Expectations III: Enlightened Optimism

New to the series? Check out the first post in the series: Identity, here, and the second: People, here.

Optimism is a dirty word. It carries with it connotations of youth and naivete, of blissful ignorance. The lips that form it in speech or the fingers that write it typically belong to a bubbly 20-something; the kind of person who hasn’t experienced enough pain to have their belief destroyed – the honest belief that there is nothing but good in the world and all problems are those solely of perspective. Or perhaps, if not blissful ignorance, then deliberate escapism, where optimism means a forced detour from realism in favor of subjecting oneself only to the joy around us. Ignorance and escapism, however, can never match the satisfaction of a deep acceptance of reality and the confidence that comes from looking the true world in its eyes without fear.

I speak of an alternative optimism where suffering and ecstasy are equally acknowledged, where the depth of life is wholly accepted. An optimism where we do not contradict our perception and lie to ourselves, where we do not shield our inner child from horror and trauma. I propose an enlightened optimism, one where we shift not our awareness but our attention and focus it on the best elements of our experience. When the enlightened optimist is faced with a challenge, she recognizes the possibility of failure but chooses to expect success and thereby sets the gears in motion to achieve it. When the enlightened optimist meets someone new, they are fully aware that they may despise every bone in this stranger’s body, but they expect to love them and so focus on the qualities they do admire and consequently make it pretty damn difficult to make enemies. The enlightened optimist possesses the beautiful virtue of a selective memory; they remember fully well the tragedies and hardships befallen them, but elect to spend their bar nights recounting their greatest triumphs and their heartiest laughs over a beer they can’t stand but have already forgotten about.

The person I describe is not a superhero, nor a celebrity airbrushed into oblivion and plastered on the cover of People magazine. They are not perfect and do not strive to be. They are simply and only the individuals who have recognized the capacity within each one of us to expect the best out of themselves, their peers, and the world around them.

“There’s no triumph waiting.
There’s no sunset to ride off in.
We all want to be great men and there’s nothing romantic about it.
I just want to know that I did all I could with what I was given.”

-The Wonder Years, I Just Want to Sell Out my Funeral 

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Expectations II: People

New to the series? Check out the first post: Identity, here

It’s 2010. The leaves and the leaf peepers had come and gone long ago, but the first flakes of snow had yet to fall on Maine soil. I stood on the sidelines of my fourth high school football game, with Wayne Gretzky’s legacy painted on my back and a quiet expression of excited nervousness hidden under a Riddell helmet. It was the fourth quarter and we must have absolutely dominated the first three, because the defensive coordinator decided it was safe enough to put a complete rookie in at defensive end – yours truly. Without time to process the choking fear of playing in my first real game, I hustled out to the line of scrimmage and got into position. With only ill-remembered practice experience to rely on, I focused on the only thing I did remember – what my stepfather had told me before my first practice – “On the first play of the game, you hit the guy across from you with every ounce of power in your body and you set the tone for the entire game.” The offense settled in on the other side of the line and I dug my toes in and got ready to hurl everything I had at him. The ball was snapped and I launched all 200 lbs of my nerdy 17-year old build at a complete stranger with every intention of communicating the appropriate level of terror he should feel towards this third-string defensive end. Unfortunately, he pulled a chop block and dove at my knees, sending each one of my 200 lbs straight into the dirt, from where I watched the running back sprint past without so much as a glance my way. Despite my failure, the lesson stuck- expectations are an essential defining characteristic of every relationship – whether on the gridiron, in the classroom, or at home.

In the classroom, teachers and professors have their own version of the first hit of the game – the first day of class. They’ll ditch their usual tweed blazer for a suit and their warm disposition for one of pure academic intensity. They’ll walk into class perfectly on time, syllabus in hand, and give a rundown of the idealistic expectations they’ve created for the course. Upon completion of the first class, they’ll listen closely for the phrase that confirms their success: “Man, this is going to be tough.” Why all the effort for one simple phrase? That first day of class is what defines each student’s attitude, and thus their expectations of their own work ethic and what it’s going to take to be successful. By acting like a hard-ass on the first day, or even the first week, teachers get students to adopt the attitude that they’ll have to work hard to be successful, and that attitude will carry them through the semester.

In our friendships and romantic relationships, too, expectations have to be both created and communicated. They may not be done with black suits and syllabi, but they’re even more important. Take gifts, for example. For your first Christmas together with your S/O, you decide to go all out and buy them a brand new pair of $500 skis (hint, hint Morgan). Undoubtedly they’ll be absolutely thrilled, but you’ve created the expectation for them and your future self that your gift purchases will be excessively extravagant – which may not be so fun when December rolls back around and you’re still broke from last year’s Christmas. Consider the tough stuff too – how often will we talk or get together, how much ‘me’ time do you need, what’s considered cheating, who pays for what, is it okay to kiss each other like high school students thinking they’ll never meet again before every class you don’t have together? It’s easy to simply assume that you and your partner understand what the other wants, but these are issues that need to be discussed and explicitly agreed upon for a successful relationship.

We know how much our friends can impact who we are, but expectations are one element of friendships that deserves closer exploration. Occasionally I’ll be late on a blog post or I’ll procrastinate on a school assignment and my friends will bug me about it to remind me that the way I’m acting doesn’t represent who I am. It’s easy to lose sight of who we are and adapt our own expectations to cater to our laziness, but the expectations of our friends and families exist to keep us in check, to encourage us to live up to our own. Expecting the most from your peers ensures that they’ll work to be the best versions of themselves. No one I know would be who they are today without the teammate who tackled their lost running back, or the graduating senior who showed nine naive freshmen that they could make a real difference at their university. Become the reason for other people to actualize their ideal selves.

Also, watch out for chop blocks. They’re fucking obnoxious.

Expectations I: Identity

Reality is never provided to us in true form. A tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum crashes into our retinas and reaches the visual cortex of the brain, where it simultaneously bets on blind spots and fills in missing light with its best guess. The human hearing range represents a marginal slice of the whole – the sense we primarily dedicate to communication is easily surpassed by our own pets.  Taste, smell, and touch, too, connect us to the world while distorting it. Despite recognition of these limitations, we are no better equipped to perceive true reality and so are still slaves to the senses. Expectations, just like any of the five senses, often help us to make sense of the world, yet they cloud our minds in the process. As much as I would love X-ray vision or the ability to hear dog whistles, however, the limitations of our senses do not significantly affect our well-being. Expectations define not sight or sounds but right and wrong, good and bad, bliss and melancholy. Luckily for us, they are within our control and so we can choose how we view ourselves, our lives, and the people around us.

Consider what you expect of yourself. What are you supposed to be good at? Who are you meant to care for? How are you supposed to act? If you don’t have answers to these questions, craft a personal mission statement and clarify the traits and passions that define you at the highest level. Expectations are the natural product of these values, the application of your self-vision. Understanding what we agree to do and who we agree to be allows us to accurately praise and punish our actions.

In my senior year of undergrad I’ve developed a stronger vision for my career and my life, and along the way I’ve taken on identities and expectations that seem to fit with that vision. After experiencing surprising popularity and success with this blog, I began to think of myself as a ‘writer’ and with that label came new expectations. When I made a new post, I would obsessively check view counts and comments on social media to make sure that my work was top-notch and that I was living up to the label. When I attempted to write I became frozen with fear that the final product wouldn’t live up to the exceptional standard I had imagined. During one of these paralyses in the midst of an impassable writers’ block, I began wondering why I started the blog in the first place and remembered that it was to improve at writing and to express my ideas. I’m not trying to be a ‘writer’, I’m not trying to become some internet sensation, I only wish to improve. Examining my expectations was liberating – the words began once again to flow effortlessly from my fingers because the false stakes were ripped out of my work.

A few friends and I recently decided, on a whim, to enter an international open tournament for League of Legends – an online game requiring a team of five. As a lifelong lover of video games, I’ve never seriously competed and so I took it upon myself to lead the team to a successful run. In considering our composition for the first match, we had to decide whether to play with our usual group of 5, with a wide range of skills represented and a narrow shot at victory; or to recruit some strangers on campus to play for the team and have a real shot at winning. We went back and forth in the discussion between the two and were making no progress toward a decision until a teammate forced us to consider our expectations of ourselves in the tournament. Even with the school’s best players, did we stand a chance of advancing past the first round? Would it be worth it to risk injuring our friendships just to feed our egos? We had lost sight of our original motivation in the quest to see ourselves as ‘gamers’ and serious competitors – all we really wanted out of it was a fun experience. Once we knew that, it was easy to see that entering the tournament with our friends was the only choice. Ultimately, we suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Becker College’s Lotion Squad, but ended the match with laughter and a great story.

Don’t become a victim of unconscious assumptions and find yourself fulfilling the wrong expectations. Free yourself from the labels you never agreed to and find contentment in living the life and identities you do choose.

Winter Break

Loyal followers, internet surfers, stumblers, curious folk,

The season of finals is upon me, and immediately following final exams is a holiday season absolutely packed with a lot of exciting traveling – Washington, Colorado, Vermont, and plenty of ski&snow. During that time I’m electing to take a break from the blog and single-task with the family and friends I’ll be visiting. Look for the blog’s exciting return in late January.

In the next few weeks one of my posts will be published over at highexistence.com and when that happens I’ll post an update here. In the meantime I highly encourage you to check out their site, it’s a meeting ground and a collective of intellectual discussion, life advice, pictures, videos, blogs, and people that truly make you think.

On Vulnerability

Vulnerable. Even the word itself evokes feelings of fear, helplessness, and a longing for the protection of a warm blanket. Vulnerability is an unguarded treasure, open to the plundering of emotional pirates who build themselves on the suffering of others. It reminds us of memories deliberately ignored and of the stone walls and cannons we built to ensure the pirates could never strike again. The sacred pact you made with a best friend to cut your bangs that she honored by laughing at your misplaced trust; the morning you woke up plagued by confusion and regret in a stranger’s bed. The night before a group project was due when you picked up the slack and put the team on your back; the confidant you came out to who painted a figurative billboard to tell the world. These experiences of pain and embarrassment populate our understanding of vulnerability but they cloud its value. Vulnerability is not something to hide or protect, it’s to be embraced as essential for deeply connecting with the world.

Think of your closest friend. Recall the greatest conversation you’ve ever had, and wonder what makes late-night intoxicated conversations so satisfying. What creates the powerful love you have for your significant other or your family? Vulnerability, for all of the pain it causes, is what enables us to experience the greatest joys in life. The closest relationships between friends are not based on a set of congruent interests or complementary personalities, they’re based on a mutual expression of vulnerability and the trust that’s built from its acceptance. Boyfriends and girlfriends, brothers and mothers – they’re the people you go to after failures and rejections, the people who either pick you up after a fall or kick you while you’re down. Our relationships with our family are often the most extreme in love and hate because they’ve had our entire lifetimes to accept or reject our vulnerabilities.  The quality of a conversation, similarly, is the direct product of the vulnerability entered in. Drunken conversations are often the best because our defenses are under chemical siege, individual truths are laid on the table without hesitation. Clearly there is a utility in vulnerability. To find it is to accept the risk, to recognize that the destruction of our walls is worth the opportunity to share our treasure.

Imagine if every conversation was drunkenly open, where the shackles of small talk were shattered and meaningful dialogue were unlocked. Imagine if superficial relationships died a long-awaited death and were reincarnated in Vernian depths. It sounds impossible because human culture is guarded, we don’t have the experience to support the notion of a genuine world.  Tell the guy in the elevator or the girl on your subway your life story – what’s the worst that can happen? They might not be interested or they may try to insult your weaknesses, but then you’ve quickly learned that they aren’t someone worthy of your expression. The best case scenario, however,  is a wealth of real connections – a network of people who know you and support you through the good and the bad, the ability to take ourselves less seriously, and the melting of our weaknesses. Reveal an oft-hidden birthmark the first time and it may be scary, but after the 10th time it loses its power. Fully express yourself – not in the cliche sense of encouraging consumption, but as a powerful avenue to better know, accept, and share who you are.

Have vulnerability mastered? Take it to the dating world!

One glass

The upsides to minimalism are often more subtle than those of affluence.

Cycling in the South Bay

We don’t have a lot of stuff. One friend charitably describes our lifestyle as “minimalist,” but “two steps away from broke” doesn’t miss the mark by much.

The other day a good friend came by to talk about the upcoming event. His car is double my net worth, although that doesn’t really tell you much about his car. When he sat down to the table, I offered him some wine. This is always the awkward part because we only have one wine glass, and it was already in use.

Our other glasses are heavy duty Duralex tumblers, and people always do a brief double-take when I pour their wine into one. They never say anything, but the thought plays quickly across their foreheads: “Why don’t you have any wine glasses?” The answer is complicated, at least once you dispense with the obvious reason that I don’t want to spend the money.

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Pick the Right Pond

We want to be better. The human drive, and in particular the American drive, is one of self-improvement. It’s why our films tell stories of poor men becoming rich and the underdog winning the big game. Self-improvement produces 92,000,000 results in a Google search and eleven billion dollars a year in industry revenue of books, speeches, podcasts, and coaches all claiming to hold the key to unlock your potential. The vast majority of them encourage an egotistical obsession – the solution you’ve been looking for is within you. It’s your habits, your thought patterns, your job that need refining. Emphasis on the isolated self is misplaced – most of us aren’t living alone in a forest cabin, we’re living and working in a community of people constituting a distributed identity.

We exist within many cultures – the global culture connecting us as a species, the country defining our laws and practices, the family giving us traditions. They all play significant roles in our lives, but the culture with the biggest direct impact is the one we create with our friends and coworkers: peer culture. Peer culture dictates our standards, it selects how we spend our free time, it creates our work ethic. If all of your friends jumped off of a bridge – contrary to the hopes of every mother who’s ever asked the question – you probably would too. That’s why it’s essential to create a positive peer culture. If you and the other ducklings are going to swim in a line, make sure it’s the right pond.

I’m not suggesting that you handpick your crew like a fantasy football team, merely that you critically evaluate the people you’re bringing into your life and assess the impact they have on you. It’s only recently that I’ve realized I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by an extremely positive peer culture. My friends push me to be better every day, we engage in a positive competition where ‘good enough’ is never good enough. Our interests are diverse – we’re a team of entrepreneurs, writers, music producers, DJs, accountants, gamers, and comedians but we feed off of each other for creativity and collaboration. The artist draws up a logo for the entrepreneur’s new company, the writer creates a sample for the producer’s new song, and when one of us needs support there’s a set of talented, driven people ready to launch an idea to the next level. When I created this blog my friends went wild promoting it on social media, helping me establish an early readership. When the DJs play a show, we show up and dance harder than anyone there wearing the entrepreneur’s clothing line. Cooperation is absolutely essential to success. Self-improvement doesn’t start with the self, it starts by surrounding yourself with people who constantly challenge you to be your best.

Make Your Life a Mission

My sophomore year of college was plagued by classes I didn’t care about taught by professors I couldn’t relate to; I felt the business world had nothing to offer me; and I was deeply considering a major switch to psychology. Management 200 won the worst of my contempt for poorly covering grossly outdated psychological theories and obscuring common sense by transforming every simple, common-sense concept into a multiple-step monstrosity. Its only value derives from a mandatory service-learning project, contingent upon the slim possibility that the benefit of your team’s work outweighs the burden of your attempt at charity.

I lucked out, however – my professor was an adjunct and recognized the flaws with the typical classroom management education and would sprinkle in nuggets of real-world wisdom when the monstrosities would allow. On the final day of class he strolled into the room, noticeably abandoning his typical professionalism in a final attempt at salience and delivered the assignment that would become his greatest success: “If there’s only one thing you take away from this class, it should be the value of a personal mission statement.” I rolled my eyes, silently commending him on another flimsy idea from the first chapter of a bad self-help book. He wrote his own statement on the board knowingly, clearly a result of great practice, and instructed us to do the same.

Humoring him, I put pen to paper and was struck with the difficulty of the task. Summarize your purpose on Earth in about 40 words. I had to start small, but specific. I want happiness – but how do I get there? What makes me happy now? A sense of progression, we’ll start there. I don’t want to be selfish, I want to help others and myself. I like learning and being curious, but I don’t want to be too gullible. I look for truth- no, understanding. What’s this all for anyway? To try and realize potential, to live the best life possible, to be the best human being I can.

The professor closed the class as I finished writing and I left staring at a note card, surprisingly proud of my little creation. I got home and taped it above my desk, humoring my professor one last time, and read it. “I am never complete. Every day I seek to improve my own life and the lives of others. I will always remain curious and skeptical, facing the world with an open mind and a desire for understanding in all forms. Following these ideas will allow me to actualize my full potential as a Human Being.” The following morning, the newest addition to my decor caught my eye and I read it again. I felt powerful, led by these few words like a soldier in battle and an unexpected desire to try and live them. I considered my statement in the context of my life, comparing my stated ideal to the path I was traveling, and realized the two were incongruent. The decision to switch majors became easy because switching would allow me not only to pursue my mission in college, but could lead to a career where I made a living by living my mission.

The power in a mission statement comes from its guidance. Wondering how to spend your time? Consult the words. Dealing with a difficult decision? Ask the words. Much like marriage vows, a personal mission statement is there for you to fall back on when doubts and questions arise. When you’re frustrated, or sad, or confused, the words remind you of the promise you made to your potential self. They’re a compass in an unexplored land. Try creating your own mission statement. Don’t worry about getting it perfect the first time around, just write something and change it as you grow. Add to it, erase it, trash it. It doesn’t have to be long, or profound. Be nice to everyone; try something new every day; learn as much as possible; whatever empowers you – cliche or not. Picture your ideal self – what would you need to do every day to become him or her? Identify the simple actions that will lead you there, write them, and read them. Read them when you wake up, read them before bed, read them at work, read them while you study, and bask in the power of your mission.

Production Minus Consumption = Happiness

Give more than you receive. We’ve all heard this bit of wisdom countless times in our life, and even perhaps acknowledged its value as an ideal, but how often do we truly put it in practice? Unfortunately, this phrase is often relegated to a long list of similar expressions whose primary purpose is to be mindlessly and often hypocritically repeated from person to person in a shadow of their true value. “Follow your dreams, anything is possible, laugh every day, love thy neighbor, love your enemies, treat others like you wish to be treated, think before you speak, if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all.” If this wisdom was lived at the same frequency it was said the world could be a more compassionate, empathetic, lighthearted place full of passion and possibilities. Yet we find ourselves not enriched by their value but beaten into indifference by empty platitudes. The problem is one of translation – these principles are so excessively broad that we have no idea how to actually apply them. Give more than you receive is the first translation project – and the result? Production Minus Consumption Equals Happiness.

‘Giving’ and ‘receiving’ are practically undefined terms – it’s difficult to analyze a day of your life and label every moment as one of either. Production and consumption, however, are clearly delineated, and it’s this clarity that allows us to make the philosophy a reality. Production is activity, taking something internal and expressing it, it’s creating, it’s moving, it’s innovating. Consumption is passive – it’s stagnancy, and it thrives on the creativity and work of others. Think back to yesterday and go through every hour and make a mental list of your activity and passivity. Watching TV, reading, surfing the web, and listening to music? Consumption. Writing, running, talking, building, cleaning, and cooking? Production! ‘Work’ is a bit more nuanced. Studying can mean mechanically absorbing information from a lecture or a textbook, yet responding to and discussing that information requires deep thought and active engagement. Attending a presentation at the office leaves you bored and unhappy, but developing your own leaves you proud and confident in the afterglow of shared knowledge.

Here lies the opportunity for change, in transforming your life from a scripted amusement park ride to a choose-your-own-adventure novel. Seek out opportunities for production and build the avenues to access a deeper existence. In the post-religious world we’re mired in the quicksand of existentialism, the desperate search for meaning; ‘productionism’ is handing you a rope, offering an escape from nihilism in exchange for effort. Every day, every hour, that rope is lowered in front of you and all you have to do is reach out, grab it, and climb above passivity to reach elusive satisfaction.

The Death of Effort in Modern Dating

Traditional romantic practice is dead. Its birthday is unknown – It may have begun with the first homo sapiens, grunting and gesturing their way through sexual selection in an attempt to find the least hairy mate; or perhaps with apes, competing to find the most bugs in their crush’s scalp (how attractive can someone with bugs in their hair really be?), but either way its tragic death has spawned a finger-pointing murder mystery where everyone’s a suspect. Recently an article by John Picciuto entitled Why Chivalry Is Dead, From a Man’s Perspective made the web rounds and has ignited the discussion, where Picciuto blames women for its death and calls upon them to solve the crisis they’ve apparently created as if they’ve just let their gender go like a lazy spouse after marriage. “The real problem here is that women, for one reason or another, have become complacent and allowed men to get away with adhering to the bare minimum.” He may explicitly admit his bias right there in the title, but his admission can’t excuse a gross simplification of a complex issue.

Let’s begin with women, the supposed sole reason for why it’s become more normal for a relationship to spawn from an intoxicated physical encounter than a friendship and why 50% of marriages end in divorce. Women are still seen as holding the cards in the dating scene, sitting back and letting men compete against each other for their selective approval. If this were true, and selection were still entirely in their hands, then it would follow that they had collectively lowered the bar for romantic approval and could just as easily raise it back up. How simple! All we have to do is send a mass email to the female listserv, and the prototypical dinner and a movie can become the glorious norm once again! Obviously this notion of unilateral female control is an illusion, however, women certainly share the burden of responsibility. A four character text message has become a sufficient expression of interest; the rare man courageous enough to ask a woman on a date in a presumably genuine attempt to get to know her is blacklisted as a creep or a weirdo; and many women continually compete against each other to create the path of least resistance for their lazy male counterparts.

Piciutto and others take for granted in this discussion that women must want to have formal dating rituals and experience a drawn out romance before they get involved with a partner, because our society is uncomfortable with the idea that some women might actually revel in the death of ‘chivalry’ and prefer more direct relationships and less commitment. As a result, women find themselves haunted by a dichotomous social labeling system as either a slut or a tease and are encouraged to spend their romantic lives mentally and physically pinballing between two extremes where everyone loses and there’s no right answer.

Guys, we aren’t helping the situation either. Men and women have worked together to lower the bar for effort – men have an oft-forgotten power of refusal as well an ability to influence the individual and collective relationship culture. If we wanted chivalry back, we could avoid relationships with women who aren’t interested in it, trading ease of access for deeper satisfaction and reversing the female competition culture. The new fight would become one for the path of most resistance, where the most desirable women were the ones whose first romantic move was an offer to get lunch, not a 3 AM text message of “Where are you?” Unfortunately there’s a pervasive misconception in male culture that we have inherently less self-control than women and so are unable to make these decisions for delayed gratification and are thus powerless to bring chivalry back. These issues are compounded when most men are brainwashed to think that it’s feminine to actually prefer effortful romance and deeper relationships over the ubiquitous low-hanging fruit. Acceptance is the first step – how can men bring back chivalry if they’re afraid to admit they miss it, if they don’t even know they want it back?

The technology of the information age and the maturation of the first antisocial generations has only accelerated the casual romantic trend. Picciuto said it well – “I think, in an ever-changing landscape of communication between 140 character tweets, LOLs and ROTFLs, we’ve lost our ability to communicate, altogether.” Dating is hard. It’s always been hard. It means thinking of something creative and personalized to do together, spending money, and – not to forget the purpose of the whole practice – hours of face-to-face conversation, a thought that terrifies your average TwitterKid whose idea of getting acquainted means spending a few hours painstakingly combing through her love interest’s Facebook profile without a word spoken between them. Increasingly popular online dating websites like OKCupid and EHarmony prey on the fear of interaction and a fatigued single population by removing the most difficult element of the communicative process, matching potential partners based on an exhaustive personality inventory so that finding your eventual divorcee is easier than ever.

Why should you care? Why do we want chivalry back anyway? Perhaps the death of chivalry is a form of social progression, a welcome abandonment of archaic social rituals that only serve to waste time and money and put women on pedestals in a supposedly egalitarian society. Draw your own conclusions about the relationship between today’s dating culture and the state and depth of the modern relationship – all I ask is that you take action. If you celebrate the status quo and are satisfied in your relationships, by all means stay the course. But if you possess a creeping fear that we’re doing something wrong, don’t stand on the sidelines. Ask for coffee dates and walks in the park, for music festivals and ice cream, and perhaps one day you’ll find someone who loves black raspberry as much as you do.