“Begin as you mean to go on.”

I’ve heard that phrase a few times, so this year I’m trying it out. I used to be a writer — not a professional writer, you understand, just in the more general sense of “a person who writes”, but I’ve been quite inconsistent with it and it no longer feels natural to me. It’s one of only two things I have enough natural talent for to actually be good at, so losing my touch troubles me. Consequently, I’ll begin 2014 by writing, beginning with this post, and intend to go on doing so. We’ll start out easy — 700 words a week, fiction or non-fiction, and as part of those 700, at least five days where I write at least 100 words — no slacking for a week and then having to do it all at once. It’s a low bar — this post is almost 150 words already. But the goal is consistency, not volume. I can raise volume later. Maybe I’ll even work my way up to doing NaNoWriMo this year (which requires around 1700 words a day every day). Also, looking back over this paragraph, I should also plan to work on using dashes less. ūüėõ

I’m not one for resolutions, but I like to think about intentions at least, where I’d like to put my attention in the coming year. So let’s see:

  • Writing
    • Consistency
    • Opinion pieces. I’m tired of limiting expression of my views to flame wars in Facebook comment threads — it’s time to be pro-active more often than re-active.
    • Income from it would be excellent. Not necessarily enough to live off of, just a little extra here and there, and if it were passive income, best of all.
  • Personal relationships. Meet more new people, date more, connect with my next SO.
  • Minimalism. Get rid of as much of the unneeded stuff in my house as I can to ensure there’s room for the stuff that is needed, and space to think and write and live.
  • Fitness. Gettin’ old over here, my body is telling me I need to do more to maintain it. ūüôĀ

I think that’s enough to work on for now — maybe I’ll revisit later.

How are you beginning? How do you mean to go on?

I hate gratitude.

Gratitude is so venerated in our culture that it feels awkward to say that, despite my indifference to most cultural norms. Gratitude is one thing that nearly everyone agrees on, from the mainstream (check it out, there’s a whole holiday based on it in November — October if you’re Canadian), to the spiritualists who insist that gratitude is not just a noble pursuit for the sake of others, but the path to well-being for oneself, to the scientists who are publishing studies saying that the spiritualists have it right — there are measurable health benefits to the regular practice of gratitude.

And yet I despise it. The word triggers a powerful feeling of resentment that I doubt many could relate to. It’s a loaded word, evocative of someone making demands, denigrating me (and look at how the word grateful and denigrate share a good chunk of letters — though not, thankfully, a root word), and trying to guilt me into something. “Ingrate.” “You should be grateful.” It’s a moralizing word, an attempt to manipulate through shame, a word used by the powerful to attempt to gain compliance from the powerless, or, failing that, to punish them emotionally for refusing to comply.

The idea of feeling grateful makes me feel sick inside. It’s bound up with a feeling of inferiority, of lack of agency, of inability to do for oneself and neediness and dependence. The powerful may be self-reliant or even benevolent, but the powerless lack the ability, therefore they must be grateful for what is done for them.

Gratitude is a dirty word to me, an evil word, a tool of oppression.

And I’m not sure why. I can’t seem to identify any memories that would account for this visceral reaction, this immediate and instinctive hatred that wells up at the very mention of a word that, to everyone else, seems to represent something wonderful and healing, something that helps them focus on the positive and keep their heads up in hard times.

I’ve considered the words for some related concepts and they don’t have the same effect. Starting on Google with “define: grateful”, I come up with “feeling or showing an appreciation of kindness; thankful.” and “synonyms: thankful, appreciative”. No problem with any of those words. Appreciation is great, thankfulness, when appropriate, is fantastic. These emotions come from a place of equality for me, or at least a power-neutral place.

“define: appreciative” gets a little more complicated: “feeling or showing gratitude or pleasure.” Ignoring the word gratitude (or perhaps substituting thankfulness) makes this a positive thing, but check out the synonyms: “grateful for, thankful for, obliged for, indebted for, in someone’s debt for”. Ooh. Obliged. Indebted. Now you OWE someone something. Oddly, I associate those meanings with gratitude, but not with appreciation.

“define: thankful” is simple and positive: “pleased and relieved”, with synonyms “grateful, appreciative, filled with gratitude, relieved”. Again, apart from the Evil Word, nothing to balk at here.

I almost stopped there, but then went back to that word “obliged” and decided to check it out. And here’s the root of the problem: to oblige means to “make (someone) legally or morally bound to an action or course of action”. Legally or morally bound. Synonyms? “require, compel, bind, constrain, obligate, leave with no option but, force”. Heavy stuff. One moment we’re talking about being pleased and relieved, and it’s only two small steps from there to requirement, compulsion, binding, constraint, obligation, optionlessness, and force. It doesn’t get much more disempowering than that. And, for whatever reason, that’s what gratitude is for me.

I may never be able to have a positive relationship with gratitude. If you do something for me, I may be appreciative, thankful, pleased, and relieved, but I will never, ever be grateful. If asked, “what are you thankful for?”, I may happily relate a long and storied list. But if you ask me, “what are you grateful for?”, I suspect the answer will always be, “nothing, and fuck you for asking”.

Three days in…

This week I have been re-acquainting myself with the Tao Te Ching and exploring meditation. In this short time, meditation has already improved my mood noticeably. I look forward to seeing what it can do over a longer period.

I have also unearthed some memories, personality traits, and motivating forces that were buried under the detritus of years of living, such as the desire to write which inspired this post. I also look forward to seeing what further surprises of this nature lie in store.

In Which I Turn to Douglas Adams for Advice on the Boston Marathon Bombings

The media are in a frenzy today with stories about the Boston Marathon bombings. KGO Radio’s coverage this afternoon was entitled, “Terror in Boston: The Aftermath”. The portions of this broadcast I heard were characterized by discussions of how little we actually know and descriptions of “high alert” security measures being enacted in major cities across the United States.

I don’t wish to make light of the events at the Boston Marathon yesterday, and I very much look forward to hearing that the perpetrator has been caught and brought to justice. My heart goes out to the families who’ve lost loved ones and the individuals in pain as a result of these events. But with those things in mind and in light of how little we actually know about what happened and why, I feel it necessary to say:

Let’s keep a sense of scale here.

Here are some notable mass killings in the United States in the past 20 years, in order of increasing lethality:

Name Date Location Dead Injured
Centennial Olympic Park Bombing 07/27/96 Atlanta GA 2 111
Boston Marathon Bombings 05/15/13 Boston MA 3 183
Batman Shooting 07/20/12 Aurora CO 12 58
Columbine High School Massacre 04/20/99 Littleton CO 15 21
Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting 12/14/12 Newtown CT 28 2
Oklahoma City Bombing 04/19/95 Oklahoma City OK 168 680+
September 11 Attacks 09/11/01 NY VA and PA 2996 6000+

That really puts things in perspective, don’t you think?

The Boston Marathon attack yesterday was one of the least fatal attacks in recent history. We have no idea whether it was perpetrated by an organized terror group, a single unbalanced individual, or some other sort of organization altogether. We have no concept of what the motive was or when or how or where the attack was planned and prepared. It much more closely resembles in scale the 1996 Olympics bombing (perpetrated by an American member of a Christian terrorist organization) and last year’s shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado (in which the shooter was a single individual of unclear mental health status working alone).

What all of this adds up to is one simple conclusion:

DON’T PANIC.

In 2001, the September 11 attacks resulted in a dramatic curtailing of our liberty, which has done little to make us more secure and much to make us less free. Those attacks were also used as a flimsy pretext for an unwarranted war in Iraq (an act of terror which has killed significantly more Americans than the 9/11 attacks themselves).

What was described on the radio today as taking place across the nation today is what we call “disproportionate response” (everywhere except for Boston, where immediate response is warranted). People are already talking about terrorist groups, speculating about war, grounding flights because they hear people speaking Arabic, and just generally allowing the terror to take hold.

STOP IT.

If we allow the terror to take hold — if we use this as a pretext for more unjust killing, if we allow our government to use it to deprive us of more of our freedom — the terrorists have won. You’re doing EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANT YOU TO DO.

Wait for the investigators to do their jobs and to come up with some information that’s actually worth acting on. Until then…

Keep calm and carry on.

Twain always has something relevant to say.

“The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” -Mark Twain

A quick search of the interwebs turned up several instances of this quote on different sites, but no context. As such, I can’t be certain whether it was intended solely in a literal sense, or if Clemens was using it as an example and a metaphor for a broader idea. I prefer to think the latter, however, as it seems equally true for pursuits other than reading.

To generalize the sentiment, we could say: The person who fails to wisely apply their talents has no advantage over those who lack them.

I think I’ve been stuck in a rut lately of allowing many of my talents to fall into disuse, and thereby deriving no value from them. Fulltime employment (perhaps paradoxically?) increases the challenge of making use of any but a narrow subset of my skills, as few of them are relevant to my position. Employment consumes more of the time and energy available to me for such pursuits than I actually have, leaving me destitute of one or both at the end of each day.

I am not sure what to do about this, except to try to squeeze in a little bit here and there. This blog entry, for example, is a baby step toward keeping my writing skills sharp. It was begun on the bus this morning, tapped into the keyboard of my phone, and completed this evening, in a narrow slice of time between finishing the laundry and heading to bed. I’ll try to do likewise tomorrow. The “micro-blogging” medium of Twitter and Facebook is suitable only for the most superficial of updates; to say anything that has any meaning to either myself or anyone else requires more space. So I suppose I’ll try to do “mini-blogging” instead. Not the long, detailed posts I would prefer to write had I the time and energy, but whatever words I can wring out onto your screen in the space between the things it seems I have to do.

Like going to bed, roughly now-ish.

Jobs Are Overrated

Next up in my survey of things that are overrated is traditional employment: jobs are overrated!

There isn’t much I’m going to say here that hasn’t already been said more eloquently by a host of bloggers across the web. ¬†But I would be remiss if I didn’t include this topic in this series of posts, as I do believe that the popular addiction to traditional employment is harmful to many (but not all) of the people who are affected by it.

So, just what have I got against jobs?  Plenty of things!

  • Little control over your time. Most jobs require you to be there at a fixed time and remain there for a fixed time — whether it’s a typical 9-5 or a variable schedule set by a manager. ¬†The standard 40 hour workweek takes up a big chunk of your time and, combined with a need for a healthy amount of sleep, leaves you with less than a third of your weekday to yourself — especially after considering the “overhead” involved in getting ready for work, traveling to and from work, and taking your mandatory lunch break (which, let’s face it, typically doesn’t really give you the time or freedom to make good use of it as personal time). ¬†At my last job, my “eight hour” workday often cost me twelve hours — 7 AM to 7 PM. ¬†Leisure activities, relaxation, education, and personal growth must be squeezed in around this massive drain on your time. ¬†At the typical job, you must do your work when you are told.
  • Little autonomy. Jobs generally require you to work in a location determined by your employer, whether it is conducive to your productivity or not. ¬†They also tend to entail working on tasks decided by someone else in a manner that suits their whims, regardless of whether those are the best tasks or the optimal methods. ¬†As I write this, a Metallica lyric from Eye of the Beholder comes to mind: “You can do it your own way, if it’s done just how I say.” ¬†(I’ve embedded a link to the song at the bottom of this post.) In the workplace, your job even has the authority to make you attend unproductive meetings and perform busywork which do not in any way contribute to getting your work done — and it’s your responsibility to make up this time! ¬†At the typical job, you must do what you are told, how you are told, where you are told.
  • Little influence. By necessity, not everyone can be in charge, and the larger the company, the less say the typical employee has. ¬†Which means that unless you are in a position of power, odds are you will have little to no ability to change the company’s course if you can see a better way to do things, have a new idea that might benefit the company, or know that the choices being made by those in charge are illegal, unethical, or just plain stupid. ¬†Many companies are loathe to change, and even those that are open to change usually improve at a snail’s pace, a phenomenon I refer to as “moving at the speed of business”. ¬†At the typical job, you have very little influence on those who tell you and others what to do.
  • Little security. Have you ever heard the saying “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket?” ¬†It’s generally considered a bad idea to gamble all your savings on the performance of a single stock — why would it be a good idea to gamble the continued existence of your income on the performance of a single company, or sometimes even the whims of a single manager? ¬†If your company goes under, downsizes, or gets acquired, or if someone in authority simply decides they don’t like you, you could lose your entire income overnight. ¬†This can happen to anyone, any time, as our recent banking crisis and continuing recession have proven. ¬†At the typical job, you have no reason to believe your job will still be there tomorrow.
  • Little compensation for achievements. If you saved or earned your company an extra ten thousand dollars tomorrow, how much of it would you see? ¬†If you’re lucky, you might get a thank you. ¬†Maybe a small gift card, if your company is particularly generous. ¬†Likewise, if you learned a new skill tomorrow that made you a more valuable employee, many companies would not recognize and compensate that — your increased skills would merely result in an increase in the company’s bottom line, with no guarantee that you would receive any benefit from it whatsoever. ¬†At a typical job, an increase in your value to the company does not guarantee an increase in your compensation.
  • Emotional factors. Allow me to let Dale Carnegie discuss this point for me:

    ‚ÄúPsychiatrists declare that most of our fatigue derives from our mental and emotional attitudes… What kinds of emotional factors tire the sedentary (or sitting) worker? Joy? Contentment? No! Never! Boredom, resentment, a feeling of not being appreciated, a feeling of futility, hurry, anxiety, worry–those are the emotional factors that exhaust the sitting worker, make him susceptible to colds, reduce his output, and send him home with a nervous headache. Yes, we get tired because our emotions produce nervous tensions in the body.‚ÄĚ -Dale Carnegie from How to Stop Worrying and Start Living

    ‘Nuff said.

On the whole, employees in many companies are treated like children. ¬†They are required to get up at a time determined by someone else’s whims, go where they are told to go, sit where they are told to sit, do what they are told to do the way they are told to do it, risk, receive less in compensation than the value they create for the employer (by necessity — if they didn’t, the employer wouldn’t make any money), run the risk of their income being cut off at any time for any reason or no reason at all. ¬†If they disobey the authority figures, a system is in place to discipline them and bring them back in line. ¬†A routine of this nature was not fulfilling, beneficial, enjoyable, or conducive to personal growth and well-being in elementary school, nor is it any of these things in adult life. ¬†This is a system designed to force individuals to sacrifice their well-being for the good of the company without regard for their individuality, liberty, or humanity.

Isn’t it ironic so many of us in the so-called “free world” willingly choose to live as slaves?

This is the reason why I seek self-employment, and why I would suggest that anyone who is dissatisfied with traditional employment do the same. ¬†Freelancers set their own hours (which, admittedly, may be long, but that is a personal choice and not an arbitrary requirement imposed by others), their work, their clients, their methods, their workplace (where applicable), and their compensation and benefits (limited only by the amount of business they are able to do). ¬†The freelancer has the power to make decisions and to quickly change things that aren’t working, and with multiple clients comes a security from sudden and immediate lack of income — if you lose a client, only a fraction of your income is lost instead of all of it. ¬†If you have a profitable idea or increase your value as a worker, you personally reap the benefit of that in your income. ¬†You can focus on types of work that are less fatiguing to you, and if you find yourself feeling stressed anyway, you can take a break. ¬†Self-employment has a great many benefits over regular employment, and while it’s not a panacea and there are indeed people who are perfectly happy with their jobs, I think the world would be a happier place if more of those who are dissatisfied with traditional employment investigated self-employment as an alternative.


(Note: This song has a long intro which starts very quiet — it may take several seconds after you press play before you actually hear anything.)

Degrees Are Overrated.

We live in a world where degrees are overvalued and misinterpreted, and from an efficiency standpoint, I understand why this is. ¬†It’s very difficult to thoroughly evaluate the depth and breadth of a person’s knowledge, so degrees serve as a shortcut of sorts. ¬†They supposedly offer proof (or at least evidence) that the possessor has learned a certain set of information and skills, both specific to a field and of general use. ¬†In truth, though, they are often more a measure of tenacity than of learning. ¬†If you can follow directions and buckle down and do what you’re told, you can get a degree, and that degree will be indistinguishable from one earned by somebody who learned and explored and bettered themselves. ¬†And although the degree is a poor measure of a person’s retention of knowledge and abilities, it’s the system that’s in place and until something better comes along, it’s what people will continue to use. ¬†And I can’t blame them — who has the time to do a comprehensive analysis of every job candidate’s true level of education, and how many job seekers would tolerate it? ¬†No, we can’t get rid of degrees, however inadequate they may be.

As an aside: my father works in IT for a government contractor. ¬†Co-workers are often impressed by the depth of his knowledge, and from time time to time will ask where he got his degree. ¬†They are often surprised to learn that he has none. ¬†This reaction is ludicrous. ¬†It’s as if the population has been brainwashed into believing that attending a major university is the only way to learn anything. ¬†Perhaps this is the reason so few people read anymore — maybe they believe they cannot possibly learn anything from it because there isn’t a professor or tuition involved.

What a horrible way to live your life.

There is a solution, however to this whole “degree” mess, for some people if not for everyone. ¬†That solution is self-certification.

I encountered the idea of self-certification at a talk given by Cem Kaner, a prominent figure in the world of software quality assurance. ¬†Mr. Kaner was asked whether he believed it was worthwhile to pursue the numerous “testing certifications” available to QA professionals. ¬†He recommended instead a path of self-certification, which he explained consists of writing articles, giving talks, and generally making a name for oneself in one’s chosen field. ¬†Effectively, if your reputation precedes you, your lack of a degree is irrelevant.

This, I imagine, plays better with a self-employed lifestyle than with traditional employment, although I can’t imagine that being a recognized authority in your field could fail to help you get a traditional job. ¬†But self-certification requires some attributes that formal education either does not or helps to provide. ¬†To become self-certified, one must be internally motivated — there are no due dates or deadlines, no assignments to complete, no tests to study for, except those that one chooses to seek out. ¬†It requires a much more pro-active approach than going to school, where your primary task is to do what you’re told. ¬†Self-certification requires you to seek out ways to contribute, opportunities to create and share within your field, chances to get your name out there by helping others in a public forum.

Self-certification is a very different type of process (and in some ways a more valuable one) than seeking a degree. ¬†The very act of seeking to make a name for yourself in this way is a double win — your skills improve, allowing you to provide even greater value, while you simultaneously approach your goal of having a way to demonstrate the value that you already have. ¬†By pairing the strategies of self-education and self-certification, you can avoid the inadequacies of both traditional education and the degree system that goes with it.

Formal Education Is Overrated.

(Note: This is a repost of an article which appeared on my LiveJournal on January 24, 2009.  I am transferring it over because it is the first in a series, which will be continued soon.)

I’ve never been a fan of formal education.

Maybe it works for some people, but it never worked all that well for me. I’m just a self-directed kind of guy, and working on someone else’s tasks to someone else’s standards on someone else’s schedule is nothing but irritating to me, and it hampers my education. The bottom line is that I love learning, but I can’t stand being taught.

My biggest problem with formal education is pacing. Most classes run at a fixed pace for a fixed period of time. That just isn’t how I learn best. Sometimes I make a cognitive leap in a subject and want to keep learning non-stop for hours or days on end. Other times I’m just not feeling it and the best thing I can do is set the subject aside for a while (hours, days, weeks, months, or even years) and let the concepts I’ve already absorbed gel before proceeding. Maybe I’m unusual in this regard, but I think it more likely that teaching at a constant pace is a sub-optimal system for many students. Even students who learn well at a constant pace will probably prefer a pace quicker or slower than what the instructor has chosen.

There is, however, a reasonable argument to support this system. It’s easier to teach if everyone’s learning the same thing at the same time at the same pace. It’s also easier to tell if someone’s falling behind, in the instance where there’s a deadline involved. Reluctant students may be more likely to complete a class if there are numerous fixed checkpoints along the way. Thus, our traditional educational system works in favor of the instructor and the least common denominator. The focus is on the numbers, working to herd students through the system in the largest numbers possible with the least inconvenience and cost.

This means that the students with the most potential must either fend for themselves or slip through the cracks. It’s sad, but it’s true, and it’s far worse in high school than it is in college. I was very disappointed in the “education” I received from my high school, which was very proud of its status as a “California Distinguished School”. My brief stay in Portland taught me, through meeting high school students and speaking to their parents, that Oregon schools are even worse. I advised one student there that if she wanted an education, she would have to take responsibility for it herself. High schools aren’t interested in educating kids, they’re only interested in processing them through the system with a minimum of fuss and hassle.

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

-Mark Twain

And really, that’s the key. If you want an education, you must take responsibility for it yourself. I can’t tell you how much harm I’ve done to my education in my younger years by misguidedly allowing my schooling to interfere with it. I permitted the school to persuade me that they were taking responsibility for my education, and sat back in expectation of its delivery. I was appalled by the paper-shuffling busy-work that I got instead, but continued waiting for the fulfillment of the promise, encouraged by the words of the adults in my life. In elementary school, “you’ll like middle school better”. In middle school, “you’ll like high school better”. And in high school, “you’ll like college better”. And finally I left high school early to go to Middle College, because every level of schooling before had utterly failed me. I had become more and more unhappy as the promises that things would be better next year proved to be not only empty, but bitterly ironic as things got WORSE every year. It wasn’t until I rejected traditional schooling and sought out an alternative program that I found a way to even make the situation TOLERABLE enough to graduate (and even then, not on time).

My bad… though I don’t know what I could have done differently with the limitations (both real and imagined) and lack of information I had to work with at the time.

But there is a solution to these problems, at least for those who are no longer beholden to the educational system. There’s a viable alternative to a college education — a college-level self-education. You may not wish to get the knowledge you seek from schooling, but you have to get it from somewhere, and believe me, it’s out there! I’m working out the details of how to go about this right now. It seems to me that the first step is to work out a curriculum — you have to know what you want to learn (perhaps not everything, but at least a starting point) before you can begin to assimilate knowledge. This is the step that I’m working on now, and is what prompted me to inquire about what should be included in a well-rounded education. I’m presently in the position of being able to design one for myself, and want to put some thought into it rather than just accept the structure that was thrust upon me by a system that thoroughly alienated me.

After deciding the general categories of my education, I’ll be narrowing each down to an initial focus, investigating and choosing educational resources, and beginning to read — I do expect that most of the knowledge I’m looking for will be found in books, despite my personal preference for the Internet as a source of information.

There’s still a hiccup in this plan, which I will investigate in another post — independent scholars face an additional challenge in having their studies recognized by those (such as employers) who use such things as a basis for decision-making. There are, of course, exceptions and ways around this, but as I said, that’s for another post.