Clear Communication as a Habit

When we’re telling a story with an intentional, pre-arranged moral at the end, we do our best to communicate clearly. “Here’s this thing that happened,” we’re saying, “and here’s what I learned from it.”

But communication doesn’t cease at the end of a yarn or the conclusion of a book. Everything we do, everything we present, every exchange that we have is saturated with potential significance. If we’re not tuned into this, there’s a chance we’re transmitting meaning that is unintentional, and even counter to our intentions.

A text message, for instance, can be laden with information.

What we say matters — the words we use, I mean — but so does, potentially, the speed at which we reply. Or the emoji (or lack thereof) scattered throughout our text. There’s even evidence that using a period at the end of such an exchange communicates things we’d likely prefer not to convey.

This is the case, too, with in-person interactions.

Our body language, our stance, the way we’re dressed, our tone of voice. All of these messages, many of them subconscious or unintentional, aggregate into something larger; the definition of who we are to those who encounter us.

In the same way you perceive things about an author based on how they structure sentences and the vocabulary they bring to bear and the rhythm of their writing, you also draw passive conclusions about the guy standing next to you at the party based on his sheepish smile, loud socks, and the way he sips his drink.

I bring this up not to wig anybody out about all the little conversations and data-finding missions that are happening invisibly around us all the time, but to put a sharp point on the idea that we have myriad opportunities to communicate things that we believe are important, far above and beyond a blog post or tweet. We have the ability to speak volumes without saying a word, and to convince, convey, and compound by slightly altering something we’re doing unconsciously.

These little actions and reactions are untapped billboard spaces that we can use to promote anything we like.

Rather than writing blog posts about being happier and more fulfilled, why not live it? Why not show it? Why not make those around you feel good, promote self-sustainability through your actions, by being self-sustained while nudging others toward the same? Why not dress in a way that expresses your values, create art the speaks volumes, or art that says nothing but “I did this because I enjoy it,” which itself is a meaningful statement?

Looking at the world from this perspective, it suddenly seems more valuable to learn to use emoji so that you can communicate different things in a different way using a different medium; so that you can interact with a different audience, one for whom those little images and animations amount to a local dialect.

Why not learn about unfamiliar genres of music and unfamiliar foods, to better understand the culture who creates and imbibes both? To better grok the societal norms and historical mores that led to their creation?

What opportunities are we missing out on, ignoring these communication channels? What connections might we make, and what relationships might we build? What might we learn? How might we grow? And how might we help others connect and build and grow, as well?

I don’t know. I do know that this has been a valuable realization for me to have, and to act upon in ways that make sense for me. We’ll all utilize these channels differently, though, and I’m guessing that the resultant value in most cases will be determined by one’s own determination, and the messages we each choose to convey (and to whom).

Thankfully it’s not difficult to get started. You just have to be open to an expansive definition for the word “communication,” and decide to communicate as clearly as possible via whatever channels you discover. To make a habit of doing so.

Then you step back and watch for the impact of your words, and for any messages you might receive in return.

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I Don’t Have To

It was a revelation when I realized that I didn’t have to be unhappy to be an artist.

No one ever outright told me that this was a requirement — heartbreak or abuse or drama or whatever — in order to be a creative person worth the title. But it was implied by pop culture and hearsay. Great artists are tortured souls, I knew, and being a happy person, I felt I was at a disadvantage.

And so I sought out difficulty. I stuck with a few relationships long past the point when I admitted they were bad for me, and mined my life for something dramatic, something sad. It didn’t work very well, so I gave up on the whole artist thing for a while. Tempered my creative ambitions.

Designers don’t have this same cultural baggage. You don’t hear as many folktales about brilliant designers being gifted because of some horrible thing that happened to them. There aren’t any old wives’ tales about designers mailing their lobbed-off ear to someone before booting up a pirated copy of Photoshop. No popularized culture of self-destruction in the typographic field.

I was able to embrace design the same way I’d embraced art, but without those added expectations. I didn’t even realize the difference, really, until I was a senior in college, looking back at the work I’d done and recognizing that the things I made when I allowed myself to be happy was far more me than anything I did while feigning anguish.

I experienced a similar moment when I was on my way out of Los Angeles, leaving behind my brand-building lifestyle for something else, something new that I hadn’t quite defined yet.

There’s a culture of dominance in the entrepreneurial world that you don’t really notice, not so that you’d put a name to it, while you’re inside that culture. The heroes and villains and hero-villains in the entrepreneurial world are all larger-than-life caricatures who stomp around and tell all those backward, dust-covered tycoons, and normal people who lack their superhuman vision where they can stuff their caution and concerns. According to the folklore, entrepreneurs take up space, dominate the room’s attention, and have origin stories that are repeated in awed reverence by people who aim to make the same ripples in the world someday.

Stepping away from this culture for the first time since I started my first business as a teenager, I realized how much of this grandiosity I had faked for so long; how much of myself I had to set aside to fit this mold so that others would see me as someone who made sense within that context; would believe I was made of the right stuff for success.

Quite often the friendly, happy person is seen as a rube or as someone who’s not made of stern-enough stuff in the context of entrepreneurial culture, but that’s who I am. I like helping people out, I like being happy. I like building things that don’t scale to infinity and living a lifestyle that isn’t ostentatious. I don’t believe that being an asshole is an advantage, or an attribute worth bragging about.

I enjoyed those years of entrepreneurial ambition to some degree, but I didn’t realize what I was missing until I extracted myself from that culture, from those expectations and folk tales. As soon as I was on the road, unsure of myself but wanting to make something me-shaped, I found out that there were so many elements of who I am that I hadn’t been exuding in my work or in my own brand.

Recognizing that these expectations were a reality in these different spaces was a big turning point for me. Recognizing that I don’t have to live up to these expectations in order to participate, enjoy the work that I do, and thrive, was earthshaking. It formed the entire basis for how I live and work today, and allowed me to be more myself than I’d ever been before.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these culturally prominent stereotypes.

If you want to take up space and stomp around and be seen as a hard character who gets things done, that’s wonderful. There’s a pre-built scene where you can do that.

If you’ve had some difficulties in your life and can tap into that heartache, that pain, that suffering, and channel it into something beautiful, something communicative, then I applaud your positive use of something negative. Keep it up! Make your art.

These ready-made cultures can be destructive, though, if we assume they are the only paths to success or fulfillment — if we feel compelled to whittle off our rough edges so that we better fit the commonly accepted perception of what a protagonist should look like and how they should behave.

Most of us are exposed to these pop culture idols before we’ve lived enough life to know who we are as individuals, so the likelihood of using these creations as shorthand, as filler until we better understand ourselves, is high.

Extracting ourselves from these preconceptions, then, and reminding ourselves that we don’t have to be anything that doesn’t align with our beliefs, our preferences, our ideal habits, is an incredibly valuable pursuit.

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The Math

Any lifestyle is within reach. We just have to balance the books. Do the math.

In a lot of cases, this means tallying up our available resources and reallocating them accordingly.

You might want to write a book, for instance. Writing a book is typically a monetarily cheap endeavor, but requires a great deal of time. As such, you look at the time you have available — 24 hours each day, 7 days a week, etc — and sort out how much of that time you can dedicate to the writing of this book.

Most of us already have most or all of our time accounted for. We spend it at work, or on our habits or hobbies. This is where the seeming simplicity of the math falls apart: how do we choose between two possible ways to spend this precious resource?

We have to decide, then, what’s more important. Between writing this book and, say, binge-watching Netflix or playing board games with your family, which do you choose? Between writing your book and sleeping a little more each night, or working full-time at the office, which do you choose?

The trouble is that there’s no clear answer. Working is good because it helps us keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. Spending time with our families (particularly if there are board games involved) is good because these are (hopefully) people we enjoy spending time with, and we want to prioritize happiness in our lives. Sleep is good because it helps us stay healthy and mentally alert. Even binge-watching Netflix can be good, when it’s part of a balanced (or intentionally imbalanced) lifestyle.

In this case, then, we might start looking at other ways to make those numbers dance.

Perhaps we figure out systems which allow us to do our work more efficiently, and which free up a few minutes each day. Over time this might liberate more time, say an hour or two each week, which we can then spend on our book.

Or maybe we reduce our monetary needs, moving into a smaller space, eating more simply, living with less stuff in favor of liberating more time. This might mean working part-time, instead, which frees up many previously entangled hours to spend however we like, possibly on that book.

Or maybe we step away from TV for a bit, to focus on this book. We decide to take two months for a lifestyle experiment during which we’ll dedicate all of our spare time to writing instead of consuming.

Perhaps we’ll attack this from the other side. We can write in short bursts each day, a few minutes here, a few minutes there. Because of this practice, after several months we are able to write more, and better, in less time. This means that each liberated minute is more valuable in the pursuit of this book-writing endeavor.

It could be that we already have some time freed up, but it takes ages to get into the right mindset and focus on the task at hand. Spending some of that time on working out, instead, could be the right move. Maybe a healthier body, feeling good more regularly, could allow us to be more in tune with ourselves and as such, more capable of stepping away from the everyday stresses into a more productive mind-space.

Or perhaps the same movement but with meditation or some other mind-focused ritual. Perhaps you’ve freed up an hour each day, and you spend ten minutes doing jumping jacks and push-ups and stretches, ten minutes sitting quietly, doing nothing physical at all, allowing your brain to sort itself out, and then use forty minutes to sit in a chair and write, the internet turned off, as many distractions as possible kept out of reach. Though this is a deviation from the ‘free up as much time as possible to write’ methodology, it’s a combination approach that could lead to more and better words landing on the page, faster.

The path to achieving a certain lifestyle or goal, then, isn’t always a straight line. It’s something with an infinite number of variables and with uncountable legitimate paths that will take you there.

It helps to sort out the math, though, to juggle the numbers so that you’re aware of what variables are in play, and so that you don’t feel these goals are impossible tasks.

Piece by piece, pick apart what’s in your way, sort out what’s necessary and what’s just habit, just a psychological barrier that can be overcome, and then start moving toward where you want to be.

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Seeds and Vegetables

One of the questions I’m asked most frequently is about making money while still being able to enjoy a fairly liberated lifestyle.

Asking “How can I make money so that I can live such-and-such lifestyle?” however, is prioritizing money before life. It’s like being born with a barrel full of seeds and asking how you can sell them to buy vegetables.

You are born with your energy, attention, and all of your time. Over the years, you learn to exchange these things for money.

More ideally, we ask ourselves something like “How can I sustain this lifestyle that I’ve built?” because this implies that we’ve figured out how we want to live, first. From there, we take into account the economic realities that shape our environment and see how we might perpetuate the life we’ve already built (or have started building). This is the equivalent of planting those seeds, digging some irrigation canals, and trying to decide how to invest the fruits (and veggies) of your labors.

The advice that I usually give in response to this question is:

Start building the life you want, today. Avoid inessential commitments, make a lot of valuable mistakes, appreciate any privilege you might have, and help others along the way when feasible. Then, figure out how to sustain your lifestyle, knowing something of how you want to spend your time and energy, what rewards will actually fulfill you, and what you’re willing to trade for more opportunities (and what you won’t trade at any cost).

Flipping this, selling your time, attention, and energy first, is like selling off your seeds in hopes of being able to someday afford vegetables. It’s a shortcut we’ve been trained to see as the default option, or even the only option, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

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Missed Connections

The following is an excerpt from Come Back Frayed.

Boracay is a weird place to be single.

I’m reminded of this as a server at one of the restaurants near my apartment drops off my food, a napkin, and fresh commentary.

“Why you always here alone? Always here just yourself, with no one else?”

I shrug and smile. She accepts this as an answer, thankfully. I’ve found that any other response provokes well-meaning but unwelcome match-making attempts. A few days ago I had a similar interaction with a male server, but the question was whether I was in Boracay with anyone else. I told him no, and less than five minutes later a pretty female manager came over to speak to me, to make sure everything was up to par, to find out where I was staying, to ask how long I’d be there. After dinner, a number was written on my receipt. I’m guessing it was hers, but it could have been the server’s. Either case would have been flattering, but would also run opposite to what I’m trying to accomplish here in the Philippines.

And what am I trying to accomplish? A good think, mostly. A step back and a reassessment. Some writing, certainly, but the writing is a byproduct of the internal observation. I keep stringent tabs on my state of mind, my habits, my purpose. These are things I allowed to gather cobwebs for a significant chunk of my teens and twenties, and ever since I started paying them mind again, back when I was twenty-four, my entire life and lifestyle have changed for the better. Each day is a step above the last, each and every moment worth treasuring. There are downswings, certainly, but nothing major. Nothing of note. For nearly seven years, life has been truly wonderful, primarily because I started paying attention.

My current additional level of attention, this period of extra-special mind-care, is the result of changes I’m considering, some that I’ve already experimented with, and some that I can feel coming but don’t yet know the shape of. One such change is this trip itself. My model for exploring the Philippines isn’t radically different from what I’ve done before, but there are enough differences in the specifics that I’m curious to see how I respond to it as compared to my usual four-month framework. I want to know how streamlining my flat-finding process impacts my experience of a place. I want to know how living a month in each location is different from four.

The travel itself isn’t the only aspect of my life with which I’m fiddling. I’ve been seriously considering diving into other media spheres, looking at an increasing number of TV-related opportunities, even considered starting my own, customized, non-standard production project, perhaps while waiting for something more mainstream to become concrete, or even instead of the orthodox option.

What about social media? How much should I be investing there, and what benefits will I gain with more effort implemented here, less there, and by adding entirely new platforms into the mix?

I’ve been writing books for a while, but there are new options available in how they’re sold and marketed. Does having a longer pre-sale period help or hinder the first week’s numbers? Should I be investing more in my drum-banging when a new book launches, or can I continue to get away with my usual, low-key marketing strategy? If I changed something in this formula, would a good book flop? Would I kill an income stream? Would I put my lifestyle in jeopardy because I cut off a flow of revenue or because I opted into a responsibility that requires me to have interactions that I find to be ethically questionable?

And how about relationships?

The last time I had a conventional relationship was in 2009. It was a good partnership with a wonderful person, and it led me to a period in which I questioned everything and recognized something that I always knew, but was afraid to admit to myself: the standard model isn’t for me.

I don’t want kids, I don’t think the traditional concept of marriage would fulfill me or the type of person I’m into, and I find limitations, particularly those that imply ownership of another person or that limit them in any way to be against my values. In the many years since then I’ve experimented and rejiggered the formula. What I’ve settled on since then, a model I’ve found to be a good fit for me and my type, are ‘long-term open relationships.’ These allow for the shared growth with another person, but without restrictions that don’t jive with my lifestyle and how I want to treat another person.

That said, I often go many months at a time without so much as a date, much less dating anyone. This is sometimes the result of living in a place that isn’t conducive to non-standard relationships, but sometimes it’s intentional. Sometimes I say, “No, let’s just focus on me for a while.”

This is one of those moments. Coming off of a recent, wonderful partnership that was a little unexpected, I’ve been hankering for some me-time, a little bit of psychological distance which allows me to more easily focus on personal growth and my needs rather than sharing my mind-space with someone else who I’m missing, who’s presence I crave.

These me moments are grand, because although they can be lonely, they also force me to consider where I want to be, not where I am. When you’re with someone else you’re in the moment because you both need to be on the same page. When you’re alone, you can focus on some future moment, some new place, because there’s no one to accidentally leave behind, no one who’s buy-in you require in order to make changes in yourself.

My situation stands out like a sore thumb here on the island. Boracay is a place where people honeymoon. It’s where you bring a date you want to impress. Even the locals are all paired off: the jovial, primarily ex-military expats and their tiny Filipina wives spend much of their time together, eating and drinking and sitting near spots where they were moments ago eating and drinking. There are couples from Germany and Finland and the States ambling about as well, though they’re lost in the deluge of Chinese tourists, who move in packs of ten to forty, their multitude overwhelming all nearby tables, chairs, booths, and footpaths. Even these great swarms of people, with their matching t-shirts and backpacks, tend to be paired off. An odd number in Boracay is an odd thing, indeed.

Relationships are considered by many to be challenging, difficult. To be points of stress in one’s life. These downsides are tolerated because the upsides are worth it, of course, but I don’t understand the draw of such relationships. Why would you fight to propagate something that isn’t helping you get where you want to be, and that isn’t allowing you to live the life you desire?

One of the main reasons people don’t end toxic relationships, I think, is that they’re afraid to be alone. There’s a deep-seated fear in many that to be alone is to be a failure, to be lost and rudderless, to be a cast-away from that which once connected them to the wider world. If they don’t have their partner, a partner, any partner, they have no plans, no aspirations, no dates to keep. They identify as being one half of a whole, rather than being whole all by themselves.

I prefer to be a complete individual, first, and this is part of why I date very carefully, and actually very seldom. A complete individual has trouble dating anyone except other complete individuals, and this is not something we’re encouraged to be. It’s a shockingly rare trait.

Groups of people are easier to sort and manage. Pairs of people can have kids, can form families, can be predictable, organizable members of society. It’s not some kind of conspiracy that we’re encouraged to pair off in this way, it’s just practical. Traditional. Things have worked this way for a long time for many different reasons, and as such our whole social infrastructure is based around it.

People who fall outside of this schema, then, can make those who play by the rules a little uncomfortable. Because an odd number is someone with whom you cannot double date. They’re also someone who isn’t on the same lifestyle track as you: no marriage, no kids, no mortgage. You lack the shared concerns that tend to make for better friendships. To some, you may even seem like a threat, like some kind of potential spouse-stealer. Not good.

These are not things we think about consciously, of course, but they’re things that we act upon. Part of what makes the wait staff uncomfortable when I walk in the door is that the smallest table they’ve got is a two-seater. Even our restaurants interiors are predicated on pairs or larger groups, and an individual is relegated to the bar, where he or she can hopefully find someone they can bring back to a table someday.

I understand the desire to ‘settle,’ at least in the historical context. Settle as in ‘settle down,’ I mean, though it can sometimes more clearly resemble ‘settling’ in the context of silt at the bottom of a lake. The idea of settling down is to find someone with whom you can start a family, enjoy the years you’re both fortunate to have, and hopefully find some meaning along the way. Modern technology and society has thrown a stick in those spokes, though. I hear a lot of talk about Millennials, a generation that is often talked down about by Gen Xers and Baby Boomers because they defy much of what these other generations took for granted. Owning homes, having a bunch of kids, two cars in the garage, working for the same company your entire life. These are things that were once reliable aspects of life, but aren’t any longer. The Millennials’ rejection of these recent traditions in order to avoid going in to immense debt, to cease consuming more than is necessary, and to refocus on doing work that they’re passionate about rather than something that will simply pay the bills is confounding to many of their parents and older contemporaries.

But the way Millennials approach relationships can stir up scorn in their older peers. We’re a generation that was exposed to the internet at a youngish age, and younger Millennials cannot remember a time in which they were not connected to a significant percentage of the global population via this network.

Think about that for a second. That means this generation is aware of many, many more variables than those who came before them. It means they are aware of different ways of looking at the world and the consequences of their (and their forebears’) actions.

While once a person would be exposed to perhaps a few hundred people over the course of their entire life, now each and every person with a smartphone in their pocket and a social network sending them way too many notifications each day is exposed to millions of people. Hundreds of millions. Their reach is godlike compared to members of any other generation before them. So the idea of settling, of taking the best you can find of the people who happen to go to your school, live in your neighborhood, or work in your office seems downright quaint. Why ‘settle’ for what you can stumble into when you can instead search for someone optimal in a much larger pool of potentials?

Now consider modern healthcare and ask yourself why, when an ever-increasing number of us can expect to live productive lives into our eighties and nineties, we would want to have kids while in our teens and twenties. Why not go out and see the world first? Get educated and figure out who we are before being expected to properly raise and educate a kid of our own?

Hell, the world being what it is today, with global climate change and the other repercussions of overpopulation, why not just skip the kids thing altogether? Why not have dogs, cats, turtles, or a cactus garden instead? Why not be happy with your partner or partners, live a happy life, and leave the having of children to other people?

This is a good question with many answers. There are plenty of excellent reasons to have kids and to go through some of the traditional motions, even if they’re edited a bit for relative age and lifestyle priorities.

But there are an increasing number of acceptable, even desirable models for relationships, and many of them having nothing at all to do with raising children and having families. This is due to the aforementioned technologies, an increased international awareness, and the widespread availability of new options worth considering in nearly every vital sector of life.

This potential for change is not something we should look down upon, it’s something we should embrace. It’s not scary, it’s wonderful. It will result in a greater number of happy people enjoying custom-fitted lives, rather than the majority of us trying to squeeze into something clearly sewn for someone else.

I applaud this change, and not only because my own relationship model already deviates from the norm. I applaud it because relationships, like everything else around us, are going to evolve. They always have. Do you think people in the 1950s were dating according to the dearly held traditions of the 1850s? Nope.

Embracing this evolution allows us to bend with the times rather than being bent by the times. It allows us to be part of new movements as they emerge rather than feeling like we’re outside of them, watching from a safe distance as life goes by without us.

As I travel, I sometimes feel as if my choices in life have set me apart, have pulled me into another orbit far from the primary motion of the planet. As if by not walking in the footprints of the majority of people who have come before me I’ve fallen out of some understood lockstep, and as such am no longer part of that larger story being written.

But when I stop and take stock, consider all the variables and opportunities, I know that’s not the case. I know we’re each dancing our own dance, figuring out our own steps as we go along. Even those who live what seem to be very traditional lifestyles have worked in their own variations, their own bend of the knee, tap of the heel, wink at their partner. Or partners. Or beautiful cactus garden.

There are no wrong steps in this dance, and even if we sometimes feel that we’re in the middle of a competition, judged on our mastery of the Charleston or the Tango or the Wife-and-Kids Shuffle, there are plenty of other yardsticks by which we can measure our own, independent growth and progression — whichever dance we might prefer.

Come Back Frayed is available as a paperback or as an ebook, from all of these online stores or your favorite local indie book shop. (Also relevant, my book Some Thoughts About Relationships.)

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More Sense in Motion

The following is an excerpt from Come Back Frayed.

I make more sense in motion.

There’s a storm just outside my door as I write this. I’m on a small island in the Philippines, and there’s a typhoon up north, carving into the shores of the larger island where I was living a few weeks ago. We’re only seeing wisps of the tail here, backwash from the core action, but it’s enough to shake up the atmosphere, the air vibrating with adjacent activity. The beach is vacant except for a few brazen locals and ignorant visitors, pushing themselves into the waves and walking the beaches, leaning into the stinging force of the wind, hoping that their frantic fun won’t take a turn, praying that they don’t become a statistic, a tale told to forewarn children of the dangers inherent to island living. Ghost stories for resort-dwellers.

I’m one of these people, one of these potential projectiles. I’ve spent the day wind-whipped, coming up with excuses to leave the little studio apartment I’ve rented a few steps from the beach, watching as the surf climbs upward, first beyond the usual tide-line, then beyond the flag that displays the direction and freneticness of the wind, its rip-stop fabric torn in places, its outline a blur as it’s tugged by the 60 mph winds and 80 mph gusts. The water is creeping toward the chairs that are replaced each morning by restaurant owners, which on a normal day provide spots where tourists can sit with drinks and international foods while ogling the ocean from what’s typically a safe distance. That perception of safety is fading: the giant umbrellas were removed yesterday, and the chairs are being eyeballed by managers, each wondering if they can wait out the worst of the wind or if they’ll have to whip-crack their underlings into chair-moving action from the loll they’ve fallen into during this lull.

I’m two coffees into my day, each acquired from a different location and each representing one less legitimate excuse to step out into the elemental fray. The weather has been swelteringly hot, shirt-drenchingly humid, for weeks. There’s still a stickiness to the air, but the temperature has plummeted. It’s 85 degrees Fahrenheit today, but it feels like 75. The gale chaps my skin and cools my permanent glaze of sweat, transforming the moisture-heavy air into something not just tolerable, but pleasant. The feel of the wind in my hair, on my face, across my bare legs and arms, is marvelous. I can’t get enough of it. After two weeks of sweating out every drop of water I’ve ever consumed, all day, every day, the relief is like the deep, complete exhale of a long-held breath. The predictability of postcard-worthy beach weather wears at me, and this island is ensconced by the same class of climate that fed my discontent with Los Angeles many years ago. I crave randomness. An ever-present environmental element that I can’t control. I need to wake up and not know what to expect so that I can go out and pursue the unexpected.

I’ve had relationships in which my partner has said they didn’t really know me until we traveled together. It’s not that I’d ever held anything back, they said, or that I was different in any quantifiable way while wandering. But aspects of my character, my habits, even things like my haircut and facial expressions and category of confidence didn’t fully make sense to them until we were in transit. Once on the road, though, it all fit.

We’re shaped by our environments, just as we shape the places in which we live. Humans are skilled at stomping around and inventing solutions to problems and turning things into other things, but as we alter the world, so too are we altered. Our habits and our outlooks and even our genes, all in flux. Our habits become traditions, our outlooks become focused perspectives, and we become people who are partially defined by our habitats. Our homes.

A person without a home, or as I prefer to think of it, a person with many homes, is defined in part by that lifestyle. Shaped by mobility and a lack of permanent roots. Such a person must bend, lest they break. Must get along in order to get along. Must roll with the punches by default.

My clothing is durable and modular: everything goes with everything else. My work is an assemblage of projects I can do from anywhere and is burdened with few infrastructural necessities. My relationships are in large part shaped by where I am at the moment, and the deep, lasting partnerships are the kind that transcend physical location. My workout and hygiene regimens are routines that I can perform predictably so long as I have a prison cell-sized area in which to move. I’ve adopted a hair style that can grow long and heavily disarrayed while still appearing somewhat intentional.

I enjoy holding still sometimes, slowing down and taking stock. Assessing and processing. But the moment I get back out there, the moment I arrive at an airport or a train station, or board a bus, or hop on a boat, or start walking a path that will take me someplace new, I can feel the difference. I feel like I’ve arrived. Like I’m back in a place where I can be truly and completely myself again. I don’t have to realign and reshape, or convince myself that I entirely enjoy having everything neat and tidy and controlled.

I no longer need to tolerate the weather being the same every day.

Should the wind or rain become typhonic, should the ocean move uncomfortably far inland, should plans fall apart and the unexpected become the norm, should the world suddenly spin wildly and thrust me into something for which I’m not prepared, while I’m out here on the road, at least, I’m not expected to step back and go inside and wait for it all to pass. I can walk in that wind, I can get ruffled and wet and worn. I can use and abuse my possessions because that’s what they’re for: to get me where I want to go, wherever that happens to be, whether or not there’s an existing path that will guide me there.

I make more sense in motion. While moving, experiencing new things, feeling a little uncomfortable and always somewhat off-balance, while pursuing new ways of looking at life, at people, at society — that’s when the world makes the most sense to me.

Come Back Frayed is available as a paperback or as an ebook.

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Set Your Defaults

Years ago I turned off the notifications on my phone. Today, except for rare moments when I’m waiting on a call or have an alarm set so I don’t miss a flight, those notifications stay turned off.

We don’t recognize, I think, how much power we have over the tools we use every day.

For many people, over time, these tools come to represent something other than what they are. They cease to be portals into a wider world, connecting us with knowledge and people to which we would otherwise be ignorant. These pocketable supercomputers are no longer thought of as always-accessible lines between us an our loved ones, regardless of where we happen to be in the world.

Instead, they’ve come to represent contracts and responsibilities. The exchange of our time for money, our energy for money, our youth for money.

Phones and computers and social networks and the internet and all the little bleeping, blooping devices that fill our lives are opportunities. They have the potential to empower, so long as we’re willing to see them as amplifiers instead of anchors. Dream-expanders, not dream-dampeners.

The best way to remind ourselves of this and establish a healthy relationship with our technology is to ask ourselves why. Why are we using these little gizmos? What’s the purpose of our interactions with them?

For some, it’s purely mercenary. I have a phone because work might call, a client might call, some other commitment, be it work- or relationship-related, might call.

For others, it started out as magic and became something else entirely.

We nearly wept with joy when modern technology became what it is, with the intuitive interfaces and ‘it just works’ connectivity. For many, though, even those who once took pleasure in using these interfaces, in double-tapping and finger-spreading to zoom-in, these tools are no longer marvelous, they simply are. They’re convenient things that can entertain us when we might otherwise have to interact with our environments. Things that connect us to a wider network, certainly, but a network we fail to make use of, beyond what we’re forced into. The expected exchange of Likes, swiping our judgement of people left or right, sending DMs and pings and emoji-enhanced words to those outside our network, hoping to make a connection, struggling to regain some semblance of that magic we once experienced while plugged into this globe-straddling network of wonders that is now perceived as little more than a public utility.

I think it’s wonderful that these tools have become, in many societies, so ubiquitous that we can afford to take them for granted.

I also think it’s remarkable that they’ve become such an integral part of social interactions that it’s difficult to draw a line between ‘real world’ relationships and those that exist online, in-app, on-platform.

These tools give us powers, if we choose to acknowledge them as such. But in order to fully benefit from these heightened abilities, we have to set lay out guidelines. Set limits. Like any good relationship, we have to notice the big picture, take a good long look at ourselves, and be honest about what we need and what we don’t want. We have to identify which aspects of this cybernetic future make sense for our goals, for our next steps, and which are just gimmicks that keep us ‘engaged’ in measurable ways, so that some business entity can make more advertising revenue from your ‘attention.’

In practice, this means identifying how you’re currently interacting with technology, and working through your options.

Chances are, your devices have all kinds of notification silencers and app-specific switches you’ve never flipped. On your phone, on your computer, on your tablet, on your, I don’t know, smartwatch, explore these options. Throw some digital levers. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find at least one that stops your device from doing that annoying thing you’ve always felt too busy to figure out how to stop. You can play with other knobs and buttons while you’re there to see what options you have that you never considered before. Change your phone ring, turn it off, maybe. Set a time period each day for it to be absolutely silent. The robots haven’t taken over yet: exercise your authority over them while you can.

This is also a good time to assess what your gadgets could be doing for you that they aren’t currently.

Your devices can serve as gatekeepers for your attention, if you let them. Figure out which means of communication is the most practical and the least stressful for your day and demeanor, and make that the most ideal option for others to use. I hate receiving phone calls, for instance. One way to keep people from calling you is to set up a voicemail box that makes it clear that you’re far more likely to respond to email in a timely fashion. Set your defaults and limits to something ideal, then allow the world to reshape itself around you and your needs, rather than the other way around.

It’s important not to let this sit by the wayside, undone. We have all of this power, much of it unused, and many of us are allowing it to eat us alive. We allow these augmented relationships we have with each other, with the world, with the whole of human knowledge, to shape us in ways that leave us rattled and scattered and worried that we’ll miss an important notification about whatever.

In almost every case, these notifications are not important: they don’t warrant the stress we’ve allotted them.

Do this now. Or make it part of a larger plan to reset to zero, if you have to. Either way, make yourself aware of your vast powers, assess which of your needs are not being served, and embrace the full scope of your cybernetic capabilities. Utilize your customization might.

There’s no reason these tools should be using you. Retake control of your digital life, and be a serf no longer to the authoritarian pings that have come to negatively sway your day.

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Societies and Biomes

A human microbiome (or “biome” for concision) is the “the ecological community of commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms that literally share our body space.” That is, it’s the ecosystem of wee-beasties that make up a human being.

Each and every one of us is composed of human cells, but also of virus, bacteria, fungi, parasite, Archaea, protozoa, and a whole lot of other stuff you probably don’t want to think about while eating.

Though these microbiota only make up 1-3% of our total body mass, there are ten times as many of them as there are human cells in a human being. Which really makes one wonder about where we should draw the line between “us” and “them,” cell-wise.

Biomes evolve over time. As we’re exposed to new environments, new microbiota, new genetic materials, the complexity of our body’s ecosystem increases.

As anyone who’s taken a biology class can attest, a more complex ecosystem tends to be more rugged and sustainable. If a key predator dies off in a diverse ecosystem, there’s another there to step in and fill the niche. Complexity means the ecosystem as a whole is more likely to survive a disaster, even if some portion of it is killed off.

There are parallels between the micro and macro of many things, if you look closely. Atomic structures and galaxies, cellular walls and architecture; everything great and small is built using similar construction materials and blueprints (fundamental elements and math), so it makes sense that cultures around the world, alongside plants and animals and cells, would use similar patterns and forms.

We can see one such parallel between societies, an individual’s biome, and ecosystems as a whole.

The more diverse a society, the more sturdy and resilient it tends to be. Yes, there may be conflict at first, as the new component is integrated into the system. It can be tricky to determine if a bit of DNA or a given bacterium will fit well with the rest of your inner flora, and you may even get a little sick: your body may be hesitant to accept this strange newbie into the fold.

But once a new component is integrated, one’s body is more durable as a result. It becomes immune to more things and has access to a greater selection of potentially beneficial mutations. If some vital bodily component is attacked by an antagonistic outside force, we’re more likely to keep going; we’ve got backups, we’ve got something else that can fill that niche.

Societally, we often struggle against complexity. We want things to be predictable. Neutral. “Normal.” We want things to stay the same because that’s what we understand and have come to expect. Change is scary.

Homogeny in society is the same as homogeny in any other system, though. It can allow for a certain degree of predictability, but it also makes the entire network fragile.

One disease that impacts the local population.

One technological leap forward missed because of long-held belief systems to which everyone adheres.

One folkway that, over time, becomes gangrenous, though no one can see that it’s harmful because everyone accepts it as “the way things are.”

Outside perspectives are disruptive, and that makes us uncomfortable. But it’s these disruptions that make fresh perspectives valuable. They keep us growing, allow us to test our ideas, our beliefs, our views of the world. They enrich the soil with new organic matter and enrich thought with challenging frames of reference and interpretations.

Not every idea or change will be valuable to every society, but the capability to acknowledge, observe, entertain, and assess ideas, while still maintaining a steady, resilient foundation, is a good indication of how long-lasting and durable that society will be.

This means we can look across vast ideological chasms at unfamiliar people with unfamiliar ideas and know that because they are so foreign to us, because they approach life in such a different way, our species is more diverse and resilient. Humanity is stronger because of our differences.

Again, diversity as strength is a concept we see on the cellular level and in planet-straddling civilizations.

Consider what it might mean for you, at a size somewhere between these two extremes.

Consider, too, how you might help your society establish and maintain a good bill of health.

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Big Picturing

I get a lot of emails from people asking me how to make money. How does one start a business? How does one sell a product?

Yes, there are things a person can do that makes earning money more likely.

But why? Why do these people want this money? What will they do with it?

When I ask people this question, I usually get something trite or borrowed from tech conference lingo.

“I want to change the world by providing (insert something here that probably won’t change the world, it will just earn them money).”

“I want to change the world by (insert something here that impacts other people who work in the tech industry, and who can afford to live in nice parts of big cities, but is irrelevant to anyone outside of that tiny circle).”

“I want to change the world by (insert clone of idea someone else already had here).”

Don’t get me wrong: I think there can be immense value, for someone, in any business idea.

In the hands of some people, money is a marvelous tool. It’s something that allows them to be more fulfilled and happy as an individual, and will perhaps even speed their pace toward a goal that they truly care about: a cause that will be furthered because they now wield more monetary influence.

But that’s not why people typically want to earn a bunch of money. The money is the goal, and how they get it is somewhat immaterial.

Yes, they’ll parrot the “We’re going to change the world by…” phrases that they’re supposed to say, but their actual goals end at “Earn a bunch of money.”

They’re betting that they’ll either be happy as soon as they’re wealthy, or they’ll be able to swing that bag of cash around until they hit something that makes life worth living.

This is why, more and more frequently, when people ask me how they can start up a business or earn more money, I tell them things that may, at first, seem off-topic.

I ask them to take a step back and figure out why they want the money, and how much they think they need to achieve their actual goal. I ask them if the business or product or service they’re considering is a means to a monetary end, or an end unto itself, inherently worth doing.

I tell them to read fiction. It helps you empathize with those outside of your default social group and can help you imagine possibilities beyond concrete reality.

I tell them to travel. Whether you experience new geographies and new cultures, or just try new things, new lifestyles, and new ways of thinking in your own backyard, expanding your horizons helps you see the world from novel perspectives, and those perspectives will help you figure out your ‘why’s.

I tell them to focus on being happy with what they have now. If you can achieve happiness before earning fat stacks of cash, you’ll be less likely to sacrifice the most important things in your life for more money (because you’re not desperate to find something that will fulfill you). You’ll also be more likely to spend that money wisely, and on things that actually matter to you, rather than swinging that cash-bag around, hoping to have someone else hand you prepackaged fulfillment.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with money, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with pursuing more of it, if doing so will help you become more you, and allow you to do more of what makes you feel alive. It’s also important to have enough so that you can keep a roof over your head and food on the table: I’m certainly not suggesting that the desire to have any money is a waste of time, particularly when it allows us to sustain the societal fundamentals.

Just make sure you know why you’re pursuing it. That you see the big picture and allow it to guide your steps.

Make sure that you’re not running in the same direction as everyone else, not because you want to get where they’re going, but because following the crowd is the easiest option when you have no idea where you want to be.

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Practical Philosophy

Our beliefs are shaped by countless variables, from our families and friends, to our educational experiences and lifestyles, to genetics and chance.

But these beliefs are often more about theory than practice. One’s philosophy is essentially a label applied to oneself, and if one should fail to live up to this philosophy, the repercussions are minuscule or nonexistent.

Consider that a self-proclaimed pacifist can get into a fight every single day and still call themselves a pacifist: there are no philosophy police. If confronted about this misapplication of title to action they may claim to be an ‘aspiring pacifist,’ or maybe even a ‘bad pacifist,’ but they can still claim the philosophy either way.

One’s philosophy, then, is often more about intention than practice.

While living in Iceland, I learned a word that changed the way I view beliefs. Lífspeki is not just an adorable-sounding word (it’s pronounced “leaf-sh-pecky”), it’s also a way of looking our beliefs and the role they play in our lives.

Lífspeki is an Icelandic word that means ‘the practical philosophy by which you live your life, which you define through your actions.’

So while your philosophy is something you claim, your lífspeki is something you show. No aspirations: with everything that you do — every step, every word, every breath — you concretely demonstrate your beliefs.

I took a close look at my life after learning this word, to see what my actions were telling the world about my beliefs. I had already spent years recalibrating my life toward something more aligned with my convictions, but I was still doing things out of habit, out of laziness, out of ignorance, that didn’t align with my convictions. From this new lífspeki-catalyzed perspective, I could see which aspects of my life would need to be shifted into better alignment.

Theoretical philosophy is wonderful, because it allows us to explore horizons we haven’t yet reached in our own lives, and understand why others do the things they do.

Taking a practical approach to philosophy allows us to see whether the things we claim are our priorities are actually being prioritized, and where we’re failing to live in accordance with the ethics we claim to hold dear. This allows us to reach each new horizon in one piece, and happy for having made the journey.

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