Pillars

“It's all about quality of life and finding a happy balance between work and friends and family.” - Philip Green

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In order to feel stable, we need pillars to support us. These pillars could take many forms, but the most straightforward ones are Friends, Family, Work, and Significant Other.

These pillars aren’t guaranteed at the same time, if at all. We lose family members, friends grow apart, work gets old, and we fight with our romantic partners.

If one or two of these pillars are crumbling, then we still have a solid enough foundation to function. But when all of our relationships are suffering, it can be devastating.

So how do we reinforce these pillars? How do we strengthen the foundation that maintains our sanity? Too often, we neglect these key relationships and suffer the consequences down the line.

Maybe the answer is simple. Make the effort to keep in touch with those who matter to you. Ask how your old friends are doing. Se

One of the most powerful films, It’s a Wonderful Life, does a great job of highlighting the importance of relationships. Towards the end, when the main character faces a crisis, he contemplates suicide to end it all. But his family and friends help come to the rescue and save him from these depths.

When you are kind to others and make the effort to keep up with relationships, you build up good will over the years. Is this selfish? Perhaps. But it seems all relationships have an element of sacrifice. We take time to see others, to hear about their days, to help them out when they need help. Then when it’s your turn to ask for a favor, there will be people around.

It would be a lonely day to wake up and realize you have nobody to turn to.

So be kind to friends, keep in touch with family, treat your partner well, and get to know people at work. Life has it’s ups and downs, but you will stay balanced and maintain stability with you have your relationships in order.

What is life without relationships? Who are we without the people around us? If your relationships aren’t fulfilling your needs, then you either need to create new ones or improve the ones you have. But if you try to navigate life without any relationships, it is a lonely road and you won’t get anywhere.

Flaws

“I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.” - Augusten Burroughs

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Nobody is perfect. That’s a cliché, but it bears repeating. Whenever we get too hard on ourselves, it’s important to remember this fact.

Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Things that come easily to some people can be incredibly difficult for others.

But to what extent should we hold ourselves accountable?

For example, if someone is late all of the time…do we consider that trait a flaw to be forgiven? Can the perpetually late person let themselves off the hook and blame it on their nature?

It’s hard to say. On one hand, it seems like we shouldn’t be too tough on ourselves or others if something doesn’t come easily. On the other hand, how can anyone see improvements if we’re always making excuses?

Like almost anything, it’s probably all about striking a balance.

The important thing is to practice compassion when acknowledging the flaws in ourselves and others.

But what about cases where we don’t see people with flaws? When we idolize celebrities or get carried away in love, our rose-colored glasses alter everything in an unrealistic light.

It can be crushing to ‘meet your heroes’ or discover flaws in a partner.

Once again, we just need to keep perspective.

Data

“Data is a precious thing and will last longer than the systems themselves.” - Tim Berners-Lee

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The Data Manifesto:

  1. Everything is data

    • Anything in the world can be measured. From the number of breaths you take to the number of steps you walk to the number of words you speak. Every industry uses data, from healthcare to aviation to retail.

  2. Data is the future

    • Data will only get more and more relevant. The ability to interpret, analyze, and understand data will only grow in importance.

What else should go on this list?

Software

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” - Henry David Thoreau

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Can a career in software development be a noble vocation? I would argue yes, but will admit my bias, as someone working in this industry.

After reading a couple biographical books by medical professionals, it’s hard to deny the incredible impact they can have on the lives of others.

Those in the medical field help keep us healthy, keep us safe, and keep families together. Without nurses, doctors, surgeons, and so on, how would we function as a society?

One thing that struck me in these books, however, was how much subjectivity was involved in decision-making.

For example, if a patient is diagnosed with some affliction, they may receive a wide range of diagnoses from dozens of specialists. It’s amazing how subjective and varying these opinions can be. When peoples’ lives are in jeopardy, how can we allow for such uncertainty?

It seems that many hospitals suffer from a systems issue. There are not enough professionals to help patients, and those working often suffer a grueling schedule that certainly clouds their mind and decision-making abilities. Medical residents in particular can work 15+ hour days without rest. How can anyone function under such conditions.

And this is where software could have an incredible impact on the industry.

Think about the rise of ride-sharing apps like Lyft and Uber. Despite bumps along the way, it’s undoubtable that these services have saved thousands of lives from drunk-drivers. The convenience and reliability of these apps has had a tremendous impact on society.

So where are the similar opportunities in medicine. It’s hard to say for certain, but it seems like there are countless areas that could be improved.

What about an app that automatically alerts nurses when a particular patient needs attention. Or an app that incorporates IBM’s Watson, which can harness the power of Artificial Intelligence and Machine learning to help provide speedy and accurate diagnoses. Or the power of robotics and video streaming, that could allow doctors to remotely navigate dozens of hospitals in the same day.

It seems like the only limits are our imagination. I wish more entrepreneurs and startups would venture into these areas, rather than focus on superficial work in areas such as social media.

So back to the original question: Can software be a noble career path? As noble as that of a doctor?

If you can design a system that makes hospitals 1% more efficient, that could mean saving thousands of lives. More than any individual could.

In my brief experience in and out of hospitals. I’m amazed by how disorganized things can be. You see stressed and overworked doctors and nurses, making high-stakes on-the-fly decisions in the face of extreme pressure and sleep deprivation.

Software can help automate and optimize existing processes. We need to try and eliminate room for human error, and let technology help save us from ourselves.

Some people might argue that there is already a great deal of software in hospitals. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t massive room for improvement. Taxis existed before Uber, so we had the same basic service available for decades. But the ability to push a button and have nearby drivers arrive in minutes it’s an incredible technological achievement.

How can we make similar strides in medicine?

Better

“How we schedule our days is how we spend our lives.” - Gretchen Rubin

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It’s important to me that I’m better every day. But what does it mean to be better? It doesn’t have to take the form of some lofty achievement or amazing feat. Instead, it is small actions in or day-to-day lives that compound in value over time.

If I exercised today, then I am better. If I read a few pages of a book today, than I am better.

Is there an objective way to measure these improvements? It’s hard to say, maybe it just depends on the individual.

Seth Godin wrote on the subject:

“Incremental daily progress (negative or positive) is what actually causes transformation. A figurative drip, drip, drip. Showing up, every single day, gaining in strength, organizing for the long haul, building connection, laying track — this subtle but difficult work is how culture changes.”

But this is also tricky territory to traverse. Is reading a few pages of a book really enough to offset an otherwise unproductive day? This opens the door up to a flurry of mental rationalizations.

It’s probably best not to overthink it. The general principle is one that would benefit most people. Small actions can make a big difference in our lives over time.

Negotiating

“To win a negotiation you have to show you're willing to walk away. And the best way to show you're willing to walk away is to walk away.” - Michael Weston

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Be willing to walk away from any negotiation. It is simple advice, overused to the point of meaninglessness. But there is truth in these old aphorisms. They hold up for a reason.

Why is it important to be willing to walk away?

Because if you aren’t, then people will take advantage of you. They will sense your desperation and inability to leave.

We must set boundaries in life. In all our relationships, jobs, and friendships. We must draw a line in the sand and declare what we will not stand for. Be specific.

People don’t respect people without boundaries. Your boundaries are determined by your values - by what you stand for. So if you don’t have boundaries, you must not stand for anything.

Show some respect for yourself by setting boundaries and letting people know that you’re willing to walk away.

Sports

"I feel sorry for people who aren’t sports fans. Know why? When I get up in the morning I have no idea who’s going to win the games that day. None. So I have wonderment every day, “Who’s going to win? What’s going to happen?” - Larry King

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I used to think major league sports were stupid. How could a simple game make grown men and women lose complete control of their emotions? It made no sense to me. But as I get older, I started to develop more sympathy for sports culture.

Eventually, I realized it’s silly to hate something just for the sake of it. Why not try and understand what draws people to sports, and see things from their perspective?

Here is the value I learned to appreciate in sports:

1) Community

Sports bring people from all walks of life together. It doesn't matter what class, race, or creed your belong to. Anyone can share the bond of being a fan of a certain team. It's a beautiful thing to see fans bonding who otherwise would have nothing in common.

2) Stories

We seem to have a natural desire for great storylines. Classic themes such as sacrifice, rebirth, and redemption play themselves out time and time again in sports. One could argue that the story of some team coming together to surmount incredible odds might hold its own with the plots of many classic novels.

3) Distraction

The world is infinitely complex, beyond our comprehension. It gets exhausting trying to grasp the limits of human understanding. But sports help reduce the world down to size. Instead of grappling with our existential angst, we can appreciate the simplicity of a ball, field, and two teams trying to score.

4) Novelty

Every game is an opportunity to be surprised. No outcome is automatically guaranteed. Anything could happen on any given day. That's what makes sports exciting. The occasional upset or underdog story keeps us engaged and entertained when life can otherwise seem monotonous and routine.

5) Catharsis

We all have to deal with stress, pain, and suffering. Sometimes it feels overwhelming. Sometimes it feels like too much to bear, and you just want to scream out. Sports offer a healthy environment and context for people to go crazy. You might see a fan lose it after a bad call, when really they're venting because they just got laid off or a loved one passed away.

And there are probably a million other reasons to appreciate sports, these are just the ones that stood out the most to me.

So the bottom line is this: You don't have to have a cynical view of sports, like I did as a teenager. Don't let stubborn pride keep you from appreciating the positive aspects of this cultural phenomenon. Sports can bring people closer together, and offer some relief and distraction from a stressful world. Sure, it might be silly to let your emotions hang on the whims of a game...but hey - it's something to do!

So allow yourself to have fun and get caught up in a game. Pick a team to follow and cheer for. You might just become a crazy super fan!

Writing

"Good writing is clear thinking made visible." - Bill Wheeler

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It feels like there is a stigma against grown men keeping a journal. The idea of a journal for many people conjures up an image of teenage girls scribbling about their crushes in a diary. 

But this is a silly thought. Writing is a powerful way to communicate, to both yourself and others. Once you put something down on paper (or type it on a computer), it helps to clarify thoughts in your mind. 

I see this process as something like 'digesting your ideas'. Because first you write down what you're thinking, which forces you to articulate it. Then you might read through it again, which means now you're taking in the information as a more neutral observer. You might even read it aloud, which gives you the auditory as well as visual sensory input.

It's amazing how something that bothers you suddenly becomes less daunting once you put it down on paper.  Our minds are very powerful, and we can easily get swept up into negative thoughts.

And when you improve your skills at communicating through writing, it almost feels like a superpower. You can learn how to express exactly what you're thinking, and then the recipient of your writing has no ambiguity to sort through. 

I think it would do many of us (myself included) good to write more letters and fewer texts/emails. There is something personal and thoughtful about putting a pen to paper to try and capture how you feel. Texts and emails are efficient products of the digital age, but there is something lost in their quick and instant nature. Crafting a letter requires slow thinking, choosing your words carefully, and more focus on what you're trying to say.

By no means am I against technology or modern forms of communication. But it's important to recognize the value of this ancient art. Good writing clarifies our thoughts to ourselves, and helps us better communicate with others.

Energy

"What a man can be, he must be. This is what we call self-actualization." - Abraham Maslow

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It's nice when everything is in order. Friendships, romance, work, health, and so on. When life is good in these major areas, you feel balanced and energized. It's easy to get content in this state of calm. It's easy to relax and soak in the peace with satisfaction. But instead, I think we need to use this time to our advantage. 

I feel much more productive when various areas of my life are going well. It's like our lives are a house, and each of those areas (relationships, career, etc.) are columns holding them up. Sometimes a column collapses or needs repair. That makes it hard to focus on getting other things done. A toxic relationship or harmful work environment can cloud your mind and rob your waking hours.

So when things are going well, it's first important to observe that. Then, I think it's vital to act. Take advantage of this time to be as productive as possible. Channel your positive energy into a worthy cause. Life has ups and downs, and your state of mind will inevitably shift. Let the occasional sense of stability be a catalyst for action.

Pain

"I assess the power of a will by how much resistance, pain, torture it endures and knows how to turn to its advantage." - Fredrich Nietzsche

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Why do we romanticize pain? I suppose the overcoming of suffering is a powerful feeling. We don't value things that come easy to us. It is the things that we have to struggle for that give us the greatest satisfaction.

But what about pain during meditation? I don't understand the point of it. The classic meditation position is to sit cross-legged or in a lotus pose. Avoiding pain in your neck, back, and knees seems nearly impossible. Maybe after a certain amount of meditation, it's not a problem.

That being said, I don't know why some people hold the pain up as a positive thing in this context. I don't think the amount of physical pain you're inflicting on your body will bring you any close to spiritual enlightenment or transcendence. Maybe I'm wrong about that, though. Maybe leaning into your pain brings you closer to the present moment. But I think it's an unnecessary distraction.

This is why I now prefer yoga over sitting meditation. Yoga involves a set of structured stretches, and helps you improve your balance, flexibility, and focus. It's a moving meditation. You twist and pose in various ways that make you feel loose and strong. You are simultaneously focused on your breath and your body. Why wouldn't you choose this form of meditation over sitting in some stiff position? You don't have to be a pain martyr. You can gain the mental benefits of meditation while also contributing to your physical well-being.

But maybe yoga isn't as deeply meditative as traditional meditation. If you're just sitting still, you can focus all of your energy on your breath and the present moment. However, I'd still opt for an alternative to sitting meditation. I would choose flotation tank therapy instead.

In a flotation tank or pod, you can experience the ultimate relaxation. Your body feels weightless, floating in a pool of Epsom salt. With the sensory deprivation aspect, you are free to tune in fully to the present moment.

But part of me wonders if this is too relaxing. I've fallen asleep once before while floating. I don't think we get the full meditation experience if we are too relaxed. So maybe that's the point of sitting meditation. If you're too relaxed, you won't tune in to the present moment. Maybe you need to be borderline uncomfortable to achieve full awareness. 

Anyway, I guess you could always just sit in a comfy upright chair to meditate. Maybe that's the simplest solution. It's more relaxing than sitting cross-legged on the ground, but not so relaxing that you'll fall asleep. Perhaps a rocking chair in the ultimate meditative accessory. Because I find that little bit of movement to be soothing. It's obviously not as much movement as you'll get in a yoga class, but it's a rhythmic motion that can help you feel calm and relaxed. 

Is there an ideal way to meditate? I think it just depends on the person. Or maybe it depends on the day? Maybe we should all have 3-5 ways in which we meditate, and then regularly alternate them in order to get the most well-rounded experience.

I'm probably overthinking this, but here are my thoughts in summation: We can respect and attempt the traditional approach to meditation, but we should also question norms in this area and find whatever method is best suited for ourselves. We can try a wide range of meditation practices and find the best ones to suit us. There are no rules! The common intent is be more attuned to the present, and there are probably a million ways to help you do this. Some of them we probably wouldn't even think of as meditation, like doing a puzzle or going rock-climbing. But it would probably do us some good to expand our perception of what we consider to be meditation..

Books

"A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting." - Henry David Thoreau

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Are books inherently special? Does writing have value simply because it is captured on paper?

I have mixed feelings on the subject.  On one hand, books seem like they have more longevity than a blog post or twitter comment (at least at this point in time). 

But at the same time, it feels like the bar is too low for getting something published. These days, self-publishing has flooded the market with mediocre works. Although I support the voices of independent writes, I'm also worried about finding quality content among all of these works. 

My general heuristic is to read things that have been around for at least a few years. However, this makes me worried that I'm missing out on some zeitgeist or trending phenomenon. 

I think a good approach is to seek out recommendations from smart people that you know and trust. For instance, Bill Gates has a reading list that likely helps many people choose their next book. But then again, isn't this just adding to your echo chamber? Maybe I should seek out people that I disagree with and force myself to read their recommendations. Easier said than done. But it could be a good exercise in gaining mental flexibility. I do yoga to stretch out my body, why not read something outside of my comfort zone to stretch out my mind?

I feel a little overwhelmed by how much knowledge there is out there in the world. And I feel nervous at how distracted the average person seems to be these days.

One reason I enjoy things like yoga or going to see a movie in theaters is because I'm not on my phone (you could use it, but the social pressure keeps me from peeking). So maybe we just need the equivalent setting for readers. I think places like quiet coffee shops or public parks are great for reading.  But maybe we need to take it a step further and have a formal environment for groups of readers to gather. Maybe that sounds strange, but it could offer a solution for getting us off our phones and into a book. 

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I'm starting to think that my writing will be more stream-of-consciousness like the essay above. Maybe I'll produce more polished work in the future, but for now I like writing whatever comes into my mind. I try to play devil's advocate when I start to form an opinion, but this can be exhausting - as my mind swings back and forth like a pendulum without finding room to settle. 

But just getting my thoughts out of my head and onto the computer helps loosen the load on my mind.

Tribes

“Human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered "intrinsic" to human happiness and far outweigh "extrinsic" values such as beauty, money and status.” - Sebastian Junger, Tribe

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Social connections are a fundamental part of being human. We need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves in order to feel proud and have a sense of belonging.

Why don't we make more of an effort to form and develop tribes?

First, I think we should define what a tribe is. In my mind, it is a very open definition. A tribe could a family, club, band, religion, or a million other things. There are essentially countless ways in which people can congregate and socialize. But the key element to a tribe, in my mind, is simply a group of individuals coming together under some unified theme. 

Sometimes that theme can be vague, or just a pretense. We often just want an excuse to meet up and be around others. I think many people who attend church services do so for the communal aspect rather than the dogma itself. 

To some degree, I'm torn about the need for a tribe. I've often glorified the idea of individuals who distance themselves from society at large. But maybe I over-romanticize the lives of people like Thoreau or Tesla. Despite their insights and contributions to the world, they also seemed lonely and isolated. Is that the price to pay for the life of a genius? Or maybe people will rationalize their failed relationships with the assumption that they are in pursuit of higher ideals.

Can't we be a part of something while retaining our individuality?

Although I'm not a huge fan of Andy Warhol, I like the idea of his Factory in New York - where tons of interesting individuals would pour in and out day to day. I think it's healthy to have that kind of social stimulation from a wide range of people.

If we're too shut off from others, then we can lose perspective. At the same time, if we're always surrounded by other people, we might lose touch with our own inner thoughts.

I like the idea of binging on people and then binging on isolation. I try to throw myself into social situations where I'm surrounded by interesting people, and then I try to cut myself off from the world for a bit to digest those interactions and reflect on my own thoughts.

Balance, balance, balance...at this point it feels like a cliche for how much that theme has popped up in these essays. But just because I keep touching on it, doesn't mean it doesn't have some merit, right?

People have a tendency to be drawn to extremes. It's either this or that, all or nothing. I think it's better to get a bit of both worlds, and then try and extract what you learn from that mixture. It's a yin and yang thing.

Anyway, I feel like I've gotten somewhat sidetracked from the original intent of this post.

What I'm trying to say is that it's good to be a part of something bigger than yourself. Tribes help us feel connected. They support us and offer opportunities for growth.

And there are and endless array of things that you could become a part of...or even start if there's not something out there that you identify with.

But we should just be mindful of our tribe-shopping. Let's try to pick tribes that help develop ourselves and have a healthy influence on our lives. So I joined a film club, yoga class, and volunteer group. This way, I have a creative outlet, physical activity, and way to give back a little bit.

Sometimes we over-romanticize the idea of a stubborn individual clinging to their own opinions. Let's try to find the merit of tribes. Through tribes, we build connections and build ourselves up in the process.

 

Daydreams

"The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. “Idle dreaming is often the essence of what we do,” writes Thomas Pynchon in his essay on Sloth. "Archimedes’ “Eureka” in the bath, Newton’s apple, Jekyll and Hyde, the benzine ring: history is full of stories of inspiration that came in idle moments and dreams. It almost makes you wonder whether loafers, goldbrickers, and no-accounts aren’t responsible for more of the world’s great ideas, inventions, and masterpieces than the hardworking." - Tim Kreider

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I spend more time in my mind than in reality. Is this healthy or productive? Maybe, maybe not. 

First, I want to understand why I retreat into my mind so often. Is it a defense mechanism? A distraction from the stress and pain of real-world experiences? Not that I have a lot of struggles to endure...but I could have developed this habit early on in childhood. I think we all experience some level of trauma as kids, and then find ways to cope with it. These tendencies can last far into adulthood.

But I want to weigh the pros and cons of daydreaming. On one hand, I feel like I'm more capable of creative thinking. When I spend time in my own head, my imagination takes me to weird and interesting places. And as Einstein proclaimed "Imagination is more important than reality."

At the same time, I think that daydreaming has held me back a lot in life. Sometimes I cling to certain ideas or opinions far longer than I should, simply because I'm not immersed enough in the real world. Every now and then, I need the curt words of a close friend or family member to snap me out of my waking daydreams.

So like most things in life, maybe it's just a matter of finding a balance. I want to maintain the creative benefits of daydreaming, but still not lose touch with the real world. I want to maintain a broad imagination without forsaking my human responsibilities and societal expectations.

Maybe I just need to set aside specific a specific time and place for daydreaming. Like through the park on a quiet morning, or having a long soak in a warm bath tub. 

And I shouldn't neglect the importance of being social. I feel like many of my best breakthroughs came from bouncing ideas off of others. We need other people to keep us grounded, and to play the devil's advocate with our ideas.

Because I think that's a trap in which many smart, creative people get stuck. They get too caught up in their worldview, that they lose perspective. 

So stay humble, stay creative, and find a balance between wild daydreams and real life.

 

Data

"Without data you're just another person with an opinion." - W. Edwards Deming

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Everything is data. We are surrounded by information, ripe for the picking. 

I think careers involving data are going to be in strong demand for years to come.

Many industries change and evolve, but one thing that remains constant is the need to effectively understand, interpret, and communicate data.

And everything is data. From our heartbeats to our footsteps to the tapping on our keyboards. There is a virtually limitless pool of data at our fingertips. 

What surprises me is how often data is ignored. Making decisions without considering data is like wandering around blindly in the darkness. 

Poorly-informed decisions often lead to unwelcome results and an barrage of finger-pointing among teams.

I believe conflict is vastly overrated. It amazes me how much time is wasted on individuals verbally sparring with each other, letting their egos stand in the way of productivity. 

Hopefully we reach a point one day where conflict has become obsolete. 

I think that good decisions should be self-evident...and if that is not the case, then it is a failure of data.

Instead of clinging to this norm of endless arguments, let's focus on the information. And rather than making emotionally-charged decisions, let's make an effort to think rationally about any given situation.

It seems to me that most opinions are overrated. Decisions should be guided by data, not influenced by our personal biases. 

Alcohol

"Drinking is an emotional thing. It joggles you out of the standardism of everyday life, out of everything being the same. It yanks you out of your body and your mind and throws you against the wall. I have the feeling that drinking is a form of suicide where you're allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It's like killing yourself, and then you're reborn. I guess I've lived about ten or fifteen thousand lives now." - Charles Bukowski

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Sometimes I feel like I'm drifting through a hazy daydream. Drinking has become so familiar in our lives, that we rarely stop to question its benefits.

Why do we drink in the first place? Charles Bukowski says, "If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen." So there you have it. We have an excuse to drink for essentially any given situation.

And why not? I love grabbing a beer with a friend and catching up with each other. Or sharing a bottle of wine with a girl while watching Netflix on a couch. Maybe the occasional cocktail to celebrate something special.

But as the days bleed into one another, I feel my mind becoming clouded and rusty. 

Then again, alcohol could also help spark an idea from time to time. Journalist Eric Weiner writes how "alcohol decreases inhibition and, for some at least, opens creative channels otherwise shuttered." So I don't want to adopt a puritan mindset and shun the benefits of alcohol. However, I'm wary of rationalizing an unhealthy dependence on this substance.

I'm going to try and take a break for awhile. Maybe a month without drinking. Just to prove to myself that I can do it. This will give my body a great chance to detox and reset. I'll see if my mind becomes sharper and more alert. I'm tired of muddled thinking and hungover headaches. 

Anything can be addictive, and sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that we're not dependent. Taking a break for a while can give you the chance to check in with yourself and see where you really stand. Ultimately, you're in control...and sometimes you need to take the reins and prove that to yourself.

Perspective

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.” ― George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

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Why read? Why spend hours and hours when your face stuck in a book?

One benefit of reading is that it gives us perspective.

We spend so much time in our own heads, stuck in rigid patterns of thinking. To save mental energy, we naturally tend to get set in our views. It's stressful to remain open at all times, keeping your mind flexible and receptive. 

But reading forces you to jump out of your brain, and into the perspectives of others. A book gives you the opportunity to see the world through someone else's eyes. Every character in a book could be a window into another world.

We all have movies going on in our minds. These movies are the way in which we process and interpret the world. If we stubbornly cling to these movies, then we only have a narrow view of the world. 

This is how books can make us more empathetic. After reading a good book, I'll often find myself saying something like "I've never thought of it that way before." or "That's an interesting point of view or way to live".

Readings expands our perception of how we could think and live. There are thousands of interesting and inspiring characters out there, representing thousands of possibilities.

And this isn't to say that all books are good, or that a book is inherently better than other mediums of art.

But there are some great works out there, fiction and non-fiction, and all kinds of genres. 

Sometimes I feel restless while reading. It might feel like a waste of time. I might think that I should be out living instead of at home reading. (Although you could always read in somewhere like a park or coffee shop, for the social element.)

But I should think of it like this: a good book can enrich your life in powerful ways. So it's not a waste of time, if the book could inspire you to change your life in some way.

Maybe a travel writer inspires you to take an adventure, or a memoir helps you appreciate your relationships in new ways.

So reading isn't a waste of time...in fact, in could help you save time if it inspires you to take a new direction in your life.

 

Clarity

"A man who procrastinates in his choosing will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance." - Hunter S. Thompson

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How many of us take the time to think about the path we're on? 

We spend so much time doing things, but such little time thinking about why we do what we do.

There must be some psychological reason for this aversion to self-reflection.

Maybe it's just mental laziness, or even apathy. It's also daunting to question the way we're living, because what if we don't like the answers? 

But I'm worried about lacking a clarity of vision. If we don't know where we want to go, how do we know if we're taking the right steps?

Then again, I'm wary of defining goals that are too rigid. Our desires, circumstances, and intentions can change dramatically from week to week. If we set our goals in stone, that might put too much pressure on ourselves to pursue something that we might not ultimately want.

It seems like a lot of successful and accomplished people didn't necessarily set out to do what they ended up doing. They worked hard and had powerful experiences, but they also let some degree of serendipity guide them.

Vinod Khosla, a famous entrepreneur and venture capitalist, advises others to "be obstinate about your vision, but flexible with your tactics."

Although this advice is targeted to other entrepreneurs, I think each of us can apply it to our lives.

We should define our vision and pursue it with determination. At the same time, we must remain flexible enough to adapt to change and unforeseen circumstances. 

And it's not enough to just define our vision. We have to check in with ourselves constantly to make sure that we're on the right track. It's so easy these days to get caught up in distractions. Our vision is like a radio station, and the signal becomes less clear the longer we go without reflecting.   

Focus

"Your life is your life. Don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission." - Charles Bukowski

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Sometimes I feel caught up in a constant barrage of unimportant thoughts. Basic comforts like alcohol and food help keep me in a perpetual state of mild contentment.

How many of us really live? Would any of our lives make good stories? Why don't we do more to make life interesting?

I often think of people like Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, whose wide range of experiences and encounters made their lives noteworthy. They were flawed, imperfect icons. But it's easy to romanticize individuals like these. In reality, they probably hurt a lot of people close to them in their pursuit of glory. Maybe complicated and damaged relationships are just one price to pay on the path to greatness.

Then again, maybe that's just a rationalization...a justification for not treating those around you well. But I shouldn't be so cynical to believe that you can't have an interesting life without being an asshole. I do, however, want to understand why more of us don't have richer experiences in our lives. 

It seems like a lack of focus is a major culprit. We simply don't take the time to sit down and picture what our ideal life really looks like. Resigned to fate and happenstance, we bounce around from one set of circumstances to another. 

It's scary and intimidating to carve your own path. Fear forces us into a state of behavioral paralysis. We fear social judgment. We fear failure. We fear the unknown. Our minds can conjure countless phantoms to scare us out of taking action.

Laziness is another impediment keeping us from the best version of ourselves. It's much easier to sit on the couch, never taking the initiative to put ourselves out there. Why risk the sting of failure when you could stay inside and relax?

Fear, laziness, and a lack of focus. These things hold us back from becoming what we could be. We could always make excuses or cast blame for our lot in life. However, it would do us better to confront ourselves with brutal honesty, and reflect on how we are sabotaging ourselves. 

 

 

Floating

"A man does not really begin to be alive until he has lost himself, until he has released the anxious grasp which he normally holds upon his life, his property, his reputation and position." - Alan Watts

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There must be a million ways to meditate. You can find book after book of spiritual leaders touting their methods. I personally believe that there is no right way to meditate. Some ways may be better than others, but ultimately it's about finding what works best for you.

A friend once recommended that I try out sensory deprivation tanks. He kept going on and on about their benefits like some kind of fanatic. My inherent skepticism told me that he was overstating this experience. What is it about simply floating in water that is so enlightening? My memories of floating mainly consist of chlorine-filled summers, with red sun burns and loud kids running around our local pool.

But once you remove those external distractions and keep the floating, it's actually a wonderful experience. 

As a general disclaimer: your mileage may vary. In fact, the first 20 minutes of my hour long float session were rather uncomfortable. I felt the strong sting of salt in my eyes, and struggled to rest my head comfortably on the flimsy float ring they provided. But when I learned to just relax and let go, the rest of the hour went by in a blissful blur.

Emerging from the float pod, I felt like a new person. It sounds ridiculous. It sounds too good to be true. But if felt great.

For the rest of the day, I noticed that I was less reactive to everything around me. Before, small interactions could trigger a strong emotional response from me. Everything from road rage to loud neighbors no longer to have quite a strong hold on me. 

The stress of my internal monologue was turned down. I had my monkey mind under control. Even a few days later, I feel calm and relaxed.

So I highly recommend that you try floating. It may seem silly and expensive, but it could do wonders for your psyche. As mindfulness continues to trend in our culture, I think floating will emerge as the next big thing.

 

Regrets

"The memory of that event has only just come back to me, now doubly painful: regret for a vanished past and, above all, remorse for lost opportunities...the women we were unable to love, the chances we failed to seize, the moments of happiness we allowed to drift away. Today it seems to me that my whole life was nothing but a string of those small near misses: a race whose result we know beforehand but in which we fail to bet on the winner.” - Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

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What does it take to live without regrets? It seems impossible to guarantee that our future self will be satisfied with our present decisions.

I've saved plenty of quotes that are variations on the classic 'Carpe Diem'. But those words are just words, and it's hard to identify exactly what seizing the day looks like.

Instead of hollow self-help advice, I think we should look towards actual individuals for inspiration. People like Ernest Hemingway, Amelia Earhart, and Hunter S. Thompson had rich and interesting lives. They pushed the boundaries of fears and social expectations. 

There are hundreds of derivative books that encourage us to fulfill our potential and accomplish great things. But there are only a handful of people in history that had the courage, focus, and ambition to take action. 

So going forward, I think I'll use this methodology to guide my life: 

  1. Identify those who inspire me
  2. Study their lives...successes, failures, and everything in between.
  3. Carve my own life path

I think the way to look back on life without regrets is to do great things. And we can look to those who have done great things for inspiration and guidance. Their lives can give us energy and encouragement as we pursue our own unique journey.