercise for at least 30.
The new step is to STEP OUT. This means talking to people and getting help. It also means getting out of your comfort zone and celebrating victories. Today I will talk to at least 3 people about this issue.
Thanks for reading! Hope this is as helpful to you as it was to me.
*This definition shows up when I google positive feedback and when I look for it the first 20 links are to a site call quizlet which provides flashcards for students. It also shows up in a few bio texts. I like to give accurate citations when I can but in this case it seems impossible (or harder than I’m willing to work).
Speaking of libraries, I just started listening to a book from the library called 12 Rules for Life by psychologist and professor Jordan B. Peterson. Peterson has 12 very different rules (from “Be precise in your speech,” to “Don’t bother children when they are skateboarding”) and the book consists of 12 essays about each rule. His writing (so far) is rich and very interesting and he makes some great points.
Peterson’s first rule is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” and he goes into great detail about the interaction between posture and self-esteem in the life of lobsters. His ultimate, well-argued point is that standing up straight with your shoulders back has a positive effect on the chemicals in our bodies that affect our self-confidence and mood. Of course, our mood affects our posture as well, it’s a feedback loop, but it’s faster and easier to change the way you’re standing than it is to change the way you’re thinking. Then the changes in your body change your thinking.
It’s “fake it till you make it” with scientific back-up.
Similarly, smiling causes happiness (as well as vice-versa). Multiplestudies have shown that the act of moving your face into a smile (including the eye muscles, a “real” or Duchenne smile) releases neuropeptides that fight off stress and feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins that elevate mood. As an added bonus, smiling is contagious. If you smile at someone, even a stranger, they are likely to reflexively smile back. You’ve now improved their mood as well as your own.
The bad news is that the opposite is also true. Hunching your shoulders and frowning has physical and psychological effects as well. Sadness and happiness causes our faces and bodies to move in certain ways and the ways we move our bodies causes sadness and happiness. Both are positive (positive meaning additive, not positive meaning good) feedback loops.
All this reminds me of a powerful hack I heard about from podcaster Jordan Harbinger. He invented the door exercise to harness the power of posture and smiling. I’m sure I’ve written about this or talked about it on a video at some point but it’s totally worth repeating because it’s a simple exercise but it might change your day and maybe your life.
The simple, powerful idea is to develop a habit of checking your posture and putting on a smile every time you go through a doorway. Start in your own home. Go through an interior door or door jamb and, as you do, straighten up your back, throw back your shoulders and smile so your eyes are crinkled up. Do it a few times until you associate doorways with a positive change in your face and your posture. Pretty soon you’ll be walking into every room looking confident and happy. When you look confident and happy people will think you’re confident and happy. More incredibly your body will tell your mind that you’re confident and happy.
Don’t think of this as a bullshit sales technique, think of this as a way of taking responsibility for the joy that you are spreading and the joy you are feeling.
I love audiobooks. I started listening to books soon after I moved to Los Angeles. Back then I was an SAT tutor for a few years and I drove all over the place in my little Honda Civic. I listened to everything from the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to Clan of the Cave Bear on cassette tapes.
Tutoring didn’t pay well and audiobooks are expensive so I started taking out audiobooks from the Santa Monica library.
Flash forward to now and I use an app called Libby to electronically borrow and download ebooks and audiobooks from the LA Public Library or the LA County Public Library. I could still use the Santa Monica Library but LAPL or LACPL have almost everything I want. Los Angeles Public library has about 200,000 fiction titles and almost 150,000 non-fiction titles. 75% of them are available at any one time. If you want the latest Stephen King or Michael Lewis book you’ll need to put it on hold but once it’s available it automatically downloads and BOOM, you’ve got 3 weeks to read it.
On the other hand, I just spent some time talking to my neighbor who is a librarian at Santa Monica Public Library and she told me how they are struggling with the homeless population. Libraries are a great, free, public resource and homeless people need free resources. Perhaps because this winter has been unusually rainy and cold, the libraries have been overwhelmed. The solution is not to keep the poor out of libraries, the answer is to take some of the fruits of this currently strong economy and invest them in social infrastructure so that more homeless people have homes and libraries have the resources to service everyone.
So there’s my tip and my exhortation for the day. Use your local public library to get audiobooks, ebooks and just plain old books for free. Read (and listen) more and spend less. Then support your library and tell your local leaders that non-digital social infrastructure is important to you.
I don’t believe in magical thinking. I want to make that clear. I don’t think you can change reality with thinking.
Your experience of life can be altered dramatically by altering your thinking.
Also, I should say, I’m a Buddhist. According to the Buddha, suffering is caused by desire and if you end desire you end suffering. Desire in Buddhism is really wishing that life is different from what it is.
That’s all thinking.
One thing I kinda wish was different is that I wish I had the time to watch college basketball all weekend.
I found this sentence in my Notes: “Attention is not a neutral force.”
There was no other information. I heard this in a podcast or read it in a book or saw it in a magazine and I wrote it down without any more details. I was, at the time, almost certainly thinking about blogging about it.
So I’m blogging about it.
If you’ve read this blog, you know that I’m mostly concerned with maximizing happiness and productivity. Attention is the key to both these things.
In fact, this sentence expresses the core of my beliefs about life. Where we choose to focus our attention gives us our life. I know, for example, that if I pay attention to the current political situation, I feel helpless and angry. If I pay attention to the people in my life that I love I feel happy and grateful. Here’s a better, more mundane example. In an hour or so I am going to drive to Pomona to teach my class. At 10:30 the drive takes about 40 minutes. If I concentrate on the traffic, (in Southern California there is always traffic, even at 3:22 in the morning) I will have a different experience than if I focus on the beautiful snow-covered mountains I’m going to be driving toward.
It’s not just happy horseshit “look on the bright side,” (or maybe it is, actually) it’s also a recognition that while pain and cruelty and inconvenience is unavoidable, suffering is optional. I know from years of Zen meditation that the present moment is full of bliss and the endless voice in my head, which is always reliving the past or fantasizing about the future, is mostly a swamp of anguish. Obviously, it’s better to take joy in life so it’s better to pay attention to things that bring you joy Those things can be as simple as the flight of a bird or the sound of your own breath.
Attention is also the key to productivity. We live in a distraction economy where the biggest companies in the world are spending billions to grab and hold your attention. It’s easy as hell to spend a day or a week or a year being entertained or distracted by Facebook, Youtube, Netflix and Words With Friends. If I want to get anything done I have to consciously DIRECT my attention.
This Is Water
Having said all this, I wanted to find out where this sentence came from so I Googled it and came across this amazing speech by David Foster Wallace. Infinite Jest is one of my favorite books and I love Wallace’s writing. This speech is hands down the best commencement speech I’ve ever heard/read and a better explanation of my own way of looking at the world than anything I’ve ever written myself.
So read or listen to this. I’ve got a couple loved ones graduating from High School this spring and I know what I’m gifting them now.
The Fifth Vital Sign
But this is not where the sentence comes from. So being a super-sophisticated power user (;-) I went to Google again and did another search, this time with quotes around the sentence.
This episode is about pain. Specifically looking at how the elevation of pain to the “fifth vital sign” (alongside blood pressure, heart rate, temperature and breathing rate) in the 1990s changed attitudes about pain. Here is the context of quote in the episode:
“What is beyond debate, however, is that conceiving of pain as the fifth vital sign and asking patients about their pain number meant that pain got a lot more attention than it ever had before. And here’s the thing about attention that most of us don’t fully appreciate. Attention is not a neutral force. It invariably changes the thing that it purports to observe. Often, it makes that thing bigger”
Alix Speigal, Invisabilia
The episode goes on to follow a young woman suffering with chronic pain and the counter-intuitive therapy she goes through to get relief.
Again, I highly recommend that you listen to this episode and to the podcast in general. I always learn something from Invisabilia.
So, the bottom line is to pay attention to what you pay attention to.
Now I’ve gotta go drive toward those snow-covered mountains. Talk tomorrow.
The day went by and I didn’t make a plan to write and so it’s almost bedtime and I realized I hadn’t blogged.
I have a commitment to blog every day and I’ve been pretty consistent. It’s been good for me and, I hope, good for you, the people who read this.
So I’m sitting here with my wonderful wife and we’re watching this amazing show on Hulu called Shrill. It stars Aidy Bryant and it’s based on Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, a book by Lindy West.
Lindy West used to work at The Stranger in Seattle and had a fat acceptance/ fat shaming debate with the editor Dan Savage back in 2011 that I heard about or read about some time.
But the real point of this post is that Shrill, the TV show, is amazing and you should watch it. It deals with a bunch of stuff that is totally true and real that I’ve never seen on TV before. It’s not really funny but it has the structure of a comedy and it’s marketed as a comedy.
Anyway, I like it and Shelley likes it so you should watch it.
Here are five things that will improve nearly everyone’s life (including mine).
Most people don’t get enough sleep. Health experts say that most people need an average of 8 hours of sleep. That’s an average so some people need less and some people need more. A Gallup survey from 2013 found that Americans got an average of 6.8 hours a night and that’s down an hour from 1942 when, apparently, people got enough sleep. Ongoing sleep deficiency is “linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke,” according to the NIH. It also causes obesity and may be linked to Alzheimer’s. Sleep deprivation also has an obvious (and huge) impact on emotional and mental well-being.
The Gallup survey found that 40% of Americans don’t get enough sleep. Anecdotally, I can tell you that most of my friends and 100% of my family members don’t get enough sleep.
I try to get enough but I often fail and last night I got no sleep. I have a problem with insomnia. I feel like I don’t really know how to fall asleep and occasionally I have a night like last night where I stay in bed but I never actually doze off.
So I’m tired and ineffective today. I don’t want to do anything.
It turns out that we human’s need exercise to be healthy and we don’t get enough. The kicker is that other primates, including our close relatives chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas can (and do) laze around all day long and have no health problems. We have evolved to walk around for hours at a time hunting or gathering food. We have also evolved a desire to avoid unnecessary exercise (which made sense in a world of limited resources) so the idea of exercising just to be healthy doesn’t naturally appeal. This is my theoretical explanation as to why few people really WANT to go to the gym even though it usually feels good once you start moving.
If you are like most people, you don’t drink enough water. Everything works better if you’re well hydrated. You may not need 8 glasses a day and if it wakes you up in the middle of the night, don’t drink a lot before bed (that last I got directly from a doctor I interviewed at my last job).
Don’t put too much crap into your body and make sure you get some vegetables into that pie-hole. I recommend limiting or cutting out alcohol but you do you.
It’s incredibly good for you to sit and breathe every day. I could go on and on about this but many other people are, nowadays, so why pile on?s
Here’s the thing. If you are reading this, I appreciate that a lot and I know that if you do (or do more of) these five things, your life will improve. You will feel better and be more productive. You’ll have more energy and be able to support others around you.
But the real reason I’m writing this is for myself. I have gotten away from these basic habits and it sucks. These essential five habits all feed each other as well. I know that:
Exercising and eating healthy and mediation help me sleep better.
If I get plenty of sleep it’s easier to avoid bad comfort foods and I’m more likely to exercise.
If I drink plenty of water I feel better and eat better.
Regular meditation makes me mindful of my behavior so I eat better and exercise more.
It’s all related, dude!
If you think I left out any basics, please make a comment below.
The second announcement is that I’m starting today on the Four Simple Steps Workbook. I’ve given a lot of thought to this product over the years and I’m very excited to bring it to life. I think it will help a lot of people identify their dreams and goals and move toward making them a reality.
Watch this space for more info in the next few weeks.