Happiness is scary

21 11 2010

I’m feeling pretty content right now, and that’s frankly a little scary. Historically, I’ve been fueled by ridiculous and often-unachievable dreams. But there’s something satisfying about savoring the here and now, and about striving for the things that are within one’s reach.

I have discovered that it is nearly impossible to increase one’s happiness without being happy in the first place. Makes sense, I guess.

Perhaps it’s because to take pleasure in the challenges of one’s own life, and to take active steps to improve a situation in the actual form that it is, is to make real progress. Live in the present, enjoy the here and now, and take advantages of opportunities as they come.

Nothing magical, I guess, just a whole lot of sense.





Being a good listener

30 09 2010

My listening skills are something I desire to improve, and something that people are always saying you should do — so much so that it often feels like an “in one ear, out the other” kind of thing. But I know it’s important, and I’m beginning to realize that actually fixing the problem is more vexing than I bargained for. It’s not just about taking off your headphones or cleaning out excess ear wax. It’s about changing the way you view the world and your place in it.

I have a sneaking suspicion that we value listening habits because they appear to symbolize the value we place on others. Hypothetically speaking: When you place a lot of importance on a particular person, you  may find yourself at times listening very carefully and trying to memorize what they say. There may be specific motivations behind this kind of listening. It sadly can feel like an act of deference or flattery to pay full attention to someone, rather than simply a common courtesy. That stinks. Perhaps listening should be more commonplace. Then, more people would do it.

A poor listener may, in theory, view their opinions more highly than those of others, regardless of the actual relative merit of those ideas. They may have a short attention span or a preference for other forms of information delivery (i.e. visual). They may be preoccupied. Or, the poor listener may in fact value another’s opinions, but not know the proper way to balance their own input with others’.

Listening is valuable to human relationships for these and other reasons:

  • Understanding feelings and motivations of others
  • Incorporating new information into your worldview
  • Getting the global picture of an undertaking
  • Avoiding repetition of information/instructions (a biggie for many bosses)
  • Understanding of another’s point of view
  • Anticipating possible challenges or difficulties

The difficulty lies in our inherent egocentrism as human beings. It’s not an excuse, but a possible explanation. We are driven to fight for our own interests and to get the best meat on the Savannah. At the same time, our society wants/demands/requires us to be collaborative and places strong value on altruism. We can’t be industrialized or function in the Information Age without working together. All of our political arrangements and capitalism and socialism seem to boil down to different ways we channel our self-interest to work together efficiently.

The way I’m beginning to see it, the act of listening is a connecting force that allows us to reconcile the competing needs of the Self, Other and Society.

When you’re listening, you’re not speaking. Someone else is taking the stage. This can feel threatening in a group setting, where people are fighting to come up with the most entertaining anecdote or share the most enlightening observation. The people with the most status are the people in the best position to dominate a conversation. And, if they’ve accumulated significant awesomeness over the years, they may also be relaxed enough to police the conversation for the benefit of the group. This is a sign of high personal power. To be a good listener, you have to be comfortable with the idea that you aren’t in the spotlight, and that you are an audience for someone else. In turn, the speaker should be gracious to you.

We have to ask ourselves in life, how comfortable are we with the idea of being someone else’s audience? And how do we feel about the people who are an audience for us? The answers can be revealing.

Listening is at the crux of the ever-present struggle between the Self and the Other. The world is a competitive place and we all have to fight for attention and splendor and money and wealth and friends and lovers; it sometimes seems like whoever provides the most value takes the spoils. At the same time, we all have to get along, and we all depend on each other. We have to use each others’ ideas. A leader who can’t mobilize their followers can’t get anywhere. To balance one’s own needs with those of others requires clarity of mind and purpose, as well as a strong awareness of your personal motivations.

You can almost imagine contributions to a discussion being graphed in the shape of a hill, where the percentage of domination is on the X-axis and the value of what is being said is on the Y-axis. The crest of the hill is the sweet spot of how much you dominate a conversation, where you’re getting maximum value without going overboard.

So now I sit, wondering how to make myself a better listener and balance all that conversation bubbling up from within and without. Finding the sweet spot and consciously training the mind to place value on others’ views may be the key. I’m convinced it will help me out in several areas of my life, but I also know it will require me to fight evolution, experience and instinct. But I bet it’s worth it.

In summary, listening is important because it tells you something about a person’s world view. Learning to listen will for sure change that perspective, and require further changes in turn.





Savannah trip, philosophically speaking

22 09 2010

Perhaps the secret of life is telling a good story. Think about it. Every social interaction, every nugget of information we give, can be provided in many ways. Ultimately, many times the story format is most appropriate because it speaks to us from one person to another.

Perhaps the answer to all the world’s troubles, and perhaps a few of mine, is to strive to tell a good story. And, as we tell these stories, to be truthful just about always, in an appropriate manner for each situation.

One of the big challenges I struggle with is, “What exactly constitutes a story?” It’s not enough for people to tell me something or for me to hear something. I’ve got to process it to understand it. So in my process of great understanding, I fed this data into my subconscious and put in a ticket for tech support to come up with something meaningful and applicable to my daily life. When the motor of my mental machine stopped whirring, I ended up with what I hope is a good working definition of a story for my own purposes.

For example, I could tell you that I took a trip to Savannah this weekend. It was four hours’ worth of driving each way, and I traveled with three others on the way up and two others on the way back. Our accommodation was a three-bedroom vacation rental. We visited the beach at Tybee Island, and walked around the historic districts of Savannah before leaving.

I’ve conveyed raw information to you, but there isn’t much value to this information on its own. I’m leaving an awful lot to your imagination. You might infer that the beach is a pleasant getaway and that the three-bedroom vacation rental was pretty spacious. I didn’t qualify any of my descriptions or tell you if the trip was bad or good. But you do know that I went, and you kind of understand what I did. In short, the information I gave you wasn’t anything different than what you could have researched in a travel pamphlet. Most of all, there’s no value attributed to it, and no color or description.

If I turn this information into a “story,” then you start to get a little more information and there is more meaning and value to what I’m telling you. I could say well, it was a long day on Friday after struggling through a challenging project, but I escaped and made it out there. We were late thanks to me and got to Savannah at 1 a.m., checked into our beautiful rental with the gorgeous wooden trim and historic decor, visited a famed local bar and woke up late the next day. We had a marvelous day at the beach under warm skies, fanned by warm ocean breezes. After a lovely dinner at the brewery, we took a walk by the river to the sound of live music blaring from the buskers and bar bands. And then the next day, we had brunch before touring SCAD’s art shop and the historic cemetery where Capitol Records founder  Johnny Mercer is buried. The statue featured on the cover of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” was discovered in that same cemetery yard, but it’s not there anymore. On the way back, we tried the famed Stickyfingers barbecue chain, which isn’t available in Atlanta. And then we crashed and went to work again.

That gives you a lot better idea of what we did. There’s a fair amount of description and context there. I could go even further and talk about the personal situations of each of us, give more details about the area and perhaps discuss the wonders of our living accommodation. There’s a host of other devices I could use to expand upon this.

So I think it’s interesting to give conscious thought to how we convey information to others, and to consciously think as we are having experiences, “What will I tell others about this?” I think for a skilled storyteller, things like this are second nature. Some people seem to be built to be journalists and love to tell a tale. It’s something that takes practice and work to perfect of course. I’m not sure where I fall on this spectrum. It depends on what medium I’m using to convey the information.

I do know one thing, however. I’ll be thinking a lot more about the story I want to tell about XYZ experience as it happens.





Desktop philosopher

21 09 2010

The other day, I decided that I was going to start writing out my philosophies, just because I think they’re funny. I hope you do, too, and I think pretty much everyone should do the same. Unless you’re boring, in which case, please don’t. Sometimes I walk down the street and I observe someone honking at someone, or there’s a funny sign or just some kind of wackiness in a store display, and it reminds me of some philosophy of some sort.

Back in the old days when people wore monocles and big white wigs (well that’s what I like to think) we used to have lots of these pesky philosophers roaming around, like John Locke, who was a man of faith that got stranded on an island and came up with some of the most important thoughts that would inspire democracy. Pretty good for someone stuck on an island, and the best part is, he didn’t need a wheelchair anymore. But then Ben Linus killed him, so I guess all’s fair after all.

But apparently these philosopher types are still around, and it’s pretty quaint when you spot a real, live one. I saw the other day a French philosopher speaking on TV about the moral underpinnings of the stoning practice in Iran — you know, the deeper and darker parts of the soul that want to mutilate the most important part of the body, the face — and I realized there is a practical application for philosophy.

After reading a one-act Woody Allen play aloud in the Barnes & Noble and making a fool of myself, I made up my mind that I was going to go home and scribble out the “Pagina Monologues” (that’s Spanish for “page”) and bake those thoughts into surrealities. It’s funny how everything I’ve read and seen today has been synchronous with my life.

So, here, just to get us started, are a couple of philosophical nuggets, best dipped in habanero chili sauce:

Disclaimer city — I’m going to disclaim responsibility for my opinions and my connections to my employer. Bottom line, anything I say here is just me flapping my mouth / fingers on my own behalf and for no one else but me. Although, I’ll let you decide the worth of a disclaimer on your own. Just don’t sue.

Synchronous Symbolism — Life brings you what you need, and then you give back. That’s why sometimes you’ll hear about this old chicken place you’ve never heard of, let’s call it Wacky Chicken, and then all of a sudden you keep hearing about it endlessly. That’s because the Universe wants you to get some wacky chicken in you. But then you are also responsible for perpetuating the myth of wacky chicken, so in way, you provide the Synchronicity for someone else. And everybody hears about wacky chicken.

Whoa, it’s magic — Lots of people wish there was more magic in their lives. It’s easy to forget that life itself is kind of magical, too. The fact that you exist as one entity, as a distinct sentient being from myself with your own concept of the universe entirely separate from my own … I don’t care what your background is or beliefs are, but that qualifies as something that approaches being kind of magical to me.

The real world is virtual — Life as we know it is a symbol in and of itself. What we perceive to be solid and smooth is far from it under a microscope. Colors, shapes, light, dark, smells, tastes are all fabrications of the human mind. The world that we’re in seems so real, but all is not what it seems. While this can be unsettling at times, it’s also somewhat reassuring when life starts feeling too stressful.





Virtual vacations

22 05 2010

As I type this, my cable Internet access is down for the count. Unfortunately my former backup ISP has wised up and password-protected their router, so I’m pecking my post into the notes field of a fake address book entry so I can sync it up on my iPhone.

Besides sucking, this also cuts me off from what I viewed as my last “resort,” if you will: the Virtual Vacation. Call me pathetic, call me what you will. But when I feel the need to travel and can’t, jumping on Google Maps and streetview is probably the closest I’ll get.

You might wonder why I don’t, you know, just go somewhere. Or, just learn to wallow happily in my faux-misery mudhole. The answer is, I have a vacation planned in early June and, well, life is too short to let it slide by. I also just bought a fairly expensive camera to take on future trips. I’m happy about this investment but also have to be prudent about my dollars. And, I have activities planned this weekend, and some fairly ambitious travel plans later in the year, and some anxiety about anything but the minimal amount of planning (due to the unpredictable nature of my job and lifestyle). So I’m not necessarily complaining or anything, I just want to be able to sample all that life has to offer.

When you’ve got gadget lust and wanderlust at the same time, sometimes you have to make compromises. And so, the geography major in me jumps at the opportunity to take an interdisciplinary approach to escapism. That is, using my computer and other modern technology to experience the highways and byways of my country, as well as the cultures of the world. It’s kind of exciting, and has the benefit of plenty of context and never really getting lost. You are truly free to go places you wouldn’t otherwise go and discover dream destinations you never knew you wanted to see.

It’s comforting to know that I’m actually not the only person who does this. I read a story in the New York Times detailing how two friends — caught in the throes of wanderlust — got together and pretended their mice and keyboards were the dashboard of a car. Streetview became the vehicle by which they took a road trip on their screens. They actually made a viral video bloggy-thingy about it that includes their dialogue and observations of the “roadside attractions” seen via streetview, which, the article wisely observes, aren’t that much different from what you might say on a real road trip.

My mind was a little blown in that moment, not so much in the earth-shattering way, but more in the synchronous way. I totally *get* what they are trying to accomplish, as well as the implications of it all. That and the interesting phenomenon of one-minute online sensory vacations, kind of got the wheels spinning in my brainz.

To what degree can you experience a place without actually going there? And how accurate is your research versus the reality? I’m trying not to *go there* in terms of virtual reality and holodecks and simulations, but that’s somewhere in there, too. I propose an exercise: Plan a virtual vacation in as much detail as possible before an actual visit, and then actually go there and see how it stacks up.

Just to get a little weirder on you: There’s a possibility that taking a virtual vacation before a real visit could have profound implications on your actual viewpoint when you go. And there’s also the possibility that taking a virtual vacation could be just as fulfilling as a real vacation, since one could argue that even “reality” as we know it is constructed from perceptions. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard explored the simulated nature of perceived reality in his diatribe, er, treatise, Simulacra and Simulation. He basically argues that reality as we know it is to some degree symbolic, and that the simulacrum (symbol) is increasingly trumping that which it symbolizes — and I know that’s oversimplifying things.

From a scientific perspective, I can’t help but think we’re just a mass of atoms and particles and whatnot, organized somehow via energy and sculpted by the hands of the deity of your choice. What purpose does travel serve then? And is going somewhere — an inherently symbolic experience — truly different than simulating it? Well *of course* you say, traveling to another place is a fulfilling experience for the sights, smells, activities and interactions with other human beings. Is it? I would tend to agree with you, but I think it’s something interesting to think about, particularly when life gets in the way.

Back to earth now. The takeaway from all this early-morning thinking I’m doing is that there is a ton of value in trying to construct an image of a place, only to tear it down by actually going there. You get more out of the whole experience than the sum of the two stages of analysis, because there is a certain synthesis that takes place during the transition. And even if you don’t ultimately end up visiting a place — perhaps the virtual vacation helped you avert disaster, or you just can’t get around to visiting this place, ever — these short escapist journeys undertaken with mouse and keyboard can be quite valuable. Regardless of their accuracy and depth, they’re their own kind of vacation in and of themselves and can let you go places that you would never get to go otherwise.

Back to earth now. The takeaway from all this early-morning thinking I’m doing is that there is a ton of value in trying to construct an image of a place, only to tear it down by actually going there. You get more out of the whole experience than the sum of the two stages of analysis, because there is a certain synthesis that takes place during the transition. And even if you don’t ultimately end up visiting a place — perhaps the virtual vacation helped you avert disaster, or you just can’t get around to visiting this place, ever — these short escapist journeys undertaken with mouse and keyboard can be quite valuable. Regardless of their accuracy and depth, they’re their own kind of vacation in and of themselves and can let you go places that you would never get to go otherwise.