On Being Wrong

You’re going to be wrong. It’s going to happen. Again and again. It’s fine. We all do it all the time. We just notice something is off, question how we want to change, and move on. That’s what human beings do. We might kick and scream quite a bit, but we are generally pretty good at making the changes.

Think about it. Back when your grandmother was born, doctors smoked cigarettes in babies’ faces. People threw garbage out their car windows. Houses were packed with asbestos. Women stayed home and stayed in the kitchen. Gay people had to stay firmly in the closet and not touch anything. Black and white folks were segregated in schools, restaurants, restrooms, and by water fountains. And there were water fountains!

Life changes because we realize and agree we’re wrong and we make it right.

What’s tricky is that smart people can be wrong too. They’re not immune because their brain works a certain, special way. Or because they smooch their degrees every night before bed to absorb just a bit more knowledge. No, everyone can be full of shit. They just show it in different ways.

I’ll give you an example.

In 1846, Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician, wanted to figure out why so many women were dying in the maternity wards of a Vienna hospital. Good guy, noble cause. He did this during an era when doctors just started taking a scientific approach to the human body, exploring anatomy through autopsies and collecting data to make better decisions. Semmelweis did just that by studying doctors in one maternity ward compared to the midwives in another. Turns out women were dying five times as often in rooms staffed by doctors as they were in rooms staffed by midwives. Semmelweis tried to break it down. He looked at women giving birth on their side as opposed to on their back. No dice. He studied the effect ministers had ringing bells in the ward after other pregnant women gave birth and died. Horrifying, but no help to Semmelweis’ research.

Then, when a pathologist buddy died, Semmelweis noticed the doc had a cut on his finger. And since it was common practice to perform autopsies and then walk down the hall to deliver a baby, Semmelweis thought maybe washing hands before surgery would be a good idea. He recommended using chlorine, as NPR wrote, not because he knew about germs or that chlorine is an awesome disinfectant, but because “he thought it would be the best way to get rid of any smell left behind by those little bits of corpse.”

And Semmelweis was right! He told the medical staff to wash their disgusting hands and a bunch more women started surviving after bringing precious life into this world!

Semmelweis found a big wrong to right in the medical world, but it wasn’t long before he found his way back to being a stupid, error-prone human. Instead of playing it cool, he started telling doctors they were the wrong ones all along. To their doctor faces. NPR wrote, “He publicly berated people who disagreed with him and made some influential enemies. Eventually the doctors gave up the chlorine hand-washing, and Semmelweis — he lost his job.”

Semmelweis took a tough turn after that, and started losing his mind, either to Alzheimer's or syphilis. He was checked into a mental hospital and NPR noted, “The sad end to the story is that Semmelweis was probably beaten in the asylum and eventually died of sepsis, a potentially fatal complication of an infection in the bloodstream — basically, it's the same disease Semmelweis fought so hard to prevent…

Okay, so maybe being wrong doesn’t always end up being just fine. Semmelweis definitely helped but, naturally, it could have been better.

Let’s try again.

In the 1890’s, “one of the biggest environmental problems, the equivalent of climate change [today], was horse manure,” according to Peter Diamandis, author of the book, Abundance. Diamandis told Tim Ferriss on Ferriss’ podcast that before the age of the automobile, everyone that could afford it brought their transportation, their horse, into the burgeoning cities. Naturally, the streets flooded with horse shit. There was nowhere to put all of it and when it rained, it flowed. Diamandis says this is why buildings were designed with raised stoops. Gross.

Diamandis continued, “The articles written projected this crazy amount of horse manure because clearly, you know, by 1940, the number of horses in the city would have exploded as the population went up. But something else happened, right? Another technology came along called the automobile that became the major motive force and got rid of horses.”

Problem solved! Most horses retired and America went on to invent the super-charged Ford Shelby Mustang. Scientists were able to chill out once again, no longer needed to plan for all that horse shit. And look at us now - barely any horse shit!

Just like the professionals among us, doctors and scientists and ministers and athletes, you’re probably wrong about a ton of shit too. Right now. You have to be. We have to be. The future and the odds are against us. Being wrong wasn’t just a fad a hundred years ago when hand-washing was what nerds did and horses just took a dump wherever they wanted. We’re wrong about plenty right now. We still think Christopher Columbus and Thomas Edison are cool. We think throwing money at wars is a security strategy while people drink poison water in Michigan. We have a war on drugs and medical marijuana. We have evidence that meditation helps you, we’re addicted to our phones, and the government told us low-fat foods were the core of a healthy diet, and we ignore all that.

Until we don’t.

Possibly the most interesting way we might be wrong is how we treat one another. Neuroendocrinologist and author Robert Sapolsky talked about this on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast recently. When asked what he thought we’d look back on from the future and shake our heads about, Sapolsky answered, “I think it’s overwhelmingly going to be, my god, that quaint, medieval, destructive belief they held onto then about human agency and free will.”

Whoa, they punished people who had brains that couldn’t regulate their own behavoir? They punished people who because of toxin exposure or stress during adolescence wound up with brains that couldn’t control this or that at particular junctures, and they used words like “justice” back then? Wow, I can’t believe the stuff they did!

Being wrong is why we can chalk up the world as being unfair. It’s a fact we need to digest. Some of us can do this better than others. But each of us can take steps forward in the right direction, especially since we know we’re going to be wrong somehow some way. Why not quit wasting time and ask ourselves how we’re wrong, figure out how we can change, and move on? Because, in the end, can’t we all appreciate clean hands and horse shit where it belongs?

Some of us get notebooks: Why sharing your reality is important

One of the greatest standup comedians of all time divorced himself from the world. George Carlin found peace of mind by sitting back, as he said, without a stake in the outcome. He chalked up his strategy to this:

When you're born in this world, you're given a ticket to the freak show. And when you're born in America, you're given a front-row seat. And some of us get to sit there with notebooks."

Carlin had a notebook like few others. In his 1992 special, Jammin' in New York, he joked about environmentalism, “The planet is fine. The people are fucked... the planet isn't going anywhere. We are. We're going away. Pack your shit, folks." Reflecting on this bit, in an article titled Morality, the Zeitgeist, and D**k Jokes, writer Nick Simmons pointed out, “In any other context, suggesting that the extinction of all humanity just might be a good thing would, safe to say, probably not inspire applause. But somehow, Carlin made even this quite literally inhuman point of view--sub specie aeternitatis--not only palatable, but preferable.

Whether or not you agree with divorcing yourself from the future of the planet, or that global extinction is palatable or preferable, the sheer idea of sharing your reality is important. Because we all have notebooks now.

The Rational Optimist author Matt Ridley considers this phenomenon the reason for the progress and prosperity of human beings. Our world has evolved at a blinding pace because we’ve learned to embrace and exchange our specializations. We’re no longer forced to be self-sufficient in ideas or inventions. We progress from the incremental offerings of billions of other people every single day. Yes, billions.Ridley called idea sex - when ideas meet and mate. 

Think about it. There are tons of bits in all the things we enjoy every day. You couldn’t possibly build your own Ford F-150 from scratch, fueled up with unleaded gas, crankin’ Whitesnake through your speakers. You couldn’t offer your sweetheart the option of eating Italian rigatoni, Japanese sushi, or Indian biryani, hot and ready to inhale in under an hour. And don’t think for a second you could read this sentence without millions of people constructing laptops and smartphones, maintaining wifi signals, and running electricity easily and everywhere.

Beyond the physical trades of goods and services, idea sex is important in weaving the tapestry of our cultural world. We have the ability to imagine what reality looks like through someone else’s mind just by digesting their ideas. You could watch Carlin’s 1999 special You Are All Diseased and shift your perspective to what his mind might be like. Even though he has been dead for years. Or perhaps you can see the world through your neighbor’s eyes. Or your parents. Or even Trump, if you also imagined avoiding exercise and conversations with minorities your entire life.

On the flip side, progress never ends and the work is never done. We have so much access it’s easy to trick ourselves into thinking our version of reality is the truth. This is why we need to document it all. We need to keep swapping our notebooks.

Just this week I experienced glimpses into the lives of a few people I barely knew and it moved me. Tim died of a heart attack, suddenly, and at the age of 34. He had a wife and two children. Jason spilled his guts on social media about how medical bills were crippling him as he fights the cancer out of his body. And through those glimpses of reality, both Tim’s family and Jason’s friend were able to crowdfund more than $5,000 each to help life go on.

There is amazing good that can come from sharing your reality. Even the dark-edged Carlin said that “if you scratch a cynic, you’ll find a disappointed idealist. And I would admit that somewhere underneath all of this, there is a little flicker of a flame of idealism that would love to see it all change. But it can’t. It can’t happen that way. And incremental change, it just seems like the pile of shit is too deep.

While it might seem like everything won’t change fast enough, sometimes we can be surprised. Sometimes good people you barely know can reach out and help you get through a tough time. Sometimes someone can see your reality and approvingly nod, and that’s enough.

The truth is we’re all inside the freak show, reporting on the madness. We are in this together, exploring what this life is all about. And, perhaps, when it comes down to it, we just need to scribble in our notebook and share.

If you'd like to donate, you can see Tim's GoFundMe page here and Jason's GoFundMe page here.

Closing the Book on Personal Development

I already had one metaphorical foot out of the self-help section when I heard about Svend Brinkmann. The Danish psychology professor promised a breath of fresh air with his book Stand Firm - Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze.

On face value, it feels wrong, right? I’ve been reading personal development books for about ten years now, and writing about them for only a few less, and it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to say they’ve helped me achieve some great things. But it doesn’t eliminate the idea for me that personal development started to feel more like the strategy of spinning plates efficiently than sharing memorable lessons for creating the good life. 

In Stand Firm, Brinkmann argues that because our world is unfolding at a rapidly accelerating pace, our obsession with change keeps us so mobile and fickle that we have no roots to stand firm on. We’re spinning our wheels. Brinkmann explains, “In an accelerating culture, we are supposed to do more, do it better and do it for longer, with scant regard for the content or the meaning of what we are doing. Self-development has become an end in itself.

Luckily, I found Stand Firm at an important time in my life. After spending nearly two years living in California, I’m certain I want to return to the East Coast. It took moving three thousand miles away to realize the strength of my roots. California had just been the latest chapter in the relentlessly mobile lifestyle of a self-help fan.

And while I have plans to move back in July, I had the chance to go back home recently for a visit. Swamini, one of my best friends in the whole world, was getting married. Now I’m not a big fan of dancing or dressing up or weddings in general, but there was no way I’d miss being there for my friend. 

And I’m glad I can say the rest of the trip was reaffirming too. Instead of trying to juggle plans and optimize my time to see every single person I know, I made time for an essential few.

I could have easily said it was too warm or the trek was too long, but when my brother said he never walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, it felt like something he thought would be fun, so we up and went. 

Spending a little bit of money to get a ride to my sister’s house didn’t stop me from seeing her baby, my niece. 

Devouring a bowl of cereal didn’t mean I couldn’t make room in my stomach to get breakfast when my mom called me up two minutes later and asked to go out.

And setting aside our dedication to be men of few visible emotions, I offered my dad help any way I could because I have to guess it can’t be easy to watch your mother slowly lose her mind.

I’ve found this to be the limitation of personal development - getting so caught up in trying to improve yourself that you don’t take a second to look around at everyone else in your life. It’s too easy for personal development to become an individual pursuit where we trick ourselves into thinking there is an award for the most plates spinning. 

Using the framework of the Stoic philosophy in Stand Firm, Brinkmann notes the difference:

The Stoics see nothing wrong with positive experiences per se, but don't see pursuing as many of them as possible as an end in itself. In fact, such a pursuit […] might stop you [from] achieving peace of mind, the virtue that the Stoics cherish most.

I don’t plan on burning up my entire library, I’ve learned plenty. But personal development is not an end in itself. It’s all been part of an amazing journey and now I’m more glad than ever to keep on experiencing it, standing firm.

When Ambition Isn't Everything

A sharp-dressed young man walked into Habit Burger where I was chowing down. He had a limp and asked if he could sit down instead of waiting in the long line near my table. I said sure and he started asking me questions. Oh, here we go, I thought.

He asked me what I was reading. I tried hard to explain Scott Adams' God's Debris. It's basically a short story about a conversation between the smartest man in the world and a curious postal worker. Adams uses the structure to explore all sorts of topics, like God, probability, affirmations, and more. The young man sitting at my table was blown away. He asked, "What got you into reading books like that?" Jesus, man, what kind of weird ques- I don't know. No one ever asked me that before.

I stumbled around an answer somewhere between nature and nurture, but when the conversation inevitably and quickly turned toward a pyramid scheme pitch, I think sharing my plan to move back home scared him off. (Always a good way to deflect people's ideas for you, have your own plan ready.)

I devoured my hamburger and milkshake and left Habit Burger thinking about his question. I have read a lot of books in my lifetime, and I'm starting to think I've been hypnotized by confidence. I've read the theories of so many authors that are convinced the world is the way they see it. They have a personal philosophy strong enough to fill pages, a legacy instruction manual, one size fits all.

Reading like this is the reason I'm scatter-brained when the normal 9-5 ends and I have time to do whatever I want. The choice is paralyzing. You want to make sure you make the right decision to make the right steps to nail the right future. And I'm assuming there is one, and quite possibly, only one. Someone has to be right, right? Tim Ferriss compiled a 700+ page book titled Tools of Titans to highlight the habits of 200 mega-successful people and guests of his podcast, and, of course, they're not identical. Some things work for some and some things don't come close to working for others.

A bit more perspective for me comes from another book written by Scott Adams entitled How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big: "My main point about perception is that you shouldn’t hesitate to modify your perceptions to whatever makes you happy, because you’re probably wrong about the underlying nature of reality anyway."

I've driven myself crazy for years thinking that there is some sort of optimized formula for success when it was probably better to listen to myself and change course. I'm glad to say I'm starting to come around.

Dave Chapelle did that. Like most, I honestly hadn't thought too much about him until his recent triumphant return to stand-up comedy. Chapelle had three season of one of the funniest shows on television ever, Chapelle's Show, and then walked away from a 50 million dollar deal to keep it going. He felt Hollywood getting to him. He felt disconnected from his family. The man has principles and when he was offered an ungodly sum to do something he didn't want to do, he walked away.

And then, more than a decade later, Netflix offered him 60 million dollars for three stand-up specials.

Talking about the deal and his return on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Chapelle said, "When I'm walking down the street, [fans will] be like, 'Dave, that's right, you tell it like it is.' Not really. I don't really know what it is, I just say what it feels like."

Lately, I've been feeling off. Questioning your story against a pile of personal development successes will do that to you. I started to see everything as a nail and the exhausting need to hammer them all wasn't all good for me.

Often my need to satisfy ambition got the better of me. I can avoid people because I have things to do or projects to complete. Or in an even more subtle way, I'll pick my head up and notice the days that have flown by without me even thinking to call my mom or text another friend. They are the decisions most short stories warn you about regretting on your deathbed.

Comedian Maria Bamford ran up against this problem in an intense way. With mental illness running in her family, she knew it would get her. When suicidal thoughts started to get too strong, Bamford checked herself into a psychiatric hospital and stepped away from stand-up comedy for two years. In a bit for This is Not Happening, she pretended to defend herself against the world's most ambitious and obnoxious comedian, and, in light of his successes, she admitted, "I can't be as ambitious as I once was." No one can fault her for valuing her health over her ambition.

Luckily, a work conference came up right around the time I was feeling this way. I decided to extend it into a much-needed vacation from ambition and see my friends, Teri and Marianne.

It was surprising how easy it was to step away from my habits and appreciate the experience. It didn't matter what we did, I was already glad to catch up with two friends I hadn't seen much in months. We drank on St. Patrick's Day and hiked a mountain over the weekend, and took those photo booth photos wherever we could.

And I spent a good amount of time alone too. Teri could only take so many vacation days so I was left to decide for myself how to enjoy the time. Luckily, my ambition didn't paralyze my choices. I did still manage to train for my 10k training in the apartment gym but, while the Seattle rain did its thing, I lounged hard on the couch, watching Last Week Tonight and Chapelle's latest special on Netflix. Plus, for the first time, I think I went at an appropriately slow museum pace, walking around the Museum of Popular Culture, reading scribbles from Jimi Hendrix's notebooks and oogling horror movie props, like the ax from The Shining.

Seattle was an excellent reminder that I could be wrong altogether. Sometimes I just need a good reminder that ambition isn't everything. Or, at least, that's what it feels like.

Why Changing your Mind is the Only New Year's Resolution

If you're reading this now, you made it to the other side too. Happy New Year!

Do you feel different? All warm and fuzzy and sorta hungover? Did you write 2016 on something official yet and quietly curse at yourself? Or did you spend an unreasonable amount of time trying to decide on the best possible resolution for this new year?

Of course we fall into this trap - it's a lot of fun to make lists and plans of all the things we want to do with this new year of our short time here. Like wouldn't it be awesome to ride your new motorcycle with your best friend to a beach speckled with sea glass? Or be able to do a full split at age 30? Just me? Okay.
But what's the story here? Author Ryan Holiday has an idea and he calls it the Narrative Fallacy: "We want so desperately to believe that those who have great empires set out to build one. Why? So we can indulge in the pleasurable planning of ours." Ouch. Not so New-Years-friendly. Holiday continues, "So we can take full credit for the good that happens and the riches and respect that come our way. Narrative is when you look back at an improbable or unlikely path to your success and say: I knew it all along. Instead of: I hoped. I worked. I got some good breaks. Or even: I thought this could happen."

We want to believe that this year, from January 1st on, our plan for a perfect life will work out. And being someone that writes and thinks about this kind of stuff a lot, I definitely appreciate the wishful thinking. The reality is that there is always more. Bucket lists never empty. To-do lists are never done.

What we can do is break the narrative by continuing to change our minds. And not quite possible how you'd think.

In a conversation between neuroscientist Sam Harris and news anchor and author Dan Harris (unrelated), Sam said,

It’s amazing to realize for the first time that your life doesn’t get any better than your mind is: You might have wonderful friends, perfect health, a great career, and everything else you want, and you can still be miserable. The converse is also true: There are people who basically have nothing—who live in circumstances that you and I would do more or less anything to avoid—who are happier than we tend to be because of the character of their minds. Unfortunately, one glimpse of this truth is never enough. We have to be continually reminded of it.

Dan Harris figured this out climbing the ranks of the world news stage. For years he considered his ambition-fueled anxiety (or is it anxiety-fueled ambition?) as a weapon to edge out the professional competition. Until he started craving war-zone coverage and having panic attacks live on-air. Then, despite his hard-nosed skepticism, Harris found himself exploring meditation as something more than just sitting cross-legged, closing his eyes, and melting into hippie form, man. His journey became the book 10% Happier - How I Tamed The Voice in my Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, And Found Self-Help That Actually Works - A True Story.

Quite possibly, the best gem that came out of the book for me is Harris' note about the nature of Buddhism and the Buddhist approach to life: 

The Buddha’s signature pronouncement - ‘Life is suffering’ - is the source of a major misunderstanding, and by extension, a major PR problem. It makes Buddhism seems supremely dour. Turns out, though, it’s all the result of a translation error. The Pali word dukkha doesn’t actually mean ‘suffering’. There’s no perfect word in English, but it’s closer to ‘unsatisfying’ or ‘stressful’. When the Buddha coined the famous phrase, he wasn’t saying that all of life is like being chained to a rock and having crows peck out your innards. What he really meant was something like, ‘Everything in the world is ultimately unsatisfying and unreliable because it won’t last.’

We've survived through enough New Year celebrations to know the magic fades. Life goes on. Instead what we can do is notice this ever-transforming reality, take a breathe, and lean right into it. You don't need to chant or lose your mind or start ending phone calls with "Namaste". Just breathe. And turn your attention inward. 

My resolution is to meditate more this year because if I want to choose something it might as well be a reminder that things will change and leave me wanting. And if you can change anything in your life, and in this new year, why not work to change your mind first?

Thirsty for more?:

Taming the Mind - A Conversation with Dan Harris