Monday, May 25, 2009


After 6 weeks of working at a preschool I have learned a few things. Even though I am there to teach the kids, they have as many lessons for me as I do them. And the most applicable to my current status in life is the value of failure. I know we have discussed this in previous posts but I want to address it one more time, since I really feel it is so important.

As a shaper of young minds, as I guess I am for one more week, one tends to think of the most effective way to teach these kids what is right and wrong, what works and what doesn't. Having lived 22, almost 23 years, I know a thing or two about how to do things. Sure I have a lot to learn. But when it comes to the capabilities of a 5 year old, I like to think I have the experience to make an attractive lady bug out of construction paper, and I can handle a puzzle with pieces larger than my hand. So I could very easily lead them through each task by essentially telling them what to do and when. But how would that prepare them for being 22 or even 12. They wouldn't learn a thing, other than it is handy to have someone there who knows what to do. Instead, asking them how they think it should be done, or what they think about whatever we are talking about emphasizes the process of getting something right, through that beautiful teacher that is failure. Getting something wrong is the best way to show someone how to do it right. None of us rode perfectly the first time we sat on a bike without training wheels. But being afraid to fail would surely keep us from trying. We could ask our parents a million questions about how to ride a bike, what to do when you start to lean too much in one direction, etc, but having all of that in our heads would be no substitute for that experience of actually trying it.

Revisiting that speaking tour by Rob Bell that I talked about a few posts back, he had a great lesson about failure. He told the story of a pottery class. At the beginning of the two week course the teacher split the class into two groups. To one group he said, "spend the next two weeks making only one piece of potterty, that your final grade will be based on." To the other group he said, "spend the next two weeks making as many pieces as possible, just churn them out as quickly as you can, spend every free moment making pottery pieces, and at the end of two weeks you will have to pick just one to be graded on." At this point in the story it becomes clear that one group will have the better pieces, and both Alex and I are sitting there thinking, "of course its going to be the group that focuses on just one piece. The other group is going to be churning out pottery pieces at such a rate that they wont spend enough time on them and they will be sloppy." Rob continues to tell us that at the end of two weeks, the group that made just one piece has all these elaborate theories on what makes a great piece and what techniques are most effective, etc. But their pieces looked terrible. On the other hand, the group that made as many pieces as possible had these intricate, interesting pieces because they had failed so many times that they learned from experience what worked and what did not. We were dead wrong.

I think that story exemplifies the tragedy of young people, maybe just young people from our generation. Or maybe I shouldn't speak for my peers and instead should say that it exemplifies a problem that I have. I don't know if there is a word for it but I have failure-phobia. I am afraid to do anything until I know enough about it because I want to remove all doubt that I will succeed. I get this idea that I can figure anything out, that I am smart enough to learn enough about whatever it is I have to do before doing it, so that when it comes time to do it I will know enough about it to get it right and thus not fail. From a larger perspective I think us young people get it in our head that we have to live the perfect life from the starting gate, that "hey, you've had time to think and to ponder life, now get living and do it right." That we have to pick one career path and stay on it and never waver (see previous posts for more on this).

How did we get this way? We surely failed enough as children, chose wrong, flip-flopped. I would wager that at least 99% of the things I can now say I can do I failed at the first time, maybe more than that. So why are we (or at least am I) still so afraid to fail.

I read an article recently that described a failed movement in child rearing that unfortunately affected quite directly my generation. It was the self-esteem movement, in which starting in the 80's parents and teachers started good-jobing every kid for everything they did, even if it sucked. You drew a couple of letters backwards it was "good job" not, you were close, nice effort, but this was wrong. You struck out in baseball, "good job." Not, it's alright, try again next time, keep your head up! It lingers today. If you walk around the preschool I work at you will hear "good job" being barked all the time. I do it too. It's hard not to. But what this achieves is not its intended consequence. Instead, it gave us the sense that everything we do is amazing even if its not. Instead of being told "its ok to fail" we were told, "you didn't fail, you did a great job!" Well did we? Of course not, but instead of learning to cope with the fact that we just aren't good at everything, we believed we were. And now as we enter the harsh "real world" as we like to call it, we find it less enthused with our efforts. So even though we failed thousands of times as kids, we are only now confronting that fact. We are confronting the fact that we are not good at everything. And what we still need to confront is the fact that experience is important. That sitting around theorizing about perfect pottery will produce garbage. It's ok to fail. We learn from it. In many ways it's more important than succeeding. So, lets go out there and make as much pottery as possible, and enjoy the experience. Sounds a heck of a lot better than sitting in a room for two weeks making nothing but your head spin. Theories are important. But they mean nothing if they aren't practiced.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Rain in Your Face

A few weeks ago I was walking home from work on a blustery evening because I had missed my bus. Half way home, it began to rain. This was mid-April, so the rain was quite cold, and the strong winds drove each drop into my face very firmly. Leaning into the wind, squinting and furrowing my brow to resist the icy darts, I honestly felt quite stressed. It would seem there are a lot of things that might stress someone who just got off of work and has to walk through the cold, driving rain, but what I felt was most immediately causing the stress was the tense muscles in my face. I relaxed them, resting my eyelids to protect my eyes from the rain a bit. It felt good. And the rain in my face felt just about the same. It occurred to me that this was probably a blog-worthy metaphor playing out in real life. Is it the rains of life that cause us pain, or the bitter, resentful squinting we do when we step out into them?

Last night when I got out of work, the horizon to the east was clear and bright, but to the west there were black clouds and distant thunder. It was clearly about to storm. I had my gym clothes with me, and there were four days of my gym membership left. It seemed clear - today was a gym day, not a day to run outside. So towards the gym I turned.

But the air was so warm outside, not to mention crammed with sweet aromas from blossoming trees, that I decided I would risk going home and running outside. I had just been given some troubling news at work (to be discussed in another blog entry), and I needed to soak in the skyline and run along the lake - I needed some perspective. I walked a bit faster and changed course for the bus stop. One block from the bus stop, I saw my bus loading - two minutes earlier than it usually does. I began to run, but the bus closed its doors and was pulling away when I was only two houses down. I slowed my pace and prepared mentally to walk home as the dark clouds pulled closer. I was going to need a little more perspective than I initially thought.

Changing into my running clothes at home, the thunder began to shake the pictures on the walls, but there was no rain yet. Looking out the window, I decided I would not be stopped from getting my perspective. I didn't care what the bus or the weather had to say about it. Before stepping out the door the rain began to fall, and hard. A wall of water had blown in, violently disrupting the still, aromatic air. As I waited for the elevator a friendly neighbor looked at me in my shorts, noted my umbrella-less state, and tried to be helpful,

"Do you know it just started to pour buckets out there?"

Yeah. I know. What are you trying to say?

As badass as I had tried to hone my attitude to be up in the apartment, I have to admit the intensity of the rain surprised me. It was almost hard to breathe with that much water in my face. The wind made it hard to run in a straight line. About fifty feet from the door I was saturated, freeing me to forget about the fact that I was getting wet. As I ran toward the lakefront, instinctively avoiding the deep puddles that had already formed in the gutters, I relaxed my face and enjoyed the feeling of excessive amounts of warm water falling on me from the sky. By the time I reached the lake I was almost laughing. Standing on the rocky ledge above the water, watching the lightning light up the darkness over the shimmering, turqoise water, I accepted the new reality of living in an environment filled with flying water instead of air. The water that flowed down my nose and into my mouth tasted sweet, and I pitied the group of runners who had huddled under the bridge to wait out the worst of the storm. How would they ever know how the rain tasted, or how it feels to relax their faces and stop noticing the rain? On the run back I realized how silly I had been to avoid the puddles before, and I made a point to stomp with both feet into every puddle I passed.

Now I am dry. My clothes are dry too.

I wonder when it will rain again.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


A couple weeks ago I attended a speaking tour by Rob Bell, the pastor of the church that my fellow blogger Alex and his fiancee attend. The subject discussed was the link between suffering and creativity. In the discussion Mr. Bell said something that struck me, and relates to something that has consumed much of my thoughts recently. He said "you can own something, but not possess it, and you can possess something, but not own it." We own things we don't necessarily use as we should. Either we don't respect the function they provide (like admitting technology is incredible but we are not entitled - see last posting), or we simply don't need them. Basically, we misuse many of the things we own, and should reevaluate our possessions.

Moving across the country a few weeks ago put the subject of "stuff" square on my mind, and it has persisted. Packing everything up in Boston forced me to confront the physical items I call my own in the harshest way - as basically a chore. And while standing in my room before I started packing I could have told you with confidence that I didn't really have much stuff, when it came time to pack it all up I swear items were being materialized every minute. Stuff just came out of the woodwork, and I really had to evaluate why I own the things I do and if I really need them.

Clothes are a good example. There are so many shirts that I have that I like owning. But I never wear most of them. I pulled some of them aside into a bag I would potentially donate, including some shirts that I was really on the fence about. And after weeks I didn't notice their absence one bit, and I don't imagine I will. We have these attachments to things that cause us to hold on to them much after they have expended their utility. Another example is my former mp3 player. I loved that thing. I bought it together with my brother, it came with me to Ecuador and had photos on it to prove it, and it picked me up when feeling down. And I sold it on eBay a month or so ago. I never used it. It was bulky, and I have an ipod shuffle I use now because I like the simplicity of not really having to spend time choosing exactly what to listen to. But when I packed up that player and had to erase all the data, it was hard. I second guessed my decision big time. I felt like I was losing a part of me, like I was giving up my past. Now, months later, I don't miss it one bit.

I think we put parts of our selves in the items we call our own. And sentimentality isn't necessarily a bad thing, don't get me wrong. But when we hang on to things long after we stop using them, all of a sudden our stuff becomes a burden. One more thing to carry, to worry about, to protect, to defend.

There is something simple and serene about having few material possessions. Thoreau said it best; "Simplify, simplify, simplify!" I am not advocating swearing off all material possessions. Quite the contrary, I am advocating being conscious of everything you own. Make the distinction between things you simply own and things you possess. The story Rob Bell told to illustrate this point came from a poverty stricken village he visited in Rwanda. He had just finished talking with a family devastated by AIDS, in a community ravaged by the disease, as well as war, when he walked out of a hut to the sound of a loud ruckus nearby. He followed the sound to an old, run down building. Inside, members of the community were dancing like it was their last moment on Earth, hands and faces to the sky, singing, pouring their hearts out. Rob turned to a man nearby and asked "what are they doing? Why are they doing this today?" And the man responded, "oh, they do this everyday at lunchtime." Perfect. As Rob said, they had been given this moment, why wouldn't they dance. Ravaged by unimaginable suffering, they created something beautiful, everyday. As he said, none of them owned the building, but they all possessed it. They gave it life.

What do you own but you don't possess. What do you hold on to long after it has lost its utility. And what do you possess? What do you give life to.

Monday, March 23, 2009


We are very reliant on our technology. Not only that, we feel entitled to it, without stopping to realize how amazing it is today. Sure it's great to hear about the newest technology or think of ways it can make our lives easier in the future, but if we don't also appreciate how amazing it is today, what's the point? With that attitude, we will never be satisfied with what we already have. Watch this youtube clip of Louis CK explain this concept in a much funnier way than I just did. He makes some good points.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Energy Crisis

Before I get into the bulk of my post, there are a few items of business to attend to. First, sincere apologies for the long breaks between posts. For 10 of the 20-some days between posts I was on a road trip and was unable to post. However, it is our intention to post closer to once a week as opposed to once every three weeks, so an apology is in order. The second item of business is the issue of reformatting. At the onset of this blog, Alex and I discussed a desire to have it be less a one way conversation and more an open dialogue, with our readers responding to our posts, challenging our assumptions and offering counterpoints. Thank you for all the comments we have received so far. However, there is some concern that we are still approaching each new subject as a diagnosis and prescription for problems we perceive to be important. We'd like to shy away from that, promoting more of a question and answer format. We hope that all our readers will offer their own answers and critique the answers we offer in our posts. An exchange of ideas and opinions will help us come to better solutions, as opposed to Alex or me decreeing them from our couches and keyboards. So, here it goes.

The question for this post was inspired by my aforementioned road trip, where we woke up most mornings at 5:30am for the days drive, and ran on drinks and foods we perceived would deliver quick cheap energy. So my question has to do with our expectations of our diet, and the energy it provides us with, as well as the marketing that surrounds the food we buy. The question is as follows; are we all more tired than we should be, and is it because of our diet or something else?

If you look at food marketing these days it seems to all be focused on energy. At least food marketing on the road. Energy drinks seem to be ubiquitous at this point, and if you haven't had one today you've probably had one at some point. I don't even need to mention how popular coffee is these days. And beyond that, you have foods from Quaker Oats to candy bars such as Snickers to vitamin waters to water itself claiming that each product will give you "more energy." Where did this concept of "more energy" come from and why do we feel we have such a deficit? When talking to someone a couple of months ago about the fact that I was a vegetarian his immediate reaction was "oh so you must have loads of energy, eating all those veggies." Do I have more energy? What is this baseline that everyone seems to be comparing their current lack of energy to.

I think one obvious answer for whatever lack of energy one may perceive would be lack of sleep. But of course that's not marketable. If pillows were disposable and you needed a new one every night then maybe marketers in gas stations and supermarkets would be targeting sleep as a factor for energy. But then again, with our culture of overworking and overscheduling, it isn't popular for any of us in our own calculations to look at the time spent horizontal last night as a reason why we are fighting sleep today, because hey, I'm busy, I can't sleep 8 hours every night. However, if we are being honest with ourselves and really don't have as much energy as we should, I would put a lot of weight on sleep.

If diet does play a factor, which I think it certainly does, then the products marketed to give you energy are probably not ultimately the key. At least that's how it felt on the road trip. If you've ever been on a road trip you know how easy it is to eat horrendous food. When the majority of your contact with food becomes rest stops, with a plethora of gas stations and fast food chains, then you are bound to make some questionable choices about food. But the worst part is that you actually start to believe the marketers, buying drinks and candy bars "designed" to give you more energy and keep you up when driving. Yeah I felt more comfortable sipping a green tea drink while driving, putting my faith in the caffeine to keep me alert, when really I was plenty alert before my shift, I just wanted the drink as an insurance policy, a "just in case." I think all of this energy marketing, including moderate amounts of caffeine, become placebo. I think we trick ourselves into thinking we could have even more energy, and if we could have more energy, it must mean we currently don't have enough. And if we don't have enough, we simply need these products to keep us alert and give us elevated energy levels, when really the whole time we have stayed at an even level, with our perceptions of our energy level fluctuating below and above the line based on our consumption of whatever foods we convince ourselves will affect this level.

It seems like such a recent trend to re-frame our food in terms of energy. Don't we get energy from anything we eat? That's the nature of calories - ultimately a unit of energy content of food. So couldn't we say that a twinkie is an energy bar, because it has a lot of calories in it? No one would buy that, of course, because it is refined sugar and carbohydrates that provides quick energy but offers a crash just as sure. But Quaker Oats, whole grains, offer longer lasting energy, and also nutritional benefits beyond simple energy. Yet a new ad campaign, at least in NYC, frames these oats as units for delivering energy to propel humans through life. I think we miss something by looking for food solely for energy. We are not cars and food is not gasoline. We get more from food than just its caloric content. Otherwise the "ice cream diet" would be perfectly acceptable.

Next time you are in a supermarket, pay attention to food marketing. The next time you stop for coffee, consider if you are actually getting more energy than you would have had if you hadn't relied on coffee for energy for so long. I don't drink coffee so I can't answer that question. If you do really get more energy, maybe I will have to get to know my local barista. But ultimately I would like to know what you all think. Do we have a personal energy crisis? Do foods and drinks help us acheive a level of energy we wouldn't already be at if we didn't choose foods based on energy claims? Are there other factors to our energy level (like maybe drinking high fructose corn syrup and consuming nutritionally deficient foods actually lower our energy level, and fresh produce instead will deliver more energy)? You know what I think, but I want to know what you think. After all, this is just my opinion, hashed out during a Celtics game, as tenuous and as open to revision as any other argument I could make.

Friday, February 27, 2009


Now, even though it has been over three weeks since my last entry, some of you might remember that I was talking about media and communication. Throughout that entry I was holding to the ideal that there is no substitute for direct, physical human interaction. In this age of widespread 'enlightenment', we pride ourselves on knowing better than to consider ourselves purely physical beings. We have learned to pay lots of attention to our thoughts and emotions because we have discovered the important roles they play in life. I don't know if this is really a new thing, I have only been around for about 23 years myself, but I am noticing a tendency to overlook the importance of our physicality whether it be in communication, relationships, religion etc. Health issues aside (but certainly to be addressed in a later entry), we need to start giving our physical nature more credit. To that end, I will share a little thought I had this week.

I was listening to public radio and an astrophysicist from the University of Chicago was talking about her book Einstein's Telescope, about how the gravitational pull of dark matter creates curves in space-time that act as lenses to magnify objects much further away than we used to be able to look. Interesting stuff, but to jump to the relevant portion, she mentioned how we can see stars that are 14 billion lightyears away from earth. That means when we look at these stars, we are seeing them as they were 14 billion years ago. That is very interesting to scientists because that is around the time the universe seems to have started expanding, give or take a billion years maybe. As much as there is to be learned from such sights, and as cool as it is to look back in time, they are so old I can't help but feel like they are a little irrelevant. If we want to know anything about what those stars are doing right now, we will have to wait a long time. But by then, it will have become very old news once again.

This sense of disappointment, like we can't see the real star as it actually is right now, applies to other things as well. Our own sun for example. We always see it as it was about 8 minutes ago, never how it actually is right now. And when light is used to transmit data through fiberoptic cables or between satellites, well, we all know how awkward it is when someone being interviewed in Iraq pauses for 5 seconds before answering Matt Lauer's questions. Even over much shorter distances, like when you see your own little image in the corner of a videochat screen, there is very visible delay. And if you haven't ever thought of this before, the images you see of yourself in real mirrors even have a delay so slight you could never perceive it. Not only mirrors, but light and sound from the person across the table from you. We may be three feet from each other, but I am still interacting with a person who existed some fraction of a nanosecond ago. All this made me think that the closest I will ever come to interacting with someone completely in the present is to be physically touching them. Nerve signaling and brain function speeds may be circumvented someday, but until then physical contact is the most effective way to engage with someone in the present moment.

Physical contact is relatively rare in daily life and has a lot of mystique about it. What is more personal and private than touch? What is more comforting in the right context? Few things can send a louder message than how you touch someone. Or how you don't touch them.

So hug someone you care about today. And maybe kiss them too.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Combined Action

So for no apparent reason, at the beginning of last year I decided that I would do something almost no one does - stick to a New Year's resolution. It's always such a funny thing. People are so hopeful, so eager to identify the areas of their lives that need improving. Maybe its the euphoria of the holiday season still wearing off, but everyone believes that this year will be the year they do it. Then winter drags on too long and they forget about it as easily as the idea came. I am not claiming to be better than these people because I stuck with mine. It was actually sort of a fluke. I somehow picked something I ended up finding an incredible passion for. My resolution was to learn how to cook, and a year later I think I have succeeded, at least to the extent I had hoped (at the very least I've moved beyond mac and cheese and chicken nuggets).

With my recent success I was a bit more ambitious this year with three resolutions. I have dropped one, I hate to say, but I am chugging along with the other two. They take on the form of a strategy that is the subject for this post - combined, sustained action. But let me first tell you why I think many resolutions fail so quickly. Let's take one goal people strive for all the time (especially come resolution time); to exercise more. But what does that really mean? I think many people fail because "more" just simply isn't an easy concept to manifest. For example, if you go from never exercising to doing it once a month, technically you are exercising more, but I'd wager your goal was a bit loftier than that. Likewise, exercising 6 hours a day is more than anyone currently exercises (I hope), but that's because it isn't feasible, and also not what you were going for. Thus, setting an easily divisible, daily goal creates a digestible target focus on.

In light of this approach, the two resolutions I have stuck with have come in this form. They are as follows; 1. to exercise daily, and 2. to read 10 pages daily. This has given me very attainable and easily targeted goals. For example, when I go to bed at night an ambiguous answer is not possible to the question of whether or not I exercised or read 10 pages. I can't argue with myself about whether or not I did it, I simply know, throwing vague concepts of "more" or "less" out the window. I have to make a concerted effort to accomplish each task. Because of this daily sense of accomplishment, I also get daily reinforcement, and have ultimately looked forward to both activities.

Now, I think the ultimate concern when identifying a useful New Year's resolution is its effectiveness. And with my resolutions, effectiveness ultimately comes from scope. If you look at my day's activities, reading 10 pages takes me maybe 20-30 minutes, and exercising takes me less than that (so far it has been sit-ups and push-ups before bed). What is the impact of these actions? Not much. "Oooh, big deal, 10 whopping pages," right? Well, that depends on your scope, and is ultimately what makes each goal so attainable. In the course of a day, each activity doesn't take much extra effort and ultimately doesn't accomplish all that much on its own. But combined, well, there is your proper scope, for over the course of the month I will have read an average length book and done somewhere around 2000 sit-ups and 500 push-ups. Over a year that's at least 12 books and a meaningless number of sit-ups and push-ups. Now there's your impact. And I actually stick with it because again, on their own, each activity is not particularly challenging. But they are all part of a larger strategy. Combining small, repetitive actions to reach a larger goal.

I think this concept of combined action applies to many other aspects of life. For an individual, combined action involves the aggregation of these daily choices that add up to something meaningful (eating one extra serving of fruit on any given day is a good choice, but ultimately wont cure cancer. But, done every day for the rest of your life, well, now we're talking. Small, simple, positive choices - added). Likewise, for a society, the combined actions of its citizens add up to something impactful. For example, when faced with an opportunity to help, maybe volunteer, you may find yourself asking "what difference can I really make, I am only one person." Or you've heard the argument against voting; "what's my one vote really gonna matter?" Baad attitudes, right? (though I cannot exempt myself from thinking along these lines from time to time) Because we all know that the combined effect of voting is an election, with winners and losers, and progress. But the combined effects of lending a helping hand, in any way you can, are no less obvious, no less important. If all of us chip in more, we all start to make a difference, with our combined action. It's like those refer-a-friend programs. Bring someone along and you've doubled your impact. So, just like reading 10 pages or doing a few sit-ups, the task itself is relatively easy on its own, the result relatively limited in its impact. But over time, my abs get rock hard, and more people get a warm meal, clothes for their back, or maybe the neighborhood gets a little cleaner, or you take a car off of the road for a day when you bike to work, or more waste gets recycled, or simply more smiles and genuine connections are spread throughout the world. It ALL adds up.

So maybe Gandhi was right after all, with his seemingly oversimplified answer to how to make a difference. In the end, we all simply must "be the change we wish to see in the world."