Huzzah, it’s that time of year again when smug navel-gazing folks get to be self-righteous *and* socially acceptable.
In this post I’ll sketch out some vague outlines of a better life for the new year. I’ll try to do this without hypocrisy or sounding like an arsehole. I’ll likely fail. But failing is okay.
These are my aims for the year:
- Being okay with not being in control;
- Creating vs consuming; and
- Having a minimally viable good life.
To be fair these aren’t actually things I’m going to magically start on 1 January 2020. Instead, they are a work in progress over a period of years.
Let’s break it down.
Being okay with not being in control
I generally try to be in control. It’s part of the reason I’m an engineer; I get to control the rules of nature to shape the world. It’s probably not so much a positive need as a fear of the negative, the fear that if I let go of the steering wheel I’ll crash into a tree.
This aspect of my personality is fine in small doses but is generally maladaptive when all consuming. As I get older I meet more people later in life who haven’t relinquished control and the outcome is generally not pleasant. Also the more I understand about probability and randomness, especially on a historical scale, the more I realise that control is largely an illusion. The great leaders and historic figures of school textbooks were more buffeted by the winds of fate than they believed or our collective myths make out. Indeed, neuroscience seems to suggest that much of the control we think we have is an after-the-effect story our brains compose to stop us going mad in the face of randomness.
How will I practically implement this aim?
I’ll start in small steps. I’ll let serendipity drive for short moments. I’ll make my plans more outline sketches rather than architectural drawings. I’ll practice being okay with change and the unexpected. I’ll attempt to find a weekly activity or exercise that places me outside of my comfort zone. This could be spending a morning in a different place on a whim. Or trying something I would normally not like.
Creating vs Consuming
Traditional artistic talent has generally avoided me in life. Despite trying, I was never an accomplished painter, musician or dancer. My photos are still terrible. A general lack of coordination and timing, and a more introverted personality, directed me towards the safe shores of fact and science.
Given the constraints of me, I do enjoy creating, and later on in life I have realised you can be creative without being a “creative”.
Human psychology is mostly to blame. It likes to sort people according to well-established clichés. This can be found in decades of schooling, lazy television writing, and the need for people to pick an early tribe and use it as a foundation stone for their subsequent public persona.
A or B, left or right, pick a side:
However, many things are creative in a non-traditional sense.
Writing is creative. It’s probably a key gateway between the arts and the sciences. Thomas Pynchon originally studied engineering physics, as did Jonathan Franzen. Michael Crichton and Kurt Vonnegurt studied anthropology. Arthur Conan Doyle was a doctor.
Craft is creative. We forget that many of the best painters of the Renaissance were often considered in their time to be glorified interior decorators. Blacksmiths and carpenters combine form and function, and are skilful at dancing along the thin tightrope between beauty and necessity.
Building things is creative. My Lego-building youth was endlessly creative. Figuring out the road ahead with no instructions requires creative skill.
Consumption was mostly once a fatal cough that cropped up a lot in Victorian novels. There was no real cure. The luckier ones got to live out the end of their days coughing up blood by the side of Swiss lakes; the less lucky died in hostels or the gutter.
My daily routine is to wake up and look at the news. I then check social media. This takes about 15 minutes. I might scan some blog posts over a coffee for breakfast. At 10:30am or 11am, I might look at Twitter as part of a tea break. I might also do the same at lunchtime and in the dead-time when doing post-school chores. I might also check Twitter, BBC News or Facebook briefly before bedtime. Sometimes I enter the curated click-bait hell that is Google or Apple News.
Like many people, I also like to reward myself for hard work. I convince myself that my old computer or appliance doesn’t have the right features to allow me to be the best me and Get Things Done. I wonder if my life will be more enjoyable with a next generation games console or a new way to stream art-house movies. I think that the next gig, talk or festival will be the one that provides a Damascene conversion.
From a mixture of direct and indirect experience, I know this is mostly rubbish.
In the coming year I need to switch from consuming to creating.
As a start, I need to write more. I need to write more technical posts. I need to write more personal posts (such as this one). I need to try my hand at short bits of fiction.
Where do I find the time? I swap out the social media and the news.
It’s easy to know that Google or Apple News is the equivalent of Big Macs and Buckfast for breakfast. It’s harder with news from a broadsheet newspaper or the BBC. However, most news is noise, and psychologically bad noise at that. Social media is often manipulative division. Shovelling this into your eye funnels when your brain is virgin and raw is self destructive.
Instead, when I wake up I will sit a while without actively doing. I will not let the news or the latest Twitterstorm drive my agenda. I will set my own agenda. I will sketch ideas for posts, build on the stack of old draft posts, tinker with paragraphs. I will also try to invent.
If I do consume, it will be to learn, as part of the creative process. It will be books and lectures. It will require work but provide a much more fulfilling reward.
I will not care about the statistics of publishing. If this was a goal, I’d write about what child celebrities look like now, or frame collages of empty platitudes. Publishing is useful to raise the stakes and add skin to the game. But it is the creative act, not the end product which is key. It is not practice for a better self; the artistic failure is the better self.
Having a minimally viable good life
Although Silicon Valley would have Socrates reaching for his hemlock, I like the idea of the minimum viable product. This basically stresses that it is more important to get out there and imperfectly do, than plan a perfection that never reaches the world.
As applied to life, I feel it is important to concentrate on “doing” badly as opposed to “not doing” well. Or more imprecisely, it is only through regularly doing things that can be regularly done that I can do important things.
There are no secrets to a good life. There are all in plain view. They are practically on fire. The difficulty is they are not immediately easy or pleasurable.
In no particular order, to live a better life I need to:
- Exercise the body;
- Replace toxins with tonics; and
- Train my mind.
Exercise the Body
I’m not a naturally sporty person. I really don’t like exercise. But I have lived long enough, and read enough, to know that exercise has a multitude of benefits that make up for the drudgery. These include better mood and mental health, better muscle tone and a less fat-clogged heart.
But I’m not going to run a marathon (or even to the shops). I’m not going to join a gym. I’m going to perform 30 minutes of high intensity (for me) activity once every 2-3 days and on the other days aim for a decent amount of moderate activity outside. The 30 minutes can be on a bike or a rowing machine. The moderate activity can be an aim for that mythical walking Japanese character.
Replace Toxins with Tonics
There’s quite a few articles floating about on how “millenials” are more likely to be vegan and abstain from drink and drugs than previous generations. This seems to go against the trend, the young are always thought of as those most likely to indulge in hedonistic behaviour. Notwithstanding the many layers of dividing click-baitery, I believe this is a real trend. It’s gaining ground because the young are generally smart and well-informed.
The thing to avoid is flipping between extreme piety and guilt-inducing indulgence. I need to concentrate on the negative bodily experiences that accompany bad things and use these as motivational levers. For example, the tube of Pringles or packet of Haribo seems nice in an abstract-sort-of-way but the sluggish hangover of both (the need to lie-down, the subtle nausea, the lack of energy) isn’t very nice and indicates that in hindsight they were not the greatest of ideas.
Following on from the create vs consume split above, I will also start to consider “information” from a “healthy eating” point of view. News websites and social media feeds are junk-food. Too much cynicism can harden the mind as much as salty treats harden the heart. You have a choice (kind of) as to what you consume, and a balanced mind and body require a balanced diet.
So as to practical small steps (which kind of continue current practice):
- I will cut out high sugar foodstuffs – these make me feel crap but are hard to resist. The best way is to not buy any in the first place, or limit to small packets once a week.
- I will generally not drink alcohol from Sunday to Thursday and reduce consumption on a Friday or Saturday to the recommended number of units (6 pints). If I do drink alcohol, I will aim for the lower ABVs – 3 to 4.1% is the sweet spot.
- As most doctors say no alcohol is the best, I’ll attempt a number of dry months in the year (e.g. January, April and October or November).
- I will replace crisps and salty snacks for crudités such as chopped carrots, pepper or unsalted nuts and raisins. A high salt diet causes the arteries to harden and increases the risk of strokes and heart attacks, and I know I eat too much salt.
- I will mostly eat a vegetable-based diet. I grew up mostly vegetarian so this is quite easy. This helps with both health and moral concerns. I need to avoid the cheese-for-meat switch that accompanies some vegetarianism, mainly due to the salt point above. I don’t feel that I need to go full vegan yet and I am not at the self-defining “vegetarian” stage, but the aim is for small acts like picking the vegetarian option when out and cooking vegetarian meals at home.
- I will limit my news intake to a weekly high-quality source of paid-for journalism. Something like The Atlantic, The Economist, The FT Weekend or Private Eye.
- I will consume more from positive news sources (e.g. here or here). I also like local small-scale newspapers as they tend to feature more of these stories and help connect you with normal people doing possible (yet good) things.
Train the Mind
The modern web is a candy-box of bad mental habits. Endless clicking and scrolling, animated GIFs and 30-second videos, dubiously-sourced content. The same is true for modern professional life, with always-on emails, phone notifications, and instant messaging. Like rats in a cage, we keep pressing the buttons for the dopamine hit while our minds slowly disintegrate.
The better things in life require work, and for much longer than you initially predict. This isn’t because hard work is inherently good, but because arranging things in the world requires models that are built out of head flesh and this is a slow process.
Also, the modern world is an Ozian paradise of finished articles that hide the work behind them. This is mainly because everyone is connected to everyone else, so a brilliant song, poem or joke can instantly circle the work independent of the false starts, the practice attempts and the outright failures. In television and film, we don’t see the months or years of production; the only trace of the mammoth effort involved is the fleeting list of names that your streaming service will skip on demand. The same applies to academic success or charity work. A fleeting page-nine byline in a local newspaper or retweeted video might be the only surface form of months or years of work. Three or four years of work on a doctorate ends up as a fifteen-tweet Twitter threads that fades from mental view for the rest of us in minutes.
This topsy-turvy world requires mental fortitude. This doesn’t come for free. Indeed, we spend hours of each day heading in the wrong direction, chipping away at our quiet reserve and increasing the rage. Our legs and lungs can only cope with a mile run after several months of training, and sitting on the sofa is not going to be good training.
For this reason, I find I need to train my mind to head in the other direction, to a place of calm, concentration and focus.
The best tool I’ve found for doing this, for those of us who were not born into Tibetan nobility, is Headspace. They have numerous courses of 10 or 30 10-15 minute sessions and the techniques build on each other. It’s also light on the new-age hocus pocus that tends to turn away much of the populace. (Unfortunately I don’t get any affiliate bonus). I find 15 minutes a day works well, either just after lunch or in the evening after exercise. It’s a form of mental off-then-on again that resets the head.
So the plan for 2020 is to continue with an aim of 15 minutes meditation a day. I find it easier to do this as part of a workday routine, so I need to work on also doing it on the weekend and during the holidays when the schedules go awry.
I need to practice being okay with not being in control, create rather than consume, and build a minimally viable good life.
These activities need dedicated time. It needs to be time that is carved out of the spacetime block with my bare hands. It needs to be time that is not work-time and not family-time. Work and family will thus need to make do without me for about an hour a day. Routine is my friend. The sheer momentum of muscle memory, knowingly exploited by much technology, will be my motivation.
Wish me luck.