Everything Has Value For Artists and Entrepreneurs

I consume a lot of information from a variety of sources, that is one of the perks of living in this amazing age. At my fingertips I have more music, books, podcasts, and magazines than I could consume in ten lifetimes, and more is being created every day. It is overwhelming and awesome and terrifying. At times, I am painfully aware of my own mortality when I finish a book and am trying to decide what to read next.

Do I pick up Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman or The Sandman Volume 5 by Neil Gaiman? Should I dive deeper into my interest in yoga or should I read about the history of anarchist theory? How about trying to improve my life by reading a self-help book, or maybe my time would be better spent finally finishing Crime and Punishment. Or maybe, I should take a break from reading and watch Star Trek: EnterpriseThe X-Files, or Jersey Shore, or play World of Warcraft. I could also sign up for MMA classes, listen to The Beatles with the lyrics pulled up on my computer, listen to a D&D podcast, join the local board game club, or start learning German (again).

As awe-inspiring as my options are I find comfort in knowing that there is no wrong decision. However, I choose to spend my leisure time I know there will be value in it because value is created by me. Value isn’t something tangible that you can pick up, hold, or store away in a sock drawer where it will sit waiting and unchanging. There is no objective measure of value where A Tale of Two Cities has 374 value points and is, therefore, a better use of my time than watching Top Chef: Seattle which only has 196 value points.

No, there is value in all things. If I watch or read or experience something and can’t find value in it, that is my weakness as a student and not necessarily a reflection on the creator. As an artist, I should be on the lookout for inspiration everywhere. Each “trashy” tv show is a collection of characters for a dystopian novel. Every game of Settlers of Catan is an opportunity to hone my strategic thinking and to understand how other people behave when under stress. Every experience I have, from reading Anal Pleasure and Health: A Guide for Men, Women, and Couples to listening to The Dungeon Master’s Block podcast provides nearly infinite inspiration and value for my life, if I just know how to see it.

I create my own value. I find my own inspiration. I just need to keep my eyes open and consume, consume, consume. And the more diverse the sources, the more tools I’ll have at my disposal when I sit down to create.

Setting Myself Up For Success

Working from home provides unique challenges to overcome. Sure, I love the freedom and flexibility of setting my own hours and accepting the jobs I want to accept, but I don’t have a boss peering into my office to make sure I’m being productive. The only pressure I feel is the internal need to do what I promised to do and make sure I have enough cash to not starve. It takes discipline, focus, and a sense of entrepreneurship that school didn’t train me for, particularly when it comes to my professional projects that I don’t get paid for. When I’m writing or creating art or exercising there is even less pressure because the only person I will let down is myself, and I tend to be very forgiving, I can always relate to my own excuses.

But, the most important thing I’ve found to keep me on task and doing my work is to establish a system for success. For me, that system starts before the day does. The most important 30 minutes of every day actually starts the night before when I meditate on the day and prepare for the next.

Every night (well, every night that I’m not a huge slacker), I have a staff meeting with myself to figure out what my goals are for the next day. This includes everything from paid work to exercise plan to writing. I type up my expectations for the next day and then I print it out and set it prominently on my desk.

For example, the list sitting next to me says:

Saturday 2/18
– Khan Academy, Stoic Study, Meditation
– Exercise – 5-Mile Run
– Exercise – Yoga Video #7
– Website – Complete Book Recommendations Page and go ive
– Website – Write one blog post
– Book – Research new computer for Audible recording
– Reading – 1 hour
– Errand – Home Depot for shovel and planting soil
– Work – Civitas – Complete XX project and continue XX project ~4 hours

Once I have a list of tasks for the next day I get my house and office ready. I know that when I wake up my motivation will be at an all time low and I need things as organized as possible to encourage success. First, I set out my workout and work clothes for the next day. Each morning I put on my workout clothes and don’t take them off until I’m done exercising. As much as I loathe pants, I don’t work in pajamas. Then I get the coffee prepped, set the necessary workbooks and such next to my computer, and clean up my desktop.

After that, I clean the house. This involves cleaning the kitchen and bedroom first, and sometimes the bathroom. I don’t clean things deeply but I do pick up the clutter and sweep daily. I’ve found that having a dirty home kills my productivity. Not only does it become a distraction to see things out of place, but it creates an excuse that pulls me away from what I should be doing. It is hard for me to motivate myself to work, particularly my writing, and any excuse I have to procrastinate I am tempted to take. It is amazing at how clean my house can become when there is other work I should be doing. I was the same in college, whenever I had a rough deadline it suddenly became necessary to clean my house, reorganize my bathroom, call my parents, etc. Basically, I remove as many excuses as possible and set things up in a way that allows me to transition into the day with minimal speedbumps.

Maybe this is a little anal of me, but it works for me. Setting up my day the night before has really upped my productivity and happiness. I have fewer wasted days where I look at the clock and wonder where the hell the day went. Maybe someday I won’t need this type of habit to create, but that day isn’t today.

Regretting Being a Parent is Okay

I’ve used the words “mother” and “parent” in this blog mostly interchangeably. In our society, the vast, vast majority of the pressure for parenthood is placed on the mother. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that many people would view a woman who voiced regret about having a child less favorably than a man who actually acts on that regret by abandoning the child.

Parenting is probably the most important job in our society and it is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. Not only should parents passionately want to have and raise children, they should also have the means and knowledge necessary to do that in today’s world.

Unfortunately, society doesn’t treat parenting that way. Instead of treating parenting with the respect it deserves we pressure people to enter into it unprepared and at too young of an age. Our society continues to pretend this difficult task that will alter the course of multiple lives will just “come naturally” and we shun women (and, to a lesser extent, men) who say that they don’t want children. People are often even forced to commit to having multiple children before experiencing raising one child (sometimes by partners and sometimes by society), or they are encouraged to have more children when they aren’t ready.

But, there is a group of people who receive even more vitriol and acidic hatred than those who choose not to have kids: those who have kids but admit to regretting it. Fortunately, some people are speaking out.

Parenting is more than just a job, it becomes an identity that is nearly impossible to escape. It becomes all-defining and casts a shadow over nearly anything else that a woman can accomplish. Attachment to any role is unhealthy because eventually that role will change and you will be left alone. Parents may technically be parents forever, but there will be a day when the children no longer need the parents and there will be psychological hell to pay if too much emphasis is placed on that identity.

Not only that, but a parent who regrets being a parent seems to break a social taboo and have betrayed society as a whole. It is the regret that dares not speak its name. The bond between mother and child is supposed to be so strong, so spiritual, so supernatural that it is seen as a moral failing of the highest degree to wish that bond never happened.

But that mindset is ridiculous and unhealthy and does nothing but worsen parenting for both the child and the parent. We should be allowed to vocalize our regret for something, it is only through that kind of honesty that we can prevent others from making a similar mistake (or, at the very least, give extra thought to the decision before making it).

We’ve lost the ability to discuss motherhood openly and rationally. We should be allowed to admit that we regret something, even parenting. It doesn’t even require having a shitty kid, some people enter into parenthood naive to what it will take or because they are pressured to do it. Parenting is something that a couple (traditionally) should both be 100% committed to, and if two people are on a different page when it comes to parenthood then that may mean terminating the relationship. Nobody should become a parent to please a partner. There are certain aspects of compatibility that don’t have a middle ground, parenting (like monogamy, lifestyle, etc.) is one of them. Parenting just isn’t for everyone.

 

To have a society of healthy parents without regret we need to stop making “motherhood” the primary role for women (and, to a much lesser extent “fatherhood” for men), there needs to be access to birth control and sex education, we should encourage people to think long and hard about having kids and not rush into it if they aren’t financially (and otherwise) prepared, and we shouldn’t pressure anyone into having one (or more) kids just because that is what you are “supposed to do”. But, most importantly, we can’t shun people who speak out against the norm. Becoming an outcast because of how you feel only forces people to hide who they truly are, which is a disservice to everyone involved.

 

“Buddhism: Plain & Simple” – A Review

Title: Buddhism: Plain & Simple
Author: Steve Hagen
Pages: 159 (including Appendix)
Rating: 5/5 Highly Recommended

It is hard to me to pinpoint exactly when I started to have an interest in Buddhism. I remember learning about it in a high school religion class, but that introduction was little more than “it isn’t really a religion but it kind of is”. I was a hardcore Christian at that time and I have no doubt that I saw Buddhism as simply another Satanic ruse to steal souls from Heaven.

In the decade and a half since high school, my interest in Buddhism has bubbled in my subconscious. I’ve purchased several books about it but rarely finish them. As much as I am interested in Buddhism the works I’ve read seemed unnecessarily vague and complex, I felt like the authors were playing tricks with words instead of just coming out and saying what Buddhism is.

Buddhism: Plain & Simple by Steve Hagen is the opposite of that.

Hagen does a fantastic job of stripping away the ceremony and tradition and supernatural side of Buddhism and gets to the core. He does a great job explaining what the foundation of Buddhism, to simply see the world as it is and to live in the moment. After finishing this book I couldn’t help but see incredible similarities between Buddhism and the Stoic philosophy that I know and love. I can’t help but wonder if followers of Buddha somehow interacted with the Ancient Greeks and helped influence Stoic thought. It seems plausible that in the 200ish years between the life of Buddha and Zeno’s teaching at the Stoa Poikile someone would have made it from India to Greece.

Buddhism and Stoicism are both tools that work to find the truth about the world and encourage rational action in response to the truth. They are about helping individuals live better, happier, more satisfying and authentic lives. This is unlike the faith that I grew up in that demanded obedience to rules and discouraged intellectual inquiry. Buddhism explicitly rejects any hard rules and recognizes that the world is fluid and nuanced and diverse circumstances can easily turn rules into tools of injustice.

Mostly, I enjoy that Buddhism does not need to conflict with scientific discovery. As the Dalai Lama said in the foreword to Destructive Emotions:

I have often said that if science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understading, Buddhism must change accordingly. We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts. If upon investigation we find that there is reason and proof for a point, then we should accept it.

Here was a system of spirituality that didn’t conflict with the natural world, and I believe that is why Buddhism will end up outlasting many of the religions of today. I am still far from an expert on Buddhism, but Buddhism: Plain & Simple laid the groundwork for me to continue my pursuit of knowledge in that direction. It is an easy, quick read that is made up of relatively short and succinct chapters. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in understanding this life philosophy.

The Words I Use

A recent(ish) Big Think article crossed my Facebook feed recently and it got me thinking about language. In particular, the language that I use and how it might impact how I see the world. By reflecting on the words I use I hope to live a better life, a life that is more at peace with reality, a life in which I can reach my full potential (or at least one in which I am honest with myself about what that would cost).

Let’s take a look at the language used to describe people who think differently than I do about political issues. Once upon a time, a lifetime ago, I lived in Washington DC and worked in policy and politics. While living in DC I proudly proclaimed that I lived among “the enemy”. I was surrounded by “evil statists” and “theocrats”. The enemy was everywhere and, while I may have felt like I was fighting a good fight, I was miserable. Not only was I stressed out all the time, I really wasn’t making any positive change in the world.

How could I? When other people are my “enemy” I can’t learn from them or teach them, all I can do is seek to destroy them. You don’t treat your enemy with love and understanding, you don’t seek compromise. No, you destroy them. You dehumanize them. You reduce them to their political philosophy or religion or social views or any other convenient label that pushes them into “the other” so that you can fight them guilt-free. Eventually, even your allies become enemies because they lack the purity of your own point of view. By classifying other humans as my enemy I only succeeded in defeating myself.

Similarly, using negative language (mental and spoken) to describe my own limitations only prevents me from growing and trying. It is easy to blame genetics for my failure (“I’m not creative”, “I’m terrible at learning new languages”, “I lack the musical talent necessary to play an instrument or dance”, “I’ll never have a six-pack”, etc. etc. ad nauseam). This is all a cop-out. Being honest with myself is difficult because when I’m honest I know that I haven’t really tried. Trying may actually lead to disappointment, it is much easier to convince myself that the fates or gods or Darwin made me incapable of accomplishing a difficult task. Why put forth the effort if the result is predetermined?

But that negative view of my own abilities isn’t reality. The truth looks more like this: “Learning to play a musical instrument seems incredibly difficult and it isn’t a priority for me right now, but I could probably do it if I dedicated time and effort to it”. So, by changing my internal speech I become more honest, but an excuse disappears from my Slacker’s Toolbox. I’m forced to admit that something I claim is important (art, reading, music, fitness, etc.) isn’t actually something I value enough to work on.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, words have power in our society. While many people claim that using certain words isn’t hurtful and asking people to change how they speak is being “politically correct”,  that isn’t true. People can be hurt by words and using words derogatorily dehumanizes people. Whether it is using words like fag or retard in a negative way, or intentionally misgendering someone, words can be a weapon used to put people down and claim superiority over them. Sometimes this happens intentionally by people in power. For example, the use of masculine words as the default when the gender isn’t known. When the modern English language was evolving there was a real effort to ensure the masculine reigned supreme. According to 16th Century Grammarian William Lily “The masculine gender is more worthy than the feminine”.

Language has power, both in our personal lives and in society as a whole. It can be used to put people down and control them, or it can be used to lift people up and liberate them. It is a choice we each must make, we can just go with tradition or default to “that’s the way my parents/culture/whatever talk” or we can choose to be more sensitive and eliminate language from use that only serves to harm and separate us from our fellow humans and the potential we each have.

Yesterday

Sometimes, the most difficult thing for me to do is let go of yesterday. I know that yesterday is gone and shouldn’t determine what I do today, but it is difficult sometimes. All the mindfulness meditation and Stoic philosophy that I absorb points to living in the moment and not allowing my mind to be bogged down with things that are outside of my control (and is there anything more outside my control than the past?), but I can’t help it sometimes. Yesterday can become a weight that seems to drag me down a predetermined path, destroying my productivity and making me feel like a failure.

This weight upon today usually takes one of two forms. The first seems positive, but that is deceptive. Whenever yesterday was good and productive I tend to justify taking today off. Maybe I got a lot of work done, cleaned the house, went for a run, spent an hour doing yoga, and did some reading. Maybe I also avoided bad things like Facebook, sugar, alcohol, and weed. A perfect yesterday is a fertile ground for an imperfect today. That shouldn’t be the case, the good I did yesterday does not excuse doing bad today.

The other form is when I have a bad yesterday. Maybe I slept in, skipped the gym, didn’t do any writing, and ate a bunch of garbage. That bad day becomes a momentum killer. Undoubtedly, when I skip one workout it quickly leads to skipping two, then three, then ten. A bad day becomes a rut that drags me down, particularly if there are not any immediate negative consequences. That is the worst scenario, when nothing really bad comes of my slacking. Maybe I don’t work out and eat garbage but don’t gain any weight. Or maybe I don’t meditate but I still feel mentally strong. It becomes easy for me to think, “Well, nothing bad happened yesterday so why should I put in the effort today?” That mindset leads to failure and destruction.

I don’t know what to do about these traps. Every morning is a struggle to develop good habits and accomplish things. My passion to create and the satisfaction I get from having a good, productive day are always at odds with the evolved drive to do as little as possible. Procrastination, slacking off, and being lazy are in our genes, it is one of the features that allowed our species to thrive. But, like many (most?) of the traits that took us out of the trees, they aren’t necessarily good in today’s world. IN fact, they may be harmful.

So, I struggle on. Each morning requires a refocus and hard work, and it requires forgiving myself for bad yesterdays and suppressing my ego after good yesterdays.