Making the habitual conscious and the conscious habitual

How much of your life is a result of unconscious beliefs and values?

We generally think that the things we feel, believe, perceive and the way we behave are some kind of natural essence of who we are. Further, we also tend to believe that all of that stuff just happens by itself and isn’t really in our control.

As a result, our emotions feel like they’re attached to our identities. Bad feelings make us think that we’re bad people. Negative identities lead to bad choices which further entrenches us in more bad feelings. This is a lot like what depression feels like – an inescapable spiral of slipping self-worth with no hope of change.

The way out is to realize that the way we react to things we feel, believe and perceive can be, to some degree, chosen. Epictetus, Greek Stoic philosopher, said,

“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.”

It’s difficult to choose feelings but you don’t have to take them seriously. Learning to question feelings leads to unraveling their source which, in turn, leads to an ability to relate to feelings differently.

By default we absorb the values and beliefs of our parents, culture, or society and tend to accept them unquestioningly (a tip on discovering your absorbed values: What gets questioned the least? The moment something is most widely accepted is the moment it should be questioned the most). Overcoming these tendencies and deliberately choosing the beliefs that are the most helpful to us is one of the biggest challenges of life. David Foster Wallace explains in his 2005 commencement speech that “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
He goes on saying,

“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

The challenge is to make the unhelpful, inherited values and beliefs that we habitually lean on conscious, and, after analyzing them, make the consciously chosen, helpful values habitual:

  1. Watch your mind without necessarily believing everything you think
  2. Discover your unconscious beliefs, examine them and their triggers
  3. Decide if they helpful or not helpful
  4. Create a plan so that when the trigger occurs you’ve got an alternative helpful explanation ready
  5. After enough practice, in any situation we’re in, we naturally feel the helpful emotion instead of the unhelpful one and do the right thing.

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.”
John Gardner, Personal Renewal

The Müller-Lyer Illusion and You

Which horizontal line looks longer?
Turns out it’s an illusion called the Müller-Lyer Illusion. The horizontal lines are the same length.

 

Here’s the thing: Even after we have measured the lines and found them to be equal and have had the neurological basis of the illusion explained to us, our conscious awareness still perceives one line to be shorter than the other. One can know that the two lines are the same length whilst at the same time experience them as different lengths.This has a serious effect on our conception of the nature of experience.

 

The world around you is not the way you think it is.
Scientists believe that the illusion works because a portion of the brain that perceives that the one line is longer is “modular” — a kind of semi-independent department of the mind which deals with particular types of inputs, and automatically gives particular types of outputs, and whose inner workings are not accessible to any rational thought from the conscious awareness of the person. Consider the implications: Outside of a simple illusion, how many of our waking hours are managed by a part of the brain that is impervious to reason? Something in us that is deciding before we have any say? As David Eagleman says in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain,

“Instead of reality being passively recorded by the brain, it is actively constructed by it.”

 

In the face of such truth, one must learn to pause. Tara Branch calls it the Sacred Pause:

“Taking our hands off the controls and pausing is an opportunity to clearly see the wants and fears that are driving us. During the moments of a pause, we become conscious of how the feeling that something is missing or wrong keeps us leaning into the future, on our way somewhere else. This gives us a fundamental choice in how we respond: We can continue our futile attempts at managing our experience, or we can meet our vulnerability with the wisdom of Radical Acceptance.”

Realize your first thought is never your best thought. Your first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what you’ve already heard, always the unoriginal conventional wisdom and ridden with stereotypes and inaccuracies. To choose how to construct your own meaning means concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient; to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them and to outlast your impulses. To defeat your desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing is the only way you stand a chance at understanding anything.

 

Don’t believe the story you’re telling about the world
The Müller-Lyer Illusion counts against the claim that seeing is believing. If seeing is believing, then when experiencing the Müller-Lyer Illusion, one would simultaneously believe that the lines were, and were not, the same length at the same time; but this is irrational — how could you simultaneously hold contradictory beliefs?

 

These contradictory beliefs cause cognitive dissonance. Feelings of discomfort result when there is an inconsistency between beliefs and behaviors. Relief comes when something changes to eliminate or reduce the dissonance. In this case, you brain itself provides the relief — it chooses one line to be longer despite all evidence to the contrary.

 

So it is with the world we inhabit and our own beliefs. In every area of life, from relationships to careers, politics to religion, we can’t look at sequences of events without weaving an explanation into them based on what we already believe and have already experienced. When new ideas arrive that threaten your belief system, the truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to accept them. They are literally filtered out and might as well not exist.

 

Don’t believe the story you’re telling about yourself
Ryan Holiday, from Ego Is The Enemy explains that we need to

“resist the comfort of reducing our lives into a story that retroactively creates a clarity that wasn’t and never will be there.”

Crafting a life story out of past events or future ones that don’t exist leads to an arrogant narrative—taking full credit for any good that happens, when in fact, you’re a small part of a large universe.

 

Our brains are wired to try to make sense of things, to see patterns that aren’t there, because there is just too much information to sift through and we need to think the world is not random and that we have control. So our minds take shortcuts by constantly choosing the most likely interpretation of what we see. The brain is designed to be efficient, not accurate.

 

Sometimes the brain’s constant predicting of what will happen is helpful, otherwise we would never have any reason to be confident about anything. In some cases however, it’s predictions are incredibly harmful to us. We jump to conclusions and become expert mind readers and fortune tellers, creating negative interpretations of events that are non-existent. These distortions of thought can turn a negative event into a never-ending pattern of defeat despite little to no evidence. More thought distortions cause our brains to classify everything as either fantastic or awful, perfect or a total failure instead of recognizing everything is on a spectrum. We hang on too tightly to “should” statements about ourselves that we cannot live up to, piling guilt on ourselves. Then we cling to our “should” statements about others and are disappointed they don’t meet our invented expectations leading to anger and resentment.

 

Don’t accept your emotions as fact. Put thoughts on trial. Examine the evidence. You’re not perceiving what’s out there, you’re perceiving whatever your brain tells you.

What Price Do You Put On Your Thoughts?

I saw the Mr. Rogers documentary , “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and something Rogers said struck me.

“What we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.”

I completely agree. The information we consume affects us. It seems like a pretty believable statement but you wouldn’t think so considering how unthinkingly we consume information.

Consider the story with Facebook where user data was taken by Cambridge Analytica to use for political campaigning. People were outraged that data was taken from them without their knowing to serve them content that they didn’t want. Yet, nothing happened. Reports say Facebook usage actually increased.

A person walking out of a Whole Foods could be accused of being a fool for over paying for their natural, organic, fair-trade groceries instead of getting them from a typical store down the street. But the purchaser responds, “What price do you put on your health?” Whether or not that high-priced food is actually healthier is another debate. The laudable thing that Whole Foods customer is trying to do is be conscious and deliberate in their food consumption. When it comes to information consumption, the question not enough of us are asking is, “What price do you put on your thoughts?”

Every thought in your head is sourced from where you place your attention. The fear, outrage, disgust and contempt buzzing in our heads is directly proportional to the information we consume that gives those emotions a chance to grow. We seem to accept that the awfulness of the media is some natural outgrowth of the world we live in. In fact, it’s a reaction to the 24 hour news-cycle where leeching more and more of our attention became a business goal. There’s always front page news because there’s always a front page — not because the news on that front page is actually newsworthy. Feeling fear, outrage, disgust and contempt on a regular basis is an option — one you don’t have to choose if you don’t want to.

We are much further along in recognizing the effects of diet on physical health than we are in recognizing the effects of information on our mental health. Consider the amount of interventions and innovations that exist today to help us eat healthy: nutrition labels, calorie amounts on menus, diet books, personal trainers, nutritionists. Now compare all that to the lack of interventions devoted to improving our consumption of information. There are some ‘hacks’ to help curb smartphone addiction and some books on the topic, that’s about it.

The information that affects us is not limited to news. We also need to be concerned with tv shows, movies, youtube, comic books, Instagram feeds, billboards, music, product packaging, etc. This makes the challenge very complex. Continuing the analogy of information consumption compared to food consumption helps.

A calorie can be thought of as a unit of energy – if the amount of energy we consume is greater than the amount of energy we spend, the excess is stored in fat. This sounds simple but a calorie for one person is not the same as a calorie for another. Every individual’s ability to extract energy from food is a little different. So a calorie is a useful energy metric, but to work out exactly how many of them each of us requires we need to factor in things like exercise, food type, and our body’s ability to process energy — it’s not easy.

The same goes for trying to understand a unit of measurement for information consumed. The best tool we’ve got is listening to ourselves. We need to pause and reflect on the information we consume and pay attention to how it makes us feel.

Penn Jillette says food consumption is driven more by habit than by taste:

“It turns out everything about eating is habit. It’s all habitual. You think you have a natural inclination to like grilled cheese or donuts. Not true. All we eat is habit.”

I’m convinced that almost all content is consumed out of habit too making us feel just as lethargic as eating a bag of chips. Most of the information we consume is not even enjoyed. Consider Aziz Ansari’s test:

“Take, your nightly or morning browse of the Internet, right? Your Facebook feed, Instagram feed, Twitter, whatever. If someone every morning said, “I’m gonna print this and give you a bound copy of all this stuff you read so you don’t have to use the Internet. You can just get a bound copy of it.” Would you read that book? No! You’d be like, this book sucks. There’s a link to some article about a horse that found its owner somehow. It’s not that interesting.”

It took the obesity crisis to draw awareness to the food we eat. Let’s not wait for a crisis in mental health to draw attention to how powerful the information we consume affects our well being.

Be aware of how your attention is hijacked. Consume content on your terms, not on the phone’s. Letting Facebook decide what’s good for you to read and watch would be like letting McDonalds choose what you should eat.

To only seek information and entertainment that makes us feel good would be doing ourselves a disservice. Don’t binge on empty information calories. Broccoli needs to be consumed just as much as the salty and sweet snacks.

Remember the complexity of every issue. Attack the deep details of subjects to see the multiple facets being explored, the reasoning used by the other side and ask child-like simple questions that’ll lay bare the incredible complexity of everything.

Consider Bill Watterson’s idea, creator of Calvin and Hobbes:

“We’re not really taught how to recreate constructively. We need to do more than find diversions; we need to restore and expand ourselves. Our idea of relaxing is all too often to plop down in front of the television set and let its pandering idiocy liquefy our brains. Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery-it recharges by running.”

What Does Greatness Have That Mediocrity Doesn’t?

Judging by most people’s behavior, I would say one of the the biggest fears we have in our culture is of being mediocre. People don’t just jog, they become marathoners; they don’t just exercise but go to Crossfit in order to compete at being the best at it. Workaholism is a badge of honor, reversing centuries where it was the poor who worked while the rich rested. And once adults feel like they’ve peaked, they can begin building their competitive kids. Being average is being an uninteresting slacker who won’t commit 10,000 hours of practice to something.
Is greatness everything it purports to be? I’m skeptical. Or maybe I’m trying to justify my own sense of inferiority. But when I look at what makes greatness so tempting, I see some holes. First off, here are the reasons I can come up with as to why greatness is so great:

  1. The belief that the activity we are engaging in could be more enjoyable if we were the best at it — winning feels better than losing.
  2. In our search for meaning, our current state isn’t cutting it so we reason that it must be because we haven’t reached some higher level where meaning occurs. If we were the greatest at something, that uniqueness would grant a new sense of meaning only endowed on those who are the greatest — we can earn happiness by earning greatness.
  3. We long for status. Greatness = popularity = influence = money = happiness.
  4. For some reason we feel like we don’t belong and greatness would prove to everyone that we are worthy.

Greatness, in essence, is a study of ourselves compared to others. So really, greatness is a perception more than it is a reality. That perception can be manipulated by who we compare ourselves to and what metric we use to compare with.

Malcolm Gladwell has explained that in elite universities many students seek greatness by competing with others to be accepted only to feel like they lose their greatness once they get in.

“When you are in the 99th percentile and you’re up against someone in the 99.99th percentile, you feel stupid.Then you go back to the real world, and you’re smart again. So why would you artificially put yourself in a situation where you feel so dumb that you stop doing the very thing that you went to school to do?”

Gladwell goes on to explain his experience working for a mediocre student newspaper:

“I had a way better experience than I would have had if I was at the highly competitive newspaper. I’ve never forgotten that. By virtue of being this lame, forgotten thing, I got to do more fun stuff and have a much better time than I would have at the proper newspaper.”

The satisfaction of greatness is solely inside your mind and can be achieved by manipulating the input of who you compare yourself with just as much as reaching a certain level of achievement.
Winning is something that is not completely within your control. So to use an external outcome outside of your control as the metric for success is setting yourself up for greater disappointment. Better to use an internal metric to measure yourself against that is in your control — like doing your best. The decreased anxiety of using an internal goal will increase enjoyment during the event and satisfaction afterwards.

 

Releasing yourself from the goal of greatness and reveling in the mediocrity of multiple interests might just be the thing that actually leads to greatness.
Steven Johnson explains in, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History Of Innovation,” Innovators like Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin favored working on multiple projects simultaneously, in a kind of slow multitasking mode. One project would take center stage for days at a time, but linger at the back of the mind afterwards too, so connections between projects could be drawn. Breakthrough ideas don’t come out of the blue. They are found at the intersection of  all the other ideas smashing into each other in your head.

“Legendary innovators like Franklin, Snow, and Darwin all possess some common intellectual qualities—a certain quickness of mind, unbounded curiosity—but they also share one other defining attribute. They have a lot of hobbies.”

I have a hard time watching those talent shows on TV like American Idol. The contestants are demonstrably talented but singing songs written by other people is ultimately not what we want. One focused on greatness in music or any other field might become an expert, but greatness isn’t expertise, it’s originality and insight.

Adam Grant says,

“Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience. In fashion, the most original collections come from directors who spend the most time working abroad. In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music. No one is forcing these luminary scientists to get involved in artistic hobbies. It’s a reflection of their curiosity. And sometimes, that curiosity leads them to flashes of insight.”

In this context, striving for greatness can be seen as just a competition of who can be the best at conforming. Some entity sets the rules and then it’s a test to see who is the best at subjecting themselves to be the best at those rules. Being the best at meeting some requirements really isn’t greatness despite what the people who made the rules say — of course they’re going to say that’s what greatness is, it puts them in a position of greatness.


“Your potential, the absolute best you’re capable of—that’s the metric to measure yourself against. Your standards are. Winning is not enough. People can get lucky and win. People can be assholes and win. Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best possible version of themselves.” ― Ryan Holiday, The Ego Is the Enemy

 

The term “hedonic treadmill” is what social scientists call the tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. In other words, the happiness that is awarded those who achieve greatness is fleeting.
There are many people who reach a level of greatness only to feel empty and vapid. Jim Carrey is quoted saying,

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

So why strive for greatness if the reward is so unfulfilling? If we’re not content with our current status then there’s a good chance that no level of greatness will make us feel any better. Or to say it another way, we stand just as good a chance of being content with ourselves in our current state of mediocrity than in being great — actually we have a greater chance since it’s a place much more accessible; we can reach it within our own minds.
That isn’t to say it doesn’t take effort to be happy in our current state. Getting over our sense of inferiority is not easy. Our default setting is to avoid pain and seek pleasure, often to the detriment of the present moment.
Ancient eastern Buddhism and western philosophy both concern themselves with practices and mindsets that teach us how to let go of the past and future and live in the present to achieve a feeling of true greatness — being ourselves. To hope for an increase in pleasure from a future of greatness is to be ignorant of pleasure’s very nature. We can achieve stable pleasure only if we know how to limit ourselves to what we can obtain within the present moment, without letting ourselves be swept along by the unreasonable limitless needs of our desires.
This isn’t another way of convincing ourselves to be okay with settling. The present is everything.  Seneca said,

“He who enjoys the present without depending on what does not exist…he is without hope and without desire; he does not hurl himself toward an uncertain goal, for he is satisfied with what he has. Nor is he satisfied with little, for what he posses is the universe…like God he says, “All this belongs to me.”

The present isn’t to be suffered for a future eternal life. It is eternal life.

“Death is not an event of life. It is not experienced. If by eternity we mean not an infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then whoever lives in the present lives eternally.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein

There are tens of millions of people who are better at everything that I do. But I don’t have to compare myself with them, because I’m in a different competition. For a life to be valuable, or meaningful, it needn’t be unique. Believing that specialness is tied to meaning leads me to unnecessarily see my life as insufficiently meaningful and to miss ways of enhancing the meaning that is available. Loving the process instead of the outcome is the secret to motivation and daily enjoyment of the present.
Reaching an arbitrary level of greatness does not prove that we are great. It’s a false label that inspires our egos to think we’re superior to others. We are all always going to be imperfect and “greatness” can only cover it up temporarily.

“Imperfection is not our personal problem – it is a natural part of existing.”  – Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha

I’m not a problem that needs to be solved. I’m neither mediocre nor great. I choose to not affirm myself at all costs against the order of the world and instead delight in the splendor of pure existence.

Wearing Occasions and Practicing Philosophy

Buddhism stresses “mindfulness,” for the Greek philosophers it’s “psychological acceptance.” Both posit that human suffering is not the result of external problems but internal beliefs. Having a nonjudgmental perspective on the totality of one’s experience, learning new information-processing skills and coping mechanisms, reduces suffering and is the path to achieving spiritual enlightenment.

Practicing philosophy means to examine the reasons we have for the values and the beliefs we hold as true so that we can free ourselves from unhelpful traditions, cultures, habits and mindsets. These unhelpful beliefs are what water is to fish – invisible due to their over-familiarity. So how do you study the invisible? One way is to make use of the propaganda thrown at us everyday in the form of advertising. The strategies companies employ to get you to buy their products makes for good brain fodder in how to practice philosophy.

Consider: Consumers have most of their needs met. They also have limited money. What is a corporation with a mandate of constant growth to do? Trying to take market share from competitors is one option. If the pie is only so big, you need to take a larger piece from the competitor if you want to grow. But it’s not cheap. Consumer habits run deep.

Even better than growing market share is growing market size. Increasing market size can take on many forms: for example, a company in the computer business moves into the phone business and then moves into the wristwatch business. Or a low price company creates a tier of luxury, high priced products.

Besides maneuvering into other categories or recreating perceptions of value, the most pernicious way of creating market size is by inventing problems for which the company is the only solution. Create new customer needs and all of a sudden you’ve created more share to take.

This idea is as old as marketing itself. No one knew halitosis was a problem until the mouthwash company told us it was. Who knew wearing white after Labor Day was a sin until fashion companies declared it so? Instead of inventing problems for which the company is the solution — maintaining the problem for which they are the solution is even better. You’re never good looking enough, happy enough, travelled enough or entertained enough as long as the company keeps thinking up new ways to convince you so. In a way, marketing is a personification of the thoughts that we manufacture in our minds – which makes them so ripe for analysis. We also maintain the problematic thought patterns that keep us believing unhelpful thoughts that stroke our egos and pride.

We generally think we’re above it all, that all that advertising doesn’t affect me. Don’t be so quick to think that a thousand cuts won’t kill you. Marketing ideas get our attention by taking advantage of a host of psychological vulnerabilities that we have and then become fuel for the unhelpful values and beliefs that philosophy aims to fix. It is possible to render advertising ineffective and at the same time build our mental muscles to resist. We are awash in marketing messages, and therefor awash in practicing philosophy.

The brevity of marketing messages helps in their perception as being self-evident – too short and shallow to be given critical thought before the next advertisement hijacks our attention. Instead, let the advertisement be your own Socratic questioner. Contemplate the ad’s “call-to-action” with your own opinions and values on the topic suggested and articulate them for yourself. Ask, “who stands to benefit from this belief?” By dragging your values into the light, defending your position against or for the ad’s claim, or just acknowledging you have values will begin to break them down, expose them to the operations of critical intelligence and thus develop that intelligence in the first place. The point isn’t to double-down on your opinions or swallow marketing messages whole, but to put them into the unfamiliar, uncomfortable and endlessly fertile condition of doubt — ultimately to understand that you know less than you think.

So when you learn of a new “wearing occasion” proposed by an apparel company in an attempt to get you to buy clothes that ultimately do the same thing as clothes you already own, consider it an opportunity to teach yourself to recognize it, question it, and think your way around it.

Don’t Trust Your Goals

I saw the above magazine on a table in the gym this morning and it reconfirmed to me how skeptical I am of reaching goals to increase happiness. It’s such as easy assumption to make: “Choosing outcomes that make people look happier will make you happier too!”

There is no shortage of celebrities and rock stars who describe getting everything they ever wanted and simultaneously being the saddest they’ve ever been.
As Jim Carry says,

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

So first of all, avoid focusing on outcomes. Efforts directed at outcomes outside of your control will have the inevitable consequence of either disappointment from endless ambition on the one hand, or bitterness when things don’t work on on the other.

Instead of outcomes,

“Fall in love with the process and the results will come” -Eric Thomas.

But what kind of process should you undertake?

Mark Manson tells the story about wanting to be a famous rock star,

“But despite fantasizing about this for over half of my life, the reality never came. And it took me a long time to figure out why.

I didn’t actually want it.

I’m in love with the result — the image of me on stage, people cheering, me rocking out, putting everything I have into what I’m playing — but I’m not in love with the process.

The daily drudgery of practicing, the logistics of finding a group and rehearsing, the pain of finding gigs and actually getting people to show up and give a shit. The broken strings, the blown tube amp, hauling 40 lbs of gear to and from rehearsals with no car. It’s a mountain of a dream and a mile-high climb to the top. And what it took me a long time to discover is that I don’t like to climb. I just want to imagine the top.”

If you enjoy the idea of reaching the goal more than you enjoy the daily struggle to achieve it, you’re in trouble. Better to make your decision based on what you enjoy struggling with everyday and put no thought on the outcome.

Why something that causes you to struggle? That’s the only way to grow, feel progress and have a sense of meaning.

Only those people who enjoy the mundane repetition of being in the gym, pushing their physical limits and like feeling sore, are the ones who get ripped.
Only those who love the uncertainty about what to write next and the loneliness of self-reinforcement become accomplished novelists.
Only those who like to suffer through the long nights and find pleasure from the stress of being resourceful to make their entrepreneurial endeavor work become successful business owners.

Ira glass said,

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Pick what you enjoy doing that puts you in that “gap” where you’re work is bad – and accept that it may never get better. Pick the suffering that you can’t leave alone. Pick the thing that even if it never made money, was never seen and never gave you any prestige you’d still do it.

Then, choose to be content by doing what makes you struggle everyday.

Why do setups and payoffs matter so much for a movie to be enjoyable?

The movie A Quiet Place, has been an unexpected success, far surpassing analyst expectations to become one of the most profitable movies in years. The reason is because it’s good. And I think the reason it’s good is thanks to it’s superb usage of setups and payoffs. Most movies go wrong when payoffs occur without being setup or setups occur without ever being paid off.

 

Some setups are explicit others are implicit, both excel when they make us think the story is going in one direction, but when it pays off, there’s a twist.

 

Let’s take a look at a couple of the setups and payoffs from A Quite Place:
Explicit setup: While taking the laundry up the stairs, the wife accidentally pulls a nail up on the stairs. We have become hyper-aware of the setup and expect that the nail is going to be stepped on, the only question is when.
Imagine watching that nail be pulled up and then never have a character step on it throughout the rest of the movie. Or imagine a scene where the character goes down the stairs and accidentally steps on a nail we the audience didn’t know existed. In the former we’re confused, in the later we don’t believe it.
With the way it actually plays out, the setup builds great tension as we all cringe as the character steps down the stairs slowly – and as a twist, it happens at a worst possible time — when she’s going into labor!

 

Implicit setup: The husband tries again and again to repair his deaf daughter’s hearing implant. As we watch this unfold we could just understand the scene to show the father’s love for his daughter and their turbulent relationship, so it’s not such an explicit set up. Then we’re delighted to discover that thanks to his tinkering, he inadvertently created a device that exploits the monster’s weakness.
To our excitement we realize, in the end, that there was no surprise at all. What had seemed to be a turn of fate proves to be inevitable and, as we realize it, we receive the gift of insight. We should have seen it coming!

 

I think this is what David Fincher means in this short clip when he says that the best cinematic stories have an ending that has an inevitability to it.

Why do setups and payoff matter so much for a movie to be enjoyable?

 

The human condition is one where there is way too much information out there and we are woefully ill equipped to make sense of it all — but that doesn’t stop us from trying. In every area of life, from relationships to careers, we look at sequences of events and weave explanations into them, creating narratives that link the different inputs together and ignore the facts that do not fit in the story.
Psychologists call this tendency the narrative bias: “the tendency to interpret information as being part of a larger story or pattern, regardless of whether the facts actually support the full narrative.”

 

Life is stubbornly devoid of clean-cut setups and payoffs but for the couple of hours that we’re in the theater we can imagine a world in which they are clear, everything happens for a reason, the universe isn’t random and it feels so good to vicariously see cause and effect play out for the characters on the screen.

 

We essentially are paying filmmakers to exploit this psychological vulnerability of ours and when they don’t do it right we get pissed — the story is not therapeutic or encouraging, instead it just reminds us of the problem of real life — it’s random.

Creative Fulfillment Versus Financial Security

Inciting Incident

FS > CF

You want to be able to support a family. You want to enjoy the leisure activities that signal a successful life like golf, skiing and traveling to exotic destinations. There’s more to life than just work.

Did your parents love what they did? No, to them a job was a job and the stuff that counted was what you did outside of work: family, friends, community, church, hobbies.

Instead of looking inward to find what work you want to do, you look outward at the work that needs doing. If everyone just did what they felt like who would create the jobs, discover the cures and innovate the technologies needed to bring about the progress our society desperately needs?

Besides, if you’re honest with yourself, the only thing you’re really “passionate” about is hanging out with friends — who’s hiring for that job? Rather than being a preexisting inclination, passion in a career germinates over time. If you don’t feel passionate about your career, especially as you’re getting started, that’s normal. You start with effort — investing the hard, unsexy, long-term work that’s needed for it to grow it into something deeply fulfilling.

CF > FS

Life is short. You only get one chance and you have to be true to yourself. It takes courage to ignore everyone and do what you know is right for you. You refuse to be among the 67% of people who either aren’t engaged at work or actively disengaged.

You saw how depressed and stressed-out your parents were squabbling over money — it ruined them. If you’re not careful you’ll get addicted too — like Nassim Nicholas Taleb says,“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”

The only way to do great work is to love what you do. Every great idea ever brought to life was thanks to a person with a dream and the passion to see it through.

The world is waiting for you to have the courage to follow your bliss. You have a chance and to not even try would mean living a life of “what might have been.” Sure it’s risky but with high risk comes high reward.

Progressive Complication

FS > CF

You never find creative fulfillment. You put your head down and get to work, putting fulfillment on the back burner but by the time you lift your head again you’ve overweight, overstressed and you can’t help but feel a gnawing anxiety that it has slipped by without you being able to enjoy much of it.

You thought you could work hard for a while and once you had financial security you’d be able to do what you really love. But you’re in too deep and have grown too accustomed to a standard of living so high that you have no choice but to keep on going. Your co-workers, your kids and your wife are all depending on you.

CF > FS

You never find financial security. You’ve considered giving up on your dream to start over with a “normal” career a thousand times but you’re years behind everyone else. Your friends are all married and having kids and you’ve got no career capital to speak of – you’ve been waitressing, working retail or being an Uber driver your whole adult life.

You’re in debt, living in an apartment with roommates — with not much more to speak of than when you were in college. Giving up on your dream will prove to everyone else they were right and prove to yourself that you’re a failure.

Crisis

FS > CF

You squeeze in time on nights and weekends to work on things that supplement your creative longing but you’re so exhausted every night that most of the time you put off investing effort into your creative ideas and settle for Netflix instead.

You’ve taken advantage of the money you’ve earned to pursue leisure and hobbies – playing golf, skiing and going on vacations to hawaii — all of which gives momentary respite but it’s not enough. You’re living for the weekend but even those are becoming scarce as the demands at work begin to creep into every aspect of your life. Despite everything you do for them, you can’t help but read from their looks that your kids are disappointed in you and you’re afraid that they’re right.

CF > FS

You squeeze in time on nights and weekends to build something to supplement your measly income but if you added it up it would still be way less than minimum wage. The work is tolerable and better than being broke and you tell yourself that it’s still creative in a way.

The more you build your business the less time you have for auditions and gigs. Does the mere existence of this side hustle prove that you’ve given up? You’ve gotten looks from friends that you can’t help but read as them thinking you’re selling out and you’re afraid you are too.

Climax

FS > CF

You take the leap and settle for a new job as a middle manager at another company. You tighten your belt financially – no more membership at the expensive health club, no more car leases, no more eating out nightly. You brace for the comments from coworkers about being ‘put out to pasture’.

You start cooking dinner at home and try mending relationships with your kids who are weary of your new presence in the home. Are you too late to be a part of their lives?

At night you dust off your brushes, canvas and easel and begin to paint. Alone in the garage with a painting in front of you that’s indistinguishable from a kindergartener’s, you begin to weep.

CF > FS

Pathetically, all of your earthly possessions fit easily into the back of your 2005 Nissan Centra when you moved out of the Valley to a condo in the suburbs where the rent is feasible and you have the space needed to work.

You sell your guitar amp for a round trip ticket to pitch your first big client. You land the sale — which is only because your bid was the lowest — and as soon as you get home and see your measly condo, everything still half packed in boxes, an overwhelming feeling of dread falls over you. The new client will see through the facade any moment and realize you’re an imposter.

You get a text from your roommate back in the city who forgot to remove you from the group text. They’re meeting up for a drink at your favorite bar. You begin to weep.

Resolution

FS > CF

You pay for an overpriced booth at the county fair where you put your paintings up for sale, fully knowing there’s little chance you’ll even break even, but you’ve got to ‘put yourself out there.’

On the last night of the fair you sell your first painting. Your family is there to celebrate with you. Amid the hugs and high-fives your son pulls you aside and confides in you that he’s glad you stopped working so much.

That night, feeling wise, you tell your kids, “life is short – don’t worry about money, do what you love and enjoy life.”

CF > FS

Business has grown slowly but surely. It’s a stretch but you surprise your family with plane tickets to Hawaii — the first vacation you’ve ever been able to take them on.

After a long, satisfying day of body surfing, while eating pulled pork sandwiches at a food truck, your son looks across the table at you and tells you he’s proud of you.

On the last night of the trip, as you watch the sunset on the beach with your loved ones around you, feeling wise, you tell your kids, “life is short – get an education so that you can get a good job and enjoy life.”

How To Lose Your Mind

Losing your mind is usually associated with diminishing mental health — that’s not what I’m encouraging here. Instead, consider the perspective that all pain comes from the mind.

As Michael Singer, author of The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself says,

“When a problem is disturbing you, don’t ask, “What should I do about it?” Ask, “What part of me is being disturbed by this?”…”Eventually you will see that the real cause of the problem is not life itself. It’s the commotion the mind makes about life that really causes the problems.”

This goes along with the buddhist idea that,

“Attachment is the root of suffering.”

There are certain activities that naturally cause us to feel like we’ve ‘lost our minds’ — or in other words, cause us to detach from the labels, worldviews and interpretations that we’ve developed over our lives, and be deeply centered in the present moment. Mosh pits, deep work, movie cliffhangers — these experiences teach us that losing our minds is possible. But too often we fail to see these experiences as a glimpse of what our minds are capable of and use them only as distractions to cover up temporarily what is bothering us.

It’s impossible to be distracted to the point of avoiding all pain — but not for lack of trying. A study has shown that people would rather shock themselves than be alone with their thoughts:

“For 15 minutes, the team left participants alone in a lab room in which they could push a button and shock themselves if they wanted to. The results were startling: Even though all participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to inflict it on themselves rather than just sit there quietly and think”

What if instead of constantly seeking more distraction as a way of avoiding suffering, there was a way to train your mind to not let thoughts cause suffering in the first place? This is the promise made by Vipassana meditation, where concentration on breathing is used as a tool to sharpen awareness of the illusion that thoughts and feelings are real. Meditation gradually cultivates mindfulness and awareness of the inner workings of reality itself — to lose your mind in everyday life.

True Story Movies Are The New Comic Book Movies

Bemoaning the deluge of comic book movies, reboots and sequels as Hollywood scrapes the bottom of the intellectual property barrel has become cliche. Despite our cries for relief, it doesn’t look like Hollywood has any intention of slowing down the processes of repetition, replication, sequelization, and rebooting (see: two new star wars trilogies are in the works). The motive behind this has been made very apparent: brand recognition. It’s easier to market movies based on things we’re already heard of.

 

The strategy behind comic book movies has crept into another genre as well. One that Hollywood can capitalize on without the eye rolls they get from yet another sequel: movies based on true events.

 

Just in the last few months it seems like we’ve been inundated by them: The Post, I Tonya, Molly’s Game, Disaster Artist, Only The Brave, 12 Strong, All the Money In The World, The Greatest Showman, Darkest Hour and 15:17 to Paris. To my chagrin, even Christopher Nolan, maker of original greats such as Momento, the Prestige, Inception and Interstellar went and made a true story, Dunkirk, last year.

 

Just like comic book movies, true story movies have the brand recognition. Better still, they can be given critical prestige before anyone sees them. Can anyone give a bad review to Only The Brave without looking like they disrespect the deceased firefighters that the movie is based on?

 

There is some data that backs this up: Movies based on real events have average scores higher than all other movies and they are more frequently nominated for Oscars.

 

Given the benefits of the true story genre, Hollywood is not subtle about putting the “based on a true story,” “inspired by a true story,” or “based on actual events” label on any movie where they can get away with it. The latest true story movie, 15:17 to Paris, appears to be attempting to up the ante by using the actual people from the true events as the actors in the movie.

 

Obviously these movies aren’t “true.” What movie isn’t based on real events, locations, scenarios and emotions? It’s a marketing tactic based on the assumption that a movie based on true events is more alluring.

 

The “based on a true story” schtick shows just as much loss of creative innovation and the steady decay of cinema as the comic book movie/reboot schtick. In both cases the movies add constraints for marketing purposes that limit the scope of what’s possible. In their drive for profits, both genres have to be careful or they run the risk of being accused of not being true to their source material, limiting their creativity and originality.

 

I want the stories I watch to push the limits of what has ever been done before, to disrupt conventions, to surprise me — all of which “base on a true story” movies rarely do.