Riding the Bull

Image: Eli Christman
Image: Eli Christman

If the floor beneath you suddenly starts to shake, you’ll tense up. This reaction is hard-wired into your being. It allows you to assess the potential risk, determine a suitable response, and re-prioritize your vital systems—so they’re optimized for any required action.

This is spectacular! At times when more conscious thought could put you at greater risk, your programming takes over. (No matter how amazing our computers’ software gets, it’s little match for Human Wetware, v. 200,

This response mechanism protected your ancestors from lethal threats in the wilderness. Since then, your context has changed. Your programming—albeit remarkable—isn’t yet fully compatible with today’s environment. This is why you blush when you bump into the bully who terrorized you in high-school. It’s also why your hands tremble after a stressful confrontation with an angry neighbor. Your system is responding to perceived threats, as it should. It just doesn’t have the fidelity to categorize these threats appropriately (e.g. “mortally dangerous” or “trivial”).

For most, such upsets occur infrequently. As such, there’s little need to pay your poor risk-categorization skills much heed. Although you wish you handled stressful situations better, you move on. As our culture shifts from an employment model to a free-agent economy, though, these perceived threats become commonplace.

A job you’re working on comes to an abrupt halt. The government wants to collect taxes you thought you had already paid. A colleague fails to deliver on a gig you’re collaborating on. Your equipment breaks down on the big day. Your product has a fatal flaw. The pluming fails and your home office floods.

The less sheltered you make your life, the more you’ll experience these bumps. Notice that word? Let me say it again: bumps. When you live by your own rules, you’ll experience many bumps. These will be uncomfortable—but not lethal. You need to adapt your programming so you don’t fall into a tizzy, every time you experience one.

If you have a moment, watch a video of someone riding a mechanical bull. I’m no expert on the subject, but when I did this, I noticed something. The riders who stay on for the longest don’t fight the machine—they go with it. If it jerks back, they follow; when it bolts to the side, they do the same. The rider doesn’t need to know what’s coming next. He/she just needs to stay limber—and not try to force an outcome.

As you expand your world and take on new challenges, you’ll benefit by taking a similar approach. When a job gets cancelled, you’ll move on to a personal project—or go on a holiday. When the government wants more money, you’ll learn to start saving for such occasions. When a colleague bails, you’ll find another. When your equipment breaks, you’ll make do, or reschedule. When you uncover a product flaw, you’ll take responsibility and fix it. When the plumbing fails? Well, I suppose you’ll work in a coffee shop while the repairs are underway.

Few of the solutions I propose sound great. They aren’t meant to be. Instead, these are examples of how to adapt, and keep moving forward, when situations go awry. And they will.

What might surprise you, is how nicely some of these detours might turn out. The side-project is more rewarding than expected, and opens up new opportunities. The replacement is nicer to work with than your previous colleague. The way you deal with your product flaw builds trust with your customers. The coffee shop exposes you to new ideas. Point being: you never know where something good lies in wait.

No matter how bad of a bump you hit, you’ll probably be OK. In a couple of months, you’ll look back, and hardly remember how concerned you were at the time. You can’t control the world around you; but you can change how you respond to it.

A Thing is Not a Destination

Image: Forgemind ArchiMedia
Image: Forgemind ArchiMedia

I abhor knickknacks and objects that clutter my home; but, I’m thankful for my gear. These functional items help me do my work, take in the outdoors, and explore my creative interests.

My laptop, smartphone, and applications are essential to the work I do. Our family has fun exercising together, because of our ski equipment. Meanwhile, I use pens, pencils, notebooks, cameras, and so on, to create.

These things improve my life—and I’m glad to own them.

In the above lies an important distinction. I don’t own the things I describe because of what they are, nor, for what they outwardly represent. I own them because of what they help me do.

Most don’t share this mindset. Instead, they act as corporations and advertising agencies programmed them to.

Those who sell consumer goods understand that utility has limits. Once you have one car, you don’t need another. The same goes for a hammer, pair of glasses, or set of cutlery. So, the utility of a product becomes secondary, and the marketing focus shifts to brand and perception.

The message behind most brands is the same: “Owning this thing will make you [insert state of being].” Owning this car will make you cool. Owning these jeans will make you desirable. Owning this apartment will make you happy.

Notice what they did there? Those smarty-pants marketers turned what they were selling into a destination. And it works! Shoppers go to the mall not because they need something, but to partake in a sort of pastime. People treat objects like goals, thinking these things symbolize having “arrived.” Additionally, judging an individual by what she owns, wears, and watches is commonplace.

Although utility fulfills tangible needs, desire is limitless. An advertiser can only sell you a drill once, but they can sell you the promise of happiness perpetually. That advertiser can’t deliver on his promise, but that doesn’t matter. He’ll move the promise to the next thing he can sell you, or a newer version. (In the case of consumption, humans have short memories.)

When we say, “things don’t matter,” we’re being simplistic. Things do matter, and they improve how we live. But—like anything else—there’s a spectrum of benefit. A roof and working toilet bring enormous utility to the person who did without such essentials. But, by the time you need a three-car garage, to store the stuff that doesn’t fit in your closets, you’ve OD’d on things.

A thing can make you happy, but things are not paths to happiness. A thing can give you access to new experiences, but things are not destinations. You aren’t “there,” when you get a car, but you do have a way to get somewhere.

Don’t want the thing; want what it does.

We Should Love Things

Image: Lachlan Donald
Image: Lachlan Donald

“Love people, use things.” That’s the gist an article Arthur Brooks wrote this past summer. Mostly, I’m with him. Those who define their lives by their possessions are spiritually bankrupt. What’s even less fortunate, is that many of these same people are dissatisfied with their lives.

So, I’m in no way refuting Brooks’ argument. I agree that many would benefit from focusing on the people in their lives, instead of the things they own/want. However, I wonder if we miss something when we treat this as an either/or situation. Our relationships with things are complex, and we shouldn’t view things in just one way.

Think back to the first thing you adored as a child. It brought pleasure. You took care of it. Were you to have lost it, you would have been saddened. Now, look around your home. How many things do you feel that strongly about? My bet is that you can’t list more than a handful.

OK—I get that you’re not going to love a mug, spatula, or vacuum. You just need these things, right? But, let’s pretend you did love them.

Imagine your vacuum breaking tomorrow, and the repair-person saying it’s not practical to fix. And, what if, you didn’t rush to the store and buy the one that was on sale? This time, you tell yourself that you’re going to do it right.

You look over your space, and consider your vacuuming needs. You consider where you might next live, and ask yourself whether you could get by without this thing.

Upon determining it a necessity, you conduct research, read reviews, and buy the item that’s right for you. In doing so, you forego special offers and sales. Instead, you pay more for a vacuum that’s proven to last—and is nicer to use.

As a result of having spent more, you take better care of this new thing. You read the manual, follow the maintenance instructions, and pack it away carefully. You see this thing not as a stop-gap solution you’ll soon replace, but as a purchase you don’t intend to repeat.

This sort of an approach comes with benefits to you, the companies you buy from, and even the planet.

Objects that work make chores less tedious; plus, well-constructed things need fewer repairs. Paying for quality creates market demand for better things. This allows manufacturers to prioritize performance over price and gimmicks. Ultimately, this means less waste left in landfills.

Truth be told, I don’t love my vacuum. (I did buy a well built/designed one.) That said, I do like it. Meanwhile, I sort of do love my laptop, my blender, and my hydration vest. In each of these instances, I’ve spent more than I needed to. I did so because I like owning dependable things, and I want to purchases as infrequently as I can.

Amassing stuff is easy. You see this inside of Walmart, where zombies’ carts overflow with “good deals.” Thinking, researching, and selecting one’s possessions? That takes work. Done properly, though, these things can bring you delight.

Friday Finds for January 16th, 2015

Image: Pigs swimming in the Bahamas, courtesy of cdorobek
Image: Pigs swimming in the Bahamas, courtesy of cdorobek

Today marks the end of the second week, of our reboot. Thanks to all of you for returning to take in a post, and send your warm wishes! If you’d haven’t already, connect with us on Twitter and Facebook—alternately, you can subscribe for (almost) daily updates on posts. Following is our recommended reading for the weekend ahead:

He Was Dying

Image from “The problem of age, growth, and death” by Charles Sedgwick Minot, courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images
Image from “The problem of age, growth, and death” by Charles Sedgwick Minot, courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images

Our rental car pulls into the parking lot. I have little desire to step out. I’m more interested in sulking. Auto-reverse is active on my Walkman, so Depeche Mode’s lamentations can loop.

My teenage self esteem, coupled with this blah-pop let me pretend I’m deep—but I’m actually pouting. (All credit to my parents, who withstand the urge to smack me upside my head.)

But there it is: A hospital, filled with old Finnish people I don’t know. Skipping from this visit isn’t an option, so I begrudgingly follow Mom, Dad, and my brother into the place.

My Finnish isn’t strong. Plus, I’m 15. Even if I spoke the language properly, I wouldn’t know what to say. I watch, pretend to listen, and count the minutes until we can leave. My parents are friends with him—I’m not sure how. I wonder why old people are so boring.

He’s blind, and his legs are gone. Wrapped in a nest of wires and tubes, he hardly moves. He’s never leaving this bed alive. He’ll spend his last days in this terrible beige room. I want out of this place. Anything else seems better than this.

The minutes pass like hours, but eventually, we leave. Outside, the sun is shining, and the breeze is fresh. Someday I might need to be in a place like that, but not today. My life is ahead of me. Everything has changed since we walked into that hospital.

Bad days happen, and sometimes you’ll be blue. Just don’t forget that moments are fleeting. One day you won’t be able to choose how you spend them.

This Family Produces No Household Waste

The Johnsons total household waste in 2014 fit in a quart-sized jar; Image courtesy of Zero Waste Home
The Johnsons total household waste in 2014 fit in a quart-sized jar; Image courtesy of Zero Waste Home

Late last year, Vancouver instituted a new program. This initiative requires that residents compost all organic household waste. This policy led our strata board to hold an educational session on recycling. I thought our family recycled a lot—I was wrong.

Since then, we’ve started cleaning and storing soft plastics (which I previously believed couldn’t be recycled) and weird unlabeled ones. Seeing the volume of waste we produce is illuminating. Our storage unit is now overflowing with special recycling, even though we don’t buy much. Most of this new recycling is a result of excess food packaging.

Packaging designers and corporations need to rewrite how they deliver consumer products. We can’t wait for business to lead this charge, though. Instead, we have to make changes to reduce our personal waste output. (In time, this will force business to change too, but that won’t happen fast.)

The challenge lies in how we get food into our homes, without all the packaging. This is a vexing problem, because we’re so used to seeing our food wrapped in plastic. As such, we’re led to think that this extra layer is necessary and there’s no other way. (How soon we forget the way life once was.)

Bea Johnson lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband Scott, and two children. Since 2008, they’ve lived waste free, generating only a quart-size jar of waste per year (they used to fill a trash can every week). Bea blogs, wrote a book, provides tips, and runs a forum, helping people like you and me do the same. (And yes, there’s an app for that.)

Initially, the Johnsons downsized from a 2,000 sq ft home to only 1,400. This move necessitated minimizing their possessions. Through Bea’s research, she discovered new ways to declutter, and alternatives to producing waste. This new lifestyle helps the family save money. They also claim to be happier since making these changes.

Her formula for minimizing waste relies on a handful of new habits. She buys in bulk, using her own jars, and frequents farmers markets. She’s devised a system of refillable bottles, homemade cleaners, and handmade toothpaste that reduce waste. Additionally, she disposes of food scraps through red worm composting.

Want to try for yourself? Start with the following video, from Bea’s YouTube channel. Then follow Bea on Twitter for more advice on making your family zero-waste, too!

My Neighbor’s Ox

Woonhuis aan Zee, courtesy of Het Nieuwe Instituut
Woonhuis aan Zee, courtesy of Het Nieuwe Instituut

As a young man, I confused goals with things. Given the messages found in popular culture, there’s little wonder why. I spent my days painting, and watched television during breaks. Somewhere in there, I ended up watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. (Something I’m reluctant to admit.)

By the time I started a design studio, I had adopted those ideas. I believed success meant a luxury home, sports car, and a company that showed off my business acumen. None of these things were actually important to me. I just liked working with ideas. Nevertheless, I let those beliefs to get so embedded that I blindly pursued them.

It took some time to dislodge these notions, and I’m unclear of when I rid myself of them. That said, my son’s arrival changed many of my beliefs. At the time, I was working grueling hours, and those old rewards didn’t motivate me any longer. Like so many new parents, I would have traded any thing for more time with him—and, later, his brother.

As the years passed, the beauty of a Porsche (and I admit, it is a gorgeous machine) became less compelling. I even took to sneering when I’d see luxury cars in my neighborhood. I work near the poorest postal code in Canada. The contrast of a fancy car parked next to a person who’d spent the last night sleeping in a box seemed terribly wrong.

I’ve been ambitious, and I like to see what I can make happen. I don’t think that will ever change. What has changed, is the way I measure success.

A big house isn’t such a big deal; I don’t want things to hold me in one place. A shiny car isn’t exciting; I prefer to commute by foot. Doing so affords me exercise and clears my mind. Building a big company, and being “important,” doesn’t hold much allure, either; I just enjoy doing interesting work I’m proud of.

My success now relates to simpler notions. I want to eat well and avoid stress. I take pleasure in good conversations with my friends and family. I like the idea of seeing how far I can travel by foot. (Lately, I’ve found the notion of completing an ultramarathon intoxicating.)

I know who I am, and don’t shift much from this. On a run this weekend, though, my convictions wavered. I passed by a friend’s home. He’s worked hard and done well for himself. Oddly, I didn’t experience mudita for him. Instead, I was jealous.

His architect-designed house, his lovely car, and his recognition in the community were all things I once wanted. Although I deliberately chose not to follow that path, I wondered if I had made a mistake. That house would be nice to live in. That car would be fun to drive. It’d be fun to have people look up to me, and my accomplishments.

My run in the rain continued, and I slowly let go of my envy. I held no ill-will toward my friend. He’d stayed true to what mattered to him. However, that wasn’t my journey—nor were those objects and accomplishments important to me. My initial response was just a brief glitch, in which I momentarily forgot who I was.

I finished my run happy. Lately, running has been easier for me, and I’ve felt like I could take on longer distances. I no longer see this sport as a chore, but as a sort of meditation. I opened the door to our excited puppy, and my wife and kids—who wanted to know how my workout was. After a brief shower, we were on our way to cross country ski as a family.

I haven’t much money, but I’m rich.


Mudita is a new word for me; I discovered it via Tina Roth Eisenberg, who found it through Austin Kleon, who reposted Ligaya Tichy’s tweet.

Write to Learn

“Ada and Eve before the Tree of Knowledge” by Jan Pietersz, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
Adam and Eve before the Tree of Knowledge” by Jan Pietersz, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

I don’t feel my age. I’m excited by the many interesting subjects and places I have yet to explore. This results in a discovery mindset that keeps me young. Those who turn themselves off to learning lose this spark.

Our culture has a strange relationship with learning, though. We confuse education for a place: a school house, library, or university campus. Perhaps this is why education is so compartmentalized. We send our kids to school to “learn,” and treat this act as complete, once they graduate. Meanwhile, we think kids are just fooling around, when they play.

I experienced the opposite. I found classrooms stifling, and learned better when I followed my curiosity. In fact the “fooling around” my grade school teachers asked me to stop, is now how I make a living. To the point, though, our broken perspective on learning leads us to see it as a chore. Additionally, few of us believe we are equipped to learn on our own. It isn’t that we’re incapable of learning without an institution. We just weren’t trained to do so.

I’m not an educator, nor am I equipped to identify all the forms of educating oneself. However, I can share one approach I’ve found useful: I write. And the more I write, the more I see this activity as part of who I am.

I often say, “I write not because I know, but as a way to find out.” This distinction is important for me, as it buys me more licence to make mistakes. Others are sometimes less comfortable with this approach. They misread what I write as absolute, and get in touch to tell me how wrong/stupid I am. I like when people tell me I’m wrong—especially when they explain why they think so. I’m less thrilled by name calling, but even that helps me grow (a thicker skin).

I only taught briefly, but even that experience was illuminating. From it I discovered that teaching is a great way to learn. Regardless of your knowledge on a topic, teaching forces you to tighten your grip on the details. In clarifying foggy points, rereading material, and refreshing your memory, you learn a lot.

Writing is teaching. You select a topic, organize your hunches/points, conduct research, and compile notes. Then, you link your observations, findings, and data in an organized argument. As you move through this process, you challenge your understanding. This scrutiny reinforces learnings and leads you to form stronger opinions.

Blogs are a useful tool in this process. You can use one to house your thinking, solicit feedback, and reflect on past writing. Some worry they aren’t sufficiently informed on a topic to start a blog. Such hesitation represents a missed opportunity. Blogs aren’t just about what you know; they’re a type of apparatus for educating yourself.

If you’d like to try blogging, you might benefit from first doing so informally. Pick a topic you’re interested in, find a platform, and write. You’ll also benefit from establishing a format and schedule. Again, keep this simple. For example, you could commit to writing a 500 word post on one small topic, every morning.

This might sound like a big commitment. In actuality, writing daily is easy. The frequency, and length restriction, forces you to not fret your words too much. Plus, the hour of practice will strengthen your skills—much like daily push-ups would. Writing for 8 or 10 hours a day is taxing, but an hour will sharpen you mind for the day ahead.

To avoid getting blocked, I suggest first brainstorming 50 titles for future posts. Not sure how to pull smaller points out of your general topic? Try making them questions you’d like to learn the answer to. This will force you to seek out certain information—and you’ll learn by doing so.

As you conduct your research, keep a list of other findings you stumble upon. These will help you come up with other article subjects, later.

What you produce might not seem interesting or worth posting. That’s OK. I suggest you post these articles, in spite of your misgivings. Even if some posts seem boring, you’ll see these different in a year’s time.

Learning doesn’t always feel like learning; in fact, learning is often a byproduct of doing. So pick something—pick anything—and immerse yourself in that topic. Even the most banal subjects hide great stories, if you’re willing to look.

Happy: The Film

Although the film is now a couple of years old, I only managed to watch Happy recently. Since then, I’ve referenced it a number of times, and asked my friends to put aside an evening for it. Glad to see the topic of happiness getting so much more attention in recent years—and nice to see such a good summary of ways to make yourself happier.

Happy can be viewed on Netflix or, you can rent it from the official website.

Want more? The filmmaker, Roko Belic, shares what he learned by making the movie:

Friday Finds for January 9th, 2015