Sunday, November 14, 2010

Our Most Precious Commodity

Dear NIP,

            Americans are such busy people. We pride ourselves on it, I think, because of our industriousness. It’s part of our ethos, what makes us unique. Over the last half century or so, modern technological innovations were supposed to give us more leisure time. Time that would ideally be spent wisely by pursuing that which matters most in our lives: being with our family and friends and hopefully pursuing a passion that brings fulfillment and meaning to our lives. But the American work ethic won’t let us do this. The more free time we’ve managed to create through said technological innovation, the more that innovation allows us to slave away outside the confines of our proper workplace. What’s worse, in our restlessness to stay busy or feel productive we often waste our most precious commodity by engaging in pursuits that do not help us grow as people.

            While we often think of economics in terms of money, perhaps we should take a step back and examine our own personal economies, especially our time. The term economy comes from the ancient Greek word οiκoς, which means “house” and nomoς, which means “order” (derived from the verb “to manage”). Therefore, the term economy literally means to manage one’s house or household. In our busy lives, we have a tendency to let the vicissitudes of daily life get in the way of properly managing our limited commodity. Think about how we even phrase the language of time. We “spend” time on something, or if we don’t want to it’s because “we can’t afford” the time. We have to learn to find the time for what is most important in our lives; if we don’t, we run the risk of wasting time because of lack of will, focus, or both. By dedicating our most precious resource toward something that will bring meaning and fulfillment in our lives, it is actually an investment in your remaining time as well.

            The biggest complaint I often hear from people—either from adult friends or my students—is that they are “too” busy to find any additional time in their schedules. That from the moment they wake until the moment they sleep, their days are an incessantly grueling hodge-podge of activities that constantly demand their attentions. I ask them to write it down. Write all of it down, no matter how trivial the action may be. I’ve done this with my students and I’ll start pointing out gaps in their timelines. What did you do from 3-3:30? Oh. Hung out with friends and texted people waiting for band practice to start? Why not do some of your homework then? When people start writing out their lists, they often find that there are plenty of moments that could have been directed toward something more productive. 

            A personal example for me would be video games. A little more than a year ago, I still played them. Sure I didn’t play them that much, but I bet 2-3 hours a week were devoted to keeping up with a season of basketball on my Xbox 360. It may not seem like much then, but that’s 100 plus hours over the course of a year. That’s over 4 days! Extrapolate that over my lifetime and I bet I’ve wasted months (if not years up to this point) on something that will never help me grow as a person nor appreciate life for its innate beauty. Lately, my most current hang up has been the internet. I don’t spend much time “surfing” and there are probably fewer than a dozen sites in my browsing history, but I’m making a concerted effort to stay away from it as much as possible because it is another place where time just seems wasted. I’ve even gone so far as to put sticky notes all over my computer monitor at work to help me stay focused. The questions ask things like “Are you being productive?”; “Are you focused on school?”; “Is your desk clean?” While I may not have more than a few spare minutes throughout the day, if I am spending those thriftlessly by reading the news when I have papers to grade, I am ultimately reducing the amount of time that I have for more important things in life like giving Erin the undivided attention she deserves.
            The first step to becoming more productive and making the most of your best commodity is to make time for your passion(s). If that means something else has got to give, then it’s got to give. Begin with writing out everything that is part of your normal routine. If you don’t see anything that can be cut out of that routine (be honest with yourself!), then start to think about the time spent between those “necessary” activities. You’ll probably find moments when you are just filling gaps of time by doing nothing important (surfing the internet aimlessly rather than deepening your passion for something, for instance). The reason you’re better off devoting a certain amount of time to your passion(s) is due to the fact that your interests will ultimately pay dividends. For someone like me who has varied interests, it becomes a balancing act. In some ways, you have to prioritize your passions in order of importance by recognizing which one will have the most benefits. While writing these letters and trying to help others is certainly one passion of mine, I cannot devote endless amounts of time to it. I try my best to make sure I write at least one letter every two weeks, and if my schedule allows such accommodations (like this week), I try to write more. Additionally, this particular passion doesn’t require constant application. I think about a topic during the two week interlude, sit down for about two hours and type, and voila! A new letter.
            My real passion—besides my love for Erin, of course—is for yoga and meditation. This is something that I need every day. Moreover, this is something that I must find the time for every day. Over the last year, I have been meditating every day. Yoga didn’t happen every day until the current school year began. At first I would try to fit in my half hour of meditation whenever I could, but I was getting up at about 5:30 and trying to fit that in along with the rest of the morning routine such as walking the dogs, eating breakfast, getting ready for work and everything in between. It was difficult and I was getting to school on some mornings right when the bell rang. The other issue at hand was that it was difficult to meditate early in the morning when I was still half asleep. So, as an experiment,  I began getting up an hour earlier—essentially finding the time that so many complain doesn’t exist—to perform a short, 30 minute yoga routine prior to my meditation. I cannot begin to explain the difference that it has made nor properly extol the benefits that this has had on not only me personally, but for my overall productivity as well. I feel so much more awake and alive by the time I get to school, mainly because of the yoga. Though 30 minutes may not sound like much, just stretching out my stiff muscles, beginning my day by breathing deeply, and getting my blood flowing before heading upstairs to meditate makes that activity all the more enjoyable and fruitful. This initial hour that I have to clear my mind and focus on a specific objective (breathing during yoga, the object of my thoughts during meditation, etc) translates to an unparalleled awareness of my thoughts and overall productivity throughout the workday. By having the ability to stay focused, I am consciously responsive to those moments that I know are being wasted and rectify my actions in order to make the most out of my most precious commodity.
            As Winifred Gallagher notes in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, it is our ability to focus that determines how productive we are (and a whole lot else too). By spending time on passions that will help us develop a sense of the good life, of a life filled with meaning, we are making an investment in our future happiness. While yoga and meditation are passionate pursuits for me, for you, NIP, it could be playing music, gardening, running, or some other activity. If it’s something that you feel you “get lost in,” as the saying goes, then you are giving that activity such undivided attention that it is actually improving your ability to focus. In many ways, strengthening your ability to focus will make you more productive in other areas of your life. It’s a reciprocal process. By focusing on your passion(s), you gain more “focus”; because your focus has become stronger, you finish projects more efficiently and quickly, which leaves you with more free time to pursue your passion, which improves your focus…you get the idea.
            As your focus improves and you spend more of your time on your passions, you’ll probably come to realize not only how truly important time is, but how little we have. The more I mulled this letter over in my mind this past week, the more I kept conjuring up an image in my mind during meditation: me, clambering up and down a pile of skulls, looking for mine. I’d pick one up, scrutinize it, and throw it back on the pile, dissatisfied that it wasn’t mine. I didn’t try to conjure up this image, it just came to me (the mind is funny like that). It has stuck with me all this week, even after I have completed my meditation. I believe I could never find my skull because I am still alive, but I’m not sure. It may sound morbid or even macabre to most, but in meditating on death we have the ability to rise above it and live life with a sense of excitement and urgency. Moreover, it helps us preserve that which is important and crucial to our lives by not taking life and all that it has to offer for granted. Living in the moment with the knowledge that death could take this incredible gift away at any second helps us stay focused on our passions. We never know how much time we’ve been allotted; seems like we should make the most of every second of it.

Be sure to spend yours wisely, NIP.

- Ryan  

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Worry Not

Hello NIP,

            Are you a worrier? I used to be. And it seems the more I talk to others about this topic, the more I discover that we are all worriers in some capacity or another. Over time, however, I’ve learned to not worry—especially about the things over which I have not one iota of control. The title of this letter comes from a song of the same name by Sage Francis. In it, he cautions others to “worry not/keep your stress in check/anxiety’s a disease/you gotta learn to live with it.” While I tend to agree with this sagacious advice—particularly the first two lines—I do think anxiety can be cured, or at least lessened to the extent that it doesn’t occupy the forefront of your mind and affect your life in a negative way. I have learned over the last couple of years that the more control one is able to exert over the mind, the capacity to worry-by-default diminishes. As I tamed my mind, I also wrangled the seemingly out of control circumstances around me by deliberate choices. As I mentioned in the “Decisions, Decisions” letter, our ability to choose—even in how we react to certain situations—is perhaps our most powerful faculty. Without mental discipline, we allow ourselves to be subjected to the negative thoughts that not only stifle our personal development, but in time mount up into a pile of needless worries.

            Let me give you an example of a needless worry. I used to be plagued with them. One of my long standing needless worries was about how others thought of me. Initially, this manifested itself as a weight issue. I lacked confidence in myself and my abilities because I was so concerned with my appearance (i.e. people will judge me for being “fat”). The most absurd part of this thought process wasn’t that I was overweight—that bothered me somewhat, but I was clearly okay with it because it took me years to make that initial change—the most absurd part was that I let my perceptions of other people’s thoughts keep me and my ambitions, dreams, and hopes in check. How did I know what other people were thinking? I didn’t then and still don’t now! The only difference is that in reality, it doesn’t matter. I can’t control how other people view me, whether good, bad, or indifferent. What I can control is my own mind and, subsequently, my own choices. The more I learned to accept that which I cannot control, the less I started to worry in general.

            We all have needless worries, NIP, but for you they may be different. The key to putting a stop to them is realizing that they are products of your own mind. And much like any other product of your mind, they can have all the importance or insignificance you want. The dangerous aspect of this is that for a mind that lacks discipline or focus, we have a tendency to play down our dreams and play up our worries. Those worries begin to pile up and loom larger and larger, and eventually they will become anxiety, a dreadful cloud that dampens the spirit. To combat this, I would suggest you be honest with yourself and write down a list of your worries. Try to begin with the most insignificant ones, too. Something like mine is good, if you too worry about what others think of you. I should perhaps temper my statement by stating the obvious: not worrying what others think about you is not the same as saying not to respect what others think of you. There are people who genuinely have our best interest in mind when they try to steer us in the right direction. Parents, teachers, and bosses may be trying to help you with constructive criticism. Don’t disregard them, especially if they are saying something that deep down you know to be true but are unwilling to admit out of sense of defiance.

            The other hallmark of needless worries is that 99% of them will never come true. What’s ludicrous about them, though, is that we make them our reality by letting them run amok in our mind. Last year, in my letter to my AP Human Geography students before they took the culminating exam I told them this:

If I had any final words to prepare you for the test, they would be these—don’t worry about the test. It’s just a test. But you know what else is? Life. Life is a test. The most important one you’ll ever take and the one you least worry or even think about… To put it as succinctly as possible, most of the things you think that matter and worry you, don’t; most of the things you take for granted and that never worry you, do.

What I mean by those two lines is that we have a tendency to fixate on the microcosm of our lives (which tend to be filled with needless worrying) rather than the macrocosm of life. The minor worries that we play up in our minds are truly insignificant when compared to the gift of life we have all received. We don’t worry about getting into a car accident as we drive to work, something that has the potential to deprive us of life itself; we will fret endlessly, however, over silly thoughts that have no real bearing on our lives. I can’t control what others think of me. I know that now. All I can do is consistently and continually give my best and hope that my actions speak for themselves. Others around me may be inspired by my initiative, whereas other people may grumble and call me an overachiever. Either way, I can’t let it affect or define me. Nor should you. I am who I am because of my unwavering mental discipline, which takes time to nourish but is not impossible to do.

            As we shift our focus away from worries and self-doubt, we become more confident. All it takes is inching out of your comfort zone. One of the most effective methods for me has been to invert my needless worries. I was never one to take my shirt off, for instance, when I was younger. Obviously embarrassed by my weight, I was plagued by thoughts about how others viewed me due to my heft. In some ways, this stigma has stayed with me. While I have no qualms about taking my shirt off around others for the most part, there are moments when I have an inexplicable apprehension to do so. I think this is because there will always be that part of my psyche, some lingering part of me will always be that “fat kid.” In moments like those, I usually snap out of it and end up taking my shirt off after realizing that: 1) it doesn’t matter what others think of me, they can accept me for who I am or not—either way, I have no control over the thoughts and feelings of others; 2) the control I do have is over my choices, including allowing my worries to shape me as a person. By making a conscious decision to not let needless worries take root in my mind, I have found that they spring up less and less.

            As I mentioned earlier, most of our worries will never come true. Usually if they do, it’s because they’ve become a self-fulfilling prophecy for that person. The worries literally manifest in that person’s life because they are constantly being mulled over. Eventually, we all project into our lives what is in our minds. If it is personal development and excellence, it will come to fruition; if it is personal devolution and mediocrity, that outcome shall be so. By training our minds to focus on our dreams, our strengths, and our principles, we have the ability to transcend worry. It’s not to say that they don’t exist, but our (or at least my) worries don’t ever phase us when we maintain our focus. In many ways, I feel worrying is the byproduct of an unfocused mind. If we learn to focus with laser-like precision on our priorities—especially becoming a better person—we have no time for worries. Worries are part of a past we can longer alter or a future that is not even our reality. But we treat them as if they are real. They are not. They are just as insubstantial as any of the other thoughts flying around up there in your head. But I would be remiss not to say that they don’t have the potential to be real. The thoughts I choose to make manifest are the ones I know will aid me in my ceaseless quest to become who I am capable of being—a better person. While some people argue that change is difficult or worse yet, impossible, I would parry with “it’s necessary.” Moreover, if you really think about it, change is all we have. So if you’re looking for change I would start with being honest with yourself. Think about or perhaps even write out some of the things you constantly worry about. Are they worth your time? Your mental energy? You’ll probably find that most of them are not. There is no point in worrying about anything if it’s not part of your immediate, physical reality. If it’s not happening now, it’s not happening period. In time you’ll find that as your mind becomes more resilient, your productivity will increase and you’ll be chasing down that better version of you that you know exists. And once that starts happening, you’ll just be too busy and focused on personal growth to even have time to worry about anything else…

There’s really nothing to worry about, NIP!

All the best,

- Ryan