I turn twenty in two weeks. This is a surprise, a confusing event that has snuck up on me.
I have ignored my birthday for the last few years. I’m not sure why. It was always a big event when I was little, then I got depressed and started hating the whole thing. For my 19th, I went to Tel Aviv and got hay fever so bad that I was pretty much blind all day. I couldn’t think about anything other than ice cold showers. For my 18th, I was in a hospital and was allowed a weekend at home. I celebrated by walking into a store and buying vodka for the first time. Then I couldn’t afford anything to mix it with so I added it to a cup of tea and went to sleep. For my 17th, I had just started college and didn’t know anyone. I went to class, went home, slept. Fifteen and sixteen were much the same.
Birthdays are horrible when you are depressed. You don't want to think about how long you've been alive. So, twenty has materialized out of nowhere and it feels weird. It feels even weirder to know that I am getting somewhere towards becoming a functional adult.
I considered doing one of those '20 things I learned by 20' posts. Except, I haven't learned a lot. I have just learned what to avoid. So this post is about that.
My teenage years are almost over which is surprising. I never expected to make it this far because I ruined my life about fifty times during those years. I saw this question on Quora: What are some things people do that ruin their lives?
I liked this question so I thought about the worst times in my life when I was convinced I had ruined everything. I tried to figure out what exactly was so damaging, and what I have observed in others. What happened during the times when I was sure I had ruined my life? What leads to that point?
Sometimes the best way to learn something is to invert our thinking and go backward from what we want to avoid. Not what do I want? But what don’t I want? Or, instead of asking what improves my life? Ask what damages my life? Then avoid that. It’s trial and error. I’m not very good at this yet. But I’m trying to avoid the worst stuff and hoping the rest sorts itself out. I'll probably ruin my life plenty more times in my twenties and get even better at fixing it.
Getting complacent and giving up on learning is toxic. Our brains are plastic for a reason. We’re designed to take in new information, form new pathways, develop new skills to survive.
When I dropped out, a lot of people told me I was missing out on learning. But learning doesn’t only happen in school. It’s a choice we make a hundred times a day.
Read a book on the train or scroll Twitter. Ask someone what a word they used means, or pretend to understand out of embarrassment. Take on a new challenge or stick with a routine.
The Pygmalion effect states that we perform better when we are, ironically, under pressure to perform better. In other words, we learn more when we expect ourselves to learn more.
My grandfather passed away a few months ago. It hurt like hell and still does. The biggest lesson I have tried to take from his life is the importance of always staying a student. Even in his eighties, he stated that he hadn’t yet decided what he wanted to do with his life. He stayed healthy because he never stopped working and learning. At an age when many people give up on life, he took cooking classes, learned to paint watercolors, learned how to trade stocks online, wrote articles and gave talks on the economy and learned to meditate. And more. I remember proofreading articles for him, and he never acted defensively if I pointed out a mistake (as most people would.) He was the image of non-complacency.
Nassim Taleb uses the analogy of a turkey that gets fed every day and grows certain that the farmer has its best interests at heart. The turkey gets placid and envisions a stable, contented future. Until Thanksgiving rolls around and it emerges that the farmer definitely wasn’t feeding it out of kindness.
When we stop learning, we end up like the turkey - vulnerable to change. I know that whenever I stop investing my own time into learning - because I want to, not because I have to - I get miserable.
The world we live in now doesn't reward the complacent, the obedient, the average, the consistent. Gone are the days when people could get married at 18, then stay with the same person no matter how crappy they acted. Or when people could work the same job at the same level for fifty years. Getting complacent has become the ultimate way to shoot yourself in the foot.
I quit smoking (for good) a few months ago. Although I hadn’t smoked for that long (less than 2 years), I had grown to hate the sense of dependence. I am probably one of those people who is predisposed to get very addicted to nicotine in a very short time.
I hated the time I walked to a friend’s house at 3 am because I ran out of filters and all the shops were shut. I hated having lighters in every pocket of every garment I own to be sure I could never get caught out. I hated the time I burnt off a huge chunk of my hair lighting a cigarette on an oven. I hated being delighted when I went to Italy and could buy packs with the old designs, not the plain ones we get in the UK. I hated hearing bullshit rationalizations slip out of my mouth.
So I quit. No nicotine patches or e-cigarettes or apps. Cold turkey. Then I used a mindfulness approach to get through the following week. For this, you deconstruct a craving. The urge arises and you sit and figure out exactly what it feels like. Paying attention diminishes it. A slight headache, a tight jaw, mild fatigue.
Zoom into any one feeling and there isn’t anything there. It’s just a sensation. Stubbing your toe is a lot more painful, being stuck on hold is more frustrating.
Addictions can be comforting. Most people have at least one, to varying degrees of severity. They can seem dependable, reassuring, something to reach for when all else is uncertain. It can seem harmless and meaningless.
Until someone tries to give it up. Or they find themselves in a situation where they can’t grab their substance or behavior of choice. Then the panic sets in and the denial starts. It's not pretty and it hurts everyone involved in the long run.
The area where I live is considered to have one of the worst drug problems in the country. I chose to live here because I’m willing to put up with not going outside at night if it means I can have an apartment to myself, by the sea, without spending 90% of my income on rent. At the same time, living here has given me a lot of perspective on how bad life can get if you let it.
Any sort of addiction will damage your life. Each time I walk out my door, I see some sort of reminder that we are wired for addiction. That our brains can't recognize that whatever makes us feel good might be killing us. That the body will create pain to justify anything. That cognitive dissonance is one of the most powerful forces around.
It's a reminder that a big part of staying/getting happy is to stay independent, avoid dependencies that don't add anything positive, learn to be wary of anything that starts to feel essential.
It’s not just substances of course. Getting addicted to validation from other people is lethal too. Once, I pinned all my happiness on one person. For a year, I was happy when I was with them and unhappy when I wasn’t. It was that binary. And it wasn’t healthy. When the inevitable split happened, I had to relearn how to be alone, how to regulate my brain. Certain people can be an addiction. And money. Power. Attention. Here’s Seneca:
We must give up many things to which we are addicted, considering them to be good. Otherwise, courage will vanish, which should continually test itself. The greatness of soul will be lost, which can't stand out unless it disdains as petty what the mob regards as most desirable.
I read a post recently (and I cannot remember who it was by) that made this point click for me. The author wrote that spending too much time alone makes our primitive brains assume we’ve been kicked out of the tribe and will starve to death. Evolutionary biology can be a bit of a ‘man with a hammer’ approach. But that image finally got through to me why isolation feels so bad. Even though I am introverted, I suffer the most when I spend too much time alone. And it's hard not to get isolated when you live and work alone, and most people your age are at university.
But guess what? It takes an effort to avoid isolation if you are not a sociable person. Yet the alternative is not worth thinking about. We all need company - even in prison, solitary confinement is the ultimate punishment.
One time I spent 30 days in the countryside. During that time I barely spoke to anyone, aside from my Airbnb host and the other guest staying there. I went a week at a time without any human contact, and the entire time without any deep/meaningful contact. It sounds like a fun and creative chance to get away from everything and work. I did get some good work done, I read a lot of books and went on a lot of pleasant hikes. But the loneliness became a biting pain. I was miserable by the end of the month, desperate to get back to a place where I could see people.
And lately, I have finally recognized that spending 23 hours a day in my flat, going from bed to desk to bed was bad for me. If you've ever worked from home for an extended time period, you'll know what I mean. So I have started using a coworking space three days a week, and the difference is enormous. Being able to work in an environment where other people are around seems to make my work more enjoyable. Likewise, I'm forcing myself to get out more and see people, even if it makes me anxious. It’s helping with the funk I’ve been in for a few weeks.
Isolation is one of the most damaging things. In its extreme form, it can send us mad. It's unhealthy and unnatural.
The hedonic treadmill
The best approach to improving anything is almost always subtractive, not additive.
Let’s say you walk into the boardroom of some large organization and pluck out the sickliest looking guy. He’s middle aged, doesn’t sleep enough, doesn’t take time off, drinks too much, smokes, eats crap etc. He’s unhealthy, but not at immediate risk. Then you take this guy to a series of (good) doctors and ask them what they can prescribe that will improve his health. The answer is, of course: nothing. The only meaningful changes he can make, that aren’t band-aid solutions, are subtractive. Subtract some work hours, subtract some drinks each week, etc.
Or if you wandered out to a suburb and selected the most miserable looking person around. Let’s say her marriage sucks, she has a pile of debt, an unsatisfying job. You decide to take her on a surprise shopping trip with a hefty budget. What can she buy that will make her happier? Again, the answer is clear: nothing. A subtractive approach is required.
The hedonic treadmill is the reverse of the via negativa approach. It’s a belief - conscious or otherwise - that more is always the answer. And it’s the inescapable fact that there is no end point to more. Treadmills were invented as a punishment for Victorian prisoners. The hedonic treadmill is encapsulated in Tyler Durden’s classic line about working to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like. You can't win.
Much of the time, adding too much creates problems. Getting on the hedonic treadmill ruins our lives by turning everything into an insatiable crawl towards more. There’s no baseline, no equilibrium. I'm trying to avoid it.
That's what I've figured out so far. I'm sure there's more. If you want to let me know your thoughts, how you have ruined your life, or have advice about turning 20, shoot me an email.