Dear Reader, Essays, Stoicism

Mapping life

“Life without a design is erratic. As soon as one is in place, principles become necessary. I think you’ll concede that nothing is more shameful than uncertain and wavering conduct, and beating a cowardly retreat. This will happen in all our affairs unless we remove the faults that seize and detain our spirits, preventing them from pushing forward and making an all-out effort.” –Seneca, Moral Letters
Always have a plan. I plan using mind maps. The plans don’t always work out. That’s okay. The framework was there, and I knew what it was that I was trying to achieve. Below is an excerpt from my short book, Kick Ass: Take Control of Your Life.

“Getting where you want to go can be accomplished in any number of ways, but I find that one of the best is to create a visualization. The simplest way to set goals is to start by picking the dreams you want to achieve and visualizing them. I use mind mapping software for this purpose.   Concept-mapping and mind-mapping software are used to create diagrams of relationships between concepts, ideas or other pieces of information. It has been suggested that the mind mapping technique can improve learning/ study efficiency up to 15% over conventional note taking.

It is more than worth a few hours of your time to develop a mind map. You can use a mind map for anything. There are a variety of free tools for creating mind maps. I use Freemind, which is available for several computing platforms. As the name suggests, Freemind is completely free of charge. It produces output that looks like the images below, but it can be formatted to your own needs. With such visualization tools, you can map out your life in just a few minutes or hours, depending on how much detail you want to visualize. Road maps don’t need to be pretty although you can spend time making them that way. A road map should be functional and should tell you the basics of what you want out of life.”

If you’ve never used a mind mapping tool, why not take a second to try one out? You might find that a map of where you are and where you want to be is a useful tool.
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More than a selfie

“You are not your body and hair-style, but your capacity for choosing well. If your choices are beautiful, so too will you be.” —Epictetus, Discourses, 3.1.39b– 40a

Every little choice adds up. It may not seem like there is a huge difference whether you spend the next half hour watching TV or going outside to find something beautiful to photograph. Twenty years from now you won’t remember the TV show. If you took the picture and framed it to hang on the wall, chances are that you will have an anchor point in time that draws you right back into whatever moment it was that you captured two decades ago. Those little anchor points are what determine whether your life has real meaning.

If you ask 100 people what gives their life meaning you will likely get 100 answers. In order to create meaning in your life, a sense of purpose is key. Meaning doesn’t just happen. It is created through narratives. You are in control of the narrative of your life, and that control is represented in thousands of choices that your brain makes every day. What you put in your mouth and what you put in your head determine who you become, and what the arc of your existence looks like.

Modern life tends to present too many choices, most of which are like fast food. They taste great but ultimately leave you feeling unsatisfied because the content isn’t healthy. It isn’t healthy because it generates no meaningful sense of purpose. The online game World of Warcraft is an example. The game allows you to create characters who inhabit a fantasy universe that is fun to explore and full of interesting creatures you can kill or be killed by. The game has its own economy and system for ranking players. Creating an avatar is fun. Entering a massive world full of other people who are exploring it along with you using their own avatars is fun. You even have a sense of purpose at first. Your avatar grows in power and gains skills. You can buy magic armor and weapons to aid you in completing quests throughout the game’s imaginary world. The problem with World of Warcraft is that the more you give, the more it takes. To get your avatar to the highest level possible takes an investment of hundreds if not thousands of hours of your life, as well as paying the fees to continue playing month after month. Let’s say you have the time, funds and motivation to climb the game’s ladder all the way to the top. What now? Your reward is that you’ve sunk hundreds to thousands of hours into becoming…what exactly?

You’ve solved no problems in your real world life. You’ve solved no one else’s problems in your real world life. The return on investment is that you are able to defeat powerful imaginary foes in an imaginary world. You may have made friends in the game, but most likely, you’ve never met them in the real world. That means you can’t hug them or share a cup of coffee, or go to an art gallery together. Fantasy can be a healthy escape, but in a modern implementation such as World of Warcraft it is more likely to become a debilitating distraction. Type ‘World of Warcraft addiction’ into Google and browse through the 4 million plus results.

Modern choices trade real meaning for instant gratification. Look around you next time you are in a restaurant. Chances are that many of the people you see will be looking into tiny glass screens instead of interacting with the real world. They are making a choice. Choosing a simulated world where everything is poised and posed over one the one that engages all five senses. One day maybe the simulated worlds we humans and our machines construct will have more depth than the real one, but that time has not arrived. If you are choosing the artificial worlds available in 2017, you are missing a great deal.

Life’s meaning cannot be boiled down to a single meme, or even all the memes you will be exposed to on Facebook during a year. Those memes are not beautiful choices. They distill complex real-world issues into easy to digest bites of information that will ultimately cause brain indigestion.

If you live an existence connected to the Internet, you live in the information age. Unfortunately, a great deal of the information that pops up each time you log on masquerades as something it is not: valuable to finding meaning.

The words you are reading right now are a narrative. There are armies of people motivated by different beliefs churning out millions of narratives at every minute of every hour of every day in the world I inhabit as I type out these words. Most of those narratives will not stand the test of time. They are the equivalent of your current haircut. Haircuts don’t age well. Ten years from now you will probably wonder why you wasted all that time. Choose well, because there are beautiful choices hiding in plain sight. Most of them involve getting out of bed and having an adventure. In real life, with people you can physically touch. That’s the essence of being human.

Next time you have dinner, power off your phone and look into the eyes of each person around the table. Tell them what you want to become and listen when they tell you what they dream of becoming. You’re not a Kardashian, and that’s a good thing. All those choices add up.

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Too much talking and not enough listening

“. . . I learned to read carefully and not be satisfied with a rough understanding of the whole, and not to agree too quickly with those who have a lot to say about something.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS

I try maintain a roughly ten to one ratio in regards to my listening/speaking. Why do I feel it is important? I know that I do not know much. I know my scale in the universe. It reminds me to stay humble. I know that seeking knowledge is a growth/survival mechanism with a proven track record.

Which brings me to one of the problems I have with the current administration of the executive branch of the USA. As far as I can tell, Trump doesn’t appear to put much value on listening. Or on reality. He appears to be willfully ignoring what is actually happening in the world around him. Don’t take my word for it. Take his.

“This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.” No Donald. Your administration so far is a slow motion train wreck. Your national security advisor lasted three weeks. That’s a new land speed administration failure record.

“Drugs are becoming cheaper than candy bars.” Not even close to reality.

“The leaks are real, but the news is fake.” Translation: Anything that makes me look bad is bad and should be discounted. Reality doesn’t matter, only I matter.

Trump seems to want to attack anyone who questions anything he says or does. He appears hell bent on ignoring the counsel of the very people he should be listening to the most. He turns governance into a circus ring. The new American president has a lot of say about everything, and most of it sounds astoundingly uninformed. The rest of it sounds like blatant, unashamed lying.

That is not leadership. It is the opposite. It is a recipe for failure.

Success or failure often hinge on one’s ability to quietly take in the universe around themselves and contemplate. Those of us who shout the loudest about how great we they are are usually compensating for a lack of understanding. An inability to hear others is dangerous, and perhaps even suicidal in the right context.

We are on a train being controlled by a deaf and blind conductor. I hope the tracks ahead are intact.

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Learning to keep your mouth shut

“If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters — don’t wish to seem knowledgeable. And if some regard you as important, distrust yourself.” —Epictetus
“One of the most powerful things you can do as a human being in our hyperconnected, 24/7 media world is say: “I don’t know.” Or, more provocatively: “I don’t care.” — The Daily Stoic

I’ve been practicing keeping my mouth shut. This may seem counter-intuitive if all you know of my existence comes through the lens of my writing. It’s still true. If you invite me out for coffee, or over to dinner, I will spend more time listening to you than I will talking about myself or anything else. If you are discussing a topic that I know nothing about, I will probably ask you carefully considered questions.

Admitting my own ignorance isn’t something I hesitate about. I’m prepared to engage from a position of knowing little to nothing. The goal is to grow and learn. No one expects you to have expertise in every area of human knowledge, or even in a single area. That’s why good leaders surround themselves with those who hold specialized knowledge in various areas. The leader’s job is to take all of the wisdom available and to make informed decisions that benefit society.

Epictetus gets it when he warns us not to worry about how great we are. You cannot trust a person who is fixated on their own importance. Such a person is unable to admit how little they know, and that can be very dangerous. Being able to admit that we aren’t experts in any given area is a critical skill for living a meaningful life.

Even more important is developing the ability to discern the areas of knowledge that are important to you and going after them. If your are surrounded by people who want you to enter the Catholic priesthood, for instance, but your passion is developing virtual worlds, you’ll be well served by developing the ability to tell friends and family, your peer group, or whatever tribe is exerting the pressure to spend your limited time and energy on something you don’t believe in: “I don’t care about that.” You can deliver this information gracefully, and then stick to your guns and pursue opportunities in the life goals that matter to you.

We live in a frenetic world. It is always OK to use filters to keep it from driving you mad. Decide to listen only to what matters, and your existence will grow calmer and more meaningful.

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Principles

“Take a good hard look at people’s ruling principle, especially at the wise, what they run away from and what they seek out.” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I believe that the human species is small and unimportant on a universal scale, but that doesn’t keep me from being endlessly fascinated by the activity on this little planet. I recently finished a really great book, Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. In it, he says, “Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.” We make up so many of our rules based solely on what we imagine the world to be like rather than on what the world truly is. In this age of nearly instantaneous transmission of information, many of us imagine the world is more violent than it has even been in our past. And this would be totally wrong.

That is not to discount violence, but only to put it through the filter of history, which gives everything more context. We are not living in the most violent time, rather we are living in relative peace. The only reason you don’t believe that is because we are also living in an age when many of us have near global sight. We are overexposed to the violence that exists in the now, and this leaves us with the false idea that we are living in the most violent era in history, a completely false reality.

In looking at the data, we can say that several things are true:

  1. The rate of violence declines as the rate of literacy increases. Access to knowledge, therefore, make people less violent.
  2. Democratically elected governments are less likely to start wars. There are more and more democracies with each passing decade.
  3. We spend more energy worrying about certain topics than we should. If you live in the United States, your lifetime risk of being killed in a car accident should worry you much more than the odds that you will become the victim of a terrorist attack.

Which brings us back around to ruling principles and wisdom. Are Trump and Pence operating under wise principles? I don’t think that either man is actually the one in charge of policy for the new and improved #MAGAUSA. The person actually pulling the strings is a man named Steve Bannon.

Bannon has unprecedented influence over the new ruling principles of the National Security Council, and that should probably worry you.

Here are a few Bannon quotes:

I’m a Leninist … Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment. The solution to online ‘harassment’ is simple: women should log off. Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer? Are there racist people involved in the alt-right? Absolutely. The progressive narrative and that is all about victimhood. They’re either a victim of race. They’re victim of their sexual preference. They’re a victim of gender. All about victimhood and the United States is the great oppressor, not the great liberator. What if the people getting shot by the cops did things to deserve it? There are, after all, in this world, some people who are naturally aggressive and violent. This country is in a crisis. And if you’re fighting to save this country, if you’re fighting to take this country back, it’s not going to be sunshine and patriots. It’s going to be people who want to fight.

I’m ready to fight Steve. Just not for the values and principles you espouse. You’re worried about all the wrong things, and your worldview is abhorrent. I want to fight for a world where everyone gets a place at the table, and that’s not what you believe in as far as I can tell. I want the levels of violence to keep going down, and that’s not going to happen with you pulling the strings.

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Destroyer of worlds

We do not believe any group of men adequate enough or wise enough to operate without scrutiny or without criticism. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it, that the only way to detect it is to be free to enquire. We know that the wages of secrecy are corruption. We know that in secrecy error, undetected, will flourish and subvert. —Robert J. Oppenheimer, Physicist, Manhattan Project
What do you have to lose by trying something new like Trump? What do you have to lose? You’re living in poverty; your schools are no good; you have no jobs; 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose? — Donald Trump, In Charge of the Nuclear Arsenal of the United States of America
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door! — Old American Alternative Fact

Believe whatever you will. I will not preach to you, for I am an atheist. I have no holy books. I steal the good ideas I find and share them freely. I do not believe in a vengeful god, or many petty deities. I am content to live my life without the hope of eternal reward.

It bothers me that Donald J. Trump just gave preferential treatment to immigrants who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Our newly appointed leader has expressed a preference for bringing into the nation called the United States more of the type of people who somehow voted for him despite his pussy grabbing penchant. That’s one of the things that bothers me about any kind of theological fundamentalism. Fundamentalism tends to cause tunnel vision. So does faith.

Those tired, poor, huddled masses who are not whatever label voted your way might choose your worldview, if only you were willing to feed them, clothe them, lend them your ear. At our core, we all yearn for a tribe.

That’s the basic problem with the Donald. His tribe needs exclusivity, and it panders to values it does not really believe. Trump no more believes in the theology of Christianity than he believes in Cthulhu. The man just says whatever he thinks you want to hear. Or what he thinks enough voters want to hear to elevate him into the your sphere of worship. That’s where he really thrives. When he feels adulated.

What’s he done in his first week under that giant dome of light should make you afraid. It doesn’t matter how you identify. Trump is no more pro Christian than he is pro Satanist. Or pro BDSM. Trump is for team Trump. Period. He’ll tell you that you are fired the moment you aren’t useful to his false narrative.

You should be scared when someone who lies without actually believing he is lying has access to nuclear codes.

“I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.” — Donald J. Trump

Except that never happened. No one in Jersey City, of any theology, was cheering. This is just another of Trump’s thousands of alternative facts.

In the real world, the one that you and I share, whether we want to or not, Trump is creating a world that denies hope to those who need it most. A world that denies basic needs to those who could thrive in world where there is plenty to go around and the only reason people suffer and starve is because of issues with distribution.

I will not be quiet until the delusional madman no longer has access to power. Especially the power of thermonuclear annihilation. I hope you’ll join me in the #resistance.

God knows that the huddled masses could use our voices so they can cling to the hope he is trying to deny them.

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Alternative facts are lies

fact

noun

  1. something that actually exists; reality; truth: Your fears have no basis in fact.
  2. something known to exist or to have happened: Space travel is now a fact.
  3. a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true: Scientists gather facts about plant growth.

Lying is problematic. I speak as an accomplished liar. I learned the skill of lying early in life. Used lies to keep the machine that is a nuclear family running. I won’t go into all the details in this post because it isn’t primarily about me. This post is primarily about the idea that lying is toxic. Someone much smarter than I am has said it better than I can.

“Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act. It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood. To lie is to recoil from relationship.” ― Sam Harris, Lying

Donald Trump is a liar in charge of a team of hand picked liars. No matter how many times you make a false claim, it is still not true. Alternative facts do not exist. Whether or not you voted for Trump, it is problematic that his campaign was one made up of lies, and that he is (unsurprisingly) kicking off his presidency with more lies.

The Trump team’s most recent lie has been to make the false claim that his inauguration was the best attended in the history of U.S. inaugurations. Lie. It is an important lie? You might not think so. I think all lies are important because they chip away at reality. Should a president be busily engaged in creating a false reality? I think that is extremely dangerous. Estimates from people I trust more than Trump tell me that about 160,000 people attended his inauguration while about 470,000 protested it the next day in the same city. This doesn’t count all the people elsewhere in the world who are concerned about Donald Trump holding the most powerful position in the most powerful country in the world.

The Washington Post recently reported that of 52 claims made by Trump during the election cycle, only four percent could be verified as completely factual. That means 96% of the things Trump was saying when he was campaigning for the highest office in the land were either only partially true or were outright lies. Does that bother you? It certainly bothers me. In fact, it terrifies me.

Trump doesn’t live in the same reality I am in. He exists in a world of lies that continuously pour out of his mouth. In fact, he lies so much I suspect he is at the point where the lying is pathological. Either that or Trump is a sociopath with antisocial personality disorder. Those afflicted with the mental condition know they are lying but aren’t bothered by it. These are the kind of people who claim that someone they raped ‘wanted it’ because they were wearing provocative clothing. People who do this need are extremely dangerous and have a disproportionately negative effect on society and its institutions.

A president who refuses to cooperate with others and presents ‘alternative facts’ is not a president I want in power. People who do this cannot be ignored because they are busy trying to reshape reality in their own image and that ripples out into society in ways that are likely to tear it apart. I’m making a prediction that this carefully crafted false reality is only just starting to grow like a cancer in the belly of our country. If we allow it to go untreated, it remains to be seen how many people will needlessly suffer as a result. In world where there is more than enough to go around so that everyone can have food, shelter and access to medical care, Trump is the antithesis of making anything great. He’s more likely to foolishly start the third and possibly last great war our species will fight.

I’m with all those who are against our new liar in chief. Things are going to get much worse before they get better. Today, I can still openly complain about the problems with the new administration. I suspect that, if we are not ready to fight to keep things this way, voices like mine will be silenced one by one until the only voices left are the ones currently holding the power. I’m willing to fight to keep that from becoming a reality. I’m not willing to pay for any new walls, and I’m not willing to be quiet while others are forced to pay for them.

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You always have choices, even when you’re orange

“A podium and a prison is each a place, one high and the other low, but in either place your freedom of choice can be maintained if you so wish.”

—Epictetus, Discourses

Throughout my life, my greatest pleasure has been learning. The exploration of what is not yet known is what keeps me here, and keeps me willing to greet the day no matter how it starts or what it may bring. On this day, while I am writing these words, there are some people of whom I am aware who are in prison and who do not deserve to be. Also on this day, while I am writing these words, there are some people who have great power that do not deserve that power. I am primarily talking about the orange man also called Donald Trump, who is not motivated by a love of learning. That is not a crime. As far as I can tell, though, the orange man is motivated by a love of himself. I do consider that a crime. As far I can see Donald Trump’s self-love comes always at the expense of those over whom he has power.

There are many things happening in the world around me today that are cause for concern. The anti-immigration sentiments motivated by ignorance and fear, for instance. I have no choice how anyone else feels about these things, just as I have no influence over how the orange man is going to use his soon to be officially bestowed powers of governance. I choose not to fear what will happen. I don’t like that Great Britain is working to exit the European union, but it is also not my responsibility.

I have a podium. I am not in prison. That situation may reverse itself tomorrow, but I will still be in charge of my mind. I will still be in a position to greet the unknown with the attitude that I am in charge of my own becoming.

In this short lifetime of mine, I have learned that fear cripples potential and destroys those who allow it to control their decision making. I choose to face my fears and understand that the most important things I am afraid of are internal. External forces are real. They can negatively or positively impact my existence. Or yours. Or all of ours.

That is no reason to lash out. Only bullies let fear dictate their tone.

“Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest – and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure. It’s not your fault.” This is orange man at his worst, and he’s right. It is not my fault that he is a narcissist. Rather than choose to feel hopeless about the upcoming presidential reign of the smartest orange man on the planet, I am going to look for opportunities to show his followers and believers that fear and ignorance never lead to growth. Fighting for growth is not a sin. I’m looking forward to helping like minded friends tear down all the walls orange man has promised to build.

The future of the world is not destined to be a bunch of walls separating us from one another. The future of the world isn’t destined to be fear and ignorance separating us from one another. Those are the old ways, and thank the gods, they are dying.

Whether you are high or low, I hope you understand that your freedom of choice cannot be taken from you. You can choose fear and ignorance, but I hope you won’t.

As to you, the incoming orange man, I wish you growth when it comes to wisdom, as I believe there is almost unlimited potential hidden within the walls of bone that make up your skull.

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Circle of control

“We control our reasoned choice and all acts that depend on that moral will. What’s not under our control are the body and any of its parts, our possessions, parents, siblings, children, or country—anything with which we might associate.” —Epictetus, Discourses

I am in my mid-40s at the time I am writing this. My body is failing. That’s not to say the expiration date is near, but merely that I am hyperaware of the amount of wear and tear I have put on the machine. Military service in two different branches and a mobile lifestyle have taken a toll. I do not control my body’s reaction to this excessive wear and tear, but I do control my mind, and how it responds.

Our mind is the only thing, ultimately, that we do have control over, if we are fortunate enough to have a healthy brain. The lesson for myself, and anyone who chooses to read these words, is this: stop worrying about externality. Make choices that will keep your brain as healthy as possible. Let go of things you have zero influence over. News. Elections. The health of your national currency. What someone else thinks of you. It’s all quite irrelevant.

If you choose to engage with people on social media, remember that you don’t control what they think, and should therefore not become invested in those who have a different opinion than you. Express yourself, move on, and let go.

It was very icy this morning when I left the house, and even though I have all wheel drive, I found myself unable to make turns. Instead, I was sliding in straight lines across sheets of ice. I could easily have wrecked my expensive automobile. I realized that I couldn’t control the ice, or the way my car responded to it. Instead of getting upset, I crept home as slowly and carefully as I could. I made it safely, and for that I am grateful.

If I hadn’t, and had wrecked my car, I would focused on seeing the positives. My automobile has been great in the five years I’ve had it, but I am not attached to it. It’s just a tool that gets me where I want to go. My body is the exact same thing. A tool that gets my mind where I’d like it to go. In the realization of this, I am cognizant that I should try to take care of my car and my body, but that eventually, they will both fail me.

In the mean time, I’m focused on what’s really important – the choices I’m making, the habits I am forming, and the ideas I am exploring. Those are the only things that will matter when my existence is drawing to its close.

My circle of control is what’s happening inside my head. That’s the place that matters most, and what I do there will influence everything else. The same applies to you.

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Harmless indulgences

“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. Greatness of soul will be lost, which can’t stand out unless it disdains as petty what the mob regards as most desirable.” — Seneca, Moral Letters

I spend a great deal of time thinking about the way I spend the majority of my time. I carry a set of unwritten rules around with me wherever I go. Like the one where I don’t install any games on my phone. I know me. If I had games on my phone, I would play them to distract myself from more important, but less pleasurable tasks, like writing this. Another rule I have, and this one is new, is that if any app on my phone sends me an alert more than three times a day, it gets notifications disabled. This is relatively easy to do on an Android phone. I’m not going to allow my phone to control my attention span.

I know myself. I am a procrastinator. If I don’t block out time for what truly matters, I won’t do the things that truly matter. Modern life offers us thousands of activities and substances that we can become addicted to. Whether you spend several hours a day playing Farmville, or looking to score your next hit of whatever it is that gets you high the way you like, maybe it’s time to reconsider the amount of time and energy you’re giving away. It’s impossible to grow when you aren’t blocking out time to think about what meaningful growth looks like to you.

For me, meaningful growth involves contemplating my reality and creating stories and narratives about the past, present and imagined future. To do that, I need to limit the things that take away from writing time. Like my phone buzzing to demand my attention.

If something is taking you away from what you love most, consider limiting its access to you, or your access to it. If that thing, substance or person is truly keeping you from doing what you really love, you may even need to banish the whatever it is completely.

All of this assumes you know what you really want from life, and that you’re willing to fight to have it. If neither of those things is true I hope you do find a calling and become willing to give up all the petty addictions in order to accomplish it. The more I contemplate my life, the more I realize that many things I’ve thought of in the past as harmless indulgences probably aren’t. I’m more and more willing and able to tune out and push out the things and people who don’t add any real value.

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