On Being Awesome

Long ago during College 2 one of my now-exes told me that he used to be depressed, but then he decided to be awesome instead.

At the time I didn’t get it.

It took me a long while to understand that ‘be awesome’ was a state-shift that I could undertake at will. During the Lost Decade it definitely didn’t feel like something I could choose to do. It’s only been this year that I really Got It.

I’m talking about it now because I was helping Nat put a bunk bed together at the REACH and I got a finger slammed between a couple of pieces, hard enough to draw a blood blister. I then also had a piece break underfoot and drop me to the floor, bruising my ankle as I went. I continued to smile and cracked a joke about it, and Nat commented how much they loved my attitude.

I think it’s a choice anyone can make, although I understand full well not thinking that it’s a mental motion available to you. Certainly when you’re in the depths of despair, it doesn’t feel like a move you can make. It’s not something I really know how to serialize but I’ll try.

There have been times, semi-recently, when I looked at the work that I think is necessary for me to do, and part of me wanted to be terrified and feel inadequate. When I felt that starting to happen, instead of just letting it, I refused. I called on the power of my name, and remembered that there is a “place” in my mind I can “stand” against anything.

I’m not sure if I built it, or recognized something that already existed, but I don’t think my cognition is unique enough that this is something special to me. I think most people can do this, but also most people don’t, because they don’t think it’s an action they can take.

In any case, here’s what the mental move “looks” like for me:

“I’m Ratheka Stormbjorne, and this is not going to be the thing that breaks me. Not even close.”

I invoke this for difficult things, things it doesn’t seem to me like I can do. I learned from David Goggins that we have within us a governor, whose purpose it is to preserve resources. To keep us from spending resources that we don’t have to. It makes sense as an evolutionary adaptation – if we spent all of our energy and effort all the time in the ancestral environment, we’d come up short fairly quickly. That said, in the modern era we’re not resource poor, and we can usually manage time to recover.

Still, the governor keeps us weak in meaningful ways. We become “exhausted”, and think we have to stop. We think we can’t win, and we give up without really giving it our best. We don’t have to be like that in extremis, and it’s a lesson that carries over to the less extreme times too.

So I felt some pain from squishing my finger. So I dinged up my ankle falling. So what? It’s not enough to stop me, not even enough to slow me down. I’m Ratheka Stormbjorne, and the universe thinks that’s enough to stop me from improving the world?

Sh’yeah, as if!

So I make a joke, I smile, and we move on. It seems surprising if you don’t know you can make that move but really, it’s not all that much.

Also, it makes everything easier. Assembling those beds wouldn’t have been easier if I got mad, or stopped to feel bad about the pain. It just would have been harder on my friend, even if I didn’t do anything else to help. It would have been easy to fume off in a huff, but I would have felt bad and less would have got done.

I’d rather be awesome. It’s more fun for me, and for the people around me, and I get to have more of an effect on the world.

Choose right.

Be awesome.

Book Review – Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ

As I mentioned in an earlier review, my wonderful partners have pointed out that I have some less than wonderful processes that can be invoked. As part of my reading blitz, I picked up Emotional Intelligence, and read it slowly overtime on my phone. I say slowly in part because these days I do most of my reading directly on my laptop, and in part because it’s a hefty tome, clocking in at over 800 pages.

Was it worth working my way through all of those? I think yes.

The book starts off with a pleasant anecdote about a smiling bus driver who pumped his vehicle full of warm cheer, then quickly contrasts it with items from the news ranging from destruction of properties to the destruction of multiple lives. As a means to draw your attention to the importance of emotional intelligence, it’s rather effective. Daniel Goleman knows how to pick gut-punching examples, and it doesn’t stop in the prefatory material.

Part one, The Emotional Brain, opens with the same sort of whiplash – a tale of parental self sacrifice for their child, and a tale of parental error that led to the death of their child. It then delves into the bodily effect and utility of emotions, discussing how system one (though he doesn’t call it that) serves our ends, or rather, did in the ancestral environment. A recurring theme through the book is how modern society has made our reactions too fast and powerful, to our frequent sorrow.

Part two, The Nature of Emotional Intelligence, delves into ways to be really dumb while being quite intelligent. Pure logic, memory, and reasoning ability, do not cover all the bases of intelligence, despite the common conception. Emotional intelligence, which is recognizing, understanding, and being able to handle, the emotions of yourself or others, has a stronger effect on life outcomes. Daniel covers several different studies that demonstrate these effects, longitudinal studies with large sample groups. He then delves into what emotional intelligence really means, how we can recognize it in ourselves and others, and how empathy functions, in people for whom it is functional, and in those who it does not, due to various conditions.

In part three, Emotional Intelligence Applied, we dig into what EQ looks like in relationships, and what the lack thereof is like. Personal, professional, and medical are the areas delved into, and the last particularly interested me. I had a few discussions with Martina on the future of medicine, opining that there would come a day when most of the heavy lifting would be done by automated systems. She contended that she didn’t want a machine to tell her she had something wrong with her, she wanted a person. I retorted that there would in fact be people who specialized in this, and being selected for communication ability and empathy, would serve the purpose far better than people selected for the ability to grind books for twelve years. In fact, the research tends to support that, given adequate diagnostic and treatment generation technology, this would actually be an improvement to the outcomes of our medical systems.

The rest of the book (two more sections) leans heavily on the value and desirability of teaching emotional intelligence to the young, and it makes a strong case for it. We’re not serving ourselves by pushing our children to be straw vulcans, Spocks with no understanding of how to name, understand, and cope with the emotions that we and others generate in response to reality. I feel good about recommending Emotional Intelligence, long as it is, to any reader who wants a better understanding of their system one, and how to get along with it for fun, profit, and a longer, healthier, more successful life.

Book Review – The Willpower Instinct

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, a work by Kelly McGonigal, does exactly what it says on the tin. Laid out in ten chapters structured after the ten-week course, “The Science of Willpower”, that she led at Stanford’s Continuing Studies program, the text is informed by research and refined by real world tests of the material by people in actual rather than lab conditions – always a bonus for research on people, who’ll happily act one way when a research subject, and totally differently at home.

Each chapter takes up a particular facet of willpower, from the broad overview in chapter one, to chapter three’s explanation of the muscle model of willpower, to chapter five’s tearing down of the ‘pleasure’ center of the brain (Spoiler: It’s not really pleasure, it’s promise-of-pleasure. Biology is weird.) willpower is seen from many different angles, giving an excellent view of the big picture in digestible chunks.

Some of the information from studies I had been previously aware of, but it’s good to have it all compiled in one place, and much of it had clearer / more extensive explanations than my prior understanding. Some of it, like chapter 4’s explanation of willpower hypocrisy, was entirely novel to me. It makes intuitive sense that feeling like we’ve done a good and difficult thing enables us to convince ourselves that we deserve a treat or break from our discipline, but it’s also frustrating that biology should work that way. Still, the awareness I’ve gained of the phenomena from Professor McGonigal’s book seems likely to better enable me to stay on track.

That the brain has numerous tricks built in, to keep us from resisting temptations that were harmful to resist in the ancestral environment is not news, but the number and insidiousness of them was surprising to me. That contemplating being virtuous tomorrow will enable the aforementioned license to sin, for example, was both novel, and depressing. We really are built for an environment of scarcity, where resisting the urge to grab it with both hands was the wrong move, and this is doing us no favor in the modern world.

Lest I convince you all is doom and gloom, worry not, dear reader. Each chapter describes a facet of willpower, and how to use it to your advantage. Delaying your gratification, thinking about why you’re engaging in this feat of mind over mind, reorienting your “I won’t” efforts (spend the next thirty seconds not thinking about a blue-eyed polar bear) to be “I will” efforts, even forgiving yourself rather than treating yourself to a heaping plate full of guilt, can all lead you to be the sort of person whose iron will is the envy of her friends.

Well-written, thoroughly researched, and humorous and serious in just the right measures, The Willpower Instinct is a book you’ll want to exercise your will to start, and might find yourself having to do the same to put it down. I expect I’ll be rereading it soon, because I charged through it in days, and I want to take a more leisurely trek through, trying each technique and giving them some time to show their stuff. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who ever wants to perform actions by choice, rather than on autopilot. Unless you’re already a scientist in this field, you’re sure to learn something, and I suspect you’ll find what you learn quite useful as you walk your path in this temptation-dripping world we’ve built from the ancestral environment brought up in chapter one.