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.
How many people would like to have a published novel with their name on it? Probably a lot. How many could come up with a decent idea for as story? Still probably a lot. How many would have the confidence that they could get a book published? We're starting to lose a lot of people now. Of those with the confidence, how many have the free time to sit down and write 70,000 words? Not too many. Out of those we have left, how many also have the discipline to power through writing that much and resolving the problems that crop up during the process? Almost no one. That's how a fairly poor writer (in terms of writers, not in terms of all people) can publish a very successful book. The bar just isn't set that high.
For a totally different example, look at how our society eats. Eat a granola bar globbed with sugar and you're eating "healthy" because you didn't eat a full on candy bar. Did you get a ranch-smothered salad with your pasta alfredo? Good job, healthy eater. People eat such trash as a matter of habit, that the slightest deviation from that diet seems like a real accomplishment. The bar is set low.
Work is another great example. Forget about a four hour workweek-- If you have work that's important to you that you're trying to complete, I think that a forty hour workweek is a joke. I NEVER go a day without doing some work, including weekends and holidays, and usually work for between eighty and a hundred hours every week. The funny thing is-- I'm actually trying to push myself harder because I think that even this amount of work is slacking a bit.
A low bar is a dangerous thing, because our expectations have a tendency to hover around whatever standard is presented to us. There have been studies done where an item, say a toaster, is shown to two groups of people. Members of the first group are told that the toaster retails for $200, and then asked what they'd be willing to pay to take home the toaster today. The second group is told that the toaster retails for only $20, and is asked what they'd pay to buy it immediately. The $200 group is always willing to pay more. Same toaster, but a different bar.
So when we hear that forty hours of work is the right amount, we feel like we're killing ourselves if we're working fifty. When we're told that "wheat bread", which almost always has sugar and white flour in it, is healthier than white bread, we buy it and call it a day.
This is not a good way to live. We are capable of so much and waste our potential in front of TV screens while poisoning our bodies with crap food that makes us sluggish and sick. The irony of it is that our dreams aren't even as far away as they seem-- since the bar is set low across the board, the amount of spare potential we'd have to tap into to get that novel written and published isn't even that great. As an experiment I took two days and did very little (but still some) work on SETT to see how much of a novel I could write. I wrote 15,000 words in two days.
This doesn't mean that we have to do everything to the point of excellence. I bought a violin and I'll never be good at it. I don't care enough and won't put in the time. I use it for two minute quasi-meditative breaks from programming. Same with working out-- I'd like to put in the time and effort to become stronger, but my focus is limited so I don't put much into that.
I believe in balance, but not the same way that it's usually prescribed. I suggest picking one or two things where you're going to set your bar astronomically high. For me it's SETT and learning. I spend 10-12 hours a day working on SETT and 2-3 on learning. You could say that eating healthy is up there, too, but I'm not as strict and well-researched as some people are.
For the rest of the things in your life, you can keep the bar low. In theory it's a good idea to try to have everything set high, but with lack of focus it's impossible to get anything done. Most people fantasize that they have high standards for all areas of their lives, but really have low standards for everything. It's far better to be honest with yourself and admit that you'll slack in many areas but completely crush one or two at a time.
I just got into Austin a couple days ago, and I can tell it's going to be a test of my discipline. I have lots of friends here and the weather is just begging me to come outside all day. It was cool to see someone living in a Rialta right in my old spot. If that's you, let me know...
Right on! I think what stops most people is the pain. We instinctively try to avoid it if it isn't necessary for our survival. It saves energy for when there's really a tiger behind you.
The trick is to make mediocrity feel like death. It's a dirty trick, but it works.
Btw, I had to rewrite this post from scratch. When I first posted it, I got an error and got logged out. Redoing something you've already done is some of the painful stuff ever, but what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. (I logged in manually and it showed my username and picture, but the second I do something I get logged out, I just went to my e-mail and clicked and old reset my password link which logs me in automatically)
Yep... I agree that mediocrity is death. I don't even think it's a trick anymore-- I just think it's true.
Can you try logging out and logging in manually to see if it works now? I think the problem might stem from some changes we made to cookies and sessions a couple weeks ago. Maybe you've been logged in since then...
I guess an outsider would call me a 'successful' person thus far as I graduated near top of the class in both high school and university, and now I'm finishing off my PhD at an internationally top-class university. You would say that to get this far, I had to consistently set the bar up for myself higher and higher. Always creating goals, striving for excellence. But it got to a point where I snapped. I spiraled into severe depression because eventually pushing yourself too hard can become unsustainable, both mentally and physically. Ironically I study a subject that I love. And it is for this reason I worry that you might push in the wrong way some of your devoted followees. I don't want them to go down the route I have.
There is a reason why the Buddha taught the 'middle way', and why this wisdom has been tried and tested successfully for centuries.
Why so much value on productivity? Eventually we will all diminish and so will all your 'products'. Everything will eventually return to the same source - nothing.
The happiest and most satisfied people I have encountered in my life so far seem to be the people with not too many expectations on themselves, have very few goals, and are happy to be in the moment and to go with the flow of life. It's always a refreshing experience going on holiday from this competitive and success driven Western society to go to another country such a South America and to see people just sitting. Just being. Enjoying being one with life. Anthropologists have also noted how content people from so called 'primitive' societies (who in my books are far more advanced than our fallen society) are in general, and how little they work.
And finally your open admission of your condemnation of people who work any less shows what effect this mentality can have on people - it makes you condescending of people who choose to do less who may well be living happy lives. The negative emotion is toxic and unwarranted - be careful as you might make some workaholics out there feel guilty and hate themselves for not achieving as much - I know I would have done if I had read this blog a few years ago. I am in a better place now.
Finally though, I want to add that in general I really enjoy your blog posts. Just thought I'd contribute to this discussion.
You don't date your posts, so I don't know when you saw the Rialta in Austin. I was there around April 15-20 and I mostly park there - it's a 99, with a torn rear fender, purple trim and faded decals.
I've been a reader for around 2 years, although this is my first comment.
Anyways, I've always loved the things you do and your general lifestyle, and I'm hoping for some suggestions for my own.
I'm finishing my Master's degree this Sep (after 5 years of college) and I'm taking a year off before starting my phD. So far I don't have anything planned for Sep-Dec, 2012, but I really want to do something a bit far-fetched and interesting, and pays enough to support a minimal life (and preferably not engineering related).
However, I broke my leg beginning of the year and it won't be healed completely until the end of the year, so that eliminates a bunch of potential activities. So far, I've got being a monk in Thailand, and some kind of internship in Israel (engineering related, but Israel's exotic, so that works)....what suggestions do you have for me?
P.S.: btw, you should check your blog code... it is very heavy and with lots of errors when loading up. It freezes also...
I'd like to add that another way of keeping the bar high is to intentionally teach the topic/subject to someone else - keep yourself sharp, and [maybe] gain people to do it with
This is one of the best posts I've read in a while Tynan. I think you're spot on with everything you say. I've found myself really focusing on the processes in my life recently and the more I establish processes that have ambitious goals, the more productive and meaningfully happy I find myself to be.
Tynan, I've been a long time reader. Glad you are here in Austin. Can I buy you a cup of coffee or a meal to talk about Sett ? And your nomadic ways.
I agree with you Tynan, on how low most bar's are in the usa not sure if that apply's to other places. Although Tynan I will have to disagree with you on Time and maybe you where trying to get the point across that it dont matter how much time you spend it what you produce that is the key.
I could spend 1 hour a week working and still out preform a lot of people who work 12 hours a day 7 days a week. You might be saying what the, but IF i have a team of people working for me that does a outstanding job for me then i produce a better quality product than if i worked 12 hours 7 days a week.
It really boils down to what you are doing, and how well you go about doing it there are several things i spend a lot of time on but the quality of the work at the end of the day is meh.
On the second day that I was visiting her in Toronto, Annie brought back a pile of books from the library. On the top was a tiny book with a cover so simple that it looked like it might be a children's book about potty training.
"A little book that teaches you when to quit (and when to stick)"
It seemed like a fluffy bit of entertainment. Something like "The Tipping Point" which is fun to read but not exactly a life changer. I was wrong, though. Dead wrong.
Imagine this: Making bread.
When you ask someone to picture an elaborate process, they usually don't. Like making bread. It's not one definitive thing. It's not a single image appearing in your head and you know exactly what it is and what it does.
A bunch of ingredients. Flour, spices, dough, ovens, breadmakers, kitchen utensils... and all the rest.