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Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

Cover of Four Thousand Weeks
  • Assuming you live to be eighty, you’ll have had about four thousand weeks.

  • We’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action.

  • The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.

  • It turns out that when people make enough money to meet their needs, they just find new things to need and new lifestyles to aspire to; they never quite manage to keep up with the Joneses, because whenever they’re in danger of getting close, they nominate new and better Joneses with whom to try to keep up. As a result, they work harder and harder, and soon busyness becomes an emblem of prestige.

  • Our days are spent trying to “get through” tasks, in order to get them “out of the way,” with the result that we live mentally in the future, waiting for when we’ll finally get around to what really matters—and worrying, in the meantime, that we don’t measure up, that we might lack the drive or stamina to keep pace with the speed at which life now seems to move.

  • Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster.

  • The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about. Let’s start by admitting defeat: none of this is ever going to happen.

  • Each hour or week or year is like a container being carried on the belt, which we must fill as it passes, if we’re to feel that we’re making good use of our time. When there are too many activities to fit comfortably into the containers, we feel unpleasantly busy; when there are too few, we feel bored. If we keep pace with the passing containers, we congratulate ourselves for “staying on top of things” and feel like we’re justifying our existence; if we let too many pass by unfilled, we feel we’ve wasted them. If we use containers labeled “work time” for the purposes of leisure, our employer may grow irritated. (He paid for those containers; they belong to him!)

  • The medieval farmer simply had no reason to adopt such a bizarre idea in the first place. Workers got up with the sun and slept at dusk, the lengths of their days varying with the seasons. There was no need to think of time as something abstract and separate from life: you milked the cows when they needed milking and harvested the crops when it was harvesttime, and anybody who tried to impose an external schedule on any of that—for example, by doing a month’s milking in a single day to get it out of the way, or by trying to make the harvest come sooner—would rightly have been considered a lunatic. There was no anxious pressure to “get everything done,” either, because a farmer’s work is infinite: there will always be another milking and another harvest, forever, so there’s no sense in racing toward some hypothetical moment of completion. Historians call this way of living “task orientation,” because the rhythms of life emerge organically from the tasks themselves, rather than from being lined up against an abstract timeline, the approach that has become second nature for us today.

  • Soon, your sense of self-worth gets completely bound up with how you’re using time: it stops being merely the water in which you swim and turns into something you feel you need to dominate or control, if you’re to avoid feeling guilty, panicked, or overwhelmed…The fundamental problem is that this attitude toward time sets up a rigged game in which it’s impossible ever to feel as though you’re doing well enough.

  • Instead of simply living our lives as they unfold in time—instead of just being time, you might say—it becomes difficult not to value each moment primarily according to its usefulness for some future goal, or for some future oasis of relaxation you hope to reach once your tasks are finally “out of the way.”

  • The universal truth behind my specific issues is that most of us invest a lot of energy, one way or another, in trying to avoid fully experiencing the reality in which we find ourselves. We don’t want to feel the anxiety that might arise if we were to ask ourselves whether we’re on the right path, or what ideas about ourselves it could be time to give up.

  • We recoil from the notion that this is it—that this life, with all its flaws and inescapable vulnerabilities, its extreme brevity, and our limited influence over how it unfolds, is the only one we’ll get a shot at.

  • After all, it’s painful to confront how limited your time is, because it means that tough choices are inevitable and that you won’t have time for all you once dreamed you might do.

  • I don’t think the feeling of anxiety ever completely goes away; we’re even limited, apparently, in our capacity to embrace our limitations.

  • In practical terms, a limit-embracing attitude to time means organizing your days with the understanding that you definitely won’t have time for everything you want to do, or that other people want you to do—and so, at the very least, you can stop beating yourself up for failing. Since hard choices are unavoidable, what matters is learning to make them consciously, deciding what to focus on and what to neglect, rather than letting them get made by default—or deceiving yourself that, with enough hard work and the right time management tricks, you might not have to make them at all.

  • “Missing out” is what makes our choices meaningful in the first place. Every decision to use a portion of time on anything represents the sacrifice of all the other ways in which you could have spent that time, but didn’t—and to willingly make that sacrifice is to take a stand, without reservation, on what matters most to you.

  • Richard Bach: “You teach best what you most need to learn.”

  • The general principle in operation is one you might call the “efficiency trap.” Rendering yourself more efficient—either by implementing various productivity techniques or by driving yourself harder—won’t generally result in the feeling of having “enough time,” because, all else being equal, the demands will increase to offset any benefits. Far from getting things done, you’ll be creating new things to do.

  • Think of it as “existential overwhelm”: the modern world provides an inexhaustible supply of things that seem worth doing, and so there arises an inevitable and unbridgeable gap between what you’d ideally like to do and what you actually can do.

  • This helps explain why stuffing your life with pleasurable activities so often proves less satisfying than you’d expect. It’s an attempt to devour the experiences the world has to offer, to feel like you’ve truly lived—but the world has an effectively infinite number of experiences to offer, so getting a handful of them under your belt brings you no closer to a sense of having feasted on life’s possibilities. Instead, you find yourself pitched straight back into the efficiency trap. The more wonderful experiences you succeed in having, the more additional wonderful experiences you start to feel you could have, or ought to have, on top of all those you’ve already had, with the result that the feeling of existential overwhelm gets worse.

  • the more firmly you believe it ought to be possible to find time for everything, the less pressure you’ll feel to ask whether any given activity is the best use for a portion of your time. Whenever you encounter some potential new item for your to-do list or your social calendar, you’ll be strongly biased in favor of accepting it, because you’ll assume you needn’t sacrifice any other tasks or opportunities in order to make space for it. Yet because in reality your time is finite, doing anything requires sacrifice—the sacrifice of all the other things you could have been doing with that stretch of time. If you never stop to ask yourself if the sacrifice is worth it, your days will automatically begin to fill not just with more things, but with more trivial or tedious things, because they’ve never had to clear the hurdle of being judged more important than something else. Commonly, these will be things that other people want you to do, to make their lives easier, and which you didn’t think to try to resist. The more efficient you get, the more you become “a limitless reservoir for other people’s expectations,” in the words of the management expert Jim Benson.

  • Meanwhile, the long message from an old friend now living in New Delhi and research for the major article I’d been planning for months would get ignored, because I told myself that such tasks needed my full focus, which meant waiting until I had a good chunk of free time and fewer small-but-urgent tasks tugging at my attention. And so, instead, like the dutiful and efficient worker I was, I’d put my energy into clearing the decks, cranking through the smaller stuff to get it out of the way—only to discover that doing so took the whole day, that the decks filled up again overnight anyway, and that the moment for responding to the New Delhi email or for researching the milestone article never arrived. One can waste years this way, systematically postponing precisely the things one cares about the most.

  • To approach your days in this fashion means, instead of clearing the decks, declining to clear the decks, focusing instead on what’s truly of greatest consequence while tolerating the discomfort of knowing that, as you do so, the decks will be filling up further, with emails and errands and other to-dos, many of which you may never get around to at all.

  • So maybe it’s not that you’ve been cheated out of an unlimited supply of time; maybe it’s almost incomprehensibly miraculous to have been granted any time at all.

  • In this state of mind, you can embrace the fact that you’re forgoing certain pleasures, or neglecting certain obligations, because whatever you’ve decided to do instead—earn money to support your family, write your novel, bathe the toddler, pause on a hiking trail to watch a pale winter sun sink below the horizon at dusk—is how you’ve chosen to spend a portion of time that you never had any right to expect.

  • Principle number one is to pay yourself first when it comes to time.

  • So if a certain activity really matters to you—a creative project, say, though it could just as easily be nurturing a relationship, or activism in the service of some cause—the only way to be sure it will happen is to do some of it today, no matter how little, and no matter how many other genuinely big rocks may be begging for your attention.

  • The second principle is to limit your work in progress. Perhaps the most appealing way to resist the truth about your finite time is to initiate a large number of projects at once; that way, you get to feel as though you’re keeping plenty of irons in the fire and making progress on all fronts. Instead, what usually ends up happening is that you make progress on no fronts—because each time a project starts to feel difficult, or frightening, or boring, you can bounce off to a different one instead. You get to preserve your sense of being in control of things, but at the cost of never finishing anything important.

  • The alternative approach is to fix a hard upper limit on the number of things that you allow yourself to work on at any given time. In their book Personal Kanban, which explores this strategy in detail, the management experts Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry suggest no more than three items. Once you’ve selected those tasks, all other incoming demands on your time must wait until one of the three items has been completed, thereby freeing up a slot. (It’s also permissible to free up a slot by abandoning a project altogether if it isn’t working out. The point isn’t to force yourself to finish absolutely everything you start, but rather to banish the bad habit of keeping an ever-proliferating number of half-finished projects on the back burner.)

  • \[Warren Buffett] tells the man to make a list of the top twenty-five things he wants out of life and then to arrange them in order, from the most important to the least. The top five, Buffett says, should be those around which he organizes his time. But contrary to what the pilot might have been expecting to hear, the remaining twenty, Buffett allegedly explains, aren’t the second-tier priorities to which he should turn when he gets the chance. Far from it. In fact, they’re the ones he should actively avoid at all costs—because they’re the ambitions insufficiently important to him to form the core of his life yet seductive enough to distract him from the ones that matter most.

  • If you’re procrastinating on something because you’re worried you won’t do a good enough job, you can relax—because judged by the flawless standards of your imagination, you definitely won’t do a good enough job. So you might as well make a start.

  • What you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is.

  • Most other resources on which we rely as individuals—such as food, money, and electricity—are things that facilitate life, and in some cases it’s possible to live without them, at least for a while. Attention, on the other hand, just is life: your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention. At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been. So when you pay attention to something you don’t especially value, it’s not an exaggeration to say that you’re paying with your life. Seen this way, “distraction” needn’t refer only to momentary lapses in focus, as when you’re distracted from performing your work duties by the ping of an incoming text message, or a compellingly terrible news story. The job itself could be a distraction—that is, an investment of a portion of your attention, and therefore of your life, in something less meaningful than other options that might have been available to you.

  • The crucial point isn’t that it’s wrong to choose to spend your time relaxing, whether at the beach or on BuzzFeed. It’s that the distracted person isn’t really choosing at all. Their attention has been commandeered by forces that don’t have their highest interests at heart.

  • Achieving total sovereignty over your attention is almost certainly impossible.

  • Even if you quit Facebook, or ban yourself from social media during the workday, or exile yourself to a cabin in the mountains, you’ll probably still find it unpleasantly constraining to focus on what matters, so you’ll find some way to relieve the pain by distracting yourself: by daydreaming, taking an unnecessary nap, or—the preferred option of the productivity geek—redesigning your to-do list and reorganizing your desk.

  • The overarching point is that what we think of as “distractions” aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation.

  • I wish I could reveal, at this point, the secret for uprooting the urge toward distraction—the way to have it not feel unpleasant to decide to hold your attention, for a sustained time, on something you value, or that you can’t easily choose not to do. But the truth is that I don’t think there is one. The most effective way to sap distraction of its power is just to stop expecting things to be otherwise—to accept that this unpleasantness is simply what it feels like for finite humans to commit ourselves to the kinds of demanding and valuable tasks that force us to confront our limited control over how our lives unfold.

  • The way to find peaceful absorption in a difficult project, or a boring Sunday afternoon, isn’t to chase feelings of peace or absorption, but to acknowledge the inevitability of discomfort, and to turn more of your attention to the reality of your situation than to railing against it.

  • There is a very down-to-earth kind of liberation in grasping that there are certain truths about being a limited human from which you’ll never be liberated. You don’t get to dictate the course of events. And the paradoxical reward for accepting reality’s constraints is that they no longer feel so constraining.

  • Our efforts to influence the future aren’t the problem. The problem—the source of all the anxiety—is the need that we feel, from our vantage point here in the present moment, to be able to know that those efforts will prove successful.

  • So a surprisingly effective antidote to anxiety can be to simply realize that this demand for reassurance from the future is one that will definitely never be satisfied—no matter how much you plan or fret, or how much extra time you leave to get to the airport. You can’t know that things will turn out all right. The struggle for certainty is an intrinsically hopeless one—which means you have permission to stop engaging in it.

  • Whatever you value most about your life can always be traced back to some jumble of chance occurrences you couldn’t possibly have planned for, and that you certainly can’t alter retrospectively now.

  • These truths about the uncontrollability of the past and the unknowability of the future explain why so many spiritual traditions seem to converge on the same advice: that we should aspire to confine our attentions to the only portion of time that really is any of our business—this one, here in the present.

  • This future-focused attitude often takes the form of what I once heard described as the “‘when-I-finally’ mind,” as in: “When I finally get my workload under control/get my candidate elected/find the right romantic partner/sort out my psychological issues, then I can relax, and the life I was always meant to be living can begin.” The person mired in this mentality believes that the reason she doesn’t feel fulfilled and happy is that she hasn’t yet managed to accomplish certain specific things; when she does so, she imagines, she’ll feel in charge of her life and be the master of her time. Yet in fact the way she’s attempting to achieve that sense of security means she’ll never feel fulfilled, because she’s treating the present solely as a path to some superior future state—and so the present moment won’t ever feel satisfying in itself.

  • Obviously, it mattered to keep half an eye on the future—there would be vaccinations to be administered, preschools to apply to, and so forth. But my son was here now, and he would be zero years old for only one year, and I came to realize that I didn’t want to squander these days of his actual existence by focusing solely on how best to use them for the sake of his future one.

  • The writer Adam Gopnik calls the trap into which I had fallen the “causal catastrophe,” which he defines as the belief “that the proof of the rightness or wrongness of some way of bringing up children is the kind of adults it produces.” That idea sounds reasonable enough—how else would you judge rightness or wrongness?—until you realize that its effect is to sap childhood of any intrinsic value, by treating it as nothing but a training ground for adulthood. Maybe it really is a “bad habit,” as the Baby Trainers insist, for your one-year-old to grow accustomed to falling asleep on your chest. But it’s also a delightful experience in the present moment, and that has to be weighed in the balance; it can’t be the case that concerns for the future must always automatically take precedence.

  • “Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up,” Herzen says. “But a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment…Life’s bounty is in its flow. Later is too late.”

  • Our lives, thanks to their finitude, are inevitably full of activities that we’re doing for the very last time.

  • One way of understanding capitalism, in fact, is as a giant machine for instrumentalizing everything it encounters—the earth’s resources, your time and abilities (or “human resources”)—in the service of future profit. Seeing things this way helps explain the otherwise mysterious truth that rich people in capitalist economies are often surprisingly miserable. They’re very good at instrumentalizing their time, for the purpose of generating wealth for themselves; that’s the definition of being successful in a capitalist world. But in focusing so hard on instrumentalizing their time, they end up treating their lives in the present moment as nothing but a vehicle in which to travel toward a future state of happiness. And so their days are sapped of meaning, even as their bank balances increase.

  • And yet we’d be fooling ourselves to put all the blame on capitalism for the way in which modern life so often feels like a slog, to be “gotten through” en route to some better time in the future. The truth is that we collaborate with this state of affairs. We choose to treat time in this self-defeatingly instrumental way, and we do so because it helps us maintain the feeling of being in omnipotent control of our lives.

  • As the author Jay Jennifer Matthews puts it in her excellently titled short book Radically Condensed Instructions for Being Just as You Are, “We cannot get anything out of life. There is no outside where we could take this thing to. There is no little pocket, situated outside of life, [to which we could] steal life’s provisions and squirrel them away. The life of this moment has no outside.”

  • De Graaf had put his finger on one of the sneakier problems with treating time solely as something to be used as well as possible, which is that we start to experience pressure to use our leisure time productively, too. Enjoying leisure for its own sake—which you might have assumed was the whole point of leisure—comes to feel as though it’s somehow not quite enough.

  • As long as you’re filling every hour of the day with some form of striving, you get to carry on believing that all this striving is leading you somewhere—to an imagined future state of perfection, a heavenly realm in which everything runs smoothly, your limited time causes you no pain, and you’re free of the guilty sense that there’s more you need to be doing in order to justify your existence. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised when the activities with which we fill our leisure hours increasingly come to resemble not merely work but sometimes, as in the case of a SoulCycle class or a CrossFit workout, actual physical punishment—the self-flagellation of guilty sinners anxious to expunge the stain of laziness before it’s too late.

  • In his book Sabbath as Resistance, the Christian theologian Walter Brueggemann describes the sabbath as an invitation to spend one day per week “in the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.” One need not be a religious believer to feel some of the deep relief in that idea of being “on the receiving end”—in the possibility that today, at least, there might be nothing more you need to do in order to justify your existence.

  • And so in order to be a source of true fulfillment, a good hobby probably should feel a little embarrassing; that’s a sign you’re doing it for its own sake, rather than for some socially sanctioned outcome.

  • There’s a second sense in which hobbies pose a challenge to our reigning culture of productivity and performance: it’s fine, and perhaps preferable, to be mediocre at them.

  • The publisher and editor Karen Rinaldi feels about surfing the same way that I do about cheesy piano rock, only more so: she dedicates every spare moment she can to it, and even wiped out her savings on a plot of land in Costa Rica for better access to the ocean. Yet she readily admits that she remains an appalling surfer to this day. (It took her five years of attempting to catch a wave before she first managed to do so.) But “in the process of trying to attain a few moments of bliss,” Rinaldi explains, “I experience something else: patience and humility, definitely, but also freedom. Freedom to pursue the futile. And the freedom to suck without caring is revelatory.”

  • (You’ll have noticed how frequently the office microwave still has seven or eight seconds left on the clock from the last person who used it, a precise record of the moment at which the impatience became too much for them to bear.)

  • One critical aspect of the radical incrementalist approach, which runs counter to much mainstream advice on productivity, is thus to be willing to stop when your daily time is up, even when you’re bursting with energy and feel as though you could get much more done. If you’ve decided to work on a given project for fifty minutes, then once fifty minutes have elapsed, get up and walk away from it. Why? Because as Boice explained, the urge to push onward beyond that point “includes a big component of impatience about not being finished, about not being productive enough, about never again finding such an ideal time” for work. Stopping helps strengthen the muscle of patience that will permit you to return to the project again and again, and thus to sustain your productivity over an entire career.

  • The final principle is that, more often than not, originality lies on the far side of unoriginality. The Finnish American photographer Arno Minkkinen dramatizes this deep truth about the power of patience with a parable about Helsinki’s main bus station. There are two dozen platforms there, he explains, with several different bus lines departing from each one—and for the first part of its journey, each bus leaving from any given platform takes the same route through the city as all the others, making identical stops. Think of each stop as representing one year of your career, Minkkinen advises photography students. You pick an artistic direction—perhaps you start working on platinum studies of nudes—and you begin to accumulate a portfolio of work. Three years (or bus stops) later, you proudly present it to the owner of a gallery. But you’re dismayed to be told that your pictures aren’t as original as you thought, because they look like knockoffs of the work of the photographer Irving Penn; Penn’s bus, it turns out, had been on the same route as yours. Annoyed at yourself for having wasted three years following somebody else’s path, you jump off that bus, hail a taxi, and return to where you started at the bus station. This time, you board a different bus, choosing a different genre of photography in which to specialize. But a few stops later, the same thing happens: you’re informed that your new body of work seems derivative, too. Back you go to the bus station. But the pattern keeps on repeating: nothing you produce ever gets recognized as being truly your own. What’s the solution? “It’s simple,” Minkkinen says. “Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.” A little farther out on their journeys through the city, Helsinki’s bus routes diverge, plunging off to unique destinations as they head through the suburbs and into the countryside beyond. That’s where the distinctive work begins. But it begins at all only for those who can muster the patience to immerse themselves in the earlier stage—the trial-and-error phase of copying others, learning new skills, and accumulating experience.

  • We do each get to decide whether to collaborate with the ethos of individual time sovereignty or to resist it. You can push your life a little further in the direction of the second, communal sort of freedom. For one thing, you can make the kinds of commitments that remove flexibility from your schedule in exchange for the rewards of community, by joining amateur choirs or sports teams, campaign groups or religious organizations. You can prioritize activities in the physical world over those in the digital one, where even collaborative activity ends up feeling curiously isolating. And if, like me, you possess the productivity geek’s natural inclination toward control-freakery when it comes to your time, you can experiment with what it feels like to not try to exert an iron grip on your timetable: to sometimes let the rhythms of family life and friendships and collective action take precedence over your perfect morning routine or your system for scheduling your week. You can grasp the truth that power over your time isn’t something best hoarded entirely for yourself: that your time can be too much your own.

  • Many of us know what it is to suspect that there might be richer, fuller, juicier things we could be doing with our four thousand weeks—even when what we’re currently doing with them looks, from the outside, like the definition of success. Or maybe you’re familiar with the experience of returning to your daily routines, following an unusually satisfying weekend in nature or with old friends, and being struck by the thought that more of life should feel that way—that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the deeply engrossing parts to be more than rare exceptions. The modern world is especially lacking in good responses to such feelings: religion no longer provides the universal ready-made sense of purpose it once did, while consumerism misleads us into seeking meaning where it can’t be found. But the sentiment itself is an ancient one. The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes, among many others, would instantly have recognized the suffering of Hollis’s patient: “Then I considered all that my hands had done, and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

  • The Great American Return to Normal is coming … [but] I beg of you: take a deep breath, ignore the deafening noise, and think deeply about what you want to put back into your life. This is our chance to define a new version of normal, a rare and truly sacred (yes, sacred) opportunity to get rid of the bullshit and to only bring back what works for us, what makes our lives richer, what makes our kids happier, what makes us truly proud.

  • The hazard in any such discussion of “what matters most” in life, though, is that it tends to give rise to a kind of paralyzing grandiosity. It starts to feel as though it’s your duty to find something truly consequential to do with your time—to quit your office job to become an aid worker or start a space flight company—or else, if you’re in no position to make such a grand gesture, to conclude that a deeply meaningful life isn’t an option for you. On the level of politics and social change, it becomes tempting to conclude that only the most revolutionary, world-transforming causes are worth fighting for—that it would be meaningless to spend your time, say, caring for an elderly relative with dementia or volunteering at the local community garden while the problems of global warming and income inequality remain unsolved.

  • What you do with your life doesn’t matter all that much—and when it comes to how you’re using your finite time, the universe absolutely could not care less.

  • No wonder it comes as a relief to be reminded of your insignificance: it’s the feeling of realizing that you’d been holding yourself, all this time, to standards you couldn’t reasonably be expected to meet. And this realization isn’t merely calming but liberating, because once you’re no longer burdened by such an unrealistic definition of a “life well spent,” you’re freed to consider the possibility that a far wider variety of things might qualify as meaningful ways to use your finite time. You’re freed, too, to consider the possibility that many of the things you’re already doing with it are more meaningful than you’d supposed—and that until now, you’d subconsciously been devaluing them, on the grounds that they weren’t “significant” enough.

  • …virtually any career might be a worthwhile way to spend a working life, if it makes things slightly better for those it serves.

  • “Time is the substance I am made of,” writes Jorge Luis Borges. “Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

  • You have to accept that there will always be too much to do; that you can’t avoid tough choices or make the world run at your preferred speed; that no experience, least of all close relationships with other human beings, can ever be guaranteed in advance to turn out painlessly and well—and that from a cosmic viewpoint, when it’s all over, it won’t have counted for very much anyway. And in exchange for accepting all that? You get to actually be here. You get to have some real purchase on life. You get to spend your finite time focused on a few things that matter to you, in themselves, right now, in this moment.

  • Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort?

  • Pursuing the life projects that matter to you the most will almost always entail not feeling fully in control of your time, immune to the painful assaults of reality, or confident about the future. It means embarking on ventures that might fail, perhaps because you’ll find you lacked sufficient talent; it means risking embarrassment, holding difficult conversations, disappointing others, and getting so deep into relationships that additional suffering—when bad things happen to those you care about—is all but guaranteed.

  • James Hollis recommends asking of every significant decision in life: “Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?”

  • Choose uncomfortable enlargement over comfortable diminishment whenever you can.

  • Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet?

  • There is a sort of cruelty, Iddo Landau points out, in holding yourself to standards nobody could ever reach (and which many of us would never dream of demanding of other people).

  • In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?

  • This quest to justify your existence in the eyes of some outside authority can continue long into adulthood. But “at a certain age,” writes the psychotherapist Stephen Cope, “it finally dawns on us that, shockingly, no one really cares what we’re doing with our life. This is a most unsettling discovery to those of us who have lived someone else’s life and eschewed our own: no one really cares except us.”

  • In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?

  • How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?

  • The individual path “is the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being itself when you put one foot in front of the other.” His sole advice for walking such a path was to “quietly do the next and most necessary thing. So long as you think you don’t yet know what that is, you still have too much money to spend in useless speculation. But if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.” A modified version of this insight, “Do the next right thing,” has since become a slogan favored among members of Alcoholics Anonymous, as a way to proceed sanely through moments of acute crisis. But really, the “next and most necessary thing” is all that any of us can ever aspire to do in any moment. And we must do it despite not having any objective way to be sure what the right course of action even is.

  • People sometimes ask Derrick Jensen, the environmentalist who cofounded the radical group Deep Green Resistance, how he manages to stay hopeful when everything seems so grim. But he tells them he doesn’t—and that he thinks that’s a good thing. Hope is supposed to be “our beacon in the dark,” Jensen notes. But in reality, it’s a curse. To hope for a given outcome is to place your faith in something outside yourself, and outside the current moment—the government, for example, or God, or the next generation of activists, or just “the future”—to make things all right in the end…it means disavowing your own capacity to change things—which in the context of Jensen’s field, environmental activism, means surrendering your power to the very forces you were supposed to be fighting.

  • To give up hope, by contrast, is to reinhabit the power that you actually have. At that point, Jensen goes on, “we no longer have to ‘hope’ at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. We make sure grizzlies survive … When we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free—truly free—to honestly start working to resolve it.”

  • Once you no longer need to convince yourself that the world isn’t filled with uncertainty and tragedy, you’re free to focus on doing what you can to help. And once you no longer need to convince yourself that you’ll do everything that needs doing, you’re free to focus on doing a few things that count.

  • Adopt a “fixed volume” approach to productivity.

  • Any strategy for limiting your work in progress will help here (here), but perhaps the simplest is to keep two to-do lists, one “open” and one “closed.” The open list is for everything that’s on your plate and will doubtless be nightmarishly long. Fortunately, it’s not your job to tackle it: instead, feed tasks from the open list to the closed one—that is, a list with a fixed number of entries, ten at most. The rule is that you can’t add a new task until one’s completed. (You may also require a third list, for tasks that are “on hold” until someone else gets back to you.) You’ll never get through all the tasks on the open list—but you were never going to in any case, and at least this way you’ll complete plenty of things you genuinely care about.

  • A complementary strategy is to establish predetermined time boundaries for your daily work. To whatever extent your job situation permits, decide in advance how much time you’ll dedicate to work—you might resolve to start by 8:30 a.m., and finish no later than 5:30 p.m., say—then make all other time-related decisions in light of those predetermined limits. “You could fill any arbitrary number of hours with what feels to be productive work,” writes Cal Newport, who explores this approach in his book Deep Work. But if your primary goal is to do what’s required in order to be finished by 5:30, you’ll be aware of the constraints on your time, and more motivated to use it wisely.

  • Serialize, serialize, serialize.

  • Train yourself to get incrementally better at tolerating that anxiety, by consciously postponing everything you possibly can, except for one thing.

  • Decide in advance what to fail at.

  • the great benefit of strategic underachievement—that is, nominating in advance whole areas of life in which you won’t expect excellence of yourself—is that you focus that time and energy more effectively. Nor will you be dismayed when you fail at what you’d planned to fail at all along. “When you can’t do it all, you feel ashamed and give up,” notes the author Jon Acuff, but when you “decide in advance what things you’re going to bomb … you remove the sting of shame.” A poorly kept lawn or a cluttered kitchen are less troubling when you’ve preselected “lawn care” or “kitchen tidiness” as goals to which you’ll devote zero energy.

  • There’s scope to fail on a cyclical basis: to aim to do the bare minimum at work for the next two months, for example, while you focus on your children, or let your fitness goals temporarily lapse while you apply yourself to election canvassing. Then switch your energies to whatever you were neglecting. To live this way is to replace the high-pressure quest for “work-life balance” with a conscious form of imbalance, backed by your confidence that the roles in which you’re underperforming right now will get their moment in the spotlight soon.

  • Focus on what you’ve already completed, not just on what’s left to complete.

  • Consolidate your caring.

  • …it’s also a machine for getting you to care about too many things, even if they’re each indisputably worthwhile. We’re exposed, these days, to an unending stream of atrocities and injustice—each of which might have a legitimate claim on our time and our charitable donations, but which in aggregate are more than any one human could ever effectively address.

  • Once you grasp the mechanisms operating here, it becomes easier to consciously pick your battles in charity, activism, and politics: to decide that your spare time, for the next couple of years, will be spent lobbying for prison reform and helping at a local food pantry—not because fires in the Amazon or the fate of refugees don’t matter, but because you understand that to make a difference, you must focus your finite capacity for care.

  • Embrace boring and single-purpose technology.

  • An alternative, Shinzen Young explains, is to pay more attention to every moment, however mundane: to find novelty not by doing radically different things but by plunging more deeply into the life you already have. Experience life with twice the usual intensity, and “your experience of life would be twice as full as it currently is”—and any period of life would be remembered as having lasted twice as long.

  • Be a “researcher” in relationships…when presented with a challenging or boring moment, try deliberately adopting an attitude of curiosity, in which your goal isn’t to achieve any particular outcome, or successfully explain your position, but, as Hobson puts it, “to figure out who this human being is that we’re with.” Curiosity is a stance well suited to the inherent unpredictability of life with others, because it can be satisfied by their behaving in ways you like or dislike—whereas the stance of demanding a certain result is frustrated each time things fail to go your way.

  • Cultivate instantaneous generosity.

Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad by Austin Kleon

Cover of Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad
  • Every day is ground hog day.

  • In a moment of despair, Phil turns to a couple drunks at a bowling alley bar and asks them, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” It’s the question Phil has to answer to advance the plot of the movie, but it’s also the question we have to answer to advance the plot of our lives. I think how you answer this question is your art.

  • Other than death, there is no finish line or retirement for the creative person. “Even after you have achieved greatness,” writes musician Ian Svenonius, “the infinitesimal cadre who even noticed will ask, ‘What next?’” The truly prolific artists I know always have that question answered, because they have figured out a daily practice—a repeatable way of working that insulates them from success, failure, and the chaos of the outside world. They have all identified what they want to spend their time on, and they work at it every day, no matter what.

  • We have so little control over our lives. The only thing we can really control is what we spend our days on. What we work on and how hard we work on it.

  • “Any man can fight the battles of just one day,” begins a passage collected in Richmond Walker’s book of meditations for recovering alcoholics, Twenty-Four Hours a Day. “It is only when you and I add the burden of those two awful eternities, yesterday and tomorrow, that we break down. It is not the experience of today that drives men mad. It is remorse or bitterness for something which happened yesterday or the dread of what tomorrow may bring. Let us therefore do our best to live but one day at a time.”

  • “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” —Annie Dillard

  • A daily routine will get you through the day and help you make the most of it. “A schedule defends from chaos and whim,” writes Annie Dillard. “It is a net for catching days.” When you don’t know what to do next, your routine tells you. When you don’t have much time, a routine helps you make the little time you have count. When you have all the time in the world, a routine helps you make sure you don’t waste it.

  • Rather than restricting your freedom, a routine gives you freedom by protecting you from the ups and downs of life and helping you take advantage of your limited time, energy, and talent. A routine establishes good habits that can lead to your best work.

  • Some of my favorite artists make “to-draw” lists. David Shrigley will make a huge list of fifty things to draw a week in advance. Having the list means he doesn’t have to waste studio time worrying about what to make. “The simple thing I’ve learned over the years is just to have a starting point and once you have a starting point the work seems to make itself,” he says.

  • Writer Steven Johnson does this in a single document he calls a “spark file”—every time he has an idea, he adds it to the file, and then he revisits the list every couple of months.

  • When I’m stuck in the morning and I don’t know what to write about in my diary, I’ll modify the pros-and-cons list. I’ll draw a line down the middle of the page, and in one column I’ll list what I’m thankful for, and in the other column, I’ll write down what I need help with. It’s a paper prayer.

  • “Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it well and serenely, and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • The important thing is to make it to the end of the day, no matter what. No matter how bad it gets, see it through to the end so you can get to tomorrow. After spending the day with his five-year-old son, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his diary, “We got rid of the day as well as we could.” Some days you just have to get rid of as best as you can.

  • When the video-game artist Peter Chan was young, he loved to draw, but he would crumple up his “bad” drawings in fits of frustration. His father convinced him that if he laid the “bad” drawings flat instead of crumpling them up, he could fit more of them in the wastebasket. After his father died, Chan found a folder labeled “Peter” in his father’s possessions. When he looked inside, it was full of his old, discarded drawings. His father had snuck into his room and plucked the drawings he thought were worth saving from the wastebasket.

  • Build a bliss station.

  • In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell said everyone should build a “bliss station”: You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

  • “The phone gives us a lot but it takes away three key elements of discovery: loneliness, uncertainty, and boredom. Those have always been where creative ideas come from.” —Lynda Barry

  • “I must decline, for secret reasons.” —E. B. White

  • Forget the noun, do the verb.

  • Let go of the thing that you’re trying to be (the noun), and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb). Doing the verb will take you someplace further and far more interesting.

  • Job titles can mess you up. Job titles, if they’re taken too seriously, will make you feel like you need to work in a way that befits the title, not the way that fits the actual work. Job titles can also restrict the kinds of work that you feel like you can do.

  • Job titles aren’t really for you, they’re for others. Let other people worry about them.

  • Your real work is play.

  • Art and the artist both suffer most when the artist gets too heavy, too focused on results.

  • That, said Vonnegut, was the whole purpose of making art: “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.”

  • Make gifts.

  • One of the easiest ways to hate something you love is to turn it into your job: taking the thing that keeps you alive spiritually and turning it into the thing that keeps you alive literally.

  • When you start making a living from your work, resist the urge to monetize every single bit of your creative practice. Be sure there’s at least a tiny part of you that’s off-limits to the marketplace. Some little piece that you keep for yourself.

  • “Don’t make stuff because you want to make money—it will never make you enough money. And don’t make stuff because you want to get famous—because you will never feel famous enough. Make gifts for people—and work hard on making those gifts in the hope that those people will notice and like the gifts.” —John Green

  • “Suckcess,” on the other hand, is success on somebody else’s terms.

  • “Suckcess” is what poet Jean Cocteau was referring to when he said, “There is a kind of success worse than failure.”

  • In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde argues that art exists in both gift and market economies, but “where there is no gift, there is no art.”

  • Try it: If you’re bummed out and hating your work, pick somebody special in your life and make something for them. If you have a big audience, make them something special and give it away. Or maybe even better: Volunteer your time and teach someone else how to make what you make and do what you do. See how it feels. See whether it puts you in a better place.

  • You never know when a gift made for a single person will turn into a gift for the whole world. Consider how many bestselling stories began their life as bedtime stories for specific children. A. A. Milne made up Winnie-the-Pooh for his son, Christopher Robin Milne. Astrid Lindgren’s bedridden daughter Karin asked her to tell a story about some girl named Pippi Longstocking. C. S. Lewis convinced J. R. R. Tolkien to turn the fantastical stories he told his children into The Hobbit. The list goes on and on.

  • The ordinary + extra attention = the extraordinary

  • You have everything you need.

  • Kent said she made common things “uncommon.” (She thought “uncommon” was a better term than “art.”) “I don’t think of it as art,” she said, “I just make things I like bigger.”

  • All this is, of course, wishful thinking. You do not need to have an extraordinary life to make extraordinary work. Everything you need to make extraordinary art can be found in your everyday life.

  • “Drawing is simply another way of seeing, which we don’t really do as adults,” says cartoonist Chris Ware. We’re all going around in a “cloud of remembrance and anxiety,” he says, and the act of drawing helps us live in the moment and concentrate on what’s really in front of us. Because drawing is really an exercise in seeing, you can suck at drawing and still get a ton out of it. In a blog post about picking up the habit of sketching later in his life, film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “By sitting somewhere and sketching something, I was forced to really look at it.” He said his drawings were “a means of experiencing a place or a moment more deeply.”

  • Your attention is one of the most valuable things you possess, which is why everyone wants to steal it from you. First you must protect it, and then you must point it in the right direction.

  • “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” —Mary Oliver

  • Set up a regular time to pay attention to what you’ve paid attention to. Reread your diary. Flip back through your sketchbook. (The cartoonist Kate Beaton once said if she wrote a book about drawing she’d call it Pay Attention to Your Drawings.) Scroll through your camera roll. Rewatch footage you’ve filmed. Listen to music you’ve recorded. (The musician Arthur Russell used to take long walks around Manhattan, listening to his own tapes on his Walkman.) When you have a system for going back through your work, you can better see the bigger picture of what you’ve been up to, and what you should do next.

  • If you want to change your life, change what you pay attention to. “We give things meaning by paying attention to them,” Jessa Crispin writes, “and so moving your attention from one thing to another can absolutely change your future.”

  • “Attention is the most basic form of love,” wrote John Tarrant. When you pay attention to your life, it not only provides you with the material for your art, it also helps you fall in love with your life.

  • Art is for life (not the other way around).

  • It can be hard and downright painful to grapple with the idea that people we find reprehensible in their personal lives might also be capable of producing work that is beautiful, moving, or useful to us.

  • We’re all complicated. We all have personal shortcomings. We’re all a little creepy, to a certain degree. If we didn’t believe that we could be a little better in our art than we are in our lives, then what, really, would be the point of art?

  • “The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair,” writes Sarah Manguso. “If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.”

  • You are allowed to change your mind.

  • We’re afraid of changing our minds because we’re afraid of the consequences of changing our minds. What will people think?

  • But to be on brand is to be 100 percent certain of who you are and what you do, and certainty, in art and in life, is not only completely overrated, it is also a roadblock to discovery.

  • Uncertainty is the very thing that art thrives on. The writer Donald Barthelme said that the artist’s natural state is one of not-knowing.

  • The internet, unfortunately, is no longer a safe place to do any kind of experimental thinking, particularly for somebody with an audience or any kind of “brand.”

  • Your bliss station, your studio, a paper journal, a private chat room, a living room full of trusted loved ones: These are the places to really think.

  • Interacting with people who don’t share our perspective forces us to rethink our ideas, strengthen our ideas, or trade our ideas for better ones. When you’re only interacting with like-minded people all the time, there’s less and less opportunity to be changed.

  • Jacobs recommends that if you really want to explore ideas, you should consider hanging out with people who aren’t so much like-minded as like-hearted. These are people who are “temperamentally disposed to openness and have habits of listening.” People who are generous, kind, caring, and thoughtful. People who, when you say something, “think about it, rather than just simply react.” People you feel good around.

  • The Roman statesman and philosopher Seneca said that if you read old books, you get to add all the years the author lived onto your own life. “We are excluded from no age, but we have access to them all,” he said. “Why not turn from this brief and transient spell of time and give ourselves wholeheartedly to the past, which is limitless and eternal and can be shared with better men than we?”

  • My friend John T. Unger has the perfect rule: Keep your tools organized and your materials messy. “Keep your tools very organized so you can find them,” he says. “Let the materials cross-pollinate in a mess. Some pieces of art I made were utter happenstance, where a couple items came together in a pile and the piece was mostly done.

  • Demons hate fresh air.

  • Our morning walk is where ideas are born and books are edited. It’s so crucial that we go for our walk that we’ve adopted the unofficial United States Postal Service motto as our own: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom. . . stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

  • “No matter what time you get out of bed, go for a walk,” said director Ingmar Berman to his daughter, Linn Ullmann. “The demons hate it when you get out of bed. Demons hate fresh air.”

  • When we’re glued to our screens, the world looks unreal. Terrible. Not worth saving or even spending time with. Everyone on earth seems like a troll or a maniac or worse. But you get outside and you start walking and you come to your senses. Yeah, there are a few maniacs and some ugliness, but there are also people smiling, birds chirping, clouds flying overhead…all that stuff. There’s possibility. Walking is a way to find possibility in your life when there doesn’t seem to be any left.

  • Like a tree, creative work has seasons. Part of the work is to know which season you’re in, and act accordingly. In winter, “the tree looks dead, but we know it is beginning a very deep process, out of which will come spring and summer.”

  • The comedian George Carlin lamented how obsessed we all are with the notion of forward, visible progress. “It’s the American view that everything has to keep climbing: productivity, profits, even comedy.” He felt we made no time for reflection. “No time to contract before another expansion. No time to grow up,” he said. “No time to learn from your mistakes. But that notion goes against nature, which is cyclical.”

  • One way to get in touch with your own seasons is to follow Kent and Thoreau’s leads and observe the seasons in nature. Draw the same tree every week for a year. Take up casual astronomy. Watch the sun rise and set for a week. Observe the moon every night for a few cycles. Try to get a feel for nonmechanical time, and see if it recalibrates you and changes how you feel about your progress.

  • “Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long.” —May Sarton

  • “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.” —Toni Morrison

  • Whenever life gets overwhelming, go back to chapter one of this book and think about your days. Try your best to fill them in ways that get you a little closer to where you want to be. Go easy on yourself and take your time. Worry less about getting things done. Worry more about things worth doing. Worry less about being a great artist. Worry more about being a good human being who makes art. Worry less about making a mark. Worry more about leaving things better than you found them. Keep working. Keep playing. Keep drawing. Keep looking. Keep listening. Keep thinking. Keep dreaming. Keep singing. Keep dancing. Keep painting. Keep sculpting. Keep designing. Keep composing. Keep acting. Keep cooking. Keep searching. Keep walking. Keep exploring. Keep giving. Keep living. Keep paying attention. Keep doing your verbs, whatever they may be. Keep going.

  • Switch your phone to airplane mode. Draw up some lists. Hire a child to teach you to play. Make a gift for someone. Tidy up. Lie down for a nap. Take a long walk.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Cover of Luster

Contains spoilers

  • I think to myself, You are a desirable woman. You are not a dozen gerbils in a skin casing.

  • “You’re kind of aloof,” he says, and all the kids stacked underneath my trench coat rejoice.

  • I am good, but not good enough, which is worse than simply being bad. IT is almost. The difference between being there when it happens and stepping out just in time to see it on the news. Still, I can’t help feeling that in the closest arm of the multiverse, there is a version of me that is fatter and happier, smiling in my own studio, paint behind my ears.

  • “I never said no to you. Not to anything. That documentary about Norwegian puppetry was three hours long.”

  • I throw in some blatant lies and make sure any inconsistencies are small enough to explain away once I have a foot in the door and am armed with enough recon on my interviewer to either have talking points on the company culture or a five-point plan to suck dry any available reservoirs of white guilt. I interview well despite my nerves, and while I wish I could take credit for that, my ability to maintain human form and make a good impression is all about my skin. The expectations of me in these settings are frequently so low, it would be impossible not to surpass them.

  • …the bike lanes in Manhattan already terrifying at 11:00 a.m., filled with delivery boys and girls who jet into traffic with fried rice and no reason to live, along with the sentient abdominals who do this for fun…

  • The Sabbath itself was pristine. Of course I indulged loopholes. Sometimes I slept it away so I could avoid the boredom, sometimes I spent the day curating twelve-hour mixtapes of Christian rock. But most of the time, though I wasn’t allowed to dance and knew that everyone was having fun without me, I liked the quiet, the languor of a single hour, of a day when you are deliberate, thankful for what was made deliberately, retina and turnips and densely coiled stars, things so complex I could barely render them in paint.

  • It’s a death rattle, she says, directing me to the lawn mower and adjusting the string on the mask, the grass communicating its distress, and for the rest of the day I think of that, sick to my stomach, the lawn buzzed and alkaline, the vinegar in the wine and the carnage in the dew, everywhere the perfume of things that want to live.

  • The acceptable interval for which I can be embarrassed for what I said to the doctors has passed, but I still think about it for weeks, what I meant when I said I was an artist. I think about the painting in the clinic and the canvas fibers curled beneath the oil. All the raw materials that are gathered and processed into shadow and light. The pigments drawn from sand and Canterbury bells, the carbon black drawn from fire and spread onto slick cave walls. A way is always made to document how we manage to survive, or in some cases, how we don’t. So I’ve tried to reproduce an inscrutable thing. I’ve made my own hunger into a practice, made everyone who passes through my life subject to a close and inappropriate reading that occasionally finds its way, often insufficiently, into paint. And when I am alone with myself, this is what I am waiting for someone to do to me, with merciless, deliberate hands, to put me down onto the canvas so that when I’m gone, there will be a record, proof that I was here.

Eternal Life by Dara Horn

Cover of Eternal Life
  • Many days and years and people had passed before she understood that the details themselves were the still and sacred things, that there was nothing else, that the curtain of daily life itself was holy, that behind it was only a void.

  • Every day of raising a child brought a rush of unwanted mourning. New parents think of each day as a cascade of beginnings: the first time she smiled, the first time she rolled over, her first steps, her first words, her first day of school. But old parents like her saw only endings: the last time she crawled, the last time she spoke in a pure raw sound unsculpted into the words of others, the last time she stood before the world in braids and laughed when she shouldn’t have, not knowing. Each child died before the person did, a small rehearsal for the future.

  • Within every person were so many other people; was there even room for a person’s own soul?

  • It still astounded her, after all these years, how much more there still was left to learn, how it never ended.

  • Everything in the world was learnable—languages, professions, technologies, skills that didn’t yet exist. The only reason that curious and intelligent people didn’t master it all was a simple lack of time.

  • “Fuck off, Elazar.” English was one of her favorite languages—the least poetic, the one where insults required no imagination at all.

  • Grandchildren and grandparents got along so well, Rachel knew, because they had a common enemy.

  • “Actually, everything in the story is kind of like a secret message,” he said, “because God has to tell everything to people, in people’s words, but people aren’t as smart as God, so everything is like a stupid version of the real story.” Rachel had not considered this. She looked at her little boy with sudden and frightening understanding: her entire life, every person’s entire life, was a stupid version of the real story, a tiny glimpse of a tiny sliver of the briefest of moments, a few days out of eternity.

  • “‘Do unto others’ is cruel, even if it sounds like kindness. It’s arrogant to think that others want exactly what you want.”

  • “All of these sages are arguing about what God wants from us. But I think God actually wants us to live an impossible life. All the evidence points in that direction.”

  • When she met Elazar in the tunnel that night, she gathered her anger together and presented it to him, a bouquet of pique.

  • “Dying is what gives life its meaning”

  • “I realized I wasn’t afraid of dying. I was afraid of no longer changing. I wanted to keep changing, keep making and seeing things change. And if you back up a bit, you see that none of that can happen without the arc of our lives, without one generation replacing another.”

Eat a Peach by David Chang

Cover of Eat a Peach
  • Lobsters grow by molting. They shed their old shell to reveal new, soft shell that will eventually grow and harden around them. By the time they're done, there's no sign of the lobster they were. It's an exhausting, dangerous process. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and leaves them exposed and vulnerable while they're in the middle of it.

  • Be a fool. For love. For yourself. What you think MIGHT possibly make you happy. Even for a little while. Whatever the cost or good sense might dictate.

    — Anthony Bourdain
  • I've found that the cooks with the brightest prospects are the ones who are hardest on themselves. The trick is to direct that dissatisfaction to your advantage. Every day as a cook can be a fresh start. There are no lingtering effects from the previous bad service. Yesterday's mistakes are gone. Resolve to be better today. Just know that in three or four months' time when you move to a new section, it's all going to feel freshly impossible again.

  • Every dish and service is an opportunity to collect data. It's only a mistake if you don't learn from it.

The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh

Cover of The Miracle of Mindfulness
  • Then Allen said, “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work. The left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks. But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!”

  • …I suggest to those who come to the meditation sessions that each person should try hard to reserve one day out of the week to devote entirely to their practice of mindfulness.

  • The feeling that any task is a nuisance will soon disappear if it is done in mindfulness. Take the Zen Masters. No matter what task or motion they undertake, they do it slowly and evenly, without reluctance.

  • At lunchtime, prepare a meal for yourself. Cook the meal and wash the dishes in mindfulness. In the morning, after you have cleaned and straightened up your house, and in the afternoon, after you have worked in the garden or watched clouds or gathered flowers, prepare a pot of tea to sit and drink in mindfulness. Allow yourself a good length of time to do this…drink your tea slowly and reverantly, as if it is the axis on which the whole earth revolves—slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this actual moment is life. Don’t be attached to the future. Don’t worry about things you have to do. Don’t think about getting up or taking off to do something. Don’t think about “departing”.

  • If you cannot find joy in peace in these very moments of sitting, then the future itself will only flow by as a river flows by, you will not be able to hold it back, you will be incapable of living the future when it has become the present. Joy and peace are the joy and peace possible in this very hour of sitting. If you cannot find it here, you won’t find it anywhere. Don’t chase after your thoughts as a shadow following its object. Don’t run after your thoughts. Find joy and peace in this very moment.

  • Find a photo of yourself as a child. Sit in the full or half lotus. Begin to follow your breath. After 20 breaths, begin to focus your attention on the photo in front of you. Recreate and live again the five aggregates of which you were made up at the time the photo was taken: the physical characteristics of your body, your feelings, perceptions, mind functionings, and consciousness at that age. Continue to follow your breath. Do not let your memories lure you away or overcome you. Maintain this meditation for 15 minutes. Maintain the half smile. Turn your mindfulness to your present self. Be conscious of your body, feelings, perceptions, mind functionings, and consciousness in the present moment. See the five aggregates which make up yourself. Ask the question, “who am I?” The question should be deeply rooted in you, like a new seed nestled deep in the soft earth and damp with water. The question “who am I?” should not be an abstract question to consider with your discursive intellect. The question “who am I?” will not be confined to your intellect, but to the care of the whole of the five aggregates. Don’t try to seek an intellectual answer. Contemplate for 10 minutes, maintaining light but deep breath to prevent being pulled away be philosophical reflection.

  • Sit in a dark room by yourself, or alone by a river at night, or anywhere else where there is solitude. Begin to take hold of your breath. Give rise to the thought, “I will use my finger to point at myself,” and then instead of pointing at your body, point away in the opposite direction. Contemplate seeing yourself outside of your bodily form. Contemplate seeing your bodily form present before you—in the trees, the grass and leaves, the river. Be mindful that you are in the universe and the universe is in you: if the universe is, you are; if you are, the universe is. There is no birth. There is no death. There is no coming. There is no going.

  • Contemplate the image of the person who has caused you the most suffering. Regard the features you hate or despise the most and find the most repulsive. Try to examine what makes this person happy and what causes suffering in his daily life. Contemplate the person’s perceptions; try to see what patterns of thought and reason this person follows. Examine what motivates this person’s hopes and actions. Finally consider the person’s consciousness. See whether his views and insights are open and free or not, and whether or not he has been influenced by any prejudices, narrow-mindedness, hatred, or anger. See whether or not he is master of himself. Continue until you feel compassion rise in your heart like a well filling with fresh water and your anger and resentment disappear. Practice this exercise many times on the same person.

  • …take the situation of a country suffering war or any other situation of injustice. Try to see that every person involved in the conflict is a victim. See that no person, including all those in warring parties or in what appear to be opposing sides, desires the suffering to continue. See that it is not only one or a few persons who are to blame for the situation. See that the situation is possible because of the clinging to ideologies and to an unjust world economic system which is upheld by every person through ignorance or through lack of resolve to change it. See that two sides in a conflict are not really opposing, but two aspects of the same reality. See that the most essential thing is life and that killing or oppressing one another will not solve anything. Remember the Sutra’s words: “In the time of war / Raise in yourself the Mind of Compassion / Help living beings / Abandon the wil l to fight / Wherever there is furious battle / Use all your might / To keep both sides’ strength equal / And then step into the conflict to reconcile” —Vimalakirti Nirdesa. Meditate until every reproach and hatred disappears, and compassion and love rise like a well of fresh water within you. Vow to work for awareness and reconciliation by the most silent and unpretentious means possible.

  • Detachment: sit in the full or half lotus. Follow your breath. Recall the most significant achievements in your life and examine each of them. Examine your talent, your virtue, your capacity, the convergence of favorable conditions that have led to success. Examine the complacency and arrogance that have arisen from the feeling that you are the main cause for such success. Shed the light of interdependence on the whole matter to see that the achievement is not really yours but the convergence of various conditions beyond your reach. See to it that you will not be bound to these achievements. Only when you can relinquish them can you really be free and no longer assailed by them. Recall the bitterest failures in your life and examine each of them. Examine your talent, your virtue, your capacity, and the absence of favorable conditions that led to the failures. Examine to see all the complexes that have arisen within you from the feeling that you are not capable of realizing success. Shed the light of interdependence on the whole matter to see that failures cannot be accounted for by your inabilities but rather by the lack of favorable conditions. See that you have no strength to shoulder these failures, that these failures are not your own self. See to it that you are free from them. Only when you can relinquish them can you really be free and no longer assailed by them.

How to Do Nothing by Jenny O’Dell

Cover of How to Do Nothing
  • We still recognize that much of what gives one’s life meaning stems from accidents, interruptions, and serendipitous encounters: the “off time” that a mechanistic view of experience seeks to eliminate.

  • When people long for some kind of escape, it’s worth asking: What would “back to the land” mean if we understood the land to be where we are right now?

  • The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive.

  • I propose that rerouting and deepening one’s attention to place will likely lead to awareness of one's participation in history and in a more-than-human community. From either a social or ecological perspective, the ultimate goal of “doing nothing” is to wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm.

  • When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book—to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.

    — John Steinbeck, Cannery Row
  • My mom has only ever spoken English to me, and for a very long time, I assumed that whenever my mom was speaking to another Filipino person, she was speaking Tagalog…bBut my mom was only sometimes speaking Tagalog. Other times she was speaking Ilonggo, which is a completely different language that is specific to where she's from in the Philippines. The languages are no the same, i.e. one is not simply a dialect of the other; in fact, the Philippines is full of language groups that, according to my mom, have so little in common that speakers would not be able to understand each other, and Tagalog is only one. This type of embarrassing discovery, in which something you thought was one thing is actually two things, and each of those things is actually ten things, seems like a simple fuction of the duration and quality of one's attention. With effort, we can become attuned to things, able to pick up and then hopefully differentiate finer and finer frequencies each time.

  • When Samuel Gompers, who led the labor group that organized this particular iteration of the eight-hour movement, gave an address titled “What Does Labor Want?” the answer he arrived at was, “It wants the earth and the fullness thereof”.

  • I consider “doing nothing” both as a kind of deprogramming device and as sustenance for those feeling too disassembled to act meaningfully.

  • If the law is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.

    — Henry David Thoreau
  • Differences in social and financial vulnerability explain why participants in mass acts of refusal have often been, and continue to be, students. James C. McMillan, an art professor at Bennett College who advised students when they participated in the 1960s Greensboro sit-ins, said that black adults were “reluctant” to “jeopardize any gains, economic or otherwise,” but that the students “did not have that kind of an investment, that kind of economic status, and, therefore, were not vulnerable to the kind of reprisals that could have occurred.”

  • If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive stress injury of the spirit set in?

    — Barbara Ehrenreich
  • In her piece on the Prejudice Lab, [Jessica] Nordell speaks with Evelyn R. Carter, a social psychologist at UCLA, who tells her that “people in the majority and the minority often see two different realities” based on what they do and do not notice. For example, “white people…might only hear a racist remark, while people of color might register subtler actions, like someone scooting away slightly on the bus.”

  • Similar to many indigenous cultures’ relationships to land, bioregionalism is first and foremost based on observation and recognition of what grows where, as well as an appreciation for the complex web of relationships among those actors. More than observation, it also suggests a way of identifying with place, weaving oneself into a region through observation of and responsibility to the local ecosystem.

  • I thought about how it’s possible to move to a place without caring about who or what is already there (or what was there before), interested in the neighborhood only insofar as it allows one to maintain your existing or ideal lifestyle and social ties.

  • Compared to the algorithms that recommend friends to us based on instrumental qualities—things we like, things we’ve bought, friends in common—geographical proximity is different, placing us near people who we have no “obvious” instrumental reason to care about, who are neither family nor friends (nor, sometimes, even potential friends).

  • …when I hear a song I unexpectedly like, I sometimes feel like something I don’t know is talking to something else I don’t know, through me.

  • …I worry that if we let our real-life interactions be corralled by our filter bubbles and branded identities, we are also running the risk of never being surprised, challenged, or changed—never seeing anything outside of ourselves, including our own privilege…if we don’t expand our attention outside of that sliver, we live in an “I-It” world where nothing has meaning outside of its value and relation to us. And we’re less prone to the encounters with those who turn us upside down and reorganize our universe—those who stand to change us significantly, should we allow it.

  • Our idea of progress is so bound up with the idea of putting something new into the world that it can feel counterintuitive to equate progress with destruction, removal, and remediation. But this seeming contradiction actually points to a deeper contradiction: of destruction (e.g. ecosystems) frames as construction (e.g. of dams). Nineteenth-century views of progress, production, and innovation relied on an image of the land as a blank slate where its current inhabitants and systems were like so many weeds in what was destined to become an American lawn. But if were sincerely recognize all that was already here, both culturally and ecologically, we start to understand that anything framed as construction was actually also destruction.

  • …a Japanese farmer named Masanobu Fukuoka experienced this Copernican shift when he invented what he called “do-nothing farming”. Inspired by the productivity of an abandoned lot that he saw filled with grasses and weeds, Fukuoka figured out a method of farming that made use of existing relationships in the land. Instead of flooding fields and sowing rice in the spring, he scattered the seeds directly on the ground in the fall, as they would have fallen naturally. In place of conventional fertilizer, he grew a cover of green clover, and threw the leftover stalks back on top when he was done. Fukuoka’s method required less labor, no machines, and no chemicals, but it took him decades to perfect and required extremely close attention. If everything was done at precisely the right time, the reward was unmistakable: not only was Fukuoka’s farm more productive and sustainable than neighboring farms, his method was able to remediate poor soils after a few seasons, creating farmable land on rocky outcrops and other inhospitable areas.

Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky

Cover of Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day
  • Being more productive didn’t mean I was doing the most important work; it only meant I was reacting to other people’s priorities faster.

  • Something magic happens when you start the day with one high-priority goal.

  • …change comes from resetting defaults, creating barriers, and beginning to design the way you spend your time.

  • Every day, you’ll choose a single activity to prioritize and protect in your calendar…Your Highlight might be something you don’t necessarily have to do but want to do, like playing with your kids or reading a book…Asking yourself “What’s going to be the highlight of my day?” ensures that you spend time on the things that matter to you and don’t lose the entire day reacting to other people’s priorities.

  • None of us can be perfect eaters, perfectly productive, perfectly mindful, and perfectly rested all the time. We can’t do the fifty-seven things bloggers tell us we’re supposed to do before 5 a.m. And even if we could, we shouldn’t. Perfection is a distraction—another shiny object taking your attention away from your real priorities.

  • We want you to begin each day by thinking about what you hope will be the bright spot. If, at the end of the day, someone asks you, “What was the highlight of your day?” what do you want your answer to be? When you look back on your day, what activity or accomplishment or moment do you want to savor?

  • Research shows that the way you experience your days is not determined primarily by what happens to you. In fact, you create your own reality by choosing what you pay attention to.

  • The first strategy is all about urgency: What’s the most pressing thing I have to do today?…look for projects that are time-sensitive, important, and medium-size (in other words, they don’t take ten minutes but don’t take ten hours, either).

  • At the end of the day, which Highlight will bring me the most satisfaction?

  • Look for activities that are not urgent. Instead, consider projects you’ve been meaning to get around to but haven’t quite found the time. Maybe you have a particular skill you want to put to use, or maybe it’s a pet project that you want to develop before sharing it with the world. These projects are super vulnerable to procrastination, because although they’re important, they are not time-sensitive, and that makes them easy to postpone. Use your Highlight to break the “someday” cycle.

  • When I reflect on today, what will bring me the most joy?

  • You only waste time if you’re not intentional about how you spend it.

  • A good rule of thumb is to choose a Highlight that takes sixty to ninety minutes. If you spend less than sixty minutes, you might not have time to get in the zone, but after ninety minutes of focused attention, most people need a break.

  • It’s never too late in the day to choose (or change) your Highlight. Recently, I had a really lousy day. In the morning, I’d planned to make my Highlight editing 100 pages of the Make Time manuscript. But all day long I was randomized by everything from a plumbing problem to a pounding headache to unexpected dinner guests. In the afternoon, I realized I could change my Highlight—and my attitude. I decided to scrap my editing goal for the day and instead focus on enjoying the dinner with friends. When I made that choice, my whole day turned around. I could let go and enjoy.

  • Make writing down your Highlight a simple daily ritual. You can do it at any time, but the evening (before bed) and the morning work best for most people.

  • There are lots of great reasons to repeat your Highlight: If you didn’t get to your Highlight, it’s probably still important. Repeat for a second chance. If you started your Highlight but didn’t finish it or if your Highlight was part of a bigger project, today is the perfect day to make progress or start a personal sprint (#7). Repeat to build momentum.

  • Make a list of the big things that matter in your life. Choose the one most important thing. Consider what’s most meaningful to you, not what is most urgent. Once you’ve chosen the most important thing…choose the second, third, fourth, and fifth most important things. Rewrite the list in order of priority. Draw a circle around number one. If you want to make progress on your number one priority, you’ll need to make it your focus wheenver possible. Drawing the circle reinforces this prioritization…

  • Bundle up the small tasks and use batch processing to get them all done in one Highlight session. In other words, make a batch of small things your big thing. For example, one day this week, JZ’s Highlight will be “catch up on email” or “return phone calls”.

  • Whenever you begin a project, your brain is like a computer starting up, loading relevant information, rules, and processes into your working memory. This “boot up” takes time, and you have to redo it to a certain extent every time you pick up the project. This is why, in our design sprints, teams work on the same project for five days in a row. Information stays in people’s working memory from one day to the next…

  • [Sprints aren’t] just for teams; you can run a “personal sprint” yourself. Whether you’re painting the living room, learning to juggle, or preparing a report for a new client, you’ll do better work and make faster progress if you keep at it for consecutive days.

  • I’ve seen this effect with my writing. The first day after a long break is hard. I may not write much of anything, and I get frustrated and cranky. The second day is still slow, but I feel I’m starting to boot up. By the third day and fourth day, I’m in the zone—and I do whatever I can to keep the momentum.

  • The best way to get out of low-priority obligations is never to accept them in the first place.

  • Could you squeeze in a new project but worry about giving it the proper attention? “Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to do a great job on this.”

  • Invited to an activity or event that you know you won’t enjoy? “Thanks for the invitation, but I’m not really into softball.”

  • Our friend Kristen Brillantes uses what she calls the Sour Patch Kid method when she says no. Just like the candy, Kristen’s answers are sour at first but sweet at the end. For example: “Unfortunately, my team won’t be able to participate. But you might ask Team X; they’d be perfect for this kind of event.” The key, says Kristen, is to make sure the sweet ending is authentic, not an empty add-on…Something as simple as a “Thank you for thinking of me; this sounds really fun” goes a long way.

  • To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.

    — Mary Oliver
  • You don’t need to follow the daily news. True breaking news will find you, and the rest isn’t urgent or just doesn’t matter…we suggest reading the news weekly. Anything less frequent is likely to make you feel like you’re at sea, unmoored from human civilization. Anything more frequent and you’ll feel fogged in, able to focus only on what’s in front of you.

  • Small distractions create much larger holes in our day. We call these holes “time craters,” and they work like this: Jake posts a tweet. (90 seconds) Over the next two hours, Jake returns to Twitter four times to see how his tweet is doing. Each time, he skims the newsfeed. Twice he reads an article somebody shared. (26 minutes) Jake’s tweet gets a few retweets, which feels good, so he begins mentally composing his next tweet. (Two minutes here, three minutes there, and so on) Jake posts another tweet, and the cycle begins all over again.

  • A late night watching TV might cost you an hour of sleeping in and a whole day of low energy.

  • Fake wins get in the way of focusing on what you really want to do.

  • A 2014 study by the University of British Columbia found that when people checked their email just three times a day (instead of as often as they wanted), they reported remarkably lower stress.

  • Maybe more surprising, checking less often made the participants better at email. During the week when they checked three times a day, people answered roughly the same number of messages, but they did so 20 percent faster. Checking email less often measurably made time!

  • Instead of checking your email first thing in the morning and then getting sucked in and reacting to other people’s priorities, deal with email at the end of the day. That way, you can use your prime hours for your Highlight and other important work. You’ll probably have a little less energy at the end of the day, but that is actually a good thing when it comes to email: You’ll be less tempted to overcommit by saying yes to every incoming request and less likely to bang out a multipage manifesto when a simple reply would do.

  • To help establish a new end-of-day email routine, try putting it on your calendar. Yes, we want you to literally add “email time” to your calendar.

  • A lot of email stress comes from thinking you need to constantly check and immediately respond to every new message. But you’re better off treating email like old-fashioned paper letters—you know, the kind with envelopes and stamps. Snail mail gets delivered only once a day. Most letters sit on your desk for a while before you do anything about them. And for 99 percent of communications, that works just fine. Try slowing down and seeing your email as what it really is: just a fancy, dressed-up, high-tech version of regular old mail.

  • Above all, taking control of your inbox requires a mental shift from “as fast as possible” to “as slow as you can get away with.” Respond slowly to emails, chats, texts, and other messages. Let hours, days, and sometimes weeks go by before you get back to people. This may sound like a jerk move. It’s not…They have questions about their priorities—not yours—when it’s convenient for them—not you. Every time you check your e mail or another message service, you’re basically saying, “Does any random person need my time right now?” And if you respond right away, you’re sending another signal both to them and to yourself: “I’ll stop whatever I’m doing to put other people’s priorities ahead of mine no matter who they are or what they want.”

  • As Jake with his fiction-writing projects, if you’re constantly exposed to other people’s ideas, it can be tough to think up your own.

  • Instead of reacting to every twitch, write your questions on a piece of paper (How much do wool socks cost on Amazon? Any Facebook updates?) Then you can stay in Laser mode, secure in the knowledge that those pressing topics have been captured for future research.

  • You know the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest…the antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.

    — Brother David Steindl-Rast
  • Daily habits are easier to keep than sometimes habits.

  • To put it in technical terms, walking is really, really darned good for you. Reports from Harvard and the Mayo Clinic (among others) show that walking helps you lose weight, avoid heart disease, reduce the risk of cancer, lower blood pressure, strengthen bones, and improve your mood through the release of painkilling endorphins.

  • When cortisol is high, caffeine doesn’t do much for you (except for temporarily relieving your caffeine addiction symptoms). For most folks, cortisol is highest between 8am and 8am, so for ideal morning energy, experiment with having that first cup of coffee at 9:30am.

  • The tricky thing about caffeine is that if you wait to drink it until you get tired, it’s too late: The adenosine has already hooked up with your brain, and it’s hard to shake the lethargy…Instead, think about when your energy regularly dips—for most of us, it’s after lunch—and have coffee thirty minutes beforehand.

  • To keep a steady energy level throughout the day, try replacing high doses of caffeine (such as a giant cup of brewed coffee) with more freuent low doses. Green tea is a great option.

  • Studies show that meditation increases working memory and the ability to maintain focus.

  • I keep a list of “energy givers” in my phone’s notes app: people who put a bounce in my step every time I see them.

  • Sleeping late on weekends is basically like giving yourself jet lag: it confuses your internal clock and makes it even harder to bounce back from the original deficiti.

  • The research on light exercise and the brain is pretty amazing. For example, a 2016 study at Radboud University in the Netherlands found that exercise boosted short-term memory, even when the information being recalled was learned hours before the participants exercised.

  • Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

    — Howard Thurman
  • Eventually, a funny thing happened. The more I made time for writing, the more I wanted to write. Finally, I decided to try doing it as a full-time job. This major shift in my priorities didn’t happen overnight. It was like a snowball rolling downhill, growing with every revolution. It took seven years from starting to make time for writing in the evenings back in 2010 to becoming a full-time writer in 2017.

  • For much of our own careers, we were too distracted, scrambled, busy, and exhausted to make time for the things we cared most about. First, Make Time helped us find control. Over time, it helped us start those classic “someday” projects we had been putting off for years and could have continued putting off indefinitely. When you create a practice of setting your own most important priority, daily life changes. Perhaps you’ll find your inner compass perfectly aligned with your current work, in which case you’ll now be that much more capable of identifying and acting on the most important opportunities. Make Time could provide a long-term sustained boost to your career. Your hobbies and side projects, strengthened with Make Time, could be a perfect complement. But it is also possible that those side projects might gradually take on a life of their own. A new and unexpected path may emerge. And you may find yourself ready to follow that path and see where it goes.

Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Cover of Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life
  • When it comes right down to it, wherever you go, there you are. Whatever you wind up doing, that’s what you’ve wound up doing. Whatever you are thinking right now, that’s what’s on your mind. Whatever has happened to you, it has already happened. The important question is, how are you going to handle it? In other words, “Now what?”

  • Like it or not, this moment is all we really have to work with.

  • Meditation may help us see that this path we call our life has direction; that it is always unfolding, moment by moment; and that what happens now, in this moment, influences what happens next.

  • “Be a light unto yourself.”

  • Buddhism is fundamentally about being in touch with your own deepest nature and letting it flow out of you unimpeded.

  • A good way to stop all the doing is to shift into the “being mode” for a moment. Think of yourself as an eternal witness, as timeless. Just watch this moment, without trying to change it at all. What is happening? What do you feel? What do you see? What do you hear?

  • The funny thing about stopping is that as soon as you do it, here you are. Things get simpler. In some ways, it’s as if you died and the world continued on. If you did die, all your responsibilities and obligations would immediately evaporate. Their residue would somehow get worked out without you. No one else can take over your unique agenda. It would die or peter out with you just as it has for everyone else who has ever died. So you don’t need to worry about it in any absolute way.   If this is true, maybe you don’t need to make one more phone call right now, even if you think you do. Maybe you don’t need to read something just now, or run one more errand. By taking a few moments to “die on purpose” to the rush of time while you are still living, you free yourself to have time for the present. By “dying” now in this way, you actually become more alive now. This is what stopping can do. There is nothing passive about it. And when you decide to go, it’s a different kind of going because you stopped. The stopping actually makes the going more vivid, richer, more textured. It helps keep all the things we worry about and feel inadequate about in perspective. It gives us guidance.

  • TRY: Stopping, sitting down, and becoming aware of your breathing once in a while throughout the day. It can be for five minutes, or even five seconds. Let go into full acceptance of the present moment, including how you are feeling and what you perceive to be happening. For these moments, don’t try to change anything at all, just breathe and let go. Breathe and let be. Die to having to have anything be different in this moment; in your mind and in your heart, give yourself permission to allow this moment to be exactly as it is, and allow yourself to be exactly as you are. Then, when you’re ready, move in the direction your heart tells you to go, mindfully and with resolution.

  • Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are. Perhaps its value lies precisely in this. Maybe we all need to do one thing in our lives simply for its own sake.

  • Remind yourself that acceptance of the present moment has nothing to do with resignation in the face of what is happening. It simply means a clear acknowledgment that what is happening is happening.

  • Is it possible for you to contemplate that in a very real way, this may actually be the best season, the best moment of your life?

  • The best way to capture moments is to pay attention.

  • Look at other people and ask yourself if you are really seeing them or just your thoughts about them.

  • Stress is part of life, part of being human, intrinsic to the human condition itself. But that does not mean that we have to be victims in the face of large forces in our lives. We can learn to work with them, understand them, find meaning in them, make critical choices, and use their energies to grow in strength, wisdom, and compassion. A willingness to embrace and work with what is lies at the core of all meditation practice.

  • People who don’t understand meditation think that it is some kind of special inner manipulation which will magically shut off these waves so that the mind’s surface will be flat, peaceful, and tranquil. But just as you can’t put a glass plate on the water to calm the waves, so you can’t artificially suppress the waves of your mind, and it is not too smart to try. It will only create more tension and inner struggle, not calmness. That doesn’t mean that calmness is unattainable. It’s just that it cannot be attained by misguided attempts to suppress the mind’s natural activity.

  • It is possible through meditation to find shelter from much of the wind that agitates the mind. Over time, a good deal of the turbulence may die down from lack of continuous feeding. But ultimately the winds of life and of the mind will blow, do what we may. Meditation is about knowing something about this and how to work with it.

  • I love a broad margin to my life.

  • The flavor and the sheer joy of non-doing are difficult for Americans to grasp because our culture places so much value on doing and on progress. Even our leisure tends to be busy and mindless. The joy of non-doing is that nothing else needs to happen for this moment to be complete.

  • Non-doing has nothing to do with being indolent or passive. Quite the contrary. It takes great courage and energy to cultivate non-doing, both in stillness and in activity. Nor is it easy to make a special time for non-doing and to keep at it in the face of everything in our lives which needs to be done.

  • But non-doing doesn’t have to be threatening to people who feel they always have to get things done. They might find they get even more “done,” and done better, by practicing non-doing. Non-doing simply means letting things be and allowing them to unfold in their own way.

  • Effortless activity happens at moments in dance and in sports at the highest levels of performance; when it does, it takes everybody’s breath away. But it also happens in every area of human activity, from painting to car repair to parenting. Years of practice and experience combine on some occasions, giving rise to a new capacity to let execution unfold beyond technique, beyond exertion, beyond thinking. Action then becomes a pure expression of art, of being, of letting go of all doing—a merging of mind and body in motion. We thrill in watching a superb performance, whether athletic or artistic, because it allows us to participate in the magic of true mastery, to be uplifted, if only briefly, and perhaps to share in the intention that each of us, in our own way, might touch such moments of grace and harmony in the living of our own lives.

  • TRY: During the day, see if you can detect the bloom of the present moment in every moment, the ordinary ones, the “in-between” ones, even the hard ones. Work at allowing more things to unfold in your life without forcing them to happen and without rejecting the ones that don’t fit your idea of what “should” be happening.

  • After all, if you really aren’t trying to get anywhere else in this moment, patience takes care of itself. It is a remembering that things unfold in their own time. The seasons cannot be hurried. Spring comes, the grass grows by itself. Being in a hurry usually doesn’t help, and it can create a great deal of suffering—sometimes in us, sometimes in those who have to be around us.

  • Patience is an ever present alternative to the mind’s endemic restlessness and impatience. Scratch the surface of impatience and what you will find lying beneath it, subtly or not so subtly, is anger. It’s the strong energy of not wanting things to be the way they are and blaming someone (often yourself) or something for it.

  • …things unfold according to their own nature.

  • We don’t have to let our anxieties and our desire for certain results dominate the quality of the moment, even when things are painful. When we have to push, we push. When we have to pull, we pull. But we know when not to push too, and when not to pull.

  • TRY: Looking into impatience and anger when they arise. See if you can adopt a different perspective, one which sees things as unfolding in their own time. This is especially useful when you are feeling under pressure and blocked or stymied in something you want or need to do. Hard as it may seem, try not to push the river in that moment but listen carefully to it instead. What does it tell you? What is it telling you to do? If nothing, then just breathe, let things be as they are, let go into patience, continue listening. If the river tells you something, then do it, but do it mindfully. Then pause, wait patiently, listen again.

  • Fear that I’m not good enough, that bad things will happen, that good things won’t last, that other people might hurt me, that I won’t get my way, that only I know anything, that I’m the only one who doesn’t know anything. We tend to see things through tinted glasses: through the lens of whether something is good for me or bad for me, or whether or not it conforms to my beliefs or philosophy. If it is good, I like it. If it is bad, I don’t like it. If it is neither, I have no feelings about it one way or the other, and may hardly notice it at all.

  • See if you can be in touch with a core within you which is rich beyond reckoning in all important ways. Let that core start radiating its energy outwardly, through your entire body, and beyond. Experiment with giving away this energy—in little ways at first—directing it toward yourself and toward others with no thought of gain or return. Give more than you think you can, trusting that you are richer than you think. Celebrate this richness. Give as if you had inexhaustible wealth. This is called “kingly giving.”

  • At the deepest level, there is no giver, no gift, and no recipient…only the universe rearranging itself.

  • The impulse frequently arises in me to squeeze another this or another that into this moment.

  • But in the Western cultural mainstream, you will find precious little support for choosing such a personal path of discipline and constancy, especially such an unusual one involving effort but non-doing, energy but no tangible “product.”

  • If you hope to bring meditation into your life in any kind of long-term, committed way, you will need a vision that is truly your own—one that is deep and tenacious and that lies close to the core of who you believe yourself to be, what you value in your life, and where you see yourself going.

  • The ways in which we need to grow are usually those we are the most supremely defended against and are least willing to admit even exist, let alone take an undefended, mindful peek at and then act on to change.

  • If you believe in love, do you manifest it or just talk a lot? If you believe in compassion, in non-harming, in kindness, in wisdom, in generosity, in calmness, in solitude, in non-doing, in being even-handed and clear, do you manifest these qualities in your daily life?

  • TRY: Asking yourself why you meditate or why you want to meditate. Don’t believe your first answers. Just write down a list of whatever comes to mind. Continue asking yourself. Also, inquire about your values, about what you honor most in life. Make a list of what is really important to you. Ask yourself: What is my vision, my map for where I am and where I am going? Does this vision reflect my true values and intentions? Am I remembering to embody those values? Do I practice my intentions? How am I now in my job, in my family, in my relationships, with myself? How do I want to be? How might I live my vision, my values? How do I relate to suffering, both my own and others’?

  • If your life were a book, what would you call it today? What would you entitle the chapter you are in right now? Are you stuck here in certain ways? Can you be fully open to all of the energies at your disposal at this point?

  • You cannot imitate somebody else’s journey and still be true to yourself. Are you prepared to honor your uniqueness in this way?

  • TRY: The next time you feel a sense of dissatisfaction, of something being missing or not quite right, turn inward just as an experiment. See if you can capture the energy of that very moment. Instead of picking up a magazine or going to the movies, calling a friend or looking for something to eat or acting up in one way or another, make a place for yourself. Sit down and enter into your breathing, if only for a few minutes. Don’t look for anything—neither flowers nor light nor a beautiful view. Don’t extol the virtues of anything or condemn the inadequacy of anything. Don’t even think to yourself, “I am going inward now.” Just sit. Reside at the center of the world. Let things be as they are.

  • So, at the beginning, you might want to stay with the breath, or use it as an anchor to bring you back when you are carried away. Try it for a few years and see what happens.

  • TRY: Setting aside a time every day for just being. Five minutes would be fine, or ten or twenty or thirty if you want to venture that far. Sit down and watch the moments unfold, with no agenda other than to be fully present. Use the breath as an anchor to tether your attention to the present moment. Your thinking mind will drift here and there, depending on the currents and winds moving in the mind until, at some point, the anchorline grows taut and brings you back. This may happen a lot. Bring your attention back to the breath, in all its vividness, every time it wanders. Keep the posture erect but not stiff. Think of yourself as a mountain.

  • It is doubtful that we came to feel undeserving on our own. We were helped to feel unworthy. We were taught it in a thousand ways when we were little, and we learned our lessons well.

  • TRY: Sitting with dignity for thirty seconds. Note how you feel. Try it standing with dignity. Where are your shoulders? How is your spine, your head? What would it mean to walk with dignity?

  • Practicing over and over again embodying dignity, stillness, an unwavering equanimity in the face of any mind state which presents itself, especially when you are not in a grave state of distress or turmoil, can provide a solid, reliable foundation for maintaining mindfulness and equanimity, even in periods of extreme stress and emotional turmoil. But only if you practice, practice, practice.

  • Although it is tempting to do so, you can’t just think that you understand how to be mindful, and save using it for only those moments when the big events hit. They contain so much power they will overwhelm you instantly…

  • Try sitting with your hands palms down on your knees. Notice the quality of self-containment here. To me, this posture speaks of not looking for anything more, but simply digesting what is. If you then turn both palms up, being mindful as you do it, you may note a change in energy in the body. To me, sitting this way embodies receptivity, an openness to what is above, to the energy of the heavens.

  • It can be quite helpful at times, especially in periods of turmoil or confusion, to emphasize receptivity in your sitting practice.

  • TRY: Bringing awareness to how you end your meditations. Whether they are lying down, sitting, standing, or walking, zero in on “who” ends it, how it ends, when it ends, and why. Don’t judge it or yourself in any way—just observe, and stay in touch with the transition from one thing to the next.

  • The sincerity of your effort matters far more than elapsed time…

  • TRY: Being aware of all the times in meditation when the thought comes up: “Am I doing this right?” “Is this what I should be feeling?” “Is this what is ‘supposed’ to happen?” Instead of trying to answer these questions, just look more deeply into the present moment.

  • Rarely do we contemplate our life with this degree of probing. How frequently do we linger in such basic questions as “Who am I?”, “Where am I going?”, “What path am I on?”, “Is this the right direction for me?”, “If I could choose a path now, in which direction would I head?”, “What is my yearning, my path?”, “What do I truly love?”…Contemplating “What is my Way?” is an excellent element to inject into our meditation practice. We don’t have to come up with answers, nor think that there has to be one particular answer. Better not to think at all. Instead, only persist in asking the question, letting any answers that formulate just come of themselves and go of themselves. As with everything else in the meditation practice, we just watch, listen, note, let be, let go, and keep generating the question, “What is my Way?”, “What is my path?”, “Who am I?”

  • The intention here is to remain open to not knowing, perhaps allowing yourself to come to the point of admitting, “I don’t know,” and then experimenting with relaxing a bit into this not knowing instead of condemning yourself for it. After all, in this moment, it may be an accurate statement of how things are for you.

  • By becoming the mountain in our meditation, we can link up with its strength and stability, and adopt them for our own. We can use its energies to support our efforts to encounter each moment with mindfulness, equanimity, and clarity. It may help us to see that our thoughts and feelings, our preoccupations, our emotional storms and crises, even the things that happen to us are much like the weather on the mountain.

  • TRY: Keeping this mountain image in mind as you sit in formal meditation. Explore its usefulness in deepening your capacity to dwell in stillness; to sit for longer periods of time; to sit in the face of adversity, difficulties, and storms or drabness in the mind.

  • Can you see some subtle transformation occurring in your attitude toward things that change in your life? Can you carry the mountain image with you in daily life? Can you see the mountain in others, and allow them their own shape and form, each mountain uniquely itself?

  • Water also has the enchanting quality of receptivity. It parts to allow anything in, then resumes itself.

  • To practice using the lake image in your meditation, picture in your mind’s eye a lake, a body of water held in a receptive basin by the earth itself.

  • When you have established a picture of the lake in your mind’s eye, allow yourself to become one with the lake as you lie down on your back or sit in meditation, so that your energies are held by your awareness and by your openness and compassion for yourself in the same way as the lake’s waters are held by the receptive and accepting basin of the earth herself.

  • TRY: Noticing the difference in how you feel and how you handle stress in periods when you are into the discipline of daily meditation and yoga practice and in periods of your life when you are not.

  • We resonate with one another’s sorrows because we are interconnected. Being whole and simultaneously part of a larger whole, we can change the world simply by changing ourselves. If I become a center of love and kindness in this moment, then in a perhaps small but hardly insignificant way, the world now has a nucleus of love and kindness it lacked the moment before.

  • Start by centering yourself in your posture and in your breathing. Then, from your heart or from your belly, invite feelings or images of kindness and love to radiate until they fill your whole being. Allow yourself to be cradled by your own awareness as if you were as deserving of loving kindness as any child. Let your awareness embody both benevolent mother energy and benevolent father energy, making available for you in this moment a recognition and an honoring of your being, and a kindness you perhaps did not receive enough of as a child. Let yourself bask in this energy of loving kindness, breathing it in and breathing it out, as if it were a lifeline, long in disrepair but finally passing along a nourishment you were starving for. Invite feelings of peacefulness and acceptance to be present in you. Some people find it valuable to say to themselves from time to time such things as: “May I be free from ignorance. May I be free from greed and hatred. May I not suffer. May I be happy.” But the words are just meant to evoke feelings of loving kindness. They are a wishing oneself well—consciously formed intentions to be free now, in this moment at least, from the problems we so often make for ourselves or compound for ourselves through our own fear and forgetfulness.

  • You can also take the practice further. Having established a radiant center in your being, you can let loving kindness radiate outwardly and direct it wherever you like.

  • You can direct loving kindness toward anybody, toward people you know and people you don’t. It may benefit them, but it will certainly benefit you by refining and extending your emotional being. This extension matures as you purposefully direct loving kindness toward people you have a hard time with, toward those you dislike or are repulsed by, toward those who threaten you or have hurt you. You can also practice directing loving kindness toward whole groups of people—toward all those who are oppressed, or who suffer, or whose lives are caught up in war or violence or hatred, understanding that they are not different from you—that they too have loved ones, hopes and aspirations, and needs for shelter, food, and peace. And you can extend loving kindness to the planet itself, its glories and its silent suffering, to the environment, the streams and rivers, to the air, the oceans, the forests, to plants and animals, collectively or singly.

  • When you can love one tree or one flower or one dog or one place, or one person or yourself for one moment, you can find all people, all places, all suffering, all harmony in that one moment.

  • Practicing in this way is not trying to change anything or get anywhere, although it might look like it on the surface. What it is really doing is uncovering what is always present. Love and kindness are here all the time, somewhere, in fact, everywhere. Usually our ability to touch them and be touched by them lies buried below our own fears and hurts, below our greed and our hatreds, below our desperate clinging to the illusion that we are truly separate and alone.

  • We have only to flip a switch when the outer light begins to dim. We can light up the world as brightly as we want and keep going with our lives, filling all our waking hours with busyness, with doing. Life gives us scant time for being nowadays, unless we seize it on purpose. We no longer have a fixed time when we have to stop what we are doing because there’s not enough light to do it by…we lack that formerly built-in time we had every night for shifting gears, for letting go of the day’s activities. We have precious few occasions nowadays for the mind to settle itself in stillness by a fire.

  • Nature’s harmony is around us and within us at all times. Perceiving it is an occasion for great happiness; but it is often only appreciated in retrospect or in its absence. If all is going well in the body, it tends to go unnoticed. Your lack of a headache is not front-page news for your cerebral cortex. Abilities such as walking, seeing, thinking, and peeing take care of themselves, and so blend into the landscape of automaticity and unawareness. Only pain or fear or loss wake us and bring things into focus. But by then the harmony is harder to see, and we find ourselves caught up in turbulence, itself containing, like rapids and waterfalls, order of a more difficult and subtle level within the river of life.

  • The virtues of getting up early have nothing to do with cramming more hours of busyness and industry into one’s day. Just the opposite. They stem from the stillness and solitude of the hour, and the potential to use that time to expand consciousness, to contemplate, to make time for being, for purposefully not doing anything. The peacefulness, the darkness, the dawn, the stillness—all contribute to making early morning a special time for mindfulness practice.

  • If you can begin your day with a firm foundation in mindfulness and inner peacefulness, then when you do have to get going and start doing, it is much more likely that the doing will flow out of your being. You are more likely to carry a robust mindfulness, an inner calmness and balance of mind with you throughout the day, than had you just jumped out of bed and started in on the call of demands and responsibilities, however pressing and important.

  • I especially try to make time for formal practice, if just for a few minutes, on days when momentous events happen, happy or distressing, when my mind and the circumstances are in turmoil, when there is lots to be done and feelings are running strong. In this way, I am less likely to miss the inner meaning of such moments, and I might even navigate through them a bit better.

  • TRY: Making a commitment to yourself to get up earlier than you otherwise might. Just doing it changes your life…You don’t want to fill this time with anything other than awareness. No need to go over the day’s commitments in your head and live “ahead” of yourself. This is a time of no-time, of stillness, of presence, of being with yourself…Also, at the moment of waking up, before getting out of bed, get in touch with your breath, feel the various sensations in your body, note any thoughts and feelings that may be present, let mindfulness touch this moment. Can you feel your breathing? Can you perceive the dawning of each in breath? Can you enjoy the feeling of the breath freely entering your body in this moment? Ask yourself: “Am I awake now?”

  • The romantic notion is that if it’s no good over here, you have only to go over there and things will be different. If this job is no good, change jobs. If this wife is no good, change wives. If this town is no good, change towns. If these children are a problem, leave them for other people to look after. The underlying thinking is that the reason for your troubles is outside of you—in the location, in others, in the circumstances. Change the location, change the circumstances, and everything will fall into place; you can start over, have a new beginning. The trouble with this way of seeing is that it conveniently ignores the fact that you carry your head and your heart, and what some would call your “karma,” around with you. You cannot escape yourself, try as you might.

  • Sooner or later, the same problems would arise if in fact they stem in large part from your patterns of seeing, thinking, and behaving. Too often, our lives cease working because we cease working at life, because we are unwilling to take responsibility for things as they are, and to work with our difficulties. We don’t understand that it is actually possible to attain clarity, understanding, and transformation right in the middle of what is here and now, however problematic it may be.

  • You can even blame yourself for it all and, in the ultimate escape from responsibility, run away feeling that you have made a hopeless mess of things, or that you are damaged beyond repair. In either case, you believe that you are incapable of true change or growth, and that you need to spare others any more pain by removing yourself from the scene.

  • It doesn’t matter whether you are using drugs or meditation, alcohol or Club Med, divorce or quitting your job. There can be no resolution leading to growth until the present situation has been faced completely and you have opened to it with mindfulness…

  • This, then, really is it…this place, this relationship, this dilemma, this job. The challenge of mindfulness is to work with the very circumstances that you find yourself in—no matter how unpleasant, how discouraging, how limited, how unending and stuck they may appear to be—and to make sure that you have done everything in your power to use their energies to transform yourself before you decide to cut your losses and move on. It is right here that the real work needs to happen.

  • TRY: To use ordinary, repetitive occasions in your own house as invitations to practice mindfulness. Going to the front door, answering the telephone, seeking out someone else in the house to speak with, going to the bathroom, getting the laundry out of the dryer, going to the refrigerator, can all be occasions to slow down and be more in touch with each present moment.

  • Eating is another good occasion for mindfulness practice. Are you tasting your food? Are you aware of how fast, how much, when, where, and what you are eating? Can you make your entire day as it unfolds into an occasion to be present or to bring yourself back to the present, over and over again?

  • [CW: suicidal ideation] Buckminster Fuller, the discoverer/inventor of the geodesic dome, at age thirty-two contemplated suicide for a few hours one night at the edge of Lake Michigan, as the story goes, after a series of business failures that left him feeling he had made such a mess of his life that the best move would be for him to remove himself from the scene and make things simpler for his wife and infant daughter. Apparently everything he had touched or undertaken had turned to dust in spite of his incredible creativity and imagination, which were only recognized later. However, instead of ending his life, Fuller decided (perhaps because of his deep conviction in the underlying unity and order of the universe, of which he knew himself to be an integral part) to live from then on as if he had died that night. Being dead, he wouldn’t have to worry about how things worked out any longer for himself personally and would be free to devote himself to living as a representative of the universe. The rest of his life would be a gift. Instead of living for himself, he would devote himself to asking, “What is it on this planet [which he referred to as Spaceship Earth] that needs doing that I know something about, that probably won’t happen unless I take responsibility for it?” He decided he would just ask that question continuously and do what came to him, following his nose. In this way, working for humanity as an employee of the universe at large, you get to modify and contribute to your locale by who you are, how you are, and what you do. But it’s no longer personal. It’s just part of the totality of the universe expressing itself.

  • Fuller never thought of himself as special in any sense, just a regular person who liked to play with ideas and with forms. His motto was: “If I can understand it, anybody can understand it.”

  • Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession…. Do that which is assigned to you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.

    — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
  • In a way, that’s all any of us do when we teach. As best we can, we show others what we have seen up to now. It’s at best a progress report, a map of our experiences, by no means the absolute truth.

  • We might appreciate life more, people more, food more, opinions more, moments more, if we perceive, by our own looking more deeply into them, that everything we are in contact with connects us to the whole world in each moment, and that things and other people, and even places and circumstances, are only here temporarily. It makes now so much more interesting. In fact, it makes now everything.

  • Do you sometimes find that you are hard on yourself and put yourself down? Remember ahimsa in that moment. See it and let it go.

  • Do you push yourself beyond your limits with no regard for your body and your well-being? Ahimsa.

  • It is easy to relate with ahimsa to someone who doesn’t threaten you. The test is in how you will relate to a person or situation when you do feel threatened.

  • The willingness to harm or hurt comes ultimately out of fear. Non-harming requires that you see your own fears and that you understand them and own them.

  • We might begin by taking things a little less personally. When something happens, try to see it without the self-orientation, just for fun. Maybe it just happened. Maybe it’s not aimed at you. Watch your mind at such times. Is it getting into “I” this and “me” that? Ask yourself, “Who am I?” or, “What is this ‘I’ that is claiming ownership?”

  • Notice, too, that the self is impermanent. Whatever you try to hold on to that has to do with yourself eludes you. It can’t be held because it is constantly changing, decaying, and being reconstructed again, always slightly differently, depending on the circumstances of the moment. This makes the sense of self what is called in chaos theory a “strange attractor,” a pattern which embodies order, yet is also unpredictably disordered. It never repeats itself. Whenever you look, it is slightly different.

  • TRY: Watching your reactions in situations that annoy you or make you angry. Notice how even speaking of something “making” you angry surrenders your power to others. Such occasions are good opportunities to experiment with mindfulness as a pot into which you can put all your feelings and just be with them, letting them slowly cook, reminding yourself that you don’t have to do anything with them right away, that they will become more cooked, more easily digested and understood simply by holding them in the pot of mindfulness.

  • Can you allow this state of affairs to be okay and neither make yourself right or wrong?

  • Can you see how this practice might lead to knowing yourself in new ways, and freeing yourself from old, worn-out, limiting views?

  • Then you might go around thinking, maybe even saying, that you have gotten somewhere, that the meditation practice “works.” The ego wants to lay claim and take credit for this special feeling or understanding, whatever it is. As soon as this happens, you are no longer into meditation but into advertising. It is easy to get caught here, using meditation practice to support the self-inflation habit.

  • There is nothing wrong with feelings of boredom or staleness, or of not getting anywhere, just as there is nothing wrong with feeling that you are getting somewhere and in fact, your practice may well be showing signs of becoming deeper and more robust. The pitfall is when you inflate such experiences or thoughts and you start believing in them as special. It’s when you get attached to your experience that the practice arrests, and your development along with it.

  • All too commonly, some things are thought of as spiritual while others are excluded. Is science spiritual? Is being a mother or father spiritual? Are dogs spiritual? Is the body spiritual? Is the mind spiritual? Is childbirth? Is eating? Is painting, or playing music, or taking a walk, or looking at a flower? Is breathing spiritual, or climbing a mountain?

  • Mindfulness allows everything to shine with the luminosity that the word “spiritual” is meant to connote.

  • The great geneticist Barbara McClintock, whose research was both ignored and disdained by her male colleagues for so many years until it was finally recognized at age eighty with a Nobel Prize, spoke of “a feeling for the organism” in her efforts to unravel and understand the intricacies of corn genetics.

  • Perhaps ultimately, spiritual simply means experiencing wholeness and interconnectedness directly, a seeing that individuality and the totality are interwoven, that nothing is separate or extraneous. If you see in this way, then everything becomes spiritual in its deepest sense.

  • how easy it is to sleepwalk through and therefore miss much of our life, telling ourselves nice stories of who we are and where we are going, along the way to some deluded fantasy we may never reach and might never recover from were we to arrive.

  • The meditation practice itself is timeless, and it is deeply gratifying to see it taking root so deeply in our society at a time of such great inner and outer turmoil and confusion, and at a time of such ferocious time-acceleration, driven by the advent of the digital age and feeding our capacity for getting more and more done in less and less time, thereby dramatically increasing the risk of never being present with and for ourselves, of losing touch almost entirely with the domain of being. Nothing like this has ever been seen in the entire trajectory of humanity. The species itself is at a critical juncture, a tipping point, and mindfulness, our innate capacity for wakefulness and open-hearted presence and clear seeing, has never been more critically important.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck

Cover of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
  • So I brought children one at a time to a room in their school, made them comfortable, and then gave them a series of puzzles to solve. The first ones were fairly easy, but the next ones were hard. As the students grunted, perspired, and toiled, I watched their strategies and probed what they were thinking and feeling. I expected differences among children in how they coped with the difficulty, but I saw something I never expected. Confronted with the hard puzzles, one ten-year-old boy pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips, and cried out, “I love a challenge!” Another, sweating away on these puzzles, looked up with a pleased expression and said with authority, “You know, I was hoping this would be informative!” What’s wrong with them? I wondered. I always thought you coped with failure or you didn’t cope with failure. I never thought anyone loved failure. Were these alien children or were they on to something? Everyone has a role model, someone who pointed the way at a critical moment in their lives. These children were my role models. They obviously knew something I didn’t and I was determined to figure it out—to understand the kind of mindset that could turn a failure into a gift. What did they know? They knew that human qualities, such as intellectual skills, could be cultivated. And that’s what they were doing—getting smarter. Not only weren’t they discouraged by failure, they didn’t even think they were failing. They thought they were learning.

  • What are the consequences of thinking that your intelligence or personality is something you can develop, as opposed to something that is a fixed, deep-seated trait?

  • Robert Sternberg, the present-day guru of intelligence, writes that the major factor in whether people achieve expertise “is not some fixed prior ability, but purposeful engagement.”

  • Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.

  • I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves—in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?

  • This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

  • Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.

  • Even though they [people with a growth mindset] felt distressed, they were ready to take the risks, confront the challenges, and keep working at them.

  • When we (temporarily) put people in a fixed mindset, with its focus on permanent traits, they quickly fear challenge and devalue effort.

  • We often see books with titles like The Ten Secrets of the World’s Most Successful People crowding the shelves of bookstores, and these books may give many useful tips. But they’re usually a list of unconnected pointers, like “Take more risks!” or “Believe in yourself!” While you’re left admiring people who can do that, it’s never clear how these things fit together or how you could ever become that way.

  • If, like those with the growth mindset, you believe you can develop yourself, then you’re open to accurate information about your current abilities, even if it’s unflattering. What’s more, if you’re oriented toward learning, as they are, you need accurate information about your current abilities in order to learn effectively. However, if everything is either good news or bad news about your precious traits—as it is with fixed-mindset people—distortion almost inevitably enters the picture.

  • People with both mindsets came into our brain-wave lab at Columbia. As they answered hard questions and got feedback, we were curious about when their brain waves would show them to be interested and attentive. People with a fixed mindset were only interested when the feedback reflected on their ability. Their brain waves showed them paying close attention when they were told whether their answers were right or wrong.

  • “When you’re lying on your deathbed, one of the cool things to say is, ‘I really explored myself.’"

  • She won the spot for her weight group on the U.S. Olympic team and came home from Athens with a bronze medal. And what was next? Yale Law School. People urged her to stay where she was already on top, but Miranda felt it was more exciting to start at the bottom again and see what she could grow into this time.

  • The plot is about to thicken, for in the fixed mindset it’s not enough just to succeed. It’s not enough just to look smart and talented. You have to be pretty much flawless. And you have to be flawless right away.

  • They granted one test the power to measure their most basic intelligence now and forever. They gave this test the power to define them. That’s why every success is so important.

  • …people who believe in fixed traits feel an urgency to succeed, and when they do, they may feel more than pride. They may feel a sense of superiority, since success means that their fixed traits are better than other people’s.

  • …lurking behind that self-esteem of the fixed mindset is a simple question: If you’re somebody when you’re successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful?

  • Malcolm Gladwell, the author and New Yorker writer, has suggested that as a society we value natural, effortless accomplishment over achievement through effort. We endow our heroes with superhuman abilities that led them inevitably toward their greatness.

  • People can also have different mindsets in different areas…We’ve found that whatever mindset people have in a particular area will guide them in that area.

  • In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. If you fail—or if you’re not the best—it’s all been wasted. The growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome.

  • Richard Robins and Jennifer Pals tracked students at the University of California at Berkeley over their years of college. They found that when students had the growth mindset, they gained confidence in themselves as they repeatedly met and mastered the challenges of the university. However, when students had the fixed mindset, their confidence eroded in the face of those same challenges. That’s why people with the fixed mindset have to nurse their confidence and protect it.

  • Think of a time you were enjoying something—doing a crossword puzzle, playing a sport, learning a new dance. Then it became hard and you wanted out. Maybe you suddenly felt tired, dizzy, bored, or hungry. Next time this happens, don’t fool yourself. It’s the fixed mindset. Put yourself in a growth mindset. Picture your brain forming new connections as you meet the challenge and learn. Keep on going.

  • How do you act when you feel depressed? Do you work harder at things in your life or do you let them go? Next time you feel low, put yourself in a growth mindset—think about learning, challenge, confronting obstacles. Think about effort as a positive, constructive force, not as a big drag. Try it out.

  • Is there something you’ve always wanted to do but were afraid you weren’t good at? Make a plan to do it.

  • Bloom concludes, “After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.”

  • Actually, she informs us, they are not drawing skills at all, but seeing skills. They are the ability to perceive edges, spaces, relationships, lights and shadows, and the whole. Drawing requires us to learn each component skill and then combine them into one process. Some people simply pick up these skills in the natural course of their lives, whereas others have to work to learn them and put them together.

  • After the experience with difficulty, the performance of the ability-praised students plummeted, even when we gave them some more of the easier problems. Losing faith in their ability, they were doing worse than when they started. The effort kids showed better and better performance. They had used the hard problems to sharpen their skills, so that when they returned to the easier ones, they were way ahead.

  • Research by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson shows that even checking a box to indicate your race or sex can trigger the stereotype in your mind and lower your test score.

  • When they’re little, these girls are often so perfect, and they delight in everyone’s telling them so. They’re so well behaved, they’re so cute, they’re so helpful, and they’re so precocious. Girls learn to trust people’s estimates of them. “Gee, everyone’s so nice to me; if they criticize me, it must be true.”

  • “The strength for that sixth jump came from my assorted heartbreaks over the years…I’d collected all my pains and turned them into one mighty performance.”

  • For those with the fixed mindset, success is about establishing their superiority, pure and simple.

  • In 1981, McEnroe bought a beautiful black Les Paul guitar. That week, he went to see Buddy Guy play at the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago. Instead of feeling inspired to take lessons or practice, McEnroe went home and smashed his guitar to pieces.

  • “When you can’t control yourself, you want someone to do it for you"

    — ?
  • “The minute a leader allows himself to become the primary reality people worry about, rather than reality being the primary reality, you have a recipe for mediocrity, or worse.”

    — ?
  • Winston Churchill set up a special department. Others might be in awe of his titanic persona, but the job of this department, Jim Collins reports, was to give Churchill all the worst news. Then Churchill could sleep well at night, knowing he had not been groupthinked into a false sense of security.

  • Herodotus, writing in the fifth century B.C., reported that the ancient Persians used a version of Sloan’s techniques to prevent groupthink. Whenever a group reached a decision while sober, they later reconsidered it while intoxicated.

  • David Packard, on the other hand, gave an employee a medal for defying him. The co-founder of Hewlett-Packard tells this story. Years ago at a Hewlett-Packard lab, they told a young engineer to give up work on a display monitor he was developing. In response, he went “on vacation,” touring California and dropping in on potential customers to show them the monitor and gauge their interest. The customers loved it, he continued working on it, and then he somehow persuaded his manager to put it into production. The company sold more than seventeen thousand of his monitors and reaped a sales revenue of thirty-five million dollars. Later, at a meeting of Hewlett-Packard engineers, Packard gave the young man a medal “for extraordinary contempt and defiance beyond the normal call of engineering duty.”

  • The growth mindset says all of these things can be developed. All—you, your partner, and the relationship—are capable of growth and change. In the fixed mindset, the ideal is instant, perfect, and perpetual compatibility. Like it was meant to be.

  • One problem is that people with the fixed mindset expect everything good to happen automatically. It’s not that the partners will work to help each other solve their problems or gain skills. It’s that this will magically occur through their love…

  • Relationship expert Daniel Wile says that choosing a partner is choosing a set of problems.

  • …change isn’t like surgery. Even when you change, the old beliefs aren’t just removed like a worn-out hip or knee and replaced with better ones. Instead, the new beliefs take their place alongside the old ones, and as they become stronger, they give you a different way to think, feel, and act.

  • …cognitive therapy helps people make more realistic and optimistic judgments. But it does not take them out of the fixed mindset and its world of judgment. It does not confront the basic assumption—the idea that traits are fixed—that is causing them to constantly measure themselves. In other words, it does not escort them out of the framework of judgment and into the framework of growth.

  • When they do think about what intelligence is, many people believe that a person is born either smart, average, or dumb—and stays that way for life. But new research shows that the brain is more like a muscle—it changes and gets stronger when you use it.

  • …they were taught that when they studied well and learned something, they transferred it from temporary storage (working memory) to more permanent storage (long-term memory).

  • When people hold on to a fixed mindset, it’s often for a reason. At some point in their lives it served a good purpose for them. It told them who they were or who they wanted to be (a smart, talented child) and it told them how to be that (perform well). In this way, it provided a formula for self-esteem and a path to love and respect from others. The idea that they are worthy and will be loved is crucial for children, and—if a child is unsure about being valued or loved—the fixed mindset appears to offer a simple, straightforward route to this.

  • …it’s not easy to just let go of something that has felt like your “self” for many years and that has given you your route to self-esteem.

  • …it’s not as though the fixed mindset wants to leave gracefully. If the fixed mindset has been controlling your internal monologue, it can say some pretty strong things to you when it sees those counters at zero: “You’re nothing.” It can make you want to rush right out and rack up some high numbers. The fixed mindset once offered you refuge from that very feeling, and it offers it to you again. Don’t take it.

  • Research by Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues shows that vowing, even intense vowing, is often useless. The next day comes and the next day goes. What works is making a vivid, concrete plan: “Tomorrow during my break, I’ll get a cup of tea, close the door to my office, and call the graduate school.” Or, in another case: “On Wednesday morning, right after I get up and brush my teeth, I’ll sit at my desk and start writing my report.”

  • Think of something you need to do, something you want to learn, or a problem you have to confront. What is it? Now make a concrete plan. When will you follow through on your plan? Where will you do it? How will you do it? Think about it in vivid detail…These concrete plans—plans you can visualize—about when, where, and how you are going to do something lead to really high levels of follow-through, which, of course, ups the chances of success.

  • It’s amazing—once a problem improves, people often stop doing what caused it to improve. Once you feel better, you stop taking your medicine.

  • These changes have to be supported or they can go away faster than they appeared.

  • The second step is to become aware of your fixed-mindset triggers. When does your fixed-mindset “persona” come home to roost?…It could be when you’re thinking about taking on a big, new challenge. Your fixed-mindset persona might appear and whisper, “Maybe you don’t have what it takes, and everyone will find out.”…What about when you encounter someone who’s a lot better than you in the very area you pride yourself on? What does that fixed-mindset voice say to you? Does it tell you that you’ll never be as good? Does it make you hate that person just a little?

  • Each week I give them a different assignment for a short paper: Find something important about yourself that you’d like to change and take the first step….Do something outrageously growth mindset in the service of what you’d like to change…

  • this year I asked them [Dweck’s students] to identify their fixed-mindset triggers and to give their fixed-mindset persona a name. It was fascinating. Not one student claimed to have no triggers or persona. All of them were able to write eloquently (and painfully) about their fixed-mindset persona, its triggers, and its impact.

  • Understanding that everyone has a fixed-mindset persona can give us more compassion for people. It allows us to understand their struggles.

  • Every one of us has a journey to take. It starts by accepting that we all have both mindsets. Then we learn to recognize what triggers our fixed mindset. Failures? Criticism? Deadlines? Disagreements? And we come to understand what happens to us when our fixed-mindset “persona” is triggered. Who is this persona? What’s its name? What does it make us think, feel, and do? How does it affect those around us? Importantly, we can gradually learn to remain in a growth-mindset place despite the triggers, as we educate our persona and invite it to join us on our growth-mindset journey. Ideally, we will learn more and more about how we can help others on their journey, too.

  • Every day presents you with ways to grow and to help the people you care about grow.