The words that shape your world

Your compassImagine your language didn’t have a word for left and right, or the concepts in front of and behind.

How would you orient yourself? How would your relationship to the world be different?

More than a thought experiment, there is indeed a language that has no egocentric coordinates. That difference in language has a profound effect on the lives of the people who speak it, and it made me think about the words I use every day.

The Guugu Yimithirr

The Guugu Yimithirr, whose language bears the same name, are an aboriginal tribe in northeastern Australia. If you’ve heard about them, it’s because they’ve given us the word kangaroo (gangurru). I learned about them in Through the Language Glass, a richly detailed treatment of the differences between languages and how they do and don’t shape our thinking.

Instead of using egocentric coordinates like left and right, they use geographic coordinates like east and west. You wouldn’t say “look out for that shark behind you” but rather “look out for that shark north of you.” This is more than just a substitution of words. What’s behind you is always behind you, but north has to be computed as your position changes.

“In order to speak Guugu Yimithirr, you need to know where the cardinal directions are at each and every moment of your waking life…you need to have a compass in your mind all the time…and the Guugu Yimithirr have exactly this kind of an infallible compass.”

They weren’t born this way. It’s just that their language shaped how they think.

The difference between boys and girls

You don’t have to study obscure languages to find examples in which the words we use change how we relate to the world. You can find them in French, Spanish, German, and Italian, among others.

While English speakers almost exclusively refer to inanimate objects with the gender-neutral “it,” many languages force speakers to assign a gender to such objects and talk about them using the same grammatical forms for men and women.

Several studies cited in Through the Language Glass showed that people thought of objects differently based on their gender. For example, the German bridge (die Brücke) is feminine but the Spanish bridge (el puente) is masculine. When researchers asked subjects to describe attributes of a bridge, the German speakers used words like beautiful, elegant, fragile, pretty, and slender. The Spanish speakers chose big, dangerous, strong, and sturdy.

The language of choice

Though the Guugu Yimithirr could understand egocentric coordinates, the words they used every day changed how they related to the world. Though German and Spanish speakers could understand that inanimate objects don’t have an innate gender (or at least that different people could see that gender differently), the words they use every day change their view of those objects.

What about you? What about the words you choose every day? The language you use to describe yourself and the people around you, how you frame your thoughts throughout the day, shapes your experience in a fundamental way.

The lesson I learned was clear: Change your attitude. Change your language. Change your world.

How I learned to collaborate with my wife

It was late September when my wife, Saori, first read a complete draft of my book. In my mind, I was almost finished. I had been working on it for years and was going to send it to a copyeditor in two weeks.

She was on page 63 when she looked up and said “I don’t like it.”

What would you say? What would you do?

My first reaction

Usually, my wife’s tactic is to ask questions. When I failed to clearly explain what the book was about in the early stages of writing, she asked “Is it just blogging?” When it seemed like I wasn’t making progress, she asked “How’s the book coming along?”

This time it wasn’t a question. It was a clear statement.

My first reaction was to be a defensive jerk. It’s too late for this! I thought. I’m an expert on this subject. You don’t even read these kinds of books! Though all she said was “I don’t like it,” part of me was hearing “I don’t like you” and “You’re a failure.”

I tried to calmly ask, “What don’t you like?”

What followed was the most difficult conversation I’ve ever had about my work. I tried to remember that all feedback is good, to focus on my breathing, to have a sense of detachment so it didn’t become personal or emotional. I largely failed to do all three of those things.

After a heated discussion, we came to a constructive set of possible adjustments I could make. Finally, I said “Please write it all down so I can compare it to the other feedback I’ve received. And please keep reading.”

Two days later

“The book is great!” she said. She had finished reading it and thought the second half of the book was interesting, well-written, and helpful. “I can see how it could sell a million copies,” she said. Now this was a much easier conversation.

The red penWhat was obvious to her had escaped me. By the time I started writing the second half, I was clear about the book’s purpose and it’s tone. I had more command of the material because of the coaching I had done. While the first half was laden with layers of rewriting and rethinking, the second half flowed. “It’s like you learned how to write,” she said, and I accepted that as a sincere compliment.

She wanted the book to be great too, and so we had more debates and arguments about specific chapters and sections. She spent hours reading drafts and making notes with a red pen. She’d ask me question after frustrating question, trying to understand a point I was attempting to make. When I was finally able to give a clear answer, she would say “Great. Write that.”

Each time it got easier. In my head, a simple switch flipped. We had the same goal, and it became less about me and more about the work.

Three months later

After completely restructuring and rewriting the first half multiple times, I was down to the final chapter. I had written it a while ago and shared it with friends who liked it.

Now, re-reading it in a cafe, it made no sense. It was a disconnected jumble of stories and quotes. What point am I trying to make?, I asked myself. After working on it for over an hour, I couldn’t fix it. Then I thought, I’ll talk through it with Saori. At home, a short conversation helped tease out what I was trying to convey. I quickly rewrote the chapter and showed it to her. “I like it,” she said, smiling.

I had finally learned how to collaborate with my wife. The process was uncomfortable, but it taught me to be humbler and more open. It taught me how to listen. Although more than 50 people provided detailed comments on drafts of the book, I saw it would take someone who loves you to be brave enough to say “I don’t like it. Let me help you make it better.”

I’m sending the book to the copyeditor on Monday.

What you learn after a spiritual journey through the Himalayas

A walk in the HimalayasIn 1973, Peter Matthiessen trekked through the remote mountains of Nepal with his friend, the field biologist George Schaller, to study Himalayan blue sheep and other rarely-seen animals. As an author and a student of Buddhism, Matthiessen was also on a quest to meet the Lama of Shey in a place called Crystal Mountain.

In The Snow Leopard, he meticulously captured the details of the natural beauty he saw, the people he encountered, and his spiritual growth.

It’s what happened to him on the way down from the mountain that taught me a particularly useful lesson.

The descent

Throughout the journey, it’s clear Matthiessen is a serious practitioner of Buddhism as well as a student. Braving the icy winds on the mountain, he fills the time inside his tent with prolonged periods of meditation. As he visits different religious figures and their shrines, he’s able to describe the history and meaning of the artifacts and rituals.

He’s also able to describe his own inner experiences. How he relates to the death of his wife and trying to raise his son. As they go deeper into the mountains, you can feel him making spiritual progress.

On the way down, though, something happens. As much as he’s appreciated the journey, he’s eager to get through the severals-days trip back down. Repeated delays infuriate him. He screams at a sick villager who pokes his head into his tent. When a barking dog twice disturbs his sleep, he responds by urinating on it – “a cowardly act.”

Far from celebrating my great journey, I feel mutilated, murderous: I am in a fury of dark energies, with no control at all on my short temper…I am still beset by the same old lusts and ego and emotions, the endless nagging details and irritations – that aching gap between what I know and what I am. 

“Have I learned nothing?”

As I was reading The Snow Leopard, I remember feeling envious of Matthiessen. His encyclopedic knowledge, spiritual connection with nature, and deep introspection. Then, for a moment, he’s just like me. Even worse than me.

For all my attempts at personal development, I’m frustrated by how a small mishap can make me acutely aware of “that aching gap between what I know and what I am.” Exasperated, I ask myself “Have I learned nothing?”

In those moments, I take solace in Matthiessen’s trip down the mountain, and knowing that even an advanced student of the human experience can stumble in his spiritual journey. It teaches me that it’s part of the journey, part of the learning.

Matthiessen’s next entry in his journal is quite different. He’s once again calmer, happier. It’s a new day.

This year, I’m trying a different kind of New Year’s resolution

Enjoy each dayEach year, it’s about something I want to achieve in the future. Do this. Stop doing that. Sometimes I’ve kept my resolutions but most times they quickly faded. I don’t remember any of them.

So this year, I’m going to try a different kind of resolution:

Enjoy each day.

What I think that means

Enjoy could mean so many things. More exploring. More excitement. More fun. But while those are all good things, they’re about seeking something extra or new. What I intend is quite different. It’s to see and feel more in every day as it is. Instead of changing my days, I’m resolving to change me.

Thich Nhat Hanh expressed this idea in a quote I happened upon just yesterday:

“Whether this moment is happy or not depends on you. It’s you that makes the moment happy. It’s not the moment that makes you happy. With mindfulness, concentration and insight, any moment can become a happy moment. Happiness is an art.”

To enjoy each day I’ll have to be aware of the many moments comprising the day and appreciate those moments. Like any art, it will require practice.

How I’ll do it

To be clear, my new resolution seems impossible for me to achieve. I might as well resolve to be a concert pianist though I can’t play a note yet.

I’ve learned a few tricks, though, that might give me a chance. Here are there I intend to use:

Keep a journal. Reflecting on moments throughout the day will help me appreciate them more and increase my sense of fulfillment. Over time, I hope the repeated act of reflecting and writing will train my mind so I’m more aware of the moments as they’re happening.

Practice gratitude. When I wake up and before I go to sleep, I’ll think of things I’m grateful for, including moments throughout the day. I’ve tried this and it’s a simple, pleasant ritual that has made me feel happier.

Chart my progress. Just as Ben Franklin used resolution charts to cultivate 13 virtues, I’ve used them to help me develop new habits. So I’ll put my chart in a place where I’ll be sure to see it before I go to sleep, and each day I’ll track my journaling and gratitude habits and to note whether I’ve enjoyed the day.

I’m sure there will be times when I’ll notice my chart at the end of the day and think “I forgot to enjoy today!” But I’ll still have a few minutes to reflect, appreciate, and be grateful. Doing so will change my experience and my memory of that day.

Time, lost and found 

I’ve lived more than 18,000 days. How many of them have gone by without me noticing? Have many have I rushed through – even wished were over – just so I could get to the next one? Time has flown because I’ve been careless with it.

I hope to see 18,000 more days. I resolve to enjoy each one.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Ten posts on the way to the best years of my life

The longest hedge maze in the world. Photo credit Jason Hawkes/Getty Images

The longest hedge maze in the world. Photo credit Jason Hawkes/Getty Images

The scarcest resource we have isn’t money or time or some precious metal. It’s attention.

In the book Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson writes that while our brains can take in eleven million pieces of information at any given moment, we’re only consciously aware of forty. Only forty!

That one statistic captures why change is so hard. Acquiring a new skill or behavior requires that we focus our precious attention over a period of time. Since attention is scarce, we have a natural aversion to expending it. As the neurologist Daniel Kahneman writes, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

One way I help myself to pay attention, to be more mindful and aware of something, is to write about it. A few hours of writing and the feedback over time helps make the ideas stick.

Here, in order, are the ten posts I’ve written that have helped me pay more attention to things that matter, things that make for a better life. Each heading is a link. I hope that some of them might help you too.

1. “Do you think today is just another day in your life?”

The one video I link to in the post has help me reframe each day and increase my chances of appreciating it.

2. Moving through life like the Dalai Lama

I taped the three quotes in this post to a cabinet in my office. They remind me to control my reactions and help me maintain a more balanced perspective.

3. When you smile at the universe, the universe smiles back

This was one of my favorite posts to write, particularly citing the story of M. Deschamps and connecting it to quantum physics and social networks. It  made me more mindful of the often unwitting, unintended influence I have on others and that they have on me.

4. Taming the hamsters in my head

Writing this helped me tune into my inner critic and learn how to cut him off before he does too much damage.

5. Changing the habit of hurrying

Learning to be present is by far the most difficult thing I’m trying to do. This post reminded me of how everyday moments can be opportunities to practice.

6. The stupidest advice I ever heard turned out to be profound

“Don’t worry about paying the bills. Pay the bills.” It seemed ludicrous at first and yet now I often repeat it to myself as a way to channel the energy of worrying into action.

7. A glimpse of rapture, a glimpse of peace

This post helped me be aware that once-in-a-lifetime, wondrous moments can be experienced on any given day.

8. The prisons I build myself

I was uncomfortable writing this. It made me starkly aware of the limitations I place on myself and how that affects others too.

9. Stepping off the hedonic treadmill

It’s taken me a long time to understand that happiness isn’t something that happens to you but something you must actively cultivate.

10. When are the best years of your life?

I think of this post often. As a result of writing it, I know the answer is hidden in all of the other posts I’ve listed above. The best years won’t be when I make the most money or have the best vacation or reach a big milestone. The best years will be when I’m more mindful, more generous, and more connected. This post helped me know that the it’s up to me. The best years of my life could start right now.