Reflecting

Better Humaning

Overthinking Everything So You Don’t Have To

A how-to listicle for aspiring overthinkers

I have a confession to make: I’m an Overthinker.

I think I’ve always been this way, but my condition has worsened with age. And my chosen profession didn’t help.

I overthink as a matter of work, often. And I always overthink my work. Not just the things I make themselves, but how to describe what I do, and what unites it all.

Lately, I’ve come to think that the best way to describe my job is “overthinking everything so you don’t have to.” That’s no surprise, I’m sure, if you’ve popped around this site, or read my books, or seen anything else I’ve made.

But, ironically, I’m also driven, fundamentally, to empower people to not need me, via my work. I always endeavor to remove myself from the picture. Making myself irrelevant is one of my primary goals in everything I make, and it’s often the question that leads to the improvements or further work: “How can I create something that is freely available to prevent a person from needing to hire me to do it?”

That’s why, for example, I released my copyright on my work back in 2013: I didn’t want people to have to keep asking me to use it, license it, or reprint it. I removed myself from the middle.

So this creates a bit of a conundrum. No surprise: me finding a conundrum. That’s Overthinking 101.

Recently, I’ve been [over-]thinking about that conundrum a lot. And I’ve felt a growing urge to reconcile it, which brings us here. To the how-to I never suspected I would write: A list of ways that I overthink everything, for those of you who want to DIY (OIY?).

Following is the process I generally follow as I overthink everything in my life and work.

I apply it to everything I create, to the social justice and human rights advocacy I engage in, to how I organize and operate on a “business” level, and even to how I do things in my “personal” life (relationships, puppy training, cooking, etc.).

This is the not-so-secret sauce.

But I suggest you proceed with caution. Overthinking is addictive. I wonder why that is.

Continue reading → “Overthinking Everything So You Don’t Have To”
Updates

2016, A Brief Review of Creativity

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” - Bill Gates

2016 was, well, quite the year.

All in all, I side with what appears to be the consensus that it was, if given only one descriptor, a dumpster fire. That said, it was also more than a dumpster fire, and I want to take a moment to reflect on some of the things I made this year — something I basically never do.

So, with that said, following is what I finished, published, and/or created in 2016.

Continue reading → “2016, A Brief Review of Creativity”
Updates

I’m Publishing A Book

And then it sunk in: I get to publish an amazing book. I get to share this with you.

I’m writing from a rooftop in Austin, taking a break from my break — which was part Naomi Klein and part Real Ale — to share a reflection that just sunk in: I’m about to publish my first book, and I couldn’t be more excited.

Now, to be clear: this isn’t me publishing the first book I wrote (that happened a couple years ago, and still hasn’t sunk in); this is me, under the auspices of Impetus Books, publishing my first book someone else wrote (in this case, I’m glowingly happy to say that someone else is Karen Rayne).

Continue reading → “I’m Publishing A Book”
Updates

What I Miss About Grad School

And what I'd do differently if I could try again.

Earlier tonight, my friend texted me “I’m over this whole constantly chasing the homework train business.”

She was talking about grad school, and sharing a sentiment I shared back when I was earning my master’s. But, a bit to my surprise, I replied, “I miss grad school. Not to be dismissive of the woes — at all — but I just really miss that feeling. It’s different. I liked it.”

I’ve been moving so fast in the years since, I don’t spend much time reflecting on those two [intense] years. But there’s a lot to it that I hadn’t named. Our conversation continued from there, and I feel compelled to share what was bobbing around in my brain.

Grad School: The Circus

I often refer to my current life as a circus, with my manager being the ring leader and me the juggler, dancing bear, and tightrope walker. But the circus really began in grad school, and I don’t say that with even the slightest amount of remorse.

In grad school, you’re in a circus with a safety net. You’re walking a tightrope, and you’re constantly pushed outside your comfort zone, encouraged to challenge your assumptions, predispositions, and attitudes toward concepts you may’ve held firmly to your entire life, but when you falter, there are folks there to steady your step. There are professors, advisors, supervisors, and cohortmates who are there to catch you when you fall.

In grad school, you can fall and get back up — and there is a network of people there to help you do so. You get your bruises or encouragement, dust yourself off, and get back on the rope. Or don’t. You choose.

Now I’m in a different circus — not necessarily a competing one, but a different one. A traveling circus. And it’s not that any of the folks who made up my safety net in grad school would want to see me fall, but I don’t want to impose, because I know how many tightrope walkers they have in their caretaking, relying on that net.

I miss that safety net.

Grad School: If Time Machines Were a Thing

I won’t say “I’d do it all differently” because I wouldn’t. I’d do most of it the same, or similar. I appreciate my time in grad school, and cherish the relationships and influences folks had on me during that period of my life. But there are a few things I’d approach differently:

  • Embrace the safety net, be more daring on the tightrope, and fail often. Grad school, and school in general, is a time where your primary, if not sole, purpose is to learn. There are few better ways to learn than by trying and failing. And there are few safer places to fail than in school.
  • Ask for help more; it’s an invaluable, ephemeral resource. In school, you’re in a social contract with a whole network of people (profs, advisors, supervisors, cohortmates) who are dedicated, willing, and able to help you. That’s not a thing outside of higher ed, at least not in my neck of the woods. It’s not that I didn’t ask for help when I needed it; it’s that I would ask for help when I didn’t, because I could have used it, even if I didn’t realize.
  • Remind myself constantly that I’m a student, not a professional. You’re in this brackish space, practicing what you’re learning (as GAs and RAs) while learning it. It’s important to not shirk responsibilities, but it’s also important not to overcompensate for experience you don’t have. You may be a paraprofessional, but you’re a suprastudent: you’re not just expected to learn, but to learn enough to be able to teach.

I love my traveling circus. I take risks — probably too many — but walk my tightrope with intentional, sure steps. I know that if I fall, I fall. There’s nothing there to catch me. That’s how things are now, but that’s not how they were. I wish I’d realized that then, danced along my rope instead of tip-toeing, focused less on making it to the other side and spent more time falling.

Updates

I’m Not Going To Teach You Anything New

I'm just going to help you rearrange the knowledge you already have.

That’s something one of my professors in grad school would lead off with in the first class of the semester. The class was about the effect of environments on people’s ability to learn, develop, and grow. After sixteen weeks, hours of discussion, papers, and reading an entire textbook, he was right. Years later, it’s funny how much I find myself thinking the same thing as I approach my work.

So much of what I do — and what other folks who do work like mine do — is helping people rearrange the things they’ve already learned about themselves, their gender and sexuality, identity, and society. People have experienced the phenomena, they just don’t have names for them, or understand how they interlock or overlap.

It’s the difference between a personal shopper and a personal organizer. Instead of taking you to fancy stores to buy new fancy things, we spend a couple hours in your closet making sense of what you already have. Maybe you need a new pair of shoes, or a scarf to go with your favorite sweater, and I can help you with that, but for the most part I’m here to help you organize what you already have.

One of the challenges is finding ways to prevent people from recluttering everything as soon as you step away. While we’re chatting, the Platinum Rule might seem like a great idea, and everyone is all “heck yeah Imma do that.” Then two weeks later, they’re in some fight with some person and they think “that would have never pissed me off” and keep hammering away Golden-Rule style, mucking up their closet.

You can lead a fish to water, but you can’t make him eat a horse, ya know?

The other challenge is reassuring people that what they have in their closet is good enough. Gender, sexuality, identity, life — these are complicated ideas, and complicated ideas require complicated explanations utilizing complicated concepts, don’t they? Sometimes. But sometimes they don’t. And when someone already has all the tools to understand an idea but thinks they are missing something, it’s tough to convince them otherwise. And it’s tougher still to help them over the discomfort and fear of realizing how incompletely/incorrectly/disorganizedly they were viewing things their entire life up until that point. Sometimes it’s easier to to just say, “nope, not possible, don’t get it, let’s move on.”

Sometimes you bite off too much of a bitter pill to chew it, ya heard?

But the fun part of unteaching is seeing when it clicks. When a person, or group of people, realize something big, and realize that they’ve kinda known it all along. And knowing that it’s not going away. That part of their life is organized now.

Updates

Scrapping and Starting Fresh: The Hawthorne Effect

“When a poet digs himself into a hole, he doesn't climb out. He digs deeper, enjoys the scenery, and comes out the other side enlightened.” - Criss Jami

A couple months ago I ventured into the land of the podcast. A couple weeks ago I roped my friend Ian in and “Thought of the Week” became “The Hawthorne Effect.” The whole thing has been a huge learning process. After doing a number of different podcast approaches by myself, and trying a few different things out with Ian, he and I sat down tonight to reflect on what we think has worked, what hasn’t, and set a clear plan for what we’ll do in the future. I’m really excited with what we came up with.

Starting next week, I’m confident that folks who have been listening to the experiment that has been the podcast will notice a huge shift (in a positive direction) in the feel and product. While we won’t know if that’s true until next week, this reflects the way that I try to approach most new projects: experiment a bunch, reflect, synthesize, retool, then focus in.

With my writing for It’s Pronounced Metrosexual, I followed this approach. My first few things I posted were all over the place, and I had no idea what would resonate with people, and I didn’t really think too much about it. I just did a bunch of different things, really focusing on exploring the possibilities and less on doing what was “right” or “good.” After a couple months, I looked back at what was effective (shared the most, generated the most discussion, etc.) and for the past couple of years I’ve kept my focus on producing content based on those first few successful themes (e.g., the “privilege lists” on the site).

I like this approach. It works well for me. I’m going to try to do apply it to more parts of my life.

Updates

Why I’ve Never Been a Fan of “Self Help” Books

“I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, 'Where's the self-help section?' She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.” - George Carlin

I’ve only ever read one, maybe two, “self help” books (depending on how strict your definition is). Not for me. And I wouldn’t want to foist them on anyone else. Might seem odd, considering what I write here. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been so reluctant to write about the things I write about here: because I don’t like the idea of “self help” coming from another person.

I haven’t read all the books, so I’m making a lot of broad generalizations, and might have a bit of prejudice I need to unpack, but when I talk to people who are huge “self help” book fans, there are a few things that stick out to me as less than savory: there’s too much money involved, it promotes idolatry, and it fosters codependent support.

The money thing is obvious. It’s hard to differentiate the big “self help” pioneers from any other mogul: they’ve tapped into a market and done an amazing job making the dollars keep flowing. Some folks charge upwards of $40K – $60K for a talk. That’s a lot of money. I’m never one to question someone’s motivations, but if your goal was to help other people help themselves, a few dollars to a need person might be more meaningful than a book. And when their followers find out about the wild amounts of money some of these folks make, instead of thinking “what the eff?!” they think “I could be like that,” which brings me to idolatry.

The self help enterprise isn’t focused around making people’s lives better, it’s focused around the people who make others’ lives better. Fans of self-help moguls follow their every teaching and celebrate their work to an extent bordering on idolatry. Believing one person is worthy of worship, while that person is telling you that you’re great, will likely lead to at least a bit of cognitive dissonance. And when there isn’t dissonance, and when someone fully accepts that contraction, we have the beginnings of a codependent relationship.

Codependence is a dangerous concept because it’s so close to interdependence, something that’s super duper healthy and an important thing to find for yourself. Codependence crops up when you have a person who thinks they need another person in order to be happy, or that another person is responsible for their happiness. That’s not good. You need to know how to make you happy.

So what am I writing here, if not a “self help” e-book in blog form?

For a long time I’ve been a fan of zen buddhist teachings. I was initially turned onto buddhism many many years ago. I read the stories, learned about the noble eightfold path, and thought “Awesome! Imma do this stuff.” And I did. Actually, I didn’t. I thought I did, but I really didn’t. It took many years before any of it actually clicked. It started clicking when I spent more time meditating, allowing myself to experience myself, writing, and having intentional, meaningful conversations with other people. That’s the best “self help” I could ever recommend, but that’s easier said than done.

A lot of what I’m doing here is trying to explore how all of that happened, and how I’ve ended up where I am right now, with the thoughts and lens I have. I’m trying to tease it all out, simplify it, drill down to the important bits, and I will hopefully be left with a more clear understanding for myself, but also something I can share with you.

A thought a day from me to you as you continue down your road, hoping that it helps point you where you want to go. And, if I’m lucky, you’ll return the gesture to me, to help me as I continue down my road.

Better Humaning

The Three Rs of Saw Sharpening

"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." - Abraham Lincoln

As I mentioned a couple days ago, I’ve got a bit of a break before I head back on the road for my next gig. This is important time for me, because it’s the time that I set aside every year to sharpen my saw. Saw sharpening is an important part of life, which is why it’s the theme of one of my favorite zen stories. But what is it? Here are the three Rs of Saw Sharpening:

Relaxation: designating a block of time as a break from whatever you normally do. This doesn’t need to be on a beach, or even time spent resting, it just needs to be a time you’re able to relax the part of your self (brain, bod, whatev) that you normally work.

Reflection: using this time to meaningfully reflect on your past. It’s easy to relax and completely tune out of life, and that’s nice sometimes, but that’s not going to sharpen any saws. It’s also easy to keep working and doing and progressing and never look back. This is your time to look back.

Readjusting: making small changes to the way you approach your life and work. This doesn’t have to be (nor should it be) an overhaul. While you’re reflecting, you’ll likely think of a few things you can tweak that will make for a more fruitful future. Fruit is good. Tweak for fruit.

I like to do minor saw sharpening throughout the day or week, but I’ve found that the most effective way for me to be me is to set aside a big chunk of time every so often to do some serious saw sharpening. I guess I have a hard, durable saw, so it takes a while to dull, but once it’s dull it takes a while to get it back to its razor sharp glory (like one of those knives you can cut a soup can then a tomato with).

Depending on what your life is like, or how you operate, your sharpening schedule will vary. But unless your saw is made of Adamantium, it’s gonna need some love. It might just be 10 minutes of time you set aside, but you might need ten days (I need ten days). Here are some things to look out for that might be a cue it’s time for some R & R & R:

  • You hear yourself saying “why is everything broken?” more than you usually say it, which hopefully isn’t that often
  • You’re losing sleep (because you can’t keep your mind off your work, not because fun)
  • It’s taking you an hour to do something that would normally take you ten minutes
  • You feel like there’s a big invisible wall between you and what you’re trying to do and you keep smashing your face against it
  • Your coworkers keep saying “somebody’s got a case of the Mondays”
  • You are more easily distracted than usual (e.g., you actually went to buzz feed.com, like, the homepage, not a link from Facebook)
  • It’s Wednesday

Now I’m off to continue my Saw Sharpening Saturday, which is day one of I-have-no-idea-how-many-I’ll-need days of serious sharpening. Let me know if you have any tips to get back into soup can then tomato cutting shape.

 

Updates

The Most Wild Year of My Life Ended in One Moment

“For last year's words belong to last year's language. And next year's words await another voice.” - T.S. Eliot

Earlier tonight I gave the opening keynote for the Nat’l Sex Ed Conference. It was an hour that I’ve spent the last 6 months mulling, refining, trashing, rebuilding, trashing, reconceiving, and then, tonight, finally talking. I’ve never given a talk like that — not even close. And I mean that for more reasons than I can likely make sense here.

This year was wild.

I spent more time on the road this year than ever. I’ve been everywhere. I’m not sure if this is true (because I have a lot of accounting to d0), but I’m pretty sure I spent more money on travel (to do free talks, rep GAB, perform my show, etc.) this year than I made in income last year. But my income was almost exactly the same. So I’ve finally lived some version of this phrase that’s been on IPM since I launched the site and my career: “Sam is committed to sharing this message as much as possible, and would much prefer performing the show at 50 schools a year instead of 15, even at the same wage.” I’ve given away thousands of copies of a freaking book I wrote. I wrote a book. I published a book. And tonight the CFLE sold a bunch at a table to raise funds, then folks wanted me to sign them. Real life. Not a single one would believe me when I said it was my privilege to have the opportunity to meet them. And the TED talk. I can’t believe that was this year.

I haven’t slept in 3 days. I haven’t rested in 12 months. I know it’s only December 11, but I spoke into a microphone for the last time of the year tonight, which is why I’m calling it over. That part of my life is over for 2013.

And it all ended with words I’d never said out loud before, at the end of a talk that was almost entirely things I’d never said on stage, with a crowd standing and applauding. I didn’t even realize it was happening at first. I have a hard time acknowledging applause, so I was staring at the stage. When I looked up, everything came down. I felt 2013, all at once, the entire year, pass through me — or maybe that’s just the sleep deprivation.

I’m not sure I’m ready for 2014. But the good news is I have a couple weeks to prepare myself.