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?