The Necessity of Sacrifice

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The Union Army stood three miles from victory.

After killing or wounding a quarter of Robert E. Lee’s troops the previous day, a final charge could have spelled the end of the Civil War. With the Potomac River at their backs, the Confederates braces themselves for a final stand on September 18th, 1862.

All day they waited. Nothing happened.

Outnumbered 3-to-1, Lee’s forces were somehow able to slip across the river and back into Virginia. The war would last another two and a half years.

This wasn’t the first time General George B. McClellan had overestimated his enemy. During his Peninsula Campaign, he regularly reported to Washington that he faced an army of 200,000 Confederates (the actual number was 85,000). Such tendencies grated the nerves of Abraham Lincoln, who once remarked, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.”

Shortly before the Battle of Antietam, the Union general once again dreamed up a superior opponent. Believing the Confederates were three times their actual size, McClellan refused to send reinforcements during several crucial point in the battle. And when the enemy was pinned at the river the following day, he did nothing.

An honest review of McClellan’s failures as General reveals a common problem: He had an extreme fear of sacrifice. Though armed with superior forces, his concerns about losing his men inevitably caused a great deal more to be lost.

Strangely, McClellan’s struggles in this area are not dissimilar to the ones we face on an individual level. To win the battles that emerge in life, we’re often required to harbor an extreme willingness for sacrifice.

This shit goes pretty deep, so bear with me.

You and Your Sub-selves

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To understand the necessity of sacrifice, you must first comprehend the nature of your Self. As I’ve mentioned before, this a very tricky endeavor.

One of the reasons this topic is so confusing is that when you talk about yourself, you’re actually referring to a composite of different people. Think about it this way. Are you the same person around your friends as you are your family? What about your girlfriend? Or your co-workers? Or your pastor? Or your dentist?

Chances are, you behave differently depending on your context. So when are “you” the real you?

Much like an army, your identity is actually composed of a number of different actors. If you’ve ever heard of things like an inner Child, an inner Rebel, or an inner Critic, then you have some idea of how this “person-within-a-person” can function.

If you wanna get picky, you could technically divide these “sub-selves” down to infinity. But instead of getting into all of that, the important point here is that the thing you call you is actually a mixture of a bunch of underlying you’s.

Of course, if you’re composed of things that are underlying, there must exist some higher thing from which your selves originate, right? Indeed, there is some consistent, higher thing to which you can attach your identity: The act of observance. 

While you may act like a hoodlum around your friends and an angel around your in-laws, you are the only thing that is consistently observing yourself within these contexts. From womb to tomb, a constant Watcher lies inside you, forever looking down upon all of his various offshoots.

It’s not hard to see how this idea can be equated with spirituality. Whether through prayer, meditation or auditing, people have shown a remarkable willingness to separate from themselves and appeal to this higher, observant entity. They rely on Its wisdom to lead them through the battle, and eventually, deliver them from the suffering that stems from the greater war.

To whom else does this logic apply? You guessed it! A general. Much like the head of an army, your Higher Self is responsible for evaluating Its forces and directing them toward victory.

Problem is, some of us have shitty Generals.

The Necessity of Sacrifice 

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If you’ve ever studied the Bible, you’ve probably heard a disturbing little tale about a dude named Abraham.

As the story goes, God called on Abraham one day and requested a small favor: He wanted him to murder his son. Abraham’s all like “WTF, God?” But God’s like, “do it or you’ll pay.” So Abraham binds his kid and carries him to the top of a mountain. As he’s about to deliver the killing blow, God comes in at the last minute as is like, “Haha, jk bro. It was all a test.”

One might come away from this story thinking God’s a sick bastard. Regardless, the myth of Abraham and Isaac remains poignant because it speaks to one of the harshest truths about being human: We have to kill the things we love.

To flesh out this idea a little further, let’s return to our metaphor of the General.

During the heat of battle, it is often necessary for a general to send some of his men into certain death. While these sacrifices are painful, they’re a necessary step in preventing the future suffering which would follow a defeat.

And so it is with our sub-selves. To ease emotional conflict, one must be willing to sacrifice various facets of her identity depending on the conditions of the battle. What’s more, the refusal to do so will only allow these turmoils to fester.

For example, consider a woman who discovers her husband has been cheating on her. This woman may take great pride in her marriage. She and her husband may have been high school sweethearts, and they may now have two kids and be active figures in their community.

Yet after accidentally opening some risque texts from another chick one day, she will suddenly be faced with a dilemma: Is this betrayal worth killing herself?

Make no mistake. A divorce would be a death sentence. This woman’s role as a wife forms a very significant portion of her identity, and confronting her husband about his misdeeds would require her to put down that thing she has spend so long growing and nurturing.

Yet if she’s not willing to sacrifice this part of herself, she will suffer “God’s” judgement through permanent damage to her self-esteem. And this effect would bleed into all of the other areas of her life. As such, sacrificing her sub-self as a wife is a necessary step to avoid the punishment that would befall her entire army.

In order to make these sacrifices, one must turn to a General who is not afraid of them.

The Power of Vulnerability

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After McLellan’s demotion, the Union eventually turned to Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.

Early in the war, Grant had gained fame for his victory at Fort Donnelson, after which his superiors accused him of “neglect and inefficiency” for attacking without their permission. Meanwhile, Sherman became known for his March to the Sea, which saw his men destroy the homes and supplies of damn near every Confederate City they encountered.

“War is cruelty,” Sherman once remarked, “the crueler it is the sooner it will be over.”

Their willingness to engage in bloody conflicts caused many to refer to Grant and Sherman as “butcher” generals. However, their tactics were effective. A little over a year after the two gained power, the Civil War came to a conclusion.

Easing the conflicts that emerge in our own lives often requires us to act with similar aggression as Grant and Sherman. This practice is what’s called vulnerability, and the attitude can be one of the most empowering qualities a person can have.

When you are vulnerable, you make the conscious choice not to hide your thoughts and feelings. This process can be downright painful, because it requires you to offer up various parts of yourself for slaughter.

For instance, telling your boss that he’s asking too much from you at work could potentially cause you to lose your role as an employee. However, you’ll need to surrender this sub-self if you want to end the suffering that comes with your work-related stress.

Many times, you’ll find this attitude is highly rewarding.

It might be surprising to learn that your boss values your honesty; or that people don’t judge you when you’re new at the gym; or that the world doesn’t end when you ask out that chick you like.

But like McClellan, we often avoid battles that could easily be won out of an irrational fear of sacrifice. And when this response goes unchecked, it will sometimes cause us to twiddle our thumbs while the enemy retreats behind the Potomac.

By fostering a willingness for sacrifice, we are able to step above the confines of our monkey brains and do what makes Him happy.

It’s cruel. It’s weird. It’s nonsensical. But it’s all we’ve got.

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In Defense of the Crazy Person

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“Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”

While country legend Steve Earle has since walked back on the above quote, it contains a popular sentiment among songwriters: Townes Van Zandt was one of the greatest to ever do it.

With lyrics that combine witty, homespun platitudes with masterful prose, Van Zandt has influenced nearly every figure in the Folk/ Americana scene since his debut.  His work has graced the top of Billboard’s Top 100, and has been featured on acclaimed TV shows like True Detective, Breaking Bad and Deadwood.

In spite of this status as one of music’s all time greats, Townes spent the majority of his life in utter squalor.

One can’t blame his upbringing. With nearly perfect SAT scores and a wealthy heritage, Townes’ parents groomed him to be a lawyer or senator. Yet as he aged, Van Zandt began to suffer mental breakdowns, after which doctors diagnosed him as a manic depressive.

Unable to fit in anywhere else in the world, Townes turned to music. His songwriting prowess was soon noticed, and after moving to Nashville, Van Zandt secured a record deal and released a series of albums in the early-70s.

Though these records contain some of the greatest songwriting ever recorded, the rest of Townes’ career fell victim to his mental illness.

Living in cheap hotels and backwoods cabins, Townes’ performances were limited to small dive bars. He became a raging alcoholic by the mid-1970s, often having to quit midway through a show because he was too drunk.

Confined to a wheelchair by the 1990s, Townes died on a friends couch at the age of 52.

Though many hold Townes as the quintessential example of a tortured artist, his genius spurs another uncomfortable question: How could a person so keenly aware of the human condition also be so terrible at navigating it?

Townes is far from the only genius to be plagued by mental health issues. In fact, it seems as though a high proportion of the world’s most innovative minds are also batshit crazy.

While it’s dangerous to romanticize mental health issues, there’s evidence suggesting “crazy” people may actually be more in tune with reality than we’d like admit.

The Denial of Death

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In his Pulitzer-prize winning book The Denial of Death, anthropologist Earnest Becker proposes that everything in human life stems from the desire to conceal death. And I’m serious. Everything. 

Technology, architecture, religion, art, morality, politics – society at large is designed to protect us from the uncomfortable truth that we’re gonna die.

The reasoning behind this idea is two-fold. First there’s good ole Darwinism, which posits that the genes best-suited for survival will be the ones passed on to future generations. As such, the material that makes us “us” will invariably be inclined to avoid death. It’s in our DNA.

The second reason is that we humans inhabit a world of objects and symbols.

Though we’re confined to physical bodies, our brains can also remember the past and project the future. This grants us a “symbolic” self. And since we know the physical self is gonna die, Becker argues that the object of a person’s life is to prolong the survival of the symbolic self. This quest becomes what he labels an “immortality project.”

People seek this immortality in a myriad of ways. Whether it’s having children, stamping their name on buildings, or subscribing to a religion in which they’re told they will live forever – all immortality projects are designed to convince the symbolic self that it will survive its physical death.

Furthermore, clashes between immortality projects are the source of all societal conflict. Indeed, religion and politics prove to be such testy subjects because they are key features of a person’s symbolic self. When someone challenge these notions, he can literally be viewed as a threat to survival.

If you take Becker’s work at face value, it’s easy to see how mental illness can be a rational response to the world around us.

When You Can’t Deny

Imagine a radioactive toxin is accidentally released on your town. Afterwards, doctors tell you the effects from this exposure are most certainly going to kill you and everyone you know. However, they’re not sure if it will happen today or in 50 years. How would you feel?

This scenario is the premise behind Dan Delilo’s postmodern masterpiece White Noise. The irony behind it is simple: Life is like a toxin that will eventually kill everyone.

The characters in White Noise all go crazy after their exposure to the Airborne Toxic Event. And likewise, many people go crazy after being exposed to the conditions of life.

Indeed, people suffering from depression/anxiety may actually be more in tune with the nature of reality. For instance, depressed people have been shown to have a more accurate idea about their importance, sense of control and general capabilities than their happier counterparts.

What’s the reasoning behind this depressive realism? It’s easy to understand under Becker’s framework.

Namely, depressed people are merely realizing the doomed nature of their Immortality Projects.  Whether you’re a failed artist, a war veteran, or a parent who’s lost a child, any disruption to your symbolic self’s sense of immortality will expose it to the horror of its inevitable death. In turn, your mental framework will be one which centers around  hopelessness and despair.

Likewise, Becker proposes that other mental illnesses are related to the breakdown of an Immortality Project.

For instance, schizophrenics attribute the voices they hear in their heads to an outside party. In turn, they lose their sense of a symbolic self, and their Immortality Projects are rendered useless. Such a degradation once again exposes to the schizophrenic to death, which often leads to him hearing voices that tell him to harm himself.

Likewise, clinical narcissists are unable to fulfill their Immortality Projects in the outside world. Therefore, they create an interior framework in which the world centers around them. While this behavior is toxic to everyone around them, the narcissist’s self-centered worldview is a necessary survival mechanism.

The same reasoning can be applied to a host of other mental illnesses. Yet the important point here is that these maladies may actually be attached to a more accurate realization of the world.

Such an etiology would both explain why so many mental illnesses are co-concurrent, and why a high proportion of the world’s great minds are batshit crazy.

Staying Sane

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I know that I’m painting a pretty bleak picture here. And indeed, Becker doesn’t offer any real solutions the problem of our doomed Immortality Projects. Perhaps there are none.

Yet even though “crazy” people may actually be seeing the world more clearly, that’s not to say one should romanticize such illnesses.

First, this reasoning fails to take into account the chemical side of the equation. After all, biological processes do affect our mental framework; doctors speculate that people who have issues regulating chemicals like serotonin and dopamine are particularly prone to mood disorders (though the evidence for this theory is controversial). Such maladies can be treated with things like medication and cognitive behavioral therapy, so one shouldn’t succumb to depressive realism without considering the effects of brain chemistry.

Second, mental illness also brings about cognitive biases of its own. For instance, some mental issues lead to what’s called “all-or-nothing” thinking, which causes a person to view situations as either completely good or completely bad.

Yet when you look a little closer, you can see the nature of things isn’t so sharply-defined.

If you’ve ever played with a puppy, scuba-dived in the Bahamas, or went drinking with a group of life-long friends, you know there are certain experiences that are irreplaceable. The problem of our doomed Immortality Projects steals nothing from these moments. And since our lives are but a mere composite of moments, they cannot be completely bad.

Thus, it is possible for one to remain sane while recognizing the absurdity of the world. People do it every day.  However, to chalk up the worldview of “crazy” people to chemical imbalances or poor perspective ignores the very real existential plight they are facing.

There’s a reason so many of the world’s great minds are also batshit crazy. Perhaps the only difference between a visionary like Townes Van Zandt and your average, run-of-the mill drifter is dumb luck.

So have some sympathy for the crazy person. She’s may not be as loopy as you think.

Trump, and the Subtleties of Not Giving a Fuck

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If you’re just reading this after waking up from a coma, let me first congratulate for stumbling on my humble, little blog. Your priorities are solid. Next, I would ask that you take a seat, cause I have a piece of news that’s a bit of doozy.

Take a deep breath. I’m gonna say it quickly:

Donald Trump is the president of the United States.

Shh, shh. It’s okay. If you’re wondering how this happened, most of us are still doing the same.

But from where we’re sitting, Trump’s been in office for about two months now. During that time, he’s launched a slew of national protests and established himself as the least popular president to in the quickest amount of time.

In these next four years, you’re going to hear story after story about Trump’s various Tweets and misdoings. But as you go about reorganizing your life, it’s important for you to understand what exactly caused him to rise in first place.

Xenophobia, racism and populism have all been cited as explanations for Trump’s ascent to power. While these reasons contain a kernel of truth, much of Trump’s rise can actually be attributed to a subtlety important philosophy he displayed throughout his campaign:

Namely, Donald Trump did not give a fuck.

During his candidacy, Trump showed that he did not give two hoots about the established political order. Talk about your dick in a national debate? Fuck it. Ban an entire religion from entering the country? Why the fuck not.

Say what you will about The Donald. But despite the pundits predicting his downfall every step of the way, Trump kept marching to his own, heinous little beat. And you’ve gotta admit – before you thought he could win, some teenie part of you thought it was entertaining.

As a matter of fact, this “no fucks given” mentality is actually one of the most liberating qualities a person can have, which is largely what drew people to Trump. Yet this state of “not giving a fuck” becomes dangerous when it’s channeled toward the wrong means.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

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Before we return to Trump, it’s helpful to understand why not giving a fuck is a trait that’s so important.

One of my favorite bloggers, Mark Manson, recently released a book on the topic called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. Despite the gimmicky title, the work contains some pretty profound insights into the liberation that comes with the “no fucks given” mentality. Here’s a brief summary of Manson’s argument:

Throughout our lives, an endless amount of forces are competing for our fucks. We give a fuck about our education. We give a fuck about our careers. We give a fuck about our reputation, our family, our political parties and whether or not the barista spelled our name correctly on our caramel venti mocha.

Obviously, some of these things are pretty fuck-worthy. Yet when we dole out our fucks too liberally, that’s when life fucks us.

The examples of this trend abound, but an easy one can be seen in a guy who struggles with this ladies. This dude gives a lot of fucks about his loneliness. But when the opportunity to speak to someone he finds attractive presents itself, he’ll usually stare at the floor and go buy another drink. After too any of these encounters, he’ll start complaining about how women can’t see the value in “nice guy” and wallow in self pity.

This guy gives too many fucks. He’s not willing to risk the inevitable awkwardness and rejection that comes with dating, but he still feels like he’s entitled to a vibrant love life.

On the contrary, a person with a healthy attitude doesn’t give a fuck about rejection or loneliness. He has higher priorities like his career, his hobbies, his family and friends. As a result, he feels no fear in communicating his interest with women, and in turn, he will have more success in the dating game.

In this example, it’s the man’s lack of fucks that makes the difference. And so it is with most of life’s challenges.

Wanna quit your job and start a business? You have to not give a fuck. Wanna end a relationship with a toxic family member? You have to not give a fuck. Wanna run for president when people think you’re a joke? Well, you get the point…

Every choice you make requires you to surrender something. And in order to make the proper sacrifices, you have to quit giving a fuck about potential losses. Because when you give a fuck about everything, you feel entitled to a cozy, problem-free existence. But sorry y’all; that world doesn’t exist.

As we get older, the people we used to worry about impressing begin to move away and die, and we come to realize this truth. But a barrier exists within American culture that is preventing people from achieving this state, and Trump capitalized on it…

The 21st-Century American Shame

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In many cases, shame is the mechanism that causes us to give a fuck. For instance, the man who suffers from Nice Guy sydrome is ashamed to communicate sexual interest, and this causes him to struggle with the ladies.

Yet not all forms of shame are bad. Sometimes you experience an uncomfortable, but tolerable, feeling when you do something that makes people judge you negatively – like farting in public. This feeling is called external shame, and it prevents us from acting like (and using our) assholes around each other.

On the other hand, there’s internal shame, which is way more insidious.

Internal shame is a constant sense of being undesirable. It usually stems from childhood experiences during which a person is repeatedly and relentlessly shamed for her behavior. As a result, she will feel the need to please some arbitrary judge throughout her adulthood, which can result in depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.

Due to changing economic conditions, I propose that a sense of internal shame has festered within the American populace. This may seem like a stretch, but hear me out.

Below are two charts that compare the median income, housing prices and costs of tuition between 1971 and 2014 (all numbers are in 2014 dollars, and the housing prices are listed at 60% of the median for young men and 80% of the median for young families).

Young Men (25-34)

Income

House Price

Down Payment

Monthly PITI

Pct. of Income to PITI

Cost Of Tuition

1971

$44,646

$86,000

$17,200

$655

17.6%

$8,000

2014

$36,097

$170,000

$34,000

$950

31.6%

$23,500

Young Families (25-34)

Income

House Price

Down Payment

Monthly PITI

Pct. of Income to PITI

Cost Of Tuition

1971

$53,522

$115,000

$23,000

$875

19.6%

$16,000

2014

$53,477

$227,000

$45,400

$1,267

28.4%

$47,000

As you can see, in a period of over 50 years, income has decreased for single men and remained stagnant for young families. Meanwhile, housing costs have doubled while tuition has tripled.

With a greater portion of people’s money being spent on tuition and mortgages – vacations, cars and other luxuries are less affordable. As a result, many in our generation cannot live up to the standards on which they were raised, which leads to an increased feeling of internal shame.

For a culture that worships material wealth and achievement, these developments are costly. Indeed, a shocking 2015 study showed that white Americans in the Rust Belt are beginning to die at an earlier rate (the only country in the developed world to experience such a trend). Is it any coincidence that these same areas are overrun with heroin, meth and alcoholism?

No. The meaning people once derived from their lives is disappearing. We cannot achieve the lifestyle we were raised to believe was valuable, and as a result, we do not feel valuable.

Enter: Donald Trump.

The 2016 Campaign

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In psychology, a phenomenon known as transference occurs when a person projects her emotions onto an unrelated party. If you’ve ever avoided dating someone because s/he reminds you of an ex, you’ve experienced this feeling to an extent.

With leadership roles, people tend to gravitate toward figures onto whom they can project their desire to escape fear. For instance, if the pilot of your aircraft suddenly suffers a heart attack, you’re desperately going to want to find a leader in the cabin who can land the plane safely.

As I explained in the last section, the central problem of our generation is the failure to reap the fruits of a growing economy. This trend leaves people ashamed. And as shown by the developments of 2016, voters are seeking to transfer that shame onto a leader whom they view as having defeated such a limitation.

In other words, people wanted someone who doesn’t give a fuck. And in the last election, they were a lot of them.

During the 2016 campaign, “outsider” candidates dominated. Of the nearly 62 million votes cast in the primaries, Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders won 56.6% of them. These guys had virtually no support from their respective establishments. Sanders was an independent; Cruz was hated by every member of his party; and Trump was a fucking celebrity.

Yet these candidates were able to break the historical mold and win a substantial majority of the vote. Why? Because they didn’t have to give a fuck.

With no “higher-ups” to please, the outsiders of 2016 did not have to tamper their rhetoric. This allowed Sanders to castigate the billionaire class (who help fund most campaigns) and Trump to talk about his dick on national television.

Meanwhile, candidates like Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio had to “give a fuck” about the standards of their party. They were more ashamed to speak non-formally on the campaign trail, which led to the inoffensive, “please-everyone” rhetoric voters are used to hearing (seriously: remember when Mitt Romney’s 47% remark was enough to doom him  five years ago)?

With a sense of internal shame festering within them, people were no longer comforted by this manufactured formality. So, they chose to turn to leaders who did not display any.

Aaaaaand.. then we got Agent Orange.

This trend wasn’t just confined to America. In 2016, the Philippines elected the Hitler-esque Duterte, and Britain voted to leave the European Union. Both of these movements rode the backs of shameless leaders who were “telling-it-like-it-is.”

So, if this state of not-giving-a-fuck is such a good thing, why is it being trumpeted by demagogues?

When Not Giving A Fuck Goes Wrong

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There’s a bit of a misunderstanding when it comes to not giving a fuck. Namely, it’s not actually possible.

Behind every action lies an intention. Even if you’re on the block, with two glocks, screaming fuck the world like Tupac, you’re still giving a fuck about not giving a fuck. Thus, it’s impossible not to care about anything.

So, to determine where a person is allocating his fucks, the best place to look his actions. And in Trump’s case, his actions show that the prime source of his fuck-channeling is his himself.

Many have labelled Trump a narcissist. People who suffer from this disorder think that the world centers around them; others are merely tools with which the narcissist can fulfill his emotional needs.

When you look closely, you can see that Trump’s prime motivator is attention. So far in his life, Trump has posed as a publicist to spread stories about who he’s dating. He’s thrown his name on buildings, steaks, board games and vodka. He’s undermined Muslims, immigrants and women to construct a voter base. And in all of these actions, Donald Trump has been the prime beneficiary.

So, yeah. Trump’s probably a narcissist. He’s very good at not giving a fuck about the things that don’t suit his purpose, but the only purpose he is trying to serve is the promotion of himself..

In spite of these motivations, I don’t necessarily buy into the narrative that Trump poses a critical threat to America. Other developed countries have elected egomaniacs, and they’re only slightly worse for the wear.

Instead, I think the best response to Trump is to question what he, and we, are giving a fuck about.

Namely, we should ask ourselves if our dislike of Trump stems from a desire to have everyone else share our worldview, or if we dislike him because we care about the people his actions might hurt. The former reason is narcissistic; the latter is important.

So, perhaps we stop quit giving a fuck about where Kellyanne Conway is kneeling, and start giving a fuck about how medicaid cuts are going to affect the impoverished. Perhaps we should quit caring about Ivanka Trump’s clothing line, and begin caring about how tax breaks will continue to widen the income inequality that has been killing middle America.

The fucks that we give define us. It’s subtle, but opposition to Trump can be as self-serving as the methods he used to gain power. Half of America is watching the lives they once knew crumble. While voting for Trump ran against their best-interests, the action is motivated by a real life-or-death struggle.

So maybe we should stop giving a fuck about the trivial games of the politicians, and start giving a fuck about them.

The Dangers of Dreaming

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You see it written on the social media bios of millennials everywhere:

I have wanderlust.

The phrase has become pretty ubiquitous lately. And it’s one of my biggest pet peeves.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea, in and of itself. It signals an “intense desire to travel.” And since extended traveling has been shown to improve things like openness, extroversion and emotional stability, you can’t really fault someone for liking it.

But for many people, traveling is not just something they like. They have to lust for it. It’s like the idea becomes Christian Grey. They want it to pin them up against the wall, douse their back in candlewax and call them a filthy slut.

And in essence, that’s what having “wanderlust” can do to your self-esteem.

Riddle me this: If your desire to travel is so strong that you’re literally lusting for it, then what stops you from doing it? Sure. There are plenty of excuses: You’ve got a family! You’ve got friends! You have a job! You’re in school!

But sorry, y’all. If you’re not preparing for a lifestyle that centers around traveling, you don’t actually have an “intense desire to travel.” You have an intense desire to dream.

You see, “Wanderlust” suffers the same problem as many of our dreams: They come from a good place, but many tend to fall in love with the image more than the practice.

It’s hard to blame people for this problem. Between the various Disney movies, advertisements, and national mythoses, we’ve all kinda grown up with the belief that our lives should be really special and awesome. Yet this narrative is pretty un-realistic, and if you fall for it too hard, it can become toxic.

While a little “dreaming” is okay every now and then, the act comes with an inherent problem. What’s more, falling victim to this flaw can take away the control you need in life.

The Utility of Dreams

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The biggest problem with dreams is that they cause you to flee from the world in which you actually live. In that sense, they’re useful – because sometimes the world kinda sucks.

Thomas Hobbes famously speculated that the base state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”Before the rise of societies, our neighbors could club us on the head at any moment and steal all of our food without much consequence.

To flee from this ugliness, Hobbes postulated that a “social contract” emerged in which humans submit themselves to a higher power ( i.e. the law) to maintain civility.

But this contract seems pretty arbitrary in its nature. After all, the same force that caused our ancestors to steal from each other – self-preservation – is still pretty much the basis of our behavior. Yet we construct a system that conceals this ugliness from being displayed in the open, and it helps make our world a little better.

Our dreams serve a similar purpose.

It’s not fun to think that our lives will consist of 45 years and a cubicle, or that the person we’re marrying could turn into a deadbeat alcoholic. So we submit to a dream. In our mind’s eye, we’re on track for a fulfilling, purposeful career with a loving spouse and a big home with a white picket fence.

These visions provide us hope, allowing us to forget that we live in a cruel, uncertain world that could come crashing down on us at any moment.  Yet our dreams are merely projections of the mind; we don’t have a goddamned clue if they’re true or not until after we’ve experienced them.

That’s not to say that dreaming is bad. It’s just that too much dreaming much comes with a big problem…

“Dreaming” is often a form of low self-esteem

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In many big cities, there are agents whose jobs are to “discover” young talent, guarantee them fame, then get them to pay a large upfront fee for their services. Hucksters like these make a living from exploiting people’s dreams, and the best way to avoid them is to start with the premise that your life is okay as it is.

This trait is what we call self-acceptance, and it is a key component of self-esteem.  Yet “dreaming” inherently undermines your ability to accept yourself, because it causes you to reject your current identity.

Identity is a tricky concept, but it can be said to consist of two parts: the external and the internal.

Your external identity is what’s imposed upon on you by the environment. It includes things like your job title, your skin color, your nationality, etc. Conversely, your internal identity is how you perceive yourself in relation to these traits.

A person with healthy self-esteem has a consistent internal/external narrative. She’s honest about her emotions. She’s comfortable with her circumstances. She appreciates  the people around her, and she’s not ashamed of her heritage. Basically, she has no shame about her position in life.

On the other hand, a “dreamer” is constantly  rejecting her external identity.

She’s the person who always wants a better job, cooler friends, bigger boobs and a different city.  Her entire self-concept is geared to reject the environment by which it’s shaped. Thus, she never really accepts herself, and consequently, has low self-esteem.

This reasoning goes against most of what we’re taught to believe. After all,  life’s about achieving that Next Big Thing, right? If we’re content with the way things are, what incentive do we have to change?

Here’s the solution to this dilemma…

Dream About What You’re Doing

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The main difference between a dream and a goal is action.

When you act, you bring the features from your internal identity out into the external world. This process of bringing your “Inner Self” out is what I call integration, and it’s the main premise of my upcoming book (stay tuned).

But for now, let’s say you’re dreaming about moving to New York. There are tangible steps you can take which would bring you closer to that goal. For instance, you could save $200  every paycheck for your flight. You could begin contacting people within your network who live in the city. You could apply to jobs, apartment complexes, and clubs to join right now.

Yet if you avoid taking these steps, the idea of “moving to New York” is merely a dream. You probably don’t even want to do it. Instead, the idea of escape is what’s attracting you, and that’s an indication of low self-esteem.

In a culture that worships material wealth and achievement, embracing an ordinary life can seem blasphemous. Yet the truth is that most of us are going to be “average” in the long run. That’s like, how math works.

So instead of striving to escape our positions, sometimes the best path forward is to find contentment in the mundane.  The novelist David Foster Wallace sums up the idea beautifully in the following quote:

“True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer.”

In the absurdity of existence, there’s something courageous about a person who can spend his entire life doing dull, thankless tasks. Perhaps these people are the real heroes – not the ones who blind fate deems beautiful, rich, or intelligent.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for greatness. It’s just that if you have big goals, you should be doing something in your daily life to bring you closer to them.

Because at the end of the day, you are what you do. Thus, loving your actions – both the routine and transcendental – is a feat of self-compassion.

 It won’t all be glorious. But when your glory comes from within, your dreams will become a part of the reality in which you reside.

Getting to the Root of Anxiety

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You’ve been dreading the confrontation for weeks.

You and your girls booked a trip to Cabo, which will require you to take a week off from work. But your boss is one of those old school, “don’t-call-in-unless-your-dead” types, and you know he’s going to throw a fit at your request.

Alas, the deadline to put in your two-week notice has arrived, and it’s now or never.

You down a Red Bull in the car and pump yourself up to some Beyonce. Your mind is set; as soon as you enter the office, you’re going to tell him what’s up. But as you walk towards the door, your pulse begins to pound, and all of the worst-case scenarios start running through your head.

What will he say? Will he hold a grudge against you? Will your coworkers be mad? Will you lose your job?

As you round the corner, you see him seated at his desk with his sergeant-like posture.

“Good morning, Johnson,” he barks.

“Morning sir,” you gulp.

Your heart drops. Before you know it you’ve reached your cubicle, and suddenly the prospect of canceling your reservations seems easier.

This, my friends, is anxiety. We all know the feeling. And it kinda sucks.

We experience this fear in a variety of situations. Whether it’s a difficult confrontation, a first date, a job interview or an important test, many aspects of our lives provide us this type of stress.

Sometimes the feeling is useful. When we’ve got a lot on the line, an emotional kick in the ass is often what we need to get up and going.

But on the other hand, this feeling can also sap our very enjoyment of life.

For instance, imagine being so afraid of contracting a disease that you constantly wash your hands until they bleed. Or that the sound of the letter “B” inspires so much fear that you feel you must tap your head 50 times to cancel it out.

You see, the exact mechanism that prevents you from confronting your boss is also the conduit for such dysfunctional behavior.

While you may not need to count every ceiling tile before leaving your house right now, there are probably some issues in your own life tied to that little anxiety demon.

Luckily, a little tinkering with your thoughts can help you recognize the irrationality of this feeling, which will lead you toward a better life.

Why do we feel anxiety?

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Anxiety is defined as a “fear or nervousness about something that might happen.”

Whether it’s the butterflies you feel before a first date or the dread that accompanies OCD, all forms of anxiety stem from an emotion attached to an expectation.

The main actors in this feeling are the tiny, almond-shaped thingy’s in your brain called the amygdala. These little guys trigger your body’s fight or flight response, a survival mechanism that allows you to quickly react to situations you perceive as life-threatening.

Thus, anxiety serves as a form of self-defense.

When you sense a threat, like a stranger following you down a dark alley, anxiety tells you to either run away or start recalling that karate class you took in second grade.

More subtly, this feeling also works to defend the idea of yourself.

For instance, you might consider yourself to be an incredible musician (in spite of the fact that you’ve never booked a gig). When someone questions your life’s direction, you could “fight” this threat by calling him an idiot, or”fly” from your doubts by numbing them with drugs or alcohol.

Either way, both of these responses are designed to protect your ego’s survival.

Again, sometimes this feeling is useful. If you imagine yourself to be a future attorney, failing the LSAT’s poses a pretty severe threat to that idea. Thus, you might “fight” your anxiety by viciously studying every night.

But when we turn to maladaptive behaviors to cope with these fears, anxiety can ruin our whole fucking lives.

Consider the unemployed dude who still lives with his parents. This man’s actually using a pretty effective coping mechanism for his anxiety. After all, if no one rejects him in the outside world, it’s easy to defend the idea that he is a cool, unique person.

But becoming too comfortable with this response might eventually cause him to shoot up an elementary school. You see, the “flight” behaviors are equally good at alleviating anxiety in the moment, but in the long run they kinda suck.

Yet when you’ve gotten used to hiding your whole life, mustering the courage to face your fears is often the most difficult step.

That’s why it’s important to understand the following: All of your fears are completely baseless.

Why your fears are bullshit

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The above chart gives the most succinct representation I know of why all fear is complete bullshit.

In every single situation you are ever going to face, two possibilities exist: you can control the outcome or you can’t. Given this, why are you worried about either?

Sure. Sometimes we face scenarios where a lot is at stake.

If the LSATs are coming up, you really, really need to do well on them to justify your $30,000 of  debt, right?

But even this situation falls into the domain of can or can’t-controlledness.

For off, your debt is a sunk cost. That money is gone forever. Second, if your career depends on a good grade, then you need to allocate the appropriate amount of time towards studying. If you can’t do that, then the situation is beyond your control. It’s that simple. Worrying about it won’t change a damn thing.

What’s more, even when shit does hit the fan, our bodies are actually really good at adapting to it.

In 1978, a group of researchers made the startling discovery that paralysis victims enjoy their day-to-day lives as much as recent lottery winners. That’s right. People who have suffered life-debilitating injuries experience the same amount of happiness as those who have seen their hopes and dreams come true.

 No matter what happens to us, we’re endowed with a strong propensity to eventually return to our baseline level of well being.

This fact might seem sobering, but it actually makes a lot of sense.

At the core of everything, we are beings of the present moment. Though the mind can project itself into a hypothetical future and replay what it’s already experienced, it forever remains locked in the now.

So what use does it have in becoming attached to that which is beyond its control? Whether you become a celebrity or a homeless person, you’re always going to be right here.

So get used to it, man. And quit taking things so seriously.

How to be afraid anyway

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Now that you know all of your fears are baseless, it’s time to go conquer the world right?

Not so fast, hombre.

Even with this divine knowledge, you will never escape the fact that you’re human. We have a certain name for people who don’t feel emotions: sociopaths.

So the trick isn’t to stop being afraid. The trick is to acknowledge your fears and keep acting anyway.

After college, I chose to start a freelancing career from scratch while traveling around the world. Obviously, this decision came with its fair share of doubt and anxiety.

But each time I would experience these feelings, I simply tried to acknowledge they were occurring and continue emailing my next client. And whaddyaknow, six months later things have gone just fine.

If you need to conquer your own anxiety, one great way to start is by taking small steps.

It could be something as simple as saying “hi” to a stranger each morning. Or driving to the gym three days this week – anything puts the current you in front of that which it has been avoiding.

By doing so, you acknowledge the presence of your fears then tell them to “fuck off” with your actions. And with each confrontation, you slowly begin to how irrational they were in the first place. This discovery is the catalyst for future action and the recipe for taking control of your life.

Because at the end of the day, anxiety is a primal fear whose sole purpose is to keep us alive.

But I’ve got bad news, gang: We’re all dying anyway.

With each moment, we retreat from our former selves into an unknown future that eventually comes to a permanent stop. Thus, our task is not to flee from the inevitable. It’s to embrace the fact, then discover ways to die a little better.

 So relax. Take a deep breath. And tell your bosses’ bitch ass that you’re going to Cabo.

The Hidden Cost of an American Education

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A college student’s senior year is often a time of celebration.

For many, it serves as a victory lap – a final rendezvous with Natty Light and 11 A.M. alarms before plunging into the mundanity of adult life.

Unfortunately, my senior year didn’t quite turn out that way. In fact, I spent a good portion of it fighting a war with myself.

No, I’m not just talking about that cliched existential crisis we all face at the end of adolescence. I’m talking about a deeper kind of pain, one that sometimes left me paralyzed in bed, literally moaning from the psychic hell I was experiencing.

I’m talking about depression.

I spent the end of my collegiate career fighting this ugly battle, one that robbed me of the energy needed to do much of anything outside of barely pass my classes.

And in hindsight, I can’t shake the feeling it was completely unnecessary.

You see, somewhere near the end of my junior year, I decided to drop out. As the idea of wage slavery crept closer to reality, I realized I preferred a more independent career path. This discovery rendered my remaining economics curriculum pretty useless.

But to mention it to any of my contemporaries was to commit blasphemy:

“WHAT?! DROP OUT DURING YOUR SENIOR YEAR?! YOU’LL RUIN YOUR FUCKING LIFE!!”

Their words may have been different, but after receiving this feedback from literally every person who heard the idea, I reluctantly chose to spend one more year obtaining my piece of paper.

Cue: the Elliot Smith.

Joking aside, completing my education had a severe impact on my mental health. And I’m not alone.

Student depression has climbed dramatically in the past couple of decades. A generation of kids in the prime of their lives is increasingly succumbing to hopelessness and anxiety. What gives?

I propose this trend indicates a broader problem: one whose causes touch the very fabric of our culture.

Namely, the present state of American education is a steaming pile of shit. And its costs are much more than a mounting sum of debt.

Is college worth it?

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When asked why they go to college, students overwhelmingly cite one reason: to get a better job.

A 2014 study revealed that 86.1% of incoming freshman listed this as “very important” in their decision to continue their schooling. Some of the lower ranked reasons include “to gain an appreciation of ideas” and “to make me a more cultured person.”

When you look at the numbers, this reasoning is justified.

The median income for 25-32 year olds with a college degree is $45,500. For those with a high school diploma, it’s $28,000. Most well-paying jobs require higher education these days. That’s just the way she goes.

But what is the necessity of this requirement? Does the material we spend four additional years of our lives learning really make us such valuable workers?

Outside of technical fields (i.e. engineering, computer science, nursing, etc.), it’s kind of hard to argue that it does.

Sure. College teaches us a great deal about the human condition. We get to spend four years engaging with some of mankind’s most important ideas. If nothing else, an education makes it easier to navigate this strange little thing called life.

But most of the information we learn in the classroom has little practicality in the workforce. Doing a job requires completing a process, not the ability to quote James Joyce.

What’s more, the knowledge held by educated people is becoming more and more accessible these days.

Programs like Code Academy offer free courses in computer programming. EdX provides free classes from prestigious colleges like Harvard and MIT. Teaching yourself a language is as easy as downloading Duolingo, and you can learn about the humanities by, you know, visiting a library.

Becoming an exceptional person doesn’t require a university’s seal of approval – especially with the advent of the digital age. Yet today’s job market solely cares about that distinction.

In that sense, college’s value has little to do with becoming a better worker.

It’s become a brand.

If you want a stable career, you need the external validation that a diploma provides. Little attention will be paid to your individual merits if you ain’t rockin’ one. If you ask me, that’s a fucking tragedy.

But yes. When you look at the numbers, a college degree still holds a lot of value. While that value is largely superficial, it still exists.

Sadly, this trend comes with some pretty dire consequences.

The Debt Bomb: Turning self-discovery into self-limitation

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Another oft-cited benefit of college is the chance to “discover yourself.”

We like to think of our university years as a time of liberation. Our first taste of independence is supposed to provide us the perfect opportunity to explore our political views, bisexuality and love for Bon Iver.

But the realities of today’s world have largely obscured this romantic notion of soul-searching.

The issue can be attributed to one thing: student debt.

You hear millenials bitching about it all of the time, and for good reason; the average American is coming out of school nearly $30,000 in the hole.

But with the higher wages they’ll earn, that’s not so bad right?

Well for one, that answer is becoming less and less certain.

For instance, if a girl manages to save $400 a month for the rest of her life after high school, she’ll have a net worth of $1.6 million when she’s 65. If she goes to college, accrues $30,000 in debt and starts saving $400 a month after school (which goes towards her debt for 6 years), her net worth will only be $800k at the same age.

Thus, a higher education could cost someone half of their potential lifetime wealth.

Of course, other factors are involved. The college-educated girl will likely have a better job, which will allow her to save more money and junk.

But the most insidious problem is that not everyone ends up getting, or wanting, one of those magical jobs. What’s more, having to find a means to make their education “worth it” is likely what’s driving college students crazy.

You see, college is a financial investment we millenials don’t really get to choose. For most of us, a higher education is a foregone conclusion.

Ages 14-16 are spent taking PSATs, SAT’s and ACT’s. We visit campuses, apply for scholarships, take AP classes and narrow our list of choices during our junior and senior years. Then, we have to commit to a school before we even graduate.

Our high school careers largely serve as a stepping stone to higher education.

After that, the debt we assume during college robs the freedom we need to do anything else with our lives.

For example, imagine a guy discovers that he’d rather be an actor than an actuary during his sophomore year. But he can’t completely devote himself to the craft yet, because he’s already five figures in debt, and he NEEDS that University Brand on his name first to make up for it.

Thus, he waits to pursue acting until after he graduates.

However, he soon realizes that the prospect of making monthly loan payments for a decade is too hard to handle on top of the initial uncertainty his dream job requires.

So he settles for a position at an insurance firm after a few months, then spends the rest of his days as a cynical, high-functioning alcoholic.

In this case, the self-actualization college was supposed to provide really just limited his capacity to actually do what he wanted with his life. Student loans took away the autonomy he needed to follow the desires of his changing identity.

For those who start to recognize this pattern during school, the anxiety can be crushing.

When you realize your degree is not leading you toward a future you’d like, everything starts to suck.

You hate the tedium of your assignments. You hate the life they’re preparing you for. You hate the superficial smiles of your peers who still buy into the system. Most of all, you hate the fact that you’re hating all of it.

But you can’t escape the cycle without risking financial suicide. So you must face the notion of surrendering your youth, and potentially the course of your life every single day, just to pay for a process you never got a say in.

At that point, the idea of stopping and ending it all can become pretty damn enticing.

… or maybe that’s just what I went through. But judging by the increasing rates of student depression, I think the process is more common than you would think.

What can we do?

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Put bluntly: We cannot continue to let education have such a dismal impact on our youth’s financial futures.

Two options exist.

1.) If higher education is so valuable that all well-paying jobs require it, then we must remove student debt out of moral necessity.

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2.) If college is a privilege that comes with a financial cost, then we cannot discriminate against those who choose an alternative path.

Having young people sign away their futures before they get the chance to choose them is downright cruel. On the other hand, only rewarding those who are well-adapted to the system is equally wrong.

Other nations have already caught on to this issue.

Brazil, Germany, France, Norway, Sweden and Slovenia are just a few of the world’s countries that provide free, or nearly free, tuition for young people. The U.S. must adopt a similar model going forward if it wants to maintain its ever-dwindling image as the Land of Opportunity.

But if we can’t change the system, then at the very least we should encourage more young people to take some time off after high school.

A gap year provides a tremendous opportunity for someone to reflect on his path that the inevitable debt bomb removes.

Yet doing so would require us to put less emphasis on the fabled “college process” which characterizes the end of our high school careers. So even this change would be difficult to carry out.

Still, something needs to be done if we want to quit driving our young people crazy.

Let’s quit stealing the lust for life before it even begins, and reconsider the cost of college.

The Two Sides to Every Coin

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Steven Buckles is your stereotypical college professor.

With suit jacket and jeans, tousled hair and an ever-present look that suggests his mind is anywhere but the space that surrounds him, Buckles is a sort of folk hero among Vanderbilt’s Econ majors. And for good reason. His classes are full of the difficult, open-ended questions that get you to think about the heart of the material – almost making you feel like the $30,000 you are paying to attend that semester is justified.

Among the many thought-provoking queries Buckles proposed to my Econ 101 class, one sticks out in particular:

How do we make a correct decision?

It’s one of the most important questions that exist, after all. We make choices throughout the course of our lives. Whether we’re deciding which job to take, city to move, person to date or type of sandwich to make, our choices color the reality we experience.

So how do we make the right choices? Some use logic. Some trust their feelings. Some pray to an old dude in the sky. Buckles offered us a simple answer: “If the benefits of a decision outweigh the costs, you should do it.”

… well yeah. No shit.

It seems obvious once you think about it, but little did I know this answer would linger with me through the rest of my college courses, eventually shaping the way I perceive every thing.

You see, Buckles’ answer signified something deeper, one of the very foundations of the human experience. It’s mysterious. It’s awe-inspiring. And it’s one of the most important things you can ever realize in your quest to become a happier, more empathetic human.

The Two Sides to Every Coin

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Our lives consist of moments. We measure their duration with different units – be it a second, an hour, a day or a century.

But through them all, you only experience one thing: this moment. Here. Right now. These words you’re reading. The sounds you’re hearing. They are all that compose your reality.

One of the driving blocks of economic theory, scarcity, originates from this truth.

Because our time is finite and our wants unlimited, we are forced to make a trade-off every time we do something. And since we only exist inside of one moment, we are always making a sacrifice. That sacrifice is every other possible thing we could be doing.

Say you’re sitting on the couch staring at a bag of Cheetos. You’ve been flirting with a diet for the past few days, but the allure of the cheesy goodness is starting to override your willpower, and you consider digging in.

In this situation, two possibilities exist – you eat the Cheetos or you don’t eat the Cheetos. Thus, there are two sides to your moment: the action and its opposite. You choose to do whichever one you think is best for you during that unit of time.

But this logic doesn’t just apply to Cheetos. The deeper you look, the more you realize that everything in the universe has these two sides. Light and Dark. Good and Evil. Life and Death. Benefits and Costs.

We spend our lives floating through them, forever experiencing one midpoint along the spectrum. But all possible outcomes take place in a single reality which consists of two extremes.

This idea has existed for thousands of years, mainly seen in Eastern Philosophies like Taoism. It’s also the truth Buckles was getting at during my Econ 101 class.

We judge our decisions based on our perception of their two sides. So how do we find the right balance?

The Utility Machine

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In our example, you would choose to eat Cheetos for one reason: you think eating them would provide you more satisfaction than not eating them.

Economists have a name for this concept as well – utility.

Utility is defined as a hypothetical measurement of happiness.* When making a decision, you attempt to allocate your scarce resource (time) in a manner which provides you a maximum amount of contentment (utility).

Thus, every decision you make requires you to weigh the two sides of it. A correct choice is one which provides the most units of pleasure after subtracting the amount of displeasure you will have to endure.

This type of reasoning is also used in ethical inquiry. Namely, utilitarianism is a theory which holds that moral actions are ones which produce the most total utility in society. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill refined this approach most completely, but the idea can be seen as far back as Aristotle. While utilitarianism isn’t a perfect approach to morality, it is largely consistent with the way we actually make decisions.

The obvious conclusion of these arguments is that all of our choices are derived from our feelings. If something makes us feel more good than bad, we call it the correct choice, the moral choice, etc. But what is the origin of our feelings?

From all that we can tell, they’re completely random.

For instance, think of what gives you the most pleasure in life. Most of us tend to prefer things like sex, money, a good meal and time spent with family. The common theme behind these – they promote the survival of yourself and the species.

Sex helps create more humans. A good meal provides you with energy. Keeping close to your family gives you a sense of security, as does money.

Yet the only reason these things feel good to you now is because the people who liked them in the past are the ones who reproduced. If you don’t feel inclined to seek sex, food or security, you’re less likely to pass down your genes to the next generation.

Thus, the basis of utility is completely subjective. What we perceive to be good and bad are solely the elements which aid life’s survival. If an action doesn’t promote that end (i.e. murder, thievery, greed) it makes us feel really bad, and we label it evil.

But in reality, it’s all a part of the same coin. None of our choices are inherently right or wrong outside of the way we feel about them.

So, Heads or Tails?

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In summary, two sides exist to everything. Whichever one we prefer is subject to a random process no one controls.

This might seem a little hopeless at first, especially when society at large conditions us to believe the opposite. However, recognizing the two sides to every coin is a key feature in making better decisions and becoming a more empathetic human.

When you accept this truth, you realize every one is doing their best given their circumstances.

Some people are Fundamentalist Christians. Some are Transgendered Nihilists. Each of them are making the choices they think are best given their perception of reality.

We all have our own utility machine, and we use it to take actions we believe produce the most total goodness for ourselves and others. Recognizing this fact separates you from your ego  a bit and creates more sympathy for every facet of the human struggle.

Further, it also inclines you to reject the dogmatism of any single group. Be it Islam, Christianity, Feminism or Cross Fit, any declaration of “this-is-totally-right-and-this-is-totally-wrong” will raise a red flag, because that person is marginalizing the reality of the other side. As Buckles would say, they are either ignoring the benefits or the costs.

Finally, accepting the two sides to every coin can help you make better decisions in your own life.

You may be feeling unsure about your career path, dating choices or general life purpose. However, most of these uncertainties exist because your parents, friends or culture tell you there’s something you should be doing.

But in reality, there are no shoulds outside of the ones you choose to hold. You are the sole judge of what brings you utility, and your mission in life is to maximize the amount of it you bring to yourself and others.

If the benefits of the decision outweigh the costs, you should do it.

 


*This definition fell out of style during much of the 20th century, but with the advent of behavioral economics it's starting to make a comeback. Read more about the distinction here.

Why It Pays to Live for Less

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It’s a strange time to be an American.

With a mass shooting happening every other week and a man who got Stone-Cold Stunnered flirting with the presidency, it’s safe to say things are a little… off … in the Land of the Free.

A number of explanations have been proposed for this recent malaise. Truthfully, no one knows what the hell is going on – except that the foundation of everything we used to hold dear is crumbling.

Once upon a time, Americans thought their country was the land of opportunity. With a little grit and elbow grease, any one could rise above his circumstances and achieve whatever his heart desired.

But for young people, this belief in the “American Dream” has declined dramatically over the past generation.

And why shouldn’t it? The average student is taking on $30,000+ in debt to enter a working world where only 1 out of 3 people feel actively engaged. Our once vibrant futures have turned into a monotonous, ego-depleting existence, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy way out.

Fortunately, I’m here to tell you that things don’t have to be this way.

You don’t have to work a job you hate or give up on what you would like to do to live a healthy, fulfilling life. All of the tools are still out there.

But they require a basic deconstruction of what we’ve been taught to believe over the last 100 years or so. Namely, the materialistic preferences of the past few decades are no longer a realistic goal for modern Americans, nor are they key to personal happiness.

In our new world, achieving your dreams requires letting go of previous images of success.

It requires living for less.

A Brief History of How We Got Here

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The biggest hurdle standing between Americans and a fulfilling life isn’t the economy. It’s their preferences.

If you ask a typical American what his dreams look like, he’ll probably describe a scene from the Wolf of Wall Street. He’d have a Ferrari in the garage, Versace in the closet, a Rolex for every outfit and Dom Perignon at every party.

All of these luxury brands signal high status. They let people know you are living the good life and serve as a universal indicator for “success.”

However, these materialistic desires are a relatively new phenomenon. Like, less than 100 years old.

Four or five generations ago, people didn’t crave brand-name products. They didn’t even exist. A trip to the store would involve asking the clerk for what you needed and receiving whatever the hell they had behind the counter.

But then the Industrial Revolution happened. Suddenly, businesses were able to churn out goods at significantly faster rates and lower costs. This process created more jobs, more disposable income and lots and lots of shit to sell.

How did companies learn to capitalize on this newfound abundance? Psychological manipulation.

No. Seriously.

One of the Godfathers of modern advertising, Edward Bernays, also happened to be the nephew of the world’s most famous psychologists, Sigmund Freud.

Bernays applied his uncle’s renderings of the unconscious mind to a new type of propaganda, designed to engineer the consent of the population toward the wills of large corporations.

He called it “public relations.

One of Bernays’ most famous campaigns involved Lucky Strike cigarettes. The brand wanted to increase its sales with women, but a few hurdles existed. As a whole, the group found the color of Lucky Strikes’ box unappealing. Further, a general taboo existed against the idea of women smoking in public.

To combat these naturally-occurring preferences, Lucky Strikes enlisted Bernays’ help. And boy did he help.

To make Lucky Strikes’ shade of green more attractive, Bernays coordinated with higher-ups in the fashion industry who made it a staple of the next season’s style.

Then, he challenged the social stigma by organizing a large-scale demonstration at a feminist rally. After Bernays hired a bunch of attractive women to light up a smoke while protesting the injustices of 1920s America, the cigarette soon became known as the “freedom torch,” allowing females to challenge societal norms, flaunt their independence and increase their likelihood of dying from lung cancer.

All of these tactics targeted women’s subconscious wants. Bernays tricked them into believing that their desire to be a fashionable, independent person could be achieved simply by purchasing a pack of smokes.

And that, my friends, is how most advertising works today. Marketers tap into our basic  emotional wants using carefully orchestrated images, symbols and slogans and train us to associate them with their products.

As a population, we’ve largely bought the message. Our desire to lead a happy and fulfilling life is no longer about our accomplishments, but the type of things we can afford.

Obviously, this trend comes with a few problems.

First, basing your self-worth on the external validation that comes from your physical belongings isn’t a very healthy recipe for self-esteem. Second, these preferences are no longer a realistic goal for Americans in the modern economy.

While our standard of living has steadily increased, the financial health of the average American is hideous. Nearly half of the people surveyed in a recent study by the Federal Reserve said they couldn’t summon $400 dollars if an emergency rose today.

…$400 dollars. That’s probably the cost of the phone or computer you’re reading this on right now. Though we can obtain material comforts with more ease than ever before, we’re throwing ourselves into debt and working jobs we hate just to do it.

Despite what we’ve been manipulated to believe over the past century, we don’t need nearly as much as we think.

Our 4 Basic Psychological Needs

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Have you ever wondered how a supermarket employee can lead a happy and fulfilling life while a wealthy celebrity can be suicidal?

Psychologists have been studying this type of thing for decades, and they’ve basically boiled down the components of well-being to four requirements: security, belonging, self-esteem and control.

No matter where you’re from, how you look, or how much money you have, every single person has those four basic needs. If they’re being met, you’re gonna feel pretty good about your life. If they’re not, you’ll suffer.

That’s why a bagger at a grocery store who can afford his rent and has a few close friends can feel better than a celebrity who is surrounded by sycophants and bases her entire self-worth on her appearance. His psychological needs are being met while hers aren’t.

The key to living a happy life lies in fulfilling these needs. If you’re suffering, you should either try to improve your relationships, self-worth, sense of freedom or security.

But in the present state of affairs, that’s not always the easiest thing to do.

Namely, the individual’s lack of control in the American economy is contributing to our broad sense of disillusionment. To pay for her rent, food, car and material possessions, the average American must find a job which requires her to work 40-50 hours per week for 50 weeks out of the year.

To land one of these jobs, she’s forced to take out loans to fund her education. Then, she’ll need to pimp her resume during job interviews and convince employers that her performance will satisfy their clients. Finally, she’s expected to devote her utmost loyalty to the company in order to get promoted, increase her income and pay off the debt she assumed just to enter the process.

Most of us have to go through this cycle. And it requires us to surrender a large amount of the control we have over our lives.

Want to leave the office at 4 o’clock every day to spend time with your friends or family? You’re not working hard enough and don’t deserve to advance within the company.

Want to take a few months off to hike the Appalachian Trail or explore Southeast Asia? You’ll leave a big gap in your resume and will likely have to start from scratch somewhere else.

The recipe we’ve been given for success requires us to surrender the very sense of freedom that makes us feel successful. We can obtain a bunch of nice shit, but we don’t have any control over the process that lets us get it in the first place, which leads to our collective suffering.

How can you escape this viscous cycle?

You Need to Live for Less

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Fulfilling your basic needs doesn’t actually require that much money.

When you can learn to live for less, you gain the autonomy necessary to achieve what you actually want out of your life, i.e. the American Dream.

Adopting frugal habits like getting a roommate, moving within walking distance of your job, avoiding name-brand products, and cooking your own meals can allow a single person with no debt to live on as little as $1000 per month.

Don’t believe me? Check this guy out.

He and his wife spent around $20,000 annually for 8 years. Meanwhile, they invested the rest of their money in an index fund, which allowed them to retire at the ripe age of 30.

Now, these people had some of the well-paying, freedom-limiting jobs I criticized earlier, but the distinction is that they were working for a purpose. Their goal wasn’t to buy a mansion, eat at lavish restaurants, or own a Ferrari. It was to liberate themselves from the necessity of work altogether through a few years of low spending and high savings.

You don’t have to have these goals. Yours could be entirely different.

Maybe you’ve always wanted to be an artist. Or start your own business. Or travel the world. All of these things are possible. But they require you to live for less.

The only problem you need to figure out is how you can make enough money to pay for your food, rent, social activities and miscellaneous fees. Your other needs (self-esteem and autonomy) will be achieved through working for a higher purpose.

Because when you live for less, you can cut back your hours at work to spend more time on that book you’ve always wanted to write. You can save heavily for a few months and spend the rest of your year backpacking through Europe. You can volunteer at a hospital, religious institution, or any social cause that moves you.

It doesn’t matter what the fuck you do. Just make sure you want to do it.

Because at the end of the day, it’s your life. The only one you are ever going to get. Do you want to spend your numbered days working a career you hate to afford the stuff marketers say will complete you? Or would you rather spend your time actually doing things that make you happy?

Fair warning: this mindset requires you to go against the grain. A lot of people may think you’re inferior because you don’t live up to the material standard we’ve been taught to associate with success.

But people are going to judge you no matter what you do. Your goal is to look through that judgement, say fuck it, and arrange your life in a way that brings you the most enjoyment.

As long as you’re happy, you’ll have all the abundance you’ll ever need. When you live for less, you live with more.

Deconstructing the Ego

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For much of my adult life, I suffered from cripplingly low self-esteem. For much of my adult life, that confused the shit out of me.

On the surface, I knew I had no reason to be insecure. People tell me I’m handsome. People tell me I’m intelligent. I’ve lettered in three sports, gone to two of the US’s best colleges and have generally had experiences that confirm my capability of doing okay in this life.

Yet, while things seemed cool on the exterior, inside it was whole ‘nother bag of beans.

A subtle, unconscious feeling of shame permeated almost everything I did around the ages of 13 to 21. My career choices, relationships, and all around self-concept were largely shaped by an undying feeling that I wasn’t good enough. Clearly, it wasn’t a very fun place to be.

It took years of reading, some therapy and even a little drug exploration (sorry, Mom) to finally reach the conclusion that changed my life:

My problem was my ego.

Now, when one thinks of an egotistical person, this typically ain’t the image that comes to mind. Visions of people like Kanye West and Donald Trump tend to overpower the idea of a dude who’s too scared to ask a chick on a date.

However, the ego comes in all types of shapes and sizes. Some of them are big, bold and narcissistic. Some of them are fearful, ashamed and self-defeating.

In this post, I’m going to  explain what the ego is, why it’s mostly bullshit and how recognizing that fact can be one of the most important things you will ever do.

First, let’s look at some psychology.

The Freudian Sense of the Ego

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In 1923, Sigmund Freud formed an idea of the ego that has since shaped Western psychology. Namely, he proposed that the human psyche consisted of three systems: the ID, the Ego and the Superego.

The first part of the triad – the ID – is the primitive, child-like aspect of the brain that goes after what its wants with no fucks given. Like eating chocolate? Eat all of the chocolate. Wanna take a nap? Do it in the middle of broad daylight.

While it can be fun, the ID’s behavior isn’t necessarily conducive to the demands of adult life. To combat these child-like desires, Freud suggested that an opposing force evolves within the mind: the Superego.

The Superego can be defined as a person’s moral beliefs and ideal standards. As you age, your parents and your culture tend to give you an idea about what you should be. These beliefs get stored in the Superego, which tells you what to do throughout your life and makes you feel guilty if you don’t do it.

Where does the Ego come in? Glad you asked.

The Ego (or “you”) acts as the referee between these two competing forces. Essentially, its job is to satisfy the ID’s wants while taking the Superego’s demands into account.

Your ID still wants to eat a shit-ton of chocolate, but your Superego tells you that being fat and sloppy are bad. So, the Ego acts as the mediator between the two and decides you will only eat chocolate in small and infrequent quantities.

This seems like a useful tool, right? For the most part it is. However, it comes with a big problem:

The Superego is completely dependent on a person’s experiences.

In other words, the environment we grow up in largely shapes our moral beliefs. And unfortunately, our upbringings aren’t always the most helpful.

For instance, imagine a girl whose parents raised her to believe that sex is evil. Throughout her childhood, she was forced to shield her eyes when people kissed on TV. She couldn’t wear clothing that revealed more than her ankles and wrists and was never allowed one-on-one time with a boy.

As a result, this girl will probably feel shame and anxiety when she experiences sexual urges throughout her life. Clearly, that’s not a very helpful mindset.

Our parents, teachers and peers instill all kinds of harmful ideas like these into our subconscious, and the process is completely random! Your authority figures got their standards from their authority figures, who got their standards from their authority figures and so on and so forth.

The things that our Superegos hold dear and true originate from an environment that none of us control. We get to spend our lives feeling guilty and ashamed for reasons that are mostly arbitrary.

How fun!

Think that’s bad? Here’s another little discomforting truth.

Your ego is likely an illusion

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That’s right. That thing you think is “you” probably doesn’t exist; it’s just an image that your brain constructs due to the demands of the external world.

…yeah. I didn’t believe it at first either.

But it’s something Eastern Philosophers have been preaching for years, and new research in neuroscience may actually be starting to back it up.

Us Westerners tend to believe our identities are constant, stable things that exists through time. Yet, the idea of self promoted by people like Siddhartha Gautama (better know as the Buddha) rejects this notion entirely.

In particular, the Buddha taught that every single thing we perceive is merely a label assembled by the mind. Further, he thought that this process is inherently flawed because it removes objects from the causal chain of space and time and gives them a fixed, unchanging identity.

However, nothing truly exists as we know it. Everything is part of a large, continual process, and the present state of things is all that’s truly real.

Now, I know this can sound like some foo-foo hippy shit at first, but the idea is actually pretty consistent with recent discoveries in neuroscience.

In the 1980s, Benjamin Libet designed an experiment which showed that people’s choices could be accurately predicted by monitoring their neurons. What’s more, the scientists could determine which decisions the subjects would make before they were even aware that they had made them.

Since Freud defines “the ego” as the thing that makes our choices, the results of this study actually support the Buddha’s notion that our egos are merely illusions.

Moreover, aligning oneself with this idea has proven to be extremely beneficial.

Studies on meditation have revealed that a feeling of “ego-death” can dramatically increase a person’s well-being. Experienced meditators have been shown to have lower levels of stress, improved concentration, increased emotional awareness and even more grey-matter in their brains.

What gives? Many argue that meditation works because it gets us closer to what we actually are – a conscience experience without an ego.

When you clear your mind of thought, only the sensations that arise within the present moment remain. Further, regularly experiencing that state slowly causes you to realize you are not the thinker of your thoughts. You are merely the Watcher. All wants, worries, and desires are fleeting illusions that stem from the ego, and all that really exists is a peaceful, eternal emptiness in which all experience emerges.

This might sound a little silly. Hell, it is a little silly. But as the research shows, the idea can significantly increase our well-being and may not be all that far-fetched.

… so, what does all of this mean?

To recap: the external environment (which you don’t control) imposes all of your ideals and moral beliefs, and your ego – i.e. the thing you think is you – is a total illusion.

Real comforting, huh?

However, this realization proved to be one of the happiest of my life. Namely, recognizing my ego for what it is (or.. what it isn’t) allowed me to end years of unnecessary suffering and start doing the things I’d always wanted to do.

It let me speak my mind without feeling like I always had to be right. It let me chase the careers, goals and relationships I wanted without the fear that they’d end in abject failure.

Most importantly, it caused me to realize that no one is better than any one else.  We don’t choose our identities; none of them are even real. Underneath everything, we’re all a part of one shared struggle. The main purpose of our lives is to love each other and have as much fun as possible until we collectively return to that great, eternal void .

There are probably some things in your life that you want to do right now. You may have thought about starting a business, or writing a book or asking out that cute girl in your physics class. Yet you don’t do them, because you feel like you’ve got something to lose.

But friend, you’ve got nothing to lose. Because “you” are nothing.

Your problem is your ego.

Behind the smoke and mirrors, our lives are really just fun little games with the objective being to create our own objectives. Essentially, we’re all our IDs. The Ego illusion should only play a role in reaching the ideals you consciously choose to hold in your Superego.

Yet, you won’t be free to choose them until you look behind the mask and recognize what you truly aren’t.

So get rid of your ego, man, and get busy living.


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A helpful tool for finding happiness

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It’s a message embedded deeply in the heart of Western society: “do what makes you happy.”

It’s the subject of Billboard hits. It’s the fuel that drives the self-help industry. Hell, it’s practically written on the Declaration of Independence.

Unfortunately, it’s kind of hard for us to tell what happiness actually is, let alone how we can achieve it.

In light of this ignorance, a lot of us spend our lives following a predetermined check-list. We work hard in school. We get an impressive degree. We land a cushy job and hustle up the corporate ladder. We go on lavish trips. We buy expensive cars, clothes, homes, and cell phones.

Of course, these things aren’t inherently bad. After all, it’s pretty hard to frown on Wave Runner.

The problem is that many of us do them without ever questioning them. Our peers, magazines, movies, and advertisements drill it into our heads that these ends are THE inevitable source of happiness. Yet as we achieve them, a subtle, empty feeling often persists – causing us to look in the mirror of our suburban homes and ask: how am I still miserable?

The rational self-help promoter Mark Manson wisely asserts that we all should stop tying to be happy. In his article, Manson draws a distinction between pleasure and contentment.

In the pursuit of happiness, this difference holds the utmost importance.

The biggest, most fundamental problem in our quest to find happiness is that we often associate the feeling with pleasure. We think that the rush of dopamine that comes from buying expensive things, receiving praise from others, or even something as insidious as drug use is what inevitably makes us happy.

At best, this fallacy can lead to a fragile self-esteem. At worst, it can cause life-ruining problems like gambling or drug addictions.

Instead, as Manson points out, happiness should be measured by contentment. Why contentment, you ask? It’s because the term alludes to a deep satisfaction with yourself. It’s being completely comfortable with your circumstances, your successes, your failures, and your own limitations.

It doesn’t come from the short-term, hedonistic gains that bring us Pleasure. Rather, it comes from the sacrifice of them in pursuit of an identity that is consistent with a higher purpose.

Manson refers to this concept as the Ideal Self. In short, it’s the meaning we derive from existence and the concept that our daily actions should be designed to obtain.

Maybe you’re at this point. You’re rolling in the dough, sleeping with models, and reaching all of your life-long goals. Basically, you’re Drake.

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However, many of us have no clue how to become this ideal self or what s/he even looks like. As a result, we spend our days listlessly pursuing some vague, undefined thing, only to reach the finish line and ask: was that it?

Hopefully I haven’t instigated an identity crisis within you yet, but if I have, fear not. I’m about to introduce a very helpful key to finding happiness (i.e., contentment) and an exercise that will allow you to use it.

So, without further ado, here is a real, proven trick to achieving long-term happiness:

*cue drumroll*

Purposeful action.

*crickets*

Yeah, I know. Probably not as sexy as you were hoping for.

However, to achieve contentment, your day-to-day actions should be in line with a long-term vision you have for your future.

This may sound like an idealistic trope out of an Ayn Rand novel, but the concept is based on decades of psychological research. Namely, it plays on the idea that our thoughts, actions, and emotions are highly interconnected.

Let’s face it; in this topsy-turvey life, you’re going to go through a lot of shit. You’ll suffer break-ups. You’ll lose jobs. Loved ones will die. Good TV shows will have crappy endings.

These events and the emotional tsunamis that come along with them also shape our thoughts and actions. And sometimes, if we leave these feelings unchecked, they’ll cause us to waste our precious moments behaving in ways that are detrimental to our well-being.

The key to weathering these inevitable storms is to focus on the two factors we can control: the things we do and the things we think.

Clearly, changing your thoughts can do a lot of good. Learning to look at the positive side of things and practicing gratitude are very helpful habits. However, positive thinking by itself can only go so far. Besides making a person insufferable, a too rosy-tinted outlook can cause one to deny crucial aspects of reality. After all, negative emotions are unavoidable, and trying to suppress them will lead to more harm than good.

These thoughts need to be accompanied by our tool: purposeful action.

By doing this, you optimize your time and take constant steps toward your Ideal Self.

So, let’s get started! Here’s a little exercise designed to put you on the path towards that mythical beast called happiness:

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Step 1.) Make a mental image of the person you would like to be in five years.

How well-off are they financially? What do their relationships look like? Where do they live? What is their career? How is their fitness? Be vivid. Give specific examples. Then, get out a piece of paper and write these thoughts down.

Step 2.) Next, write down the steps someone would realistically need to take to become this person.

Where would this person be in three years? One year? Next month? Next week? Again, the more concrete you are about the details, the better.

Step 3.) Now, look at your own life.

Are you on the path towards becoming this five year person? Because s/he is your Ideal Self. If not, you need to take all of the places you envisioned him or her going in the next week, month, year, etc. and turn them into your own personal goals.

Step 4.) Keep a journal that tracks how well you are doing in pursuit of these goals.

This step is crucial, because the trick to achieving a goal is forming a habit. Keeping a journal allows you to hold yourself accountable through real time and allows you to make sure your actions remain purposeful. Further, this journal will help you identify flaws that are hindering your progress – which is the first step in correcting them.

And, there you have it. Feeling happy, yet?

Now, you’ve had a lot of experience. You may have tried something like this before, or you may be thinking that life’s too short and unpredictable to plan so far ahead in the future. Can’t we just live in the moment, man?

But that’s not the point. Yeah, you’re going to fail a lot. You’re not going to reach many of these goals.  And guess what? It ain’t gonna be easy. Acting with purpose doesn’t magically let you skip the hard times, self-doubt, and failure that comes along the way.

What it does is give you the chance to live a life of your choosing. And I can guarantee, trying and failing to live on your own terms is a helluva lot more satisfactory in the long run than a life full of “what ifs.”

By simply doing this exercise and sticking to it, you WILL constantly be getting closer to your Ideal Self. And that’s the beauty of it. Rather than stagnating in a job, town, relationship, or financial situation you hate, you are consistently putting in the work necessary to achieve the outcomes that you desire.

These outcomes are the chief aim of life, and achieving them is a never-ending climb. As much progress as we make, we’ll never be completely satisfied with where we are. We’ll always want something more. The trick is to keep moving towards it.

Because happiness is  about becoming content with the process. It’s about trying, failing, meeting your own limitations, and becoming comfortable with the effort you’ve put forth toward learning them and fearlessly engaging in this existence.

So, close the computer for a bit and get out there and put some purpose in your action.

In the words of Shia:

 

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