Thursday, April 26, 2012

Arts of the Cultivator's Lifestyle

A recurring theme this blog has been relaying is the inadequacy of a consumerist lifestyle.  The problems with which are more than economic; this isn’t some plea to “create more than you consume” because of economic justice or to play fair in the capitalist game.  Economics has nothing to do with it. Because despite the fact that most people create more than they consume by the economic definition (selling one’s labor for the market price), more than a handful of Americans feel the misery of a consumption net surplus because their minds are bent toward getting the next material fix, not in creating something.  They neither derive a sense of accomplishment from the economic value they produce nor use the pay they receive toward the act of creating.  That then is what determines whether a lifestyle that is consumerist. 

But consumerism is the way of the mediocre.  It’s the lifestyle that stresses free enjoyment via entertainment instead of achievement through blood, sweat, and tears.    It’s the path of short-term gratification with zero long-term benefits.  Thus, as I hinted a few blog posts back, the extent to which one is successful relies on how well he steers clear of soul-crushing, myopic materialism. The truly happy man then fills his day with work towards an endeavor of material achievement.

So, unplug the tv and video games, and hold off on buying the next item on your shopping list, because if you want to be a player in the game instead of a spectator, you better incorporate at least a few aspects of the creator/cultivator’s lifestyle.   Below are examples of endeavors creators spend their days doing.
  •   Play a musical instrument, even if you don’t perform.  Remember, you’re trying to improve or to create something.  You’ll find that even though it takes effort to learn and improve, you will feel mentally empowered after a practice session for that very reason.  Performing is a double bonus that also gives an amazing high.  
  • §  Draw for fun.  So instead of toying with your iphone when you’re waiting at the doctor’ office, pull out a pencil and drawing paper and start sketching, either a figure from your imagination or something in your surroundings. 
  • §  Write habitually.  Keep a journal and a blog where you document your thoughts, experiences, and fantasies.    Your written musings shouldn’t be for some descendent living 150 years later marveling at ancestral genius, or even for present readers.  The benefits to writing are in the process itself and the sense of achievement it brings.
  • §  Read constantly.   While not an act of creation per se, reading cultivates the mind, providing the necessary knowledge and inspiration to accomplish any endeavor of life.  And if you don’t say you have time to read, I don’t want to hear it.  I carry a book with me everywhere I go – squeezing a few extra pages here and there – while others hang around idle.  Moreover, saying that is complete BS, pure and simple.  Each one of us is allotted the same amount of time as everyone else.  It’s never about time; it’s about priorities.   That excuse is nothing but a method to rationalize your laziness.  If you’re sane, then you read, because there is no way you can figure everything out all by yourself.  Just think of this way:  If knowledge is power, and if there is a near-infinite amount of knowledge ridden in books, then if you don’t read, you’re a tool, vulnerable to the multifarious abuses the world will scrap you with. 
  • §   Compete in sporting games or races, because winning feels so good.
  • §  Start body building. There’s a reason people love working out, and it’s not just about the vanity in the mirror either.  It’s the high you get when you put conscious, labor-intensive effort into creating a better mind and body. 
  • §  Have a hobby that involves building things with your hands.  A few such hobbies are woodworking, pottery, gardening, building models, or tinkering with machines.  Overall, just build something you’re proud of. 
  • §  Don’t just cultivate your own life –make an impact on others by assuming a mentorship role.        
I could go on, but the general theme leaps out, giving the reader examples that form a clear, crystalline understanding of the things creators spend their time doing.  These activities scare the amusement-seeking American because they require work, intelligence, and discipline, even as it is from this very reason that the ambitious individual so actively engages in them.  A sense of accomplishment and self-worth comes from avoiding the easy and partaking in the difficult.  The cultivator then has little need for indulgences because he has lifted himself up on a higher plane of existence, where his pleasure is derived from the nurturing of his soul and the reinforcement of his self-worth.  His is the lifestyle that revolves in a virtuous circle.

 You may harbor doubts about surviving from the consumerist sinking ship, but be consoled from the examples of others who have thrived on in dangerous waters.  If they can do it, you can too. And I applaud anyone who makes that leap.     

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Importance of Setting Daily Minimums

If you are a normal human being, then you've probably had goals that you’ve been struggling with.  You climb and climb, but no light shows itself at the end of the tunnel.  But more often than not, the light remains elusive because we stay put where we are, lacking the consistent effort to practice day in and day out.  It’s easy to work hard for a week, but laboring for months and sometimes years for a pursuit that isn’t even necessary at the time requires a soul that lies on a higher echelon of caliber.  So most of us endeavor to push our boulder up the hill, only to give up half-way and watch it roll back down. 

In this post, I’m here to relay a specific method that will empower you with the consistency to roll that boulder all the way up your chosen hill of achievement.  Here it goes:

Set a daily minimum – a short, easy-to-do minimum.  So easy that, no matter how busy your day is, you can’t possibly have a BS excuse for not doing it.   I’m talking 10-15 minutes, the time it takes you to take a dump.  An alternative would be to set your minimum on a different metric other than time.  For example, instead of writing 15-30 minutes per day, write 150-300 words a day. 

Now, if you have any ambition at all, then you better being doing more than your minimum. A lot more.  But the point of this is twofold. First, setting a minimum breaks unwanted inertia.  Some days you just don’t feel it, so the only way you’re going to get off your ars is if you know you won’t have to do it very long.  And who knows, once you get in the rhythm, maybe you won’t want to stop.  Second, making your decision to fulfill a daily minimum beforehand, not susceptible to the momentary whims of the day, you’ve multiplied your productive labors considerably.  Let me explain.  Everyone is allotted 365 days a year to work on their goals.  However, depending on the person, as many as 100 days are wasted just because we are either too lazy or too busy doing other things.  This is why setting a minimum is so important.  It turns those 100 some-odd days of inactivity into 100 days of practice and improvement.  Those days may not be filled with much, but that’s another 25 hours on your craft – and more if you add the synergetic effects of consistent practice and subtract the regression inherent in inaction.   

Minimums are even more effective when applied to areas where your ambitions are merely modest.  If writing, playing music, or art, to name a few among many, are only endeavors you have no aspirations to be great of but nonetheless things you want to be somewhat decent at, then take a meager 15 minutes to work on them.  You won’t be an expert, but you’ll be pretty darn good, especially if you hack at it for several years. 

Obviously there are caveats -not every anvil lends itself to beating every sunrise.  Lifting weights is one example where one or two rest days per week are necessary.  But most activities can and should be partaken in everyday for a period of time. 

This isn’t some magic formula to mastery – you’re going to have to work a lot harder than that.  It’ll simply provide the benefits of consistency and more practice as well as fight the oxidizing residues that come with slacking off.  

One last note.  You should be doing this already, but write every thing down. See how long you can keep it up, and take pride in not letting down.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Amusing Ourselves to Death

     It’s been twenty seven years since Niel Postman wrote his excellent book Amusing Ourselves to Death.  And while it has sold a quarter million copies, its influence has been marginal, as America’s love-affair with the TV has only swelled to new heights since Postman first decried it.   But if Postman attempted to reverse America’s favorite pastime, one cannot fault him too much for failing, as stopping it’s tide is about as difficult as preventing a flood with a bucket of sponges. 

     Why is this the case?

     Because if there is one problem with American’s, it is this: We are addicted to amusement and entertainment. 

     Every educated high-school kid should have read both George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.   Although both of these authors warned of totalitarian control, the dystopias they articulated are profoundly different.  Orwell described individuals being oppressed by outside, active control.  Huxley, on the hand, described individuals voluntarily forfeiting their rights in return for circus and bread.  If the people don’t mind the State dictating their lives, it is only because they have been narcotized into bliss.  The question is, which scenario will pan out, if one at all? 

     Postman argues that the answer to this question does not revolve around which policies the Government will implement, but rather the environmental influences technology will exert.  Specifically, he argues that is the Television that will ultimately prove Huxley right; if we do ever get swept into oblivion, it will be because we dance and dream into it, rather than march into it single-filed with handcuffs.   

     In his indictment of TV, Postman rips to shreds the notion that all technology is “morally neutral.” Technology does more than just increase economic efficiency; it straddles intellectual and moral implications as well.  The specific medium (technology) a society uses for its inter-communications has radical consequences for the level of discourse it has. A strictly oral culture will feature different legal and intellectual structures than a culture dominated by the printing press, which in turn will be different from one dominated by TV and radio.  For example, if one were to settle a dispute in an oral society, one would seek a seer who had memorized thousands of aphorisms, which he would cycle through until he found one that is applicable to the dispute.  In a world with the printing press, a dispute would be settled by consulting a lawyer who had devoted his lifetime to studying the written, systematic law. The world of TV would do the same, with the added benefit of televising it for entertainment. 

     The technological medium also exacts its toll on the national discourse as well.  The written word allows someone to convey far more complex concepts than the spoken word.   The printing press changed the world by flooding it with novel ideas, complex concepts, and thus created (relatively) rational discourse. The medium not only spread the available information to a wider audience, it changed the character of the content as well.  In the case of the printing press, the character of the content laid the groundwork for advancing civilization. 

     The advent of TV also had consequences for society.  When information can be transmitted at the speed of light, the news is going to be far more trivial and present-oriented (more ephemeral and less important) than when it takes a week to send by messenger.  And information that is clouded by a vast array of visual images will be different from the information contained in a book.  Technology has consequences, and not always good ones. 

     Television makes you stupid.   It’s inane, trivial, and mind-numbing.  And it’s not just the junk either; what’s surprising is that the more serious its subject matter, the more it will corrupting its influence will be.  Everybody falls for entertainment.  Entertainment under its real name won’t be the death of us, (no, just for you). But entertainment under the guise of intellectual discourse will be. 

     Earlier this morning, I heard someone talk about how the Obama administration criticized the fact that Romney had strapped his dog and its cage on top of his car while on vacation.  (OK, I probably have a few details off. Who cares?) After hearing this I couldn’t help but think that we are amusing ourselves to death.  Why on earth would the media mention this? Why would people listen to it? Certainly not to deepen one’s thinking or to expand one’s applicable knowledge base.  The only purpose this political gossip serves is the same as celebrity gossip: Entertainment. 

     That’s just it.  TV will turn anything it touches into pure, mindless entertainment.  It’s so much easier to watch shows concerning politics, religion, economics, sports, history, and education than it is to read books about them because the former is invariably dumbed-down to exist for your own amusement.  Hence we believe that we are discussing serious matters even when we’re not thinking at all. 

     And there lies the problem the TV poses to America: TV is Reason’s kryptonite, as it enshrouds even the most intellectually-stimulating matters with an acid cloak of superficiality, entertainment, and free-goodie, destroying in the process every remnant of rationality and deep-thinking.  TV, by its epistemological nature, can never be the medium for rational discourse that the written word is.   

Some of you may take refuge in the argument that TV is good because it makes good information wide and available.  I will dismiss such naiveté with a quote by Hannah Arendt:

     "This state of affairs, which indeed is equaled nowhere else in the world, can properly be called mass culture: its promoters are neither the masses nor their entertainers, but are those who try to entertain the masses with what once was an authentic object of culture, or to persuade them that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and educational as well. The danger of mass education is precisely that it may become very entertaining indeed: there are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say." 

     Although referring to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, she may as well have mentioned political theory, religion, history, sociology, and education as well.  Things can survive neglect, but can they retain their integrity when they have been made compatible with the TV?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Escaping consumerism, riding to greatness

Probably the most effective key to success, aside from harnessing the powers of the mind as advocated by self-improvement gurus such as James Allen and Napoleon Hill, is climbing out of the materialistic hole of consumerist culture.  I’ve written before of the utter vacancy of American consumerism, and how swimming in its streams will award you a ticket down the path of unhappiness and misery.   In this post, I endeavor to take this one step further, and argue that consumerism is like quicksand, dragging you down into its pits farther away from your spot in the sunlight and farther away from your goals.  No man ever achieved a goal worth fighting for by being a consumer, just like there are no great men who are remembered by being consumers.  Newton, Shakespeare, Dickens, Da Vinci, Gates, the list goes on... were all individuals who acquired greatness because they created, not just consumed.  Consuming is easy; creating is hard.  Anybody can indulge in mindless entertainment, whether that takes the form of watching TV, eating junk, or buying the latest fad.  Not everyone can create something worthy of merit, not without effort that is. 

Although men are primarily driven by the sense of accomplishment, this drive will be usurped by the call of short-term gratifications.  Once he takes the bait, he will be sucked in an acid vat of vacant tail chasing, always striving for more because enough is never enough.  It’s like the fattie who eats more food to feel better about himself; it’s a temporary balm with negative long-term consequences.   Man’s drive toward accomplishment is then zapped, being overridden by his exercises in self-indulgence.  His pleasure lasts only until he amuses himself to death. 

Moreover, the consumerist pressures society imposes mark the most significant hindrance to any aspiring individual.  The key is escape them.  Jesus of Nazareth was right all along.  The gates of hell are wide and the pearly gates of heaven narrow. One must escape this world to succeed.  Your plan of self-improvement is a direct boycott of consumerism. 

What I’ve said before merits repeating: Build, create, and refine, not just consume.  This is something that we all, especially myself, need to put more effort into.  Society has dumbed our standards down so low that we are often under a false sense of complacency.   

In whatever case, be the guy who sees the crowd from the field’s view. Don’t be the critic Theodore Roosevelt scoffed at. Consuming offers neither the glory of victory nor the blow of defeat.  Instead you have to put yourself at risk, knowing that you will fail again and again.  But on the back of failure rides success.  You will have haters, and you will revel in them. But most of all, you will feel a high that no consumption of entertainment, substance, or thing will ever give you. The high of achieving, the sense of accomplishment, and the splendor of action will spur you on to the road of greatness.