You’re not a Champion Because You’re Unwilling to Suck

I am not seduced by learning curves. I want to be good at everything–immediately. When I play golf, I should swing like Tiger Woods. When I do public speaking, I should orate like Honest Abe. When I meditate, I should focus like the Dalai Lama. It’s a phenomenon I call the “instant expert.”

Oftentimes, experience supports my delusion. For example, as someone who has never played gold, I imagine I would demonstrate exponential growth my first time out–mainly because I would go from zero skill to some.

This growth might continue for a few outings. I’d feel pretty good about myself. I’d buy a punch-card at a country club (or whatever golfers do).

Then my learning curve would start to plateau. Gains would come with great difficulty. I’d start thinking, “Golf is lame. All the resources used for maintaining a patch of land for the 1% to tread upon…I’m too disgusted to play.” The punch-card would expire and I’d return to the things I do with a semblance of competency, like flossing my teeth.

Most of us make poor skill mean we aren’t good at something. Quitting means that we have determined that we will never be good, like it’s an immutable law.

More pernicious is this: we conflate what we do with who we are. If I suck at something, it means I suck as a person. If this is true, we must find things we are good at and avoid those we are not. This is why TV and the internet are so popular: they allow us to be instant experts. I was good at watching TV almost from the first time I watched it.

Like many people, there are things I want to do beside web-surf, watch TV and floss. Of those thing, I suck at many, if not most of them. Or I am transitioning from suckiness to passable competency.

I write, but my words are often meandering and vague. I ain’t got a book deal. I am an employee, but sometimes I can be a dunce at work. I am a husband, but I can sometimes be a total dick (sorry babe). I am going to be a father, and though I’ve pre-ordered my “Dad of the Year” t-shirt, there may be a period where I am not the most expert father.

Of this situation, I think of an Ira Glass quote:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners…For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good….A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. [Full quote here].

The gap between what we know we can do and what we’re doing can be frustrating. But we’ve got to know it’s an intrinsic part of the process. There was a time when we all of us sucked at walking. Now we’ve attained some level of mastery. It’s not magic. It’s a function taking consistent action (i.e. walking).

What if sucking at something didn’t mean that we, as people, sucked? What if it just meant we lacked a particular skill-set–one we could learn? What would that make possible?

The Importance of Being Right

When I was 14 I had a huge crush on Michelle Pockock. She was 5’8″, had black hair down to her butt, dark, button eyes and a small mouth with thick braces. At the time, I had no experience with women and was pretty much a nonentity in my high school’s social hierarchy. Despite these handicaps, I managed to invite Michelle back to my house one afternoon. I got her into my bedroom. I remember sitting there at the edge of my bed, talking about nothing. It was the perfect setup for a makeout session. And yet…I did nothing. I did not kiss her, touch her or even hint at the depths of my passions.

Later, she joined the debate team right after I did. You could say she followed me. We had many the overnight trips that lent themselves to secreting away. Michelle and I did none of that. Perhaps frustrated by my lack of initiative, she ended up hooking up with this short, pudgy-faced douche named Kirk–a Junior who boasted that he plucked her virginity to anyone who cared to listen.

Sure, I was clueless in a way common to 14 year-olds (though this cluelessness had a long half-life). Perhaps Michelle didn’t actually like me and that’s why we never hooked up. But I believe there was another phenomenon at play; a phenomenon that thwarts plans and intentions to the present day. I was being right. In this case, I was right that she was not interested in me. Had I not been so certain about my unattractiveness, had I entertained the possibility that she liked me–a possibility affirmed by countless actions on her part–I would have made at least one move. Sure, I might have been wrong. I might have made an ass out of myself. But I wouldn’t have wondered what would have been.

I’m happy to report that I’ve come a long way in the last 21 years with my relationships to women. Though far from completely evolved in this area, I acknowledge a few possible reasons why, for instance, my wife finds me attractive.

Nonetheless, there are many areas where I cling to my righteousness. In fact, wherever I feel stuck or disempowered, wherever I fail to take action, wherever I suffer, somewhere underneath it is the determination to be right: I am being right that something is not possible; I am being right that a situation is untenable; I am being right that a person can’t change–a particularly malevolent influence when that person is me.

What if we could all be a little easier with our relation to being right? What if we could accept that all of our knowledge, the basis of righteousness, is inherently limited, and therefore an unreliable barometer for what is and is not possible? Often, this new relation doesn’t even necessitate action on our part, just a willingness to entertain possibilities outside the scope of our knowledge.

In the spirit of not being right, here are few things to think about today:

  1. Name an area where you are suffering or lack power.
  2. What do you know about this area that keeps you from taking action or finding peace?
  3. What would be possible if you were wrong about what you know?
  4. Practice being wrong. Take one action that corresponds with your newfound wrongness. Step outside the boundaries of your knowledge.

 

 

The Case of Mistaken Significance

Oh man, I’ve got problems

First off, I’m trying to realize my dream of writing for a living.  I’ve been at it for 6 months and I’m not making money.  I’m not broke as I earn money from other sources and have savings to draw off for living expenses.  I also have a supportive girlfriend, family and friends.  But I am afraid I won’t be able to realize my dream.  If I don’t, it’ll mean I’m a loser.  It’s a big, horrible problem.

Another problem is my diet.  A couple months ago I started practicing the Paleolithic diet, which suggests that humans are not genetically set up to consume domesticated foodstuffs like grains and sugar.  The diet mostly consists of eating vegetables and meat—no grains, no legumes, no processed foods.  I was doing good for a while, but my girlfriend and I started holding community brunches every Sunday.  Between 10 and 30 people show up each week, each contributing dishes.  The brunches have been great, but I’ve had trouble not consuming grain products.  It’s been tough to get back on track the next day.  My blood sugar fluctuates quite a bit and sometimes (like now) I feel a little lightheaded detoxing from the sugar.  If I don’t stick to this diet, I’ll be a flabby, energy-deprived loser, which is an awful problem.

I have communication problems.  My phone was broke last week, which was a huge clusterfuck.  I relented and got an iPhone the other day.  It works great, but I can’t seem to figure out how to sync my Google calendar with with my iCal for realtime updates.  I’m afraid I’ll put an appointment in Google and it won’t sync with iCal (or vice-versa), which might cause me to double book or something.  People will think I’m a flake.  My life will unravel around me.

I have housing problems.  My girlfriend and I are discussing moving in together.  We want a nice place in Brooklyn, preferably around Park Slope or Cobble Hill—two beautiful, tree and brownstone-lined neighborhoods.  But we also want someplace to duck out on weekends in the country—maybe something in the Catskills or in Pennsylvania.  We’re not sure where we’ll live or how we’ll make the country thing happen.  Without quiet, spacious homes, we might not achieve inner peace and enlightenment, which is a pretty significant problem.

I can’t think of any other problems at the moment, but I’ll post them in the comment section when I do.

If a problem is a flame, significance is its oxygen. No significance, no problem.

This is easy to see with problems as as shamefully bourgeois as mine—the kind of problems most of us deal with.  We have no “real” problems.  Most (if not all) of us have computers, which puts us ahead of at least 85% of the world’s population in wealth.  We are reading a blog, which suggests we’re on the younger side and are probably relatively healthy.  We probably live in America or some other first world nation and enjoy a stable, non-violent society.  The majority of problems that occupy our consciousness are probably pretty trivial, centering around ourselves and our unmet desires.

A fraction of us have problems that seem inherently significant.  Terminal illness, major health problems, death of a close friend or family member, eviction, impending or realized poverty, etc.  We believe there is no spin on them that would make them insignificant.

But what if nothing had any significance outside of the meaning we give it?  Let’s take terminal illness as an example.  It seems inherently significant, but, as Chuck Palahniuk writes in “Fight Club,” “On a long enough timeline. The survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”  We’re all going to die.  Every important figure throughout history has lost against some form of terminal illness.  Why are we or our loved ones so special?  What if death had no significance?

I’m not suggesting we deny that things have meaning to us.  For example, we might decide  ending war has meaning (surely a higher caliber issue than syncing calendars on an iPhone).  But what if we recognized that the meaning and significance we give something is ours, not the thing’s?  Believing this, we could act and whether we achieved the results we wanted or not, it would not mean anything about ourselves or the world.

The worst part of giving significance is that it often compels us to not act at all.  The results have such grave implications, so we just avoid the issue altogether.  For example, we won’t submit that manuscript or ask that girl out because if we don’t receive the result we seek, it’s significant.  It might confirm that we are the losers we think we are.  Better to do nothing instead and not receive confirmation.

What if we could just act without making the problem or the results significant?

With these these thoughts in mind, consider the following:

  1. List the big problems in your life?
  2. What meaning do you give them? For example, not getting a raise means you aren’t valued or important, or not getting a return call from a girl you like means you’re unattractive.
  3. What if these problems had no intrinsic significance? What if not getting a raise or not getting a return call meant nothing?  They lacked significance.
  4. In what ways would you act if the results of your actions lost their significance? What if getting rejected was not significant?  What if dying was not significant?  How might you act if these were the case?
  5. Choose one action you’ve been avoiding because of its significance and take it now.

Tired is a Story, Stories are Tired

From ages 8 to 23, I was an insomniac.  I would lay in bed for countless hours wishing for sleep.  My body would be exhausted, my eyes heavy and burning, but my mind would be alert and racing.  I usually passed out around daybreak, only to wake a few hours later.

I tried to treat body and mind.  I drank chamomile tea. I took melatonin. I had a white-noise generator.  I went to a therapist.  I played games like “stop thinking for a minute.”  I created elaborate fantasy worlds with serial plot-lines to pass the hours in bed and still my anxiety.  When I was 16, I started smoking weed.  Later, Jim Beam became Mr. Sandman.

When I sobered up at 23, my biggest fear was not how I was going to have fun or what people would think of me.  I feared not sleeping.

Fortunately, that fear was unfounded.  By no longer annihilating myself and addressing my underlying emotional problems, I ended up with pretty normal sleeping patterns.  I fall asleep easily and stay that way the whole night through most nights.

While my difficulties with sleeping are gone, my story about sleeping continues to be an issue.  This became apparent to me the other night.

I was helping some friends out and what we were doing was running longer than I had anticipated.  It was about 10PM and I decided I wanted to go home.  The thought “I’m so tired” entered my mind.  I started to yawn repeatedly.  My eyes started to close and burn.

I told the people around me that I was tired as well.  I wanted everyone to comprehend my situation. Continue reading “Tired is a Story, Stories are Tired”

Guido the Great

The big sexy car that almost killed me.

I was on my cell the other day, pacing down a Cobble Hill, Brooklyn side-street on a lovely Tuesday afternoon.  As I meandered from one side of the street to the other, I heard a V8 engine growl.  A brand-new, black BMW 7-series was barreling straight toward me.

While physics has other ideas, I felt like I could crush this wannabe speed-racer and teach him a lesson about safe driving.  He approached doing about 50 mph.  I stayed in the street and stuck my foot out like I was going to kick his car, asserting my pedestrian power.

Kicking cars is a recurrent act that has resulted in one outright assault and several near-misses.  In truth, I am not that tough.  However my aversion to combat is often overshadowed by my righteousness.

Anyway, seconds after my air-kick, the dude (and you know it’s a dude), screeches to halt, backs up, stops the car, and starts shouting at me out of his window.  I hope he doesn’t have a gun.

“You do not kick my fucking car, motherfucker,” followed by additional, threatening oration that more or less built on this initial thesis.

“You were doing 70 mph and could have hit me,” I replied.

He let off a few more expletives and started to drive away.  I took out a pen and paper to write down his license plate number.  He saw this and didn’t like it.  He stopped again, got out of the car, and got in my face.

“You taking down my license motherfucker?”

“Yes, I am.”

“You do not want to fuck with me.”  This comment had more than a whiff of truth.  Here was a guy, one I imagined to be of Italian-American ancestry, who had the diction of a high school dropout yet was driving an $80K car and outfitted with the accoutrement suggesting he bought the car (Persol glasses, Rolex, well-fitting jeans).  I imagined his last name to be Gotti or Gambino.

“You do not want to fuck with me,” he reiterated.  “What you jus’ move to this neighborhood, motherfucker?  I was born and raised here motherfucker.  Get the fuck outta here.”

While I hadn’t ‘just’ moved here, I was indeed relatively new to the neighborhood, and I did not think this was a very nice welcome from a local.  And while I believed he was born and raised here, I wondered why he had a Pennsylvania plate (I assumed because insurance is a lot cheaper in PA.  Smart move).  I decided to table that question.

He got right in my face.  “You do not want to fuck with me. You do not want trouble.”

The Oscar for best portrayal of a tough-guy goes to David Friedlander.  As he stood inches away, I didn’t move.  I had a relaxed stance, with my chest out.  I didn’t move my arms.  My unblinking eyes locked on his.

We were both lucky.  I was in a very clear state that day.  Though I didn’t say it, he was not going to fuck with me.  I wasn’t going to let him put me in a bad mood. Continue reading “Guido the Great”

Does A 14-Year Old Run Your Life?

Based on this photo my one and only high school dance could have been worse. Image via Metromix Chicago

When I was 14 a girl named Liz asked me to the Turnabout Dance (aka Sadie Hawkins Dances, where the girl invites the boy to be her date).  I jumped at Liz’s offer.  I was new to my high school and completely incompetent with girls.  I missed Homecoming and the Winter Ball, relegated to staying home alone, searching for nipples in the scrambled images of the Spice Network.

Fate and genetics conspired to have Liz pull me out of my dungeon of isolation.  Like me, she was a gangly 14-year old.  She was 6-foot and I was a couple inches taller.  This specious bond constituted sufficient cause for partnership.

I bought a corsage and was dumped off by my brother at Liz’s place before the dance.  Her father, a 6’7”, barrel-chested, grey-buzzed-haired monster with a voice as deep as the Marianas Trench, greeted me upon arrival.   Despite his appearance, he didn’t intimidate me.  I had no devious plans with his daughter.  I wasn’t attracted to her.  Ours was a relationship of mutual beneficence:  I would serve as a date she didn’t tower over and she would get me on the first rung of our high school’s social ladder.  Liz, being a field-hockey player, was far more popular than I was.  Though she wasn’t terribly cute, she was well-liked.  A glaze of associative affection couldn’t help but improve my nonexistent social sheen.

Her dad drove us in his Lincoln Town Car to the Tivoli restaurant in Chicago Heights, the south suburbs go-to joint for octogenarians and pre-formal dancing teenagers.  We had an innocuous dinner before being driven to the dance.  I had never danced before, so all I could muster were a few awkward turns during the slow dances.  The night went as well as could have been expected, until the end. Continue reading “Does A 14-Year Old Run Your Life?”

The 168 Hour Work Week and the Case for Irony

You too can flex in the mirror. Image via NY Times.

Here is a passage from the NY Times book review of Timothy Ferriss’s new book “The 4 Hour Body”:

He can use without irony…lines like: “I was enjoying French food and a bottle of Bordeaux with a 25-year-old female yoga instructor new to San Francisco, fresh from the Midwest.” This poor woman lets slip that she’s unable to have an orgasm. Mr. Ferriss, as any humanitarian would, makes it a point to fix this problem for her. “I was able to facilitate orgasms,” he writes, “in every woman who acted as a test subject.”

I started writing a diatribe about Ferris’s passage, but I stopped myself.  After all, I haven’t read the book.  Despite what I might think about this passage, I wish him and his readers the hardest bodies.  May his words heal the masses.

But I think the Times reviewer nails it.  It wasn’t so much what Ferriss wrote, but the way he wrote it, i.e. “without irony.”  As Oscar Wilde put it, “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”

The world is bloated with sincerity.  Look through most newspapers and all you see is sincerity and its evil cousin, seriousness.  We read headlines about Wikileaks and oil-spills and crazed gunmen and we absolutely know the world is screwed.

But what if the answer to all the world’s woes isn’t more sincerity, more seriousness, more knowledge?  Knowledge dooms.  Knowledge is a record of what has been, and what likely will be.  We know we are screwed because we have been.  Knowledge seldom permits what could be, because what could be cannot be known.  It hasn’t happened yet.

What if instead of more sincerity, seriousness and knowledge, the world needed more irony?  The Greek root of irony is “eirōneia,” meaning simulated or feigned ignorance.  What if even the small act of pretending to not know has the power to loosen our grip on the doomed nature of reality?  What if irony was the key to transformation?

Let me explain what I mean in a very sincere fashion. Continue reading “The 168 Hour Work Week and the Case for Irony”

How Meditation Messed Up My Life

Learn thyself.

“Between stimulus and response is our greatest power—the freedom to choose.”
Stephen Covey

Quotes like Covey’s are like spiritual Sweet-Tarts, sugary rushes of wisdom lacking real nourishment.  Who hasn’t gotten inspired by Goethe’s “whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”  My root chakra tingles just writing it.  I want to do all the things I’ve been too much of a puss to do.

But what happens after the axiomatic rush?  Doesn’t it always get subsumed by habit?  No matter how clever or true, few quotes can match the power of habit.  Habits are our neurological earthmovers.  We can hear and believe that love is the answer and that our bodies are temples, but if we are in the habit of being hostile to our parents and eating McDonald’s, those axioms mean nothing—they are spiritual marshmallow fluff.

I subscribe to Covey’s quote about choice in principle, but often find myself veering from it in practice.

Most of us exercise little or no choice to the various stimuli in our lives.  We are almost totally on automatic, reacting to situations without any awareness as to why. Continue reading “How Meditation Messed Up My Life”

Diary of a Mad White Man: Addendum to Yesterday's Post

Madea and David Friedlander
Don't mess with me or Madea.

Yesterday I wrote a post about Peter the bore.  It was essentially a diatribe about his inauthenticity, his desire (and resultant failure) to impress, his lack of interest in those around him, and so on.  It was a warning to all the boring people in the world to straighten out and fly right.

I was pretty proud of myself for such lucid thinking, deconstructing the aggregates of boringness.  I thought I did a real mitzvah to all the bores or potential bores of the world.  They could read my post and reflect on and alter their behavior.

Last night, I headed over to my girlfriend’s where we were to have dinner with a couple friends.  I printed out my post, eager to serenade her with my mellifluous excoriation of the intolerable.

When I got to her place, I asked if I could read it to her.  She said of course.  I read it aloud and after the first few paragraphs I noticed something that I didn’t reading it to myself:  the author sounded really pissed off. Continue reading “Diary of a Mad White Man: Addendum to Yesterday's Post”

Are You an Idea Junkie?

[Read below for my limited time offer of unaccredited idea-coaching!  Supply is limited (supply is one actually)]

Ideas I’ve bailed on:

  1. Bike racing
  2. High school debate team
  3. Biking around the world
  4. Become a chef
  5. Modeling
  6. Dramatic acting
  7. Comedic acting
  8. Stand-up comedy
  9. Personal training
  10. Starting an ecologically-minded catering company
  11. Several girlfriends
  12. Mortgage sales (this was a quick one)
  13. Blog journalism (despite the money!)

I was thinking about these ideas a few weeks ago as I watched a talk by Scott Belsky at an event I help run.  Belsky wrote a book called, “Making Ideas Happen.”  In it, he outlines the difference between ideas that come into being and those that don’t.

Belsky explained that when an idea is new, progress is swift because everything is novel, learning curves are steep and we have nothing to prove.  We are willing to work long and hard.  We are unencumbered by pride as there is no shame in screwing up.  We’re beginners and that’s what beginners do.

But then something happens?  We develop some competency and the honeymoon ends.  We are no longer just dating our ideas—we’re married to them.  That’s where the work starts and where most people bail.  Unfortunately, most of us bail before our ideas even have an opportunity to fail (or succeed of course).  Continue reading “Are You an Idea Junkie?”