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The Power of Observation

My wife and I were watching an episode of The Good Wife last week. Towards the middle of this episode character Will Gardner was hand writing a list on legal paper. Certainly not unusual. But what was odd is that while he held his pen with his left hand (there seems to be a disproportionate number of lefties in the show in general – accidental or by design?), he held it like he was right handed with his thumb wrapped around his index and middle finger. Then in an aerial shot the pen was in his right hand. But the way he held the pen was the same in both shots and very natural.

It turns out that the actor in mention, Josh Charles, is in fact left handed and writes with what is known as a closed web space handwriting style, common with right handed people. So why the strange aerial shot? Noticing an actor’s dominant hand is not designed to dismiss or point out a flaw but rather to raise a curiosity. What was the purpose of two different hands holding the same pen? What purpose or problem did this fix?

I recently started reading On Looking: 11 Walks with Expert Eyes, by Alexandra Horowitz. The book chronicles a series of walks she has taken around New York City with a collection of experts from geologists to calligraphers. On each walk she experienced a world around her that she was oblivious to previously, all while filling in the reasons from a neurological basis.

It seems that experts are experts at seeing one thing. In a hyper-specialized world we can only process so much. But to experience the same situation with new eyes is to, in a way, become more awake.

Interestingly enough the first expert she brings is her toddler. His height and underdeveloped attention made for a clever companion on a simple walk around the block. Kids learn to see and hear everything before learning to tune out some parts versus hearing others.

A baby might early on learn to ignore the sound of a news anchor on the screen but will clearly hear a mother’s voice.  Ms. Horowitz’ son wasn’t looking for street signs and shop logos but saw shapes all around him. That openness to stimulus placed him fully in that moment, focused not to an internal monologue or list of to-dos, but in the center of a moment looking at every gate and piece of trash and bird that came across his path.

Where I do not think attention to everything is possible – we are blessed and cursed with a limited ability to process stimulus – I do think there is something magical about seeing what is in front of us for what it really is. Sometimes its helpful and meaningful to tune out the monologue or shut off the constant music and simply notice what is around us. Even the most well walked stretch of pavement between two points is full of what we do not yet know.

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What I am Learning from a Self-Imposed, 6 Month Purchasing Freeze

If I were to say I am a shopping addict, the image you might create is of a guy carrying a dozen bags on each arm walking distractedly towards the next store in a shopping mall. In reality I am more of an obsessive online spender. I’m what Malcolm Gladwell calls a maven. Purchasing is a sport, a hobby, predicated on making the very best decision based first a learning of everything you can about a product category.

I once spent 40+ hours researching a storm shell (a hyped-up rain jacket). I looked at the weights, limitations, and benefits of every breathable clothing material. I looked at the variations in seam sealing techniques of every major manufacturer. I watched online videos of jacket owners performing tests and looking for flaws in design and build. I looked for features like pocket designs, hood configurations, and adaptability.

I would feel a rush when I made my way to an REI or received a box from the one online retailer in the US selling products produced by an obscure Scandinavian manufacturer offering a slightly different design variation than that of Marmot, TNF, or other more ubiquitous US manufacturers. And I did this with survival knives, camping equipment, flashlights, cooking equipment, electronics and more. After one project was completed I was on to the next, accompanied with a sense of urgency and importance.

I have realized that my desire to learn and the excitement of the purchase (that emotional rush that comes when new packages arrive in the mail) combined into an obsessive compulsive, out of control spiraling that would infringe on my ability to focus fully or ever hope to exist in the moment. There is a sense of urgency with this type of purchasing. I would feel as though something was wrong or missing until I had discovered and owned that perfect purchase. And the longer I “researched” and obsessed, the more exciting the fulfillment would become.

Companies know this to be true. Product marketing and branding professionals place significance on products and features, each year offering a better version of the last. What came last year was good, but what we have this year is even warmer, better, safer, more breathable, more resilient, better customized for specific applications, smaller, lighter, revolutionary, cutting edge, or just plain game changing. Every year we are told our lives will be better with this unique, more improved product.

And in some cases this is true. But when I walk around in my hi-tech, rain proof jacket with storm flaps, pit zips, and a material guaranteed to keep moisture out while still remaining breathable I should remind myself that the first few individuals to climb Everest or walk to the South Pole did so with animal furs, cotton, and wool. Do I really need the latest advancement in waterproof protection to help on the walk from my car to the office? Do I really need a survival knife with just the perfect balance between length, weight, and steel? Will 1095 carbon, VG10, or 154cm really make a big difference on those 20 mile r/t backpacking or simple car camping trips on heavily populated trails (if you understand this sentence, you may too have a problem)? Will the jump from 140 to 160 lumens in a flashlight make a difference in my way of life?

But Robert, you say, this is a hobby! Sure. I get it completely. Its fun to learn and use this knowledge. But is this the best use of your time or could you possibly be filling in space that could be more useful as, say, room to breathe?

For the past five months, as part of a New Year’s resolution, I have almost entirely cut out extraneous spending from my life, and by default obsessive product researching. I have purchased only the very basics, and then only just a few items. On two separate occasions I began the process of looking for something I deemed “necessary”, my brain tricking me into old behaviors. And after feeling the obsessive and emotional inclinations pop back up, I cancelled the search. That was as or perhaps more rewarding as not purchasing in the first place.

After the first two months I began to notice an increase in the time I had available. I started going to the gym, attending a weekly meditation class, and spending time reading. I went out more often and spent time wandering around the city. Most importantly I spent time thinking critically about where I was and where I wanted to be.

Critical thinking is something that is a bit of a challenge when applied to the self. We all know the old adage about the unexamined life, but we also know how much easier it is to pick the problem out in someone else than to see the glaring error in what we do ourselves. And we also get caught in patterns of behavior rather than look at what those behaviors mean.

Throughout the last few months I have been keeping tally of my emotional impulses (what else can I do with all of this free time?). There are trends in what and how I look for purchases. Some results include:

  • I am inclined to purchase survival type equipment when I feel powerless
  • I am inclined to research vacations or travel options when I feel stuck
  • I am prone to distract myself with entertainment when I know I have something serious to consider or accomplish
  • I am inclined to purchase cooking equipment when I feel tired of what I’m doing at home

Do you see the trend? My inclination towards purchasing and distraction are directly correlated with a deficiency in my emotional well-being: aka, I have been self-medicating. My purchasing has not been meaningless. It has a cause and an effect. The cause is the set of emotions that are felt due to stressors and variables felt in my life. The effect is that I am unable to deal with the cause because I am not aware of it due to the fullness of my mind in relation to purchasing. The emotional impulses are not satisfied, they are simply brushed aside.

In the short time I have been stepping back from purchasing I have noticed small windows of growing clarity. I’m already finding that I have time for to create better boundaries, channel impulses, create opportunities, be more present in every moment, ease stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed, and develop more room to breathe and examine what is really going on in my life.

There was a study once in which researchers looked at the lives of lottery winners. They found that after their win, these new millionaires would keep purchasing more and more expensive items and adapting to a more expensive lifestyle. Essentially, what thrilled them once no longer thrilled them and they needed more and more spending to feel the enjoyment they once felt. This was termed the hedonic escalator.

Take that idea and apply to purchasing, entertainment, or anything else that is enjoyable but capable of moving into a space out of control. I joke with people that I am either spiraling upwards or downwards. I am either moving towards positive actions or negative. I cannot stay still. I know that I’m not alone. The question then becomes, what are you moving towards, and are you aware of this movement? What could you gain by taking a step back?

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Early Morning

The mornings I leave home as or before the sun peaks above the hills I feel as though I am a part of a secret the rest of the city is missing.

It is a quiet stillness in colors, orange and red.

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Ideas

I write until I am finished. Thoughts are given life when they appear on a screen, in  a conversation, on paper. If we encourage an idea and help it breathe, we create something new in the universe. What if someone, somewhere previously had this idea? They didn’t. The connections and neural pathways that form the foundation of the idea are wholly yours.

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Decisions

There is a whole world waiting, each day, each second, to be created with every action we make. We turn left rather than right, choose to call that friend or uncle or not, look someone in the eyes or walk away. A thousand decisions every day, one outcome. We can not say that life is unfair when we have again and again lived as active participants in our own decision making.

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