Perspective (From the Bottom)

Right now, I’m at a point in my life where if I can make this work, I’ll remember it as “the low point from which I rose like a triumphant phoenix through hard work and gumption!” …Or some other dishonest, self-aggrandizing garbage.

Straight up: I had to ask my mom for help with rent money this month. I have five-digit debt. My hours at work were cut down to a couple shifts per week, leaving me worried that I wouldn’t have enough money to my name to pay for the basic automatic withdrawals that come from my account each month.

But I’ve also begun to see a glimmer of hope.

I wrote my first paid, front page feature for a website. I have a meeting with business folk this week that could result in me being paid to run a D&D game live on-stage. I started recording and editing videos for YouTube again.

So with the possibility of success in mind, I wanted to write something of a letter to my future self.

Dear Future Vince,

Books are crammed with stories of successful folk who were once hard on their luck, and only too eager to tell you that your misfortune is only a result of your own shortcomings and flaws. That if you could JUST work that extra hour, JUST hustle a little more, then Ayn Rand herself would reach one of her gnarled harpy claws down from whatever plane of existence she currently resides in to bestow her bounty on you.

Right now, I know how bullshit that story is: I just want to make sure that you still do. If at this point, you are making money doing what you love, having endured the hardships I’m currently in the middle of, I want you to know that I’m proud of you. You DID work hard. You DID persevere.

So have I. But I’m still poor.

In enjoying your success, don’t forget to be compassionate to those who aren’t where you are. Who don’t have what you have. Because (and I know this is gonna be hard to swallow, because it’s hard to type even now) the fact you’re successful and they’re not does not mean that you worked harder than them. It doesn’t mean you earned your spot, and they didn’t.

Knowing pain made you kind. Knowing isolation made you want to make sure no one felt like they were alone. Desperately trying to breathe life into the embers of distant, impossible dreams taught you the immeasurable power of small kindnesses and gentle words. Don’t let success take those lessons from you. They are, indeed, some of the most valuable ones you’ll ever learn.

Listen. Teach. Encourage. Lift up. Give others what you didn’t have. The dark moments you brighten will be worth more in the end than any paycheque you’ll ever earn.

– Vince

PS. Call your mom more. She misses you.

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On Giving Up

We’re taught growing up that giving up is one of the worst sins one can commit. Fail as many times as you want, but never, ever quit. Fall down seven times, get up eight. The quitter is the archetype to be reviled, spat upon, and feared. Feared that if you decide not to get up that eighth time, you’ll be cast out of respectable society and stripped of any right to support or empathy.

I think the “never give up” lesson is one of the most toxic ones that we still teach kids, and here’s why: there’s about a 99.9% chance that in your life, at some point, you have given up on something. So… now what? Game over, right? “Well, looks like I’ve failed at life! Time to go home and self-flagellate myself with the bootstraps that I so shamefully failed to pull myself up by.”

Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely think people should be encouraged to hold on in the face of adversity, to not acquiesce on things that mean a lot to them when the going proves difficult. But I think there’s a significant difference between saying that, and the narrative of “quitters never win” that’s been the craze for about as long as the ‘rags to riches’ myth has been around.

When you say that some things are worth fighting for, you’re saying that, when something sets your soul aflame, when something is so fundamentally powerful to you that causes you to ignite with vitality and purpose… hold onto it. Hold onto it until your knuckles turn white and your hands bleed. Don’t give up that feeling, because that is a feeling that is very, very hard to come by in life, and you deserve to feel it. Something that awakens passion within you such that it brings you to tears is worth undergoing strife.

The “quitters never win” narrative, on the other hand, has deep, deep roots in the “not enough, never enough” story that so virulently infects millions of people in our culture (and helps no one, besides). When you say to a child ‘never give up’, ‘quitters never win’, you are giving them an ultimatum; a warning. If you give up, you will never be worthy. You will never be enough. Never have enough, never do enough, and never be worthy of love or acceptance, even from yourself. To be a quitter is to be the North American equivalent of the Untouchable caste. The sheer amount of disdain and disgust we hold as a culture for those we label ‘quitters’ is absolutely remarkable, when you consider that everyone has done it.

And for what? To what positive end do we continue to perpetuate this myth? So that individuals can continue to bang their heads against a wall in a relationship, a job, a vocation, that isn’t working? For those who, having attained material wealth or cultural status markers of success, are still miserable (but don’t you dare give it up, after all you’ve been through)? Of course not, because stubborn misery is the North American badge of pride.

The reason I write this, is that having left school for a year, come back, and struggled, I only now just completed and submitted a take-home assignment for the first time in two years. For the longest time, the assignment would come up, I would become paralyzed by anxiety, not do it, and inevitably fail the course because, well… not doing assignments tends to result in that. But once I gave up once, I was a Quitter. The narrative I was so afraid of had manifested, and I felt locked into a role that I couldn’t escape. Yesterday (the day I submitted the assignment) had been the first time I had not simply given up in two years.

I won’t lie; I felt proud that I persevered. That I plowed through when I wanted to curl up in my bed and hide from the world. But I also realized… having “never give up” drilled into my head for as long as I can remember did me absolutely no fucking good. All it taught me was that giving up is bad and wrong, and if YOU give up, you TOO, are bad and wrong. It taught me nothing about asking myself why I felt overwhelmed. It taught me nothing about how to objectively assess my circumstances and emotional state to see what could be improved (whether that be working for different time intervals or at different times, seeing a counsellor, being assessed for a learning disability, getting a good social support group, confronting distorted thoughts I might have, etc). All it taught me was not to do the Forbidden Thing (that is essentially inevitable at one time or another in life), and if you do the Forbidden Thing, well you should feel besmirched and ashamed for such an ugly failure.

The “Don’t Give Up” narrative is about pride. Pride to be able to say, “I didn’t give up!” after the fact. Absolutely, you should feel proud for overcoming your own personal struggles, but pride over your past should not blind you to the fact that other peoples’ battles are yet to come. Battles where many are woefully underprepared. Pushing the next generation onwards with only “quitters never win” to help does about as much good as it would to an unarmed soldier on a battlefield. Instead of sending them out to get skewered by the slings and arrows of life and then rubbing their nose in the mud, let’s help them armor up instead.

A year and a half later…

So yeah, it’s been a while. Like, even longer than usual. I’d list all the things that have happened, but that would take an entire post on its own. Point is, I realized I have to come back to doing this or I’m going to go insane from all of the voices buzzing around in my head (which, given that I just referred to them as ‘voices in my head’, is ironic).

Right now, I can’t sleep for all the catastrophizing thoughts flying around in there. As a context-setter, I have two papers already late and accumulating late marks, and a third that’s due Tuesday I haven’t started yet. I also haven’t been to the gym in over a week. Also, due to the stress of all this i haven’t exactly been keeping my diet where I want it to be either. As a result, my brain feels like a sandstorm of thoughts like:

“Even if you get that Greek/Roman Philosophy paper done, it’s still going to get docked enough marks that you can’t save your mark. And even if it doesn’t, you STILL have the Indian Philosophy paper to do. WHY did you wait so long? You’ve fucked yourself and it’s hopeless.”

“Look at your body, you’re flabby and weak. When was the last time you even did deadlifts? Can you imagine how much your BMI/body fat percentage has gone up by now, and how much your lifts have dropped? No, of course not. Because you haven’t check them in months because you’re afraid of what you’ll see.”

“Oh, but of course, buy that Haagen Daz you weak-willed fuck, because it’s the only thing you CAN actually get yourself to do, you’re too paralyzed with anxiety to work on anything.”

“All your friends who would understand are gone, and anyone you talk to won’t get it because they don’t really know you. You’re all alone.”

And so on.

I keep trying to slow my thoughts down and itemize what I want to do tomorrow to start sorting through the mire, but there just seem to be so many different worries and fears I have to serve as cracks in my armor that every time I do, I get derailed by one of these thoughts. It’s like trying to do calculus while sitting in the middle of a hurricane while debris is flying everywhere.

I’m most afraid that I’ve messed up so bad that I’ll have to stay another year without graduating, and hear another semester of “What year are you in? This has got to be your last, right?” and remember how much longer I’ve been here than I should have.

I’m trying to list out the things I’m proud of, and listen to those voices instead, but part of me is just afraid that if I do I’ll let myself off the hook and just make my life worse. Also, when I do try to do that, that’s the perfect trigger for any of the gremlins who pop in to say, “Hey, just here to remind you not to forget: you’re a lazy, fat, useless, ambitiousless piece of shit who will never live up to his potential. ‘Kay bye!”

I’m hoping that by doing this, it can serve as a bit of a release valve to let off some of the psychic pressure building up in my head so that the crowd in there can at least simmer down enough for me to get a word in edge-wise. Here goes nothing. Again.

Vince Smith is a writer, podcast host, and dyed-in-the-wool geek of all trades. You can check out other articles and videos by him over at The Rogues’ Gallery, or drop by his Facebook Page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman for other musings from the catacombs of the Internet.

Sheer Wonder

Haven’t written in a couple days, figured I’d catch up. I’ve been thinking in the last couple days about answers to the question of what I want to do/be. I know in a previous post that I said I want to write movies, but that no longer seems like a sufficient enough answer to the question. The real answer is that looking at any one profession and going “That’s the thing I want to do” is no longer enough. Everyday, I absorb more inspiration through my experiences interacting with people, reading, watching, listening, working out, writing, etc. from EVERY outlet I can possibly find.  And with every new fount of information and experience I find, I find new ways to connect those experiences to other ones in novel ways. Ways that apply knowledge in ways you might not normally.

The fundamental nature of what I find interesting isn’t any one particular profession or area of expertise, but rather, the fact that all of them have enough analogous qualities that almost, if not every, domain of human knowledge could be modified and improved by taking into account the discoveries of all others. Therefore, it’s the interactions and relationships BETWEEN different domains of knowledge which fascinate me. The connections are all there, and the fact that there are so many more to be explored, examined, clustered and recombined into new ones, which then can ALSO be recombined is mindbogglingly wonderful. It almost makes me sad that I only have a certain amount of time on this planet with which to check all of these really cool things out. So much to do, so little time.

So when someone asks me what I want to do for a living, I don’t know what to respond, because I want to do everything! I want to write, blog, host, talk, voice-act, storytell, innovate, produce, edit, revise, CREATE. The career label is merely the incarnation of choice which I use to accomplish any of those given tasks at any given time, and so the question seems almost inappropriate in the tiny scale at which it is asked. But I’m comforted by the fact that such great minds as Henry Rollins and Chris Hardwick have felt the same kind of itchy curiosity to rip up the carpet of contemporary culture and look at all the little, intricate wires which connect every single aspect of them. Even moreso, I’m driven by the idea of the urge to mix and match the way those connections are structured, and pontificate and experiment with what the potential results can be.

There’s a level of beauty in the adjacent possible, the potential of one thing to be something entirely different to someone else at any given moment in time that almost exceeds any single incarnation of that thing that exists at a single point. Even typing that sentence, it’s like art and quantum physics and engineering and business and internet culture all colliding at a hundred miles an hour into an infinitely dense, hot mass of ideological potential, ready to birth an entire new universe of possibility.

And the fact that I have the desire and resources to explore that is… simply beyond words, beyond concept in how grateful I am for it. I won’t stop doing it until I am long-dead and in my grave, and I can only hope, can only dream that the fervor of my passion will be enough to inspire yet another to take up the cause once I’m gone. Inspiration: the most beautiful form of immortality there is.

Falling Off, Breaking Through, and Getting The F*ck Over It

So, after a couple of days things going well… I had a pretty shitty day productivity/diet/whatever else-wise. I ate junk food and didn’t complete any of my writing-related tasks. I was generally feeling pretty shitty, as I tend to beat myself up pretty badly when I fall short of my standards for myself. However, it happened to be that day when one of my favorite sites, NerdFitness, and Mr. Steve Kamb, posted this article, which happened to be just the thing to help me out of my mental rut.

Thing is, momentum is a cruel mistress. When you pick up speed from getting stuff done, working out, or just generally being awesome, it feels great, and soon you’re barreling through tasks like that boulder in Indiana Jones. But when you have a “fat” day, or don’t feel up to it, we often feel like the fact we’ve failed at something is a reflection on our own personal capabilities or worth. We start looking at failure as a noun, not a verb. But as the talented Mr. Kamb points out, it’s just one mistake. And, buckle in, bitches, because you’re going to have to get used to the fact that you’re going to make them over, and over, and over for the rest of your life. Because you’re human, and humans have an unequaled talent for finding new ways to fuck up.

But the great thing? The same exploratory instinct that lets us constantly go on adventures in screwing up is the same instinct that lets us invent new ways to get out of it, and take advantage of the resources available around us to do so. We just have to recognize that failure is an isolated incident, and has no bearing on the decisions we make afterward. Including the choice to shrug it off, and go immediately back to the drawing board to find out why we’ve messed up, and how to keep it from happening again.

To quote Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred, in Batman Begins: “Why do we fall, sir? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

So, first, I picked up some lifting straps as was suggested on one of Jason Ferruggia’s most recent posts, and HOLY CRAP. It’s like I’m using those mass-cancelling magnet clamp things from the season 2 finale of Doctor Who. You never realize how much energy you use up JUST holding onto the bar until you don’t have to. I added an easy 20lbs to my deadlift (now at 265lbs), and a HUGE 40lbs to my barbell clean (now at 175lb 3RM), as well as bumping up my one-arm dumbell row weight another 10lbs each. They even help with pressing exercises, which I definitely was not expecting. It’s amazing how a change so small can make such a huge difference.

Gaming in Real Life

 

Second, upon advice from my counsellor, I’ve decided to start putting the unique traits about my geeky gamer mind to good use instead of constantly beating myself up about how I can’t motivate myself/learn in the same way many people do. Or at least, it’s significantly less effective if I try to. But. I love me some video games. So, I started constructing a to-do list using Evernote on my smartphone and making a checklist, with a few little extra challenges, effectively turning it into a quest-based reality game:

-I instituted what I call “Vetoes.” If you feel there’s a task you don’t think you’ll get done that day, you can use one of 3 Vetoes to cross that item off of the list, effectively pushing it until tomorrow. However, there is an achievement (more on those in the next point) for completing all tasks in a day without using a Veto.

-There are achievements for achieving all goals of a certain category in a day. Others for fulfilling additional “win” conditions for goals, and still more for completing every task on the Quest List. Here are some examples:

“Machine Man”:  Complete all health and fitness-related tasks

“Time Lord”:  Complete all timed/time management-related tasks in a day + log 5 or more hours of work into Toggl in that same day.

“Jack of All”: Complete all non-vetoed tasks.

“No Continues”: Gain the Jack of All achievement using no vetoes.

Credit to Jane McGonigal (because I haven’t praised her enough in this blog) and her book, Reality Is Broken, for providing the inspiration for trying this. It’s worked surprisingly well so far, and I plan on getting together with some of my game-design inclined friends to see if I can refine it further into something I can perhaps put out into the aether for others to use.

Anyways, I think that’s about it for now. Hope you guys enjoyed this and got something useful out of it!

Cheers,

Vince

“I want to write movies.”

For a really long time, anytime someone asked me what I wanted to do for a career, I did my best to re-phrase my hopes and dreams into something respectable (or at least less preposterous-sounding). “I want to write.” “I want to be a freelance editorial writer.” Sometimes, I’d just lie and say something I didn’t even want to do. “I want to go into Research Neuroscience/Philosophy of Mind.” Just… something sufficiently academic or fancy-pants sounding so that it didn’t sound like I was wasting five years of my life on something that it was absurd to think would happen.

This evening, I was sitting outside my grocery store after a particularly grueling, under-staffed shift, when an older employee on his break came over and stood beside me (apparently some panhandler was bugging him at his usual spot :P). We got to talking, and he started telling me about his son, who just graduated in History and Philosophy this past May. “I was worried about how hard it would be for him to get a job with that,” he said, “But then I came to realizing… if you love what you do, really love it, chances are you’re going to be outstanding at it, if not at the top of your field. You’ll find a way.” He then turned to me, and asked quite simply, “What do you want to do?”

Maybe it was because it wasn’t prefaced with the usual “What are you going to school for/what is your degree in?” I usually get, but the answer just seemed to slip out as naturally as breathing.

“I want to write movies.”

Not “screenwrite.” Not “write editorially for magazines/websites,” nothing that had me desperately screaming “I CAN get a job with this, my dream is legitimate! You’ll see!!” in the undertones. I just said what I felt. I love writing. When I’m down, one of the few times that I feel happy again is when I’m writing something. Either here, or a book review for the Bookshelf, or something for The Rogues’ Gallery, or even something for class. I. Am. A writer. Not professionally, but the only thing separating me from that reality is the qualifier “yet.”

He just smiled. Not in the way that many older adults will with the “Oh, that’s nice. It’ll never happen, but that’s nice…” but just in this way that was entirely un-judgmental. We went on talking for a little bit, and I came to realize that regardless of the walks of life people tread in, there’s a lot of wisdom to be found in listening to those who have made the trek, whatever direction they’ve chosen. The very process of experiencing things, regardless of the actual content of the experience, is something that there is a lot to learn something from.

I walked away from that conversation feeling considerably lightened after such a hard day’s work. I’m sure the fruit and nut laden chocolate bar helped too, but what the heck.