Round the Bend

May 9, 2013

Good work, or good works… you decide.

I had the good fortune this week to read Round the Bend, by Nevil Shute, a popular and prolific novelist of the first half of the 20th century. Round the Bend is said to be his favorite work, if not his most popular or critically acclaimed.

Unusually, for a novelist, Shute was an engineer and translated his engineering experiences and mindset to popular fiction. Thus, the narrator of Round the Bend is Tom Cutter, an aircraft mechanic and pilot who starts a successful charter business in the Persian Gulf. The book works as an interesting story about doing business in an exotic location, but its real subject is Connie Shak Lin, a mechanic that Cutter hires. Shak Lin is a most unusual man; he preaches a doctrine of aircraft maintenance that relies heavily on religious precepts, and he gains a following. That he is a Christ figure is made clear and, yes, as such he is controversial and dies a conventionally early death.

I don’t mean to review the book or give away its plot; however, if you read and liked Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance you will surely enjoy Round the Bend.

I was intrigued by the connection made between good work and a good life, a connection that is at least implied in most of the world’s religions. Speaking for myself, I have known two men who seemed, to me, to be at least a little holy without being jerks about it, and both were men who worked very hard at their respective trades.

One is a land surveyor, my former employer and undoubtedly one of the finest boundary experts in California. His holiness derived from relentless pursuit of evidence, clear thinking, and the sort of scrupulous honesty that can be damned annoying at times. Perhaps that doesn’t sound all that holy, but to me it was—I know that his example inspired me to be a better surveyor and a better man, and that I am one of many who would say the same.

The other is an architect and contractor, a man I interviewed for several magazine articles. His books and personal example have been immensely inspiring to thousands, and I personally believe that some of his writings amount to scripture. However, he has no religious air about him—rather, he has sweated and worked on job sites around the world, seeking to physically embody timeless ideas in buildings that will live on as testaments to his beliefs.

Both men are primarily businessmen, which might seem a little strange if you look to conventional religion for your spiritual inspiration. But again, speaking for myself, I have known more than my share of ministers and gurus, and have yet to find any as genuine as these two teachers.

So I conclude that if I am to find salvation in this life, it is more likely to come from doing good work than by having a particular set of religious beliefs.

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I am being cranky, in anticipation of being cranky.

It’s looking like fall, which gets me thinking about the end of Daylight Savings Time, which gets me thinking about the nature of control. You see, I’ve never really bought into the idea that DST is actually helpful, that it actually provides any sort of boost to productivity or the economy. For one thing, the DST refusenik states, like Arizona, seem to get along just fine, and for another thing, there is nothing like statistical evidence in favor of the idea. So why does it get enforced year after year? Why are we forced to screw with our sleep and work schedules, and deal with a few groggy mornings every year? Why, indeed, must some of us die for DST, since there is a slight-but-predictable spike in car accident fatalities during its annual imposition?

Simple paternalism, for one thing, the State insisting that the weak and neurotic people need guidance in order to achieve maximum productivity. As if we couldn’t, as businesses and as individuals, make our own adjustments to the waxing and waning of daylight.

But I have long thought that there is more to it than that. I think that it serves the State very well to enforce a biennial reminder that we puny governed ones are so weak and hapless that even time itself is out of our power—the control of time is a privilege that the State arrogates to itself.

A similar mechanism of control can be seen in the regulation of ‘decency’ on radio and TV. For think about it; me, you, and most everybody we know—including our sainted mothers—drop the F-bomb now and then and are quite able to determine for ourselves when it is appropriate and when it is not. But, again, the State insists on inserting itself into something as basic as language, tells us indirectly that some of our words are not sooth or legitimate and must be suppressed. Here, the State asserts its right to control even the way we speak to each other.

And so it goes. We are only allowed to tinker with our own brain chemistry in certain ways, are not allowed to acknowledge our genitals and procreation without snoopy regulation, cannot contract privately to copulate with each other, cannot even bare our breasts, be we women, in most places, most of the time.

Control. It’s all about control. I don’t subscribe to the idea that there are shadowy groups of über-humans planning and coordinating all these exquisite mechanisms of regulation; rather, it’s more as if human culture keeps running up against the ontological grain of the universe. We are like a free-flowing river continually constrained by dams and, yes, we occasionally—every few hundred years, or so—break out of our constraints violently, take back our right to simply flow downstream, as is only right.

I don’t understand it. I simply observe, and weep.

P.S. If you like this essay, you’ll love my new eBook, Confessions of a Heavy Thinker.

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“… power remains an essential component of conscious growth. Without it, you can be no more than a passive victim of your reality. With power, you become a conscious creator.” – Steve Pavlina

Power can seem like a strange thing to list as a core principle in a philosophy of personal growth; after all, we trust in the universe and the various laws of manifestation, right? And power is only desired by our greedy corporate overlords, right?

Well, no. As Steve Pavlina points out in Personal Development for Smart People, power is something like money—you absolutely need it in some circumstances. And, even Biblically, it’s not money that’s the root of all evil; it’s the love of money. The same is true of power. Really, to consciously accomplish anything in your life you need some amount of power, if only the power to decide what you really want for yourself. And, like money, the use of power can be good or bad, dark or light; it’s not inherently or automatically anything, it’s merely a neutral resource that can be developed and tapped.

And of course, when a righteous, generous, intelligent, and otherwise virtuous person has a measure of power, they are able to do things that benefit all of us. We want some people to have power, the more the better.

So, how does one develop power? Steve begins with an idea that appears in a lot of self-help and channeled literature, an idea that I agree with absolutely… and I am not really an ‘absolute’ kind of guy. He says, “It’s impossible to build your power until you accept total responsibility for your life.”

Don’t blame others, don’t blame genetics or fate, don’t blame circumstances. Don’t complain or whine or seek revenge. Don’t spend your life looking for the right diagnosis. Don’t try to evade or deny your role in creating your life circumstances. To give a concrete example, if you’re overweight—you’re the one who ate what you ate.

What about extreme circumstances? E.g., what if you’re in jail for a crime you didn’t commit, framed by some evil person? Or what if you’re born into a violent, poor society, as exists in some parts of the world? The thing is, even if you can identify other people who have done bad things to you, it’s still best, for you, if you accept responsibility for your circumstances. That attitude leaves the power to make changes in your hands. If you have problems, you are the one who will need to solve them anyway—odds are, no one is coming to rescue you. As Steve says, “Blame can only make you powerless. It doesn’t matter who contributed to your current situation—all that matters is that you must live with it. No amount of blame can make that burden any easier.”

A New Criteria for Goal Setting
Under the subheading Focus, Steve makes a point that’s new to me; good goals will do something positive for you in the present. That is, one way to evaluate a goal, and it’s resonance with your values, is to determine if setting the goal makes your life better right now. For instance, you could make it a goal to own your own business in two years. And maybe the thought of owning your own business makes sense and seems logical. But if it’s really a good goal, for you, it will do something positive for you immediately even if that something as simple as giving you a sense of inspiration. In the case of a goal to own your own business, possible immediate benefits are easy to list: less concern about current office politics, clarity about what to do with an inheritance, motivation to take a class you enjoy, etc. Conversely, the thought of owning your own business could feel overwhelming, or perhaps it makes sense ‘on paper’ but you really can’t develop much passion for it. Analyzing the immediate effect of a goal, even a goal that could take years to accomplish, really is a great way to evaluate goals. That was a very useful takeaway for me.

On the other hand, Self-Discipline (another subheading) is needed to keep working on a goal. I think Steve is at his best with chapters like this; he’s completely comfortable with concepts like the Law of Attraction, and manifesting, but he’s also forthright about the effort and discipline needed to make effective change. It’s useful and meaningful to discuss these concepts in a book on personal development. He says, “Imagine all the wonderful accomplishments that will be within your grasp once you become disciplined enough to consistently follow through on your best intentions.” He’s right of course, and his advice on developing self-discipline is helpful.

A Few More Interesting Points
Steve links power with desire, which I found interesting. It reminded me of another writer, (Seth Godin, maybe?) who talks about an ever-present danger in our culture; becoming a cog. In other words, we find a job that slots us into a certain role, and as we learn to live a passion-free life filling that role, we steadily give up more and more of our personal power. If we really want something, if we desire it strongly, we will find ways to make it happen… and that’s power. So one way to build power is to identify the things we really want, and use that desire to fuel our passion and our commitment to change.

Under the subheading Self-Determination, Pavlina addresses social conditioning that can prevent us from clearly identifying what we want in a given situation.”Life is constantly asking: What do you want?” he writes, “You have the freedom to answer that question however you wish.” This is an extension of the above point about desire; to really tap into power, we need to evaluate goals to see if they come from within, or from social conditioning. You may feel some pressure to advance at work, for example, because that’s what people do. But if it’s not really what you want, you’re unlikely to make real change happen.

You have to get over cowardice and timidity if you want to build power. A tolerance for failure is present in all powerful people and, as another writer has said, “The willingness to be embarrassed is one prerequisite for an interesting life.” Together with negative cultural conditioning, cowardice and timidity are the three blocks to power Steve discusses and the remedy for all of them (and other things besides—he likes this concept) is Progressive Training. That is, find ways to gradually increase your power and self-discipline, rather than make big dramatic resolutions. It’s much like weight training; by progressively adding small amounts of weight at intervals, one can work up to lifting very heavy weights. Similarly, by finding easy ways to progressively build qualities like self-discipline and responsibility, one can eventually become a truly powerful person. For example, one can gradually develop the ability to work productively for eight hours a day by first committing to a daily quota of just one productive hour, or half hour, each workday… and then adding, say, 15 minutes per day per week. Practical ideas are given, such as setting quotas and establishing more productive morning routines.

A Check In
I started reading and posting about Personal Development for Smart People back in July, so maybe now is a good time for a check in on my own experiences. I have been journaling, and find that very helpful. But I can go further with that; I tend to pick a topic that’s on my mind and write freely about it, and that works great, but I wonder if I could be a little more proactive with my writing by selecting things I want or desire, rather than always writing about the challenges I face. Journaling on ideal scenes, which I’ve done once, seems extremely productive.

The chapter on Truth has proven to be extremely powerful for me. I wrote originally that it, “…didn’t really knock me out,” and I hereby retract that. In fact, by focusing on truth and clarity I have made some dramatic changes so far this August. I have begun a morning practice of weighing myself and measuring my waistline, and recording those figures on spreadsheets. I also work out my current financial net worth each morning, and record that as well. All the spreadsheets include a line that graphically tracks the change I need to make each day in order to meet one year or five year goals.

It’s been transformative. Not only did I completely end my denial about my current health and weight and financial standing—which, I don’t mind telling you, precipitated a couple of ‘come to Jesus’ moments—I also know definitely whether or not I’m making progress on health and wealth goals. And for three weeks now I’ve seen numbers going in the right direction, with ample evidence that the all-that-is is providing enthusiastic encouragement.

I don’t have similar feelings yet with the chapter on Love. But I’m encouraged to go back and pick a few exercises and put more effort into application. And I’ll be looking for ways to progressively train myself to be more productive—the quota method appeals to me. To sum up, I’m glad I’m reading and applying Personal Development for Smart People.

Next post: Oneness!

Steve Pavlina’s blog is here.

P.S. If you like this essay, you’ll love my new eBook, Confessions of a Heavy Thinker.

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Bacon Caesar Salad

August 5, 2012

This is not a food blog. And yet…

Okay, so, I’m eating paleo (or actually primal, with a bit of 4-Hour Body mixed in… and I’ve already told you more than you want to know, haven’t I?) and it’s a bit of a struggle to do something as easy as make dinner for, and eat with, my girlfriend, as she has her own (perfectly excellent!) ideas about food. That said, we both like bacon, and salad, and I had a brainstorm the other night… why not combine the two?

Basically, this totally worked! We scraped out the bowl, and wished there was more. Here’s the recipe; actually, it’s more like a guideline.

Ingredients:
• Good Bacon—thick, from pigs that lived reasonable happy lives, and that weren’t fed too much crap.

• Greens—spinach, spring mix, whatever. Romaine is not actually all that great for this particular caesar version.

• Some Veggies—steamed broccoli, red peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, whatever you like.

• Good quality commercial caesar dressing—I like Newman’s. This sounds like cheating, but one of the virtues of this dressing is its simplicity and quickness.

• Fresh herbs—it’s the freshness that’s important, not the particular herb. You want aromatics. I used sage, which rocked, but rosemary, oregano, parsley, etc. are also good. If you don’t have fresh herbs, make something else. Use several types if you have them.

• Good parmesan cheese—or Romano, or something similar. I keep saying ‘good’ because it matters in this recipe.

• Balsamic vinegar—some brand you really like.

• Extra Virgin Olive Oil—you want to use, yes, a ‘good’ one.

• Anchovy Paste—buy it in a tube, keep it in your refrigerator. It lasts forever and is good in sauces, stews, and other stuff. Best secret ingredient ever.

• Wedge of lime, or lemon.

• Kosher salt

• White Pepper—another secret ingredient worth having around.

Method:
• Start the bacon in a cold pan and cook over medium heat. Cook until dark on both sides—for this salad, you want crispy bacon. Fork onto paper towels, and roll the bacon up in the towels to sop up the extra grease. You want dry, crisp bacon. And you want a lot of it—cook more per person than you would for breakfast.

• Meanwhile, in a large bowl, squeeze in an inch or two of anchovy paste and add your minced fresh herb or herbs, the vinegar and EVOO, lots of fresh grated parmesan,some salt and white pepper, and some commercial caesar (for that commercial caesar taste, not too much). Squeeze in some lime or lemon. When I say ‘some’, I mean you want to end up with just enough dressing in the bowl for the salad you’re making now. That’s less than you may be thinking. You don’t need amounts, just estimate, and if you blow it you’ll get it right next time.

• Whisk all the above together, add greens and veggies, and toss until all is evenly coated.

• Use kitchen shears to cut up the dry, warm bacon over the salad, and toss again.

• Serve. A red wine is nice. Nothing else is needed. Enjoy.

This is a fast, perfectly paleo meal that most folks will enjoy except for the poor, sad vegetarians. And you can scoop out some salad for them (DADT re: the anchovy paste, IMO) before you add the bacon.

Bon Appetit!

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“One of the fundamental choices you face in every encounter is the choice to approach or avoid.” – Steve Pavlina

The second of Pavlina’s three core principles is love, and chapter two explains and explores the idea fully. I think this chapter nicely captures Steve’s strengths as a writer and thinker; by applying his experimental, programmer’s mentality to a subject as squishy as love he shows that it is an exceedingly practical quality and defines ways to develop it. His somewhat formulaic writing style is, paradoxically perhaps, perfectly matched with this particular topic, and it’s been my favorite chapter so far.

As the opening quote suggests, Steve defines love simply and effectively as connection and engagement. Crucially, this connection is a continuum that can include the ways we feel about work, hobbies, and inanimate objects as well as animals and people. He says, “In the long run, your life becomes a reflection of what you choose to connect with most often.”

Direct engagement is a prime virtue in his view—if you’re interested in someone, for example, you should just walk up to them and say hello. And, we should resist “silly rules” that keep us from engaging. For example, we shouldn’t let religious strictures keep us from examining other religions. He cites his veganism, which grew out of a month long long experiment with vegetarianism that he undertook simply because it, “seemed interesting.”

In other words, there is no substitute for connection and engagement. Reading and thinking and observing will only go so far; direct experience, of some form, is valuable and unavoidable and it’s a form of love.

Defining love this simply makes it possible to define ways to improve at love. For example, one can deliberately learn communications skills which will, in turn, improve connections with other people and increase the amount of love in your life.

One idea he proposes was new to me; “… as I’ve deepened my own communion with myself by exploring my thoughts in writing, my external world has shifted to reflect that internal growth… The more I commune with myself on the inside, the deeper my relationships with others become.” In other words, Steve has found that by feeling more deeply connected with himself he has more or less automatically found himself in deeper connection with others, and that people open up to him more readily, even in initial conversations. Since journaling is one of the methods he suggests for deepening this internal communion, and since I’m recommitting to the practice after the recommendation in chapter one, I should (if Steve’s right) begin to experience this myself and I will update this entry with my thoughts after a few weeks. In truth, as I write this, just a few days of journaling and evening meditation already seems to be deepening my connection with my partner, and with work associates.

Steve then mentions inherent connection, the idea that at some level or in some way we are all one person anyway. And thus, he connects one of the most sublime of spiritual ideas with self-improvement—I like that about Personal Development for Smart People. He says:

“You don’t have to blindly accept the philosophy behind this idea in order to benefit from it. You can apply it just by using your imagination. The next time you’re with a group of people, imagine that each person you meet is already connected to you. Assume the bond of love is already there, and see what happens.”

The chapter closes with some practical tips for overcoming fear of rejection and poor social skills, and some exercises. One of them, the ‘Time Travel Meditation’ interests me and will be easy to apply in my evening meditation period. So, in the spirit of the chapter, I’ll directly engage with it and update this post with my observations.

In short, I thought this was a great chapter. It puts forth interesting and useful ideas, and is perfectly suited to Steve’s fairly dry writing style. It also contains a personal story, about Steve meeting his (now ex) wife, and the sense of connection that was fundamental to her personality.

Next post: Power!

Steve Pavlina’s blog is here.

P.S. If you like this essay, you’ll love my new eBook, Confessions of a Heavy Thinker.

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“We primarily grow as human beings by discovering new truths about ourselves and our reality.” – Steve Pavlina

To his credit, Steve wastes no time after his introduction and immediately moves right into his material with an opening chapter on truth. Truth being, in his view, one of the three foundations of his personal development system, along with love and power.

It’s hard to argue with the idea that truth has to be one of the roots of any worthwhile personal code… so I won’t. In fact, it’s a pretty obvious idea but maybe one that gets short shrift in many self-help books. So it’s good that Personal Development for Smart People starts out with a statement as plain and useful as:

“If your thoughts, beliefs, and actions aren’t aligned with truth, your results will suffer. Positioning yourself in this way [aligned with truth] isn’t enough to guarantee success, but siding with falsehood is enough to guarantee failure.”

Steve then continues with the outline-driven approach that characterizes his writing; that is, he breaks the basic idea into pieces and writes about the pieces. In this case, he identifies the key components of truth as perception, prediction, accuracy, acceptance, and self-awareness and then devotes a few paragraphs to each of these. Similarly, blocks to truth are identified: media conditioning, social conditioning, false beliefs, emotional interference, addictions, immaturity, and secondary gain (i.e., short term benefits from lying). And then, a few ways to become more truthful: self-assessment, journaling, and media fasting.

I won’t be listing all of the book’s components and subcomponents as I proceed with this series, but it’s worth taking a moment to make a meta-point—Steve is not really a great writer, and Personal Development for Smart People is not really a classic of the genre in the way that, say, James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh is. His writing is clear, the organization of his material is impeccable, and he is never vague or mysterious. These are great qualities. That said, neither is he going to wow you with an amazing metaphor or beautiful language and it’s possible to get a little bored with his approach.

To contrast him with Gregg Braden, who I’ve also been reading lately, Steve is more clear and less interesting. He’s more accessible, but less surprising. More thorough, less personal.

It’s not a big problem, his writing totally ‘works’ in the sense that he certainly gets his points across. And importantly, they’re good points. But the writing and organization can feel a little ‘samey’ after a while, and it sometimes feels as if he’s deliberately trying to up his word count, or is at least unwilling to edit for brevity. Like I say, it doesn’t bother me too much, and he is definitely worth reading. But, this is a review of sorts and it seems worth pointing out—his style, after all, could work better or worse for you than that of other writers.

I can’t say that this chapter really knocked me out. Much of it seemed obvious and I’m certainly in agreement with the basic principle; if you want to make changes in your life, you have to start by honestly acknowledging your starting point. And, you have to be just as honest with others.

Doing Pavlinian Exercises
I’ll be applying a few ideas from this chapter.

First, I’m going to try journaling with a software tool for a while, rather than my usual Moleskines or cheap, unlined marble pads. Steve points out that typing is faster than writing, and that the ability to search and organize journal entries is significantly useful. He may be right. So, I let this be the final push I needed to install Evernote on my laptop and iPod Touch, and we’ll see how it goes. I haven’t actually been doing much journaling of any kind lately, so I’m also recommitting to the basic concept. Steve says, “By getting your thoughts out of your head and putting them down in writing, you’ll gain insights you’d otherwise miss,” and this seems plausible. So, I’ll be using Evernote on a regular basis for several weeks, and appending my thoughts to this post as an update.

Update Friday; July 27, 2012 Since writing the above, I went ahead and started journaling. I find that actually writing in Evernote is kind of a drag, so I write the post in another editor and cut and paste it into Evernote. This seems a bit lame, but the search and ssociative capacities of Evernote may make it worthwhile. However, I am finding that typing is a good way to journal; I appreciate the speed of it, and the immediate accessibility. It really does seem useful to ‘get my thoughts out of my head and down in writing. A useful recent journal entry was to describe an ideal scene set five years hence. I’ve also been writing about some health initiatives I’m undertaking, and came up with a useful checklist of things to do as I start a new eating plan. So, I’m high on the journaling idea. Of course, I’ve previously journaled regularly. End of Friday; July 27, 2012 update.

I also did a self-assessment Steve recommends. He lists several areas of life, such as health and fitness, career and work, spiritual development, etc., and asks the reader to rate all of them on a scale of one to ten. I did this. Then, he writes, “Take every rating that isn’t a nine or ten, cross it off, and replace it with a one.” His reasoning is:

“You see, if you can’t rate a given area of your life a nine or ten, then obviously you don’t have what you really want in that area… A seven is what you get when you allow too much falsehood and denial to creep into your life… people commonly rate some part of their lives a seven (or thereabouts) when they’ve disconnected themselves from the truth.”

Well, this was sobering for me; after applying this principle, I’m all ones. There isn’t a single area of my life that I can rate a nine or a ten. Even more uncomfortably, for me, is that I can look back at times in my life when I did have several nines or tens going, so I know it’s possible.

So if I accept Steve’s premise, my life really requires a dramatic overhaul. And the thing is, I think I do accept the premise.

For another interesting reaction to this self-assessment exercise, see this link wherein Derek Sivers uses the concept as a scheduling tool.

You might also like Derek Sivers notes on Personal Development for Smart People.

It’s not something Steve mentions in his chapter, but I also started weighing myself and measuring my waistline every morning this week, and recording the results in a spreadsheet. This felt like an application of the principle of truth; I really need to be honest and objective with myself about my current plumpness, and measurement is a good way to do that.

Finally, I did one more exercise Steve recommends, one which took a bit of courage; I wrote to several friends and asked for their realistic assessment of where I’ll be in five years. Health, environment, money, relationships, etc. I don’t know why it took courage. Maybe the prospect of confronting honest mirrors was daunting. As I write this, I’ve received emails back from two friends with a couple of paragraphs each. They were great; I feel they encouraged me to make changes, as my friends seem to have positive feelings about my ability to create the life I want. They also had some instructive differences from the five year scene I envisioned for myself. I’d say it was also good to get on record with friends that I’m trying to create some conscious positive change in my circumstances. The bottom line is that it was an easy exercise and one that proved to be valuable. And I still expect to receive a few more assessments back. Incidentally, I kept my request low key, told everyone not to worry if they weren’t into it and to not write too much, and offered to perform the same service for them, if they were interested (no one has been, so far).

All in all, this was a good chapter, and it was helpful to actually do a few of the exercises.

Next post: Love!

P.S. If you like this essay, you’ll love my new eBook, Confessions of a Heavy Thinker.

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I certainly count Steve Pavlina as one of my most important online mentors, and I’ve read just about everything he’s published on his blog for the last several years. I also purchased his book, Personal Development for Smart People: The Conscious Pursuit of Personal Growth soon after it came out in 2008, so it’s a little strange that I’m just now getting around to actually reading it, especially since it doesn’t simply gather blog posts into book form—it’s all new writing, published nowhere else.

Or maybe not so strange. I quite like Steve’s (I guess I’ll call him Steve throughout this series, but I don’t mean to imply we’re buddies; we’ve never met) quirky viewpoints in the relatively small quantities supplied by his blog, but I wasn’t at all sure they’d work in book form. Also, Steve can be a little judgmental and preachy in tone which, again, is not so horrible in a blog but I was worried that a whole book of it would be insufferable.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, Steve Pavlina is a writer who emphasizes direct experience and issues call to action. An uncomfortable writer. It’s perfectly possible that I have simply been afraid of the self-examination and actual experimentation that this book will likely ask of me.

But for a variety of reasons, some of which I will reveal in the course of this series, now seems like a good time in my life to read Steve’s book and seriously consider applying his ideas. And, it seems like a good idea to write about the process. I hope doing so will deepen my understanding of the book, be helpful for others who are interested in this book or Steve’s blog or personal development generally, and establish some accountability for myself—if this book can help me to live a happier and more fulfilling life, I really want some pressure to apply its principles and maybe public discussion of my reading will supply that pressure.

So, first some brief background on me, my quick take on Steve Pavlina, and then I will conclude this first entry with a look at the introduction to Personal Development for Smart People.

A Bit About Me
If you read this blog, you’re probably already aware that I spent many years of my life—from 20 until almost 40—in a Christian fundamentalist cult. In fact I was quite a zealous Jehovah’s Witness, and devoted many of those years to full-time preaching, moving my family to join small congregations, and service as a ministerial servant (a sort of junior minister). I quit about ten years ago, and have spent a lot of time since then trying to figure out ‘big picture’ questions about religion, spirituality, politics, evolution, and the like. Trying to understand and trying to heal.

That questing spirit eventually led to a radio show, this blog, a couple of self-published print books, and my eBook. And, I like to think, a saner and deeper appreciation of the miracle of life and a whole lot more joy. Especially since I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but really for my whole life, I have believed in—and occasionally directly experienced—a numinous presence in my life, a presence that I believe pervades all of existence; I occasionally refer to it as the all-that-is. And in the years since I quit being a JW, I have felt that presence far more deeply.

So I’m primed, as it were, for a writer like Steve Pavlina—his mix of practicality, mysticism, and emphasis on experimentation and direct experience is catnip for me. And yes, I’m a big reader in the field of spirituality and self-help. I’m a seeker, I suppose, and I’ve certainly performed my share of experiments—my nearly 20 years in the cult was one of them.

I’ve had remarkable experiences applying strange ideas, and I hope to have more such experiences in my life. Many times those ideas have been supplied by a book.

My Quick Take on Steve Pavlina
Like many people, I first started reading Steve’s blog back in 2005, when his experiments with polyphasic sleep went viral. What a great series of posts that was; Steve actually did what a lot of people had thought about, and converted fully to a polyphasic sleep pattern where he slept, in 20 minute periods, for a total of just two hours per day. It was like reading the diary from an expedition exploring a new river, or planet—his struggles to adapt to the pattern, his daily life as a person sleeping differently from just about everyone else on the planet, and his eventual ‘re-entry’ into normal sleeping were utterly absorbing.

That was enough to grab me, frankly, but he followed up with additional bravura series on eating raw, living life subjectively, etc., and his site is absolutely loaded with great one-offs like How to Graduate from Christianity, a personal favorite. And he had plenty of confessional posts as well, as when he and his wife divorced or when he decided to explore BDSM. I felt, and still feel, that he and I are on roughly parallel paths, but his mode of travel is deeper and faster than mine, and he seems to be much farther along.

Steve also, at least by his accounts, is making a very comfortable living based solely on his writing and workshops and, as a full-time writer, I obviously find that intriguing. So really, for a lot of reasons, I’m a perfect audience for his book and it makes sense for me to work at applying it. And as a blogger and writer it even sort of makes sense for me to do so publicly—wish me luck!

One More Thing

All the above stipulated, there is a random element to my choice of books to blog. I’ve been reading a lot of Gregg Braden lately, too, and a series on any of his books would also have been fun and interesting. But, bound by the inscrutable force of whim, Personal Development for Smart People it is.

Personal Development for Smart People, the Introduction
Steve begins with a story he’s told on his blog before… which is to say, it begins with him in a jail cell, after being arrested for felony grand theft. As he tells the story, he stole for kicks, mainly, and at the time of his arrest he was attending UC Berkeley as a computer science major but, along with his freedom, that was also in peril due to failing grades.

So, a classic come-to-Jesus moment; jail, scholastic failure, and the possibility of several years of incarceration thanks to prior offenses. In high school, Steve had been a straight A student and president of the math club. But now, after being released on bail, Steve was in a serious funk and basically comtemplating a failed life.

He describes an amazing stroke of luck that helped him to avoid actual jail time, but he was expelled and went home to Los Angeles to lick his wounds. Over a couple of years, he says, he gradually formed a personal code of ethics, went back to school and was able get a computer science degree in just three semesters of a doubled course load, started a computer games company, then switched to the field of personal development and achieved fabulous success with his blog and in his life.

It’s a good story but jeez, I’ve read a lot of these books and it can seem like the introductions are always the same. They’re like diet books, or business books. A person or organization falls on hard times and has a crisis. Maybe they were applying conventional advice, or they start to apply it, and it just doesn’t work. So they’re forced to reexamine their basic assumptions, do new research, arrive at a synthesis that is totally the bee’s knees, and now they’re presenting it to the public for the first time! As Steve puts it,

“I decided to tackle this problem head-on, doing something I’ve never seen done before. I set out to find a common pattern behind all successful growth efforts, to identify a complete set of core principles that would be universally applicable.” (emphasis mine)

It’s not that this is bad. They’re often good stories, and maybe it’s necessary to have such a story behind you before you start giving worthwhile advice. And Steve runs through the elements of this ur-story as well as anyone could. It’s just that, from Steve Pavlina, I was expecting something stranger and more compelling. And also, can he really believe that no one has done this before? That’s what all these writers do, they have all found the one true way that has eluded others.

But all of that is my problem, not his. My task is to read the book, try to understand and apply its ideas, and see what happens as a result.

Anyway, after two and a half years of effort, Steve arrives at a recognition that there are three core principles, truth, love and power, and four secondary principles, oneness, authority, courage, and intelligence. A triangular diagram (another common motif of self-help books) is used to illustrate the basic structure, and the rest of the book (which is in two parts) will use these principles as a basic organizing structure.

And incidentally, the Kindle version of Personal Development for Smart People is only $1.99 as I write this.

Next post: Truth!

P.S. If you like this essay, you’ll love my new eBook, Confessions of a Heavy Thinker.

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Did you like this essay? You’ll love my books!

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Good news! If you like the writing on my blog you’ll be happy to know that most of the major essays from the blog, plus the essays from my two print books, plus all my radio essays, plus satire and humor that appeared in New Times, San Luis Obispo’s alternative newspaper, plus dozens of previously unpublished works are now available in one omnibus volume, Confessions of a Heavy Thinker. That’s right, pretty much all my essays, including work that has appeared in BoingBoing, the San Francisco Chronicle, and on KVNF in Paonia, Colorado, are now collected in one meaty tome.

But 90,000 words and 150 essays have got to make this a doorstop, right? Waaay too big to carry around for daily reading, right? Nope! I finally got my act together and Confessions of a Heavy Thinker is available as an eBook for Kindle, iPad, and other devices. You can be reading it in minutes!

Confessions of a Heavy Thinker for Kindle

Confessions of a Heavy Thinker for iOS devices

Confessions of a Heavy Thinker for Nook

Confessions of a Heavy Thinker in several formats for various eReaders

This book is a great deal, in my (not so) humble opinion. The essays are short, and easy to read whenever you have a bit of time to pull out your phone or Kindle. But, they’re also like high protein snacks for your mind; you’ll find a new idea, an interesting fact, an amusing idea, or some other bit of brain candy in every single essay… and remember, there are a lot of essays in this single, weightless volume.

Please take a look! And, if you’re a fan of the blog and want to help me out, please leave a review.

Thanks!

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Crop Circle Tattoo

March 21, 2012

A tattooed man is never naked…

This pattern, this particular arrangement of disks and rings, first appeared—so far as is known—in a field of flax beans at Stony Littleton Long Barrow (a burial chamber), near Bath in Southern England, on June 7th, 2010. Soon thereafter it was photographed from above and published on the Internet, then the photo was converted to a black and white schematic. On July 30th, 2011, at Steve’s Tattoo in Madison, Wisconsin, I offered the schematic as a guide to Paul, a tattoo artist who used rich blue-black ink to inscribe the pattern on my left forearm. So a pattern born in a field, a hundred feet or so across, is now actually in me. It’s a small tattoo, about two inches across, my first.

Crop Circle Tattoo

Crop Circle Tattoo and Mysterious Frankoma Mug

The tattoo project began as a glib conclusion to one of my radio shows—after listing my oh-so-logical reasons for not accepting conventional explanations of the phenomena, I listed the things I did believe about crop circles, concluding with, “Most of all, I believe that a crop circle tattoo is a good way to secure a position of oversight in the post-alien-takeover world.” And I stuck with that explanation as a way to deflect questions about my gradually forming decision to actually do it, to actually allow a crop circle to be permanently secreted in my precious flesh… somehow the idea seemed too fragile and personal to be bruited about in casual conversation. And perhaps the strategy worked for, fragile as it was, the idea lived and is now, so to speak, embodied.

But for the record aliens, and my relative influence in their hypothetical future power structure, had little to do with my new skin ornament; actually, to paraphrase Jacques Vallee’s comment on UFOs, I will be very disappointed if the explanation for crop circles turns out to be something no stranger than aliens.

So, why did I get a crop circle tattoo? Indeed, since it is my first, why did I get a tattoo of any kind? Why, Angus, why?

Well I wanted the tattoo for the same reasons everyone wants a tattoo: their beguiling permanence, their whiff of rebel magick, the way they start conversations in bars… in a word, tattoos are cool.

And the crop circle… well; that’s more personal. And my feelings are hard to capture in a net of mere words. But no use trying to get out of it; that’s what essays are for, after all.

Here’s the thing—I am convinced that crop circles are, somehow, important. That underneath the hippie trippy freak show aspects of the ongoing circle phenomenon, there is some deep order that will someday be recognized as meaningful, as something we should be paying more attention to. And, as I have written elsewhere, I’m not convinced that they are made by casual hoaxers using conventional—i.e., available to the general populace—technology.

But frankly, even if they are being created by tricksters with simple tools, interesting questions remain. For example, consider the very longevity of the phenomena; the first modern crop circle appeared 40 years ago. And in all that time a recognizable aesthetic has held sway. Just as the works of famous artists are divided into periods and phases, crop circle designs seem to be the work of one mind (or a small collective) working out variations on themes. And the art has evolved over time, becoming more complex and meaningful, and more skillfully executed. And in all those decades of work, no one has taken credit! Even ‘anonymous’ street artists like Banksy are somehow acknowledged and typically they find some way to get paid for their art. But the crop circle creators, human or otherwise, remain unknown. Crop circles are a self-consistent and instantly recognizable symbol set that don’t seem to be strongly based on some previous set, they’ve been forced into public consciousness with great effort… and they aren’t copyrighted and don’t even have their own website. Who does that?

Basically I have no explanation, nor even a working theory. Crop circles strike me as a kind of magick, a concentration and manifestation of mana, ripening in our time. These are our miracles, I think, and future generations will scratch their heads, wondering how we managed to miss their meaning so completely.

Simply put; I wanted somehow to partake of their power. More than that I wanted—expected, even—some influx of delightful weirdness, an infusion of extranormal mojo. I guess I have been disappointed in that; so far, it’s just a tattoo and not an E-Ticket to other dimensions.

But I am not really complaining. UFOs and such would not really fit into my life right now anyway, and it is still immensely satisfying to look down on my own personal circle as if from a plane. Somehow, I am realizing, I have declared an allegiance. If I had tattooed a swoosh on my bicep, observers would know I stood with Nike. The crop circle says something similar; a sign has been given to us and though I have not understood it, I have at least acknowledged it.

By this they shall know me.

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story by Yumi Hotta
art by Takeshi Obata
published by Shueisha

NOTE: There are a few spoilers in this essay.

For several years I have been a dilettante admirer of both graphic novels and the Asian board game go, so it is a little surprising that I only recently discovered Hikaru no Go, the manga which brings the two together so satisfyingly. I am really, really late to this party; Hikaru no Go, which debuted in the United States in 2004, is among the best selling manga of all time and fostered an unprecedented go boom—the go playing population in Japan is said to have tripled.

But first a word about go, the world’s oldest and most widely played board game. Yes, you read that right; though mostly invisible to Westerners, go has been played in China since at least the 3rd century BCE, and in Japan, China, Taiwan and, especially, Korea, go occupies a space much like that of professional tennis, with a similar arrangement of tournaments, associations, and supporting media. Hundreds of Asian pros (Western pros, like total badass Michael Redmond of California, are curiosities) make a living on tournament winnings and lessons. Like chess, it’s a two-player game of skill but go players, frankly, find it outrageous that chess is usually held (by Westerners) to be superior. Why, anyone should be able to see that this game of large-scale strategy and tactical infighting is by far the better game. In any event, go is a supreme mental sport and a superb (if geeky) backdrop for a manga aimed at young adults.

Now, our story: Hikaru Shindo, an entirely ordinary Japanese schoolboy, happens across an antique goban (go board) in his grandfather’s attic and, upon touching it, is abruptly possessed by the spirit of Fujiwara Sai, a superlative player of the Edo period whose passion for the game is such that it keeps him bound to this plane, seeking to play “The Divine Move” through the humans he possesses. The 23 volumes of Hikaru no Go (also an anime) explore their affectionate/combative relationship, and Hikaru’s consequent ascension in the world of Japanese go.

I’ll leave the plot outline and other basics to the excellent Wikipedia article; here, I’d like to briefly highlight some of the aspects of Hikaru no Go that elevate it, in my view, to the very highest ranks of YA fiction.

• Respect for the game: Go players will tell you that go is easy to learn, and has very few rules. And that’s true, so far as it goes (you’re just going to have to live with incidental puns). But despite the simplicity of the rules, go has a wicked steep learning curve and most new players give it up after a few tries and never discover the game’s beauty. High-level play is mind-crackingly hard and absolutely requires serious, systematic study. And, it is an extremely intellectual game with no element of luck. So it would not have been surprising if Ms. Hotta had avoided details of play and simply used games as a backdrop for a generic coming-of-age tale. Instead, she doubled down; Hikaru no Go is very nearly documentary in its exploration of the game and Japan’s insei system, which trains young players. All board positions shown (there are hundreds) are plausible (reviewed exhaustively by pros prior to publication), game outcomes are realistic for the level of the players involved, and high-level go concepts are used as plot points. You could learn to play from this manga.

For a contrast, consider Darren Aronofsky’s film Pi, where go serves as a backdrop to several scenes involving the protagonist and his mentor. Here, the board positions are nonsense, are inconsistent from shot to shot, and game principles don’t affect the movie at all. Go is merely a bit of intellectual window dressing.

I guess I also want to compare Hikaru no Go, and it’s treatment of go, to the Harry Potter series and its treatment of magic. The fact is, J.K. Rowling gives magic short shrift; though the language she creates around spellwork is apt and evocative, and though the magic is wild and fun, it is not developed as a system. Basic questions are never addressed; why are invisibility cloaks so uncommon, for example, and why do some magical families live in Muggle-like poverty, when presumably they can magically produce whatever commodity they wish? By contrast, Hikaru’s gradual ascension to go superstardom is entirely realistic, while still making plausible use of the story’s supernatural elements (which don’t dominate the story, incidentally; Sai abruptly disappears about 2/3s of the way through the series). To be sure, Hikaru has an aptitude for go that is very like Harry’s aptitude for magic. But the grind and frustration required of talented insei (aspiring go professionals), the endless evenings spent studying, are perfectly evoked… and are nothing like the (admittedly wonderful) adventures of Hogwarts. I don’t say this to criticize, only to highlight different authorial strategies—in fact, it would be easy to draw parallels between these two long explorations of adolescence, and fans of one will enjoy the other.

I consider this an outstanding strength of Hikaru no Go, but I suppose it also a weakness, at least in the United States; we Americans are not known for obsessive love of Asian board games.

• Respect for work: Since Hikaru is training to be a professional, learning go is also his entry into the world of work and money, and he enters it as a rival to established adults. The rivalry is fierce, sharp, and unusually explicit; in several memorable scenes older players use every trick they know to mentally crush adolescent players, some of whom are their own students! Gambling is a persistent theme, and the need for money is frankly addressed. Failure is a specter that haunts all the young insei; you only rise in the system by defeating others… others that are also friends.

And go talent gives young players a marvelous entry into go salons, where they are on equal, or more than equal, footing with adults… and even bet with them. Many of my favorite passages take place in salons, where young insei learn to compete mercilessly and keep their composure. I was reminded of the midshipmen in Patrick O’Brian’s sea tales, young teenagers ordering men about in wartime and maturing in a single voyage. I suspect that the equal competition with adults, for real stakes, is one explanation of Hikaru no Go‘s amazing popularity.

• Character development over time: Hikaru no Go is primarily a tale of growing up, in which the world of go serves as a comprehensible microcosm of the larger world. As near as I can tell, Hikaru ages from roughly 13 to 19 in the series and the way he is drawn reflects this. He begins as brash and feckless, and ends as a competent, insightful young adult. Many characters make similar transitions, and there are some failures—children who somehow don’t thrive.

Don’t guess I have much to say here, just want to acknowledge one of this manga’s great strengths. Realistic personal growth over time is one of the most difficult of authorial sleights, and Ms. Hotta’s accomplishment (along with the finely paced depiction by Obata) is significant.

• Superb art: Since I am not a manga aficionado, I have no idea if the art of Hikaru no Go is exceptionally superb, or merely a good example of ordinary high standards. At any rate, I was impressed. Thousands of crisp, realistic scenes, easily recognizable characters that change consistently over time, a strong sense of place, the occasional effective use of cruder comic styles (e.g, for slapstick humor scenes), precise font choices… like any good comic book, the art is an excellent complement to an exciting story, and Mr. Obata (and his studio, I gather) deploys his considerable skills to excellent effect.

• Adolescent Sexuality: Will we, nil we, the classics of young adult literature will always have strong sexual undertones, just as adolescence itself has strong sexual undertones. The easy example is the Harry-Hermione-Ron triangle that enthralls millions. Hikaru no Go‘s depiction is a bit unusual in two ways: it is unusually circumspect in its treatment of adolescent yearning, and it seems to focus on boy crushes, the confused feelings that young adolescent males have for each other. Let me explain.

By circumspect, I mean that there is almost no actual dating, or discussion of dating or crushes, or school dances, or love notes, or confused assignations… none of that. In 23 volumes, there is only one scene that suggests people in this world have sex—a young go professional leaves his mistress’s apartment (and treats her rather brusquely). And also, it is made clear that one of Hikaru’s classmates has a crush on him; this is not developed in any way. And that really is it for overt romanticism.

Also, it must be said, women do not really figure in Hikaru no Go: they are, almost without exception, smiling non-entities. So basically, no overt sexuality or romanticism whatsoever.

But on the other hand, the young men… so beautiful. Lovingly drawn, very handsome (considerably more handsome, sadly, than actual go professionals), as dashing as young samurai, the quarreling boys of Hikaru no Go make up for the absence of women by carrying out rivalries and jealousies, friendships and furious defenses of each other, coded invitations and, really, all of the interpersonal romantic exchange one looks for in, say, a Jane Austen novel. The very heart of the novel is the go rivalry between Hikaru and Akira Toya, which is an intense and barely sublimated boy crush playing out in the heady atmosphere that attends go prodigies in a nation that has revered the game—and sanctified legendary players—for several centuries. Not to mention that Fujiwara Sai, the possessing spirit of go genius, is intensely feminine in appearance and manner—anima, anyone?

A complete absence of overt sexuality, disregard for girls, and intense, confused attractions between young males expressed in competition. I must say, it captures the very spirit of a portion of my youth.

So if you are looking for an expertly observed coming of age tale, or a ‘buddy movie,’ or a sports rivalry, or a go documentary, or a ghost story, or a beautiful visual experience, or simply a good read, you can hardly go wrong with Hikaru no Go.

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