Posts Tagged ‘you are not rational’

I’ve started a new job. It’s difficult. Now that I’m into my second week, I’ve reached the point where think I know what I’m doing, only to find that I’ve fucked something up– sometimes something really important. This is doing wonders for my anxiety disorder, but I am trying my best not to let it drive me insane. I can’t, really. I need this job, I need to do well at it, and what I really need is to focus.

My boss said to me the other day, “I know you’re a bright girl, so you’re not used to getting things wrong.” I didn’t have a response to that. She’s right, of course. This is the first job I’ve ever had that really challenged me, and I’m kind of terrified that I won’t be up to the task. I want to do everything right. I don’t want to make mistakes. The problem is that I’m so fixated on not making mistakes that I, predictably, make mistakes. I need to focus on doing the particular task at hand right.

This is partly an issue of attention span. The internet has destroyed my ability to focus. In the midst of writing this I’ve jumped to other tabs and other programs at least a dozen times. Words make connections in my mind, so I leap to the next thought without finishing the first one. My system of thinking is not linear; it’s a web. This is all well and good, but it presents problems when I follow a thread somewhere instead of anchoring it where it needs to go.

So. Focus. This applies to my work (as opposed to my job) as well. I know I’m capable of doing this; the problem is that I get sidetracked with new ideas and possibilities and oh look a butterfly so that I lose the actual thread of what I was doing. This creates confusion. This confusion is a smokescreen for what’s really going on under the surface of my thoughts, and that is this: I don’t wanna do this it’s haaaaaard.

My habit of allowing myself to be distracted, of demanding that I get everything right the first time, in the end comes down to my own laziness and my own desire to be right. I was a really smart kid. Unfortunately, what I didn’t know and didn’t learn until much later is that being smart isn’t enough. In school I learned to rest on my laurels. I took the easy way out. I saw that being smart gave me the opportunity to do less work, and being lazy, I took it. I’ve spent the last ten or so years of my life paying the price.

But the time has come, the Walrus said. I’ve had enough of being a slacker. I’m thirty years old and have just now got my first proper job. I’m deeply in debt, and as of writing this, I’m still a hobo. I haven’t published a novel. I don’t even have an agent. I’ve got to sort myself out.

I have to focus, and part of this focus involves precisely what the title of this post describes. Instead of letting my mind flutter all over the place, I need to figure out what’s important and fucking let everything else go. One thing at a time. One task at a time, done correctly, equals everything done. This goes as much for my work as for my day job.

I’m proud to say that for the last four paragraphs, I did not open another tab or look at another program. I did not allow myself to be distracted. I resisted the little imp that’s tired of focusing and doesn’t want to think too hard, and as a result, I might have said something coherent.

One thing at a time.


Postscript: I’ve just seen a tag in my cloud called ‘talent envy.’ What I think I still fail to take into account very often is that what we mistake for talent is actually that habit called hard work.


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When I’m not busy wallowing in misery about the state of my own life, it occurs to me that quite a few of my friends are having a really hard time of it right now as well. Unemployment, debt, deaths, loneliness– it’s probably just my imagination that everything seems so shit at this particular point, but the illusion does remain. It’s gotten me thinking about what I do and say when someone pours out their troubles.

A friend of mine sent me an email today that was basically just a ramble about the problems he’s been having, and it made me realise that the important thing about being a friend isn’t trying to find the right thing to say. When someone talks about how shit they’re feeling, I think too many people feel pressure to say something that will be comforting– which often ends up creating the opposite effect.

For example: “I’m feeling really stressed out right now. I can’t find a job, and I’ve got no money.”

Friend:  “Well, at least you’re better off than someone starving in a developing country!”

Whether said with a chirpy, ‘chin up’ spirit or the patronising tone of a parent trying to get a kid to eat vegetables, that sort of thing usually doesn’t help. I don’t know why it is that you can say these things to yourself, but hearing them from someone else provokes rage and depression. I guess it’s because if you’re feeling too horrible to tell yourself ‘it could be worse,’ the last thing you need is to hear that from another person.

This is not to say that our personal problems are always the mountains we make of molehills, but sometimes they are very mountainous indeed. Things could always be worse, but that’s not the point. The point is, when you’re upset about something, you don’t necessarily want platitudes or empty promises that Everything Will Be Okay.

I think what it comes down to is that too many people want to say the right thing when they probably don’t need to say anything at all. When someone you love is in trouble, you want to do something to help, and if you can’t, you at least want to say something that helps. It’s hard to know whether to say anything at all. But what’s more important than getting answers from people is just acknowledgement. To feel a little less like you’re shouting into a void.

The hardest thing about the last few months for me is when I encounter puzzling silence from people. That silence itself may not have any meaning, but the problem with any blank is the temptation to fill it in. Are they quiet because they don’t know what to say? Because they don’t care? Because they’re preoccupied? It’s mental, but then again, so am I. When you’re already feeling down, it’s easy to read darker meanings into things than they already have. It’s ridiculous and irrational, but so are human beings.

I guess if anything I just wish there was a brief way to acknowledge that you empathise with someone, that you care about what they’re going through, that you don’t have answers, that you wish you could do something to help, that you love them, and that you want things to get better for them. Although I guess you could just say exactly that.

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I see this comment a lot, and I’m tired of it:

“People don’t care about [public sector/higher education/benefits cuts/strikes/protests] because [group implicated] have it so easy. They should stop complaining!”

This is the biggest single obstacle to genuine change. It isn’t Labour MPs scabbing, it isn’t the Tories gleefully slashing at the bellies of the vulnerable, and it isn’t the tax avoidance of the very rich. It isn’t even the specious reasoning that ‘cuts have to happen.’ The biggest problem of all is the self-absorbed and cruel attitude of a significant part of society. “Sod these people trying to change things, I’ve got it hard and so should you!”

Who are these people? They seem to be omnipresent on the internet, filling up Guardian comment pages with the spleen of tiny-hearted misers. Everyone’s a scrounger, everyone wants something for nothing, everyone’s a thief and a liar and a violent thug– everyone else, that is. One can only assume that the commenters in question are hard-working, upstanding members of society.

This is what decades of capitalism and consumerism have wrought: a culture obsessed with a perpetually out of reach image of success, which we are told is attainable if we just work a little harder and behave ourselves a little better. And because we don’t live the life of ease that capitalism and advertising have promised us, the taste left in our mouths is the bitter ash of being hard done by.

Now, we could take this sense of injustice and turn it against the people responsible: MPs who have no qualms about campaigning on an issue and then backtracking once they’re safely elected (that is to say, pretty much all of them); employers who violate labour laws and get away with it because taking action against them is risky; the very rich, who profit from a system designed to exponentially expand their wealth; the police, who murder and assault with near impunity; the middle classes, who don’t gain as much from these institutions as the rich but still manage to hold onto their comfortable standard of living by stepping on everyone beneath them.

Instead, what appears to be the case is that society wants those who are already suffering to suffer a little bit more. They want the poor to starve, because obviously if they’re poor it’s their own fault for being lazy and on drugs. They want the working classes bound and gagged to prevent them from striking, because how dare they inconvenience more important people! No word on why disabled people are also expected to starve– their fault for not having magical healing powers, I guess.

This is the problem with our society. It isn’t teen mums or drug use or benefit fraud or divorce; it’s a culture of sadism. It’s not ‘reason’ or ‘sense’ or ‘sustainability’ or ‘value.’ It is, quite simply, the urge on the part of the privileged to make other people suffer as much as they can. It is sadism.

The urge to punish someone for things being fucked up is understandable. What isn’t understandable is the cultural equivalent of someone kicking the dog when they get home because they’ve had a hard day at work. I’m sick of it being rationalised and justified. Stop it.

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There is a particular type of person who self-identifies as ‘rational.’ They sometimes use other words– inquisitive, logical, open-minded– but the intent is much the same: to place themselves on an intellectual hierarchy above those simple creatures that make decisions based on emotions and irrational beliefs. They don’t say that, of course, because that would make them look egocentric, but it doesn’t take too much thought to figure out that that is exactly what they mean.

These people should read Why People Believe Weird Things. It’s a fascinating book that lays out the reasons why otherwise ‘rational’ people believe in things like creationism, ESP, and the non-existence of the Holocaust.* What’s nice is that Michael Shermer manages to do this without sounding like a self-important ass chuckling at the folly of lesser human beings.

I hate to boil the book down to a few sentences, because it really is worth a read (or several), but the gist of it is that human beings selectively remember things that support their beliefs and ignore those things that don’t. It’s not a groundbreaking idea by any means, but Shermer’s writing is engaging, and it’s refreshing to see someone use evolutionary psychology for something besides justifying patriarchal gender roles.

This post brought to you by the realisation that I don’t do nearly enough reading these days.

*I use ‘rational’ in quotes because at the end of the day, we are all still monkeys running from the thunder.

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