Walking on Custard and the Meaning of Life http://www.walkingoncustard.com A Guide for Anxious Humans Wed, 20 Jun 2018 09:13:00 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.6 Freedom vs Security http://www.walkingoncustard.com/freedom-vs-security/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/freedom-vs-security/#comments Wed, 20 Jun 2018 09:10:10 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2948 [This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

Today: some thoughts about life decisions.

But First: Let’s Talk About Fourier Transforms,

[WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS MATHS! (It’s optional, so skip it, if you like.)]

A few months ago, I was making a decision, and every time I thought about it, a mathematical analogy …

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[This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

Today: some thoughts about life decisions.

But First: Let’s Talk About Fourier Transforms,

[WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS MATHS! (It’s optional, so skip it, if you like.)]

A few months ago, I was making a decision, and every time I thought about it, a mathematical analogy sprung to mind.

You might have heard of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which says (broadly) that the more precisely you measure the position of a particle, the less precisely you can measure its momentum.

(Occasionally this gets paraphrased as “you can either know where something is, or how fast it’s going, but not both.”)

This isn’t just a weird fact about our ability to measure, and it’s not even restricted to particles. It’s just that this phenomenon is easier to notice at the particle level.

In fact, this is a fundamental reality. In mathematics, it’s related to an operation called the Fourier Transform. (Very) basically, this operation is part of the translation between position and momentum. If you have lots of precision to start with, you end up with a fuzzy result after:

Figure: The world’s least accurate graph. A precise measurement becomes fuzzy after applying the Fourier Transform (blue arrows), and vice versa.

In other words, you physically can’t have high precision on both position and momentum at once.

(I am very much rushing this explanation, so it is not entirely accurate, but it’s accurate enough for the purpose of this post. If you want to understand better, these two videos explain the mathematics in fantastic, intuitive detail, and without all the hand-waving inaccuracy.)

Anyway, let’s go back to my life…

The Last Few Years

I’ve spent the last few years writing books and articles, doing freelance programming, giving comedy talks about mental health, and doing standup comedy.

These years have been great fun… and very challenging. I’ve found a routine which – mostly – works for me. But I’ve gradually become less and less settled, and it’s been increasingly clear since I finished my latest novel.

This makes sense: I suddenly have a lot of extra time to reflect, which is always dangerous. The most natural path would be to continue as I am – perhaps start another book, find another programming contract, and book even more talks. But I didn’t want to assume that the path I chose a few years ago was automatically the right path for now.

So I’ve taken a few weeks to chew over the possibilities, doing some temporary coding work, but no new huge projects: only fun work which would teach me some new skills.

The whole time I’ve been exploring what lies beneath the unsettled feeling, and gradually I’ve realised that it’s about freedom and security.

More of One, Less of the Other

I love the freedom of my current life. I get to choose which projects to work on, which clients to work with, and find places to speak.

But this freedom has downsides: most obviously, I don’t have the regular income I used to. This is fine, but it has the potential to be exhausting over a long time. It feels as if I must keep putting in effort just to remain static… and if the effort stops, then I fall behind.

I think this deep unsettlement is my brain trying to tell me it would prefer a bit more security.

Easy, right? Problem solved, I can just do that, and never have any problems ever again, li-

Wait!

Oh. All of the options which will bring more security entail giving up some freedom. I’ll have to take a job, or a long-term contract, or be less picky with clients, or something. And the parts of my brain which desperately want this freedom are in conflict with the parts which want security.

This is why the image of Fourier Transforms keeps resurfacing in my mind: I can have lots of freedom, or lots of security… but not both.

(Yes, okay, I admit that perhaps see-saws would have been a more accessible analogy, but if you can’t nerd out about mathematical concepts at Puttylike, then where can you?!)

There’s a Middle Ground

For a brief time I felt stuck, as if there were only bad options: continue with the anxious grind of complete freedom, or declare failure, give up on my dreams entirely and do something else.

You might recognize my old friend “extreme thinking” in that description of the situation. For some reason, my human brain assumes all compromise is total capitulation. Instead, I could, for example, take a part-time job, and trade some freedom away for a little more security.

Changing my approach isn’t the same as declaring failure, either. It just means I’m recalibrating the amount of freedom/security which I want at this point in my life!

Takeaways

Here are the reminders I’m taking forward for next time I have to recalibrate what I’m doing with my life:

  • There will be a next time I have to reconsider what I’m doing
  • Just because I’m already doing something, doesn’t mean I have to keep doing it.
  • Sometimes I need more freedom, sometimes I need more security – I have to choose what balance I want right now
  • Rebalancing isn’t the same as failure
  • Maths is cool, even if I’m terrible at explaining it

Currently I’m seeking some very cool part-time work which will give me that security (while being fun, challenging, interesting work!) while leaving me space to work on the next book and continue to give talks. I hope it’s useful to you to hear about this process, as messy and unfinished and full of catastrophic thinking as it is. At the very least, it’s hopefully good to hear I don’t have everything all figured out – I always find it reassuring to remember that I’m not the only one who isn’t quite sure what they’re doing!

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How to Choose the Right Path When There are SO MANY POSSIBILITIES http://www.walkingoncustard.com/how-to-choose-the-right-path-when-there-are-so-many-possibilities/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/how-to-choose-the-right-path-when-there-are-so-many-possibilities/#respond Tue, 01 May 2018 08:29:14 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2843 [This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

To my great surprise, I’ve written two books.

The first was non-fiction, and I spent the entire process worrying about making factual errors. I checked and rechecked (and rechecked) everything obsessively. At the very least, I wanted to be able to honestly say that I’d done …

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[This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

To my great surprise, I’ve written two books.

The first was non-fiction, and I spent the entire process worrying about making factual errors. I checked and rechecked (and rechecked) everything obsessively. At the very least, I wanted to be able to honestly say that I’d done my best to make sure any information I was sharing was reasonably accurate.

As a means of handling this anxiety, occasionally I mixed in a chapter of flash fiction. This was such a relief! These random chapters about wizards and aliens and talking flowers didn’t have the same obligation to be correct – in fiction, I could make up anything I liked.

Idly, I dreamed of someday writing an entire novel… a whole project free from this pressure, a project where there were no rules.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Of course, it turned out that having no rules was also horrible… just differently horrible.

I’d never anticipated what this complete freedom would feel like when I experienced it for real. It was dizzying. The absence of rules suddenly felt vertiginous, and terrifying.

Should this character go to this place, or that other one? Should they fight, or should they make up? What if the magical shop got burned down? Or trampled by a robot army? Or what if an eloquent snake turned up and played the trumpet?!

“PLEASE, SOMEONE, HELP ME! GIVE ME RULES, I CRAVE STRUCTURE!”

Unfortunately, nobody could give me that structure, mainly because it doesn’t exist. Unlike with non-fiction, there’s no “right answer” to what a story should be. Changes may make a story better or worse, but – in theory – even a radical genre shift and a sudden talking snake could be made to work.

(That example came to me randomly, but I’ve just realised that the bestselling book of all time actually begins with a talking snake, so it’s certainly not automatically a bad idea…!)

The point is that there’s no one story I could write. There’s an infinite series of possibilities, even within one, particular story.

Irritatingly, I found myself missing my old frustration of being pressured to find the ‘correct’ answer. At least there usually was one, and I could generally be sure when I’d found it.

Opposite Problems, Differing Solutions

It’s typical that I managed to get frustrated by two opposite problems. While both problems could be solved by simply “not writing a book”, let me share the solutions I found assuming you (foolishly) wanted to do such a thing.

The pressure of non-fiction has an obvious solution: patiently plodding on, and being thorough.

The vertigo of fiction also has an obvious solution, but I found it harder: CHOOSE.

The infinite possibility of the blank page is terrifying. So you have to choose something to put in it. A character, a scene, a place, a plot idea… as long as it’s something. This is your initial fixed point. From this, you can define everything else. Who else is near this character, or in this place? What happens after that plot point?

A story can’t exist without fixed points – at the very least, the hero must start out somewhere, and she must end up somewhere else. Once I fixed some ideas in place, I could be as creative as I liked with the parts in between.

These fixed points aren’t “right answers” in the non-fiction sense, but I could treat them as if they were. They made up the essence of the story I was trying to tell.

And this is the crucial difference: unlike non-fiction, fiction isn’t universal. War & Peace is no more the “right answer” than Harry Potter.

There Are No Fixed Points in Life Either

This fear of choosing what happened in my book mirrors the feelings I sometimes have about life.

Should I study this, or that? Live here, or there? Date this person, or another? The possibilities multiply outwards at a frightening rate. And, just like when writing a story, nobody can give us a “right answer.”

It’s not the right answer to move to New York. It’s not the right answer not to. Either choice is just a fixed point on the story we’re trying to tell.

Our life would certainly be different if we changed jobs, started a business, studied something else, moved abroad, got married, or any of the other possibilities which lie before us each day.

We can never know for sure which path is the best. There’s just the path we choose to take, and the many, many paths which we don’t. Whenever I forget this, I become paralysed.

But, hopefully, now I’ve done this through fiction, I’ll be better at doing it for real.

Do you ever look for a ‘right answer’ in life? What are the fixed points on your story? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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Wasted Time Isn’t Wasted http://www.walkingoncustard.com/wasted-time-isnt-wasted/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/wasted-time-isnt-wasted/#respond Fri, 20 Apr 2018 09:36:05 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2839 [This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

We can’t control whether to spend our time, only what we spend it on.

This thought has echoed around and around in my mind ever since I read the story of Opus 40 – a sculpture park created by one man over 37 …

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[This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

We can’t control whether to spend our time, only what we spend it on.

This thought has echoed around and around in my mind ever since I read the story of Opus 40 – a sculpture park created by one man over 37 years(!).

Part of me recoils in horrified terror at the thought of spending 37 years on a single project. Sometimes, 37 minutes can feel like a lot!

But I still find this story inspirational.

Harvey Fite’s story continued to itch at me after I heard it. I kept imagining how I might handle working on such an intimidatingly large project. I’m sure that almost every day I would wonder “isn’t this huge sculpture park a massive waste of time? Should I be doing something else?!”

I have no idea whether the sculptor struggled with these thoughts himself –this piece in the New York Times suggests that perhaps he did not – but it doesn’t actually matter either way. No project is so perfect that we’re never tempted by another, and what’s important is that Harvey Fite did it.

Harvey Fite’s time – like everybody’s – had to be spent somewhere, and creating his sculpture park was a perfectly good way to spend it.

Spending Time One Day at a Time

I think this suggests a healthy attitude towards time. The amount of time we intend to spend on a task–a day, a week, or 37 years–isn’t important: that time is going to pass regardless. The only question is whether we will have anything to show for it afterwards.

Sometimes the payoff is immediate, and sometimes it may take decades. All that matters is that there is a payoff.

But Wastes Aren’t Always Wastes

Of course, it can be stressful to believe that every single minute has to be accounted for. A healthy concept of “payoff” must be broad enough to include rest, leisure, learning and creating good memories with family and friends. Not all payoffs have to be economic!

Nor do we have to succumb to the sunk cost fallacy and stick something out just for the payoff we imagined we’d get when we began. Sometimes learning “this isn’t for me” is an adequate payoff for time invested.

Whatever the outcome, there’s no point berating our past selves. You had to spend that time somewhere, and you picked the best option you could see at the time.

There’s No “One True Outcome” to Rule Them All

When we look back and evaluate our lives, we will have a whole basket of things to show for how we spent our time. But there’s no “right” mixture of outcomes which have to be in that basket.

Was spending 37 years building a beautiful sculpture park the “right” outcome for Harvey Fite? The question doesn’t make sense. He chose where to spend his time and created something beautiful out of it. Any mixture of time spent on family, friends, big projects or smaller projects would still have been just as “right.”

You don’t want to be so determined to spend your time perfectly that you refuse to spend it at all. Just as your past self had to, you can only pick whatever option seems best right now.

Choosing NOT to spend your time isn’t an option, so you may as well spend your time on something (or some things) that feel right to you now.

Trading Time

Perhaps I’m particularly dense… but this lesson about time is one I have learned and re-learned many times. I often listen to this song by Jeffrey Lewis, which reminds me that my time is guaranteed to pass no matter what I do, and I might as well try and have something to show for it afterwards:

I’m sure I’m not alone in worrying about how I’m spending my time. Let me know your story in the comments!

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I’m Anxious – What Do I Do Now? http://www.walkingoncustard.com/im-anxious-what-do-i-do-now/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/im-anxious-what-do-i-do-now/#respond Sat, 24 Mar 2018 10:41:56 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2813 Quite often, I get asked “what should someone do after they realise they’re anxious?”

There’s no definitive answer to that question – every person and every situation is different, so it’s impossible to give one-size-fits-all advice.

But there are a few ideas which might help someone figure out the next step for them…

First, …

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Confusion by QuinnDombrowski, on Flickr

Original Photo © Quinn Dombrowski, QuinnDombrowski on Flickr.
CC BY-SA 2.0

Quite often, I get asked “what should someone do after they realise they’re anxious?”

There’s no definitive answer to that question – every person and every situation is different, so it’s impossible to give one-size-fits-all advice.

But there are a few ideas which might help someone figure out the next step for them…

First, it might be worth acknowledging that simply recognising anxiety is the problem is a big step. It took me years of constant anxiety before I realised a) that wasn’t normal and b) there were things I could do about it. Even admitting the problem exists can be a relief!

After that, though, things can get very confusing. I was drowning in advice and options and strategies.

(Admittedly, this is better than drowning in anxiety itself, but when you’re already exhausted from being constantly anxious, it’s hard to make decisions even about what steps to take to make it better.)

If you’re in a similarly confused state, here are some potential avenues to explore.

Although! Please remember that these ideas may or may not work for you, and that that’s fine.

It just means that isn’t the right idea for you! It’s easy to jump into catastrophic thinking like “OH GOD THIS SOLUTION EVERYONE SAYS HELPS DIDN’T HELP ME; I’M A HOPELESS CASE; I’LL BE ANXIOUS FOREVER”. After all, that kind of thinking is what the anxious brain is really, really good at..!

1) Accept the Anxiety

In my experience, fighting anxiety only feeds it further. Thinking thoughts like “I hate anxiety! I wish I wasn’t anxious! Anxiety go away!” only magnifies it.

It feels wrong, but forcing myself to think things like “oh, hello anxiety, I’m totally relaxed about you being here again” is very helpful for massively reducing my anxiety. And this frees up energy to take other steps.

(I wrote a fairly silly post a few years ago which explores this dynamic a little more.)

2) Believe you can do something about it

One of my least favourite anxious feelings is the fear that terror will never go away, that I’m condemned to feel constantly afraid forever. But I no longer believe that is true.

It may (will?) require help – and the feelings may only be reduced, not eliminated – but hold onto the hope that you will not feel this way forever: feeling better is possible.

3) Acknowledge it’ll require some change

Clearly, continuing exactly how you are won’t help.

Something has to change; whether its some habitual negative thoughts, your environment, your internal chemistry, or whatever.

And any change requires at least a little effort.

This effort doesn’t have to be scary. It might be good to start with tiny, achievable changes – like taking a walk, or drinking some water, or breathing slowly for literally five seconds every now and then.

These tiny changes might just break the anxious cycle of ruminating on whatever your anxiety is currently fixating on, and from a slightly more relaxed position, a slightly bigger change might appear more achievable.

4) Find help

This is the big, obvious one. (This perhaps ought to be step #1, but I wanted to focus first on a few little things you can do yourself.)

It can be scary to talk to somebody else about anxiety for the first time. But, in my experience, people tend to react overwhelmingly positively to genuine requests for support.

(Of course, it helps if you’re already friends with the person and not, say, talking to a supermarket cashier at the time. Judge for yourself where is a sensible place to look for support!)

Whether it’s your friends, family, peers, colleagues, school pastoral support, a group you’re part of, a local charity, a therapist, a doctor, an online community, or anything else, it’s really helpful to find a place where you can be supported.

Of course it’s possible to achieve a lot on your own – there are tonnes of resources, blog posts, books, self-care ideas out there – but remember that working on anxiety isn’t a straight line from “ANXIOUS” to “NOT-ANXIOUS”, so it’s incredibly useful to have somebody you can vent to whenever you inevitably dip back down into “ANXIOUS”.

5) Don’t worry when anxiety comes back

Okay, saying “don’t worry” is admittedly a bit ridiculous. If I could just ‘not worry’, then most of my problems would already be solved!

But you know what I mean! Accept in advance that you can’t just flip a switch and fix everything.

There will be days when you feel better, and days when you feel worse.

The aim is to move towards having more of the good days, and fewer of the bad – but having a bad day isn’t a reason to freak out. It doesn’t mean all is lost, it doesn’t mean all your effort was for nothing, it simply is what it is: a bad day.

6) Perhaps choose a single improvement and work on it for a short time

It’s great that you have so many options for changing things, any of which might help with your anxiety! But it can also be overwhelming.

Should you aim for more sleep? A better diet? More exercise? Therapy? Meditation? Undoing a common thought pattern which gets you stuck in an anxious cycle?

Even listing all the possibilities can be anxiety inducing!

Try to recognise that you have limited resources right now (this is one of the sneaky ways anxiety traps you – it sucks up your resources so you can’t fix the thing that is sucking up your resources!), and resist the temptation to declare “I am changing my entire life and will live well FOREVER!”

Instead, perhaps choose a gentle, achievable commitment like “for the next couple of days I’m going to eat more vegetables”. Or take a quiet walk for ten minutes. Or notice when I’m stuck in an anxious loop. Or whatever.

Your brain might object, with something like “eating more vegetables won’t solve our problems!” And if so, your brain is correct! This isn’t supposed to solve all your problems. It’s merely supposed to help.

Thinking that any one thing CAN solve all your problems might even be part of the problem in the first place! We can obsess over finding the one thing that will fix everything, and just give ourselves new sticks to beat ourselves with.

(“I failed at my million self-improvements today, I’m terrible and deserve to be anxious forever” is an anxious trap I’m very familiar with)

Over time, lots of tiny helpful actions add up to increased energy and decreased anxiety. None of them individually solves anything much, but together they help us to feel better.

7) If you can, use the good days to work on the roots of the problem

When you have a good day, it’s tempting to stop putting effort into self-improvement (or whatever you want to call it).

Unfortunately, this can just lead to a cycle – feeling bad, so taking actions to feel better; feeling better, so stopping; then feeling bad again.

In the better times, it seems wise to spend some energy on deeper analysis – where did the anxiety come from in the first place? What’s the deep root of it?

This is hard work, and may well require assistance from friends or, ideally, professionals. But it’s this foundational work which leads to a more resilient life, and keeps us off the custard for longer.


I hope these thoughts might be helpful. This post isn’t exhaustive, or universal – some of it may work for you, some may not, and I’m absolutely sure there are plenty of aspects I’ve not touched upon.

But hopefully this can help you find a starting point when you’re confused.

If you have other tips for someone just figuring out how to begin tackling anxiety, then please share them in the comments!


No unachievable ambitions were harmed during the production of this post.

Don’t forget to watch the custard-based TED talk, if you haven’t already! (And if you have, why not tell your friends about it?!)

Or check out the Book for Anxious Humans, which explores anxiety and happiness through embarrassing real-life stories, fantasy fiction, thought-provoking discussion and terribly-drawn doodles.

Like us on Facebook, for more thoughts on happiness.

Read the whole series on Anxiety here.

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The Examined Life Is Not Worth Living http://www.walkingoncustard.com/examined-life-not-worth-living/ Fri, 23 Feb 2018 14:13:40 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2820 “The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates

THOUGHT: The over-examined life isn’t exactly worth living, either.

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“The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates

THOUGHT: The over-examined life isn’t exactly worth living, either.

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What Am I Doing?! http://www.walkingoncustard.com/what-am-i-doing/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/what-am-i-doing/#comments Thu, 25 Jan 2018 11:47:41 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2742 I rarely talk about my actual life on this site. So today, an update.

In short, it’s fine.

But, in long, there are two big projects to update you on:

Another Book – And This One’s a Novel

I wrote another book!

This one is an adventure set in the pre-life (a world …

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I rarely talk about my actual life on this site. So today, an update.

In short, it’s fine.

But, in long, there are two big projects to update you on:

Another Book – And This One’s a Novel

I wrote another book!

This one is an adventure set in the pre-life (a world like the afterlife, but before we’re born), all about the magical shop where humans choose what kind of person to be when they get born down on Earth.

Readers of Walking on Custard will recognise The Shop Before Life from the very brief short story… but it turns out there’s a whole world around the Shop to explore, full of mysteries to discover, and questions about life & death, and who we are, and who we become.

So far, the feedback has been absolutely lovely.

(If I may permit some mild showing off, one early reader said “I want to make fan art of it. it’s in my heart now.” – how gorgeous is that?!)

Im very excited for you all to read it, so stay tuned for more soon!

I’m Also Still Speaking

Of course, I literally speak with my mouth pretty much every day, but what I mean is that I’m still giving talks at interesting places.

For a while I’ve been meaning to share some pictures from a fun talk I gave at the EBRD HQ in London. It was a great day, with a delightful audience and some fantastic conversation around anxiety and managing our emotions.

As usual, every photo had me pulling a silly face, unnatural gesture, or often, both:

This is a POWERFUL GESTURE

And I’ve really enjoyed giving talks in schools, too – with many more to come in 2018.

If you would like someone to speak with humour about anxiety, mental health and happiness at your school, business, university, conference, etc, then please get in touch!

That’s The Main Bits

I am also toying with whatever the next big project will be now that The Shop Before Life is approaching the final stages.

But that will have to wait for another day.

Whatever you’re up to, do feel free to say hello – and I hope your life is going well too 🙂

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Not Reviewing the Year – 2017 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/not-reviewing-year-2017/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/not-reviewing-year-2017/#respond Tue, 02 Jan 2018 15:02:42 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2795 Last year my main achievement was writing a novel (which hopefully you’ll all get to read sooner than later!), but otherwise I’m not even sure where 2017 went.

I feel like my life has been fairly static for a long time now, and while that’s no bad thing, it feels like I need to shake …

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Last year my main achievement was writing a novel (which hopefully you’ll all get to read sooner than later!), but otherwise I’m not even sure where 2017 went.

I feel like my life has been fairly static for a long time now, and while that’s no bad thing, it feels like I need to shake things up.

I’m just not sure how, exactly… so I’m going to take time in January to chew over where I’m at and where I’d like to be.

Anyway, in the meantime, I wanted to share with you this post about my ‘Awards’ system for reviewing the year which just got published at Puttylike.

You might find it fun or interesting to try it yourself (and if you do, I’d love to hear how it works for you!)

Talk soon, once I’ve done some thinking 🙂

The Awards – A Super Fun and Insightful Way to Review Your Year

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A Jar of Human Traits! http://www.walkingoncustard.com/jar-human-traits/ Tue, 19 Dec 2017 12:46:23 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2798 The post A Jar of Human Traits! appeared first on Walking on Custard and the Meaning of Life.

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There’s a proper update coming soon but someone made me this and I couldn’t resist giving you a sneak peek!

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the battery level doesn’t help either :D http://www.walkingoncustard.com/battery-level-doesnt-help/ Mon, 04 Dec 2017 14:49:51 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2791

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Being an Adult Child (in a Good Way) http://www.walkingoncustard.com/adult-child/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/adult-child/#comments Fri, 17 Nov 2017 08:10:45 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2743 [This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

I never really grew out of childishness.

It’s just so fun. Children get to be curious, silly, and playful. And there’s something delightfully mindful about the capacity they have to get absorbed in an activity for hours on end.

Naturally, we can’t remain entirely childlike forever, …

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[This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

I never really grew out of childishness.

It’s just so fun. Children get to be curious, silly, and playful. And there’s something delightfully mindful about the capacity they have to get absorbed in an activity for hours on end.

Naturally, we can’t remain entirely childlike forever, but I’ve been thinking lately about which parts of childishness we might benefit from, even now we’re Definitely Responsible Adults. (Which I am.) (Honest.)

Growing Out of Wonder

What strikes me when I think back to my own childhood is a powerful sense of wonder. The world seemed massive, too big to even begin to grasp. Everything seemed possible. To a child, magic and electricity and dragons and computers are all equally likely.

But unfortunately, I grew up, and that sense of wonder faded as I learned what is actually real, and what isn’t.

Once you develop an accurate model of the world, wonder necessarily fades. New facts no longer create whole new categories in your mind—they’re just details. Learning about Viking sea burials is cool… but it’s less exciting than discovering that Vikings existed in the first place.

That feeling of discovering a whole new category is still one of my favourites. That moment of “wait, that’s a thing?!” is the closest I come to that childish feeling of constant wonder.

Believing You Know Everything

Of course it’s necessary to develop a more accurate model of the world. But, as well as decreasing the sense of wonder, it brings some other traps. For example, like many teenagers and young adults, I fell into the common trap of thinking I knew everything.

With hindsight, it’s obvious why that trap is so tempting. We grow up from total helplessness and dependence to being able to—pretty much—look after ourselves. Of course that makes us feel more confident: we’re finally getting a grip on how this world works! As kids our minds were blown by a light switch, but now we’re mature teenagers, we’ve pretty much got everything sorted…right?

On top of that natural confidence in our growing abilities, there’s a huge social pressure to signal that we’ve grown out of our weak, dependent childish stage. It becomes very tempting to act like we know everything to signal confidence. (And from there, it’s easy to start to believe our own hype.)

But, luckily, I learned an important lesson: we don’t actually know everything.

More than that: and we never will.

And even more still: and that’s okay!

These turn out to be fun lessons, because they re-open us to the possibility of childish openness. There’s loads more to learn, and that’s exciting!

Childishness as an Adult

Thinking about childishness has made me more determined to keep embracing that natural childish curiosity.

It’s easy to forget that I don’t know as much as I think I do. There’s a constant temptation to be dismissive of new knowledge, to assume that what we don’t already know isn’t worth knowing.

But, to state the obvious, we don’t know what we don’t know. Dismissing everything we don’t already know freezes us into position—often positions we formed, ironically, as children.

The worst combination is a child’s understanding of the world with an adult’s unwillingness to learn… but that’s an easy combination to accidentally fall into.

Ideally, I think we should aspire to be the other way around: a child’s willingness to learn, informing an adult’s (growing) understanding.

Rediscovering these positive aspects of the childish state isn’t about the trappings of childhood – the clothes, the toys, the silliness, or the self-centeredness. It’s about embracing a childish attitude – being open, curious and, above all, believing that there’s always more to learn.

And this attitude remains within us, if we want it.

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