Psychology

A little perspective after a long time

*Note: There are some elements of this entry that some may find disturbing, or possibly even trigger-worthy.  Read (or don’t) with caution if you are the sensitive type.

I know, I know… I’ve been gone a long time.  Life is like that;  It ebbs and flows.  It’s probably a good thing I don’t write professionally (at least not on a creative level) or I would be accused of following after a certain author of thrones.  Anyway, It took a couple years for this cycle to settle, and now that it has… everything is fine.  And that’s it.  Nothing is wrong, and new stuff happens from time to time, but for the most part, I’m just doing my thing; day in and day out. My companions from my previous cycle (and even the “adjustment” period) have almost all fallen away.  Some will come back eventually, and some will not.  But for the time being I have my new cave by the lake, my work in the contrasting enormous palace nearby, my cats, some friends I see every so often (whom, I’m growing a greater appreciation for as others move on) and… me.
It’s not about time any more.  I have time.  I finally caught up on The Walking Dead (holy shit…) and I’ve been addicted to certain mobile games involving hunting small creatures in the real world and fantasies that are final at home.  So time is there… money is still in recovery but improving daily. What I realized is missing (much like in my personal relationships) is passion.  I don’t feel inspired by anything.  The world is beautiful, and I am privy to exceptional sunsets on a daily basis.  These bring me peace, but they do not light a fire.  There is no fire.  I’m not depressed, things are generally good, I’m just… here.  It’s kept me from writing because I need to have something I feel strongly enough to write about.  It’s kept me from photography because I’m still backlogged almost a year (sorry Jess.. I put some more up yesterday but I realize my pace is horrible…) and while I love the photos I put up when I do work on them, it’s honestly a struggle to get myself to sit down and focus on them.

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At least sometimes I look alright doing it…

I know, this is a lot of whining and problems that are really not problems.  A year ago at this time I was trying to figure out if I was going to have a place to live next month, so I understand that I’m not really having real problems.  Ironically, it might be the intense focus that work requires of me that keeps the inspiration from showing up at the end of the day.  Chicken or the egg?  Be that as it may, I am virtually alone and uninspired at the moment, and while I’m making an effort to branch out a bit, it may be some time before life picks back up again.

With that said I want to share a story with you.  This story makes all of the above whining seem even more ridiculous.  The point is not to shock you or make you feel bad, the point is to help people like me, who are really doing pretty okay, keep perspective and be grateful for the blessings they have, even if inspiration feels a little short.  Having time to worry about inspiration or passion IS a blessing in itself.

As mentioned above, I work in a literal mansion.  My boss is such that he parks his seaplane (yes, seaplane) in the back yard, on the very nice lake that is shared among the local (rich) community.  Though it is not the point of this article, I want to make a point of assuring you that my boss is 1. Generally a good man.  2. Gives a GREAT deal of charity and pays a great deal of taxes without complaint.  -and- 3. Does not come from a wealthy family.  He’s built and earned what he has, more than once.

Anyway, as his Executive Assistant (you can call me Alfred) I assist in running his business, finances, calendar, estate, grounds, etc.  So as mentioned I spend the majority of my time in this huge, immaculate home.  Another staff member of ours – let’s call her Jan – comes once a week with an associate of hers to do a full cleaning of the house, laundry, etc. She is originally from Jamaica, in her late-40s, and her and I have a friendly, joking, semi-abusive relationship.  My boss has known her for over a decade (before he even moved into this mansion) and has treated/paid her well consistently.  He is even looking into the best way to provide for her retirement in the future, as she has never had her own means of obtaining one.   Not that she’ll need it anytime soon, because while she’s easygoing and friendly, she’s also tough, I mean really tough.

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Our cleaning lady would kill you son.

I’ve visited Jamaica before via cruise ship.  I know, I know, that’s not the “real” Jamaica. But all you need to do is book an excursion that takes you out of the tourist area and if you’re paying attention you very quickly get an impression of the reality many native Jamaicans face.  While there are most certainly well-developed, colorful, historical towns, hotels, and restaurants, just outside the walls of the tourist area in Falmouth, things get progressively bleaker until the reality of literal poverty is staring you in the face.  They make the best of it; You could see people smiling, laughing, and living, but they have adjusted, or have never know the extent of the comforts and security we have here in the US (despite us needing to be made great… again…)

Jan, and her family are from that kind of life.  She’s happy to be here with her longtime friend, making a life for herself and her daughter here in the US that would be near impossible for the rest of her family back in Jamaica.  She sends them money and support, and shows me pictures of the gatherings she attends when she goes to visit them.  She is especially proud of their Sunday clothes, when they get dressed up for church.

The other day she pulled out her phone and was showing me pictures of her son and some of their extended family still living in Jamaica.  She has never married, and when I asked her if her children were intentional she just smiled at me as if I were Jon Snow and knew nothing.  In this particular photo set though, I commented on her son’s sense of style.  Even by US standards, he was decked out in a dark suit with a light purple tie, matching vest and sunglasses to complete the look.

Purple Style

That style.

That was when she casually showed me the next picture.  It was of a young boy (I think she said he was thirteen) hanging from a tree by a rope tied around his neck.  Her nephew had decided that his life there wasn’t worth continuing, and… before they took him down, they took photos.  She continued that her son was wearing his best to that boy’s funeral because he had been like a brother, and it was the best way to honor his life.  The whole time she spoke casually and easy about this, as if this were just another part of life like a thunder storm or the flu.  But then, for a lot of people in the world, possibly even the majority, it is.

Many of us in the US live blessed lives.  Absolutely we have poverty, I’ve shared with you before that I was homeless at times growing up and have memories of getting food from the food bank to eat.  But much harder than I ever had it is the racism that is still coming to light, when growing up as a minority here (especially if you’re poor) can be, literally, deadly.  And while a lot of us see it on the news here, and it is wrong anytime, anywhere, in some places it’s so common that it’s not even a headline.

My point is not to say that we don’t need to get better as a culture in the United States (or wherever I end up should Emporer Trump come to power,) because we do.  We have to be better because we have infinitely more opportunity than so many more places in the world.  If there’s anything the human race is good at, it’s squandering its available advantages by focusing on trivial things (like… not feeling inspired…)  But that photo of the boy hanging from a tree, because life was actually very hard there and he couldn’t make it, is something that reminds me of this responsibility.  It gives a lot of perspective to how blessed the majority of us are here and reminds me that, at the very least, first and foremost, I (we) need to do our best to not be a part of the problems in our own culture.

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This.. should be appreciated.

People like Jan can come here, and work hard, and probably never have a life as decadent as my boss (or possibly even me.)  But because she has an inherently different perspective, and the appreciation for the many things we take for granted (including our way of life itself,) there’s a good chance that she may often be happier than those of us that lose our perspective from time to time.  Happiness is relative.  That’s why people with far more money than a windbag like Trump are secretly (or not so secretly) miserable.  Meanwhile those who give away what little they have beyond their own survival enjoy happiness that eludes the majority of the world.

There’s no recipe for it either. It’s individual… relative. Giving away everything or becoming a monk won’t make everyone happy.  Nor will winning the lottery (as people have demonstrated over and over) or becoming famous.  I believe the secret (even if I’m having trouble with it currently) exists in curbing your expectations and being as grateful as possible for the blessings you have. We deserve the good things that happen to us, on whatever level (so long as you do not intentionally harm somebody for those things.) There is no need for guilt, just gratitude for whatever good things come (as opposed to the trap of being sad about what does not.)

It is an unavoidable truth of this world that some people live through horrible circumstances, and maybe the silver lining (no, I’m not saying it’s ever worth it…  it never is) for those who can overcome those things is the ease with which they appreciate simple things that others might well take for granted.  Everyone has a story, and sometimes by learning about others, it helps you put your own in perspective.

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You don’t know who you are

You will never completely know or understand who you are. There’s a whole unknown you floating in your subconscious that only shows itself through dreams and surreal moments when you act in ways you thought you never would or could.  In some ways it represents your potential and depending on how you develop yourself that potential could be amazing, but it could also be disastrous.  Sigmund Freud would probably say that trying to get to know yourself on this level is trying to get more in touch with your Id and Super-Ego at the same time.

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“There are no mistakes.”

It’s a bit ironic actually, because the Ego (the moderator between those two) can be such a robust and confident thing when it really has no right to be.  The truth is we spend the majority of our lives trying to figure ourselves out (and that’s okay!)  I should actually say that the smart folks spend their days trying to better figure themselves out.  Unfortunately far too many people are busy looking outward than inward.  So they define things (especially the shitty stuff) by what their environment and those that inhabit it have shown them, instead of trying to figure out what they’re doing in that environment to begin with.

Don’t misunderstand me, I realize that people are often born into very unfortunate environments and circumstances.  As I’ve illustrated in previous posts, my own circumstances weren’t exactly roses and rainbows.  Some people don’t get to learn about themselves. It’s Maslow’s pyramid and they don’t make it past the first level.

An old friend of mine and I were discussing Maslow’s pyramid the other day and it both complimented and derailed what I intended to write about.  For those of you uninitiated, the essential idea is that human needs and progression happen on five levels.  The base of this pyramid are basic needs: food, water, sleep, sex (though.. I believe this transcends a bit… let’s call it “reproduction”,) oxygen, etc.

Once you’ve got your basic needs covered,the next level involved safety on every level.  Protection from the elements, security in your job/income/lifestyle, and basic personal safety.  All the things that lay the foundation for some level of confidence in your life.  But once you get all that figured out, you get to start on the advanced stuff.

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“Shit.. was that level 1 or level 3?”

Level three of Maslow’s pyramid consists of social developmental needs. This fuels the desire for popularity in high school and then evolves into being accepted and respected by your peers at work while simultaneously developing friendship, intimacy (there’s that sex again!), affection and, of course, love in your personal life.  Each step of this pyramid can be a life-long endeavor for many individuals, but I would wager that a very large percentage get stuck here (including, it seems, me.)

The good news is, you don’t necessarily have to achieve any of these levels in any sort of traditional manner to begin work on the next level.  Hell, I’m relatively sure you don’t even have to make it halfway.  As long as you have a basic understanding of achievement on any given level, you can probably grasp the next level as well.  But that’s dangerous, because the point of the pyramid is to illustrated how to form a solid foundation for each level and building on an unfinished foundation can (obviously) end up in disaster.

But let’s say you jump to the next level and go for the really advanced stuff. Level four of Maslow’s pyramid is all about going from being accepted, to leading and transcending the pack.  Achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, self-respect, and respect from others are the needs this level presents.  By this time, you’ve figured out how to play the game of life, and now you need to do better than just play well, you need to excel at it.

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Maslow’s pyramid for the modern age.

Should you manage to develop yourself to the point of excelling at life in terms of what you want to achieve and what you want your peers to recognize about you, you’re ready for the supposed pinnacle of the pyramid: Total self-actualization. Now we’re getting into super-human territory that involves setting world records, becoming billionaires, scaling Mt. Everest, or becoming the President. Fortunately for a fair percentage of the people who are trying to fulfill this need also realize this potential by helping others find their way up the pyramid.  On the flip-side though, this is where the world’s absolute worst humans do the worst damage.

The point of that quick overview though was to illustrate a point: you’ll never reach total self-actualization because you will never completely know and understand yourself.  Even if you somehow thought you did, you can’t, because it’s fluid.  That’s actually one of the great joys of life.  One of the greatest strengths of humanity is it’s fluidity and adaptability.  Some very smart, very enlightened people close to me struggle with this a lot and admittedly I do as well because it’s frankly exhausting if you don’t step back to recognize it for what it really is: growth.  Not only is it growth, but it’s advanced growth that only a certain percentage of people in the world have the luxury of knowing.

It’s a given that people reach the fifth level of Maslow’s pyramid all the time, but as I

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Oh…

mentioned earlier, a lot of those people left an essential level undeveloped… some skipped it entirely and paid for it.  They are easy to see, the people who seem to have everything, experienced so much, but are still miserable.  They act out, break down, and sometimes die far too early and sometimes by their own hand.

The point in all this psycho-babble is that I’ve realized that the biggest mistake we can make is attempting to rush through or force our personal development.  We seek to master our environment and to balance that out we must seek to master ourselves.  But both are fluid and can never really be mastered, so we have to realize that it’s enough to continue learning, continue developing and build our foundations strong on each level so we have a solid base when we someday reach the top of our own personal pyramid.

You don’t know who you are, and you never will, but the point is continuing to get to know yourself.  When you do, you get to the fun part: Being pleasantly surprised and amazed at what you can do… and then being able to live happily with it.

 

You Don’t Have To “Follow Your Dreams”

“What do you want to do?”  “What do you want to be?”  “What’s your passion?” “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “What do you dream of being?”

Rich.  And Happy.  With Kids.

Oh, you want to know how?  Well fuck off, I don’t know.  Except I do, and that is: whatever I can do that will get me there while keeping me happy, letting me live my life, and allowing me to keep my dignity intact/stay true to myself.

I suppose that’s awfully specific for somebody that doesn’t know, but as a thirty-six year old single male that achieved “full yuppie”, and then spent months unemployed until just recently, I’ve had a lot of experience and a fair amount of time to mull this over.  What I figured out is that all those questions above seem encouraging and productive, but they can, in fact, be exactly the opposite.  They can demotivate and even create insecurity where there doesn’t need to be any.

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Obviously they had different priorities…

The thing is, some people have dreams when they are little, but as we grow, we change and (hopefully) so do our priorities.  When we’re kids, a lot of us really hate taking naps.  Sleep is so boring!  But years later, as an adult, nap time is a close second (and let’s face it, depending on the person, it’s possibly not second) to the horizontal mambo.  We grow, we learn, priorities change, and so does what we dream of.

When I was a young boy, I wanted to be a fighter pilot so badly that I studied different aircraft, their capabilities, their combat roles, and even the engines that powered them and who made them.  I thought the SR-71 Blackbird was the coolest thing in the world.  I grew up, took the ASVAB, aced it, and made the Marines love me (yes, I know I should’ve talked to the Air Force first, but that Staff Sergeant talked a good game.)  They told me I could take my pick of assignments between the AV-8B Harrier II (the jet that can take off vertically and hover) or the F-18 Hornet (The fastest and most maneuverable mainstream fighter the US produced at the time.) I was sold on the F-18 and made a soft commitment to enlist   I trained with Staff Sergeant Johnson to prepare for boot camp while learning more and more about the program.  It would entail military “basic” school, the Naval Academy, and then Flight School specializing (in my case) in fixed-wing aviation.  The long and the short of this was a minimum of a fourteen year commitment once I signed on the dotted line.  And when that day came, my eighteen-year-old self thought about my friends, my girlfriend, and the person I thought I would become, and I walked away (Sorry Staff Sergeant Johnson.)  Once I got realistic about my childhood dream, I didn’t want it any more, and that as okay.

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Most dreams seem to involve mountains and sunsets…

But especially in recent years, society has moved to this obsession with goals/dreams.  People who don’t have a specific one are in danger of being labeled as unfocused, distracted, lacking direction, drifters, or any number of relatively negative terms.  This, in turn, can make people who don’t really have a specific dream feel insecure about the lack of that dream.  They can begin to think there might be something wrong with them and feel like they need to invent a “passion” to define themselves.  This can have the opposite effect, and lead to an abundance of wasted time pretending to care about something that is ultimately unfulfilling.  Such a situation is much more common that we might think and can easily lead to a number of psychological issues.  Ironically, inventing your passion is a very effective way of stifling a real passion you may not know you have yet.

For instance, I remember looking at characters in movies that weren’t the good or bad guy, but were the “right-hand man” and thinking “That would be neat… I could totally be THAT guy rather than the main good/bad guy.”  It wasn’t a dream, it was just a respect for that sort of person that I identified with passively. A couple of decades later that’s the majority of my recent professional experience.  Even better is that I (generally) like it and have made as much, or more than most of the people I know who are “following their passions”.  I never thought to myself  “Someday I’m going to be this awesome Executive Assistant!” but by being open to it and accepting the natural evolution of my career in that direction, I realized that I was, in fact, actualizing something I had passively envisioned more than a few times.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not hating on people who have and follow their dreams.  I have a ton of respect for them.  Many of my very close friends have pursued their dreams and passions and are reaping the rewards of their dedication over the years.  They worked hard, put in their time, (most) suffered to some degree, and are rewarded by the option of doing what they always wanted to do.  But that’s not everyone, and more importantly it doesn’t have to be everyone.  We have to dispel the idea that dreams = life success.  They can most certainly create motivation to succeed, but they are not a requirement.  There are a number of other ways to motivate yourself.

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And that’s OKAY!

Achievement and/or success often breeds motivation, and sometimes it takes a whole lot of trying things and failing to find it.  Further, you may very well find that what you succeed at is something you never even considered before.  That’s where business roles that I call “tool” types come from.  They aren’t what you typically think of when you dream of what you want to become.  Therefore they often aren’t “visionaries” or well-known business leaders.  But instead of having their own dream, they enable/assist the dreamers in order to grow and take their visions to whole new levels.

Maybe you never dreamed of being an accountant, but you find you’re naturally good at it, and it rewards you well leading to job satisfaction and general financial success.  That process can make people pretty happy.  The same can be said for what I do as an Executive Assistant.  I get to live vicariously through extremely successful CEOs, Inventors, Celebrities and other notable dreamers.  I am compensated well and often enjoy a number of (expensive) fringe benefits without the drawbacks of being imbalanced as said visionaries often are (out of necessity really.) I stay balanced and I help to balance them, leading to a great deal of personal and job satisfaction.

There are countless roles that can lead to professional success as an “enabler” or “tool”.  So I’m not saying don’t dream, I’m just saying that if you don’t have a specific dream, don’t stress it.  Provide for yourself (and those you need to provide for) and take pride in that accomplishment.  Just keep trying to improve yourself.  Try things, fail (more than) a few times if you need to, and focus on what you want for yourself.  You don’t have to have a direction  as long as you keep yourself moving forward in some way.  Keep making your own path, cutting through the jungle of life and you might just find that you look up and discover something that you or nobody else had thought of yet. Accidents like that have made a lot of people both rich and happy.

 

Philosophy of Moderation – Part 3: Sleep

So this year I made “goals” instead of “resolutions” because for some reason it’s gotten to the point that resolutions are synonymous with failure.  (I’m watching the population of my gym closely, it has already declined some since the year turned.)  Among my goals for this year was to make sleep a priority.  Not just any sleep, decent sleep, like several sleep cycles (which adds up to 7.5 hours with another 15 min added to wind down and actually fall asleep.)  Previously I had shot for six a night and often missed the mark, which really added up by the end of the week in terms of my energy level, mood and ability to stay awake in what are sometimes relatively boring meetings (which is an unfortunate necessity.)

Now I know some of you hard-core folk are out there doing what you do, pounding Monster energy drinks and sleeping three hours a night with the mantra of “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!!”

Well, if you’re doing that solely on principle, then fuck off.  You’re wrong.

I guess you won't sleep when you're... undead?

I guess you won’t sleep when you’re… undead?

I’m not going to go into the endless amount of science that says a good amount of sleep benefits you in nearly every way possible.  Nine out of ten doctors don’t do it for me either.  Doctors of what? For all we know they all have their PhD’s in English Composition (god knows we all know I don’t.. but I digress…)  What I WILL tell you is that I’ve been there, done that.  I’ve never taken hard drugs, but I’ve skimmed the surface by taking enough ephedrine and caffeine to keep me awake for three days straight until my body was literally trying to shut itself down while I was standing up at work.  I continue to use obscene amounts of coffee to make up for the hours lost hooking up on a work night, or simply playing an MMO until my eyes threatened to bleed and the sun was rising.  But just because we’re badass and can do that, doesn’t mean we should do that.  It comes down to quality of life and when it comes to living, if you believe quantity is more important than quality, I think you’re doing it wrong.

Now let’s back up a little and clarify something.  I know life happens.  I know sometimes you have to do what you have to do by working several jobs, overnight, military or caring for a newborn that doesn’t give a rat’s ass that you have to go to work tomorrow.  All those are situational life happenings that are important and can’t be helped.  I would never condemn somebody that is sacrificing for the sake of promoting themselves or those close them.  That’s life, shit happens, we do our best.  I get that.  I’m talking about those (like me) who intentionally and through lack of discipline put themselves in a position to lose what is essentially as important to your health and longevity as breathing, eating or drinking water.  Just like those things, if you don’t sleep for a certain amount of time, you’ll actually die.  

Handy infographic.

Handy infographic.

When you get less sleep over time, you are damaging yourself.   Most importantly, you are actually damaging your brain. It literally kills brain cells.  The good news is your brain can heal itself to some degree, the bad news is with prolonged regular damage, there’s gonna be some lasting effects.  That’s assuming you don’t kill yourself (like I almost did) by falling asleep on the road or doing something else equally stupid.  And the icing on the cake (all of this was recently confirmed): premature aging (especially skin), stupidity (literally), decreased sex drive and (that’s right) weight gain.   Add that to the overall dramatically increased chance of death (especially through cardiovascular issues) and all of a sudden those couple extra hours of MMO don’t seem so life-changing.  I love food, video games, women, sex, alcohol and what have you, and there’s nothing with losing a couple hours form time to time to partake in all these awesome things life has to offer.  Life is about experience, so live it!  But for the love of god when it’s just another night in your everyday life, needlessly throwing away your body’s ability to fix itself from all the awesome damaging experiences is just plain stupid.  Don’t be stupid, too many humans already are.

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Every other animal in the world understands. Also.. baby kitten.

So then what did this goal do for me thus far?  Well, the other day I was in a six hour meeting at work to go over systems and processes and otherwise boring shit that’s essential but not boobs and explosions.  You know what?  I had a pretty good time.  Since I was well rested, I was not only not fighting dozing (which honestly sucks because you know you’re missing everything..), but I was witty enough to banter about what we were talking about and make it more fun.  Yep, sleeping made work more fun.  On top of that, my morning coffee works much better, because instead of compensating, it’s just boosting.  When it wore off, I didn’t crash, I was good.  Here’s the kicker though and it’s something I hadn’t thought about: dreams.  See before I would occasionally have a dream or two, but most times I just assumed I forgot them when I woke up.  Now I think that I just wasn’t having them.  My brain just wasn’t making it to whatever process that caused them.  Now granted I’ve been having more “Walking Dead” style dreams than anything else (hurry back!!) But even that isn’t really unpleasant because my brain has dug up all kinds of random crap I haven’t even thought about in years and it’s pretty entertaining.  I dream literally every night.  Other than reoccurring nightmares, I think most people would choose to dream rather than not… ever.   Beyond all that, I’m generally more level-headed and patient despite going through a fairly strange and isolated time in my life, so I would say this particular goal has especially good timing.  Oh, and getting enough sleep regularly also has the benefit of making it much  easier to get through days you don’t happen to get enough sleep because you’re busy being a rock star.

Having a rockstar night every night has killed or damaged many a rock star.  So, like all things, be a rockstar (or MMO badass) in moderation and get some sleep!!

Work / Life (Im)Balance

I’ve struggled with the concept of a good work/life balance for many years now.  I’ve always been a very firm believer in the line between personal life and what we do for work.  As the saying goes, we “work to live”, not “live to work.”  But then there’s the other philosophy that says if you love what you do, then it won’t feel like work.  To this day I struggle with where the right balance is, and what sort of lifestyle is worth the work you put in.  Can you really love what you do so much that it doesn’t feel like work?  (Especially when you’re as inherantly lazy as I am?)

As an Executive Assistant (what I do when I’m not writing long-winded blogs) my hours can be fairly erratic.  When I was serving my last Chairman I was salary (the norm for this sort of position) which made the extended hours a bit upsetting at times.  Now, I’m hourly (no overtime pay but still a step up…) and my current CEO demands (as nicely as possible) I put extra time in.  This last week especially I’ve had a lot on my plate and found myself taking it home.  Great for my paycheck, but not so great for having any downtime.  Downtime and decompression time are very important to me to the point I often take extended lunches to remove my brain and start on my blogs.  But when you find yourself struggling to get enough sleep and having little “you” time, at what point do you decide if it’s worth it or not?  There’s no real standard, and I’m NOT complaining about where I am in life, but I do seek the balance for the sake of myself and my employer as I believe many people do.

Executive Assistant Life

Executive Assistant Life

So what’s the solution?  It’s said that you have to work hard and put in your time in order to improve your lifestyle and make money. But is the money worth it if you don’t have time to enjoy it?  I know that I’m not willing to give up my lifestyle at this point, and I want to build on it, so the most logical conclusion is to keep my nose to the grindstone, kick ass, work the long hours and reap the rewards….eventually.  But I’ve always believed it’s a mistake to put your happiness into a far off goal or dream.  It must be a balancing act that involves working toward your eventual dream (I’m not even sure I have one…) while taking the time and providing yourself with the experiences that make your life worth living now.  Regardless of how much you work, you have to be happy!  Sometimes that means pulling yourself away from the grindstone and investing time in you or those you love.  If only it were as easy for us to be as happy at work as many company founders want us to be!  But you can’t blame them for not understanding why you aren’t.   

I’ve spent years working for company founders now.  One thing many of them don’t understand, and that you may not realize is that it is psychologically extremely difficult (if not impossible) for you to have the same level of connection / ownership to the company that they do.  You may care deeply about your company, you may even “love your job”, but the person who brought that idea into the world built it out of their experiences, thoughts, beliefs, feelings and even some of their imbalances that you will never have.  It is an extension of them, and therefore when they are investing time in the company, they feel fulfilled in a way you essentially can’t because they are actually investing time in themselves.  It’s not impossible to try and mimic this mindset, but when you go home and open that laptop at night, neglecting personal time to catch up on your e-mails, it simply won’t feel the same to you, because for them, even if they would rather be doing something else, catching up on those e-mails IS personal time.

So, assuming you don’t want to give up your lifestyle and become a wanderer, your options boil down to four or five situations:

If you can't stay rich on that, you made some bad choices.

If you can’t stay rich on that, you made some bad choices.

1.  You win the powerball or get rich quick somehow.  Come find me so I can help you think of awesome ways to both manage and make the most of the money while using it to perpetuate your own happiness and that of others.  Thank you and your welcome!

2. Start your own business.  This is the only way to experience the “founder” level of ownership and satisfaction in your work. However, the founders that I speak of and who are employing you have already “made it” to some extent, and thus are in the phase where they can actually enjoy it on some level because they (obviously) have employees and income.  I never said they didn’t earn it (in most cases anyway) by working harder, smarter or both.  In the beginning and even well into the green (profit,) owning your own business can come with huge levels of stress that can make that personal connection to your company very difficult to handle.  There is a reason many of the very successful founders and CEOs you hear of are often quirky, odd, eccentric or sometimes straight-up batshit insane.  They have to be in order to be obsessed enough with themselves and their company to push it to astronomical levels.

3. Do something easy that you “love”.  When we’re teens and young adults we often joke about doing what we perceive as super fun to get paid for.  Acting, starting a band or writing a best selling book (or god forbid.. being a reality show “star”.) Obviously, some people really do achieve this, but it’s not easy at all and often requires a lot of sacrifice.  For instance: a lot of late teens/early twenties (especially but not exclusively guys) joke about doing porn because who doesn’t want to get paid to have sex!?  But naturally the industry often doesn’t live up to the fantasy image in some people’s head.  Beyond that, many quickly find that once they are forced to do whatever hobby/activity they really enjoy casually under “professional” guidelines/circumstances (another example: Video Game Tester,) it loses it’s fun pretty fast.  A few weeks later it’s no longer a dream career, it’s just another job that’s making you not want to have sex or play video games on your own time any more.  That said, some types people are cut out for those respective industries and it doesn’t ruin it for them (usually because they can drastically differentiate the two in their head,) But either way,  work is still very much work and for those average people it will put a damper on their outside life too.  So, while “doing what you love” is a great idea, it’s harder than it sounds, takes a lot more work than one would think and is usually tough to find/break into.  Even after you get there, it is impossible to know if it will be as fulfilling as you hope. That said, for some people it IS worth it, IF you can really make it.

Literal.

Literal.

4. Set a goal to become something difficult that you “love”.  This falls a little in line with starting your own business in that it really can pay off the way you hope it will, but you will have to go through hell and high water to get there (and I mean years of it.)  As an example I have several friends who grew up wanting to be veterinarians.  I’m happy to report I personally watched some of these people become the 1% of 1% of 1% or something like that.  They achieved their “dream” to some extent.  I say it like that because some didn’t end up doing what they envisioned themselves doing, some fell massively into debt and the others that really made it did so by sacrificing years of their time working and studying (long AFTER the hell that is Vet School) at really odd hours under immense amounts of stress and pressure to finally, finally emerge somewhere close to where they wanted to be.  The reward is that yeah, they are most often better off financially and more fulfilled than your average Walgreen’s clerk.  But it’s still work, and sometimes they get up in the morning (12:01 AM) and don’t want to do it,  but they still have to.  I should also point out that some of these people end up owning their own business.  So, essentially a different path to option 2.  That said though, if you can make the investment early on, this is arguably the best, most consistent outcome beyond the powerball option.

5. The rest of us.  Circumstances happened, and we’re not where we wanted to be or thought we would be by now.  Hell, some of us didn’t even know where we wanted to be and still don’t know where we’re going.  But we’re still adults, and we haven’t given up and become vagrants just yet, so work happens and bills gotta get paid.  This brings me back to the importance of enjoying your life along the way.  Because with this option, if you don’t, you’re probably miserable.  The work/life balance in this situation is essential because you don’t have the ownership and you don’t have the long-term dream that you achieved.  You are working to live.  That’s really okay so long as you don’t lose sight of why.  The balance isn’t always about a set amount of hours, it’s about whether or not your work allows you to do what you enjoy.  That means both the time, and the resources to be happy in your life outside of work.  It doesn’t have to be everything you dreamed just yet, it just has to be enough to have fun, be happy, and make progress.  So working those extra hours is totally worth it if it makes you feel better about your work and gives you the extra funds to treat yourself and/or those important to you.  But if you feel like a slave to your job and go home miserable only to crash and repeat the next day; get out.  No amount of money will save you from that, and the more you make, the more of that scarce life they will ask for.

Don't be THOSE guys.

Don’t be THOSE guys.

This brings me to a few guidelines for maintaining that balance (be realistic):

1. Don’t be afraid to say no.  Draw your lines, draw your boundaries and don’t back down from them.  Do NOT allow a job to corner you into making compromises that will make you miserable.

2. Know what you are worth and ask for it.  If you research and feel you deserve a specific wage, ask for it.  If they won’t work with you to at least make a plan to get there, move on.  The same goes for benefits you need for you and your family.  Often these are arguably more important than base wage.

3. Ask for the time you want in advance. Know what you are willing to give and not to give and barter that time as needed to be certain you have the time that is most important to you.  This can be a specific schedule or specific days.

4. Along with number one, be honest and communicate about all the above needs.  If you aren’t seeing what you want, give your employer a chance to accommodate you before you just get fed up and leave.  It looks better on both parties even if something can’t be worked out.

5. Have a contingency plan.  We’d all like to be “lifers” with a great company, but shit happens, and it happens fast.  Make sure that you have the cards up your sleeve to be willing to walk away from the table if you need to.  Feeling trapped in a job you don’t want to be in is a very quick way to demoralize yourself.

Finally (and yeah.. this post got long…)

6. Make sure whatever you are doing for work leaves room for you to BE HAPPY about your life outside of work.  This means having time to have a life outside of work, having enough money to enjoy your life outside of work and having a job that doesn’t make you feel bad about you your life inside or outside of work.  The work/life balance isn’t about a specific number of hours per week or a wage you make, it’s about how it enables you to live, and how happy you can be in the process.

Errr...Maybe Allen is hollow inside? ^.^;;

Errr…Maybe Allen is hollow inside? ^.^;;

Philosophy of Moderation – Part 2: Emotional

I am admittedly not so qualified to write this entry.  If I had named it “mental” and gone on about self-discipline and such then perhaps I would have a bit more merit.  However, as you saw in my last post, I have to write about what I’m feeling, and this is a good time to talk about emotional moderation, when it’s needed, and when maybe it isn’t.

A few posts back I talked about about what it is to be happy.  I struggle with that a bit as my natural state is to be quite neutral/cold.  On the plus side, I typically don’t get bent out of shape or overly depressed about a lot of things (there are, however, specific things, such as last week’s rape article…)  On the downside, getting me overly excited about any specific concept is tough.  I’m set at a certain level of “happy” that is very moderate.  Though my level is probably lower than your average well-adjusted “happy” person, for most people being set at a certain level of “happiness” is not a new concept.

Hedonic-Treadmill

A bit oversimplified but you get the idea.

The Hedonic Treadmill is the concept that humans tend to return to a specific level of happiness despite major events or life changes (be they positive or negative.)  In essence it compares our emotional state to walking on a treadmill, in which we simply need to keep walking (living) at a comfortable, indefinite pace in order to stay in place (so essentially our “natural” state of happiness.)  When something awesome happens, the treadmill turns up allowing you to run and gain more (happiness), faster.  But inevitably (psychologically) you’ll get tired and have to take it back down to your natural pace.  Likewise when something terrible happens, the treadmill slows to a crawl, slowing your progress and setting you back until you regain your energy, allowing you to return to normal pace.  Another (perhaps less confusing) way to look at it is like a thermostat, your normal happiness is set at a certain level.  The outside world might make you warmer or colder for a while, but inevitably your thermostat will bring you back to the temperature you are naturally set at.

The case is often made with lottery winners and those with near unthinkable amounts of money to the average person.  We always think “Man!  If I had that kind of money I would always be happy!”  But the truth is, those that do have that sort of money are no happier than you are most days.  People adapt to basically anything (good or bad,) and no matter what we have, we always want more (especially if we think we can’t have it…) Some of us are better at it than others, so it may happen faster for some, but inevitably everyone returns to that set point.  Be it Lottery, New Car, Sex, Marriage, Children, Car Accidents, Losing Your Job, Divorce and even a death in the family, life events can extend for months or even years, but your base happiness with eventually attempt to return to a certain level of happiness regardless.

Sometimes "Happy Work" means going to the beach in your suit...

Sometimes “Happy Work” means going to the beach in your suit…

Initially this idea was a little disturbing to me.  To say that no matter what happens we’re always going to achieve the same general level of happiness makes it sound like striving for anything is pointless.  But fortunately it actually gives us a purpose:  Find a way to raise your treadmill/thermostat/hedonic set point.  It sounds simple but naturally it’s more difficult than simply making yourself happy.  You have to figure out what moves you, and what you can consistently to do to make yourself happier than you are now.  It’s a lot of work, but it’s (obviously) happy work.

But there’s a flip side:  depression.  Depression (in this case) is basically the state in which perpetual negative circumstances / state of mind keep you from returning to your normal happiness setting.  This can be any number of consistent negative influences: abusive relationships (usually family or spouse), imprisonment, consistent anxiety, chronic illness and drug/alcohol abuse are fairly common examples.  Something key to note here is that this doesn’t mean the depressed person is “broken”, simply that a consistent negative stimuli is acting as a barrier to keep them from returning to their set point of happiness.  Unfortunately it’s probably possible that an extended duration of some of these could even lower the setting on somebody’s hedonic treadmill.  But the good news is, in most cases studies show that once the negative situation is removed/resolved, the majority of those experiencing this depression bounced back to their hedonic set point.

So, how do we turn up our happiness setting?  Nobody knows for sure.  To some extent it will vary depending on the individual.  Most recent research points to some fifty percent of our happiness/hedonic set point being determined by genetics.  Personally, I’m not willing to allow some unseen statistic (whether factual or not) to control how I feel, so I’m not going to think about the half that I supposedly can’t control.  Instead I’ll focus on what I can.  A pretty interesting study by psychologists Headey and Wearing (1989) suggested that our position on the spectrum of the stable personality traitsneuroticism, extraversion, and openness to experience (wiki links for you psych majors that want to dive in…) accounts for how we experience and perceive life events, and therefore indirectly contributes to our happiness levels (Elaborated via handy wiki-table:)

Neuroticism Extraversion Openness to experience
Anxiety Warmth Fantasy
Hostility Gregariousness Aesthetics
Depression Assertiveness Feelings
Self-consciousness Activity Actions
Impulsiveness Excitement/Sensation Seeking Ideas
Vulnerability to Stress Positive Emotion Values

The goal is minimizing your neuroticism category, while trying to increase your extraversion and openness to experience.  This somewhat supports my longstanding philosophy that experiences are the key to being happy (over material gains… more on this in a few.)  Don’t let the term “extraversion” mislead you though, you don’t have to be an extrovert to be happy, as you can see under that category many of those aspects are present in many an introvert.

wjn-1So WHAT experiences then?  There is no clear answer due to individual reactions to individual experiences.  What should be noted though is that your hedonic set point is, in fact, chemical.  As such experiences that bring temporary satisfaction through chemical interaction (such as drug/alcohol use) can have the reverse affect over time requiring more of said substance to even maintain your hedonic set point. Instead research indicates that maintaining a positive outlook / attitude, adaptability and altruism (due to the personal satisfaction reward) are the keys to staying on the positive side of your hedonic set point.  As a result, reinforcing or strengthening those aspects of yourself should theoretically allow you raise your base happiness.  This might help explain why those with a great deal of those with an abundance of money who appear relaxed and/or good natured are known to be highly involved and give a great deal to charity, whereas others who are equally endowed on a material level but less giving often appear more uptight, irritated or generally disagreeable.

So, long story short:  We all have a pre-set level of happiness we return to.  We should endeavor to live in order to raise that setting for ourselves and those around us.  Money is fine, but it is best used as a key to happy experiences and to help others be happier.  This, in turn, will raise our happiness.  There will be setbacks, but we are, in fact programmed to return to our hedonic set point and as such, no matter what happens, we always have a chance to make more happiness so long as we can get past any circumstances keeping us from that point.

That's a lot of experiences... just sayin'..

That’s a lot of experiences… just sayin’..

On a personal level, as stated above I am an experience seeker.  I seek those moments of bliss and euphoria (note: NOT drug related in any way… though maybe occasionally some scotch or vodka.)  But it is not so much the moment itself that contributes to my hedonic set point, but rather the positive memory of the moment that gets better and better as time goes on.  Though extremely selfish, I am also fairly altruistic towards the people I believe are worthy of it.  Going back to the title (though I haven’t said much of it thus far) I remain at a very moderate emotional state, which allows me to be objective in situations where other’s emotions may get the best of them.  However, that leaves me more vulnerable to falling into negativity, and if I do not properly moderate those feelings, they can hold me back from the experiences that would help me feel better in the first place.  All that said, who doesn’t want to be happier?  I think anyone who tells themselves that is lying.  Maybe when it comes to being happy, the philosophy of moderation should instead be the philosophy of abundance.

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