Baseline

I’ve had people tell me they could probably be happy making just a million dollars a year. Maybe two would be better, but they think they could get by on a million.

We tend to subconsciously establish baselines for ourselves, and the idea is that if we have more than that baseline we’ll be happy. If we have less, we’ll be unfulfilled.

The natural progression of that thought is: I’m not happy, so perhaps I was wrong about my baseline. Perhaps it needs to be higher; I’m not happy because I’m not earning enough.

We make this leap of logic because so many of the messages we receive on a daily basis feed the drive for more.

If you have more monetary resources, you will be more fulfilled. You’ll be happy like the people on this billboard, you’ll be a good person like the protagonist in this movie, you’ll be a noble individual like the hard-working CEO of this company. We’re presented with storylines that propagate the idea that more equals better. A higher baseline means you have higher, more worthy standards.

Having a lower baseline, though, means you can be happy with less. It means you’ve found satisfaction in yourself, in the simple things in life, and anything beyond that is an added bonus.

If your baseline is a million dollars, anything less than that is a catastrophe.

If your baseline is $20,000, anything above that is luxurious living; your gateway to financial equilibrium is easier to access, and you can allow yourself to enjoy the benefits of earning more, rather than perceiving $40,000 or $100,000 or $800,000 as a failure; as being beneath you.

I know folks who make very little money, and for whom that’s more than enough.

I also know people who make millions of dollars, but for whom that money is just a nice little bonus: they were already happy. They were already complete. Take that wealth away, and they’re still having a blast. Add that wealth to such a person’s reality and they use it rationally, not as a life preserver, not as their only hope to maybe scavenge some happiness out of their day.

Rather than trying to raise our baselines, then, it’s perhaps a good idea to focus on keeping our baselines low so that we don’t limit ourselves. Figure out how to be satisfied with little, so that we might be even happier when we have more.

We set baselines for our professional status, our relationships, how and what we create, real estate, our dietary habits, the technology we use, and the clothing we wear. Deciding that our happiness is tethered to owning the right kind of gadget or eating at the right restaurant is just as debilitating as deciding we need to make a million dollars to be fulfilled; it sets a baseline that we cannot dip below without being miserable.

Take the time to be happy, regardless of your circumstances.

Once you’ve got that, all of life’s pleasures, life’s wonderful additions, become icing on an already amazing cake.

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Scale

Occasionally I’ll have someone tell me that they don’t want to learn more about a topic because that would kill the joy that topic brings them.

They don’t want to know anything about biology, for instance, because doing so might reduce the wonder they experience when perusing fields of flowers. They just want to look at the colors and shapes, and smell the wonderful fragrances.

They don’t want to understand sociology because it may make them cynical about their interactions with others, and they don’t want that to burden their good times with friends.

This is an understandable sentiment, because the more you learn about something, the more you bypass the outward-facing façade and see a starker, more detailed truth.

No longer are the vast variations found in flowers ‘magical’: now they’re logical variations brought about by genetic mutation and environmental influences. No longer are social movements inexplicable: instead they’re largely understandable, or at least comprehensible, and governed by a set of principles.

The desire to not understand is a desire born of conservative thinking, which means safe and secure thinking. I take pleasure in this feeling, and pulling back the veil may ruin that pleasure for me. Why would I risk it?

It’s true that ignorance about a topic can fuzz the edges in a comforting way: like applying a blurring, softening light to a family photo, a lot of the pimples and stray hairs disappear when you look at the world through a lens that doesn’t include the details.

This is a fear without legs, however. If you allow yourself to look for beauty at scale, whether the larger context, or at a higher magnification showing all the tiny details, you’ll find that there’s plenty to enjoy.

An excellent example of this is attraction in human beings. The ‘blurry photo’ way of looking at this is that it’s somehow magical and meant to be, while the more informed version takes into account biological and social conditions; it looks at the human microbiome and how one person’s physical ecosystem interacts with another’s.

Is it different? Yes.

The former approach is finding beauty in an idealized storyline, which fails to take into account data, but aligns with popular folklore. It’s not something you have to work to appreciate; it’s pre-packaged attraction.

The latter approach requires some mind-bending. It involves conceiving of oneself as a collection of human cells, fungi, viruses, bacteria, chemical impulses and mental plasticity, combined with the social structures in which we live: invisible sets of rules that we understand and accept, which guide our actions and activities.

That this collection of minuscule and complex variables conspired to make us interested in someone romantically, with all those little pieces falling into place and interacting with their biological and social equivalents, is a dance that’s as beautiful as it is complex. It’s an elaborate orchestral performance, compared to the easy-to-understand tapping of a finger on a table.

So long as we allow ourselves to appreciate it, the world is an infinitely complicated, infinitely gigantic, infinitely beautiful place. So long as we don’t romanticize ignorance over understanding, we can explore and enjoy, and never run out of things in which to take pleasure. We can look at the fuzzy picture and enjoy flowers because they’re flowers, and we can put things into finer focus when we want to fixate on the minutiae and geek out about the fact that flowers have an electrical field that attract bees.

Composers don’t limit themselves when learning about music. They love music, and a deeper understanding allows them to enjoy and make use of the craft at a deeper, more fundamental level. Their appreciation of music doesn’t disappear because of that knowledge, it increases. Because now they see the underlying structure and can enjoy the deeper architecture of that which they’re passion about, rather than just admiring the paint job.

Allow yourself to appreciate the world at scale. The more you know and understand, the more you’re capable of enjoying.

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It’s Easy

It’s easy to be snarky and dismissive of ideas that don’t align with your own.

It’s easy to preach to the choir, to rally the troops, to shout into an audience of people who already agree with you. To say all the things you know will reinforce their existing beliefs.

It’s easy and it’s often rewarded, with clicks and applause and shares. Because by being dismissive of ideas foreign to our own we’re reinforcing biases: we’re telling someone they’re right, and there’s nothing we like better than being right.

Far more difficult is opening ourselves up to ideas that evolved outside familiar ecosystems. Ideas grown within different societies and different cultures. Ideas that are the result of foreign life experiences.

Far more difficult is building bridges between disparate ideas and the people who have them, rather than blasting new chasms and building walls. It’s easy to declare someone wrong. It’s difficult to explain your ideas in such a way that they might listen. Harder still is opening yourself up so that you’re willing to listen to their ideas with an open mind.

It’s easier to find success by doubling down on what you know works: hardening your belief structure and turning up the contrast on your world-view so that the world is perceived as a crisp black-and-white.

It’s more rewarding, though, to embrace the grays; to allow for subtlety. To reach across intellectual chasms and interact with whomever takes your hand.

Because although the shortest route is defined by popular bias, society’s biases are changed over time by those who have the resolve to stand up and say, “Let’s look at the world in this new way, instead.”

It’s easy to wield ideas like permanent markers, frantically thickening the line we draw between ‘us’ and ‘them.’

It’s difficult to find the value in ‘them’ and their ideas. Harder still is presenting our own ideas in such a way that these ‘others’ feel comfortable thoughtfully considering them.

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The One

The following essay is an excerpt from my new book, Some Thoughts About Relationships.

From a very young age, many of us are told stories about The One: a mystical person who is placed on this planet for us and us alone. It’s our “hero’s journey” to find this individual, wherever they may be. If pop culture is to be believed, there will be a series of comedic situations and dramatic adventures that lead up to our finding them.

In real life, however, The One is a concept that isn’t just irrational, it’s potentially harmful. The idea that there’s someone out there who is customized to make you whole implies that you’re not capable of being complete on your own. It also implies that everyone other than The One is just a stepping-stone toward grand fulfillment, which is a horrible way to approach relationships.

It’s understandable why this is such a popular storyline. Who doesn’t want to be the hero of the story? Who doesn’t want to believe that the imperfections we see in ourselves, and the bad hair days we experience, are just the buildup toward relationship bliss?

The concept of The One actually shares the same history as the concept of a “soul mate,” which comes from a tale written by Aristophanes, a comic playwright and contemporary of Plato. In this particular story, two-headed giants — some with both male and female genitalia, some with two sets of male equipment, and some with pairs of female parts — were sliced down the middle by a jealous Zeus and scattered to the wind. They were doomed forever after to explore the planet, seeking their “other half.”

As a metaphor, I get it. And the “soul mate” feeling is one I think most of us are familiar with. That vibe you get from someone who resonates with you is a connection that can be difficult to explain. It’s the sum of a huge collection of variables, mental and physical attraction key among them, which add up to something that feels almost metaphysical. It’s wonderful and memorable and often more than a little distracting.

To me, reducing something so remarkable to something as kitschy as “magic” or “fate” is borderline offensive. Those feelings are valuable; experiencing them can catalyze some of the most wonderful moments of our lives, and we’re supposed to just say, “yeah, it was bound to happen sooner or later”? Why not just celebrate the wonderful coincidences and randomness that brought such a person into your life, instead?

No, it’s not magic. And it’s not something that can only happen once. Recognizing the shallowness of The One complex allows us to see that we’re capable of loving more than a single person in our lifetime.

This is the crux of The One Policy. Why should we limit ourselves when we could be happier more of the time? Why should we be fated to endlessly pursue a fairy tale, when potential sources of actual emotional interaction and enjoyment are all around us? Why do we romanticize an idea that couldn’t be further from actual romance? An idea that keeps us from experiencing fulfillment, and which forces us to wonder about the legitimacy of our connections with other people when we’re fortunate enough to find them?

You are The One. You are the only person in the world who can complete and fulfill you, and ensure your happiness. Everyone else is a potential, hopefully wonderful, addition to that fated situation. You are born complete, you die complete, and you decide whom you spend your time with in between.

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Iceberging

We’re all, every one of us, multifaceted and infinitely complex creatures. We are impossible to fully understand and just as difficult to describe in any cohesive, coherent way.

But we try. Oh how we try.

We megaphone who we are through blog posts and tweets. We curate images that appeal to our sensibilities. We share news items and think-pieces that reflect our views on a given issue.

It’s so easy these days to be someone; to be a public figure. The result of the myriad platforms and opportunities that provide this ease, though, is that we often hobble our own efforts at clear communication by attempting to express ourselves too completely, and all at once.

Imagine a stranger handing you a business card containing information about every single aspect of their lives. It would be impossible to know anything about that person from the hodge-podge of descriptors. The sheer bulk of information would render all of it moot.

‘Personal branding’ has become an almost laughably overused buzzword (like ‘synergy’ or ‘disruption’ or ‘content’) because over the years it’s become associated with creating a false veneer to trick people into buying a story you’re trying to impart about yourself. It’s come to mean telling others what they want to hear and using keywords to get a specific job or present an (often bland, inoffensive, and inaccurate) account of who you are to the world.

Branding, at its best, is telling a true story in the right order and in the right way so that others understand the basics and are sufficiently interested to want to know more; to want to turn the page and find out who else you are and what else you have to offer.

The real value of personal branding, then, is that it allows you to present as an iceberg, not a mountain.

It’s relatively easy to be a mountain. All you have to do is pour out every thought you’ve ever had, opinion you’ve ever held, and job you’ve ever done. Every hobby and aesthetic preference and story you have available to tell is poured out right there on the page.

Being an iceberg, though, requires more effort. It means sorting through everything — everything — and putting it in order. It means figuring out which pieces fit together, which are best presented when, and how you might present them so as to tell the proper story for the environment you’re in.

Iceberging is about being confident in serving up just an appetizer to explain what makes you, you, because you know it will be more palatable and more accurately express who you are, compared to lazily dumping a truckload of ingredients in front of anyone who might want to understand you better.

This isn’t to say that you’re limited to just one hook: you can rise up above the surface in as many spots as you like, making use of the same materials presented in different ways to showcase other aspects of who you are to a group of people who might be more responsive to that particular arrangement.

But regardless of the presentation, the person it represents should always be you, not a falsified, caricaturized version of you. A foot in the door isn’t worth a thing if there’s no one attached to it, and an iceberg cresting above the waves isn’t worth much if there’s nothing more beneath it.

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Stuff-Focus

A common misperception about minimalism and simplicity is that if you have nothing, you’re living in accordance with these concepts. “I’ve never had much money,” some might say, “so I guess I’ve been a minimalist my whole life.”

It’s possible this is true, but minimalism is more about living intentionally than owning few things. I own very little because my passion is travel, and I don’t need much to pursue the lifestyle I enjoy. Carrying more actually hinders me, so owning little — while still possessing the things that allow me to do the work I love — is key.

For others, though, owning so little will be a true negative, not a positive. If having a full library of hardcover books is what sets you aflame with happiness and fulfillment, it doesn’t make much sense to live out of a backpack.

This focus on stuff, then, is a distraction from the point. And that statement is true in two senses:

First, our possessions distract us from calibrating ourselves toward what really makes us happy. That is, we focus on the accumulation of possessions rather than exerting the effort required to figure out what truly makes us happy, and spending our time, energy, and resources (including money) on those elements; be they possessions, relationships, experiences, or whatever else.

Second, this stuff-focus is often a distraction when we talk about minimalism, because it makes us think that by simply eliminating what we have in storage and owning half as many pairs of shoes we’ll be fulfilled.

This is possible — consuming less frees up time and energy to spend on actualization of other flavors — but it’s not an end unto itself. You could have all of your stuff stolen and experience nothing but loss. You could grow up impoverished and spend all your time thinking about accumulation, rather than self-realization.

It’s our focus and efforts in a holistic sense, then, that require recalibration. It’s not enough to simply decide to declutter your home; you have to make use of those newly liberated resources to declutter your mind, as well. It’s about making better use of what you have so that your resources are spent on the right things, not just owning little and then waiting for — hoping for — enlightenment.

The real power of minimalism is that it allows us to pull away from our latent stuff-focus so that we might align ourselves with self-actualization and happiness, instead.

If the path to simplicity is only leading to another type of stuff-focus — one that runs opposite but parallel to our previous fixation — we haven’t yet liberated ourselves from the cycle. All we’ve done is hop to another track on the same set of rails, which leaves the rest of our vast, spectacular internal and external world unexplored and under-utilized.

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Cabins

Cabins are beautiful. They’re ubiquitous examples of simple architecture: a place for everything, everything in its place, and nothing that doesn’t need to be there. Some walls, a fireplace to keep warm, a bed to sleep in, and some kind of heated surface upon which to cook a basic meal from un-messed-with ingredients.

But as much as cabins have become a visible representation of the ‘simple life,’ not all of us want to live in cabins. Even those of us who crave that kind of simplicity, upon reflection, would probably prefer some other living situation, outside of periodic, sabbatical-esque jaunts.

It’s not the cabin that we crave, it’s the simplicity that such a space represents. We want fewer distractions and, in many ways, fewer options. When you’re living in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, you cook what’s available and entertain yourself with introversion or basic social interactions with whomever else is there with you. You aren’t overwhelmed with ‘fear of missing out’ feelings or a complex social schedule. You aren’t burdened with decisions about which restaurant to eat at or which Netflix show to binge-watch.

The cabin, then, is merely a convenient visualization for something more expansive; a concept that’s less Pinterest-able and Instagram-able when made less specific. Something that’s harder to explain when it’s not attached to a piece of nostalgia and all the romance that entails.

Cabins aren’t the only visuals associated with the concept of simplicity. Brands that make clothes, prepare food, sell real estate, and lease cars use visuals that tap into this desire to be free of some of the modern world’s more pernicious complexities.

What they won’t tell you, of course, is that you needn’t buy a thing to achieve this goal. You needn’t wear a specific label, eat a certain type of food, or live in a certain kind of home.

All you have to do is take some time with yourself to figure out what sets you ablaze with happiness and fulfillment.

Identify the aspects of your life that make getting up in the morning worthwhile, and what you look forward to all week. Then focus on these things. Habitually eschew those activities, relationships, and acquisitions that unnecessarily complicate your life, weigh you down, or siphon away your happiness.

Cabins are beautiful, but even more magnificent is a self-aware person who is able to imbue any space, or lifestyle, with that same intentionality and significance.

This essay originally appeared in my newsletter.

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The Right Laboratory

I love experiments. Being able to try new things, see how well they jive with my ambitions, and then adjusting my lifestyle accordingly. Experiments are a key component to my happiness, present and future.

I started Asymmetrical Press with Josh and Ryan from The Minimalists because the three of us wanted to build a laboratory. We wanted to have an optimized means of creating new work, using new technologies, trying out new business models, and distributing in new ways. We wanted to bring new people to the forefront: people who are talented as hell, but hadn’t gotten the recognition we thought their work warranted via existing structures. We wanted to figure out how we might blend the best ideas from various industries into something new, and determine what might be possible using a lighter-weight, more minimal and focused business strategy.

That was three years ago, and we’ve learned a lot since then. We’ve learned enough, in fact, that we’ve begun taking larger risks and working on bigger ideas in an effort to see what else might be possible. To see which ceilings are actually skies, waiting for us to push past them.

Tomorrow, we kick off a new experiment: an tour called the WordTasting Tour. This has been a long time in the making, and we’ve been working on aspects of it since we started the company three years ago. Only recently have all the pieces fallen into place, though, and only recently did we decide it was time to take such a risk.

This tour differs from typical authors tours in several respects. Instead of presenting one book, one author, we have five. Instead of featuring a reading, maybe a Q&A, we have performances, presentations, some readings and a lot of music; we’re traveling with the amazing Skye Steele, and he’ll be adding his sound to the mix throughout each event.

We wanted to attendees to experience something, to feel something, to sample new genres and taste new ideas. And we wanted to ensure that as many people as possible could attend, which meant making every single event free.

As we’re going through our final preparations and readying ourselves for the first tour stop, which takes place tomorrow, May 1, right here in Missoula, Montana, I feel pretty certain that we’ve accomplished a lot of our goals. I can’t wait to share this thing we’ve made with you.

This first WordTasting Tour is taking place across 32 cities in the Western US and Canada, and if all goes well, we’ll be replicating the model in other places in the future.

If you’d like to attend, please RSVP (it’s free!) here. If you have couches, beds, spare bedrooms or very comfortable floors we might sleep on while on tour, please let us know, and thanks in advance.

See you out there on the road!

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Thirty

Today is my 30th birthday. It’s a day that pop culture tells me I should fear and worry over. A day I haven’t really thought about these last six years, focused as I’ve been on wringing every last drop from my 20s. It’s a day that, though no different from any other day, marks a psychological occasion for many people.

I’m happy to find myself more excited than trepidatious: I can’t wait to see what happens next, and what I might be able to accomplish and experience these next ten years. What amazing people I might meet, world events I might watch unfold, discoveries and inventions I might benefit from.

I wrote a book entitled Act Accordingly a few years ago, and followed it up with a book called Considerations. Both books address a similar topic: how we spend our time. We’re all dealt different cards when we’re born, and we all encounter different variables along the way. We have different ideals, different hopes and dreams, different tastes and preferences, and greater or smaller quantities of time to spend than the person standing next to us.

But we all struggle to spend our time well. To use it to the utmost, getting the most possible bang for our time-related buck. This manifests in similar ways for most people, if you look around. We look to others to see if they have the answers. We follow pre-carved trails and follow signs. We learn all we can about this and that, hoping that the knowledge gleaned will allow us to divine where we need to be, what we should be doing. We do our best to find good people, people who add to our lives, rather than subtracting from them. We change and grow. We stumble and regret. We fail and succeed, sometimes simultaneously; the same outcome both a failure and a success depending on how we look at it and what we learn as a result.

For the past six years, I’ve been able to fully invest in my curiosity. To wonder and think, to question and marvel, to mull and ponder and meander until, sometimes, I arrive at a new realization. I’ve steadily become a better writer, but that growth is nothing compared to how much better I’ve gotten at sitting quietly and thinking difficult thoughts. I often forget that I’m technically a professional author, not a professional confused person, struggling to figure out where all the pieces go, coming up for air on occasion to jot down what I’ve sussed out, and how those things might apply to myself and others.

Six years ago I left the path I’d long been following. I rescaled and then discontinued the business I’d worked hard to build and operate. I stepped back, figured out what I actually wanted to be doing with my life, and refocused on travel and the pursuit of new information and experiences. I got rid of everything that didn’t fit into carry-on luggage and started up a blog, asking strangers from the internet to vote on where I would move every four months or so.

Three years ago, I founded a publishing company with a couple of like-minded fellows who over the years have become incredible friends and collaborators. Through that company we’ve had the opportunity to work with some incredible creatives and do some amazing things.

Today, I woke up and smiled. I shook my head at how strange and amazing life can be. I feel incredibly fortunate to become a little more me every single day.

Not a bad way to spend my time.

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Appropriation

There’s a meme going around in which an attractive person is shown wearing fashionable clothing in public. Typically they’re wearing something a little over the top, or at the very least rugged in a high-end way. The caption of the post or the text displayed over the image reads “Live your life.”

If you trace such messages back to their source, it’s remarkable how they promulgate. This one started out as a reference to a hip-hop song by T.I. and Rihanna, which, if you watch the video, evokes a sense of not giving a damn about what other people think, regardless of how you spend your time, how you earn your money, etc. This devil may care attitude then carried over to a few different clothing brands, including American Eagle, and was played primarily when young, good-looking people were shown dressed to the nines while doing things that would likely ruin the clothing they were wearing. After a few years, this concept arrived in the blogging scene, and fashion bloggers started displaying a well-dressed guy or gal, typically strutting or otherwise owning their look, decked out in the finest something-or-another, the phrase appropriated for the image they evoked.

We use such images to help define ourselves to the world. It’s no mistake that outdoorsy looks are in just as fashion companies release a new fashion line, appropriating the lumberjack-ish look that’s hit a resurgence in artsy areas. This, then, provides a shorthand for people to use in how they dress. By wearing these clothes, I am showing my fondness for not just this shirt, but the lifestyle associated with it. I make things. I’m a little old fashioned, maybe I have a turn-table. I’m hearkening back to simpler times, though still making use of modern technology. This shirt tells you how I’m living my life.

Just as we appropriate the shorthand imagery that clothing labels provide us with, however, we, too, are appropriated by them. We’re walking billboards for their brands, and as we’re out ‘living our lives,’ showing what tribe we’re a part of by dressing the part, others look at us, our actions, our social groups, our Instagrams and tweets, and think, “Okay, this person is someone I’d like to emulate. How do I look more like them? How do I fit in with that crowd?” And the cycle continues.

Appropriation is natural; it’s an extension of how we, as babies, look at adults to see how to act, and as teens look to older kids to see how to act, and as adults look to the youth to see how to act. It’s an endless cycle that has new players — all these brands — but it needn’t be a negative cycle. If we’re aware of this tendency, and can self-reflect about why we’re appropriating and what these inherited brand ideologies represent, we can benefit from those pre-packaged collections of meaning, while also more clearly expressing who we are to the people around us.

We can, in short, more clearly speak by using words and phrases others have carefully strung together for us.

It has to be an intentional thing, though, otherwise we find ourselves appropriated and, resultantly, representing ideas and people we probably don’t want to be associated with. Remember in the late-90’s and early-2000’s when the GAP brands were exposed as using child labor in Southeast Asia? These were brands that represented a very specific, preppy-inspired lifestyle to those who wore their clothing. Wear a GAP-brand-shirt, and you were sporty and clean-cut. Collegiate.

Post-scandal, however, wearing their clothing made a person look socially tone-deaf. Unaware of what was happening in the world. Someone who wore tidy polo shirts and skirts at the expense of tormented children in a developing country. I think most people wearing their clothing at the time wouldn’t have expressed their views as such, and likely would have been horrified to find out that this was the perception others had of them. Regardless, the company took a major hit, their branding efforts were reduced to ashes for a time, and they struggled to rebuild and regain their audience’s trust.

As we appropriate, we are appropriated. Branding goes both ways, and every purchasing decision you make, if the product is something you wear or use in public, says something to others about you, whether overtly or covertly, and whether we’re aware of it or not.

This knowledge can be used to our advantage, when we align with companies we believe in, and brands that represent our points of view. But it can also cause us to be all talk, no walk. It can apply to us labels we don’t actually align with, or haven’t earned, lessening the incentive to ever earn them. To actually live our lives.

Know who it is you’re forming these relationships with and support the companies that align with your values. This is how we shape the corporate environment that depends on us as carriers for their messages and slogans. This is how we become willing and capable participants in the appropriation cycle, rather than simply hosts, ignorant of the billboards we wear, and the messages they spread.

This essay was originally published in my free newsletter.

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