I turned 40 a couple of weeks ago and thought it’d be a good opportunity to reflect, piecemeal, on where I find myself in life, the universe, and this whole self-improvement thing.
The pseudoephedrine has been left in Australia lest I be convicted as a drug dealer and I’m already missing it in anticipation of my next cold. Of course, the flippant joke article I dashed off about using cold medicine for self-improvement inevitably became the most popular thing I have written for this newsletter. This is extremely funny.
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The sleep stuff is sorted, for now
I’ve written a lot about sleep, and how I felt I wasn’t getting enough of it. I’m still really interested in the topic but I’m happy to report that (largely thanks to my son taking up sleeping through the night) I am now getting enough sleep that I don’t feel like I’m in a permanent fugue state. The other big reason for not getting enough sleep was spending too much time playing video games, which has been solved by:
Panaceas are never real, and it’s still early days, but weight-lifting looks like one of those rare things that solves several problems all at once. Making your body tired makes sleep much less optional, and the temptation to play video games late into the night goes entirely away when your arms are too munted from DOMS to pick up a controller. Plus, if you want weight-lifting to actually do anything to your body, you need to be getting sleep. The counterpoint is that getting out of bed is as difficult than ever. I’m pretty sure my body’s preferred chronotype is Night Owl and it’ll probably never change, but for now I’ll settle for finding it easier to get to bed earlier.
I wrote about the cold shower thing a few weeks back now and I’m still enjoying it as much as when I first started a year ago. A bunch of commenters said they’d given it a hoon and were getting a good buzz out of it. I hadn’t mentioned yet that I’ve also given a year to that classic self-improvement bugbear (and one of Jordan Balthazar Peterson’s 12 Rules): making your bed every morning. The results are jaw-dropping!1 I’ll write about it soon.
The spell check refuses to acknowledge “journaling” so I’ve allowed it to insist on “journal ling.” This, for the curious, is a ling:
I started keeping a journal again, not for any of the purported self-improvement benefits, but because I was alarmed to look back at the previous decade or so and have next to no idea what happened in it. The phenomenon of time speeding up as you age is real to the point that it’s become a cliche, and everyone I know comments on how time seems to have frozen solid circa 2016, but what really alarms me is not being able to remember important personal things. They say hindsight is 20/20, but that’s a lie; looking back is like staring into a rapidly-thickening cataract fog, and the more you age the blurrier it gets. Clearly, I need to write life down so it makes sense. Also, my handwriting was becoming terrible.
Obviously this newsletter is a kind of public journal too, so I guess I’m attacking it on two fronts.
Rage, rage against
I am angry.
I think in everyday life I come off as an affable sort but underneath simmers a constant low-key fury. This is a dangerously uncool thing to admit to, least of all because you might come off as the sort of person who’d unironically create a meme like this:
I think my saving grace is what I’m angry at: it’s mainly climate change, and our carefully-engineered inability to do anything meaningful about it. A thought that occurs to me at least a few dozen times a day is that in a sane world, we’d be bending all of humanity’s considerable ingenuity to the task of halting mass extinction. It’d be the biggest project in the history of civilisation, a human mobilisation dwarfing World War Two, for even greater stakes, and there’d be a job in it for anyone who wanted one. Instead, we have the real, reality-denying world, where we2 are carrying on with business-as-usual to ruinous effect, and those of us who’d like to do something often find ourselves trapped. I have written about this before, once or twice, but I almost never stop thinking about it. Others are writing about it too, and often a piece of their despair and grief catches me and starts my wheels spinning again.
Denied any real outlet, the anger comes out at importune times, like: when sucking at Halo, scrubbing at a chunk of toddler-discarded Weetbix with the consistency of concrete, or when repeatedly vacuuming at a pet hair that inexplicably just won’t fucking move. Perhaps there is a better way. Now I’m 40 I think I can make a friend — or at least an ally — of anger, and put it to good use, as others have.3
A side-effect of a much needed holiday is that everything you didn’t do while you were resting smashes you the moment you’re home, often negating the effects of any rest you managed to get. Yesterday I felt like I was losing my mind with everything I hadn’t done pulling me apart, like hooks in my flesh attached to heavy wire and relentless winches. Louise heard me out, sat me down, made a list, helped me pick two things to concentrate on, and made me sane again.
With a day or so of relative clarity I can see that the more I feel I have to do, the less likely I am to get anything done. The logs jam in the waterway of my mind and the poor executive function lumberjack hops across them fretting over which one to hack at. The answer is the same thing it always is: just fucking pick one.
I am frustrated that after 40 years of being alive this has not yet sunk in.
I read this XKCD at least 15 years ago now and it was a dagger in the gut. Not because of the pickup artist thing — I might write about that at some point because of its roots in self-improvement culture, and because it seems to have morphed into a social movement that might actually be much worse — but because I’ve never been able to stop thinking about the last three panels:
I sometimes wonder how many other flimsy 20-something male egos Randall inadvertently destroyed with this particular extremely funny comic. Now I am 40, the effect is even worse. If it hits you hard too, let me know, and we’ll bask in our shared misery.
Yeet the phone
Fuck smartphones, fuck software manufacturers for making them addictive, and fuck society for embracing them so comprehensively you can’t live without one. Every time you, and by you I mean me, pick the thing up and check a notification you’re being yanked out of whatever you actually wanted to be doing and imposing a heavy mental cost to getting back on track, turning your life into one long, barely-controlled stall. I am slowly learning that I can’t actually get much done with a smartphone anywhere near me (or any other sort of notification going “ping” and bouncing around my brain like a wreeecking balllll)
The spider bite
When it comes to self-improvement I think a lot of us want it to be a bit like in Spider-Man where Peter Parker wakes up suddenly swole, able to backflip tall buildings in a single bound, jizz from his wrists, and indirectly murder his relatives. At least two of those things sound wonderful. Self-improvement tomes are full of stories of people who had some kind of life epiphany (see XKCD comic above) and suddenly gained that most super of powers: the ability to change. I do not doubt that this actually happens — I know too many people who have abruptly and permanently stopped drinking4 to disbelieve in the epiphany’s power — but at 40 I feel like I’ve enough life events under my belt to realise you can only really diagnose an epiphany in hindsight.
For my birthday I got up at 5 am and drove for an hour and a half to reach O’Reilly’s in Lamington National Park, Queensland, just as dawn was breaking. My brother and his partner had invited me out to see a bird they hadn’t managed to spot yet: this sprightly fella.
In a nice bit of serendipity my brother and partner arrived at the exact same time I did and we saw the Regent before we’d even left the car park. A birding tour had just showed up and the local avian residents realised it was feeding time.5 There were only a few people on the birding tour and they invited us to join them. Within a few minutes walk we’d seen or hand-fed a few dozen species including white-browed scrub wrens, Eastern Yellow robins, logrunners, whip-birds, satin bowerbirds, and more. We were stoked. It was probably the best birthday morning I have ever had.
I was already feeling a bit choked up about how goddamn nice this all was and then my immediate family made it much worse by throwing a barbecue and banding together to buy me a really good pair of birding binoculars. I’ve been told I’m hard to buy for because I have off-kilter interests and tend to impulsively purchase stuff I want anyway, but this present really touched me. A good gift — new, second-hand, activity-based, it doesn’t matter which — can do that. Someone did the hard mahi to figure out the state of your soul and what you currently lack, and drew a line correctly connecting the two.
Things are good, actually
It is easy to get wrapped up in everything you aren’t, or don’t have. The shifting baseline lies to you, meaning that even when you objectively improve you still feel like you’re standing still. Add this to the fact that the world is in a precariously dire way on any number of fronts and you have a recipe for despair. But: I have a good life. I have an incredible, beautiful wife and wonderful son. I have an interesting job that keeps us fed and watered and housed. On that note, somehow I own (about 20 percent of) my home. And there is space in my life to see family and go birding and bask in the beauty of the world we inhabit, if only for a while.
As cheesy as that might sound to some, at 40, I might finally be past caring.
By “we” I specifically mean “fossil fuel companies” and “their willing collaborators in governments across the world,” and “billionaires” so I guess it’s not really “we” at all.
Music helps. If you like funk, hip-hop, radical socialism, and Tom Morello as much as I do then you have the same highly specific musical taste as me and you’re in for a treat. It’s a good workout track.
I see you, friends. You amaze me every day.
The tour and feeding was fully licensed by the Queensland Department of Environment and Science and the food carefully selected so as not to harm the birds. Don’t worry, we weren’t just feeding them random pocket snacks.