The Pursuit of Excellence Practical steps toward happiness

27Feb/120

Forgive Yourself… Forgive Others

When I was 7, my mom took away my favourite Lego set as a punishment for something.  I was always getting in trouble, something I haven't grown out of.  In the process, the toy fell to the ground and was smashed to bits.  It was the end of the world.

Lego GuitarI was so angry that I barricaded the door to my bedroom with clothes and stuffed animals, and went to work hatching a plan to get revenge: to break something of hers.

I woke up the next morning and saw my barricade.  I felt silly.  My tantrum hadn't solved anything.  It was only a stupid toy, and I let go of the anger immediately.  Unconsciously, I forgave her.

Kids seem to have a knack for letting go, a talent we lose as we get older.  Don't ask me why this is.

Forgiving others

All of us have been wronged in the past, and it will likely happen again.  As adults, we have to be mindful of how we respond if we want to avoid becoming bitter old scrooges.

"He who is devoid of the power to forgive, is devoid of the power to love."
- Martin Luther King Jr.

Why forgive?  Most obvious are the tangible benefits: lower blood pressure, less anxiety, and less risk of abusing alcohol and drugs.

More importantly anger, resentment, and desire for revenge keeps you stuck in the past.  Hanging onto these feelings hurt YOU most.  Withholding forgiveness actually gives the person that hurt you power over you.  Do you want that?  The best revenge, as they say, is living well, and in part that means moving on.

Negative emotions can be used as fuel to grow.  The period after a breakup, for example, is an incredible chance to become a better person.   Through forgiveness you can find greater peace.

"The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."
- Mahatma Gandhi

Arab and Jewish Boys

Forgive or Relive

Forgiving others is hard!  Depending on the offense, and the person that hurt you, it can seem impossible.  Forgiveness can't be forced.  You can't 'will' yourself to forgive or forget.

What you can do is have the courage to face the pain.  Mourning the loss or tending your wounds is a great start.

Recognizing that everyone is basically good at their core can help.  I'm convinced nobody hurts others because they're evil, but out of ignorance.  This doesn't mean I excuse the behaviour, or even forget about it.  I just let it go.

Forgiving Yourself

Many people carry around a lot of guilt.  But aside from pointing out when we've done something wrong, guilt is a useless emotion.

Hanging on to guilt prevents us from loving ourselves, which kills our chance at happiness, prevents us from loving others and reaching our potential, and keeps us stressed.

"Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future."
- Paul Boese

Consider forgiving yourself.  You're not perfect, and no matter how much you strive for excellence, you never will be.  Mistakes are inevitable.  Learn from them, then let go and move on.

Your future self will thank you.

Filed under: Psychology No Comments
20Feb/120

Speed Reading 101

A girl opens a book, glances at each page for about 0.8 seconds, then flips to the next.  Repeat.  For much of my life TV had me believing this was speed reading.

TV also taught me that one man with a machine gun can take on an entire army, and that supermodels regularly approach nerdy guys for sex.

Speed reading girl

Coffee helps too

Hollywood's ideas about speed reading haven't evolved much.  Screen writers know more about how computers work (Let's enhance that image!) than our topic of conversation.

I knew that the picture of a person madly flipping pages was probably exaggerated, but guessed that there must be some value in speed reading.

By the middle of my second year at university, I was buried under a mountain of books, so I went to my local library and picked up a dusty copy of a speed reading manual.  The results were amazing.

In only a month I tripled my reading speed.

How does speed reading actually work?  I won't be able to train you in 600 words or less, but I'll give you the Coles Notes in hopes that you'll be curious enough to investigate further.

Speed reading is:

  1. Creating good habits to focus on the information
  2. Taking in information quicker
  3. Retaining more of that information

1. Good Habits:

Quick reading requires your full attention and active participation.  This is half the battle.

  • Sit up straight with your feet on the floor, book on a desk centred in front of you; turn pages with your left hand, underline what you're reading with the right index finger.
  • Centre yourself.  Take a few deep breaths.  Tighten your muscles then relax.  Focus.
  • "Key in" to your material: "Handle" the book.  Flip through it's pages, read the table of contents, back and front flaps.  Ask yourself, "What am I going to do with this information?"

2. Absorb information faster:

Reading faster is primarily about training your eyes and brain to process information differently.

Re-read the last sentence.  Did you hear your own voice in your mind reciting the words?

Flipping pages

Thanks a lot, Hollywood

  • Stop doing this.  That voice is the middle-man between your eyes and brain.  It just slows you down.
  • Use your finger to underline everything.  It will keep your eyes from wandering.
  • Harness your peripheral vision.  Take the blinders off your eyes.  This is tough, but try to pull the words off the page in chunks, rather than one or two at a time.  With only a little practice, your brain will get better and faster at doing this.

3. Retain more of what you read:

  • Trust your perfect memory. Have confidence in your ability to remember.
  • Aim to grasp the subject or theme and decide how you want to use the information
  • Do something active with the material: talking to someone about it is the best way to memorize; writing is second best.  Thinking about it after is better than nothing.

I don't always apply these principles when I read. It's nice to take your time with a good book.  But speed reading is a valuable skill that could save you hours for more worthy pursuits...

Like supermodels.

13Feb/120

What Physical Fitness Can Do For Your Life

"No citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training... What a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable." - Socrates

Priorities have shifted a great deal in two and a half millennia.  In the ancient world physical fitness was often a matter of life and death, both for an individual and his or her civilization.  According to myth, Greek city-states dominated in part through sheer physical superiority; their citizen-soldiers were simply better at killing their enemies at 100 paces with a javelin.

Javelin Thrower

How many Olympic gold medalists can you name?

Today we place a low premium on fitness.  Sure, professional athletes are lavishly compensated, but they are a small subset of our population compared to the throngs of their generally out of shape fans.

In the 21st century it's a fact that non-physical ability is a better indicator of your income, and your social standing.  We venerate the Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, and want to emulate their success.  We spend hours at our desks, in front of computers, in our cars, then in our off time we return to our comfortable homes in neighbourhoods that are not set up to entice us outside.

Don't get me wrong -- personally I'm more proud of my mental abilities than physical.  Making a living as a CEO, a programmer, or a writer is great!  But it's a shame that so few people seek to find out what their bodies are capable of.  Socrates' quote is still incredibly relevant.  Recently I've come to believe the following:

Physical fitness is one of the keys to achieving excellence in all areas.

I've always enjoyed being active, playing basketball and soccer, and lifting weights. But I never took it seriously, never pushed my limits until I started crossfit six months ago.  If you don't know, it's one of the most intense fitness programs out there.

I thought I was in great shape, but my first day was humbling.  After half an hour I had turned beet red, was on the brink of vomiting, dizzy, and the feeling didn't pass for 20 minutes.  But when it did, I felt euphoric!

I kept going back, and while the nausea gradually faded, the benefits only piled up.  My general mood improved, I felt less tired during the day, and I was sleeping like a baby every night.

Hundreds of studies point to positive effects like these.  Most people live very stressful lives, and constant stress raises cortisol levels.  This hurts your mood, increases anxiety, stiffens your muscles, prevents you from relaxing, and kills your sex drive.

Even short, regular exercise sessions can reverse all of this, improve mental health, enhance your immune system, and delay aging.  Exercise builds self-esteem and helps you cut back on alcohol, drugs, and overeating.  It stimulates the release of endorphins, the chemicals in our brains that make us feel happy and relaxed.

It will give you clarity, patience, and concentration; it will increase your attention span and your ability to learn.

All of this pays dividends in the non-physical realms of your life.

Flipping a 600 pound tire

Most fun crossfit exercise ever

After only a month of crossfit I noticed my body changing, which by itself is highly motivating.  I also noticed that I was able to carry a few extra bags of groceries, lift heavy boxes off the floor with ease, and I was no longer out of breath climbing 2 flights of stairs.

But more fascinating I noticed myself unconsciously trying new things, meeting new people, and walking around a lot more confident about facing tough challenges.

For me the most welcomed side-effect of crossfit is that I've learned what it feels like to keep pushing toward a goal even when I feel like giving up.

I have a lot more work to do in the gym, but seeing myself get stronger has been a beautiful thing.

Filed under: Fitness No Comments
6Feb/120

Harden Up!

If I let myself, I would spend a lot more time indulging in self-pity.

We all have painful experiences from our past that we dwell on.  I've lost two great loves, a father, and all of my grandparents.  I've lost beloved jobs, pets, and friends.  In the years to come, chances are I will lose much more.

Beyond loss, you may be facing great challenges in the present, and more often than not it seems that these tests don't come into our lives one at a time.  As the saying goes, when it rains, it pours.  Sometimes I'm tempted to throw my hands up and say "it's too much, I give up."  I have days where I want to do nothing more than attach myself to the couch and sulk.  But like Buddhists say:

"Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional."

Even Alec Baldwin has bad days

I haven't met anyone who can turn negative emotions on an off like a light switch.  Sadness, fear, anger, and other negative emotions can grab our attention with an iron grip.  But I've noticed that some people are better than others at letting go of the hurt, picking themselves up, and getting back to living productive, healthy lives.  This suggests we can have control over our thoughts.

So what can we do to pull ourselves out of despair?

There are many strategies, but almost all of them start with our thoughts.  Lately my favourite is to simply tell myself to "Harden Up."  My desktop background (NSFW language) is an incredible photograph, taken at the invasion of Normandy from a landing craft, of soldiers crashing through the waves toward the beach.  The caption above simply reads, "Harden the F*** Up."

Whenever I feel like indulging my self-pity, this photograph reminds me that my 'bad day' is nothing compared to what these soldiers were facing.  It also reminds me to get back to work, and to fight for my long-term goals.

'Hardening Up' is about exercizing self-discipline and perseverance.

It is a mantra that I use when I'm feeling overwhelemed by life.  "Back to work," and "Do it now" are others I've borrowed from Brian Tracy, which I find helpful.  You may prefer your own, but the point is to find a tool that will motivate you, and cultivate a strong will to pursue your goals.

The benefits will come slowly but steadily.  Psychologists know that those who can delay gratification achieve more, and deal better with frustration and stress.  They also know that the human brain is a machine that, if not kept occupied with productive tasks and positive thoughts, has a tendency to dwell on the negative.

I'll leave you with two final thoughts.  First, I'm not suggesting that you sweep negative emotions under the rug.  That's a recipe for becoming emotionally crippled.  It's imperative that we acknowledge and deal with our pain, but ideally at some point we need to move our focus elsewhere.  Second, all work and no play is not the answer.

When it's time to work, harden up; when it's not, give yourself permission to loosen your tie, and put your feet up.

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