My Thoughts On Facebook – Post Revisited

In early August 2007 I wrote a post called My Thoughts On Facebook in which I outlined why I had deleted my account.

I reactivated my account a few months later and engaged in the social media world to a certain degree for about 8 years. I stopped posting to Facebook a couple of years ago when I became aware of how the platform made me feel – mostly crappy – after taking an inventory of how my day to day actions were contributing to my sense of well-being. For the record, I do not blame Facebook for my actions nor do I hold them accountable for how I interacted with the site. I was always free to act otherwise and they did not evolve the brain chemistry that makes the quest for “likes” so addictive.

When it got right down to it, I had to answer the questions “why am I doing what I am doing?” and “should I continue to do what I have been doing?”

Many of the people I know use Facebook for the reasons it was created – to stay in contact with other people in a way that gives them control of when and how deeply they get involved. They are busy and finding the time to meet up with friends is tough and usually unnecessary. Most of the connections serve to download whatever updates are needed just to make sure nothing important slips through the cracks, and this is what Facebook is really good for. It’s a semi interactive medium that allows all of our friends to read whatever they feel like that we are inclined to share. “Here’s pictures of a wedding, a vacation, a child’s concert performance, a cat video I found funny, etc….”

This is something that I still use it for, except I don’t post anything about my own life any more. My wife tags me in pictures and that is about it. I’m happy to stay up to date with the on goings of people I know, and I’m honestly happy that their lives are progressing as lives do. Those people have the opportunity to see where I have been with Heather, which is about all I do that I think is worth sharing – here I am with my favorite person doing something we decided to do, planned out, and made happen.

My problem with Facebook, and I literally mean my problem with it in terms of me judging myself, is that it plays on the most insecure parts of my personality. I had found myself posting for “likes” and then feeling good or bad depending upon the responses of other people.

After my dad died, I was a little lost and set about posting a lot in an attempt to generate some sense of belonging or connection. At the time I knew what I was doing and was fine with giving a few months to it because I felt so aimless. It’s hard to say if it served that purpose given that human beings move through grief and maybe I would have felt better anyway but I’m willing to be charitable and say that in the months following his passing that Facebook did afford me the opportunity to reach out and engage the world in a way that contributed to the rebuilding of my happiness. And if it had ended there I think I would still be active on the platform.

It was my quest for “likes” that I identified as problematic; specifically, the transactional rules I had manufactured that governed my engagement. On the face of it there shouldn’t be any complexity here. Posting a quote that I found that was interesting or a thought that I had that I believed was inspirational are not a cause for sadness or social turmoil, and for a lot of people these things are one and done. Socially well-adjusted people will either post the things and deal with whatever comes of them, having no emotional response one way or the other along with no need for a particular response, or else they will just not post them because none of it matters all that much. I was not one of those people. I noticed myself considering “likes” as a growing part of my life. It wasn’t enough for me to get a kick out of reading something or having an interesting thought, I needed OTHER people to get the same kick or acknowledge a kick of sorts. In the very lamest sense, the quote or the idea was not the source of joy that it once had been, the reward came from other people liking or commenting. And the moment I noticed myself deleting posts that didn’t do either of these two things I realized that I had crossed some boundary into the realm of behavior that wasn’t working for me in terms of happiness.

I don’t recall the date, but I recall the moment when it dawned on me that my behavior was not what I wanted or needed it to be. When you hear yourself think “okay, that didn’t work, I have to delete it so people don’t know that it was there” and watch your hand click “delete post” a switch has flipped. Again, I don’t blame anyone but myself nor do I believe that most people develop the same maladaptive behavior. It was me and that is all I am talking about here.

There is NO reason why my happiness should depend upon the decision other people make to check a “like” button about my musings UNLESS I had conditioned my brain to respond that way. Given that relying on other people for anything, let alone actions that will lead to my happiness, is a pointless exercise that leads to unhappiness and resentment, along with it being the effective non consensual enrollment of other people in a contract they don’t even know exists, the question had to be asked, “what the hell was I doing?”

That is much more interesting, and something that I would not have taken the time to figure out had I remained engage in the pursuit of approval on social media. In fact, my life changed directions the moment I asked that question.

Why do people do the things that they do? The superficial answer to that question is usually going to be a post hoc rationale for an action. This is fine when that is the actual reason for doing something. But how often is that?

Not very often. The truth of the matter is that we don’t actually have to do most of the things that we do – there is no compelling or life preserving reason to participate in nearly every social interaction we engage in. Most of our communication is pointless in terms of it doing anything useful. It is made up of talking about things that don’t matter, about people, about how things that are as opposed to how we engineer them to be, back stabbing, or conversations about subjects that we don’t know anything about and cannot contribute to. With the exception of work and child rearing, how many of your thoughts, internal or said out loud, make a difference? Do any of them change anything? If so, which ones and why? And of all that remain, why did you think and then say them out loud?

I’m more than willing to create a bucket called “thinking out loud” to throw these pointless utterances into because thinking is a complex thing and sometimes the physical matter we add to a thought by saying it out loud gives it an energy that makes it actually real / useful when trying to uncover the truth of something. A lot of what I say is actually an attempt to think; in much the same way that my writing is a way of thinking. Writing is better than speaking for this because the words have a much longer half-life and the ability to reread them causes them to be more “real” – both have an impact on the objective world in so far as each takes brain activity and converts it into something with more mass – air and sound waves with talking and physical movement that creates a visual representation of the thought – which give us an opportunity externalize the stimuli and receive it as though it is coming from outside of us.

So with the exception of communication from these three categories – child rearing, work, and thinking – what is the point of the rest? I’ll maintain that there really isn’t one, at least not one that can universally be viewed as helpful. Most of what remains will be in the realm of useless speak or back biting, that serves as validation that we are alive, worthwhile, and connected to other people or to make us feel more secure in our connection with other people by denigrating those who are not there to defend themselves.

My Facebook quest for likes satisfied this. I wanted to feel connected to others and worthwhile and relied on the influx of “likes” as proof of these things. When the likes didn’t come, didn’t come quickly enough, or were not in the numbers I wanted, my quest was not satisfied. The experience is not a flat emotional experience. Getting the likes was rewarding – I had trained my brain to release reward chemicals in response to them. Initially a like was all that was needed, but over time it needed to be more than one and by the time I found that I wasn’t feeling good about being on Facebook the likes needed to arrive very close to the time of posting and needed to cross a threshold number within a certain time frame. Let’s say they needed to start within 10 minutes and needed to hit 10% of my friends list within 4 hours. A post that was liked by 2% didn’t give me what I was looking for, and instead of feeling like nothing, it felt like the absence of something good.

This should sound very similar to addiction, particularly what you might have read about cocaine addiction. Everyone who takes the drug reports that they feel at least good but probably fantastic the first few times they take it. And of course they do, it stimulates the release of dopamine, among other things, which is one of the primary reward chemicals the brain releases. Under non drug situations, the release of dopamine is associated with a change in the internal environment that is perceived as the occurrence of a conditioned stimulus. In learning theory, classical conditioning is the learning that occurs when a reward is closely paired in time with a stimuli that is benign (not innately rewarding). The result of this pairing is that the reward will be released when the stimuli is experienced. Pavlov uncovered this type of learning when he noticed that dogs began to salivate when they heard the sounds that preceded their daily feeding. Since the salivation occurred before the food was given, he realized that the reward was not required to trigger the behavior. The language around the entire thing can be slightly confusing but the conditioning process is real and the discovery shined a big light on what was going on in the brain. What was actually going on became less important than what the animal believed was going on – the raw sensory data mattered less than how the brain interpreted the raw sensory data.

My addiction to likes is a version of this that only differs in terms of the complexity of the perceptions – the unconscious meaning that I was putting on likes. Almost all of the learning happened unconsciously and without my awareness. I think I liked the feeling of social validation and approval although there was nothing intrinsically rewarding with seeing a thumbs up icon appear, or a larger and larger number appearing to the right of it. This was simply visual information. The heavy lifting was being done by unconscious thought processes that extracted / manufactured the meaning. The release of reward chemicals was also done unconsciously and based on the output of a process that interpreted the likes as social validation. None of this was anything that I was aware of as it was happening and it only became obvious months or years later when NOT getting the likes as quickly as I wanted them created a negative experience.

Again, NOT getting likes isn’t a thing that actually exists. However the brain is able to interpret the absence of something as a negative when it has learned to expect something positive. The lack of likes did not trigger the release of dopamine. Since my brain expected this reward, not getting it was experienced as a negative.

The big upside to “likes” addiction when compared to drug addiction is that you only experience the negative withdrawal symptoms when an anticipated reward is received. When I stopped posting, nothing changed other than the elimination of some rewards and some negative experiences when my posts were not received the way I was anticipating. I did not notice the times when I did not get rewarded and did not NOT get rewarded. This is very different from cocaine which is reported as one of the toughest drugs to withdraw from.

Understanding this process is important for a few reasons. When we introduce an exogenous chemical that triggers the release of reward chemicals, our body starts to down regulate the production of the impacted reward chemical because it tries to maintain homeostasis. With Cocaine and dopamine, each person has a natural level of dopamine inside the reward centers of their brain. When they take cocaine, the concentration of dopamine increases. Initially, this will feel great, but since the increase pushes levels above the upper threshold of what is natural, the body adapts by decreasing dopamine production to restore homeostasis. If, which isn’t usually the case, the person does not increase their cocaine consumption, their brain will find a level of dopamine production that reflects the normal level. They won’t feel high anymore, just normal. This is called tolerance and it is the manifestation of the brains attempt to keep things within a very specific level of operation. If the cocaine is stopped, the brains decreased dopamine production will result in a lower than normal level of dopamine which will be experienced as a negative by the person.

Dopamine and other naturally occurring reward chemicals are considered action creating or action promoting because they will motivate the person to take whatever action they have paired as the conditioned stimulus. In my case it was the quest for “likes” but in the case of a cocaine user it will be drug seeking and taking behavior. The reason why my quitting Facebook cold turkey did not cause me any withdrawal was because I hadn’t done anything to down regulate my natural dopamine production. My brain was operating as it naturally did. It manufactured the normal amount of dopamine and released it in response to the things it had been conditioned to release it to. The only tolerance that had occurred was the learned tolerance to the number, frequency and speed of “likes.” My brain was doing what it always was doing and that is to grow accustomed to rewards in so far as to grow the magnitude of the stimuli that was required to trigger the release of the dopamine.

This is different from chemical tolerance because my brain was still capable of manufacturing and releasing a normal quantity of dopamine. It just doesn’t do it in response to the same amount of stimuli as before. It is a type of behavioral tolerance or stimuli tolerance – it is completely perceptual and based off of brain activity. Chemical tolerance is the brain changing how it functions to reduce the amount of the dopamine that is manufactured. It has nothing to do with perception (mental activity) and is a completely biological response to changes in the physical internal environment.

The other reason why it is important to get a good understanding of the Pavlovian conditioning of reward activation to perception is that it reveals a lot about how human beings find themselves locked into acting in ways that do not objectively reflect their best interests. I am grateful that I set about trying to get likes only to find that there was a growing need for them in order to experience whatever positive outcome I was getting. Had I not journeyed down this path it might have taken me a lot longer to notice what was going on and, therefore, what had always been going on. It was just very easy to notice the changes in my response given the immediacy of things that happen on the Internet.

It is fair to say that my brain operates in more or less the same way as everyone else’s brain, which is more or less the same way that every brain has operated for millions of years. Not that pre-modern man thought about getting “likes,” just that they had a brain that would release reward chemicals in response to things that it wanted to repeat; in the same way a dog’s brain gets it to do the things that preceded a reward before. This is both exceptionally simple and remarkably powerful.

Much of its power comes from the fact that it is both unconscious and automatic and this renders us almost completely incapable of stopping it. The opposite is not true, we CAN consciously impact it – we have the ability to teach our brains that any benign or neutral stimuli is rewarding simply by rewarding / triggering a reward within close temporal proximity to the stimuli. In fact, given our power of perception and our ability to have conscious thought, there is almost NO limit to what we can condition our brains to believe is rewarding because the idea of future reward serves as a sufficient proxy for actual reward. We can learn to delay gratification almost indefinitely so long as our brain has sufficient experience with finally receiving a reward for something that it delayed.

There is a lot of talk about the marshmallow experiment that deals with delaying reward. The initial reports from the study seemed to reveal that children who were able to delay gratification at an early age were able to carry this ability with them into adulthood and, as a consequence, had better behavioral outcomes. Children at a particular age were given the choice of one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 5 minutes. Some of the children would just eat the marshmallow immediately while others would hold off for the larger reward later. Children in the second group were said to have the ability to delay gratification and were viewed to have better impulse control and they appeared to have fewer behavioral issues later in life. The narrative here makes sense, but subsequent studies reveal a more detailed picture that isn’t as cut and dry.

Children who were able to delay gratification could very easily be flipped into non-delayers if during the initial trial their waiting was not rewarded with the promised larger reward. This is an important finding because it complicates things dramatically. The researchers did not have control or complete knowledge of everything that happened before the study. While it might seem that some children were incapable of delaying gratification, it is possible that they had just learned that there is no such thing as delaying gratification based on their previous experience. If a reward is available now and a greater potential reward might be available later if they wait, experience has shown them that there never is a greater future reward, there is only a reward now or no reward at all.

The brain will reach a particular age that context will begin to factor into things meaning that a child of a particular age won’t be flipped into an immediate gratification seeker by a dishonest actor and will simply identify the dishonest actor as being someone who cannot be trusted. This means that there is an age / maturity threshold at which point the brain will be able to parse the context for specific information that will allow them to make a tight rule about who cannot be trusted vs. a general rule that no one can be trusted. It would not surprise me that, before this age, the dishonesty of a primary care giver would have a catastrophic effect on the long term trust strategies developed by a child.

All of this is said to explain that rewards are not a simple topic or that the rules that apply to dogs necessarily apply to humans. The larger the brain, the more complicated and robust the rules can be. And as an individual gains more experience and forms more long term memories, these rules can be shaped by things that are not real, have never happened, and are not even in the realm of possibility.

This is where Facebook and my quest for “likes” was given room to grow. Social acceptance is a thing that human beings are coded to identify and something that we likely find rewarding. The initial rewards may not be dopamine fueled, but it would stand to reason that they would be sooner or later. Once that happens, dopamine will be released in response to any form of perceived social validation coming from any perceived source. And after my brain got used to getting it, it would begin to need more and more of it in order to trigger the reward. This is why I started to dislike my time on Facebook and why I found getting off of it to be a positive. There was no withdrawal, just the creation of freedom as I no longer felt the drive to think up something profound to post in an attempt to harvest “likes.”

From what I gather, I am not alone in finding the potentially rewarding nature of Facebook likes to be more than a little disruptive to the day to day experience of being alive. Most of the social media sites have altered their business model to become attention capturing and holding over something else. People who are a lot smarter than me are working on the problem of how to keep people engaged with the sites / platform by stoking whatever emotional triggers serve to hold their attention most tightly. They don’t care about doing good or about helping people make the most of their time on the planet. They care about keeping users attention while generating as many clicks as possible. Social validation, outrage, humor, in-group / out-group thinking, etc….. it doesn’t matter. The attention of potential users is what is critical because this is what they will use to generate money.

I don’t blame Facebook or other social media platforms. It isn’t their fault they have figured out that third party companies will pay them a lot of money if users remain connected to the platform. And it isn’t their fault that they have figured out the way that peoples brains work and are using it to generate a lot of money. I’m kind of grateful actually. As much as it might seem like it was a big waste of time, I wouldn’t have taken the time to figure out what I was doing or why I was feeling the way I was had I not had the opportunity to do those things and feel that way. Facebook actually helped me wake-up to what was going on in my brain by forcing me to ask some very important questions.

Why do I do what I do? Well I don’t know, but at least some of the time I know it is for the dopamine. The rest of it, maybe because it makes me angry or outraged, maybe because it once got me something I thought I liked, and maybe because I’m not all that different from the rest of the living beings on the planet and do what I have done before and just normalized.

I have no idea what role Facebook and other social media platforms will play in my future but I’m pretty certain that I’m going to have a better idea of how they are trying to get me to do it. And I think that is actually a lot more fun and interesting than anything else. Knowing and accepting that I am the product and the fuel in their business model gives me a lot more control of how mindfully I engage it, and in setting the limits of what I’m willing to do and for how long.

The Battle For Winterfell – Cost Vs. Losses

Watching episode 3 of the final season of Game Of Thrones was a mixed experience. The battle has seemed inevitable for the last few season and the series has built the tension up dramatically over the last six or so episodes. I’m not going to spoil it other than to say that the battle happened at night and during a snow storm of sorts. Who won? It doesn’t matter for the purposes of this article.

The show in general is a visual masterpiece. It is filmed in a number of different locations and doesn’t rely too heavily on CGI to generate spectacular scenes. Green screen is used a lot and there are some CGI / post production components but the producers make use of reality as much as possible in terms of make-up, costumes, and real buildings. When I think back on some of the episodes and what they brought to the screen it really is breathtaking. Top marks needed to be given for the quality of what appeared on the TV screen week after week.

That was not the case on Sunday and I noticed my mind drifting off onto the experience of watching as opposed to being lost in what I was seeing. This was annoying to me, given the build-up of the battle that was being depicted on screen. The show took a full year off to film, edit, produce, and do whatever was required to make sure it was exceptional. This was evident in the first two episodes of the season and for portions of this one, but once the call to arms was sounded, the waiting to ensure the high quality seemed to have been pointless.

From a story-line perspective, it was decent, and held-up. The action was fantastic, the tension arc was outstanding and even though it is a show that has dragons and the ability for dead people to be reanimated like zombies, there wasn’t anything about the story that was too over the top that broke the spell or forced the viewer to suspend reality past the boundaries of what I was willing to do.

The problem I had with it was just how difficult it was to see. It was really dark. It was as though it was a battle that was occurring at night – which it was – during a snow storm – which it was – before they had invented electrical light – which it was – and the only source of illumination was fire – which it was. It was very authentic, and that is what is what made it really hard to watch.

When I say hard to watch, I don’t mean hard in an emotional way – like it was making me sad or angry. I mean hard in an energetic way. It was draining to watch because the normally super crisp details and HD clarity wasn’t there. While it was clear that people were fighting, it wasn’t clear who those people were or what the outcome was. The exceptions to this were when key characters got killed or did some killing. As I write that, I suppose that I should have used that as a tell that something important was about to happen. Oh well, maybe I’ll rely on that the next time I watch something that is only marginally brighter than dark.

The experience was not uninteresting. Even though the show was missing a lot of what makes it great and very easy to watch, the difficulty I was having in seeing what was happening on the screen served as a strong contrast to the normal viewing experience. I found that I began to care less about what was going on and started to become critical of the premise of the show. It wasn’t that I wanted any or all of the key characters to die, it was closer to not caring about the outcome one way or the other. One side is going to have to win and the sooner they did the sooner this visual black hole would end. The premise that I have always been willing to accept as just a part of the show started to receive the brunt of my critical internal dialogue. Dragons do not exist so their abilities are not constrained to any historical or factual set of rules or guidelines. But my skepticism was building about them and their imaginary powers. They breathe fire when they exhale but somehow they are able to exhale for a long time, even when they had been flying all over the places and should be breathing really hard? Their fire wasn’t just flame, it was like spraying napalm that continued to burn for a long time afterwards. How can they have an unlimited supply of that?

I didn’t get critical all at once, it was a slow build. Initially I just wished that thing were brighter, then I wanted to see things better, and then the frustration arrived and grew. On the screen was the unfolding of an epic battle that had been festering for 7 seasons and in my head was an annoyance that was growing with each passing minute of almost invisible action.

At around 30 minutes in, the amount of energy I was spending trying to see and figure out what was going on hit the “too much to bother” level and I disengaged.

What’s interesting about it, is the finding that people have better recall of text that is harder to read than they do text that is visually highly contrasted and very crisp on the page. Ease is a problem when it comes to short term memory and the tougher things get, the better our recall tends to be. I would imagine that there is a level of difficulty that represents the upper threshold of what people are willing to tolerate when it comes to working their way through difficult text, and that this level is related to the incentive the person has for putting in the work. I have no doubt that if I was going to be tested on what happened during the episode and that there was something on the line, if knowing would actually matter, that I would have been able to keep at it for longer. But there wasn’t any incentive for me to keep doing the work. In fact, the effort that was required actually served as a disincentive to keep manufacturing whatever meaning I had created that allowed me to remain interested. It is entirely possible that watching it was so draining that there was no energy left over to do the mental work that is needed for the suspension of disbelief.

This is a common enough occurrence. People who are highly engaged are willing and able to continue to work hard towards an impossible goal but only as long as they are able to maintain their belief that it is possible. The moment reality breaks through, they view their efforts for what they are and they check out. The process is very much like the experience I had. The amount of effort that is required to sustain the belief increases in a relative sense – either because it requires more units or because fewer units are available to do it because they are being siphoned off and directed onto something else. Once the relative effort hits a certain level the foundation begins to fall apart and the weight of the belief causes it to collapse leaving reality to stand uncontested.

Human beings are programmed to understand what they are experiencing, and are more than willing to take some very big steps to construct a coherent narrative interpretation of what is going on. Entertainment relies on this quality. Without it watching a play or reading anything other than nonfiction would be a waste of time because we would only be capable of perceiving what was going on as being fake. The context in which we are viewing the make-believe stuff serves to prime our brain with the information that makes watching or reading possible. There is a piece of us that is completely aware that it is a play or a work of fiction, but the volume of that part is dialed down allowing us to get lost in what we are experiencing. It isn’t that we do not know that it is fantasy, it is that the part of us that cares is being actively suppressed.

Being aware of reality is a natural operation while ignoring it is not; this is almost a paradoxical situation in that it costs more energy to suppress reality than it does to accept it. The consequence to this fact is that we will only suppress reality when there is an incentive to do so. In this case, the incentive is reward chemicals that are released in response to the thoughts or the type of thinking that only flow when reality is suspended. It only works when we get something out of it and when what we get out of it is much greater than the cost of what we have to put into it.

Imagine that it takes 20 mental units of energy to suspend reality. However, the chemical reward that this can lead to is worth the equivalent of 50 units of energy. This is a positive experience and is therefore something that the brain will be more inclined to perform in the future. After enough of these experiences, the brain will have learned that suspending reality is always worth the initial cost because of the magnitude of the reward. This is why consuming fantasy literature or entertainment is a learned experience; it is available to everyone who has a brain that releases reward chemicals in response to the changes in thinking that suspension of reality facilitates AND who have enough experiences of the pairing of the stimulus and the response. If anything is missing the person will remain fixated on reality and will never have a reason to transcend into the realm of fantasy entertainment.

However, for those who have learned to find the experience rewarding, it is not without its limits. There is a cost associated with generating the reward, and the cost must be paid before the reward is released. Human beings have a propensity to be more loss adverse than they are reward seeking, and this creates an interesting phenomena in terms of sensation and perception. The ratio of loss to gain is one : two meaning that a loss of one unit is equal to a gain of two units. This is the general break-even point marking the boundary between when someone will do something that takes effort because the gain is worth it and when they will not take an action because the gain is not worth it. For example, we’ll put in 50 units of effort to get 110 units of reward, but we will not put in 50 units of effort to get 90 units of reward. The math is fairly straightforward although the timing of the rewards does not necessarily need to be immediate once the learning has taken place. If we were to get 50 reward units now and get another 100 units later, so long as we believed that the 100 units later were the result of spending 50 units now, we would have no difficulty perceiving this situation as a win and making the effort. This delaying of gratification is also a learned skill so the notion of investing effort for future reward is something that tends to come into play a little later in life.

The 2:1 ration is a perceptual thing in that it is the threshold that separates costs from losses. It is of big narrative significance because it alters the meaning we give to work / effort / actions. As long as the reward at least 2 times greater than the amount of energy we have to put in, we view the effort as a cost. Since things of value have a cost, we are accustomed to paying a price for things. The lower that price is relative to the value we get out of them the better; and it is not uncommon for something that is priced too low to be viewed as less valuable than it is. This means that we do not necessarily want the things that are handed to us and that we are actually more inclined to want something more when its price is slightly inflated. There is a sweet spot or range within which we are willing to work at varying degrees to get the value of something. Above it we perceive it as worthless and below it we view the effort we need to put in as a loss.

The lower threshold is about 1:2 in terms of effort to reward. There is some variability at the exact point, but narratively it can be defined as the point at which the cost of something is experienced as a loss. It’s an entirely relative thing but that does not change the dynamics at all. All things being equal, if the reward increases the cost can increase by a factor of 0.5. If the reward decreases, the cost will need to drop by a factor of 2. If the cost increases, the reward will need to increase by a factor of 2 and if it decreases, the reward can drop by a factor of 0.5. When one of these things does not occur AND when the ratio of cost to reward drops below 1:2, the costs become losses and the transaction will no longer be viewed as favorable. There is a small margin in terms of the time it will take before the brain makes the decision to abandon the transaction but the window is very small and dependent upon the size of the ratio – 1.1:2 will be tolerated for longer than 1.2:2 and a 3:1 ration might result in an immediate end to their participation in the behavioral transaction.

Past experience will pay a role in someone’s interpretation of reward and in their willingness to delay gratification. Those who have a longer track record of positive transactional ratios or who have a number of experiences that support the notion of delayed gratification will remain engaged for longer than someone who has little or no experience with either one of these elements; both generally, but more specifically with reference to the context of the current situation. However, most people will reach a breaking point eventually and once it has been crossed, the transaction ends and will only be reactivated when the ratio improves again to move the outcome from loss to cost.

This is what was at play for me while I watched this episode of Game Of Thrones. I have been more than willing to put the energy into suspending reality given how I have learned that doing so can lead to immediate and future rewards – consuming fiction has been rewarding and I have gotten a lot out of watching this series. Up until about 9:20 pm the ratio had been favorable and I had not minded putting in whatever effort was needed to keep me watching because the reward had been predictable and large enough to consider this effort a cost. However, the ratio dropped below the critical threshold which threw the costs / losses switch in my head. I very quickly burned through whatever good will that had been built-up and my brain was no longer willing to waste the effort that was needed to suspend reality or figure out what was happening on the screen. And that was it, the spell was broken and I instantly became aware that I was watching a TV show about make believe stuff that cannot and will not ever happen. The laws of physics flowed in and altered my perception of what I was able to see on the screen so I stopped. It suddenly became kind of silly, far-fetched, and unimportant.

The episodes director, Fabian Wagner, doesn’t believe that there was a problem. He suggested that the lighting was by design and used as a way to aid in the story telling. Everything that was important was visible, even if it was a little tougher to see than normal. He made some other comments about it that aren’t helpful. Suffice it to say, what was broadcast WAS what we were supposed to see. A collection of people took a look at the final product and approved it for distribution. I’m not a film maker and am only a fly by night fan of the show and not likely the person they were targeting with this episode. I am a lot less engaged than a diehard fan and may lack the specific commitment to put in the effort that was required to manufacture the information low picture quality failed to supply. True fans probably did the work and remain lost in the battle of until it was won.

Responding To Criticism – Post Revisited

About seven years ago I published a post title Responding To Criticism. It outlined a more pragmatic way to handle criticism that can shift / reverse the negative emotional valence reaction and allow you to make take the most out of the interaction regardless of the validity of what is said or the intentions of the person who is giving it to you. Basically, you treat the interaction as if it is a part of an improv act and employ the “yes, and” strategy. You simply just assume that the criticism is valid and take some time to figure-out what the consequences are.

At the time I suggested that you remain quiet and approach it as though it is an introspective exercise. There should be some later processing to factor in who the person is that offered the criticism because the motives of other people can be much more revealing than the actual words they are using. The key is to accept whatever it is that the person says as being a possible truth and to allow it to exist without judgment. This is tough to do when we feel that someone has just criticized us given that negative value judgments tend to trigger emotional reactions that hinder objectivity.

I maintain the view that we should accept whatever is said as being the truth and remain as open and non-reactive as we can to ensure that we are able to extract as much value from the statement as possible. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we unconditionally accept it as the truth, just that we accept it as true for the initial run at it. This is how improv operates, there is a single thread that runs from beginning to end as each player takes their turn reacting and responding until time runs out, the audience is laughing, or a natural end point is reached. Unlike improv, once our introspection reaches an end, we return to the beginning and reprocess the subject factoring in context – who the person is, what their motives are, how they would gain from having the criticism accepted and acted on, etc…. This is much closer to dialectical analysis because it allows for the consideration of much more of the picture than simply just the words.

Frankly, in the moment you cannot care much about the person who has shelled out the criticism because having feelings towards them one way or the other will bias your initial interpretation of what they said. As such, you have to try things on from both sides – like you care about them and are more willing to assume that they are telling you the truth OR like you don’t care about them and are more willing to assume that they are lying to you. The best option is to assuming each, one after the other, in order to arrive at a more complete picture of things.

You’re probably going to keep this process to yourself and not ask them to be a part of it. They’ll say their piece and you’ll go through the pros / cons of it being true and then the pros / cons as being the statement made by someone in the present context. However, you may want to get the other persons involvement. Doing so is a little risky in so far as it can be interpreted as being confrontational and if done carelessly it can prevent future feedback from a well meaning person.

In this case, the “yes and” part of it is done out loud. As opposed to doing the introspection and analysis yourself, you push the responsibility of much of this onto the other person. By asking them to explain the consequences of your behavior, you might be able to find out why your action / behavior is problematic, how it makes them feel, and to uncover the distance between your intention and the actual outcome. There is also a chance that they will be able to suggest an alternative that might lead you to the outcome you are seeking. Regardless, how the person addresses you will indicate a lot about their state of mind and might just reveal their actual intention / motives for saying something in the first place. The rule of thumb is that people are either trying to help or trying to hurt and their follow-up answers will be aligned with their intention.

No matter what they say, you will have to take some time to process all of it from both sides of the coin in order to extract the maximum benefit from the interaction. The positive outcome is clear when the person is acting with good intentions – they what the best for us and are providing a portion of the road map towards achieving that. In the case of a person who is being critical because it serves their ends, the introspection that is fueled by the dialectical analysis will bring up a lot of very useful information – who to trust and why or why not, the nature of this persons relationship with the world and with facts, the nature of how they operate in terms of manipulating you into feeling or doing something, and, most importantly, what they view as bad in so far as most people do not criticize others for things they themselves view as positive.

The good, the bad, the ugly and the UGLY. How you engage the other person in response to criticism will go a long way in determining what you get out of them. With those who are making an earnest attempt to help, you will get the good stuff out of them by employing either the good or the bad approach, but will likely alienate them with the ugly, or when the bad approach is used exclusively. Those who wish you harm will offer up more useful information when the bad approach is used and less with the good approach. When the ugly approach is used, they will shutdown or attack. The quickest way to find out someones intentions is to use the ugly approach; but this comes at the cost of the potential alienation of those who care about us and a toxic interaction with those who wish us harm.

The good approach will have you ask probing questions to uncover what the person heard you say and how that made them feel. You are approaching the other person with an open mind and a sincere willingness to understand how your action made them feel, how it was interpreted and what the consequences or likely outcome will be. It is granular, very specific and absent of any judgment. Everything is fine and after this interaction, the future will be better. You are taking the responsibility for guiding the conversation, something that will become more clear when you read the bad and the ugly, but in general they will not feel any resistance and your curiosity will prevent any defensiveness.

The bad approach will have you ask a flat question that is very much the same as “yes, and?” This is more like improv in that it is assumed that each person has an obligation to take a turn and contribute to the conversation / interaction. Whereas you were asking them specific questions with the good approach, which removed any sense of obligation, the bad approach is more forceful. You are agreeing with the person by saying “yes” but are then asking them to explain the consequences of that truth. This is much more abrupt and it instantly forces them to think about the interaction in terms of possible outcomes. Someone who is offering genuine feedback will already have done this to some extent and while they may become slightly defensive by your direct ask, the information you are seeking will be readily available. Those who are throwing bombs, or are have been emotionally triggered into criticizing you, will not have this information available to them because they will not have spent any time thinking about it before they speak.

The ugly approach will have you ask something to the effect of “so what?” This triggers defensiveness in almost everyone who hears it because it is empty of curiosity and is completely void of the collaborative agreement that are innate traits of the good and the bad. It also has hints of a dominance hierarchy in that they are being forced to present a justification for their criticism / feedback for consideration. The dynamic is set up in such a way that you get to be a decider and vet the legitimacy of their rationale. It has a linguistic / conversational structure that is establishes inequality or validates that the interaction is not between two equals; this is the primary characteristic of contempt.

The ugly has a long lasting quality that the good and bad do not have. It creates a negative emotional experience in most people. This serves as a punishment in a psychological sense – it suppresses the actions that preceded it along with creating the pairing of negativity with the person, serving as a disincentive to spending time with the person in the future in any context. An honest player might engage the person once or twice because they are genuinely trying to be helpful but they will quickly learn that it isn’t worth it. A dishonest player won’t care because their objective was to do harm and the ugly response serves as proof that they were successful. Those who rely on this approach will quickly find themselves surrounded by people who do not care about them, do not try to help them and will say and do whatever is required to end the interaction as quickly as possible.

The UGLY approach is any reaction that can be considered to mean “you would say that” or “I don’t care.” It is the outright dismissal of the other person and not just their opinion. Regardless of the intentions of the person who offered feedback / criticism, the reaction will be negative. The relationship with a positive operator will be permanently damaged; they may not say anything to indicate that harm has been done but things will never be the same again. The reaction from someone who is setting out to do harm is very likely to be hostile. This slight will be noticed and will serve to fuel the escalation of their animosity. An UGLY response will eliminate the possibility of harvesting anything good or useful from the interaction because it will stop it dead in its tracks.

It is fair to say that the difference between feedback and criticism is determined by the intention of the person who is offering it. Those who are trying to help are giving feedback while those who are trying to harm are given criticism. However, the intent to do harm does not necessarily mean that you will be harmed or even that you cannot benefit from the other persons efforts. When you assume that everything is feedback and offered-up with the goal of improving your future actions, on the initial pass, you will be able to extract a lot of potentially useful information. You are not on your own here and can engage the other person in this endeavor. Depending on how you set about extracting this information, you have a lot of control on both the amount of information they reveal and the context from which it is coming. Bad actors can be revealed quickly, and their efforts to do harm do not need to be successful.

Of course, when you assume only nefarious motivations you will miss out on the positive intentions of the good and will never have access to the possible benefits of listening and hearing what the unsavory players have to say.

Truth vs. Happiness – Most Want Happiness

Regardless of how I feel about what I have written since I started newstasis.com one thing has become clear, some of it lands on as negative or bitter so therefore it is negative and bitter.

I accept these interpretations. While I believe that I am not a negative or bitter person, I do see the negative of my choices and can very easily see the negative of a lot of situations. I speak from my experiences within the fitness industry, the experiences I have had, the conversations I have engaged in, and the things I have seen. The fitness field is an industry with a success rate of about 20% or less for people who engage professionals for needed help, the turn over rate for fitness professionals is more than 50% over a three year period, and the churn rate for new participants is close to 70%. Summed up, very few people benefit from the existence of the industry, most of the people who stick with it are lifers (those who’d be doing the stuff anyway) or people who will die early if they DON’T stick with it, and many of the best (in my opinion) fitness professionals leave the industry after only a few years.

I’m entitled to my own opinion and in this case, it matches the facts – most people who are involved in the fitness industry achieve a very small level of success that lasts for a short period of time.

Admittedly, I have more control over myself than I do anyone else, and when I am working as a fitness professional I try to do the best work I am capable of. Part of doing the good work is to try and stop people from hurting themselves BEFORE I try to help them because preventing someone from hurting themselves is a form of help. All things being equal, I will dig in deep about why someone wants to get into better shape and will often try to talk them out of it.

Here’s the thing, trying and failing makes failing again in the future more likely. If someone isn’t ready, they shouldn’t bother. There is a lot of evidence created when we set out to do something and end-up not doing it and this evidence goes a long way to evolve our identity. This is not to say that I will tell someone not to work out, I encourage people to move more, to enjoy the feelings of hard work, and to maybe learn to love the sense of accomplishment at the end of a challenging workout. I might even invite them to notice the feelings of connection with the other people in a fitness class and how all of these things make life more enjoyable. Each of those things is true and are sources of happiness, and are worthwhile if for no other reason as they are fun and make life a little better.

But that is about as far as I go with it. The fitness industry is a self-help industry and most people won’t help themselves for long enough or hard enough to transform their bodies, and that is fine. Having the body of my dreams wasn’t nearly as rewarding as being able to do 12 pull-ups or riding my bike up the Niagara escarpment 10 times in a day. In fact, having abs was something to not have anymore, and that created pressure, boosted my narcissism and made me fearful of certain foods. Don’t get me wrong, I like looking fit, but I LOVE feeling great and doing fun and challenging things. Time will take a toll on my appearance, the toll it takes on my ability to do things is more or less determined by me.

I don’t even encourage people to stop smoking anymore. Smoking isn’t healthful or alivening, but neither is unsolicited advice or coaching / requests to do something that you don’t want to do or stop something that you want to keep doing. Everyone stops smoking eventually and they’ll stop when they are ready or when they die. Until then a smoker should enjoy their cigarettes completely because if you’re going to do something harmful you bloody well better enjoy it.

What does all of this mean?

There is a time and a place for the truth and that time isn’t always and that place isn’t everywhere. I try to write as honestly as I can and if someone happens to interpret that as negative, then my words were negative and I am therefore negative. If they choose to not read them again, that’s a fair choice for them to make and I support them in it.

I write knowing that some people would rather feel good and be happy than engage the negative in an attempt to deal with what is. Again, I support people in the decisions and am equally grateful to be part of the choice, even if that choice is to not read or listen to my words.

I KNOW how to use language to create a powerful impetus for change – just take one of my classes and you’ll notice just how much harder you work there than most places on earth – and that is what I have been doing with my blog. I could just as easily state that working for free benefits business owners a lot more than the person who is giving their time away and leave it up to the reader to draw the conclusion that when you give away your time, you are proving that your time has no value, but that leaves too much unsaid or open to misinterpretation. Instead I said unpaid internships are a scourge and hurt everyone; even those who get the free labor.

My dad once said that it is too bad that I couldn’t work for other people because getting a job with a corporation is a great way to do a lot of cool things while having someone else take on the majority of the risk. I agreed with the second point but wasn’t sure I understood him saying that I couldn’t work for other people. When I asked him about this he said: “You can be fantastic and you can be awful, but you are never in the middle, which is the realm of working for other people. You have a way of engaging the world that is interesting to those around you and will bring them along for the ride as certain as you are about the right way forward. And the moment someone disagrees with you and prevents you from taking the righteous action you know is correct you become awful.” At the time I wasn’t sure how to take it but I warmed up to the essence of what he was saying. He was at least 90% correct at the time.

As I have gotten older, there has been a shift in my approach. I am certain I am right about fewer things, but I am absolutely certain about the things that I am right about. Experience, education, and curiosity do this to a person if they are open to the lessons and willing to be wrong in order to one day be right.

In all of it though, I remain intolerant to dishonesty. This is why my feelings about the fitness industry seem to be unchanging. It remains an industry in which opinion is presented as fact, science takes a back page to gurufication, and hope is weaponized to harvest fresh souls. But my absolute contempt of dishonesty applies to all areas of my life. While I have grown less inclined to prove someone to be a liar and to fight with someone who is playing fast and loose with the facts, I notice when people are not being truthful either through deliberate attempt to deceive or through an act of willful ignorance / motivated reasoning. They are flagged in my mind as being dishonest, self interested, or too lazy to put in the effort to see reality in a way that doesn’t serve their interests. I’m content with leaving them alone and allowing them their chance at happiness because when someone is that motivated to maintain their fiction or that resistant to the truth they probably don’t have much else going for them.

Of course, they’ll be left alone only when their lack of honesty is harmful to only them. The moment it begins to contribute to the suffering of other people is the moment I begin to track in on their intention and their reasons for avoiding the truth.

How I Have Been Wrong – Post Revisited

About five years ago I wrote the post How I Have Been Wrong to cover some of the mistakes that I had made up until that point during my time in the fitness industry.

The 5 mistakes I admitted to were:

  • Believing that nutrition is more important than food.
  • Believing that the program is more important than consistency.
  • Believing that by creating an emotional response a transformation has occurred.
  • Believing that EVERYONE should workout and become more healthy.
  • Believing that what gurus said was more useful than what I knew.

I can confidently say that I did not make those mistakes again, which is a good thing, so I have decided to take another run at the same topic to cover some of the other mistakes that I have made. This list has less to do with the fitness industry specifically, although some of the lessons could be applied to it, and you may notice that some of the items were actually the fuel for realizations outlined in the first list. I’m also going to alter the way I present the mistake by stating the lesson first and then unpacking the error. The list is by no means complete and will be added to in future posts.

Most of our thinking is unconscious. The brain is always active even when we are not doing much. Whether it be the passive assessment of sensory information for signs of threat, the reprocessing and consolidation of memories / experience, the interrogation of memories in order to reveal patterns or connections, the triggering of mental processes that help the brain make sense of the world along with the reprocessing of the output of these processes, the control of thousands of physiological processes, or the moment to moment adjustment of biological functioning required to maintain homeostasis in order to maintain vitality and life, the brain is always busy doing something. We have very little awareness of these things and are generally only aware that they exist as a consequence of their output or when they don’t work the way they are supposed to. At best we can only influence the input that the brain receives in terms of content and volume by directing our attention in varying degrees to specific things in the physical or mental environment, and be aware of the output of whatever processes yield information that can be moved into consciousness. For example, when asked what two plus two is we become aware of the answer but we have no awareness of what is involved with generating that answer.

We should always keep in mind that consciousness is another one of these automatic and unconscious process for which we only have access to its output. This is a big one because it doesn’t seem to make much sense given that we are conscious. But take a moment to consider the experience of being awake and alert and try to determine why you are not aware of something that you know but are not thinking about. What comes to mind is not everything that you have ever experienced. It is in fact only a tiny portion of what you know and not necessarily the most useful part of it. In order to bring to mind more information, we need to spend more time thinking about a subject. And on two different days, our initial thoughts about a subject might surface two completely different things. Sure, both things will pop up if we spend 20 seconds thinking about it but for some reason what appears in consciousness is not consistent. Something big is going on under the hood that is determine what comes to mind and we have almost no access to the inner workings of these processes.

Human beings are meaning making machines. We need coherency and order and are more than willing to make things up just to ensure that we have these things. Facts are less important than narrative consistency and we will ignore them when they are in conflict with our existing world view to ensure that we remain “right.” The reason we do this is to conserve the mental energy associated with maintaining open loops. This is a survival practice that allows us to close off experiences and move forward having more complete access to our cognitive capacity. It is safer to be wrong and energized than it is to be unsure and drained. Uncertainty is exhausting, so a false certainty, while not accurate, was actually a safer bet in terms of survival in our ancestral past. It isn’t an ideal trait for living in the modern world but it’s deeply coded into our operating system and requires deliberate effort to suppress.

Human beings automatically answer every question they hear. What is remarkable is our ability to come-up with answers to questions we cannot possibly know the solution to. This happens because our default course of action is to solve problems quickly so we can go back to burning as little energy as possible. Most of our answers will be centered on addressing “why” something occurred in an effort to gain the illusion of control in the future. Cause and effect relationships between stimulus and response are understood to be an essential part of the universe, so we gravitate towards uncovering / making-up these types of things. When we do not have any specific information, we will make-up whatever is required or generalize based on binary pairings that are of the “us” vs “them” flavor.

The longer we believe something or the longer a belief goes unquestioned, the more confident we become in its truth or factual nature. The reason for this have to do with the organic nature of the brain. Memories and mental processes are stored in neural networks – rich interconnected collections of brain cells. It is tissue that is made-up from the food we eat and has been laid down in response to the sensory and mental stimulation the brain has been subjected to. The structure of these networks is completely dependent upon the stimulation meaning that it will only be impacted by what happens. Given that most of the mental functioning exists below the level of conscious awareness, we have no idea about the true amount of stimulation that occurs, all we can know is what we were aware of.

However, what we pay attention to will shape what happens afterwards and the more we pay attention, the greater the impact on the cellular structure. By focusing very intensely on something, we dramatically increase the impact on the brain because it saturates the sensory input buffers with data / information of a particular type, which will result in a greater stimulation and force a higher level of adaptation.

This is not an innately dialectical process. What goes in is what gets processed and assimilated. The brain doesn’t spontaneously set about trying to figure out if it is correct or not. In fact, correctness, truth, and rightness are not even things that the brain is in a good position to understand let alone seek out. It deals with “what is” and more specifically, taking its experienced “what is” and making an internal representation of it so it can be better equipped to make predictions in the future. It has no relationship or coding for something that isn’t experienced – the neural networks that make error identification possible will only exist if the brain has had sufficient experience with the subject matter. It cannot interrogate perceptions against information it doesn’t have, and since the information is not there, the brain just moves forward with what is has.

This is the reason why errors MUST be identified as quickly as possible to ensure that the error is not rehearsed into long term memory. Once the tissue has been laid down to code for the error, it’s going to be much more difficult to correct it. And the longer the organic tissue resides in the brain, the more sticky the information it codes for becomes.

Consciousness is the last thing to deal with what has just happened. Reality is objective in so far as the physical material of the universe exists and is moving in a particular direction. Subjective reality does not exist in the same sense physically. In fact, what each one of us is aware of is just the output of a reality simulation that is running in our brains. This simulation is based on a stew of sensory data, long term memories, perception, and thousands of other unconscious mental processes that come together to serve up consciousness from moment to moment. For example, the thing we look at and experience as a tree is something that is out there, but the “treeness” of it is only something that exists in the brain of the person who is looking at or touching it. This is to say that we do not experience the tree directly, we experience mental activity that is interpreted consciously as tree. This conscious awareness is just the final step in the entire process and there is a lag of between 100ms and 500ms between the sensory data that trigger the sensory cells and our experience of that triggering.

Most people are completely enamored with their perception of their own brilliance. Obviously, given that we manufacture a meaning that is coherent and void of any innate error correction. What goes in and is stored is not viewed through a lens of probability of being correct, it is just brought in, processed, and stored as an internal representation of the external world. Since we cannot process what isn’t there, there isn’t ever a reason for us to actually believe that we are not completely correct, at least not an automatic or spontaneous reason to believe it. This leads us to have a growing level of certainty about almost everything that we have any experience with. Since there is no process for review, we move forward knowing we are correct and much better than other people at most things.

The reality is a lot more average than that. We might have some skills or talents in a particular area, so maybe a brilliance of a particular flavor in one or two things. We might be good at a few others that we have worked at. At everything else, we are at best average at but given the nature of statistics, we are probably below average at most things. Even being average at something isn’t actually all that good. Based on the distribution of skills, someone who is at the mean level of capability might only have between two and ten percent of the abilities of the most capable person. It’s understandable why we believe we are brilliant but we aren’t and should probably stop pretending so we can actually get better at things.

Learning new things is simple, but it is very hard work. Since all learning is the physical adaption to stimulation – the laying down of tissue – it takes time and effort. Organic material can only be generated at a finite pace, so regardless of our desire to learn quickly, it can only occur as quickly as biology will allow. About the only thing we can do to speed it up is to maximize the input of sensory data by working hard and paying very close attention to what we are determined to learn. This process will reduce the length of time needed to learn something but it will require a lot of mental energy and it will have a negative impact on our ability to do other things.

Direct physical experience is more important than anything else when it comes to surfacing talent and developing skills. Aside from maximizing the speed of brain growth in order to hard-wire a new skill, direct physical experience is required to trigger gene expression, which is ultimately the reason why some people have talent in a specific area while most others do not. Without direct physical experience, the genes will remain dormant and our potential will never be actualized. The biggest opportunity for human beings here is based on the fact that we seem to have way more genetic code than we are currently using. The stuff isn’t all useless as has previously been suggested. Much of it codes for traits that were previously helpful and are no longer needed to serve a survival function in modern life. But the traits are still in there because they were hard earned and helpful in determining evolutionary fitness.

Human beings have no idea why they are thinking what they are thinking in spite of their certainty that they know why. All of our explanation are post hoc and are based on what has happened as opposed to what is happening. It may not make a lot of sense to look at the world in these terms, but by not doing so we remain convinced that we know our motivations for doing things and that our conscious experience of reality is a reflection of what is actually going on. Neither of these things is true, and there is a growing body of evidence that indicate this fact. Functional MRI studies show that the decision making parts of the brain peak in activity level before the subject is conscious of the decision they have made – they will actually believe that they are making the decision after the brain has already made the decision because this is what it feels like. Given the need for a coherent meaning and understanding of the world, it is not surprising that people resist accepting the reality of what is actually going on and will instead choose to believe that their consciousness is in the driver’s seat.

Almost everything we say and think is unimportant, not helpful and serves only to distract us from the fundamental truth about life. Working backwards, the fundamental truth that people are resisting is that life is hard and it is finite. We’re all going to die and before we do, we will struggle through almost every day having to do a bunch of different things to help sustain life. No matter how satisfied we are in the moment, it will pass and we will become unsatisfied again forcing us to do more work. No one likes this fact, and most of us resist even considering it by remaining distracted by anything that will hold our attention. The end result is that we talk more than we should, about things that don’t matter, are not helpful, or cause others pain and suffering. But it feels like it matters and it feels better than the experience of reality in our own minds when we are forced to not be distracted and to actually allow life to be what it is.

If you are not sure about this, take some time to consider, on the fly as it is happening, what you are talking about in terms of it being important and helpful. You’ll very quickly notice the trend towards back biting and engaging in useless speak. Now perform the same inventory on your internal dialogue and notice how so much of it is the very boring play by play announcements or the musings of a psychopath who doesn’t have your best interests are heart and seems hell bent of ignoring reality almost completely by focusing on the very limited perspective made possibly by having a seat in the theater of your mind.

So there are a few things that I have been wrong about. There is a lot more, but I’m going to need some time to process what I have just written down and to notice the output of that processing. Maybe I should be a little less hard on myself and phased it as things I wasn’t getting right or didn’t realize but this seems like trying to put a nice spin on things. It doesn’t really matter when all is said and done. History is what it is and since my brain works hard to create a meaning that is coherent I have no doubt that I’ve already stopped feeling bad about not knowing that I didn’t know something and begun to lay down the tissue that will help me make better decisions in the future.

Mice Adapting To Being In Space

In 2014, SpaceX launched a resupply mission to the International Space Station that included mice. They were placed into the Rodent Research Hardware System with the objective to study how they adapted to micro gravity and life in space. The video below contains some footage.

Although the video has a lot of cuts and is missing practically everything, it does look like some of the mice are having fun.

What is striking is just how quickly they adjust their movements to accommodate the near weightless environment. They groom, eat, play and move around, as mice do on earth. When you look closely, you can see that they use their toes to grip the bars of the cage to remain in place and to stop themselves from floating away. You can also see how their movements become more refined during the time covered in the video – the “swimming” type movements of their rear legs that are visible during the first few days are almost completely gone after 10 days.

This is something that human beings also experience during the initial periods of weightlessness as their brains struggle to get a handle on what is happening and to learn how to move around without the benefit of friction. The movements are useless though as they do not do anything other than waste energy and increase the risk of injury to oneself and others. But after a few days, the brain figures it out and learns how to move effectively using the least amount of energy possible. It is remarkable just how quickly the brain figures this out and adjusts to the micro gravity environment of the ISS.

The amount of room that they mice have is dramatically larger than that which is available to their human counter parts have. While the internal volume of the ISS is massive at just over 32000 square feet contained within 16 modules, none of the modules contain wide open space like the mice get to enjoy. Getting wide open pressurized spaces into orbit is expensive and since there is no justifiable science reason to do it, they haven’t done it.

With the exception of Sky Lab, the first US space station, human beings have never really had much room to move around while in space. This mission was launched in 1973 and the habitable section was contained in a refitted third stage of a Saturn 5 rocket. It was basically a pipe that had a 22 foot diameter. It was 85′ long and was broken up into two rooms. This gave the astronauts 10000 sq feet of space to work, live and float around it.

It’s remarkable watching this second video because it is more or less the same as the mouse video – living beings getting used to micro gravity and then enjoying the experience that the improved ease of movement affords them. I have no doubt that it is what I would do if I was up there and it’s probably what almost everyone else would do.

Our brain, and the mouse brain for that matter, is remarkable in its ability to quickly adapt to whatever it is forced to deal with. In the case of zero G, the experience is completely sensory in so far as the internal narrative will not alter the meaning of the sensory information. There is no gravity and the body is effectively weightless. There is nothing that can be said to re-frame the raw sensory data in terms of it being anything other than what it is. The brain has NO choice but to accept what is occurring and deal with it. This lack of choice jump starts the process because no mental effort is directed towards trying to interpret the situation as anything other than what is going on. The mice of course do not have this narrative re-framing ability so their brain instantly sets about figuring how to go about living life in the new environment.

A lesson that can be taken from these space experiences is about the true cost of resisting reality. When we can and choose to see things differently from how they actually are, we delay our powerful innate adaptative processes that allow us to quickly adjust to changes in the environment. This can temporarily delay putting in the effort that is needed to normalize to the new situation, but the cost of doing so is the ongoing waste of mental energy that is required to maintain the narrative story. This loss of energy is going to continue until the environment returns to the previous normal or the decision is made to accept reality and adapt to it.

The total cost of adaptation is going to be the lowest when we accept reality instantly, bring in very detailed sensory data and let our brain process it. This is what the brain has been doing for millions of years and it is what YOUR brain has been doing for all of your life. When we delay accepting reality we waste time and energy and we also increase the potential that the eventual cost of adapting will be larger as a result of us becoming more invested in something that isn’t real; given the relationship between the strength of a belief to the length of time we have held it and the amount of effort we have spend trying to defend it. The neural networks grow more robust over time and in response to greater stimulation that results in confirmation – even if the confirmation is a misinterpretation of the facts.

Reality is what reality is, and it doesn’t care about your feelings or beliefs. The sooner they align with it, the sooner your brain will be completely free to figure out how to best adjust to the changes to allow you to live with less resistance. Stop making things harder for yourself and let your brain do the work it unconsciously and effortlessly does to create a life of ease.

Finding Your Passion As A Fitness Professional

This article is a continuation of the post What Role Do You Play As A Fitness Professional so I recommend you read that one first and then follow it up with this one.

How will you know what type of training role you are passionate about?

This is a good question for which there are a number of different and great answers. Knowing the answer, or at least knowing AN answer, is arguably one of the most important pieces of insight a human being can have in guiding them to have a more enjoyable and fulfilling life. The reality is that most people do not ever think about the question, let alone taking the time to uncover an answer to it because they simply just follow their nose and go along with whatever comes to mind from one moment to the next. Plus, it can be hard work to take a personal inventory and dig into your life in a way that is prying and revealing. This means that for many, luck is the only way in which they uncover their passion because their life is just a big experiment of trial and error. The quality of your life is too important to leave to chance, so it is very important that you spend some time to come-up with an answer to the question “what are you passionate about?”

This article was supposed to deal with personal training but the advice about how you uncover your passion is general, so anyone can use it. “Passion” is not job or career specific, it is a technology that one uses for engaging the world that will predictably create a consistent state of mind that has some very distinct properties. Experience is necessary for knowing what you are passionate about, so if you are brand new to the field of personal training you may want to book mark this page and revisit it after a few months of full time work. No harm will come of introspection without experience and if nothing else, it will make you more self-aware that life can and should be meaningful from moment to moment and not just on pay day.

All you will need to complete this exercise is a pen or pencil, some paper and about 30 minutes of uninterrupted time. It cannot be done on a smart phone or a computer because they offer the opportunity for distraction and, more importantly, they place a layer of distance between the words that flow out of you and how they appear. It doesn’t matter if it is messy and slow, the goal is to draw out from your brain the experiences and memories that land as significant, important, and represent the answers to the questions that appear below.

There are no right or wrong providing you are doing your best to surface the information that is being call on and as long as you don’t think about “looking good.” The truth about the world and about life is that the people who look the best are the ones who are living their own life doing the things that make them feel the way they want to feel and not tearing down the journey of other people. Anyone who cares about the rightness or wrongness of your passions and choices in life does so out of self-interest and NOT because they have any compassionate feelings towards you. If you are trying to look good, you won’t to those who know and like you, so just take the time to answer the questions honestly so you can get re-calibrated and know which way is forward.

And even if you find out that being a personal trainer isn’t something you can be passion about, having a clear picture of the value you need to deliver in order to have the life you desire is only going to make your life simpler and more straightforward. Before you know what it is, the answer could be anything and is therefore massively complex. As soon as you know, the answer becomes one thing and that is very simple to deal with – achieving it will require hard work, but at least you’ll know what the work is.

Ask and write down the answers to the following questions, the rational for the questions and other comments will appear below the questions:

1) What do you like doing” or “what do you get enjoyment from” as it applies to training.

2) What are you good at doing” or “what have your clients told you that you are good at doing” or “what have your clients told you that you do differently from other trainers that is good?”

3) Have there been moments that you have experienced while training a client that you are able to bring to mind that you were lost in time and space?” Phrased another way, list all of the training experiences that you have had were your mind was completely focused on the client, their movements and creating the solution to the problem they have asked you for help to solve.

4) What training experiences have you had that have left you feeling energized or elated and what experiences have you had that have left you feeling completely drained and empty of energy?”

5) How much money do you need to make per week / months / year to have your needs met, some of your wants met, to be in good standing with the CRA or IRS, and be saving money for retirement?”

6) When you look inside, are there jobs or tasks that you think SHOULD be done and that you are put on the planet to do?”

Question 1 – Doing things that you enjoy. There is a relationship between enjoyment and passion because it is very difficult to be passionate about something when we are in a negative state of mind. Enjoyment should not be mistaken with feeling good – pleasure is a separate experience and while the two things may go together, they do not necessarily have to.

Question 2 – Doing things you are good at. Getting good at something does not happen by accident. There is a formula – paying attention completely while practicing consistently for a long period of time. It’s very simple, but it is hard work. The fact that you are good at something is an indication that you have put in a lot of the work for some reason. This reason is NOT chance or a random thing. More likely you did it because it didn’t seem like work while you were doing it. This characteristic is important because no matter what you do or how much you like doing it, following your passion in terms of work will not mean that you do not work. The opposite is true, you will likely spend more time working, and most of this work will be at a very high intensity. While it is not impossible that your passion will land on something that you have not yet done, it is best to consider the things we have already done when checking for clues. There is a lot of useful information that we’ll benefit from processing before we go off into the realm of the unknown in the event we need to go looking further.

Question 3 – Being completely present. This is the opposite of clock watching, being aware that other people in the gym are watching you, or wondering what else might be going on. Some might describe this as a flow state or a hyper awareness of the present moment. I’d describe it as interfacing with reality in such a way that your brain and body react to whatever is going on without a moment of thought or consideration.

Question 4 – Level of energy tasks leave you with. I find this question to be one of the more interesting and revealing questions that someone can answer simply because most people do not think about the world in terms of energizing experiences; although most are familiar with draining ones. This is weird given that humans spend so much of their life working. A third of your week days and a quarter of your time is spent in an activity that is aimed at generating enough money to make life possible. Consider that for a second. While is seems like maybe it’s fine if you hate your job, or just don’t like it, but if you were given the task of designing a life for someone else, would you set it up in such a way as to ensure that a quarter of their time was spent doing something that was draining, unpleasant, or the chore that “work” seems to be for so many people?

Look at it this way: Let’s say that you have a life expectancy of 80 years. Consider that while eating a chicken wing at your 60th birthday party you start to choke and no one comes to help you out. You die and it’s all over. Now imagine that no one in the world thinks there is anything bad about this. They just see it as normal and the way life goes. Lots of people die at their 60th birthday party. In fact, it’s kind what 60th birthday parties are for. Everyone just accepts that the final 25% of your life is just taken away because that’s just how it goes.

It’s a stupid thing to think about because we are raised to believe that life is precious. There is a disproportionate amount of money spent on the healthcare for those who are in the last years of their life meaning we want to prolong it for as long as possible. There’s no way anyone would agree to just cut it short by 20 years and eliminate 25% of it. Except this is very close to what most people do with 25% of their life. And it isn’t the final years when mobility and vitality are reducing, we are burning 25% of the time between 25 and 60 – 35 years of living and hating a quarter of it.

This is why passion is so important and why working at something that leaves us feeling energized should not just be a luxury, it should be a necessity. Energy is critical for engaging the world, being alert, and enthusiastically identifying and solving problems.

Question 5 – The amount of money you need. This question has very little to do with passion per say, but knowing the answer to it will close off a lot of open loops that the brain has evolved to be concerned about that siphon off a lot of useful mental energy. A simple fact about the brain is that it cannot focus on the present when it has doubts about the future. When it is not certain that there will be enough money to cover rent and food next month, it will get caught in a loop trying to solve the problem of getting enough money to cover rent and food. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but thinking about a solution to a problem that you haven’t really realized is a problem is not the same thing as taking the actions that are necessary to solve the problem. In fact, the brain spontaneously seeks out problems to solve even when no problem actually exists, so knowing how much income you need to cover your needs, some of your wants, and your retirement will effectively shut down 85% of the automatic problem finding and solving that the brain gets after.

Question 6 – Your unique purpose for being on the planet. This question has nothing specifically to do with training, fitness, or exercise; although the reason why you do these things might reveal a lot about the answer. Doing a job that fulfills your purpose will contribute more to the quality of your life than almost everything else.

The concept of purpose is relatively new, and is a consequence of technological improvements and the specialization of labour that have allowed us to get our needs met with incredible ease. Since we no longer need to spend all of our time hunting, farming, building shelter and protecting ourselves and our families from threats, we have the ability to expand our understanding of who and what we are past the boundaries of mere survival. This is both bad and good. It’s bad because it adds a level of complexity to life that cannot exist when one is in a constant battle for survival – when scarcity and danger lurk everywhere, remaining alive IS our only purpose and taking care of things didn’t leave much room for anything else.

This is no longer the case, there is a lot of space to fill with novel activities or things that are done for no clear reason other than for their own sake. We are now free to do almost anything, and that means that we need to figure out what that is. This isn’t as easy as it seems given the hollow and empty nature of many things. Narrative meanings are complicated and not self-evident. The level of knowledge / wisdom / understanding that is required to accurately articulate a congruent meaning is remarkably high. It can be argued that without society the notion of living a life of meaning would simply never have been considered let alone talked about.

It’s very deep. Meaning requires a system of morals / ethics along with a clear understanding of the scale of experiences ranging from bad to good and then to better. While human beings may be innately curious and are spontaneously moral in so far as we know the difference between good and bad, or good and evil, the plotting of experiences as bad, good, or better is not universally shared. Some people who love working out will consider an exhaustive near maximal piece of work to be a better experience than a warm-up that isn’t painful, hard or even remotely tiring. These same individuals would consider the same piece of work, if done to unsuccessfully make a connecting flight at the airport, to be a bad experience. When this is compared to moral rankings, reducing suffering or improving someone’s well-being are ALWAYS morally positive actions, regardless of the level of ease at which the goal is achieved and regardless of the person.

Having said all of this, we live NOW when there is both the free-time to fill with activities and the baseline level of knowledge to allow for the cultivation of a narrative meaning for our purpose to life. We are of course able to ignore this opportunity and just run through life on autopilot, enjoying and suffering whatever happens to occur. Congruence and consistency are not critical for life to continue; they don’t actually matter when we get right down to it. Life however, becomes much clearer and a lot easier when we are able to answer the questions “why am I here on the planet” and “what is the purpose of my life?”  Knowing these things gives us direction and power / energy to START and KEEP moving in that direction, which makes decisions easier and creates a strong rational for the logical trade of effort in the quest for a specific outcome.

Once you have answered the questions, reread the answers over and over again and allow your brain to track in on the patterns or realizations about the connection between all of these things. There will be something there that you will have been living by but have been completely unaware of the role it was playing on your decision making process. This step is not easy to explain given the nature of how human beings think and the impact our personal history has on shaping the specific nature of our individual thinking. But a lack of ease should not stop you from taking the time to uncover the invisible patterns in your life, particularly given the huge upside to doing it.

As thoughts start to flow into your mind, start writing them down. Spelling, grammar, and sentence structure do not matter, what is critical is capturing the thought. Most of them will not be accurate and may not have anything to do with anything important. But each one of them that you capture will be like a stepping stone that moves you across the stream. This practice can be helpful in other areas given how it serves to interrupt your automatic thinking and force you to critically review the words that you write down. Under normal thinking conditions, a thought enters our mind, it is instantly accepted as true and then we reprocess it. This is only the experience of it, the reality of it is that we have already started to reprocess the thought BEFORE we became consciously aware of it. By writing it down, we get to go back to the beginning to re-evaluate the statement for accuracy while buying our brain a little bit more time to generate other thoughts or possibilities.  

The more your write, the better your thoughts will become in general. Some of them may seem silly, some of them will be silly, and some of them will be transformative leaps forward. Just keep writing them down. The purpose of this exercise is not to end-up with a single uniform answer that reframes your entire life as a straight line between related events. That might happen, it has for some, but that isn’t the goal. The truth is that life is so complicated, that YOU are so complicated, that a uniform theory of everything isn’t really in the cards. Instead, you are trying to generate clarity about the interconnections of your choices. There is a thread that joins them all, and that is what you are trying to find and start to pull on.

At some point you will either have a flash of profound insight, run out of thoughts, or possibly be flooded with a sense of gratitude. All are fine. Exhausting your thought stream is a powerful accomplishment, one that will pay off over the days and weeks that follow. Thinking is both fast and slow. The results can be instant or they can take time to grow. When nothing more is coming out, you can be confident that you have pushed a lot of information into the brain that the slow thinking will be working on over the next few hours and days. Be aware that these insights will be revealed shortly and be ready to capture them when they bubble to the surface.

The profound insight and sense of gratitude should also be captured on paper. Both will be staggering to your thought processes and to your consciousness. Both will steal your attention and effectively hold it hostage for a period of time. Good, that’s what you want. Emotional experiences that are this powerful tell us that something very important has occurred and the emotion is the brains way of telling us to pay attention, learn, and use the information in the future to shape our decisions.

Once you reach the end – either by running out of thoughts, feeling grateful, or having a profound insight – make sure you captured everything in writing and then do something else if you can. Clear the mind and give the brain a chance to process everything that it has experienced during the exercise.

The eventual outcome will be a sentence or two that describes why you are on the planet. It will be so much more than that though. The sentence or two will contain what you would do with your time if you didn’t have anything else to do. If you won billions of dollars, after you got back from a long vacation and grew bored with eating the best foods and had grown tired of amusing yourself almost to death, you would do things that were the manifestations of the purpose statement / sentences. While you may not have the luxury of not having to work, you do have the opportunity to seek out work that allows you to live your purpose.

This is where question 5 comes in. Most of us do not need nearly as much money as we think we do. We come to need it because we don’t enjoy our jobs and the money allows us to distract ourselves from the hellish experience we are living through. When we are pursuing meaningful work that allows us to actualize our purpose, we do not need to be distracted from our life. In fact, our work will give us energy while we are doing it and it will allow us to sleep very soundly at night KNOWING that what we are doing matters, is helpful, and is a good use of time. We’ll get paid enough to live comfortably, so we won’t think about money and will be free to put our full attention into our work, which will help us do the best work we can. Our clients will notice and respond to this. They will work harder, recommend your services, and feel completely connect to you as both a service provider and as a human being. You will grow your business and your level of wealth will climb.

Most importantly though is that you’ll be content, valuable, and completely present when you are working. Your conscientiousness will be at its peak as the right answers will just come to mind and flow out of you. There will be no need for motivational self-talk and you will have abundant energy for work and for life. And this is what living on purpose is all about, having passion for every waking moment and every action that you get to take!

What Role Do You Play As A Fitness Professional?

In the world of fitness there are many ways to contribute to the lives of the participants and matching the role you are most passionate about with the clients who need this type of help will open the doors to your most satisfying career. Sadly the opposite is true, choosing to work with clients who do not need your specific type of help will result in a boring and short career as a fitness professional.

First things first, fitness professionals serve as proxies for their clients. When a client doesn’t know the proper way to move, they connect with a trainer who knows how to move. When a client doesn’t have the appropriate nutritional habits, they’ll connect with a coach who knows the proper food and ways to eat. When a client doesn’t have the needed will power to sustain regular workouts, they connect with a coach who will act as their will power, being collaboratively forceful to get the client to do that which they lack the will to do on their own. If a client is unwilling to commit to a better future, a trainer will get their commitment by selling them a block of training. When a client gets caught-up in their stories, a coach will give them a different perspective and help them separate the truth from the fiction within the story.

Given that we act as proxies for our clients and that we have a particular passion / ability, we cultivate long gratifying careers when we are able to be passionate proxies to our clients. For example, if we love coaching movement, particularly foundation movement, we’ll be most satisfied when our work is made-up of coaching newer trainees who are open to the coaching and highly motivated to adapt. We’ll be less satisfied coaching high level athletes who know how to move efficiently and even less satisfied trying to get people to commit to a better future, as these clients have not yet agreed to be coached so there won’t be any movements to prescribe, watch, or correct. By the same token, those who love to help clients generate future possibilities will feel stifled if they spend their time engaging with people who have actually made the decision to move forward with training because these clients need movement coaching.

There is a life cycle with training spanning the range between non-trainee (A), thinking about it (B), beginner (C), intermediate (D), advanced (E), athlete (F), and relapsed non-trainee (G); this last group is distinct from the non-trainee group but only for a while – after a length of time those who are no longer working out become non-trainees.

It is not unusual for a trainer to enjoy working with people from a variety of these groups, to have a specific gift for one of them and to find the rest of them to be unappealing or exceptionally hard to work with. For example, there are similarities between B and G in that neither is actively working out BUT both are more open to it than someone who simply doesn’t do it (A). B and G just need to uncover the compelling reason why they need to start and they will begin. Person G might have achieved their initial objective and stopped why person B never found out what that objective was in the first place. The conversation with B and G will be very similar, while these conversations will have a completely different tone, feeling and intention than those with someone who has no interest in working-out or has not yet realized that they have a compelling reason to do so.

Training beginners is very different than training advanced participants, and while training advanced people has a lot in common with training athletes, athletes need more structure and planning in order for them to be in peak physical condition for their key performance dates. Athletes are very easy to train in terms of their motivation and willingness to do what they are told, a coach needs to be very specific with what they are telling them to do as there is very little room for error given that a small change in form will have a much larger impact in terms of performance.

Personally, I connect best with C and D, and moderately well with B. I have enjoyed training athletes but accept that there are better coaches for them than me, and I don’t have the innate patience to work with them effectively. I’m much better at getting people to move safely than I am at getting them to move specifically. I have coached weight lifting and power lifting and I don’t find it to be very appealing. However, I am very effective at getting someone to push themselves to their physical limit in a functional circuit or to dig a little deeper and cross into the realm of maximum intensity in a cycling class. I’m also much better at noticing and pointing out the tiny physical changes in terms of appearance or ability that are experienced during the first months of training than I am at analyzing the lifting numbers and determining an athletes rate of neurological adaptation.

All of this is to say that I am a great trainer for people who are just starting out and I am an effective sales person for those individuals who are on the fence about starting a workout program. I have the science background to design effective advanced programs although I do not have the passion or interest to take people through them on a regular basis. I just don’t engage high performance athletes because their training time is too valuable to be spent with me and my coaching time is too valuable to be spend with them. E.g. if they want to go to the Olympics or become a professional they should work with someone who is able to take the time to plot their course very specifically, while I am taking the time to move hundreds of people through the phases of not being sure they want to work out to not being sure they can work out to being sure they can work out to knowing what to do to get what they want, how intensely to do it and how to avoid injuries while doing it. When the fit is right, I LOVE what I do, just as my clients LOVE learning what they need to do, as well as what they CAN do – it will be a pure WIN:WIN. When the fit is wrong, I call my mistake and find them the right trainer. Even though no one is really losing, it is always better to exit break even situations and seek out a WIN:WIN.

Given that I like people and have a genuine curiosity about how they engage the world, it is common for me to have the enrollment conversation with people that I never end up training – either because they are a better fit with another trainer or because it was discovered that they didn’t actually want to work out and simply needed some perspective about life and their relationship with it. E.g. while most people would benefit from physical exercise, not everyone should set about trying to improve their body composition or improve their fitness. Exercise feels amazing for a lot of people who work out regularly – exercise of a specific duration and intensity will trigger the body to release reward chemicals that are pleasurable, reinforcing, and which have a positive impact on mood and psychological health. However, the intensity is rather high and the duration is relatively long, so triggering the release requires a baseline level of fitness that is fairly high. 15 minutes of movement at an average intensity of 82 percent may not seem like a lot, but anything above 80 percent is very close to breathless effort that is physically painful due to the accumulation of lactate. Until your body learns how to tolerate this discomfort, exercise is not going to be immediately pleasurable. So while the human being can be trained to make exercise feel fantastic in the moment, doing so is a skill that requires a lot of work that has all of the characteristics of suffering.

If working out is not for someone, it is better to find that out at the beginning and to completely avoid starting. Too often when a large training package is sold to someone who doesn’t actually want to improve their health and fitness, there is a large drop in the quality of their life because they are out the money, the time, they get nothing of value out of the workouts, they hurt physically, and in the end the entire experience has been a massive waste of resources. This doesn’t work for me because my main objective is to reduce suffering so if I convince someone to take a journey that they honestly don’t want to take, regardless of the long term potential health benefits, I have contributed to their perceived and actual level of suffering. It’s so much better to not start the journey than to begin one that doesn’t need to be undertaken.

I’m not saying that these people deserve to have a miserable life or that they do not deserve to enjoy the benefits of regular exercise and improved health and fitness. They do deserve to have an amazing life and reap whatever rewards they can. It is just that improving your health and fitness is hard work and not for everyone. It won’t necessarily make someone happy and in the end, the relapse rates for people who achieve a big fitness goal are very high. Feeling good and being happy are not the same thing, so when someone comes to me looking to become happier I’m going to take a straight line to the activities that lead to increased happiness and, for the record, working out and achieving a massive body transformation do not make miserable people happy in spite of the fact that they make the person feel fantastic.

In a way, I started off my career as a fitness professional believing something that wasn’t true and when I began to notice that people didn’t work the way I thought they did, I had to change my course. But what I learned during those fifteen years is useful, valuable and exactly what some people need. There is nothing to be gained by throwing it all away; the opposite is true, it is science and it is effectively instructions on how to engineer fitness. It’s knowledge and wisdom even though it was a mistake to believe that fitness is the same thing as happiness. Engineering happiness is a different science so I have had to learn it.

This means that I can work with a larger percentage of people, lead them to a couple of different outcomes – fitness and health and / or happiness and well-being – and direct them towards their actual desired path much more effectively than had I only one set of tools. This keeps the job interesting and it allows me to contribute to the positive life experiences of a larger number of people. Most importantly for me, I get to do what I am passionate about without having to convince people that they need something that they don’t. I have the freedom to work with the people I am best suited for and to actually reduce the suffering of both active and sedentary clients.

I will post the second part of this article, Finding Your Passion As A Fitness Professional, early next week.

Good Enough Is Good Enough, Just Don’t Say That Out Loud

Since I am a human being, I have a long track record of saying and doing some very stupid things. The trend line, however, slopes upwards so if I maintain this trajectory, I’m on course to have a few very good years in a couple of decades. Most of the dangerous and very dumb things are behind me, because I learned from doing them.

Probably the mistake that it has taken me the longest to learn from has to do with the truth and when to tell it vs. keeping it to myself. As a rule, I think knowing and telling the truth are some of the most important things for people to do. Each of us has a good brain that is capable of making sense of the world, and will do this much sooner when dealing with reality as opposed to some sort of nonsense. When we believe that something is true when it isn’t our life becomes more complicated and we make the life of other people more complicated when we choose to tell them a lie or misrepresent something as being true when we believe it might not be. I want life to be as easy as possible for everyone and there is no place for dishonesty in this.

Except when there might be.

It isn’t that there is a time and a place for not telling the truth but there is a time and a place for not saying anything. And this is where life experience comes into play. When making the decision on whether or not to say something, speak only when the statement is true AND helpful. Most things that are true are irrelevant and therefore not helpful.

Take a moment to consider your area of expertise and bring to mind a fact that relates to it. Now imagine stating this fact during every conversation you have with any one. Going in to get replacement registration for your car, ordering dinner, shopping for clothes or groceries, volunteering at the animal shelter, etc…. Okay, that’s all kind of silly, but so is talking about almost everything when it isn’t helpful. The Buddhists have a term for these types of things called “useless speak” and when you get right down to it, almost everything a person says out loud is useless speak. Almost everything we say to ourselves is useless speak and almost every spontaneous thought we have would fall under the catchall of useless speak.

For the last 10 years or so I have been a believer that I’m a little to a lot messed up. I’m not dangerous or stupid. Nor am I antisocial in a psychological way. I’m fine. I have some good qualities, some bad qualities and many that don’t really make much difference. What I am is more or less the same thing as everyone else. A human being who is doing their best to make life easier and a little better each day. Sometimes I’m successful at doing this, but most of the time my actions don’t make any demonstrable difference. It’s good that I got out of bed that morning and took whatever actions I did, but none of them will be written to the big book of life as things that mattered. And this is basically how it is for everyone and everything. Important but irrelevant. Well intentioned, a little screwy and lacking universal appeal.

So when I met Heather in 2012 and found myself completely enamored by her, I just did what I always did – thinking it, feel it, say it. But she wasn’t expecting my slightly over-the-top way of engaging the world; which might be better described as a pathological impulsive honesty. I told her what I was seeing, what it made me think and how that made me feel. It lacked any of the coy aloofness that is very common during the beginning of a relationship. It isn’t what she was used to and it can be a little hard to take.

The main reason I think I did this has to do with knowing what my brain does when it pays attention to something. I had learned from experience that whatever it was I thought about would expand in terms of what my brain did with it – if someone cut me off in traffic and I continued to pay attention to the car, I would begin to notice all of their driving errors, if someone let me merge without drama or tension, I would begin to notice more random acts of kindness or courtesy, it didn’t matter what it was, as soon as I saw it, I would see more of it. I was deliberately paying attention to the things I liked meaning that I was not noticing anything else. And since I talked about what I was thinking, all that was coming out was a growing list of the things that I thought were great. This approach makes it a lot easier for me to remain grateful and happy.

After a few weeks of dating she said to me “I don’t know who you think you are dating, but no one is as good as the person you are talking about.”

It took a moment for me to register what she was saying and when it landed I replied with “I know everyone sucks a little, that goes with out saying, but maybe I should have said it. You are going to do things that annoy me, that disappoint me, that remind me that you can be selfish and mean. I know this and I still adore you because you are….” and I returned to my observational honesty. This was what she needed to hear because it eliminated any pressure that had been building. She knew herself well enough to know she is a collection of traits and qualities and that some of them are not necessarily admirable. Sooner or later there would be a fall from grace and God only knows what would happen if this blind-sided me.

A few days ago one of my friends sent me a video titled Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person by Alain de Botton and I was reminded of the early part of my relationship with Heather. It’s a great video, both funny and a little thought provoking. He seems to have drawn the same conclusion that I have – that people are all kind of screwed-up but are, in general, fine. There are a few lines that seem a little harsh until they sink in and which point they resonate like wisdom.

He is making the point that Heather thought I had missed – that we’re good and bad, but mostly a lot of neither. There probably isn’t anyone who is perfect for us and if there is, we’ll probably never find them because we don’t know enough about ourselves to actually know that our paths have crossed. You are free to look for them if you like, but then you’ll end-up dying alone. The best we can hope for, at least statistically speaking, is that we find someone who is good enough and that we have the good sense to accept that good enough is good enough.

That is what Heather knew she had when we met. I was charming enough to spend time with, intelligent enough to be interesting, self-aware enough to know that I was a work in progress and that bigger and better things were in my future, and conscientious enough to put the work in to make them a reality. Could she have held out for more? Maybe, but there was a very good chance that all she would have been waiting for was different.

The two of us are clear that there is a huge complement in our traits and qualities, that I’m some of the things she isn’t and she’s some of the things that I’m not and that we are human beings and as such are prone to moments of being insufferable and kind of unlikable. And we’re fine with this. These moments suck, but they are worse for the person who is being the jerk than for the one observing it.

Heather was simply trying to figure out if I had the good sense to not say anything about the shortcomings or the bad sense to believe that I had found perfection in a person.

And maybe that’s the key to relationships. Realizing that you’ll partner up with someone who isn’t perfect, each partner accepting that good enough is good enough. Establishing a connection with someone who can put up with us, overlooking the ways in which we fall short and adoring the ways in which we excel. Knowing the truth and when to voice it, and maybe, most importantly, knowing what to not say out loud.

On The Mindless Menace Of Violence – Post Revisited

Yesterday was the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. so 51 years ago today Robert F Kennedy gave the speech that is referred to as “On The Mindless Menace Of Violence.”

The first time I ever heard the speech was sometime in early 2011 and I found it very moving. Some of my feelings were covered in the June 1, 2011 post On The Mindless Menace of Violence that has a link to a YouTube clip of an audio recording of the speech.

The first half of 1968 was a particularly bad time in America and early April was a low point of an excessively brutal year. News about MLKs murder traveled quickly and seemed to be the spark that lit the powder keg which was the growing level of dissatisfaction among the coming-of-age Baby Boomers and pretty much every race of people that wasn’t white.

The rage which was justified, could no longer be contained and riots erupted in many U.S. cities. These brought about swift reactions from the authorities. The first reaction was to try an put an end to civil unrest using force, and the second was a shift in the political climate that added a lot of momentum to the movement towards more equal rules and policies.

RFK had been a big advocate of civil rights and had a strong following among ethnic voters and within these communities. That spring was a time when the democratic primaries were being held to choose their candidate for the Presidential election later that year. Against the advice of his advisors, he made a single campaign stop in Cleveland, Ohio the day after King was killed. This was not the first time that he disregarded the security advice of his campaign staff.

He did not have a death wish but he also knew that the there was an important job to do and that fear would only get in the way of completing it. He was very aware of what was going on all around the country we he stepped in front of the crowd of 2200 people at the Sheraton-Cleveland Hotel and gave the speech.

When you listen to it, and you really should because it is powerful and dissimilar to the speeches we have grown accustomed to from modern politicians, it is striking that he does not give anyone a pass. The thrust of it is geared towards the perpetrators of violence and how they are taking actions against people who simply want to live their life and make things a little better for themselves and their families. He tries to paint a picture that we are all the same race – the human race – and that any action of unnecessary violence against one of us is an act of violence against all of us.

He knew full well that what happened the day before in Memphis, Tennessee was going to happen again, and again, and again, but that it could not go on forever because we would not let it. Two months and a day later we was killed and a lot of the optimism and belief that the human spirit is good and that it would eventually outshine evil seemed to evaporate.

He was right however, it just took a lot of time. The world is very different now than it was half a century ago. Most younger people don’t care about race, religion, sexual orientation, or any of the things that were historically used as wedge issue to trigger the us / them or in-group / out-group thinking. In every way life is better today than it has ever been. Sure, it’s not perfect, violence is still a fact of life, there are a lot of people who are suffering and not everyone enjoys the same advantages or head start. But it is better and improving.

What is less talked about is what RFK did on April 4, 1968, which is in a big way, much more impressive and it goes a long way to explain why he took the stage the following day and why he campaigned fearlessly until early June.

Kennedy had learned about Kings death as he boarded a plane to fly to Indianapolis for a campaign rally. He had some time to amend his speech and prepare some remarks to talk to the severity of what had just happened, what MLK represented and meant to the world and to speak to the void that his murder created. He cared about the people, but could not directly relate to how they might be feeling. There was a concern that into the void would flow more and a dramatic escalation of violence, which would cause more death and suffering which would serve as the fuel of a chain reaction that would be nearly impossible to stop.

This concern is legitimate given the tendency for people, and all living things, to be driven to action right as hope evaporates into helplessness. This is a very dangerous time given the feeling that there is nothing to lose, nothing to gain, and the window of opportunity to do massive harm to those you deem as responsible for everything that is wrong with your life. It is not rational yet there is a certain flavor of wisdom in it, which is why Kennedy took the chance to try and walk the country back for the edge

When he spoke, the first thing he told the crowd was the Martin Luther King Jr. was dead. This was news to everyone who had gathered to hear him speak. He conceded that many might be filled with hatred and a lust for retribution. There was no judgment in his words and many regard this act of empathy and compassion as being a source of peace and stability in a moment when the country was beginning to explode into chaos.

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

That night there was no rioting in Indianapolis and the following day he gave the On The Menace of Violence speech.

The world never got to enjoy the actualization of his vision. Nixon won the election in November and became president the following January and while he is regarded as having been remarkably liberal and progressive, especially for a Republican, he had some flaws that took him down along with a lot of his administration.

The 1970’s were like a decade long hang over for the turmoil of the 1960’s and the Vietnam war. The public was divided and did not have a lot of trust in their elected officials. There were no leaders like JFK, MLK or RFK and the global economy was in rough shape and a dramatic increase in the cost of oil in 1974-75 created an energy crisis that further suppressed optimism.

RFK was right though. Human beings are two sides of the same coin. We can be evil, violent and thoughtless towards other people. But we can also be kind, compassionate and responsible. The side of the coin we happen to find ourselves on is determined by what we are taught as being appropriate and socially acceptable. When we learn that our fellow citizens are our brothers and sisters, different but the same as us, we learn to treat them more fairly and act towards them with kindness. This is what generation X learned from their caregivers and families, and these are the lessons we pass on and try to teach.

His speech is a relevant today as it was back in 1968 because treating people fairly and with compassion will never be the wrong thing to do.