Fuel

For me, novelty is fuel.

I stoke my inner-fire by introducing my senses to new things. I do this all day long. “Check out these new flavors,” I tell my taste buds. “Or how about this new texture, that’s pretty nice,” I say to my fingertips, running them over a particularly appealing fabric while murmuring to my eyes, “That’s pretty interesting, right? Those colors? The pattern?”

Most days, particularly when I want to make something — to do creative work — I’ll change my work location every twenty minutes or so. It’s not really a conscious, regimented thing; it’s more that I’ve learned to recognize when my brain is getting bored, when my environment is fading into the background, and I relocate to reenergize my awareness. I may be writing or designing something, but there’s still part of my mind that comes alive when I move from the chair to the couch, from the couch to the rug in front of the fireplace, from the rug to the bed, from the bed to the coffee shop down the street.

This craving for novelty is reflected in my lifestyle choices. I travel frequently because I’ve realized that by doing so I maintain a level of peak awareness and mental stimulation much of the time. Learning this about myself has resulted in the happiest years of my life, the ability to churn out a large portfolio of work I’m proud of, and a heightened enjoyment of my environment, wherever I happen to find myself.

Of course, not everyone find their joy in novelty the way I do. For others, a meticulously curated home might be the optimal fuel. For still others, perhaps a collection of well-crafted lifestyle restrictions are what the doctor ordered, stimulating creativity by first limiting it.

There’s no right or wrong, better or worse fuel. But it does pay to know what your fuel is, so that you might bring more of it into your life. It’s okay to not push yourself to achieve crazy heights all the time, but even the most mundane of days can be far more pleasant when you have a surge of energy and appreciation with which to enjoy it.

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Rework or Retreat

Many of the emails I receive each day relate to the topic of imperfection.

More specifically, I hear from people who are trying to determine how they might extract themselves from a lifestyle that seemed to creep up on them; a lifestyle rife with responsibilities and issues that weren’t part of the plan. Whether because of work, or a non-functioning relationship, or monetary issues, or a combination of these and other variables, they’ve found themselves stuck in a rut. Fine, but not great. Making it work, but not deliriously happy. Living, but not living.

It may be that they were led down the path they now walk, told their entire lives it would lead them elsewhere. It may be that they didn’t know what they actually wanted — what really made them happy — until recently, and their former hopes and dreams don’t measure up to the newer versions. It may be that they simply never thought about such things until just recently, and like we so often do in times of disorientation and bewilderment, they opened up a browser window and started Googling as quickly as they could type. Which is how their story ended up in my inbox.

Whatever the path to communication, and whatever the specifics of the story, the solution very often falls into one of two categories. If you write me about this type of thing, I’ll very likely tell you about these two options:

Your first option is to improve upon your current lot, iterating and upgrading the best you’re able, reworking a lifestyle that doesn’t currently fulfill you into something that does; or at least something that brings you closer to fulfillment.

Your second option is to step away from your lifestyle and start something new. This could mean quitting your job to pursue your painting passion full-time. This could mean breaking up a marriage that’s been okay, but not great, and going out into the world as an individual once more. This could mean leaving your home to explore the world, despite the protests of a family that means well, but wants you to stay put. This could mean many things in particular, but in the broad strokes, it’s a retreat. Not in the ‘running from something’ sense, but in the ‘stepping back from something’ meaning of the word. It’s replacing what you have now with something different.

The first option is in some ways easier to implement. It will likely cause less drama and attract less pushback, and doesn’t bring with it the ‘stepping off a cliff’ feeling that the second option tends to instill in people.

But the ‘retreat’ option is a clean break. It allows you to build from scratch, rather than trying to reshape something that may not want to be reshaped; allows you to be a new version of yourself right away, rather than forcing you to build a bunch of newness into your existing structure.

Neither option is more right or more wrong, and either could work for any person. You could even combine the two: plan a retreat, but allow yourself to iterate your current situation until you’re at the point where you can take the leap. If you opt for a hybrid approach, I recommend setting a firm deadline for the complete switchover, otherwise it’s easy to put it off again and again.

Whatever you choose, though, I suggest that you choose something. You’ve got a finite amount of time to live and enjoy and feel good feelings. The sooner you make a change — the sooner you rework or retreat — the more time you’ll have to enjoy your happier, more fulfilling life.

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Real Life

Upending my life to travel full-time was, without a doubt, one the better decisions I’ve ever made. Despite the sacrifices required, and even during the really tricky or troublesome times, I’ve yet to regret that choice even for a moment.

But something I’ve learned since then is that ‘travel’ itself isn’t what I was after, and isn’t why I enjoy my lifestyle so much.

It isn’t the act of locomotion that thrills me, nor the status of ‘living elsewhere,’ nor the passport full of stamps. It’s the experiences I have when I’m pulled out of a familiar reality. It’s the people I meet who have grown up under far different circumstances than me. It’s the novel flavors and alien color palettes. It’s seeing the world from a different point of view, and not just geographically. In every way seeing things differently, for a time.

I bring this up not because I think travel is less than it’s typically made out to be, but because it’s possible to find many of these same things at home. We can expose ourselves to new people and ideas. We can seek out new fields of study and genres of music. We can push ourselves, attempt things that scare us, and try the unidentifiable foods at the restaurant with the name we can’t pronounce.

There’s so much knowledge and opportunity at our fingertips, all day, every day, and it’s easy to forget that. We forget because we have habits and routines. And we overlook this at-home potential for novelty because travel is our excuse to extract ourselves from ‘real life’ so that we might pursue something new and risky…before coming home to real life once more.

It’s uncomfortable to risk the stability of our ‘real,’ familiar, predictable lives. Much easier to only interact with challenging realities in short bursts, and away from our own backyards.

Consider what we might learn, though, and how thrilling each day might be, if we approached our ‘real lives’ the way we approach foreign travel. Imagine how much more growth we might experience, and how much more fun and inspiration might be had.

Take a second and decide what your ‘real life’ will be: a backdrop not worth your attention, or a source of never-ending fascination, intrigue, and interest.

And if you choose the latter, start exploring.

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Outrage

Outrage is sexy. It sells newspapers and attracts online clicks. If you want to raise a ruckus, get outraged, because people go gaga over people going gaga.

Of course, that’s all the value one can get from outrage. Although entertaining to watch and speculate over and gossip about, outrage very, very seldom changes anything, and can even make a bad situation worse by injecting anger into the mix.

On a personal level, outrage makes us feel superior. By becoming indignant, we’re drawing a line in the sand and declaring ourselves to be on the right side of a given issue. We’re saying, “How horrible this situation is, and how capable I am of declaring right and wrong, and passing judgment on those involved!”

Whether we actually happen to be right or wrong is irrelevant, because the sense of injustice we revel in is actually a self-esteem boost, gained by climbing atop rabble and rubble. It makes us feel taller to indignantly puff ourselves up with outrage.

The share-rate of rage-inducing news can be attributed to the flood of ‘hurts so good’ chemicals that accompany righteous anger. Getting hooked on this feeling is all too common, and causes us to seek it out. The need to be angry or upset in order to feel good is a sad state of affairs. Look around: there’s no shortage of business models predicated on saturating people with these chemicals, keeping them hooked on an anger-induced high.

To avoid this type of addiction, it’s best to avoid delving into scandals and fabricated, bias-heavy news items and storylines. Instead, decide where and how you can actually make a difference.

This move is guaranteed to pour water over the rage-high we might otherwise get hooked on, because it requires us to think rationally — not emotionally — and requires us to determine which problems we will participate in solving and which are just fun to get upset about.

If you want to be involved in something scandalous, do something other than sitting around and seething, while spreading the same venom to others.

Anger without action leaves us feeling as though we’ve accomplished something when we haven’t. This results in fewer solutions, not more, because the desire to solve the problem is washed away by the feeling of satisfaction we get from being incensed. Resentment without an effort to rectify accomplishes exactly nothing, and makes us part of the problem we’re so angry about.

In short: if you’re not willing to lift a finger to solve a problem, you’ve lost the right to complain about it. By complaining more selectively, we’ll spend more time solving problems and sharing solutions, and less time perpetuating outrage-addiction.

This post is an excerpt from my book, Considerations.

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Fiction and What Comes Next

I daydream quite a lot about pie-in-the-sky efforts, like a guaranteed universal minimum income and solar roads and post-scarcity social models.

As a result, I end up talking about them a whole lot and bringing up some of the more unlikely ones in my fictional work so that I can show how they might happen, what they might look like in practice, and what the repercussions might be.

One thing I love about fiction is that you can speculate, while nonfiction requires that everything be tethered to reality.

Of course, fiction is quite often realistic. When I say ‘reality’ in the above context, what I really mean is ‘reality that seems likely.’ And unfortunately, anything beyond the imaginable norms come across as incredibly unlikely. Silly, even.

Try and wrap your head around the social upheavals that would take place in a post-scarcity world, for instance. The concept is that everyone has everything they need to survive (food, shelter, and other necessities). Our entire societal structure and governmental system and economic theory is based around scarcity, and as such would no longer be relevant in the same way it is today. We’d need new philosophies and laws and social structures and approaches to research and development and even little things, like figuring out who maintains the roads (if anyone…robots? Who would build and maintain them? Reprogram them if they were hacked?).

The point is that it’s hard to imagine seismic shifts in how we operate, and that’s why some concepts, though they may solve many of the problems we cope with day-to-day, seem incredibly unlikely. They’re just too different, and require too many changes, and we seldom see shifts that dramatic in a single lifetime.

And that’s a fair argument, though I would make two counter-arguments.

1. Fiction is one way we prepare ourselves for such changes. Fiction allows us to imagine ‘what would happen if…’ before we pull the trigger, and allows us to refine our approaches based on possible outcomes (Asimov’s Laws of Robotics are a great example of this, as they seem so iron-clad, but he himself showed many possible ways around them in his writings).

2. I think we’re doing an overall great job iterating, truth be told. As humans. Collectively, looking at the big picture, and despite all the horrible stuff that’s occurred as a byproduct or direct result of our biological, technological, and social evolution, we’re moving forward. Learning from our mistakes. It may not look like it sometimes (because it’s more profitable to sell panic than peace, and because the more we learn, the more details we see, and the more flaws we’re capable of seeing in our own development), but that’s how it looks from my standpoint. That being said, I also think there’s little more terrifying than being stuck in an ever-present ‘now.’

That would mean never changing beyond what we’re able to imagine based on our day-to-day activities. New social structures could never emerge, because they don’t jive with what we can imagine based on our experiences at the office and politics as normal. We can’t develop and produce solar roads, because then we’d have to change the laws, the production equipment, potentially the cars themselves, the energy grid; too many changes. No way, no how.

I think, in many ways, any given ‘now’ is only as strong as its ability to help people see a potential ‘soon.’ And though not everything printed and sold or projected on a screen somewhere is gold, there are a whole lot of ideas out there, floating around. Books, movies, TV shows, online content, video games, graphic novels/comic books, board games: we’re awash with interesting fiction. And though the primary goal for many of the people involved with a piece of fiction’s creation may be entertainment and industry, the byproduct is that we’re all capable of imagining so much more than folks a generation or two before us.

We’re capable of stepping outside ourselves and wondering, what if? And though such thoughts are pie-in-the-sky, they’re also what enable us to take large steps, understanding ahead of time a little about what may await us on the other side.

A version of this post was originally published on Facebook and Tumblr, and can be commented upon and shared there, if you like.

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Free Speech and Labels

Remember:

1. The freedom of speech is only really necessary when someone is saying something you don’t agree with. If we all agreed on everything, or were only told things we already agreed with, no one would have to fight for free speech (and no one would be exposed to new perspectives, ever).

2. Violence against those who would express themselves is heinous and indefensible (note that as soon as the speech itself infringes upon others’ rights to express themselves, it’s no longer simply ‘speech,’ but something else entirely, yet it still doesn’t warrant violence).

3. An entire group of people is neither responsible for, nor need apologize for, the acts of an individual or group that’s technically affiliated with them in some way. If this was the case, we’d all be apologizing for things we don’t agree with and are philosophically unaffiliated with all the time, and civilization would cease to function. Blame the people who commit crimes, not those who also happen to be from the same country, follow the same religion, wear the same clothing, listen to the same music, play the same video games, are also left-handed, etc.

4. The press — even members of it we don’t agree with — is a valuable and powerful thing. If it wasn’t, those whose words and actions cannot survive in an open, informed society (villains of all flavors) wouldn’t try so hard to silence it. Keep that in mind, know that there are different ways to silence the press, and watch for such activities the future (and remember who is doing the silencing, and what it says about their words and actions).

Be safe and understanding and kind and brave out there.

This post was written in response to this. And was originally posted on Facebook and Tumblr (and can be commented upon/shared there, if you like).

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The Passage of Time

The way we experience time is the direct result of how we spend it.

That is to say, one hour in the hands of a person who uses it intentionally can seem like ages, each second noticed, held, weighed, and tasted before it flutters off to be replaced by another.

That same hour, used in a flurry by someone trying to cram too much into it, or who uses it in a scattered sort of way — spread too thin — will barely notice its passing. Every single day can seem like a non-event to this latter person, though not because they’re misusing their time, per se. It’s more that they’re trying to accomplish things in a disorganized, frantic way, rather than an intentional, organized fashion.

When I bring this up to some people, they tell me that they are very organized, thank you very much. They have pocket calendars and reminders on their phones. They’re GTDing and Inbox Zeroing and Pomodoroing and making use of every other clever time-optimizing trick they can find. They’re the most organized people they know; it’s time that’s the problem. Time doesn’t seem to want to fit into one of their boxes, which leaves them drained and unsatisfied most nights, struggling to get to sleep because their brains won’t slow down and their bodies are running on fumes.

There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious. I consider myself to be a very ambitious person, and I do my best to surround myself with people who likewise want to get the most out of life.

That being said, I believe that most of us have been brought up with very harmful ideas of how we’re meant to achieve the things we want to achieve. We’re told that we have to wring ourselves dry of energy and balance in order to get what we want. We’re told that we have to fill ever moment of every day with frantic busywork, lest we fall behind someone else who’s willing to do more with that spare second they find themselves hoarding. We’re told that to be successful is to be perpetually goose-stepping faster than the person next to us, and that in order to be a winner, we have to light things on fire and blow things up, starting with our own health, relationships, and sanity.

I disagree.

This harmful extreme is common amongst some types of ambitious people, and it’s a cautionary tale for those who wish to pursue anything big, while at the same time assuring those who are less ambitious that there’s no need to take more control of their lives: down that path are sacrifices not worth making.

From what I’ve seen, though, one needn’t dynamite their lives in order to succeed. Some of the most wildly successful people I know take a more balanced approach, allowing them to pursue what makes them happy while maintaining a healthy body and successful relationships.

What this generally involves is a better use of one’s time. More specific and careful use. These people tend not to have the TV on while trying to write while talking to their assistant about another project. They write. Or they space out in front of the TV. Or they delegate. They do things intentionally and with focus. Every moment of every day, they’re completely engaged.

Beyond that, there aren’t a lot of commonalities in how they spend their time. Some of these people fill their days with work or familial responsibilities, while others take frequent off-grid retreats into the woods. Still others fill their lives with non-work-related social activities, or TV/video games/books/other forms of entertainment.

How you spend your time is determined by you and what makes you happy. But what you get out of it, and the way in which you experience it, is based on whether or not you’re engaged and focused.

Burnout is common in a world where communication with anyone on the planet and complete access to any piece of information you might want to have is available all day, every day. This is a wonderful, nearly miraculous asset, so long as you can filter it to suit your needs.

Experiment frequently, expose yourself to new ideas and experiences, and figure out what makes you happy. Engage in more of those types of activities and make those types of lifestyle choices more frequently. Immerse yourself in them; don’t try to multitask or use tricks to fit more activity into a moment than that moment allows for.

We all have the same amount of time to spend each day. Assess how you’re spending yours, and be sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck.

If you’re keen to read more essays like this one, consider signing up for my free newsletter. You can also see my work on my social media accounts, and sign up for Let’s Know Things, if you like knowing things.

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The Cost of Things

It’s amazing what we can get for twenty dollars these days. Sure, it sometimes seems like inflation just won’t quit, and the costs of living add up to a frightening sum, and a pack of gum could once be had for less than a dollar, but now costs several.

But this is mostly a slow-burn perspective; difficult to see clearly because it moves so steadily.

Our buying power for most things (in the developed and developing worlds) has been on an upward trend for generations, and our lack of appreciation for this fact stems not from a dearth of wielded purchasing power, but from the lack of synchronicity between that power and our expectations of how much power we should possess, as explained and reinforced by marketing messages. Demand isn’t created for a product or service unless you keep people aspirational, so it’s in the best interest of many to keep us wanting more than we have.

Beyond this dollars-and-cents cost for things, there are other, less obvious expenses. Price tags that we don’t tend to see unless we look closely, but which are worth acknowledging nonetheless.

Opportunity cost, for example, is what we give up in favor of what we choose to buy/consume/spend our time with. When I purchase a phone, for instance, the opportunity cost is every other phone on the market, and the possibility of not having a phone, and the software/networks/brand associations of those other phones and lifestyles. The cost of my phone, then, is not just the number on the click-to-buy button.

There’s also long-term monetary cost, which includes things like recurring payments and debt; not just for the item in question, but for interest accrued on other debt that you could have paid off instead of making your purchase (if I buy a phone instead of paying off debt, the cost of that phone goes up because of the extra debt accrued through my non-payment).

Or how about the resource and sustainability cost of our purchases? Smartphones are the end-result of a massive supply chain connecting all the components of the device, allowing them to be constructed by machines and people who must be paid and fed and housed and (in the case of the machines) maintained. These supply chains stretch far and wide, encompassing mines and roads and caravans of trucks and back-channel deals with politicians. This includes the technologies required to work with the materials and mold them into useful shapes, which makes use of scientific knowledge that’s been conceived and refined over many centuries — with the most core knowledge tracing back to the beginning of humankind, and the most small and specific going back only years or months. This all coalesces into something incredibly intuitive and valuable (aided by the millions of manpower hours that have gone into developing the software) and yet so common as to be barely noticeable.

Every single thing we buy has a price, and that price is typically far larger than we think while swiping our cards at the checkout terminal or one-click shopping online. This doesn’t make our purchases inherently harmful or wrong: if anything, it makes them all the more impressive for the chain of people and events and resources that have been linked up to make the end product available for common consumption!

But it’s valuable to understand that the simple act of buying a phone — or anything — has repercussions beyond the passive ‘buy and move on’ mentality we often adopt when procuring a new possession.

We consider how something will improve our lives, make us feel, improve the perception others have of us (and the perception we have of ourselves), and myriad other variables associated with the capitalistic exchange of value. It only seems prudent that we consider the bigger picture, the true cost of things, as well.

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Subtlety

It’s human nature to be reductionist.

By simplifying complex concepts, we’re more able to consider them quickly, share them with others, and move forward into a state of understanding from a state of ignorance. Our instincts are wired for this so that we might quickly assess which aspects of our environment could be dangerous or beneficial. The other parts of our brains aim for similar, metaphor-based comprehension. Symbolic grokking.

Unfortunately, when we lose details we also lose subtlety, and it’s within nuance that valuable fuzziness can be found. Lacking this fuzziness — this unclear, indistinct collection of ‘maybes’ and ‘sort ofs’ and ‘almosts’ — we’re forced to be more concrete in our thinking; more absolute. We’re more prone to deciding that things are absolutely a certain way, ignoring inconvenient grays in between the black and white.

I’m interviewed a fair bit these days, which is a lot of fun: I truly enjoy discussing travel and my work, and other topics that interest me. But the more I think about all the subtleties of my work, and of life as a whole, the more I find myself affixing addendums to my answers, distorting the clarity that one might expect to find when an ‘expert’ talks about their field.

No longer do I feel comfortable being prescriptive in an absolute sense. For every bit of advice I give, I find myself saying things like “Well, that’s how I do it,” and “At least, that’s what works for me and what I’m hoping to achieve.” A simple question about social media usage can spiral into a complex answer about personal preferences, professional background, intentions and goals, how habits might fit into your life (and ideal lifestyle), and myriad other facets that seem necessary to bring up, if I’m to give a complete answer.

Of course, in many cases, the interviewers are probably just looking for some basic tips, not a philosophical rumination. But such tips, lacking context, seem to be the root of a problem that you find throughout prescriptive works these days. It’s all about pro-tip lists and one-size-fits-all strategies that, if you think about it, couldn’t possibly work for every single person who thinks to give them a shot. If we’re all approaching social media marketing the same way, does anyone really benefit? Aren’t we diluting the pool while also making use of tactics that lead us all down the same path, toward the same (undifferentiated, non-personalized) goals?

My struggle of late has been reaching a balance between these two extremes: explaining in detail every last facet of a concept, and being so reductionist as to be delivering little more than words without merit. Not just in interviews and the professional realm, but across the board. In lifestyle, relationships, work, and play.

That’s what clear communication is, at its most essential: honing in on the core of complex concepts, and conveying them in an accessible way that doesn’t water down their message, meaning, or profundity. And it’s no surprise, then, that the vast majority of people are absolutely terrible at this. It’s far easier to just speak or write some impressive-sounding words and be done with it. To regurgitate phrases that we associate with meaning, and arrange them in such a way that they appear to be relevant.

That’s the easier path, but I’m going to keep working hard to express the details.

Because for me the most meaningful bits have also been the most subtle. The most valuable concepts I’ve been exposed to are the ones that I first encountered as tiny, barely recognizable seeds, but which have since bloomed into the most vital aspects of my life.

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