Sunday, September 2, 2018

Four Things I Wish I Had Learned in School

When I was a kid I was good at school. That turned out to be way less important than I thought it would be. The basic school skills of memorization, arithmetic, and essay writing are fine things to develop. But this narrow range of training omitted many important skills that I would need in life. And worse, this curriculum left me squarely in middle of my comfort zone for 13 years, so I never had to develop the meta-skills of skill acquisition. I was cocky and complacent.

When I hit the adult world, the adult world hit back. I was terribly unprepared to navigate its complexity. I found myself needing to develop, on the fly, a different skill-set from the one I had been taught. I needed to work on sensing opportunities, communicating my desires, detecting and removing fantasy from my world-model, attention management, making friends, letting go of resentment, and effective problem selection.

11 years navigating the turbulent currents of independent adult life is long enough that I’ve started piecing together some of the skills I need to survive and thrive. Along the way, I’ve found some specific practices that make life easier and better. When I run into one of these, I have the thought “I wish someone told me about this earlier!”.

To save you from the same trouble, I’m going to tell you about them now.

1. Improv

Image result for impro book

Practicing improvisational acting puts you into relationship with your subconscious genius. Your conscious mind learns that there is another entity sharing the head, or many. You learn the subconscious self’s habits and desires, and you learn how to harness its creative power for your own purposes.

The tao of improv is the experience of effortless creativity. When you are in the flow, you surprise even yourself by saying and doing things you didn’t know you knew how to do.

The greater tao of improv is flowing with others, effortless creativity in community. You learn how to trust and give and receive.

Improv in front of an audience is terrifying. There is no way to completely prepare. You must learn to accept failure, and to focus on the process. Are you flowing, permeable yet present, receiving and giving? That’s the thing you can control. There is so much else that you can’t control, including the audience’s mood and reaction.

I started learning about improv from a book, Impro: Improvisation and the Art of the Theatre by Keith Johnstone. I found the writing provocative, and then I just had to try some of the exercises with my romantic partner at the time. It’s a great place to start.

I found that the skills of improv bled over into other areas of my life. Having had the experience of telling improv fictional stories, I found it much easier to present in front of an audience for business reasons. I grew to trust in that my subconscious mind could come up with appropriate words for the situation, as long as I know the material.

I also have the confidence that I can teach anything I know. Lecturing is not so different from telling an improv story, and add in some hands-on pedagogy and you have an effective workshop.

Improv is a fantastic personal growth practice. But it is also very fun and worth doing for its own sake. One of my catchphrases is, “Improv is the most fun you can legally have as an adult”.

2. Power Lifting

There’s a motivational poster on the wall of my lifting gym that says, “the old that is strong does not whither”. That’s what I want for myself. As I’ve gotten older, I find myself plagued by little injuries here and there. Had I been stronger, some of those injuries could have been prevented. And I believe that getting stronger now will help prevent injuries in the future.

When I’m 80, I want to be like those old guys on youtube with the coke-bottle glasses that can still deadlift and squat a few hundred pounds. I want to bench-press my grandkids.

Lifting heavy things improperly is a major cause of injuries in life and at work. Powerlifting not only strengthens your muscles, joints, tendons, and bones, but will teach you the theory and practice of how to lift things without injury.

Now, powerlifting can also cause injury, especially if you dive in recklessly without proper training and theory. I’m paying for supervised small-group classes where a coach watches me lift and corrects my form. Not everybody has that available.

Starting Strength is a classic manual for getting started on strength training. If you start with that book and a buddy and post videos of your lifts to reddit for form review, that’s a way to get started on a budget.

Lifting makes me feel great. It feels good to be strong. It must generate endorphins or something. It takes away stress and brightens my mood. As someone who tends towards depression, that’s very important that I stay physically active.

I started powerlifting because I hoped that deadlifts would rehab a lower back injury that is keeping me out of Jiu Jitsu class. As I’ve done it, I’ve fallen in love with lifting for its own sake. I fantasize about my next lifting day. And when I get back to Jiu Jitsu, not only will it keep my back safe, but I’m going to be a stronger and more dangerous competitor.

Finally, the constant feeling of progress that lifting provides is a good backbone to my life. It is gamified by default, and there’s nothing like hitting new personal best lifts and new milestones. If I’m struggling in other parts of my life, seeing the weights move up give me comfort and motivation.

3. Authentic Relating/ Intentional Relating
Image result for authentic relating

Probably the single area where my life is going the best is in relationship. I am rich in friendship and connection.

This hasn’t always been the case. I used to struggle to connect to people. I grew up socially isolated and I was a stereotypical nerd.

I credit the practice of intentional relating with the biggest piece of that change. Intentional or authentic relating is an umbrella term that encompasses a family of practices including eye contact, asking deepening questions, noticing and communicating emotions, and reciprocal vulnerability.

Intentional relating is mindfulness applied to relationship. It creates a safe container to practice talking about real emotion that might normally feel too embarrassing. It also provides a great container for practicing healthy conflict.

The main effects this practice has had on me less is to make me less afraid of people and make me like other people more. It’s hard to overstate how important that is. It’s qualitatively changed my experience of life. I get what I want more than I used to. I turned from an introvert to an extrovert. My social life is great. Because I like people more, I like myself more.

The world is full of people, so the more comfortable you are with people the better your life will be. For a long time, I didn’t realize this was a thing I could practice and learn.

Here’s a list of relating methodologies I have practiced. Some of these might be more accessible to you where you live than others.

  • Intentional questions, such as the 36 questions to fall in love, or conversation card decks you can buy on Amazon
  • Circling is my current favorite thing. I practice with the Circling Institute which runs classes in the San Francisco Bay Area and Asheville, NC. There are other circling groups throughout the world with their own take on the practice.
  • T-Group is a practice made famous by the Stanford Business School. It involves sitting with a leaderless small group of people and experimenting with interacting with each other. Focused is kept on the present-moment emotions and desires of the participants. There’s often some conceptual curriculum before a session, such as Nonviolent Communication (NVC) which is a useful methodology for becoming mindful of your inner emotional landscape. There’s a group that meets in Berkeley that is NVC-heavy.
  • I took a year-long peer-counseling program heavily influenced by humanist psychology. Learning to hold space for others is a very good way to turbo-boost your EQ growth.
  • Compassion meditation or praying for people, depending on which spiritual tradition you prefer
  • There are a bunch of neat intentional relating games out there. Sometimes they go under the brand name of “Relating Games”.
  • The books “Nonviolent Communication” and “Radical Honesty” are good places to start if you don’t have access to training courses where you live. Practice some of the techniques with friends. Note: take Radical Honesty slowly. The book can push you to go too far, too fast.
I think everyone who works with people, which is almost everybody, would benefit tremendously from this curriculum. I wish hands-on training was available in more locations.

On a practical level, I’m available to lead intentional relating games and workshops for your group, and I can refer other people who can also do so.

4. Meditation
Image result for meditation

I almost didn’t include this on the list because of my perception that this piece of advice would be too popular. You’ve probably heard people telling you to meditate before. It can feel like a chore. And I am no expert meditator. There are many levels to it beyond where I’ve gone.

However, the exploration of meditation carries with it a philosophical payload that is invaluable. The most important for me is the difference between conception and perception. Concepts are the mental models of our mind. Perception is what comes in through the senses, what is actually happening.

The perceptual world is more peaceful and stable than our conceptual world. It is a haven. When my mind is turbulent and out of control, I can touch in with the world of my senses. My mind might be thinking something like “my life is over!”, but in the world of my senses the sun is shining, the wind is blowing, my breath is rising and falling. Much of the distress I experience is due to my mind ruminating over concepts and my perceived place in social hierarchies, and not due to my actual experience.

Once you’ve developed the meditative practice of mindfulness, of “seeing what is really there”, it can be applied to many different activities: art, dancing, relating. Mindfulness is like salt. It can season almost any dish.

Another thing that meditation gives me is awareness of my mental and emotional state. When I sit down to meditate, I can tell if I am agitated or calm, distracted or focused. I get used to noticing my mental state and I target calmer, more peaceful mental states as a life goal, like other people might target weight loss.

There are probably other reasons to meditate. As I said, I am no expert on the topic. But the habits of mind I have developed from the time I have spent meditating are invaluable.


If I take a moment to fantasize about going to school that includes improv, powerlifting, authentic relating, and meditation, that sounds awesome. I think younger me would have enjoyed that and been challenged by it. What about you? What practices have served you best to navigate life? What do you wish you had learned years ago? Leave a comment.