Constraints

There are two roads to my destination: Addition or subtraction. If I imagine something I want to achieve, my habit and instinct is to imagine what I’m going to do to get there. That’s the additive approach. But sometimes it would be easier—in fact, sometimes it is only possible—to get there by removing impediments.

I love that question to ask yourself when you’re troubleshooting failed attempts at personal change: Why am I not doing this thing already?

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/habits/why-arent-you-doing-it-already/

It’s quite startling, but that question works. Always. (And that question is closely related to: It is not a priority.)

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Actively decide

It takes some commitment to decide. I find my urge is to wriggle. My urge is to try to keep my options open. My urge is to take on more. In the case of this little missive, I mean to seek more and more information. To go beyond actively seeking, to passively permitting more and more things to flow at me.

Does this content move me closer to or further from my ultimate aim? If what we consume becomes our thoughts, our thoughts become our actions, and our actions become our character, can I give the things I watch, listen to, and read — the things I’m turning into — a grade of B or above? The lure of a compelling headline aside, does this topic actually interest me? Does this content educate and edify? And when I’m seeking pure entertainment, which everyone sometimes needs, does it at least not appeal to the most reptilian part of my brain, and make me feel lower, baser, and stupider as a result?

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/behavior/sunday-firesides-be-a-ruthless-editor-in-chief/

Still, I resist the urge to decide and invite the self-made disaster of overwhelm. Why? Because it takes real courage, in the presence of others and in the presence of others’ vociferous opinions… It takes courage for me to say, “I don’t know.”

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A flourishing life

Eudaimonia has come up before here on the ‘ol blog.

Simply put, I dislike having to use words from other languages. As soon as I queue up such a word for speaking, I imagine some leathery cowboy bitching about highfalutin words. (Which I, also immediately, find to be sublime hypocrisy on the part of my imagined critic.)

For the ancient Greeks, eudaimonia was considered the highest human good. While the word doesn’t easily translate into English, it roughly corresponds to a happy, flourishing life — to a life well-lived.

Eudaimonia wasn’t a destination — a nirvana that, once reached, initiated a state of bliss. Happiness wasn’t something you felt, but that you did; it was a dynamic, ongoing activity.

What that activity centered on was the pursuit of arete, or virtue.

~ Brett & Kate McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/advice/aristotles-11-excellences-for-living-a-flourishing-life/

Anyway, there’s simply no way to say it succinctly in English. I’ve always wondered if the language (some word or phrase) is missing because we Westerners don’t think about eudaimonia— Or if we don’t think about eudaimonia because we don’t have the language for it. I want a single English word for all of that above because I think about it all the time.

Also, are you now wondering—more generally—if your primary language (the one you speak, read, write, and hear in your thoughts) affects the way you think or the types of thoughts you are capable of having?

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Not too often, not too infrequent

There is no piece of straw incapable of breaking the camel’s back. Because there’s nothing particularly interesting about the final piece of straw, it’s the total mass. Over the past week I’ve been attacking my lists in a sort of upside down fashion. There are some big, low-priority things sitting at the bottom of my lists for some time. They’ve resisted my finely-honed urge to summarily delete them; each time I consider them I remain sure I want to actually do them. None the less, I see them and I know they’re there and they weigh upon my mind.

Left unchecked, every life flows away from higher aims and towards the path of least resistance. Daily practices can help stem this slide. But staying on course requires check-ins that are too big to do every day, and too important to only accomplish monthly (or yearly).

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/habits/sunday-firesides-theres-only-so-far-you-can-get-off-track-in-a-week/

Last weekend, as I often do, I did a review and decided to focus on those big, low-priority items. And to my surprise, I’ve been springing out of bed at 530—the normally targeted time, but which is often a struggle—and smashing these items in multi-hour dashes. Crossing them off one by one has been sublime. The magic seems to be the combination of going to bed knowing I’m going to start tomorrow working on those things which are actually on my mind, and knowing that I’ve set myself a specific window of days to smash this stuff.

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It’s been a while

But it’s also just fun. For me, at least. I enjoy seeing how humans from thousands of years ago tried to get their bearings in the world compared to humans living today. When you read, study, and talk about philosophy, you’re taking part in a conversation that’s been going on for millennia. And conversation is fun. I love a good conversation.

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/living/reading/the-great-conversation-philosophy-textbook/

It’s been a minute since I’ve purchased a textbook. It’s nice to see that they’re no longer stupidly over-priced— oh wait, no sorry. They’re insanely priced. Fortunately, I was able to bop on over to abebooks.com and find a copy of The Great Conversation for about $5 depending on what condition you want; There’s like a hundred copies of that book available.

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It matters that I am my work

[The common refrain is t]hat what you do for work doesn’t define you. That the health, hobbies, and relationships you cultivate outside the office are more important. That you’re a human being, and not a human doing, damnit.

It’s the kind of thing that sounds great in the abstract. Yet, no matter how often we rehearse it cognitively and rhetorically, it never entirely resonates viscerally.

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/career-wealth/career/you-are-kind-of-your-job/

I define “work” as: The things I do so that I can trade the results with others. We can all trade in many ways, but a common way to trade is to use money as a way of storing and exchanging value. I don’t think I’m veering off into economics. That definition is critical. There are an enormous number of things which I do that, by that definition are not what I’d consider “work.” How much work one does in terms of hours-spent is going to vary tremendously (and it’s going to vary for countless reasons). There are 168 hours in a 7-day week. If one works 50 hours a week, that’s fully 30% of your total time. Conversely, if one works 5 hours, it’s 3%.

Let’s take it as true that what one does for work matters. That it matters in a real way, which affects your physical and mental health. I do believe that one is able to outgrow this need for meaningful work; I do think one can grow from our inherent nature of a being in need of meaningful doing, to become simply a human being as Mckay (and many others through history) has pointed out.

As one works less, doesn’t it become increasingly important that each moment of work be good work? A couple good hours a week used to make those 50-hours-a-week good. Where’s the “good work” balance for 5-hours-a-week? This inherent need to do work that matters gets stronger as one’s trading-with-others needs diminish. This seems to me, to suggest that the necessity of shifting to the “human simply being” becomes more urgent.

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Leisure by another name

The more man is alienated from his work, the more he must look elsewhere for sources of growth, mastery, and fulfillment; the more he is alienated from his work, the more critical it becomes for him to cultivate his life outside of it — his leisure.

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/living/leisure/the-pyramid-of-leisure/

This is both a brilliant survey of leisure over recent centuries and an insightful suggestion for how anyone might improve their life. Not everyone has time for leisure, but those who do are wise to be intentional about what they do with what time they have. Like many of McKay’s articles, this one goes into the evergreen bookshelves fill by centuries of authors and finds some old gems worth noting.

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Our sense of what’s possible

The people we’re surrounded by limit or expand our sense of what is possible.

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/people/relationships/sunday-firesides-relationships-over-willpower/

That’s a perfect turn of phrase from McKay. I love to find myself exposed to new people; those moments where I think, “that’s interesting!” are like single-serving sized friends (with hat tip to Chuck Palahniuk).

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Not so easy

The answer depends on whether he recognizes that though he may have subdued his external obstacles and enemies, he must overcome psychological foes — depression, anomie, angst — which are no less formidable for their ethereality. He must embrace the fact that though this world may be thoroughly charted, explored, and technologized, there remains one last territory to conquer — himself.

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/advice/sunday-firesides-mans-last-great-conquest-himself/

I would argue that all the external conquering and subduing was the easy part. That existential dread? That’s not so easy. The first part of solving that problem is of course realizing it is a problem for oneself. Yeah, I’m working on that.

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You’ll know it when you experience it

Yet while the application and discussion of burnout has greatly expanded, what burnout is, exactly, and what causes it has remained stubbornly difficult to pin down. There is no clinical definition of burnout, no universally agreed upon yardstick for what constitutes it, no official diagnostic checklist as to its symptoms.

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/career-wealth/career/a-counterintuitive-cure-for-burnout/

McKay draws our attention to a feature of burnout that spans all the various types of people, epochs, living situations, employment and work where we see burnout: Sameness. Monotony. Repetition without variety. This is clearly a feature of what causes me to burnout. I don’t think it’s sufficient to cause me to burnout, but it’s definitely necessary.

If I can change this feature, for whatever-it-is that I’m approaching burnout with, I can avert the catastrophe. When burnout approaches, I’ve tried planning, thinking that wrangling with the process to reduce the cognitive load might help. I’ve thought that better planning—break this huge long thing into manageable steps—would give me space and energy to recharge. But this never works. The long slog which I can clearly see, after I do a bunch of planning, simply makes the onset of burnout accelerate.

Instead, if I figure out how to bring novelty into the mix, that seems to always work. (I say “seems” because, although I cannot think of case where it did not work, I’m a pragmatist.) Often this works if I simply find the aspect of whatever-it-is which represents the biggest amount of work, and delete that. Whatever-it-is was going to slump to non-existence anyway, when I burnout, so I may as well cut to the chase. I find that having stripped away something that I thought was essential, whatever-it-was turns out to contain a little nugget of, “huhn, that’s interesting.”

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One reason why I journal

When we conjure up what it will be like to start a new practice, form a new habit, knock an item off a bucket list, we see the fun but not the work. We see an image in which all the drudgery has been edited out, and only the montage of rewards left in.

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/advice/sunday-firesides-do-you-like-the-idea-more-than-the-reality/

Great points from McKay. I often enjoy inverting problems like the one he’s describing. Let’s say I thought a lot about the idea and the reality and decided far in the past to start something—for example, a daily podcast of me reading quotes. Then the inversion of the problem McKay is writing about would be to figure out, in the present, if my current experience of the reality matches what I expected the reality to be, back when I made the decision. Because, if I don’t do that, how do I get better at making the idea/reality choice McKay is discussing?

This is one reason I journal. For every project (and much more) in the last decade I’ve journaled about it. An idea begins to appear repeatedly in my journal entries. Sometimes it grows into my laying out the expected reality—the work this is going to require, the physical and emotional costs, the expected outcome(s), the rewards, etc.. Then I regularly reread my old journal entries and see how much of an idiot I was. ;)

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Eleven ways to really screw yourself up

Most things in life aren’t black and white. Overly dualistic thinking isn’t true to reality. Life is full of nuance. A goal can be worth pursuing even if it doesn’t garner the highest success; there are worthwhile things in both flawed people and flawed philosophies.

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/the-11-cognitive-distortions-that-are-making-you-a-miserable-sob/

I’m not even sure how to classify this article for you. It’s short enough that you can just go glance at it. You’ll either shrug it off as simplistic (or possibly even offensive), or you’ll find the list of common cognitive mistakes useful. My pull-quote is indicative of the mistake of “splitting” thinking explained, not of the article overall. This mistake was—is still?—my biggest problem.

On the topics of depression and cognitive mistakes, from personal experience I recommend as useful Stoicism in general, and the more modern, (than the one McKay is referencing in the article above,) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple. To be fair, David Burns, the author of the book McKay is summarizing, was instrumental in bringing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy into the mainstream.

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Discipline

The end for self-discipline is personal improvement; the end for discipline lies beyond the self. This distinction helps explain why individuals can be incredibly self-disciplined and yet see very little external achievement as a result. Sure, they never miss a day writing in their journal and never lose their temper, but those displays of self-mastery don’t automatically lead to outward success.

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/behavior/are-you-disciplined-or-just-self-disciplined/

There are lots of ways to talk about this distinction; the particular way described by McKay comes from an author he’s interviewed. I’d never thought about is as “discipline” versus “self-discipline.” I’d always thought of discipline as a thing, and then the “self-” prefix in “self-discipline” means that thing done to myself. And I’m not going to change how I use the words, “discipline,” and “self-discipline.” I see why they’re using “discipline” and “self-discipline.” I think I’d prefer to use, “inward-directed,” and, “outward-directed,” discipline. Everything I do to myself is self-discipline, but when my goal is to change myself, then it’s “inward-directed,” and when my goal is to change the world, then it’s “outward-directed.”

But the point of the distinction is very interesting. Do I actually have goals which are the, “why?” behind my self-discipline? Are those goals an appropriate mixture of inward- and outward-directed?

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Words matter

But it isn’t just institutions that are guilty of enervating the gems of our language.

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/habits/143606/

A simple piece that makes a clear statement. I find that the less I talk, (and the less I write—for example, by not posting at all on any “social” media,) the less I have the urge to abuse words. So much, maybe even all(?), of my overwrought language was driven by desperate grasping to get people to like me. These days? The grasping is certainly no longer desperate, and my communication has vastly improved because of it.

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Systematic abandonment

To that end, Drucker recommends that executives routinely take part in “systematic abandonment.” Every few months, an executive should do a reevaluation of all the organization’s practices, looking at everything the organization is doing and deciding anew if the organization should stop or continue it.

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/behavior/peter-druckers-question-for-eliminating-practices-that-no-longer-serve-you/

Drucker was writing explicitly in the context of business executives. McKay does a nice job of showing how those principles which serve executives so well, work equally well in one’s personal life. I didn’t have this process—this guiding principle from Drucker’s work—identified clearly in my head. But I have it firmly implanted into how I instinctively do things.

I’ve had more than one person make the joke, “Craig, how many clones do you have?!” (I like to jokingly reply, “Yes, I have several clones, but none of us can get the others to do anything we don’t want to do ourselves.”) I accomplish a lot. While I have a number of clear advantages—such as where I was lucky enough to start in the game of life, luck in biology, and luck in opportunities I was shown—those aren’t the truly magic ingredient. The magic ingredient is what I don’t do. It doesn’t matter what specifically it is that I don’t do; Each of us has to make those decisions for oneself. What does matter is that I am willing to regularly and often spend a prodigious amount of time examining what I am doing, and how I am doing it. And then ruthlessly cutting away things that I should stop doing.

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Vitality

Brett McKay: But how can men maintain that vitality, even when they have those responsibilities they have at home?

Vic Verdier: I personally use two strategies, if you want. The first one is very easy. It’s to read books, books and biographies, novels, books of adventures, books of people taking risk. I’m thinking Hemingway, Jack London, but also biographies of great leaders who took risks, and thanks to you, Brett, I learned more about Theodore Roosevelt and the way he reinvented himself all the time, challenging himself. And when you read those books, you realize that you don’t really have anything to lose by trying new things all the time. So that’s my first strategy, getting some inspiration from reading. The second strategy for me is to, on a weekly basis, to do some kind of self-assessment, meaning every week I’m thinking about my life and what I’m doing, and when I start to settle down, I know it’s time to do something different. Do you remember this movie, Groundhog Day, when Bill Murray is repeating the same day over and over again?

Brett McKay: Of course.

Vic Verdier: I think… If I live twice the same day, somehow I wasted one day. So I try to have some diversity in my life, and every time I think that I fall into some kind of routine, I know I have to explore something else or go somewhere else or do… Take another course or learn some new skills.

~ From https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/how-to-stay-fit-as-you-age/

slip:4c2he1c.

This wide-ranging conversation with Verdier touches on everything from his military and deep diving careers, to Parkour, MoveNat and general ways to stay fit and healthy. Worth a listen, and doubly-so if you’re a dude over 40. (Or know one.)

There’s an embedded player on that page, or find episode 704 of The Art of Manliness podcast, How to Keep Your Edge as You Get Older.

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Skepticism and cynicism

The result of this kind of influence is twofold: one is a skepticism and cynicism towards everything which is said or printed, while the other is a childish belief in anything that a person is told with authority. This combination of cynicism and naïveté is very typical of the modern individual. Its essential result is to discourage him from doing his own thinking and deciding.

~ Erich Fromm from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/erich-fromm-think-originally-in-the-modern-age/

Philosophical Skepticism, “is a family of philosophical views that question the possibility of knowledge.” (That’s a quote from the Wikipedia entry. If you want to go deeper, try the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry for Skepticism.)

As far as I understand it—your mileage may vary—Fromm, in that quote, wasn’t condemning philosophical skepticism. Rather, and I agree, let’s all condemn the little-s-skepticism; the naivete driven, disbelieve everything, skepticism that turns away from anything it doesn’t understand.

I prefer to turn towards just about anything I don’t yet understand. (See: “Oh. That’s interesting…”) I’m am frequently asking myself: “What is true, and how do I know it’s true?”

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Music or no?

Music and exercise were inseparable for me. That is, until this past year. I can’t remember the last time I had music playing in the background while I exercised. And, strangely enough, I’m digging the silence. Here’s why you might hit the off button on your audio player too.

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/the-case-for-not-listening-to-music-when-you-work-out/

Two years ago I nearly became a runner. I was starting to run short distances pretty often. And I was always running with a specific music playlist.

But that’s the only activity I do with music— hiking, biking, rock-climbing… no music. Parkour? Absolutely not, because I need to hear the noises I’m making as part of the feedback. (Am I landing softly? What rhythms am I generating? How’s my breathing? AM I breathing?)

These days I’m doing everything—including driving long distances—in silence.

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Wrangling life’s admin tasks

Just as with job-related admin, “life admin” represents some of our least favorite, and most procrastinated on, to-dos. And yet completing them is essential to keeping our lives organized, functioning, and moving ahead.

~ Brett McKay from https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/how-to-better-manage-your-life-admin/

A couple years ago I simply threw my hands up in the air and picked one day of the week which I’ve literally labeled as my “admin” day. On that day each week, I tackle everything related to life admin. It’s awesome; Stuff gets done.

But even better than that: It frees me on the other six days of the week. During the other six days each week, whole swaths of things are trivially lobbed onto the pile for the next admin day.

Try this: Pick a day of the week to be admin day, and start lobbing stuff to that day. Laundry, housecleaning… hell, I don’t even open postal mail until admin day. Pay bills, schedule things, shopping, errands…

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Deeply held beliefs

This book is complicated and ambitious. But there’s one thread in particular that I think is worth underscoring. Crawford notes that the real problem with the current distracted state of our culture is not the prevalence of new distracting technologies. These are simply a reaction to a more fundamental reality: “[W]e are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to — that is, what to value.” In the absence of strongly-held answers to this question our attention remains adrift and unclaimed — we cannot, therefore, be surprised that app-peddlers and sticky websites swooped in to aggressively feast on this abundant resource.

~ Cal Newport, from https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2016/07/15/from-descartes-to-pokemon-matthew-crawfords-quest-to-reclaim-our-attention/

Turns out Crawford was interviewed by Brett McKay, another person I’ve often quoted here. I’ve not yet listened but the episode is Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.

Originally I thought “social media” itself was the problem. Eventually it became clear to me that social media is the symptom. People want to be fed saccharine lives through their phones because they’ve never been taught that they need to consciously make decisions about what’s important to them.

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