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Ceilings and Floors

A couple of years ago while living in New Zealand, I went skydiving.

I jumped out of a plane from 16,000 feet in the air, and though it’s not something I would  usually find appealing (the kind of thrills I prefer are exploratory, rather than physically jolting), I had a good time with it. I’m glad I agreed to go.

But why did I agree if it wasn’t something I thought I would enjoy? Why, when my friend asked if I was keen to partake, did I say, “Sure,” rather than, “Nah, I’d rather do anything else”?

I didn’t want to lower my ceiling. That is, I didn’t want to place a limit on what I would do.

I knew that as soon as I said, “No, I don’t think I’ll skydive,” I would have been bringing my ceiling down into view. I would know, from that point on, that I’d do anything up to skydiving, but nothing past it. I would have less space in which to live.

I prefer my ceiling high; so high that I can’t even see where it is.

Just as important as my ceiling, though, is my floor. While the former is how far I’ll push myself to go, the latter is how far I’ll let myself fall. It’s the minimum I’ll accept.

For some people, staying in fancy hotels and eating at four-star restaurants is their floor, which is quite high. Other people are fine with living in a tent in the woods, boiling water before they drink it, and eating only what they can catch. That’s a fairly low floor.

In the US, most people don’t have very low floors. We tend to aim high, so we have high ceilings, but it’s fairly easy for us to do this because we don’t fall very far; our floors are right there with us. We’re comfortable. You might say our rooms are regular sized, but on an upper floor.

In a place like Kolkata there are street kids who have incredibly low floors, and their ceilings are quite low, as well. They’ll live on scraps and untreated water, but they aren’t aspiring to be millionaires or famous; they’re just hoping to live in a decently nice place some day and eat three square meals. Their rooms are also regular sized, but on a lower floor.

Looking at those two examples, there’s a big contrast, but both groups have similarly sized rooms. They might live on different floors in the same building, but one doesn’t have any more space in which to move around than the other.

For me, freedom is vital: I want to have a lot of space to move around.

That means I have to always be raising my ceiling while lowering my floor: increasing my ambitions and expectations for myself, while at the same time lowering my minimum standards so that I can still have a good time even when things are less than optimal.

People with high ceilings and high floors are trapped by their own standards, missing out on much of what the world has to offer as a result.

People with low ceilings and low floors are held back by their lack of ambition, and by their acceptance of their given place in the world.

People with low ceilings and high floors can barely move, terrified of moving beyond their usual lot in life but unwilling to accept less than the modicum that they already have.

Aim for high ceilings and low floors and you’ll never find yourself stuck or without new nooks and crannies to explore. You’ll have plenty of room to jump, plenty of opportunities to fall (and far), but you’ll also have the space you need to stretch out and recover when needed.

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A Light

The light bulb in my kitchen burnt out a few weeks ago. Last week, the bulb in my bathroom burnt out, too.

As a result it’s been pitch black in my bathroom and not much better in the kitchen.

I’ve looked around for a new bulb, though it can be tricky to find specific items like that in a European downtown area. In the US you would just head to any grocery store or pharmacy and they’d be likely to have a replacement bulb, but in the States we’re all about the on-stop-shop. Most other countries have their food in one place, their housewares in another, their hardware in another, and so on. I assumed there would be some kind of electronics or hardware store within walking distance, but after a few days of keeping my eyes open for something that fit the bill, I came up short.

A full week has passed and I’ve made it work. I turn on a light in an adjacent room when cooking, and when I need to use the bathroom, I open up the fridge, which is close to the bathroom door and does a decent job of lighting my way to the shower or toilet. I am a classy person.

And then yesterday — eureka! — I found a small bulb tucked into a corner of the tiny camping supplies section of a newly-discovered grocery store near my flat. I walked home, fitted it into the socket at the end of a somewhat-precariously-dangling wire fixture in the bathroom, and suddenly the room was flooded with pure, sweet, full-bodied light. The bathroom — and my smile — lit up brighter than either had in a week.

It’s a little thing, replacing a light bulb. But it can be huge when you’ve reset your expectations — in this case, to showering in the dark — resulting in a small solution that makes a huge impact.

This is part of why I don’t live in fancy apartments all the time, and why I don’t eat out at high-end restaurants for every meal. If I get accustomed to the best, anything less than ideal will be disappointing.

If I keep my standards balanced in the middle — acclimating myself sometimes to the best and sometimes to the not-so-best available — then those four-star restaurants and fancy flats will still have the power to surprise me and light up my smile with their wonderfulness.

Stay in a dark room long enough and eventually you’ll be able to see, and you’ll still appreciate the light when it’s turned on periodically.

Spend your entire life in a fully-lit room and the darkness will be terrifying and unfamiliar and seem like the worst thing that could possibly happen.

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Preaching to Other Choirs

Have beliefs? Want to be a change-maker? Feel that you have answers?

Want to be heard?

Then go be remarkable in ways that those you want to influence will respect.

Notice that I didn’t just say, “Go be remarkable.” That’s not enough. I could be the best oil painter in the world and that wouldn’t give me the clout necessary to influence how programming languages are developed. An Olympic gold-medal-winning figure skater’s opinions have little impact on how commodities are traded.

Take a look at the Occupy Wall Street movement. Regardless of what you might think about the motivations behind the protests, those involved took a fundamentally flawed approach in trying to impress change upon a wealthy super-class by showing just how un-showered and socialistic they could be. They were impressing each other, sure, and many other people who share similar values — in terms of rabble-rousing and bringing some issues to light, it was a great success — but did any minds in the 1% change? No. Nor will they, doing things that way.

Using the same example, if the Occupy folk want to make actual change occur within that wealthy super-class, they need to be remarkable in a different way. They need to take public office and start businesses. Then, once ensconced within — or at the very least adjacent-to — the system they want to change, they’d finally be able to do so. Until they take this kind of action, however, they’re just preaching to the choir.

The same goes for artists or authors who complain about the fine art market or publishing industry. Want to change it? Create your own market. Succeed and make waves in a way that your intended target will notice; in a way that they’ll feel. Beat them at their own game.

Of course, many people don’t really want to make change: they want to complain. If change is made for them by someone else, excellent, but making change is hard, and they’re way too busy enjoying the benefits of their imperfect situation to want to spend their own time and energy possibly disrupting it but maybe not.

There’s also the fear that an Occupy protestor who starts a business or goes into politics will fall prey to the very attitudes they’re protesting in the first place, or an author will go turncoat and start to support the beliefs of legacy publishers over that of indie artists.

This is a non-argument: if someone changes their mind that means they’re adapting based on new information, and that’s information someone who never makes the attempt — who tries to avoid hearing opinions and facts that don’t support their own preexisting ideologies — doesn’t have. You have to assume there are motivations behind things you find reprehensible as much as there are motivations for the things you find to be morally pure. To think otherwise shows a massive lack of interpersonal relativity.

I’m not taking sides on anything mentioned here, because there are, in general, excellent arguments on both sides of a conflict. But if more people stood up for what they believe in by learning more about that which they don’t (and from legitimate sources of opposite opinions: militant vegans listening to Greenpeace and hardcore Conservatives watching FOX News doesn’t count), we may find we have more in common than we thought and that there are middle grounds few people are willing to look for or talk about.

Know thy enemy, and you may find they aren’t your enemy after all. Or you might confirm that they are, in which case you can happily start throwing stones from the inside. Either way, you’ll be far more capable of making positive change.