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How to Have a Personal Renaissance

Lazy

Today I woke up at 11am, checked my email, dilly-dallied around the Internet for about an hour, and then took a shower.

I sashayed my way to the mall, meandering through the crowds of productive people while thinking about food and other food.

After wandering around a bit, I spent a large sum of money on contact lenses, stopped at the store for some Red Bulls, alfajores, and medialunas before proceeding back home to stuff myself full of simple sugars and caffeine.

Life is easy.

Renaissance

There are times in most peoples’ lives when they feel motivated, ambitious, eager, and anticipatory.

During these time periods, great strides are made in many different aspects of one’s life as a mental renaissance takes place…the cold, hard, dark age of the mind is over and a new light — the light of innovation — shines down upon your mental landscape, warming your neurological serfs and deeply tilling the rippling soil of your brain’s intellectual wheat fields.

You become your own Michelangelo, your own inspiration, your own generous benefactor.

When you are feeling up, you’re really feeling up, and as long as you can stay that way you will fly far beyond the rank-and-file.

The Plague

But unfortunately, most of us do not stay that way forever. In fact, the duration of a Personal Renaissance period can be mere days, if not hours or minutes.

These moments are so valuable and yet so fleeting! So much good is done in so little time!

Imagine if you could bottle these moments and use them when necessary. Who wouldn’t pay for that?

Eureka!

No matter how much money you have, you won’t be able to force a Personal Renaissance. You can, however, figure out what makes them occur more often for you.

For example, I’ve found that overcoming some sort of large obstacle, followed by working out, eating a healthy meal, and making a list of things I want to get done tends to put me on the right track. I also know that overcoming a small, easily-completed task helps to mentally prepare me for a larger, more complex one, so I might start by washing the dishes, then spend a few hours knocking out a project for a client, then work out, then eat a delicious salad, then make a list of things I need and want to do (work and play), adding the items I already completed and crossing them out.

In going through these motions, I’ve set myself up to

  1. have plenty of physical energy to keep moving,
  2. bask in a feeling of victory after having completed at least one large and one small task for the day,
  3. know what else I need to do to keep that feeling going (each and every thing on the list is a new opportunity!), and
  4. establish momentum…crossing out the items I’ve already completed from the least makes it look less threatening. “Look! I’ve already completed a good portion of the list! Let’s finish that badboy off! Wooo!”

Having a Personal Renaissance does not have to be a rare event, and if you take the time to figure out what works for you, they should become even more common.

Just think what wonders could have emerged if the European Renaissance had lasted 600 years instead of 300. And imagine what I could have gotten done today if I had gone through my routine instead of gorging on snack foods.

Update: November 25, 2016

Ugh, I’m so glad I dropped energy drinks and most processed sugars back in 2012.

Also: nice serf metaphor, younger Colin. Stop trying to coin and popularize random phrases by capitalizing them, though.

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The Bar at the End of the World

Green Beer and Israelites

I’m on my third beer, this one is green.

It’s the local specialty. So local, in fact, that it’s named after the bar I’m sitting in. ‘Dublin,’ the label proudly reads. Made by Beagle, the brand I’ve been drinking since I’ve been here. Dublin is the only place in town where you can find other people this time of night, any day of the week.

It’s my 6th day in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego: a dockside town that is ostensibly the southernmost city in the world (not counting a few spare ports and forts) and the launchpad for an array of Antarctic tours.

It also happens to be achingly beautiful.

I’m hanging out with a Swedish girl from Australia who I met on one of the handful of buses I took to get down this far south, and we’re discussing Argentina, the holidays, the relative size of male genitalia from one culture to the next, and all the other things that two bored 20-somethings in an Irish pub at the end of the world will tend to discuss.

The theme of the night, though, is Christmas. In most countries, it would seem, Christmas is celebrated on the night of the 24th, with all the fanfare and festivities taking place that night. In Argentina, the entire family stays up until midnight to have a Christmas feast and open presents at the very beginning of the 25th of December.

I, being from the US, am accustomed to doing things differently, but I’m also horribly outnumbered at the hostel where I’m staying. Midnight it is!

As we’re having this discussion, a girl I don’t see approach sits down in the seat across from me and introduces herself.

She’s pretty, and it seems she’s from Israel and is touring the world after having just finished her two-year, state-required stint in the military.

After 10 minutes or so, she heads back over to the other side of the bar, saying she’s going to let her friends know where she went and that she’ll be back. I take the opportunity to ruminate on the irony of the situation: my conversation about Christmas and the varying ways different cultures celebrate it taking place at the end of the world being interrupted by a member of one of the few groups of people that doesn’t celebrate it at all.

Such is life in Ushuaia.

A Day Like Any Other

Holidays and I have an interesting relationship.

On one hand, I enjoy the fanfare and seeing my family and exchanging gifts and having an excuse to take part in corny traditions and everything else that comes with the territory.

On the other, I work so hard to make every day into something worth celebrating that I honestly find myself forgetting about holidays. This habit has gotten even more pronounced since I started traveling, as holidays are different all over the world, with different people celebrating different things for different reasons and in different ways.

When they are all laid out like that, it’s hard not to look at your own ‘special day’ and think, “Well, okay, so what makes this so special? If almost every day is a holiday somewhere, what’s even the point? It’s not a party if it happens every night!”

I recall writing an anti-Thanksgiving article for the school newspaper back in high school, the premise being that not only is it a holiday laced with uncomfortable historical baggage, but it also contributes to the nation’s growing waistline, encourages consumerism on all levels, and forces people to go hang out with their family in an uncomfortably fake setting. Take a deep breath, I said, that’s what artificial sentimentality smells like.

A Day Unlike Any Other

As the years flowed by, I loosened my tight opinions on the subject of holidays a bit, but I couldn’t shake my back-of-the-mind thoughts that the whole concept was just wrong.

Even after last year’s adventures, when my girlfriend came to Missouri to celebrate Christmas with my family, followed by a wild and crazy night of clubbing for New Year, I was pretty sure that I was just falling for the hype.

This last Thanksgiving though, was different.

Picture this: a dozen people, all from different countries, sitting around a great big table in a fancy restaurant in Buenos Aires (hilariously named ‘Kansas’). Expensive versions of traditional US Thanksgiving foods are brought around to the diners, most of whom have never heard of stuffing, several that had rarely, if ever, eaten turkey, and one that had never had broccoli.

But everyone — no matter what country they were from or what they thought (if anything) about the holiday itself — went around the table and shared what they were thankful for. Everyone laughed and told stories and shared memories. Everyone, regardless of the historical reasons for the celebration or price of turkey-laden party napkins selling like hotcakes in the States, or my personal hesitancy to embrace something that I’ve always been wary of, hugged and clinked glasses of wine and had a really good time.

I could see why, despite all the philosophical differences I may have with the events, people love holidays.

And this is why I’m looking forward to Christmas, which will be celebrated tonight, the 24th, and tomorrow, because holidays are what you make of them, and how the media and greeting card companies see it just doesn’t matter.

The only tradition that needs to be adhered to is that you have a good time. Stir in family and friends as appropriate, decorate with delicious foods and unique experiences, and bam, you’ve got yourself a holiday worth celebrating every day of the year.

Update: November 25, 2016

I’ve just celebrated Thanksgiving 2016 by spending the day reading, cooking some delicious food for myself, and updating this website. So while I agree with the overall sentiment expressed here, I would add that holidays needn’t be social to be enjoyable. It’s entirely possible to have a splendid time in isolation, so long as you don’t feel compelled to do it in any particular way.

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How To Be Confident Even When You Suck

The Setting

I’m sitting outside a small restaurant in Baroliche, an outdoorsy city in Patagonia that has recently become a tourist destination of sorts due to the diverse varieties of adventure trips and medium-end food that has become available since the economic downturn Argentina has experienced these past few decades.

The table I’ve occupied is standard-issue: circular, large umbrella to block any potential rain, and four chairs as sentries, one to each side.

I choose my chair carefully, just as I chose my table. I position myself just so, take a moment to consciously settle my facial expression and posture, arrange my day bag, and then go to work.

It doesn’t take long.

“Buddy, do you know a good place to get a drink around here?”

I respond that there is a solid place a few blocks away with a large beer selection. The man with the question thanks me and heads that direction with his friends.

“Are you Argentinian?”

The question comes from the bravest of a group of teenage girls. No, I say, Estados Unidos. She pauses, not quite sure what to do with the information, then turns back and mutters something to one of the other members of her group with the resignation of someone who has lost a bet.

“What are you up to tonight?”

Getting some sleep and hopping an early bus out of town, I tell the good-looking 20-something who asked. He looks disappointed but still grins as he gives me his number and tells me that if I change my mind, he’d love to buy me a drink.

The Preparation

All of these (and several more interactions) took place in the amount of time it took for me to eat a small meal in downtown Bariloche.

I had just arrived into town that afternoon and I knew absolutely no one, so I was looking for some conversation. From past experience I knew that appearing calm and confident makes these kinds of encounters a lot more common, as does communicating in a non-verbal way that you are open for interaction, so I had to present the appearance of being these things (despite the fact that I was a little uncomfortable, tired, and lost).

Here are some things I did to make myself appear more put-together than I was:

Scouting out the area

After dumping my carry-on at a hostel, I spent most of the day wandering around downtown Bariloche. I made sure I knew the main roads in town (by asking a few employees at the hostel) and made sure I always knew how to get back home.

From there, I snaked out in different directions, going as far as I could in one direction, then going up a block and walking back. It can be a bit tedious, but there is always plenty to see and enjoy (especially if you can take pleasure in the details).

I made mental notes about places of interest. This is how I knew that there was a bar that offered a wide selection of beers; it stood out against the ranks of Italian restaurants and cheap empanada shacks, and I had considered checking out the happy hour earlier.

Knowing your way around also helps you feel more confident because if something bad were to happen, you’d know your way back to safety without having to think about it. Just knowing how to get ‘home’ is a good start, but if you’ve walked the path several times, and from several different directions, then you can do it mindlessly or in the dark or under duress.

Positioning

Of all the tables available, I chose one that was right on a street corner. Of all the seats available I chose the one facing the crosswalk and the other people sitting outside.

The first instinct for many people in this situation will be to fall back and blend in, choosing a seat that will allow them to do their own thing and ignore everyone else around them. What if they make eye contact? Awkward!

But eye contact is exactly what you want. Or rather, you don’t want to go out of your way to make eye contact, but you don’t want to avoid it.

There’s a sociological premise called ‘civil inattention’ which essentially says that in nature, we as social creatures would need to check out every new human that came into view, sniffing and shaking hands and figuring out if they are friend or foe. With civilization, however, we have created a social contract that allows us to skip this step and just assume everyone is not an enemy until proven otherwise.

This is good because it keeps us from each other’s throats, but bad because it allows us to completely ignore everyone around us unless something extreme happens, and this makes it difficult to make contact with strangers.

Eye contact helps break through this social barrier. As soon as you’ve locked eyes with someone across the room (or in this case, across the sidewalk), you’ve acknowledged their existence and they yours. Now if something happens (a handful of stray dogs loudly chasing down a man on a scooter, for example), you’ve just had a shared experience with that stranger and you will be the first person they look at for confirmation that, yes, that was a weird thing that just happened. They’ll probably only say it with their eyes, but that’s a huge step forward from where you were before (politely ignoring one another as you shared the same street corner).

Posture

I paid close attention to my posture that night because, especially when you’re in a country where everyone else speaks a different native tongue, body language is vital.

I leaned back into my chair slightly, relaxed, and angled my elbows out on the armrests a bit (but not too much). Think about how your arms arch out from your body when you walk casually; that’s about the right distance. The idea is to take up enough space that you look (and feel) comfortable and show confidence, but not so much that you look like a tool (you’ve seen these guys…they can’t sit down without spreading out and taking up as much space as possible. Don’t be that guy).

Depending on where I’m at, I’ll sometimes cross one leg over the other, but in this case I was at a table too short to allow it, so instead I spread my legs out a little bit further than my arms, feet casually cocked out at slight angles (compared to where my knees pointed). I looped the shoulder-strap of my satchel over one ankle, so I knew if someone tried to snatch it while I was eating, they’d have to drag me with it. This also made it clear to passersby that I wasn’t some green tourist — I’ve been around the block before, and it was likely a rougher block than this one.

The last thing to remember with posture is that there are certain body signals you can give that show you are open for conversation. Exposing certain parts of your body — the insides of your elbows, your neck, your crotch (but not too much, obviously!) and your palms — indicate that you are comfortable with your environment and not in a defensive posture (which would involve you covering up and defending the aforementioned delicate targets).

Minor affectations

There are a million little things that a person does when they are comfortable, and each of us is different, so I can’t tell you what yours will be.

For example, I know that when I feel good about a situation and confident with myself, I’ll let the glass I’m drinking from dangle casually from my hand, holding it from the top, sipping from between my forefinger and thumb. I also tend to allow my eyes to wander around, taking in details, and purse my lips a little bit as I do.

Next time you’re feeling really comfortable and confident, take stock of yourself and what you’re doing.

It’s important to know these things because it will help you put on a strong demeanor even when you’re not feeling 100%.

The Point
And that leads us to the main point of this entire exercise: when you can portray a certain emotional state accurately outwardly, you’ll be much more likely to fall into that state, inwardly, shortly thereafter.

There are mountains of scientific research that show muscle memory as having a major impact on your emotional mindset. If someone is asked their opinion about something arbitrary while nodding ‘yes,’ for example, they are much more likely to respond positively than if they are nodding ‘no’ (or not nodding at all).

I’ve found this to be true over and over again. If you can identify how you act and look when you’re feeling at your best, you’ll find that it becomes much easier to make yourself actually FEEL that way on command.

Don’t

Fiddle with your phone, twitch/tap the table with your fingers or the ground with your feet, repeat the same motion over and over (sipping from your drink with great frequency doesn’t look natural), smile at everyone who passes by, avoid eye-contact, make too much eye-contact, make faces, pace, or ignore everyone.

All of these things show nervousness, and if you are acting nervous, it’s very likely people will treat you that way (even if they don’t directly interact with you) and that will keep you from that feeling of confidence you’re trying to achieve.

Update: November 25, 2016

In retrospect, some of these posts I wrote back in the day make me seem like a bit of a sociopath.

That doesn’t mean it’s untrue information, it just means that it feels a little weird to have obsessed so much over this kind of thing, and then to have written about that obsessing. That said, I also remember this kind of writing being immensely popular with some people in my audience, so I’m guessing that the state of mind I was in, that of someone trying to quantify the things that seem to be working, socially, wasn’t one I was alone in having.