Just because there was a shiny coat of paint over it

Mold on the walls is unsightly. Black and green spots don’t exactly make for a beautiful home.

However, painting over that mold is not a viable solution. Sure, party guests won’t notice over the weekend. But although paint may hide the ugly signs of a mold outbreak cheaply and quickly, it won’t remediate our problem.

Even if we buy several cans of that fancy water based fungicidal protective coating, we still have to properly get rid of the mold. Otherwise we’re vulnerable to potential health affects like nasal stuffiness, throat issues, coughing and wheezing, and eye and skin irritation.

This is the perfect analogy for managing our mental health. For those of us who have ever experienced anxiety, panic, mania or depression, we have learned how important it is to treat our source, not just our symptom.

The challenge is, it’s easier said than done. Most of us don’t have the luxury of being curious or compassionate when we’re in a chronic state of fight or flight. We just want the suffering to end.

Hence the paint. Out of sight, out of mind.

Gilbert’s book about the compassionate mind explains why this approach doesn’t work:

Our brains did not evolve for happiness, but for survival and reproduction. We need to learn how to accept, tolerate and work with difficult emotions or low moods.

When my anxiety started manifesting into chronic stomach pain during my twenties, my quick fix of choice was drinking magnesium tea. Surely this new anti stress dietary powder would help me maintain optimal relaxation and regulate healthy nerve function. And it did improve things a little bit, placebo or not.

Mostly, though, it just gave me diarrhea. There wasn’t a wholesale shift in my ability to regulate my emotions. My ability to manage my difficult emotions wasn’t the focus.

And so, the mold, aka, my anxiety, wouldn’t simply go away just because there was a shiny coat of paint over it.

This is the kind of result we get when we treat our symptom, rather than our source. When we start looking for yet another quick fix to solve our mental health issues, rather than stabilizing ourselves so we can do the real work, then we’re just adding another primer onto the wall.

Until the core causes of our anxiety are addressed, aka, the underlying factors that motivate our apprehensive behavior, our struggle will come back again and again.

Business analysts would approach this issue with something called root cause problem solving. Discovering the points of leverage where patterns of behavior originate and can be changed.

Their theory is, our problems are undesired results caused by structural relationships among system components. And so, acting as an analyst of our own behavior, we consider asking a few strategic but also compassionate questions.

What does this emotion want from us?
What is this anxiety trying to tell us about ourselves?
What are we afraid to feel right now?
What components of our life system might be in disrepair?
What relationship needs to heal emotionally so we can feel better physiologically?

It may sound a bit clinical, but then again, we take our peace wherever we can get it. 

Are you trying to solve symptoms that you thought were problems?

We ruin the gift when we demand to be acknowledged for it

It’s one thing to have a burning desire for individuality, but it’s another thing to have an insatiable need for an audience to applaud it.

This is perhaps the most egregious emotional mistake we make at work. Unrealistically expecting recognition of our success from others.

Because when we build our sense of security and value in finding acceptance and approval externally, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and resentment.

One reality that has become abundantly clear to me is, in a business environment, most company leaders won’t tell employees directly how much they appreciate their contributions. There are always exceptions, and many organizations will make a concerted effort to acknowledge the hard work of their team.

But it’s not wise to hang our identity hats on that. As someone who fervently longed for recognition for his efforts, my first few jobs were underscored mostly by frustration, rather than fulfillment. It was mostly my own fault, as I was depending on the false supports of worldly praise and approval.

Turns out, though, only when we withdraw from our over reliance on unanimous praise from the powers that be do we create space to give ourselves the recognition for our efforts we are truly worthy of. Inner applause, as my musician friend used to say.

Which is far less gratifying than getting a shout out from the boss in front of the whole team. But then again, do we really need our work daddies to tell us what good boys we are anymore?

One strategy is to walk into the office every day, framing our labor as a gift of generosity, not an obligation of labor.

Rather than becoming a slave to the market economy, we join the gift economy.

Hyde’s formative research about this transaction has had a huge influence on my approach to work. He writes that the way we treat a thing can sometimes change its nature. We can refrain from submitting our actions to the calculus of a cost benefit analysis, and give ourselves away without expectation of recognition. Because as long as our gift is not withheld, the creative spirit will remain a stranger to the economics of scarcity.

Meaning, once our work is shipped and handed over for our boss to review, recognition and praise are a moot point. They’re a nice to have, not a must have.

That’s the way true generosity works. We ruin the gift when we demand to be acknowledged for it.

This strategy lives from a place of inner satisfaction, not external validation. It’s highly fulfilling, and it’s something over which we actually have control.

Sure beats sitting around waiting for a pat on the back from a boss who has four thousand unopened emails in his inbox.

Are you seduced into feeding on the drippings of someone else’s approval?

You’re going to fire them and give me more money?

Companies always seem to want more and more from their employees.

Managers continue to ratchet up how much they demand from their team members, while workers get increasingly overwhelmed with unrealistic expectations about their jobs.

Bottomless corporate pits. Nothing you do is ever good enough for them, no matter how good you are, no matter much effort and hard work you put in.

Have you ever worked in that kind of environment? Or had a manager with whom you simply couldn’t win?

It’s frustrating, makes you feel invisible, it’s also highly demotivating. Why kill yourself if the work isn’t even going to be appreciated anyway? Where’s the incentive to do more?

But that’s capitalism for you. The better you are, the busier you are. Everything we do is economically measured compared to what came before.

Glassdoor, the anonymous employees review website, has thousands of complaints about this very problem. One employee wrote that her perfume counter was the best in the entire district, but her manager reprimanded her for missing her sales goal by two hundred dollars.

What the hell? Where’s the love? It’s like an adrenaline addict who demands greater and greater doses of gratification from each of their reckless behaviors.

Their tolerance escalates over time, and after each mountain trek or parachute jump or alligator grapple, they only want to accelerate faster into the next turn.

Harvard conducted a study on workplace stress and found an interesting paradox around this issue. Researchers found that if companies want to drive innovation and productivity, they may actually need to ask employees to do less.

Because when nothing is ever enough, employees are stressed, they don’t feel as engaged and they’re tired as hell. It’s like asking them to drive in fifth gear all the time.

But just because you’re good at doing something, and just because the thing itself is good to have done, doesn’t mean you should do more and more of it.

Question is, will companies ever learn to seek efficiencies with things, not people?

Capitalism would probably say no. The entire foundation of our economic system would collapse. After all, capitalism only works when more and more is being produced, so more and more stuff has to be sold.

Too bad more people don’t believe in less. It’s so much more calming. 

Have you stepped on an organizational escalator that you can’t seem to get off?

All the unnecessary pressure people put on themselves

There’s a fascinating distinction called the state versus the trait.

Neuroscience research suggests that any regular practice of a mindfulness based activity includes both state and trait changes. The practice temporarily changes the condition of our brain and the corresponding pattern of activity or connectivity, aka, state change.

But it also alters our personality following a longer period of practice, aka, trait change.

Think about certain habits people practice regularly, like exercising, meditation, journaling, insert routine here. Their state is the experience itself of practicing, which can be pleasurable, calming, insightful and relieving. It might only last for as long as they are practicing, and possibly a short period afterwards.

And for some people, that is sufficient enough to be worth their investment.

The other side of the spectrum favors the trait, which is the lasting beneficial effects of the practice.

For example, the trait of calmness or flexibility that may last for months, years or even a lifetime, positively affecting everything from someone’s blood pressure, mental health or romantic relationships.

What’s fascinating to me is, for many people, without that long term payoff, the practice isn’t worth sustaining. For them, the state alone is not enough. Simply enjoying themselves for twenty minutes feels great and everything, but they need to become a better person in the world as a result of having had that experience.

This is a noble mindset, but people should be careful not to make it yet another reason to procrastinate or discontinue a meaningful, healthy, enjoyable habit.

Because that’s a lot of expectation. That’s a lot of unnecessary pressure that they put on themselves.

Waking up early to go for a run before work is a delightful experience and satisfying victory in and of itself. That’s the state, and nobody says it has to go farther than that.

Let’s not become compulsive to positively alter our personality.

That’s the trait, and it’s a nice bonus, and there will probably be some long term effects if we stick with the practice. But let’s not burden every activity throughout our day with the need to have meaningful long term effects.

Sometimes you just want to sweat for an hour and make your brain feel good, without the need to get one step closer to enlightenment. 

What burden is following you everywhere?

How long will this process take? Only the rest of your life

Rehabilitation is a lifelong journey.

Whether we are managing our anxiety, controlling our addiction or dealing with some other physical ailment or emotional injury, all personal transformation happens through the building process of small acts.

Even if we are told that ninety days or six months or a full year is considered the gold standard of treatment for our condition, it’s healthier and frankly more realistic to assume that this healing process will take the rest of our lives.

That way, there’s no expectation of having even arrived. There’s only the daily practice of showing up, not attaching to any outcomes, and embracing the reality of this absurd adventure called life.

Naturally, most of us will not make this assumption. We will be impatient and rush and insist on immediate results, which, ironically slows down the process.

And the other irony is, the slower you go, the faster you get there. Everybody from yoga instructors to nonprofit founders to addiction counselors to horse trainers to spiritual gurus have made that statement, and they’re all right. Any journey of making ourselves whole is long, slow, painful, incremental and most frustratingly, unnoticeable journey. It feels like watching grass grow.

Reminds me of my gastroenterologist. After two years of treating my chronic stomach issues, he finally decided to discharge me. He joked that he never wanted to see me again. We both had a good laugh about it, although he followed up with one final doctor’s order:

Look, you’re a young guy, but life is only going to get harden on your body as you get older. Stress never goes away, you just get better at managing it. Stay ahead of it.

Never forgot those words. They chime inside my head all the time. Especially in moments when my body starts telling my story of struggle. Those arising sensations are stress hormones that are mobilizing, and they’re the data helping me figure out what emotions are present.

And every single day, until there are no more days, those sensations need to be acknowledged, accepted, and if needed, acted upon.

That’s how we heal. It’s the never ending homework assignment of being human, and we may as well learn how to get good at it. 

Are you willing to completely commit to the process of healing so your body can work its way to where it needs to go?

I’m the doctor here, so let me do the googling

One habit for preventing sending our brains into a frenzy is to step away from the keyboard when we’re feeling particularly emotional.

After all, the internet is a hypochondriac’s nightmare. It’s a minefield of confirmation bias, misguided judgments, amateur opinions and extreme scenarios.

Think of it this way. When was the last time typing your symptoms into a search engine actually made you feel calmer?

There’s even a word for it. Cyberchondria, which is defined by a renowned psychiatry journal as the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomology based on review of search results and literature online.

And that’s just one example.

Ellis’s book about overcoming destructive feelings explores something called anxietizing. It’s when we create our own anxiety about anxiety and make ourselves doubly or triply disturbed. Not because of events that happen to us, but because of our meaning and interpretations of those events.

And if we want to reduce our pattern of disturbing ourselves, he explains, then unconditional acceptance of self is critical. Ellis calls it an elegant philosophical solution in which we refuse to rate ourselves and our totality at all, and rate only what do and do not do.

In short, we must practice being kind to ourselves in small, concrete ways. Especially if stress, anxiety, panic or depression are particularly high. We are not doing or nervous systems any favors by trying to diagnose our own condition. I’m reminded of my friend, who is a highly respected obstetrician, and his favorite joke his to tell patients is this:

Look, I’m the doctor here, so let me do the googling.

All kidding aside, each of us must get into the habit of not adding fuel to our anxiety fire. Instead of escalating our already racing heart rate, we take more constructive, more compassionate, less hostile actions towards ourselves.

That might mean putting an embargo on the messages we allow unqualified people to give us, or being more careful about the messages we give to ourselves.

Look, isn’t the world already disturbing enough? Isn’t there already too much excessive information out there that’s gunking up our emotional feeds and disturbing our peaceful inner meadow?

Anxiety doesn’t need more anxiety, it needs more acceptance and love.

Taoist monks say that if we want to eliminate something, then we must first deliberately allow it to flourish.

Perhaps that is the ideal path to becoming calmer.

Not adding any more meaning and interpretation than we need to. 

What is your favorite way to disturb yourself?

The notable dropping away of fears

Our reptilian brain doesn’t speak the language of logic.

It’s a lower life form that exists solely to foster survival. The amygdala knows nothing of perspective and reason, it just detects threats.

And so, when we find ourselves tumbling down a fantastic realm of fear, that claustrophobic, hurried state where worry agitates the peace right out of us, the best thing we can do is call that fear by its name.

Buddhists call this inviting the demon to tea. We tell our fear that we see it, serve it as an honored guest, and let it stay for a while until it departs on its own.

It’s a beautiful practice for seeing the truth and holding it with kindness, rather than trying to drive it away.

One night I had the classic academic anxiety nightmare, involving me speed walking through my old neighborhood, running late for my very first day at a new job teaching seventh grade. Class started in less than an hour, the middle school building felt like a lifetime away, and some old lady was meandering slowly in front of me, as if to taunt me for being late.

Meanwhile, my lesson plan wasn’t even prepared, the teenagers were going to eat me alive, and the principal was probably going to fire me for tardiness.

But while my heartbeat continued to race, several facts of reality slowly started to unfold in my dream.

First, most middle school classes start at seven, but it was already nearly eight o’clock.

Second, there was no memory of any kind of job interview, offer letter or new teacher orientation from the school.

Third, I’ve never even been certified as a teacher.

Finally, my actual job is working as a writer at a marketing startup.

Wait a minute, this isn’t real. None of this is real. You know what this is. It’s just fear trying to make you scared of failing and being exposed and getting found out for the fraud that you really are. But that’s all bullshit. Because you’re a confident, competent professional who’s spent years deepening his ability to trust himself. You are worthy and everything is okay.

Suddenly, everything in my dream slowed down. My heartbeat, the pace of my speed walking, the passage of time, even the movement of the people around me.

This is what happens when you call the demon by its name.

It sits down for tea, stays for a while, and then departs on its own. Because it realizes that it no longer has authority over you.

Next time you’re feeling precariously balanced on your sanity ledge, try seeing the truth and holding it with kindness.

Introduce a little logic and perspective to give yourself a pep talk down off your ledge of anxiety.

When was the last time you became the nonjudgmental witness of your fears?

Bowing before the altar of enough

We live in a culture of more.

And so, we convince ourselves that we need a lot of things. Our mantra is, well, there is always more out there, so why not acquire it?

When the reality is, we don’t actually need that much. Pretty much everything beyond food, shelter, water, clothing and relationships isn’t really a need, it’s a want. And that’s perfectly fine. Wanting things is good.

But let’s not shit ourselves by pretending that our drive to acquire more and maximize everything is some kind of need. It’s a story that we’ve bought into.

Underhill, the leading retail anthropologist, famously explained that an amateur shopper is somebody who gets pleasure out of the act of acquisition, whereas a professional shopper is someone who takes pride in ownership.

Personally, both of those sound exhausting, expensive and excessive. For me, shopping for anything is the worst. And the fact that retail therapy is a real term is embarrassing. Our culture should be ashamed. Acquiring things, owning stuff, is this really the best we can do? Aren’t there more meaningful uses of our time, money and energy than reveling in the ecstasy of more shit, cataloging the wealth that we have accrued?

And by the way, this is not an argument for minimalism or consumerism or asceticism. It’s far more practical and way less grandiose. This is about being present, being enough, being content and being calm.

In my experience, the more that we puncture the illusion that getting things will save us, the less we realize we need, and the more we can actually enjoy what we have.

Pausch writes this beautiful story about the idea in his bestselling book:

My parents had raised me to recognize that automobiles are there to get you from point a to point b. They are utilitarian devices, not expressions of social status. And so, we don’t need to do cosmetic repairs. We just live with the dents and gashes. We don’t get angry because things we own got hurt. We don’t repair things if they still do what they’re supposed to do. The car still works. Let’s just drive it. Not everything needs to be fixed.

It’s time we rethought our relationship with the idea of more.

Just because we live in a culture of more, doesn’t mean we need to keep ratcheting up everything we do, have, say and be.

It’s time to amend our worship of improvement and learn to bow before the altar of enough.

What do you actually need less of?

Worried what will happen when their vision changes

Are you free enough to risk being seen by other people?

Most of us are not. At least, not when we’re young. It takes years of working on ourselves and working with others before we reach that level of comfort with self.

This explains why wearing a nametag was so awkward for the first few years. It’s not that people were suddenly noticing me, it’s that people were actually seeing me. Big difference.

Somehow, the fact that all these complete strangers on campus knew my name, and used it in public, penetrated the superficial acknowledgment that I was used to receiving. We connected on a deeper level, and wow was that scary.

Maybe people would find out the awful truth about me. They would see my countless insecurities and failures and quirks and realize they made a mistake by interacting with me and should probably take their friendship somewhere else.

To paraphrase on of my favorite artists, they see me better than I am, and I’m worried what will happen when their vision changes.

Doesn’t every scared twenty year old kid feel the same way? Weren’t all of us fighting some version of imposter syndrome in our trembling youth?

Dylan famously wrote that being noticed can be a burden. Jesus got himself crucified because he got himself noticed, the songwriter said, and that’s why he disappeared a lot.

Makes sense. Exposure makes you vulnerable. If you don’t exist, how can you possibly be a problem?

And for some people, especially those who have a history of physical abuse, the struggle with the issue of visibility is debilitating. They equate being seen with being unsafe, and so, they keep a low profile to avoid repeating their past.

Have you ever met someone who could barely make and keep eye contact with you? Someone for whom trusting was simply too expensive of an investment?

God it makes my heart ache. And the sad part is, only through our real moments of human connection can we heal this.

But deprived of the reality that comes from being seen and heard by others, we cannot develop the self to its fullest. We don’t all need to wear nametags, but we need to find a way to practice the complicated skill of being seen.

To become comfortable receiving people’s attention, without running away before they get close, without judging them for loving us, and without wondering how they’re going to hurt us next.

Are you worried what will happen when people’s vision of you changes?

Which of These Eight Writer’s Block Archetypes Will Set Your Creativity Free?

Writer’s block has been a widely documented problem throughout history.

Everyone from authors to cartoonists to songwriters to magicians have shared their struggles with the temporary loss or ability to continue producing work. Many of whom were driven to madness.

This problem goes back many centuries, but the official condition was first described in the late forties. Bergler’s psychiatry book studied writers who suffered from it. Bergler spent years with writers suffering from creative problems and, quite ironically, wrote books about his research.

He described writer’s block as a neurotic inhibitions of productivity.

If you’ve ever been there before, this definition is perfect.

The challenge with writer’s block is, there are as many expressions of it as there are people to suffer from it. Which means that simple definitions, proven tricks and clever hacks are not going to satisfy you.

In my experience as a creator who has overcome writer’s block literally thousands of times in his career, the first thing that you need is perspective and empathy.

You need to understand the many faces of writer’s block as it presents in numerous situations.

People ask me all the time how to overcome writer’s block, and I simply don’t have one clean answer.

Therefore, allow me to present to you a collection of archetypes. Each of these archetypes represent a different voice inside of my head that speak to me whenever neurotic inhibitions of productivity stand in my way.

Some of them may hit home, while others may not resonate with your personality, values or life situation. And that’s okay. It’s still helpful to view a single idea like writer’s block from many perspectives.

Here’s my comprehensive and slightly ridiculous list of ways to think about writer’s block, from world views you may never have considered before:

The ornery old man voice inside of me says:

Just suck it up and start writing you big wimp, it’s not going to kill you. Eighty percent of life is doing things you don’t want to do anyway, so welcome to the land of you don’t have a choice. Put your ass in the chair and start typing. Write about the fact that you have nothing to write about. Doesn’t matter. Just fill the page. If you can’t do that for fifteen minutes a day, find another career or passion besides writing. Because this is it. This is the work. There is no other discipline than taking words from your head and putting them on paper.

The preacher voice inside of me says:

Find a way to layer meaning on top of the mundane. Figure out what your primary currencies are. And then before, during and after performing the writing you do, pay yourself with joy to counterbalance the misery. When you finish writing, reward yourself. Jot it down on your victory log. Buy a sweet treat that’s so delicious it makes your molars tingle. You can inoculate yourself against writer’s block by framing everything you write, good or bad, as a fulfilling contributor to your meaning making mission.

The workaholic voice inside of me says:

If you can find a way to addict yourself to writing, writer’s block will become an impossibility. Think of it as a useful dependence on a healthy habit that generates a positive cycle of creativity. The more you write, the more you will like writing. The more you like writing, the more you will want to write. The more you want to write, the better your writing will become. The better your writing becomes, the more confident you will be. The more confident you are, the more you will want to write. And the circle just keeps going.

The urologist voice inside of me says:

Perhaps you’re putting too much pressure on yourself to write, and that’s creating compositional impotence. What if the real reason you can’t get it up, so to speak, is because you’re creating participatory anxiety before writing, or performance anxiety during writing? Like a man who over identifies with his penis, your masculinity and confidence are too tied to writing, and that’s where the psychological blocks arise. This could be an opportunity to detach from the results of your work and just try to enjoy the process instead. You never know what might, ahem, arise.

The naturalist voice inside of me says:

There’s no such thing as farmer’s block. If ranchers don’t tend to their crops and animals and land every day, there is no harvest. Unlike writers, they don’t have the luxury of even thinking about creative blocks. When the sun comes up, they go to work. Their progress may range from dull to spectacular, but they still accept both as part of the process. Imagine how your work would transform if you adopted the same posture to your creative efforts.

The realist voice inside of me says:

Think about journalists. They have deadlines. They execute against temporal constraints. They don’t have the luxury of even thinking about writer’s block, because if they don’t hit their word count by the end of the week, they’re fired. Maybe the fact that you have writer’s block is a tremendous privilege and you should be grateful to be in a position where your livelihood isn’t dependent on how many words you put on a page.

The proctologist voice inside of me says:

Writer’s block is compositional constipation. You could drink milk of magnesia, but the problem with laxatives is that you never learn how to push on your own. It feels good and it cleanses the system and it gets the gastrointestinal job done. But as my mentor used to say, when we give ourselves a crutch we don’t need, we develop a limp we shouldn’t have. As creators, our job is to be able to get things moving without outside assistance. To be able to gain perspective and control anytime you feel that we’ve lost it. 

The urban planner voice inside of me says:

Writer’s block is not failure of intelligence, but of infrastructure. You have to pave the way. Sitting down at a blank page is a cold start. It’s too overwhelming to the brain, which pushes you to do too much work inside your head. And it creates too many outstanding thoughts that plague the consciousness, which makes it harder for a person to think creatively. Dig your well before you’re thirsty. Live your life in a way that your writing gets done over and over. Make sure the heavy lifting is everything that comes before your eyeballs stare at the blank canvas. That way, as soon as your butt hits the chair, you can hit the ground running instead of killing yourself trying to will ideas into existence. 

# # #

Part of my reasoning behind launching Prolific, my framework for personal creativity management, was that we now live in a world where anyone struggling with writer’s block can learn every tip, trick, hack and secret known to man, within seconds, for free, to come up with new ideas.

But that’s not my expertise. I’m no longer in the business of helping people make longer lists.

The value of my product is, people who make things for a living can access a proven framework for preventing creative emergencies, rather than using fire extinguisher to put out the flames.

My product’s more sophisticated. The software shows you how to become the kind of person who doesn’t have to chase inspiration around town, waiting for it to settle. Instead, you forge everyday disciplines that contribute to the sheer accumulation of material.

I’m not in the business of giving you fish.

I’m not even in the business of teaching you how to fish.

I’m giving you the tools to build your own lake.

Maybe that voice will help you overcome writer’s block.

What if technology freed your brain up to do more interesting work that had a bigger impact on the world?

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