Burning happiness

David Sedaris: (‘Laugh, Kookaburra’ in The New Yorker)

This was not a real stove but a symbolic one, used to prove a point at a management seminar she’d once attended. “One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.

Doris Kearns Goodwin: (TED Talk, about 30 seconds in)

My mind keeps wandering back to a seminar that I took when I was a graduate student at Harvard with the great psychologist Erik Erikson. He taught us that the richest and fullest lives attempt to achieve an inner balance between three realms: work, love, and play. And that to pursue one realm to the disregard of the others is to open oneself to ultimate sadness in older age; whereas to pursue all three with equal dedication is to make possible a life filled not only with achievement but with serenity.

Small trade-off there. I know which one I’d rather tend towards.


A few minutes with "The Now Habit"

I’m skimming through a section of “The Now Habit” loaned to me by a friend, and while parts of it do resonate quite well with me there are sections that I receive in a vaguely repugnant way:

Jeff was stuck. He felt guilty about not making a contribution to his field and was feeling pressure from his colleagues to publish. But he was unwilling to make the commitment to the long hours of solitary work that were required to read professional journals and to write.

“He was unwilling” to do these things? That doesn’t strike the right chord with me. I’m perfectly willing to commit myself to my thesis. I just happen to break that commitment rather more frequently than I should.

As an aside, I can’t stand this style of self-help writing in which a supposedly-true pithy anecdote is given that fits the relevant points being made. What was Jeff’s solution, by the way? To spend two months acting in a play and then using the empty hole left after he no longer needed to spend twenty hours a week rehearsing to write. Well, not exactly a general solution, but the idea seems to be to spend time in concentrated pleasure and you’ll balance your life out enough to stop procrastinating.

What did I like about the section of the book? Here’s a quote of what sounded true to me:

The promise of future rewards for hard work has little control over what we choose to do now. Instead, the more immediate and definite rewards of life, such as leisure, seeing friends, and eating ice cream, are immediately and definitely followed by tangible pleasures and have, therefore, a higher probability of occurring.

This sums up the exact feeling I have towards procrastination. It’s not an anxiety thing or a fear of failure thing, or whatever of the explanations given in this book; it’s just that there are so many short-term fun and rewarding things to do. It’s a hard habit to break doing them.


Mental effort directed against disposition and desire

It’s a problem with a well-known solution. But one that’s more easily said than done.

Nicola Tesla:

The possibilities of will-power and self-control appealed tremendously to my vivid imagination, and I began to discipline myself. Had I a sweet cake or a juicy apple which I was dying to eat I would give it to another boy and go through the tortures of Tantalus, pained but satisfied. Had I some difficult task before me which was exhausting I would attack it again and again until it was done. So I practiced day by day from morning till night. At first it called for a vigorous mental effort directed against disposition and desire, but as years went by the conflict lessened and finally my will and wish became identical.

Merlin Mann:

Given that your fears know you too well, they can capitalize on any uncertainty that they know you’d find intolerable. So, even a surprisingly trivial matter […] can suddenly seem extremely important and will swiftly divert your attention from the cool stuff you’d like to be doing onto….oh, whatever that other stuff might be. Better find out.

Procrastination and fractured attention is an addiction I’m terribly far from kicking. Even with a tidy desk, a tidy shelf, and long-past deadlines.


Least easily distinguished

Edgar Allen Poe, Graham’s Magazine:

After reading all that has been written, and after thinking all that can be thought, on the topics of God and the soul, the man who has a right to say that he thinks at all, will find himself face to face with the conclusion that, on these topics, the most profound thought is that which can be the least easily distinguished from the most superficial sentiment.