Right now I'm staying up with my cousin who's a senior in high school. It's midnight on Sunday, and she's busy finishing up her homework for the weekend. There's a roll of tape on the coffee table, along with pink ribbons, a glue stick, cutout pictures from glamour magazines, and a bunch of construction paper. For her weekend psychology assignment, she has to make a book using a vocab word as the header for each page.
I rant about school every once in a while here, but the truth is that it had been a long time since I'd really experienced what school was like. I dropped out in 2001, twelve years ago. Usually I visit my cousins during school vacations, but they're in school this time, so I've had the chance to live vicariously, help with homework, and remember just why I disliked school so much.
My cousin's project, as best I can understand, and as best she can understand, is essentially busy work. She had to spend an hour or so writing some paragraphs that were related to psychology. Then she spent four or five hours finding pictures, cutting them out, printing the paragraphs, cutting them out, arranging construction paper, pasting, and binding. It's insane.
Her younger sister, a sophomore in high school, asked for help with biology. Some of the material was really relevant and useful stuff, but that material was buried in a bunch of cruft. Some questions were so ambiguous that you would have to read them two or three times just to understand what they wanted you to answer. Some questions were made difficult not to simulate real-life situations, but just because the underlying material was too intuitive and basic in its natural useful form. Then others covered material that was so insignificant that it is guaranteed to be forgotten within a week, and would have to be relearned from scratch if my cousin ever were to become a biologist.
There's a concept called hedonic adaptation, which says that we quickly adjust to any increased level of comfort or luxury and cease to appreciate it. Anything good that happens to us becomes our new normal, and we look higher up the ladder, not realizing that we'll quickly adjust to those rungs as well.
The trick, then, is to suppress your hedonic adaptation, while still climbing up that ladder. If you can manage to do that, you can fully appreciate everything you already have, and future accomplishments, acquisitions, etc., will also be fully appreciated.
I don't know if it's fully possible to suppress hedonic adaptation. There's some evidence that zen monks who meditate all the time can do it to a large degree. Even if we're not going to spend all day meditating and will never fully get rid of it, though, we can easily move in that direction.
One strategy I use is to occasionally ask myself, "What's amazing in my life?" For one reason or another, this tends to happen when I'm en route somewhere, either on the subway, walking, or on my motorcycle.
Emotions are a matter perspective. Rich people can be miserable, poor people can be happy, single people can be fulfilled, and married couples can be lonely. The most prepared amongst us can feel nervous, and the least prepared can feel confident. The situations we find orselves in provide cues to our brains, but our internal interpretation of those cues is the actual spark that creates emotion.
Happines is particularly interesting to me because I think that although just about everyone has the potential to be happy all the time, very few people actually are. I meet peoople who I think are content or entertained or stimulated, but relatively few who appear to be genuinely happy people.
I forget if it was in high school or college, but at some point I decided that I would always be happy. Not that I would pretend to act happy no matter the situation, but that I would actually be happy all the time. It worked. There are certainly various levels of happiness that I experience throughout my life, but you could find me on my roughest days and still find me happy.
When I talk about working like a maniac for 10-14 hours a day, I sometimes get criticized for working too hard. I need to relax or enjoy life more, people say. When I read this, I assume that I've done a poor job explaining how I feel about work or how I actually construct my life, so I figure I may as well write a blog post to talk about it, as well as the underlying principle.
There are many days where I only leave my RV to shower. I wake up, drink tea while I do a quick Chinese lesson, write a blog post, program for twelve hours with a few short violin breaks, read for an hour, and the go to sleep. People assume that this is a stressful and intense day, but I actually find it very relaxing and enjoyable.
Think about what our ancestors went through. They were constantly uncomfortable, hungry, and in danger of being killed. That's stress. My life is not stressful at all. Compared to what our brains are wired for, my life is a complete cakewalk. The problem is that we don't compare ourselves to that, but instead we compare to what the average American does, which is work not very hard, watch some TV, drink some beers, and go to sleep.
Any time I'm being compared, by myself or others, to the average American, I consider it to be a warning sign. The problem with the average American life is that most of his time is being spent in a mediocre fashion. He works because he has to, and not very hard at that. His entertainment serves to distract him rather than to enrich him. This is the exact opposite of what I want to do-- I want to fill 100% of my time with high impact activities, either doing very good work or having some sort of really high quality experience. I want to spend none of my time at all doing things like busy work or channel surfing. I don't actually expect for it to be 100% to 0%, but I set that as my goal and try to get as close as possible.
One of the first presents I remember getting from my parents was a camera. I was about seven years old, and from the prints I still have, it seems that most of my photos were of my guineau pig, Muffin. There was a roll of film from my second grade class, and then there was a roll of film I took during a family gathering in the backyard. My dad was building a deck at the time, so amongst the photos of people eating food in the backyard, there are also a couple photos of him getting my uncle to help him with parts of the deck.
At the time, the fact that my father was building a giant deck didn't seem like a big deal. Just like making sandwiches or taking the kids to the museum, deck building was just one of those things that dads do sometimes. Looking back now, and doing the math, I realize that my father was around my current age when he built that deck. He had some kids by now, was married, had bought a house, and was now building a deck.
It occurs to me now that he probably had no clue about any of these things. What does a twenty five year old really know about marriage? Having kids is equal parts exciting and terrifying to me, and I'm five years older than my parents were when they had me. My father's father built things when he needed them, so I guess he taught my dad some things, but I also know that the giant deck in my photos was the first deck he'd ever built. How much did he know about deck building?
As I grew older and became more aware of what was going on around me, I realized that a lot of the time when my dad built something, he had no idea what he was doing. I don't mean that as an insult at all, though. Everything he built always came out great, and eventually, sick of an office job, he bulit things for other people as a profession. In fact, of all the great things I got from my dad, the willingness to tackle something without really knowing how to do it might be the most valuable.
I write a lot about how people need to make decisions for themselves, work extremely hard, and get off the beaten path. Inevitably, people ask about normal people or people who don't have all the advantages that I have. Let me address that.
Any struggle I've had in my life is a joke. I was born into a great family who never had to worry about putting a roof over my head or food on my plate. I felt (and feel) loved by every member of my family, from my great grandparents down to my siblings. Any danger I've ever been in in my entire life was danger that I willingly put myself into. I was in good schools, had great friends, and was supported by everyone I knew. I've taken medicine once in my life, and it was 15 years ago for strep throat. I have had it incredibly easy.
The challenges in my life have been created by me. I have the incredible privilege to pick goals, set my own timetable, and then try to reach them. I don't have to worry about food or shelter or... really anything. So although I do try to challenge myself and work extremely hard, I am always completely aware that the level of challenge and effort I put out will never reach what some people deal with on a daily basis.
I watched a documentary called Inocente last week, and it made me cry. It's about a homeless teenage girl named Inocente. She was born into a destitute illegally immigrated family with an abusive alcoholic father. Her father beat both her and her mother. They left and became homeless. Her mother was so desperate that she tried to convince Inocente to jump off a bridge and commit suicide with her. Inocente lives by herself, in the park or in shelters, and spends every last free minute she has painting. Her biggest dream in life is to get married and have a house.
When I was in college, I bought a Rolex. In the week or so that I waited for it to come in the mail, I got really excited about the idea that I was going to have a Rolex. To me, someone who had a Rolex was a different type of person, simply because he bought a fancy watch.
The watch showed up, and it was obviously a fake. I took it to a jeweler, just in case, and he confirmed what I already knew.
But by then it was too late. In my head, I was a Rolex type of guy. So I bought another one-- a real one this time.
When I bought a house ten years ago, I also bought place settings for six and silverware for twelve. Then I developed a minor fascination with bone China and bought settings for eight. I probably had four dozen glasses. About once a month or so, all of these dishes would be piled up in and around my sink, begging to be cleaned. I didn't have a lot of dinner parties-- I just hated doing dishes so much that I'd procrastinate until washing became a full day event. Those days were some of my least favorite.
A few days ago, I was doing the dishes for the six of us that ate dinner. There were pots, pans, plates, serving utensils, and glasses. The works. For the first time ever, I found myself enjoying doing the dishes. I could appreciate the warm water on my hands and the shine in the pot when it was clean. When I washed everything that wasn't dishwasher safe, I started handwashing the things that could have just gone in the dishwasher. It wasn't fun exactly, but it was so enjoyable that I actually found myself looking forward to washing the dishes the next day.
Work has become the same way. I don't love all aspects of it equally, but when I wake up and know I have a tough day ahead of me, I feel great. Pant of it is that I know the day will end with a nice chunk of progress made, but most of it is the actual act of working. I love it. I can't wait to face off with a bug that's been bothering me for weeks, trace it through all of our code, and fix it. It's relaxing, like an internal Swedish massage.
My friend Constance wrote me an email today. She was talking about me with her sister and some friends, describing my hyperfocus on work, learning, and other productive things. An excerpt from her email:
A long time ago I read about how Michael Jordan practiced. Despite being creative on the court, almost all of his practice was the basics. Free throws, three pointers, dribbling. I figured that if it was good enough for MJ, it was good enough for me, and so I've always tried to focus on the basics, too.
What's interesting about the basics is that you spend lots of time doing them, and that they have a disproportionate effect on everything else. Any incremental benefit you realize will be applied a lot throughout your life, and it will also slightly increase your performance in many other areas.You'd probably agree that this is true, and maybe even feel like it's too obvious to be mentioned. I think so too, but time and time again I see people neglect the basics and work on other things.Take sleep, for example. You spend a third of your life sleeping, and the quality and quantity of your sleep has a dramatic effect on nearly everything else that you do. But how many people are really focused on good sleep? How many people try to become better sleepers, developing good sleep habits and improving their sleeping environment?Diet is another good one to look at. The food that goes into your mouth is your only fuel. Your current dietary habits will form the basis if your lifelong dietary habits. Your mental processes, health, and emotional wellbeing are all massively influenced by your food intake. Yet how many people make their diet a priority?What habits actually make up the list of basics could be argued, but it's not really important. We all know what a basic looks like when we see it. It's part of our everyday life, it has an outsize affect on other factors, and it's not very glamorous. My "top 10" list would be something like:
There's some overlap and fuzzy borders between some of those, and you might think of a better list, but it's a start. My advice to anyone who doesn't feel like they are doing exactly what they should be doing would be to systematically work on those ten basics. I'd rate myself for each one, pick the lowest score, and work it until I got it to an 8-10.
For those of you who were linked here, or who are new to my blog this year, every year I write a gear post which contains every single item I travel with. Despite being minimal, the set of gear is fully functional, allowing me to be comfortable and productive everywhere from the tropical beaches of the Caribbean to the ski mountains of Tahoe.
This year I thought I'd start off by sharing some of the principles behind my gear selection. You can use these principles to guide your own gear search, or simply to evaluate whether my choices match your own needs.
The overriding priority in my search is functionality. I will always choose function over form, even if the difference in form is large and the difference in function is minor. I've simply found that my productivity is not improved when a device I use is prettier, and that my enjoyment of travel is not affected by the style of my clothing. This is why my clothes tend not to be from mainstream brands and why Apple products very rarely make it to my gear list.
Functionality may be my overriding priority, but size and weight are close. Unlike fashion, I have found that having a lighter pack allows me more flexibility and enjoyment. There's a huge difference between having to check in to a hotel to drop off luggage and being able to go straight from a train to a mountain to climb. I also really like stretching out layovers to be a half or full day instead of two hours, so having a light pack allows me to do whatever I want without having to find somewhere to leave my luggage.