Underestimating what others do

Walking home the other day I passed two women deep in discussion and caught part of their conversation. One woman said “once she explained it, it was just common sense really”. 

It got me thinking. Aside from the cliché that common sense is apparently not very common, I was struck by something that has bothered me professionally for years. 

A large portion of what I do at work is explain things: I make complicated stuff easy to understand. The problem with this is that once people understand the thing that was previously opaque, they no longer perceive its complexity. Nor do they recognise that the reason they now understand it is not because they suddenly just “got it” in a flash of self-generated insight, but because someone else worked hard to make it clear to them. 

It’s a peculiar bit of mind warping that goes on inside our heads at this moment of understanding. We congratulate ourselves on our cleverness at understanding and attribute it to our own brilliance. We completely overlook the person who has led us unobtrusively along the path to insight. 

Next time someone explains something to you and it seems really clear and straightforward, instead of congratulating yourself on your ability to grasp complex concepts quickly, congratulate them on their skill in communicating complex concepts simply. 


Decluttering with a vengeance

I decided over the Christmas-New Year break to declutter my house. I didn’t think it was particularly stuffed full of extraneous things but when visitors came to stay and I tidied the guest room, I discovered a few boxes full of things I’d forgotten I had. I also have a lot of books and thought it was high time for a cleanout.

So clean out I did. I did my best Marie Kondo imitation and went through all my books, deciding which ones brought me joy (aka, do I think I’ll ever read this again) and which ones had done their service and could be released into the wild.

By the time I was done, I had over 250 books to get rid of, as well as a couple of boxes of clothes, shoes, and miscellaneous other stuff. Goodwill came and picked it all up on Friday, god bless them. Saturday I took the remains, the things they wouldn’t take, to the dump.

Finally, my living room is clear of the boxes of books that had been sitting under the bench, and the shelves that were stacked two deep are now breathing freely again.

There’s something very cathartic about cleaning out things. The sense of being released from outdated ideas, values, activities and ways of being is very liberating and feels optimistic.

About two hours after the goodwill truck left, a neighbour came knocking saying another neighbour said I’d moved out and was I selling. Apparently I really had tossed out a lot.

Learning to relax

Somewhere along the way I have lost sight of what down time looks like. 

I love reading personal productivity blogs and trying out ideas for keeping track of tasks and projects and ideas. Nothing wrong with that except that it’s spilled over into an unhealthy approach to the 2/3 of my life that isn’t work. 

I feel compelled to be productive all the time. The weekends are for getting jobs done and for recovering enough to go back to work. 

This seems really misguided. I’ve lost sight of how to do things for the sheer enjoyment of doing them. I feel guilty watching a TV show thinking I should be learning to program or cleaning the oven or doing calligraphy instead. And that all those activities should be leading towards a new career or passive income or, in the case of cleaning the oven, outsourced so I can spend that time making more money per hour than I spend on the home help. 

There was a time in my life when that approach made some sense, but that time is in the past. What I need more than passive income is some joy in my life. 

I’m so out of practice I am not sure where to start. Maybe I should return to the time-honoured tradition of having a nice cup of tea, and see where that leads. 

The guilt of living alone

I have what might be described as an underdeveloped sense of entitlement. I struggle to believe that I’m entitled to want what I want, live how I want, spend my money how I want, etc. I struggle to distinguish between what is selfish and what  is a perfectly reasonable level of self interest.

So I am particularly sensitive to accusations that living alone makes me selfish.

Coming from someone with children, this accusation normally centres more on my decision not to have kids that it does on living alone per se. But what always puzzles me about this particular jab is that those with the kids doing the accusing will, within the next breath, talk about how they have always wanted kids. So having children is every bit as selfish as deciding not to.

From an environmental point of view, living alone is undeniably more consequential than living with others. But living in a nuclear family is more consequential than living in a commune, and on and on. I try to  live as responsibly as I can, minimising waste, buying fewer quality goods rather than lots of cheap tat. I walk to work – that right there probably makes up for the other ‘costs’ of living alone.

The most annoying is the accusation in the form of admiration:”you’re so lucky, you can do whatever you want”.  Sure, when you feel like you’d like to lie down and have a nap and you can’t because your kids are climbing  up the walls, I am sure my life seems full of such blissful freedoms. At the same time, it implies that I am self indulgent, and that I should be suffering along with everyone else . Why should I get to nap while the rest of you get to wrangle toddlers in amongst mounds of dirty laundry? Then, in the next breath, they tell me they could never live on their own, they’d find it too quiet.

That we have different needs in terms of relationships, solitude, companionship, and socialising should be obvious. But it is not. I have to catch myself when I start feeling guilty because I have nothing to feel guilty about. That I choose to live alone means I have made a particular set of tradeoffs and choices that are best suited to my personality and my needs. That others have done the same should not blind them to the fact that my choices and theirs are both choices, and they are merely different.

A new year begins

New Year’s Day. It couldn’t have started worse: woken by a nightmare, to rain and wind slamming into the house and a text from a friend saying a mutual friend has terminal cancer. Also, I was stiff and sore. And you thought 2016 was bad. 

That’s a very inauspicious start to a new year, but I’m not superstitious about it – I don’t interpret this as a sign of things to come. Sometimes a cluster of events is just a cluster of events. 

It has put a dampener on my mood though. There’s something about a new year that generates optimism and inspires resolutions– a new year feels full of promise– and I won’t pretend the morning’s events didn’t undercut the mood. But at the same time, it underlined the promise of a New Year. 

If you knew that this year was your last, what would you do? 

Since I don’t know the answer to that question, it’s definitely worth pondering. But it’s also a difficult question to take seriously because, let’s face it, the probability of this not being my last is still greater. And what I’d do if this were my last year, and I didn’t have to ensure I have a career and money to live on for the next (I hope) 20+ years, might be quite different from what seems prudent in the event my life continues. 

Still. It’s not a bad idea to think about what I’d like to be looking back on this time next year. And if I’m not here to look back in it, hopefully it will still have been worth looking back on.