May 6, 2012

On the occasion of my birthday once more, and limits

Well, here we are again. Literally. Since my last birthday, the earth has careened around its 586 million-mile orbit (at about 67,000 miles per hour!) and swung back into roughly1 the same place. Except it’s a year later. The universe is a bit bigger. My chromosomes are slightly more ragged.2 And my species is closer both to a cure for cancer and to its own annihilation, depending on who you ask.

And in the past year, I’ve learned some things. Let me tell you about them.

I’ve learned the limits of my body. This may be obvious to a physiologist, but to a young man with pretensions to invincibility, it’s been more or less an outrage. If memory serves me (and maybe it doesn’t), it seems that a year ago I could eat and do whatever I wanted and pretty much be okay. Since then I’ve learned that too much sugar makes me tired, that insufficient sleep makes me depressed, and that when my skin gets dry it will manifest its displeasure in a spate of unsightly pustules. So I’ve learned to eat better, to say no to going out every night, and to moisturize religiously. I’ve struggled with the return of chronic lower back pain, and have begun seeing a chiropractor to mitigate it. Of course, none of these phenomena is entirely new. What’s new is the realization fostered by their accumulation: that merely living a normal life requires an increasing amount of effort as you get older.

I’ve learned that energy, not time, is the raw material of productivity. When I cut video games mostly out of my life last year, I expected a windfall of efficiency. This didn’t happen. I found myself with more time, but a lack of motivation to fill it. As it happens, I stumbled upon a book, The Power of Full Engagement, by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. In it, they identify four kinds of energy—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—and argue that we need to balance how we both use and replenish this energy. I would work all day and then come home and try to work all night, and feel like a failure when I’d find myself unable to focus. Or I’d have an emotionally taxing day and feel bad about avoiding an especially difficult conversation I needed to have. What Loehr and Schwartz explain is that these effects are nothing to feel bad about, just the natural result of trying to use energy—mental and emotional—that I simply didn’t have. And their solution is simple: to use other kinds of energy—exercising (physical) or communing with friends (spiritual)—while the kinds I’m lacking replenish. This has been immensely helpful.

I’ve also learned that I may be addicted to information. As soon as a free moment presents itself, I’ll often have the internet or a book open without even realizing it. I’ll sometimes get physically uncomfortable if I know I’m stuck somewhere with nothing to read, and I’ll notice a small dopaminergic rush when I merely open a book or browser. To address this, my 2012 New Year’s resolution was to steer clear of the websites most enabling of this addiction: Skinner boxes like Memebase and FailBlog. But I still read over 100 blogs and a magazine or two each week, plus the ten-or-so books I’m sort-of reading at any given time—and I’m failing to do much with or even remember most of it. What began with the desire to be better informed is making me quite the opposite. And so, since the flood of information shows no signs of abating, I’ll need to be more discriminating in what I allow past my retinae, and how often. Perhaps many us do.

If the refrain of my last birthday was something like “work harder,” I’m amending it this year to “work smarter,” to focus. I’ve learned that life doesn’t get any easier, and mere striving is just a recipe for exhaustion. The personal journal I began about a year ago has become, among other things, a way of writing notes to my future self about mistakes to avoid and goals to work toward. I think this can serve as a model for working smarter, by tracking the behaviors I want to change, setting goals, and sticking to them. Goal number one will be writing here more than once a year, so I’ll see you soon.

  1. give or take a few hundred thousand miles 

  2. With any luck, this is what will kill me. Every time our cells divide—to grow, to heal us, to make babies—they leave off a bit at the ends of the chromosomes, called telomeres, leading to organ failure in old age. One day we’ll learn how to repair these bits and humans won’t have to die of natural causes—only unnatural ones like motorcycle accidents, evil clowns, and perhaps incidents involving evil clowns on motorcycles.