Thoughts on Fat Pride from a Formerly Fat Fit Guy

Fat Boy by James Marvin Phelps

Fat Squirrel cares little about your opinion of him.

I grew up as a fat kid.

Through the majority of my childhood I ranged from what might be considered chubby all the way up to full-blown obese in my teen years. At one point I was even inching up on the 300 pound mark. While the argument could be made that as a male my experience was less severe than what a female would have been subjected to I can still say I know what it’s like physically, psychologically, and socially to be a fat person.

My experiences during that time, and the time since then in which I’ve become more fit and healthy than I’ve been my entire life, are why all the attention I’ve seen lately being given to fat pride bother me. As someone who’s been in both worlds, I thought it would be helpful to express my thoughts on the subject.

Fat Shaming, Female Body Image and a Disclaimer

Rustled Jimmies Everywhere

I am fully aware that this is going to rustle some jimmies.

I want to make it very clear from the outset that I’m not advocating fat shaming here. I don’t think that the portion of the ‘fat acceptance movement’, as some people in that camp like to be called, that is against fat shaming, negative body image, or self-loathing is a bad thing. I 100% support that part of it.

I also want to recognize for a second time that, in general, this usually gets painted as a feminist or at least feminine-centric issue. Being a male, that means that my commentary is going to be coming at least a little bit as an outsider looking in. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m speaking authoritatively on the female experience because I can’t. Unfortunately, because of how generally fucked up the U.S. sociocultural environment is when it comes to female body issues I can’t get away from addressing these things in relation to this topic.

Lastly, I want to note these are just my thoughts on the subject as someone who spent most of his life in the obese category – you can think whatever you want about it. If I severely rustle your jimmies you’re welcome to leave a comment to let me know what you think.

What’s the Fat Acceptance Movement?

Before I give my understanding of all this fat acceptance stuff I want to give you a few links in the interest of fairness / just in case I’m totally misunderstanding something. I have better things to do than beat up on a straw man. So here, here, here, and here are four quick examples I found.

To my understanding the general idea is to be proud of being fat, to embrace it in order to make it a positive thing overall. It’s no secret that in the U.S. the media deifies a particular body image for both men and women that is, for the average person, at best unrealistic. This is exacerbated by the prevalence of digital editing and overall Photoshoppery that these ads are subjected to after everything else.

They rail against the psychological and physical harm this causes and argue that as a society we shouldn’t consider there to be anything wrong with being fat. To subvert the cultural standard that being fat is negative they suggest embracing it and taking it as a personal point of pride.

Hanging on to this though, as can be seen in a couple of the links above, is a related idea that trying to lose weight is either harmful, misguided, entirely impossible, or all of three combined.

The Parts of Fat Pride That I Like

The foundational message is one I can both relate to strongly and agree with – cultural ideals when it comes to body type are unnecessarily unrealistic and seriously fucked up.

If someone is overweight they should never be made to feel lesser for it. Asking people to measure up to images that have been heavily doctored and then loading them with oppressive amounts of guilt and shame when they inevitably fall well short of that is blatantly wrong.

Additionally a lot of our cultural ideas about why people become fat (they lack willpower, they’re lazy, no self-control, etc.) are flat out wrong.

Weight change and fitness are not a willpower issue. Very few people are overweight because they choose to be, or because of some fault of their own. Now, I don’t hold them entirely inculpable either, I think things like food addiction are too often blown out of proportion and used as a scapegoat. The reality falls somewhere in the middle, they’re not 100% at fault for being fat but they’re not 0% responsible for their condition either. (Sorry, if you want things with clear cut answers the fields you’re looking for are mathematics or physics, not biology.)

For all those reasons I find fat shaming reprehensible. It’s clear cut abuse and bullying. From that standpoint, I wholeheartedly support anyone who wants to stand up and say, “Haters gonna hate. Fuck you all. I like myself the way I am.”

That being said…

The Parts of Fat Pride I Despise

Tagging along with all the things I can support are some things that I’m vehemently opposed to. The primary one being an insistence that no one can lose weight or become fit long term and therefore no one should try.

Within several of the links I shared above as examples and in others I found while digging around I found it asserted repeatedly that not only is there no way for people to lose weight long term, but that it’s overall more unhealthy to try to lose weight than it is to remain overweight or obese.

As someone who has lost weight and become fit and healthy and stayed that way long term, as someone whose job it is to help other people do the same, it bothers me to hear people claim it’s not possible and work to deter people from trying.

Many of the sites making these claims cite the abstracts of flawed studies and meta-analyses to support their claims making them appear more credible to people who won’t bother to pay to read the study or who aren’t knowledgeable enough to note the flaws in the methodology. This can lead people who might have been considering making a positive change in their lives and starting the process to lose weight and get fit to instead decide not to bother.

I find this kind of active discouraging of people to improve their lives just because you don’t think it’ll work reprehensible.

My Overall Thoughts

Personally, I equate being overweight or obese with smoking cigarettes.

Culturally, as of late anyway, smoking is probably more publicly discouraged than being overweight, but I still draw a lot of parallels between the two. Most people recognize that both smoking and being overweight are generally detrimental to your health. Regardless, people are still overweight and people still smoke.

This is primarily because neither is always a ‘choice’ in the purest sense. Environmental, familial, cultural, and economic factors can predispose individuals toward smoking and/or obesity. Once you’re on the path to either, it’s extremely hard to get off of it. You can’t tell someone who is addicted to cigarettes to just ‘quit smoking’ and expect them to do it. It’s not strictly a willpower issue. In the same way you can’t just tell someone who’s overweight to ‘eat less and move more’ and expect them to get in shape.

I have family members who smoke. I care about them, so I’m always there to help and encourage them to quit. That doesn’t mean I badger them, ridicule them, or generally behave like an ass toward them if they don’t want to quit. It is, ultimately, their choice (issues of addiction and agency come into play, but we won’t go into that right now) whether they want to quit or not.

I have family who are overweight and I treat them the same way. If they want to make a change and lose weight I’m there for them. If they don’t, I’m not going to push it or shame them as a result.

I fully support any efforts to empower people to stand up to societal norms that are often at best arbitrary and at worst directly harmful. Hell, the general ethos of this site is one of embracing non-conformity. But we should also encourage people to take their health into their own hands rather than telling them that any attempts to change themselves would be futile.

Where do you stand on this? Leave a comment and let us know.

Photo Credit: James Marvin Phelps

Willpower, Discipline, and Obedience: How to Do What You Set Out to Do

Yeva and a Sausage 2 by GG Vogman

Does willpower keep the dog from eating the sausage, or obedience?

I’ve written a lot about willpower and discipline in the past because it’s a subject that fascinates me. Consider this, with the Internet it’s possible to find step-by-step instructions on how to do nearly anything. Practically anything you could ever want to do is right there, so why don’t people do it? If you’ve always wanted to speak Portuguese or play the guitar, why can’t you yet? Why aren’t you working toward that?

It’s because you don’t put in the time? And why don’t most people put in the time? Because they lack the discipline.

All the other pieces are in place for you to do whatever it is you’ve always wanted to do – the last thing is for you to have the control over yourself necessary to follow through with it.

By understanding willpower and obedience, you can do just that.

A Different Way to Look at Willpower

Willpower can be something of a tricky subject depending on how you approach it.

On one hand it’s generally accepted that it’s a finite resource, if you try to exert too much of it you eventually run out and the best way to get more is to exercise it with gradually stronger challenges like a muscle.

On another hand some research would suggest that effect is largely a result of how we perceive things. That would mean the best way to get more willpower is to firmly believe you’ve got more.

What both of these ideas have in common is that they view willpower as the ability to do something in the moment contrary to your innate desires. You want to eat that entire pint of ice cream, but you know it’ll put you over your calorie target for the day so you exert your willpower to not eat it. You want to screw around on Facebook or Reddit instead of getting to work, so you exert your willpower to force yourself to be productive, etc.

This is the common perception of what willpower means, if someone gives in to their momentary desires they’d say they lack the will to resist the temptation.

I think there’s a better way to look at it though. Rather than seeing that as a lack of will, it’s more a lack of obedience.

Willful or Obedient?

As an easy example of what I mean, I’ll use someone who smokes. Let’s call him John.

John, as noted, smokes cigarettes. John would also like to quit. He tells himself he has made the decision to quit, but then a few days later lights up a cigarette and starts smoking. If asked why he’s smoking even though he said he quit, John would attribute this akratic behavior to him not having the will to resist the urge to smoke.

Is that really the case though?

I would argue that it’s John’s will that causes him to smoke at that moment. In this sense your will is that which manifests your desires in the moment. John desired a cigarette and was willful enough to bring that desire to fruition.

So if will is the force that manifests your current desires, why does John’s will cause him to smoke? Isn’t it his desire to quit smoking?

No, actually. At least not in the moment, it’s the desire of his past self to quit smoking. Even then, technically past John didn’t even make a decision to quit smoking, but rather just had an idea that he’d like to quit. What’s the difference?

A decision is defined by action, whereas an idea doesn’t require any. Past John declared that he was going to quit smoking, but didn’t actually take any action at the time. That means he just had an idea about quitting smoking, he left the decision – the action to be taken – up to future John.

Eventually we arrive at John right now who must make a decision, does he bow to the will of past John and refuse to smoke, or does he follow his own will and have a cigarette?

Imagine for a second that rather than John deciding he shouldn’t smoke anymore someone else, his wife for instance, told him to quit. Later that day John finds that he wants to have a cigarette, clearly in this scenario if he has one he’s expressing his own will and if he doesn’t he’s being obedient to the will of his wife.

What then is the difference between that and the struggle between past John and current John?

The issue isn’t that he lacks the will to overcome his desires, it’s that he lacks the discipline to remain obedient to the will of his past self. It’s much harder to see this in decisions we make ourselves, because in general we consider our past selves and our current selves to be a single entity.

In the end, there is no appreciable difference between past John telling current John not so smoke and John’s wife telling John not to smoke. In either case John must either obey and not smoke, or exercise his own will and have a cigarette.

Becoming Disciplined

So if this is the case, shouldn’t we be able to find a model somewhere of people who are more able than most to complete a plan they made in the past irrespective of any desires they have in the present?

As it turns out, we do have an excellent model of this – the military.

People who have gone through military training are often held up as an example of people who have a great deal of self-control, discipline and, in the traditional sense, willpower. They’re considered more able than the common person to accomplish something the set out to do.

However, the military clearly doesn’t operate by encouraging its members to be willful. On the contrary it teaches you to obey the commands given to you nearly without thought. One of the apparent purposes of basic training is to crush recruits and beat them down physically and psychologically until their will is broken. Drill sergeants do not exist to encourage recruits to be willful.

Once your will has been broken down and your instinct is to obey the orders of others, it becomes easy to obey the orders of your past self.

That being the case, if we want to do what we set out to do in the past (get fit, learn a language, finish a project, etc.) than we need to develop military style discipline. The most obvious answer for how to accomplish that – aside from joining the military – is to mimic their methods for instilling discipline in recruits.

The easiest way to start is to choose one small thing to do everyday that you know, in the moment when it comes time to do it, you aren’t going to want to do.

At first this should be something small and insignificant, my personal favorite choice is the freezing cold shower.

Commit right now to taking a freezing cold shower tomorrow morning. Do you know what’s going to happen? Tomorrow you’re going to stand in front of the shower, turn it as cold as it can get, and then you’re probably going to panic.

You know it’s going to be cold. You know it’s going to be awful. You’re going to want to back out, to do it another day, you’re going to tell yourself it’s a stupid idea. At this point you’re either going to be willful and crank the heat back up, or you’re going to do what you said you would and get in that cold shower.

The key here is to obey without giving yourself the chance not to. To condition yourself to ignore that urge to disobey and just jump in the shower. The first day is going to be the worst. After that though, it’ll get easier. Before long there won’t be any struggle at all anymore.

By continually doing exercises like these, starting small and then working on to bigger things, you can eventually overcome your will and develop the discipline to obey your past decisions no matter how badly you want to violate them in the moment.

Once you can do that, you can pretty much accomplish anything you want.

What do you think? Is willpower more about having the strength to ignore your desires, or having the discipline to obey the desires of your past self? Is there a real difference between the two? Let us know in the comments.

Photo Credit: GGVogman

My Personal Philosophy Part II: Putting it Into Practice

Philosophy and Inspiration by Jasohill

In the previous post on my personal philosophy I outlined my foundational positions on some things as they relate to shaping how I view the world. Since I don’t think anything is really useful unless it can be applied in practice in some way, I’m following it up with this post on how my personal philosophy informs my actions and how I deal with certain things.

Since my personal goal in life is a hedonistic one of trying to maximize my happiness and peace of mind during my short existence the primary focus of all of these practices will be to do just that – maximize my personal peace of mind and contentment primarily through reduction of negative stimulus / emotions and a minimization of desires.

I’ve written it prescriptively, as though I’m giving advice, but you don’t have to take it that way. I’ve gotten good mileage from it, but if you don’t hold the same positions as myself from the previous post your results may vary. I don’t think this is a one size fits all philosophy, so regardless of my writing style don’t take it as being writ in stone.

I’m going to start with the internal side of things. It is much easier to change yourself than it is to change the world around you, so in my view the best way to create the largest effect with the least effort is to begin by gaining control of your internal processes.

Cultivating Emotional Control

You are largely in control of your own emotional states. There are caveats, of course, your brain chemistry is for the most part still something that most people are not directly aware of and it can easily override or undermine your conscious thought processes.

Even so with practice you can – in the same way that people learn to control, ignore and suppress feelings of hunger or discomfort – learn to control your own emotional states. Since happiness and peace of mind are emotional states, this an excellent place to start on the road to achieving them.

When there is a problem, or when you feel like you’re off track, you should always attempt to change yourself to correct the problem before trying to change the situation externally.

Recognizing Negative Emotions

The first step in cultivating control of your emotions is to learn to recognize and address the ones that are going to cause the biggest problems – the negative ones.

Developing mindfulness is key here. Whenever a negative emotion arises, be it anger, fear, sadness or whatever, you need to be able to recognize when those emotions arise then take a step back and examine as objectively as possible why you’re feeling them and what’s causing them.

Once you do that you can come to understand why you no longer need to feel that emotion and let it drift away. The easiest way to allow yourself to let go of an emotion you don’t want is by examining it through the dichotomy of control.

The Dichotomy of Control

The dichotomy of control is the fact that there are two possible states to everything, either it is under your control or it is not under it. This doesn’t have to be an absolute, there are grades of how much control you may have over something, but everything in existence must fall into either the category of at least partially under your control or not under your control at all. No exceptions.

When you recognize this you can view each situation to determine which category it falls into. If it falls into the first category and is something you can control, determine if you did or can do everything under your power to make the situation better. If it falls into the second category don’t even think about it – things that are 100% outside of your control needn’t be bothered with since there is absolutely nothing you can do about them.

For example, say you’re worried that one day the Sun will explode and wipe out all life on Earth in a supernova. There’s nothing you can do about that, at least not practically, so you might as well let that worry go. It’s not helping you and its just wasting your time and energy.

On the other side let’s say you’re angry you didn’t get a promotion you wanted. Assuming it’s based on your performance this is presumably something under your control. Look back at your performance and determine if there were areas you could have performed better. If there were, let go of the anger and resolve to do those things next time. If you determine you did everything you possibly could, then it turns out it wasn’t under your control after all and there’s nothing else you could’ve done. No sense being angry over something you can’t control so let it go and try again next time.

Embrace the Ephemeral

If you recall from my previous post I don’t accept the existence of any deities, afterlife or the idea that life has any inherent meaning. In the grand scheme of the universe I am an insignificant blip of carbon that got disassembled almost immediately after coming into existence. Through the lens of deep time my life is more infinitesimally small than a single hydrogen atom in the entire Pacific ocean.

Nothing is permanent and everything I know and care about will eventually be gone. So why worry?

Existence is transient and largely trivial. Does it really matter that I spilled coffee on myself this morning? Is it such a big deal that the car in front of me cut me off? Am I going to die because I got rejected for something I wanted? Most of the things that we get upset about are laughably insignificant when you look at them in terms of the big picture, so don’t let them make you miserable now.

Even if that weren’t the case nothing lasts. As miserable as you can possibly get it can never be eternal, so remind yourself that this too shall pass and move on. Dwelling on negatives will never lead to increased happiness or peace of mind.

Eliminate your Expectations

Disappointment is the sum deficit between your expectations and reality. By eliminating your expectations entirely or by always assuming that the worst possible outcome is inevitable you keep yourself from dealing with the pain of something falling short of your expectations.

Now when I say to expect the most negative outcome I don’t mean to dwell on it. Instead use your examination of the worst possible outcome as a way to eliminate your fear of failure. When you ask yourself what the worst thing that could happen is, it’s almost always not that bad. Especially when you remember the ephemerality of things as noted above.

When you understand that the worst case scenario is never that bad, there’s no reason to worry about it. Then you can expect it knowing you’re totally ready for it and, in the cases when the outcome is much better, be pleasantly surprised. Besides, most things are outside of your control, so having high expectations on the outcome of situations beyond your control is like gambling with your piece of mind. Don’t surrender control of your happiness to chance.

Live Now and Be Mindful

You only have this moment right now. The past falls into the category of things you can’t control or change under any circumstances (until someone invents a time machine, though that might not even be logically possible from a space-time standpoint) so let go of it. Worrying about or being hung up on the past is one of the stupidest things you can do – you’re poisoning your present over something you can never change.

Similarly, don’t worry about the future. You should certainly plan for it to the best of your ability, but accept that what will come will come and the most you can do is accept it and deal with it when it’s here. You’ll control what you can and the rest there’s no sense in worrying about. Don’t worry so much about what the future holds that you miss out on the present.

Practice being as mindful and present in the current moment as possible as often as you can.

Neutralizing Negative Input

There are at least two types of negative input, physical discomfort and psychological discomfort. Physical discomfort would be things like pain, hunger, stress etc. while psychological discomfort would be things like insults, derision or humiliation by others.

Physical discomfort can be acclimated to, processed and internalized through practice. For example, an easy way to practice becoming one with the feeling of hunger and getting over the discomfort it causes is to occasionally engage in controlled fasting. Through regulated exposure you can become familiar with it and eventually it no longer causes discomfort.

The reason this can be important on the physical side of things is that our thoughts, actions and emotions are often strongly affected by our physical state and any discomfort we may be experiencing. People who are under a lot of stress, are extremely hungry or are in some similar state of physical discomfort are going to have a much more negative state of mind and negative behavior than someone who isn’t being affected by those things.

When it comes to psychological discomfort caused by others the best thing to do is understand that no one can cause you psychological discomfort without your permission. No one can directly make you angry, sad or anything else they can only take actions to create circumstances that would normally cause you to assume that state. In the end the control still lies with you.

Now again your brain chemistry can be a powerful thing, so this will take some practice as well. Most people can’t just flip a mental switch and no longer be angry or upset about things. Using some of the frameworks and realizations above helps, as does understanding that someone can only successfully insult you if you have a related insecurity. You effectively can’t insult a person by calling them a tree or something equally absurd, and if you’ve let go of your insecurities any insults or humiliation people attempt to bring to bear on you will seem just as ridiculous because you’ve stripped them of any ammunition.

Interacting with the Physical World

This second section deals primarily with your interactions with the physical world and things outside of yourself. This may at times still entail making changes to yourself rather than attempting to control your environment, but it’s more about what you do externally rather than how you process things mentally.

Pursue Physical Fitness and Health

Unhealthiness is an inherently discordant and negative state and is substantially less conducive to achieving happiness and peace of mind than is healthiness.

As a result, you should always be striving toward a state of health and physical fitness. Like anything this pursuit should not become so obsessive that it goes too far and begins to damage your happiness and peace of mind in other areas. Be reasonable, but always strive to be as fit and healthy as possible and avoid things that would reduce your healthiness whenever you can.

Neither Judge nor Begrudge

Remembering that in general people are not directly responsible for their actions as a result of holding a position of soft determinism it isn’t appropriate to judge people for their actions and isn’t appropriate to hold a grudge or seek revenge.

When harmed it is appropriate only to take sufficient action to ensure that no more harm will be done in the future. For example, if someone is convicted of murder they should be imprisoned not as retribution but as a means to ensure that they don’t cause harm to anyone else.

If someone causes you direct harm remember that they’re not entirely in control of their actions and don’t hold that harm against them. If there’s an obvious threat of further harm being caused take the absolute minimum effective action required to remove that threat of harm and move on.

I should note this doesn’t mean to necessarily forget that harm was caused, it may be important to remember as a means to avoid future harm, however you should forgive the transgressor.

Minimize Physical Desires

Embracing a general practice of minimalism and gratitude and being content with what you currently have will make it substantially easier to achieve a general state of happiness and piece of mind.

People have a general psychological set point of happiness to which we naturally return over time. In other words, even if you win the lottery tomorrow and are awarded 10 million dollars over time your happiness will equalize and you’ll find you need something even bigger to raise your happiness again.

This inevitably leads to disappointment when your desires can’t be met.

By eliminating extraneous physical desires and learning to be happy with what you have you create a space where your peace of mind is not dependent on constantly gaining more things but remains at a stable point. When your desires are easy to fulfill and keep fulfilled you never feel the pain of being unable to fulfill them or the loss of a desire that was previously fulfilled.

Much like lowering general expectations the less you want the happier you will be overall.

Always Seek to Minimize Harm to Others and Increase Happiness

In general causing harm to others will always result in a net reduction of peace of mind and happiness for yourself. Even if, temporarily, harming others increases your happiness (for example by theft of an item you desire) in the end it will bring more negative outcomes than positive.

There’s the obvious negative of potential legal consequences, including the reduction in peace of mind caused by fear of being caught. There’s also the fear of retribution directly from the harmed party. Additionally there’s the negative feelings of regret and guilt most people experience from knowingly harming others.

Outside of all of those your peace of mind and happiness is best served by existing in a society where everyone tries to maximize everyone else’s happiness and cause as little harm as possible. If you cause harm to others you are contributing to creating an environment where everyone harms others which is a less than ideal environment to exist in if your goal is to maximize your own happiness.

When you help others they are encouraged to help you increase your own happiness and peace of mind. By contributing to the creation of an environment where everyone is inclined to assist everyone else achieve happiness you maximize your own chances to do so as well.

To this end beneficence, honesty, respect and charity are all virtues one should attempt to embrace and cultivate.

While I’ve tried my best to distill the practices I follow in order to maximize my own happiness I’m certain there are things I’ve overlooked or not considered. Regardless this is a relatively complete list and hopefully can serve as a starting point for determining your own practices for maximizing happiness and peace of mind.

Do you have any similar practices? Anything you do differently that you’d like to discuss or concerns with my reasoning? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Jasohill

My Personal Philosophy Part I: The Foundations

My Philosophy Bookshelf by Jared Dunn

A lot of people have expressed an interest in my personal philosophy, what positions I hold on various things and so on, so I decided to write up a pair of posts to go over the topic. This first post will go over my basic philosophy on life and brief explanations of why I hold those positions. I don’t think philosophy is worth anything until you put it into practice though, so the second post will detail how my personal philosophy dictates my actions in trying to lead as good a life as possible. If you don’t care about my rationalizations and just want to get right to the practical stuff, feel free to skip right to that post.

This is in no way an extensive outline on my philosophy, that would take more time and space than I want to give to the topic and is fluid enough that I’d have to revise it too often. Instead, these are just the foundational principles of my personal philosophy – or at least the ones that I can pin down concretely.

Agnostic Atheism

I’m beginning with this not because it’s a particularly divisive and contentious issue (though it is) but rather because for most people including myself one’s position on this particular point directly influences and informs their opinion on nearly every other point. As such it’s best to deal with it first.

I am an agnostic atheist. What that means is that while I don’t claim no gods exist no claims for the existence of deities has met a sufficient burden of truth for me to accept them as true. In other words, I’m technically open to the possibility that gods may exist due to the impossibility of proving a negative. However, because there are none with enough evidence to show their existence my default position is that none exist and will remain so until I’m proven wrong.

There are certainly some gods which I would argue can be essentially disproven, for example we can fly to the top of Mount Olympus and check for Zeus and family. Most however fall into a non-disprovable area, much in the same way you can’t prove I don’t have an invisible, non-corporeal, multi-dimensional unicorn in my office.

Thankfully the burden of proof is on those making the positive claim – since the ones positing the existence of one or many deities has yet to meet that burden I have no impetus to accept those claims as true.

Methodological Naturalism

This position ties in closely with my position on the question of theism above because the same basic principles lead to the conclusion of both.

I am a methodological naturalist, although technically you could probably call me a weak or agnostic philosophical/metaphysical naturalist as well. So what does that mean?

A philosophical or metaphysical naturalist holds the position that nothing exists outside of the nature. In other words, there are no supernatural things in existence. Now while I agree with that position in general, it falls into the same issue of being unable to prove a negative. I can’t prove without a shadow of a doubt that nothing supernatural exists, which is why I could consider myself an agnostic metaphysical naturalist – I can’t claim I know for sure supernatural things don’t exist, but currently there’s no good reason to accept that they do so I stick to the null hypothesis.

Methodological naturalism means that, regardless of your position on whether supernatural things can or cannot exist at all, you interact with the world as though they do not. For example, a methodological naturalist might not claim absolutely that a magic spell doesn’t exist somewhere that will cure their infection – but they’re going to take the penicillin anyway.

This has some influence on other positions I hold that don’t necessarily merit their own section. Since I don’t currently accept the existence of anything supernatural it means I don’t accept the existence of a soul or spirits, nor do I accept the existence of any kind of afterlife. To a point it also influences my next position, a lack of the acceptance of the claim that we possess free will.

Compatibilism / Soft Determinism

My absolute position on free will is a bit hard to pin down since it can be kind of an amorphous topic. To start I obviously reject the notion of absolute free will. I don’t have the ‘free will’ to travel back in time, to make a square circle exist or to zap gold into being out of nowhere with my mind. This should be the position most people hold already I would hope but it’s good to clarify.

My position of compatibilism, or maybe weak determinism if you prefer that term, means that I hold that while we have some semblance of ‘choice’ that most lay people would consider a form of free will our general actions are overall determined entirely or almost entirely by previous events.

When you ‘decide’ to do something consciously neurons began firing before you made that conscious decision. In other words the parts of your brain that you don’t control had already directed you to do something before you knew you were going to do it.

I’m not going to go into much detail on why I hold this position since it really deserves more something book length than a couple paragraphs to do it justice. Regardless it entails that I hold people to be generally irrational beings who are not in full agency of the decisions they make.

Weak Moral Subjectivism

My position of weak moral subjectivism means that I hold that morality is a purely human construct and we don’t receive our morality from any ‘higher’ place or being. Obviously if I did it would conflict with my position as a naturalist.

That being said, the reason I consider myself a weak moral subjectivist instead of a strong one is that I do feel that as an intelligent species we can come to agreements on moral precepts that should be at least in a de facto manner objective. A strong moral subjectivist may hold the position that all opinions on morality are equal and all bets are off as to what anyone should do, whereas I think we can (and must to thrive) all agree on some standards that are essentially objective if not truly so.

As an example, we can all hopefully agree that shooting a nail gun in your own eye causes harm and is a bad idea. There may be some extremely rare individual where doing so causes them a ton of pleasure, but as a general rule most of the population is better off not doing it. In a similar vein we can hopefully all agree that causing harm to others is bad and should be avoided.

Not causing harm to others then is an example of a moral precept which, while not technically objective because it is constructed via societal agreement and may hold extremely rare exceptions (harming one person to save 10,000 for example), it works as if it were objective.

Sartrean Existentialism

Sartre-ish existentialism may be a better term for my views as there are some points I disagree with Sartre on but it’s close enough.

This position – standing firmly on that foundation of naturalism and atheism – holds that existence, life and everything else hold no innate or inherent meaning or purpose. In other words your meaning in life is determined after you exist, not before, and hopefully by you. There is no plan to the universe, no reason behind everything except the cold fact that the laws of physics are such that things are as they are. Any concept of meaning in life is entirely the invention of sentient beings.

Now if you’re coming from a theist position originally this may seem bleak. After all, most theists are brought up consistently told their deity of choice has a plan and purpose for them. Losing that can feel a bit disorienting.

Personally though I much prefer knowing that my purpose in life is mine to determine. After all, there’s no guarantee you’d actually like the plan your deity had for you. I find it substantially more comforting knowing I’m the architect of my own destiny – within the bounds of determinism of course.

Epicurean Hedonism / Buddho-Daoist Hedonism

This last one can get a bit complicated, but I’m going to try to boil it down to its essence as best as possible.

I am technically a hedonist in that I consider the pursuit of pleasure the primary goal in life. Given my prior positions I have no expectation of an afterlife or anything beyond my relatively short existence. As such, I feel it reasonable to make the most of it.

However, I am an Epicurean hedonist, or maybe a Buddho-Daoist hedonist in that I think the pursuit of pleasure via excess actually causes more harm than direct pleasure.

In other words, endless pursuit of your desires and physical pleasures causes a diminishing returns problem. You always need more and more and more to reach the same baseline of happiness and, inevitably, you’re either going to cause harm to yourself as a result of your pursuit of those desires or reach a point where attaining them is essentially an impossibility and you cause yourself excess suffering through unfulfillable desires.

A much better way to pursue lasting, maximized happiness then is to eliminate as much of your desire for things as you possibly can in order to be happy with what you have. You can achieve much more happiness if the simple things, the easy things to get and achieve, are what make you most happy.

To that end, this flavor of hedonism entails a strong focus on minimalism and self-improvement over materialism and immediate physical pleasures. In the way a heroin addict may reach excessively high volumes of happiness but overall ends up miserable, Epicurean hedonism also tries to avoid a self-destructive false happiness for one that’s more sustainable.

So in an easy, bullet point summarized format for the tl;dr crowd:

  • I don’t currently accept the existence of any gods.

  • I don’t currently accept the existence of the supernatural.

  • I hold that while we have some agency over our actions that the average person would call ‘free will’ or ‘choice’ the majority of our actions are determined previously by events and circumstances beyond our control.

  • I hold that moral systems are a construct of sentient minds and have no inherent meaning beyond that, however there are standards we as a species can agree upon as de facto ‘objective’ moral standards.

  • I don’t currently accept the concept that life, the universe or anything has any kind of inherent meaning or purpose. I hold that meaning and purpose are the creation of sentient minds.

  • I hold that pursuit of happiness and pleasure are an ideal goal, however the best way to achieve it is by minimizing desires and needs until a lasting state of happiness is easy to achieve.

If you’re curious how these positions actually inform my actions and decisions on a day to day basis in a practical way you can read my follow up article that I will be posting tomorrow.

I’d like to hear what you think too! Do yo hold any of the same positions? Do you completely disagree with any of them? Have you thought at all about your own personal philosophies? Share in the comments!

Photo Credit: Jared Dunn

You’re Not Bored – You’re Boring

Yawn by Bark

You’re even boring this poor dog.

There are few things you can say that make me quite as angry as “I’m bored”.

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you’re in a relatively modernized country and have access to reliable Internet. That single resource means that you have absolutely no excuse to ever consider yourself bored.

Boredom is a unique affliction in that, by definition, you could potentially do anything to fix it.

It’s that reason that I think the real problem when people always find themselves feeling bored is that in reality they’re just boring people.

I’m Bored = I’m Boring

There are a lot of ways to be boring, so I’m not going to outline all of the things that can lead to being a severely boring person. It might be that you’re stuck in a rut, that you’re scared of trying new things, or maybe you’ve just been raised in a way that discouraged expanding your horizons.

There can be lots of causes, but the single common symptom to being a boring person is frequently feeling bored.

If you’re frequently finding yourself saying, “I’m bored,” then you’re probably a pretty boring person. That’s a bad thing. You probably don’t want to be boring. Sure, you can argue that point – but being a boring person means a lot of time spent on mundane, uninteresting things. You’ve only got so much time to spend here in existence (until they finally invent replacement robot parts or something) so in my view you should get the most out of it.

Fighting Boredom

As I mentioned, there are way too many potential causes of being a boring person to recommend courses of action for each. You might need to overcome your fear of new things or figure out how to haul yourself out of your rut or whatever.

There are some easy things you can do right now though to start dealing with the symptoms of being a boring person, namely the boredom itself.

  • Learn Something New – Since we’ve established you’ve got an Internet connection by virtue of you currently being reading this you’ve also got access to hundreds of thousands of free educational materials that are seconds away at every single moment.

    There’s YouTube University, Coursera, edX, and Open Culture to name a few.

    If it comes down to it, you can even resort to the ‘Random Article’ button on Wikipedia.

    If you can genuinely say there’s not a single thing there that interests you in the least then I can’t help you.

  • Make Something – People who make things are interesting too. If you’ve already got a hobby that you’re ‘bored’ with then pick a new one and get to it. It can be something physical like a woodworking project, crocheted amigurumi or counter-culture needlework piece, or something like writing prose, poetry, or a blog post, or drawing or painting something.

    Doing creative things both helps you fight off a boredom and it helps fuel further creative efforts. The more creative things you do, the more creative you wind up being and the less bored and more interesting you wind up being.

  • Limit Exposure to Mindless Things – While having access to something like the Internet is definitely a huge aid in eliminating boredom, it can be a bit of a double edged sword.

    Things like Internet and TV can act kind of like a boredom suppressing drug. It’s easy to fall into mindless TV watching for a few hours and feel like you aren’t bored anymore, but it’s just glossing over the symptoms in the most superficial way. It’s a bandage. Really not even that, because a bandage is actually a little useful.

    You know when you decide to vegetate in front of a TV that you’re still bored, you’re just bored in a distracted way. That’s not the point.

    If you find yourself falling into this kind of trap go in the opposite direction. Go out and do something. Get outside and away from TV and Internet and phones and everything else. Whether that means going somewhere in a city or off into the woods the point is to disconnect a bit and find something to be present in.

These are just a few examples, with things like Project Gutenberg or the expansive Kindle library available to you and all the other resources out there you have no excuse.

Boredom is a choice.

Next time you’re bored get up and do something about it rather than sitting around and moping.

Have any other suggestions for not being so bored or boring anymore? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Bark

7 Life Lessons from Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee by Chris Zielecki

Bruce Lee had a lot of good advice – and not just about martial arts.

It’s no secret – after over a decade of practicing and eventually teaching Jeet Kune Do, and being involved in parkour for nearly as long, Bruce Lee is a huge role model for me.

It’s not just his discipline, martial arts skill and fitness that inspire me though. Bruce Lee was fascinated by philosophy (it’s even an enduring legend he was a philosophy major, although technically he majored in drama) and it shows in his interviews and writing – he had a lot to say on how he best thought to live a good life.

In that spirit I’ve collected seven of his lessons here for you to make your life better.

1. Simplify Everything

“It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

One of, or arguably the only, foundational tenet of Jeet Kune Do is to keep what’s useful and discard what’s useless.

In Jeet Kune Do it doesn’t matter how much you personally like a certain strike, lock or other technique – if there’s an objectively better, simpler, more efficient way of doing the same thing you ditch the old one and embrace the new. Tradition is subservient to utility.

This is a lot like how the scientific method works. If someone is wrong about something they’re overjoyed to be proven wrong, because it means progress.

You can embrace the same values throughout your life, both in terms of the physical and mental. For starters, an easy way to simplify the physical side of things is to look around at all the stuff you have and ask yourself if trying to go a little more minimalist wouldn’t be a good idea.

When it comes to the mental side of things, embrace the idea that being proven wrong is a good thing.

Stop clinging to old ideas, habits and ways of thinking just because they’re what you’ve always been used to. Stop feeling like you have to save face or get defensive. Hold on to concepts and positions you can legitimately defend but as soon as they’ve been shown to be illogical or that there’s a better way, abandon them without remorse.

Don’t think of your life as a building being built, think of it as a statue being chiseled out of marble – you need to keep chiseling away until you have something beautiful or you’re just going to be left with a chunk of rock.

2. Live for Yourself

“I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

The more you try to build your life around the expectations of others, the more you set yourself up for unhappiness and disappointment.

Whether it’s feeling like you always have to buy the next best thing or get the latest piece of technology or feeling like you have to follow the standard track of college and a steady job and a house in the suburbs – if it’s not what you really want don’t do it!

I don’t want to go off on a non-conformist rant here, because non-conformity in and of itself is not purely a good thing. I can’t tell you how many people I see on a day to day basis though who seem to be going through the motions because it’s what society, family or whoever expects of them. Figure out what makes you happy and pursue it however you best can.

On a side note, this goes both ways. Don’t try to pressure people into a path they don’t want to follow just because you don’t like it or it’s not what you expected of them.

3. Don’t Wait, Act

“To hell with circumstances, I create opportunities.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

If you’re always waiting around for the right opportunity it will never come.

To paraphrase W.B. Yeats, don’t wait to strike while the iron’s hot – make it hot by striking. If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do figure out how to accomplish it and get started. Sure patience is a virtue, and good things do come to those who wait, but better things come to those who get off their asses and get them on their own.

It’s easy to delay things by saying it’s not the right time, or the circumstances just aren’t good right now. Nine times out of ten this is just fear talking. People use this as a way to avoid failure by never trying.

Stop that.

You need to take control of your own life and work toward whatever it is you want. You can’t get where you’re going by standing still, so quit wasting time – shut up and do something

4. Be Mindful and Positive

“As you think, so shall you become.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

Now to clarify here, I’m not talking about any of that ridiculous “law of attraction” stuff. I give everything in The Secret as much credit as I do the Tooth Fairy. If you’d like to make a positive claim about it feel free but I’m going to need some evidence.

That being said, while it isn’t going to magically bring you good fortune (“Accio winning lottery ticket!”), your state of mind will strongly influence your own actions and influence your mood and attitudes.

If you’re always dwelling on how terrible things are, how you’re a failure or not good enough, how you’d love to accomplish some goal but you know it’ll never happen – then you’re going to sabotage your own efforts.

One of the biggest determining factors in whether someone succeeds or fails at a goal is whether or not they give up. When you focus on the positives and keep a good outlook you’re that much more likely to be able to persevere. As long as you don’t quit you’re guaranteed to accomplish your goal eventually.

Well, or die trying, but in that case it won’t really be important to you anymore.

The key is to be mindful of your internal monologue and aim to be positive, supportive and confident.

5. Always Fight Bias

“Take no thought of who is right or wrong or who is better than. Be not for or against.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

I don’t take this to mean that you should be indecisive about everything, that would be a bad idea. What I take from this is that you should not let flawed reasoning, bias and personal opinion color your decision making – if someone or something is objectively right then they’re right, whether you like it or not.

I see this as largely complimentary to point number one. If we allow ourselves to fall into all the common mental traps that lead us to make flawed, biased conclusions then it’s impossible to properly determine and excise the things that are holding us back.

Do your best to approach every conflict objectively and dispassionately. Make a habit of stepping outside of your preconceived notions and looking at issue from the opposite viewpoint of what you instinctively gravitate toward.

A good exercise that I employ is to regularly seek out authorities on a subject who hold a position contrary to my own and read as much of their arguments as I can with an attempt to be as objective as possible.

This encourages you to question your reasons for coming to your own decisions and correct them if they’re faulty.

6. Learn About Yourself Externally

“To know oneself is to study oneself in action with another person.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

We are terrible at coming up with accurate models of ourselves in our own heads.

It’s not necessarily for conscious reasons – people just have a subconscious tendency to picture themselves a certain way and then delude themselves into thinking that’s accurate. It’s very easy to overestimate your good qualities and underestimate the negative things about you because, when it comes to evaluating yourself, you’re by definition the single most biased person in existence.

Instead aim to learn about yourself through observation of your actions and interactions with other people.

You may think you’re a super kind or thoughtful person, but don’t just take your own word for it – critically examine how you treat other people. Are you really as thoughtful as you thought you were?

One of the best judges of a person’s character is to observe how they treat someone or something from whom they have nothing to gain and nothing to fear. You should hold yourself to the same standard in order to determine if you actually exemplify all the traits you desire.

7. Be Yourself

“Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

I know. Everyone tells you to be yourself.

It bears repeating though, because it’s easy to lose yourself and start acting like someone else. Check every now and again by asking yourself if what you’re doing is what you really want to do or if you’re doing it for the sake of others.

I don’t need to tell you how or why to be yourself, but it’s on you to keep yourself on the right track.

There are way, way more quotes and more lessons from Bruce Lee on how to lead a better life.

Do you agree or disagree with the ones here? Have one you’d really like to add? Share it in the comments!

Photo Credit: Chris Zielecki

How Pain Warps Your Decision Making

Wretched by Piers Nye

An instinct to avoid immediate pain is something we never grow out of.

I do my very best to be in the presence of people who are much smarter than myself as often as possible. One such person, Jonathan Fass, recently posted an interesting thought on Facebook.

Paraphrasing a bit, he asks whether you’d rather have a fingernail torn off or get an unexpected punch in the stomach. He surmises most people would choose the punch – something I agree with. The pain of a blow to the stomach seems mild and temporary compared to the shudder inducing thought of having a nail torn off.

This is extremely irrational though. Tearing a fingernail off, while painful, is not extremely threatening outside of the ever present risk of infection to exposed tissue. A strike to the stomach on the other hand can be deadly. Outside of Jonathan’s example of Harry Houdini there are plenty of other examples of punches to the stomach causing internal bleeding and ruptured organs which are easily fatal.

Even with that information, I think a lot of people would still chance death to avoid the pain of having a fingernail removed. Ask your followers and see. This kind of behavior isn’t just limited to physical pain though, and that’s where it starts to ruin your decision making.

The Power of Pain Avoidance

I’ve written before about some of the mental traps we fall into that stop us from making better decisions. One of the bigger ones is this instinctual inclination to avoid pain and discomfort at all costs.

In studies people have been found to be more motivated by the avoidance of pain than the gain of pleasure. We see this at play in the way a lot of companies structure advertisements and promotions – people are more likely to act in order to avoid losing $5 than they are in order to gain $5.

This is essentially the same type of thinking that leads us to instinctively make the choice above of taking less painful but potentially lethal damage than an extremely painful wound with little chance of permanent damage.

It may seem abstract when talking about it in terms of choosing between a punch and losing a fingernail, but we apply it to every kind of pain and that’s where we get in trouble.

Non-Physical Pain

Imagine these things: quitting a stable but unfulfilling job to pursue a dream, asking out a guy/girl you’ve had a crush on for a long time, talking to strangers in a foreign language in order to learn, and sticking to a strict weightlifting program.

What do all of them have in common?

They all take resolve and willpower to do, because they all have the potential to cause discomfort and they all have an easy out.

It’s scary to quit your job to chase your dream because of the potential for failure and all the perceived pain and discomfort that will come with it. It’s easy to never go talk to that guy or girl to avoid the emotional pain of being rejected. You might decide not to practice a foreign language with someone because of the potential for making painfully embarrassing mistakes. Plenty of people put off working out because of the amount of discomfort they expect it to cause.

This makes no sense.

Like the fingernail and the punch, choosing the option that avoids the potential for immediate discomfort leads to situations with the potential for more severe or long lasting damage.

Sure, it would be uncomfortable right now to drag yourself out of a warm bed extra early and go strain and struggle to get a lifting session in before work. The less painful option right now would be to say ‘screw it’, stay in bed and get some extra sleep.

In ten years though when you’ve got 30 extra pounds hanging of of you, when you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, further down the road when you have a massive heart attack, was that worth another 30 minutes in bed?

This follows for the other examples too. Is living the rest of your life stuck in a miserable job worth avoiding the potential pain of failing on your first attempt to pursue your dreams?

Is never learning that language you’ve been wanting to learn for however long and missing out on all the experiences and benefits that come along with it worth not facing the immediate pain of an embarrassing mistake or two?

In all of these cases choosing to ignore your instinctual drive to avoid the immediate pain leads to a worse outcome than accepting the immediate discomfort for longer term benefits.

So how do you avoid falling into this way of thinking?

Taking a Step Back

Some people may be tempted to conclude that the best thing then is to go in the opposite direction and always choose the course of action that leads to the most immediate discomfort. Beyond leading to rhabdo stricken Crossfitters this kind of thinking is likely to lead you into as many bad decisions as the opposite way of thinking. The trick is learning not to think in absolutes, but to take a step back and rationally evaluate the potential outcomes on a case by case basis.

Here are a few tips on how you can do that.

  • List Worst Case Scenarios – I recommend a similar tactic when addressing the fear of failure. Sit and write down the absolute worst case scenarios you could foresee coming from each choice. Chances are you’ll find that one of them is not nearly as bad as the other – that’s the choice you should probably make.

  • Get a Second Opinion – If you know your decision making is likely to be biased or compromised, take yourself out of it as much as possible.

    While your bias toward avoiding immediate discomfort will skew your decisions other people are not affected by this bias in regards to making decisions for you. If I’m in a position where I know I’m likely to make bad decisions out of my inclination to avoid something I find uncomfortable I’ll have Caroline consider it and see if her decision differs from mine and why. That way I have an objective viewpoint to help me pick what would be best for me in the long run, not just right this minute.

    Have someone you trust critique your decision whenever you find yourself making it on instinct or feel like your rational thinking might be compromised.

The important thread through both of these is doing what you can to take a step back and be as objective as possible in your decision making. When you understand that you’re likely to make bad decisions based on pain avoidance it’s easier to take deliberate steps to correct it.

Do you have any other tips for correcting or mitigating the effects of this particular bias? Help everyone out and share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Piers Nye

Stop Thinking Every Little Bit Counts

African Pygmy Hedgehog by Adam Foster

Little things may be cute, but they’re not always helpful.

Not only is thinking it probably false in relation to whatever it is you’re working toward, it’s probably directly sabotaging your progress.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking this way – stories of how every little bit helped someone in their endeavor are popular. You hear about candidates winning by a single vote, or people taking small, seemingly insignificant steps toward their goals which add up over time into something huge. People like to hear about these types of things.

The problem is it puts the focus on the wrong areas and leads people to make bad prioritization. Bad prioritization leads to failed goals.

The Forest for the Trees

The realms of fitness, time management and language learning are rife with tips, tricks and advice – I directly contribute to all of it.

If you approach this huge volume of information with the mindset that ‘every little bit helps’ then you’re going to get into some trouble because there’s going to be a lot of little bits to follow.

This may not seem like a bad thing. You might figure if you can cram together enough easy tricks you can lose those ten pounds or learn a new language without much extra effort, but you have to remember that you have a finite amount of resources. You don’t have unlimited time, energy or willpower. You can’t do it all.

You have to prioritize.

Imagine you have someone trying to lose weight. She has a terrible diet, eats lots of junk food and drinks nothing but soft drinks. She’s also completely sedentary and sits at a desk all day.

She reads a bunch of tips online and decides to walk an extra five minutes everyday, switches to sitting on a stability ball instead of a chair, adds cinnamon to her cereal every morning because she heard it helps blunt insulin, takes green tea capsules and cranks her showers extra cold to take care of that brown fat.

Honestly, you could pick ten or fifteen more things she could do that I hear recommended under the ‘Every Little Bit Helps’ standard, but I’ll keep it there for brevity’s sake.

After six months, all things being equal, she’ll likely be heavier than when she started.

The reason for this is simple, she ignored the big important stuff in favor of a bunch of small changes that didn’t add up to much but took all her resources.

Remember the 80/20 rule – roughly 80% of your results are going to come from 20% of your efforts, so if you want to make the most progress in the shortest amount of time you should focus on the high return variables in the 20% rather than the low return variables that fall in the 80% of things that will only get you 20% of your results.

Back to our weight loss example, imagine our subject combines those extra five minutes per day and maybe skips a TV show or two to make time for three 30 minute lifting sessions per week. She focuses on heavy, compound lifts to make sure she gets the most out of her time spent. Rather than make a hundred little changes to her diet like adding cinnamon to things and popping a million supplements she ditches soft drinks and tracks her calories or macros.

Those two large changes, adding in three lifting sessions per week and controlling her macros, will net her orders of magnitude more progress than all the little changes combined.

Language learning is no different. If you’re spending all your time on little tips or focusing too hard on passive learning like listening to target language music all the time but neglecting the important things like actually using the target language to talk to people – you won’t get very far.

Every little bit doesn’t count if you ignore the important stuff. Hit the big variables first if you want to succeed. (Tweet that.)

There’s a story I’ve heard a thousand times that I kind of hate to repeat here but I think it makes a good point.

A guy had a big jar, some large rocks, some gravel and some sand. When he tried to fill it with the sand and gravel first the big rocks wouldn’t fit. When he put the big rocks in first and then the smaller gravel and sand everything fit because the smaller stuff filled in the gaps.

The point of that story is usually something to the effect of ‘Worry about the big things first and the small stuff will fall into place’. I’d rework it a bit to be ‘Focus on the things with the biggest return first, then worry about all the little stuff.’

There’s certainly a time and a place for small tweaks like meal timing, cinnamon for glucose regulation, & reading blogs on how to make the best flashcards ever – but that time can only come after you’ve dealt with the big stuff.

Get your priorities in order and stop telling yourself every little bit counts.

You’ll get a lot farther a lot more quickly.

Have you ever gotten bogged down by minutiae and lost sight of the important stuff? How’d you get over it? Any advice for other people overwhelmed by all the little things? Leave a comment.

Photo Credit: Adam Foster

You Don’t Matter (and Why That’s Great)

Big Andromeda Galaxy by Gianni

Relax. You’re insignificant and no one cares what you do.

Everyone does it. Day in and day out, mostly subconsciously, and it sabotages everything you do. Worst of all it’s so ingrained into our basic natures that you do it all daylong without realizing how you’re shooting yourself in your own foot. You’re probably doing it right now.

No matter what you do you worry about what people think of you.

How do I look? Do they like me? Do they respect me? What do they say about me behind my back? Will they think this is a stupid thing to do? What if they find out about this, or that?

It’s exhausting. It’s crippling. It’s absolutely stupid too.

The fact is you don’t matter – and that’s a great thing.

Understanding Insignificance

At first it might sound depressing or harsh, but in the grand scheme of things you really don’t matter.

It’s difficult for our brains to properly comprehend truly massive quantities of things – they’re just not built well for it – but let’s relate it to water. Imagine your city or town is a swimming pool, now drop a single droplet of water in, that was you.

Comparing yourself to the global population would be like dropping that same droplet into Lake Michigan.

If you zoom out even farther the entire planet Earth would be a droplet of water dropped into the Pacific or Atlantic of the Universe. You’d be smaller than a single molecule of water in that droplet.

Individually you are about as important to the Universe a single bacterium living in a fish at the bottom of the ocean on the other side of the globe is to you.

You don’t matter.

Alright, now that you are hopefully disabused of the notion of any kind of exaggerated importance, where’s the good part?

The good part is once you realize how unimportant you are you can stop worrying so much about what people think about you because they’re probably not even thinking about you in the first place.

Hero of Your Own Story (and No One Else’s)

I can’t remember who said it, but someone once told me one of the most important thing in character development in fiction is to remember that every single character thinks they’re the hero of the story.

In a work like the Harry Potter series each character behaves like the books are named after them. In their mind it’s Neville Longbottom (or whomever) and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry is just a supporting character who gets in a lot trouble.

The reason this is such a vital thing to remember when developing lifelike fictional characters is because that’s how everyone actually thinks.

You don’t consider yourself the sidekick to someone else’s story. You’re Hamlet, not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In your head the world revolves around you.

What you have to remember is that everyone else thinks the same way. Even to the people who care about you the most like your friends and family, you’re probably a sidekick at best. That means they aren’t actually thinking about you all that much.

Recent estimates put the average number of thoughts per day for an adult at around 50,000. Breaking that down if we assume most people are awake for about 16 hours that’s 3,125 thoughts per hour and around 52 per second. That’s nearly a different thought every second.

So let’s assume we’re even dealing with someone you’re close to, and they think about you or judge you in some way 50 times per day (likely a higher number than what actually happens).

That’s only 0.1% of their thoughts for the day that are directed at you. That’s less than one minute spent thinking about you.

How stupid is it then to let the fear of what people with think about you determine your actions? How ridiculous is it to abandon your dreams because of what others might think about you when in reality they are barely going to think anything about you at all regardless of what you do?

Add in to that the fact that, like you, everyone is probably spending way too much time worrying about what you and others think of them to actually have critical thoughts of others.

In other words, in a room of ten people all ten are going to be worrying what everyone thinks of them and no one will be thinking anything of anyone else.

Haters Gonna Hate

Clearly worrying about what others think of you is pointless – so stop doing it!

Embrace the fact that you’re a tiny, insignificant piece of carbon on a pale blue dot in a back corner of an indifferent Universe surrounded by people who consider you little more than background scenery in their own personal tale.

It can be good to care (a little) what the people who are truly important to you think – the people who will be with you for the rest of your or their lives – but stop worrying about everyone else.

People are going to be critical of you. Give them the finger and keep doing your thing. Mediocrity never pissed anyone off.

The people who do great, incredible things aren’t the ones paralyzed by the doubt of whether or not their actions ill be accepted or ridiculed. The people who do great things are the ones who don’t give a damn about everyone thinks.

No one cares what you do, and that frees you to do whatever makes you happy.

Get to it.

Photo Credit: Gianni

Gaming Your Way to Your Goals

Mario Kart by Miki Yoshihito

I play a lot of video games.

At least, I do when I don’t keep too close of an eye on myself. I, like many others who would self identify as ‘nerdy’, have that particular combination of addictive personality and attraction to escapism that leads to looking away from the screen for a moment and thinking, “4 a.m.? Wasn’t it just 10:00 a minute ago?”

Uncontrolled this can be a problem – my bank account and productivity levels both suffer when a bunch of new games come out all at once – but looked at the right way I’ve found it actually can be extremely helpful.

The same things that make you determined to do whatever it takes and burn up entire days to finish that level, get that new item or earn that really hard achievement can also make you finally get fit, learn a language or do whatever else it is you’ve always wanted to accomplish.

Escapism, Flow and Instant Gratification

Someone who studies game design professionally could probably add to this list, but to me three things stand out as the pillars of an addictive game – escapism, flow and good old gratification.

Games allow you to step into the shoes of someone else and lead a completely new life. They let you escape from your problems. As a kid they let me escape from the mind numbing monotony of school. As an adult they let me escape from the equally mind numbing grind of an uninspiring day job. Most of all they let me escape the fact that I was leading a boring, predictable and unfulfilling life.

The most interesting thing to me is they don’t even have to let you step into the shoes of a life that’s necessarily better than your current boring one. Sure most people would trade lives with bad asses and heroes like Cloud or Link – but who would honestly trade lives with Lee Everett or Isaac Clarke?

TV, movies and books all provide the same opportunity for escapism, and all three of those are also the domain and downfall of plenty of nerdy folk (I, personally, devour books like bacon wrapped candy), but none of them have the other two qualities that make games so potent.

Flow is one of the most enjoyable states you can be in while doing something.

It’s also a state that video games are directly designed to put you in.

People have understood the power of flow for a long time. Whether it’s called something else or not (being ‘in the zone’ in sports, ‘wei wu wei’ in Zen Buddhism, etc.) people have recognized that the particular feeling of being completely in the moment and fully focused on a task while at the same time acting in an effortless unthinking way feels like the pinnacle of human experience.

The goal of entire genres of games is to induce this state in you. There is a wonderful feeling to a perfectly executed Super Mario speed run. The kind of level where you burn straight through without getting touched, grabbing every coin, tearing through every enemy and doing it all with a sense of calm focus like the entire universe has aligned to get you to that castle (even if the Princess isn’t actually in that one).

On top of that tendency to place you in a state of flow, games also have another thing designed to push our subconscious happy buttons – a reward structure.

We like instant gratification. We like bells and whistles and fanfare when we’ve done something good.

The problem is, most of life doesn’t work that way.

You want to be fit? You need to put the work in and stick to your nutrition and exercise long term. You want to speak a second language? It’s going to take some time, and there’s probably not going to be a clear ‘ding’ when you’ve achieved fluency.

Games on the other hand give us a clearly defined goal (finish this level, defeat that boss, earn this achievement, get the highest score) and then immediately reward you for completing them. Even the leveling process in RPGs which can be a lot more time consuming – it’s called grinding for a reason – has that extremely satisfying point where you level up.

So how do we take these three things and apply them to making our real lives better?

Gaming Your Goals

Not all of these principles need to be applied to everything you do, but the more you can use them the easier building the life you want will be.

  • Embracing Escapism – I think this is the easiest one for most people, and if you’re particularly nerdy you’ll probably find this comes naturally provided you can change your ways of thinking.

    When you fall in love with the process the results come easily.

    If you’re trying to get in shape but you view working out as a painful, frustrating process and are topping that off by denying yourself the foods you love and forcing each meal to be full of foods you find boring or dislike – of course you’re going to fail.

    When you learn a language by studying for hours and hours when you hate studying and see language learning as grinding hours spent slamming your head into vocab lists and flipping through flashcards until you’re ready to jump through a plate glass window – of course you’re going to fail.

    Instead, you need to see things things as fun instead of work. That’s the reason you can sit for hours and kill rats over, and over, and over, and over again until you hit the level you’re shooting for but cringe at the idea of a 30 minute workout. One is supposed to be fun in your mind and the other is supposed to be work.

    So rethink things!

    When I was fat working out seemed painful. Over time though and the more I did it the more I learned how fun it can be, and now I want to lift. I would lift weights just to life weights. The same goes for practicing languages.

    If you can’t change your mind and begin to consider something fun, limit or drop it entirely and find something that is fun to you. Hate flashcards? Watch movies in your target language instead. Hate running? Try some HIIT workouts with kettlebells or practice some parkour.

    Find a way to make the things you feel you have to do into the things you want to do.

  • Finding Flow – This one’s a bit trickier, since some activities are well built for inducing flow and some are going to take a lot more work.

    The best way to start is to try to identify the things you can do that will get you closer to your goals that are also well suited to inducing a state of flow.

    There are a handful of markers for flow, but the three that I think are most important are having a clear goal, a clear indicator of when that goal has been completed and a task that is challenging enough to not be boring, but not so challenging it feels impossible.

    What are some examples?

    If you’re learning to play guitar working your way through a new song meets all three criteria. On the fitness side it’s easiest for fitness skills rather than just strict workouts, so working on nailing that 20 second handstand would be a good fit. You can also just work on finding that mindful active meditation state. When it comes to language learning Memrise does an excellent job of hitting all three criteria, likely because it’s essentially a game in and of itself.

    The point is to find whatever best puts you in state of flow and then focus your efforts on that. Just like with embracing escapism the goal here is to make it fun!

  • Generating Gratification – Lastly we have the problem of adding gratification into goals that might otherwise not have any built into them.

    The key here is to find ways to make your gratification as immediate as possible. It would be annoying if you filled up that experience bar but then had to wait three days to get the benefit of leveling up. That’s a lot like what most of life is like.

    Instead find ways to make it more like a game. The easiest way to do this is to just actually make a game out of it.

    In some cases this might’ve been done for you already. Fitocracy and Zombies, Run! both do an excellent job of it. Duolingo makes language learning into a game, and there are even games out there like guitar hero but with a real guitar that teach you to play while you play.

    In the absence of some good product that does the gamification for you, you’ll have to add your own rewards and gratification.

    Sometimes it can be enough just to have a clearly defined goal that, once achieved, you can hum a little tune and spin your sword around (or, whatever you’ve got on hand) and revel in the accomplishment of it all.

    If that’s not enough for you set up specific rewards you’ll give yourself once you hit each goal. Pick things you really want and incentivize progress as much as you can, the better the thing you get when you hit your goal the more driven you’ll be to get there.

    Don’t be afraid to brag a bit too – sharing your accomplishment is another strong form of gratification.

Usurping these traits from games can make gaming your own goals feel a lot less like work and a lot more fun, which means you’re a lot more likely to actually accomplish them and make your life as fun and exciting as the people in the games you play.

Except, again, maybe Lee Everett.

What have you done to turn making your life more epic into a game? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Miki Yoshihito

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