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The market is tanking, we're treading water in expensive wars, unemployment is high, people are eating garbage, school is failing us, our government is dysfunctional, pollution is rampant, kids are hooked on drugs, and our prisons are packed. Many things are going horribly wrong with this world, and I'd even say that some metrics we might judge ourselves by are at an all-time low.
If you focus on these things, and by that I mean "watch the news", you might reminisce about a better time. You might think of the booming markets of the 1980s, the relatively peaceful 2000s, or even the pollution-free 1500s. You could yearn for the fifties when kids listened to their parents, ate their vegetables, and could count on a solid career right out of college.
But that's just one side of the coin, and a one-sided coin isn't worth much of anything.
Seven years ago, I wrote a post called "How to Be Happy. Always." It's pretty poorly written, but starts off with an important concept-- we live in a society where happiness is the number one priority. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No one really questions that, but maybe we should. Is happiness really the best goal we can come up with?
In the time that's elapsed between when I wrote that post and now, I've thought a lot about happiness, and I still think that maximizing it is a bad idea. But before I get into that, let's talk a little bit about what happiness is.
Happiness is an good state of mind. It allows you to be optimistic, to see the good in people, and to be productive. On the other end of the spectrum, when you're very unhappy, you have a lot of barriers between things like productivity and socialization. Clearly, being happy is much better than being unhappy. It's important to be happy. Is there such a thing as being too happy? I don't think so. I've never seen someone make a mistake because he was just too happy.
So what's my problem with maximizing happiness, then? Well, it's the method, mostly.
A few days ago reader "jd" had a great suggestion for a post: what's the point of traveling? Seeing that I'm at the end of a long series of trips, it's seems to me that it's a perfect time for a post like that. Like anything, people travel for a whole host of reasons ranging from relieving stress to escaping the law. I can't speak to all of those reasons, so I'll share my own.
I began really traveling due to panic, which may not have been the best reason to go. I had always thought of myself as the type of person who would travel the world, but at twenty-six, I had gone to only a handful of countries, and had never even been to Europe. Realizing that other people my age were traveling a lot, and I wasn't, I sold everything and left with my friend Todd.
That first trip lasted nine months and fundamentally changed how I thought of travel. I set out in search of adventure and the title of "person who travels", but I got a lot more out of it.
When you stay in your home country, it's easy to completely avoid thinking of life beyond its borders. The way things were in America, I figured, was pretty much the way they were everywhere. Typical vacation travel also reinforces this view, because it hides the grit of every destination and serves up a sanitized version that largely reflects the country from which the vacationers came. In the worst cases, only a small injection of caricatured culture makes its way through the walls of the resort.
Fundamentally, I think life is about taking action. It's about drawing information from your surroundings, formulating that into a decision, and then finally acting on that decision. People who are successful and happy tend to be those who take a lot of action.
My beef with video games, TV, movies, and other sorts of passive entertainment isn't that there's NO value in them, or that they're fundamentally evil things. It's that they promote NOT taking action. When I see someone whose life is made up mostly of going to a mindless job and then coming home and indulging in passive entertainment, I think of their life as being on pause. Days spent that way just don't count.
A lot of what I think about is what makes people take action and what makes people abstain from taking action. I think about times that I've taken action, and times that I haven't, I think about others around me and their relationship with taking action, and I think about how we can all take action more frequently.
I'm always amazed at just how much happens in a year. At the end of each year, grateful for a gimme topic to write about, I sit down to write this post. And each time my first thought is, "Yeah, but not that much happened this year." Then I go through my archive for the year and look at the titles of my posts, and I realize that the previous year's farewell post seems to have been forever ago, and that tons has happened since then.
Some quick highlights of the year:
1. I bought an island with nine great friends. I've already written about this ad naseum, but it's one of those ridiculous life goals that you hope might actually come true, worry that it might be too farfetched, and then is every bit as good as you had hoped when realized. I'm really grateful to all of the people bought in and trusted me to make it happen, and for the sellers who were great to work with. This upcoming year is going to be an exciting one for the island.
2. We made some huge progress on Sett. We opened it up to the public and now have over 4500 blogs hosted, growing at a steady 10% per week. We're still in our infancy, but I'm really proud of the platform we've built, and I'm humbled every day by the great blog posts people host with us. Even if your only interaction with Sett has been reading my blog, you've been a part of the process, and I'm grateful for that.
I like the Bell Curve. It's one of those universal principles that can be applied in millions of different ways throughout your life to help make sense of things. Along with the bell curve, I think there's another graph we should all internalize and use to understand life: the jagged upwards line.
Just as the Bell Curve describes distributions, the jagged upwards line describes forward progress. And just as the standard deviation can vary in width and amplitude, the jagged upwards line varies in it's jaggedness and its slope.
When we imagine our path to reach a goal, we see a non-jagged line, gently sloping up and to the right, showing how as we move step by step, we'll get closer and closer to our goal. But that's not how things really work. What happens when we actually start working towards our goal and we hit a setback? We decide we must not be on that smooth straight line afterwards, and we get discouraged. Sometimes we give up.
It's important to understand that progress always happens on a jagged line, and that to get to your goal you must follow that line. That means that you must endure setbacks, and you must temper yourself during those short but ephemeral bursts upwards. You must remain steady, because your path is anything but steady.
I talk a lot about habits on here-- but there's a certain type of habit that's especially near and dear to my heart. Or a certain frequency of habit, I should say. The daily habit. I've found that whenever I want to make a change in my life, the best solution to it is implementing a daily habit.
My current lineup of daily habits is: floss, write a blog post, record a video, listen to a Chinese lesson, plan my day, play the violin. I also work on SETT every day, but I wouldn't really consider that to be a habit.
Every day really is a magic frequency. It's not just 40% more effective than five days a week-- it's one hundred percent more effective. When you do something every day, you remove a huge portion of possible excuses for not doing it. I know that when I had three-time-a-week habits, I would constantly renegotiate the schedule if I didn't feel like completing the habit on a particular day. You can't do that when you're doing it every day. You also never lose your momentum. If I don't write for a few days, my drive to write goes down. I find it harder to come up with topics, and harder to put the words together. But when I write every day, I'm alway in writer mode. I actually find it EASIER that writing once a week because every day it just comes naturally.
When you do something every day, especially something with productive output, it almost feels like cheating. Most bloggers (including me for 6 years) never have more than one post in the can, ready to go. I have over thirty now. I could die today and keep up my posting frequency for four months. A year from now I'll have almost three hundred posts stored up. That's three years of posting twice a week. Because of the momentum, my weekly writing burden feels lower than it did when I wrote once a week.
I have a rule for myself that I have to shut my computer off at midnight every day. I allow myself to stay up until three, which means that after cleaning the RV and scratching a bit on the violin, I have two hours and change to read. So I read a lot of books. Usually I read non-fiction, but after a spell of three or four books about the brain, I wanted to read some fiction. With no particular title in mind, I went to Amazon and bought a book that was then the #1 editor's choice and a NY Times Bestseller. With both awards, it must be pretty good, I thought.
The idea for the book was interesting, but the actual plot was poorly constructed. The foreshadowing was so obvious that I couldn't help but hope that it was a red herring and that the actual twist at the end would be something more interesting. It wasn't. Worse, the author made so many amateur writing mistakes that I actually found it hard to read (things like using a lot of adverbs and using difficult words that aren't more descriptive than the simple ones they replace).
It was a disaster of a book, yet it was successful and fairly well liked. I thought about how that could be possible and came to the conclusion that the bar for writing a good book probably isn't set as high as I would assume. And, under scrutiny, that actually makes sense.
I have two seemingly conflicting beliefs. The first is that whenever possible, it is best to know the truth. By default I think that we sometimes avoid the truth, and we sometimes avoid giving the truth. In almost every case, though, having a clear picture of the truth will allow you to operate more correctly. At the same time, I also believe that holding certain beliefs will benefit you whether they're true or not.
One such belief is that anything is possible. Even in the face of seemingly impossible tasks, I like to believe that maybe I can do it. It's a little bit insane for me to believe that a two-man team of Todd and me can compete against WordPress and Tumblr, but I really believe that we can. Now that we've built something that people really like it's not so crazy, but it was really crazy when we first started. When I got into pickup, I had to believe that I could go from being extremely introverted and awkward to extroverted and sociable. There was little evidence to support that possibility.
I say that these two ideas seem to conflict because I believe that they are actually quite compatible. When looking at the history of others, as well as my own history, I've noticed that we consistently underestimate what we are capable of. Our idea of an honest look at our capabilities is actually further from the real truth than is the assumption that we can do everything.
Rounding up to the nearest 'everything' is not only more accurate than our best critical assessment, it's also much more valuable. The cost of being wrong is usually illusory. If you think that you can become a master violinist, act like it, and turn out to be wrong, you'll still make more progress than if you believe that the ceiling on your ability is lower. At the same time, the cost of incorrectly capping expectations is to provide an artificial ceiling on your achievement. I'm not sure I've ever seen someone progress further than they believed they could.
For most of my life I operated without a daily routine. I would have an idea of what needed to be done every day, and how I should be living my life, but there was little consistency between my days. Around a year ago I started working on building a daily routine, and I've been surprised to find that I like it more than running free. I prefer it because I can focus my decision-making on important things, rather than minutiae, and I can optimize my routine as I go, rather than starting from scratch every day.
I generally wake up between nine and eleven in the morning, usually pretty close to ten. I don't set an alarm because I've noticed that being well slept is one of the biggest influences on daily performance. Waking up an hour earlier by alarm can reduce my ability to focus by half. Not worth it.
As soon as I wake up, I set a timer for five minutes and I meditate. I've only been doing this for a month, and haven't noticed any benefits yet, but I expect it to be a long term investment, not a short term one. The five minutes goes by fast.
Immediately after meditating, I weigh in on my withings scale, brush my teeth, and put water on for tea. Usually I drink Samovar's Green Ecstasy, but I've been drinking Breakaway Matcha's 99 and 100 recently, and I'll occasionally drink a Taiwanese Oolong. I drink tea early because the blend of caffeine, theanine, and whatever else is in tea, helps me focus. I can actually feel the difference when I don't have tea. The effect wears off after a couple hours, but it's a nice way to jump start work early.