There’s this period of transition between full time employment and being settled in your post-work existence known as detox.
An assertion lies embedded in the process’ name: The relentless nature of modern work shares aspects with poison. Not the work itself, mind you, but the structures and pace of it all. Your body and mind must cleanse themselves so that you can be free of these ill effects. Only then will you be restored to something resembling good health.
People seem to experience the detox process in very different ways. Some launch themselves into entrepreneurial side-hustles. Others travel the world. Many are also full-time parents, and the child-rearing immediately soaks up huge quantities of time. All of these activities have the effect of purging work from the system; the new busy replaces the old busy.
My own detox experience has been different, though. Instead of maintaining the same pace of life, I’m slowing down — living more by doing less.
A lot less.
This post is an attempt to capture what that’s felt like.
Caution: Content is long, rambly, repetitive and weird. Oh, and there’s zero mention of finance. I suggest you bail now if that doesn’t sound good to you. If I read this post say, 12 years ago, I probably would have bailed myself.
The Real Enemy
In previous posts I’ve voiced concern that I’d have a problem with ambition in retirement. Specifically, I worried that my internal drive would demand an outlet.
But it hasn’t quite worked out the way that I thought.
I’m no stranger to ambition. It’s urged me onward my entire life, a hungry voice whispering in my ear. Get into a good college. Pick a major that will lead to a high paying job. Buy a big fancy house and fill it with video games, caviar, and Benzedrine.
Eventually the ambition morphed into something else: A drive to retire early.
The whispered messages changed. Find the right investment strategy so you can make money passively. Sock away as much as you can. More every month. Get a raise so you can stash even more cash away. Tell other people about your plans: Shock the hell out of them, those stupid bastards. Watch the jaws drop. Feed on their precious jealousy. So tasty and warm. Mmmm.
That particular voice unexpectedly disappeared when I retired and found my ambition sated, leaving a sense of relief in its wake. Unfortunately, though, relief wasn’t the only thing that remained.
Because the habits I cultivated to appease my ambition wouldn’t easily depart. I’m specifically talking about a way of life I’ve dubbed “TooFuckingBusy,” or TFB, for short.
When you’re ambitious, time is precious. You must always be working toward your ultimate goal, whatever that may be. When you idle, minutes slip away, and your dreams feel as though they’re going up in smoke. To push back against this feeling, you strain harder.
In other words, ambition created an urgency underlying the texture of my days.
But this urgency — this feeling of continually pushing forward– is a behavior, not a goal. Though I’d reached the endgame, the TFB behavior remained, the orphaned baby on the doorstep as ambition fled town.
And of course this surprised me. I thought that the phrase detox would only apply to work. Once I had flushed work from my system, I’d be detoxed, right? I even wrote a post bragging about how I was all done with this phase.
I was wrong, though. I found that, secondarily, I also had to grapple with these powerful urges to maintain the same frenetic pace.
This is the core of part 2 of the detox story — an effort to understand and demolish TFB. Hopefully this is the last one.
Conversations with TFB
The first month after I quit was incredibly busy. This pleased TFB, who thinks that busyness is automatically awesome, an absolute Good. I packed, I met with lawyers, I toured new potential apartments, I filled out paperwork, I fixed up sections of the house my wife and I were selling, I exercised, I blogged, I continued to see family and friends, and I fell asleep utterly spent every night.
You did well, TFB would tell me. You filled up every waking minute of the day with productive, useful activity — just like you did during your working life. This is As It Should Be.
Thanks, dawg, I’d respond, falling asleep two femtoseconds later. And we were A-OK.
The second month after I quit I was still busy, but less so. I unpacked in our new apartment. I supported my wife in her morning commute because, at the time, she was still working. I’d wake up at the same time she did, putting coffee on, chatting about how we expected our respective days to unfold.
Her: TFB, because: working.
Me: Not so much.
I exercised for an hour every day and groomed for another half. I increased visits with my parents and nephews. I cooked dinner every night and did most of the cleaning. I did this, I did that, blah blah blah.
At night I’d get into bed and TFB would be there again, waiting to provide my daily performance review. And I wasn’t as tired as I was that previous month — I wasn’t falling asleep instantly in a haze of exhaustion.
You didn’t do enough useful stuff today, he’d say. What’s up with the guitar practicing, for example? What the fuck do you expect to do with THAT skill? You’re too old to join a band. And Jesus, all of the time spent walking around the neighborhood just staring at stuff… what exactly was the point there? Then you had the nerve to go and take a NAP?
I know, right? I probably should have done something more important.
Uhh, yeah! Also, what happened to your internet time? Why aren’t you posting on ER forums anymore? Also, you should be reading about world events the way you used to in your downtime at the office. You’re going to become dumber in retirement.
Fact. But I don’t like being on a computer anymore. Not right now anyway.
Computer time is productive time, and I expect you to stay busy — remember: You need to be Too Fucking Busy at all times.
Uh huh. Gotcha.
Then I’d wake up the next day, and immediately disobey TFB.
This was the conflict: TFB and his buddy Old Habits demanded I do their bidding. They screamed for familiarity and results and a feeling that I was perpetually getting something done and that I was plugged into shit. Without these inputs, it felt like something was off.
Because instead of doing the same tired things I’ve done for the past billion years of my life, I consciously dumped time into creating new habits and experiences. I’d find a hiking trail around me and do trail-running for an hour, returning home sticky and hot with a smile on my face to cook oatmeal and an egg over a gas stove. I’d eat while re-reading Storm of Swords, imagining new directions the evil George R.R. Martin could take the story-line if he so chose. (Current implausible favorite: Is The Onion Knight secretly Azor Ahai? Almost definitely not. But holy shit, maybe!)
Some days I’d kill hours laying on a folding chair outside with the summer’s sun above me, feeling the touch of the wind, drifting into a place where nothing existed, floating through space the color of red clay before suddenly realizing: That’s just the color of the inside of your eyelids, splashed by sunlight, dumbass.
Before long, TFB would insert itself into the picture to object to my new life.
When are you going to get busy? Don’t you have things to do? I have to ask: How is this productive or useful? You’re aware that you’re being a selfish prick, just sitting there like a lump. And didn’t we do this – this “NOTHING” – just yesterday? When will it be enough? Are you going to flop around purposelessly like a fish on land until you die? Get back in the goddamned water, pronto.
I recognized some of the phrases from other people in my life: My father, an uncle, certain teachers, even friends.
But, but… I deserve to chill out. I’ve put in my time. Taking it easy for a while doesn’t hurt anyone. (I didn’t wholeheartedly believe my own words. I felt as though I were cheating somehow; the absence of daily life struggles left me with a sense of confusion born from the unfamiliar.)
It went like this for a while. I’d do something and god forbid actually enjoy the experience and TFB would eventually emerge to tell me that I was a sizable heap of dragon dung, steaming and fresh from laziness.
Then around the beginning of August, he suddenly expanded his working hours: Instead of restricting our chats to the evening, TFB spoke up during the day.
So tell me again. What, exactly, are you doing with your life now? Sure, you’re “seeing your family” more often. You’re going to doctor’s appointments with your mother and encouraging her to do her physical therapy. You’re going swimming with your nephews. You’re staying physically active. But this isn’t all that productive when you get down to it. In fact, most of these things sound suspiciously like socialization and frittering time away to me. I expect you to be BUSY at all times!
Well, to be fair, I’m kinda busy. The time goes by and I’m doing stuff.
Stuff, sure. But not productive stuff. You’re mostly indulging yourself in whimsy. I can’t approve of this.
Leave me alone, TFB, I’m going to play Super Metroid now, okay?
Go ahead and do that, loser. A 38-year old man playing video games for fun. Pathetic.
Even though I know there’s absolutely no difference in the level of ‘usefulness’ between say, sitting in traffic trying to get to work and playing a twenty three year old Super Nintendo cartridge, TFB seems to think there is.
One of these things has a stamp reading Societally-Approved-Activity on it, and the other does not.
Researching The Enemy
As days continued to pass, I grew weary of TFB. I decided to figure out why this particular voice was so persistent.
I was able to eventually pinpoint two major things.
#1, Computer Addict
I’ve hinted at this in a previous post, but it bears repeating: I’d developed a dependence to digital communication and feedback.
There is something undeniably validating about continually getting emails and/or texts and/or IM chat invitations from people at work — Even people you don’t like! Even automated messages detailing project updates or system health! –– that made me feel important, somehow more substantial.
Doing the ‘stuff’ that these emails asked me to do — or even simply deleting the messages — was addictive and rewarding. Completing tasks, no matter how inane, made me feel productive — and, as I’d mentioned earlier on in the post, through the years I’d convinced myself that I needed to be productive at all times in order to achieve broader life goals. Never you mind the fact that most of those emails have no real importance and frequently represent phony work. Shit was getting done, bro.
In the absence of attention or measurable productivity part of me became confused, hungry for this sort of stimulation. The TFB voice was complaining, at least in part, because it suffered from withdrawal — I had just cut my intake of the busy-opiates by at least 50% per day, which left me feeling a bit hazy.
But apart from that, there was still something else going on —
#2, Busier Than Thou
Which brings me to the second critical piece: Identifying an insidious bit of rogue programming that came installed with TFB called fake status. Thing is, TFB enjoyed what it was — it took pleasure in being too fucking busy. Most of us wear busyness as a badge of honor or mark of pride. Being busy doing anything and everything has the side effect of making us feel like we’re really living — that we’re somehow important simply because of the pace at which we live our lives.
Example: A year ago, my cousin Eric innocently asked if i wanted to have dinner that particular week. Can’t, the TFB used to say, back when I was working. Got to work Tuesday night, then Weds is Date Night, and Thurs I have online games scheduled with some friends and we’re going to crush n00bs in Starcraft. Weekend is, of course, booked with in-laws, so we’re talking next week Holmes.
I admit it: Telling Eric exactly why I couldn’t see him made me feel better than him.
He needed me, but I was TFB — I didn’t need anything at all (except maybe something to make my personality a bit less horrible).
I felt like I was in power — I was in control — and part of me wanted to make sure he knew it.
Yep — trust me. I know how that sounds. Fucking yuck. I don’t like admitting these things, but there it is.
Luckily, Eric had his own TFB and told me that next week was out for him — he had a similar number of commitments booked.
We still haven’t had that dinner, but it’s safe to say that we both got something out of the exchange — some kind of synthetic ego boost and validation.
I recently reached out to him via email and asked if he wanted to again try to get together. His response: Things are pretty busy right now. Let’s try for something in November.
In my response, I found myself typing something that made me feel unexpectedly vulnerable. Schedule pretty open actually. Just let me know a date that works for you.
A couple of exchanges later, and we’re set to meet up. He’s got a little bit of time, and I’ve got a lot of flexibility. The patterns of my old life have been broken — I can do what I want to do. And what I want to do is see where he lives, share a meal, and meet his 2-year old daughter for the first time.
Screw fake-busy-status. It’s not as rewarding as cultivating real relationships.
I’m Not Alone
Along with the internal searching, I did a fair amount of googling to see if anyone else was going through the same type of experiences.
Lo and behold, the whole TFB phenomenon has already been studied and remarked upon. For example, my observations are roughly in line with the contents of this recent nytimes article.
Here’s the thing. As I mentioned closer to the opening of this blog post, many people run off to be just as crazy-busy in retirement as they were during their working years. They become entrepreneurs, or full-time parents, what-have-you, which is all well and good for those people, but…
I have very little to do; I what-haven’t-ed myself. There is no longer any externally measurable progress in my life; to a certain type of outside observer, it almost certainly appears that I’ve become useless now that I’ve lost my busy status.
On a rational level, this doesn’t bother me at all (what’s the goddamned difference in how I spend my time?), but apparently there’s a part of my brain that’s been soaking up cultural norms all of these years, and it’s pretty peeved that I’ve stepped several thousand miles outside of the circle of what it feels is acceptable adult behavior.
Since I quit work, I’ve got what amounts to perhaps five or six hours of more-or-less scheduled and productive activity — cooking, cleaning, some kind of exercise, some time spent outdoors, a bit of guitar practicing, writing, whatever — and then a lot of unscheduled, loose time.
And while you can pencil in lots of activities during that loose time, eventually you’ll catch a glimpse of the truth of it: Our so-called busyness is a massive tool of distraction, something we rely on to avoid paying attention to the sense of emptiness that most of us feel when left alone with ourselves.
Being idle, if you’re not accustomed to it, has the potential to feel awful to our internal selves for some reason. Kids, most of whom have a powerful FOMO, know this very well — most of them start screaming about how bored they are if you leave them alone for more than two seconds. They can’t stand it. They have no internal world, no defense against the loneliness package that comes pre-installed with the standard Human Operating System.
Adults don’t have the same problem as kids, though. Anytime you feel anything resembling boredom or a lack of stimulation creeping up on you, viola! Out comes your phone and in an instant youtube suggests that you watch an absurd video about an animated Rastafarian shark. Problem solved: You are now irritated by the producer of that stupid film clip.
Tangent Alert: This terror — the fear of being alone with yourself — makes people scared to do what they perceive as nothing.
Incidentally, it is, I suspect, on the short list of reasons why some people over-save and never quit their jobs, i.e. never putting the RE in FI/RE. There’s this very real fear that without the constant noise and distractions — the gossip, the political stuff, the endless tasks that TFB assigns — that they’ll have to take a much more careful look at whether or not they’re happy with the remainder of their lives. I’ve concluded that for many people, it’s easier to insert a new reason to continue working (I want to leave a tremendous inheritance to my kids so they’ll have a better life!) than it is to pull the plug on employment once you’ve hit your number.
Someone asked me in the comment section of a recent post if there are any downsides to being on the FI-life-path, and honestly, this particular theme represents the biggest one, the seedy underbelly of the beast.
You will be faced with questions that nobody who is trapped on the consumer treadmill has to worry about. When you need each month’s paycheck to get by, you know exactly why you’re working. It’s for your family, of course — for your very survival. You will never agonize over your “purpose” in life — your purpose is to earn money because if you don’t, you are dead. Your family is dead. Your financial house will burned to the ground, reduced to ashes, unless you continue to work.
If you’re one of those people, everything is crystal clear. You might as well be one of the competitors in the Hunger Games — you must keep your job in order to simply persist. There is no other choice — and no reason to question your current patterns of behavior.
Even if you’re a bit farther removed from that desperate situation, you can easily convince yourself you need a paycheck to fund your retirement. Again, problem solved. You must continue to work until your nest egg reaches Value X. You have a good reason to continue to report to work, and work takes up the majority of your thoughts and time on the planet. Done.
When you feel obligated to continue slogging through your job for the majority of your week, every week, when you finally have bits of free time, you will feel absolutely justified in blowing hours on facebook and carefully researching your selection of bath-towels before getting drunk at a fancy dinner party and losing half of your precious weekend gripping porcelain, praying to the Lord of Regret.
Because: All-Consuming Job is Exhausting, Need Break.
Because: Need the distraction of entertainment NOW.
But when all of your time is suddenly free, I guarantee that your little micro-hobbies and hour-wasters will fail to round your life out. If you eat candy all day, you’ll eventually die of malnutrition. Scurvy or rickets if you’re lucky, pellagra if you are not.
When you’re finally not working, eventually your lay of the land will shifts, and instead you’ll see over the horizon to these broader questions. Who are you, really? What are your life goals outside of work? What else will fill you up now that you no longer have 50+ hours of built-in “approved” obligation every week?
Again, if you’re retiring to pursue some specific ambition, that’s great. All of this stuff I’ve been trying to describe may seem bizarre, not making much sense at all. In this case you’ll have a set of goals and an accompanying personality that allows you to be content without any major adjustments. Good on ya.
But that doesn’t describe my own situation. I found that changes were necessary to adapt.
Time for TFB to Die
My own TFB subsisted on constant stimulation. Once I reduced the flow, eventually the beast starved.
But this action increased my awareness of self and surroundings, i.e. the underlying features of real life, and this was a little uncomfortable as I adjusted.
As someone who has been heavily plugged into technology for the entirety of my existence, this particular change felt strange for a while. It’s what I’ve wanted all along this FI journey, of course — the ability to slow down, to stop staring at a computer screen all of the goddamned time.
I didn’t really know what that would mean, though, until I did it.
For a while it was enough to simply watch people go about their business. Listening to people at a cafe talk about sales quotas and how to go about achieving them. Seeing an endless parade of commuting vehicles backed up, each driver intent on getting to work while simultaneously texting three other people on their smartphones.
It was cathartic. These experiences provided punctuation to the fact that I’d finished my career, that I’d never have to engage in those sorts of activities. My body and mind were free.
But this particular aspect of the glow — the relief of not having to do that shit anymore — eventually wore off, leaving just me, and my wife, our families, and TFB.
See, I’m not talking about making a lifestyle change for a week, or a month. When I wrote my 3-month Early Retirement update, I thought I was getting into a terrific groove. I thought: I can do this forever.
But another month in, and I was starting to feel weird. And initially, I couldn’t figure out why. I *certainly* didn’t want to go back to work or do anything rash like that. TFB discomfort aside, my life had become immeasurably better since I stopped reporting for duty in an office. No comparison.
So I wanted to solve the problem in a healthier way — by addressing the root cause instead of ignoring it or just trying to ‘manage’ it by signing up for more fake busyness.
Note: I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I’m literally doing nothing. In fact, I’ve been more social than at any point in my life, seeing friends and family much more often, and the pursuit of my hobbies has been awesome, everything I’d hoped. I’ve also gone on a few lengthy out of state trips. What I’m really talking about here is getting used to the feeling of having an abundance of time — and allowing myself to leave large chunks of it unscheduled. To become accustomed to sprawl, and in addition, to not fill that unscheduled time with internet usage the way I used to.
Anyway, I decided to do what I have done my entire life when I needed to make changes: Research. I leveraged the experience and knowledge of like-minded people who have already made similar adjustments. In geek terms, I re-used code and stuffed it into my head. (Never reinvent an existing widget!)
These two books helped me quite a bit:
Slowing Down to the Speed of Life (Carlson)
World Enough: On Creativity and Slowing Down (McEwen)
Much like my own blog entries, these books are on the ‘soft’ side. There are long paragraphs of description which seem to have little to do with the original subject. These books were not crafted with efficiency in mind.
But then, that’s practically the whole point of it. The desire to be efficient 24/7 is in direct conflict with your ability to slow down and appreciate your life as it’s happening. And this is a difficult trick to pull off, I believe, particularly for someone in the ER crowd, because we are almost as a rule wired to be productive, solve problems, and promote efficiency — elegant and speedy solutions to life situations. Or maybe it’s just me.
And yes, I’d recommend both of them for anyone who is even thinking about retiring — particularly if you, like me, plan to retire to a life of leisure instead of running your own business or <other_super_time_consuming_activity.> They’re thoughtful, sensitive and well-written.
As an added bonus — and perhaps even most importantly — you’ll feel like you have more company on your journey. They’re written by people who are not TFB in the slightest, who are interested in living happier, more sustainable lives with increased awareness of the world, better ties to family and community. Pretty sure the authors don’t compulsively text.
There are chapters on appreciating nature, on meditation, on being present, on listening to your body, on fully engaging your children and being a better parent, on how to feel like a kid again, to rekindle the awe and wonder you used to feel when you were eight years old.
I found the most important part was just the consistent, repeated message to open up your senses. To let the contents of the world spill into yourself, instead of the opposite: continually forcing yourself upon it. Stop waking up and saying “I’m going to make my mark on the world today.” Instead say, “I’m going to see what mark the world makes on me.“
And so I’ve become better at collecting sensory data, taking in the scene, wherever I am.
years decades I’d become so accustomed to looking at a screen for entertainment that peering at the real world instead felt unnatural. How’s that for flipping reality on its head?
But where screens give us flashy images and text, and the speakers reproduce audio, the world gives us much, much more. Perfect resolution and 3D instead of wimpy 4K screens with imperfect color balances. Flawless analog audio with no compression or loss whatsoever. And touch, taste, smell. The world allows you to behave like a native human being, to use your instincts, to feel things in your gut, to take a non-virtual action.
It sounds strange, particularly because I’ve been living in the Matrix virtually my whole life. (I’m part of the first generation of kids that has grown up on screens, playing NES games and typing papers on WordPerfect and logging onto CompuServ and BBSing before transitioning to the Web and all of that…)
So what I’m saying is that slowing down and appreciating my life — seeking beauty and sustainable happiness rather than quick-fix entertainment or a continual stream of novelty — has really been the key to consistently feeling terrific. And this experience of transformation has validated the inkling I’ve had in the back of my head that living life in cubes and online is unnatural — many aspects are fundamentally at-odds with our basic human preferences and needs.
In the end, I worked to phase out TFB the way that I’ve corrected other shitty habits in my past: By replacing it with something else — the input of the world around me. Over the months, the lack of routinized internet-and-phone-related distractions weakened and eventually destroyed TFB. In its place, something different has risen.
I walk around now and I involuntarily describe the world. I absorb things I’ve been TFB to notice for the past decade and a half, no matter how mundane and trivial they would seem to my old self.
The bounce of my shoes. The hard firmness of the desk under my forearms. The slight dampness of my scalp, not yet fully dry from the morning’s shower. The facial features of a bag-boy at the supermarket — what is it in there that reminds me of my brother? The long forehead? The hooked nose? Or the quick, deliberate movements of his arms as he pushes items across the scanner?
The senses and the details feel different each and every time I slow down and pay attention — a continual injection of novelty. My senses have become a drug. Instead of listening to chatter in my brain — my internal problems and anxieties — I am perpetually looking outward, absorbing, rather than moving from one thing to the next without recording any memories, a waterbug darting across a tumultuous lake.
And I’ve internalized this truth: This thing I’ve been too TFB become properly immersed in — this world, this life — is amazingly, ridiculously, absurdly amazing.
The more I did this (be present, take in what’s around me, chill, chilllllllll), the softer the voice of TFB became.
So in the end, there was no spectacular confrontation with my nemesis. TFB simply faded out over time as I continued to focus on being present and content.
Eventually I woke up one day in early October to discover that it was completely inaudible. I no longer cared at all what I was going to do that day and I was no longer bummed out in the slightest at the end of the day if I didn’t do anything. No more nightly performance reviews in my head. No more shame or embarrassment from not doing something measurably productive.
A Note on Caffeine
For the past twenty five years of my life or so, I’ve been a coffee-drinking beast.
Two cups a day, minimum. Sometimes as many as four.
I was the stereotypical spindly geek hopped up at all times, bug eyed and ready for some hype 80 wpm typing. Enough caffeine and I felt like the world slowed down and I was speeding through it. (coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee…)
I told myself that it was a non-optional part of existence, a requirement that allowed me to crush work — including but not limited to the uninteresting stuff. Without caffeine, I usually didn’t feel motivated enough to, say, compile lists of auditing and compliance tasks for the new Oracle application server versions along with proposed remediation steps. (I’m weird, I know — that’s obviously super exciting stuff for your average Joe, but not so much for me.)
I continued to drink a lot of coffee for the first several months before realizing at some point in August that this was part of the whole TFB problem. I’d drink a bunch of black and get all hopped up with no place to go.
The link between coffee and anxiety is pretty well understood at this point. A little anxiety can be good — it can energize and motivate us to attack what we perceive as the source of the tension. When I was working, I would usually identify the Shit that Needed to be Done as the problem, so said shit would therefore get wrecked.
But in the absence of having a crap-ton of obligation, the excess caffeine I was slugging was no longer providing a useful service in my life.
So I finally cut back — for the first time in basically three decades. I drink one cup a day now, and sometimes none. And there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that this simple change in routine turned the volume down on TFB at least a couple of notches on its journey to the grave.
It’s also resulted in more consistent, stable moods and an easier time relaxing.
I’ll probably never ditch coffee entirely. Caffeine is a known productivity booster and it can also enhance your mood. So when I find myself wanting to work on a project or crunch some numbers for tax-time, believe me, I’ll return to guzzling the stuff straight from the carafe.
But for now, the decreased consumption has been great.
The Curse of the Analytical Mind
There’s another angle to the transition-related challenges that I want to take a moment to talk about.
And it applies mostly to people who have jobs that require them to live in their heads.
I’m talking about white-collar workers. These folks typically perform brain functions including but not limited to rote detail memorization, data crunching, report generation, creative and abstract thinking, problem solving and otherwise outputting solutions to complex problems.
Included in this way of thought is the act of categorization. You notice something, and put it in a bucket designated for items of that type based on statistical likelihood.
When you’ve been locked into this way of thinking for too long, it can be difficult to let yourself go — to feel yourself again, the way that you did when you were a child. To enjoy play for the sake of play or ask questions and wonder about people and the universe. In other words, it’s tough to experience things as you did for the first time.
It’s my assertion that if you are one of these people, it may be more difficult to navigate the ER transition.
And look, it’s not just me making a crazy assumption. John Stuart Mill made a similar observation back in like 1437 or whenever the hell he lived. Quote: “The habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings, as indeed it has when no other mental habit is cultivated..”
The habit of analysis, huh? Like, maybe the habit of analysis that one cultivates when you’re a programmer, or an accountant, or a cardiologist for life? Could that be what you’re talking about here, Mr. Mill, you brilliant, elitist scumbag, you?
In all seriousness, I’ve found he’s correct.
Let’s say it’s an overcast outside. You’ll make a note of the type of weather outside and move on. No big deal. It’s just like every other gray turd of a day, isn’t it? Categorization complete.
But it’s not, though, is it? If you stop insta-typing things and let yourself slow down and take in the experience, there is the potential to see things differently. Are the clouds really just gray? Or are they the color of your grandmother’s hair, silver and shimmering, shades layered over one another as they cover the sky? Could be it’s actually closer to the gray of the crappy old Pontiac your crazy old Uncle Roger used to drive.
What do you think an alien from a planet with no clouds whatsoever would think of the atmosphere that you take for granted? Maybe it’d resemble a protective blanket, shielding them from the only thing they’d ever known: a relentless, angry sun.
So cultivate non-analytical skills. I’m cultivating sponginess, allowing myself to soak in the world, to wonder, to experience without constantly reducing life to problems and solutions and efficiency and goals. I’m going against the nurture of two decades of business and mainstream society, neither of which have taught me all that much about how to live with consistent satisfaction and happiness on a personal level.
I’m sure this isn’t the only solution, but I have to say, this change in my mental approach — to focus on living in the moment — has done the trick nicely for me.
Looking For Fulfillment in Different Places
The weekend before Halloween, I drove down to Fiskill, New York to visit an old high school friend that I somehow managed to stay in touch with over the years. Warning: He is not a tech geek. In fact, he’s kind of bro-ish. Try not to judge.
Anyway, out of the blue, he’d sent me an invitation to “get physically destroyed together” but failed to provide any details as to how we might achieve this goal.
Intrigued, I signed up.
We did the greeting thing, ridiculous man hugs and back-slaps and whatever, and then without any further delay, he orders me to don my running gear.
Next thing I know, we’re jogging up slightly inclined suburban streets that are clearly leading to a mountainside: Beacon Mountain.
I look up the side of it and take note: It is approximately a billion feet tall.
I ask my buddy if we’re headed to the top. He won’t answer me directly. It’s like being with the fucking Ghost of Christmas Future. Instead he just points, an index finger angled mostly upward. I take that as a yes.
We hit a rocky trail and begin the climb in earnest. It’s tough going, and he’s in better shape than me, so I’m looking at his back mostly as I slog away at roughly three miles an hour through the cool autumn air, panting and weaving over dirt roads and deep trenches and trees waving orange and red pom-poms in the breeze.
It’s an hour before we reach our destination, a flat gray rock with a radio tower that rises an additional forty feet straight into the sky.
And then two things happen in fairly rapid succession.
First, I realize that the only radio tower I’ve seen prior to today is in a video game called Far Cry and I suddenly wonder just how many things I’ve seen in video games or online that I’ve never actually come into contact with in real life.
Second, I notice three kids lounging at the base of the tower, two guys and a girl. They’re looking out at the view, rolling hills covered by trees on one side, the Hudson river flowing steadily south on the other. Way off in the distance, the skyline of New York is visible, fifty miles away.
“This view is fucking amazing,” the girl says.
“Whatever. It looks just like the backgrounds you see on desktop computers. Can’t believe you guys dragged me all the way up here for this. I can see a million of these types of pictures on flickr in super-high-res,” one of the guys responds.
As I listen to him — the jaded, i-don’t-give-a-fuck tone, the total lack of energy — I hear myself at a younger age. I realize: I used to be that guy. And in fact, I’m still not that far removed from him. I’ve had this sense, for a long time, that practically everything you need to know or experience was already cataloged online somewhere. No need to acquire firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to go fly fishing – just read an account and search google images for a picture. No need to climb a radio tower. Just play Far Cry 3 and run up the rickety metal stairs at full speed. All of the fun with none of the cost or danger.
And for an instant I took in the view the way that I might have done so ten years ago, when I was that younger dude.
First, I analyzed: I get so few of these days away from work, and I’m doing this? I better fucking enjoy it. Am I enjoying it enough?? There was this weird pressure to suck every drop of pleasure out of the day and I wasn’t sure if I was getting maximum value out of my time.
Mr. Analysis continued: What’s the point of coming all the way up here to see this, especially when I’ve already done this in the virtual world? What’s the use of it all? Does it make me think anything new? Does it enrich my understanding of the world? Does it help anyone?
No, it doesn’t, I found myself admitting. I see that that tower, at the barges floating down the Hudson, whatever, all of it — and I can’t think of a single thing to think about. My mind’s completely empty. There’s no use to this.
Then I looked over at my friend who had begun climbing the tower. He yelled at me to join him and I ran over, grabbing at thin metal rails, slowly taking the steps leading upward. They felt infirm somehow, lattices of steel welded together diagonally, open air visible through a pattern of diamonds as I looked down at my feet. As we ascended, the wind kicked up.
Hey man, can you feel this thing swaying or something? Is it safe? I shouted.
Yeah you’re fine, stop worrying and start hurrying the fuck up. I’m already at the top.
I gripped the sides harder and felt my heart pound, noticing that the exterior rails weren’t even close to being tall enough to stop me from barreling over if I lost my balance. I had an image of myself spilling out after a misstep, head over heels, my body exploding like a water balloon against concrete as soon as I hit the rock foundation. I sure as hell didn’t feel like this when I sprinted up the virtual tower on my computer at the pace of full-on W.
I kept going, one foot in front of the other, and before I knew it my friend’s fist was right in my face. And as I gave it a good bumping, I realized I’d made it all the way to the soaring, unstable nest at the top of the tower.
And we looked out again, out at that damned scenery, that desktop background downloaded from google images, those hills, that river, that enormous city with its eight million lives looming in the distance. There was a light smell of smoke in the air from a wood fire, probably from another group of hikers grilling somewhere below on the trails.
I know what you’re thinking, he says, kind of bobbing his shoulders with satisfaction. You’re thinking: This is a pretty spectacular view. You’re thinking: This was totally worth destroying your body for.
Nope, I thought to myself, my consciousness oddly flat. I’ve got nothing in my brain. Not a single thought.
For an moment, I felt deflated and confused, but then I realized with a start that I was analyzing again — looking, as usual, in the wrong place for understanding things of this nature: My head.
Because my heart was full to bursting.
As always, I’d love to hear stories from readers who have retired and how the transition went, particularly over the first year or so.
Also, to be clear, everyone knows I don’t actually hear voices in my head, right? 😀 I structure the posts this way in order to hopefully show some of the internals of what it feels like when you’re intentionally adjusting personal habits and patterns. The voice construct is just a convenient mechanism to illustrate the challenges and conflict.