Boredom

I think often about boredom.  I do this because I am bored.  Often.

If you really dig into it, I think boredom is actually pretty interesting.  Whenever I tell someone I’m bored, or hear that they are, I’m skeptical that we’re actually talking about the same thing.  I think language is pretty interesting that way, but I’ll save exploring that for another post.

So lets talk about the same thing:

boredom

noun
1. the state of being bored; tedium; ennui.

 Thanks, dictionary.com, super useful.  Lets try again.

bore

verb (used with object), bored, boring.

1. to weary by dullness, tedious repetition, unwelcome attentions, etc.:

The long speech bored me.

So, I think that’s a useful starting point, at least for identifying the specific feeling.  But it’s superficial – really superficial.  Like it could be cured, or at least papered over by a particularly exciting show on TV.  I don’t think that covers it.

I think boredom is more nuanced.  It’s not a switch – you’re bored or you’re not.  I think boredom is a symptom of deeper longing for something – sometimes acute, but often not.

While we tend to think specific actions will cure our boredom, the reality is probably that we’re looking for specific feelings – adventure, excitement, fulfillment, responsibility, coziness, quiet, danger, etc. The actions are merely a catalyst for these feelings.

Why is the distinction important?  You identify that you’re bored, you do something – go for a walk, watch TV, eat (I’m a particular fan of eating as a treatment to boredom), and then you go on with your day.

Being forced to identify why you’re bored means admitting what you want, and what is lacking.  Maybe it’s as simple as “I need to be relax entertained for a few minutes by something on YouTube, because I’ve been responding to emails for an hour, and my brain is tired.”  Fine.

But maybe it’s not so simple.  Maybe it’s “I need to do something big, out of the ordinary, because my day to day is too routine.”  Or “I need to do something meaningful – I need to really feel like I’m making a difference in someone’s life, because it’s been too long since I’ve felt that way.”  But it’s subtle. In the moment, it doesn’t feel so different from when you’ve been responding to emails for an hour.

So you watch something on YouTube.

Indifference

Indifferent people are afraid of the world and the repercussions of their own choices. That’s why they don’t make any meaningful choices. They hide in a gray, emotionless pit of their own making, self-absorbed and self-pitying, perpetually distracting themselves from this unfortunate thing demanding their time and energy called life.

Manson, Mark (2016-09-13). The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life (p. 15). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

I’m a follower.  Sometimes I blame this on the fact that I’m the last of 4 siblings – I had several people more than willing to make plans and decisions growing up, all I had to do was sit back and go with the flow.  Going with the flow can be a useful trait, and one I value pretty highly – but when I ran across this paragraph, it hit me pretty hard.

I don’t make choices.  Sometimes I don’t make choices because I just legitimately don’t care.  Want to go out to dinner?  I’ll go literally anywhere.  Anywhere.  And I’ll be fine with it.  Want to make plans?  I don’t have any, but whatever you want to do is fine.

I’ve become suspicious that long term, there’s a cost to living this way – to constantly going with the flow, and relying on others to make plans or take charge. Moment to moment, it’s convenient.  But, while there’s value in the ability to be content with whatever choice is made, at the end of the day, I’m living with someone else’s choices, not making them myself.  At some point, I fear that results in living someone else’s life – or worse, living an average of the life of all the people I interact with. Life by committee.

The alternative, for me, or people like me, is scary – for exactly the reasons Manson describes. Indifferent people are afraid of the world and the repercussions of their own choices.   Choosing means being willing to deal with the consequences of my choices.  Even something as simple as dinner bears consequences.  What if it’s bad, or people don’t like it?

Maybe more significantly, publicly making a choice means being vulnerable. Indifference is a shield, ready to be wielded to ward off prying eyes into who I am and what I value – and by extension, avoiding criticism on those things.  It’s safer to stay indifferent – to feel out what other people think or feel before speaking, and lessen the risk of saying or doing anything particularly authentic.

The next time you and I go out to dinner, and it comes time to choose a place, and I inevitably tell you “I don’t care”, or “I’m game for anything”,  just leave without me.

 

Unbound

My name is Jordi Tosas, and I’m a very simple person.  I simply earn my living in the mountains an I live in the mountains.  It’s as clear and simple as that.  I live with the sun, I celebrate each moment as if it were my last, and I hope to live many more years like this. 

Everyone with a pulse should watch this.

 

 

If you’re not up for 16 minutes of it, I’d start by saying you should re-evaluate your priorities, because whatever else you were going to do in the next 15 minute is less important.  Even so, if you’re only going to watch 2 minutes, watch the 2 starting at 14:00.

Then weep, quit your job, and reevaluate your life.

The Problem with this Nice House

A while back I watched Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Working title: “Tina Fey the War Correspondent”. It was nice. I laughed. I cried. I don’t know if those things are true, it was months ago. I remember enjoying it, I guess.

I remember very little of the plot – but the very rough arc is that a reporter from a local news station, bored, disillusioned with the state and progress of her life, takes an opportunity to be a war correspondent in Afghanistan. She gets there, it’s interesting, or something. I don’t know. She likes it? Epiphanies are had, I bet.

Here’s the important part, the tiny, throwaway bit that has stuck with me for the many months since forgetting the character’s name, or the finer points of the plot: While working in Afghanistan, the reporters live in pretty terrible conditions. They stay in (what appear to be) tiny, dirty apartments. They’re far from the comforts of home. The beds look terrible. These are professionals. They’re adults. They’re not destitute. But their living conditions are so unimportant as to not deserve any dialogue, any explanation or discussion, other than serving as a background to the story. Why?

I wouldn’t have acknowledged this before, certainly not out loud, but I equate the state of someone’s sleeping arrangements with their level of success. Mattress on the floor? That’s a raised eyebrow from me. Cot in a dirty apartment? Things must have gone terribly wrong.

The sleeping arrangements win WTF struck me as so interesting precisely because of what it said about what is important: These reporters were completely willing to sleep in what I’d probably refer to as unacceptable conditions because the rest of their days were so compelling. If you’re doing important work, work you believe in, and you’re giving it everything you’ve got, who cares what your sleeping arrangements are? Where you sleep is so trivial as to be completely irrelevant.

It’s been months, and this idea sticks in my head. I think about it every time we talk about putting new floors in upstairs, and we talk about that often. Every time we talk about a new kitchen appliance, or consider redoing the shower in the master bath. I thought about it when I excitedly brought home a big new TV at Christmas.

How stylish your house is, how big, comfortable, and well decorated your bed is – these things are most important to me when I’m so spectacularly bored with the rest of my life that I let myself believe they’re important, and that I care about them. My living arrangements are a distraction that I pull up to avoid facing hard truths about how much I care about the way I spend my time, the way I live my life.

I’d love to finish this post with how it’s convinced me to change my life and priorities, but I’m headed out to Lowe’s to look at flooring.

Consistency

My coworker Joe posted about consistency in fitness a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been stewing over it since.

I have a lot of ideas.  I’m interested in a lot of things.  All the time.  That’s good – I like being excited about life, learning, and experiences.   I want to know how the universe works.  I want to understand the details That led to WWII.  I want to understand calculus.  Really understand calculus.  I want to learn how to fix my car.  I want to write machine learning algorithms.  I want to be able to run fast.  I want to build a sprinkler system controller that interfaces with my phone.  I want to explore strange places.  I want to start another business. I want to be good at growing tomatoes.  I want to climb mountains.  Lots of them.

I also have a full time job, and a wife, and some kids.  I can’t do everything I want to do.  Even without the job, wife, and children, I couldn’t do them all. Progressing at any single thing comes at the expense of several others, at least in the short term.

What’s left is a question of priorities: what do I most want to learn, do, experience?

All this does have something to do with consistency.  In order to achieve consistency, and its benefits — to commit the time and effort toward a goal day after day for long enough to gain traction and get somewhere — requires real commitment.  Maintaining that commitment means trusting the initial decision, and sticking to it, which feels like a terrible thing – ignoring the ten things you want to do for the one thing you’re actually doing.

So, what is consistency to me, really?  It’s making a decision, and then not second guessing it for long enough to see it through.

Need Keyboard Shortcuts? Use Cheatsheet.

If you use a computer much at all, you quickly realize that time spent reaching for your mouse is time wasted.  It sounds trivial, but somehow, the effort to move your hand to the mouse, move it to figure out where the cursor is, and then do whatever it is you need to do has a magical ability to slow me down and break my concentration. Any time I can keep my hands on the keyboard rather than the mouse or the trackpad, it’s a victory.

So, it was with great excitement that I happened upon CheatSheet today.  Install it, and hold down the command key, and voila:

cheatsheet

A list of keyboard shortcuts for the current application.

It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t catch all shortcuts in every app – but it’s useful enough to install.

Being Reliable

I’m a sucker for digest emails from Quora.  They get me to click through nearly every time, because they’re routinely filled with really great content.

A couple days ago I ran across the question “From the perspective of a CEO, what are the most underrated skills most employees lack?”  A terrible question, slathered in things that annoy me – “most underrated”? “most employees lack?”  It all makes me think of stupid life hacks, and people looking for secret shortcuts – but it had some really great answers just the same.  This one from Auren Hoffman really stuck out to me:

If you consistently do what you say you will do, you will almost certainly be someone people desire to have on their teams.  It is so rare that when you work with someone who is reliable, you never ever want to work with anyone else.  You will do anything to keep that person on your team.
Doing what you say you are going to do starts with setting the right expectations.  If you tell someone you will get them the deliverable by Tuesday, you need to understand that it can actually be delivered by Tuesday.  If you are good, you are probably factoring in slack in case someone in corporate slows you down or your child gets sick.

And so if your boss wants something done Monday and you think it cannot be done until Wednesday, you need to be up-front.  Because once a date is agreed to, you’re on the hook for accomplishing it.

 

On its face, this seems super obvious (which makes it even better – it’s not sneaky or surprising or underrated) – but it got me thinking: am I lax in doing what I say I’ll do?  How bad is it? How annoyed are people with me about it?  Not just at work either – at home, and anywhere else I interact with people, how often do I treat spoken agreements with nothing more than passing interest – to be fulfilled if I happen to remember?

So I’ve been giving some thought to being more reliable.  Auren hits on these points briefly in his post, but it’s worth fleshing out: what does it take to be more reliable?

For me, it’s 2 things:

1. Remembering what it is I say I’ll do.

I’ve got a terrible memory, and as I said, I treat conversations pretty lightly. As a result, I often just forget things that are talked about, or agreed upon.  upon reflection, I realize how terrible that really is.  So step 1 is to start writing down everything I agree to – from work plans to calling the eye doctor and making an appointment.

2. Saying no.

When you don’t put much stock in your verbal agreements, yes comes quickly and easily.  Why wouldn’t it, if it’s meaningless?  The problem with following through is that you quickly find yourself too busy to finish everything you’ve agreed to – meaning that if you really want to do what you say, you’ve got to get real about your time constraints, workload, and priorities – and say no much more often.

The Dark Side of Trial and Error

I’m a trial and error kind of guy. It’s how I got through the few math classes I got through in high school, and how I learned to code. It’s still how I code, more often than I like to admit. It’s like a trusty friend, and it’s always there for me. Except when it’s not.

I own an old Honda Civic. It’s a relic from my pre-child, pre-wife days. I’ve thought about getting rid of it a number of times, but I can’t really pull the trigger. It takes me hiking, and skiing, and to the airport when I don’t have the family with me. And it’s fun to drive.

However, it’s no spring chicken. It’s almost 2 decades old. If cars could get driver’s licenses, it would be able to drive itself. Still, I hang onto it.

About a year ago, I realized the rear passenger door wouldn’t open from the outside. I thought it was locked. It wasn’t. Weird. It opened just fine from the inside, was definitely unlocked, but would not open from the outside. Nobody ever really rides in the car with me though, and certainly not enough people to require filling up the backseat, so I ignored it.

A few months go by, and this has become very occasionally annoying. If I ever need to put something in the back seat, I invariably try the passenger side first, and then have to walk around to do it, or to open the passenger door from the inside. I’m annoyed enough now that I’m passively trying to figure out how I’m going to fix it.

Until one day, when it finally hits me. I sat down in the car to drive to the office, and the thought of the non-working rear passenger door flashed through my head. And so did the solution. Of course! How could I be so stupid! The child lock! It’s got to be the child lock! I bet my son did it. Little rascal.

I got out of the car, reached through from the driver side to the passenger side, and opened the door. Ran around the outside to the passenger side.

I got down to have a look, and the child lock wasn’t on, as I expected – it was off. Weird. But that was easily explained, right? I had never actually used the child lock on this car. I bet the sticker is just upside down or something. That happens, right? Sure. Just flip the switch, it will work. Awesome.

So I toggle the child lock. At this point, it appears I’ve turned the child lock on – but hey, trial and error. And I shut the door. And in the very moment that the door slams shut, I remember how child locks actually work – by disabling the interior handle, not the exterior one.

And that was the last time that door ever opened.

Social Media Does Not Count as a Break.

It’s Tuesday afternoon. 3:15. I’m at my desk, computer open, headphones on. I pull up Facebook. Then my email. Maybe there’s something new on Vimeo. Back to email.

I have things to do, of course. There’s always more work than there is time. I enjoy my work. I don’t loathe turning on my computer in the morning, or coming back from a vacation – in fact, I often look forward to it. So why am I checking Facebook again?

Like everyone (I hope), I sometimes just don’t have it in me. Maybe I didn’t sleep well the night before. Maybe I’ve been working on difficult problems all morning, and now I can’t face the thought of trying to create a new solution, or understand a new problem right at this moment.

So I type in F and let chrome autocomplete fill in acebook.com again. Nonsense. Scroll down. More nonsense. Check email again. Go get a snack.

Except, when I get back from that snack, or discover once again that there’s nothing interesting on Facebook, I still don’t want to work. The little break I took didn’t recharge me, it made me more bored, more desperate for distraction. So, in most cases, I immediately, unthinkingly, start the process again. Facebook. Email. Reddit. Repeat.

Somehow this feels even more sinister when you work from home, or in any environment where you’re not next to your coworkers. When you’re at an office, or a grocery store, or a ski shop, (all places I’ve worked in the past) you are proving your value to the company on a superficial level simply by physically being in the correct location. Even if you’re not doing anything productive, at least everybody knows you’re not enjoying yourself somewhere else. Suffering is almost as good as productivity.

At home, no one knows what I’m doing – so I feel a strange urge to sit at my desk. After all – even if I’m not being productive, at least Im in the right place, right? That’s what my employment history taught me was important.

At some point, spurred by the particularly progressive environment at Automattic, it occurred to me to just give up the charade. Nobody cares if I’m at my desk from 9 – 5. If I don’t feel like working at 3:15 on a Tuesday, I can just stop working. Play a game, watch a movie – or better yet, get up and walk away from the computer. Go for a walk, or a bike ride. Read a book. Work on the bench I’m building. Take the kids to the park. Do anything except sit at the desk and suffer.

Initially, this feels really wrong – the reason I allow myself to check Facebook is because I can do it quickly, and come back to work. 2 minute break, I tell myself. I can’t get the kids to the park and back in 2 minutes. A quick glance at Facebook won’t waste the afternoon – a trip to the park will. The responsible employee just glances at Facebook and then gets back to it.

Except that’s not how it works. A quick glance at Facebook won’t waste the afternoon in theory – but depending on my mood, I won’t be back to doing productive work in 2 minutes. Sometimes I won’t be back to productive work in 30 minutes, or an hour, or 2 hours. What’s worse, I’ll be enduring a potent mix of boredom, self loathing, and irritation the entire time. By choosing a distraction that

  • I don’t really like
  • Is very short

I’m guaranteed to finish it almost exactly as I started. My brain hasn’t had time to recharge and there hasn’t been time (or reason) for my mood to change, so I’ll just start again. Except this time I know that I’m once again choosing to take a break, piling on a second helping of the self loathing that comes from knowing that I’m making a decision not to work when I feel like I should.

I’I haven’t found a way to force myself to do things when I’m not in the mood (with occasional exceptions – like pending deadlines, broken production code, etc). I’ll keep working on that, although I’m not sure it’s possible in any sort of sustainable way. In the meantime, at least I can make the best of my downtime.

Choosing to sit at the computer and consume social media when I feel like I need a break under the guise of “getting back to work quickly”, or “staying at my desk” is not innocuous. It’s bad for me, and therefore my work (and my employer), as I almost end up in a worse mental state than when I started.


So, you know, lay off Facebook in the middle of the day.

School: the Farmers’ Almanac of Success

Spoiler: The Farmers’ Almanac is terrible at actually forecasting the weather.

I’ve never been a particularly good student. In fact, in high school, you could safely classify me as a “poor” student. I was lazy. I had a hard time paying attention in class. I often misunderstood (or completely ignored) the concepts being taught. I almost never did homework. I graduated on time, but my doing so was more uncertain than I like admitting.

I feel like my school career up to that point was particularly hard on my parents: being told by teacher after teacher that I could be great, if I just applied myself. The subtext seemed to be: “Well, you got the genetics right, but you raised a lazy, apathetic child. You should try harder.”

I was just a bad student.

After high school, things didn’t change. I got accepted to a few 4 year schools (due entirely to my ability to do well on standardized tests), but I ended up attending the local community college. I continued to flounder there, and gave up after a few years of lackluster effort.

Somehow, giving up on community college was the right choice. Things slowly started to improve. I taught myself to bumble through code (which had been of interest to me for years), and started doing maintenance and small website projects for people. I really enjoyed the work, and I enjoyed the challenge of learning on my own, so I excelled. In some ways, this was surprising: I enjoyed learning, and I was good at it.

This love for code and fascination with learning slowly blossomed into a career – a great career that supports my family, in a growing industry, doing work I love. I naiively assumed that everything would work out in the long run. I was never worried about being dumb, or not being able to make it.

But I imagine there are lots of kids who do poorly in school — who refuse to memorize formulas, who can’t force themselves to do homework, who realize suddenly halfway through a lecture that they have no idea what is going on — and assume that this is indicative of their chances at success. It must be terrifying for them, and for their parents.

Good news! I’m not dumb, or lazy, or even “bad at learning”. Worst case, I’m “different”. I didn’t learn very well via traditional methods. As it turns out, that just means that I don’t learn very well via traditional methods. That’s all. It doesn’t mean I can’t be gainfully employed, or productive, or happy, or successful. It just means I was bad at school.

And nobody pays me to go to school.


Some people excel in school, and continue to after, just as we all assumed they would. Some people excel in school, and struggle after. Some people struggle in school, and excel after. My high school grades did not define my future. I’m guessing it’s this way with nearly any time period in life:

My current (if temporary) trajectory always feels permanent. If things are going well, I slip into the mindset that I’ve made it, and it will be smooth sailing from here on out. The fight is over, the good guys won. Conversely, a few bad days, poor decisions, or bad luck too easily feel like our lot in life.

I suppose I have to take some tips from my irresponsible, lazy, shortsighted high school self. Nothing is certain. Your current situation does not determine your future. So keep working.