Jennifer Dziura writes life coaching advice weekly here on TheGloss, and career coaching advice Fridays on TheGrindstone.
I’m enjoying the series by Cathryn Berarovich about being a prostitute
Sure, as forms of employment go, it’s a little … invasive. But most “regular jobs” are pretty invasive of your mental space. We’re always selling something, aren’t we? Isn’t your mind kind of more important than your body?
It’s a tough call.
For some years post-college and after the failure of my dotcom, I was a nude art model. I discuss it in my one-woman show, “What Philosophy Majors Do After College.” While being naked has its challenges (it’s drafty; cellphone cameras) and being still for 20+ minutes at a time also has its challenges (unscratchable itches; multiple limbs falling asleep at the same time), there’s something wonderful and comforting about a form of employment that takes up none of your mental space at all. You can think about anything you want and no one will interrupt you. You can plot and scheme without being expected to respond to your boss’s emails. You don’t have to solve anyone else’s problems. If you take your work home with you, it’s limited to, “This one guy drew me kind of fat, but then this one girl drew me with dragon wings.” Selling your body and keeping your mind for yourself isn’t a bad deal.
Of course, most of the time we have twenty minutes to think about whatever we want without interruptions, we just daydream, or we think about nothing, and lots of things; after, we can’t remember what we thought about. But sometimes, we have revelations, or we prepare for action.
What makes the difference?
In the last two months, I read two articles that struck me because each female protagonist revealed a life marked by extraordinary mental discipline. I first wrote about mental discipline in Bullish Life: Sometime It’s Best Just To Not Think About It and Bullish Life: The Things We Can’t Have Now.
“Nothing in life means much if your mental real estate isn’t your own. If you think you can’t control your thoughts, then you are at a serious disadvantage in every area of life. Every one. From running your career to remembering to exercise to not eating entire pints of ice cream and regretting it to not letting an insult, a catcall, or some downright bullying derail your entire day. I’m sure you’ve read somewhere about the marshmallow test; there is nothing more important than mental discipline. It makes you more money and gives you the ability not to do things you know will not be kind to your future self.”
You may also know that I have a little history with boxing (see Bullish Life: What I Learned From Being Captain of My College Debate and Boxing Teams).
Thus, I was doubly interested in this article in The Atlantic about Marlen Esparza, the first American female boxer to qualify for the London Olympics, where women’s boxing will make its debut as an Olympic sport. Here:
Unlike most of the other boxers participating in the trials, Esparza, who is from Houston, had declined the accommodations arranged for her by USA Boxing at the casino resort, and had chosen to stay at another hotel at her own expense. Esparza prepares for her matches psychologically as much as she does physically, and this means maintaining distance from her opponents before fights. “If we stay in the same place, that makes me feel like we’re equal, and I don’t want to feel equal,” Esparza told me. “I want to feel superior.”
I remember much the same feeling about a girl I went to high school with, Blondie McSoftball.
She never did anything to me; in fact, she gave me a ride home from school a few times, which was nice. But the fact that, obviously, she had a car and I didn’t was just a mere shadow of the fact that I was filled with an implacable rage the day I went to the guidance office and found Blondie’s mom doing her college admissions research for her (you’re supposed to do it yourself or it’s cheating!) I didn’t make a lot of friends at that age, but having motivational enemies was very helpful in getting to the place where I now have really high-caliber friends. Investing too much emotional energy in high school friendships (OMG! BFFs!) is kind of like sacrificing your career for a dead-end relationship.
(See also Bullish: How to Motivate Yourself to Be Motivated for more on the motivational power of fear, disgust, and revenge.)
Words that may seem unkind to her competitors are, to Esparza, basic strategy. To beat her opponents in the ring, she must first convince them—and, more important, herself—that they can’t beat her. As a boxer, this is one of Esparza’s great strengths. “She doesn’t think she can be beat,” says David Avila, a women’s-boxing columnist for The Ring magazine. “The good ones are like that. If you start having doubts, it will show, and the other boxers will run you over.”
I realized I wanted to write this article when I made a connection between Esparza’s remarks and something I had read a few weeks ago — teenager Dawn Loggins’ “Homeless to Harvard” story.
Loggins, now 18, grew up with deadbeat parents who were frequently evicted from homes with no running water; the faculty at Dawn’s high school allowed her to shower and wash her clothes at the school. At one point, Dawn asked a faculty member for candles to study at home, because her house had no power. Finally, her parents actually up and moved to another state (and didn’t tell her!) while she was attending a summer program! She came home to an empty house (her brother was living in another city and her grandmother was in a homeless shelter) and ended up crashing on couches, and ultimately living with one of the school custodians — as well as working at the school, both mornings and evenings after school, five days per week:
The 18-year-old Burns senior works mornings and afternoons as a school custodian.
Dawn doesn’t bother to wear jewelry with her black shirt, pants and sneakers. Earrings, bracelets and rings get in her way while on the job.
Dawn doesn’t listen to music while she works alone every school morning. Instead, she recites her to-do list for the day in her head: Homework assignments, activities in astronomy and photography clubs. She sighed at the thought of advanced placement calculus as she swept a hallway rug.
She pushes thoughts of her parents out of her head. She prefers not to be annoyed while working, she said.
She doesn’t listen to music while picking trash out of urinals — because she needs the mental space to plan her day. A CNN article about Loggins referred to her using her cleaning time to mentally quiz herself for an upcoming test.
Better yet, she deliberately does not think about thoughts she knows will simply “annoy” her (she was probably being polite — “enrage” might be a more appropriate verb.)
I have often written that the seemingly privileged sometimes have “advantages” that compromise other human faculties (see Bullish: Social Class In The Office). Not only do the wealthy often lack privacy and are frequently interrupted (by the hired help, for instance), they sometimes lack of the social nuances to know when they are being obnoxious to regular people, who are, of course, the majority of society. (I nearly punched a guy on a first date who commented, “These days, there’s no excuse for not going to college.”)
Similarly, many rich people hire tutors for their children and consultants and trainers and coaches for themselves, but none of those things help much if you run your own mind in a lazy way.
I have charged parents $150 an hour to teach their daughter math, and then I ultimately fired their daughter as a student because I felt she was disrespecting her parents’ money by refusing to work, think hard, or take notes — instead, she just assumed that, if she needed more help, her parents would hire it for her. (She also, over a period of several weeks, professed “adorable” ignorance at the fact that percents of 100 are just the same number. Guess what? That is not cute. No, she did not have a learning disability.)
Minds that are mere mush have no good place to store information; people whose flabby minds just drift off at all hours of the day generally develop “wisdom” limited to retweeting about loving like you’ve never been hurt and dancing like there’s no one watching. (To such people: You apparently live in a high school yearbook. Please don’t vote.)
If you can run your own mind like a tight ship, you will be able to beat a great many people with external advantages — money, connections — because many privileged people allow these external advantages to simply glance off, like rain off the vinyl poncho of indolence.
When I was 25 — and in the midst of that weird feeling you get when you realize you’ve been out of school for kind of awhile and that that part of your life is really over — I felt my mind turning sloppy and feared I would never recapture the mental discipline I had when I was a high school debate champion.
Fortunately, working in standardized testing has now partially solved that problem for me. My mind is such that I can bill it out to others in 15-minute increments. On my own time, I have much the same problems as anyone.
But it’s also the case that having, at some point in my life, known the feeling of real mental control means that my idea of “normal” is not most people’s. As a former bodybuilder, I think of foods like Fiber One cereal and whole grain bread as “dessert.” As a former debater, I can easily compose a seven minute speech, with Roman-numeraled contentions and lettered subpoints, in three minutes; if I couldn’t, I would fix that problem. I would treat it as an emergency. If your brain gets flabby, you can’t just suck it in with Spanx.
How do you do this?
Well, I am currently reading Turning the Mind Into an Ally, by Sakyong Mipham (Sakyong is an honorific, and Mipham is the head of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage). I am not going to become a Buddhist for the same reason that I don’t believe a big man in the sky made everything, but Buddhists have some fine ideas about mental discipline. I cannot express my excitement on discovering a chapter entitled, “How to Gather a Scattered Mind.” It was similar to the excitement most people would feel upon finding a chapter entitled, “How a Person in Exactly Your Situation Can Have Exactly the Things You Want, Plus Unicorns.”
But there’s also just necessity, will, and practice. Dawn Loggins cultivated mental discipline because she had to, because she decided to use every resource available to her. Those resources may not have included “electricity” and “regular mealtimes,” but they did include the sanctity of the human mind. You can plan what you’re going to think about during your commute. You can plan when you’re going to plan. You can redeem time spent waiting in line. (To do these things, you must generally be alone, or at least extract yourself from chatty people.) But just letting your mind drift pointlessly is no better than watching television all day; it’s chaos in there, with random bits of sex.
Cultivating real mental discipline is exhausting, to be sure. Recent research shows that decision making actually physically burns through glucose in your brain. It can leave you depleted.
But hard things are how you win.