A take on twenty four

I guess feeling lonely is a by-product of my lifestyle.

My energy is nearly totally focused on improving my professional abilities. I think what I’m doing is noble. I think it’s a good use of time, I think it makes me a better person (on the whole, compared to the alternative), and it brings me the types of success I care about.

But it omits, at least at the current pace, some things that are important. Like spending time with friends, with no motive and no purpose. I get that feeling every time I spend time with my family. It’s a carefree, expectation-free feeling. I want nothing, and I don’t feel asked for anything except my time and my attention. And I’ll gladly give both of those.

The last couple months have been a drag. My energy levels are zapped almost always. I’m a zombie by 8pm most days and wake up in the morning feeling unrested. The grind pushes until Friday evening and then I expect myself to continue the pace but switch it up to cramming in personal and social activities that I’ve been putting off. This generally means drinking a lot. So then Saturday is an anxiety inducing hangover day OR it’s a hair of the dog kind of day which, in the moment, presents itself as a far more palatable option. Same decision comes on Sunday and I generally choose to be a good boy. So I slept less than perfectly Saturday night, haven’t worked out since Thursday, and am pretty much content to stay in bed all day Sunday too. But I know I ought to work out, go food shopping, experience something outside for the first time in 5 weeks, eat dinner with my parents, read, catch up on some work, watch football, and get a good night’s sleep, even though I woke up at 11am and need to be in bed by 9pm. So, I need to kill enough energy in 10 waking hours to comfortably sleep at 9.

And this is a pretty-much-every-weekend thing.

I could go away or travel for a weekend. But I don’t have much money. It’s largely spent on rent, gas, car payments, food, utilities, and other things. I spend relatively conservatively with a few exceptions. But the energy expended on traveling will likely end up making me exhausted on Sunday and I’ll have to jump quickly back into the grind on Monday.

The other thing is food. I get home most night’s at around 7pm. I shoot to be in bed by 9pm. I left for work at 6:45am after waking at 5:45am. I still need to eat and work out. Cooking will take an hour and the time at the gym is usually not overlapping with cooking time. So I have about two hours to do all that and traveling to the gym takes 20 minutes round trip. So I can work out for 20-30 minutes, then cook, then go straight to bed. No reading, no calling somebody to talk, no thinking, no resting. And this is every day. For months on end.

I feel that I’ve made impressive strides in my abilities to:

  1. Articulate my thoughts on a range of subjects, ranging from politics to finance to marketing to patient care in a medical setting and its requirements
  2. Lead a group of people by example
  3. Read the business properly and make decisions based on sometimes limited information
  4. Source together varying and disparate information to create a strong and balanced view of things
  5. Think critically and speak effectively

I feel this is a result of reading everything I can get my hands on – from MBA case study books, to Surgeon General’s reports on Addiction, to the biology and chemistry of the brain, to Chinese trade practices, to the history of the Russian Revolution, to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, to essays by Dr. Mark Epstein on the crossover between Eastern and Western approaches to psychology, or a novel on Middle America and its struggles. Writing all my thoughts down in whatever format I can is helpful, too. I feel proud of the progress that I’ve made, and I feel worldly and like I’m able to engage anyone on any topic. And this brings me confidence.

Yet in doing so, I leave little time for the small and ostensibly insignificant moments. I know that they’re not insignificant. I’m referring to time spent with my family, to time spent doing something selflessly for a friend, to going on a date with a girl I met out one time and taking a chance. These are all important things that have momentum just like the kinds of things I laid out above. What I struggle with is how to balance both. When I give slack on my personal development efforts, the long-term effect is a questioning of my long-term ability to succeed. A nagging and persistent fear of failure and anonymity in history is always there and goes dormant when I work my way to its silence. I can work to make it go away. But it requires my whole effort. And when I give back a little bit and balance things with the personal side, it plays with me and allows me to think it’s still in remission, then comes back in a big way. And then I feel insecure and dissatisfied and it can have violent repercussions on the relationships that I built as an offshoot of my previous personal development efforts. In other words, whatever relationships I built in trying to re-balance following an intense period of reading and writing are often scourged and violently thrown away as a symbol of lethargy or sloth. It’s fucked up, but it’s true.

Any slack I give up in my development efforts comes back to haunt me. For the last 4 to 5 years, I have consistently reverted to my comfort zone of building myself. I crawl back into myself, knowing deep down there’s much more for me to do. People on the outside – my parents and siblings often – say cliché things like, “just take some time for yourself,” or, “relax a little. It’s going to be OK.” For all I’ve got inside me, I wish that those words clicked. They never have, though. I immediately respect them as pieces of eternal wisdom, but scoff in the medium term at the virtues they try to push on me. There are things in my head that just don’t want to get out. A perpetually nagging sense of uselessness or worthlessness is always there. It’s incredibly potent and picks its spots like nothing else in my life – that is to say, perfectly.

From my vantage point, I’m no closer today to having these answers than I was two years ago. I said out loud the other day to my dad that being 24 isn’t easy. It’s a glorified time in life that old guys never shut up about. College was that way too. I never felt like college was a big party like everyone else seemed to. College was stressful as anything for me, but I felt like I came out the other side better for it. I feel that way now.

This doesn’t feel like a fun time to be alive or to be 24, all things considered. There are fun elements. The freedom is a virtue. But, at least to me, this is an incredibly challenging time in life. The marginal gains from effort at 24 are far greater than those at 35 – meaning that every bit of additional work I do to improve my lot today will pay far greater benefits per unit of energy expended today than it will in 11 years. That’s because, how I see it, they compound. So, I feel an enormous amount of pressure to continually build a strong foundation for myself. So much so, that I jeopardize my short-term happiness or contentedness. That’s sad.

I’ve come full circle on why I think I feel so hollow. A strong and consistent sacrifice of my time and almost all my energy goes to this concept of self-development. A penny today yields a dollar in 10 years. But a penny in 8 years yields 3 cents in 10 years. I don’t know what exactly I’m sacrificing toward. I can unmistakably say that I feel the benefits of my previous work and sacrifices and that’s incredibly rewarding. I’m proud of all I’ve done and become. The long-term vision, however, is hazy and ephemeral. I know it’s a good place, but I cannot identify or visualize it. I have tried.

I wonder how I may better balance these things that I know to be critical.

They’re all just words to me – mission statements, plans of action, to-do lists. They all mean nothing and I’m beginning to feel a sense of emptiness. I can’t tell if this is a trough, the dark before the dawn, or if I’m in a bad place and need help getting out. I know that I’m tired and not all that happy and lonely and I just want 1,000 good nights’ sleep and someone.

11 days worth of meditation

Eat, sleep and dress well.
Keep fit and read plenty.

Be cool.
Do it for the story.
Remember that commitment is a good thing.

Always say yes when someone asks you to dinner.
Take risks and play the odds.
Challenge yourself to stay open minded.
Take the date.

Always say please and thank you.
Practice patience with yourself, deal patiently your shortcomings.
Be a great coach to yourself.
Keep a sense of humor.

When things go well, bend a knee and thank God.
When they don’t, do the same (and ask God for help).

Thank your parents.
Be good to your family.
They’ll be the ones still hanging around when the dust settles.

Remember that you’re a speck of dust.
Be cool.

[August 2018]

A baseline of needs, or a Millennial’s applied version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

I recently arrived at the conclusion that I have a baseline level of absolute needs. These needs must be met before any type of growth or personal development can be achieved or even sought. They are the foundation for the mental and emotional stability that I require to make myself vulnerable or take risks. They are:

1. Keep a robust, balanced, healthy, and nutritious diet. Eat at least three meals a day and eat fruits and vegetables every day.
2. Live within my means. Run a personal budget surplus each month, excepting one-time items.
3. Sleep an average of 8 hours per night. Variance is OK, but try to minimize the standard deviation.
4. Exercise at least 4 days per week.
5. Maintain work / life balance. Spend no more than an average of 9 hours per day in the office. Variance is OK, but remember that it’s more acceptable to work 4 hours more than the average than 4 hours less.
6. Maintain a healthy and active sex life.

These rules are a work in progress, evolving with my changing needs and my recognition of any blind spots I confront while living them out. For example, attempting to further myself professionally, I loaded up my hours in the office, neglecting my personal life and overlooking my need for loving and intimate relationships. That resulted in a feeling of isolation and anxiety which inhibited my ability to focus clearly on my goals and desires otherwise. I added maintenance of a healthy sex life to my list of requirements, dedicated time and effort to it, and my life began to stabilize.

One note on this list is that my default action is to fill my space with work and work-related activities. My tendency is to drift into long hours in the office, often resulting in small marginal gains of productivity. These rules are therefore a balancing act for me, to keep watchful eye on the completeness of my needs, in addition to the need to work hard and keep focus on my work. Those needs therefore go without saying on here for me. That may not be the case for another person.

This list is a result of a checklist of mental health requirements that a friend of mine shared with me months ago. I’ve always assumed that it had its origins in an Alcoholics Anonymous space, given he was an active member of the club and many of his self-regulation tools had their roots there. Whenever he was bothered or upset, doubtful or anxious, or even considering drinking, he asked himself 4 questions:

1. H – Am I Hungry?
2. A – Am I Angry (with another person or thing?)
3. L – Am I Lonely?
4. T – Am I Tired?

It was essentially a sanity check. It’s not bulletproof, but it drives at something deeper for me.

I watched a Christmas Carol with my family yesterday at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. As Jacob Marley made his initial appearance to Scrooge, the latter refused to believe the ghost was real. He was being haunted, and to defend himself from the torment, he rebutted to himself that the terror was simply a mental trick being played by some physiological factor. “You’re a piece of undercooked beef! You’re an old piece of cheese I should not have eaten!” It seems that in 1843 London, Scrooge was aware that our mental health can be affected by physical factors and that the two can be interconnected.

As I began testing the method for myself, I found a few additions were required to suit my life. I first added a C. C stands for chemically balanced. As a man not in recovery and apt to have fun on weekends, my chemical levels are rarely balanced Friday through Sunday and the imbalance frequently drifts into Monday. If I could recognize that a lack of dopamine or some other neurochemical, caused by a rough Saturday night, was to blame for my Monday cragginess, I could compartmentalize it and not extrapolate the feeling as a sign of impending personal failure. That helped.

I then added F. F stands for financial stability. Am I financially secure? I’m two years out of college, earning essentially an entry level salary, and taking on the financial obligations necessary for self-sufficiency seemingly every day. I live in a nice house in a nice part of the city, I own a car, I pay utilities and insurance and I buy food and gas and furniture and everyday items. Taking a sober look at my finances and understanding where I need to cut is a sometimes-painful activity, but the comfort I can derive by knowing that I am in control of my finances, and that I am beholden to nobody financially is powerful.

Finally, I added another L. L stands for love. Do I feel loved? Do I feel that, if I were to fail today and be in a bad situation, that there would be someone who would still love me?

Without these things, it’s hard to look outside myself. Charity, generosity, and selflessness are traits I seek to build into my life, but they’re difficult to sustain if you cannot first provide for yourself. I’ve come to think that there’s nothing selfish in recognizing that I must come first and that I cannot adequately or sustainably provide for others, especially those that I love, if I am not stable. These cumulative activities, bringing together my physical needs with some basic economic and lifestyle rules, bring me a great deal of stability when implemented accordingly. It’s no surprise that people like me best, and I am happiest and most generous to others, when I have successfully checked all the boxes laid out above. The hope for this list is that the requirements serve as a baseline of self-sufficiency, and do not occupy my whole time. With proper planning, I can chart out meals, workouts, and good sleeps in an hour’s time. I do this – or at least attempt to – on a weekly basis. I can say that the simple requirements listed out above have had a significant, positive impact on my life. With further refinement, I hope that I can push them to the subconscious, and dedicate my active thinking to topics concerning others wellbeing and areas of interest. The true goal is to limit my introspection to a reasonable level and accept that things are OK, and I will be OK.

My reason for sharing this stems from a desire to get my ideas out of my head. This concept isn’t new. Maslow essentially came up with this idea in the 1940s. But it seems to me that I’ve been wrestling with the details for months now, trying to perfect the list, and that just isn’t healthy. I think that this list is strong and sufficient. That’s not to say it can not or will not be improved in the future. That’s my hope with publication. I think that I’ve taken it as far as I can in my own head and can only pass it along for testing and breaking by others with different perspectives.