Showing vulnerability

Pencils with tips of various colors

When I meet a new person, I like to mention¬†that I’m color blind in the first few minutes of conversation. This vulnerability‚ÄĒa disability, really‚ÄĒis a reliable conversation booster. People jump at the chance to skip smalltalk about the weather or traffic and to inquire¬†instead whether that means I can’t see any colors at all. And how do I know when the traffic light is green?

Bringing up my color blindness gets conversations going because mentioning a vulnerability disarms the person you’re talking with. It signals that your goal isn’t to brag or impress and that you’re willing to chat about things that are not perfect. People find that refreshing.

Showing vulnerability works because it contrasts with what you normally hear from people. When you speak with your cousin for the first time in years, they might tell you about their new job and how much they love it. When you browse Facebook, you’ll probably see a parade of weddings, graduations, and babies. Many people only post about the highlights of their lives and not about their struggles.

Sometimes I go too far talking about my color blindness. When I go on about it, I can see in people’s eyes that they’re itching to walk away. The trick is to bring it up and stay on the subject just long enough to firmly establish the conversation. Then I need to change subjects quickly.

That’s because nobody I’ve just met wants to hear me talk about myself for a long time. They don’t want to hear me complain either. The goal isn’t to tell my conversation partner my life story, but to build some rapport. When you do this, you’ll be able to tell when the person you’re speaking with is engaged in the conversation. And when you notice that, start asking them questions. That’s your best bet to get a conversation going.

So next time you’re about to start some smalltalk, try mentioning one of your vulnerabilities instead. For instance, when you’re at a birthday party, you could mention that you’re pretty shy and you don’t know many people there. Often the person you’re talking with will understand and will help you feel more at ease or help you fit into the group. It might be uncomfortable at first to show your vulnerability, but try it.

And in case you were wondering, I do see colors‚ÄĒjust not as many‚ÄĒand the green light is the one at the bottom.

Daytime places

Empty subway car

Yesterday evening I visited my family and made my way to their place by bus, ferry, and train during rush hour. The bus was late, the ferry was packed, and the train was both. If I had to make this trip every day as a commute, I might think the public transit around here isn’t very good.

Fortunately, I have the luxury of being able to avoid rush hour most of the time. Like stay-at-home parents, retired folks, and people working part-time or unusual schedules, I usually experience transit in the middle of the day. So when I take the bus, it’s sometimes nearly empty. I don’t run into many traffic jams either. And that’s despite living in Amsterdam, a city that‚Äôs growing quickly and that attracts millions of tourists a year.

So when people with a nine-to-five job tell me public transit around here isn’t very good, they’re not really talking about the same service that I am. They experience rush-hour service and find it lacking‚ÄĒwhich it does. I tend to experience off-peak service and find it great‚ÄĒwhich it is!

Most of us only see a small portion of the world and we see it at specific times. If you have a nine-to-five job that doesn‚Äôt involve traveling, you‚Äôll see your office during the day, roads during rush hour, and your home in the evenings and weekends. You don‚Äôt get the full picture of these places. You don‚Äôt see their full identities. It’s how you see your dentist: at work, hovering over your face, but not when they’re playing tennis with a friend.

The changing nature of places might be obvious to the museum guard who works the night shift or the air traffic controller who sees the morning rush hour and the afternoon lull. But that isn’t the daily experience for many people, especially not for those with more or less fixed schedules.

So when people with regular jobs ask me what I like best about my break from working, the freedom to avoid rush hour is near the top of my list. It’s efficient to go places when they’re not as busy, because you can get around faster. But mostly I like how relaxing it is to avoid the crowds. The world seems more peaceful.

The danger of bookstores

Piles of books in a bookstore

Having a lot of unstructured time on my hands, I read¬†quite a few books. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read books at this rate since I was in primary school. It’s such a pleasure to lose myself in a book on the bus or train to the point where¬†I almost miss my stop. But as I read more books, an old problem has gotten worse: bookstores are now a dangerous place‚ÄĒfor my wallet.

When I walk into a bookstore that has a selection I like, it’s as if I check my financial discipline at the door. It’s unusual for me to leave a good bookstore without buying at least one book. That’s been the case for a long time, but when I was busy with work or study I could tell myself not to buy (as many) books. I didn’t have time to read them anyway. Now that I have plenty of time to read books, my inner bibliophile has free reign.

Part of the problem is that I really like paper books. I like how light they are, I like that I can toss them around, and I like that I can drink coffee while reading a paperback without worrying about spilling any on the book‚ÄĒa paperback doesn’t have electronics that can break. It also looks good to have a collection of paper books on display in the living room.

Although I prefer paper books, I don’t dislike ebooks. Reading on an ereader can be convenient, particularly‚ÄĒI imagine‚ÄĒif you have a newer model with¬†a big screen, a high pixel density, and backlighting, which I don’t. My ereader is fine, though. I doubt I’d¬†prefer to read ebooks even if I had one of the latest devices, although¬†I can’t say that for sure.

When I read, I use my visual memory. Sometimes I remember a certain passage that I want to re-read and I can usually recall which quadrant of the pages it was on. You don’t get that experience with ebooks and it’s one of the comforts that makes me prefer paper books. I suppose on an ereader I could bookmark such a passage, but how do you do that when you don’t know in advance which passage you’ll want to re-read?

I like hardcover books best of all. I tend to think they’re too expensive, but I’ll buy one occasionally. Fortunately, most library books are¬†hardcovers, so when a book I want to read is available at my library, I win twice: it’s free and comfortable to hold while reading. To protect my wallet, the best thing I can do is to visit my local library and stay away from bookstores.

But the added value of good bookstores is their selection of books. The library may have many good books, but I’m more likely to hit upon an interesting book while browsing a bookstore. So while they remain a dangerous place for my wallet, I just can’t stay away from bookstores.

Why I love breakfast

Bowl of breakfast food

It happened a few years ago‚ÄĒI don’t recall exactly when. I started preparing oatmeal each morning, the non-instant kind. I had never spent much time on breakfast and usually¬†ate¬†bread with chocolate flakes or a bowl of yogurt. Then I discovered the wonders of a warm bowl of oatmeal and, later, a hot cup of coffee. Perhaps I was trying to balance my¬†fast-paced job with a slow-paced breakfast. An act of defiance, of deliberately taking it slow.

Breakfast is one of my favorite parts of each day.¬†When I¬†take the time¬†to prepare and eat a proper breakfast, I’m¬†building a healthy mental attitude towards the rest of the¬†day. When I prepare and eat my favorite breakfast, I¬†spend time working on me¬†before I get to anything else. And I do it¬†without rushing.

It’s partly biological. By the time I have breakfast, which is usually between 7 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.,¬†the last meal I’ll¬†have had will have been the night before, so perhaps 12 hours ago. That’s a long time not to eat anything.

The coffee is¬†just as¬†important¬†to me as the oatmeal. I make my coffee using a¬†Chemex, although¬†I have a French press too. My favorite part is grinding the coffee beans by hand. It takes a surprising amount of force to turn my grinder’s¬†handle and that might be precisely why it’s so rewarding to feel¬†the coffee beans crack.

Curiously, taking the¬†time for¬†breakfast also helps me to go sleep on time. There were times when most nights I stayed up too late to get eight hours of sleep. Often it was to read in bed, which was a distraction from the reality that I wasn’t looking forward to the things I’d have to do the next day. Now that I have what you might call a breakfast ritual, in the evenings I look forward to the very first thing I’ll do the next¬†morning.¬†When you tremendously enjoy¬†the first thing you do each day, it’s not so hard to get yourself to go to sleep.


No news is good news

Burning house and car

Take a look at¬†today’s front page of your favorite newspaper, in print or on the web. Odds are that the top stories are bad news. Maybe they are¬†about a mass shooting, about dysfunction in¬†your country’s political system, or about how difficult it is for folks to find jobs these days. You’d think everything in the world is terrible and¬†getting worse.

So when I say that “no news is good news”, I don’t mean that a lack¬†of news is good news, as the traditional interpretation of the phrase goes. No, I mean that there¬†is hardly any good news¬†on the front pages of newspapers. Not usually on the front pages of news magazines either, although news magazines seem a bit less negative.

Journalists and news editors will cover whatever news people want to read,¬†so I don’t think it makes sense to blame them. In fact, I don’t think it’s necessary¬†to blame anyone. I’m even tempted to say that it’s not a problem that¬†so much bad news exists. Not a problem for you or me, anyway, because a simple solution exists: don’t read bad news!

Except it¬†is a problem. The¬†omnipresence of bad news might make you think¬†that the world is a¬†much worse place than it actually is. When you spend less time reading big news stories and when you think about your daily life, you’ll likely find that the terrible things going on all over the world don’t affect you much. So to get a more accurate perspective on the state of the world, consider¬†reading¬†less news or different news.

Fortunately, plenty of other news sources exist. I tend¬†to read to more specific news, such as¬†articles about my favorite American Football team, the Eagles.¬†I also follow blogs on topics such as local infrastructure development, personal finance, public transit, and bicycling culture. It’s news, but not the bad kind of news you’ll find in so many other places.

Mr. Money Mustache and Tim Ferriss have called the¬†approach of¬†reading less news¬†a¬†low-information diet. Mr. Money Mustache takes a hard line, suggesting that you don’t follow the news at all, with¬†maybe an exception or two.¬†For instance, he¬†reads The Economist, with the intention¬†to¬†read well-researched stories once a week or so and not¬†following live blogs of the latest bombing or political crisis.

I’m slowly moving away from closely following general (and thus often bad) news myself. A few¬†months ago I canceled my newspaper¬†subscription¬†because I find myself being interested almost exclusively in the¬†non-news parts of the paper.¬†One of my favorite parts is a weekly feature that examines the structure of a particular family’s daily life. What time does each of the family members get up and go to bed? Does the family have breakfast together? What do the family members do after work in the evenings? But this feature is only a small part of the newspaper and I consider it a waste to subscribe to the entire paper, only to read a few parts of it. I’m looking for a magazine with stories like these, although I have plenty to read already. Maybe I’ll browse some magazines in my local library.

In the end, I’m not here to tell you to read less bad news. But I do want to stress that the world is a much happier place than newspapers make it seem. If you want to get a more realistic view of events that affect you, consider cutting down on the front-page news.

Can you do one thing at a time?

Cartoon man juggling many items

Here’s something¬†to ask yourself: can you do one thing at a time?¬†For instance, can you ride a bus and only ride the¬†bus? I mean doing so¬†without simultaneously checking your Facebook, listening to music, having a phone conversation, or reading a news article. Can you simply ride the bus?

I find it incredibly difficult to button¬†one of my dress shirts, for instance, without¬†trying to do something else simultaneously. It happens far too often that I button half the buttons on my shirt, then walk over to¬†the living room to address something that popped into my mind while buttoning. I might water the plants or clear out the dishwasher. Then when I¬†realize that I’m¬†walking around with a half-buttoned shirt, I feel ridiculous!

In one of his wonderful talks, Alan Watts said something to the effect of “Zen is sweeping the floor when you’re sweeping the floor”. I don’t claim any personal knowledge of what Zen is, but I understand this idea‚ÄĒsometimes a task requires hardly any effort at all when you give it your full attention. Conversely, the simplest things, such as buttoning your shirt or tying your shoelaces, can be¬†maddeningly difficult when you’re just trying to get them over with.

Things reach a new level of difficulty once you realize¬†that thinking is a form of doing too. Can you do something without thinking about another thing at the same time? For instance, can you shower without mulling over important decisions you’ll need to make and¬†without making mental lists of all¬†you want to accomplish that day?

It’s trendy to observe¬†that the world is moving quickly and to suggest that you can find more peace or calm if you slow down. So you might imagine¬†that life will be better in some way when you do one thing at a time, which is really a form of slowing down. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. For instance, your¬†job might ask you to¬†keep an eye on several processes at once and being able to do so might be a big part of the value you add to your employer. In that case, it’s useful be able¬†to do several things at once.

But I do think it’s important to have the skill of doing only one thing at a time so that you can do it when you want to. Maybe that’s when you want¬†to enjoy a beautiful moment¬†rather than worrying about something unrelated. Or maybe that’s when you want¬†to calm yourself down before an event that makes you nervous, such as speaking in front of a group.¬†Either way, if you’re not used to doing one thing at a time, you can make those moments more difficult than they need to be. So try doing one thing at a time. If you can’t do it, it might be worth considering how you can add this skill to your toolbox.