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 this novel 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.