Personal Development

What I learned from my lowest moment

When I think of my lowest, darkest moments in the past fifteen years, there’s one bright, summer evening that comes to mind. I was walking home from the subway after a big day at work. My walk took me down a harborside road past a park full of flowers and freshly cut grass, with families picnicking and kids playing on a jungle gym and sailboats passing by in the evening sun. Earlier in the day, there had been a celebration at the office. My team and I had just met a major deadline. An aggressive deadline that once seemed far-fetched, unachievable. 

Our success had been a team effort, and I had been leading the team. I had shown them a path. I had helped them follow that path. And I had worked alongside them to overcome one challenge after another. My colleagues appreciated what I had done and they thanked me for it. They toasted me, and I toasted them. Now I was returning home to a partner who loved me. I had good friends, helpful neighbors, a nice place to live, and enough free time to enjoy it all.

But as the birds chirped and the ice cream truck by the park played its happy tune, my mood took a downward turn. Excitement about the day’s achievement turned to gloom. I felt more worthless with each passing step. Hopeless. Angry. Why?

This software release had been a major success.

But it wasn’t the success I wanted.

Yes, I had reached for it, stretched for it, given it my all. This project had been one of the first major deals I had landed in my new life as an independent software consultant, running my own solo business, after years of having been someone else’s employee. Recently, I had been contracted by a promising startup to help them get their engineering efforts off the ground. My job was to set up shop. To mentor a team of ambitious but less-experienced engineers. To translate a slew of goals and requirements into a plan that could be carried out. To make things work. 

And guess what? I had made things work, I had guided the team to success, and doing this had given me great joy. I felt proud that I’d helped my colleagues be effective, that I’d helped the company reach its goals. The project hadn’t been easy and there’s no way I could have done it if I hadn’t really cared about it.

But this success hit me like a brick, because it reminded me of successes that I had wanted even more than this one.

If I had stayed in grad school, years earlier, and continued doing research, then I wouldn’t have been been celebrating a software release on this day. Maybe I’d be celebrating a research breakthrough, a new result, a published paper, a contribution to the world’s knowledge. I would have fulfilled the promise I had made to myself in my teens, that I’d commit my life to scholarship and mathematical discovery. 

And if I had stuck with writing after I quit grad school, if the novel I’d written had gone somewhere, helping me launch a literary career like I hoped it might, maybe then I’d be celebrating a book release. I would have fulfilled the promise I had made to myself in my twenties: if I wasn’t going to be making research discoveries as a professor, I would become an author, exploring inner terrain, making “discoveries” in the realm of fiction.

And if my own software startup had succeeded, the one I had launched after putting my literary ambitions aside, maybe then I’d be celebrating one of my own company’s achievements. I would have fulfilled the promise I had made to myself in my early thirties, that if the outlet for my creativity and passion wasn’t going to be literature, I would still forge something new, I’d make a difference in the world through entrepreneurship.

And if my lifelong efforts to create music had led to some kind of career, maybe then I’d be celebrating an album launch or a concert I had performed. In my mid-thirties, having quit grad school, abandoned a literary path, and failed to start a company, I had looked over my life and seen myself jumping from one thing to the next. I had asked, “What do I really want? What do I want to create more than anything else? What’s the one thing I would never give up?” And the answer was music. Among all the many dreams that had ever called to me, I recognized that creating new music is what mattered to me the most. I wanted to be a composer. But music was the domain where I felt the most “stuck” and the most afraid. No, I hadn’t succeeded as a researcher, writer, or entrepreneur but I had taken risks and gotten things started. As far as music, I had been practicing and studying for years, but I didn’t have a finished composition to my name.

Today’s software release had been a major achievement but I viewed it as the “easiest” of the kinds of things I had aspired to do in my life. I had failed at the hard things and now I was succeeding at an easy one. An “easy” one that still took a lot of time and effort – time and effort that I wasn’t putting into my true dreams.

I had been lucky in my life, and I knew that. Lucky with opportunities. Blessed with the freedom and the time to pursue each of the dreams that had called to me. And I had followed those callings. I had taken risks. I had reinvented myself and reinvented myself again. I had started bold new projects and given them my all – up to a time – up to a breaking point that always seemed to arrive.

For one reason or another, each of my efforts to pursue a dream had resulted in insight, discovery, experience, personal development, but still a sense that the dream hadn’t come to fruition, that it hadn’t turned into a viable path forward. So time and time again, I had fallen back on my skill as a software developer to support myself. Software knowhow was the one thing people kept calling me for.

I had done what I thought people were supposed to do to find meaning in life, but now my life felt meaningless. Nothing had worked out and I was again back to software.

After all the attempts I’d made to forge a new path for myself, milestones like the one I had celebrated today were my most public accomplishments. To the extent that I was interacting with “the word,” the world knew me as someone who could build a good software system. No one really knew or cared about the other stuff, the researcher I had wanted to be, the author I had wanted to be, the entrepreneur I had wanted to be, or the music I had wanted to write. No one was calling me for those things.

So today’s milestone counted against me. The extent to which I had dedicated myself to this achievement and struggled to make it happen was the extent to which I had sold out, given up. For all my efforts to build the life I wanted, I was again doing someone else’s work.

What happened next? 

I arrived home in quiet rage against myself. My partner asked me what was wrong and I couldn’t explain it. I sulked. Maybe that triggered a quarrel.

But then… nothing happened, not immediately. My bad mood blew over. I went back to work. I stuck with the company I’d been working for and I helped them through more releases after this first one. In my free time, I kept pursuing my creative projects. And over the years some of those projects did come to fruition.

What really happened next, happened little by little, over the span of ten years. What happened next is that I slowly found ways to take a gentler and more wholesome view of my life. Reflecting on that miserable walk home – thinking back to it from time to time over the years – I learned some lessons from that gloomy moment. Lessons that would help me avoid the same anguish today, I think, if I were to take that same walk again, in similar circumstances.

Here are five of those lessons:

The first lesson is that you can practice your deepest values in whatever you’re working on at the time. Which means you can find fulfillment in whatever you’re working on, even if it’s not your “top choice” of all things to work on. 

I had the idea that writing software for someone else’s businesses wasn’t what I cared about the most in life. In the grand scheme of things, making fundamental research discoveries, or creating new art – these things were more valuable to me, and to the world. But there’s something to question here. 

In order to help a team build a good software system, I had needed to exercise the virtues that mattered, and still matter to me the most. I care about teamwork. I care about vision. I care about clarity. I care about precision. I care about effective communication. I care about creative problem solving. I care about getting things done. 

I want to be helpful. I want to be creative. I want to be effective. I want to be kind. I want to be inspiring.

So while that software milestone, years ago, was not the single victory in life I would have chosen if I’d been given a free pick, it was still a chance for me to manifest the qualities that are most important to me. These are the qualities I would choose to have, if given a free pick. And this was a chance to apply them and develop them further. The success wouldn’t have happened without my practicing those virtues, so I can see it as a success in which I harnessed the best of myself. A full-fledged success. Not any lesser than any other kind of success.

The second lesson is that moments in life are interconnected. Our experiences are ready and waiting to network with each other, to communicate with each other in pursuit of a larger meaning, if we allow them to “mingle” in our hearts. So we shouldn’t see past failures as endings, isolated from everything else, removed from all conversation, leading nowhere.

I was choosing to see each of my failures as an ending but I could also have seen that it was the beginning of something else. And none of my failures had been pure, absolute ones. I had learned something significant in each endeavor, so I had benefited in every case.

The software victory that I’d pulled off had surprised people, even me. How had I been able to do it? Maybe the answer is that I’d been able to do it because of everything I had learned in being a grad student, then writing a novel, then launching a startup, all while refining my musical craft. And maybe if I hadn’t done all those things then I just wouldn’t have known how to take a hopeless, impossible software situation and bring clarity to it and steer it towards a good outcome.

The third lesson is: Stop insisting on meanings and interpretations that don’t serve you. Stuff that happens to you doesn’t “mean” anything until you ascribe it meaning.

I had the idea that my software success “meant” that I had been a failure at the other things I had tried to do. Harnessing my energy for someone else’s project “implied” that my true dreams had not been fulfilled, otherwise I would have been putting that energy into my own projects. But that was only an idea in my mind that I was insisting upon. It had no objective substance to it. Looking closer, I can see that I was still pursuing my dreams – practicing music, writing essays, and more – as I worked my job as a software consultant. In fact, it was my software work that gave me the stability and freedom to pursue those dreams. What did I have to thank for all that time I’d been able to spend writing prose and studying music? My software career.

I was the one telling myself that my software success was a sign of a larger failure. I was the one giving it that meaning. But there’s always an option to stop narrating for a moment. To stop telling ourselves what things mean. To stop drawing connections that don’t serve us. If I had done that, I could have seen my software success as just that. A simple success. A thing to celebrate. A thing that was good for me and good for others involved. A thing that could be good without taking away from anything else. 

The fourth lesson is that any time you do something, it’s a triumph of optimism – even just getting out of bed in the morning. You might not think of yourself as an optimist, but if you’re alive, you’ve been practicing optimism on a regular basis. So you’re probably better at optimism than you think.

In my case, my software victory had been the result of daily optimism – believing, believing, believing it could be done. Yes, part of my job had been to be a pessimist – to raise alarms about goals that were at risk. To identify pitfalls. To give early warnings about deadlines that could slip, costs that hadn’t been properly identified, new issues that could crop up. But to be a pessimist in the service of optimism. To identify problems so the team could avoid them. To point out risks… with the conviction that we could mitigate them. To forecast ways we could fail… with the confidence that we could eventually succeed. I was being paid to maintain the confidence that we could succeed, and to prove it right. I was being paid for my optimism. And I kept getting paid because I was good at optimism.

But I wasn’t applying that same optimism to my own life. I was interpreting each of my failures as evidence that I couldn’t succeed rather than as evidence of my courage, and as proof of the experience I had gained. I was being a pessimist about myself, for no good reason.

If I had taken the optimism that I was harnessing at work and applied it to my life, I could have seen a few things. My grad school career had been a failure but my desire to study and acquire knowledge was ongoing. My first novel was a flop but I was still writing. My startup failed but I had already used the lessons I learned from the startup in launching other projects that had succeeded. And in music I had just confronted a lifelong fear and signed up for voice lessons. I was learning how to sing.

The fifth lesson is to let yourself accept the fulfillment that comes from helping others. Accept it as primary. Not secondary to other kinds of fulfillment.

In my case I was really proud that I’d helped my teammates succeed. I was really proud that I had helped the company move forward. I was really proud that I had helped the company’s founder realize his entrepreneurial vision. But I was undervaluing that satisfaction, because I was thinking of my own success as more important.

There was a hierarchy in my mind, where doing something for others was of course very good and very commendable, but doing something for me was secretly better. Yes, I was happy I had helped someone else with their company but if given a choice, I would have succeeded at starting my own company. Yes, I was happy to have mentored a young engineer but if given a choice, I would have published a book, or made a research discovery of my own.

But if I flipped that around – if I could see helping others was just as valuable as succeeding in my own projects – my whole view of the situation would have changed. Instead of feeling like I’d failed to achieve what I wanted most – success in my personal endeavors – I could have noticed what I’d been giving to others all along, and counted that as a primary form of “success.”

In conclusion, if I were to take that same walk home today, knowing I had been victorious in a big project at work that didn’t match my dreams for how I was going to be spending my life, I would have some new techniques at my disposal to make sense of it. Techniques for finding happiness in the moment and avoiding the patterns of thought that can lead to misery. 

I’d think about the virtues that I had practiced in achieving this success (first lesson). I’d see this success as interconnected with, and enabled by, all my previous experiences including my biggest failures (second lesson). I’d avoid looking for implications in this success that don’t serve me (third lesson). I’d recognize the role of optimism in achieving this success and I’d be willing to apply that same optimism to my life overall (fourth lesson). And I’d notice the ways I’d helped others on the path to this success. I’d look to what I had given to others as a measure of what I had achieved. And I’d embrace the satisfaction that comes with giving as a primary kind of satisfaction (fifth lesson). With these five lessons in mind, I know it would be a happier walk.

Personal Development, Photography

A Snail’s Path

This is a snail with direction.

Been somewhere; going somewhere.

Its past and future make a straight line.

As it slithers along that line, untroubled by its own languid tempo, does the snail set an example for us?

Does it convey the message that even when we are moving at “a snail’s pace,” we should stay on course, following our chosen path, trusting that the destination will arrive in time?

On second thought, we might say that this photograph is a lie.

The snail’s apparent “path” is artificial. It was made by the photographer, who used a technical trick to create the appearance of a clear line traversing the blurred sidewalk.

This path was imposed, but not on the snail, who was oblivious to it. Imposed on the viewer.

So does this photograph speak about false paths? Wishful thinking? Deception?

Is this photograph a warning that any act of interpretation can skew reality, creating the appearance of a path, a direction, progress — where there is none?

In fact — and you’ll have to trust me on this — the snail was moving roughly along the path shown here. So by way of creative distortion, the photograph reveals a “truth” of the situation that would be harder to see otherwise. Without the blurred background and foreground, the snail might have appeared to be lost on this vast expanse of cement. I couldn’t talk with the snail, of course, but it seemed pretty confident in where it was going.

So does this photograph make the case that an image can be “honest” by lying a little? Does it say that art can reveal the truth to us by bending the truth? Does it show how clarity can be achieved not despite blurriness, but through its deliberate use?

There’s a protagonist here – the snail – and a supporting character, the observer who saw the snail. And we should care about them why? We might care about them if realize that we can’t escape being these characters ourselves – the protagonist, and the observer – any time we think of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. The observer in us might even lament the “snail” in us for moving too slowly towards what we want.

But as observers of our own lives, we have the freedom to blur some areas and bring others into focus, creating the appearance of a path that we might be following. Sometimes we have to imagine a route that’s not obvious in the full complexity of the scene. Once we’ve shown it to ourselves in a simplified picture, we can cleave to it. By imagining that path, we can manifest it.

A snail doesn’t need to use imagination to find clarity about its path because it doesn’t have an imagination to create confusion about its path in the first place – but we do.

And while we don’t have to thank a snail for inspiring a reflection that it had no intent to inspire and no ability to comprehend, we still can. So, thank you, snail! Hope you get where you’re going.

Leaving Facebook, Personal Development

Choosing Loss

Most choices involve some form of loss. We lose something so we can gain something else. Oftentimes the thing we lose and the thing we gain are different kinds of thing, so their values are not easy to compare, but we try our best. We aim to make the decision where we’ll come out better in the end, where the gain will outweigh the loss. But sometimes this leads us into a trap.

We might consider quitting a job, for example, losing income, in favor of gaining time. Which is more valuable? Income, if we save it, could translate into time later. But time now, if we invest it in learning a new skill, could translate into greater income later. There are feelings to consider, other intersecting circumstances in life, and other things to say about what time and money are really worth to us. If we went ahead and quit the job, that’s probably because we looked at this complex situation and convinced ourselves that time was worth more to us now, that we’d do better for having the time immediately even if it meant losing the income.

It might even seem that whenever someone makes a choice, the choice is evidence of that person’s value scheme, it’s proof that they valued the thing they gained more than they valued the thing they lost – otherwise they wouldn’t have chosen that way.

But a choice might not convey as much information as it seems to convey, or any information at all. That’s because a choice is often finalized at a specific moment in time. And at any particular moment in time, a person who makes a choice might not be remembering all of their values. They might not be keeping all the important considerations about one option versus the other option in their conscious awareness. A person might deliberate for weeks to reach the conclusion that it’s better for them to keep the job; then one night they might get drunk and email a resignation letter. 

Their choice is not proof that they valued time more than income, it’s just proof that they were overcome by an impulse after their third whiskey on a certain Friday night. In this case, they believed they’d come out worse if they quit, but they still quit, they still opted for “worse” because their decision was impulsive and not intentional. It’s not that they hadn’t thought it through. It’s that their decision didn’t reflect all those things they had considered. It wasn’t an information-bearing decision.

So we might say that whenever someone chooses a certain loss, there are two things this could mean. It could mean they valued a corresponding gain more than the loss. Or it could mean they were acting on impulse in a way that failed to represent their values. But there’s an exception even here – a third possibility.

Sometimes a person might choose a loss that they believe to be greater than any countervailing gain, not because of an impulse that defies their values, but because choosing the loss is their deeply held intention. Certainly, this intention sounds irrational. If someone really thinks their loss will outweigh their gain, which is to say they’ll come out worse in the end – and if they’re making the choice with full awareness and all faculties intact – why would they ever prefer the greater loss?

When a person always tries to make the “right” choice, always tries to maximize personal utility, always chooses the option where the gain outweighs the loss, they can find themselves in an endless cycle. They might return to the same question, month after month, and a cost-benefit analysis always leads them to the same answer. For a time, they might feel they are exercising the “free will” to do what’s best for them. But as they consider the question again and again, with rational analysis always leading them to the same conclusion, they might feel trapped. They might feel they have no “freedom” in this circumstance because reason always forces them to prefer one option over another. Their rational desire to avoid an uncompensated loss keeps them in the same situation forever. They might look into the future and find that the circumstances influencing their choice are unlikely to change, so their choice itself is unlikely to change, ever.

In such a trap, there’s one way a person can escape. By choosing the greater loss. By choosing the option where they’re not sure they’re going to come out better, and in fact they might come out worse, but at least their situation is going to change. At least they’ll be freed from the trap.

In the decade between 2010 and 2020, a certain social networking site called Facebook was the place where I could communicate with family members close and distant, elementary school classmates, high school classmates, college classmates, random people I had met at parties, neighbors, colleagues, everyone in my life. I could share my art and get feedback there. I could participate in discussions with world experts on obscure music theory topics that interested me. I could make public service announcements and have them be heard. 

Before I left Facebook, I had wanted to connect with more musicians, especially composers, and a certain benevolent individual with lots of contacts in the classical music world had sent friend “suggestions” linking me with around a hundred prominent artists. Most of those artists accepted and became my new Facebook friends. As far as my career development as a musician, this was like a blessing from heaven. 

There were many reasons why I wanted to leave, but at any particular moment when I tried to leave, I found I couldn’t. What about all those new “friends?” I couldn’t convince myself that I’d gain more by leaving than I’d lose. Year after year, I had been trying to leave, but it had never happened, and now it was even less likely to happen.

Finally, in 2019, a little while after I gained all these new friends, I declared that I would leave, and I gave myself a year to fulfill my promise. I wanted to be free from surveillance capitalism. I wanted to stop having all my social connections brokered by a large corporation that did not have my interests or health as its top priority. I wanted to stop supporting the data monopoly of a company that seemed to be abusing and misusing the data it was furiously collecting with no sign of shame. But I never fully convinced myself I’d be better off taking my freedom from Facebook, if it meant losing all of that social connectivity, all of those connections to everyone in all phases of my life, all of those promising new musical contacts that could have helped me take the next steps in my career. I couldn’t bring myself to leave in any particular instant. I couldn’t quit as self-contained decision. I could only bring about my leaving across the span of a full year, as a decision that manifested gradually over time, moving towards a self-imposed deadline.

In a way, what got me to leave Facebook was seeing that my personal loss would outweigh my gain. Seeing that because of this, I’d be kept in a trap forever, unless I chose the nuclear option. Unless I chose to accept a big, fat loss. In exchange for an uncertain gain. A gain that might not compensate for the loss. A gain whose main selling point was “escape.”

Since I chose to escape, you could say that I must have valued escape more than I valued all those connections and all of the potential they represented. You could say I must have thought I’d come out better in the end by getting out. But really I was never sure of that. I’m still not entirely sure of it. There’s no way to know what would have happened if I had stayed, or where those connections might have led. 

I do really believe that in this case, I chose to take a loss that was greater than any tangible gain I could foresee, because I realized that avoiding loss forever would keep me in the same situation forever. And in turn, this experience taught me that choosing loss, even a big, uncompensated loss, is an option that a free person can avail.

Personal Development

Saved by intention

I was asked to give a talk at a nearby university and something went wrong.

Not during the talk, but afterwards.

As for the talk itself, I love giving talks. This one had been an entry on my calendar months in advance, a thing I would have to do, a task I would have to complete, but I expected it would go well. That’s because I enjoy speaking, and I enjoy helping people on their journey to understanding things that I’ve come to know about.

Leading up to the talk, there had been some uncertainty about what specific material I’d include, and when I’d actually find the time to prepare my slides, but all that got resolved.

As I was planning the talk, I took a moment to ask, “What’s my personal intention in doing this?” 

To be clear, the company I work for had offered to sponsor this talk, so I’d be doing this as part of my day job, but it was an optional thing. I could have said no. Why had I agreed to do it? 

I thought I could be helpful to the audience, that’s why. My intention was to be useful. I wanted to get the audience excited about the topic I’d be presenting. I wanted to share as much of my understanding as it was possible to share in an hour and half. If I could save some folks months of learning the subject the hard way, giving them a quicker path to understanding what I’ve come to know – if I could make it much easier for them than it had been for me, I wanted to do that. Would it be “unfair” that they’d get to know something in a short time that had taken me years to figure out? Well, I wanted to see just how “unfair” I could make it, just how much time and effort I could save them.

There were other reasons to give the talk – it would be a change from my normal routine, and good practice in public speaking – but the main reason was I wanted to be useful and I thought that I could be. What would I get from it? I’d get the good feeling of knowing I’d helped others on their path to knowledge.

So guess what? I gave the talk and everything went beautifully. A few people came up to me afterwards with big smiles to tell me how much they’d enjoyed it and how much they’d learned. One person said they hadn’t known they were interested in this topic until now! I got compliments on my presentation style, organization, energy, and informativeness. Mission accomplished.

As I was heading home, having shaken the last hand and smiled the last smile, now making my way through the city alone, feeling exhilarated and happy, that’s when something “went wrong.” 

I started having second thoughts about whether the whole thing had been worthwhile. My mind started reevaluating what had happened from a status perspective.

Whereas I had been thinking of this talk as a chance to share my knowledge, now I was starting to look at it as a measure of my career position. 

Whereas I had been thinking of the talk as a moment in time when I had succeeded in being helpful to others, now I was thinking of it a representative of the kind of talk I’m being asked to give at this stage of my career and life – a measure of the prestige or lack thereof that I hold.

The talk had been at a university, but it wasn’t for a class or an academic conference – it was for a student club, an extracurricular group. 

There were no industry experts – no academic authorities – no professors or even grad students in attendance – and there wouldn’t have been, because this was an introductory talk for undergrads.

As the presenter, I had been billed as an experienced professional, but this was not a talk that I was “uniquely” qualified to give. I wasn’t presenting anything original that I had done or contributed. I wasn’t sharing a personal story or a research breakthrough. No one was coming to see “me” in particular.

To get to the room where I’d be giving the talk, I had to go to the computer science department at this university and walk past rows of offices of professors and grad students. Since I had been a grad student once and had planned to become a professor, this reminded me of unfinished business in my distant past, failure.

The club was full of aspiring entrepreneurs. Since I had once ventured into entrepreneurship and had launched a startup of my own – and then went through the pain of seeing it fail without any satisfying sense of “closure” – this reminded me of further unfinished business. Being in front of these aspiring young folks who were working on their own startups reminded me of dreams that hadn’t panned out for me.

I had been told that thirty or forty people had signed up to attend the talk. But only eight showed up. So I was talking to a largely empty room. There was way too much pizza in the room for the amount of people who actually came.

As I got started with the talk, there were two people in the front row who seemed particularly engaged, asking lots of good questions. But twenty minutes into the talk, those two folks just spontaneously got up and left. So now the room was even emptier. There were maybe six people left out of the forty I had been promised.

It occurred to me that big companies would pay thousands of dollars to receive training on the material I was sharing, but these folks who left, or never showed up, had no idea how much value they would have been getting for free, no idea how much it would have cost to “buy” this talk if the setting had been different.

So I had done all that preparation – months of looking toward this talk and getting ready and working on it – all to deliver it to a really small crowd, in a setting that had very little cachet.

This was not a coveted speaking engagement, not the kind of opportunity that someone really driven and ambitious and busy and “successful” would have probably taken up, unless they were doing it as a kind of community service within a schedule full of higher-profile engagements. But for me, well, this was the only talk I had been asked to give at a university since I had been a student at one. So it got me thinking about what I “should” have achieved in my life by now, according to what my ambitions had been back then in my student days.

What would have actually satisfied me, in this status-oriented line of thinking? If I had been invited to give a keynote presentation in front of a crowd of five-hundred high-profile experts at a prestigious conference, with them all eagerly listening to my every word, and cheering me on afterwards? Is that what would have satisfied the status-seeking part of myself?

I reminded myself that status is not what I value most. I haven’t built my life around the pursuit of status, quite the opposite. I’ve wanted to follow my own calling. And to do that freely. I’ve wanted to pursue my creative and intellectual interests in a way that’s independent from other people’s judgements about what’s worthy or important. 

Along with my solitary pursuits, I value connecting, sharing, and being helpful to others. Along with creating my own stuff, I value helping others create. Along with understanding things deeply on my own, I value helping others understand. And in this talk, I had done that beautifully.  

But a nagging inner voice said, “Maybe I’m lying to myself that I don’t care about status?” Thirty years ago, why had I done all that work to get into a high-status college and get from there into a high-status graduate program? Why do I dress how I dress and talk how I talk? My demeanor is who I naturally am, yes, but it’s also because I want to be perceived in a particular way. I want to be respected. I want to be taken seriously. So maybe my dissatisfaction is telling me something – that I’ve gone off course, haven’t tried hard enough, that I’m not driving myself to achieve the “success” that I could have had?

This kind of debate has played out in my mind many times over the years, and the mental chaos often takes a while to settle down.

But this time it faded after a minute at most. I’ve dedicated much more space in writing about it here than it actually occupied at the time. The brevity of this debate was new for me. To feel an existential crisis coming on and then get through it so quickly – that was a pleasant surprise. What had made a speedy resolution possible this time?

I had been clear about my intention from the very beginning – that’s what made the difference here.

I had set out to “be useful.” And I had established that intention months in advance, when I said yes to doing this, well before my slides were ready and before I knew much about the requirements for the talk or even where it would be taking place and how many people had signed up to attend.

Returning to that original intention, I could see that I had fulfilled it. I had succeeded in being useful. To the six people who stayed for the talk. But even if one person had remained in the audience, if I had informed or inspired that one person, my intention would have been fulfilled.

This wasn’t just a pretty picture I was trying to put on the outcome after the fact. No, it was clear as day: I had set out with a specific goal, far ahead of time, and that goal had been achieved by me. 

And thinking about it, the ability to form an intention like this, then manifest the intention, then be overcome with doubt but find a way to remember my intention to get past the doubt and regain a sense of wholeness – all this tells me that I’m more “successful” in life than even I as a young dreamer expected I’d be.

When I returned to my original intention, the doubt faded away and I could reconnect with the exhilaration and satisfaction I had been feeling after a successful event.

The lesson I take away is that we can find fulfillment in our endeavors by setting an intention as early as possible and reconnecting with it continuously.

But not “any” intention.

If my intention had been “To be useful to 100 people,” then the small crowd size would have made it impossible to fulfill that.

If my intention had been “To be useful to every single person who showed up,” then the folks who left would have taken away my ability to realize this all-or-nothing intention.

If my intention had been “To cement my professional status and prestige” then I couldn’t have realized it in this setting. But if I had pursued it elsewhere, I would have been helping myself alone, and I’d never be sure if I had succeeded, and I’d probably never feel like my success had been big enough or had mattered enough.

It helps to have an intention that’s simple, universal, timeless, intrinsically valuable, and scale-independent, meaning we can realize it in a big way or a small way and it still matters. A unbounded intention opposed to an intention that’s highly specific and dependent on factors outside one’s control.

What’s a goal where if you achieve it, you’re going to feel good and others are going to feel good, no matter the details of how it manifests? You’re going to feel fulfilled and others are going to feel fulfilled? That’s the kind of intention I mean.

There are always going to be lots of reasons to launch a project, lots of arguments why the effort is worthwhile, lots of different benefits we could seek from doing it. But if we focus on one PRIMARY intention that’s timeless and universal, we have a better chance of feeling satisfied in the end.

Just as a timeless intention can guide our work as we’re doing it, it can guide our review of the work when we’re done, it can help us take stock. We can let the intention shape the “story” that we create in our mind about what happened. We can let the intention guide our framing, our perspective on what we achieved. And we can let the intention point us to our next steps.

In my case, I want to be useful. I want to give more talks, whether it’s to one person or a thousand. I want to write more essays that help people on their journey to insight. And in my life overall, I want to be ever more strongly guided by intention in all the things that I do.

Personal Development, Society

What is altruism and what should it be?

When we define altruism as placing someone else’s interests, or the interests of society, above our own interests – when we make it about sacrifice or even self-abnegation – we make it sound pretty difficult. We don’t encourage many people to believe they can be altruists.

But if we define altruism as a broadening of the concept of self-interest, so that the sphere of what we see as benefiting the self is expanded to include what benefits others and society, then altruism becomes more approachable. People can grow into altruism by considering the reciprocity of benefit: if I do something that benefits you, I too will benefit in some way, so it’s a “win-win.”

The critical distinction is whether we conceive of reciprocity from a scarcity mindset or from an abundance mindset. From a scarcity mindset, we might say: OK, if I’m going to give something, I have to be absolutely sure of what I’m going to get in return. My reward must be something tangible and I must know when and how I’m going to receive it, and in what quantity. Otherwise I won’t take the risk.

But from an abundance mindset, we might say, OK, I’m going to give something, and I’m going to have faith that I will get something in return, but I don’t know when I will get it, or what form it will take, or how much it’s going to be, or where it’s going to come from. I’m going to keep giving in many different situations over time. And in one particular situation, the thing I get in return might be nothing more than the satisfaction of knowing I did something good to help someone else. Will this always be an even trade? Maybe not. Perhaps the intangible satisfaction of doing good won’t be all that thrilling to me in one particular case. But I have plenty already. And I’m willing to take a risk, since I trust that my “loss” in any one circumstance will be outweighed by my “gain” in another.

So altruism can be defined as a belief in the reciprocity of benefit, seen from an “abundance” perspective, with a high tolerance for short-term loss, and a willingness to accept intangible future rewards as meaningful and worthy. It’s a kind of optimism about how prosocial behavior will unfold over time – not expecting too much reward from any particular instance of this behavior – but believing that the reward will be great eventually. It’s a long-term investment in karma.

But that doesn’t seem to be the full picture, because it misses the concept of empathy and allows too much room for greed.

Someone might donate a million dollars to a charity, then brag about it. Are they an altruist? Perhaps they did it as a tax write-off. The donation might have been an act of greed if they only wanted a financial benefit and prestige to boot. If they didn’t really care about what the charity was going to do with their money and they weren’t thinking about the people who would benefit from the charity’s work, then the answer is no. Yes, it’s still good that the donation happened, but no, to accept this donor as an altruist would be to devalue the concept. It seems that a person should only get to be called an altruist if their actions are heartfelt – the person has to care about others in addition to being willing to perform the motions of assisting others.

But we’re wrong if we take an example like this and use it to conclude that any action taken in one’s own self-interest cannot be genuinely altruistic at the same time.

Consider a person who looks around a city street and notices a tourist needing directions, then stops to help, even though this delay is going to make them late to an important business meeting. It would seem that this Good Samaritan has sacrificed something, in a way that brings no concrete gain to themselves, so their action might qualify as truly altruistic according to the traditional definition of selfless behavior that benefits someone else. The person saw the stranger in distress, thought about what it’s like to be lost in an unfamiliar city, thought about how we must be kind to each other to make the world a better place, and so they elevated the stranger’s interests above their own.

But if we look closer here we can see that an expectation of reciprocity does come into play, even in this “pure” act of kindness. Helping a stranger made the Good Samaritan feel good. They could imagine the positive outcome they created and savor it. They could feel they had been useful. They could feel they had behaved in a way consistent with their own values, obeying the Golden Rule. They could feel they had set a positive example. They could feel they had done their duty. They could remember the tourist’s smile. So in a sense, the Good Samaritan gained something significant – a whole constellation of positive emotions. And those emotions were arguably more valuable than being on time to the meeting. There was still a “transaction” that happened here, albeit a loose and open one instead of a tight and fussy one.

Is it even right to say that the Good Samaritan made a sacrifice? Well, they sacrificed one thing for another thing. They sacrificed being on time – perhaps their entire reputation for punctuality – for the good feelings that come with kindness. Those two things are incommensurate but if we were forced to compare them, we might say the person came out better in the end for choosing kindness. We could even say the person behaved in a “selfish” way since they prioritized the positive feelings they would get from helping the stranger over the concerns of others at the meeting who were expecting that the meeting could start on time. It’s also true that the Good Samaritan wanted to avoid the bad feeling they would have gotten by ignoring the stranger and knowing they had been unhelpful. That pain of moral failure was more significant to the Good Samaritan than the pain of being late and disappointing their colleagues. So by helping the stranger, they got the specific pleasure they wanted and avoided the specific pain they didn’t want, all while ignoring the displeasure of many others who were waiting. 

Does this make the Good Samaritan truly selfish? They are selfish in the sense that they have a self. But the nature of the pleasure they sought and the nature of the pain they tried to avoid are critical to how we interpret their behavior. Here, the pleasure and pain are proxies for their belief in goodness. Their emotions can be seen as manifestations of their belief in goodness and so by being swayed by these emotions they were being swayed by goodness itself. If that makes them “selfish” then we’re making the term “selfish” too broad to be meaningful.

These examples are meant to show that there are many ways we can benefit when we help others. In the first example, the benefit of a tax write-off and bragging rights seems hollow and makes us conclude the act wasn’t truly altruistic. In the second example, we can accept that the Good Samaritan was manifesting altruism even though they got precisely what they wanted out of the deal.

What matters is that the Good Samaritan thought about the stranger’s situation and hoped to make it better. What matters too is that in doing this, they weren’t particular about what they’d receive in return, or how they’d receive it. They were ready to accept an intangible benefit as real and meaningful. And they took an “abundance” mindset that let them accept the risk of possibly receiving nothing in this particular case.

So altruism can be defined as a belief in the reciprocity of benefit, seen from an “abundance” perspective, with a high tolerance for the risk of short term “loss,” and a willingness to accept intangible future rewards as meaningful and worthy, all powered by empathy.

But why bother providing this lengthy definition of altruism? Certainly, it’s more complex than the simple idea of placing someone else’s interests above one’s own.

The reason is that definitions matter. How we define altruism affects how we see our ability to be altruists. Since altruistic behavior benefits all of us, we should want to promote it. And in order to do that, we should define it in a way that encourages everyone – ourselves and others – to believe we can practice it. Since many of us believe, deep down, that we’re usually going to make choices that benefit our own selves, it helps to frame altruism as a behavior that benefits our own selves, as long as we’re flexible about how and when that benefit might be realized.

But there’s a catch in this act of semantic reframing. The catch is that altruism benefits us by freeing us from ourselves, by removing us from the jail of self-concern. Part of the “reward” we receive when we behave altruistically is that we have the chance to think less about our own concerns, and that’s liberating. It’s a burden to have to look out for our own interests all the time. It’s a burden to have to maximize personal utility all the time. Altruistic behavior offers a relief from that… but only if we engage in altruism without expecting something in return. Only if altruism means putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes and focusing on their interests without worrying too much about ours.

If we position altruism as something that benefits the self, are we then compromising one of the key benefits it provides, which is the relief from dwelling on our own selves and what we’re going to get?

No, we are not compromising that benefit, because we are not expecting something tangible in return for altruistic behavior and we are not expecting an intangible reward to be provided in any specific amount on any specific schedule. We’re taking a broad, loose, expansive view of how we might benefit, relieving ourselves from the duty of tracking all the details. We are leaving it up to faith, or fate, to decide what happens next, trusting that it’ll be something good, if not now, then eventually.

In conclusion, altruism is a kind of optimism. It’s a positive expectation that we hold about the long-term outcome of investing in others’ wellbeing. We trust that we’ll benefit from doing this, but we release ourselves from the burden of tracking how and when we’ll benefit. We’re making a long-term investment in karma, without expecting that we can predict it or control it.

To believe that helping others helps us too – that’s a natural and good belief. We should let it motivate us. We should define altruism in a way that motivates us. Because we all need to become motivated altruists if life on our planet is to survive.

Personal Development

To be useful

What is my goal in writing?

To be useful.

But useful to whom, and useful in what way?

I’ve spend thousands of hours writing the essays you’ll find here, but very few people know about them, so what’s the use?

To start, I’m writing to be useful to myself, in the sense that if I’m lucky, I have half of my life ahead of me still. What I’m trying to do in my writing is to codify the insights and stories that have been the most helpful to me in the first half of my life, so that I can remember them, carry them with me, and build upon them in the second. I want to record the ideas that have helped me find clarity amidst confusion, the ideas that have helped me overcome creative and personal obstacles, the ideas that helped me be more loving and less fearful, more effective and less distracted, more fulfilled and less frustrated.

So these essays are a foundation I’m creating for my future self. They’re letters to the person who’s going to live the second part of my life.

But the challenges I face are not unique, and the things I want to get better at understanding and doing in my life are things that you might care about too.

So I’m writing with the conviction that my words can be useful to you in some way — that some of my experiences, and some of the insights I’ve derived from those experiences, and some of the approaches I’ve used to communicate those insights, might inspire, inform, and assist. I’m eager to do the work of writing down the best of what I’ve learned in my life so far — including my appreciation of unanswered questions — even if I don’t know who else is going to find it useful, and even if I don’t know when that use is going to happen. I trust that it will.

That’s my starting point. I can say more about my common topics, my background, my qualifications, what usefulness means to me, and who might find use in what I write, but that’s for elsewhere.

A sampling of recent posts:

Life is not a project
Life is full of so many projects that we might see life as one big umbrella project. But what’s at the other end?

Inner Luck
Any time we experience a metacognitive interrupt that allows us to escape our current thought and observe it from a distance, we are lucky and we should enjoy that luck.

On Fear
Fear creates a close-mindedness that makes us more likely to believe the idea that caused the fear in the first place, but if we know this is happening, we can change how we respond.

Self-compassion is hard and that’s not your fault!
Self-compassion is difficult to practice because it conflicts with virtues we hold dear, including responsibility, accountability, and ownership over our fate.

How to concentrate on a task you hate
Concentration is like balance in that it depends on constant recovery — to concentrate better, we can work on making recovery easier.

Don’t focus on the outcome, focus on the income
When a positive outcome is unlikely we can still trust in a positive “income,” which is to say a positive inner return.

Sustainable Optimism
If optimism is the conviction that everything is going to work out as we hope, then it’s not sustainable. What is sustainable is the confidence that we can always find an “envaluing” perspective.

How to conquer negativity
Negativity enters our thoughts through the vector of our self-reports; we can conquer it just by giving a broader and more neutral answer to the question “What am I doing right now?”

Freedom of memory
To connect with our true selves, we need to give ourselves the opportunity to remember our best moments as snapshots in time that are not clouded by the memory of whatever disappointments might have come next.

The paradox of desire
We might see desire as a motivator that propels us toward fulfillment, but desire itself might train us to be unfulfilled.

The critic vs. the advocate
Whenever we play the role of a critic, we should ask “How much risk am I willing to take to create the possibility of being delighted?”

Don’t regret, reroute!
We can learn from a GPS’s ability to immediately reroute without harping on mistakes made in the past.

Advice for a flow junkie
To the extent that you love being “in flow” you might hate being “out of flow.” But it’s what we do when we’re “out of flow” that creates the foundation for flow to happen again.

On keeping gratitude
Gratitude is something we have to work at maintaining. To do this we need to be aware of forces like anger that take it away.

10 keys to finishing
My best advice on how to finish a project.

Meditation, Personal Development

Life is not a project

It’s tempting to see life as one big project, because what is life full of? Projects.

Making dinner is a project. Finding love is a project. Getting a job is a project. Retiring is a project.

And what’s inside any project? Smaller projects. 

To make dinner you have to pick a recipe. Small project. Go food shopping. Small project. Chop the ingredients. Small project.

Improving our situation in any way, big or small, requires finishing a project.

If we’re hungry and want to enjoy that nice dinner we’ve started cooking, we’ve got to finish the project of cooking it. If we’re not happy with our home or our job, we’ve got to finish the project of finding a new one. Want to go on vacation? Planning it is a project and that project has to get done.

Life trains us to expect that happiness, relief, success, lies at the other end of a project because so often that’s true. In part.

No matter what our values and goals happen to be, no matter what kind of projects we choose to undertake, we’re still looking for gratification at the other end of a project, and sometimes we find it. In part.

One person’s current project might be selecting and acquiring a luxury wristwatch that they don’t urgently need because they have ten others. Another person’s project might be learning to play a beautiful passage on an old guitar that they had salvaged from a junkyard and painstakingly restored. To judge these two projects, one might seem like a greed-driven consumerist project, and the other might seem like a wholesome effort involving the cultivation of skill through dedicated practice, but there’s something the same about them: in both cases, gratification, contentment, satisfaction is imagined at the other end. I’ll be happy when I get that watch. I’ll be happy when I can play that beautiful passage.

To finish projects and acquire the rewards we seek, we have to stay focused on the goal. We have to maintain our pace in moving towards completion. We have to be an effective taskmaster.

Putting all this together, it’s easy to think that our current situation in life is synonymous with the state of our to-do list.

Our to-do list might have entries relating to each of the active projects in our life at the moment. That list represents everything we want to do, everything we have to do, everything we care about, everything we hate – it’s a picture of how we’re going to be spending our time in the coming days, weeks, and months. If life is indeed a project, then our to-do list is a reading of our life circumstance – it’s an indicator of how the project of our life is going right now.

And if that list is overwhelming and chaotic we might think that our life itself is in chaos, or somehow “off track.”

Naturally, the way to get our life back on track would be to get a grip on that to-do list, put the items in order and start checking them off faster.

When I see a burdensome task on my list, I sometimes think “I’ll feel better when I get this done.” And that has always seemed like a helpful thought, the kind of thought I’d want to cultivate, since it might motivate me to finish.

Similar to the project-oriented view of life is a game-oriented view. We might see life as a game where our current status depends on how many good things versus how many bad things have happened lately, how many points we’ve gained and lost from recent occurrences. A person might get up in the morning and think, “How am I doing?” The answer is, in effect: “The weather’s gloomy and that’s dragging me down: negative ten points. I got out of bed too late: negative fifteen points. The stuff I was working on yesterday didn’t get done: negative twenty points. I’ve got a bunch of annoying chores ahead of me: negative thirty points. But I get to have my coffee now: positive forty points.” 

The coffee helps, but we’re still in a point deficit. “How am I doing today? How am I feeling? I’m feeling like negative thirty-five points.”

Meditation can disrupt this view of life, especially if we do it in the morning. When we meditate, we allow thoughts to enter and leave our mind, but instead of pursuing them as we normally would, we aim to treat them with detachment. So we might still have the thought “The weather’s gloomy and that’s dragging me down,” but it no longer means “negative ten points.” If the same thought returns, perhaps it returns as “The weather’s gloomy,” without the conclusion that this is dragging us down. If it returns again, perhaps it comes as “The sky is cloudy.” This neutral framing opens up the possibility of other interpretations. Clouds mean that rain might come, and rain is good for farms, gardens, green things that grow. The neutral framing also opens the possibility of inner silence. “The sky is cloudy,” requires no followup, no further engagement. It is sufficiently inert that it can be acknowledged and allowed to fade from our consciousness altogether.

Such a process of detachment can be carried out with any thought at all, including the thought of the most pressing item on our task list. There might be an important meeting we have to attend in the late afternoon, but while we’re meditating in the early morning we can still find increasing detachment from the idea of that meeting until, perhaps, the idea doesn’t come into mind at all in the remaining time of our meditation session. Of course, this doesn’t mean we’re free from having to prepare for the meeting, arrive there, get through it and follow up – it just means that for a moment, on the very same day when that meeting is to occur, we can achieve a few moments when our mind is clear and free from any thought of that pending task.

If we do this routinely enough, we can find a kind of calm that’s always there, available beneath the crust of our thoughts, available regardless of what happens to be on our to-do list, what’s gotten delayed, what’s not working, what issues have just popped up, and what disasters we’re trying to prevent on any given day. It’s not always easy to achieve this calm, but once you’ve done it just once, you know it’s possible. And fundamentally it’s simple – it’s just about getting good at a mental technique of tuning everything out for a moment – everything but your breath.

And this brings the realization that maybe it’s been a mistake to pin “how we feel” on “how our projects are going.” Maybe it’s been a mistake to connect our mood, even our happiness to the state of our to-do list. Maybe it’s been a mistake to let things that happen to us give us points, and take those points away, as if calm were a reward or “game level” that could be unlocked by acquiring enough credit. 

What happens when we find detachment from the thought that “I’ll feel better after this project is done?”

We can see that this thought is like an advertisement. We’re advertising to ourselves that happiness awaits, if only we do what we’re trying to get ourselves to do.

The question is: why can’t I feel better right now, before the project is done? Why does happiness have to wait? Of course, the fear is that if I allowed myself to feel good now, I wouldn’t have the motivation to complete the project – there’d be nothing to get from it – I’d just slack off, feeling good and doing nothing at all. To be an effective taskmaster, we think we’ve got to constantly make such deals, withholding happiness now so we can promise it to ourself in the future.

But is that true? Maybe if I felt good now I’d do better work because I would approach the project with less anxiety and dependency? I’d approach the project from a standpoint of strength and confidence rather than from the idea that my happiness is the project’s hostage.

Last year I experienced two devastating losses in my immediate family. And one of the things I had to do after my loved ones passed away was to sort through boxes of their paperwork. And that meant boxes of to-do lists. Schedules. Calendars. Doctors reports with followup tests and appointments listed. Printouts of emails about things to be done, dates to be remembered, items to complete.

These tasks were the stuff of life – they were important and meaningful – and they needed to be done.

But going through them drove home the lesson – what’s at the other end of your to-do list?


That’s what’s at the other end of the long, long to-do list of life, conceived as a project.

But if you accept that life is not a project, it follows that getting through your to-do list is not what’s going to make you happy. Any time you say “I’ll be so much happier when this is done,” think again. Allow yourself happiness now. Then look for another reason to do it, besides the promise of happiness deferred.

Life trains us to think in terms of projects and outcomes because we need to finish projects and achieve specific outcomes to survive, to improve, to prosper, to realize our potential.

But it’s up to us to balance this project-based “training” with a habit, a practice of accepting contentment, allowing for contentment, manifesting contentment wherever possible.

We can try to flip the “game” of life around in such a way that we give ourselves points for allowing contentment.

“How am I doing?” The answer might be, “The weather’s gloomy and that’s dragging me down: That would normally be negative ten points. But I can be content in any case, so I get positive ten for that. I got out of bed too late. That would be negative fifteen points. But I realize I’m still alright, so positive fifteen. The stuff I was working on yesterday didn’t get done: that would be negative twenty points. But I’m practicing contentment and I’m not going to postpone a peaceful state of mind because of all that stuff. So that’s positive twenty.”

We can certainly see life as a project with a beginning and an end, consisting of many smaller projects with their own beginnings and ends.

But we can also see life as a process of connecting and reconnecting to a source of peace and happiness that lies within us and remains within us through shifting circumstances, always available if we know where to look. For some people this might mean connecting with God, or a universal consciousness, and for others it might simply mean connecting with a silence, a quiet space inside the self.

None of this is to say that we don’t need projects, that we don’t need to start and finish them, that we don’t need to take them seriously all the while. It just means that we can find calm, we can accept calm as those projects are going on, even before they’re finished, even regardless of whether those projects succeed, even no matter whether our goals and dreams, our desired outcomes are achieved. Is that so radical?

Improvisation, Meditation, Music

Reconsidering Background Noise

One of my longstanding frustrations as a musician is that I don’t have access to silence. I should say, I don’t have easy, convenient access to silence – if I want it, I have to find it, I have to travel to it. I have privacy in my house, but not silence. I live in a city, next to an airport, on a harbor, so whenever I sit down to practice, there are planes rumbling overhead. There are neighbors talking on the street. There are cars driving by. There are car alarms going off. There are fog horns. There are seagulls. There are motorboats. There are doves. There are things that beep outside. There are things that beep inside. Appliances, a dishwasher, a refrigerator. I might hear the front door to my building being opened and closed by a neighbor, the sound of feet rushing this way and that. There are radios outside. Dogs barking. Soccer balls being kicked. Construction vehicles groaning. I’m living in a sea of noise. Not the calming noise of a forest, but the jarring, grating noise of an industrial city.

When I sit down to practice guitar, I’m annoyed by all this noise. I wish it weren’t there. I think of someday when I’m going to have a practice space that’s truly quiet. Someday. As for now, I’d rather block out the sound. Tune it out. Get lost in my instrument. Get lost in the music I’m making. Forget about the outside world, and focus only on the world of sound I’m creating.

And guess what? I can do that. I’ve been doing that for years. After playing for a few minutes, I stop hearing the background noise. It doesn’t bother me anymore. It only becomes a problem when I set up a microphone and try to record; otherwise it fades from my awareness. (It usually fades, unless there’s a really loud radio playing somewhere, and then I just have to give up.) 

So I’ve got an effective way of coping with unwanted noise, effective enough that it lets me survive and carry on. I’ve been coping like this for a really long time. That’s why an experiment I tried today has been such a revelation.

The idea is to sit down with my instrument and not play immediately. Sit down and not play. Instead, listen. For minutes. That means listening to background noise. It means exploring my own awareness of the soundscape, to see how many different sounds I can notice. How many details can I hear? If there’s an airplane buzzing in the sky, is it a high-pitched whir, a low rumble, something in between? What direction is it moving? Is it masking the sound of a second airplane that’s flying in a different direction?

The next step is to begin to play, but do it quietly, in a way where I can hear the sound of my instrument blending with the sounds in the background. In a way where I’m listening to both of them at once. The goal is to play quietly enough that my instrument becomes a minor, inconspicuous element that’s being mixed into the random, busy ambient noise that surrounds me.

Gradually, I can begin playing louder and more actively, all while trying to keep the background noise at the forefront of my awareness, rather than tuning it out. When I get to a level of involvement in my own playing that I’m no longer able to hear the background noise, that’s a time to pause, ease up, reduce the intensity, listen closer, and reconnect with the ambient soundscape.

Why is this experiment such a revelation? Some reasons:

  1. All of a sudden, I’m not starting my practice with a sense of annoyance and a desire to be somewhere else, somewhere quieter. I’m starting with presence. I’m starting with curiosity. I’m starting with openness.
  2. When I listen in a more omnidirectional way, giving my attention equally to all the sounds I can hear, it turns out I can hear my own instrument better. I can notice things in my playing that I’ve never noticed before. The “tuning out” of background noise has a side-effect that some details of my playing also get “tuned out,” but when I stop tuning anything out, there’s more detail I can hear all around.
  3. When I listen very closely to background noise and then I hear my instrument in that context, even one note from the instrument can sound amazingly beautiful and satisfying. The background noises are random, chaotic, uncontrolled, intentionless. To hear those noises and then to hear the sound of just one guitar string, or a few strings making a chord, is an experience of order and cohesion. Had I been tuning out the background noise, fighting against “unwanted” sounds, then my posture of struggle would cause me to expect more from my own instrument – I wouldn’t find so much beauty in a single note of my own making. That note wouldn’t be sufficient to impress me. But if I’m in a posture of openness, if I’m listening closely to the noises that I’d usually tune out, then I’ll be able to perceive the radiance, the intention, the intoxicating beauty of one single note from my instrument, without needing more to “be impressed.”
  4. I’m encouraged to play in a lighter way, with more space, less force, so I can continue to hear the ambient soundscape. It’s when I’m fighting against that unwanted soundscape that I feel the urge to loudly project in a way that drowns it out. If I’m working with the soundscape, then my focus is on blending rather than projection. Smaller gestures, quieter sounds seem to matter more.
  5. As I continue to play, I find that the background noises are not a responsive or reliable improvisational partner. I might get used to the sound of a jackhammer in the distance, for example, and I might even respond to that sound somehow in my own improvisation, but then the jackhammer will stop, all of a sudden. I might reach a critical moment in my own improvisation, a climax, a special harmony, but the background noises won’t acknowledge this event – they won’t care. They’re not “listening” to me. They might get louder and drown out my special moment, or might randomly fade away as if they had suddenly “left the party” just as I was becoming engaged, or they might keep going just as they had been all along – there’s no way to predict what they’ll do.  So the background noises give me a chance to notice my own expectations, and to practice letting those expectations go. Can I continue listening to the background noises even if they’re not listening to me and not responding in the way I’d hope? Can I live and let live? Can I still make some beautiful sounds in a context that doesn’t acknowledge them? Can I use that chaotic context to help me find meaning in the organized sounds that come from my own instrument?
Meditation, Personal Development

Are you lucky when you take a deep breath?

In the middle of a busy day, or simply in the middle of a busy series of thoughts, if you remember to stop and take a deep, calming breath, are you lucky? If you can focus exclusively on one inhale and one exhale, tuning out the rest of the world for that particular moment, you’ve gained an advantage. There’s a benefit of relaxation and awareness that’s now yours. And if you weren’t consciously planning to take the breath – but rather the idea of it spontaneously emerged in mind – then there’s a sense in which this opportunity was given to you, rather than being something you created. So yes, there’s reason to consider yourself lucky: you are the beneficiary of an unanticipated gift.

But whether this fact is wholesome or not, our perceptions of luck often depend on exclusivity and scarcity. Luck is comparative – we feel lucky in comparison to other people. We feel lucky when we happen upon some valuable object or opportunity that most people don’t have. If you find a twenty-dollar bill on the street you’ll probably feel lucky, based on the assumption that you’re the only person who found anything there. Everyone else saw cigarette butts and bubblegum wads when they looked down at the concrete sidewalk, but the lone twenty saved itself for you! But if you later learn that most of the other pedestrians, walking that same street around the same time as you, had each found a hundred-dollar bill, then you’d start to feel unlucky. What a shame that you found a measly twenty! What did you do to deserve this bad luck?

Consider the device that’s probably in your pocket right now, a “smart phone” that would have appeared to any observer in the 1960s as an unimaginably powerful and miraculous supercomputer. The Beatles didn’t have supercomputers like the one you have. World leaders with nuclear codes didn’t have supercomputers like the one you have. Are you lucky to have that supercomputer now? Maybe, sort of, but the fact that everyone you know also has one makes it less notable, less worthy of an ecstatic feeling.

If that’s how luck tends to be seen – if a good thing is only truly “lucky” if it’s not widely possessed by the people in your orbit – what does that mean for the deep breath you suddenly remembered to take? Does remembering to take it still make you lucky?

There’s a case to be made that yes, it still does.

If you take a deep breath right now, you’ve joined a small group of people taking deep breaths across the world at this same fleeting but irrevocable instant in human history, a group that’s likely smaller than one percent of the world population.

Really, how many people are taking a deep, conscious, calming breath at any particular moment? Look around you, how many do you see? The ones who are doing it, across the world, are either meditating, or doing yoga, or simply engaging in a personal mindfulness practice — but that’s a vanishingly small group. Probably a third of the world population is asleep at any given time, so their breaths are not conscious and intentional. But most of the two-thirds of people who are currently awake are probably just consumed with their lives. They get up, go to work, stay caught up in work, go home, get caught up in what’s going on at home, then go to sleep. Some people have time to play — lucky them — but they’re caught up in play. In either case, they’re unaware of their breathing. Indeed, some of them have never been aware of it, never learned to take a deep breath at all.

Pick a person you know — a typical person, an “average” person. What’s the chance that right now, at this very moment, they’re practicing breath awareness? Not that high, right? So if you’re doing it right now, you’re probably a one-percenter. You’re in the small minority of people experiencing the benefit that comes from a deep, slow, calm, conscious breath. You’re lucky. You’re part of the privileged few. Embrace it. Be a one-percenter. More often!

Personal Development

10 reasons to quit my phone

When I take out my phone out of habit or anxiety or boredom, not including those atypical cases where I require my phone’s services for some pressing practical reason, here is what I’m actually doing:

ONE: I’m voting to devalue the present. I’m saying I’m not happy with where I am and how I feel at the moment. I’m affirming that I’d rather be somewhere else.

TWO: I’m playing the lottery. I’m rolling the dice. I’m hoping I’ll win the jackpot and receive, out-of-the-blue, an email that offers me the job I want, or a text that praises me in the way I want to be praised. I’m hoping I’ll read a news story that introduces me to a fact that’s so riveting and transformative that it releases me from the everyday burdens of my life.

THREE: I’m choosing disembodiment. At any instant, I can move in the direction of being more connected, or less connected to my physical self. If I’m using my phone, I’m choosing to be less connected to my physical self.

FOUR: I’m choosing avoidance. What am I avoiding?

FIVE: I’m deferring calm. I’m saying that I can’t fully relax until the email arrives or the text comes through that I’m waiting for. I can’t settle down until the news story is updated. So I will check again, and again later.

SIX: I’m sacrificing intention. I’m saying I don’t want to figure out what to do on my own, so please, phone, please give me something to latch on to.

SEVEN: I’m ignoring my “inner news.” I’m saying that world news, or social media noise, is more important than the “news” I could ascertain by tuning into myself and my physical surroundings.

EIGHT: I’m training myself to be less present for others. I’m getting myself addicted to a level of effortless stimulation that people rarely provide. I’m making it harder to connect with other people face-to-face and I’m making it harder for them to connect with me.

NINE: I’m eating a high-calorie dessert. For the thirtieth time in a day. And expecting to feel OK. Instead of doing one more “rep” of the exercise of concentration.

TEN: I’m using a sadness machine. And I’m blindly expecting the sadness machine to produce something other than sadness.

But if I choose not to take out my phone, I can celebrate, because I’ve avoided all that. I’ve bypassed all of those many traps, all those many spiraling vortices of despair. And it wouldn’t be totally unreasonable to fantasize the people in my life cheering as well – because they’ll be getting a bit more of my presence and attention thanks to this choice. And if I think of the projects I’m working on, I can imagine those projects “rejoicing” too, because they’ll be getting better concentration from me. And if I think of my future self, he’s thanking me and saying, you did good just now.

Notes: For more on this topic, I recommend the book The Power Of Off by Nancy Colier. The lottery analogy in point TWO is adapted from there. The book A World Without Email by Cal Newport is also informative.