Another circle around the sun is done; one more and it will be a round number of them again.
Reason to celebrate?
I don’t know.
I have never felt so not-depressed.
Being very Viennese in temperament – and by way of explanation, let’s just say there’s a reason this was the city where Freud found lots of issues to theorize on – a rather gloomy outlook comes natural.
I don’t want it to completely hold me back, though; I want to learn more (including about myself) and grow.
As a social species, we continually compare ourselves to those around us.
Unfortunately, as a species with social media (and traditional media with society pages), we don’t actually compare ourselves to peers anymore, we compare ourselves to personas.
Trying to orient a year of your life along the lines of a word, three words, a motto… It’s one of those things that have become so popular, I rather hate the idea.
I don’t even like to make personal announcements here anymore; this blog may follow my interests and experiments, but I don’t want to make it about me.
All those little facts, such clutter in a brain, right?
Learning in school already seemed a useless amassing of facts long before internet search engines ever came along.
Historical dates without context; mathematical formulas with little use beyond test questions; grammatical points of foreign languages hardly ever used…
The modern Silicon Valley-ized approach to learning has only reinforced this view.
Calling for a focus on “learning to learn,” all those pesky small details that are so hard to remember seem even less necessary now than ever before – especially when you can just look them up online when and if you need them.
Clive Thompson, in his celebration of the knowledge gain from the internet, “Smarter Than You Think” (cross-read here), celebrates the ability to not remember the name of that red-haired female singer with a feminist bent, and to have the name “Tori Amos” pop up easily enough in a web search with just those few details.
In his proof is the problem.
If all you are looking for is a simple fact that sits in the realm of common knowledge, let alone popular culture, then it has become easy enough to quickly find it online and spare yourself the “mental bandwidth” required to record that fact yourself.
There are only too many situations nowadays, however, in which people want to argue that learning is unnecessary as long as the fact can be looked up or the problem can be solved by someone else or something else.
Even when it comes to those facts we so hate to learn by heart, though, we need to know them if there is some way we need or want to dig deeper into the issue in question.
Of course, just learning facts and figures as Jeopardy-style factoids all sitting in separation, with no connection between them, isn’t going to make them well-learnt and useful.
Only knowing where to look up when what event in world history transpired won’t help understand how different events and developments influenced each other over the course of history.
However, learning them in connection requires previous knowledge to connect them to and makes it easier to learn more of them and see more connections.
Being able to quickly look up what formula relates different factors in physics to each other does not imply an ability to see how (and why) a certain formula can lead to a useful result while another cannot.
However, having learned the formulas and their use cases and applied them is the only way to get to the expert knowledge where one intuitively knows what formula needs to be used.
For learning itself, more facts learned in relations and as the stories they tell will help learn and remember yet more, not take away from mental storage space.
In fact, without the scaffolding of previous knowledge, not only would it be difficult to learn anything new, it’s difficult even just to know whether a fact found online is truly a fact or just somebody’s well-presented fiction.
Funnily, the more you know, the more you can actually find where there are gaps in knowledge. Even relatively simple things (or rather, things that seem that way) often do not yet have answers.
Try googling that, then.
You will, of course, need to find out where to spend your time and focus your attention.
Yet, with all the time used for entertainment and all the memory easily expended on gossip and news and assorted pop-cultural geekery, the potential to learn more that will be of greater use in other situations, in (other sides of) real life is there.
And there’s quite enough that it may be good to know.
From languages to first aid.
From survival and self-defense to cooking and, hell, house-keeping.
From the big sweep of history to the little happenings in your backyard and neighborhood.
It’s always been good to know things, and in a time when ignorance seems on the rise as (and maybe partly because) the world’s information seems only a fingertip away, but too few people bother to transform it into knowledge, it only gets better to know.
Next time there’s no internet or the heat goes out in the middle of winter, particularly so.
Chasing happiness and trying to feel better, many people nowadays follow one or the other moral or ‘medical’ argument and stop eating certain foods.
Even where there is less thought of what to eat, there seems to have always been a tendency for people to become set in their tastes and refuse to try much of anything new.
Even in personal development circles, recent trends turn towards restriction.
You may learn to cook in order to learn to learn, but you have to make it low-carb, slow-carb, the same breakfast every day so you don’t have to think about it.
Get boxes of Soylent and you never have to worry again…
There is a challenge and a misunderstanding behind that, though:
One, the likelihood that you miss experiences you would really like, especially in social contexts,.
Two, the changing tastes we all have and may well profit from, for our health and happiness.
Food that is not your usual fare can be a challenge in a whole variety of ways, but the experiences to be had could also be manifold.
In an intercultural context, in particular, both aspects are strong.
You will probably find things you’d very much prefer not to have to try – and you’d probably very much like to be a part of the groups of people you are eating with.
After all, sharing a meal is one of the major ways we come together.
In China, these aspects are particularly strong.
The country’s various cuisines are tremendously varied and offer taste experiences it would be a pity to miss.
Not only that, “food is heaven” and the social glue that brings people together around a shared table.
And there are not so few foods and ways of preparing them that someone who has not grown up with them would much rather not even see: chicken feet and dog meat, jellyfish and thousand-year egg, duck blood and pig innards…
Here’s the thing, though: These foods are few and far between. Often, you can join in a meal, become a part of a new social group, yet avoid some things as well.
You will not be able to avoid everything, nor should you even try to, though.
Instead, try it.
That way, you won’t be the stranger who just refuses everything, making everyone uncomfortable. Instead, you’ll be the adventurous and open person you wanted to be, who makes others proud – and you may find new things you like.
And here, the other aspect of our relation to ‘other’ food comes into play…
We keep on defining ourselves as who we are, by what we eat, as if these things were fixed.
“I like sweets, I can’t stand bitter.”
“I don’t like sweet things, I’d rather have it savory.”
“I’m a carnivore” or “I don’t eat animal products.”
In light of the way food connects even strangers, you may really want to reconsider restricting yourself – and if you orient yourself on social connections as mattering more than you yourself, then that is you restricting yourself only, indeed.
As much as we hear about dedicated vegans nowadays, most people eat “normally”, anyways. And they, too, have things they just don’t (want to) eat, just because they don’t eat them.
You know what I mean.
“I don’t like broccoli.”
“Veggies aren’t for me.”
“Gimme a steak, not salad.”
“Whoa, that’s just too fatty!”
Except, they may well be wrong.
In defining ourselves as someone who eats, and does not eat, certain things, we may get something about our likes right.
If you do or don’t like sweet or savory, you do have that preference, sure.
(If you can’t handle the heat of the chile peppers, even more so…)
We may also, however, overlook how much our tastes have changed already and will continue to change.
Most people do not like the flavor of coffee or beer or wine on their first try, but they come to like them all.
Similarly, you may not have liked the bitter tastes of broccoli or bitter gourd, and you may not even like the idea of eating frog or shellfish or many other foods.
You may actually like them, by now or in the near future, though.
Me, I was a picky eater as a child.
When my mom made minced meat patties, which are made with onion cubes here in Austria, I tried to pick out all the small pieces of onion because I hated them.
Now, I can fry up onions with some chile pepper, salt and soy sauce and eat them as a vegetable dish accompanying a bowl of rice.
I was sure I would not want to eat frog or most kinds of shellfish, but having been all but forced to try them on recent trips to China, they turned out quite edible. If not outright delicious.
Dog is nothing I find edible, but I’ve tried even that.
Chicken feet, I have to admit, I still refused. We all have our limits.
The aim is not to completely forget about any and all restrictions we may feel, but to push against our limits and make ourselves more at home in this world, anyways.
And yes, we do make ourselves at home like that.
Socially, because we also eat like others do, and together with them. And materially, in what we eat.
And with that, more experiences will come; sensory adventures and delights await.
Or you will gain an understanding of things you really can’t handle, that don’t do you good.
But at least you will know because you tried, not just because you imagine you can’t eat them because you let your fears of the unknown hold you back.
There’s a lesson in that, I’d say.
In the many, many ideas for everything from very simple life hacking to outright radical lifestyle design, it’s all about the individual.
Implicitly or explicitly, someone is presented or outright proclaims himself (more rarely, herself) *the* example of success.
“I did it, he/she did it – so definitely, so can you! Everyone can do it if they just want it enough!”
Realize it or not, it’s a lot like that strain of positive thinking where you’re responsible for everything that happens in your life. Which, unfortunately, ends up meaning that if you get cancer, for example, you’re being blamed for it all yourself (as Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out so well).
Success, just like cancer, is related to your own doing, but pure (good or bad) luck also plays a big part in it.
So, no, just like not everybody gets, or can prevent themselves getting, cancer, not everyone can “do it.”
One person having managed to make him-/herself successful in a certain way can, in fact, mean that it gets all the more difficult for anybody else to achieve a similar kind of success.
This is a major issue that plagued Tim Ferriss’ “The Four-Hour Body”, where the success is merely physical.
In the book, Tim looks to outliers (and his guinea-pig self) to find how things could possibly be done differently and more quickly, to even greater results. Whenever he can, he tries out things himself – and then suggests that everyone should do them for the same great results.
It doesn’t necessarily work that way.
As one could see in his ultramarathon career (What ultramarathon career? What single ultramarathon, in fact? Exactly.), the outlier he looked to may have been just that, an outlier.
HIIT training, for example, is not necessarily the path to endurance success – just as common knowledge would have it.
And that’s the thing.
What works for most people is not the peculiar thing that worked for some outlier, it is probably that which has been working for most people.
After all, you are most likely not some special outlier, but just another part of that average.
The other side of this issue, where a sample size of just one person, i.e. an N=1, is not exactly a great basis on which to make suggestions, however, is that you yourself are only one individual person.
You are an N of 1.
As such, what works for you doesn’t have to work for other people, what works for you may just have happened to work for you and you can’t rewind your life and do a re-test trying out another approach.
And in the same vein, but on the other side of that equation, what works for the average may not work so well for you.
So, you may want to try out where on the spectrum between outliers and average you do fall in matters that are important to you.
Maybe the long slow runs are not as good for you as HIIT training.
Maybe a diet with fewer carbohydrates will be good for you; or maybe focusing on fat and protein does not do you good.
Possibly, if you keep up good-enough work on the side, you can turn it into a successful side biz. Or maybe even your main source of income.
Or maybe not. Most startups still fail, most world-traveling vagabonds still settle down at some point.
You’ll have to try out things and find what is good for you.
Just don’t think that something feeling good has to mean it’s the truth for you (until you’ve sensibly tested it out – and even then, don’t tell others this is *the* way to do it, it’s just a suggestion).
Especially, don’t do that when there’s actual science and facts – beyond the most recent case of “a new study says” – involved, not just holy books or personal opinions…
(On that point of science, watch John Oliver’s video, which I’ve also just linked to)
Still, what is likely to be good for everyone, average and outliers alike, is just that trying out of things.
Even if all you find out in the end is that you don’t actually want to try out new things, you’ll still have learned something on the way there…
There is a complementary opposite to how the really hard thing to do is changing what’s normal (for you, in your life), a logical conclusion that follows from the challenge of (creating) a better-normal life: the useful normality of a better life.
That is, where it is the hardest to change things for the better in normal life, making a normal life one’s better life may well not be all that hard.
What it takes are two things, the mindset and the doing.
There are very popular ideas focusing on the mental side of creating a better life.
Only too many of them are nothing but “mental” in the worst sense of the word.
Only because you want something, it will not happen.
No matter how much you desire it, no matter how often you write down what you want each and every day, it will not come.
Neither your attitude nor your best of intentions will change things auto-magically.
Mindset still matters, though.
It will help to see the problems that are holding you back not as insurmountable obstacles and shackles that will never let you live better, but as challenges to overcome and grow by.
Not in the sense that it doesn’t matter, but in the sense of choosing what works for you, from those things that have been shown to actually work.
Or choose something to try out, at least; it’s all just different labels for a similar approach focused on the potential to learn and grow rather than remain mired in the thought that there’s nothing you could do, after all.
Then, however, there’s also how you’ll have to do something – and as the proof is in the pudding, so the change is in the doing.
When it’s all about the challenge of changing a current normality to the normality of a better life, however, maybe things are not all that difficult.
After all, then, you don’t have to change everything immediately and to great extent.
The first thing you have to do, more simply, is to accept your mission, take on the challenge, take small steps in the direction in which you want to go.
These are just the kinds of things that are such small steps that they are hard to do, for they sound too easy and too small for the grand results we’d like to have, and have at once. But, they are also the practices that have good long-term effects.
These things may just be hard enough to do that we commonly fail, just as we do when we make a new year’s resolution to, well, be more organized, eat more healthily (let alone, lose weight), or visit the gym regularly.
So, it may still take some tricks.
And again, it’s a matter of normality and of what works for you:
You may be the person for whom a small change, a nudge, works best.
Get a FitBit or similar step counter (or Google Fit on your smartphone, if you carry that around enough) and play with hitting a “good” count.
Figure out where you can put what so the things you always use have their place and get put there.
Slowly get into the habit of seeing where what should go, taking it from there before you go out and putting it back there as part of the routine of returning home.
Start taking the time and trying out things, from the produce aisle, in the kitchen.
Or maybe you need a more radical step.
Go cold turkey on the junk food you love too much, keep it out of the house, and have better alternatives you also like at the ready.
Follow a clean-up program and throw out everything you haven’t been using for too long, then figure out the proper places for the rest.
Probably, you’re still thinking that this is just too little – and too hard – to have a great effect , but it’s not about an immediate great effect, it’s about making the normal better.
In being about making the normal better, it’s not about being harder on yourself.
Somehow, we so love to be hard on ourselves, thinking that this is what it takes (just look at CrossFit or at the way UnderArmour advertises itself, even if as part of a focus on the practice it does take indeed).
Yet, it hardly ever works out. Instead, why not focus on taking our needs and our limits more seriously, with empathy – and including with empathy for the steps we may have to take to trick ourselves into a better normal.
Also, don’t try to change everything because you hate your life, your looks, whatever.
Try to just move towards the life, and the self, you think you’ll love – not because it is the great dream presented by others (and above all, by marketing that just wants you to hate yourself and buy stuff to make up for it).
Rather, because you can see it’s good: a sense of control over your life, because you handle its basics well-enough, experiences (and experiments) that are nice and interesting and help you get to new places, be that in running or in trying out new foods, in travel or in the armchair.
A person’s life typically feels normal to them, right?
Sure, it may be more or less average, but you have to have something to compare your life with (and the time and a reason to stop and compare it) to notice how much it is or is not so ordinary.
Even then, as your everyday lived experience, it is your normal.
The problem – and the potential – with life nowadays is that we see many examples of the extraordinary, and we have ideas (notions, fancies?) of ourselves and our lives as we wish they (and we) were.