Our Few Years on Earth - Joe Abittan

Our Few Years on Earth

Human beings are not always good at planning for the long term, but in general, we do expect to have a long term. I know that in my own life I have always assumed I would live to be at least 100, though I know life expectancy in the United States is not 100 years old and though I know many people who have died in their 70s, 80s, or even much younger from accidents, rare diseases, or from other serious problems. We expect to have a long number of years ahead of us and can make investments to plan for that long future, but we should remember that it is never a guarantee. 

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “There is no fixed count of our years. You do not know where death awaits you; so be ready for it everywhere.” 

 

This is not to suggest that we should live in paranoia, afraid that we might die at any moment. Instead it is a reminder that the long term plans we hope to live out might not come to pass. It is a reminder to make our lives what we want them to be today, rather than assuming that we have a long future to achieve our desired goals. 

 

The wrong response to the message is the modern day (though kinda dying out) idea of YOLO. The idea, “you only live once,” has been used to justify a lifestyle of partying, of short term thinking, and of extravagant opulence. It almost ignores all long term planning in focus of short term pleasure, but it doesn’t really help us to be ready for death as Seneca suggests. 

 

Another wrong response to the ideas from Seneca is to be overly ambitious and push too hard to for achievements. We don’t have to push our bodies to be perfect physical specimens today. We don’t have to push too hard for the C suit in corporate America before age 40. We don’t have to be ruthless in our pursuit of money, wealth, and things to show how successful we are today. That too doesn’t actually prepare us for death. 

 

What we should learn from Seneca is that it is important to plan ahead, but to remember that our plans may never have an opportunity to come to pass. We should make our lives meaningful and do things today that we can take pride in. This means building real and lasting relationships, focusing our daily lives on things that truly matter, so that if we depart today, we have been focusing in the right direction, and would be satisfied with where we leave the Earth. We cannot procrastinate and assume that we will eventually have time to do meaningful things in our lives. We can’t use our potentially short time to simply puff up our own ego. We have to pause, to  think about a meaningful life, and continually adjust our course so that we are living well, and ready to depart at any unfortunate moment.
Time

Think More About Your Time

A little over a year ago I took a job that had a long commute, a little over 30 miles one way, 60+ miles daily for the round trip. Mornings were usually pretty quick, because I would be out of the house early for a work out and would beat a lot of traffic, but afternoons were often brutal for me, with a minimum 45 minute drive home. If there was an accident on the freeway, it easily became and hour and half drive home in the afternoon. The time I spent by myself in the car, listening to podcasts, occasionally calling a friend, or maybe listening to some music made me think about just how important the good use of ones time is. Each day, I spent at least one hour and fifteen minutes in a car by myself. I had to dress professionally, which meant that I had to have gym bag packed with slacks, a belt, a dress shirt, and from time to time a tie. In the mornings I woke up early to write and blog, and then I was out of the house quickly to get to the gym on time. I had to rush through work-outs and a post-work shower to make sure I had enough time to change into my business clothes for the remainder of the drive to work. After work, I felt a pressure to get out the door as quick as possible and get across the 30 miles of road to my house, minimizing the time I was on the road and the chance I would get caught in a traffic jam from an accident. In the evening I had to spend at least 30 minutes prepping my lunch for the next day and making sure I had all my clothes set in my gym bag and ready to go. As it turns out, I’m not great at this, and I frequently forget my lunch or to pack my shoes when I am on a time crunch and will need to have a bunch of stuff ready and with me.

 

I was feeling first hand, until the pandemic started and I shifted to working from home, what it is like to not have enough time. I have heard on a few podcasts (I searched but couldn’t find where exactly) that the word time is the most frequently used word in the English language. It is the one thing that we always have, but never have enough of. It is the one thing we can never get more of, and it is important that we use it well. However, as I look around at the people in my life, I see that we rarely think of how we use our time as critically as we should. As Seneca wrote to his friend in Letters From a Stoic, “Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession.”

 

We can lose our possession of time if another person takes our life. We can lose our ability to use our time if someone creates some major obstacle for us that we have to climb through (like working through identity theft). And on top of that we can squander our time in a meaningless way (like by commuting long distances by ourselves in our cars).

 

My recent experiences have forced me to re-think how I have used time, experienced time, and what it means to be aware of time. When we think about our time, we can change our approach to our day and re-shape our habits, routines, and activities so that we don’t waste our time and let it slip through our fingers without control. I know I am lucky to be in a place to make changes in my life to adjust how I spend my time, and I know not everyone has the same privileges to adjust their lives in relation to time, but for those of us who can, I think it is important that we think more about our time. We should make adjustments to give time back to our lives by spending more time with loved ones or with meaningful activities that engage us with others and build a sense of community. We should avoid long commutes, we should focus on spending our time doing things that help improve our communities, and we should not be willing to trade too much of our time for money, if we are in a position to say no to the extra money we get for the time we give up.
work and craftsmanship

Think of Your Work as a Craft

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport highlights the work of Ric Furrer, a modern day blacksmith creating historical themed swords, knives, and weapons in his own modern day forge. His work is important in Newport’s book because it is a true craft that demands focus. He can only do his work, and do it well, if he is constantly focused and aware of the small details of what he is doing. He can’t afford to be distracted, to take micro-breaks to check a tweet, or bounce between his metal-work and an email or two.

 

Craftsman working with their hands have an advantage over modern day knowledge workers. They create something tangible that they can hold and see. People working construction and landscaping have the same advantage, a tie back to our early ancestors and human evolutionary past – their work can be seen. Knowledge workers’ reports, emails, and reading can’t actually be seen. As a result, we make efforts to be very visible with our work, responding to every email, posting witty tweets, and Instagramming our pile of books.

 

What ends up happening, in way that Newport describes it, is that we forget to focus on what is important with our work, and allow ourselves to be distracted.  Our work starts to lack purpose and meaning, and we take on shallow tasks. We do visible yet unimportant work rather than the important but sometimes invisible work that is required for us to really be great at what we do.

 

Newport writes, “Craftsmen like Furrer tackle professional challenges that are simple to define but difficult to execute – a useful imbalance when seeking purpose. Knowledge work exchanges this clarity  for ambiguity. It can be hard to define exactly what a given knowledge worker does and how it differs from another: On our worst days, it can seem that all knowledge work boils down to the same exhausting roil of emails and PowerPoint.” 

 

The challenge for us is to understand what is truly important and focus on that work. We can’t worry about being seen as productive. Instead, we have to focus on ensuring our time is spent on the most important issues, even if we don’t have something tangible to tell everyone that we did at the end of the day.

 

I have found tracking my work to be helpful in this regard. At the end of the day, we can forget just how much time we spent on a given project, and we can have trouble seeing the progress we made. If we think more deeply about what we need to do to make progress on important goals, we can identify smaller targets, and document, for our own sake, what we have done to reach those targets. This gives us a sense of craft, even in a knowledge economy. The more we can tie what we do to a feeling of craftsmanship, the better we can be at recognizing how important it is that we bring our best focus to our work.

In The End, We Seek Meaning

In his book When, author Dan Pink investigates how humans relate to and understand time. He considers the time of day, the timing of events, and also how we understand things based on time dimensions such as beginnings, middles, and ends. His focus on endings is one of the more surprising parts for me, someone who doesn’t read that much fiction and isn’t much of a movie buff.

 

Human life is narrative, and we can’t help but think of our lives and events in our lives in terms of beginnings, middles, and ends. We understand our lives by thinking about our end, which we will all eventually reach. We want our narrative to be happy, but Pink suggests that we also want something more than just happiness at the end of the narratives we create.

 

“Adding a small component of sadness to an otherwise happy moment elevates that moment rather than diminishes it. Poignancy, the researchers [Hal Hershfield and Laura Carstensen et al.] write, seems to be particular to the experience of endings. The best endings don’t leave us happy. Instead they produce something richer – a rush of unexpected insight, a fleeting moment of transcendence, the possibility that by discarding what we wanted we’ve gotten what we needed.”

 

Pink shows that rich emotions are what drive us. Happiness itself is not enough of a rich emotion on its own to truly provide us with the depth that we need in life. We experience sadness and the realization that our world is transitory, and come to understand that we need complex relationships in our lives. What we ultimately enjoy and engage with the most are narratives that create a comprehensive meaning from these complex and often competing emotions.

 

Pink continues, “Closings, conclusions, and culminations reveal something essential about the human condition: In the end, we seek meaning.”

 

We are looking for a life that is coherent from a narrative sense, but also has a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose. We might not enjoy every moment and might not like many of the things we must do, but a fully engaging life is one that includes a vast array of experiences and emotions with other people. When we put everything together and reach an end, that is what we are looking for, and it is often a different set of experiences and emotions than what we would have if we purely searched for happiness, fame, and material possessions.

 

This is why the end of Avengers Endgame was so powerful for so many fans. We were happy to get an epic battle that we had been dreaming of for 10 years, but sad to lose the instigating protagonist of the entire series. While the depth of the meaning might not be the most impressive in cinematic history, I think many fans would agree that the ending was strong and powerful, because it included a touch of sadness with the joy that many receive from watching super heroes kick ass. It created a more poignant moment rather than just a happy ending, giving the whole series a new sense of meaning, just as we hope happens when we reflect back on our lives at the end of any milestone.

Examples of Hidden Meaning in Communication

Yesterday I wrote about how our speech conveys information in the direct meaning of what we say and also conveys additional information about us as a person. Our messages include the specific thing we said, and also something about how we are the type of person who knows about or cares about the thing we just communicated. This second layer of communication is very important, and is often more important than the information we actually express, even though we likely never acknowledge it.

 

As an example, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write the following in The Elephant in the Brain, “When you’re interviewing someone for a job, for example, you aren’t trying to learn new domain knowledge from the job applicant, but you might discuss a topic in order to gauge the applicant as a potential coworker. You want to know whether the applicant is sharp or dull, plugged-in or out of the loop. You want to know the size and utility of the applicant’s backpack.”

 

This example is really clear and we can see that the things being communicated are less important than the behind the scenes things that the communication tells us about the person. Have they been in situations that demand creativity, were they able to navigate those situations well, and can they now look back and clearly express what they learned from those situations? These questions are hard to ask directly, but the communication from the interviewee will give us answers to these questions whether they are directly asked or not.

 

As an example from my personal life, the other week I drew a river on a coworker’s whiteboard because I learned some really fascinating information about erosion and deposition within rivers from the Don’t Panic Geocast. The information I shared about rivers is not going to help either of us in our jobs or life in any meaningful way, but I found it interesting and wanted to share. What I was really conveying, however, was that I am the type of person who gets excited about science and fun geological processes. I was telling her, “hey, I’m the kind of person who picks up interesting but obscure information from across the world and can remember it.” If I just walked around saying that I would probably annoy everyone (not to say drawing rivers on other peoples whiteboards doesn’t) but at least in this way I can show my interests in the world and share a little bit about myself in a less obnoxious and intrusive manner.

 

We all do things like this at times in our lives. We are not conscious of it, because being conscious of it doesn’t actually help us be much better in conversations and social situations. Our brains continuously monitor, adjust, and respond to social situations, and we are able to send a lot of messages without either ourselves or the people we talk to actively noticing what we are doing during these conversations.

Two Messages

In The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about the ways in which we act to signal something important about ourselves that we cannot outright express. We deceive ourselves to believe that we are not sending these signals, but we recognize them, pick up on their subtle nature, and know how to respond to these cues even if we remain consciously ignorant to them. In the book, the authors focus on how we use these cues in language and communication.

 

The authors write, “Every remark made by a speaker contains two messages for the listener: text and subtext. The text says, ‘Here’s a new piece of information,’ while the subtext says, ‘By the way, I’m the kind of person who knows such things.’ Sometimes the text is more important than the subtext … but frequently, it’s the other way around.”

 

It is important to acknowledge that sometimes the text truly is the important part of our message. Because we occasionally have really important things that people need to know, and because that information outweighs the fact that we are the one who knows it and shared it, we can use that as a screen for us in this game of two messages. We can believe that all our communication is about important important information because there are times where the things we communicate are crucial to know. Hanson and Simler’s idea above only works if sometimes it is true that the text is the important piece and if almost always we can plausibly say that we are just trying to convey useful information as opposed to showing off what we know or what we have learned.

 

No matter what, at the same time our communication says something about us and about what knowledge and information we may have. It can also say something about what we don’t know, which may be part of why we go to great lengths to make it seem like we were not ignorant of something – our language/knowledge might tell people we are not the kind of person who knows something that everyone else knows.

 

Our language also tells people that we are the kind of person who cares about something, or has great attention to detail, is strict and disciplined, or is from a certain part of the country/world. Some of these signals are fairly hidden, while others are more clear and obvious. When we look more closely at the way we signal in our conversation, we can see how often our words are only part of what we are communicating.

Non-Verbal Communication & Messages

Yesterday I wrote a bit about how non-verbal communication often happens below the level of our consciousness. However, just because it is something we don’t consciously recognize doesn’t mean that the messages conveyed are meaningless. I wrote yesterday about how non-verbal communication can allow us to communicate some messages slyly, implying things and making our intentions clear without us having to say what we really mean. Today, another quote on non-verbal communication from Simler and Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain expands on the role and meaning of non-verbal communication.

 

“Body language … is mostly not arbitrary. Instead, nonverbal behaviors are meaningfully, functionally related to the messages they’re conveying.” We have shared physical reactions to emotional states of being that seem to emphasize and align with the emotional state we are in. Across cultures, the authors explain, while words and manners of verbal communication change, a lot of non-verbal communication ques remain constant. Emotional excitement may be displayed through loud exclamations and lots of arm or body movements. Interest in something may result in us staring at the interesting thing, with our eyes widening, potentially changing our field of view.

 

We do these things and respond to non-verbal messages without necessarily realizing we are doing so. Once we start to look for it, however, we can start to notice similar patterns in body language that convey messages that go along with (or perhaps contradict) the verbal messages that we also convey. We can learn that certain non-verbal cues have specific meanings and we can learn to present ourselves a certain way to help reinforce the language that we are trying to get across.

 

Recently, my wife and I adopted a puppy and started training her. In one of our first lessons, the instructor taught us a little about reading the dog’s body language and non-verbal communication. My wife and I now know to look for hair on the back of her neck standing up when she growls, so we know if she is growing in a playful way, or if she feels threatened. This was invisible to me before it was pointed out, even though on some level I probably could still tell the difference between the dog’s attitude.

 

We humans do the same things in some situations. We may playfully wrestle with a loved one or children, and while we might be making physically dominant gestures, there are aspects of our body language and non-verbal communication that demonstrate that everything is just fun play. We can be taught to recognize these types of non-verbal cues, but most of us probably just pick up on them automatically. I suspect that some of us are better than others at noticing these cues, and that it would be very helpful for others to have some explicit explanation of these cues. Ultimately, the important thing to remember is that communication is not just about the words we use, and that unconscious (often) behavior can be directly related and included in the messages we convey, even if our brains don’t fully realize it. A lot happens beneath the surface, and we should acknowledge this and acknowledge just how much our brains don’t see when things are happening right in front of us.

The Trouble with Labels

“The troubling thing about labels is that we very seldom have the exact same definitions for them,” Colin Wright writes in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. I am disappointed by how frequently we use labels without giving them much thought. Labels are a necessity and a way to convey a lot of information without having to provide extensive background and definitions for every little thing. Labels are also things we use to signal something about ourselves and they are also something we use to make fun of other people and groups to which we don’t belong. If you are not aware of the labels you use, you are not aware of how frequently you are using them for signaling or just how insulting labels can be to the people you label.

 

Wright continues, “as soon as you decide to watch for them, you realize how many labels we use in every discussion, even beyond the exploratory ones. But it’s worth the effort if you really want to learn, understand, and communicate clearly.” When we use labels haphazardly, we end up talking about different things from our communication partner. My concept of any given label is going to be different from your concept of that label, and even if our ideas are just a little off, what I am saying may not make any sense to you at all. Our conversation could devolve into an argument where we are each trying to argue that something is or is not something else, not realizing that we are both arguing with a different set of definitions for the thing we are arguing about.

 

Beyond just confusing conversation, my biggest fear of labels is that they will become subtle digs and insults at our communication partners. We may throw in a label here or there that we don’t think our interlocutor will recognize, but that will be recognized by other people in our social group. This allows us to make subtle insults at individuals or groups and allows us to talk behind someone’s back, insulting them in a way where we feel superior because they did not even realize that we insulted them. This is typical of the types of arguments we see online, and it is something that has the ability to absolutely destroy productive conversation. It can ruin opportunities to learn and it actively drives us away from becoming a more cohesive society. Recognizing when use labels in this way will help us to have more clear and constructive conversations, and if we can help other people recognize how they use labels, then we can begin to have more productive and rational discussions about the direction our society should move.

Make Up Your Own Fiction

I am really fascinated by ideas of our personal narratives and how powerful the stories we tell ourselves can be. On some level I think we all understand this, and recently I have been thinking about the power of our narrative within political ideology. The Democratic Party seems to be criticized for creating a narrative where where people are hopeless and can’t make it without a little help. Conversely, the Republican Party seems to operate in a narrative where people can always pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they just try harder. I don’t think either of these simple narratives about how the parties treat people is really accurate, and it is not what I am actually writing about today, just a quick example of how narratives can drive so much of our beliefs and ideas.

 

A quote from Fernando Pessoa in his book The Book of Disquiet translated by Margaret Jull Costa shows the power of narrative, “The truly superior (and the happiest) men are those who, perceiving that everything is a fiction, make up their own novel before someone else does it for them…” What Pessoa is saying is that we can all recognize the power of narratives in our own lives, and create our own stories rather than try to live up to stories that other people have made for us. His ideas in this quote align with a lot of the Stoic ideas and thoughts that I try to live by. His quote acknowledges that we are under pressure from other people to be the person that other people want us to be and to achieve a picture of success created by someone else. Writing our own story, however, gives us the chance to be our own person and to pursue a life on our own terms.

 

“Since life is essentially a mental state and everything we do or think is only as valuable as we think it is, it depends on us for any value that it may have.” A painting is only as valuable as we decide it is. A car is only valuable if we all recognize it as such. Any given activity is only valuable if we decide it is a valuable way to spend our time. There are certainly things we can all recognize as more valuable than others based on the use, form, and function of the thing, but at the end of the day, nothing has inherent value just on its own unless we decide that there is a value attached to it. We should all be aware of the value we place in ourselves, the things in our lives, and how we live so that we can craft a story about who we are that creates meaningful value in our lives and in the lives of others.

Rhythms and Routines

I started a new job a few months back and my commute time has doubled. I was already driving a good distance across Reno, NV (I know it is not LA, San Francisco, or Washington DC but it was still not fun), and now I am driving about twice as far to our State Capitol in Carson City to work for the Legislature. My drive time is now about an hour both ways, for a total of two hours of commuting daily. In addition, where I work has less amenities in the office, which means I need to bring more, prep more, and plan more with what I eat and what I need for the day. What this new job has created for me, with new limitations on my time, is a daily routine where my entire day feels like it is in a time crunch and where I need to be on point at every second if I want to fit in everything and be prepared to have a successful day at work.

 

I am leaning very heavily into my daily routines now. I wrote in the past about Colin Wright’s thoughts on routines in his book Come Back Frayed and Michael Bungay Stanier’s views on habits in his book The Coaching Habit. Today I have another quote from Wright and his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. Right now I am relying on a particular rhythm to help me be successful and live life the way I want to live. But, the rhythm I am building right now does not have to be permanent. I do not need to live this way forever and I can choose whether I want to maintain this rhythm and let it dictate my life, or whether I want things to change. About our rhythms and routines, Wright includes the following, “Many of us fall into rhythms relatively early in life, and then decide, either consciously or subconsciously, that the rhythm we’ve come to know is the totality of life. This is it. This is how things are. The evidence of me experiencing life in this fashion seems to be supported by the hypothesis that this is how life is meant to be; the only way it can be. But this isn’t the case.”

 

I know I can change my daily routine and I’m sure future jobs will necessitate a change in my routine, but a bigger question for me to think about is whether I want to change the general rhythm of my life or whether I want to continue with the general orientation of current life. I try to exercise daily. I try to do a lot of reading, especially during my lunch break, and I try to write each morning. Many of my evenings end up being spent with my wife watching tv, especially if we eat, but none of these pieces of my routine have to be a constant part of my life forever. For me, and for anyone else, little experiments in life are always possible. I could decide that I want to try something different from running or spin biking and try a boxing gym for workouts. I could decide that I don’t want to pursue reading any further and try doing things that are more social and engaging. And at an even bigger level, I could decide that I don’t need to live in a house and could find a small apartment, spend less money on my living arrangement, and take a more flexible job closer to home with different hours to open up different parts of the day.

 

What is important to remember, and what Wright is saying in his quote, is that life is flexible and full of possibilities. We don’t have to settle into any one particular way of living and we can try on different life styles. Just because we were raised a certain way, just because we happen to find ourselves relying on (or simply falling into without noticing) specific routines does not mean that our lives have to be set in one particular way from now until we die. We can have great success and achieve a lot of goals within our routines, but by shaking them off and experimenting, we might find new avenues of life that resonate with us on a more profound and meaningful level, or we might just find a renewed passion for something in life that we did not know could give us meaning and value.