Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The difference between virtual and reality

I was trying to explain Second Life to my mom. This is hard to do because:
  1. I've never played it
  2. She can barely use a computer (sorry Mom)
She just couldn't understand. I used the example of a beautiful virtual dress. "But, why would someone spend real money on something that isn't real?" she questioned.

At first, I had no response. The conversation moved on to another subject. But after thinking about it more, I knew the reason.

She was focused on goods as being necessities. These clothes are necessary: I need something to wear. My car is necessary: I need it to get places. But the thing is, even in the real world, almost none of the purchases you make are based on utility alone. "But I need a new sweater?", you reply. Do you though? What will happen if you don't get one?

Think about it.

You hardly need any of the things you have. They are almost all luxuries. You have way more clothes than you actually "need". Plus, you could have picked up the ones you did need secondhand, and not really needed to buy them anyway. You don't need a car. You could walk, or take the bus, or a plane, or a train. The food you buy at the grocery store? Unless you're buying only the most basic and cheapest foods, again, you're spending extra as a luxury.

You see, there really is very little difference between the real sweater and the virtual one. It's just that you can't feel the sweater.

We rarely if every buy things because we really "need" them. We buy things we want. We like the way they look, or the way they make us feel, and often, the effects they will have on what other people think of us.

If our company starts holding corporate meetings in Second Life, it might make sense to buy a nice looking suit. Just as in the real world, technically we could show up in a tshirt and shorts, but that might not be acceptable to the company culture.

If you still aren't convinced, think about a video game. In the real world, I pay $50 for a piece of software that I take home so that I can immerse myself in a virtual world. I don't really "have" the game...I have a disc that contains the game. And the disc itself is worth less than a penny, it's the code on the disc that has value. I might pay the same amount to download the game to my computer, in which case, I don't even take possession of any physical object.

Is that any different that stepping into Second Life and buying a computer game?

Does the purchase of the virtual sweater make us happy? It should, presumably that's why we bought it. If virtual worlds don't make sense to you, don't worry, it just means you aren't a nerd. Yet.

Hopefully, most of what we do in our spare time is done because it makes us happy. If buying stuff you don't actually need in the real world makes us happy, why should it be any different in a virtual world?

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Function is value

I was recently discussing people who hoard stuff, for example: this crazy lady. Without thinking I said: "What's the point of having all that stuff if you never even look at it? Boxes of old family photos are just as worthless as a bunch of used calendars if you never look at them."

It kind of startled me. Could personal mementos really be just as worthless as some bunch of crap you bought on eBay just because it was a deal? How much stuff do I have sitting around at arms reach that I will never use again? Shouldn't I just get rid of it all?

I'm moving soon, perhaps I'll use it as an opportunity to clean house? It's probably easier than getting rid of emotional baggage...

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Holiday Stress

It's that time of the year that everyone is happy, merry, jolly, excited...and all the rest of that crap. You wouldn't know it at the airport. Aside from the random carolers, and the occasional white Christmas lights, everyone just seems so...stressed.

The people behind the counter are stressed. The security people are unhappy. The passengers are thinking about what they may have left at home, worrying about whether or not they will make it on time, hoping that the weather holds up.

It all builds to those few moments around the tree or the dinner table. This is what all the preparation is for. Many of us spend the whole day cooking. We've been buying gifts on and off for weeks.

And not to make sweeping generalizations, but the moment IS worth it. But it's a shame that the holidays cause at least as much as stress as they do joy, if not more.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Becoming Insular

Everyone has their own little world. With all the devices and choices we have these days, everyone can tailor their entertainment and media to whatever their preference. The 6 people closest to me right now in the airport are:

  • eating
  • reading a magazine
  • painting (using a stylus and the touchscreen on his laptop)
  • talking on a cellphone
  • playing NBA Jam (a video game released circa 1992) on his laptop
  • reading a book
Does having whatever we want make us happier? It might. I'm probably happier sitting here typing on a laptop than I would be if I were simply staring off into space.

While it may be hard to prove our overall happiness has improved one way or another, it certainly has made us more insular. Aside form the guy on his cellphone it's like a library. Hardly anyone is talking to anyone else.

I'll admit I feel that way sometimes. More often than I used to, I find myself at gatherings thinking about how I could be doing other things, usually more solitary things.

Does this make me anti-scial? It might, but no moreso than many of the people I see around me...

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Post Secret is a place where people send in secrets on a postcard. It's a simple idea that produces some fascinating results. Yesterday I saw this one in their latest book (I found the text but not the actual photo):
"When you were in the ICU I took your picture. I wanted you to see what you looked like, so that you might go into rehab. I never showed you the pictures, you never went into rehab, and I never forgave myself. I am so sorry."

It's a sad reminder that although honesty isn't always easy, sometimes you have to do what it takes. The gap between knowing what you need to do, and actually doing it, is huge. That person was afraid to risk losing a friend, but they lost them anyway.

Monday, December 18, 2006

I'm still here

With the approaching holidays, I've been super busy this last week or so. I will be writing as much as I can, but please continue stopping by to check for new material.

Ever have something you do religiously for a while, and then, for whatever reason, you take a few days off? It's very hard to get back into. All of the sudden you "don't have time". You make excuses, "I didn't write anything yesterday, so it's okay to put of today's entry."

It really says something for motivation, consistency, and momentum. Once you get going, it's easy to keep it going. Stop for a few days, and you lose the momentum. Now, it's easier to procrastinate than to start building up momentum again.

That probably applies to most things in life. It's easy to keep things rolling. If you aren't where you want to be, the hard part is making all those small pushes to get there. Once you're there though, it's smooth sailing...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Feeling time

Next time you're about to do something routine, do it extra slow. It feels different doesn't it? All of the sudden your senses are heightened, and you notice touch more acutely than before. It feels better to dry your hands slowly, or wash your hair slowly, or put on a shirt slowly, but we never seem to do it.


I don't know. Maybe there are better things to do with our time than to indulge in uber-simple pleasures.

Once in a while, mix things up in your daily routine, and notice that, if even for a split second, the world feels different.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Frame of Reference

I drove home last night from the dealership after getting two new tires (and a few other things). As I slowed to park, I noticed a bad sound coming from one of the tires, as though it had been put on incorrectly. Cursing the dealership, I vowed never to return (after they fixed my tire of course).

For you see, I don't like them. It's not that they do a terrible job, but they do just an adequate job, and I always feel like I'm being screwed somehow. And my car is never ready when they say it will be.

This morning, I discovered that it was a rock stuck between the treads of my tire. I removed it, and the problem went away. I felt silly for blaming the dealership, but that's what else can you expect?

Everything that happens is viewed the frame of reference we've built up through similar past experiences. If I liked my dealership, I probably wouldn't have worried about the tire (or at least, I would have thought to blame a rock before the dealer).

It'd be nice if once in a while we could eliminate those biases. I bet the world would look completely different...

Doing the little things

A recent post from the great blog Signal vs. Noise reminds us that big change happens when we change all the little things. This ties in nicely with the book Good to Great, which I read recently. Great companies rarely have done anything spectacular to become so, they've merely done all the small things correctly. The "flywheel" builds momentum with each little push, and then eventually the momentum itself is enough to power the wheel. And it's hard to stop.

It makes sense that these concepts would be applicable on a personal level. Successful people do all the little things right: they're organized, don't procrastinate, and make decisive decisions. They may not always be correct, but it's impossible to make the right move all the time anyway.

A speaker I saw recently was preaching that the first step was to get rid of all the "messes" in your life. He meant physical messes (like that pile of papers on your desk), but also emotional messes.

Once you do all the little things right, he mused, the big things all just fall into place.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

More on choice

I know I said it was important to choose. But you know, more often than not, I think the reason that it's so hard to make a choice is that we're given so many. Think I'm being dramatic? Go to the store and try to pick out some band aids.

What size do you want? Waterproof? How about the ones that already have neosporin on them? Nah, just get the sport kinds. Oh, also you might want the clear ones. We haven't even talked about shape yet! Oh and brand. And quantity. And...then there's price.

After several full minutes, I just randomly grabbed something and went to the tooth brushes. The row must have stretched on for at least 20 feet. Eep!

I think I'm over having so many choices and so much variety. Life used to be so much simpler...who's with me?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Getting what you want

I attended an expo last weekend, and there seemed to be a pretty clear theme:

Anything is possible if you really want it.

Most of the speakers were selling something, so you have to take that picture they painted with a grain of salt. But, maybe it's true?

Everyone knows what they need to do. The successful people are those who do it.

Why is it that we don't do the things we know we need to do? Why can't we stop procrastinating? Why can't we stop drinking? Why can't we just exercise like we know we should? Are we afraid of failing? Are we afraid of success?

I will say this. All of the speakers looked years, if not decades, younger than they actually were. Maybe inaction is what slows us down and makes us old?

Thinking up reasons not to do things certainly gets tiring...doesn't it?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Honestly? Honesty

Just a quick note about honesty, or maybe about being direct. Or then again, maybe the fun fact is just a truth serum.

You'll remember I asked co-workers for a fun fact about themselves. One person had been holding out, telling me that she wasn't interesting, but eventually gave me a fun fact. Almost two months later, I receive an email telling me that she had approval from her boss to have it removed from the website.

She had been thinking about this for TWO MONTHS. Had she simply told me from the beginning that she was uncomfortable with the idea, I would have stopped bugging her about it.

Being honest, saying "no" upfront, is, in the long run, better for everyone. She avoids stress and saves time thinking about it (and bringing it up with her boss). I save time (giving her shit about being boring) and don't end up ultimately being insulted that she went over my head, making me look bad.

Time to go practice what I preach.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Filtering out the Noise

I just went 4 whole days without listening to music, and I didn't even miss it. Being out in the country for a few days helped me to realize that I often use music for no other reason than to drown out the noise and distraction of urban life.

Is this telling of which life I'd actually prefer?

It's hard to believe that people living less than an hour from each other could have such different lives. One is under constant visual and aural assault. The other has a life free of myriad sources competing for attention.

Perhaps less choice is easier, less-stressful, and more gratifying after all?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Time is Relative

As often happens, I got a call today from yet another person looking for a nearby business. This business used to have my number, but years ago (1988 to be exact) there was a split. The company in question got to keep the number but with a new area code.

The woman asked if I had heard of a Mr so-and-so. I hadn't. She asked if I had heard of the company. I had. "It's the same number but the area code is 508," I told her, as if reading from a script.

"That's odd," she replied, "it says 617 right here on the letterhead."

Now I was curious. So, just as I had expected, they were sending out materials with the wrong area code.

"M'am, when was the letter written?"
"Let's see...oh here it is: 1974." Her tone did not change. Her level of surprise did not waver. Yes, she was amazed that a company would have changed it's phone number in the last 32 years.

It's funny, I'm amazed when new companies still exist two or three years later. If I think about it, I'm not really sure who's world I'd rather live in?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Is digital contact enough?

We are closer to a digital world than you might realize.

In a place like Second Life, people can now run virtual businesses, sell virtual real estate, and sell digital products for money that can be traded like any other currency. "So what" you ask? Well, quite frankly, the line between the digital and physical world are starting to blur.

What is the fundamental difference between running a virtual store in Second Life, and a physical store in back here in the analog world? Not much really. Both provide goods and services to real people. Both employ real people. Both exist within a developed economic system. Your Second Life money can be converted to US dollars. All that's missing is the physical contact.

But just how essential is physical contact, actually seeing and being with a person, to a non-intimate relationship? Imagine that you had a friend who lived on the other side of the country. Since it isn't feasible for you to see them in person on a regular basis, you often catch up online.

You might chat for a bit on IM, or talk to them via cellphone, directing them to web addresses of interesting things you've read lately. Maybe the two of you might even download and watch the same movie, IMing back and forth. Sure, it's not the same as leaning over and whispering in their ear at the theater, but at least you won't get hushed.

Perhaps a place like Second Life brings us one step closer to feeling like we are with a person. The scenario above isn't that far off from meeting up with them in a virtual world, walking to a movie theater, and grabbing a seat. Afterwards, you sit and talk in a virtual coffee shop. It's more realistic and engaging than just back and forth text, isn't it?

Of course, I would still rather do these things in person, but what if it's not feasible? And what about people whose real life social incompetency makes virtual communication more preferable?

The tools and technologies we have are pretty close already, all we are missing is a few more computer cycles and a digital world that sews them all up into one.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Do we really know ourselves?

One thing I took away from my studies in psychology is that what people say and what they actually do can be two completely different things. One example is spaghetti sauce. In this video, Malcolm Gladwell explains that for decades, there were two main kinds of sauce, both thin. In all the different studies and focus groups ever done, no one had ever really seemed interested in thick sauce. In fact, the decidedly didn't want it.

To make a long story short, over 50% (I believe) of the pasta sauce market is now thick sauce. It's not that our tastes have changed, it's just that we didn't know what we really wanted. What we said we wanted was different from what we actually wanted.

So I've been thinking, if we could somehow qualify the results, who could give a better description of me: my friends, or myself? I think I know myself pretty well, but then again, there are probably a bunch of little lies that I've been telling myself for so long that they've settled in as "truth".

A good friend of mine recently told me that she would be likely to break up with a boyfriend if her friends and family didn't like him. This astonished me at the time, because I have definitely run across plenty of situations in my life where the friends and family did not like the significant other. Then I became intrigued at what a mature point of view she had. I'm pretty sure that most people would stay with a significant other, despite what the others in their life thought. Her view was that her friends and family were more important than a boyfriend.

But could there be another reason? Do our friends and family know us better than we know ourselves? Might they be better at picking a mate for us? It's hard to say for sure, but I'm willing to believe it's true.

Maybe instead of looking within to find out who you are, it's worth asking around instead?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Closing one door opens another

Why? Because it gives us something to measure our happiness against. When things are great all the time, it's very easy to begin to take it for granted. That could be one reason I like changing environments.

It's very easy to take the weather for granted in southern California, for example. You need those memories of (and occasional visits to) harsh Wisconsin winters to fully appreciate what you have.

I have fond memories of all the places I've lived. In fact (and I'm not kidding), in my memory, I remember being happier than I actually was at the time. Comparing where I've been with where I am makes me appreciate both places even more. Sure there are things that I miss from one place to the next, but every decision in life involves tradeoffs.

Closing one door opens another.

I'm always amazed by people who have never left their hometown. Without having a comparison, how could they fully appreciate it?

Care to share what makes your town great?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The view always changes

A few excerpts from a post in my private blog a few weeks ago. I was talking about that antsy "I should be doing something more" feeling again and how to cure it:
2) Move. I'm always happy when I'm moving. Even if it's just in the car on the way to work. Maybe literally moving somewhere is fulfilling my need to be figuratively moving forward. The faster I move, the happier I am. Planes are the ultimate. Even though I'm cramped and uncomfortable, I'm happy.


The crazy thing is that my fantasies don't really involve moving. They involve staying put. Today, we were on the beach. It was windy and teetering at the edge of a rainstorm. There was fog in every direction, smoothing out the horizon and further accentuating that sense of "the unknown" which we were already all feeling as we kept moving in the hopes of seeing around that "next" corner.

Each time you edge around the corner, another one that you didn't expect always seems to pop up out of nowhere. Maybe this is the perfect metaphor for how my life has been so far. I keep rounding the corner, expecting to see a drastic change. But it never happens. Yet even though things seem fundamentally the same, each new view is different enough to keep my heading for that next corner. Once in a while, the corner brings a more substantial view, and it's beautiful. And rewarding. But only briefly, because there is another one in the distance. Obscured by fog, but close enough that it immediately becomes your new focus.

Is there some way I can keep myself from falling into this malaise every few weeks, as seems to be standard for me the last few months? It only lasts a few days, or a few hours, but somehow it's not enough to force me to take bigger steps. Maybe I need to take a right turn and start climbing up the bluff? It'll be hard work, but I bet the view at the top will be even better. Until I notice that the top is merely the ledge of another, larger bluff.

I guess in the end I'm not really to concerned what this is all supposed to mean. There are so many ways to approach life, and all you can ever really do is whatever seems natural. It's okay to go back and forth. It's okay to change your mind every few days. Maybe that's just a sign of change, and nothing ever happens overnight. Like everything else, the change is gradual.

Maybe this confusion and questioning is just the slow process of turning 90 degrees and climbing straight up the bluff?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Economists Agree

In a recent post I wrote about honesty and wondered what life would be like if everyone were honest all of the time. Last night, while reading Tim Hartford's The Undercover Economist, I came across this passage:
...we will discover that a world of truth leads to a perfectly efficient economy, one in which it is impossible to make someone better off without making someone else worse off.
Just replace "perfectly efficient economy" with "happiness" and we sound alike! Not that I'm advocating "making someone else worse off", but that probably is likely to happen in the short term for the person on the harsh end of the social honesty. In the long term everyone benefits through "efficiency".

That efficiency may manifest itself as free time you aren't spending in a dying friendship or relationship. It may be reduced stress and mental anguish that has been removed from your life.

And again, I'm not saying that it's practical to be honest all the time. As Kelly pointed out in the comments, sometimes thoughts aren't rational. What do we do then? Would spending some time trying to be internally honest with ourselves help to figure out why we have these irrational thoughts?

Maybe happiness and efficiency go hand in hand. In a world where everyone is acting in their best social interest, and their thoughts are rational, won't being entirely honest with everyone make you happier? I realize we should care about other people, but we certainly can't be expected to always compromise our own best interests to keep other people happy, can we?

I suspect that too often people focus on the short term effects, and overlook that the long term result is often better for everyone involved. I know that efficiency in other areas of my life make me happy (ie. work), so can't it work that way socially?

Monday, November 13, 2006

Alone in a Crowded Room

Dark blue (dark blue)
Have you ever been alone in a crowded room when I'm here with you
I said the world could be burning down
~from Dark Blue, Jack's Mannequin

Does this happen to anyone else? You're out at a party in a room full of people, and not really interested in talking to any of them? I don't even mean in the sense that "you have nothing to talk about". For me, I could be in a room full of people that I know, but I'm perfectly content to just sit there and watch. What's even weirder is that even though I am watching and listening, I often won't remember the specifics of what I hear.

Why do I do this? I'm not exactly sure.

Some of it may be that I don't need to talk, in the same way some people do. You know the people I'm talking about -- they can't wait for you to finish your thought so they can interject their own.

Another reason that I might be content to just blend in, is that I'm more interested in what people are like. You don't need to be the one asking questions to figure this out. Just watch. And listen.

Sometimes I end up feeling alone. Like, being able to sit there and be comfortable without having to engage in smalltalk with the person next to me makes me fundamentally different. Does this ever happen to anyone else?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Time Well Spent

I just told myself I would play one last game of Boggle -- for 20 straight minutes. Now I'm left wondering, was that worth it? Was it any better or worse than say, watching Dancing With the Stars, cleaning the bathroom floor, or getting high?

In each one of those scenarios, although they may have been fun at the time, you'd probably look back at them and think, "I wish I had the last 20 minutes of my life back." Sure, Boggle seems more noble because I was "learning", but really, in the grand scheme of things, I'm pretty much exactly where I was before playing, only out 20 minutes.

So basically, I don't know where I'm going with this post. At this moment, I'm wondering really how I could be spending one moment better than any other moment (aside from say, building a homeless shelter in Uganda). Or is the point that it doesn't really matter what happens at any one moment, but rather how everything adds up? Doesn't that conflict with trying to live your life in the present?

What do you guys think?

The Risk of Not Choosing

Maybe there is a tipping point for everything. Do we ever do something the first time it occurs to us? Or do we have to think it several times before we are willing to take the risk?

Maybe that's what this is all about. Taking risks. Trying something new. Are we taking a risk every time we make a non-trivial decision? We are.

When we decide what to wear for a job interview, we risk wearing the wrong thing and missing out on a great career opportunity. When we decide how to get to a friends house, we risk choosing the path that will get us there more slowly. When we tell someone we love them, we risk a broken heart.

This is generally how we think about risk. Choosing to do something is taking a risk. We ignore the fact that not choosing is just as much of a choice.

When we choose to leave the money in our savings accounts untouched, we are taking a risk. Money we could have made by investing more aggressively is no different than money spent. Not telling someone how you truly feel about them is a risk too. Even putting off going to the grocery store for a few more days is a risk. We risk becoming used to eating out all the time, which costs us more money and negatively affects our health.

So, what are we to do? Life is just one risk after another.

I can be a pretty indecisive person. A lot of times I believe this stems from looking too much at all the possibilities. Even when I do have a preference, it always boils down to some shade of grey. Yes, I'd like to go there for dinner, but that means not going that other great restaurant. I swear, I can't seem to push myself much beyond favoring something 60/40.

If all the decisions are so close, then does it even really matter which one we choose? Sometimes it doesn't. But I think what is more important is that we do actually choose. The things that we put off, all those decisions that we don't make? Those are the ones that add up. The cost of putting them off one more day is very small. It's only much later, when we actually do what needs to be done, that we look back and wonder why we didn't do them sooner.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Blanket Honesty

Imagine for a minute, that you were honest all the time. What would that be like?

You were at work and your boss gave you yet another project to work on. Instead of hiding your annoyance, you took the opportunity to explain just what was on your plate, and how taking on this task, meant another would have to go unfinished.

A friend that you keep intentionally blowing off calls you yet again and asks to do something. You tell them the truth, that you aren't really interested in being their friend.

A stranger cuts in front of you in line at the supermarket. Instead of standing there annoyed, you direct the person to the back of the line.

(Take a minute to think about what would happen in these scenarios if you kept how you were feeling to yourself. Think about how you will feel over time as these same situations keep coming up.)

Now take this idea further. Imagine being honest in all areas of your life. I don't mean to imply that we're all dishonest, but we all keep things to ourselves. Often they are little things, but they build on one another. Why is it that when we have issues with a friend or a significant other, we don't talk about them until it is too late?

We dislike confrontation, we don't want to hurt people's feelings, and we don't want to look bad. But really, what are we gaining by not being honest with everyone?

Putting off honesty buys time.

When we don't talk about it, those little things build and build until one day, they explode. We quit our job. We lead on a friend because we don't want to hurt their feelings, only to hurt them worse when we finally can't take it anymore. We let relationships go on till the breaking point before trying to fix them.

I really think there is a correlation between honesty and happiness. It's stressful and unpleasant to keep things locked up inside your head, worrying about them until it they just about drive you crazy. People who wear masks spend a lot of time and energy being someone they're not. How could pretending to be a different person help us be happier?

First, we must be honest with ourselves. This can be the hardest part. People don't want to admit that they're jealous, or afraid of change, or obsessive/compulsive. But recognizing who you are is the only way you'll ever be able to learn to work with these aspects of your personality, rather than against them. You need to surround yourself with people who know the real you, not just the person you pretend to be.

Only then can we move on to letting other people know how we feel, before it's too late.

I realize of course, that it is pretty impractical to practice blanket honesty at every moment of your life. But really, it sounds so much better than the alternative, doesn't it?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Those Hidden Little Worlds

What do people use for motivation?

I ran in my first road race yesterday afternoon (long story). After cruising along for just over two miles, I was passed by a man who was easily over 70 years old. Seconds later, an eight year old boy passed me. These two were just about the oldest and youngest runners of the 600.

What was going through their minds? I can imagine a 70 year old man wanting to run a 5k just to say he did it, but this guy was clearly not just doing a one time run on a whim. He was pushing seven minute miles. And the young kid, what has his motivation? Was he running for his parents? To prove something to himself? For fun?

Maybe I just have trouble figuring out how so many different people of all ages, shapes, and sizes could all be competing in the same event. Most of the activities I've been a part of lately seem to appeal to a much smaller subset of the population.

This is somehow more logical to me because sharing a common interest is something that allows us to immediately relate to strangers. Did running with this crowd today mean that I had become a part of some new subset of the population that I wasn't even aware of?

In the weeks leading up to the race, whenever I heard any of my friends talk about running, I brought up the race. All the sudden I realized that a lot of my friends actually did. I wouldn't have even noticed if my ears hadn't been on the lookout.

Then I discovered (where you can draw out a route using google maps and it will tell you distance and elevation change) and told a few people about it. One replied linking me to a watch that has a built in GPS. When you get home, you just upload your data and it shows you where you went, and how fast. All of the sudden, I felt like I had become a part of this secret little club that I didn't even realize existed.

It's so interesting how there are these little subsets of interest all around us, and we can go on without so much as noticing them. Then, you have a reason to start getting involved and all of the sudden, it's amazing how much enthusiasm and passion you've been missing.

I doubt I'll become a runner, but just this one race was enough to make me wonder how many other things I haven't been aware of all these years.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

See Change

Have you changed much in the last year? What about the last 10?

When I think about the things I could improve upon, I do think I have changed. But only subtly, and perhaps only discernable to the keen observer. But then again, I'm also pretty sure that I'm fundamentally the same person I was 10 years ago.

For now, all I can really do is look at pictures, and think back to what it was like. But that might not be enough. Even this amazing video of one photograph per day for over 6 years doesn't do it justice. You can't see the change. It's too gradual.

What I would need is to see the change through someone else's eyes. Someone who didn't see me every day. Someone I was away from for long enough periods of time that they could see the change as it happened. Either that or a journal, which, sadly I only have tiny bits of.

But then again, sometimes I don't want to think I've changed. There might just be some special term for this in psychology. Like I don't want to admit that I've ever screwed up. Like it's some secret self-defense mechanism against regret. Something that's just there to further the illusion of happiness.

Whatever the reality, I've had so many influences...

Age vs. Opportunity vs. Time

Today I stumbled across this bit of wisdom, and thought back to my discussion about the difference between trying to make big changes, versus small ones.
Act without doing;
work without effort.
Think of the small as large
and the few as many.
Confront the difficult
while it is still easy;
accomplish the great task
by a series of small acts.

-- Lao-Tze
Maybe there isn't much of a difference between wanting to make large changes and wanting to make small changes. Maybe that's just all in how you look at it. The people who are thinking big will tell you about the big picture. The people who are thinking small are actually on the path to making big changes, but they don't see it that way. They just see "a series of small acts".

Confronting the difficult while it is still easy.

Perhaps that one reason I occasionally feel that twinge of urgency in my life. As we get older, we gain more responsibility, and there are more factors to complicate our lives. We'll look back longingly to when "things were easy".

It's one of the funny things I've noticed about life. When you're young, you have every opportunity to try out crazy ideas, go on extended vacations, and truly enjoy your freedom. Sadly, most of us aren't ready for that till we're a little bit older. But then, it seems as if suddenly, we've missed the opportunity.

I think most college students go abroad because they can, not because they are truly in need of the experience. It's only a few years later that we think, "wow, I would really love to do something like that now". And for people who aren't supporting a family, that opportunity still exists, it just becomes harder to see when you work a full time job. Time goes by so quickly when things aren't changing.

It's very easy to get trapped between wanting that fantasy life and "furthering your career" because both clocks are ticking at the same time.

There's got to be a way to do both, right?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Patience's verb: waiting (ie. Road Rage)

How is it that some people just do not understand waiting? Waiting is the verb behind the fundamentally important human trait of patience. We all do it, every day. I cannot possibly imagine how horrible life must be for people without patience. Today's world would literally drive you insane.

This morning while driving to work, there is a one lane section of road that gets backed up a half mile or so by a small stoplight. The line of cars ahead was slowing, so I came to a stop before crossing into an uncontrolled intersection. I left a few car lengths between me and the car in front of me so that other cars could still use the intersection, since I wasn't going to be able to move much further anyway.

The car behind me honked.

A few cars went through the intersection and when the line ahead of me started up, I started moving. Since we would all be stuck through 2 or 3 more iterations of the stoplight (still about a half mile away), I was still trailing the car ahead of me by a good 8 or so car lengths.

The car behind me honked again.

Apparently, I was not following close enough for the liking of the driver behind me. So, I did what any rational driver would do. I calmly rolled down my window, and showed her my longest finger.

100 yards later, someone was trying to come out of a driveway into our half mile line of cars. Normally there is roughly a 25% chance that I would let him in. Today, obviously, that chance rose to 100%.

Shortly thereafter, I approached the light and moved to the left a little (mind you this is still a one lane road) in anticipation of turning left at the light. The car behind me started to squeeze by on the right, then subtly attempted to move back in front of me, all while driving less than 2 feet off the bumper of the car in front of me. THE CAR WAS PASSING ME ON A ONE LANE ROAD OF BUMPER TO BUMPER TRAFFIC.

I leaned on the horn for a full 5 seconds.

The light turned green and I accelerated. My nemesis next to me accelerated. I slowed down to match the pace of the car in front of me trying to turn left. My nemesis slowed down to be even with me. At this point there were no cars in front of her...they had all gone straight through when the light turned green.

She rolled down her window as we both sped up. I turned left and never saw her again.

Now, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that it's no faster for me to be riding the ass of the car in front of me. We're all going to get there at the same moment. THIS WOMAN WAS WILLING TO GET INTO A FIGHT WITH ME, A TOTAL STRANGER, BECAUSE I WAS NOT DRIVING CLOSE ENOUGH TO ANOTHER CAR.

Impatience defined. Maybe it was that insanity I mentioned earlier.

I am usually able to stay calm, but this got me a little worked up. I can't even say why exactly, because a large part of me thought it was pretty funny how easily this woman was bent out of shape.

I understand being impatient. It sucks waiting in line for stuff. It sucks being put on hold. There will be hundreds and thousands of times in your life that you will have to wait. Most of the time, it is beyond your control. What is the point of getting impatient? This woman ruined her entire drive to work (and mine) just so she could try to get to work a few seconds faster.

If you can remove yourself from a situation that repeatedly makes you impatient, do so. If you can't? Well then, you'll just have to wait patiently with the rest of us.

Don't let "stuff" keep track of your memories

Why is it that we keep things? I have all sorts of things lying around that I only think I'll have some use for in the future. Odds are though, I won't. I've got books on my shelves, shirts in my closets, and old letters in my basement.

It's hard to get rid of things that have personal meaning to us. We look ahead to that day, years down the road when we pick it up again, and it brings back memories. However, for that moment to have true meaning, we need to have already ignored the item for years.

I move a lot, and because of this, I often find myself throwing away things that I realize I've been keeping for years. If I owned a house, I would have been able to keep most of that stuff, but would I be any better off? In the end, sadly, most of it just becomes stuff.

Certain things I would never throw away, like photographs. I'm not sure why these have a special exemption. They are small, easy to keep, and can tell a story at least as well as any other bunch of stuff could. Except perhaps, a journal.

The only time I've really kept a journal was when I spent a month in Thailand. It's one of those items that I just have lying around and can never seem to find the right place for. I pick it up occasionally and am so thankful to have written it. Together with just a few photos, it paints an almost perfect picture of my trip, and who I was at the time.

I've recently started to write more things down. Believe me, it's hard to stay current and disciplined. But years from now, I will be able to look back at all the wonderful things I've done, the people who've come and gone, and see how I've changed.

will be worth so much more than all that "stuff" I've been keeping.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Uninhibited for a Day

Last night, the streets were filled with costumed adults heading to and from parties and bars. At one point, a guy dressed like Robin jumped in front of the restaurant window I was sitting behind, and posed for the 4 or 5 tables within view. Then in a flash he was gone. We were all left smiling and amused.

It made me wish I saw things like that more often. Halloween gives you a license to be goofy and silly in public. People get away with things they wouldn't normally do, and everyone seems a bit happer.

A friend of mine was recently detailing her experience last Halloween. Over the course of her 30 minute walk across town, people of all shapes and sizes were coming up to her, introducing themselves, telling stories, asking about her costume, being goofy, and just about any other good natured interaction you could imagine. It was one of her most fun and memorable nights in years.

I had a similar experience a few years ago. I literally made friends with two different groups of total strangers that night, and had conversations with many other people. People who would have just walked right on by if it were any other night of the year.

Now I realize that it isn't practical to just talk to random people every day of your life, or you'd never be able to get where you were going. But why is it that a random conversation or kidding around with someone in line while buying a cup of coffee makes us so happy? It makes us feel safe and connected with the world around us.

If we enjoy it so much, why does it happen so infrequently? Why don't we just strike up conversations with strangers more often. Why not talk to the person next to you on the bus or subway? Neither of you have anything better to do (except perhaps withdraw into the comfort of an iPod or a book), and really, you could tell them anything because you'll probably never see them again.

I was reminded of the time about a year and a half ago, when I bought a giant stuffed dog at the Salvation Army. This dog was about 4 or 5 feet tall, so I had to carry it around on my back. I had other errands to run, so I was walking around my neighborhood like this for a good 20 minutes. I even went into a fast food joint and ordered some lunch.

If you've ever wanted to make people happy, I highly recommend doing this. Literally, I'd say about 90% of everyone who noticed me got this giant smile on their face. I instantly made friends with the people behind the counter. I felt like I was making people's day.

How can something so simple make people happy? And if it's so simple, why don't we do or see things like this more often?

There's no reason every day can't be a little bit more like Halloween.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Big Change vs. Little Change

Is it enough to just enjoy life? Have you ever talked to someone whose future plans include "saving the environment" or "working with refugees" or even "getting involved in local government"? I have to say, I'm always pretty impressed. Regardless of whether they accomplish those things or not, it's still pretty damn noble to even be considering something like that.

So where does that leave the rest of us?

I honestly don't know why I'm not more interested making a difference outside the scope of my immediate influence. Sometimes, it's downright bothersome. If I'm not out there, making the most of my talents for the greater good, aren't I just a waste of space? It's hard not to let those thoughts creep in every once in a while.

While thinking about this a year or two ago, I finally was able to convince myself that I am making a difference, just on a much smaller scale. Much of what I am proud of is the example I set for friends and family with the person I am, and the values I represent.

Granted, this is not something I do consciously. In truth, it's probably just how I convince myself that it's okay not to aspire to widespread do-goodery. I only make small changes.

It's surprisingly easy to make a small difference in someone's life. Over time, it all starts to add up to something big.

I guess it's just like everything else in life. Each step you take is no big deal. Then one day you look back at how far you've come.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

You are not your favorite TV show

After almost three grueling weeks, this "fun fact" was given to me by one of my co-workers:

"My favorite TV shows are CSI Miami, Grey's Anatomy, and Meduim."
She had outwardly agonized over it to me on several occasions. But with her, it was different. It wasn't a "pity me" or a "quit bugging me" kind of tone. No. It felt like a "help me". Like a: "this shouldn't possibly be this hard".

She had been talking about it the night before with her new husband. They couldn't, for the life of them, come up with anything interesting to say about her. "I guess I don't do much outside of work anymore," she lamented. With other people who couldn't give me an answer, it was I who was disheartened. This time, it was her.

I'm starting to get really curious. Like I've discovered some sort of ultimate personality test. Just ask someone to tell you something interesting about their life, past or present. Apparently, some people cannot do it. And I suspect the way they respond will tell you a lot about who they are.

Along those lines, I find that I'm often disappointed by my response when someone asks me "what's new?" My instinct is always to immediately say "not much." Some of that comes from the fact that, while I don't dislike talking about myself, I am never particularly eager to do it. It's not for any specific reason though, other than I don't need to do it the way some other people do.

The contradiction is that I hate how no one ever seems to give me a halfway interesting response when I ask them the same question. Is it because we all assume that those small things that have happened in the last few days are probably not interesting to the person who just asked? For working adults, are those big interesting things so far apart that we cannot quickly recall them to satisfy a friend's curiosity?

The irony of course, is that we all consistently give the most uninteresting response possible when we say, "oh, not much."

Maybe that's all it takes to make great conversation? When someone asks what you've been up to, instead of hemming and hawing (because you don't want to talk about yourself, or because you don't think your response will be interesting to them, or because...), tell them the truth, even if you don't think it sounds interesting.

Maybe the difference between boring and interesting is nothing more than a bit of conversational salesmanship?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Future Pessimism


It's another one of those things we could all just do without. The truth is, worry really only falls into two categories:

  1. Something you don't have control over.
  2. Something you do have control over.

Let's start with the first. Perhaps it's too obvious to point out that there really isn't any point in worrying about something that you have no control over. But I'll say it anyway: worrying about something you have no control over is pointless.

Will a bomb drop out of the sky onto my head? Will I get sick from food poisoning? Will my local sports team win this week? Will I lose my job because my company went bankrupt? What if this plane crashes? These are all speculations about worst case scenarios that are nothing more than a waste of energy and sanity.

Worry is being pessimistic about the future.

If you have some sort of upcoming event or confrontation that is worrying you, the best you can do is to be prepared. Aside from that, all the thinking in the world isn't going to get you anywhere.

But most worry, you can do something about. Why? Because usually, worry is just unresolved conflict building up inside of you. Feeling bad about something you said to a friend recently? Worry is what happens when you don't talk to them about it. Unsure if you and your significant other are on the same page? Worry is what happens when you don't talk to them about it.

I recently had a problem with a friend who had agreed to split the cost of something with me, but then backed out when I tried to collect. It wasn't a ton of money, but it really upset me because the way everything unfolded made me feel like we weren't actually friends at all.

I knew I would have to talk to him about it, and thus I began to worry about the eventual confrontation. But I haven't had a lot of practice worrying, and I'm not very good at it. As a result, I was really anxious. The solution? Get it over with as soon as possible. Have the confrontation. I could either sit around worrying about it, or get things off my chest and out of my worry inbox.

You can probably guess what happened. As soon as we talked it out, and I felt much better. The issue wasn't resolved, but I make my case as strongly as I could, and after that, it was out of my hands. It was something I wasn't justified in worrying about anymore.

Next time you are worrying about something, ask yourself why. Why are you worried? What will worrying accomplish? Is there some way you can turn that worry into something productive? Prepare yourself for the upcoming task? Be honest with a friend?

Motivate yourself into action, if for no other reason than to clear out that stressful worry inbox of yours.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Are you living on dreams or expectations?

The only difference between dreams and expectations is that it's okay when your dreams don't come true.

Expectations are unnecessary goals that we (or others) set for ourselves. Why are they unnecessary? Because they are set with the assumption that they will be reached, putting us in a no-win situation. Why? Since we "expect" to reach the goal, succeeding gives us no feeling of accomplishment. Failing to reach expectations is, well -- a letdown.

Expectations are a strange thing. Take marriage for example. A lot of people I know "expect" to get married more than they "want" to get married. Why? Well, I believe part of the reason is that it is hard to truly "want" to get married if you haven't found that special person yet. The reason that people expect to get married is because that's the way it is in our society. We were raised in families that were (usually) the result of marriage. We see it everywhere in life, and from a very young age, we expect that is the way things will turn out.

It's easy to see how devastating it could be for someone to be (still) unmarried at 40. Do they "want" to get married? Maybe. But I will bet that much more of their disappointment comes from the fact that, all of their life, they have been expecting marriage. This expectation leads everyone to think that marriage and kids are "right" for them, when in many cases, it just isn't true. They are mistaking expectations for true feelings.

Expectations set upon us by other people are even worse. In some cases, they compound our own expectations (if your parents and friends are also expecting you to get married). When other people have expectations for us that we don't share, their expectations often become expectations for ourselves.

Family and friends are important, don't get me wrong. But whose life are you living? No one's but your own. We cannot let other people's ideas for what our lives are supposed to be start to dictate our actions and feelings. We can only feel truly accomplished by reaching dreams that we set for ourselves.

What do we get from expectations? Expectations are good for helping to confuse and blur the line between what we truly want, and what we only think we want.

Wouldn't life be a whole lot easier if we only had dreams? Nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Music to my ears

Someone recently asked my why I listen to "angry" music.


I do? Hmmm. Well...maybe. Yes that I think about it...I suppose I do. (Honestly, this was news to me)

Why though? Don't bitter, unhappy people listen to dark, angry music? I have no idea. If I had to guess though, I would expect that people listen to music that most closely associates with their mood most of the time. For me though, it seems to be the opposite. I'm rarely angry or sad, but somehow, I listen to that stuff almost exclusively.

One reason is that I like music with meaning and sincerity. As someone who has written a few songs, I'll share something that I learned: it is really, really hard to write genuine, non-cheesy songs about being happy.

No one ever feels the need to express their happiness by sitting down and writing a song. They're outside, they're sharing that moment with someone else, and further building on that happiness.

Sad people sit alone in the candlelight, writing tortuous poetry, agonizing over the perfect way to describe their broken heart, unrequited love, pain and suffering.

When I'm full of energy, I crank up the mood music and scream along with the uptempo songs. My mood stands outgainst the lyrics I'm wailing and makes me unique - I am happy. When I'm sad, I listen to the slower stuff. Rather than using it as an excuse to wallow in misery, I think of it as validation - I am not alone.

No matter how sincere and focused the songwriter, if you take a step back, they only illuminate that we all have the same problems. Stress, self-image, money, and most of all: Love. There is something comforting about that shared moment of loneliness, even if it's just you and the sound in your headphones.

In that moment, it's not just sound. It's comfort. It's understanding. It's validation. Somehow, it's happiness.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Everyone is interesting, right?

At work, in an effort to personalize our service a bit more, I'm asking people to send me their "fun fact" that will go on our website next to their name. You'd think this would be easy...

I sent out the email to 14 people. 5 responded. Two weeks later, I sent it again, and 3 more people responded. You would not believe how much of a fight people put up about this. At first, I thought it was because they didn't want to be bothered, or because they didn't want to "brag" about themselves. Believe it or not though, 3 of them (so far) have actively complained to me that they have "nothing interesting" to say about their lives.

Of course, I refused to believe them. Two eventually caved (after giving them shit about it many, many times over the course of the two weeks) and gave me fairly interesting responses: one had been to 25 Aerosmith concerts in 7 states, and the other had skied 5 different states in a 10 day trip. After pressing the third holdout, I wished I hadn't.

I honestly believe that she thinks there is nothing interesting to say about her life past or present. I said to her, "So, when someone asks you about your life you tell them 'I go to work, go home and eat dinner, then go to bed' and she replied "Yes, and deal with my miserable children" (who are all highschool and older). I still don't believe her, but to me, the fact that this is how she views her life is very, very sad. Can you imagine someone being unable to tell you anything interesting about their life?

What must this person think of themself? What do they dream about? What fond memories do they look back upon? How could they possibly be happy?

Everyone should have at least a few interesting things to say about their life, right? Isn't that what makes life worth living?

What's your fun fact?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Why we are the way we are

Are you happy today? I don't mean at this exact instant in the course of your day. Take a step back, are you happy with your life? Do you like who you are? Do you like the people in your life? Are you thankful for what you have?

This is why I never understood regret. Everything that has happened in my life has led me to today. Everything that I have experienced, the places I've been, and the people that have come and gone, are all responsible for who I am today.

A wrong turn along the way means a right turn somewhere down the road. Bad experiences build character, and teach us how to handle similar problems and situations that will arise again.

If you have something you regret from your past, how would your life be different today? How would you be different? Would you be happier? If you could be happier, why not start taking steps in that direction?

Regret is living in the past. Happiness is living in the present.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Letting go without saying goodbye

More on change.

I haven't talked to them in years. We saw each other less often, some of which was circumstantial, and the visits were less enjoyable. I wasn't sure why. Then one day it became clear.

We were different now.

They were jaded and bitter. I was not. Although the change was probably gradual, I hadn't even noticed. Then all of the sudden, I was over it. I couldn't relate to their attitude, and it affected every conversation. We had nothing to talk about. We were no longer friends.

Maybe this happens all the time. People just stop being friends. No fight, no confrontation. It's just over.

I wonder if those two are still bitter and hopeless? I'm sure they've changed by now, but then again, so have I.

Change comes from within

They always say that you can't change a person. It's true.

You can nudge someone into making small changes (the first trivial example that comes to mind is: putting the toilet seat down), but no one can make big changes until they are ready. I have known for a long time that I am lazy about getting certain things done, and I love to procrastinate. Well, truthfully I don't love it, in fact, I probably hate it. But for years, it has been something that I just can't seem to stop doing. Part of the problem was that at first, I didn't see it as something that needed to be changed. Even finally admitting to myself that I needed to change wasn't enough. I had to want to change.

Finally, years later, I notice myself doing things that I never would have done before. Paying bills right when I get them, instead of waiting till the last moment. When someone asks me for a favor with no time constraint, I do it almost right away, because I know that otherwise I'll forget.

I'm realizing that it feels better to operate this way. The old me would have some sort of distant task to do, and it would pop into my head every few days. Remember me. Remember me. Remember me. Doing it right away clears out my mental inbox, and ultimately makes me happier.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Why we need time apart

I still remember exactly what Mrs. Roller said to us in 7th grade sex ed...uh....wait, maybe I don't. But the paraphrased version sounds something like this:
It's Infatuation, not Love, when you can't stand being apart.
I appreciate time apart, being alone, because it helps to reaffirm that everything is still right in my life. The funny thing is that I never intend to sit down and have these mini-moments of clarity, but those thoughts always seem to sneak in anyway. It'd be easier to describe if I felt like I needed some time apart. But I don't.

Nonetheless, it's like sitting on the beach in the sunshine, watching the waves slowly roll in...and then just when you think the day can't get any better, this warm breeze starts blowing gently and you can't help but smile. That subtle change makes you realize, this isn't just a pretty view, it's something you are a part of.

When the breeze goes away, everything feels a little better somehow. It's a reminder to cherish each moment. A reminder not to take being together for granted.