“It’s hard to find anything to say about life without immersing yourself in the world, but it’s also just about impossible to figure out what it might be, or how best to say it, without getting the hell out of it again.” — Tim Kreider
It’ll be tough to top that day we partied with Rob Gronkowski in Montauk.
Even though the bar was too crowded for anybody to move, we were content standing in the sun, reveling in the romantic idea that, famous or not, fate had brought us all together for a life-changing experience. It was a No Place I’d Rather Be Moment — our own real-life Bud Light Lime commercial.
Well, not really. Gronk did storm through our summer watering hole, but I was too disconnected from the moment to make anything of it. I spent my time Snapchatting pics, devising my soon-to-be recap of the day, even mulling where to eat that night.
As Gronk and his teammates would discourage, I moved onto the next play before finishing the current down.
I do that a lot.
In a world that measures success by job titles and desirability by Tinder swipes, it’s easy to accede to the deceptive race for more — the delusion that any activity is better than none.
By falling victim to this Busy Trap, as Tim Kreider brilliantly coins it, I realized how depleting the urge to anticipate the next moment truly is.
It’s the same urge that causes me to plan parties that I’m too stressed to appreciate, take trips that are too regimented to enjoy, and ignore pretty girls who I’m too aloof to notice. Ironically, this urge to control guided me toward a more relinquished way of life.
8 months ago, I tuned into Tim Ferriss’ podcast. In an attempt to maximize my daily subway commute — the only time I couldn’t read or do something “productive” — I depended on his conversations with world-class performers to help me lock in each morning. Tim’s podcasts, like many things in my life, got me from one moment to the next as efficiently as possible.
Their themes now inform the way I approach my days.
Tim’s work is motivational crack. His chats humanize people who I considered inaccessible and crystallize a lofty ideal of success that I considered unattainable.
Other than success itself, the main quality that Tim’s guests share is the tendency to pause from life’s relentless forward march toward an intentionally uninhibited stroll. They slow things down to speed them up.
Whether it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger meditating, Rick Rubin taking ice plunges to clear his head, or Tony Robbins doing breathing exercises to set his day’s intent, many of society’s top performers integrate mindfulness into their days in order to introduce and sustain a continuous state of clarity, focus, and awareness.
Given the uber-accomplished subset of guests on Tim’s show, I found this pattern confounding and quixotic.
Rick Rubin has 8 Grammys. He’s worth $250 million. He owns a sauna and a state-of-the-art ice bath facility. It’s difficult to separate his self-fulfillment from the luxuries that might contribute to it.
On a long-form podcast that encourages visitors to be as methodical as their host, one can’t help but wonder if Tim’s guests’ recollections of the past tie together more neatly than the past itself:
Does mindfulness help these people lead authentic, meaningful lives? Or did it only impact them once they had achievements on which they could proudly reflect?
Since I couldn’t answer these questions, I remained skeptical of this slower pace of living, worried that so much self-reflection might stall my ambitions, reluctant to take time out of my already overcommitted days. I had to keep moving, lest I end up a Grammy-less loser.
But any Tim Ferriss recommendation is worth a shot.
After a week of meditating, what began as a flirtation with mindfulness gradually evolved into an addiction.
This evolution did not come easy, but the early indicators of progress were encouraging. By focusing on what truly mattered in the moment, I worried less about what people around me were doing. I deleted Snapchat and Instagram. I stopped arguing about frivolous things. I eliminated the need to always have plans, which allowed me to commit only to social events and creative pursuits that excited me. I used the time that I got back to learn about spirituality, read great books, and write more often.
This introspection has forced me to think about the qualities that I value most in life. And that’s made my relationships more meaningful.
Once I stopped treating mindfulness as a quick means to an end and started embracing it as part of a long-term cycle, my focus shifted from the destination to the journey.
This cycle, described below, demonstrates how mindfulness and productivity might coexist for Tim and his guests, and, quite surely, for me. When faced with the pressures of conformity and aimless ascension, this cycle liberates me from the “go, go, go” mentality that I’m hard-wired to embrace, guiding me toward an enlightened path that I’m proud to call my own.
On most days, this path begins where it left off the night before, with a disciplined commitment to some form of mindfulness. This practice encompasses everything from meditation to icy showers to running hills to playing with our black lab, CJ.
This appreciation for simple moments creates space from the day’s distractions and forces me to grapple with whatever emotions exist beneath the surface. This forced solitude can be uncomfortable, but it is especially critical in a world that leads us to mistake busyness for productivity and isolation for loneliness.
Before embracing mindfulness, I leaned on these misnomers to avoid confronting the things that I truly desired, but lacked the self-confidence to pursue. I dove headfirst into work to distract myself from the sad realization that I didn’t enjoy the work itself. I went out with people I couldn’t relate to in order to dodge the stigmas of spending a Friday night alone in NYC.
In the words of Essentialism author Greg McKeown, I didn’t prioritize certain aspects of my life, so other people prioritized them for me.
You know that hungover feeling the morning after another mediocre night out? That Why Do I Keep Doing This to Myself moment of self-despair?
I felt that way too much. Sometimes literally — ruefully reflecting on another wasted evening. Sometimes figuratively — refreshing my inbox, chasing busywork (or even some breaking news to follow for the day) like a West Baltimore dope fiend chases viles. Oftentimes, both.
I still get caught in that chase, but mindfulness lays out emotional rumble strips that quickly detect when it’s happening. Mindfulness surfaces those Why Do I Keep Doing This to Myself moments before they throw me out of my seat: “Hey dude — you’re not paying attention to what’s in front of you, and your car is about to drive off the side of the highway. Just wanted to let you know. Text me later.”
In today’s hyperconnected world, we must stop ourselves dead in our tracks, lest we lose our attention to an email, text, or unspeakably cute puppy meme (did you click on that?!). Without attention, there is no awareness, and without awareness, we react to the people and pressures around us rather than responding to them.
Like swinging a golf club, things come together much more smoothly when the tempo slows down and we sharpen our attention. And like a golf ball, we travel much farther.
By pausing from the bustling minutiae of life, I’ve learned the simple power of acknowledging and, most importantly, accepting the feelings and sensations that our experiences and surroundings conjure within us. Especially the ones we dread.
At a recent family brunch, my brother called me out for a comment I innocently made to my mother. Tension mounted. I felt misjudged, that my brother was overreacting. He felt I was being a self-righteous dick.
We were both right, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that I felt infuriated, and, regardless of what was causing these emotions, I had to gain control of them, or else they would control me. They’d cause me to say something cruel or spend the meal pouting — or find another way to bring defensive, negative energy to an otherwise positive event.
In those seconds of awareness, I no longer viewed my anger as something I needed to resist. By pausing to experience those feelings in their fullness, I awakened an appreciation for the richness of life and our agency in it.
The more space I made for my brunch-time fury, the more quickly it faded. Like a mosquito bite, the anger subsided when I refused to scratch it. I gained confidence knowing that I could gracefully weave through these anxieties, rather than letting them whack me onto my ass.
I was grateful for the emotional discretion I had displayed, and also for the way in which that discretion allowed me to focus my energy and my presence on what mattered most: fully engaging with loved ones.
When we practice self-awareness, we naturally become grateful. And when we’re grateful, we naturally become happy. It’s a magical, surefire process. It’s spiritual masturbation, with an infinitely longer shelf life.
By focusing our attention on what really matters, we “shift the ratio of activity to meaning,” as McKeown puts it. We require less to feel satisfied in life, but the things that bring us satisfaction do so in a more fulfilling way. As a result, gratitude becomes the compass that guides us to a clearer path.
That’s why many people devote themselves to missions that have profoundly impacted their outlooks on life, like my buddy who coaches high school football because he cherishes the values and experiences that the sport instilled in him as a kid. He earns less money than most of my corporate friends, but he has a better sense of his purpose in life than any of them.
When we suffer from the all-too-common angst of Not Knowing What to Do With Our Lives, we’re usually asking the wrong questions. We’re usually suffering from a lack of gratitude.
Like most 25-year-olds, I continually grapple with this conundrum. No matter how satisfied I feel with any one of my social, work, family, or creative lives, I struggle to find balance and equilibrium across the board.
I often feel like I’m babysitting a group of four infants. When I finally get three to go to sleep, the other one starts to cry. By the time I’ve calmed her down, the first three are back awake, and one of them has soiled himself.
Like parenting, life is messy, erratic, over before you know it. I’ve learned to make sense of this uncertainty by embracing something for which I’m especially grateful: my mother’s health and the sacrifices it demanded.
When I was three years old, Mom was diagnosed with a rare benign liver tumor that was severely mistreated and nearly took her life. She’s spent much of the two decades since in and out of the hospital, including a 15-year stretch that required surgery every third week and over 320 operations.
She never complained. She never let her sons complain. She instilled gratitude, always reminding us that we were lucky — that many of the moms with whom she had shared hospital rooms had suffered much worse.
I once told Mom how much I appreciated the sacrifice that she made to ensure that my brothers and I did not suffer while she was stuck in the hospital. “That was no sacrifice,” she said. “That was a choice. There’s nothing as important to me as being a good mother, and getting sick could not change that.”
Her choice now inspires all of mine. It gives me a motivational edge for and about which I feel grateful and conflicted. Her sickness was the uppercut shot to an otherwise privileged childhood. I enjoyed the luxuries of upper-class suburbia, but also felt the reality that bad shit can happen to anyone.
While I obviously wish that early punch never landed, Mom’s response to adversity paved the way for me to become a more well-rounded fighter.
I once wrote about how we can extend our excitement in the office to other aspects of life. That idea now feels misguided wrong. I developed it after leaving a boring consulting firm for a thrilling startup, so I attributed my newfound lust for life to the job itself.
Genuine, sustained excitement — that thirst to get up in the morning, that confidence that anything you encounter will broaden your appreciation for the world, that willing acceptance of the words in the pages that form your life’s story — is not a linear feeling. It does not trickle from one part of life to another the way that stress, anger, and busyness do. No, excitement stems from a deep sense of purpose that is more accessible than I once thought.
8 months since my Come To Tim Ferriss Moment, I no longer fear that mindfulness will “diminish my motivational edge.”
That’s because true inspiration never disappears. More often than not, it just gets buried underneath things that we fool ourselves into thinking are more important. Like that box of old birthday cards stacked under frayed Beanie Babies and Pokémon cards.
Two weeks ago, my uncle passed away. A flood of unimportant thoughts came crashing my way:
- Dammit, the funeral’s on a Wednesday, that means I have to reschedule some meetings…
- It sucks I have to waste my Amtrak points on this trip…
- I hope I’ll get home in time to watch the Maryland basketball game…
- Wonder if they’ll have deli platters at the reception…
Amid that slew of unfiltered reactions, I caught myself drifting onto the shoulder of the road. I stopped myself dead in my tracks and asked, what really matters here?
That answer — supporting my family and expressing gratitude for my incredible uncle — inspired me to write my aunt a heartfelt note. Two hours after the funeral, she called to let me know that my letter had made her day.
And I let her know that I meant every word of it.
Instead of distracting myself with more convenient but meaningless questions about deli meat and train schedules, I had committed fully to the moment, even though it was a difficult one to confront. Like Mom did for me, I found beauty in the struggle, and I focused my attention on celebrating that beauty with the people who I love.
I spent the ride back to NYC beaming, inspired not just by the legacy that my uncle had created, but also by the realization that I could do the same.
When I finally made it home, I went out to a bar. Gronk wasn’t there, but it wouldn’t have mattered if he was. I was too busy enjoying the moment to have noticed.
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