Posts Tagged 'control'

Crystal Palace

crystalpalace

It’s beautiful. Looks fantastic. A great ideal to hold on to.

Thanks to technology, (relative) peace and historic levels of prosperity, we’ve turned our lives into a type of crystal palace, a gleaming edifice that needs to be perfected and polished more than it is appreciated.

We waste energy whining over slight imperfections, while we’re simultaneously losing our ability to engage with situations that might not have outcomes shiny enough or risk-free enough to belong in the palace. By insulating ourselves from perceived risk we spend our days in a prison we’ve built for ourself.

Shiny, but hardly nurturing. And still fragile.

Growth is messy and seems dangerous. Life is messy and inherently somewhat dangerous. When we insist on a guarantee, an ever-increasing standard in everything we measure, and a Hollywood ending, we get none of those.

 

Organization’s Effects

artguy

If you take a group of people, a subgroup of the larger population, and expose them to focused messages again and again, you will start to change their point of view. If you augment those messages with exposure to other members of the group, the messages will begin to have ever more impact.

We generally tend to align ourselves with those we’re around. We don’t fully understand why. There is a lot of psychology we know, and then other stuff we can’t explain. Yawning, for instance, can be statistically shown to be contagious. It has been studied for years, yet we don’t know why it happens.

Once a group starts to become aligned, and starts acting like a tribe, the messages of the tribe will become self-reinforcing. When someone is born into that tribe, there is a very high probability she will never know the difference. It is simply her common sense about the way the world works.

Programmed.

Stuck

ManandWomaninCupEverything that happens to us is generated from something we did, something someone did to us, or just a chance occurrence. Regardless of which it is, the ball is in our court to act, or wait until someone or something changes things. We generally would prefer to take action, but sometimes we can’t see the way out. We are stuck, unable to move forward, or to move it off center. It happens to nearly all of us on occasion. We get stuck for a variety of reasons. Three that come to mind are:

  1. We can’t see the forest for the trees or just don’t see the problem for what it really is.
  2. It’s scary to change our current situation because it’s serving us in some way, or there is a fear of the unknown. What if the change makes things worse?
  3. We are in a double bind, which means we feel damned if we do or don’t.

To get unstuck, there are a several techniques to try. I think these are somewhat obvious, but seeing it in writing can help provide clarity.

  • Play out the fear of change all the way to the worst case scenario and then evaluate if it’s really all that bad or if there is anything good about it. If there is some good (this is the key), move towards it. Just try it and feel good about your courage to grow in the most positive direction possible. You will work the rest out.
  • Ask what the costs are if you stay stuck, and play it out to the worst case scenario. If nothing changes, who will be hurt and how bad can it get? You may be able to continue to be dissatisfied, though it’s not good for you, which probably means others are being negatively affected.
  • Ask yourself what someone who truly loves and wants the best for you would advise. Sometimes, we aren’t as compassionate with ourselves as we are with those we love. Hearing and trusting their voice in our head can be used as a guide for what to do. But be cautious. This can easily turn into you choosing what will make others happy. That’s not the point. And keep in mind…they are afraid, too. Not objective. You have to weigh the agenda of the source, but it is worth considering.
  • Look at how the current situation is serving your needs, even at low levels. Sometimes we settle for low level fulfillment instead of going for the thing that will really fill us up because it feels safer to stick with the devil you know instead of the one you don’t. Consider the positive benefits of raising your standards. I was once told that “it’s never a bad thing to raise your standards.” This goes for yourself and for who you’re with.
  • Ask yourself if you have a true commitment to growing. If you do, and you recognize that if you aren’t growing, you’re dying (inside), then consider what you’ll do to grow. Will you take a chance and try something new, even if its scary and there is no guarantee it will work out? Can you feel good about yourself for being brave enough to just try it and course correct later if need be? (Hint: Yes)
  • Consider that there is a life lesson in this situation, and determine what it is. Ask yourself if you are ready to learn it now, and if not, why. Are you hoping the Universe will take over and make the change for you? Not choosing is still a choice. And if you don’t make a change, something happens that’s not your choice and you have to deal with it anyway. Isn’t it better to make the choice on your own and feel like you have some semblance of control over the situation? When you don’t, you open yourself up to something happening that takes the control away from you, requiring you to put the pieces back together and move on with your life, the hard way. You also open yourself up to the problem repeating until you show up for it and “walk through the fire” by making the choices that are authentic to you.

As with many things in this blog, it’s easy to say. Easier to read and understand. Hard to do. Sometimes you have to push harder.

Passion or Hubris

SteveMcQueen

Just try to find a list of top movie car chases without Steve McQueen’s legendary chase in Bullit near the top. He was a fine actor, but his true passion was auto racing, which culminated in him finally getting to make the movie of his dreams. In 1970, at the height of his career, he set out to make a “real” racing film, and used a real race in which to do it. A car fitted with a special camera (the first of its kind) drove in the actual 1970 Le Mans race – one of the most difficult and grueling races ever devised by man – while other cameras stationed around the course captured the live racing action. Steve himself had wanted to drive in the race, citing “authenticity” as the motivation, but the insurance company underwriting the film would not allow it. He had in fact just placed second to the legendary Mario Andretti in the 12 Hours of Sebring race a few weeks before (with a cast on his foot from a motorcycle accident). That car became the camera car for Le Mans.

He was a real racer. Imagine the intrigue of finally getting to make a major motion picture about it. He went for maximum authenticity. He wanted the film to tell the real story of what his love was all about. This would be the crowning jewel of his career, and arguably his life.

But it all went wrong. Production ran way over budget and time. Of course the scenes captured at the actual race weren’t sufficient to make a movie with a story, so months of additional filming ensued, and by most accounts the process had little to no direction. Steve wasn’t interested in much of a story beyond the race itself, for which his perfectionism in getting the details right drove the crew bonkers. Over 1 million feet of film was used as he tried to orchestrate complicated racing maneuvers at authentic race speeds on the track. Other costs mounted. A few severe driving accidents occurred, resulting in one race driver having a career ending leg amputation and another with burns on his face. He ended up getting divorced around that time. One of the biggest writers in Hollywood, who had worked on prior films with Steve, never worked again. The actress who costarred in the movie never worked again.

Everyone thought they were working on a theatrical release. Steve was making an authentic film about racing. He wanted to show what it was like rather than talk about it. He said, a racer can’t explain why he races, but he can show you. Eventually the financiers backing the production brought in a new director and relieved Steve of all control. The film was finished and released, still with very little dialog, and not much more than hints of a greater story or context beyond that one race. In later years it became a cult film due in large part to how accurately things were portrayed, but at the box office it was a failure, only partly being saved by the cachet of McQueen himself as the star.

His acting career continued, but people close to Steve say he was never the same after that. He seemed to lose his passion for driving and filmmaking. Like Icarus, he had flown too close to the sun and fallen. From that point he was going through the motions until dying of cancer in 1980. A cancer that in the ultimate twist of irony some say may have been caused by asbestos in the fire suits he wore as a race driver. He said in a recording that while the cancer may have been caused by those materials, he also felt he was ready to “let go.” Not sure if that means give up on life, or what, but it sounds ominous on the recording. It sort of reminds me of how when one spouse dies, the other is sometimes soon to follow, as if when a reason to live is taken away, the body may follow suit.

He lost his wife, his film and several friends. He may well have even lost himself.

Was this negative turning point in his life a result of passion or hubris? I suppose those can be two sides of the same coin in some ways. It would be hard to argue he hadn’t lost his objectivity as a filmmaker. But art works that way. The best stuff is inherently not objective. It’s passionate. Visionary. Did HE think the film was a failure? I speculate that the outside world’s interpretation of success had nothing to do with why he wanted to make that art. And lo and behold, it turns out that it has stood the test of time as the de facto standard against which all subsequent racing films have been measured.

What may look like hubris from one perspective, can in fact just be passion when viewed from another. And vice-versa. But when one’s passion starts to result in mounting costs for others, it may well be time for them to take stock and make tough decisions. In the end we all make our choices about how much we will endure, or how much pain we are willing to inflict to fulfill a promise or chase a dream. On either side of that coin these choices are ours. What will you put up with? What are you willing to do?

Steve made his film. It came at great cost to him and others, but he chased his dream and got something close. While there may have been some regrets surrounding it, he never had to face the regret of not having tried.

“Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting.”   – Steve McQueen

Decision Time

BrainDiagramMany decisions come to us in a way that invites, and sometimes requires, immediate action or response. We have complicated machinery working behind the scenes that in those precious seconds will chemically and electrically influence what we do in profound ways.

I wrote recently about the role some chemicals play in our lives. The relative presence or absence of those at any given moment certainly impacts how we act as we’re stimulated. That perturbation of our system then triggers the release of still more associated chemicals, which ride around with us for a while, continuing to impact how we interpret the world.

The electrical system also has a profound influence. Because of the way our brain is physically laid out and wired there is a timing impacting how we register stimuli. Much information about the anatomy of the brain is available online, but for quick reference you can think of the Thalamus as an information hub that routes things where they need to go. The hippocampus is complicated, but in layman’s terms it plays a vital role in processing memories, inhibition, and the way we understand space (as in our spatial awareness). The amygdala also processes memories, but is more focused on emotionally oriented things. Finally the cortex, which is comprised of many subparts, is responsible for our thinking. It plays a key role in consciousness, perception, awareness, language, thought, attention, and memory.

Note how the emotional centers of the Amygdala and Hippocampus are closely tied to the Thalamus. Electrically these areas are able to receive and process information fractions of a second before the more rational parts of our brain get a shot at it. When an input triggers a memory our emotional center is first on the scene, and is able fire back electrical impulses that pull other emotionally relevant memories before we’ve had a chance to “think” about it. And then the chemicals are released to put the rest of our physiology in a complimentary state, which among other things affects the way we process further information and categorize it into memories, which are then retrieved, and so on.

We don’t stand a chance.

There are some biologically sound reasons for it to work this way, but it does trip us up on a regular basis. One can employ techniques to mitigate the tendency to react emotionally to things, but they all require time. The emotional centers have an inherent advantage. If you can pause to begin thinking about it, or distract yourself away from it, you better open the circumstance up for more rational processing. You can write things down, which also engages the more rationally cognizant portions of your brain. You can make a flow chart, or log some if/then statements, etc. You can force yourself to remember something you did well, or achieved, or (ideally) something you did that helped someone. Your chemicals will reinforce your efforts here.

It all starts with the recognition that your emotions are out in front of your thinking, which means even your thinking becomes based on an emotional context…until you change the context with other thinking and emotions.

Fuel Tank

child-drinking-rainWhen your car or your body runs short on fuel the symptoms are pretty clear. Your brain needs fuel to function just like your body. In fact, your brain uses up to 20% of the fuel you consume. But what about the mind? That’s a much more abstract question.

It rarely runs short on fuel. It digests and uses everything it encounters. It’s going to keep its tank full with something. You can’t control that. But what is the fuel you are giving it? You can control what it encounters, and therefore influence it’s processing. A helpful exercise is to spend a period of time being aware of your mind’s diet. Try logging what you’re reading, watching and experiencing, and how much time you spend with each. Then go back and asses. Circle all the negative or useless information and influences you’ve helped your mind consume.

It’s eye opening.

Is there any doubt that if you provide a more positive set of stimuli for your mind it will respond accordingly?

The hard work of this is that you have to do a little work to keep things available that will be a positive influence. Some good books (that you take the time to read), positive friends (not the drama seekers), the right kinds of television shows, and certainly not least a hobby or two that you find engaging. Part of the challenge is that you must make time to engage yourself with these things. That means not doing something else. Look at your list. Does it have a few things on it that could/should be replaced with actions that are better for you? Note how each makes you feel and choose these carefully. Even with hobbies, which are of vital importance, be aware of the effect they have on you. Not all are helpful.

Of course you must also keep the rest of your body fit, and take the other steps to keep the right balance of chemicals involved. It is helpful that if you take the actions noted here, your body will automatically respond chemically to help you.

Happiness, Part xx6, The Chemistry

Parts xx1, xx2, xx3, xx4, xx5. Part xx6 will unfold over a series of related posts.

We’re animals with bodies wired to respond to stimuli in ways that increase our chances of survival. While we have certain physical vulnerabilities, we overcome them by having been graced with a complex array of genetic tools that make us adept at learning and cooperation. We’re social. We work well in groups, and need them. We respond to what we call feelings, which help to facilitate this cooperative, social behavior. Our feelings have chemical underpinnings. There are two primary kinds: Selfless and Selfish. The selfish ones produce good feelings when we accomplish things for ourselves, while the selfless ones are oriented more toward the feelings we get in cooperation with others.

The primary selfish ones are:

Endorphins – Associated with the runner’s high. Their job is to mask physical pain. To help give us the will to push through when we’re tired or injured. But they serve other purposes as well. When we laugh they are released, which can mitigate anxiety. An example might be a comedic moment in a horror movie. We feel better even after the laughing stops.

Dopamine – Responsible for the feeling of satisfaction we get when accomplishing something. The bigger the accomplishment the more dopamine we get. We even get a little along the way to start us up and keep us going. It’s a part of what makes us goal oriented. Eating food produces dopamine, which is one reason why we like to eat (too much). In fact, dopamine is a major factor any many different types of addictions. This includes not only food or drugs, but things like checking e-mail or Facebook. That little bit of intrigue when there is something new releases dopamine. We like it. We want more. We can’t put our phones down for want of it.

There are some others in this category that are a little less important for feelings, though more important for action, such as Noradrenaline and Adrenaline.

The primary selfless ones are:

SeratoninSerotonin – Our warm feelings when others support and approve of us, or we support others, are linked to serotonin. Getting likes on Facebook or feeling like you have followers or loyal friends triggers the release of this chemical. The feeling of respect from others triggers it, and so it helps us to organize around being a good team member or leader. Because of this chemical we feel the weight of responsibility toward others – not just results (that would be dopamine), but the people, especially when they are counting on us in some way. It helps make us want to do right by people, or to make them proud.

Oxytocin – Known as the love chemical, oxytocin helps to produce a feeling of closeness or intimacy with others. It is often, but not necessarily triggered by physical contact. It helps to reinforce a bond between people, whether friends, siblings, or parent and child. It’s why others showing support of our endeavors makes us feel better about them, and why we feel better about ourselves and them when we offer that support. It triggers feelings of empathy and the strongest bonds of trust and friendship. Unlike dopamine, which is fast and temporary, oxytocin lasts and strengthens relationships over time. It produces a feeling of warmth and security that allows us to reveal our vulnerabilities.

Try to find ways to laugh or seek other enjoyment to trigger endorphins, especially when times are tough. Easier said than done. Try to find healthy (as in not too frivolous) measures of accomplishment to achieve. Dopamine will help you once you set up some clearly defined goals. Show up (or come through) and do something to help someone else or make them feel good for a little boost of serotonin. And for oxytocin, reveal your vulnerability and show yourself. Strive to get close.

In other words, fake it ’til you make it. It’s not easy, but your body will respond by chemically helping you…if you can just find a way to get started. Each day.

Happiness, Part xx5, the Distraction

climberFocus

(Links to part xx1, xx2, xx3, and xx4.)

A recent Harvard study determined that those with persistent stray thoughts and wandering minds were less likely to be happy than those able to focus on task.

It seems to confirm what Buddhists, sages and saints have long taught – That an unruly mind creates unhappiness and disfunction and that the keys to happiness lay in mastering the mind, not in changing external factors in our lives.

The most startling part of their discovery, however, is that unhappiness doesn’t just come from the mind wandering to unpleasant things. The study shows people with minds that wander to neutral or even pleasant thoughts are still less happy than if the mind did not wander at all (1).

During the study people were asked to focus on a given activity. It was found that even if the activity was some hum-drum chore, participants were happier if their minds were fully there, focused in the moment. The conclusion is that when the mind wanders repeatedly (and for many of us it wanders frequently every day) it reduces our overall happiness and wellbeing (2).

All consistent with declarations I’ve made for years that it’s much more about what’s happening on the inside than on circumstances. It comes from within. If only we had the Spock-like ability to control our mind’s thoughts.

While we may not be able to control our minds the way we want to, we can manage by living in the moment. It’s a refrain I hear often – “live in the moment.” Again, easier said than done.

One key is to be busy. When we’re busy we don’t tend to think as much. It’s a double-edged sword, but one that does temporarily help. That’s a little too simplistic though. It’s about being engaged as much as just being busy. When you are mindful with your activity, you’re not preoccupied with regrets or worries; you’re not planning or wanting for anything. You’re not lending power to thinking processes and so they do not dominate your awareness.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a leading researcher in positive psychology, refers to this state of mind as “flow.” Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as being totally absorbed, or immersed, in the activity in which you’re engaged. It doesn’t matter what the particular task is— what matters is that you are fully present when you’re doing it.

Csikszentmihalyi, often called the grandfather of positive psychology, found that our happiest moments are when we are in the state of flow. In this state, we are highly alert. We are totally focused with one pointed attention. This focus—this mindfulness of being in the moment—is when happiness spontaneously arises (3).

It certainly can’t hurt to find and nurture activities that enable one to get into this state of flow, or mindfulness. Engaging in activities that are perceived as risky and/or important enough to hold our attention work well. But the specter living underneath is that these effects are temporary, and for some probably feel more like a disguise or distraction from ‘reality’. I’m also a proponent of the notion that one’s perception is their reality, which characterizes it as being rather subjective. It is what we make it. It comes from within.

So maybe it is just a distraction, but it’s still nice while it lasts. However the bigger rub is it also distracts us from taking more proactive and profound measures to strategically improve our lives? There is the risk of waking up one day to realize that your inertia took you to a place you don’t really want to be.

It’s a balancing act. If the pendulum swings to the negative it’s a good idea to get (more) engaged in something. But it’s also wise to step back from time to time to assess. It’s a potentially painful or discouraging exercise, with risks of getting derailed. But it’s a necessary evil unless you can Spock yourself into a perpetual “don’t worry, be happy” mindset.

Coming of Age

DaveZ1

This kid has no idea what’s in store

At age 16 I thought I knew a lot. I knew I was intelligent. I knew how you could use your mind to analyze things. I knew some things I wanted to do, and believed there was a way to figure out how to do them.

At age 23, I thought that 16 year old me was stupid, and now I know what I need to know. The 16 year old me hadn’t really had to solve many difficult problems on my own. Hadn’t had to navigate the transition from school to the ‘real’ world. Experiences showed me there’s a lot more depth to just about anything than is immediately obvious on the surface. I knew what love meant. I knew how relationships worked. I knew how to get a job and work. I knew the value of hard work and passion.

At 30, I thought that 23 year old me was stupid, and now I know everything. The 23 year old me had been in love, but hadn’t had to solve the real problems of long-term relationships. He hadn’t had to transition geographically, start a new career, turn his life on end and start from scratch. Now, that I had done all that I know everything.

At 40, I thought the 30 year old me was stupid, and now I know everything. Now I saw that the world is not black and white. And what you think is right, is not always right. You see that you could be like the people you used to vilify. You really need to look at the same thing in differrent ways before you judge it.

At 50 I realized that the 16 and 23 year old me made better decisions because he looked at life in a much simpler manner.

10 Quasi-Random Philosophies on Life

From someone who has been flying around on this rock for a while. This is by no means meant to be all-inclusive. Just a few things to pay attention to, perhaps stated in new ways that are empowering. As with many things in this blog…it’s easier said that done.

  1. Realize that nobody cares, and if they do, you shouldn’t care that they care. Got a new car? Nobody cares. You might get some gawkers for a week—they don’t care. They’re curious. Three weeks in it’ll be just another shiny blob among all the thousands of others crawling down the freeway and sitting in garages and driveways up and down your street. Got a new wardrobe? Went to a swanky restaurant? Exotic vacation? Have some photos to share? Nobody cares. Have some personal drama? Need help? Again, most people don’t care. Too busy. Too preoccupied with their own stuff. Don’t base your happiness on people caring, because they won’t. And if they do, they either want what you have or resent you for it. Or they’re looking but feeling ‘blessed‘ they aren’t in your shoes. No amount of drama will change this. Though some do enjoy participating in the drama, it’s really all about themselves.
  2. Some rulebreakers will break rule number one. Occasionally, people in your life will defy the odds and actually care about you. If they value you, they’ll value that you value certain things, and they’ll listen. When you talk about all of those things that nobody else cares about, they will demonstrably consume your words, and in those moments you will know every part of them is there with you.
  3. Spend your life with rulebreakers. Marry them. Befriend them. Work with them. Spend weekends with them. No matter how much power you become possessed of, you’ll never be able to make someone care—so gather close the caring. They are precious.
  4. Money is cheap. I mean, there’s a lot of it—trillions upon trillions of dollars floating around the world, largely made up of cash whose value is made up and ascribed to it. Don’t engineer your life around getting a slightly less tiny portion of this pile, and make your spirit of generosity reflect this principle. It’s all relative. You’ll never have ‘enough,’ and it’s not worth the cost.
  5. Money is expensive. I mean, it’s difficult to get your hands on sometimes—and you never know when someone’s going to pull the floorboards out from under you—so don’t be stupid with it. Resist debt on depreciating assets, and don’t incur debt in order to assuage your vanity (see rule number one). Debt has become normative, but don’t blithely accept it. It represents imbalance and, in some sense, a resignation of control. Be careful how you invest. Student loan debt isn’t always avoidable, but…if you’re just dropping tuition dollars for lack of a better idea at the moment, withdraw and go wander around Europe for a few weeks. You’ll spend less and learn more in the process.
  6. Learn the ancient art of rhetoric. The elements of rhetoric, in all of their forms, are what make the world go around—because they are what prompt the decisions people make. If you develop an understanding of how they work, while everyone else is frightened by flames and booming voices, you will be able to see behind veils of communication and see what levers are being pulled. Not only will you develop immunity from all manner of commercials, marketing, and hucksters, to the beautiful speeches of liars and thieves, you’ll also find yourself able to craft ways that influence people. When you know how to speak in order to change someone’s mind, to instill confidence in someone, to quiet the fears of a child, then you will know this power first hand. However, bear in mind as you use it that the opponent in any debate is not the other person, but ignorance.
  7. You are responsible to everyone, but you’re responsible for yourself. I believe we’re responsible to everyone for something, even if it’s something as basic as an affirmation of their humanity. However, it should most often go far beyond that and manifest itself in service to others, to being a voice for the voiceless. If you’re reading this, there are those around you who toil under burdens larger than yours, who stand in need of touch and respect and chances. Conversely, though, you’re responsible for yourself. Nobody else is going to find success for you, and nobody else is going to instill happiness into you from the outside (see #1). That’s on you.
  8. Learn to see reality in terms of systems. When you understand the world around you as a massive web of interconnected, largely interdependent systems, things get much less mystifying—and the less we either ascribe to magic or allow to exist behind a fog, the less susceptible we’ll be to all manner of breakdowns and misunderstandings.
  9. You both need and don’t need other people. You need others in a sense that you need to be part of a community—there’s a reason we reflexively pity hermits. Regardless of your theory of anthropogenesis, it’s hard to deny that we are built for community, and that ‘we‘ is always more than’me.’ However, you don’t need another person in order for your life to have meaning. That can come from what you contribute.
  10. Give more than is required of you.

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