Solving a Spiritual Problem

Eckhart Tolle is the most popular writer on spirituality today. His books like “The Secret” and “The Power of Now” have sold millions. Probably tens of millions.

It’s the kind of writing that’s light and breezy, and designed to be sold in staggering quantities. You’ll see it alongside Grisham and King in Wal-Marts and Hudson News stands at every airport in America.

Detractors say the writing is platitudinous, full of half-baked pseudo-spirituality and watered-down quasi-Buddhist concepts. And it’s a fair assessment. All in all, Tolle’s work is little more than a regurgitated and modernized Tibetan Book of the Dead. My own opinion is that he’s a decidedly less original literary relative of Osho, Krishnamurti, and Alan Watts.

But people who criticize him on grounds of his originality and profiteering miss the point entirely, and there is an important marketing concept to understand here:

Yes, Eckhart Tolle is hawking barely repackaged ideas from the great Eastern spiritual traditions that go back thousands of years, usually with no credit attributed to the original source.

But who cares? This is not his market. Do you think the people reading his book are also reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead? Not a chance.

Think of it this way – Eckhart Tolle is performing a valuable service. He is taking a complex and arcane subject and making it simple.

He is doing what all entrepreneurs do. He is solving a problem and introducing new ideas to millions of people who would otherwise have not been exposed to it. And for this he deserves every penny he makes because of it, detractors be damned.

A Tom Sachs Primer

Every once in a while you find an artist who makes you jump up and down with excitement. If you’re like me, you get obsessive– first you consume their art of course. All of it.

Then you read the Wikipedia page about the artist. Then the pages about all the things you consumed. You read the references. You watch 7 interviews with them. You google “[artist name] + reviews” to understand where they fit into their field. You see the reviewer mention some other artists as a point of comparison, and you do it all over again with that person.

When I go down the rabbit hole like this, I sometimes feel conflicted, like I’m wasting my time. It feels like procrastination, like I should be doing something with a more clearly defined purpose and endpoint. Reading about things that will be of no practical value to me.

But I’ve done this enough now to know that it’s just something to push through. A temporary flash of self-doubt that can be overcome with persistence. In the end, I always emerge at the other side with some new insight, some added depth to my experience and my worldview.

I did this most recently with sculptor, filmmaker, and installation artist Tom Sachs, who. Here are my favorite pieces of his:

Scuplptor Tom Sachs believes in working to code. His studio is run with the meticulous intensity of a NASA training program, which makes sense given his obsession with the space program and his ongoing installations which combine sculpture and theater in a funny and inspirational way.

Here is where to start:

  • His film “Ten Bullets”, directed by Van Neistat (brother of YouTube star Casey Neistat), comes across as an instructive industrial or PSA film. Tom Sachs believes in “working to code”, and this film not only serves as training material for his studio assistants, but also lays out some findamentals about his attitude toward life and art.
  • Color is another employee training film-cum-manifesto which not only identifies the precise paint types and colors which are used in the studio, but really made me appreciate the range of subletly and expression that can be derived from paint color alone.
  • All of Tom Sach’s work is rooted in the concept of bricolage, which refersto the act of constructing something with whatever is at hand. This video shows his fully functional McDonald’s food cart made of plywood, complete with a deep fryer, tongue-in-cheek ripoff logos, and a shotgun defense system.
  • His space program, in which his team staged a manned mission to Mars, complete with full size lander, rover, and space suits, using nothing but household objects. The amazing thing about this project is that Tom and the staff never talk about it with any degree of humor or self-deprecation, and they never imply that they aren’t really going to Mars. They just call it “the space program” and are utterly sincere to the point that they are using NASA’s logo. “Everything is executed to such detail that it becomes real.
  • This interview with Adam Savage, where they talk about early careers, making stuff, bricolage, and why Tom always paints his plywood before he cuts it.

I hope you can take something from this and use it to improve your life, art, and understanding. Now I’m just wondering – which rabbit hole is next?

 

Applied Empathy

In Paul Graham’s essay “Hackers and Painters,” he makes the point that the best creators, whether they’re making visual art or software, make things for a human audience. This is true whether the creators explicitly know it or not.

They create things with the intent that other people will consume and appreciate what they are doing. It’s summarized well in Graham’s axiom, make things people want. But when you look at the work of so many creators approach their art, it seems to fail this basic requirement.

Artists in particular are notorious for this. What it comes down to is a lack of empathy. At every stage in the creative process, ask yourself — am I making this because it’s what I want? Or am I making it because it is what someone else wants? Who specifically, and what desire does my thing fulfill?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with making art for an audience of one, for simple self-expression, catharsis, or maybe for practice. The problem is when people create art from a self-centered place and then are shocked and vaguely offended when the world doesn’t match their enthusiasm.

At the other extreme, if you’re making something exclusively because you think it’s what people want, you’re likely to run out of steam and give up before you’re done. The key it to strike a balance.

Business people are usually better at this than artists, but not always. Look at this video of startup founders asking Paul Graham for advice. Graham is amazingly incisive, and I’m sure it’s not easy to open yourself up to cross-examination from such a heavy hitter. But even so I’m amazed at how bad most of these people are at describing their businesses. Many seem to have no strong concept of what problem their product solves and who exactly would use it.

Without a clear concept of what you’re trying to accomplish and for whom, you’re wasting your energy.

So empathy is a key attribute of a successful creator — successful in the sense that the creation is well-received by some intended audience. (An amazing creation that lives in total obscurity is not an amazing creation.)

To put it in plain English, a secret of success is the ability to look at things from the other person’s point of view.

Cynics will say this is weakness.  But there is a flip side: Graham notes that “empathy doesn’t necessarily mean being self-sacrificing.” Just the opposite can be true; seeing something through someone else’s eyes doesn’t mean you’ll act in his interest.

Take war or sports as an example. The objective there is to understand what the opponent wants and then deliver the exact opposite.

 

We’re All Addicted to Something

It’s my theory that we’re all addicts in some way. Maybe to our jobs, to our partners, to perfectionism, to social media. Sometimes to obviously destructive things like heroin, obsessive cleanliness, or procrastination. But they are all alike in the space they occupy in our minds, and there is a common language that links this sort of behavior which we can benefit from.

The Last Psychiatrist was writing about online porn addition when in 2011, but the specifics don’t matter — substitute your addiction of choice:

When you characterize porn as an addiction it tells you that it is hard to break free, that it is a struggle, that relapse is inevitable– all things that have nothing to do with porn.  But when you characterize online porn as junk food, the solution is obvious: don’t eat it.

If porn is in fact damaging (the writer argues that it is), the way out of the woods is to treat porn as a simple bad habit. The goal is to become the kind of person who just doesn’t like porn, in the same way that an active athlete truly doesn’t like junk food. Not because they don’t think jelly donuts aren’t delicious — but because they are closely attuned to negative consequences. They’ve got their eyes set of bigger things and they’re too busy for that shit.

It’s interesting to me because as someone who has known addicts in my life, I think drug and alcohol abuse treatment has a problem. The first step of AA and other 12-step programs is:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

AA says two things. It says “anyone can quit drinking if they want to.” But it also says “you are nothing and you cannot fight this.”

The tragedy is that it’s giving the alcohol too much power. Rather than characterize booze as some force of nature to struggle against every day in church basements sipping watery coffee, these programs should treat it simply as something that is bad for you and that you should stop using. Nothing more. Drinking is an unproductive and harmful pattern of behavior, but that’s all that it is. Just a bad way to spend your time and money.

To call it an addiction almost gives it too much power.

Think of it this way: It’s always easier to start a new habit than it is to break an old one, even if the difference is only how you frame it in your mind.  To put it another way– stop trying to avoid things to declare yourself a non-drinker, non-junkfood eater, non-procrastinator (a negative), and start trying to become someone who only spends time on valuable and rewarding activities (a positive). Become the kind of person who doesn’t do the bad habit.

Empower and elevate yourself, and stop giving power to the external source of negativity in your life.

Hustling

Hustling can seem like frenzy. But it’s not. Like not sleeping, working late, moving like a hurricane.

So many people seem to hold this as the ideal. Like sleeping only 4 hours a night is a point of pride. But in most cases it’s not. It usually just means you lack focus, and the discipline to say “no” to wasteful actions.

Elon Musk said matter-of-factly in an interview that if you’re working 80 hours a week you’ll get twice as much done as the guy who is working 40 hours a week. But he’s ignoring the effect of diminishing returns. I would wager that hours 41 through 80 aren’t nearly as effective as the first 40. How can he not see the flaw in this? Why is he letting his ego run the show?

Maybe hustling doesn’t look like frenzy– maybe it’s more like a quiet intensity. The ability to focus on a single point. To control yourself so you can control the task. Maybe that’s hustle.

Then you swiftly, calculatedly move on to the next one. Keep your desk clean, literally and metaphorically.

A rifle, not a shotgun.

Stop Procrastinating

Some people never procrastinate. I am not one of them, and I don’t understand them.

Instead, I struggle every day against the tendency to sit around, waste time on the internet, and generally sabatoge the opportunities that I work hard to expose myself to.

I have a wide assortment of tactics which I’ve pulled from a variety of sources. The best way I’ve fount for beating procrastination is to alternate between these approaches. They all achieve the same end, but they attack the problem from different angles. I’ll work with one concept, study it, write reminders, and try to keep it at the top of my head for as long as possible.

But no matter how hard I try, it’s effectiveness inevitably fades.

As Emerson says, “each will bear an emphasis of attention once, which it cannot retain, though we fain would continue to be pleased in that manner.”

When it happens I move on to a new approach.

Here are a handful of anti-procratstination tactics. I’m sure the list will grow as I get older, but I hope it’s of some use to others who read it today.

  1. Wage war. Inspired by the word of Steven Pressfield, namely the War of Art. Imagine yourself entrenched in a violent battle with Resistance, the malicious force that keeps you distracted and complacent. Now respect yourself like the warrior you are and go beat it into submission.
  2. Have fun. The opposite of #1, but equally effective. Remind yourself that you’re doing this because you enjoy it. (If that isn’t true deep down, then you have other issues you need to address.) Treat the task like a game. Use humor. Try to introduce an element of lightness to it, and the hardness will dissolve away.
  3. Personify it. Tim Urban of Wait But Why created the concept of the Instant Gratification Monkey and his counterpart, the Panic Monster, as a way to understand the forces at play in your head when you’re engaged in your work, distracted, or anywhere in between. If you can name your emotions, then all of a sudden you’re not having an inner struggle of willpower anymore. You can be objective and strategic in your efforts to get shit done.
  4. Be an artist. Become the artistic director of your life. This is related to #2. Realize that your life is one big art project. Your job is to make it a masterpiece. Read biographies and obituaries for inspiration and see how masterfully others have pulled it off.
  5. Put your back against the wall. People fight harder when they’re backed into a corner. Harness this power by finding something that stresses you out enough to buckle down and get to work. Imagine your future children– how are you going to feed them? Or your own retirement– have you even begun to prepare? If you don’t have a compelling stressor, invent one. Drop out. Quit the job. Pledge to make a donation that you can’t afford. Make it public so you won’t back down. Now get to work.
  6. Anticipate death. Robert Greene’s advice is to remind yourself this 10 times every hour. You will find yourself wasting less time. People have been doing this for centuries, in fact. And it works. If you feel death hanging over you every day, you want to make it count.
  7. Sweat it out. Go for a run. Lift. Box. Swim. Anything to get your body moving. This gives you a little win which you can use to boost your confidence. When I run 5 miles first thing in the day, I feel like I’ve already won. Now I can start working on whatever task comes up, because if I make any progress it’s like extra credit.
  8. Small steps. Break it down until it’s managemable.
  9. Think of how far you’ve come.
  10. Remember all the people who are counting on you. Don’t let them down.

There are a million and one productivity tips and life hacks out there, but sometimes it feels like they’re treating a symptom of a much deeper affliction. If you don’t understand and address the core of why you’re procrastinating– maybe unhappiness with your life, low confidence, fear, or poor health– then all the life hacks in the world aren’t going to help you.

What’s worked for me, and what I suggest to others: Stop looking for hacks. There is no magic bullet.

Ask yourself what you really want. Don’t stop asking until you know. It doesn’t have to be ultra-specific, but it probably needs to be more specific than it is right now.

In the mean time, accept that procrastination is not something you beat all at once, like a lightbulb going off. There will be no epiphany here. Instead, try to fight procrastination 1% better every day. You will make progress.

The Situation

Someone did you wrong and put you in an awkward position. This feels uncomfortable, but it is an opportunity in disguise.

  • Confront the problem head-on. Think of all the things you can use this to practice: empathy, acceptance, peristance, courage.
  • Notice I didn’t say confront him head-on. There is a difference.
  • Place your emotions and your preferences firmly on the bedrock of WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL.
  • Go back in that room and act with courage and nerve. Let his actions and words flow over you like waves crashing on rocks on the shore. They can never touch what is inside.
  • You lost some money. Forget the money. Deal with this problem and it will teach you lessons that you would gladly pay to learn. Dollar for dollar, it’s probably paid for itself already. Pretend the money is gone, never to return. Now make the most of the opportunity.
  • Apply amor fati. To not wish it was any other way. Not “this isn’t so bad,” but “YES. This is right. I love that this has happened.”

Does it make sense yet?

  • You acted today with dignity and courage already. Don’t waste your time wondering if this was a big deal or not. It is important to you, and that’s all that matters.
  • Remember that he and you both will be dead soon. None of this will matter. Neither of you will care and neither of you will exist. Whoever can wrap his head around that fact and feel it in his gut more deeply is the winner.
  • Most of all, remember that this conflict is a moment in your life. To deny it and to wish it were any other way is ignorance. To be ignorant to the reality of your own life is to deny your existance.

You already know what principles should guide your life– so go do it. Be the man in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and blood. Get embarrassed, humiliated, sweaty, angry, and flustered. Let him fight you, piss you off, tear you apart.

Because the alternative is to do nothing. Is that what you prefer?