Tag life

> 10bn

“There are, at a conservative estimate, 100 billion stars in our own galaxy. With an average 1.6 planets per star observed so far, we can estimate that there are more than ten billion Earth-like, rocky planets in our own galaxy alone. Statistically, this makes the discovery of a life-sustaining planet very likely. We already know that many planets orbiting distant stars might be very much like those we find in our own solar system. All we need to do now is ascertain whether or not they support life. When we do, that will radically alter the understanding of our place in the Universe.” – Kai Staats, Exoplanets will become a reality” (Wired – The World in 2018)

Tired of feeling …

Generation Four.

The White Flag.

After much consideration, I resigned from my job of twelve years nearly two weeks ago.

There are many who would question such a decision given that I don’t have another opportunity lined up, and I’m also not 100% certain what, or where, that opportunity might be.  I just knew that this was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.

For someone who has historically placed logic above all else, admittedly many who hear this news are taken aback.  Unfortunately, after what I’ve experienced over the past five years, I’ve learned that life has other plans regardless of what you may have wanted to happen.

Thus, I’ve stopped trying to make any real long-term plans and to accept whatever comes into my life.  I don’t look years into the future; right now, I operate on a day-to-day basis (that’s 24 hours), perhaps because I don’t have any other choice.

I recently read an excerpt from a business text published by the Harvard Business Review where the author describes the attitudes of POWs during the Vietnam War.  Those who believed they would be in that situation forever fared much better than those who believed they would be released within a certain period of time; the former group’s ability to accept their current circumstances increased their resiliency.

When things aren’t “working,” I think it’s natural to envision a time when things will be working again.  Interestingly, it’s a mistake to think this way.

Since 2006, thoughts of a “better future” have centered on a relationship that no longer exists.  More recent situations have involved my career and where I live: “This will get better in a few months …” or “I’m only going to live here for a short while …”

Anger and frustration at what “should have been” becomes draining and meaningless in time, but difficult to relinquish all the same.  Unfortunately, these same feelings erode one’s resilience, and it’s a downward spiral from there.

Based upon my experience, I think one’s ability to “weather the storm” requires resilience, and surprisingly a pessimistic attitude (i.e. things may never change, but eventually everything ends).  The ability to “live life” centers around the ability to “fail quickly” (i.e. perseverance) and a strong sense of one’s self / purpose.  Everything else is supplementary, and should be considered a “bonus” because nothing in life, and no one, is guaranteed.

 

Abstract: “Iom”

I actually created these earlier this year but decided to do some slight Photoshop modification to convey a digital, yet organic feel.  The organism possesses energy but it is unclear whether this is potential energy or kinetic within a harsh environment.  Is the system shutting down or in its infancy?

Destiny?

In February of 2010 I wrote an article entitled Victim of Changes where I explored three contrasting perspectives of how one views positive and negative events as they relate to the broader context of their life.

Since then, I’ve recently discovered a trend; those who say that “everything happens for a reason” has experienced some significant pain or trauma.  While I am sure there are exceptions to this claim, I can’t think of a reason why someone would use this phrase if they had not gone through this type of experience.

From my perspective, it’s an interesting contradiction – by causing pain, God has, in some respect, prompted (forced?) these individuals to believe in him (or at least in some higher authority or plan).  This, I think, has always been a struggle for me.

I mention this particular phrase primarily because it resurfaced the other day in a lunch meeting with a past colleague.  Later on, that comment prompted me to think about what has happened and where I am in my life today.

But is this where I am “supposed” to be? “Supposed” assumes there is a predestined path for me (and for others).

For argument’s sake, if there was truly such a path, does emotion still play a role?  For example, if adversity strikes, does it benefit you (or anyone for that matter) to feel sad or angry about it?  If adversity was part of “the plan” it ultimately doesn’t matter what you feel about it – “it just is.”

Think about it. If you truly believe that there is a higher authority and that “everything happens for a reason” then at some level, negative emotion should not exist in your life.  If something bad should happen to you, “that’s life!” and you should quickly (and naturally) move on to the next chapter, next relationship, etc. void of any negative emotion or lingering concerns / doubt.

At some level it’s a utopian existence.  After all, in this frame of mind you’ll feel good all the time!  (“it’s part of the plan!”)  But of course, the emotional disconnect will be there; when unfortunate events occur, your lack of emotion may prompt the question “Do you even care?” to which you’ll naturally reply “Care about what?”

Using the phrase “everything happens for a reason” is a logical response to a nebulous, confusing and sometimes painful life path.  It’s another example of why the human dynamic is so complex; using logic to rationalize the unexplained, but subsequently claiming that “logic” has no place in one’s life – i.e. “life planning is meaningless”, “don’t analyze, just enjoy ..”, etc.

I can, of course, see the partial foolishness in this argument.  One is going to feel certain emotions regardless of their belief in a higher authority or “master plan.”  And, at some level, you almost have to believe that there is a predefined destiny for you.  Not believing this in some capacity can result in emotional and physical stagnation.

As of me, history will dissuade me from using this particular phrase, but my replacement belief is a combination of the following:

  1. Anything is possible.
  2. A belief in oneself is perhaps the most important religion of them all.

Mental Evolution II (“Turning Point”)

I recently came to the conclusion that what I have been dealing with for an extended period of time (years) is something called learned helplessness.  Learned helplessness is a condition where you find yourself believing that you have no control over the outcome of your actions.  It stems from a stream of negative events that demoralize and ultimately cause one to give up – albeit temporarily.  While I don’t know when this period began, I do know that this period is ending.

I have always labeled myself as a realist – which, in my mind, has been a balance between optimism and pessimism.  The challenge that I have been facing over the past several years – particularly in 2010 – is that when reality presents you with continuous challenges, one can become overwhelmed with trying to make sense of what has happened.  I’ve found that this original sense of realism has become replaced with that of pessimism and extreme caution, both of which has resulted in stagnation and an inability to advance into territories that will ultimately make my life more fulfilling and positive.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, I have been amazed at my recent ability to quell feelings of positivity when they arise because I no longer trust these feelings will last.  By default, these positive feelings rarely have a chance to develop and a self-fulfilling prophecy is created.

This is a turning point because feelings of learned helplessness and the tendency to employ a pessimistic perspective can both be overcome.  Setbacks no longer need to be classified as disasters.  I have too much potential to allow this pattern to continue any longer.

Victim of Changes.

In August of 2009, there was a segment on the Today show that told the brief story of a man who had found his life partner only to eventually discover that she was seeking to end his life.  Fortunately, the “hit man” was an undercover police officer and the experience ended void of any tragedy.

While it’s difficult to generalize people’s responses to this story, I imagine most people place immediate blame on the wife and less on the husband.  After all, he is the victim.  But is this an appropriate response?  Remember, he chose to be with this woman and is now faced with trying to understand why he didn’t see the signs that led to this nearly tragic outcome.  At some level, he can be blamed for a situation that may have ended his life.

Let’s explore this concept further by looking at this from two opposite viewpoints:

Viewpoint #1: I am the master of my domain.

The first viewpoint is the belief that you are solely responsible for things that happen to you.  If you take this viewpoint, everything that happens to you is ultimately because of something that you did.  You can no longer claim to be a victim of circumstances, because the circumstance in question is something that you ultimately created.

For example:

If you get hit by a car, you are at fault for being in the path of the oncoming vehicle.
If you are in a career that isn’t going anywhere, you are at fault for making ‘wrong’ decisions that led you there.
If you are trapped in an earthquake, you are at fault for residing in that target location.
If you are in a relationship that isn’t working, you are at fault for participating and not leaving.

Again, if you employ this mindset, you are no longer the victim of circumstances.  You cannot introduce “higher authority” figures into the equation (e.g. “God has a plan ..”) or make similar statements like “There is a reason why this happened …” because these statements are perhaps masking the truth of the event.  Within this viewpoint, you are making decisions about what you do, who you interact with, where you live, etc. and those decisions ultimately result in events and things that impact your life – positively or negatively.

Viewpoint #2: I am a victim of circumstance.

Now let’s take a completely opposite perspective – one where your reliance upon a higher power guides your life path.  “God has a plan” or “I will pray that things will be better” or “That’s life!” are statements that reflect this viewpoint.  In some degree, you are taking responsibility (some if not all) off of your shoulders and accepting that things happen independent of your decisions or actions.

What’s interesting is that these viewpoints can be reversed depending upon the situation at hand.

For example, let’s say that you got a promotion at your job.  Even if you employed this “higher authority” viewpoint for things that generally happen to you, in this particular case you probably equate your recent success with your own abilities and decisions.  After all, you are the one who got promoted – and you wouldn’t have been promoted unless you were doing something right.  In most circumstances, your first response is not “That’s life!”  Instead, it’s one where you have taken charge of your destiny, and because of you, you have ultimately succeeded.

However, if someone close to you died unexpectedly, your first response would be – “Why did this happen?” or “Why did God let this happen?”  Because the situation is beyond one’s control, you cannot rely upon yourself to make immediate sense of the situation.  It’s only later in the grieving process where you may eventually shift your mindset and start to ask “What can I do to prevent this in the future?” (if applicable) or “What can I do to help others deal with an event such as this?”

In essence, your “life mindset” is altered depending upon what happens to you.

While I have taken the perspective of a given person, others’ responses to things that happen to you can sometimes take an opposite view to your own.  For example, if you are in a bad relationship, others may empathize but will ultimately question why you got in the situation in the first place.  If you were recently promoted, others may think of other reasons why you were promoted vs. focusing primarily on your core abilities.  If someone who you knew died in an accident, others may quickly decide that “God has his reasons …” which may be the direct opposite of how you may feel – especially if you played some indirect role in that person’s death (i.e. giving them the car keys, etc.).

Independent of how you look at these “life perspectives”, I think that personality type and life experiences will determine which perspective makes the most sense to you.  I think the lesson here is not to focus exclusively on one particular perspective, but be aware of the extremes and try to live life in the middle.  Of course, this is not easy – especially for someone like myself who believes that my life is driven by my own choices and less on the need for a higher authority.  But it is during times of sheer despair and confidence loss where this “centrist” perspective loses its value and you are forced to seek another viewpoint.

It’s a unique dichotomy that I don’t completely understand.

Mental Adaptation.

In the June 2009 issue of The Atlantic is an interesting article entitled “What Makes us Happy” by Joshua Wolf Shenk.  The article discusses a seventy-two year study by Harvard researchers, and it’s longtime director, George Vaillant, of the lives of 268 Harvard sophomores.  The study intended to find a scientific “solution” or “equation” to a life of happiness.

After following these individuals for quarter century, the study had identified seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically.  These factors are education, a stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise and maintaining a healthy weight.  The seventh, and perhaps the most important of them all involve “mature adaptations“.

Given some of the challenges that I have faced over the past several years, this concept immediately resonated with me.  Let me explain why.

About two years ago I read a book called “How Full is your Bucket?” where the premise of the book revolves around the metaphor of a “bucket” and “dipper”.  Continuous positive contributions result in a”full” bucket while continuous negative energy (or the absence of positive emotion) eventually results in an “empty” bucket.  The book goes on to provide several key strategies to ensure the “bucket” is always full.

One of the anecdotes in the text involves American POWs in the Korean War.  Even though physical conditions were adequate, many POWs were mentally “broken” through self-criticism and lack of positive support.  When I first read this, I found the concept difficult to comprehend.  It’s only until recently where I can understand how a lack of positive energy can spell the difference between success and failure – regardless of situation.

At a certain level, one’s ability to get beyond the current circumstance and to mentally “fabricate” positive thought is a core factor to long-term success.  In essence, how able is one to appropriately respond and adapt to challenges along the way?  This “adaptation” concept is expanded upon in The Atlantic article:

“This central question is not how much or how little trouble these men met, but rather precisely how – and to what effect – they responded to that trouble.  His main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of “adaptations”, or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty.  Formalized by Anna Freud on the basis of her father’s work, adaptations (also called “defense mechanisms”) are unconscious thoughts and behaviors that you could say either shape or distort – depending on whether you approve or disapprove – a person’s reality.  Defenses can spell our redemption or ruin.

In essence, one’s ability to successfully “adapt” is a key factor in one’s overall quality of life.

Vaillant goes on to rank these defenses in four categories (from worst to best):

  1. “Psychotic” – e.g. paranoia, hallucination
  2. “Immature” – e.g. passive aggression, projection, fantasy
  3. “Neurotic” – e.g. intellectualization, dissociation and repression
  4. “Mature” – e.g. altruism, humor, anticipation, suppression, sublimation

While “neurotic” defenses are common in “normal” people, the goal is to continuously strive towards the “mature” defense behaviors.  Interestingly enough, these “mature” behaviors are in themselves “generators” of positive energy.  While it is admirable to try to employ all of these sub-behaviors, it may be beneficial to focus on one or two initially.

For example, sublimation is good one to start with.  The underlying concept behind sublimation is “energy flow”.  Your mind creates energy (positive and negative) and this energy needs to be directed away from destructive acts and into something that is creatively acceptable.  In fact, this blog is a good example of sublimation – channeling what could be negative energy into something that is constructive and creatively effective.

The lesson in all of this is awareness.  While the six factors described earlier are relatively “easy” to attain for most, I believe focusing intently on the “defense mechanisms” or “adaptations” is at the core to ensuring a positive and healthy life experience regardless of the trouble encountered along the way.  In the POW example described earlier, the key to survival was the single belief that things would eventually be better – the other factors didn’t really matter.

As important as these “adaptations” are, in an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?”  Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

The Mental Prison.

One of the interesting aspects of my personality is that my mind is able to think of different aspects to a given situation or problem with the intent to find the best “solution” or path.  If I am not aware of an immediate solution, I will naturally gravitate towards material to find alternative solutions and additional “dimensions” to that particular challenge.

While this technique works well in the professional arena, it can introduce numerous challenges in an interpersonal one.  Thinking about a particular challenge or problem in this way can turn one’s life into a “mental prison” from which she/he may find it impossible to escape.

A natural response to this dilemma is “How can one escape?”  Ironically enough, I think finding the answer should first start with an understanding of the problem.  That would naturally lead us to understanding the concepts of overthinking or overanalyzing.  I actually think we should start with the basic concept of thought.

You may be familiar with the phrase “I think, therefore I am” by René Descartes.  This phrase basically says that if you have any doubt that you exist, the simple fact that you are doubting this possibility means that you do indeed exist because there is an “I” who is doing the thinking.

So, at the “root” of all thought is yourself.  Your thoughts then start branching out from that single node.  One thought leads into another and then another, with interconnections building between the various nodes.  This, of course, is natural and is how normal learning occurs; you start with a fundamental concept and then you connect it with others to increase your skills.

If you think about a given topic long enough, a direct connection from the root node (“I”) will start to develop directly to that thought.  The more you think about “it”, the stronger that connection becomes and eventually that thought becomes associated with “you”.  The question then becomes “Are these connections referencing positive thoughts or negative ones?”  That determination is a quick way to identify who you are at that point in time.

Time is also a key element in this equation.  How long you think about a particular subject directly reinforces the linkage between “you” and that thought – the greater the duration and/or frequency, the stronger the linkage.

The depth of the thought is another key component.  “Depth” in this context refers to the degree of “links” from the base thought to the “target”.  The greater the depth, the greater the reinforcement.  Again, this measure of “thought depth” can be positive or negative.

For example, let’s say that you receive critical feedback at work for something that you thought would be accepted as “positive”.  The fact that these events are normally direct opposites (i.e. doing the right thing does not always lead to a positive outcome) can result in some degree of additional thought (due to dissonance).  The degree of the thought can vary depending upon the person and the situation at hand.  One path could result in a very shallow depth of thought:

1: Myself > 2: Feedback received > 3: Initial dissonance > 4: Reflection > 5: Accept disconnect > 6: Advance normally.

Another path with a greater depth of thought could result in significantly more “reflection”, a resistance to the original dissonance, and a “web” of thoughts that ultimately center back on the root thought node (“I”).  It’s not surprising that thoughts with greater depth of thought can ultimately “entangle” the person having these thoughts.

These concepts ultimately represent what I call the “mental prison”.  When the thoughts are associated positive elements, the prison becomes a place of enjoyment – when the thoughts are negative, it’s desirable to find an immediate exit.

Having a basic understanding of the mechanics behind overthinking or overanalyzing is the first step to cease doing so.  Gain an understanding of what you are thinking about, and identify whether the topics are positive or negative.  Start introducing positive thoughts immediately.  If the amount of time you’ve spent thinking about a given topic is significant, “start the clock” on a different thought stream and begin reinforcing that pathway.  If the thought pathway is “deep”, become conscious of the pathway and “self-correct” back to the root thought – yourself.  Reinforce the positive to combat and eliminate the negative.