On Truly Changing Your Ways

On my old blog1One of the old blogs. I’ve had 4 now, with this one being the second longest running of them., I used to make these attempts at really deep posts as my first post for the new year. I’ve only done one such post to start a year on this blog — mostly because I try to do those posts a little more frequently than once a year now. That said, there’s a post I’ve been wanting to write for a while now that I felt would be perfect for a start of the year introspection2Shout out to said old blog. post.

When I was younger, I was not a good person. While I tried to do what was right, or at least what I perceived to be right, my instincts as to what was right and what was wrong weren’t particularly well-tuned. One particularly vivid example of this comes from relatively early childhood. From the time when I was in third grade through fifth grade3Roughly ages 9-11., I went to a babysitter before school. My brother and I would get dropped off by my dad at around 530 in the morning, then stay at the babysitter’s until around 745, when we’d start our walk to school. At the peak during the three years I went to the babysitter’s, there eleven kids there each morning, all but one between the ages of 7 and 13. The babysitter wasn’t good at managing our behavior in retrospect, though that doesn’t excuse some of what happened at her house.

One of the kids being babysat at that house was a boy named Ross4As is almost always the case with personal stories, names have been changed to protect the innocent.. Ross had a fairly severe developmental disorder, though I couldn’t tell you what it was. Because of this, Ross was one of the most common targets of bullying at the babysitter’s. Ten-year-old me was a fan of this, because it meant that I wasn’t the kid being bullied anymore, as I had been for the first year I went to the babysitter.

It was a nearly daily occurrence that someone called Ross names or tried to anger him. The babysitter’s solution to fixing problems to was to spank whichever kid she saw causing the “problem” that happened to be occurring. Since Ross couldn’t talk well, this meant that Ross regularly found himself getting spanked. This happened in spite of the fact that Ross was bigger than most anyone at the babysitter’s. There were times where Ross got in a fight with another one of the kids and kicked the crap out of them, not just because he was bigger and stronger than them, but also because he didn’t know when to stop. A few times, the babysitter pulled Ross off of one of the kids during a fight, only for him to keep right on swinging his fists and biting in the air.

I never got into any sort of physical altercation with Ross. I think ten-year-old me knew full well that Ross would have kicked the shit out of me had I done anything violent towards him. But I was one of the people who called him names. I didn’t treat Ross with respect. If anything, I was so worried about making sure I wasn’t the one being bullied any longer that I encouraged those who had bullied me to act poorly toward Ross. Self-preservation was my goal. It was also the wrong thing to do.

I haven’t seen Ross in over twelve years. Though he was the same age as me, he didn’t graduate at the same time as my graduating class5If memory serves, my school’s MRDD program (as they called it) schooled those with developmental disabilities until age 21.. I tried my best to act nice towards him on the rare occasion I did see him in high school, however such interactions were few and far between. I can say for certain that I never made amends for the way I, or anyone else, treated him at the babysitter’s.

In the first paragraph of this post, I mentioned that there’s an idea that’s been going around in my head for a while now that I wanted to talk about. That idea is, at its core, nothing more than a simple question.

How do you make amends for past mistakes when you can’t directly make things better for the person you wronged?

I don’t think there’s a simple answer to this question. While there are certainly no perfect people in this world, there’s also a lot of people who have been really shitty people at some point in their past. Cracked did a pretty good post about people who have made mistakes in the past and have done their best to make amends for those mistakes. The one that sticks out to me from that post is #7 — Eddie Murphy’s change from performing an anti-gay, AIDS panic-filled comedy routine in the 1980s to donating a lot of time and money to AIDS research (amongst other charities).

While I don’t believe that donating money to charity makes past wrongs right, I do believe it is a step to help show change toward becoming a better person who has learned from their mistakes6Especially if the charity in question does work to help prevent wrongs, raise awareness for something you were ignorant about, or something along those lines.. Equally, if not more, important than giving money to charity is to make changes to our actions so as not to repeat the same mistakes we’ve made in the past. If you’re insensitive with your words, learn to speak with more thought and care in your words. If you’ve treated someone with disrespect, make sure that future similar interactions (be that with the same person or not) are ones that convey respect and empathy.

I realize I’m being a bit vague in my wording in that last paragraph. It’s because there’s so many mistakes that we make as people who addressing every single one in a blog post would turn this post into an 80,000 word epic. But I do think it’s possible to improve ourselves and chance ourselves so we don’t repeat the same mistakes we’ve made in our past. I know it’s something I try to do regularly — be that atoning for mistakes I’ve shared on this blog or those I have not. I want to continue to be a better person. I think we all do. And the best way to do that is not to ignore the mistakes we’ve made, but to use them to fuel us to improve ourselves. This is doubly true if there’s no way to atone for our mistake directly to the person who felt the results of our mistakes.

Jealousy and Confusion

I’m almost always excited when I see people I know succeed. It’s gratifying to see people I’ve worked with, people I’ve learned from, people I’ve mentored, or even people I’ve influenced become successful in their own way. It’s also great to see people who I’ve looked up to be successful. In some cases, they were already doing well for themselves when I heard of them. In other cases, that person was as anonymous as me when I first met them, but they’ve made something of themselves. It’s an awesome thing to see.

Yet, for some reason I cannot fully explain or comprehend, I find myself jealous of that success. Instead of solely being happy for my friend or colleague, I’m wishing that I had received that book deal or that I been the one to get that promotion — even if their triumph was in an area that has little to nothing to do with what I’m good at doing or what I enjoy doing.

As a kid, I wanted to be a lot of different things when I grew up (as most kids are wont to do). At various points, I wanted to be a history teacher, a pro football player, a race car driver, an author, and a famous musician. Somewhere in there, around the age of 11 or so, I wanted to be a professional wrestler. The urge to be a wrestler didn’t last any longer than the other things that I wanted to be when I grew up[1], but it sticks out to me as an adult because of how vividly I had thought things through. I was going to go wrestle for the WWF, where my ring name would be the Juke Box Hero — an odd cross between early 1990s Randy Savage and HBK-era Shawn Michaels —  and my finishing move would be a knee drop from the top turnbuckle. My dad even got mad at me when I broke my brother’s bed by performing said knee drop on one of my pillows. My entrance music? Clearly already picked out for me.

I obviously didn’t become a pro wrestler[2]. I have zero regrets about not being one either. But I think the appeal to that childhood ambition was to be noticed. When you’re in the wrestling ring, the focus is, by its very nature, on you. The better you and your opponent are at putting on a show and telling a story, the more the crowd cares about what you have to say. Professional wrestling is just as much about story telling as it is feats of athletic prowess. Just don’t tell that to pre-teen me.

As an adult, I’ve learned that I don’t always want the spotlight on me. In an age of social media panic, every action we take is judged and misjudged until the meaning is largely lost. Yet that same technology is also the technology that allowed me to get what I had to say out to the masses — be that this blog, my book, my podcast, or just the random bullshit I spouted off for whatever reason.

I know these people I see around me being successful are becoming that way because they’re working their asses off. I know I do the same — just not to the same extent. It’s not to say I don’t try hard. I definitely try hard and I definitely care a ton about the creative work I create. If I could be someone who just creates meaningful content for a living, be that my own work or something educational like Crash Course, that would be the ideal job situation for me.

Yet I haven’t completely found the thing that moves me so much that I want to create content about that thing and nothing more. I haven’t found that idea that sparks me to want to develop that pro wrestling persona that I thought up as a child (or at least its adulthood applicable equivalent). And that fact is both inspiring and depressing. On one hand, I know I have a lot of time to get to the point where I am inspired. Yet, on the other hand, I know the longer that inspiration goes unfound, the harder it’ll be for me to act upon it.

Adult responsibilities kill time. There’s only so much time to be had before you have no free time left. And to create quality work, you need time to focus your energy on that work. That means for me, and for many others, if you’re working a full-time job and trying to create creative content, you need some time to unwind. It works out great if you never sleep. That said, I’ve found that sleep deprived content rarely turns out positive.

I want to see my work be successful. I want to achieve some modicum of greatness with my life. I want to make an impact with the work I do. I wouldn’t be jealous of the success of others if I didn’t want these things. I’m just confused as to the direction I need to go.

Expectations

I laid in bed the other night, my mind adrift with thought after thought keeping me from my slumber as I simultaneously stared off into space, pondering the answer to one simple question.

Why do our expectations — or society’s expectations — not match reality?

I thought of numerous ways to address this question. Some were elegant, some were blunt. Others were passive and sarcastic, yet others direct and rage-fueled. No matter how many ways I went about attacking the question, I never quite came to the same end result. Was this, perhaps, a simple question without a simple answer? Was I wrong to seek out a silver bullet to explain human actions and behaviors, particularly in a time where we are so divided as humans?


In December of 2015, YouTuber and podcaster Gaby Dunn wrote an article on Fusion.net titled “Get rich or die vlogging: The sad economics of internet fame“. The article covers the unfortunate realities of being internet famous, particularly the large divide between the public perception of those who are internet famous versus their own reality. Unless you’re one of the top content creators on the internet, there’s a good chance you’ve got another job to help you make ends meet. When that job is in a public place like a restaurant, internet celebrities are forced to deal with questions about why they’re working there at all.

There was a particular line in the article that really hit home for me, even though I’m nowhere remotely close to being internet famous. It was as follows.

YouTubers are allowed to have struggled in the past tense, because overcoming makes us brave and relatable. But we can’t be struggling now or we’re labeled “whiners.” – Gaby Dunn

I have this inherent guilt somewhere deep inside me that comes up more often than I’d like to admit. It’s almost always around when I’m trying to publicize my book, regardless of whether it’s for the charity drive going on now or for profit otherwise. It’s this nagging feeling yelling at me to shut up. To stop asking people to buy my book. To stop asking for their help in sharing. If people want my work badly enough, they’ll come to me for it. There’s no need to try to push my creations on them.

I know where this feeling comes from, I think. Asking for help is to show weakness, or so it was ingrained in my mind from a young age. If you ask for help, you’re a charity case. No one likes a charity case. No one wants to hear you whine. If you can’t succeed for yourself — BY YOURSELF — then you have no one to blame but yourself. Involving other people only runs the risk of dragging them down along the way.


In May of this year, shortly after I found out the publisher that had signed on to publish my book was going out of business, I traded emails back and forth with Kat Argo, who had very kindly offered to help me figure out what in the hell I was doing self-publishing. In one of our emails, she made a comment essentially suggesting that I shouldn’t have high expectations for the sales of my book.

I knew she was right. I was (and still largely am) an unknown author writing in a relatively saturated genre. My book, while decently written, wasn’t perfect. If I could do it over again, I would have worked to be more inclusive in my writing — perhaps by explicitly calling out which characters were persons of color or minorities rather than leaving it up to the readers to assign race in some situations. There were things I had done well and things I had not done so well. My only marketing was word of mouth and even that has its limitations.

Yet, I was optimistic. There were a few people rooting for me to do well. There were a few others — albeit a significantly lesser number — not only wanting me to do well, but believing that this book would become a success. Their words made me hopeful that Kat would be wrong…that the reality of being an author would not match the pragmatic expectations being set before me.

It’s too early to determine if my book will become a long-term success. It’s evident five months in that the book most certainly is not a short-term success. The book is relatively well reviewed on both Goodreads and Amazon. Most of those who have read the book and have shared feedback have been optimistic. But turning what was months and years of hard work into a published book was the easy part. Selling it and marketing it — two skills that I not only objectively lack, but that I’m objectively terrible at — is the hard part.


We have a tendency as humans to seek out those similar to us. The similarity we seek is not the same from social group to social group. Whether it’s race, economic class, religion, sexual orientation, sports fandom, subcultures, or some sort of clique, humans are a tribal people by nature. We will look for some way to feel like we belong.

When we see someone or something in our tribe that we don’t like or that differs from our social norm, we retract, like a tortoise head into its shell. While those in our group will try to distance themselves from that act of difference — particular if that action was harmful — those outside of the group often use it as a way to build an us versus them mentality.

“State U.’s fans are saying something bad about my team, State Tech! Their fans are terrible people!”

“This movie character who I share a defining trait with is actually the bad guy in this story due to actions that have nothing to do with said defining trait! The director is a terrible person who shouldn’t make movies ever again!”

“Her skin color/gender/religion is different than what I identify as superior (read: my own)! Throw them out of this country and build a wall so they can’t get back in!”

I’ve found it very difficult to talk to my family about my book. Unless they’ve found out through their own means — which seems unlikely as most of my family are the type of people to mention something that gets on their nerves — the majority of my family doesn’t even know I’ve written a book. I think I’m okay with that.

I’m not sure though. The book itself deals with topics that were considered to be taboo growing up. Whether its race, sexuality (whether it be homosexuality, bisexuality, or just pre-marital sex), mental illness, or the use of religion as a driver of fear, there’s a lot of topics in the book that would create awkward silences at Thanksgiving dinner if people knew I wrote about them.

On one hand, I should have done a better job of addressing more issues in my book. On the other hand, am I really doing enough with my writing if the people I know are going to be the most against what I have to say don’t know I’m saying it? Is it my responsibility to market my book, sell my book, and break down the cultural silos that have developed between me and my family? The same silos that have developed across America only to lead to an overtly bigoted individual getting elected to the highest public office in the land.


You can suffer for your success. You just can’t let anyone see it. That what the internet wants. That’s what social media wants. That’s what society wants. They just want to see the feel good story at the end. They don’t care about the shit you had to go through to get there. Just give them the end product.

That’s not reality. Those aren’t the expectations we should have as a society. It’s hard work to be successful. It’s hard work to make yourself into something. And if you, society, can’t handle the fact that I get a little (or a lot) down on myself when things aren’t going well, that’s a you problem, not a me problem.

That said…it’s a problem I can’t get out of my head. It doesn’t go away. No one set these expectations.

Chai Tea and Other Clear and Present Dangers to Society

I don’t remember when chai tea[1] became a thing in the USA. A quick Google and Wikipedia search gave me no help beyond “in recent years”, however I have an educated guess, at least as to when I first heard about it. I recall first hearing about this drink that everyone kept referring to as chai tea shortly after I went to college. I wasn’t a big tea drinker by any means. My mom occasionally made chamomile tea for my brother and I when we were sick, but between the fact that we didn’t live with my mom and the fact that chamomile is revolting, I didn’t develop a liking for tea.

During my first year of college, I lived on the same floor as a girl named Amy[2] who I had multiple Spanish classes with. Amy and I regularly spent time in her dorm room studying[3] for class. As Amy was an avid tea drinker, this lead to her often offering me tea. Though I politely declined a few times, eventually I started having a cup every now and again. My usual fare was raspberry or Earl Grey, but Amy almost always had a tea she referred to as masala chai. In one of the very few conversations my mom and I had during my college years, I asked her about this tea, only to learn that masala chai was the same thing that most people around me — including my mom — regularly referred to as chai tea.

I was left in a bit of a conundrum mentally. Amy’s tea smelled really good. Since I was still relatively new to liking tea, I preferred to play it safe with the teas I liked, however based on smell alone, I figured that chai was a tea that I’d like. On the other hand, I’d regularly heard both sides of my black coffee drinking, eat the same meals for life family talking about how chai tea wasn’t just bad. No. Chai tea was part of a foreigner conspiracy to tear apart what it means to be American.

I can’t recall exactly who in my family said those words. I have my guesses, but names are better left unsaid when a ten-year-old memory is fuzzy. But I do remember the sentiment coming up more than once. This benign drink — one that smelled really good — was as dangerous to my American identity now as communism was in the 1980s[4], hippie counterculture was in the 1960s, and alcohol was in the late 1920s.

Of course, chai isn’t going to destroy America. That’s just silly. I had a wonderful chai tea latte from Panera a few weeks ago. No one died[5]. I also had black coffee with my breakfast this morning. It was lovely too. I knew I liked black coffee when I was studying with Amy. I didn’t know I liked chai tea. And the reason I didn’t know was because I was afraid to try it, afraid to be associated with something that my family didn’t approve of, and most of all, afraid to open up to something that was not like the drinks I had grown up consuming.

I graduated in a class of 140 students. Of those students, 137 were white America, 2 were of South Korean descent (though still American), and 1 was an exchange student from Norway. I was not surrounded by diversity of race nor by diversity of religion. Political diversity was a little more existent in my school, though most students — myself included — held opinions that where extremely conservative and extremely driven by both the molding of our parents and a religious upbringing. While there were some[6] who treated every with love, care, and compassion, these political and religious views were often combined with views that blended racism, sexism, homophobia, and nationalism into a belief system that was not only considered to be acceptable, but in some cases encouraged. While I didn’t agree with every opinion that was taught to me, I vividly recall being in speech class and debating against a female student on the topic of abortion. My argument, pro-life, was one that I believed in not because I went to church regularly or because I was particularly religious, but because that what I had learned was right.

College was an eye-opening experience for me. My asshole roommate[7] was a hard-partying, extremely liberal guy who enjoyed Guitar Hero and cheap beer a bit too much. The two guys that lived across the hall from us were from affluent suburbs of Detroit and Chicago. Had they come around me in high school, I likely would have considered them thuggish or worse. After a few days around them, I learned that they were nice guys who wanted to become a journalist and a police officer. A girl who lived down the hall from Amy was a student from Iran who had come to the US to study business. Last I knew, she had moved to the US, become a US citizen, and is happy married to her wife. High school me would have formed so many ill-advised opinions about her that it makes my head hurt.

I’ve changed a lot in the past ten years. According to Political Compass, I test at a -5.25, -6.1 now[8], though inputting answers that would best reflect 18-year-old me, I test at a -1.0, 4.0[9]. But regardless of how my political views have changes, there’s a few things I’ve learned that matter more than anything else.

  1. Everyone should be treated equally…and that treatment should be filled with respect and compassion.
  2. If someone is different from you — be that in their looks, their beliefs, their practices, or some other way — you’ll get farther if you work to understand their point of view than if you hole up in your own.
  3. If we cannot do the first two things on this list, we cannot grow as people.

The other day, I was texting with a member of my family asking if they had watched the third and final presidential debate. In my discussion, I was making a plea with my family member that supporting a candidate who is racist, sexist, nationalist, and does not support the peaceful transition of power following an election is not a good thing. In the next two texts, our discussion went from civil, though heated, discourse to full on Godwin’s Law when my family member told me that Hillary is literally Hitler reincarnated and that she’s going to repeal the Constitution to make herself queen.

On one hand, I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is the same person in my family who spent the first six years of Obama’s presidency referring to the President as “President Kunta Kinte”. But on the other hand, it hurt — really bad — to see/hear someone I had grown up around…someone who had helped me to shape the person that I am today…continue to show such hate in their speech. It made me feel like I had failed in some way because I had not been able to bring the compassion and openness I’ve been learning to have for others to my family. I also know that somewhere in my mind — somewhere in a deep, dark place I hope to never see again — those behavioral patterns and early-life teachings are still in there.

I ended the conversation without saying another word to the person in question. I sat in my office and I cried a little bit. I felt hurt to be associated, even indirectly, with such an angry opinion. And to hear it come from someone who typically was one of the more rational people in my family[10]…was there hope for me? Would I revert back to these base lessons that I was taught at a young age and go back to believing that my kind was superior to those around me?

I bounced this quandary off of a co-worker/close friend. While she didn’t say much beyond the fact that it happens to her too, she managed to get me thinking about why it’s critical for us to call out clear and present dangers to our society, but to do so in a respectful manner. A clear and present danger is not something like masala chai…or sour cream, no matter how vile of a taste it is.

What is a clear and present danger is when people act in a manner that demeans someone because of their race, sexuality, gender, national origin, or some other difference they have. What is a clear and present danger is using a belief that a specific characteristic, be that your race, environment, social class, religion, or something else, makes you distinctly and completely more of a person than your neighbor. What is a clear and present danger to our society is hate.

We can and we must act with compassion to those around us, even those who we disagree with. If we fail to do that, the hate will only continue to grow. And then it wins.

When Kindness Gets Kicked to the Curb

About a year and a half ago, I decided I needed something — anything — to try to calm my frustration with traffic. We, as humans, suck when it comes to driving cars. Nothing frustrates me more than traffic because I realize that the reason there is traffic is almost always some inane, human-caused reason. CGP Grey put out a nice video on how traffic happens relatively recently that illustrates my point.

Music generally didn’t help my traffic frustrations. Sure, here or there music would make a specific day better, but overall it didn’t make much impact. Listening to talk radio only made me angrier, as I’d either have to hear about politics[1] or sports[2]. Talking on the phone wasn’t always a practical solution either, especially when my wife was at work. So I started digging around on the internet for podcasts and the like to listen to.

The one series that really caught my attention was a series on iTunes U called “How to Think Like A Psychologist“.  It’s a series created by the Stanford University Continuing Studies program that focuses on the mindset behind psychologists. What’s interesting about this particular series is that many of the people involved with this series (including emcee Kelly McGonigal) are part of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE).

The lectures themselves were great. I love psychology and this series of lectures is one of the best lecture series with a psychology focus I’ve had the opportunity to watch or listen to. Considering Stanford’s reputation as a university, I don’t think that particularly surprised me.

What did come out of no where though was this fact that a university — particularly one with the name recognition of Stanford — had put money behind an entire program that essentially focused on the science of being nice to people. There was science money going to a lot of things. But it had never occurred to me that someone, let alone a world-renowned institution, would want to study kindness.

So I began watching, reading, and listening to the works of people involved in compassion and altruism studies. My initial studies went to those working for Stanford like McGonigal, Emma Seppala, Phillipe Goldin, and Greg Walton (all PhDs to my knowledge). But then I started expanding my viewing/reading to others with similar ideologies, even outside of the scientific realm. Authors Dan Pink and Tony Hsieh[3] shared similar ideologies in the books they wrote. All in all, their message was resounding and it was quite clear. To succeed in business, in human interaction, and in life, you must be compassionate and altruistic towards others.

You can see some of the evolution of my own thoughts on the subject throughout blog posts I’ve done over the past couple of years. While I wasn’t calling the idea altruism or compassion then, I spoke about similar concepts in my pre-New Year’s post. It’s even come through in some of my more recent posts, both in short stories and in non-short story posts. While I’m not a perfectly compassionate or altruistic person, I’d like to think I’ve done my best to get a little bit better each day at it. I will always do my best to make sure I am putting others before myself because it’s the right thing to do. Over time, it’s also become the think that I want to do.

The problem lies in the reality that not everyone is compassionate. Not everyone is altruistic. Not everyone plays fair. I remember being taught at a relatively young age that if you’re not looking out for yourself, people are only going to take advantage of you. It’s true more often than it’s not, I think. People are so used to others only looking out for themselves that we’ve become primed as a society to do the same.

But what if we didn’t? What if instead of only looking out for ourselves, we tried to look out for others first? What if our goal every day was to make a different person’s day just a little bit better by putting their needs ahead of our own? It’s a novel concept and a beautiful idea for a world.

I realize I’m just rambling at this point. I also recognize that words can be powerful — and that kindness is a more powerful idea than most any that can exist in this world. There’s science behind why being compassionate to others is beneficial to our own well being. Perhaps the easiest way to get the larger world to buy in to the idea of treating others better than themselves is to tell them all the selfish benefits of why they should.

Until then though, I can only hope that my efforts to show compassion to others are returned in kind.