Drag along behind you the wagonload of burdens

Consider what you are carrying that does not belong.

Could you lighten your burden by tearing up the imaginary unpaid debt you think you owe people?

Remember, carrying the world around on your back is profoundly heavy stuff. And having overdeveloped sense of responsibility is helping nobody.

Your sanity and health are more important than pleasing whoever you think can’t survive without you.

They will be fine. Let others be in charge of themselves. Free yourself of the burden of making decisions for everyone you love. Trust that they will take responsible for their own future. And know that whatever happens, you will try to love them anyway.

You just won’t enable them anymore.

Here’s a helpful exercise to test the health of your current load. Pick something that you don’t typically want to do, but that you usually do in order to please people. And then deliberately take the risk of refusing to do it.

Once the deed is done, notice where you feel that guilt your body. Notice how much of an impact your actions have on humanity. Notice the degree to which your boundary affects your relationship.

Odds are, it will be unremarkable.

Even if it stings for a day or two, and even if it frustrates the other person, it can’t possibly be as painful as taking on the emotional burden of someone else’s happiness.

Brene put it eloquently in her book about braving the wilderness:

Belonging in our heart is not a reward for perfecting, pleasing, proving and pretending. It’s not something others can hold hostage or take away. Once we belong thoroughly to ourselves and believe thoroughly in ourselves, true belonging is ours.

Next time the urge comes to make decisions for everyone you love, remind yourself that this is their burden to carry, not yours.

Your job is to love people. Not understand them, not fix them, not save them, not manage them, but love them. 

Once you’ve cleared up all the old stuff that has been burdening you, what might your life have more room for?

Give me everything now, or leave me alone

In a world of increasing complexity, checklists are profoundly useful.

They can be used for greater efficiency, consistency and safety.

But more so in the micro than in the macro.

Because when it comes to our hopes and dreams, checklists stop giving us motivation and start keeping us lonely. It becomes a conspiracy against our own growth.

Like when we get obsessed about finding the perfect job or the perfect partner that will fulfill all our fantasies and solve all our problems with one stroke.

We’re waiting around, checklist in hand, for that angelic choir to come down from heaven to tell us that our desires have come true.

But the trap of this all or nothing approach to satisfaction is, it gives us permission to do absolutely nothing. Idealizing alternatives keeps us stuck where we are. It enables us to toy with the idea of some alternative future, but without ever taking the simple first step towards actual change.

Like we’re challenging the universe, okay, give me everything now, or leave me alone.

No wonder people drink. In our modern quest for the perfect whatever, we get burned with disappointment as the fantasy of the ideal crumbles into our flawed reality.

Reminds me of some mantras that would have been helpful to hear in my twenties and thirties:

Instead of waiting around for anything or anyone in order to live and love without holding back, open your heart to right now.

Instead of idealizing and pursuing this coveted dream that’s going to set you free, get in touch with the joy of right now.

Instead of assigning magical qualities to everyone and everything and then blaming them for falling short of your fantasies and expectations, trust the value of right now.

Because you never know. Something or someone that only crosses off half of the items on your precious little checklist might be exactly what you didn’t realize you were looking for.

Remember, there is a stark difference between the idealized world that we imagine in the abstract, and reality.

What checklist have you deemed your life necessary to follow?

Patting themselves on the back for being offended

When someone complains that all men are sociopathic skin hungry gorillas, or when someone whines that all women are irrational unpredictable nut jobs, two emotions run through my body.

The first is frustration. Thinking to myself, wow, extremes in anything accomplish nothing. Rarely do we find the truth by saying that everybody is something.

Besides, what does that thought get us? Sympathy from coworkers? Justification of our anger?

Fact is, thinking in extremes mostly leads to blind spots in our narrow vision. It enables confirmation bias, leaving us only seeing the people who are problematic.

Because when we’re expecting a certain type of person to suck, that’s precisely the sort of behavior that we notice, attract and accept.

Better to stop focusing on the bad and start forgiving people to find the good instead.

My second emotion is affection. Thinking to myself, wow, everybody is fighting a battle we know nothing about. Must be tough.

Here’s a compassion meditation that always helps me make sense of the world:

How is it possible that this person could think in such an extreme way, and under what circumstances would it make perfect sense for them to do so?

Simple. It’s because they have a trauma history and they’re trying to protect themselves. Somewhere somebody did something that resulted in them getting hurt, heartbroken, jaded and let down. It’s no wonder they make the leap of abstraction about a certain group. It’s no wonder they substitute generalizations for specific behaviors.

But this doesn’t make them right, insightful or provocative.

They’re simply a victim of all or nothing thinking, or what psychologists call dichotomous reasoning or cognitive distorting. It’s the automatic way of repeatedly interpreting something that causes us to not consider any other way of thinking about it.

We’re all guilty of it. And yet, our challenge for now is to simply notice it. Both in ourselves and in the people around us. And to check in with how we feel when it happens.

In a world where too many people are flooding their minds with outrage porn, patting themselves on the back for being offended and congratulating each other on how upset they are, simply noticing feels like progress. 

How long does it take you to understand your feelings and reactions?

There has been a cumulative impact on my psyche

Loneliness isn’t cured by merely hearing others, but by feeling heard by others.

Experiencing a real connection to people, but also believing that people feel connected to us too. Without that exchange, it’s more of a performance than a relationship.

Vanderkolk writes that social support is not the same as merely being in the presence of others. We can still feel lonely in a room full of people. We can even feel lonely in a romantic relationship. The critical issue is reciprocity, he says. Being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart.

There was one particular year of my life, right around age thirty, when anxiety attacks started to become a weekly occurrence.

Shortness of breath, waves of claustrophobia, accelerated heart rate, racing brain, it all just started bubbling up inside me.

Because at the time, I was stuck in that dysfunctional way of relating to people. My strategy was as follows.

Isolate myself until the panic of loneliness comes crashing in. Overcompensate by calling everyone in my phone and booking multiple lunch meetings and attending events nonstop. Treat people as props in my person play until feelings of sadness and fear are properly medicated. Then disappear into the shadows and wait for the cycle to start over again.

Not the healthiest way to build community.

Therapists have a name for this process. The adrenaline response cycle. Continuous delay, heroic effort, crash and recovery. It’s common in everyone from cocaine addicts to codependents to procrastinators.

And the problem is, the cycle causes chronic stress, which creates cortisol, which suppresses the immune system, which leads to heart disease.

No wonder anxiety attacks were happening to me so frequently.

There must have been a cumulative impact of this cycle on my psyche, and my brain couldn’t help but sound the alarm.

Back to the idea of reciprocity and social support. That was my root issue. Belonging and community and connection. There needed to be a wholesale shift in my method of relating to others. There needed to be a greater effort on my part to do things that made me feel more woven into the world.

My therapist was a life saver in helping me visualize this shift. He named it, the ships that your soul requires:

Friendship, partnership, companionship, fellowship and relationship.

People whose support and encouragement make me feel alive, and vice versa. It became my daily mindfulness mediation for the next two years. And slowly but surely, those ships began to manifest in my life.

They weren’t perfect. And there were plenty of crashes along the way. Even a few sunken vessels.

But on the whole, this goal of being seen and heard, feeling held in other people’s minds and hearts, and reciprocating that same experience back to them, created a new foundation.

One built of authentic connection, not codependent performance.

There is still much water to explore, but at least for now, it feels like am much healthier place to be. 

What can you choose to do today not to feel lonely?

The mess they leave behind as they pass through

Macho, obstinate workaholics who sacrifice their health, relationships and sanity so they can find some imaginary pot of gold at the end of the rainbow are not heroes.

They should not be praised and exalted as true artists or masters of their craft.

Deniro makes this mistake in the best scene of the best heist movie of all time. He says to the very officer trying to arrest him:

We can’t just go do anything else, because we don’t know how to do anything else.

Pacino agrees with him, too. The cop and the robber are in the same dysfunctional boat. Their work is the only thing they’re committed to. The rest is the mess they leave behind as they pass through.

But here’s the thing. By the end of the film, there are millions of dollars in damage done to the city and dozens of civilian and officer deaths. All because of these men’s calcified and stubborn mindset. Because being cops and robbers is all they know.

That’s not heroic, it’s simply a lack of imagination.

Truth is, if someone is exceptionally good at something, they can take that with them anywhere they go. There’s no hard and fast rule that says you have to be one thing in life. There’s no consistency committee who says you can’t pivot into something else. And there’s no career police to throw the book at you for letting go of the work that defined you in the past.

We’re adults. We can do whatever we want, including altering our course. The only thing that stands in our way of pivoting and channeling our gifts into a different venue is ego.

People who say they can’t do anything else because they’ve never done anything else and don’t know how to do anything else, are terrible learners. They are scared and close minded and lack creativity.

It’s like the people who say there’s nothing under the sun.

Bullshit. The sun is eight hundred and sixty thousand miles in diameter. If you can’t find anything new under it, then you’ aren’t looking hard enough.

If you want to be heroic, try walking away from something that’s working. Try having faith in your own abilities to take your talents elsewhere. Try surrendering the narrowly defined view of yourself.

Hollywood won’t make a movie about it, but at least your sanity will remain intact.

What are you dismissing from your mind because you know it’s not possible?

The shield versus the sword

Recently a woman asked me if wearing a nametag was my security blanket.

It’s a fascinating question. One that can be answered from both sides.

Because on one hand, a security blanket is a comfort object. It provides someone with psychological relief, especially in unusual or unique situations. It’s essential to that person’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

Whatever the inanimate object is, irrational as their attachment may be, it still helps someone get through tough transitions.

In that case, the nametag is absolutely my security blanket. Wearing it makes me feel special and unique and creative, and most importantly, connected. It literally and figuratively reminds me who I am. It’s the life purpose icon that anchors me in an otherwise chaotic, unpredictable and cruel world.

And while it’s not the heart of me, it’s still a big part of me.

But let’s flip the argument for a moment. Because psychologically, a security blanket is something that you feel naked without, right?

Well, that’s the thing about wearing a nametag. I actually feel naked with it. The act of writing my name on a sticker, slapping it on my chest and walking around with it all day, every day, actually makes me feel quite exposed.

It adds a public layer of vulnerability and accountability to my daily interactions with the world. Which means there’s no hiding. My identity is laid bare, right there on front street, all of the time.

And so, it’s the opposite of a security blanket. Think about it. What makes you feel safer than anonymity?

Reminds me of a compelling study from a modern media journal. The researchers explored how online platforms are environments that afford users the chance to strategically employ anonymity to circumvent rigid norms around socialization.

When people have the option to be anonymous, or at least browse under the guise of an avatar, they purposefully disassociate their interactions from their known identity.

Which gives them a safer space for learning about others, about the world, and about themselves.

Take the nerdy kid who is socially awkward at school. Thanks to his security blanket of anonymity, he can digitally engage with people successfully, which boosts his confidence for interactions in the analog world. Time well spent.

But the blurry line is when people start using anonymity as a sword, not a shield.

Take the isolated, angry bully who wants to make other people’s lives miserable. Thanks to his security blanket of anonymity, he can digitally spew hate and post his insane threats, which ruin the internet for everybody.

And so, like most things in this world, security blankets are all about how we use them. If comfort objects help us become more productive and healthy and fulfilled, outstanding.

But if they become yet another thing for us to hide behind that justifies our behavior, then they’re doing more harm than good.

Are you using your security blanket as a shield or a sword?

The fallacy of agonizing convenience

Japan has historically run the best railway grid in the world.

But recently, they began investing in a two year project which will save, get ready for this, exactly one minute on a single train route.

Thanks to that few extra kilometers per hour, passengers now have a commute that is a whole sixty seconds shorter than before.

The best part about this story is, their transit authority has been planning this move for nearly a decade. Which means the concept must have been thought about and worked over and debated for years.

Talk about marginal utility. How precious would it have been to be in the board room for that executive decision?

You mean to tell me that our commuters will now have one extra minute in their days? You sir, have just earned a promotion.

All jokes aside, though, too many of us make this same mistake. It’s the fallacy of agonizing convenience. We spend too much time, money and energy trying to optimize our tasks, only to marginally the improve results.

We burn precious resources that could be more meaningfully deployed elsewhere.

My old startup boss used to tell our marketing team, always set a specific time frame on certain tasks. Give yourself a deadline, even if it’s something arbitrary.

It’s smart advice for anybody. Because it applies to a number of situations that could potentially drive any of us crazy.

If we don’t find the umbrella in the next five minutes, let’s just spend five bucks on a new one and get on with our day.

Let’s work on this project until dinner, then we’ll call it a night.

Whatever new code we have written by the end of the week, let’s push what we have so far.

What’s the commonality?

We objectify tasks in a concrete, externalized way, creating a forcing function that prevents waste. And our work no longer falls victim to the law of diminishing marginal utility.

At that point, that extra minute of our commute won’t even matter anymore.

Do you really need the entire fire department, or just a guy on a bicycle with a bucket of water?

Never underestimate the predictability of human nature

Hostage negotiation consultants who run bank robbery prevention trainings have a mantra.

Ignore human nature at your own peril.

One of the tactics they teach to tellers is to disclose personal information. If your bank is being held up, and the robbers start shoving you across the room, introduce yourself. Repeat your name over and over again. Humanize yourself and condition the robbers to know who you are.

It develops a relationship with your captor. And when you find a way to become a real person they’re going to want to make friends with, not just a hostage, your chances of survival are far greater.

This tactic seems counterintuitive and intimidating, but once again, never underestimate the predictability of human nature.

Names are proven to reduce the social distance between people. Archeologists have been studying this phenomenon for years. Particularly when it comes to classifying human remains.

Leighton’s research, a widely cited study on the topic, notes that each additional piece of information that can be gleaned from a person acts as another layer of identity laid back onto them. And their name is the leading example.

Take away someone’s name and you turn them into a number or an object. You start an active depersonalization process, stripping the person’s body of its too obvious personhood.

But call them by their name, and you restore something of the person. You make them more real. Even through such small pieces of information.

It’s the opposite of the lobster boiling rule, which is, never name the fish before you cook it. It’s not your pet, it’s your dinner. Naming it makes it too real, which makes you want to save it, and not eat it.

And so, crustaceans notwithstanding, name matters. They have never not mattered. Doing so restores the balance of power and tips the scales towards humanity and connection.

It’s one of the reasons wearing a nametag has been so effective.

Because people can’t help but know my name, they can’t help but treat me as a person.

Hasn’t gotten me out of any bank robberies yet, but there’s always hope. 

Whom do you see all the time whose name you still don’t know?

What if protestors had to wear nametags just like the police officers?

One of my core arguments for why everyone should wear nametags is, dishonest and uncivil behavior becomes more difficult to do.

With nametags, we give others the gift of security by letting them know who they’re dealing with. There’s nothing to hide behind. Our identity is always verified.

There’s a social construct that forces us to sign our work and take a stand for our identity. There is no temptation to act from a position of anonymity.

And this isn’t just conjecture based on my twenty years of wearing one every day.

Nametags have been clinically proven to make people more consistently accountable.

Zombardo, the renowned social psychologist, conducted the premiere study on this principle. In the seventies, he wanted to see how physical anonymity lessened inhibitions. The experiment asked the women to dress in white coats and hoods. They were then asked to give electric shocks to unknown patients.

The thing is, the shocks weren’t even real. But the fake nurses didn’t know that. What’s amazing is, only half of the nurses were given nametags for their lab coats. And the ones who didn’t wear nametags actually held the shock button twice as long as the ones who did.

Funny how human behavior changes when people are allowed to hide behind the cloak of anonymity.

Maybe nametags are more powerful than we give them credit for.

Now, this interpersonal pattern plays out in numerous fields beyond the medical world. Law enforcement is one that’s been examined more recently. With countless news stories on the ongoing trend of police brutality, nametags have quite literally come under fire.

Many cops have ignored the police uniform standards requiring officers to display their nametags on their outermost garments, as anti racism protesting has increased in the past several years.

Buffalo’s police commissioner, concerned with the force’s safety following an uptick in online harassment of its officers, just stopped requiring his cops to display nametags on their uniforms. The policy was altered after more than a dozen police officers were doxed, which is new term for when people publicly share personal information of unsavory actors and their families online.

In response to the order, some officers started displaying their badge numbers on black tape affixed over their nametags instead.

Portland’s police bureau issued a similar order. Officers that were assigned to protests started wearing helmets with three digit numbers prominently stenciled onto them. According to local news reports, the bureau will also begin sewing last names of officers into their uniforms, which will replace their small and hard to read metal nametags.

Wow, talk about a sticky subject. Who knew nametags could be so controversial?

My opinion, as someone who has almost certainly done more field research on the topic than anyone in history, has several aspects.

The first one is interpersonally.

Police reform advocates have the right to decry the new policy to disallow officers to wear nametags. In the name of transparency, I believe the more nametags we wear, the better people ultimately behave. Think of the nametag as a microstructure put into place to limit ourselves to only practicing honorable action. It’s not perfect,  but it’s better than anonymity.

The next point is aesthetic.

This is going to sound kind of ridiculous, but it’s actually meaningful.

All nametags should be visible from ten feet away. Not unlike a price tag in a retail store, identifying someone whose job is to protect and serve and care for the public should be a fast and easy process within the reasonable sphere of social distance. Look, if people are going to engage in a dark and chaotic moment like a protest, then all the more reason to wear the nametag properly. Don’t make others work to see your name.

The final point is one that I haven’t heard anyone address yet.

In regards to public demonstrations, the protesters seem to be angry that cops aren’t identifying themselves. My recommendation is:

Why don’t the protestors wear nametags? If accountability and transparency are so damn important, then why don’t the people holding signs and screaming slogans take some ownership and identify themselves as well? Maybe they should put their money where their moniker is.

Remember, communication is a two way street. We can’t demand that police officers wear nametags if we’re not willing to put our own identities on the line too.

This isn’t the internet where anybody with a wifi connection can cower behind their cloak of anonymity and spit vitriol all day long with zero consequence.

When you’re out on the streets exercising your right to freedom of assembly, some sense of social reciprocity is needed.

That’s one of the things that separates us from the animal kingdom. Naming is an essential act of human communication. It’s a distinctly human activity.

Sure, labels can be toxic in many situations, but in the case of letting other people know who they’re dealing with, they’re good things.

Take it from someone who has been wearing a label every day for over half his life.

Nametags have made me more honest, better behaved and more accountable to my fellow man.

My career as a bank robber may be bankrupt, but my character isn’t.

Say your own name.

When was the last time you put your identity on the line?

What if the race to win was turning all of us into losers?

Kohn’s seminal book stands as the definitive critique of competition.

Contrary to accepted wisdom, he explains, competition is not basic to human nature. When life become an endless succession of contests, when our work is structured upon the need to be better than, and when our time is spent busy struggling to outdo others, we are actually poisoning our relationships and holding ourselves back from doing our best.

And in fact, if we can recognize competition as a destructive force instead of a sign of value, we’re already more sane than most.

Where has this theory been my whole life? Hell, I thought it was just me who believed our compulsion to rank ourselves against one another is slowly annihilating our species.

But plenty of people believe that humans compete when it isn’t necessary, and pay the price in the form of anxiety and disconnection. It’s good to be not alone.

Reminds me of my former boss. He was former collegiate athlete, and so, when it came to winning new clients, the guy couldn’t just play the game, he had to engage, compete, win, kill and gloat.

As if every potential customer was his rival. This person was just an it, an object, merely someone over whom to triumph, something to use for his own ends.

And look, of course the company founder needs to be hungry and have that killer instinct. But his compulsive and manic energy made the rest of us feel used, exhausted and scared.

Buber’s revolutionary theory of interpersonal relating comes to mind. He stated that the pulsing field of energy and the humming electrical current between people was the divine in action. When people regarded each other as subjects and recognize their otherness, there was the making of human relationship at its fullest.

But there’s no space for that when we’re lost in the scurry of constant competition. Which means we are all losers in this war isn’t worth fighting.

Is competition a deep part of our nature that we will never outgrow?

Hopefully not.

Could we one day live in a world where winning is no longer necessary because there are no enemies?

Hopefully so.

Isn’t it time to look more closely at what competition does to us?

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