Signing Off Social Media


I left social media for more than 30 days. I left because I realized that my thoughts were no longer entirely my own. The sanctity of my head had been violated. The worst part was that I allowed it to happen.

I permitted the app makers and advertisers to attempt (and in some cases succeed) in redirecting my thoughts, emotions, and intentions. Let’s call this what it is: mind control. 

My attention span had eroded. I could kill an hour scrolling deep into my Instagram feed searching for … what, exactly? I’m still not sure. I think I was looking for something to make me feel better when I should have been working toward feeling better. 

I had decided to take a break before I started reading Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, but the book sealed the deal. In fact, if it weren’t for my chosen line of work, I don’t think I’d be on social media at all, knowing what I know now.

The case for leaving social media

Paraphrasing Newport, we’re sold the notion that social media fosters connection and community-building. This is half true. The other half of the truth is that social media fosters addiction. Social media apps are painstakingly designed attention traps. They play off of our neurochemistry like dopamine-releasing drugs. The reasoning is simple: money. Social media companies make more money the more you interact with their products. Their apps are incentivized to be addicting.

The mental clarity of the past social-media-free month is almost too alluring to pass up, even for professional reasons. The past 30 days have been some of the happiest and most productive I can remember. I’ve spent quality time with my wife, finished several short stories, read hundreds of pages, and managed to complete enough work to take two luxurious weeks of vacation at the beach. My attention span, which traditionally has been one of my greatest assets, is back to pre-smartphone levels.

Why I chose to return

So, why am I back? If you’re like most of the people who read this blog, you’ve probably landed here after clicking on a social media link. Writers need to be where readers are. I started this blog with the intention of helping others by sharing the lessons I’ve learned the hard way. Those lessons are useless if they’re launched into the void.

Today’s lesson is that the way I was using social media was wasting my time, diluting my attention, and making me unhappy. Maybe you feel the same way. Maybe you can handle social media. You need to ask yourself two questions: 

  1. What is social media doing to me?

  2. How could I use social media better?

Here’s where I landed in thinking about those two questions. Maybe social media is doing nothing to you. I know now that it wasn’t working for me. Yet, I know that I need to be here (at least for the time being) to accomplish my goals. So, how do I make better use of social media? How do I use social media in a way that’s healthy and morally and/or ethically sound?

My new policy

Social media is now a part of my workday. I’ve blocked out time to respond to messages, check notifications, and post content, like the link that brought you to this blog post. Any other time of day, there’s nobody home. 

It would be hypocritical to write about the drawbacks of social media but simultaneously advocate for you to be on here. That’s why I’m giving you -- and I’ll be honest, me too -- the out of signing up for a mailing list. I’ll send you an email when new posts go up, and you’ll never have to be on social media to find this content ever again. Your privacy will be sacrosanct. I’ll never give away or sell your email address. 

The end goal is to amass enough newsletter subscribers so I no longer need to be on social media at all, and you no longer need to be on it to find my writing. You can sign up for the mailing list here.

What you should do next

Evaluate how you’re using social media, paying particular attention to how it affects your real-life, in-person interactions with people. The photographer Eric Pickersgill’s recent project, Removed, highlights the absurdity of our current relationship with technology. 

When I first saw Pickersgill’s photos, the hollowness of our relationship to our devices landed like a Thai kick to the body. I also thought about how our addiction could be an indicator of increasing narcissism. Photoshop out the phone and replace it with a mirror and the photos work just as well.

I think, however, that the most painful realization that I derived from this photo project was how easily I could have been on the other side of the lens, distracted, diluted, depressed, staring into my technological reflection and wondering why I feel the way I do. 

I’m done with that.

You might also like:

Learning What Not To Do


There are undeniable advantages in going first. Whether you’re the first kid in class to present his project, or the maker of the first smartphone, pioneers possess the ability to set standards. They face the freedom of zero or flexible expectations. Pioneers can relax a bit, knowing that there’s a greater tolerance for error.

Growing up, I often took advantage of being first. I suppose this is natural for the oldest child, but even in school or in sports, there were many quantifiable advantages to being first that I saw. Emphasis on quantifiable. I had a proclivity toward results -- the more immediate the better. Immediate gains, limited though they might be, were gains nonetheless.

I had the nasty habit of being what Josh Waitzkin refers to in The Art of Learning as an entity theorist. Entity theorists, Waitzkin explains, tend to have the mindset of being innately good or bad at something. They know their strengths and they play to them.

They also tend to lack resilience. They cannot, as Waitzkin says, invest in loss. Entity theorists like me avoid what they don’t perceive themselves to be good at because the pain of defeat shatters them. I usually chose to go first because it increased my odds of looking favorable in the teacher’s eyes and consequently, getting the A that I wanted.

Learning theorists are the opposite of entity theorists. Waitzkin explains that they tend to have the mindset of, “I won because I work hard.” Or, in the face of failure, “If I want to win next time, I need to work harder.” Innate ability is less important to them. Learning theorists believe any skill can be acquired with a long enough timeline.

Looking back on my school days, the learning theorists tended to present toward the back half of middle. They had the benefit of learning from my mistakes and of the others that followed. Yes, they still wanted to win the A grade, but they were motivated by something deeper: mastery. They were more motivated by learning the incremental steps and processes that make excellence, though they might not be aware of it.

As I’ve aged, I’ve steadily transformed myself from an entity theorist to a learning theorist. There has been nothing better for this than Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The mindset is serving me particularly well in my work. A prime example showed up this morning on the digital front page of the New York Times.

Data has never been more valuable. It’s awfully tempting to develop some busch league weather app in order to siphon location data to the highest bidder. The easier path is a temptation that Google appears to be wrestling with daily basis. I’m old enough to remember the days of Google’s internal “Don’t be evil” slogan. Well, it’s officially gone from the company’s code of conduct. I suppose caving to a historically oppressive government’s censorship needs precludes a company from being evil.

Here’s where being a learning theorist pays off: We have ample time to study the mistakes of others, learning what not to do. Whatever advantage is lost in not being first can be gained by learning what not to do. The examples abound, we just need to tune in and not be so hyper focused on immediate results.

Finding and Following Your Personal Legend


I am my own worst saboteur. But I’m pushing past it.

My new job title feels overblown, but I claim it anyway: CEO. It’s been a long, difficult journey to get here. I’m now a small-business owner, entrepreneur, captain of my ship, and also chief cook & bottle washer.

My desire to do what I consider to be meaningful work has been alive since I realized my occupational purpose in college. But I stalled, delayed, and intentionally detoured. It was easier at the height of the Great Recession to become a copy editor than it was to work a beat as a reporter. It became a pattern for the years to follow as a professional: pursuing what was expedient, not what was meaningful.

Only now, though, do I realize that the biggest saboteur of my dream of a meaningful career was me. Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist crystalized it for me.

“To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation,” the King of Salem tells the young shepherd, Santiago.

I had ignored my destiny, or what Coelho calls a Personal Legend, because I didn’t believe in what I had to offer to the world. I didn’t believe that I was good enough, smart enough, hard-working enough, or capable enough to go out on my own and survive.

Learning from a conscious competitor

I’m fortunate to be surrounded by some remarkable people, one of whom is my jiu jitsu instructor, Emily Kwok, who recently took home another world championship. She had mentioned to me some time ago that The Alchemist was one of her favorite books and I made a mental note to read it. When she won the gold a few weeks ago, I texted her and told her that she is the ultimate badass, and that it was inspirational to watch her pursue her own Personal Legend.

At the time, I was unaware of just how much of her own self doubt she had to overcome to get to that point, a topic which she explores in this inspirational post. Even world champions, it seems, have their own brushes with self doubt and self sabotage. Her words made me realize just how much damage I had done to myself.

It took a year for me to finally step out on my own professionally, and it was a difficult year. I had a full-time job that was reasonably demanding, plus the task of getting my company off the ground. For better or worse, I allowed myself no wiggle room in my training schedule either. But when I finally took the leap into self-employment, I was surprised.

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it,” Coelho writes.

I’m not entirely sure if the universe is playing an active role here, but all I can say is that as soon as I left my job and ventured out on my own, opportunities began to appear, one of which is so awesome it still doesn’t seem real to me. It seemed like by deciding I was good enough, and by shifting my mindset from scarcity to abundance, the entire weight of the universe -- or at least my little corner of it -- shifted. I had and have momentum. The setbacks, so far, are just that -- setbacks.

I know it won’t always be like this. I know there will be, as always, struggle. But I know now that I’m good enough and I’m worthy. And I know that no matter what happens, it’s all pushing me toward my Personal Legend.

Of interest

The Liminal Artist: The Many Lives and Works of Val Emmich

Photo by Andrew Holtz

Photo by Andrew Holtz

Val Emmich will not be put in a box. His most recent novel, The Reminders, which will be available in paperback later this month, weaves a tale of healing and a search for understanding through the eyes and mind of a girl with infallible memory. It’s now available in paperback. If you haven’t read Val’s prose, you’ve likely seen him on shows such as 30 Rock, Ugly Betty and Vinyl. Val is also a musical force, creating songs that get their hooks in you and hit hard with their immediacy.

Since hearing Val’s indie rock powerhouse Sunlight Searchparty in 2006, I’ve been blown away by his ability to convey the human experience in seemingly whatever form he wanted. What follows is a window into his methods, philosophy and process.

Modern artists seem to be encouraged, whether it’s consciously or unconsciously, to pick an art form and stick to it. As a musician, actor, and writer, what has driven you to work across so many forms?

I felt that same pressure to pick a lane for most of my career. But at some point, I had to accept reality: I do lots of different things. So be it. When I was only focusing on a music career (which I attempted first, before the acting and writing), it was taboo to be anything other than a musician. Being an actor? Forget it. That was career suicide. No one felt you had integrity as a musician if you were an actor. This was the Nineties. Things are a lot different now. No one cares. For me, it wasn't calculated. I fell into acting while attending college and I had some early luck and was able to pay my bills by landing commercials. Then I caught the bug and wanted to take the craft more seriously. Writing fiction was always something I wanted to try but it was more of a distant, dormant desire--until it wasn't. There's a pressure in our society, not just in art, to be one thing. A teacher. A lawyer. I'm a hyphenated person. I am many things. I'm interested in many different areas and I'm really lucky that I've been able to explore a few of those as careers.

What did it take for you, emotionally and mentally, to part ways with Epic and step out on your own as an independent musician? What did that feel like? How has it informed the rest of your career in not just music, but everything else?

I was heartbroken when my contract with Epic went sour. I mean, honestly, I was damaged. I received a phone call from my manager who told me that after I had just spent the last six months writing songs with hitmakers around the country--something I didn't want to do but which ended up being a great learning experience--and after wasting tens of thousands of dollars on travel and recording and audience testing, the president of the company believed that I still didn't have a "hit" and I should write more. I got that call and I burst into tears. I had been pushed so far from who I thought I was, and for what? I played their game and it led me nowhere. I was so angry, I begged my lawyer to get me off the label. I still had an album I owed them, but my lawyer negotiated it so they had to pay me to leave. It was a real bright side to the nightmare. I took the money and I made the album Sunlight Searchparty, which was for me a statement record. I needed to make that album probably more than any other album I've ever made. Maybe Aide Memoire comes in second in that regard. Just making art in a specific way because it felt true to my heart. I've done it that way ever since but the urgency I felt back then after failing on a felt like life or death. Ever since then I've pretty much been left to make art on my own terms. It's good and bad. I still have regret. My dream as a teenager was to be playing my songs in stadiums. I thought signing to a major would bring me one step closer, but obviously, in the scheme of things, I never really got anywhere close to realizing that dream. Those days still haunt me.

What did your writing process look like for The Reminders? What does it look like for a song? Do the two inform each other? Is your acting background in the mix, too?

With songwriting, I'm not very disciplined. I don't usually sit down with the express intention of writing a song. Rather, songs just come out of me when they're ready to come out. I can go months without writing a single song and then write five in a day. It's that unpredictable. It doesn't have to be that way, but I've found that the best songs come out when I don't force them. But you can't do that with something like a novel. You can't just sit around and wait for the muse to come. You'll never finish. There's a saying among writers: Put your butt in the seat. When I was writing my novel, I had to treat it like a job. I had to force myself to sit down and work, even when I wasn't in the mood. Because I was responsible for a young child when I began writing the book, I'd have to wake up at 4:30 in the morning to write before she awoke each day. I needed those few hours to myself, just creating, so that I could deal with being a father for the rest of the day.

One of my main characters is an actor and the other is a songwriter. Plus, much of the book has to do with writing a song, so I definitely used what I know for the story. I had written two previous books that didn't ever see the light of day and I think part of the reason why they didn't work was because I was shying away from aspects of my own life. With The Reminders, I used parts of my reality. It seemed to work.

I suspect, like most artists, you've had to cope with failure and rejection. How have you done it? What works for you? And how has failure influenced you as an artist?

I touched on this in one of my earlier answers. It's weird for me. I'm pretty traumatized by failure and yet I don't let it slow me down. I go on auditions for acting all the time and 99% of the time I get rejected. It's a terrible feeling every single time. But I keep going and I keep trying to come up with new ways of failing. In fact, that exact feeling is what inspired a song I wrote called "Resume" from the album, Looking For A Feeling You Never Knew You Needed. Tangent, sorry. Anyway, sometimes I think I'm really pathetic for not quitting long ago. I want to be the best, and when that's your goal, failure is almost a mathematical certainty. Only one of us gets to be the best at any one thing and many times "the best" is a subjective determination. But I know that failure is part of any success story. I try to remind myself of that when I'm feeling optimistic. And I also remind myself that success is a word with varied definitions.

What is your biggest fear as an artist, or biggest vulnerability?

I'm still susceptible to what other people think of me and my art. I think that's a real vulnerability: caring what others think. At the same time, though, I think that helps me make art that hopefully speaks to people. I'm aware of an audience. I want it to be a conversation between me and them and not just me talking to myself. I guess my biggest fear is being ignored. I'm not sure, though. I have many fears.

You can only take one book, one record, one movie, and one guitar (and amp, if it's electric) to a desert island (that apparently has electricity). What are they and why have you selected them?

I'm not good at these types of questions. To make it easier, I randomly picked a year (1997) and limited my answers to releases from that year. For my book, I'll take Don DeLillo's Underworld; it's a long one and will keep me plenty busy. I'll bring Boogie Nights to watch; Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers and that movie just keeps on giving. For my record, Radiohead's OK Computer came to mind first, but I'm going to leave that one home. I'll need something to lift my spirits so I'm going with Pavement's Brighten The Corners. Guitar? Doesn't matter. Something that can hopefully withstand the elements.

The Latest from Val Emmich

Fred Eaglesmith’s Mechanical Music: A Q&A with the Yeoman Songwriter


Fred Eaglesmith is a gifted songwriter, having lived the hard-luck, farm-tending, truck-driving life described in his songs. Listen to his music and wander around the hearts and minds of some of the most intriguing characters ever put to tape. His career spans 21 albums and several decades. What follows is the transcription of an interview with Eaglesmith in mid 2017, following the release of his album, Standard.

Your latest release, Standard, has a classic narrative structure that's almost like a William Faulkner novel set to music. Talk to me a bit about that and those characters.

I was trying to write about those people. As opposed to when I was younger, when I would just make things sad because I had been raised so sad myself, I was trying to give them more hope than I had put into some of my other work. They're like all of us who get in these situations -- they don't realize how bad it was. When I tell stories about my childhood, people go, holy cow! I never thought it was that bad. As a matter of fact, if we knew it was going to be that bad, we'd be horrified. Looking back, we're a little horrified.

I was telling my kids today about how my father used to go to the auction sale to buy things just so he could split them up into smaller lots and sell them back the next day at the same auction, just to make some money for groceries. It that time, we didn't think it was anything. We sort of laughed about it.

Is it fair to say that a lot of the things you're writing about are things that you've gone through?

Well, I'm a pretty experienced person. I've just realized this in the last decade or so. I've experienced a lot more than most people my age. I just didn't know. Everybody worked hard, but I was that guy who was in a family that lost the farm. I got out and hopped freight trains. I never even thought about how not everybody did this. And I've heard harder-luck stories than mine by a long shot, that's for sure.

Regarding Standard and 6 Volts, they both sound like they were recorded in the places where the songs take place. It's like you can hear the rooms and the land. How did you capture that sound?

I record with a lot of adversity. I record the old way. Some people record digital, and some people record analog. I record mechanically. I build things. I stick my microphones in the furnace. I use things that you're not supposed to use. There's dust all over my stuff. I have a coal cellar and most of our amps and stuff are in the coal cellar. It's full of dirt.

I think music should sound like what it's about. I think that's always the believable thing. Modern recording doesn't do that. I think that since 2001, there's no more music sounding like anything. It's just mass-produced now. ... Jimi Hendrix said a song is only as good as the present era.

What has the reaction been to Standard?

When we put this record out, I just held my breath. I've done this before and have just gotten chastised horribly for it. My record “Dusty,” the reaction was that the record was too cheesy. Too cheesy? What's too cheesy? Boney M. is too cheesy. Captain & Tennille is too cheesy -- and even that's debatable. Cheese is what we loved about so much stuff. All of a sudden there's this cheese line.

I took it on the chin for that record badly. I lost half my fans over that record. I remember one girl gave me trouble about it and then about three days later, she told me, "My father died and I put on that record, and all of a sudden, I got it totally. I understood it perfectly."

It's hard to have your antenna up for what we even really feel and really think. That's hard for us all. I'm glad when there's a discussion about my records, because then I've done my job. Not everybody is going to get it. I don't always get it right away when I write them or record them. It's discovery for me as well.

Your sound has shifted toward electronic music. What led you in that direction?

The songs. It took me two years to make this record. I had my band come in and we had to do a lot of editing. A lot of recording the way the Beatles did -- slowing it down, making it faster. This record sounds so simple, and it was such a hard record to make. This record was impossibly hard to work on, and thank goodness for my wife (Tif Ginn). My wife came down one day and sort of hip checked me out from behind the board, and she really had never worked a board much before, and she just started moving knobs and dials, and immediately it got very cohesive.

She really had a bead, and she has courage. She's very brave. She would say things like, "No, we're leaving that fiddle out of tune." Or, "No, that vocal is the way it should be. It's not a good vocal. But it's a great vocal."

It's hard to work on your own stuff, and she just sort of took over and was 50 percent of the project. By the time she was finished mixing it, it was much more than just mixing it. It was earth-shattering decisions.

How would you say your sound has evolved over your career?

The sound has become much closer to me. Everything that I feel in my heart is going on the record. I can listen to old records and go, I thought this was better or I thought this was different. When I listen to the records that I've sort of had a big hand in, I like them better because they feel like me. So I think that's the change in the sound: less input from outside sources.

I've put out 21 albums. As time goes, first you can't drive the tractor. Next thing you know, you own the farm. I know how to make a record and I know how not to make a record, which is the best thing to know. You put it on, and you can't ignore it. You may hate it, but you can't ignore it. And man, that's that's a hard thing to do.

I love the mechanics of not just turning a knob to get a reverb, but dropping the amplifier into the cistern and recording it picking up the sound on the other end. Anybody can make a record as good as me, but it's hard to make a record as bad as me.

The vocal track on Flames is beautifully haunting. Was that your wife’s decision or yours?

I was in our basement down in the studio. It was really early in the morning. I had been working all night and I just couldn't get that song right. I had written and recorded it as a bluegrass song. I just got this old ribbon microphone from the '40s and I just yelled at that microphone. She was sleeping, and she woke up and came down and I played it for her, and she said, "That's crazy. And that's it."

"Twin City Mini: Nice tin, good rubber. Stored it in the barn for 29 years." Where did that come from?

I stole it out of a classified ad when I was in my 20s. I actually stole the whole thing.

You've been hanging onto it for 40 years?

Laughs. I love vernacular, and it's so beautiful. It's about a tractor: the Minneapolis-Moline. The whole thing is written in code. The guy wrote his classified ad in code. The guy is so into his world, he didn't understand his classified ad was basically ineffective to anybody but the people who know what a Twin City Mini was.

When you read it, did you know what it was?

I knew exactly what it was. I was just floored. I love those kinds of things: people speaking in code and they don't even know they are.

When I was a kid, I used to play the Royal Winter Fair in Canada here. It's a big international farmers fair. I used to have all of these songs that were written in code because I was raised a farmer. I just knew, you drill the seed. A guy who doesn't know you drill the seed doesn't know you're talking about a seed drill, right? I wrote all of those songs with all that code in it, naturally.

And my father spoke code -- spoke farmer code. Those farmers would come to see me at the Royal Winter Fair and they would always say to my side guys, "He knows what he's talking about." That only comes through a whole bunch of experience. They're like languages. I could probably get a government grant to study this in Canada.

My father was the best because he was Christian so he wouldn't swear, but he would skirt it the whole time. He would say things like, "Shut the front door," or "son of a pup." His whole life was this kind of talk. Before he'd say something to you, he'd say, "Now I don't mind telling you, I don't mind telling you." What a great thing for me to get raised with.

What does your songwriting process look like?

Endless writing. All the time. Always, always, always. I was up at 4:30 this morning writing songs the same way I was up at 4:30 in the morning or 3 o'clock in the morning when I was 14, but back then I hadn't gone to bed yet. And I'm still doing it -- and I'm doing it all the time. It never ends for me.

I'll fix things over time. It might take 10 years. When I was younger, I used to edit on the go. Now I write it down and edit later or edit when I sing it, or don't go back to it for four years, and then go, oh I know what this song was about. I know how I can write this song.

How has your live show evolved with time?

There are songs right now that I would not sing that I could sing in the '90s. I'm not the same person and my audience are not the same people. I always get requests for songs like White Trash. I just wouldn't sing that song anymore. It's not relevant anymore because when I was writing it, that whole concept of white trash was new. It was a really funny, tongue-in-cheek thing. Within in a decade, it was like the whole world was adhering to being white trash. And I did not want that.

There was a whole bunch of us in Nashville in the '90s writing for this company called Blue Water. We were writing rednecky, anti-preciousness songs. We were writing songs about guns and living on the edge of town. The guy who owned the company loved these kinds of songs, and he was pitching them to country. And wouldn't you know, 10 years later, country is putting out songs like John Deere Green. They were taking our mojo and they turned it into new country music. I regret to this day ever introducing it because I never meant it to be this. It was always tongue-in-cheek. It was always satire.

My father was a farmer. We lived on a gravel road. He would be ashamed to be called a redneck. That would be a deep insult to him. We were not rednecks. We were progressive people, we just happened to be on a farm.

My wife and I are doing the show just with the two of us now, and we try to keep it as positive as we can, which is so not what I would have done 15 years ago. The reason is because the world is a dark place for a lot of people. We are always preaching about rock and roll and how that was the thing that will save us, much more than Jesus ever will. Rock and roll almost did save the world in the '60s. It gives people a place to go, and that's what people are looking for in the present day -- a place to go.

Book review: ‘What Doesn’t Kill Us’ by Scott Carney.

Required reading for the Struggleverse: “What Doesn’t Kill Us,” By Scott Carney.

The human body has changed little since homo sapiens first appeared on the planet about 100,000 years ago. What has changed is the presence of and our reliance on technology. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our daily interactions with the environment.

We, as a species, have used technology to put space between us and the environment. As a result, modern humans do not see themselves as a part of the natural world. 

“We divide the planet into two categories: things influenced by human action and things that are untouched.” Carney writes. “This distinction is false.”

Our standoffish relationship with the environment is perhaps best illustrated by how we cope with cold. For many of us who live in the northeast, a winter morning might look something like this: We rise from our downy blankets, prepare for our day with a steamy shower, gird ourselves in high-tech, insulating fabric, then ride to our heated offices in our heated cars. The human body experiences little variability.

Carney delves into the consequences of ubiquitous comfort by going straight to the research, and the results aren’t pretty. Aside from obesity, the most obvious disease of affluence, our relative lives of ease, when compared to those of our ancient ancestors, may be to blame for a litany of autoimmune disorders. 

So, what’s to be done? Essentially, be more human.

Carney, who writes with the seasoned skepticism of bullshit-detecting journalist, enters the orbit of Wim Hof, the Iceman, at first looking to reveal him as yet another new age huckster. The only problem is that Hof’s methods work. Moreover, the more the methods are researched, the more scientific support they earn. Through breath control, Hof can regulate his immune system, increase tolerance to cold exposure, and boost muscular endurance. And apparently, he can teach just about anybody to do it.

Cold is a central character in this work of nonfiction.

“The sense of fear that comes from the cold reaches down into some dark, primordial core inside every one of us,” Carney writes.

Through his work with Hof, Carney discovers that perhaps this innate fear isn’t as well calibrated as it should be. With enough practice, we can tolerate much more in the way of environmental and mental extremes than we give ourselves credit. 

The book also explores the appeal of obstacle course racing. These so-called suffer fests, such as Tough Mudder and Spartan Race, seem to provide people with a certain amount of deprivation that’s lacking in their daily lives. Once again, Carney is no bystander, but plunges headfirst into this world of physical extremes by taking part in what is considered the toughest OCR in the world, the Tough Guy.

In this entertaining read, in addition to finding inspiring stories of people who have kept symptoms of autoimmune disorders at bay, or who have turned their lives and health around, you will perhaps discover as the author did, that struggle is the ultimate cure for what ails us as individuals and as a society.

Be the wrestler.

Photo courtesy of Smallbones, via Wikimedia Commons

“The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.”
-- Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations”

Winging it is almost never an option. Even jazz musicians agree on a key when playing together. I find that there is a certain amount of orchestration and planning requisite in success in all areas of life, even the ones that require spontaneity.

But dealing with other human beings requires an acknowledgment of the human element. In no sport is this more apparent than baseball. There’s no predicting when the right circumstances will conspire to give a middling pitcher a no-hitter. Maybe it’s an overcast afternoon game on getaway day, the away team anxious to get on the plane, the cloud-cover obstructing the release of the ball from the batter’s perspective. Maybe it’s these things, plus the fact that the journeyman pitcher received a birthday card from his grandmother that morning that contained a $20 bill -- just enough to settle the bet he had with the bullpen catcher on whether or not the starting third baseman pisses on his hands to toughen the skin. An event like this is just about one of the only things Sabermetrics can’t predict.

I have a friend who is a genius. Hand him an instrument, he’ll make it sing in an afternoon. Tell him to learn a language and he’ll absorb it. Supply him with enough information and he will tell you, with a troubling degree of certainty, how long you will live, what will likely kill you and how much money you will likely earn. As an actuary, he can do this for just about anyone.

He would also be the first to tell you that one of the only certainties in life is uncertainty. Even with the most precise instruments and the most negligible confidence intervals, there is still the outlier. The junk heap pitcher will throw a perfect game and go on to become an answer to a question on trivia night, laughed over between mouthfuls of 10-cent wings and dollar beers.

When you think about it, most of the situations we encounter in our day-to-day lives fall outside of our control. We must contend with circumstance at every turn. This can be unnerving, forcing some to recoil and launching others into control binges. 

Or we can be the wrestler. We can refine our strategy, craft it down to the most minute detail. And yet, we can still stand poised for whatever attacks might come. We can stand at the ready, our defenses raised and our senses attuned to the moment at hand.

Bad actors -- or -- 'Everybody's a dreamer and everybody's a star'

It’s easy to seek refuge in possibility. Possibility is boundless and infinite. If you were to list the personal difficulties of here and now, you’d eventually reach an end. This isn’t so with the permutations of possibility. 

We convince ourselves otherwise. Among the multitudes of possibilities, maybe there’s the silver bullet that’s going to fix everything. It’s enticing, intoxicating. We sign up to play one among limitless roles in the movie called What If, the movie that plays out in our thoughts in real time.

We walk around all day reciting the lines to this orchestrated script to ourselves. How often are we actually here? How often are we truly present, or just watching the movie of our life unfold in our heads?

Moreover, who is the actor in this movie called What If? Who is playing the starring role? Who is the speaker of these lines? Who is, as Sam Harris would say, the “thinker of these thoughts”? 

For many of us, the self, or the ego, plays the starring role in the movie that’s playing out in our heads. This thing that we call a self, where does it reside? Is it in our head, somewhere behind our eyes? Is it in our chests? Is it someplace else? Does it exist at all?

Contemplating this question has driven people to both ends of a spectrum of delusion. Some become beasts. Some become pacifists. Most of us, myself included, fall somewhere in the middle. We take the drug, change jobs, or move to a new state because it’s easier to change roles in the movie called What If rather than opt to stop acting altogether.

We change roles, but is anything really changing? Is person behind the role not the same? Maybe he is. Maybe she isn’t. After all, who is the speaker of these lines? Who is the thinker of these thoughts? Moreover, by selecting a new role, are we any closer to having an answer to these questions?

Thankfully, we don’t have to keep acting. There’s another option. We can ask these questions. By asking them, we disrupt the movie playing in our heads. We stop reciting the lines and maybe we check in with our senses. Maybe we truly see a sunrise for the first time. Maybe we notice the hawk perched atop the telephone pole as we hurtle by at 60 miles per hour. Or at a minimum, maybe we stop scrolling through dozens of Facebook status updates and Instagram postings. 

If the movie of What If has a theme, it’s escapism. Many of us are trying to avoid something. It’s easier to take a few steps backward, into the foggy, gray veil of thought -- to retreat back to the predictability of our role in the movie of What If -- than it is to be present with reality. We’d rather buy into the plot of What If, taking solace in the notion that there’s even a plot to be found in the first place.

Maybe we take a deep breath instead. Maybe we stop telling ourselves the story of how tomorrow is the day we finally slay the dragons that are breathing fire down our necks.

Instead, maybe we just feel the heat.

Where are you?

I had a cross country coach in high school who would calm our pre-race jitters with two refrains. The first, which he rattled off in his North Jersey/Italian-American accent, was, “Get psyched, baby!” The second, which I find myself repeating 15 years later, was, “If you don’t know where you’re going, don’t take the lead!”

How often has that message been lost on me in the 30 years I’ve been on this planet? I’ve missed that point in one way or another daily, that admonition of direction and purpose. 

I haven’t missed the point so much because I didn’t know where I was going. I know that. I’m a goal-oriented person, and as a result, destinations are not in short supply. The heart of my problem is that I don’t know where I’m going because I don’t know where I am.

The most valuable skill I learned in Boy Scouts was orienteering, or using a map and compass for land navigation. The heart of successful land navigation is first, knowing where you are. Without knowing where you are, where you are going is irrelevant. Without knowing where you are, you could be going in a damn circle, which, as I’m learning, is more often the case for me than not.

The destinations I’ve navigated toward, or the goals I’ve pursued, how often have they been influenced by a poor understanding of where I was at? Was I running from something that the reptilian part of my brain perceived as a threat, that was really just somebody’s bad day? Was I avoiding difficult life experiences because I perceived them as too much to handle, that perception being a direct result of clouded judgment?

I write this because it’s taken me 11,024 days to realize that I haven’t paid enough attention to my location, to where I’m at -- physically, emotionally, intellectually. If I’m stressed, I need to be stressed. If I’m afraid, then I need to be afraid. If I’m happy, then I need to be happy. I need to ride it out, experience whatever has come my way, observe it, and then use it to set a course. Maybe you need to do the same.

If you don’t know where you’re going, don’t take the lead. And if you don’t know where you are, don’t go.