Peter McGraw returns to share recent thoughts on how to live a remarkable life.
Listen to Episode #119 here
Solo Thoughts 7 – Pete, Meet Peter
In the previous Solo Thoughts Episode Number 6, I spent some time firming up what it means to be solo. This episode is dedicated to some ideas that may help you live a more remarkable life. I’m going to tell it from a personal standpoint. Solos have more opportunities because they are not beholden to one way of life. They’re non-conformists.
One of my ideas has to do with my theme for the year. I present it to you as food for thought. I don’t do New Year’s resolutions anymore, but I do pick a theme, a reminder of sorts, a guiding principle, and a mantra in some moments. Past themes include abundance and reinvention. Sometimes the theme changes as the year go on.
Choosing a theme at the start of the year is arbitrary. In the same way that I’m not beholden to a Monday through Friday 9:00 to 5:00 schedule, I’m not beholden to the yearly calendar. For example, my reinvention theme in 2021 was replaced in the spring by a new theme, freedom. I’ll talk more about changing themes later, as I’m on the cusp of making a change to the theme I’m about to tell you about.
The theme for 2022 is different in a way. It has two meanings, literal and figurative. The theme is barbells. The first meaning is literal. Barbells as in the barbells that you find at the gym. The things that bodybuilders, CrossFit, athletes, and Popeye lift. As part of the process that I use to choose my theme, I conduct a review of the previous year’s listing on one side of a sheet of paper, “What went well?” On the other side, “What didn’t go well?” In 2021, I noticed that for a few previous years, I said on the right side what didn’t go well was I didn’t get stronger.
This is important because I’m increasingly thinking about longevity. My parents died young and were in poor health. They were not vibrant creatures. In my attempt to deny fate, I am committed to living a long, remarkable life. I believe that lifting weights is critical to my success. For example, it contributes to bone density. Bone density is incredibly important to keep you from breaking a hip, for example.
Breaking a hip as an elderly person is the first step towards death. I’m not being hyperbolic. Check out the book Being Mortal, in which he talks a lot about broken hips and what a risk they are to older people. I stayed fit over the years. I’ve stayed lean, but I’ve lost some muscle. Despite it being a yearly goal, I haven’t gotten stronger. There are a lot of reasons why, but I simply didn’t make it a priority.
The Barbell Approach
Barbells became my theme for the year. I’m going to move barbells. I have been starting to see some results. Plus, if you’re a regular reader, you know I’m veined. That’s a little extra motivation. I’m optimistic that there’ll be a noticeable change at the end of the year. I’ve seen some already. It takes years, not months, to build back strength. Persistence and patience are paramount.
The second reason to call the theme barbells is far more interesting. Some years ago, I eagerly read Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile, and I revisit it on occasion. His breakthrough book was The Black Swan, in which he talks about rare but impactful events that are predictable in hindsight. There could be positive and negative black swans, but the negative ones capture our attention and matter more for obvious reasons.
Taleb’s book Antifragile is the response to what to do about black swans. The most interesting aspect of it is that he puts forth a trichotomy, which is there are things in the world that are fragile, robust, and anti-fragile. That is that anti-fragility is the opposite of fragility. While the robust is the phoenix that rises from the ashes, the anti-fragile is the hydra, the mythical creature that when you lop off a head, two grow back in its place.
According to Taleb, a barbell strategy is one of the ways to avoid tragedy and take advantage of positive black swans. For example, his approach to investing is like a barbell. He holds treasury notes and then highly risky technology, biomedical stocks, and so on. I have my own version of this with my highly secure job as a professor in a house in Boulder, Colorado, both relatively safe investments in life.
On the other side is a portfolio. I’ll be at highly diversified equities. I’ve also started to buy some crypto as I’m a little more bullish on crypto than I was initially. The barbell, however, could be applied to other domains. For example, exercise. Rather than jogging, a barbell approach would be to walk or sprint, but not in between.
Another way would be to have a hard workout or a rest day, rather than working out a little bit every single day. The theme has to be looking for more ways to avoid jogging and rather walking or sprinting in other areas of my life. For example, like many people, I struggled with email. It demands too much of my attention and time. I’m way too good at it, which in some ways is a problem. I feel like I’m getting something done, but it keeps me away from more important tasks.
The Solo Community
Rather than checking it often and doing a little bit at a time like jogging, I’ve taken a barbell approach where I check it all in one big batch once, maybe twice a day. I’ve started doing this, and it is glorious. These are still loose ideas, but I wanted to ask you what a barbell might look like for you personally or professionally. I put this question to the Solo community, which you can sign up for at PeterMcGraw.org/solo.
Jessalyn, a member of the community, wrote back. I’m going to read to you her two responses. She writes, “Endless texting or little voice memos versus minimal texting and meeting up in person for coffee. The energy from texting back and forth takes from us in little spurts is draining. I text minimally, only when I have something specific to say or a meme that made me think of that person.” Under it, she wrote, “I prefer to do video chats if they’re outside of Amsterdam or meet up if they are in Amsterdam.”
The other one that she writes about is, “Social media problem-solving. I love solving problems, but it can send me into big dopamine hits. When I log into social media and see someone asking a question in a Facebook group, Slack channel, or some other place, ‘Someone needs me,’ my brain says. I waste hours on social media trying to solve other people’s problems.”
“I unsubscribed from every group in my Facebook newsfeed and turned off notifications for all of their apps. Now I have a two-hour window in time from Monday to Thursday for focus time. During that time, I’m allowed to check email and go on social media to those groups and answer questions for people. Problem solved.”
You can see more conversations like this in our private Solo community. There is a lot of problem-solving going on. Be warned. Thank you, Jessalyn, for contributing. Sometimes my theme changes. After all, the start and finish of the year’s arbitrary. I should make a change when it’s important to make a change. Speaking of needing to make a change, as I alluded to in the Rest and Recovery episode, I was having a challenging time. Not in crisis or anything like that, but off my game. I was unhappy, and my body was telling me. I’m not looking to complain. I know how fortunate I am. I did a lot of hard work over the years, and with a little luck sprinkled on top, it’s paid off. I live a healthy, happy life. The bellwether for me is my anxiety and the effect it has on my sleep.
I’m never debilitating, thankfully, but it’s distracting. What’s going on? I’ve been revamping a course and doing a lot of Solo stuff. For example, I hosted four Solo salons in five months. My schedule was getting to me. I was overworked, unhappy, and in pain. Most notably, I was having upper back problems, but there was no discernible injury. I know this because I was getting treatments on it left and right, which provided temporary relief, and then it would cramp back up again, sometimes within a couple of hours.
The problem-solver that I am sought to solve these problems. After some searching, talking to friends, journaling, and paying attention, I had my insight. It was me. I was the cause of my back problems. I had fallen back into my old overachieving ways. While that has worked for me in the past, I find that I no longer need to live like that, nor do I want to.
I realized that I was my own worst enemy. That pain spurred me to make some changes. Before I go on to that, I want to ask you a question. What pain are you experiencing these days? What does this cause? How might you be the underlying cause as I was in my life? In The Virgin’s Promise episode, one of the acts of the virgin, in order to realize her potential, is she must wander in the wilderness to self-reflect. This is not exactly parallel, but I went on my annual writing and mushroom trip to the Joshua Tree Desert at the Hi-Fi Homestead, a glorious place for me. A place to get some rest, a little break from my challenging teaching, an opportunity to do more creative work, and to reflect.
Doing psychedelics, as we discussed in the Not A Solo Trip episode, can present an opportunity to make a sudden profound change in thoughts and behavior to change your mind. I departed to the desert with a potential new theme in mind. One that I was going to try out that I referred to as loosen your grip. It’s a sports analogy. In baseball, hockey, or tennis, to keep a loose grip on your bat stick or racket helps you perform. Holding it too tight makes it harder to play well. You’re anxious and nervous. It affects your performance.
My thinking at the time was that if I could loosen my grip, my grip on my outcomes, especially my deadlines, for example, hustling to keep up with my weekly episodes schedule, that would help me relax and enjoy life again, enjoy being myself, and maybe put that back pain behind me figuratively. There was something much bigger behind this idea, one that I confronted during my mushroom trip. I’ll spare you the details of what went into this insight. I’m glad that it was a solo trip, and no one witnessed it.
I began to see why I had such a tight grip in the first place. This is difficult to articulate. I’ll admit some of the more personal elements because I’m not prepared to discuss them publicly, but I’ve been undergoing my own reinvention over the years. You know I like a good reinvention. That reinvention has been difficult. It’s been sloppy. Some of it’s been outward.
I’ve updated my wardrobe. I have a new hat game. I grew my beard. Frankly, I pull up the hats and the beard in ways that surprises me. A bigger part has been about how I’ve been trying to find freedom in my mind to do what I want, how I want, and when I want to do it. As I discussed in Solo Thoughts 5, we are subject to domestication. Society, the world, your employer, and even your friends and family want you to behave in certain ways.
From Pete To Peter
I have been resisting that domestication with this reinvention. I have even been changing my name from Pete to Peter. You may have noticed this when I have friends on the show that some of them call me Pete. I grandfathered them in. What I realized during this mushroom trip is that my change to Peter is much more complicated than I thought. I’m not trying to be modest here, but I’m good at everything I do. If I put my mind to it, I’m good at it. It is exhausting.
I show up on time. I’m good at email. I eat right. I work out. I’m a good colleague. I get everything done. I don’t disappoint people, but being good at everything is more than just exhausting and tension-inducing. Ask my upper back. I now believe that it’s keeping me from being happy and doing my most meaningful work. During the trip, at the heart of it, in the deepest part of it, I had this image of myself as Pete, the good little boy.
I’m not one of those people who believe that all of our challenges can be traced back to our childhood traumas. Yet the origins of Pete, the good little boy, started young. As you probably know, my younger sister and I were raised by a single mother. She had her flaws. She was so fixated on controlling us. She loved us and wanted to keep us safe.
She was barely holding it together. At times, working three jobs to keep a roof over our heads. Her approach to parenting was oppressive. Even as kids, my sister and I knew it was too much. We were good kids, and we didn’t need to be ruled with an iron fist and abusive language. The words, the things she could say to us, getting spanked or whipped with the dog leash, were a better experience than the things she would say to us to get us to behave.
I learned to be a good little boy. I performed well enough in the classroom. I kept a tidy room. I didn’t misbehave. I did as I was told. At times I resented it. All of these behaviors also had a benefit to me, and that was to try to control the chaos that was happening at home. Mom was erratic, and you could experience her wrath even when you’ve done nothing wrong.
Once I was out of the house and off to college at age eighteen, I was on my own, with no financial cushion. Moving back home, even during a summer break, was a miserable option. I had no wiggle room for failure. Pete, the good little boy, delivered. He didn’t let me down. The good little boy helped me get tenure. Academia has clear rules and expectations. It’s a high-stakes, overwhelming game, and Pete played it and played it well.
I liked much of it. It’s intellectually stimulating. You get to work on interesting puzzles. You’re generally surrounded by nice people. I didn’t even mind the long hours because I took care of myself and managed to have some fun along the way. Pete wasn’t miserable. He was just exhausted. I learned to achieve. I read all the time management books. I created all the to-do lists, tracking my progress on work and health projects. The tidy piles surrounded me at home and in the office. Nothing ever got lost.
There’s the focus and the patience I developed. I can put my mind to something and grind on it for years. For example, one of the major accomplishments I’m quite proud of was winning a national championship as a club lacrosse player three months before getting my PhD. I also remember puking on the overnight ride home from the game from pure exhaustion. Despite the good little boy front stage, I’ve always been a little impish and non-normative backstage.
I enjoyed a good prank as a young man. I’ve always had an undercurrent of unconventionality in my dating life. Not wanting kids and not wanting to live with someone caused me my own set of problems as I dated women who wanted to ride the relationship escalator with me. In my late 30s, as the unconventionality of my dating life was causing me problems, as an academic, it was causing the opportunities.
I started to push the boundaries of what I was supposed to do and what I wanted to do. I started my humor research project. Until now, it was my best work by far, but no one was encouraging me to try to answer the age-old question, “What makes things funny?” To my scientific peers, it seemed frivolous at first blush. Let’s be honest, could I have launched SOLO if I was a conventional thinker? Could Pete have launched SOLO? No, he needed Peter, yet Pete was still making me tired and tense.
I was still trying to be the good little boy. During my mushroom trip, I saw how my old ways were not serving me anymore, that it could no longer be Pete and be happy. He had to be put behind me. He had become my own worst enemy. I’ll give you a mundane but important example. As I was tripping, I became fixated on a Friday that I had planned for when I was back in Colorado.
There was a meeting that I thought was important. It would be good to make an appearance. Pete had carefully curated the day. I was going to drop my car off to have it serviced, do a little writing, have a coffee meeting with one of the members of the board, have another meeting with someone who had reached out to me about a potential collaboration, and then had the meeting that was supposed to be good for me to make an appearance at.
I had a Durham procedure on some scarring for my skin cancer. It would have taken the whole day. At the end of the day, I would have felt like I got a lot done. Aside from that little bit of writing, none of it was terribly important. Peter, on the other hand, is not interested in a day like that. Peter declared himself as a creative person at age 38, the one who decided to spend his middle years traveling the world to crack The Humor Code, writing books, hosting podcasts, giving talks, and living a remarkable life. Spending a day in meetings wasn’t a good use of time. The day after that mushroom trip, I blew up that Friday, canceled everything, and created an open day, which I spent working on the Solo book.
I’ve thrown out all my to-do lists, all my tracking mechanisms. I rely on my habits and feelings to decide how to spend my time. I apologize for referring to myself in the third person at times now. Immediately my back loosened up. I’ve been much more focused on the important things, finishing my class strong, this show, and the book project. I’ve been less anxious and vigilant. I still wake up in the middle of the night at times, but most of the thoughts running through my mind at 4:00 AM are not as upsetting as they used to be.
I feel fortunate. I recognize the privilege that I have to make a change like this. I’m now financially secure as a tenured professor as a result of the hard work and sacrifices I’ve made over the last several years, as well as having that healthy dose of luck along the way. If I did all that work to achieve that and made all those sacrifices, what’s the use of having done it if I don’t take advantage of it? I don’t have to live in survival mode anymore. Pete was good for me, but now I’m Peter. I don’t know where that puts my theme. Perhaps I don’t need a theme anymore, or perhaps it should simply be Peter.
One clear implication of this trip is that I need to lean into my processes and feelings that help me live remarkably, which allows me to thrive rather than live in fear. I’ll close by telling you three ways that I’m shifting to process. The first one was I figured out what my ideal day looks like. It has four elements, rested, creative, strong, and playful. I want to wake up well-rested. That has implications for how I spend my previous evening when I go to bed and what I do. I want creative time. I want to work on Solo. I want to work on my class, and I want to do so fully focused. I want to be strong. I want to move my barbells. I want to train for longevity and my vanity. I want to be playful. I want to have some fun every day.
That could be a date, a game night, going to a comedy show, or taking half of Bull and going for a little walk in the sun. I want to be able to enjoy a little more of my life. What’s interesting is if you reverse engineer that day and think about this from a flourishing standpoint, from living a remarkable life, about 40% of my day is engagement. About 20% is meaning. That engaging work is solo-related. It’s trying to help others avoid the same mistakes that I made as a younger man.
Forty percent of it is positive emotions, to be well-rested, be playful, and enjoy my work. I’m leaning into different elements than I used to. Note that there’s no mention of achievement here, an outcome, something that powered me for the last several years, climbing the ladder to tenure. Also, achievement with regard to my athletic endeavors, where I had to win championships in order to feel good about myself.
Another implication of being more process-focused has an effect on you, the reader. Because I’m focused more on process than outcomes, things are going to get a little messier. I’m not going to always hit deadlines. I’m not going to be able to be good at everything. I love doing this show, but occasionally it gets stressful, like keeping up with a weekly schedule.
Things don’t always go smoothly. I have technical problems. Guests cancel. Those are something that crowds my attention. Frankly, I’m doing this on the heels of having food poisoning, which delayed it. Consequently, I may not release an episode every Thursday, and I’m not going to stress about it. I’m not going to stress hustling to hit an arbitrary deadline, which I made up in the first place. Be patient with me if Thursday comes along and an episode doesn’t land.
The third implication is relevant to the book. This is my third book and, at the moment, my last book. More than anything else, it’s my most important one. I feel an urgency to get the word out and help build this movement. However, this book may not arrive fast. I need to take my time with it. I need to do it right. I need to enjoy the process. I’ll give you an example of this. I’ve been working on a manuscript without a book deal, but I had a couple of hotshot lit agents.
A married couple gets interested in it. I wrote a proposal on the deadline that I sent to them. I was happy with it, but I had some lingering doubts. I took it back and kept working on it to revamp it. It took another six weeks. I enjoyed those six weeks. I submitted it back to them, and it is way better. If you’re eager to read this book, please be patient with me. It will take some time, but the wait will be worth it. Thank you for listening to my solo ramblings. I hope you find this helpful, perhaps even inspirational. I’ll close with one of my favorite questions for you. What are you waiting for?
- Solo Thoughts 6 – Previous episode
- Being Mortal
- The Black Swan
- Rest and Recovery – Previous episode
- The Virgin’s Promise – Previous episode
- Not A Solo Trip – Previous episode
- Solo Thoughts 5 – Previous episode
- The Humor Code
About Peter McGraw
Peter McGraw is an American professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder. As a behavioral scientist his research spans the fields of judgment and decision making, emotion, affect, mood, and behavioral economics.