Living Life Well
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Living Life Well

Concrete Life Upgrades

Brené Brown

I'm not sure what will best entice you here... That her nerdy talk on vulnerability in 2010 struck such a chord that she instantly acquired a cult following of millions (it's still the 4th most viewed TED talk of all time with 50million+ views)? That she's a Type A qualitative researcher who discovered so many things in the data that conflicted with her life plans that she had to pause and work through her stuff with a therapist before being able to continue? That she has spent the last 10 years working with special forces in the US military, Fortune 50 companies (including Pixar)? Or maybe just that she's been a guiding light for me in the darkest times?

Listen to all her stuff on hoopla if you can, starting with The Power of Vulnerability lecture series (or just go read her books, but know that she’s a talker, not a writer); if you can't absorb it all on the first pass, go through it again in 6 months.

The bonus is that she’s constantly citing the work of others, which will leave a trail of breadcrumbs for you to follow. I've linked to most of her materials on her page:

Marie Kondo

Your life is probably full of things that you don't have an intentional positive relationship with.

This is probably getting in the way of valuing the things that do bring you joy, and also weighing you down/confusing you. The

method hones an important introspective skill while simultaneously giving you more physical and mental clarity. Life-changing.

Finances

Essentially: Get to a point where you spend less than you earn (this is basically what being able to retire means, but it doesn’t have to happen in your 60s). Remember that you can get there by spending less, as well as earning more. Try to have your money work for you; understand compound interest (and the way it can apply to other investments)—10% per year doubles your money every 7.2 years (though inflation can eat into that value), and other ways of getting passive income. Pay off your high-interest debt for the same reason. Max out your ROTH each year if you can (and try to put things in it that might 100x and then do it again — in the meantime, try a low-fee target date retirement fund like one from Vanguard). Take full advantage of employer matching. If you know how much you spend a year, you can maybe get some comfort from how much time you could live on your savings + passive income if you weren’t working (6-months is a good initial target).

Don't neglect your future self, but find a way of understanding and making tradeoffs between money and things or experiences that actually reflect the things that bring you joy. E.g. “I could buy this thing, or go to the movies 5 times.” or “I could buy this thing or spend a summer living in Europe learning a new language.” or "I could buy this thing or stop being stressed about my credit card debt." Another important consideration is how much use you'll get out of a thing e.g. "These pants may seem expensive, but I'll probably wear them a few times a week for the next 3 years." — I spend a lot of money on my laptop & workstation & phone because I typically spend 10 hours a day interfacing with them. Also, if you’re going to eventually get a high-quality thing, consider whether you can just do that upfront (it’s always sad to see someone upgrade their kitchen before selling their house when they could’ve enjoyed that kitchen for years themselves).

Books

Figure out what you're trying to do

In the unpleasant way that deciding not to make a decision is actually making a decision, whether you like it or not, you have goals and you're pursing them. But if you haven't gotten in touch with them and made your own plans, you're probably running on autopilot with the instructions that society has been inundating you with since you were just a twinkle in your father's eye. Unfortunately, those pre-packaged plans are probably not serving you very well.

Bonus hint: it turns out that a lot of your plans are in stored in your body, so it probably makes sense to invest in learning to understand the way your body is a partner in your pursuits.

Learning to recognize what's going on for you

Plans and Blindspots

If you have backup plans that you think will work, you'll be less deluded about what it is that you're doing and how likely it is that there's a major flaw in it that you're blind to (because you don't have another way that things are going to work out but you sort of need to believe that your plans are going to work).

Facing the Truth

  1. It's true whether or not you're facing it. Facing it at least gives you a chance to address it.
  2. I've been really stunned by how many wise people are trying to tell individuals and society some version of "If you own your story, you can decide how it ends, but if you deny your story, your story owns you."

Finding Things & Solving Problems

You are a zillion times more likely to find something if you believe it's there. This is true in the fridge and in your basement and in video games, but also when trying to solve problems — your intent when tackling something is totally different if you don't underlyingly believe that a solution exists.

Learning

You can't learn things that aren't neighboring things you already understand.

Don't be discouraged when you don't understand something. Everyone got where they are by building out the blocks one by one and figuring out the next proximate thing.

Here's a page in-progress with some things that I've found useful in helping me to understand the basic shape of specific things that I'm not particularly close to actually grokking —>

Connecting with People

I think it might matter a lot who you can find and whether you can make a connection with them.

Consider where to look for/find people e.g.

I think people spend most of their lives on autopilot; which puts their shields up. Take advantage of the times when people are naturally disrupted (e.g. a crisis, big or small) or haven’t gotten into a groove yet (e.g. freshman orientation) or are intentionally popping out of their pattern (e.g. dance camp or a wedding) and make the most of those opportunities to connect with people.

Choose Your Peer Group with Intention (and creativity!)

The main thing here is that, consciously or subconsciously, you’re going to seek the acceptance of your tribe, and this will govern a lot of your behaviors as well as your own sense of how your life is going—but the world is big and it’s more possible than ever to be intentional about whose approval you’re seeking. It doesn’t have to just be “the people who happen to be around” whether at school or work or even at home (though these things can be deeply ingrained and hard to ever completely shake off).

Maybe this has shifted somewhat with the advent of social media, but I think people underestimate how powerful it can be to have even your own impression of certain individuals be part of the group of people whose opinions matter to you, rather than just circumstantially available warm bodies — authors and public figures (and memories of your grandmother’s disdain for dishonesty) can support you in navigating life’s many decisions.

We’re social creatures, so by default, the people/media you’re exposed to will shape your underlying ideas of what’s acceptable or cool or lame or whatever (I don’t have a better explaination for fashion trends), so I think it’s worth putting some care into cultivating your Twitter feed and your fb feed (you can “unfollow” without unfriending) as well as what books you read and what tv shows you watch as well as how much time you spend with various friends and family.

It can also be hard to remember the voices that you value when the voices that are nearby are so much louder. I suggest finding ways to anchor yourself, e.g. having a photo wall in your house of the people who understand you and believe in your potential (while loving you as you are) and maybe quotes that ground you (even if it might feel cheesy). I also find it useful to write letters to old friends I’ve collected but who aren’t really part of my day-to-day; it shores up that relationship as a line of defense against broader society and also causes me to spend time steeped in the narrative that I have with that person.

I also highly recommend adding

to your inner circle.
👩‍🏫
Masterclass
might also be worth a look.

As a strange but concrete example of how this can work: I had a friend who was able to think really clearly about esoteric topics and I’m pretty sure he had a big advantage because fairly early on, he added Descartes to his chosen peer group; my guess is that this helped him to stay the course when his real life peers would’ve encouraged him to give up and gloss over those hard-to-think-about topics.

In some ways it’s like a more subtle (and more important) version of the way that you play your best tennis when the people you’re playing with are better than you.

Language affects how you (and others) think about things

Naming something can make it easier to think about or identify in a new context. But labels can also cause you to over-generalize and get stuck. Try avoiding labels if you want to hold onto nuance and retain more flexibility of thought and action — e.g. “I try not to eat meat” vs. “I’m a vegetarian” or “I made a mistake” vs. “I’m stupid/clumsy.”

Analogies and metaphor are cool because, if you pick a good one, you're able to talk to someone who started off knowing nothing about your thing and quickly import a lot of content that they'd already built out about the thing you're comparing to. In some ways, I think this is what storytelling is about, and is one reason that

's work resonates so well with so many people.

Accept that your beliefs are not something you can change at will, and act accordingly

Given this, acting in the world as a whole unified person is actually a delicate dance and it requires compassion and accommodation for the parts of yourself and others that you can’t change.

Certain things have been woven into the fabric of your development: “proper” gender roles (sexism), what trustworthy people look and sound like (racism/classism), how much education you need in order to competently engage with intellectual issues (elitism), how old you have to be before you can make important decisions (ageism), etc.

You can also form your own independent views, but if they aren’t strong enough to combat the beliefs that were instilled in you and that you have integrated in a densely interconnected way, there will be a natural tension in the way you live your life.

My advice: make peace with the fact that you don’t underlyingly believe all the things that you intellectually endorse. Distrust of black people does not mean you’re a bad person; it probably means that you grew up in the United States. By accepting that you have these beliefs (and maybe much weirder ones that are harder to explain, like a disgust of old people or a worry that if you aren’t the best at [esoteric hobby X] no one will like you), you can make plans that accommodate them better than sweeping them under the rug, and you can take that knowledge and explain your behavior to others and apologize and/or pivot when your behavior doesn’t match up with your endorsed beliefs.

But be careful not to take those underlying beliefs and blanketly give them power in your life. Maybe you have a fear of bicycling because a friend was killed in a traffic accident—it makes sense to recognize that fear and the source of the fear and communicate that to the people in your life. But if someone invites you to bike in a park without car traffic, while you can be too afraid to accept, it can be good for you and your friends to have you recognize and acknowledge that the fear is misplaced (even if it feels very real). As someone with a lot of trauma and triggers, it has been so so helpful when I’m able to communicate in a nuanced way about what’s happening for me — not asserting that my anxieties are justified, but still accommodating them by making efforts to find a way for me to do the activities in a way that doesn’t force me to ignore my feelings and just push through.

Another problem with giving those underlying beliefs power is that when they don’t actually map onto reality, you may have painted yourself into a corner. In the biking example, if you treat your feeling of fear as justified, your friends may do things to ensure it’s safe, but that may not actually address whatever is causing those feelings, which can leave your friends feeling frustrated and you feeling defensive and maybe worried that you’ll need to do the “safe” biking to save face.

So recognizing those underlying (often unappealing) beliefs and also having an intellectual belief about what’s real/what’s true, and then communicating and making decisions based on both, puts you in a much better position than trying to treat your beliefs as a coherent whole.

Figure out what changes your quality of thinking

Pacing? Driving? Scrunching up your face? Not dividing your mental energies?

I’ve encountered a couple of really impressive thinkers who *need* to pace in order to get through really complex topics. I have another friend who goes on long drives in order to think things through/process new thoughts.

I am completely distracted by the world if I’m moving, so it’s hard for me to imagine what’s causing that, (I maybe do best when I’m lying on the floor, looking up at the ceiling, and don’t need to allocate resources to handling social considerations?) but it seems worth experimenting with.

Related to social considerations, I also know someone who does much better thinking on video calls if they turn their video off, because the pattern of tension they need to hold in their face and body for thinking is different than/incompatible with the pattern of tension that will communicate the right things to colleagues.

“Shower thoughts”

There’s a different (but perhaps related) thing that is maybe more common and is often referred to as “shower thoughts” but that I think is a pretty important and useful phenomenon.

My guess is that certain activities end up functioning similarly to meditation — essentially something where you are trapped in a single activity, with no escape, but it’s not an activity that holds/requires your attention.

I think this makes room for different content to arise in your mind (often content that was there but was being more actively ignored or pushed aside) and you can then make some progress with it.

If you want to capitalize, you can e.g. find a way of taking notes in the shower, take showers more frequently, or find another activity that gets to this state more directly (e.g. meditation — or for me, the first attempt at meditating in a session, which brings up all of that submerged content for me to then list out and work through later). Maybe this is the real reason that my friend goes for long drives.

The best times for me include: showers, baths, hot tubs, and the time right before falling asleep and the time right after waking up.

⚠️ One word of caution: if you have a lot of trauma, these are actually pretty shitty circumstances that can allow the upsetting thoughts that you are generally keeping at bay to surface. I personally endorse people engaging in avoidance behaviors as much as they need to to stay sane, even if that means finding ways of showering less frequently or more quickly or finding ways of redirecting your attention in those moments, e.g. with a podcast or audio book or a more concrete and less-triggering topic that needs thinking through.

Know How to Interact with the Police

e.g. Practice saying "I don't consent to a search" when they ask to look in your bag or your car. Know that you can always say "Am I free to leave?" or "Am I being detained?" to end the interaction. Remember anything you say can/will be used against you — you have the right to remain silent.

Resources (including some pretty entertaining videos)

Things to consider:

Human civilization is unbelievably new:

(we haven't figured everything out, your parents didn't figure everything out, the form of government in your country is just one of dozens of options, our culture is changing crazy-fast, technology is being developed crazy-fast — all of this is just an insane experiment)

Life is quite short, and you should pay attention to what you care about and make time for it.

Tim Urban's three takeaways:

1) Living in the same place as the people you love matters. I probably have 10X the time left with the people who live in my city as I do with the people who live somewhere else.
2) Priorities matter. Your remaining face time with any person depends largely on where that person falls on your list of life priorities. Make sure this list is set by you—not by unconscious inertia.
3) Quality time matters. If you’re in your last 10% of time with someone you love, keep that fact in the front of your mind when you’re with them and treat that time as what it actually is: precious.

When trying to do something that’s truly novel, be prepared for surprising challenges

This is a post that I wrote about a wildly ambitious thing I tried to do with a group of really incredible humans. I wrote it in response to a lot of confusion surrounding the project (which didn’t fail gracefully), so I didn’t really get to choose the frame, but I think I was able to convey some useful pieces.

See also: Hobbies