Listen to Your Body

Whenever I haven’t worked out for a week or two, I can feel my heart beating a little harder when I lay down at night. There’s a bigger rhythmic thud in my chest. And if I have an ear buried in the pillow I can hear and feel my pulse in my head more than usual. A more noticeable heartbeat and pulse have become a clear signal that I need to get back to exercising regularly. If I’ve been lazy, or have lost track about how long it’s actually been since the last time, I’m more aware now of ways my body is telling me where I’m at.

Perhaps you get similar messages. From your heart or the tightness of your chest. Jitteriness, shortness of breath, or a general feeling of anxiety. Aching muscles and tendons. Rumbling and popping in your digestive system. Difficulty getting your mind to focus on more than simple, short things. Headaches and bags under your eyes. The color of your pee and the (ab)normality of your poop. (Yeah…poop. You know about the Bristol stool scale, right?)

All of these things–and more–are signals of how your body is doing and what needs attention. How near or far you are to being balanced and healthy. The fewer, more regular signals you have, the more likely you are well off. If every inch of your body hurts, or you feel like you could close your eyes and pass out, you need to slow down and heal.

The signals are not always easy to detect or interpret. Maybe you don’t feel something until you turn a certain way or lie down. Some signals can be unfamiliar until you look into it a little more. You need to do a bit of Googling or ask professionals what’s going on–while making sure you keep cyberchondria in check. Other signals you only begin to pick up on clearly when you do some kind of mindfulness or meditative practice that gets you more in tune with yourself. Things like stress, worry, or sleep deprivation can drown signals out completely.

The causes behind the signals are not always obvious either. Am I short of breath because I’m out of shape? Because I’m at a different altitude than usual? Because I forgot to eat before I had coffee? Because I freaked the hell out when I thought I saw a giant spider 20 minutes ago?

But even asking such probing questions at all is a revealing and meaningful start. Ultimately, the signals are there so we can do something about what we’ve put our body through. The food and drink that goes in, the sleep and rest we make time for, the stressors we’re being bombarded with, and the things in the environment around us that are impinging on our cells. The signals have a source, and if we can identify the cause then we know what to change or adjust to find balance again. Emotions are their own special kind of signal, often revealing where we’re at with our relationships and attachments.

Every so often, I get lightheaded and have a harder time concentrating and spitting sentences out. I put it together a while back that it happens when I didn’t eat a big enough meal or the right combination of food. In those instances, I need to stop what I’m doing and find some applesauce or a handful of gummy bears. After that, I can feel my energy and focus come back online, like WALL-E after soaking up the sun’s rays. I’m glad I’ve got that signal figured out now.

So listen to your body. Try to be aware of the signals it’s sending, and figure out what’s causing them. We’re all meant to have balance, energy, strength, and focus. Homeostasis. Listening to your body will help you understand what you need to do to get there.

You Are Not Your Job

Work is the nexus of activity and identity for millions of people. The standard workweek in the United States is 40 hours—almost a fourth of the total time in a week—with many people exceeding 40 hours per week. And, however much we may try to avoid it, jobs bleed into the hours when we’re not on the clock, too. There are things to get done and commuting before work (with occasional time-stealing black holes of dread). Plans, commuting home, and various ways of unwinding and recuperating after work. And days off (from work) where we attempt to rest and play hard in the downtime before work starts again.

Time is frequently organized around jobs with periods of ramping up before and cooling down after. It can be difficult to start and stop work without any carryover. Especially at a time when work texts, emails, and phone calls can interrupt at any time. Thanks, smartphones.

We regularly describe ourselves in profiles and to other people as a teacher, a barista, a musician, a small-business owner, and so forth. Or if we don’t currently have a job, as unemployed, a freelancer, a job-seeker, or retired. We talk about who we are as the job we have, the work we used to do, or the job we wish we had.

The way we spend and organize much of our time, and how we view and describe our own identity, is in relation to work.

Work, of course, is the way people make money—the predominant way we conceive of and exchange value in the world. Few people are in a position to chose not to work. Homes, food, transportation, education, healthcare, and more, all require quite a bit of money. And so most of us are forced to sell a large chunk our time, energy, and talent as labor for someone else, with the result that a lot of what we do in a given week and how we think about our lives is centered around that work. It’s almost natural to identify who you are with your job—given how much time it entails and the value (income, primarily) you get from it.

A lucky few get value beyond income. Relationships that transcend co-worker, or character growth, or personal satisfaction. But the percentage of people who really like their job is very small. Most of us do not and will not work the job of our dreams. Instead, we sell ourselves to do some combination of tolerable tasks and sheer drudgery. If you define yourself by your work and you don’t find your job meaningful, think your company or job responsibilities are embarrassing or intolerable, or you don’t make enough money to actually live off, your sense of identity and self-worth are going to be pretty shitty.

If you are working your dream job—fantastic. You are indeed lucky. But even those who are could suddenly lose it. Strongly identifying with your job doesn’t leave anything else to define yourself by if things change. And we’re all familiar with real or fictional stories of the workaholic who ruins their life and the lives of others by doing nothing but work.

It’s as cliche as an inspirational quote book to recognize that life is much more than the money you make, the job title you have, or the business you work for. But the overwhelming obligation and influence of work make it difficult to keep perspective. We have to remind ourselves that there are other forms of value than money–forms that are rarely achieved in workplaces today. And remind ourselves that work is something we do rather than who we are. Life is not merely for laboring for pay until you retire or die—though it can definitely feel that way.

Life is for discovery and pushing the boundaries of who you are as a person. To do our best to live well in a holistic sense. We need to make our actual selves the center: our emotions, relationships, interests, and potentials. Not what we do to get paid. It can be difficult to do that, but not impossible.

Most of us need to get better at how we use what we call free time or leisure. The typical impulse when we have time to do whatever we want is to veg out. But leisure is not necessarily a lazy or unproductive thing (unproductive–there’s another work reference butting into the rest of our lives). Leisure, when it’s done well, has a self-enriching and value-creating result. Maybe you watch an hour or two of Netflix because you feel like you need it. But then you move on to messing around on an instrument for awhile. Or to baking or cooking. Hiking. Coloring. Reading. Building. Or some other activity that challenges you in healthy ways and gives you a rich sense of purpose and identity. The contrast between some repetitive drudgery you do at work and the deep flow and meaning you experience doing something like hiking or composing a song is striking. But the contrast doesn’t exist if you always choose to veg out instead of exploring your interests and potentials.

Free time is also for relationships. A crucial part of who you are is being a friend, a mother, a brother, a spouse. There can be a temptation to veg out when we spend time with others, too. Like going out to get mindlessly wasted together instead of doing something that actually deepens the bond you share. Maybe it’s a couple nice drinks in a place where you can have a long conversation. Or going to the gym together. Or cooking a multi-course feast and losing track of time enjoying it. Leisure is often better when it’s with others, and it can be a shared way of upholding and expanding identity and self-worth.

And leisure is also good for getting your emotional self and internal monologue on track. Much of it happens as a byproduct of doing the right kinds of activities with the right people. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to do some self-reflection or meditation. It allows you to process through emotions, anxiety, crazy thoughts and bad narratives running through your brain, and things in need of healing. For me, yoga is an important part of my free time. But if something like that is too much, maybe it’s as simple as sitting on the couch without any noise or distractions, breathing deep and slow, and paying attention to what comes to the surface. What kinds of emotions do you feel? What are your heart rate and stress levels like? What kinds of hurts do you notice? Meaningful free time includes healing and restoration.

As long as our economic and social structures remain as they are, most of us will have to continue to devote big pieces of our lives to jobs. But we shouldn’t define ourselves by them. While we keep a post-work future on the horizon, we can be more intentional with our free time. Then the right things are at the center of how we think about who we are and how we grow over time. You are not your job or the job you don’t have. You are a human being—more expansive and interesting than anything you do for a paycheck can contain.

A World of Hurt

Our bodies are shaped and altered by our experiences.

There’s a scar on my left ring finger that runs from the top knuckle through the nail. Anytime the scar catches my attention, the memory of the injury that caused it flashes into my mind. Here I am carving a stick with my pocketknife at summer camp as a teenager. One second, everything’s fine. The next, there’s a deep gash down the middle of my finger and red beads of blood dripping onto the dirt below.

When the memory pops back into my brain, it’s vivid–like I’ve traveled back in time. The place I was sitting. The trees. The streaks of sun beaming between them. My finger throbbing and anxiety starting to rise. The hike from where I was to the medic on the other side of the camp. Sights and feelings and even smells from years ago return. Crazy how a little scar can do that.

Each of us carries the stress, body blows, and trauma from our past. Everything from short-lasting irritations like kitchen burns and poison ivy to the deep, long-term effects of abusive family members or struggling to pay the bills. They leave physical marks and psychological wounds.

Bags under the eyes. Cuts, scrapes, and scars. Cavities, hangovers, and extra pounds in the midsection from emotional eating and drinking. Shortness of breath. A weakened immune system. Trouble concentrating. Self-doubt. Depression. Feeling guarded or on edge. And many other impressions and effects.

We are natural, physical beings. We have these strange and fascinating flesh-and-blood bodies. We are not indestructible. Nor do we float through the world as untouchable, immaterial spirits. Sticks and stones do break you. And words–in fact–hurt, too. Sometimes a single word from a certain person in a certain situation feels like a punch in the gut.

Our experiences change us inside and out. Hopefully, there are plenty of good experiences that change us for the better. It is universally human, though, that through the course of our lives we will live through a world of hurt. Things we didn’t ask for or want. Some heal soon afterward and are mostly forgettable (like a careless knife gash at summer camp). Others linger and fester and undermine our ability to function. After some hurts, it’s hard to go on at all.

As flesh-and-blood creatures shaped by an endless variety of hurts, there’s a deep need for each of us to really know ourselves so that we can move forward. Where we’re at and how we got here.

How do you feel right now? Content? Deflated? Energetic? Weak? Flexible, light, and free? Or tight, heavy, and aching? Do you have cuts and bruises in the midst of healing? New wrinkles in the corners of your face? A racing heartbeat? Has someone’s cruelness thrown you off track?

When we more clearly see what all of the different hurts we’ve experienced have done to us, we’ll better understand what needs to heal so we can find wholeness. Oftentimes, we need people we love and trust to help us fully see and recover. No one can go it alone–especially when you’re wounded.

It’s hard to be human. We each go through many unique hurts. With over 7 billion people on the planet, that’s a lot of damage in need of healing. How can you and I encourage each other’s healing instead of increasing the damage?

This Week in Upgrades: February 20

Hey, hey! Mondays can be rough, so I hope you’re hanging in there today. If you’re feeling stressed out, you’re not alone. Americans just broke the American Psychological Association’s anxiety meter.There’s a lot of tension, confusion, and struggle all around. Let’s be patient and supportive with each other, yeah?

Were you braving nature’s fury this week? This is some insane wind in North Carolina. We got absolutely pummeled with rain here in California. Couldn’t do much else but stay at home and watch the new season of Chef’s Table (which I was OK with).

Here’s some more of the most interesting things I saw this week…

Trillions of clicks later, we’re thoroughly immersed in a culture of the Like button. It “did a lot of things it set out to do…and had a lot of unintended consequences.”

Did you see that #HurtBae video? Why do we get sucked into watching other people’s pain?

Already thinking about the weekend? Plan on shutting yourself in at home with a nice drink? There’s a word for that.

That’s just unfair.

Here’s the latest on universal basic income, which I’ve talked about previously. Seems to be gaining interest. We’ll see how things work out in Finland.

Los Angeles has so much light pollution that you can’t see many stars at night. But a 1994 power outage allowed them to shine through, and Angelenos basically thought the Milky Way was an alien invasion. How can we reclaim our connection to the night sky?

Keeping tabs on the sea ice: record lows at both poles. NBD.

Did you catch the premiere of Planet Earth IIOur planet is pretty awesome.

Here’s another reason to ditch fossil fuels: a study has linked prevalence of a type of leukemia with living near oil wells.

Asking the hard question to get important answers: Why do so many Americans fear Muslims?

It’s 75 years later, and we haven’t seemed to learn the lessons of the mass internment of Japanese Americans.

Neature: Yosemite’s firefall is blissful.

Hope you have a calm, rewarding week.

How to Adult: Sleep

For something that takes up about a third of our lives, it’s surprising that sleep is still rather mysterious. It’s not fully clear why we need it the way we need it. There are people who have died from lack of sleep. There are researchers trying to “hack” human biology so that some people–for example, soldiers–are able to function reasonably well for several days at a time without any. And others, including the current GOP presidential nominee, brag about how little sleep they require. Do you have one of those people in your workplace?

We all know what it feels like when we get a really good night of sleep. But it’s not always apparent what led to sleeping so well. Was it the right amount of hours? Going to bed at the right time? Avoiding alcohol and caffeine before going to sleep? Because you were able to sleep in?

Even if we don’t fully understand why we sleep, there are definitely some steps toward improving it.

For starters, four or five hours is probably too little. Ideal hours vary with age, and surely from person to person also. But even for older adults, who require less sleep than children, the bare minimum is probably about 6 hours. Four hours plus three cups of coffee is unlikely to allow for full rest overnight and good brain function during the day–even though it might feel like you’re doing OK. And we’re finding out that it’s actually dangerous to your health to think that you can “catch up” on sleep on the weekend or other days that you can sleep in.

The hours you sleep need to be deep sleep, as you’ve probably figured out. A huge hindrance to that in the age of smartphones is our screen time leading right into bedtime. The lighting of smartphones and other devices actually tricks the brain into thinking it’s daytime–making it harder to fall asleep and achieve restorative, REM sleep. Many people sleep with their phone right next to them, and any kind of sound or vibration doesn’t help either. Smartphones are the epitome of an always on, always connected society. That’s not a friendly condition for achieving good sleep.

Getting the hours on a regular schedule also seems to be especially important. It helps your body lock into a consistent rhythm of waking and sleeping. Alert when you’re usually up; asleep when you’re usually in bed. We need that usually to be as consistent as possible.

So how can you start to put these things together in a practical way?

Try to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day. The rhythm and length are clearly important. As you start to get closer to regular going to sleep and waking up times, think about how your body is responding to the number of hours that you slept. Do you feel better with 7 than with 8? Does it seem like your body might need something more like 9 to be your best? Having regularity will give you a feel for how much sleep is right for you.

Have a ritual when you go to bed. Start working on shutting off phones and other tech a little while before you think you might climb into bed so that your brain can unwind from the screen activity and other stimuli. Make sure your bed is a haven of rest and relaxation: good pillows, regularly cleaned sheets and blankets, good room temperature, and all that. My wife and I have experimented a bit with essential oils and salt lamps, and things like that can definitely help you relax and sink into sleep. There’s an old rule for many that the bed is for sleeping and sex–nothing else. Maybe you need to give that rule a try.

In the morning, don’t hit the snooze button! Time and again, sleep research has shown that this significantly ruins your rest rather than adding to it. Maybe you need to establish a morning ritual too that gives you an enjoyable reason to get out of bed: a tall glass of cool water, making some coffee, climbing in the shower, going for a walk, meditation, whatever. Just don’t grab for your phone right away. It may be tempting, but it’s the wrong kind of engagement with the world when your brain isn’t even fully alert yet.

Are these things easy? Of course not. A night of too much drinking, 2am texts, or stressing about life can easily ruin the best sleep intentions. And going to bed with too few hours before your alarm is set to go off, or sleeping in late on a Saturday, can throw you way out of rhythm–even (or especially) if you had rhythm for several days beforehand.

But intention is an important place to start. This week, see if you can get your bedtimes and waking times to occur around the same hour or two each day. Maybe one night you go sleep at 10:30pm, and the next, 12:15am. Then you can work on narrowing it to something like between 11pm-12am every night. That’s better than 10pm some nights and 3am others.

I’ve found that I feel pretty great with about 7 hours of sleep–around 11pm to 6am. Give me a nice cup of coffee at 7:30ish when I’ve been up for a bit, and I feel ready to tackle most anything the day can throw at me.

Because even if we don’t fully understand sleep yet, you’re going to spend a third of your life doing it and the other two-thirds either buoyant or in agony based on how you spent the sleeping third. You might as well try to get some good sleep. You deserve it.


Yoga: It’s More than the Pants

As a younger me, I did not in a million years think that I would ever get into yoga. In college, as many classmates and coworkers began to find their way into studios every week, I wondered what exactly was so appealing about methodical stretching and deep breathing. Yoga is bodily in the fullest sense. Practitioners often show up in minimal clothing, are in close proximity to one another, and fill up the room with sweat and the occasional aromas of flatulence, active feet, and old mat. To this day, I much prefer to do yoga at home by myself for those reasons alone. The introvert in me is entirely uncomfortable being that unfiltered with other people. Maybe that’s irreverent. I apologize to the hardcore yogis committed to judgement-free group work in the studio.

I’m decidedly low-key and solo. I haven’t received extensive instruction on the asanas–the poses. I don’t do yoga because I’m seeking spiritual enlightenment or a transcendent experience. I have a DVD and a mat in my living room at home that I take out a few times a week. Close the blinds and begin. And the DVD? It’s a “power yoga” course from the 90s that is so 90s: saxophone and synth dad-music, original VHS-quality video, and cutoff jean shorts for workout wear. Just watch some of this! The first dozen times I used it I went back and forth between calm focus and hysterical laughter. The most-sensitive-man-in-the-world intro still gets me every time.

I think when I see that unintentional comedy it helps me shake free of the crazy things that happened during the day. And then begins the stretching and breathing stuff, which is unexpectedly powerful. How can something so simple and mundane be so beneficial and transformative? I find myself grateful for giving the seemingly uninteresting practice of yoga a very open-minded chance, and the purchase of a random DVD to try doing it regularly on my own. Serendipity is a wonderful and amusing thing sometimes.

Now, I get frustrated at myself when I go a week without yoga. On vacation, I’ve gone into the corner room where we’re staying and played the same accidentally hilarious video on my phone just to make sure I do a little bit. Why is this?

There’s an incredible thing that happens when you push the pause button on everything else in the world a few times a week. The whole be present in the present mentality is overflowing with a sense of silly spirituality, but there are some profound things that happen to you when you eliminate busyness and distractions and just be for a little while. No phone, no work, no social pressure. I’ve come to realize how much I need that. Now I long for that recharge and clarity through the week.

Yoga also presents physical challenges that compel me to keep coming back. Even if you do the exact same set of poses each time, you can always go a little deeper. With each position, you’re working at the edge of increased flexibility, strength, balance, and calm. I would not be surprised to find that one of the reasons yoga is so engaging for mind and body is because it puts you into so-called flow. You’re challenged just enough that you can rise to the occasion, and every time you complete another session you feel a little stronger and a little more whole. I’ve been doing yoga regularly for a couple years now since stumbling into it, and I can honestly say that I have more energy, sleep better, have less body pain, and feel better prepared to tackle what the day throws at me because of it. That’s no small thing.

Give it a try. Get some cool ass pants if it helps. You feel like a rockstar with yoga pants on. Based on how often they’re worn in public, apparently a lot of people think they’re made for feeling like a rockstar when you go shopping. I can tell you that if you do wear them around town you’re probably going to feel even better in them if you actually do yoga. That incremental increase in strength, flexibility, and the rest, leads to an increase in body confidence as well. You feel good and look good. This is a whole-body thing in a very tangible way.

Get an awesome retro yoga DVD. Or sign up for a class in your neighborhood (if you can handle bodies without boundaries).

Whatever it takes to commit, I promise it’s worth it. We all could use a bit less stress and anxiety, exercise that we actually look forward to doing a few times a week, and regular recharge and refocus. To my great surprise, yoga is an excellent way to achieve it.


How to Adult: Growing Up

As someone who has worked with and managed twenty- and thirty-somethings for the last several years, I have experienced on a daily basis what the spectrum of this emerging, majority of society is like. In some ways, it’s probably not all that different from what characterized budding adults in the 60s or more recent decades.

Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson have given way to Justin Bieber and Kendrick Lamar, of course. But still, some people jump into a serious full-time job at 18; others go to college, and school after that schooling. Some are looking to get in long-term relationships–perhaps even marriage–right away, and focus on starting a family; others are eager to venture out on their own and explore.

Some find it easy to live independently and self-sufficiently; others trip and fall flat on their face trying to figure out the ins and outs of everyday life. How do you do laundry, again?

There are a number of things that will probably remain learning experiences and rites of passage as long as there are people on earth. At bottom, we’re not that different from each other.

But as the world rapidly changes around them, so-called Millennials are experiencing profound new transitions and even the erosion of some longstanding stepping stones toward growing up. A college degree now is essentially equivalent to a high school diploma for Baby Boomers, so if an 18-year-old decides not to go to college, that can potentially close a lot of doors. Even so, college degrees are now so ubiquitous that much of the job market consists of opportunities that pay less or are less dignified than what Millennials are bringing to the table. Overqualification is not good for the psyche or the bank account.

As a result, instead of clear-cut independence from 18 or so through the rest of their lives, huge chunks of society are leaning on family for support–especially parents–well into or throughout adulthood. A Pew study in 2014 found that over a third of women and more than 40% percent of men 18-34 were living with their parents. Sharing a home with parents and being an adult are no longer as mutually exclusive as they had long been.

So, many Millennials are dependents, to some degree, for much longer. And, arguably, they’ve been limited–by society or their own choice–to learn what it means to become independent and more fully grown up.

If Dad’s really good at cooking dinner, and the ‘rents are paying for groceries, why think about what it takes to make a meal plan for the week or worry about paying for the ingredients?

If you’re still covered by your parents health insurance, why worry about finding your own doctors when you can just ask Mom to make an appointment for you with the same person you’ve been seeing since you were born? And when their insurance stops covering you, you can just stop making medical visits altogether. You’re young and invincible, right? Some over-the-counter stuff should handle it if anything bad happens.

As a 30-year-old, I have watched time and again–people a little younger than me or a little older than me–make boneheaded decisions about how they take care of themselves or how they operate in the world. I’m sure others have watched me and thought the same. My wife handles most of the finances because my laissez-faire approach wasn’t working too well when I was in charge. Still figuring out how money works.

For young adults who are astonishingly savvy when it comes to other things like culture, it seems like the only explanation is that we’ve got too many people that are not growing into flourishing adults because the training wheels keep getting put back on. Society is letting Millennials down, so we allow the security blanket of childhood to be wrapped around them again–all the while deflating their motivation and expectation for full development.

Before anyone who’s older than a Millennial gets judgmental or thinks this doesn’t apply to them, ask yourself if there’s anything in your life you’ve still got the training wheels on for?

Are there difficult conversations you need to have with your spouse, your child, a co-worker, or someone else, but you avoid it? Do you skip regular medical visits because you might find out something with your body or your lifestyle that’s cause for concern? Do you have indulgent coping mechanisms–alcohol, binge-watching TV, secret obsessions–that probably aren’t good for you but sedate you from your daily stress? Do you have anything you’ve always wanted to do that would bring more fulfillment to your life, but you’re too afraid to try?

Growing up is ongoing at any age. Not just bodily–physical aging is inevitable–but of deepening who you are as a person. Growing up is a continuous process of trying to become a better version of yourself.

We can choose not to do it if we want to.

There are plenty of middle-aged guys who put sports jerseys on and go to the bar in nearly the same routine they were going through in their early twenties. There are plenty of Millennials who pack up and head back to their parents’ house as soon as things get a bit hard. Maybe it just feels too comfortable to think about doing anything else. Maybe it’s a sort of Peter Pan defiance.

And we’ve probably all experienced moments when we wanted to become a better version of ourselves, but the people and things around us wouldn’t allow for it.

A family member treats you the same way they did 10 years ago, even though you’ve become infinitely more mature, intelligent, and experienced than you were then.

You have over $100,000 in student debt with an entry level job, so you have no choice but to ask for the grace to stay with family or friends for now.

You get stereotyped, harassed, ignored, or rejected, based on your resume or your gender or your ethnicity or your hobbies or a million other things…

Those are deeply rooted obstacles in society and human nature that need a lot of attention and improvement, and probably will for a long time. They’re ingrained and institutionalized.

But things like laundry, cooking, being able to carry a meaningful conversation with anyone, and balancing a budget, and waking up on time, and making smart decisions for your health, and being kind, and learning how to appreciate and respect difference, and putting other people’s needs before your own, and much more, are all within your control. There are a lot of things that you can and should decide to take on, wrestle with, and gain wisdom about. They will make you into a better version of yourself.

We all need to keep growing up–whether you’re a 22-year-old Millennial or a golden 90-year-old.

This Week in Upgrades: December 5

RIP to the understatement. Welcome to death by Internet hyperbole.”

Amazon is serious about Prime Air.

What does loneliness do to our bodies?

The health benefits of running are not hard to achieve.

The stress of holidays with family is an expectations-versus-reality problem.

Are “ultra-safe” playgrounds stunting children’s growth?

Why are end-of-year lists so popular?

The United States has an unsustainable meat addiction.

The rise of self-driving cars will likely bring an end to car ownership. I’m OK with that.

MTV wants to call the generation after Millennials Founders. No pressure. (Also, does MTV still carry that kind of cultural weight?)

“The baby market is essentially a commodity market.” Having a baby makes you susceptible to a whole new consumerist trap.

This bandage will glow green if the wound is infected.

This Week in Upgrades: October 31


Happy Halloween!

Great short video: What makes people happy? :

I personally wouldn’t be mad to see bills and coins disappear. Will Sweden be the first cashless country?

Amazon has already been working with the FAA to fly packages to your home, and now Wal-Mart wants in on drone delivery.

ICYMI: According to the World Health Organization, bacon and other cured meats can probably cause cancer. Let’s take a moment and consider this rationally.

Speaking of things that can be delicious but not great for your health: The changing landscape of fast food.

REI is closing all of its stores during Black Friday and encouraging people to get outside. Brilliant. Will other retailers start doing the same?

Ever put together IKEA furniture? How they design their iconic instruction manuals.

We keep learning more about what stress does to us. How it makes you sick.

A Future After Failure

Few words can cause us to feel so repelled and turned off as failure. More often than not we try to avoid the reality of failure altogether. No one wants to fail; no one wants to be linked with a failure. Our closest encounter with the concept now is in the cyber community of social media: the banal, thin #fail. Everything from a photo of tomatoes on display at a grocery store with a banner reading “Watermelons” to throwing an interception trying to pass the ball instead of running it with the best running back in the league to win the Super Bowl is a hashtag fail. We’ve trivialized the concept, and thereby haughtily, but naively, put the stamp of #fail on obvious blunders. Lots of things are easy targets for sneering reactions. Are we critical and thorough enough to include our own flops among the targets? Can we do it without twisting it into a humblebrag? Maybe we dance in this ankle-deep conceptual pool of #fail to avoid dealing with what failure means in a deeper way—especially the real, debilitating failures we’ve encountered ourselves.

Few of us do well with actual failure. Failure happens whenever the most tragic, destructive, terminal outcome of something in our life comes true. The ground we’re standing on crumbles apart. And, as a result, we become disorientated or demoralized. Failure can be literal or metaphorical stumbles. It can be large or small. Failure can catch us by surprise—seemingly lassoing us from far away. Or it can be the result of our own errors and bad decisions catching up with us. In high school, I tried to show up to classes one day battling illness, only to end up vomiting in a main hallway between periods. Dozens of students smirked while hugging the wall to move past the scene I had made. I felt paralyzed and alone–ready to hide in the nearest custodial closet.

It’s amusing now, but most failure isn’t—in the moment or in hindsight. We applied for that position or degree and got rejected outright. We got fired. We were told we don’t have what it takes. We worked on that for 20 years, and it was laughed off in 20 seconds. We struck out. We didn’t even make the team. The marriage is over. Real failure really happens—to all of us.

In an age of digital algorithms and automation, we work hard to remove the roadblocks, trip-ups, and discomforts of life. They hurt; they wear us down; they make us feel like the universe resists us doing and being what we want. It makes sense that we would develop apps that seem to miraculously match you to your soulmate so you can circumvent the awkwardness and heartaches of hookups and breakups. It makes sense that we would create self-driving vehicles that can’t crash into each other or slide off the road in inclement weather. It makes sense to research various medical treatments so that our intellectual and physical capacities don’t degenerate and let us down as we age. We look for fail-safes, and fail-safes for the fail-safes.

But we live in a social and literal universe that tend toward deterioration—too vast and complex to automate and eliminate all the chaos and unpleasantries out of existence. Even machines–or perhaps machines most of all—fail. Some failure, some breakdown of our lives or the things around us, is inevitable.

What should we do when it happens?

Sometimes we need to mope for a bit. We need to turn on some Bon Iver, crawl under the covers, order Chinese food for delivery, and have an extra glass of wine. We think we’ll hide out while the failure exhausts itself elsewhere. But at some point we have to figure out a way to move on. There is a world out there waiting for us to become some kind of protagonist in it. If we stay buried in despair then our failure has put us into narrative purgatory. We run the risk of slipping into a listless abyss and never getting out. But this, unlike failure itself, is not inevitable.

In any well-told story, failure is the part where things are about to get good. Our lives are dynamic, open narratives—unfolding as we go, with climaxes and conclusions yet to be determined. Failure of any sort becomes a split of possible roads. Which one will our story proceed down? The failure, the narrative break, has already happened. We were knocked down. The door closed in our face. It’s shitty. But we can choose what happens next. The abyss is one place it can go. Making sure the story actually gets good is another.

Failure has a way of forcing us to refocus if we let it. It strips away the inessential. When I vomited in the hallway, it was immediately obvious who my true friends were. They didn’t smirk and walk away; they were genuinely empathetic and reassuring. Most failure is more profound than public vomiting: things like divorce, job loss, and disheartening medical diagnoses. When those happen, the essential stands out. Sitting in a hospital room with a loved one quickly cuts out the extraneous.

Some failures happen in hopeful vocational or education pursuits, and often show that we need to work harder or smarter. Or perhaps we need to give up on that pursuit entirely to give ourselves over to a more meaningful one. Not everyone is meant to win The Voice or be the next Steve Jobs. We have to find the dream that matches our own raw abilities.

Are you caught up in something that you’re pretty good at, but if you were honest there’s something else that you would love to do? Eventually, you’re going to lose traction and fail at what you’re pretty good at because your heart’s not fully in it. It’s a shadow life of the one you could live. When that happens, will you continue with what’s comfortable, or risk taking the road that would bring real worth and fulfillment to your story? When we start to choose to live intentionally, we can fail small but grow small. Or we can potentially fail big but realize the deepest hopes for our life’s trajectory.

It’s a bit mysterious how it can be possible, but there is an upside to failure if we are able to avoid the limbo of the abyss. If we own the failure, let it wash over us or hit us with its best shot, and then move forward, we become a stronger, more grounded person. We develop more self-confidence, determination, and centeredness. We might call it resiliency.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort and tension to eat good food in moderation so that your body weight is lean. But it takes the microtrauma of weightlifting or resistance exercises to actually build muscle. With cellular tears comes new growth and strength. Without the microtrauma, we remain weak, static, and perhaps even bored or apathetic. Such lethargy is not all that different in kind from floating in failure’s abyss. In both, we are less than our full selves. To live a life where the story keeps getting good means being exposed to life’s microtrauma and failure. Through it, we develop a resiliency that becomes denser all the time.

In college, I took a Classics texts class where all we did is read aloud and translate. Each person took a turn with a section. Ahead of each session, I would write down every vocabulary word and verb conjugation that wasn’t easy to remember. This way, I would always be able to state the right answer when asked, even if I didn’t know it off the top of my head. But this meant that weeks later, and especially now years later, I do not have a recall that even comes close to fluency. You don’t go to school because you already know all the answers before class starts; you go to learn how to find answers and hold on to them. None of us learns Matrix-style through instantaneous upload to our brain, and I don’t think I would ever want to. Learning requires the possibility, and sometimes the realization of failure. I never fail now to spell esoteric, because I misspelled it in front of hundreds of people at the city spelling bee as a shorter and squeakier me. That failure strengthened my budding resiliency, and taught me a lot about hard work and learning through life as you go.

No sensible person tries to fail on purpose. Only a fool would. But when it happens we can use it to grow the muscles of resiliency. To sharpen our focus on what we should properly dive into. And deepen our determination to see ourselves through the next chapters of our life’s narrative. We cut out the inessential: excess stress, worry about our chances of success or making all the right decisions, obsessing about what others will think, the people who don’t have our back, what’s just fluff. This can only happen on the road that embraces the reality of failure. It’s not a road we naturally take. But it’s the way of strength training our selves. We can’t, and shouldn’t try to innovate it out of existence, nor hashtag it into triviality.

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