Quotes on life, love and loss by Dear Sugar

“I’d finally come to understand what it had been: a yearning for a way out, when actually what I had wanted to find was a way in.” ― Cheryl Strayed (from the wonderful book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail)

Tiny Beautiful Things is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s one of the few books that I never get tired of re-reading and I can honestly say it has changed my life for the better.

Cheryl Strayed is an American writer and podcaster who personally went through some of life’s toughest challenges. Among other things, she’s experienced horrendous grief, heroin addiction and childhood sexual abuse. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of advice columns that were originally posted on the ‘Dear Sugar’ section of The Rumpus . These columns address many difficult existential questions, and offer deep understanding, recognition and hope.

Here, I share some of my favorite passages from the book.

 

Dear Sugar on Life

I love how Sugar keeps things real. She doesn’t deny pain and struggle, yet she illuminates a way forward. “Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.” Elsewhere, she adds: “you don’t have a right to the cards you believe you should have been dealt with. You have an obligation to play the hell out of the ones you’re holding and my dear one, you and I have been granted a mighty generous one.”

Anyone who’s ever had a health scare probably knows of the irrational anxiety that can come with it. To an anxious young woman who fears that she’ll get cancer due to her familial predisposition, Sugar writes: “there’s a crazy lady living in your head. I hope you’ll be comforted to hear that you’re not alone. Most of us have an invisible inner terrible someone who says all sorts of nutty stuff that has no basis in truth. Sometimes when I’m all pretzeled up inside and my own crazy lady is nattering on, I’ll stop and wonder where she got her information. I’ll ask her to reveal her source. I’ll demand some proof. Did her notions come from actual facts based in reason or did she/I dredge them up from the hell pit that burns like a perpetual fire at the bottom of my needy, selfish, famished little soul?”

Sugar recognizes that forgiveness and compassion don’t come easy to most people, they require work. “Forgiveness doesn’t sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up a hill.” And, in a different column, she writes: “we like to pretend that our generous impulses come naturally. But the reality is we often become our kindest, most ethical selves only by seeing what it feels like to be a selfish jackass first. It’s the reason… we have to get burned before we understand the power of fire; the reason our most meaningful relationships are so often those that continued beyond the very juncture at which they came the closest to ending.”

About having very little money when growing up, and having to take tedious jobs while friends would go on educational trips abroad, Sugar writes: “turns out, I learned a lot from not being able to go to France. Turns out, those days standing on the concrete floor wearing a hairnet, a paper mask and gown, goggles, and plastic gloves, and- with a pair of tweezers- placing two pipe cleaners into a sterile box that came to me down a slow conveyor belt for eight excruciating hours a day taught me something important I couldn’t have learned any other way. That job and the fifteen others I had before I graduated college were my own personal “educational opportunities.” They changed my life for the better, though it took me a while to understand their worth.”

Personally, I love how Sugar addresses twenty-somethings in existential crises. It reminds me that very few things stay constant throughout life and that we shouldn’t take I’ll-always-have-this-problem thoughts very seriously. “You are so goddamned young. Which means about eight of the ten things you have decided about yourself will over time prove to be false. The other two things will prove to be so true that you’ll look back in twenty years and howl.” In a different column, she writes: “in your twenties you’re becoming who you’re going to be and so you might as well not be an asshole. Also, because it’s harder to be magnanimous when you’re in your twenties, I think, and so that’s why I’d like to remind you of it. You’re generally less humble in that decade than you’ll ever be and this lack of humility is oddly mixed with insecurity and uncertainty and fear. You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery.”

Then about self-love in the midst of addiction Sugar reminisces: “one hot afternoon during the era in which you’ve gotten yourself ridiculously tangled up with heroin, you will be riding the bus and thinking what a worthless piece of crap you are when a little girl will get on the bus holding the strings of two purple balloons. She’ll offer you one of the balloons, but you won’t take it because you believe you no longer have a right to such tiny beautiful things. You’re wrong. You do.”

 

Dear Sugar on love

About bravery in love, Sugar has the following to say. “The story of human intimacy is one of constantly allowing ourselves to see those we love most deeply in a new, more fractured light. Look hard. Risk that.” And to a young man with an avoidant attachment style she writes in a different column: “you asked me when is the right time to tell your lover that you love her and the answer is when you think you love her. That’s also the right time to tell her what your love for her means to you. If you continue using avoidance as the main tactic in your romantic relationships with women, you’re going to stunt not only your happiness, but your life.”

Sugar often emphasizes setting boundaries. I’ve learned a lot from that. She writes that “boundaries have nothing to do with whether you love someone or not. They are not judgments, punishments, or betrayals. They are a purely peaceable thing: the basic principles you identify for yourself that define the behaviors that you will tolerate from others, as well as the responses you will have to those behaviors. Boundaries teach people how to treat you, and they teach you how to respect yourself.” And also that “no is golden. ‘No’ is the kind of power the good witch wields. It’s the way whole, healthy, emotionally evolved people manage to have relationships with jackasses while limiting the amount of jackass in their lives.”

About desire and the need for love, Sugar writes the following. “His life is like your life and my life and all the lives of all the people who are reading these words right now. It’s a roiling stew of fear and need and desire and love and the hunger to be loved. And mostly, it’s the latter.” And in a different column she writes: “we all love X but want to fuck Z. Z is so gleaming, so crystalline, so unlikely to bitch at you for neglecting to take out the recycling. Nobody has to haggle with Z. Z doesn’t wear a watch. Z is like a motorcycle with no one on it. Beautiful. Going nowhere.”

Sugar went through a difficult first marriage. In one of her columns she offers insight into whether to leave or stay. “Go, even though you love him.
Go, even though he is kind and faithful and dear to you.
Go, even though he’s your best friend and you’re his.
Go, even though you can’t imagine your life without him.
Go, even though he adores you and your leaving will devastate him.
Go, even though your friends will be disappointed or surprised or pissed off or all three.
Go, even though you once said you would stay.
Go, even though you’re afraid of being alone.
Go, even though you’re sure no one will ever love you as well as he does.
Go, even though there is nowhere to go.
Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay.
Go, because you want to.
Because wanting to leave is enough.”

About the unpredictability of love, Sugar has the following to say. “When you meet a man in the doorway of a Mexican restaurant who later kisses you while explaining that this kiss doesn’t “mean anything” because, much as he likes you, he is not interested in having a relationship with you or anyone right now, just laugh and kiss him back. Your daughter will have his sense of humor. Your son will have his eyes.”

Finally, to a man who doubts he’ll ever find love, Sugar writes: “I can’t say when you’ll get love or how you’ll find it or even promise that you will. I can only say you are worthy of it and that it’s never too much to ask for it and that it’s not crazy to fear you’ll never have it again, even though your fears are probably wrong. Love is our essential nutrient. Without it, life has little meaning. It’s the best thing we have to give and the most valuable thing we receive. It’s worthy of all the hullabaloo.”

 

Dear Sugar on loss

About crises such as the loss of a loved one, Sugar writes the following. “Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal.”

To a father grieving his child’s death in a car accident, she relates: “small things such as this have saved me: how much I love my mother—even after all these years. How powerfully I carry her within me. My grief is tremendous but my love is bigger. So is yours. You are not grieving your son’s death because his death was ugly and unfair. You’re grieving it because you loved him truly. The beauty in that is greater than the bitterness of his death.”

Sugar understands how grateful we should be for the time we get to spend with our loved ones. In one of her columns, she writes: “one Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life. Say thank you.”

Finally, to a mother who’d just learned about her baby’s brain tumor and is now questioning her Christian faith, she writes: “suffering is part of life. I know that. You know that. I don’t know why we forget it when something truly awful happens to us, but we do. We wonder why me? And how can this be? And what terrible God would do this? And the very fact that this has been done to me is proof that there is no God! We act as if we don’t know that awful things happen to all sorts of people every second of every day and the only thing that’s changed about the world or the existence or nonexistence of God or the color of the sky is that the awful thing is happening to us.”

I highly, highly recommend you read the book, or simply scroll through the articles on The Rumpus. It’s worth it.

Dating and attachment styles

“Love doesn’t make the world go ’round; love is what makes the ride worthwhile.” ― Shannon Alder

Over the years, I’ve had my fair share of dates. Some of them were platonic and never led to anything romantic. Others led to weeks, months or even years of serious dating.

I truly enjoy the process of getting to know someone. Longing to get to know someone intimately is a logical extension of that. There’s also the excitement of meeting someone new and all the unknowns this introduces to my life. At times, I’ve simply dated to feel this kind of excitement.

That being said, I’ve also searched for long-lasting monogamy and struggled to find it. Often this was due to my own waning interest. It’s been a beautiful yet frustrating process. Frustrating enough for me to start looking into attachment styles and how they relate to dating.

 

How attachment styles influence your dating life

Romantic attachment can be defined as: “an enduring emotional bond that develops between one adult and another in an intimate relationship.” (See here.) It’s an intra-personal feeling related to an inter-personal romantic emotional bond.

In the book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller describe three distinct categories of attachment styles.

People with an anxious attachment style often worry about their relationships. They desperately need to feel loved, and feel anxious in the absence of it. People with a secure attachment style often feel comfortable with intimacy and are most reliable in relationships. Finally, people with an avoidant attachment style are often afraid to lose their independence. This causes them to actively attempt to “minimize closeness.”

After taking the questionnaire in the book, I realized that I share many traits with people in the latter two categories. I’m often comfortable with intimacy initially, but tend to doubt and push partners away over time.

Of course, I was already aware of this fact. But I usually blamed this on my partners rather than my own attachment style. Realizing that this, too, is common in avoidant individuals, provides fertile soil for a paradigm shift.

 

The fearful dance of love

Levine and Heller suggest good potential partners for each of the categories. They also describe the potentially destructive relationship dynamics between anxious and avoidant persons. This phenomenon is also described in detail in the Dutch book Liefdesbang by Hanna Cuppen, which I previously referred to here.

Anxious and avoidant people often end up dating each other. This may have to do with the complex psychological “rollercoaster effect,” which refers to the ups and downs experienced by people who attract and reject one another. It’s also because avoidant people (roughly 25% of the population) are more likely to be single than secure people.

Either way, it’s problematic because it gives people with these attachment styles exactly what they don’t need: a needy or avoidant partner. And it can lead to highly unsatisfying and destabilizing relationships.

 

Working with attachment styles

Of course, diagnosing the problem is only half the work. Luckily, Levine and Heller offer solutions as well. And it all comes down to working with your attachment style instead of against it.

This means that you—whatever you attachment style may be—should have a good idea of what you need from a partner (hint: not necessarily what you’re most attracted to). Then, you need to set healthy boundaries and communicate these boundaries consistently, honestly and unapologetically.

This is different from blaming your partner for what they seem to be lacking from your point of view. It’s also different from telling your partner that they are the root cause of your jealousy, anxiety or unease.

You first need to understand what your personal needs, values, and preferences are. Then you should recognize that these may not be shared by your partner. Neither point of view is “right,” but it’s crucial that they overlap sufficiently. And that any differences are understood and communicated clearly.

For an avoidant person, this might mean communicating your need for independence. For an anxious person, this might mean telling your partner about moments when you need them. It’s important to do this without making them feel like they somehow have an obligation to meet you there. They don’t. It’s your need, not theirs. But do be clear about what their understanding would mean to you.

 

Beyond attachment styles

Oftentimes, this whole process is implicit and a web of assumptions tends to sneak in. This causes many people to blame themselves for their partner’s neediness or apparent lack of interest. Healthy, honest communication helps a lot.

Furthermore, simply knowing about your own attachment style is very useful. The thought “my partner might cheat on me,” can be one of many irrelevant random thoughts. But it can also lead to you continuously asking for your partner’s approval. The former is the better choice, but it requires that you see the thought as “just a thought,” and not identify with it. Similarly, the thought “if only my partner was more like my ex,” doesn’t mean that you should break up and continue searching for the perfect partner. It just means that you had that thought, just like many other people who lived on to have long-lasting and happy relationships with those very same partners.

Relationships take work. And noticing such self-deception is very important when you want to keep things healthy. You grow through experience once you understand that relationships are as good a mirror as you’ll ever find. Looking yourself in the eye with optimism, time after time, on good and bad days, will pay off in the long run.

Your attachment style doesn’t dictate your relationships. It’s just one of many factors. By bringing it to consciousness, you can limit its control over you. I recommend you pick up the book and take their questionnaire. It could be very informative and make your relationships ever more satisfying.

Community trumps willpower

“The same process that makes AA so effective—the power of a group to teach individuals how to believe—happens whenever people come together to help one another change. Belief is easier when it occurs within a community.” ― Charles Duhigg

After years of trying to optimize my daily habits, I’ve come to feel that willpower is somewhat overrated.

It’s not that willpower isn’t important—for any kind of behavioral change, there must be the will to get there—it’s just isn’t enough by itself. We need an additional ingredient. And if this ingredient is chosen with care, it might make the dish helluvalot easier to cook.

This ingredient is a system that we can rely on. A system that automates our desired habits and (de)motivates us on a daily basis to make the right choices.

If we can find such a system, if we can solve that puzzle (and trust me, the solution isn’t always obvious), then behavioral change follows almost naturally. The will to change is a requirement, but a good system can carry the majority of the load.

Here and in several upcoming articles, I’ll discuss examples of how to employ a system to implement certain habits. In this article, I will address community and how it effectively aids behavioral change.

 

Community, the greatest of systems

One of the strongest backbones of behavior is community. In Tim Ferris’ recent book Tribe of Mentors, Neil Strauss describes how being part of a physically active community changed his life.

He writes: “Before, I’d go to the gym to achieve a certain weight or muscle goal, and I never stuck with it. Now I show up to see my friends, and we always exercise outdoors: at the beach, in a pool, on a lawn. We almost always end with a sauna/ice session. It’s the highlight of the day. I have no outcome I want from it, and I’ve never been in better shape in my life. It helped me realize that the secret to change and growth is not willpower, but positive community.”

It’s difficult to overrate how much community can influence you. Say you’re overweight and then suddenly befriend a community of physically active people. Maybe they go for hikes and swims together. Maybe they discuss nutrition at length and have healthy dinners on a daily basis. By making these activities part of the social interaction, you’ll naturally gravitate towards healthier behavior.

Now compare that to an overweight person with similar levels of willpower. He might find himself having Pepsi and chicken wings with his friends at the same bar after work each day.

Who do you think is more likely to have lost weight after 6 months? And how much would small differences in willpower have changed this outcome? Not a whole lot, right? But how much does the difference in community influence the matter?

That’s the power of community. Changing your environment equals changing yourself.

 

Find yourself the right community and become immersed in it

Communities have changed my life in many ways. Immersing myself in a community of fighters got me to a competitive level in Mixed Martial Arts within two years. Participating in men’s groups made me more confident and social. Studying with people more competent than I am, made me a much better programmer.

You can do this too. Expose yourself to people with the same goals. People who’re ideally already part of a larger community. You’ve got no idea how fast change can occur when you have the right people around you.

I know this isn’t as straightforward as I make it seem to be. Forming new adult friendship can be as difficult as anything for many people. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying.

You can start small and work from there. Join a writer’s group or book club. Walk into a Crossfit gym. Head over to that Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in your local community center this Tuesday. Start an online programming course and ask a more experienced friend to tutor you. However small that first step may be, take it. Start walking.

Good lives develop incrementally. Communities assist you on the road to your goals and make things much more fun along the way. Now let’s go out and make some friends!

On emotions and living a good life

“If you fulfill your obligations everyday you don’t need to worry about the future.” — Jordan B. Peterson

For a long time, I’ve lived with the belief that I was supposed to always feel great. Even when sitting at home all day doing nothing.

I thought every ‘normal’ person should be able to stay at home and feel completely happy.  And that something was “wrong” if this weren’t the case.

That was never me though. I’ve always felt like I had to pay my dues to feel content, you know? I need to work out frequently, need a creative outlet, need some social interaction, need to have a couple goals that I’m working towards, things like that.

Well, I can tell you that this is actually quite normal. Most people do not actually feel content unless they do tangible things. And this is for a good reason.

Sure, it’s great to feel content all the time, and surely some people actually do. However, there’s a big flaw in the presumption that this should be the norm, or even that it’s desirable.

 

Why, oh why, emotions

From an evolutionary perspective, emotions have developed as guidance systems to protect us from mortal danger and to get us to procreate. Negative emotions in particular help prevent us from making stupid mistakes (getting killed by a bear or kicked out of our tribe). In many ways, emotions have evolved to help us succeed in the world, even when they sometimes seem to undermine everything.

In today’s world, where direct physical threats are rare, social hierarchy is as relevant to our emotions as ever. Jordan Peterson beautifully describes this in his recent book 12 rules for life. In one of the chapters, he notes how social hierarchy structures even exist in lobsters. They can become “depressed” when faced with a diminished social status, just like humans can. And they, too, can redeem themselves after taking antidepressant medication.

This is important because it suggests that we have ancient emotional pathways that motivate us to establish ourselves in the world. These pathways aim to keep our social status high, to keep us working hard and manifest things.

And when we accept and understand that we need to interact with the world in the right ways to feel content, we can start looking for ways of living that utilize these emotional pathways.

 

Working with emotions

In her book Habits of a Happy Brain, Loretta Breuning describes how some of these pathways involve specific neurotransmitters, which she calls “happy chemicals.” Particularly the neurotransmitter serotonin (known from the common SSRI, or selective-serotonin-reuptake-inhibitor, anti-depressant drugs) responds to perceived social status. Furthermore, sufficient levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine (the “motivational” system), oxycotin and endorphins are also required for a content life. Her premise is that these neurotransmitters must be balanced well.

Both Habits of a Happy Brain and 12 rules for life offer ways of making these pathways work for you. They encourage you to build a virtuous life. That is, strengthening the virtuous parts of yourself that are helpful to both you and the world.

Habits of a happy brain suggests that you set (and reset) realistic, short-term goals, and celebrate small victories to stimulate dopamine. You can also stretch, laugh and exercise to stimulate endorphin, build strong social bonds to stimulate oxytocin, and improve (and enjoy) your social status to stimulate serotonin (*see notes).

Then, 12 rules for life tells you to, for example, stand up straight, create good friendships, compare yourself to the past you (and not the rest of the world), never lie, pursue what’s meaningful, and set your house in perfect order before criticising the outside world.

These rules all have the purpose of making your brain chemistry work for you, as well as possible. And they also offer a system for living a moral life.

 

No more chasing happiness

A major implication of these rules is that you can stop chasing after feeling happy. Your emotions aren’t ultimately under your control, not directly anyway. It’s important to realize that and focus on building a good life instead.

And you can start that today. By cleaning your room, talking to a new person, getting out of the house, going to the gym for once, or asking a friend how they’ve been doing lately. Do the things that matter, and trust that positive emotions will follow.

I can recommend both these books. And you can supplement them with Why Isn’t My Brain Working?, which describes dietary and supplementary means of stimulating several of these neurotransmitters. They all offer ways of exploiting the control over your emotions that you do have.

 

 

Notes

Of course, this way of looking at the brain is overly simplistic. But remember, we have good reason to believe that behavior can strongly influence emotions. An important part of CBT (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy) is built on that premise.

Furthermore, while it’s good news that we can live in a way that optimizes neurotransmitter levels, they can still be skewed to such an extent that you might need the additional help of drugs or therapy. There should be no shame in seeing a therapist, or using medication such as Ritalin or SRRIs. These can yet be another way of taking good care of yourself.

My ten 2017 book recommendations

“The best advice I ever got was that knowledge is power and to keep reading.” – David Bailey

Reading is a timeless pursuit that has helped people educate themselves throughout the ages.

It’s one of those ways in which we’re all equal. We can decide what we want to know more about, what will inspire us, and what could help us understand ourselves better. And then dive into such material in the comforts of our own home—learning what we learn along the way.

Books have the ability to change lives, which is why I love recommending them. I’ve read about 50 books this past year. The following are the 10 that have made the most impact on me. Let’s get to it.

 

The Innovators – Walter Isaacson

I like Isaacson’s biographies a lot. I’ve also read his biographies on Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, and I cannot wait to get started on his latest book on Leonardo da Vinci.

In The Innovators, Isaacson narrates the parallel developments of the personal computer and the Internet. He describes innovation as not merely an isolated process in the minds of lonesome geniuses. But rather as a force driven by groups of people. This notion of innovation will only become more important in the future.

If you love science and innovation, this is a must-read.

 

Tiny Beautiful Things – Cheryl Strayed

This must be the book that I’ve recommended to people the most by now. What an amazingly beautiful piece of literature. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of advice columns but that description doesn’t quite do it justice.

Cheryl Strayed has advised many readers on some of life’s toughest problems. And did so with absolute honesty and love, and from a place of deep experience. To me, Tiny Beautiful Things is one of the greatest of all ‘self-help’ books.

I cannot wait to get started on Strayed’s memoir Wild, it’s impatiently waiting for me on my nightstand.

 

Full Catastrophe Living – Jon Kabat-Zinn

I read this book while I was participating in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. MBSR is the most science-backed meditation program. Full Catastrophe Living outlines the course and describes improvements that all sorts of people have made in his stress-reduction clinic.

In my opinion, Jon is the among the best mindfulness communicators out there. He’s straightforward, clear, scientifically-minded and points at ways to benefit from meditation. Best of all, he does so without introducing any mysticism whatsoever.

If you want to get into mindfulness, look no further for a great introduction.

 

On The Shortness of Life – Seneca

This was one of the first books that I’ve ever read on Stoicism and it’s great!

On The Shortness of Life contains practical ideas on dealing with hardship and is a good introduction into Stoic thinking. If you want to become more resilient, this book could be a good start.

 

When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

This book contains the dying words of Paul Kalanithi, a talented neurosurgeon, who was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer at the age of 36 before deciding to write this book. He discusses questions like: “what makes life worth living in the face of death?”

When Breath Becomes Air is a great read for anyone whose life has been touched by illness or grief of any kind.

 

Man’s Search For Meaning – Viktor Frankl

In Man’s Search For Meaning, dr. Frankl describes his logotherapy, which revolves around finding meaning in the direst of circumstances. He himself used his theories to survive the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp.

This is a tough book to read but may be invaluable when it finds you at the right time. Keep it in mind.

 

Tools of Titans – Tim Ferris

I admire Tim Ferris for many reasons. He has an extremely high output, authors great books, does cool ultra-learning projects, and more.

Tools of Titans is a summary of Tim’s awesome podcast, The Tim Ferris Show (recommended!). It contains pro-tips from many well-known experts, such as Sam Harris and Tony Robbins.

Tim asked these experts for specific things, like book recommendations or their “best purchase for less than 100 dollars.” This makes the book very down-to-earth and applicable. It’s a great resource for ideas and inspiration.

 

Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

This must be one of my favorite books of all time. It narrates the evolution of humans, and describes how Sapiens out-competed other Homo species, formed groups based on shared myths, and ended up building cities.

The book also touches upon subjects like economics, politics, the golden age, the development of science and much, much more. Best of all, it connects all these topics through the lens of history.

Sapiens is a wonderful read. A notable part of the human legacy. Just. Read. It.

 

DARE: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks Fast – Barry McDonagh

Circumstances in early 2017 have caused me to occasionally deal the debilitating effects of anxiety. I will write more about this topic later, but it suffices, for now, to note that I’ve read, and experimented with, quite a few books on the subject.

Out of all the books I read, DARE was among the finest. Barry McDonagh used to suffer from anxiety himself and understands what it’s like to deal with it. His writing is empathetic and empowering. It makes you feel at ease and not defined by your symptoms. He offers a straight-forward, no-nonsense, simple-to-implement method of dealing with anxiety.

If you’re dealing with anxiety in any way (or know anyone who does), make sure to check this book out!

 

Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science – Lawrence Krauss

I’m not completely sure how many Feynman-books I’ve read by now, but it must be most of the books that have been written by and about him.

I’ve suggested in the past that everyone should read Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman and Genius. And I still think you should do that if you haven’t already. However, Quantum Man goes into Feynman’s life through the lens of his physics. This makes it a great read for science-enthusiasts. It’s an interesting take on one of the most fascinating individuals who has ever walked this earth.

So, these were my book recommendations for 2017. I hope they will do you much good. Expect a fresh list in 12 months!

The perfect human

“March on. Do not tarry. To go forward is to move toward perfection. March on, and fear not the thorns, or the sharp stones on life’s path.” ― Khalil Gibran

Last week a random question popped up in my mind. “What would the perfect human be like?” I wondered. “How would this perfect human conduct itself, and how would it think?”

I won’t try to convince anyone that I’ve figured it out, because I haven’t. But it did get me thinking…

 

Perfect humans aren’t so perfect

I often read biographies and I’ve repeatedly noticed that none of the ‘greats’ are ever free of faults. This is also evident in many podcasts, which usually contain long and personal conversations with important people.

For example, I liked how Jamie Fox noted that dark always comes with the light. Or how Russel Brand spoke openly about his addict’s tendencies. Or how Tim Ferris, one of my favorite podcasters, who regularly struggles with bipolar depression, often tries to prevent people from putting him on a pedestal.

These are all amazing individuals and they are also all human; they aren’t perfect, they all struggle. We nevertheless keep falling into the trap of believing that somehow these people we worship are happier and more content than we are.

 

Perfection with imperfection as a given

Life comes with struggles, that’s a given. It also comes with unique challenges for every single individual, which is something that we all have to learn to accept and deal with.

The distribution of hardship isn’t fair, not by any stretch of the imagination. Yet that’s life, with all of its mysteries, funks and beauties. I think the perfect human accepts and embodies that, and is able to find compassion amidst its own struggles.

To me, the perfect human has neuroses of its own. It has difficult thoughts and feelings, occasional outbursts of anger and frustration, and feels lost at times.

The perfect human gossips every now and then, just like the rest of us. It farts, snoozes, can be rude in traffic, procrastinates, lies in bed watching Netflix for too long, and consumes too much alcohol on Saturdays. It is fiercely, ferociously, sometimes painfully human.

But what makes it perfect, I think, is a layer of self-knowledge on top of all that. An awareness of all of the above without dwelling on it too much.

 

Perfection in attitude

The perfect human takes its challenges along for the ride and simply does what needs to be done. It positively touches the lives of others naturally, however large the scale of that impact might be. It’s not too concerned with recognition.

The perfect human creates things and takes the space it needs without apology. It takes others into consideration without sulking in self-loathing. It asks questions that seem trivial out of mere curiosity. And it has the courage to stand up for its beliefs, while also being open to challenge them whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Most of all, the perfect human has undeniable integrity and is upfront and honest about everything, as much as that can be reasonably expected from anyone.

Perfection isn’t in the details. In this case, it’s in the attitude. It’s in determination and the will to keep going, no matter what. It’s about trying again, even after giving up on yourself a thousand times.

To me, that’s the perfect human. That’s what I’m personally striving for. And we can all strive to be a little more like our own personal perfect humans, that vision resides in all of us. Find it and aim for it. It may be well worth the effort.

 

 

My 6 most popular posts thus far

“Success isn’t always about greatness. It’s about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come.” ― Dwayne Johnson

With the end of the year approaching rapidly, it’s time for some reflection.

I believe that consistency is one of the most difficult yet valuable aspects of productivity. One of my goals this year was to have 20 posts on this websites before the 31st of December. I’m proud to say that I succeeded at that!

I have some more ambitious goals for next year―more on that later―but for now I’d like to share, once more, 6 of the posts that got the most attention.

 

My 6 most popular posts

 

To grieve

On grief and what it’s like to live surrounded by it.

To grieve

 

4 lessons learned from my obsessive flirt with Mixed Martial Arts

On my experiences with MMA and what I learned from them.

4 lessons learned from my obsessive flirt with Mixed Martial Arts

 


5 useful tips for improving your daily routine

On habits and how to effectively implement them into your life, the smart way.

5 useful tips for improving your daily routine

 

Walk The Path, Any path

On what I consider a recipe to a good life.

Walk the path, any path

 

If I can do it, you can too

On what I consider to be one of the most dangerous sayings.

If I can do it then you can too

 

My 5 favorite books of 2016

Some solid book recommendations.

My 5 favorite books of 2016

 

Hope you enjoy them (again)!

An atheist’s prayer

“What I’m asking you to entertain is that there is nothing we need to believe on insufficient evidence in order to have deeply ethical and spiritual lives.”  ― Sam Harris

I wrote this prayer a long time ago but I thought it was worth sharing once more. I used to read this out loud every morning and felt that it was a good reminder of some of my values. Enjoy!

 

An Atheist’s Prayer

Dear day,

I will cherish you and treat you with presence, love, respect and a sense of scarcity.

Every moment will be given my utmost attention. I will see through the child’s eye, feed my natural interest and see only those who are in my field of vision.

I will be light in judgment, quick a forgiver, strong in morals and gentle a critic. For every finger that I point at another, I have three pointing back.

I shall be humble for I was given all that I am. We all have a part to play in this world, however good or bad, and my part is in no way more important than that of another. As such, I won’t refrain from sharing my work and myself with another person for egotistical reasons such as pride or perfectionism.

I am grateful for all that I have, my friends and family, my talents and innate abilities, all the chances I am given, my health and my freedom.

I will learn from mistakes without error and be open to learn from anyone. As a student of life, every person serves as a potential mentor.

I will treat myself with love and tenderness, and my body like a temple. And, as a consequence, I shall radiate this love to others and treat them with the same level of kindness.

Lastly, I wish happiness to the depressed, light to those in darkness, health to the ailing, and freedom to the confined mind.

Amen.

4 lessons learned from my obsessive flirt with Mixed Martial Arts

“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” ― Bruce Lee

Numbness… My body feels empty and my mind is blank. There is no will to fight and no strength left to resist. There is no fear of being punched; the pain does not faze me but, at the same time, this absence of fear prevents me from striking back. I’m pretending to fight while I don’t, not really. This match was lost before it even started.

I am supposed to be this talented kid, the first to arrive at the gym and the last one to leave. How did I become someone who loses on mentality?

November 2009. I am 16 years old, peaking physically and had just experienced one of the greatest experiences of my life: winning my first Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fight convincingly. There is something really pure about fighting, it makes one feel very masculine and powerful. Fighting made me feel alive in a way that nothing else could. The danger this poses is similar to that of drugs: you may end up dependent on a thrill that makes normal life seem dull in comparison. That’s what happened to me.

It all got very serious when I was offered a 5000 dollar contract for an international 3-fight tournament and confidently accepted my second fight ever: a professional bout against a man who was about 5 kg heavier and 10 years my senior. I remember walking up the stage, hundreds of people cheering. I felt like a god, a prodigy of MMA; I was doing things that people in school could not even dream about. And then… I lost.

This was a very humbling experience and brought me into a downfall that I couldn’t recover from. I didn’t give myself any processing time and resumed my heavy training regimen immediately. Within the next 6 months I became increasingly over-trained, a state that I tried to cope with for about a year before finally deciding to quit martial arts for a longer period of time.

It felt like dying, but in retrospect it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. This experience triggered me to discover more about myself, which led me on a path of several other worthwhile pursuits. It was one of those experiences that taught me an incredible amount about life and myself. In this article, I’d like to share some of those lessons.

 

#1 Build confidence by having positive reference experiences

“The great mistake is to anticipate the outcome of the engagement; you ought not to be thinking of whether it ends in victory or defeat. Let nature take its course, and your tools will strike at the right moment.” ― Bruce Lee

Had I only understood this when I was fighting, it might have changed everything. I shot for the moon and missed. Well, maybe I should have shot for walking out of the door first and, I don’t know, inspect the rocket’s launching site or something.

There is absolutely no reason to ever severely over-challenge yourself. It’s far better to slowly increase the difficulty and get accustomed to it. Even if you did manage to pull it off and you are now officially on the moon, would you even know what to do there? You didn’t even bring a space suit bro.

It sounds silly but I’m very serious about this. Say that you did win and people now have all these high expectations of you, even though it’s way too early for that—would that actually benefit your career? I don’t think so. It’s short-term thinking, not a feasible long-term strategy. Thinking big isn’t about aiming for the moon. It’s about taking comfortable steps forward with the occasional leap.

 

#2 Find and maintain your equilibrium

“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” ― Bruce Lee

You may extend the limits of this equilibrium quite a bit, but you cannot simply ignore the physical limits of your body and mind. Particularly when you are a high performer it’s imperative that you familiarize yourself with your mental and bodily signals, and know when to cut back and when to push through.

Meditation and yoga are practices that I believe can really help you with this. For example, in a typical session of meditative Hatha yoga you spend >45 minutes slowly going in and out of certain positions while attending to your physical limitations and respecting them. The beauty of this is that, at a certain point, your mental patterns become apparent.

You may notice a tendency to give up when a position gets tough, or you might notice some harsh self-talk when you’re not able to get into a certain position, or perhaps you feel an impulse to push a little harder when the going gets tough, which is something that I frequently noticed in myself.

Note that none of these patterns are inherently good or bad, they are just part of the experience. Simply recognizing them and observing how they influence you in such a simple isometric hold, can potentially teach you a lot about how you deal with stresses in real life. Which, in turn, makes you better equipped to deal with such stresses and make informed decisions about what to do and what not to do.

 

#3 Question your motivations

“I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.” ― Bruce Lee

Ask yourself: are you someone who is truly willing to sacrifice everything for a single pursuit? The answer to this question isn’t trivial. It takes a particular kind of person to go all-in, and to be honest, I’m not sure whether I am such a person.

I see myself more as a generalist. I have wide-ranging interests, which is why I write these blogs, pursue education in Computational Science and Neuroscience, work as a freelance personal trainer, meditate, practice a wide variety of sports, practice the guitar daily and try to meet lots of different people.

I consider myself to be only average at all of these things, yet this does not matter! It’s about the things themselves and the enjoyment I get out of them. That does not mean I don’t take my training or learning seriously, because I do. But the value of it isn’t usually weighted against the level of the best people in those specific fields; it’s just me, improving perpetually, hopefully touching the lives of people in some way.

Nevertheless, I feel like I have unique value to add to each of these fields. Lots of skills, such as writing, scientific reasoning, effective communication and efficient learning are highly transferable. And I believe that it ultimately is skills like these that will equip your mind for addressing problems in several different fields, something that is likely beneficial to creative innovation, for example. Hence, I personally strive to be more like a Benjamin Franklin than an extreme specialist. It suits me better.

So when a singular activity becomes all-consuming, question it! Is this something you actually want to give up several aspects of your life for? Conversely, if you feel a pull towards something but you’ve not been spending enough time on it, maybe you need to converge your attention into that direction. Why do you do the things you do?

 

#4 Confront your shame

“Empty your cup so that it may be filled; become devoid to gain totality.” ― Bruce Lee

The truth is, I never was as impressive at fighting as I desperately wanted to be. I made the mistake of dreaming way too far ahead and identifying with that crystal ball image to such an extend that the tough road still ahead of me became increasingly gloom. (For more on this topic, read Ego is The Enemy.)

Even years after quitting MMA, I would still occasionally dream of having a fighting-record of 20 wins and 0 losses. Back then I thought those numbers said so much about me. I was ashamed that I couldn’t live up to that.

The thing is, people might care somewhat, but not nearly as much as you think. You’re such a tiny spec of another person’s experience. They truly couldn’t care less about my MMA record. They care about how I interact with them and how they feel around me. It took me a while to fully comprehend that.

You see, it doesn’t matter that you’re not as good as people think you are, or perhaps don’t look very fit when you take off your clothes. It does not matter whether you got fired, or that your girlfriend cheated on you. Very few people will actually think less of you. And there you are, worrying about it; such are the tricks of the mind.

Over the years, I’ve often found that things holding me back in my personal journey were related to shame. Things that I may not have been able to admit to even myself. And bringing such things to my awareness and then letting them go, has really made a positive impact on me.

Shame is a perfectly natural emotion, something that we can all relate to. And shame is mostly harmless, as long as we allow it to be there, out in the open. Yet the avoidance of shame is toxic. It can lead to anger and violence, avoidance of situations and people, and truly take over parts of your life if you let it.

The answer, of course, is to let shame be: “yep, this is how it is, you heard that exactly right.” Beautiful, isn’t it? No apologies, no regrets. And when doing that, you find that you’ve been fooling yourself all along. For it wasn’t so bad, was it?

People didn’t care nearly as much as you’d have thought. The worst-case scenario is that they just shrug their shoulders and get on with their day, but who knows? You may have just become more intimate with another person, and perhaps they have something they’d like to get off their chest as well.

Something that has really helped me throughout this process is participating in men’s groups. There is nothing quite like having a circle of brothers around you as you speak aloud the things that frighten and shame you, and receive unconditional love, attention and recognition in return.

Of course this isn’t limited to guys, nor is it limited to groups. You can share your shame with your partner, a family member, a good friend, or even someone who’s new in your life. In fact, you don’t even have to have anyone around. Just admit to yourself whatever you’ve been avoiding. It might make all the difference.

Release yourself from those chains. I’ve noticed that with shame, simply putting my finger on it and giving it some room to breathe, is often enough to make it magnitudes less powerful. Try it. You’ll likely find that you have more in common with the rest of the world than you might think.

So, these were some of the lessons I’ve learned from fighting MMA. I still love watching the sport, teaching the techniques, occasionally practicing it and talking about it, but it’s not something I would likely ever get seriously into again. Still, I love the part that it has played in my life and I would recommend anyone who enjoys challenging themselves to at least try a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or (kick)boxing class sometime. It may impact your life as it has mine. Osu!

How certain can we be?

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman

When can we say that we truly know something?

For the majority of our existence, humankind has not actually known how to answer this question satisfactorily. We were asked to believe things, often we were even forced to believe them. But we never quite figured out how to separate the wheat from the chaff until we discovered the scientific method.

 

The scientific method

Science is what brought us out from under the clouded sky of false certainty. It ended the dark ages and started shifting us away from the paradigm of religions. The universe opened up all of the sudden. Science gave us the freedom to wonder about things that, until then, were thought of as ‘understood’ while, in fact, they weren’t.

The power of science is perfectly illustrated in Yuval Noah Harari’s wonderful book Sapiens, which attributes Europe becoming the world’s center of power in the early modern period to its scientific thinking and behaving. European imperialism, for example, was made possible by a drive for discovery at a time when other empires assumed they already understood the world.

The scientific method is extremely simple: we come up with some theory of how the world works. We then formulate a hypothesis or prediction based on this theory, manipulate something in the (real or simulated) world, and observe the effects of our manipulations. Finally, we express how strong these effects were, how certain we are of them (i.e. to what extend we can expect these effects to always occur) and whether we can generalize them to fit our theory. For the latter, we typically need much more than one set of experiments.

An important thing to note here is that we never actually prove a hypothesis. We can only try our absolute best to disprove it and then say something about how hard we’ve tried. If we try hard to disprove hypotheses that fit our theory and repeatedly fail at that, we grow more confident about our theory.

Thus a scientific theory may become a practically useful form of ‘truth’. And no matter the metaphysical arguments one might come up with against this definition of truth, when a theory can put us on the moon, it at least is true enough for practical applications.

Now, of course, mistakes are made along the way. We’re all human. But that’s the whole thing about real science: pointing out mistakes is applauded! We are in this boat together, trying to disprove everything and hoping to find something that remains standing despite our best efforts.

In science, discussion is considered useful and not “a lack of faith”. This is highly beneficial if we want to make valid claims about how the world works. Coming up with ideas and debating them is extremely important. Because if we know one thing for certain, it’s that we humans are easily fooled by our sense.

 

Why it took us so long to discover Evolution Theory

Darwin’s Evolution Theory is a prime example of a beautiful scientific theory that we are really certain about. In his book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins talks about how it took us surprisingly long to uncover the basis of evolution: natural selection, and how its discovery was likely blocked by a (Platonian) essentialist tendency that resides in all of us.

We are simply easily fooled by our senses. We know rabbits as they  currently are, so we assume there must be some kind of ‘average’ rabbit from which all rabbits grow. However, it isn’t so simple. This bell-shaped curve we imagine with our average rabbit at its center, is on an ever-evolving continuum. The average rabbit of today isn’t the same as the one of 10.000 years ago. And if we go back far enough, there is a common ancestor, which may not look like anything we even know today but still exists, connecting every species to every other species.

Obviously this is not something we can actually observe, and it’s inferred from the theory of evolution. But the evidence for it is overwhelming. We have tried to disprove the theory of evolution many, many times and failed. That’s how we know that, at least to some extend, we can consider it to be true.

 

Problems with the applications of science

So why am I talking about this?

Well, because I think that science is the only true means we have of debating truth. And the above exemplifies how laborious it is to be able to say whether we can consider something to be true or not.

Science is not something we can always easily use, you see. It works really well on relatively simple systems but for more complex systems (with many, many unpredictable variables such as social systems) it becomes increasingly difficult and usually less exact.

And so science is abused a lot. Popular “scientific” books are written on topics such as nutrition and behaviour, where they cherry pick results and use single studies (that have not even really tried hard to disprove a theory) to make their point.

This is why we have books making “scientific” claims about western meat consumption causing a cancer epidemic, while other books claim that vegetarian food is unnatural and is therefore, in fact, the ultimate cause of an increase in cancer patients.

The problem here is that it’s now completely unclear what we can and should believe. Do we still trust science? It leads many people to believe that science is useless and that, for example, global warming is not real despite overwhelming evidence.

 

False certainty in today’s world

In today’s era of fake news and Internet bogus, it’s as important as ever (perhaps more) that we ask ourselves how certain we are about things.

I know many people who, when reading a news-head that starts with “scientists say,” abandon all skepticism and just accept the content as true. Yet, for each such person I know another who does not trust science at all, who points out all the controversy and just has his own truth to believe in.

I think both these groups of people are completely wrong but, in a way, they are both also a little bit right. I believe science is the only way through which we can objectively approach truth. However, that does not mean that science is not messy business. Science is never the actual truth, which we should already know because it does not claim to be. It’s just the closest thing to it.

We should also realise that what newspapers and popular books write about science isn’t the same thing as a scientific paper, which includes nuances and puts the experimental results in a broader context. Many non-scientific sources create an illusion of certainty. Sometimes they overvalue science, sometimes they ignore it completely. Either case is wrong.

If you really want to understand what’s going on, you will probably need to dive into the material yourself and understand some basics about the field you are reading about. This is something I would recommend to anyone who feels like having a productive debate on some matter. It has never been easier to educate yourself on certain fields of science, just look for courses on Coursera or Udemy, or one of the other countless online learning platforms.

 

How certain can we be?

So, how certain can we be? Well, the truth is that in daily matters, we are often not very certain. A lot of social and political issues do not lend themselves to the more rigorous of scientific methods as they are simply too complex or do not involve (currently) testable variables.

That is not to say that we cannot approach such problems scientifically, but it means that in the fields where we perhaps need to be most rigorous and careful, we are often a bit sloppy and overestimate the questionable results we get. I’m not sure why that is.

It’s also important to note that we can only address a matter scientifically when we are able to formulate a testable hypothesis. If we cannot, then science is out of the question. This excludes many questions of morality, such as whether it’s “good” to try this or that.

With that in mind, I think it’s completely valid to, apart from science, rely on people’s expertise in many practical matters. However, we must never confuse the concept of truth with this expertise. That it sounds logical, does not make it true. And that it feels right, does not make it right. Even though logic and intuition may certainly have some place in a political discussion, we must always wonder about testable facts.

And when science isn’t going to help us further solve a problem, we still need scientific skepticism. We need to distinguish expert opinion from scientific truth. It’s the only way for us to have a constructive conversation about any important topic.

 

Safeguarding uncertainty

We must recognise that we don’t know anything for certain, and that we can only know something to be true to a certain degree. This should be reflected in how strongly we believe things. We must exercise our tolerance for uncertainty.

So let’s be uncertain, let’s try to disprove our own beliefs rather than just surmounting evidence for them. Freedom of speech is paramount and we can never allow it to be restricted for whatever reason. Let’s be sceptics, but of the curious kind who want to understand things, not the kind that piss on real evidence in order to feel good about their faulty values.

We don’t all have to be scientists, but we do all need to accept uncertainty and understand what science is and what it isn’t. If we fail at that, we become victims of international media, victims of our newsfeeds, victims of what authorities want us to believe, victims of our own irrational tendencies.

Nearly all of us have access to the tools of educating ourselves. Let’s use them! The internet has made information gathering much easier, yet it has also made us lazy and unfocused. We cannot read a single headline and let that be our go-to opinion from now on. Ignorance is the real issue here, it always has been. So seek to move towards uncertainty, that means reading arguments against your opinions and allowing the opposition to speak their minds. Only then the world can actually move forward.

 

Richard Feynman on science and uncertainty

I would like to end this post with a passage from Nobel Prize laureate Richard Feynman from the book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. I also highly recommend that you read this full transcript of Feynman’s Caltech Commencement address in 1974 on Cargo Cult Science.

“It is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding, we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.

That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty… Every one of the concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at neither end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth.”