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(Personal) What I Brought Back From Europe

In August and September, work sent me one of their headquarters officers in Belgium for training on the product we support as part of an effort to foster more collaboration between the Support teams in Europe and the US. I was there for two weeks, with a “gap weekend” in Paris visiting a dear friend teaching there. It was my first time out of the country, and I had just enough time there to get a small taste of how life was different there and gain a few lessons about how I’m living here, day to day. Basically, spending a couple of weeks working in Europe taught me a lot about the pace of life here, how we relate to people, and how simplicity really can be a better way of life. Here are five broad lessons I’ve brought back with me from Belgium and France.

Culture shock is real.

If you’ve never experienced a culture different from your own, it’s not something you can ever be prepared for — especially if you’re spending a significant amount of time in said culture. There were so many things, both big and small, that shook me out of my comfort zone constantly. Belgium is a country with three distinct cultures and languages — French, German, Dutch — and they’re used to speaking multiple languages to get by. For someone like me who only speaks English on a regular basis, that lingual fluidity was much more difficult. The cuisine was different, of course; Italian dishes, beef and potatoes were the order of the day with very little seasoning. Mealtimes were a social event, where the expectation was that significant time would be carved out to eat and speak at leisure. Even the small interactions were different. People were less open but more friendly, stores were a lot smaller and more personal, coffee culture is way more geared towards espresso, and the volume of life is much quieter — even in Paris.

There are so many things we take for granted as universal to the human experience when it really isn’t. Beyond cultivating different personalities, cultures can also work from pretty different foundations about life’s purpose or an individual’s responsibility to society. And those foundations can sit beneath structures that are similar on the face, but baffling to navigate through. I know I’m not a worldly rabbit, but I try hard to recognize and accept those differences when I come across them. Even still, two weeks of that kind of discomfort was much more exhausting than I had anticipated.

Discomfort is a good thing.

The two weeks I spent in Belgium and Paris were almost constantly uncomfortable. Right up front I fought through jet lag, and after that was the harder, steadier work of navigating culture shock. There was the more familiar discomfort of building relationships with a small circle of coworkers who came over with me. There was penetrating a very different office culture and learning a complicated piece of software on top of that. There weren’t a lot of familiar comforts to be found; everything was new and required active engagement.

That wasn’t a bad thing, though. After making peace with the reality of the situation, I learned that constant engagement could be fulfilling and fruitful all on its own. That discomfort meant I was being tested, and learning how to move forward through that taught me a large amount in a relatively short time. Rest is important, of course; so is taking time to sink into comfort. But I think we’ve prized comfort far too much. Difficult things will cause discomfort, because building the skills we need to do them demands a lot of effort. We have to gauge whether or not this discomfort will lead to empowering us later, and not all hard situations are worth pushing through. But I think we’re too afraid of being uncomfortable in general. We treat it as an enemy instead of a sign that we’re doing something that changes us, makes us better.

Understanding people is hard work, but totally worth it.

The trainer in Belgium was a fairly difficult man to get along with, and it made training a lot more difficult. Beyond the culture and corporate clash, there was the fact that he didn’t have a personality well-suited to being in a room full of people all day explaining things and answering questions from a wide variety of students with different learning speeds and methods. After six or seven hours of this, we were set free on the city and had to muddle our way through conversations in English, Dutch and French. The whole time, I looked for non-verbal cues that might give me insight into conversational tone that might not be obvious from language alone.

In so many situations, it’s not just important to know what someone is saying — it’s also important to know what they *mean*. That means active listening, paying attention to not just the words but the context in which they’re being said, all the non-verbal cues that accompany them, the personal and interpersonal foundation the conversation is building on. Communication is not just the words we use, but the intent behind them and the skill of expressing that intent consciously. While sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, it’s also important to ask and accept why someone is saying something to us in the manner they’re saying it. Then, we have a better chance of knowing the best way to respond.

Slowing down and shutting up is something everyone should do on a regular basis.

I think the thing that impressed me most about my time in Europe is how the expectation is to slow down and focus on what you’re doing is baked into the culture. On our way back from the office, or while we were roaming around hunting for dinner, we’d see so many people sitting in front of shops and enjoying a beer in silent company. Television shows were so much more low-key in a way that’s difficult to describe, but things were designed to draw attention to what was happening — not diffuse it amongst a whole lot of sound bites. Focus and contemplation are encouraged; constant activity is not.

Taking a minute to shut up and think about the things we do and say is something that’s sorely needed. I think in American culture there’s a need to “join the conversation” regardless of whether it’s helpful or necessary to do so. We’re encouraged to be productive, to do great things, to admire those who are doing a billion things at once. While there are definite drawbacks to slowing down and focusing more intently on one thing, the benefits are obvious. We experience fewer things, but we experience them more deeply. That’s not a bad thing.

News should be designed to empower and inform, not agitate.

While I was in Belgium Hurricane Harvey was flooding Houston; not long after that, Hurricane Irma destroyed Barbuda and many other Caribbean islands; then, Hurricane Maria caused a tremendous humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico. I watched a lot of news on these events in Belgium, Texas and California, and the difference between BBC and CNN is incredibly striking. The BBC is more of a traditional newscast, reporting on major events, giving facts (without immediate ‘analysis’ or ‘conjecture’), even offering insight on what could be done about the situation to help. Watching the news on CNN, the breathless commentary constantly running about the day’s events struck me as incredibly unnecessary and unhelpful.

I think it’s time for us to step back and think about what we want out of the news, as a society. So much of our news cycle these days is designed to agitate us, to make us afraid or angry, because we’ve said through our feedback that these are the stories that gain the most traction. Even nominally ‘neutral’ outlets are full of crawling chirons underneath split screens or constantly-updated sidebars spitting shallow bits of information faster than we can properly absorb them. It doesn’t allow us to focus on what we find important; it just keeps throwing things at us to keep our distracted attention.

Being immersed in a slower culture that prizes focus and being present has helped a lot to recontextualize aspects of American culture that I think contribute to a lot of the fear and anger this country has been gripped by. One of our biggest problems, I think, is the constant fight and fragmentation of our attention; we’re bombarded by advertisements, calls to action, demands for focus or emotional investment almost all the time. I think we as Americans should discourage this kind of attentive pollution and treat our focus as a precious, limited resource. We pride ourselves on more of everything — bigger portions, more productivity, more wealth. But for the time being, I think less is more; eliminating distractions to focus on what’s most important is what I need.

 

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(#Infomagical) Day 5: One Priority

Self Improvement 150Yesterday’s Infomagical challenge was to have a conversation at least seven minutes long with someone about a topic important to you, either over the phone or in person. So…how was it? Was it harder than you thought it would be? Easier? What did you talk about? And did you learn anything from the conversation?

I had planned to chat with my husband about his Dresden Files tabletop role-playing game yesterday, but we ended up talking about Warcraft with my husband and my best friend after seeing the movie. They were both not fans, to put it mildly. Which put me in the position of being the film’s sole defender — and even on a good night’s sleep with a bit of hindsight I have to say that it’s not as bad as everyone has been saying. I think Duncan Jones worked hard to ground an inherently cartoonish world and mostly succeeded; it wasn’t perfect, it might not even be good, but I liked it anyway. If you’ve ever had a long period where you were a die-hard Warcraft fan, you should see this movie on the big screen. It is made for you, to put yourself as immersively as possible in the world of Azeroth.

One of the things I came away from the conversation with is the idea that disagreement doesn’t have to be a personal attack. Even though I think a lot of the criticisms that have been lobbed at the movie (yes, even from my husband and best friend) are a bit unfair, I see where they’re coming from. And hey, just because I like — or even love — something doesn’t mean I can’t at least recognize its flaws, or the points where it leaves people cold, right? So yeah, good talk guys. I can’t wait to talk movies with you again sometime.

Today is the last day of our Infomagical week. If you joined me for these last five days of challenges, thanks! I hope that you’ve learned a bit more about how you interact with technology and where your relationship with it can improve. If you’ve just been reading these posts, thanks to you too! I hope you’ve gained something from reading about my experience. Or at least found it interesting.

The challenge for today is to take what we’ve learned about ourselves, how we consume information and that feeling we get when we’re chasing our goal and wrap it all up in one wonderful burrito of purpose. (I really want a burrito for lunch, you guys.) Today, we think about the lessons we’ve learned this past week and figure out how to apply it to the rest of our lives moving forward. What is the one big thing that we want to change in our lives as the result of this experience?

For me, the big lesson is the value of focus and prioritization. I have this tendency to say “yes” to way too much stuff, and even discounting the chronic depression, ADHD and poor time management skills there’s simply no way I’ll be able to get to everything in a timely fashion. Focusing squarely on single-tasking Monday gave me a window into a world in which I sit down with one project until it is finished, working hard on a single thing to make it the best thing it can be. That felt good! I want more of that in my life.

So, from now on, I’m going to shrink my focus down to the most important things to me. If there isn’t time for other things that are distractions anyway, so be it. I’ll read less Cracked articles, or spend less time on Facebook. I’ll stop reading articles on professional wrestling. (Well, maybe not, but I’ll read fewer of them.) What I do with my time and my technology will hopefully push me towards becoming a better and more complete storyteller, someone who knows the value and transformative potential of stories, someone who uses them for a very real and tangible benefit.

The Infomagical podcast for today is definitely worth a listen if you have about 15 minutes; it talks about the value of priority in your life and the cold reality that you must make conscious, difficult choices about where you choose to spend your time and energy. Tech, it’s mentioned at one point, makes a wonderful servant but a poor master.

So if you’re bouncing from Facebook to Twitter to blog to blog to blog — stop. That’s allowing yourself to be mastered by technology. Instead, make a conscious choice when you sit down at the computer, or take out your phone. Every moment brings a new choice; what is the best one to make? That’s something only you can decide, and if you want your tech to be a tool instead of a tyrant, it’s worth it to spend some time thinking about your decision.

Here’s the full list of blog posts and Infomagical challenges this week. I’m not sure if the page will be up next Monday, but if it is you can sign up to take the challenge here. Thanks so much for following me on this experience.

Day 1: A Magical Day / Zen and the Art of Single-Tasking
Day 2: A Magical Phone / The Minimalist Phone
Day 3: A Magical Brain / You Shall Not Pass, Meme!
Day 4: A Magical Connection / The Art of Conversation
Day 5: A Magical Life / One Priority

 

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(#Infomagical) Day 4: The Art of Conversation

Yesterday’s challenge was to avoid any meme, article, video or other link that didn’t take you closer to your information goal. For me, that was making sure that any content I consumed online made me a better and more focused storyteller. I’m not going to lie, this was the hardest challenge this week; I didn’t realize just how much I liked reading stuff online until I placed a restriction on myself.

I can’t say I did all that great, though I definitely gave it my best shot. There’s just too much great stuff out there you guys — and especially with the news being what it is and this election cycle being as outrageous as it is, the desire to keep on top of what everyone else is talking about is a lot stronger than I thought it would be. Chances are I’ll be trying to master this challenge again in the coming days and weeks, restricting my attention to the things that will make me a better writer.

How did you folks do? Did you find restricting your attention to just a few things as hard as I did, or did you have an easier time with it?

Today’s challenge is a little different; instead of honing our focus to one task or one wonderful minimalist screen or one topic of interest, we’ll be reaching out to someone else to have a meaningful conversation about something we care about. In person or over the phone, the goal today is to have a conversation at least seven minutes long about a piece of information you learned sometime this week. It could be about an article that helped you be more creative, or something you learned that made you a little more knowledgeable about the topic you wanted to know about this week, or simply…catching up on the life of someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. The topic is yours to decide, but you have to draft a friend to talk about it with for at least seven minutes.

I’m not going to lie — this actually sounds kind of hard. For those of us who are shy around people or have gotten used to superficial conversations, really digging in to a topic and exploring all sides of it won’t come easy. But it’s worth it; just think of how much closer you’ll feel with your conversation partner, having gone on this adventure together!

He doesn’t know this, but I plan on having a seven-minute conversation with my husband about storytelling through role-playing games tonight before going to see Warcraft. He just leveled a doozy of a twist last night in our Dresden Files game, and I’m itching to pick his brain about how he came up with it and planted seeds for it in previous sessions. Fun stuff!

Our week of challenges designed to combat information overload is almost over, but don’t worry — it’s not too late to join in! You can go back and read previous posts this week and take any challenge you’d like today. If you’d like, I’d appreciate a note or two about your experience so I can compare.

Day 1: Zen and the Art of Single-Tasking
Day 2: The Minimalist Phone
Day 3: You Shall Not Pass, Meme!

If you’re curious about what this is all about, head on over to Note to Self’s Infomagical page to get up to speed.

See you tomorrow, folks. Consume mindfully.

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2016 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(#Infomagical) Day 3: You Shall Not Pass, Meme!

Self Improvement 150Yesterday’s Infomagical Challenge centered around the joy of tidying up your phone. The idea was to take a look at every app on your smartphone and think about whether or not it made you happy and productive. If it didn’t, see ya! The app is gone and your home screen is a little less cluttered. The remaining apps were then all placed into a single folder that made your phone a sparkling monument to minimalism.

The first time I took the challenge, I couldn’t bring myself to stuff all of my apps into one folder — but I did bring it down to six: iPhone Apps, Google Apps, Self-Improvement, Entertainment, Capitalism, Other. And it wasn’t a bad system. I pared down so many of my apps and seriously cut down on the number of times I got an app just to try out for something. But still, I couldn’t quite understand how much pushing my phone to its bare minimum would change my experience with it.

Now, I have to search for every app that I want to open. I have an iPhone, so there’s a Spotlight-type feature that brings up a search bar, my most recently opened apps, and a few other “suggested” items from Siri. It actually works quite well — if I’m dipping into Twitter or Telegram via my phone it’s right there, but if I want to play a game or dig up a utility app it forces me to engage the experience with intention and purpose. Which is great. It cuts down on the ease with which I can distract myself through my phone, which makes me pay attention to not only how often I have that impulse, but how often I act on that impulse.

Kondo PhoneHere’s my home screen now. Beautiful, simple, with just the cutest face staring back at me reminding me to “Be mindful.” I may not keep my phone like this forever, but I’ll definitely aim to cut down on the clutter.

Now that I’ve conquered my phone, I’m thinking about doing the same with my tablet and desktop — minimalism for all of my devices! Making sure that there’s only one application open at a time will help with single-tasking, and getting rid of the ‘default’ apps on my taskbar will help remove distraction and cut down on automatic behavior…which is the whole point of the Infomagical Challenge. For someone like me, this is a godsend.

Which brings us to today. The challenge is to avoid memes, articles, videos and anything else online that does not get you closer to your information goal. If your goal is to be more creative, anything that stirs the muse within you is fair game — but nothing else. If your goal is to become more knowledgeable on a topic, read or watch to your heart’s content…as long as it’s about the topic you’re trying to learn about. Everything else? Resist it. Imagine there’s a little Gandalf holding the bridge to your attention. And the Big Bad Balrog of Distraction is trying to consume your precious synapses. Will Gandalf let that slide? HELL NO. And neither will you. Engage with the Internet mindfully today. With a single-minded productive purpose. See how it feels to confront your fear of missing out. It might not be so bad!

If you’re just learning about the Infomagical Challenge, here are a couple of links that will get you up to speed really well:

Day 0: The Case for Infomagical
Day 1: Single-Tasking
Day 2: A Magical Phone

Also, shout out to Note to Self (a wonderful podcast) for organizing the Infomagical Challenge as well as their previous project, Bored and Brilliant.

See you lovely folks tomorrow! Did you minimalize your phone or desktop? Share a picture with me. 🙂

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2016 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(#Infomagical) Day 2: The Minimalist Phone

Self Improvement 150Yesterday for the Infomagical Challenge we were supposed to single-task: throughout the day, we choose ONE thing to do and carry out that task to completion. For those of us who are really used to bouncing around from webpage to Word to chat program, it might have been pretty difficult. How did you do? What did you notice? What was the most difficult part of trying out doing one thing at a time until it was done?

Since the first Infomagical challenge way back in February, the feedback that the Note to Self team has gotten seems to indicate that single-tasking was the hardest — but most beneficial — exercise of the whole week. And I’d be inclined to agree; yesterday, as the afternoon wore on, I found myself self-interrupting more and more as my focus waned. I had to remind myself to stay on target with a deep breath and a reminder to “stop interrupting myself”. I’m so used to reflexively clicking on every blinking icon or making sure there are no red numbers on any of my phone apps that it was really easy to slip back into that behavior. But it was so worth it to resist the impulse.

My biggest take-away on the benefits of single-tasking is this: training your brain to finish what you start. When we’re “multi-tasking”, what we’re really doing is training our brain to drop whatever we’re doing for the new or more immediate thing. It doesn’t matter if this new thing is less important, or can wait until you’re done with your current thing. It’s new, and it’s demanding our attention, so that’s what matters. When you train yourself to satisfy that instant curiosity, you’re also training yourself to abandon the things you’re working on — no matter how important they are to you.

But by staying focused until the thing you’re working on is done — or by setting a goal to get one step closer to completing it and not stopping until that’s achieved — you’re training your brain to do something far more productive: finish your shit. There is a really great feeling associated with knowing that you’re working towards a goal you’ve set out before-hand, and actually achieving that goal before you move on to something else. By building the expectation that you’ll work on something until a goal is met, it becomes easier to actually see yourself finishing all the things on your to-do list. And that’s a wonderful world I would like to live in.

Today’s challenge: tidying up your phone. So this is actually pretty cool, and it’s based on the organization method thought up by Marie Kondo in her book The Magical Art of Tidying Up. Take some time to look through the apps on your smartphone. If it helps, touch until all of the icons shake (iPhone) or open it up. Then, right then and there, decide if this app brings you joy. Does it help you become your best self? Is it a huge distraction and time-sink? If it doesn’t bring you joy or is more hindrance than help, thank the app for its service and delete the sucker. Once you’ve gone through every app on your phone, put them all into one folder on your home screen.

This simplifies the home screen on your phone something fierce; you can actually SEE that gorgeous phone background you’re so proud of. And by putting all of your apps into one folder, it becomes easier to simply search for the app you want when you pick up your phone — one subtle way that using your device becomes a more mindful action. It’s not a matter of swiping and tapping to get that quick fix of what you want. If you want to play a game for five minutes, you’re going to have to make the decision to type in the name of that game and open it.

You might find that the work involved in opening those time sinks is all that’s needed to break the habit of messing around with them. Maybe the extra moment or two it takes to type in the app you want is enough pause for you to realize you’d rather, I don’t know, open up the Word app and type up some flash fiction instead. Or maybe not. It’s your choice — that’s the whole point. Yes, you’re sacrificing a little convenience. But you’re regaining conscious action in return.

If you’ve joined Infomagical, I’m glad you’re on this journey with me! If you haven’t, it’s not too late to sign up here. Be sure to listen to the Case For Infomagical, and if you can double back to the Day 1 Challenge.

That’s it for me, folks. See you tomorrow. May you live mindfully today.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2016 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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Simplifying the Work

Last week was an overwhelming one. The carpool I had shared with a friend had just ended when he took a new position at work, so I was back to travelling to my job by Caltrain. I hadn’t expected it to be a big adjustment, but it turns out it was. The fact that the trains were late going home for the first three days certainly didn’t help.

Work is beginning to pick up towards the holidays as well. I work in an industry where holiday communications are very important for our customers, so anything that goes wrong is expected to be handled with a bit more urgency than usual. As “air-traffic control” for my support department, that means dealing with people who want results as soon as possible all day. It’s…challenging, to say the least. These two small changes were enough to tax my mental energy and willpower almost completely.

I went through a brief period last week berating myself for not being able to handle the changes that had come, but that really gets you nowhere. How you feel is how you feel, and talking down to yourself for emotions that arise makes it that much more difficult for you to deal with them. Now that I’ve had a reasonably relaxed weekend, I’m sitting here thinking about what I can do to better cope with the stresses that will be coming in the future and still remain productive.

The answer is to simplify. Do one thing at a time as best I can, move on to the next, take a break when I need to. That’s an easy thing to plan, but it’s very difficult to put into practice. We live in a world that wants us to multi-task as much as possible. Our attention is often being pulled in many different directions at once. Even when there’s an emergency, say, that demands our complete focus, there are a number of things queueing up right behind it.

Despite that I’ll be trying to focus on doing one thing at a time this week. Hopefully, this means I’ll be able to be a lot more efficient and productive than I have been before. I’ll put all of my attention into reading when that’s what I decide to do. When I write, I’ll work on one project through its completion before moving on to something else. When I’m working, I’ll devote a period of time to focusing on that, and plan my breaks so that I don’t burn out in the middle of the afternoon.

Right now I’m working on a short story that’s essentially supernatural erotica. It’s for a friend, so I’m not sure I’ll actually show it anywhere when it’s done, but my goal this week is to finish it. It had been requested for last Christmas, so this story is far, far overdue. But my perfectionism has gotten the better of me, and I’ve never been happy with the story that I’m writing. It’s time to simply be content with the way the story has come and work on improving it through other drafts.

I’m reading Mad Ship by Robin Hobb at the moment, and it’s quite good. Hobb’s able to bounce back and forth between multiple perspectives to create a complete world, and you end up sympathizing with or hating each person you come across. Even as the story deepens and the many characters’ purposes come into conflict with one another, you end up rooting for whoever you’re reading about. The villain of the first book in the series has this tremendous exchange with a rather meek boy in one scene, and it just knocked my socks off. This guy has done things that places him firmly in the antagonist column, but I find myself liking him an awful lot just the same.

At any rate, supernatural erotica and Mad Ship are what’s on my plate this week. What’s on yours?

 
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Posted by on October 8, 2012 in Reading, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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