Anxiously panicking

A couple of weeks ago I started obliterating processes. I’ve often talked about how everything is a process, and I still believe that. However I’d reached a point where I simply had too many processes (I won’t bore you with unbelievable examples) and a couple of weeks ago I decided enough was enough. I spent several days doing nothing but thinking about everything I was doing, and wanted to be doing but wasn’t “getting around to.”

We’re overwhelmed by it all: all the things we have on our plates, all the interruptions and messages and emails, all the things online and on social media, all the news and chaos of the world, all the things going on in our relationships.

~ Leo Babauta from,

Some things I do can feel like a chore but when I was honest, they are actually things I enjoy doing. Furthermore, they pay off outsized benefits for the time they require. What then made them feel like chores? I think it was the anxiety of the other things I felt I should be doing—after all, I put those other things on a list or made a process so I could chip away at them in sane-sized chunks. I went through everything, and then started deleting things from that “everything else” space.

Is this simply me oscillating between no-planning, planning, no-planning, planning? Is this a 2/3-life (or, if I pretend I’ll live long, “mid-life”) crisis? Have I said a polite-but-clear “no” to some big things? Have I been having some anxiety-free days? YES, to all of those. I’m currently trying to be vigilant to notice the first thing I get anxious about—because I’m going to delete that next.



Everyone is heavily influenced by what they’ve experienced firsthand, because what you’ve experienced is more persuasive than something you read about.

~ Morgan Housel from,

That’s one small insight from a bunch in an article nominally about finance. Most of the others also apply to life generally. What’s that old saw from Twain? Something like, “holding a cat by the tail, you’ll learn something through experience that can be learned no other way.” I find it fascinating that, although I’d wager none of you have done that with a cat, we all have a good idea of what we’d learn in the doing.

Related, I once managed—mostly successfully—to wrangle a 6-foot iguana which had horrifically befouled itself, into a warm, steamy shower enclosure, myself remaining outside. It occurred to me to use long oven mitts, to grab from behind, and to keep her oriented so her thrashing tail swung in a plane not including any of me. Through that experience I learned a lot about an iguana’s claws, the true range-of-motion of that body plan’s limbs, and the level of focus and determination she had from millions of years of evolution. We also developed a new relationship: me, wary. Her, indefatigable drive to some day murder my pasty, clawless ass.


Why aren’t you working on that?

Richard Hamming was a mathematician who worked at Bell Labs during the 1940s-1970s. He had a habit of sitting down with scientists in other fields and asking them “What are the important problems of your field?” After they explained their field’s most important open problem, he would ask them: why aren’t you working on that?

~ “CFAR!Duncan” from,

Ouch! I wonder if Hamming got punched in the face a lot? That’s a link to an appendix that doesn’t have an attributed person as the author. But if you can see past all that, it’s a series of eight prompts which really cut through my bullshit. “Why am I not working on that?” …well, actually, I am trying to work on that. Unfortunately, I’m also dividing my efforts in too many other directions simultaneously.

Maybe that’s just me though?


Dump out the box

In the end, what matters is your lifestyle. The specifics of your work are important only in how they impact your daily experience. As I summarized, when choosing a career path: “Fix the lifestyle you want. Then work backwards from there.” This idea, which I dubbed lifestyle-centric career planning, subverted popular advice from that period which tended to emphasize the importance of passion and dream jobs. In this widely-accepted schema, the full responsibility for your ongoing satisfaction was offloaded to the minutia of your professional endeavors.

~ Cal Newport from,

Somewhere we each have a box full of specific things. I have a plastic storage tub full of electronic accessories—a spare hard drive, a spare ethernet switch, various cables, an extra mouse, the HDMI cable, and the power adapter for the rest of the world. As a kid, I had a huge styrofoam cooler (it’s a long story) full of Lego bricks and parts. I’m not talking about the proverbial “junk drawer.” I’m talking about a proverbial “box” into which we place specific things. My electronics accessories, my printing supplies, my rock climbing gear, and even all the bookcases considered as one “box.” It’s pretty obvious—I hope?—that since we’re continuously adding things to the boxes, we need to periodically “dump out” the box and cull. The cables that don’t fit anything we currently own… The books we didn’t like or enjoy… Every time I dump out some “box” and toss (or sell or donate etc.) some of the items, my life improves.

This morning I was thinking: When is the last time I dumped out my box of people? …my box of responsibilities? …my box of things I think I should do? …my box of dreams?



Heroism is more fun but less reliable than good planning.

~ Seth Godin from,

It’s a good point.

And it took me a long time to realize that heroism isn’t even fun. Long ago I used to rush in, sometimes literally, and save the day. I’ve played the theme song from Mission: Impossible while rushing to fix computers in the middle of the night. One time, although I wasn’t rushing but was en route to fix things, I was nearly killed in a car crash, in the middle of the night, on a highway that was deserted, until I was hit from behind, at extreme speed, by two people who were racing side-by-side. I think I just channeled Proust. I digress. Where was I?

It took me a long time to realize that heroism isn’t even fun. Years later, I was reading M. B. Stanier‘s The Coaching Habit (which I recommend, but I more highly recommend his, The Advice Trap) where I found his mention of the “Karpman Drama Triangle”. I’m not even sure if that’s a real thing; It should be a real thing and I’m not going to spoil it by actually looking. Karpman, apparently, identifies the “Rescuer” as one of the three types of people in his dramatic triangle. (When I first read that I thought, “Oh my gawd, I used to always be that person. I’m so glad I’ve totally outgrown that,” while chuckling nervously.) The Rescuer’s core belief is, “Don’t fight, don’t worry, let me jump in and take it on and fix it.” Crap. I’m pretty sure I still have this problem.


Overlooked truths

Peoples’ desire to have an opinion far exceeds the number of things that need to be opined on. “I don’t know” is a phrase that should be praised for its honesty, not belittled for its detachment.

~ Morgan Housel from,

Collaborative Fund is an investment firm so everything there is about investing. Mostly about investing. Well, actually, it turns out that investing is at its core just people doing stuff for reasons. Posts like this one from Housel read like investment (or “financial”) advice, and their lessons directly generalize. I’ve already mentioned that “I don’t know” is how how I avoid making the mistake of trying to have an opinion about everything. There are several other nuggets in there too.


More present

A million years from now, when alien anthropologists begin gathering evidence about what humans were like, they will definitely want to dig up the Self-help and Spiritual/Religion sections of our bookstores and libraries. There they will find direct evidence of what we yearned for and struggled with.

~ David Cain from,

For some reason ( <- sarcasm alert ) my mind went directly from my title, to More cowbell. Which I’m linking to, on the off-chance you’ve not seen it. But to Cain’s topic I’ll simply add that it’s really (really REALLY) clear to me that I am the source of all my stress, anxiety, and problems. Certainly, there are injuries and trauma in my past—oh the stories I’ll not tell. Every time I turn and face the strange (hat tip David Bowie, rest in piece) I find it’s all smoke and mirrors. Every. Single. Time that I stop, and ask myself: What exactly is the thing that I’m anxious about, wigged-out about, pissed-off about, and—yes this too is a problem—excited about… Be clear, Craig. Use “i” language. Then I simply do it, or I delete it from my life. Bliss. Calm presence. The sun comes out and my mouth makes that strange shape y’all call a “smile.”



When you call someone “untrustworthy” or “ungrateful”, turn the reproach on yourself. It was you who did wrong by assuming that someone with those traits deserved your trust. Or by doing them a favor and expecting something in return, instead of looking to the action itself for your reward. What else did you expect from helping someone out? Isn’t it enough that you’ve done what your nature demands? You want a salary for it too?

~ Marcus Aurelius, 9.42


Ruh-roh… that’s me

The ways in which we are all susceptible to drowning ourselves into drama, and what it takes to float free, is what Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) explores in her subtle, splendid 1978 novel The Sea, the Sea — the story of a talented but complacent playwright approaching the overlook of life, who is ultimately overcome by his tragic flaw: Despite his obsessive self-reflection (or perhaps precisely because of it), his egotism ultimately eclipses his creative spirit — that brightest and most generous part of us, the part rightly called our gift, the part that extends the outstretched hand of sympathy and wonder we call art and invites, in Iris Murdoch’s lovely phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”

~ Maria Popova from

I’m not a playwright—but the rest of that character seems too like me. “Drowning ourselves in drama…” “…obsessive self-reflection…” “…egotism ultimately eclipses his creative spirit…” Methinks The Sea The Sea would be a good cautionary tale for me to consume forthwith.


Sedimentation and erosion

I have this image of our home as a bunch of related-rates problems: There’s inflow and outflow. Energy: In through my electric meter, out through lighting, waste heat and heating/cooling, water heater, etc.. Climate control: Heat flow in from heating/cooling system, the wood stove, the sun, versus losses through the attic, windows, doors, etc.. Mass: The balance of the rates of the flow of all the stuff.

Ever stop to think of that? Think of your home as a sealed balloon which has two, (or more of course,) doors, (garage doors count,) through which everything passes. Everything—no exceptions—passes in first, and then out second. Everything–every single thing, including the people–is only inside temporarily. The people come and go most frequently, (some pets might exceed some people I suppose,) and some things might remain inside for decades. But still, inside only temporarily.

You know that at some point you, (and everyone else if you share your home,) will go out for the last time. You might carry some things with you on your last exit, or you might arrange for someone else to come in, (and go out and in and out and in and out one last time,) to remove things after you go out for the last time. And of course eventually the entire structure will be removed and certainly at that point, everything you brought in—everything that was temporarily still inside—will go out at that point.

Where does everything you carry in from the market and grocery store go? Where does the furniture go? The books? The nick-naks? The packages and packing material from purchases? The clothes? The postal mail? The firewood you carry in is vastly more massive than the ashes you carry out; where does all that mass go?

Based on how the things around me make me feel, I know I have too much stuff. When I think of our stuff this way—as just a mass of stuff that’s temporarily inside our home—it’s much easier to keep my life under control. Too much stuff? …all I need to do is make sure more goes out than comes in, on average, and the problem will subside.

…and I can have fun with it. If something breaks, is worn out, or I’m done with it, that’s the outbound mass for today! Can I recycle this random thing? Can I FreeCycle this random thing? I no longer feel bad about sending things out, (wether that means landfill, recycle, giveaway, whatever… as appropriate.) Instead, I now find I feel bad about bringing things in. Each time I consider buying something, I think: Do I want to bring that into my life?


I try to ask myself, “why?”

Contribute your suggestion without having built a body of work, without evidence of significant expertise and without being willing to take responsibility for what happens next.

It’s a form of yelling from the bleachers.

~ Seth Godin from,

I was totally this person. Once I saw what was going on and I could work on owning and eliminating this aspect of my behavior. Awareness (after discovery), ownership (after reflection), and efficacy. The red-flag is when I’m queueing the words, “You know what you should…” for speaking. Stop. Stop stop stop. It’s like the humorous but often–true aphorism that nothing you say before the word, “but” matters. I never (okay, fine, I’m still working on it) say whatever was about to come after, “You know what you should do…” Because why ever say that?

I like to give a hat-tip to Angie Flynn-MacIver any time I start talking about intention, as I’m about to. I realized that my intention behind that thing I no longer say was to demonstrate how much I knew. It doesn’t matter to the other person how much I know. What might matter to them is whether or not I can help them. It’s potentially better if I engage with the intention of being helpful. How would saying, “you should change your menu…” ever be helpful to the wait-staff, to the manager, to the chef or owner? The menu is beyond their control, or they have already thought about it way more than I have and have vastly deeper domain knowledge. If my intention is (as it now is) to be helpful, I should be paying attention for signs subtle or direct that someone would like help. Only then might I have something useful to add, but probably not.


Emotional turmoil

Interactions with people are the major source of emotional turmoil, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The problem is that we are continually judging people, wishing they were something that they are not. We want to change them. We want them to think and act a certain way, most often the way we think and act. And because this is not possible, because everyone is different, we are continually frustrated and upset.

~ Robert Greene


An addition to your knowledge

If you come across any special trait of meanness or stupidity […] you must be careful not to let it annoy or distress you, but to look upon it merely as an addition to your knowledge—a new fact to be considered in studying the character of humanity. Your attitude towards it will be that of the mineralogist who stumbles upon a very characteristic specimen of a mineral.

~ Arthur Schopenhauer



We are well aware that structures such as buildings and organizational policies and operating processes support and constrain our activities. We tend to be much less conscious of smaller structures that influence our interactions with other people. In contrast to more tangible macrostructures, we call them microstructures. You have no choice. Every time you have a conversation or a meeting you are using microstructures.

~ Keith McCandless from,

Once you see the solutions, you can’t unsee them. You—like me—probably think you do a good job of engaging other people. But there’s a great explanation in this little introductory article. It listed off all the ways… ways for which I was congratulating myself knowing… in which the microstructures we use today fail. And then it goes on (in brief in the article and at length through that web site, and a book) to show some beautiful ways to create and use structures which liberate us. That’s rather nice.



Once we feel like we’re a little good at something, we cling to that. We cling to wanting others to think we know things and are good at things. We cling to the feeling of knowing what we’re doing.

~ Leo Babauta from,

Balancing continuing to work on what I know, and single mindedly focusing on something new, is the challenge I can never seem to resolve. Destroy all the things I know? …that doesn’t end well. Destroy some of the things I know? …sure, but which ones.


In the end

Nine years ago I wrote a journal entry containing this quote:

At the end, when your legs are tired
and your arms are giving out,
Get angry that you are tired.

~ unknown


Although I still like that quote, I no longer find it inspiring. For me, the time and place for that mindset are behind me. I’m not quitting. Rather, when I get tired and my arms and legs give out, I now think: I misjudged the goal. I can access that other mindset if I choose to go on, but I’m also serenely happy to rest.


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,

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.