Tuesday, July 23, 2013


I don't want people to get the wrong impression about this blog or my personal philosophy on life. While much of this blog (perhaps too much, back to game design?) is dedicated to thinking through proactive actions I want to take towards being a better person, there is a nasty downside that must be addressed.

By reaching towards action -- by being predisposed towards feeling like if we do nothing we have failed -- we develop a very strong feeling of Meritocracy and Just World Fallacy. We, in essence, start to believe that through our own actions, on the other side of struggles and depressions that there is an inevitable payout. IF I am careful with my money, THEN I will have financial security. IF I am always honest, THEN people will believe me and I will have a good reputation. IF I love someone, THEN they will love me back. IF I am a good person, THEN good things will happen.

But, quite honestly, the world doesn't work that way.

I'm sure we all know this to some degree. You just have to check the news and see all the pain and suffering in this world. Random natural disasters change lives indiscriminately and without warning. Charlatans roam the streets taking things away from the good and honest. We like to say that "crime doesn't pay" and yet plenty of criminals safely hoard away cash. Otherwise healthy people mysteriously get cancer. Loved ones get in an accident and are suddenly gone without warning. Reputations are sullied by slander and never restored. It is no wonder many are bleak and cynical; seeing the universe as uncaring and random.

But just like the Gambler's Fallacy, we expect things to eventually even out. A kind of Westernized Karma that eventually people will get their just rewards. We like to think if I just prepare hard enough I will be ready. If only I had done X, then Y wouldn't have happened. We prefer to feel like we have agency in our lives and control, especially when things seem to spiral out of control. On the flip side, successful people must have done something special to make it. CEOs spew out books of how to succeed, and people gobble them up (even as they contradict each other). Biographies of stars give prime real estate to particular mantras they lived by and millions quote them trying to graft them onto their lives.

I approve of this mindset. Most of this blog is about me working through active motions towards a better me. But this world-view has a costly downside. As discussed in this TED talk, meritocracies tend to have a strong correlation with rates of depression. The more you feel you have agency over your success, the more dissatisfied you become with your current state. Some argue that this may be OK, and people merely need to toughen up and keep striving. But eventually the world will come crashing down, and you will have no agency whatsoever over the circumstances. What then?

I propose that we practice the concept of surrendering.

First, let me break down what the word means. It is an active word. I do not propose you "give up" since that is resignation and has passive connotations. I argue surrendering is the active motion of intentionally surveying the situation and choosing it is better to surrender than keep fighting. Also, surrendering typically has a second-party component. You always surrender to someone -- or something -- else. Armies and nations surrender to one another. You can surrender to your circumstances or emotions. Someone or something else will accept your surrender and occupy the dominant position.

So, what do we surrender to? I could probably write a series of posts on this alone, but let me run through a few examples briefly.

First, be able to surrender to your emotions. The Usual Error uses the phrase, "We're made of meat" to describe how we as humans are giant barrels of needs and sloshing chemicals. We are not perfectly rational creatures, try as we might to pretend otherwise. We irrationally desire affirmation, even when we cognitively know we are secure. We will feel depressed and lonely, perhaps even after a rousing party with family and friends has just ended. And I think that is OK. I try to allow myself to have feelings and not rail against myself for feeling them. Instead of fighting them, and more importantly instead of wallowing in them, you can try to process them. The act of surrendering also means not going down the rabbit hole of understanding the why of the emotions. You Are Not So Smart's article Misattribution of Arousal details how terrible we are at deciphering why we feel the emotions we do. So surrender to them. Be able to feel them and don't fret over the reason.[1]

Surrendering to circumstances is also important. This is perhaps very obvious in most situations. As a given I don't own a house nor have a million dollars, so I act appropriately. But this is also important when thinking about other things. As much as I may love milk products, if I develop lactose intolerance due to my genetics I can no longer enjoy them (at least without buying medication or suffering lots of gas). I can fight it all I want, but my body and genetics will say otherwise. If circumstantially someone has to move away for perhaps a job, it is important to come to terms with that. Missing them is natural (see previous paragraph) but you can't pine over them forever. To a small extent we can control our environment, but at the end of the day you have to accept what is around you.

I would also argue we need to work on surrendering to others. Too often we think of ourselves as the most important thing in the world. I am right, I am important, it's My time you are wasting, the list goes on and on. But service and humility are huge in my mind. From a practical side it helps realign your perspective to focus on others instead of yourself. Turning in on yourself is perhaps the most surefire way to become depressed. This also encompasses a broad spectrum, including submitting to others' advice and accepting help. At the very least be able to concede some measure of pride, ego, and control. This comes up in debates all the time. Fred Clark write that debates end up being about winning and showing yourself in control and right. Being able to concede to superior arguments and seek truth is extremely hard to do in our bubble-echo-chamber world. We would rather temporarily concede and come back with more arguments in our salvo. Instead, submit with respect when beat.

As a Christian, I would say the greatest surrendering is towards God. In his post trying to detail what Sin is, Zack Hunt writes, "The sin of Adam and Eve was their attempt to become God. The sin of Adam and Eve was idolatry... We grasp at divinity." In this context, Sin is not from legalism or "missing the mark" as much as rejecting God and putting ourselves in his place. We think we know better and can do better and go trotting on our merry way towards death. The cure? Surrendering to the will of God. Taking on His goals, burdens, and values and trying to live life with His mindset. This is also a form of extremely active submission. This is not about just giving up on certain actions. More often it is being prodded towards particular other actions. Submission here is more about doing the actions God calls us to do. And, if you believe the Bible, it also means God will use His power to work through you and empower you to things you couldn't do on your own.

Practicing surrendering is not the same as giving up and crawling into a shell. One piece of poetry I find impactful is "Rage, rage against the dying of the light" (Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas). I don't think we should just float through life. We can swim and aim for goals. But don't be afraid to let the currents take you somewhere else. Find a balance, or else you'll just tire your arms and legs and drown. And just remember, life will always go on. Some would even say "It's just a ride" (Bill Hicks). So stop micromanaging everything. It's not your fault. You have permission to feel, to stumble, and to give something else power over you.

[1] While most of this post is very bleak and on coping with negative things, surrendering to emotions is a great example of the flip side as well. When you feel joy and happiness and contentment, surrender to it!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Missteps and False Starts

A friend of mine recently (OK, several weeks ago) had a rather amusing post on how girls tend to think and puzzle out if a guy likes them. In short, humans be freakin' crazy and confusing.

So, here's some totally super surefire ways that guys like me let you know we're interested.

1) We want to talk with you. A lot. Like, every single moment.
2) We only talk to you once a week. For a few minutes. At a group gathering where we're conveniently together.
3) When we go dancing, we ask you to dance more times than the other girls.
4) We make sure the other girls get to dance a lot 'cause we're nice guys like that and don't want you to figure out #3.
5) We ask for your number.
6) We commence to never text you for fear that we'll screw up.
7) We want to "make you feel wanted" like that one song. Heck, we might even sing it to you.
8) We never ever EVER let you know we objectify you. 'Cause, you know, lewd jerks do that. And I'm an upstanding awesome respectful kinda guy.
9) We like hugs. Especially from you.
10) We like hugs in general. And not just those silly Christian side-hugs.
11) We tell very private things to you. Either from our childhood or stuff that's going on.
12) We never tell you private things. That's reserved for people we're dating or in accountability groups.
13) We give you stuff with no regard if you'll repay us.
14) We're generous dudes in general and treat everyone out.

So there you go. A surefire way to know when a guy is TOTALLY INTO YOU. =D

Monday, July 1, 2013

Look For What's Missing

I remember when I first moved out to Folsom. It wasn't the first time I moved. After settling into work and a basic routine I started looking for groups to join. Near the top of my list was a Christian community for young unmarried adults. These are amazingly rare. Church after church mentioned their collegiate hangouts or their adult studies or a young married group, but no one seemed to have a young adult one. I was becoming a little discouraged. When I finally came upon one, I decided to put it to the test. I would see if they were genuinely interested in me. Who would greet and ask me to events? Would they care when I didn't show up? Were they truly interested in investing in me?

Lucky for Fusion, they have a few notable smiling people who take it upon themselves to greet and connect people to the community. I was soon awash with invites to random events from the official car wash fundraiser to more mundane picnic activities and birthdays. For a while, that was good. I slowly figured out people's names and had a full schedule of events. But doubt crept back in. The majority of the events seemed to be mass invites. When I setup an event I mass-invited the whole Facebook network. Was I merely building a large pool of bodies so I wouldn't have to stand alone in the party?

So I tried another set of experiments. If I intentionally withdrew who would notice? If I disappeared from Facebook would anyone comment? Did I exert enough "pull" on the social group that my absence of presence would register?

I remember a guest speaker we once had at Catalyst. I forget most of his talk, and for now I'll call him Wesley since I forgot his name, but I do remember one anecdote he shared. When he was younger there were the cool dudes of his youth group. They would hang out together and share stories about the radical things they did throughout the week. Wesley felt left out and always wanted to somehow get into the cool kids circle. He thought that perhaps if he became cool enough they would invite him. It didn't work. Finally he decided to make his own cool kids circle. He would invite people to events and make his own circle of friends to share radical things with. He switched from being on the outside looking in to building his own inner circle. He didn't need the "cool kids." He didn't have to wait to get invited. He just needed to reach out and make friends. That revelation sticks with me.

As humans we respond to positive stimuli. When we feel hungry we seek food. When someone is talking to us we devote our attention to them. We are much, much worse at identifying the absence of sudden stimuli. I do not spend most of my day noticing how not-hungry I am. It is in the rare case you are isolated in a dark and silent room that you realize how much ambient noise you are constantly filtering out in your everyday life. You focus on the road while driving. We notice the well-dressed or horribly dressed. The average, the normal, the background gets filtered out.

A few months ago my co-workers were playing Ultimate Frisbee. I put down my keys, phone, water bottle, and my silver ring on the field. People on occasion have asked about my silver ring. I wear it on my left hand on the middle finger. It is a Sterling Silver band with the word "Purity" engraved onto it. I've had it since High School. It's a great little reminder to myself and an interesting conversation starter with others. But on this particular day when we moved off the field I grabbed everything except my ring. We never found it in the field that day. So for the last two months I haven't been wearing the ring. No one has made a comment about its absence. Not even my family when I visited them. I'm not sure people have noticed.

We respond the same way to social stimuli. According to Facebook I have 577 Friends. I only interact with at most around 20 per day. But I'm not crippled with missing the other 500+ I don't see for months on end. We respond to active stimuli and filter out the absences. There are exceptions, such as missing one of my co-workers who shipped out. But eventually that subsides. We require constant incidental interactions to build up and maintain relationships.

Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. We can choose to be more aware of what's missing. In this interesting blog post the author Kristin notices we are driven to proactively fill the gaps and holes in our lives. But sometimes while trying to stuff ourselves full we don't take the time to truly understand why the gap was there in the first place. Or, as she puts it, "What’s missing quickly becomes buried under the ever-growing pile of what’s there." Common gaps include acceptance, love, recognition, and stability. Being aware of our bias towards positive stimuli can lead us to also look around a little more at what is lacking. Then we can pursue the root cause and not just treat the symptoms.

Taking this to a social context, this has two major implications. First, be active in making friends. Do not wait for people to "notice" you. Very, very few people have enough of a magnetic personality or such shining skills that they draw critical acclaim just by standing there. Instead, people get to know people who take time and effort to interact with them. This is much harder than passively waiting. But relationships take effort. Do not rely on people magically discovering you're a diamond in the rough. And yes, this will mean you will fail. People will turn down invites, or eventually you'll realize you're the only one putting effort into the relationship. But it also opens up so many potential great relationships with amazing people who invest in you as well.

On the flip side, don't feel bad about being left out. Friends will drift apart, and sometimes you can't salvage it. Sometimes people will just plumb forget your appointment. It happens. It is not a slight towards you per se. So always remember to give a modicum of grace before firing off an angry spurt onto social media. People don't respond to neutral well, so be able to forgive them.

The second corollary is be aware of negative space. For example, look around for people who are a bit more withdrawn. They don't understand this bias yet, and maybe one is just waiting to be discovered. Be that discoverer. Also, be aware of your own negative space. If the only thing you talk about is negative things going on in your life, people will think you're a negative person. If the only thing you post on Twitter is trivial nonsense, people might assume you're full of trivial nonsense. This is completely unfair, but be aware of it. I personally only post interesting things I find to Facebook and rarely anything personal. Obviously this doesn't mean I don't have personal things to share, but I just don't like blasting it out to everyone unless it's important.

As in all my advice pieces, I caution you from taking this too far. There is a distinct inverse relationship between believing in a meritocracy and feelings of self-worth. I am not saying the more you do the more friends you will have. I am not even saying the more gaps you see the more happy you will be. And I know several people who are already aware of this bias and performing admirably at watching out for those who are absent. But I encourage you to take a moment to reflect and see if this is a blind spot you can address.

In closing, I leave you with the cliche phrase "Be the change that you wish to see in the world."* Be proactive, be that friendly person, go out and show the world instead of waiting for it to discover you.

* This was apparently never said by Ghandi. He actually said, "If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do." which removes the implicit that social change can be a result of solely personal change. Still means they go hand-in-hand though.