Desire

“Discovering the meaning of desire in this way frees us from the moralizing, guilt-inducing command to be less selfish and more altruistic. No, just take the time to listen to what is calling to you, and spontaneously, you will emerge from yourself, be attentive to others, and become engaged. Ask yourself, quite simply, what you want. Someone who becomes involved in an organisation to help combat violence against women or to aid the illiterate doesn’t do so from some altruistic sense of duty, but because it appeals to them, speaks to them, makes them feel more alive and happier.”
—Fabrice Midal

Cut the bullshit

“So, what exactly is the news? This is the most basic definition: information on events from across the world. A bus accident in Australia. An earthquake in Guatemala. President A is meeting President B. Actress C has divorced celebrity D. A missile launch in North Korea. Argentina is bankrupt. A record-breaking app. An international corporation fires its CEO. A man from Texas eats five kilos of live worms. A man stabs his grandmother. The closing price of the Dow Jones.”
—Rob Dobelli

Rob Dobelli argues the case for quitting the news.

A longer and more layered discussion between Rob Dobelli and The Correspondent founding editor Rob Wijnberg:


My thoughts in a future post.

The important work we do

Growing up, I was unaware of the world and the scope and depth of its problems; I thought they only happened far away, and to other people. But as an adult, like many of my friends, I feel complicit in the world’s problems today, even as I want to make things better.

We feel, I think, mostly guilt. Guilt, for our privilege. Guilt, for our ignorance. Guilt, for not doing more.

I’ve had to work through these feelings—not only guilt, but also sadness, grief, anger, anxiety—and talk myself through why this is not a healthy and productive way to be. I thought I’d write a little about my inner resolution here.

In a broken world (we must admit that we live in a broken world, and not continue to sugar-coat reality), we all have important work to do and things to rebuild.

But we see people like Malala and we think we could never be like her. The bar is too high. We see people who build NGOs, volunteer at Médecins Sans Frontières, work at the front-lines of hospitals to combat COVID-19, protest on the streets at the risk of being imprisoned, get into local politics in order to change legislations, and we think… these people are doing important work, and we’re not.

But I’m here to write, to propose, that we are all doing important work, and that we can all do important work without being stuck in the usual definition of what “important work” is.

My friend who runs a cafe is doing important work, by filling people’s bellies with coffee and people’s hearts with love. Her work is important because she chooses to infuse it with meaning, by building community and always striving to do right by her customers. Her work of brewing coffee and making sure her shop runs smoothly builds people’s faith in the goodness of other people, and that’s important work, even though it’s not grand.

I have another friend who spends most of her time helping her family and friends with chores and errands. People come to her with their problems and she helps to solve them. Sometimes it’s a website that needs to be done, sometimes it’s a social media post, sometimes it’s a relationship problem. She always finds time to help, and she always helps at the expense of her own time. Important work, but not grand.

Important work can be unnoticeable or below-the-radar, and it doesn’t have to pay. I think of my newsletter as important work, even though nobody pays me to write and I only have 500 subscribers. I believe this work is important because I get to help people feel better or see another point of view. Sometimes, not all the time, and not with everyone. But even though my audience (and my impact) is tiny, I see my writing as important work because it adds something positive to the world, rather than subtract from it.

The other important work we can do is to take care of ourselves. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that the way to build peace in the world is to build peace in ourselves first, because we are all inter-connected. If I am depressed, unhealthy, angry, I cannot help others. As they say, “Happy people help people.” And guess what? Even if a happy person doesn’t go out of her way to help others, she is already helping by not adding to the problems of the world.

Another important work we can do is to educate ourselves, to never stop learning. The more we learn, the more we can unlearn (and there’s much to unlearn). When we adopt an attitude of, “I really don’t know much of anything,” we become perpetual students and less inclined to force other people to adopt the same views as us, since we hardly know anything. Can you imagine a world where most people spend their time learning rather than fighting? I want to live in that world.

Finally, let your passion and your curiosity lead you to doing work that you care for. If someone tells you that passion doesn’t pay, that you’re wasting your time, ask in return, “Then what does a passion-less life pay?” Work fueled by passion and curiosity will always be important because it’s rooted in a sense of “right-ness”. No words can describe it; it just feels like the right thing to do. This important work doesn’t have to be a job; it can be something you do on the side. It all counts.

In summary: Dissolve the guilt. Do the work, whatever work it might be, and be proud of yourself, because you’re building and not destroying. No matter how small your work is, believe that it is contributing to a bigger chain of events that is making the world better. If we feel called to go to a war-torn country to volunteer our talent, we should do it. But if we feel called to do work that’s not as grand, that’s wonderful too.

I wish you courage and strength in continuing to do the important work that you’re doing.

(Originally published via my newsletter.)

Stillness

“Stillness is vital to the world of the soul. If as you age you become more still, you will discover that stillness can be a great companion. The fragments of your life will have time to unify, and the places where your soul-shelter is wounded or broken will have time to knit and heal. You will be able to return to yourself. In this stillness, you will engage your soul. Many people miss out on themselves completely as they journey through life. They know others, they know places, they know skills, they know their work, but tragically, they do not know themselves at all. Aging can be a lovely time of ripening when you actually meet yourself, indeed maybe for the first time. There are beautiful lines from T. S. Eliot that say:
‘And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.'”
—JOHN O’DONOHUE

A list of potential ultralearning projects

Here are some ideas on my own want-to-ultralearn backburner list:

– Making my own electronic music (releasing an album of electronic music, a la Lullatone)
– Editorial design (creating layouts for books and magazines)
– Illustrating and writing a children’s book
– Making a short film
– Creating an online course
– Creating an app
– Writing a book
– Building my blog from scratch

I’ll update this whenever a new one comes to mind!

Learning is about doing

Very good ideas from Scott Young about how to learn and build skills that matter:

Don’t just learn French, aim to have conversations with people.
Don’t just read a book on JavaScript, build a functioning website.
Don’t just watch lectures, do practice problems from the exam.
Don’t just read philosophy, write an essay or discuss it with someone else.

Relevant reading:
How to start your own ultralearning project (part one)
How to start your own ultralearning project (part two)

a collective hallucination

I’m often pulled, together with others, into a collective hallucination. I know that sometimes I am lured into seeing the world in a way that has very little to do with reality. Reading the news and scrolling my social feeds, I often feel like I’m in a funhouse with endless traps—I’m never sure which way is up, which surface is a mirror, and which turn will drop me into a maze from which I can’t easily escape.

It’s always a confusing trip.

Since I got interested in how the human mind works, I’ve been amazed and appalled at the unreliability of my mind and how casually it succumbs to the forces of influence in the environment (not just news and social media, but also the ideas of the people we live with, the cultural and societal notions that continue to wash over us, etc). Add to that the in-built biases in our minds, and the heuristics we like to use to take short cuts in our thinking…

I’m beginning to think of myself as a most unreliable narrator.

That’s why meditation is so important. The practice, at its heart, is about seeing reality as it is, adding nothing and subtracting nothing.

At times like this I catch myself thinking that meditation is the one important thing I should do in my life, above everything else. (Reading books and continuing to learn about how the mind works is also helpful. Unless you don’t mind life under the blue pill.)

Overcoming writer’s block

I’ve realised that the best antidote against writer’s block is simply sitting down to write.

What do I mean by simply sitting down to write?

It means, even on days when I feel like I cannot write or have nothing to write about, I go to my computer anyway and I write.

When I do this I’m always surprised that I want to continue writing. I might be writing badly at first—first drafts are always bad—but once I get to editing, shaping and culling and trimming away at the sentences, I’m back in the mood of writing.

This is similar to BJ Fogg’s idea of building habits by starting real small. For example, if you want to start a daily meditation habit, you should make your habit so tiny that doing it is a no-brainer. So it might be, instead of doing a ten-minute meditation, simply taking two deep breaths in the morning.

Starting tiny helps you to actually do the habit. It also builds confidence and makes it easier for you to keep up the streak daily. What usually happens is that after awhile you will want to do more than two deep breaths. Before you know it, you will find yourself meditating ten or twenty minutes a day. All because you started tiny.

So it’s the same for writing. Writing can feel like a monstrous task in the mind, but it’s not really that scary (I say this now, but I’m always scared to death of writing BEFORE I start writing). Start by simply sitting down to write. Write badly. Then get to editing and rewriting. Before you know it a whole essay has been written. Ha! Am I making it sound too easy?

But it does work for me.

I’d love to hear about how you guys overcome your writer’s block!