Writing my obituary in journalism class, tears were welling in my eyes. The assignment was meant to teach us the form. I took it to existential depths.
When your kitchen is your bedroom, you need to take out the trash. When your space is limited, you need to take out the trash. And when you want to move forward and be a better person, you need to take out the trash out. Often.
You have zero time to mess around with trash. Do not compromise; just find out what's important and build backwards.
We can be better.
It's not that you're not good enough as it is, it's not that any of us can be perfect. It is the fact that there will always be problems and we need to deal with them. You can't wish away problems like you can't wish away the seasons, illness or death. They will happen.
And because there is no magic bullet to your problems, there is only one way to handle them - be better. Personal development guru Jim Rohn used to recommend not wishing for less problems, but wishing for more skills.
And yet there are some people in this world that ignore this reality. They might accept the endless problems but they constantly complain and point them out to the rest of the world without doing anything. Some, arguably worse, don't even see problems with solutions. They dream of a utopia where problems float away for no rhyme or reason.
There is serious denial in believing that you don't need to work on yourself to better deal with the problems around you. The backlash is everywhere. There are people in this world that pull back from personal development. They discourage you from writing out your goals. They question your adventures. They shake their heads in disbelief.
And I know, I've done it myself. To myself.
Writing notes from a podcast while on the subway I could feel the eyes of the person sitting next to me, staring down at my phone with the folds of skin on his forehead crunching together. "What is he doing," I can feel him asking himself, almost annoyed and aggravated that I would stand to make myself better, making notes like "Meditation is as deep and as powerful a tool as any I can possibly describe" from Josh Waitzkin, the chess world champion and inspiration for the book and film Searching for Bobby Fischer.
What is the big deal? What is the backlash? Why is there such a stigma with wanting to improve yourself? I have some ideas.
Success is easy and it's not.
It's simple to see why it's not. The models of success we're given are beyond our grasp - Bill Gates, Michael Phelps, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan. They appear larger than life, talented from birth. But if we take an extra second to ponder it, we know it's not true. We just know they put in enormous amounts of work to craft their genius.
And yet, success is easy. Why? For exactly the same reason. We dress it up with tips and tricks, but the truth can't be said more clearly than through the words of Jim Rohn: "Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines, practiced every day." That's some boring shit right there. Most of us are successful brushing our teeth every morning and eating some kind of dinner every night. Big deal. The real success is preparing yourself for the challenges down the road and meeting them with everything you have and have practiced for. You don't arrive crowned champion, it is a test. Or as Ryan Holiday, former Director of Marketing for American Apparel and author of The Obstacle is The Way, has this to say: "Make it happen. Nobody cares what it will take, what problems this causes for you, what personal stuff you have going on. Just get it done."
White Guys in Suits
The Eighties were a weird time. And the story we seem to still tell ourselves is personal development is white guys in suits doing workshops. You can envision the over-excited, high-volume figurehead on the stage, shouting down to businesspeople mantras and acronyms while they drank it in, dreaming of their salaries jumping each year.
Cliches abound and we need to get past it. Personal development is not a white man in a power suit. Personal development is not just about numbers - bonuses, salaries, or sales figures. It doesn't mean you have to step on people to get anywhere. You're competing with no one but yourself. This is the truth.
When it comes down to you, why not be better? You're scared. It is never as simple as self-help authors say it is. You need to act. It's easy and it's not. And if you do manage to reach the top of the mountain, you'll find yourself oddly alone. Or so you think.
George Bernard Shaw wrote, "There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it." We stay in our bubble because we're afraid of what's outside. We prefer safety to the amazing wonders we can find pushing ourselves to become someone we don't even recognize - a powerhouse of potential.
Where does that leave us? Was there ever a leg to stand on against making yourself into someone better? You know it's not easy and you know it's not hard. It is whatever you make it.
There is no denying there will always be problems, so why not swallow that painfully simple truth and enjoy working on the solutions? After all, we're in this together, for better or worse.
Every time someone asks me what I'm reading, I panic.
The reaction started back as far as I can remember. Second grade. Mrs. Goodwin said we could pick up extra credit if we completed reading comprehension quizzes once our original assignments in math or science were done. Extra credit meant something somewhat collectible like trading cards, which I was all about even before Pokemon convinced me that I gotta catch 'em all.
I sprinted through the math and science. No problem. Then I rifled through the box of quizzes up for grabs. Each was a thin cardboard sheet - one side a short story, the other a dozen or so questions about the main idea and other details. Simple stuff, right? Well, I was dogshit at it. Even for a second-grader. I purposely set the bar low for myself and grabbed the easy blue-colored ones, knowing full well that orange was a bitch to complete. And I still didn't do well. No collectibles this time around.
There was no reason why I would be so bad. I was always a good student. There wasn't even the Internet around to blame on my eyes' inability to stay focused reading one line at a time, left to right. No. There was one simple story and I could not grasp it. I read it, sure, and I enjoyed it, probably, but ask me for a main idea and my mind went blank. Just extra credit in a void.
And here I am 27 years old, still somewhat unable to carry on a conversation about a story I hold in my hands, fifty pages in, colorful sticky notes hanging out the side.
But I'm learning.
I'll tell you how with an example. I just finished The Obstacle is The Way by Ryan Holiday. And when people want to make conversation more than about the weather, they ask for a book when usually the title says plenty. "Whatcha reading?" (They want my thoughts! ) My mind went blank, except for a handful of general undefined and uncoordinated details:
"Well, The Obstacle is The Way is all about how we can use our failures, which are endless and inevitable, to propel us to success if we embrace them as being natural."
Not a bad starting off point if I do say so myself, but then again you could have gathered 95% of that from reading the book jacket. Damn.
"It's written by Ryan Holiday, former Director of Marketing for American Apparel, accomplished author, and he's our age!"
Impressive, definitely. Does it say much to the book? Nope. What does American Apparel and his other books say about this one? Nothing on the surface. Double damn.
"It's a lot about Stoicism, the ancient philosophy."
Um, I don't know about you but Stoicism means nothing much to me either. What is Stoicism? The truth is the weakness remains - after reading the whole book, I'm not quite sure how to define it.
In retrospect, reading is like some kind of intellectual blackout for me. I'm just grabbing for bits and pieces after I flip the last page, hoping for some kind of coherence.
We're taking the time to read some words with our eyeballs and crunch the ideas with our minds, why not make something of it? Devour it. Digest it. And make your own judgments. If someone asks you about the book, saying it's "good" is not good enough. "Good" is boring. "Good" is lazy.
Charlie Munger, business partner of world-famous investor Warren Buffett, boiled down the significance of reading to the success of their habits: "We read a lot. I don't know anyone who's wise who doesn't read a lot. But that's not enough: You have to have a temperament to grab ideas and do sensible things. Most people don't grab the right ideas or don't know what to do with them."
And so how do we do it? The Farnam Street Blog delivered the goods of a scholarly study that said you're better off remembering a book's content in the long run by reading 10 pages and writing out a summary than by reading 10 pages four times in a row and trying to memorize it.
I don't need to give you a summary of The Obstacle is The Way because the important part is that it speaks directly to the heart of the matter. Holiday starts the book with a process for recognizing and replacing perceptions. The biggest perception switch we need is right there in the title. Obstacles are not meant to be avoided or destroyed. It's impossible. Obstacles are opportunities in every circumstance. Reading can be your obstacle, page after page, processing ideas and making them your own. You choose your own opportunity. There is always something to learn.
No one is quizzing you for extra credit any more. You should be reading for a reason. We don't have to become encyclopedias or experts with bullet points and flowcharts just because we took the time to scan words in ink. Hell, we have Google. You could just enjoy the book because it made you feel a certain way. Or it could speak to a certain feeling or a moment in your life. Or it changed your view of the world around you. If anything, it should move you and you should be able to say something about it. Like anything else worth a damn in this life.
New York is a wonderful and awful place. There is such an abundance here no one wonders why it's called The City That Never Sleeps. I don't have to tell you there is always something to do. There are books written about it. And even then there is more.
Boredom is unacceptable. Until you find boredom in being overwhelmed. There is so much it's too much. The glitz fades away and you're just left existing, in your little bubble.
A number of open letters about New York have crossed my path recently, some disillusioned by New York and others praising it in unique ways. I took pleasure in reading them myself, if only because it is my current home. And, yes, New York is unique and it has style. It is unforgiving and memorable for an endless list of reasons. And just about anything you could say about it could be true.
And somehow there is pressure just in existing here. It only started making sense when I went far enough away for long enough to appreciate other ways to live.
It can't only be wild parties and drunken one-night stands. Sometimes we need to sleep. Or run home after work to attempt cooking dinner and reading for a bit. I like to crack my window so the breeze comes in while I write something like this.
The challenge is that New York tends to throw so many wrenches in the works. You have dreams, New York has plans. And parties. And events. There is so much that you need to stop and think for a minute. For yourself. What do you want from your surroundings? What are you willing to do?
After all, the late author David Foster Wallace said it beautifully - "[Learning how to think] means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to, and to choose how you construct meaning from experience."
Just because there is loads to offer doesn't mean you have to accept. You need to make some tough decisions that really aren't all that tough. Don't be fooled. You can strip away the bullshit for what really matters to you.
I took a knife to some habits this week, thanks to an excellent Zenhabits article. I easily unsubscribed from a dozen mailing lists and social network updates. I started sending everything I really wanted to read to Pocket, a brilliant app, so I can binge on them when I had time to sit and absorb them completely. I've been training myself not to worry about the updates on my phone as many thousands of times per day and training myself for my first 5K race. And, in the end, if you're not constantly distracted, what are you doing?
In Trust Me, I'm Lying, Ryan Holiday exposes the broken system of blogging today. And in wrapping up his long-view of the media landscape, he said this of modern reading diets: "When intelligent people read, they ask themselves a simple question: What do I plan to do with this information? Most readers have abandoned even pretending to consider this. I imagine it's because they're afraid of the answer: There isn't a thing we can do with it."
We're devouring a ton of information and experience and we're not quite sure why or if it's even good for us. New York is a test. The Internet is a test. Everything matters because of everything that does not. Only you can decide for yourself what you value of your spot right now.