Context Is Everything

Context is everything.  That’s what my wise acquaintance Dutch Rall taught me years ago.  (I think he learned it from someone else, too.)

The more I think about it, the more I realize how fundamental that concept is in figuring out everything.

In short, a context determines when a particular theory, hypothesis, advice, concept, or statement applies.

“Don’t cross the sidewalk when the signal is red,” is a sound advice.  But we all know we don’t follow it all the time.

To a three-year old, we should tell him/her to follow this advice, without giving conditions.  The default for the above concept is true, and you don’t want to confuse a young mind by giving lots of conditions where you can break that rule.

But if you’re a grown-up, walking hurriedly to see your dying parent before s/he passes away, maybe you’ll feel justified to break the rule.  (Of course, we have to assume that every time you cross a road, you look both ways to verify that there are no cars coming.)

But maybe not if you hear an ambulance’s siren nearby.

Or maybe it’s not an emergency like that.  It’s just a pretty small road where cars rarely come.

But maybe not if there’s a tight curve nearby that obstruct your view and you know cars that do come tend to speed.

Or maybe it is a big street but you can safely follow all the other pedestrians jaywalking.

But maybe not if there’s a police officer nearby looking menacing.

See how there’s a statement that defaults to true as the foundation, but whether it applies or not depends on the context?  That’s a pretty benign example, I don’t know if any of us adhere to that rule rigidly.

But the same concept applies to everything.

Like when you are justified to kill someone.

Like having an abortion.

Like when it’s OK to steal.

Like when to tell the truth.

There may be best practices and default answers that apply to most of situations.

But few of them apply universally, without exceptions.

That’s why laws get complicated.  Mature systems and world views grow to accommodate different contexts.  Few things in life are black and white.

Part of being a grown-up, is to realize this.  It’s important.


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Where to Start If You Want Things to Change

If I want things to change, I have to change the way I think.  If I respond to the outside world the same way I always have, then I’m simply reinforcing the status quo.  Albert Einstein told us not to expect different results from doing the same thing over and over.

Well, this is easier said than done.  I’m admittedly a shy person so in some contexts I feel awkward about talking to strangers.  I have a hard time being myself at a social gathering where others seem to know each other but I don’t know anyone.  I could force myself to go talk to others, but since I already feel awkward about it I will also come across awkwardly.  Such an attempt will not yield a different result from not trying to talk to anyone at all: either way I won’t get to know anyone new.

It is possible to get half way across that awkwardness, though, if I change how I think about the situation.  I may pretend that I already know the person.  Or maybe I dare to embarrass myself (if I’m already embarrassed, I won’t fear being awkward any more — the damage is already done).  Whatever my tactic is, how I think about it does help in alleviating some of my clumsiness.  Not all, but possibly enough to come across half way decent.  This approach is particularly effective when I start thinking of everything as an experiment.  I am a curious explorer at heart so instead of mandating success or a particular outcome, I could turn it into a little “what if” venture.  Then situations that I previously avoided may turn out to be a fertile soil of new explorations.  Experiments ease the pressure because even if it fails to prove your hypothesis, the experiment itself is not a failure.  You learn something from it.

I was at a conference recently, which I attended on my own, counting on the fact that I wouldn’t know anybody else who attended.  The first day I talked to no one.  At the end of the day I felt a bit empty, as in I did want to talk to someone.  So the next morning, I spotted a guy walking toward the conference venue alone.  It’s easy to tell because we’re all wearing the same badges.  So I walked up to him, pointed out that he was going the same place I was, and asked what he thought of the conference so far.  We had a nice chat all the way to the venue.  After that, I also started walking up to the session speakers if I liked them, only to say that I enjoyed the presentation.  I didn’t make any new friends, but that wasn’t my goal.  I was trying to enjoy myself better.

If you’re unable to come up with a neat mental trick, though, there’s still a value in trying something different even very clumsily.  At least you tried a new approach.  Even if the end result ended up being the same, there is value in doing something different for newness’ sake.  Who knows, the next time you’ll do it less clumsily.  It may even turn up a different result.  Maybe not the desired outcome, but something different.  At least your attempt did gain you a new perspective.  You will not be as clumsy at it if you try that again.

I see patterns in life.  Some patterns are very hard to get out of.  I don’t see a lot of grown-ups radically changing (other than aging) so I assume this is common — we all get stuck in our ways, whether we like it or not.  But really, getting old is the only thing that’ll happen to you if you stay stuck.  I am getting old, too, but I like it because I do seem to like myself more and more as life goes on.  So that must mean I am changing, and changing more to my own liking.  It’s such a little thing, but it’s not so little in the context of one person’s life.  It gives me hope.  Hope that next year, I’ll like myself even more.

And that does add to the motivation to keep living.  At least it does to me.

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How to Figure Out the Ideal Distance

Take any one “thing” in your life, whether it be an activity, a person, a place.  And know that there exists an ideal distance between you and that thing.

How to figure out the ideal distance is simple.  Get far away from it, and stay there a while.  Do you miss it?

Or get very close to it, and stay there a while.  Do you feel the need to get away?

The zone where you feel most comfortable exist between those two extremes.  When you are there, you will be at peace with your distance to the thing.

Of course, the ideal distance isn’t a static thing, either.  After being close to something, say a full-time job, and enjoying it for a while, you may find that one day you feel the need to get away.  You go on a vacation and expect to miss your job, but actually you don’t.  Your ideal distance has changed.

There were periods in my life when I attempted to leave my guitar.  I went weeks without touching it.  Not touching it almost became the norm.  Except that every once in a while I would stop and realize that I missed it.  Even though the guitar was frustrating to me.  I couldn’t play very well, I wasn’t anywhere near where I thought I was supposed to be.  I wasn’t having fun, so I would give up.  Maybe I need to find something else, maybe I wasn’t meant to pursue this.  I took vacations from my guitar, to test my relationship to guitar playing.

But I did miss it.  So I went back.  Turns out what I needed to let go was my idea of how good I was supposed to be, not the guitar playing.  When I stopped beating myself up for not being as good as I wanted to be, I started enjoying it again.  I remembered why I wanted to play it to begin with.

Relationships can be tricky, but keep in mind that your heart knows the ideal distance.  You should listen, if it tells you to get away, or get closer.  Sometimes other factors may be interfering with your sense of the ideal distance.  But your heart knows.  I’m learning to trust mine.

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Willpower Is a Rechargeable Battery

Willpower is a finite resource. There are studies that point that way, but it is true in my experience. If you spend it, you have to recharge it before you spend it again.

But what spends or recharges your willpower is completely different from person to person. For example, I need to use willpower to switch gears. If I get immersed in something, anything, even if it’s something I don’t like or enjoy, changing gear from that to anything else, even if it’s something I like better, requires willpower. That doesn’t make any sense, does it?

On the other hand, I once saw my brother stop watching a good movie in order to study. If he used his willpower to do it, it wasn’t much for him. If I was in his shoes such an act would have been a mighty struggle.

What I am learning is that willpower is like a rechargeable battery. You can charge it back up after it’s been drained.

So what charges our rechargeable battery? Sleep and having fun are the two main activities. If you’re short on both you’re having to run on a drained battery. Unlike real electric devices we humans can wring out willpower where there is little reserve, but that takes toll on our system.

Also, it appears that how much charge your battery affects the rate of drain. If I spent a lot of time having raucous fun, for example, I feel more generous with my willpower. In that state, activities that usually take a lot of willpower don’t seem that that daunting.

Then there are some states that drain the charge faster — stress being a big one. In this state I’d have less resolve to fight off temptations. That explains why a stressed person has a harder time sticking to diet than an unstressed person.

Once you understand that your willpower is a rechargeable battery and some acts charge it while others discharge it, you can start to explore how to create a better balance between the draining and the charging in your life.

I used to be very poor at taking care of myself. I am still not great at having fun. But learning this concept has helped a great deal in terms of feeling justified to recharge my battery.

I am also learning that a fine nuance that exists between the charging and draining. Years ago, playing the guitar was a drain, because every time I picked up the guitar I felt frustrated by how poor of a guitarist I was compared to how good I wanted to be. The attitude of glass being half empty turned what I love into a drain. Thankfully I shed that mindset and now playing the guitar is very much a charge.

So it’s not necessarily the act that charges or drains our battery. It’s the experience. Sometimes a supposedly fun activity may not go down as a fun experience for you because there’s something else going on in your mind. So you have to pay careful attention to how your mind is experiencing any given activity.

Life is made up of experiences. All activities require energy, but some give you back more than you expend, while others simply drain. So the key to a well-lived life is to at least balance the two kinds of experiences, so that you’re not constantly running on empty. It’s not a sin to take the time out to recharge your battery. It’s actually quite necessary.

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Life Is an Experience

Life is an experience. That may seem like a “doh” statement, but yet, knowing this can make a huge difference in how you go about your life.

It’s easy to get fixated on things or status. I may say:

  • I want to lose my weight:
    • No, what I really want is the joy of living in a healthy and strong body without illness, and
    • The experience of feeling confident about how I look.
  • I want to be rich:
    • Actually, what I want is the experience of being able to afford things without worrying.
  • I want a better job:
    • What I really want is the experience of creating things that make a difference in people’s lives, using my creativity and collaborating with people I like.

Knowing this is helpful in a few ways. It prevents me from getting attached to particular ideas. Getting fixated on specifics keeps me away from being flexible and being open to opportunities I didn’t consider before.

If I know that what I’m after is an experience, my mind opens up to myriads of ways to create it. I don’t truly need millions to feel like I’m worth millions.  I can create the experience of richness and abundance with just a few bucks, or without money at all.  It’s also possible to have a lot of money and still don’t feel rich. (I know this because I now make the amount of money I previously considered enough but I often don’t feel that way.) Then I will have missed the point.

The experience of living in a healthy body or having a romantic relationship may seem like you actually have to have them in order to experience them. But knowing that it’s the experience you’re after will help you decide how you want to pursue your goals. For example, I used to feel guilty about days when I didn’t exercise. I thought I wasn’t working hard enough, I thought achieving my goals as quickly and efficiently mattered the most. Now I seek out activities that feel enjoyable to me, at a pace that’s challenging enough to be fun but not stressful. I switched from going after a state (weight at ### lbs, waist at ## inches) to enjoying the experience of moving my body. I may not be creating results as fast (or not at all), but the overall life enjoyment increased.

Life is an experience, what matters more to me is not what I accomplish but how much time I spend having good experiences. Or to put it another way, it’s more important to enjoy life than to produce results in the most efficient ways possible. This has been a big paradigm shift for me, I’m still discovering all the places where this concept applies.

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