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Faking It Till You’re Making Yourself Into Something Else

Faking It Till You’re Making Yourself Into Something Else

The planet Mercury

According to the Indicator from Planet Money, a daily podcast about economics, extroverts make more money than introverts.

According to the podcast Hidden Brain, many companies are basing personnel decisions, including hiring, advancement and termination, on personality tests like the Meyers-Briggs test.

Then there is astrology. According to astrologists, who you I am is determined by the hour and date of my birth.

Does this mean that personality is destiny? Is my fate sealed?

Maybe, but I doubt it.

As an aside, let me say that I am mystified by astrology. What I mean is that I am mystified by the number of smart, scientifically-minded people who know a lot about astrology and nod knowingly when they learn my sign. “That makes sense,” they say after wrongly guessing my sign 4 times before I finally reveal it. I had an old boss who blamed any communication problem on Mercury being in retrograde. Even when it wasn’t it was about to be or just was. She would bring this up in department meetings. It was embarrassing. The idea that the planet Mercury sometimes moves “backwards” reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of orbital dynamics. Seriously thinking that the relative motion of a planet tens of millions of miles away can affect communication is nonsensical. Norse mythology makes more sense. The Flying Spaghetti Monster makes more sense! I could go on for hours on this topic but it wouldn’t be productive.

I must say that astrology does have an impact on adherents. I have written before about the power of placebo. and in that same episode of Hidden Brain (the latest one), host Shankar Vedantam points out that children born in China during the auspicious Year of the Dragon according to the Chinese Astrological Calendar tend to be more successful. This is almost certainly true because they are expected from birth to be more successful. In the same way, an adherent of astrology who believes that her sign is more compatible with this one and less with that one will live into her own expectations and conform to her own bias.

But personality tests are scientific, right? In the sense that they are valid and reliable, no. In the sense that they predict anything at all, no.

So what is personality? Wikipedia has this to say:

Personality is defined as the characteristic set of behaviorscognitions, and emotional patterns that evolve from biological and environmental factors.[1] While there is no generally agreed upon definition of personality, most theories focus on motivation and psychological interactions with one’s environment.[2] Trait-based personality theories, such as those defined by Raymond Cattell define personality as the traits that predict a person’s behavior. On the other hand, more behaviorally based approaches define personality through learning and habits. Nevertheless, most theories view personality as relatively stable.[1]

So personality is basically how and why you behave. It’s how you think and how you act.

You can change how you act and you can change how you think. In fact, it’s actually how you act that affects how you think rather than the other way around. Smiling and laughing makes you happier. Talking to people makes you less shy. Stop drinking and you will be a person who doesn’t drink.

Speaking of drinking, “fake it till you make it” is one of the pithy sayings you might here around AA or other 12 step programs. It’s for newcomers who aren’t sure they want to fully embrace the program. The idea is to act like you’re not an AA participant and eventually your mind will catch up to your behavior. If you don’t drink and go to meetings and do the steps even though you don’t want to, eventually you’ll wake up one morning and you won’t want to drink and you’ll want to go to meetings and you’ll want to do the steps.

So if you want to take a personality test, be my guest. What I would suggest, instead is to decide what kind of person you want to be and then act that way. Eventually, you will be that way without any acting effort. This is not easy but I refer you to Shonda Rhimes’ book The Year of Yes for an inspiring (and well written) story about an introvert (a very successful one) who purposefully changed her behavior and thus her personality (and her life).

Unless, of course, Mercury is in retrograde, in which case we’re all completely screwed.

(But it’s not, at least not right now.)

Honoring My Word

Honoring My Word

When you do what you say you’re going to do as a habit your word becomes more powerful.

I promised myself that I would write a blog post every weekday.

So I am doing that right now.

I did not have a restful sleep last night. I’m not sure why.

As a result I have been sluggish all day.

I exercised and did some work but nothing has been buzzing in my brain to blog about.

But I’m blogging anyway.

Because I said I would.

Thanks for reading. I’m sure I’ll have something more interesting to say tomorrow.

Rules and Convictions

Rules and Convictions

A few weeks ago I mentioned a book called 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson. I had listened to the first 2 or 3 rules and was delighted by the essays that explored and elucidated each rule.

After that, Peterson got more than a little self-righteous about how children should be raised in his essay about his fifth rule, “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.” This turned me off quite a bit.

I’m not a big fan of self-righteousness and it contradicts something Peterson says elsewhere in his book. He pointed out that being sure that your beliefs are absolutely right and always will be leads to either resentment when you lose and totalitarianism when you win. In a nutshell, if you hold on to a belief and don’t allow experience or logic or time to influence that belief, you will find yourself in a pickle when reality comes into conflict with that belief.

Say you believe that x=5 and then scientists do a study and find that x=6, you have two options. You can:

  • Change your mind about your belief.
  • Assume that the scientists are wrong.

If you think that the scientists are wrong you can:

  • Get bitter and resentful and think that the world is out to get you.
  • Attack the scientists.
  • Do both.

Peterson then goes on to say that Hitler, Stalin, Mao and the leaders of North Korea were/are totalitarians because they believed they were right and would always be right. Anyone who disagreed could not be tolerated.

Then I listened to the last episode of this season of the Invisibilia podcast and I learned that Peterson is a men’s rights advocate. Immediately I got nervous. I’m not a fan if the men’s rights movement. I think I and my fellow men have no pressing need to protect our rights. We have plenty. Giving rights to people who aren’t men doesn’t take anything away from me (as far as I can see).

But then I thought to myself that I was freaking out about what people would think of me based on me writing about the excellent parts of Peterson’s book. That seemed silly. I am writing what I believe. If you don’t like it you can tell me and I will listen. I may change what I believe. Those are two skills that I try to cultivate, listening and changing my mind. I value those skills over most everything. Those and good outside jumper.

The episode of the always excellent Invisibilia then went on the explore the tension between empathy and conviction. If you take time to understand your opposition, will that undermine your own position?

When should you change your mind and when should you stick to your guns?

For me, I like to change my mind. It keeps it in good working order. I don’t think it’s always the the right thing to do, however. In other words, I’m flexible about being flexible.

I still recommend Peterson’s book but not without reservation.

Keep on growing.

Everything Dies, Baby, That’s a Fact*

Everything Dies, Baby, That’s a Fact*

Notre Dame Cathedral

There is a list of songs that always makes me cry every time I hear them. It’s an odd list. Here it is:

  • When I Was a Boy, Dar Williams
  • Solsbury Hill, Peter Gabriel
  • She Used To Be Mine, Jesse Mueller (From the musical Waitress)

There are lots of things that make me cry. I am a sentimental fool who has been known to cry at a well crafted phone commercial. The power of these songs, however, is kind of remarkable. I couldn’t even type the titles without bursting (briefly) into tears.

The latest addition to this list is She Used To Be Mine. That song and the Dar Williams song are about growing up and losing something. The line in Solsbury Hill that ALWAYS makes me break comes at the end of the first verse and is nearly repeated at the end of the next two verses.

“Son”, he said, “grab your things, I’ve come to take you home” **

Peter Gabriel

Actually, I have no idea what the rest of Solsbury Hill is about. The lyrics make no sense to me so I guess its really 2 songs that always make me cry and one line in a chorus (AKA A Chorus Line?***)

I won’t pretend that I know exactly why these songs have such an effect on me but I won’t pretend that I don’t have a good idea. These songs remind me of what I have lost. They remind me of people I have lost and places I have left. They remind me of times that changed.

They remind me to mourn.

As I write this, Notre Dame is burning. Notre Dame is 900 years old. I am lucky enough to have visited Notre Dame twice with my family so I have seen it. It’s really awful to think that part of that was built generations ago is gone forever.

Yogi, Shelley and my finger in front of Notre Dame in Paris.

But that’s how it goes.

“Nothing endures but change.”


Facebook told me that today is the birthday of one of the most talented people I have ever met (and that is really saying something). Facebook suggested that I wish him happy birthday. Unfortunately for me and for the world, Gary Smoot died almost two years ago. I closed my eyes and wished him happy birthday anyway.

I have been thinking about mortality quite a bit lately. We are all going to die. Someday, no one I know will be alive. It’s hard not to be terribly saddened by this unavoidable fact but it seems, if you think about it, almost silly to rage and cry and scream against the inevitable.

But we do it anyway.

“Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Dylan Thomas

I wonder if it’s possible to stop feeling sad and angry that people die and things change. Maybe not. Maybe if we didn’t feel so much we’d lose something essentially human. Maybe our fear of death is what makes us creative. Maybe our fear of change makes us take care of our stuff and teach our children our traditions.

But I think that most of us fear death and change too much. I think we are often paralyzed by a fear of death when we should, perhaps, be motivated by it. You can not, no matter what you do, avoid death. It will happen to you eventually. It will. And, if you are like most people I know who have died, it won’t come at a convenient time. It won’t come at time or place or manner of your choosing.

Life is shorter than we think so the logical thing to do is to take advantage of it while we have it.

Live with all your might while you can. Love with every fiber of your being while you can. That thing you were going to do someday? Do it today. That friend you were thinking of? Call them now. Appreciate the blue of the sky and the green of the grass and the warmth of the sun.

Take time to remember what has passed away. Mourn your loses but don’t do that so much that you don’t take time to appreciate what you have.

Love your life. Actively, love your life. That’s what Gary did.

If you don’t, learn to love it or change so you love it.

“Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

*The title’s from the chorus of Atlantic City by Bruce Springsteen. The lines are:
“Everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on fix your hair up pretty and
Meet me tonight in Atlantic City”

**I was thinking of working the chorus of Solsbury Hill in at the end. Like someone’s going to “come to take you home” eventually. Then I thought better of it. It was too much. Yet I couldn’t really resist putting it in this postscript. Kind of like cheating. Sorry. And you’re welcome.

*** What I Did For Love often makes me cry but not every single time.

It’s Not Easy Staying Green

It’s Not Easy Staying Green

We had a relatively wet and cold winter here in Los Angeles. We got about 30% more rain than average and a lot more than last year when we got hardly any.

I’m really a wimp when it comes to weather. I grew up in New Hampshire where it’s either way too cold or way to hot most of the time so I should be tough. But I’m not. Since I moved to Los Angeles twenty-something years ago (seriously? where does the time go?) I have been spoiled rotten. I can’t stand the cold and I don’t like the rain.

But we needed the rain. We needed it very badly.

And the place turned green. It’s been very lovely.

But it hasn’t rained for a few weeks and, if the weather does what it normally does, it won’t rain again until November. The verdant green hills are yellowing. Soon they’ll go back to being brown and scrubby.

So I enjoy it while it lasts.

You need to have a little rain to have a lot of green.

And you need to do a little work do reap the benefits. You need to exercise to be in shape. You need to write a little everyday to write a novel. You need to study to get good grades.

You can’t stop and expect everything to stay green. You have to keep watering the garden if you want stuff to keep growing.

And the rain isn’t that bad. Neither is the exercise or the writing or the studying.

It really beats the alternative.

The Year of Yes: A Gushing Review

The Year of Yes: A Gushing Review

I finished Shonda Rhimes’ biographical self-help book The Year of Yes yesterday and I was seriously bummed out.

That is a good sign.

There are a few books that I don’t want to end and when I get to near the end I start to feel nostalgic for the time before I started reading. I say to myself: “Remember back when I still had the wonderful experience of living in this world for the first time? Those were the days.”

Some of my favorites are classics. War and Peace, Moby Dick, Gravity’s Rainbow, A Tale of Two Cities, The Three Musketeers and Infinite Jest were like that for me. Of course the 20.5 Aubrey-Maturin books are my favorite in this category. I also feel this way about most of Lois McMaster Bujold’s novels and the reboot of Battlestar Gallactica.

So I recommend that you go out and read these books.

But this is really the first non-fiction book that I can remember feeling this way about. It was wonderful being in Shondaland and I didn’t want to leave. Go out and buy it or get it from the library. I recommend the audiobook because Shonda reads it herself and she does a great job.

Here’s a bit of a disclaimer. It’s not really a bio and it’s not really a self-help book.

Shonda doesn’t talk about how she got to be one of the most powerful figures in television. She does give a lot of details about her life but the book is really about one year, 2014, when she transformed her life by committing to saying yes to things that scared her for a year.

It’s not really a self-help book because it doesn’t prescribe anything. Shonda tranformed her life but it’s not clear to me that what she did would apply to my life. It certainly inspired the hell out of me though so maybe it’s a self-help book after all.

Finally, my favorite thing about this book, aside from the consistantly brilliant, hilarious writing, is that Shonda was at the top of world professionally in 2013, she was the 3 Thank God its Thursday shows on ABC, and she had a wonderful family and a great life. She was running the three shows on Th But she realized that she was actually miserable. More impressively she described her situation such that I, a white, married man who is not currently running any TV shows, could totally relate to her feelings and feel for her.

I miss her.

I think I’ll take that book out of the library again.

What’s Your Vector, Victor?

What’s Your Vector, Victor?

The first step in the Four (used to be three) Simple Steps is STEP BACK.

Stepping Back is about looking at the big picture, seeing what’s needed, what’s wanted and what’s dreamed for. The context can be of any size from personal to galactic. Before you take action (Step Forward) you need to know where you are going.

Where you are going can be defined in three ways. You can have a destination or you can have a direction or you can have both.

Let me give a simple example. Lose weight is a direction. Weigh 25 pounds less than I do now is a destination.

It seems to me that to make powerful change happen in the world or in yourself, which is often the same thing, you need to focus. I have learned this lesson over and over again. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I have been taught this lesson over and over again but I have not learned it. Sometimes I can be extremely thick-headed.

On the other hand, you can strive to make changes in different areas of life at the same time as long as those different areas are not related to each other. For example, you could work towards getting an advanced degree and you could increase your cardiovascular health at the same time. On the other hand it would be counterproductive to try to eat more ice cream and lose weight at the same time.

I was thinking about defining direction and I decided that it made sense to limit the number of realms of life to 3 when choosing directions. Being a recovering math nerd, this reminded me immediately of vectors.

Vectors in geometry have a direction and a magnitude and they can be added together. In visualizing vectors I had a key insight. If you picked three directions on three mutually exclusive realms or planes you could add them together to get an overall direction. In other words you wouldn’t end up with three directions, you’d have one direction that was the sum of three directions.

By way of illustration, let me list some directions I would like to go.

  • Be more creative
  • Practice Zen Buddhism more
  • Be stronger
  • Have more endurance
  • Be kinder
  • Be faster (physically)
  • Be younger
  • Be more organized
  • Become more politically active
  • Be more social
  • Lose weight
  • Be healthier
  • Make more money
  • Watch more TV
  • Increase peace in the world
  • Be a better basketball player
  • Be taller
  • Have a more harmonious family life
  • Help more people
  • Be more famous
  • Sleep more
  • Laugh more
  • Read more
  • Increase tolerance in the United States
  • Play more sports

I can’t focus on all of these and some of them are opposed to each other. My self imposed task is to pick 3 vectors to focus on for the next 3 weeks.

I’m going to choose:

  • Be younger
  • Be taller
  • Be more famous

Just kidding.

I’m choosing

  • Be more creative
  • Make more money
  • Be healthier

Immediately you can see that more creative + make more money add up to a vector that is different from the vector that resuls from the sum of make more money + be more organized, or be more creative + have more fun.

Now I have a vector I can create goals that are in line with that direction. I’m going to take a Step Back after 3 weeks and see if I’m happy with my progress and my direction.

I would love it if you did the same and told me how it works for you.

I’ll keep you posted.

The Power of Yes

The Power of Yes

I spent the day reading my book to Tina Ballabio’s Middle School English classes. It was a blast!

I also got a bit of good news about a project Jonathan Goldstein and I created. It’s the kind of good news that might lead to other good things that might lead to other good things.

Or not.

So it’s not something to celebrate yet but it is good news.

And all of this external validation happened in the context of me listening to Shonda Rhimes book The Year of Yes.

Usually I don’t like to read biography but the podcast By The Book recommended The Year of Yes because it was inspiring and really, really, really well written.

I’m a fan of Shondaland. I think Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal have turned shark-jumping into an enjoyable spectator sport. Scandal especially seems to have an unbelievable, character-redefining reveal or event every two and a half episodes. Somehow Rhimes manages this without seeming silly. This is done by consistently putting the right words in the right mouths.

Good writers can do that.

And Year of Yes is well written by a good writer.

It changed my day.

Hot Take: The Meaning of Life

Hot Take: The Meaning of Life

This weekend we had some close friends visit from out of town. it’s been fantastic. Yesterday I played paintball with 14 teenagers and 1 other adult. That night we had dinner with our out of town friends and a few others.

We had the now normal conversation about our crazy political situation and eventually came to the conclusion that people are motivated by love or fear.

That’s it.

This seems like an oversimplification until you really apply it. Certainly few individuals are motivated by one or the other all the time but you can look ate nearly every human interaction and see that either love or fear is present.

It’s easier to see this with others because it’s much easier to reduce others to simple stereotypes and we don’t know about all their silent, internal justifications and explanations. We can discount those anyway because they have no effect on the world and they are mostly bull crap.

It’s a little more difficult to see where we ourselves are following a path of love or fear because we tend to believe our own bull crap because we produced it (a miracle of interspecies fecal transubstantiation).

But if you can be honest with yourself you can ferret out whether you are coming from a place of love or fear. In most cases, it’s very safe to come from a place of love. Our tendency towards fear is inherited from a time when our lives were in danger from cave bears and sabre-toothed cats. Mostly we don’t have to worry about those because our ancestors reacted with fear so much to them we killed them all.

Love has more power and happiness in it than fear. Love is more rational and fair.

Love is better than fear.

Choose love when you can.

The Limits of Language

The Limits of Language

I just started listening to one of “The Great Courses” on Hinduism. Of course, I got it from the library. These recorded courses always intrigued me but I was put off by the high price. This is my second “Great Course” and let me tell you, they are fantastic for free. If I paid more than $100 for one I’d be hella disappointed.

But enough about what a cheapskate I am.

This course is fascinating, but I just want to talk about the first sentence. The lecturer, Mark W. Muesse PhD, begins the course by saying that “Hinduism is the dominant religion of India.” He then immediately goes on to point out that this seemingly simple and demonstrably true statement is problematic because three of the principal words in this sentence are problematic. Hinduism and India are not indigenous words. Both terms were created by people outside of the Indian subcontinent to lump a bunch of ideas, peoples, belief systems, concepts, and territories together. Each term “suggest a uniformity and consistency that does not really apply to the reality they name.” Moreover, these terms were coined by people who wanted to colonize or conquer the area. In fact, the word Hindu was originally coined by the Persians to describe the people who lived in India, not the religion(s) of the area. Finally, using the word “religion” to describe the disparate beliefs of Hinduism suggests a homogeneity that does not exist.

I don’t know how accurate Muesse’s opening statement is and I apologize to any Hindus out there who think (or know) this is incorrect. The point I want to make is the power of word and definitions.

 © Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

What do you call a group of men with guns? Gunmen? Soldiers? Hunters? Rebels? Criminals? Citizens? Freedom Fighters? Gun nuts? Insurgents? Patriots? Militants? Gangsters? Guards?*

What you call someone affects how you see them. What you get called affects how others see you and how you see yourself. What you call yourself affects how people see you.

Labels are not only powerful but, like everything to do with language, they are reductive. Life is holistic while language is linear. I can be multiple things at the same moment to myself and multiple things to multiple people at the same moment. And that moment has past so we’re in a new moment.

This is not a painting.

In his painting The Treachery of Images, René Magritte painted a pipe and wrote “this is not a pipe.” I love this painting because it rips the bandaid off every time I see it. This is not a pipe, its a picture of a pipe. In fact a pipe is not a pipe. It’s an object that we call a pipe. By calling something a name we define it and give it purpose. I could go on and on about just this for 75 pages and redefine philosophy but Ludvig Wittenstein has already done this and he was a lot smarter than I am.

Language is how we relate to the world. It makes sense of the world for us. By it’s nature it boils the world down to stories. In English sentences we have subjects doing things to objects. For example, if someone asked you what you are doing right now you might say “I am reading this blog.” That would define, in simple terms, one of the many things that you’re doing right now. You could also say “I’m breathing air,” or “I’m looking at my phone,” or “I’m wondering what John Sylvain’s point is.”

My point is just to point out that language is a reductive tool and it’s powerful to be aware of its limitations. It’s the hammer that we all carry around and so we’re always looking for nails. In other words, we’re always looking to define things a certain way and create subject-verb-object relationships and then make sense of things linearly by telling stories about things.

Language developed to give us certainty about life, which we crave.

Or maybe we crave certainty about life because we developed language.

We want things to make sense and we do that with language. But we should be aware that things don’t really make sense, and language is a human invention.

There is a practical takeaway from all this.

  • What you say and how you define yourself has powerful effects on the way you see the world.
  • What you say is language and language is an invented tool.
  • You can use language to redefine yourself and the world around you. This will NOT effect the underlying reality but it will have powerful effects on the way you see the world and the way people see you (see the first bullet point).

Last word: I’m a creative machine. That’s who I am.

Mic drop.


*These guys are actually from a town in India called Joura where people carry guns around a lot according to the guy who took the photo. Again, I haven’t been there so I apologize if this ain’t true.