• Tue, Jul 12 2011

Bullish Life: Sometimes It’s Best Just to Not Think About It


As an introvert, I sometimes have to explain to people that I do not want to drink coffee with them, because I can only drink so many cups of coffee in a day, and coffee is for both pleasure and help in thinking, so if I drink coffee and don’t get time alone to think, that’s one less thinking session I have per day, and then I am one thinking-session behind in the achievement of my goals, forever, so I would rather meet them once I’m done thinking for the day so we can drink beer.

Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but I mention it because, of course, I am not against introspection; I frequently recommend that people define their values in order to make better decisions and allocate their time wisely (see Bullish Life: How To Make Better Decisions and Bullish Life: Getting Bullish in Practice as Well as in Theory). But I don’t think everything is worth introspection.

Someone asked me on Formspring the other day if I thought the unexamined life was worth living (a question far above that site’s usual standard of discourse: “Would you rather swim in a pool or at the beach?”)

I do indeed think that the unexamined life can be worth living, especially in the sense that the alternative is being dead, so if all you get in life is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, wouldn’t you take it? (Incidentally, virtually all men I know say that if they become paralyzed, they want someone to kill them, whereas no women I know have ever said this.)

There are also adults who have the mental age of infants but who lucked out in getting awesome parents who care for them and entertain them (pinwheels! shadow puppets!) This young woman made national news when her parents decided to medically keep her from growing so they could better care for her, as she will spend the rest of her life being cared for like an infant and will benefit from being small and carryable and not having menstrual cramps. What kind of fucking pedant do you have to be to think that unintellectual people’s pleasure means nothing?

In fact, I think that if you’re the sort of person who reads lengthy self-improvement blog posts, there’s a good chance that you think too much about some things.

I picked up a book at Barnes and Noble once — I can’t remember the title — that alleged that some victims of sexual abuse were not benefiting from years and years of therapy, and that sometimes the best thing is just to not think about it. Of course, some people definitely do need and benefit from therapy. But if you’re an adult who is not particularly suffering and who is perfectly capable of having normal intimate relationships, then it shouldn’t be too much of a shocker that you might be happier not constantly rehashing that time you were touched by your uncle.

I think it’s very important in pursuing your goals to control your own mental space. How do you do that?

Firstly, by deciding what kinds of things you aren’t going to think about. Certainly the contents of your head should be free from, say, government prosecution — you can think your Orwellian thought-crimes all day long. But that doesn’t mean the contents of your head are free from your own scrutiny of how well you’re managing your life. It’s probably not good to regularly think about other people while having sex with your partner, even if your partner has no idea. It just can’t be optimal. So, put that on the “no” list.

Also on the romantic front: someone who has sex with you and then tragically does not fall in love with you. Yep, the only way forward is not to think about that. There’s nothing to think about. What happened in that case is really just what, statistically, happens more often than not. If the risks weren’t worth the benefits, then don’t do that again. But you’re definitely better off thinking about other things.

Are you following people on Twitter whose Tweets just make you jealous? Are you seeing Facebook updates from people who make you unhappy, who you’d like to date but who aren’t interested in you, or who tempt you to click on links to things you’d rather you hadn’t seen? Unfollow, and hide updates.

On The Grindstone, I wrote about using your career to make the world a better place. You’ll be able to do that a lot faster if you don’t think about all the things you can’t do until you make it big.

A final example – when I was a bodybuilder in college, I would scrutinize myself in a mirror endlessly, constantly pinching the fat over my abs that just wouldn’t go away, largely because nature does not want women to have six-packs (even women who have them in magazines often only have them for the day of the photoshoot, for which they have consumed diuretics and done this weird thing where they ate a lot of salt three days ago and then no salt for three days and then their skin looks really thin and their muscles pop out and their veins get all prominent and then the editors Photoshop them out). It was super obsessive. It was not healthy. I began judging other women for their underdeveloped deltoids.

Plenty of other women exercise obsessively. Does that mean they should stop exercising? Of course not — for those prone to body obsession, the healthiest way to exercise might just be to do it and not think too much about it. Do it the same way you brush your teeth — it’s just something you do, on autopilot, because it’s gross not to. Then, when you take your clothes off to take a shower, don’t look at your naked body in the mirror; just mentally move on to the next thing in your day, the same way you probably do when brushing your teeth. Done.

Secondly, you control your own mental space by deciding ahead of time what you are going to think about and when, and assigning yourself mental tasks with — as the corporate world likes to say — “deliverables.”

As I wrote in Bullish: Save Up an Emergency Fund, But Be the Kind of Person Who Never Needs One, I am always preparing for the situation in which I am in a catastrophic accident and can only communicate with my eyeballs; I want to make sure I have the mental ability to plan a book in my head so as to best make use of the couple hours a day some saint spends laboriously recording my eyeball movements.

In actual life, though, the best I can do is sometimes to plan an article while standing on the train and not being able to write anything down. Similarly, if you must wait in line at the bank, you can decide that you will compose exactly what you want to say in that difficult email you’ve been putting off writing, such that when you get back to your desk, the email takes you less than three minutes to type up.

You can also redeem otherwise wasted time by using it to control and direct your emotions productively. I’ve recommended (Bullish: Personality Qualities Way More Important Than Anything on Your Resume) using your commuting time to emotionally prepare for work (in my case, by dredging up empathy; you might need to draw on aggression or stoicism). You are not benefitting your career by being angry or grumpy — or blissed-out listening to your favorite band — on the way to work, and then throwing yourself into work “cold.” What if the first person you encounter that day is the one who has the power to promote you? Each day at work is a performance that you must emotionally prepare for, just as an actor does whatever special magic it is that they do before heading onstage.

Obviously, I don’t recommend a life in which you don’t think about anything — but there’s a natural limit to how much you can think about. Sixteen waking hours a day only allows room for so many thoughts; it is a bit of a zero-sum game. So many people live their lives falling into the complacency of useless thoughts and being whipped around by emotions that seemingly come from nowhere and are allowed to run rampant.

There are all kind of skinny (and often obnoxious) people out there claiming that “my body is a temple.” Why not make your mind a temple?

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  • Mary

    The unexamined life looks most admirable when one considers the phrase: ignorance is bliss.