Saturday, February 6, 2021

"Tetrising": Facing My Addiction to Busy

I do this thing. Sometimes I completely lose sight of myself as a human being with limits to things like how many hours I can reasonably stay awake or how often I might need to eat or the fact that I may benefit from just chilling out for a few hours. 

I don't do this thing all the time, but I do this thing repeatedly. In fact, it's on a pretty predictable cycle at this point. 

I call it "tetrising," and I think it's time I face it down. 

What is Tetrising? 

"Tetrising" is my term for the state of mind I get into when I get satisfaction — delight even — from cramming as many things I can into a short window of time. 

an hourglass with white sand falling

Why, yes, I can write your last-minute blog post within 12 hours (I've got a ghostwriting gig). Yes, I can lead a book discussion and create the written materials for it. Yes, I can teach another class. Yes, I can make five meals to last us through the week and also clean the bathroom that's been neglected because of all the other "yes I can's" I said earlier. 

I can do all those things, but when I'm tetrising, I do not stop to ask myself if I should, and I never, ever stop to ask myself if I want to do them. 

So You're a Pushover, Then?

Before you start thinking you've got me figured out, that I'm clearly someone who has no boundaries, a people-pleaser who just can't say no, I have to stop you. That's not it. 

I do have a tendency to stay stuck in commitments long after they're probably good for me out of a sense of "must see it through," but that's a different topic

Tetrising isn't even about the other people asking me to do things, and most of the requests are perfectly reasonable — even kind, considerate, and meaningful — on their own. This is not a case of people taking advantage of me or me not being able to say "no." 

It's that I truly get a rush from making it all fit and getting it all done. There's a certain addiction to filling up my schedule until it should be impossible and then getting it all done anyway. 

It's like only having a single line left on Tetris and getting that much-needed long piece to flip and land just right. The relief of watching it all clear is euphoric, and I seek out that rush of endorphins. 

Why Don't You Stop Doing That?

I've vowed to stop tetrising in the past. 

As much as I love the rush, I know that it has negative impacts. During the height of the window in which I've packed in way too many things, I'm irritated and grumpy, and I have people I love who don't deserve to deal with me at my worst when my worst was brought out by my own bad decisions. 

It also seems boundless. Sometimes I think I'm trying to find the limit. How much is too much? At what point will I not be able to get it done? Sometimes I tell myself that once I find the limit, it will stop — this is all just about seeking knowledge, understanding my own abilities. 

But that's not really true, either. I carefully take on tasks that I know, deep down inside, will get completed. I will never find the limit. 

Especially right now — when I'm self-employed and we've been almost completely locked down because of the pandemic and everything happens from home — it can be really hard to see the boundaries between work, home, play, school, rest, fun, etc. It all blurs, and blurry worlds allow for a lot more tetrising. 

I have no boss or job description that defines what is "enough" work. I have no shift between settings that tells me when I've left a work space and gone into a different one. I have no break in day-to-day activities that provides much needed definition. 

handheld game consoled with a Tetris game cartridge

The question for whether or not something went on the calendar became simply "Can I physically complete this task or not?" That's no way to live. 

What are You Going to Do About It?

I was talking to my counselor about this, finally. I had it on my list to bring up for at least four sessions (and we only meet every 6 weeks or so, so it was a long time), but I knew that if I said out loud what I was doing to myself, I would have to stop doing it, and I didn't want to lose my rush. 

She helped me come up with a plan that works with who I am. I got to make some guidelines about what was or was not an acceptable task to accept. 

Image of five scheduling rules taped to the side of a computer monitor

They're now taped to the side of my computer monitor, right where I have to click to open up my Google calendar when I'm scheduling something new. 

It made me so uncomfortable to make these guidelines. I could hear my inner voice: but what if. . .? couldn't we sometimes make an exception for . . .? that might mean saying no to . . .? 

But I stayed firm. These are reasonable expectations, and I — the real person who has to actually complete all those tasks to make the tetrising happen — deserve them. 

Thursday, April 4, 2019

I Guess I'm Post-Ac Now?

As you all (all five of you still reading this blog that I update like four times a year now. HI!) already know, I was laid off from my full-time professorship almost exactly a year ago. As I've been trying to put my life back together, I kind of lost it—it being my sense of purpose, focus, and overall identity.

While I have been managing to keep it all together in a superficial sense (by, like, you know doing the things I have to do every day to keep my bills paid and my kids fed and whatnot), I haven't felt like myself for a long time now.

About two months ago, I started seeing a counselor (a thing I should have done earlier, but I was still reeling from my previous bad experience). Today, I think our session led to a bit of a breakthrough on just where my current struggles are rooted.


See, I have always had a plan. I went straight from being valedictorian of my high school class with my "most likely to succeed" title worn like a suit of armor into a B.A. into my M.A. and then finishing my Ph.D. while working full-time in an academic career that had clearly delineated steps. I was climbing the staircase well. I was ticking off the boxes and knew exactly when I would be up for associate professor and exactly when I would be up for full professor. I knew exactly what I was going to do in between to ensure that I would attain each of those titles.

It's not just the long-term track of academia that fit me so well, though. Every day was planned out in advance. I created the document that ensured it at the start of every semester when I made a syllabus that had each class period mapped out. I knew when I would be grading papers. I knew when they would be due back to students. I knew what topics I would cover on each day. I knew when I would hold office hours.

Sure, there were always little changes that needed to be made to adjust for life. A snow day could throw things off kilter for a week. A sick day could push back the paper due date. But, for the most part, I always knew where I needed to be, and I was always there. In my daily life, my monthly life, my yearly life, I could see the sign posts plotted out—distant but solidly visible—for literally the rest of my professional life.

This is where it's important to stop and tell you a quick story.

Once, my husband and I were chatting, and I was looking over my big, beautiful planner. I sighed happily and said something like, "Looking at this planner is the one thing that can make me feel calm when it's all going crazy."

He was shocked, "Really?! My planner does nothing but stress me out!"

It was a clear, foundational difference in the way we viewed the world. He looks at a planner and sees endless tasks to accomplish and time slipping away. I look at a planner and see order and undeniable proof that it can all get done and will therefore all be okay.

Planning is part of who I am as a person. It's as natural to me as breathing and (so it turns out) perhaps as essential.

I was dealing with grief over the loss of my career. I was dealing with anger over the way that it ended. I was dealing with panic over my sudden financial uncertainty. Sometimes I still get flashes of those things.

But they are not what has me here, a year later, spinning in circles and seeking therapy. Those things all make sense to me, and I have the comfort in knowing they will all—in one way or another—run their course and fade.

What is not fading, though, is the sense of being untethered. Adrift. Unstructured. Unplanned.

In fact, that sense recently got a lot worse when I decided to give up my adjunct professor position. This was without a doubt the most logical choice in terms of financial benefit, time constraints, and potential for professional growth. It was, by all accounts and months of obsessively considering the options, the right choice.

But it was also the ripping down of the only remaining pillars of external structure in my world. When they were gone, I felt immediate freedom. I could now spend my time doing exactly what I wanted.

Then I took a good, hard look at that freedom. It went on forever. Into the horizon. With no sign posts to tell me what to do tomorrow or next month or two years from now.

This, ultimately, is what being post-ac means to me. It means freedom so vast it is paralyzing. It means staring out across the barren landscape and picturing all of the structures I could erect there but still craving a bit of the comfort of an ivory tower that's nowhere to be seen.

Monday, February 4, 2019

On Expectations (Falling Short, Being Kind, and Recognizing Reality)

My goodness. I am out of shape. And not taking care of myself. And it's been going on way too long. 

I've been trying to figure out how to write this post without it sounding like 1) I am asking for a pity party or 2) I am making a list of excuses.

The latter is easier to deal with. I don't have anything to excuse. I don't owe anyone my fitness or even my health. I don't need to explain my own choices to anyone except myself, and I know that and believe it.

As for the pity party, I'm really not trying to do that, either. First of all, the time for pity (if it was warranted) has passed. Secondly, I don't think what I am about to write makes me pitiful. I'm sharing it not because I'd like pity but because I suspect I'm not alone in the (potentially fatal) flaw of not being honest with myself about what's really going on, and without an honest accounting of the realities around us, how are we supposed to make any real progress?

So, here's the thing. There was a point where I was pretty fit. (I was never thin, but this isn't about that.) There was a point (not even that long ago), when I was routinely running 10k, lifting weights multiple times a week, playing roller derby, and regularly getting 15,000 steps a day without even really trying. I didn't get winded climbing two flights of stairs, and I didn't have trouble getting up off the floor after sitting down to read a book with my daughter.

I was, looking back on it, taking care of myself pretty well. I drank water, ate vegetables, and generally did the things I was supposed to do to take care of this one body I get.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped doing that. I stopped running. I stopped eating well. I stopped lifting weights. I stopped even walking with much regularity or intention. And I started doing some other things. I started panting at the top of stairs, struggling to get up off the floor, and generally feeling like I wasn't treating myself very kindly.

So, today, I stopped and really tried to figure out what happened. That's when I came to a realization. Here's a simplified timeline of what I recognized:
  • June 2014- I broke my ankle and had to have surgery to put it back together. I wasn't even allowed to bear weight until August. It took a lot of physical therapy and struggle to be able to flex my ankle and rebuild my muscles, and I wasn't truly back to full physical function for almost a year. All the while, I was writing a dissertation.
  • June 2015- I got pregnant. Still writing a dissertation.
  • July 2015- I miscarried that pregnancy. And dissertations don't write themselves.
  • August 2015- I got pregnant again. I was put on exercise restrictions due to some minor complications. But those restrictions didn't extend to dissertation writing.
  • November 2015- I successfully defended my dissertation. 
  • May 2016- I had a baby. Then I started experiencing symptoms of post-partum depression and anxiety. I had daily panic attacks for most of the summer that eventually spaced out to weekly, then monthly, then occasionally. 
  • August 2017- I bought a house. (This becomes important in a moment). 
  • September 2017- I found out I might get laid off from the position I had been in for six years and had planned to do the rest of my life: my full-time, "continuing status" (basically tenured) community college professor position . . . and I had just bought a house. 
  • December 2017- I found out I was definitely getting laid off. 
  • January-May 2018- I had to teach my final semester, knowing I was losing my job and with it the only professional identity I had ever had or wanted. It destroyed me. 
  • May 2018-present- I have been trying to pick up the pieces of my sense of self, make up for my lost income through a scramble of freelance and adjunct work, and generally find out who I am on the other side of it all. 
Today, for the first time, I thought about all of those realities in succession. I recognized that what started as physical impairments that greatly altered the way I used my body (the ankle break, the pregnancies) cascaded into mental and emotional turmoil (the PPAD, the identity crisis) and that it became a chicken and an egg of what would need to come back first to help me recover the other.

Would regaining physical fitness help me become emotionally clear or would I need emotional clarity before I could get physically fit?

I imagined what I would say to a friend who came to me worried about her lack of fitness and self-care if she was failing to recognize the series of events that had led her to that place. Then I tried to tell those things to myself, and that's how I ended up writing this post.

Look, I know that it hurt no one but myself to stop working out at the moments that I most needed to be strong. I know that continuing bad habits (or continuing to ignore good ones) did nothing but dig me a deeper hole to climb back out of. I know that doing things like eating well and exercising more would likely have improved the state of mind I was in throughout many of those events.

But I also know that I am human, and I am trying, and that? That was a lot.

Intellectually knowing what the best choices are doesn't equate to having the emotional resources to make them, and I've been bereft. I haven't had the tools to do the work even when I knew what work needed to be done. It didn't matter how many times I looked at the blueprint.

Is it better now? I want to say yes, but the truth is, I can't really be sure. I know that it's easier to keep a habit than to make one. I know that the almost four years that have passed since I was last where I wanted to be, health-wise, have represented a physical aging that I can't undo, a collective impact that won't be erased.

All I can do is start where I am, and I think that starting where I am with the full recognition of where I've been is probably the best chance I've had in a long time.

If you are falling short of your own expectations (in whatever it might be) and you need a prod to take stock of where you've been and be kind to yourself because of it, I hope this can be it.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Self-Help Pushback (Because These Were Not Written for Moms Like Me)

My work as a freelance writer often takes me down interesting research rabbit holes. Lately, I've been spending a lot of time reading and listening to some of the top self-help books in the fields of productivity, motivation, and time management.

This genre has always fascinated me, and even before I took on this particular project, I was a frequent listener of the podcast Simplify, which interviews different authors of books about how to live your life better and then pulls out some of the key ideas. (My favorite was this one with David Allen, and I really did get some great tips from him!) 

I think the reason I am so interested in the self-help genre is that it does so much more than just give advice. It also highlights our collective values and assumptions about what success looks like. Because no matter how much an individual self-help book might couch itself as edgy or subversive, at their core, these books operate on a very normative definition of success, and it's typically one built on accumulating wealth, minimizing the amount of effort put into the daily tasks of employment, and getting to pursue individual activities of pleasure. 

I'm not knocking any of those things. (In fact, I'd take those. Who's got some to spare?) But I am kind of side eyeing the entire self-help genre at the moment. 

After getting eyeballs deep into dozens of self-help adages and "systems," I'm feeling pretty left out. See, the advice from these gurus tends to pivot in a pretty small circle around a stable pillar of accepted truths. Sure, different experts might dress it up in different flavors to make it more palatable to a particular audience, but, all in all, the advice stays about the same. 

And none of it is applicable to my life right now. 

If I said that to any of these gurus, I know what they'd say. "You're making excuses." "You're keeping yourself stuck." "That's your faulty life script trying to keep you from reaching your potential." They'd tell me to believe in what I can achieve and push through those boundaries.

That sounds motivational and all, and I know why they have to say that, but it doesn't change the fact that most of their advice has very little to do with the life that I live, and it's not because I don't want (or deserve!) riches, leisure time, and world travel.

It's because my time is not my own, and self-help too often ignores that a lot of us are carrying the emotional, physical, and logistical labor of more than one self. 

Let's take a closer look at what I mean. 

Advice Pillar #1: Do Not Multitask 

Where You've Heard It: Everywhere. (No, really. It's everywhere. Like, everywhere.)

The Basic Scoop: Ambitious people often have a lot of responsibilities. Naturally, they want to find a way to tackle these responsibilities more effectively. They'll turn to multitasking to try to maximize their time, but psychology shows that multitasking doesn't actually exist. We may feel like we're doing more than one thing at a time, but what we're really doing is rapidly shifting our attention from task to task, and the end result is a scattered brain, a lack of focus, poorer work, and no time savings.

Why It Doesn't Apply to Me: No, I'm not going to argue that my brain defies psychological realities. I'm absolutely sure that my attempts to grade papers while watching Gilmore Girls and responding to messages in my Facebook chat group are bad ideas that make me do all three of those things more poorly than I would if I just picked one and did it until it was done.

But what I am going to tell you is that I multitask every single day, and I do it well. Because here's the thing about all of those self-help gurus' demonization of multitasking: they're assuming that all of the tasks you do require your mental focus. Guess what? I do a lot of shit every day that requires no or virtually no thinking, and I do a lot of tasks that are partially automated. 

If I put in a load of laundry before I sit down to grade a batch of papers, then by the time I am ready for a break, it will be time to put the clothes in the dryer. Then I can return to the papers and finish them up. When I'm done, the clothes are ready to fold. I can fold them while watching Parks and Rec for the fiftieth time, which is a necessary unwinding after grading all those papers. 

If I didn't put the laundry in until after I finished the papers, though, my whole day is going to get wrecked. This automated task can easily be happening while I am doing something else, but it requires conscious multitasking on my part to get done. 

Some other things I multitask throughout the day? I braid my daughter's hair while we talk about the book we're reading together for her homeschool literature class. I listen to podcasts while I clean the counters in the kitchen. I feed the cats while my son's oatmeal is heating up in the microwave. 

The advice to stop multitasking annoys me because it ignores the fact that not all tasks are intellectually equal tasks, but that doesn't make them any less necessary or any less difficult to fit into my day. 

Advice Pillar #2: Take Control of Your Mornings

Where You've Heard It: Hal Elrod's Morning Miracle and Morning Miracle Millionaires; Tim Ferriss; articles like this one

The Basic Scoop: The specifics of the system might vary from source to source, but the general idea is that taking control of your morning sets up your whole day. The advice that I've read usually tells you to do some combination of meditation, exercise, eating a healthy breakfast, and goal setting while avoiding social media, email, and really any distractions from the outside world. 

The idea is that by being able to intentionally take charge of your time in the morning, you set the tone for the day as a whole, and you can choose where you put your energy throughout the day instead of careening from crisis to crisis without any say in what you do next. 

Why It Doesn't Apply to Me: I really do believe this is great advice. I think that if I could take the first forty-five minutes of each day and exercise, meditate, and set my goals for the day, I would definitely get more done and feel better doing it, so I'm not actually criticizing this advice. If you can do this, you should do this, but I can't do this. 

Again, this isn't because I'm making excuses. It's not that I'm refusing to get up forty-five minutes earlier to make it happen. It's that I literally cannot do it.

Several experts tell me to make my bed first thing in the morning. I can't do that because, if I get up early enough to do all these other things, there are still people sleeping in it. Yes. People. Plural. My husband is probably still in bed for one. There's also a real good chance that my toddler has climbed in there at some point in the night, too. If I make my bed, they're waking up, and if the toddler is up, I can kiss that quiet meditation goodbye. 

In fact, I can probably just kiss that quiet meditation goodbye anyway. I can creep out of my bed as quietly as possible and maybe even manage to get out of the room and go somewhere else to try to meditate, but my absence will be felt. Kids have more than five senses, and the ability to tell that mom is getting close to peace is one of them. 

Even if everything went perfectly well, my morning isn't just about me. These "morning rituals" all seem to assume that the only person I am responsible for getting focused, meditated, and happy is myself. That is not the case. That is never the case. The cats are going to meow at me incessantly until I feed them. Then the dog is going to need to go outside. The kids need to eat. There are boots to find and coats to zip and diapers to change and spills to clean up. 

My mornings are not my own, and the only way to make them my own is through out and out neglect of the living beings who depend on me each day, and I can't do that because their mornings are important, too. (And, completely selfishly, if their mornings go badly, my day is going badly, too. I don't want to clean dog poop off the floor because I didn't let the dog out. I don't want to deal with a toddler who didn't get to eat breakfast. These things are important.) 

Advice Pillar #3: Work Uninterrupted 

Where You've Heard It: Francesco Cirillo's Pomodoro Technique; Donald Knuth (who refuses to answer email and suggests working in "batch mode"); Tim Ferriss (again); articles like this one 

The Basic Scoop: Say no to distractions like meetings or email. (In the extreme forms, some of these experts have literally stopped accepting requests for their time and deleted their email addresses to make themselves unreachable). The Medium article linked above even starts out by describing focused work as a "monastic" lifestyle of "near-total seclusion." The idea is that you should say no to the calls on your attention so that you can put your attention where you really want and need it to be focused. 

The Pomodoro Technique does this through setting a timer for 25 minutes before taking a 5-minute break. After four rounds of this, you get a 30-minute break. I downloaded a Pomodoro Technique app, and the default goal is to do 12 separate rounds. That's 5 hours of focused work with just short breaks in between each set. 

Why It Doesn't Apply to Me: Again, I'm not actually criticizing the heart of this advice. I use the Pomodoro Technique whenever I am alone and have a project to focus on. It works. You should give it a try. 

But if these experts are right that seclusion is necessary for success, then success will just stay out of my reach for at least the next 16 years or so. Parents don't get much seclusion. I know I'm not saying anything groundbreaking here. After all, Virginia Woolf knew the importance of a room of one's own quite some time ago. 

Maybe this is why this kind of focus is called "monastic." And people who are able to dedicate themselves to that kind of seclusion for the sake of reflection and purpose-seeking are certainly laudable. But I do think it's interesting that monks are known for their seclusion while nuns are known for their service to others (through teaching and nursing and being present in communities). 

The advice to say "no" more often is good advice that I am working on taking myself, but if I have to be secluded to win this game, I don't get to play. There are, as I've explored at length above, too many other living beings who I am beholden to for that to happen. I can't say "no" to these responsibilities. I can't tell my kids, "Sorry. Mommy deleted her email account. You don't get to request bedtime stories tonight because that's not serving my greater purpose." 

Also, can we just talk for a moment about the hidden supports making these success stories possible? Professor Knuth (the one who refused to take email) had his secretary printing out emails for him so that he could respond to them by hand at his leisure. So it wasn't that the task wasn't getting done. It was that it wasn't getting done by him. Similarly, Tim Ferriss has a whole section in his famous book The Four-Hour Workweek about finding your hourly value and then outsourcing tasks that cost less than that value. Again, this means that someone else is picking up all that labor. You didn't eliminate the labor by saying no to things that didn't matter. You shifted the labor onto someone else's shoulders. You got your own success by making someone else's success (if this is the definition of success we're using) further away. 


At the end of the day, I will probably keep dipping my toe into this genre because I do find it interesting and sometimes helpful and engaging. More and more, though, I am feeling excluded from not just the advice, but the conversation. I can't find myself in these discussions, and I don't think it's because I have written myself off from success. I don't think it's because there isn't advice that could help me and the people like me. I just think that no one is talking to us. 

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Leaves that Won’t be Made: Hard Truths of “Having it All”

“The cost of maintaining these defenses come out of the tree’s meager savings that were intended for happier uses: each drop of sap was a seed that didn’t happen; each thorn a leaf that wouldn’t be made” (Jahren 28).  
These lines come from the book Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, and the author is here reflecting on a tree familiar to her in childhood. These words really stuck with me in an unexpected way. I wasn’t reading the book for personal inspiration. I was reading it to assess its viability as a high school composition spine. The relationship between myself and the text was expected to be professional. I didn’t expect to find a personal connection to this ill-fated tree (which would be unceremoniously chopped down shortly after this passage). 

But this passage clicked with me. Jahren, a botanist and passionate researcher frames the life acts of trees as choices—even “mistakes.” She repeatedly reminds us—through the perspective of a tree—that mortality makes us fragile and thriving is statistically rare—rare enough that even a scientist could be forgiven for seeing it as miraculous. 

In this particular quote, Jahren touches upon the finite nature of our resources. In the tree’s case, this is the energy created and stored as sugar that fuels all of the tree’s actions. But the reserves are not limitless, and so, influenced by the environmental factors pressing upon it and the millennia of programmed code coursing through its genes, the tree makes choices about how to use that energy. As Jahren makes perfectly clear, each action taken is the choice to not take another action. It is a zero-sum game—for the tree full of limited sugar but also for me and probably also for you. 

“I can make more money, but I can’t make more time.” 

I remember saying this to an equally frazzled friend as I explained the mental gymnastics I had done to justify outsourcing some overwhelming household chore. Unlike the tree, my primary concerns are not daily survival. I take it for granted that I will have food to eat, water to drink, and shelter from the elements. The tree and I are not so different in these needs, but the privilege of collective successes and ingenuity has brought me a measure of security that allows me to ignore that similarity. Barring unexpected medical or environmental crisis, I am typically not made conscious of my very real mortality and the work that goes into delaying its inevitable conclusion. 

Instead, I spend my energy on the task of seeking fulfillment and purpose beyond those biological needs, and the finite resource that underpins all my choices is not stored sugar, but time. 

Every choice I make—every book I read to my child, every freelance gig I accept, every dinner I prepare, every class I teach, every television show I watch—is as much a choice made as a dozen, a hundred, a thousand other choices not made with that same slot of time. Wrapped up in those moments is the ghost of all the things that could have been done with that time that are now eliminated as options. 

After all, there is only so much time. 

Later in Lab Girl, Jahren discusses a Hawaiian monkeypod tree, boasting a huge gorgeous canopy filled with flowers and captured by tourists in photo albums and coffee table books. Jahren makes this observation: 
“From the tourists’ perspective, this tree has achieved its perfect form: they do not see a tree that is less than it might have been . . . If [it] were to be cut down, we could count the knots and see the buried scars of the hundreds of branches that it has lost during the last century of its life. But as of today the tree stands, and while it is standing, we see only the branches that did grow and do not miss the ones that were lost” (79). 
Are we trees forced to constantly examine the limbs that did not make it? Instead of wearing our scars until we are whole again, are we doomed to constantly prod them like the gaping hole of a lost tooth? Maybe trees, too, feel these losses, invisible to the passersby, these possible-but-not-quite realities. Should we take a cue from them and hide the gaps by growing a thicker exterior, forever pretending we are whole when we are really not? Really cannot be? Really can only ever hope that the final set of choices and lost branches balances out to a kind of survival we accept?

I’ve been wondering some version of this a lot, lately. I even wrote about wondering if I was wasting my Ph.D. by giving in to the call on my attention as a mother for my local City Moms Blog. What branches am I losing? Will I notice them when they’re gone?

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Success at What Cost? (Reflections on Disagreeable People and the 4-Hour Workweek)

My family went to watch the big Independence Day fireworks display downtown this weekend, and after a week-long heat advisory, we were granted a reprieve in the form of breezy mid-70s weather on Saturday evening.

The place was packed, and when we arrived an hour and a half before sunset, most of the hillside was already packed with picnic blankets and lawn chairs as people staked out their prime viewing spot.

We found a good spot and tried to keep our two kids entertained while we waited for the sun to set and the show to start. As the first bursts of light filled the sky, I heard a voice behind me firmly say, "Sir! You need to sit down! People have been waiting here for hours to see, and you are in the way. Put your butt on the ground like everyone else!"

I turned to see a woman approaching a man who was standing in the middle of the seated crowd, cell phone in hand, taking pictures of the fireworks. He sighed loudly and walked up two rows (now parallel with me) and continued standing. The people behind him muttered and yelled "sit down!" He didn't move until someone approached him from behind, tapped him on the shoulder, and asked him to move. At that point, he moved up two more rows and slightly to the left and continued to stand.

The man in front of me could no longer see, and his wife went and again asked the man to move. He moved all the way over in the same row, still standing, and there he stayed the rest of the show, most certainly blocking the view of many people who had waited for hours. He obviously knew he was in the way, and he was the only person standing on the hillside as far as the eye could see. He didn't argue or fight with anyone who confronted him, but he didn't let their displeasure have any impact on his actions, either.

I'm sure he got a couple of pretty pictures of the fireworks.

Should We Be Agreeable?

I was recently listening to Malcolm Gladwell's podcast Revisionist History (which I love and highly recommend). One of his recent episodes gives his "12 Rules for Life," which is really only one rule (and I'm about to spoil it, FYI.) His one rule for life is to "pull the goalie," by which he means to do the thing that makes the most logical sense even if it upsets social norms and causes social discomfort. 

Gladwell admits this is a challenge for him, but he looks up to people who do not have this struggle. He identifies them as having a low score on the "agreeableness" spectrum, a psychology term that measures how much people care about upholding social norms. 

Gladwell spends much of the episode exploring how an ability to set aside social expectations can help us make better decisions because, often, social expectations run counter to the smartest, most effective thing to do. 

He speaks of disagreeable people with a kind of awe, as if they have a superpower he would like to possess. How freeing it would be to not care what people think of you and simply act in the way that gets you the best results. What kind of achievements could you reach if you had that kind of free reign? 

Success Without Scruples

Gladwell's thought experiments on agreeableness are interesting and worth considering. After all, social pressure (especially for women, who are socially conditioned to be demure and accommodating) can cause people to miss great opportunities or not receive credit for their work. 

But Gladwell leans a little too hard into the power of disagreeable people because he doesn't follow this line of thought to its logical conclusion. If you maximize your own success without any regard for social consequences, you can end up in a kind of sociopathic hedonism that is destructive and horrifying. 

I got a chance to see this kind of roadmap for success firsthand when I picked up a copy of The 4-Hour Workweek on a whim. See, I've been reading and listening to productivity experts because I think that they're an interesting window into our cultural values (a topic for another day). Timothy Ferriss' best selling book promises in its subtitle to let you "escape 9-5, live anywhere, and join the new rich." 

I have only thumbed through the book so far, but what I have seen left me absolutely shaken. This is a best selling book. Ferriss gets referenced everywhere and has followers and fans who promote his methods to success. This is a cultural touchstone of sorts. 

How does Ferriss provide access to this elusive life of luxury? Well, he is certainly promoting disagreeable qualities. His book's premise is that you should trick, swindle, lie, and exploit your way to leisure. 

The book is ambitious in scope and covers a wide range of topics, but the theme that seems to underly them all is that you put yourself first and any social consequences of your actions out of your mind completely. 

For example, Ferriss recommends creating false contact profiles for your fledgling business to make it appear to have multiple departments when it's really just you and you alone. He also recommends outsourcing as many of your daily tasks as possible to underpaid laborers without any concern for how his exploitation might factor into their own living and working conditions. He talks about examining rules for loopholes and proudly boasts about winning a Chinese kickboxing competition by dehydrating himself to weigh in three weight classes under his actual weight and then winning by technical knockout by simply exploiting a rule about falls to make his aim knocking his opponent over rather than actually learning the sport. 

The Relativity of Ethics

Ferriss' methods are the logical conclusion of Gladwell's well-meaning advice, and my firework-watching friend is a prime example of this mentality in action. 

The thing is, these "tricks" and "advantages" only work as long as you, the person using them, are surrounded by people with more scruples, stronger moral compasses, and more shame. If everyone decides to weigh in three weight classes under their actual weight by dehydrating themselves, then it's not an advantage anymore. It's just a stupid sport where everyone tries to knock each other over instead of displaying any actual skill. If everyone decides to stand while watching the fireworks, only the people in the front row (or those born unusually tall) will get to enjoy the show.

Our sociopolitical systems operate with the underlying assumption that most people will adhere to a general set of ethics most of the time. Obviously, a lot of those assumptions are falling apart in today's society. Trump's crass, abusive, and vulgar comments from the position of President are often held up as the source of this ethical unmooring. As much as I am appalled by his actions and words, though, I am beginning to see that he is a symptom, not the cause. 

Our definitions of success and our worship of capitalism and individualism have created this landscape, and it will take an intentional, meaningful, and probably painful reflection on our humanity and collective values to counteract the results. 

I just hope we don't have to get all the way to everyone standing up at the fireworks before we start doing that work.  

Thursday, April 12, 2018

What Happens to a Community Disrupted? (The Rise and Fall of Blogging)

I started this blog almost exactly eight years ago (April 19, 2010). I was a graduate student who was a few months pregnant with my first child, and I was terrified because everywhere I looked there were articles and people telling me that there was no way to balance a professional career and the demands of motherhood without sacrificing the quality of one or both beyond repair. I blogged anonymously. It was truly just a diary at first, but then I made this post about my feminist hopes to mother a feminist. It was written as a response to blue milk, one of my favorite "mommy bloggers" at the time. She had posted (more than two years before I responded) a list of ten questions about feminist motherhood.

That post ended up getting me clicked into an amazing group of women who were all blogging about the things I was thinking about. We started connecting, blogged on each other's pages, left comments on each other's posts, and generally became a community. Then we kept going with our lives, and eventually that community (or at least the tiny corner of it I was inhabiting) drifted apart, sometimes gently prodded by the natural current of the ocean of  daily motherhood, sometimes violently disrupted by the stormy period of tragedies like divorce and child loss.

"Old-Fashioned Sense of Community"

I literally teared up remembering this long-ago community while I was reading Emily Matchar's book Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity the other day. Matchar penned this book in 2013, which is right around the time that I was at peak "mommy blogger." I was attending blogging conferences, knew my Klout score, tweeted with all the right hashtags, felt connected to the big discussions in this particular niche.

Matchar writes about finding "lifestyle blogs" and feeling connected to a world full of decorators and cooks who opened up a door to domesticity that challenged its anti-feminist reputation and gave young Millennial women like me the chance to embrace the domesticity that was naturally becoming a part of our lives as young homemakers, wives, and mothers without feeling like sellouts who were turning our backs on our mother's hard work to gain equal rights. Blogs, Matchar explains, were a key part of this transformation:
Homemaker 2.0 blogs have become online versions of the knitting circles and quilting bees of preindustrial America, which were themselves created to stave off the loneliness and isolation of pioneer life. Online, women swap skills, tips, and recipes; give advice; offer emotional support. Women whom Technorati defines as 'mom bloggers' are significantly more likely than other bloggers to post comments, to link to other blogs, and to say they enjoy interacting with readers and other bloggers. In our supposedly isolated Bowling Alone culture, blogs have created a frankly old-fashioned sense of community. 
In 2013, I have to tell you, that felt completely right. It felt like we had found a way to build a community without the bounds of geography. We were able to connect with other mothers who were going through exactly what we were going through, and we were able to feel valuable and meaningful as part of this group.

I don't know that I can say the same thing in 2018. It's not just that my daughter got older (though that definitely does take a toll on the "mommy blogging"). After all, my son is the same age my daughter was at this blogging peak. I also don't think the community is gone. Mothers need that connection and space to lean on one another as much as they ever have, and there are still plenty of spaces online that fill that void, but I know that I have never been able to recreate the blogging magic that I felt five years ago.

What Happened?

Google Reader was discontinued in June of 2013. Did Google just have its finger on the pulse of the reality and jump just ahead of the crash, or did it steer the ship into the iceberg? I don't know the answer to that.

At the time, Google was hoping to make Google+ a thing that could truly compete with Facebook, and (as we can all see with our perfectly honed hindsight) that didn't happen. Instead, Facebook's "groups" feature is now the place that seems to get most of the activity that I used to see in blog comments.

Whatever the case, I know that I personally never found a way to keep up with blogs the way I did with Google Reader, and I made a concerted effort to find a comparable replacement. I imagine there were plenty of people who just didn't find it worth the effort. This Atlantic piece sings the praises of Google Reader and explains that since its demise, content creators have started to focus more on creating a single piece that generates "likes" rather than creating a bundled sense of identity in a blog that acts as a cohesive whole.

That also rings true to me. I remember a time when I made silly, short posts that were just bursts of thoughts. We posted "Wordless Wednesday" posts that were just pictures from our day. I wasn't worried about making every piece stand on its own because, for my readers (who were my friends, not my "customers" or "leads"), they didn't stand on their own.

Sure, a single piece could end up getting shared widely in unexpected ways, and that was sometimes fun (or, just as often, terrifying. I remember the shudder that went down my spine every time Reddit showed up in my traffic referrals), but I didn't think about individual posts the way that I do now.

Kids These Days and Their Newfangled FaceGramSnaps

Maybe I'm just old. Maybe the technology of my yesteryear just has a nostalgic feel for me, and it's no different than my parents keeping reel-to-reel movies in the basement for decades.

But I'm 32. And this was five years ago. So if I am just "old," then the pace of these changes has ramped up considerably from previous generations. And I don't seem to be alone in trying to figure out this technology change/midlife crisis/growing pains/what is happening mess. Take a look at this post from the New York Times about the previously "secret" Facebook group for women over 40 that took on a life of its own and is now the center of the creator's book and website.

Where Does a Community Go?

I don't know the answers to these questions. I'm not even really sure what questions I am asking, but I know that the change in the platform has not changed the need in the people who create the communities in the first place. We come together because we have a genuine need to find people who understand and to make us feel connected and heard. The messy tangle of giant corporations selling our data to advertisers, our own entrepreneurial desires to make a living through our writing and creations, and the inevitable mess that a group devolves into once it hits a certain number of participants will continue to complicate this attempt to find and keep a community.

What do you think? Are you still mourning Google Reader? Have you found a community to call your own? Do you fondly remember the blogs of yesteryear? Will you answer these questions somewhere I will never see them?