Once you have a healthy life as a foundation, how should you start to think about your remarkable solo life? Welcome to the second installment of Peter McGraw’s attempt to present his ideas minus a guest. In this episode, he talks about creation and consumption, “tidying up,” and the many paths to a good life.
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Listen to Episode #38 here:
Solo Thoughts 2: Well-Being
Our guest is Peter McGraw. Yes, this is the second installment of Solo Thoughts where I share some ideas that I’ve been thinking about and talking about it in private. Part one was focused on health, specifically sleep nutrition and exercise, i.e. movement. I talked about health is this building block, the foundation for a remarkable life. This episode’s topic is wellbeing. It’s something that came up in the What Makes A Remarkable Life episode with Jill Cohen And Julie Nirvelli. I’m going to build on a little bit of those ideas. One announcement before we begin. I’m going to be giving one free Solo coaching session to the first audience who reaches out to me requesting it. When you read this, don’t hesitate to reach out to me and we will set up a free Solo Coaching Session on the topic of your choice. It will be fun.
Sugar: Video Games, Sports Spectating, And Social Media
Let’s start by talking about sugar. Sugar came up in Solo Thoughts 1 and I was referring to the real sugar, the evil sugar that you are familiar with. I told a story about how I gave up sugar by 80 standards when I was fifteen years old. I’ve been sugar-free at least in the sweets dessert area since I was fifteen. I stopped drinking soda. I stopped eating candy. I did that because of sports, because of athletics, because I was trying to get good at something that I wasn’t very good at. I wanted to get lean and strong and so on. It was clear to me that drinking Coke and eating three Musketeers bars was not going to help me do that. I bring this up because I like to say that sugar has a particular profile and that profile is good at the moment, but bad in the long run. If you take sugar and you think about it as a metaphor, you can start thinking about a lot of things in life that are good at the moment but bad in the long run. This is a good segue into talking about wellbeing, or as I like to say for this show, living a remarkable life. How can you maximize that?
What are those things in your life that are the sugar? For some of you, it will be sugar. That’s something that would behoove you to move along from to minimize. Sugar can have, in this metaphorical sense, different consumption experiences. I’ll give you three, two of which I’ve conquered and one of which I’m working on. The first one that comes to mind is when I turned eighteen and went off to college. Prior to that, I was part of that generation where video games became a thing. I’m old enough to remember Pong. I’m old enough to remember Pac-Man exploding onto the scene. In many ways was part of the inceptions of video games which are not only alive and well, but thriving not only with kids but with adults. I wish I could remember the exact reasoning behind all of this but when I went to college, I remember making a decision that I wasn’t going to play video games anymore. To me, video games serve that sugary metaphor quite nicely.
They are lots of fun to play with. They have gotten tremendously fun to play, challenging. They have been better engineered to capture attention, to be entertaining, and distracting. Yet when I was eighteen and went off to college, I decided that I was not going to play video games. Even though I had friends who in college did play games. I would hang out with them in their dorm room while they played and chatted with them. I never picked up a controller and I’m happy that I didn’t. Some of that was there were, to me, way more interesting, entertaining things to do besides the obvious which is like, “I need to go to class, I need to study.” I was still participating in sports. I was working. I had a diverse fun group of friends. I tried to date but wasn’t very good at it, but even trying and failing a dating to me was more fun than video games. Thankfully, I moved on from that.
The next one I want to talk about came many years later. It was a much slower process and it was one in which I didn’t find to be as easy as giving up my sugary video games. That was to give up sugary sports spectating. This one I do remember exactly what my thinking was, in part because I wrote some blog posts about it. It started with watching professional football and watching college football. I’m like many American men, grew up watching football. I played football in high school. I played it poorly. I do not have the build of a football player. I’m lucky that I didn’t and I rode the bench. I’m lucky that I never concuss myself and damage my brain too much playing that sport.
The reasoning that I had behind watching football fell into three categories. One is that I started to realize that watching sports in general and football specifically was not a good form of entertainment. I’d like to quip that putting your happiness in the hands of a bunch of young men and an oblong ball is not a good idea. The one thing about sports that’s striking versus other forms of entertainment is half the time, on average, the outcome that you want doesn’t happen. That is half the time you watch and are disappointed with the outcome. That doesn’t happen nearly as much with other forms of entertainment, especially nowadays when things are well-reviewed. You have a good idea that the movie you’re going to watch is going to be good. That the book you’re going to read is going to be good. That the album you’re going to listen to or the concert that you’re going to go to is going to be good. Even when it isn’t good, it’s not as devastatingly bad as when your favorite team loses a big game. This was simply a mathematical formula for me, which was that the expected value of other forms of entertainment ended up being higher than the expected value of sports watches.
The second one was also a practical thing, which was that I was doing a lot of sitting. I had been working on a book. I was deep in writing academic papers for my humor research. I was spending hours a day sitting on my ass. To add another 3 to 3.5 hours per game to sitting didn’t make sense to me. That is that if I was going to do something athletic-related, I would be better off moving my own body that rather than watching other people move their bodies. I’m struck by the amount of time that sedentary people, people who have sedentary jobs spend doing a sedentary activity watching 1, 2, 3, 4 games across a weekend. That didn’t make good sense to me. As a side for the first one, with regard to half the time that your team loses, there’s this thing called the negativity bias. As a result, it hurts more when your team loses than the intensity of when your team wins. It’s working against you. That was in my early 40s. The third thing and this is football-related and I’ve already alluded to it, is that I started to question the morality of watching football, of being a sports spectator in that way.Reading is nutrition, and writing is exercise. Click To Tweet
By that time, and certainly, nothing has changed this belief, it’s incredibly clear that playing football is bad for the brains of the participants. The damage is colossal and consistently bad that to support that endeavor in many ways I started to feel was morally questionable and I gave up sports spectating in general and football. I’m going to admit this. There is one holdout and that’s I watch a little bit of basketball and I watch specifically for LeBron James. I enjoy his game so much, but at some point, he’ll retire and I will be down to zero. That has had a positive effect on my life because it has freed up emotional energy, actual time, and on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, I’m much more likely to be doing something active. If it is passive and consumption, it’s likely to be something that’s either going to be more enjoyable or more educational. The last form of sugar metaphorically has been for me recently and this is something that I have been circling around for many years. My time in the desert has hammered at home and that is the use of social media. I do think that there are positive uses of social media in terms of connecting with people, in terms of gathering information and in terms of education.
The worry is that much of social media has that sugary profile, which is pleasurable in the moment but not helping you in the long run. Perhaps even hurting you in the long run. I don’t have to tell you this, but Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, these various forms of social media have become dark, polarized places and ones in which it’s not even clear how positive they are anymore. I have been throttling back my social media consumption and then participation. It’s important enough for my business and my interest. In terms of Twitter per se, I’m not going to take it down to zero but it’s something that I’ve identified as a bit problematic. What I invite you to do at the onset of this episode is to think about where do you find the sugar in your life? That is one of the things that are pleasurable in the short-term but don’t help you or hurt you even in the long-term. How might you go about starting to minimize that?
The football one was interesting because it took a while because it had built up much of a habit in terms of not only watching but also consuming all the media around it. Going on to ESPN.com and even engaging in conversations and so on. The nice thing about it was that it was a slow process and as I started to shed those habits, delete those bookmarks, and so on. I’ve replaced them with more useful activities. I get to a point where not only do I not miss it, but I don’t even know what’s going on. If someone tries to talk to me about what is going on, I have no idea. Especially gentlemen who are thinking about this and pushing back on it. I would say to you what sports gets down to is it’s a soap opera of sorts. If you wouldn’t consider watching a soap opera, I ask you to consider not watching sports or whatever your form of sugar is. I don’t know what that might be. I know the profile to be on the lookout.
Creation And Consumption
If you’re a regular audience, one of the themes with regard to living a remarkable life, solo or not, is this assertion that I have of trying to create more than you consume. Creating more than you can consume. That’s ambitious because the average person is creating little in their lives that their creation is dwarfed by their consumption. This is an ambitious starting point but it’s a worthy goal to have. We cover this in various previous episodes, Write Your Way Out. It comes up in the What Makes A Life Remarkable. It comes up often, you might be sick of hearing about it. When I talk about creating, I talk about creating broadly. I’m going to pause on that idea for a moment and focus on consumption. I had this realization and it’s not all consumption is the same as evidenced by my sugar stories. Those are what I would call less appealing forms of consumption.
We can’t always be in a creating mindset. We might need a little bit of a break. I’m going through this where I don’t have a big focal project at the moment. I have some things to do. This is probably the closest at the moment that I have to a focal project. I’m about to start one but in the meantime, I’ve been easing off creating a little bit. I’ve had more time to consume obviously when I was out in the desert at the high-fidelity homestead. I did a lot of consumption that was listening to music and I did a lot of reading. When you think about consuming, not all is the same. For example, reading is a wonderful form of consumption and it’s especially a wonderful form of consumption if you are a writer, if you write.
Reading is nutrition and writing is exercise. With that in mind, all things equal to read is a tremendous way to consume. Podcasts have a similar bent to them that is that they not only can transport you into other worlds, but you can learn information, you can be inspired. The nice thing about podcasts is that you can do it on the move. You can do it while you’re commuting, you can do it while you’re on a walk. I tend to put podcasts in the same category as reading, although my preferences for reading in so far is it helps you slow down and think. It’s more effortful in that sense. Someday, I’ll write a book about Solo. That’s what I’m guessing, but until then it looks like you’re just going to have to listen.
Another form of consumption that I was thinking about, with the pandemic, with quarantining and social distancing and on, some museums aren’t open. I started looking for museums that are going to be open, that I can visit. I’m a huge fan of museums, whatever the type. I have a special place in my heart for modern art museums. You would think it would be natural history because I’m a huge nerd but I just love modern art museums. The reason that I like museums so much as a good form of consumption is they’re inspirational to me. That is when I go and see these exhibits, especially when you start to do research and understanding into the context of and the reasoning and rationale behind the artwork, you realize that art is this creative process. It’s focused on novelty and innovation. It’s inspiring to me. When I go to a museum, I bring my notebook with me and I find myself sitting down and scribbling out ideas and notes about what I’m seeing and feeling. It doesn’t even have to be what I see at the museum, but what’s going on in my life. Museums are great forms of consumption because it has that inspirational element to it.Tidying up is a creation process. Click To Tweet
You can contrast this with other forms of entertainment. It’s easy to pick on reality TV. I will compare it to reality TV. Say that I invite you to try to shift away from consuming and to shift away from the sugary stuff to the not sugary stuff. I don’t think of going to a museum like sugar. For example, in terms of creating, I want this idea of creation to be a big tent. It doesn’t have to be creating a podcast or doesn’t have to be writing a novel or making a short film. Although all of those things can be wonderful uses of time, A) Because you can lean in, engage, learn, and be challenged personally, professionally. B) When you do those things, you have something to show for it. This came up in the Dude, Get A Haircut episode. My guest, Anthony Full, and I talked about making or fixing something. This was an idea that came from a book called Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.
Cal Newport makes a strong, strenuous argument about staying away from social media. He’s been tremendously successful in his professional career and his personal career and manages to do this with a blog. It’s a great read as well as his other previous book called Deep Work. They can’t ignore you, I’ll put them in the exhibits. Cal talks about finding time to make or fix things and the idea is when you’re making something or fixing something, it’s easy to be present if you can do that without the temptation of your computer or phone, if you can put those things away. In that previous episode, I talked about fixing the rat’s nest of wires that were behind my television and stereo system in my home back in Boulder and how I had been putting that off. One day, I decided to pull the console out and tackle that problem. One of the striking things about me “fixing” that problem was how focused I ended up being with it and how good it felt to have accomplished it. I’ve been talking about this idea of tidying up.
I become obsessed with it. It’s an interesting idea. I’ll admit that is not for everyone. Some people are on the tidier side of the spectrum than others. I happen to be on the super tidy side of the spectrum. That’s probably not going to surprise you if you know me in any way. Let me make a case for the usefulness of tidying up. I argue that tidying up is a creative process that you’re creating a new state of the world. The benefits are multiple. One benefit of tidying up is that when done well, you have fewer things as a result than you did before you began the tidy up process. Tidying up is not necessarily about moving things to the correct location, although it can be, it’s often about removing, throwing out, recycling, donating, giving away the things that no longer serve you. It fits a minimalist perspective where you then have fewer things.
All things equal. If you can have fewer things in life, it simplifies life not only aesthetically but also it does psychologically. There are fewer things to be concerned about. The next thing about tidying up that I like is that it’s something you can accomplish. If you start small, such as a rat’s nest of wires behind a TV and stereo, there’s a sense of accomplishment that goes along with that. In a world where we often go to work and don’t feel like we’re accomplishing anything or we’re working on a project and it’s moving along slowly, we don’t feel like we’re accomplishing anything. There’s a psychological benefit of doing this. It gets you into the mode of accomplishing things. It sets you up to move on to the next task where there is something to be accomplished. I think that the last benefit is not to the self, but to others.
Well-Being: Living A Remarkable Life
That is regardless of your feelings about how tidy or not tidy your space is. The tidiness of your space has an effect on your guest. Those guests could be friends and family. It could be people that you’re interested in dating and wanting to make a positive impression on or it could be in a professional sense, that is that people feel welcome in your space rather than feeling discomfort with this space. I look forward to hearing your tidying up stories and using that as a gateway to creating more. The other idea with regard to the wellbeing, and this is a big idea. This comes up time and time again is the notion of how to think about wellbeing, about living a good life, about living a remarkable life. There are not many good places to learn this and part of the problem is the traditional model. The model that gets taught in school is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
I’m sure you’ve heard about it and the idea is that you have these lower-level needs and only once those lower-level needs are satisfied you can move on to the higher and more psychological needs with this goal of becoming self-actualized. While there are a lot of problems with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I can run through a bunch of them. I’ll give you a couple and keep it brief. One problem is that it assumes that you need to conquer the lower level of need in order to move up Maslow’s Hierarchy. I don’t believe that to be the case. I do agree with you that if you’re starving to death, it’s hard to live a remarkable life. There’s no doubt about it, but for example, there’s this notion of satisfying social needs and your social needs need to be satisfied before you can move on to other achievement-related needs. I don’t believe that to be the case at all. People can focus on achievement needs without having tackled social stuff or vice-versa.
The other thing that bothers me about it is that it’s considered a universal theory. It’s a theory that is useful regardless of what age you are or what culture you are. It ignores the fact that there might be differences in people’s desires and what they consider to be a good life at age 20 or 40 or 60 or 80. What constitutes a good life in the United States versus Greece versus Nairobi? There are a lot of problems with this idea. If you’re going to dismiss a tremendously popular and potentially useful model, you should have something to replace it with. If you’re a regular audience, you’re going to be familiar with Martin Seligman’s PERMA Model. Seligman is one of the Fathers of Positive Psychology. He noticed that psychology was more interested in deviance problems, the dark side of being human, than it was about excelling in the world, about thriving. As he would say, flourishing. In his book, Flourish, he presents what I believe to be a useful perspective in terms of thinking about not the path to a good life, but rather the paths to a good life.
Learning this has had an important effect on me. In particular, it has had a calming effect that I realized that by doing what I naturally set out to do and like to do, the things that bring and compel me. It’s because they may conflict or they may not match up with what other people do and what other people value and what compels other people, doesn’t mean that I’m wrong, doesn’t mean that I’m doing it wrong. That if I changed my path, that could be living a good or better life or a more remarkable life. The PERMA Model is fascinating because it builds on the work that psychologists and economists had been doing for many years as they looked at wellbeing. They had identified these two paths to a good life. One is a pleasure. I may go by the term happiness but we’ll call it a pleasure. That is feeling good, experiencing pleasure, tasty meals, a good nap, sex, watching your team winning the big game, whatever that may be. The things that are physically and emotionally pleasurable and joyous. No doubt, lacking those in life, it can have a big negative effect.
The other path, which is potentially coming in conflict with this P and Pleasure is meaning. People are often compelled to do things that are meaningful, that creates some purpose in their life. That makes the world a better place than it would have otherwise. What’s striking is that meaningful effort, raising children, curing cancer, contributing to a scientific body of knowledge to getting people to vote. All of these things may have a satisfying element to them if they are accomplished. Also, may be at times displeasureable. Writing academic papers is rarely pleasurable. Even though it may be satisfying to get the paper published, getting people to vote, canvassing in a neighborhood is rarely pleasurable in the way that eating a dessert is. We know that from the data that raising children, when people say it makes them happy, they’re not using the term happy to describe pleasure there. They’re using the term happy to describe meaning.
In Seligman’s book, he outlines these two paths. What he then says is that he had, in his work, a blind spot. That he had overlooked other ways that people flourish. I’ll give you those three other ways. PERMA is an acronym. P for Pleasure. E is Engagement, something that we’ve been talking about prior to this with regard to the creation process, in particular, but the idea of engagement is one that is often overlooked as a way to live a good life and that is the role that creative problem solving has on us psychologically and emotionally. That is when engaged in a challenging process, one in which you are solving problems ideally in a creative way. Art is a very good way to think about this, but it could be computer programming.
It could be with regard to athletics even. The idea is to be fully focused and concentrating on some challenging task can create what’s called a flow state. The idea of flow is that it has this satisfying, mildly enjoyable feeling. It’s not joyous in the way that an orgasm is joyous, but it is positive. It has this cool element where time slips away. We know people who are in pursuit of this flow state whether they’re aware that they’re pursuing it or not, I often question. A lot of creative endeavors have the potential for flow state and it happens when your skill matches up with the challenge. If the challenge is greater than the skill, then you’re anxious and stressed out. If the skill is below the challenge, you get anxious and stressed out. If your skill is above the challenge, you get bored and you’re finding that sweet spot where these things match up, which explains why both novices and experts can have flow states depending on what it is that they’re working on.
I encourage people to try to think about where they might find that. Some people can find it in running. It explains why, for example, when you start running, it’s damn terrible, but once you get good enough at it, people can be compelled to do it. That they can go on a run and it feels like time just passes by. The next letter in the acronym is R for Relationships. For someone reading a Solo show, they may say, “This one’s not relevant to me because I don’t have the one person in my life. I’m not interested in one person in my life. I’m not interested in a lifelong marriage. I’m not interested in riding the relationship escalator,” which has been discussed in a previous episode. Relationships may have more or less prominence in people’s lives. Those relationships don’t have to necessarily be romantic and sexual.
That is that the connections to others, family, friends, and community can be valuable. They can be a source of support, a source of security, a source of information, and interest. They can be fun and that people to varying degrees rely on that. You can imagine how these interests may expand or contract depending on people’s development. For example, the college oftentimes is heavy on the P. Lots of partying and fun and very heavy on the R. Lots and lots of socialization and development around that idea, as well as being connected to A which is the final letter, which is Achievement. The idea behind achievement and people often think of meaning and achievement as being closely connected. Achievement is accomplishing something that is difficult, that few people or fewer people get to do. You could connect it for example to running.
Achievement might be running your first marathon. You can connect it to engagement in terms of building a business and the problem solving that goes into building a business but also having something to show for it. It can be connected to education, getting degrees. The PERMA Model, Pleasure, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement highlights these multiple paths to living a remarkable life. It highlights how the paths may become more or less important depending on development. For example, suppose you got divorced. You could see how the R becomes a little less prominent and going off and having a little bit of fun or that you’ve been putting off starting a business or becoming a painter or whatever this might be. These priorities shift in time.
The thing about it is that the model is prescription-free. It doesn’t say that you should pursue one path or the other, one path is good and one path is bad. It’s a matter of matching the path to what your interests might be and where you are in life and what is it that you need in the moment. This is connected to this idea that I talk about in my MBA class about heterogeneity. That is there are some things that are universal about people. For example, sugar tasting good is universal but whether someone is drawn to one path or another depends on that person, depends on their culture, depends on where they are in life. Where am I going with this idea? Why am I bringing this up? If you want to pursue this positive life, this flourishing life, this remarkable life, it helps to know that you might already be on that path.
One of the best ways to figure out what is right and what is not right for you comes from looking at what you’re compelled to do, what you’re drawn to do. What is it that lights you up in a way? My personal example of this was I’m always over-scheduled. I’ve been over-scheduled since I was twenty years old. I’ve gotten better about scheduling myself. I’ve got better about saying no to things. There were times where I needed to be because if I wasn’t over-scheduled, I wasn’t going to have enough money to afford housing and food. I was working three jobs even though it was stressing me out. It was too much to deal with especially because I was doing it on top of a Master’s degree. Once I got my finances more in order, I always found myself over-schedule. I’m always working on a secret project. I’m always trying new things. I’m always inviting people over for a burrito night or a dilemma dinner or something like that. Part of the reason is that I started to realize that this engagement path, this personal and professional growth path that I have has been something that I liked to do.
I like to learn how to do new things and I liked that being transported at the moment as I’m working on something and trying to excel at it. Despite my solo nature, my great desire for autonomy, and my reluctance to invite someone to live in my home, I’ve always had a lot of connections to lots of different types of people and found myself continuing that creation engagement process. Not just by being connected to people through text messages and phone calls and meeting people for lunch but by putting together parties and activities and events where I was making something along the way. I invite you to get that book and to reflect on these different paths and see how does it match up to the stuff that you do?
You might at first think that what you do is a problem because the world tells you it’s a problem because it doesn’t match with getting on the relationship escalator. It may not match because it may be too solitary and people find that that perplexing. The cool thing about the PERMA Model is that it explains why three different types of people can be living an equally remarkable life, at least from their perspective. Imagine an artist who gets up every day and sculpts or paints in his or her damp, drafty studio, makes very little money, gets no fame for their work but is compelled to do it. They’re heavy on the E. Imagine the elite runner or swimmer, the Olympian who spends lots of time in also a displeasure state, which is in pain because of their training, but is focused on the A, on achievement in this very small window of time they have to try to win gold medals.
Imagine that parent raising a couple of kids. The lack of pleasure that may bring, but the great meaning that it does. If you exchanged any of those people into the other person’s role, that person would then become deeply unhappy, would not be living a remarkable life in their view. Here’s then the other thing that I think is interesting. Perhaps, at some point, that parent sends their kids off to school and is now an empty nester. They decide to take that time and energy, not money because they’re probably helping pay for the school and dedicate it to something else. They may move away from the M, from the meaning to something. They may start a business and focus on achievement and engagement. They may reconnect to others in their life and lean into other forms of R, the Relationship. Your Olympian may shift gears away from achievement and get into other types of endeavors that focus on other acronyms that are there. It’s because you’ve been doing something a particular way doesn’t mean you have to go about it in the same way.One of the best ways to figure out what is right and what is not right for you is by looking at what you're compelled to do. Click To Tweet
What I think is useful about this model is it’s not a one size fits all model. It can be tuned to what your desires and your goals are. With anything, one of the overarching ideas behind this show is that solo people often have more degrees of freedom. That is, they can afford to make the pivot. They can afford to make the change. They can pursue what is truly going to help them flourish. This is going to help you flourish because you’re willing to step away from what the norm is. The norm being people will say, “You’ve got your college degree. Now you should get a job. You got a job. What should you do next? You should buy a house. What should you do next? You should get married. What should you do next? You should have kids.” That path, while maybe good for some people and may bring them a great deal of pleasure, I should say rather can help them live their remarkable life. That is probably overprescribed that there are people like you who might benefit from an alternative path.
First, getting health in order, as I talked about in Solo Thoughts 1 is foundational to anything that you’re going to be doing. Here in Solo Thoughts 2 for wellbeing, it’s important to start to develop a plan, a perspective about what is it that compels you? What is it that compels you that doesn’t have this sugary profile? The idea is you want a more of a salad profile that is salads are good to eat. They take more effort to eat. Don’t ever try to eat a salad when you’re in a rush. That’s why Snickers advertises the way they do, but a salad profile has benefits in the moment but then also has these long-term benefits. I came up with that salad thing. Forgive me if it doesn’t work. I’m going to bring this to a close. Thank you for reading. I may try a few more of these and doing some more specific things. At some point, I’ll talk about some more solo topics. Tell me what you think. Until next time, cheers.
- Solo Thoughts 1: Health – previous episode
- What Makes A Remarkable Life – previous episode
- Write Your Way Out – previous episode
- Dude, Get A Haircut – previous episode
- Digital Minimalism
- Deep Work
- Getting Off The Relationship Escalator – previous episode
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