The Propinquity Effect

This weekend, I learned about the propinquity effect, which describes the tendency for relationships to form from the physical or psychological proximity between people or things. For example, you’re more likely to be friends with someone in college if that person lived in your dorm building than if she lived across campus. The more exposure you have to a person or a thing, the more power and influence it has over you.

I learned about the propinquity effect in a lecture series on social media and smartphone use. The speaker described how a central danger with our phones is that at any given moment, our devices are within arms reach. Reach into your pocket to grab your wallet, and what might come out is your iPhone flashing a news notification. The solutions to excessive phone use are simple. Want to cut your phone addiction? Don’t keep it in your pocket. Want less screen time before bed? Leave your phone in another room before you go to sleep. What is near you, influences you.

It made me think about the things that are arms length away from me during the day. If I don’t want it to be my phone, what do I want to have high propinquity? What can I carry with me or place on my desk that would bring inspiration and joy? Maybe a pen and notebook, a photo of a loved one, or a wristband with a message that inspires me. The power my phone has over me is extraordinary. But the propinquity effect can serve me as well. I just need to think through how.

Six Lessons From Pixar’s Soul

1. Cultivating emptiness is how we gain peace. Once on earth, 22 embodied emptiness, a willingness to see the world without a lens. And without a lens, 22 was no longer trapped; everything was beautiful. Joe was trapped by his failures, defined by who he wasn’t, as opposed to who he was. Terry was defined by his need to be right, ultimately manipulated and used by everyone around him. But it’s easy to knock emptiness. It’s not efficient, nor can it guarantee outcomes. Characters like Terry can impose their will on the world, and it often works. But in the long run, emptiness brings peace. Emptiness creates the conditions for connections, purpose, flow, and wonder. Terry and Joe had a hard time connecting because they imposed their lenses onto everyone else. When 22 as Joe remarks to Dez, Joe’s barber, “I can’t believe you never told me about your life before,” Dez responds, “you never asked.” Look at the world with fresh, empty eyes, and the depth of world reveals itself.

2. Our negative self-talk is the most debilitating thing we experience. When 22 is reliving bad memories, previous comments from Joe are warped and replayed to attack them. Someone may say something bad to us once. But if we replay it in our minds 500 more times, who is really hurting us?

3. Life is our presence to it. The lost souls walk the dark sand because they turned inward, missing the life just in front of their eyes. It’s why they look down instead of ahead.

4. Our life purpose is created not destined. It can be anything. From playing the piano, to witnessing a leaf fall. We are the universe observing itself. We assign the purpose. The objects that 22 gathers — the lollipop, the half eaten bagel, the leaf — all seem infinitely important in 22’s hands. But when Joe puts the items on his piano, they lack spark, they’re not special. It’s not the what that matters, it’s the lens we look at it through. We can attain our dreams, but just as Joe saw after finally playing with Dorothea, it’s just another moment. And if we’re not present to that moment, that meaning  fades.

5. We can experience death, rebirth, and redemption right now.

6. Everything is art. Everything we do is art.

My 2021 New Year’s Resolutions

Word of the year: Breathe

Daily Resolutions:

1. Screens off at 11 PM.

2. Freewrite one page.

3. Meditate 10 minutes.

4. Complete one Yoga with Adriene video.

5. Post one writing.

20 Lessons I Learned In 2020

1. Challenging people in the wrong way entrenches their views.

2. I overestimate what I can do in a day and underestimate what I can do in a month. Days are endless, but months fly by.

3. Relationships are like plants. Nourish them and they grow, neglect them and they wither.

4. Storytelling is powerful. When used incorrectly, it is a weapon.

5. Accept every person exactly as they as are, without trying to change them. This is how people change.

6. Living proactively gains, living reactively drains.

7. Character is defined by a) what we do when no one is watching and b) how we treat those with less.

8. If I ask someone why something is done a certain way and the person responds, “well, it’s always been done this way,” then that something is ripe for change.

9. Anger is a fossil fuel. It’s easy to come by, but it doesn’t last, and it creates collateral damage.

10. Helping other people most helps the helper.

11. Love and compassion are far harder than hate and cynicism. Nurture love and compassion because it is fragile. 

12. I need far fewer things than I think. 90% of my possessions are in storage, and I have not thought about them at all.

13. My smartphone uses me and not the other way around.

14. Training my parasympathetic nervous system may be the most important thing I do for my body. 

15. A little exercise every day is better than an intense workout every week.

16. Stream of conscious writing, meditation, yoga, paced breathing, and swimming add time to my 24-hour days.

17. Public education is America’s great equalizer.

18. Humans are far more flexible and resilient than we give ourselves credit for.

19. What I resist, persists.

20. Life is other people.

Books I Read In 2020

I feel like everyone’s “favorite books of 2020” list is just a list of the books that person read in 2020. So I’ll spare you the word “favorite” and go right to the list. Here are the books I finished in 2020, as well as the ones I am still reading. Please don’t be alarmed by the second list. There’s nothing I love more than reading many different books at the same time.

Books I Read In 2020

Awareness by Anthony de Mello – A short book of many two- or three-page chapters, all exploring the importance of accepting every moment of your life, just as it is. I know I’ll return to this book later in life because of the questions it raises. I’ve journaled more about this book than any other I’ve ever read. One memorable quote: “If you have inner peace, you act, but you act as a surgeon and skilled teacher would. But if you swing into action with your own hatred, you’ve compounded the error.”

Loving What Is by Byron Katie – An impactful book to unpack the thought patterns that inhibit us. The book is largely a series of interviews with the author, as she helps people work through her four questions for debilitating thoughts: 1) Is it true, 2) Can you absolutely know it’s true? 3) How do you react and what happens when you believe that thought? and 4) Who would you be without that thought?  This book is the reason why my relationships with family and friends have improved in 2020. One memorable quote: “I realized that I could be right, or I could be free.”

Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holliday – Written simply and crisply, each chapter is a perfect prescription for a more centered and fulfilled mind, body, and soul. One memorable quote: “It’s human being, not human doing for a reason.”

The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court, and the Battle for the American Mind by Justin Driver – A thorough historical and legal account of constitutional law in public education. Professor Driver’s course The Constitution Goes to School was excellent, and I used this book for a course I co-taught on the subject of teaching constitutional law in high schools. The history of public education is a history of America.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – A must-read to understand the cognitive biases that plague human reasoning. A core takeaway is that what we see is all we know. Recognize this bias, catch your impulsive brain in action, and slow down. Deliberate thinking and statistical reasoning are unnatural for a reason, and this book brilliantly explains why and what we should do in response.

Books I’m Reading Now

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Heart Breath Mind by Leah Lagos

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy by Philip Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden

Solitary by Albert Woodfox

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (translation by Stephen Mitchell)

The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When To Quit (And When To Stick) by Seth Godin

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

The Path by Michael Puett

The Path To Power by Robert Caro

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

The Practice by Seth Godin

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke

The Hourglass Method

The iPhone alarm may be the worst noise ever created. The alarm is always louder, more annoying, and harder to turn off than I expect. But I’ve found something that may finally replace it, an item that has brought some joy to my timekeeping: hourglasses.

Most activities that I use timers for have a time limit, but not a time maximum. I use timers to make sure I meditate for 10 minutes, read for 15 minutes, or write for 30 minutes. I don’t care if I do it longer, just that the minimum time is reached. Hourglasses (which come in different time increments) are perfect because they only tell me when I’m done. No sand left, no problem. I can always keep going if I want, just like I do when I play Taboo. There’s something satisfying about turning over a 15-minute hourglass, reading, noticing the sand run out, and getting back to my book without being interrupted. While phone timers and computer clocks distract and break my concentration, going tech-free feels wonderful.

So try the hourglass method. Get glasses with small time increments as you try to build habits, so you can always go longer. And most importantly, please change that iPhone alarm sound.

The Case For Spoilers

I like spoilers. Or at least I don’t dislike when something is spoiled for me. I may be alone in this view, but:

1. A Wikipedia article should never ruin my experience of anything.

2. Knowing what happens allows my mind to focus on the cinematic language, instead of making predictions. Spoilers ground me in what is happening as opposed to projections of a future that may not come true.

3. While I may lose a bit of the shock that comes from a twist, the emotional moments will still hit. It’s not about what happens to Romeo and Juliet, but how it happens. I get emotional during Death of a Salesman, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and Coco even though I know what happens in all of them. The fact that we rewatch anything is evidence that emotions comes from the artistry, not the plot points.

4. Caring about plot outcomes changes the medium into a sport. We may only watch a football team for the fantasy stats or to see if our favorite team won. But applying this viewpoint to movies, TV shows, and books destroys their artistry. There’s a reason why we don’t rewatch NBA regular season games from 1972 and why people still discuss The Godfather nearly 30 years since it premiered. 

5. Movies with twists are often better the second time I watch them, so why not skip that first viewing entirely. Shutter Island and basically every Christopher Nolan movie prove this point. No longer disoriented by what I am seeing, I can focus on the characters, soundtrack, set details, and dialogue. I can focus on what matters.

On Reflection

For my first quarter-century, I filled my days with tasks to do, shows to watch, calls to make. There was little stillness until the evening podcast episode I was listening to faded from my awareness and sleep took over.

This year, I’ve tried to create more space to reflect on my life and what my mind and body tell me. Whether it’s planning out the day, recounting how an experience made me feel, or jotting down a half-baked idea that’s been bouncing around, I’ve tried to capture at least a sliver of my days.

As I skim through my journals, I’ve noticed a trend:  when I write more about my internal life, I feel better.  Writing about my life feels like giving proper respect to it. And that feeling is priceless. Knowing what I had for dinner on a random Tuesday is a nice by-product.

What I’ve Learned About Meditation In 2020

I like practicing mindfulness meditation, which focuses on cultivating an awareness of my thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. For years, meditation frustrated me. But as my beliefs about the practice have changed, I’ve meditated more consistently and felt better afterwards.

These are 5 beliefs I have about meditation that I didn’t believe in 2019. While etched in text, they’re not etched in stone. I’m excited to see how these beliefs change in 2021. This is a snapshot, not the whole story.

  1. Meditation is not about attaining a perfectly peaceful mind. In fact, I don’t think it is about creating a particular state of mind at all. Trying to do that frustrates the process for me entirely. Effort creates separation between what is happening while I meditate and what I want to happen. This effort requires thinking, and thinking takes me out of the role of the observer and into the role of the doer. Not a place I want to be. Instead, meditation is about giving the mind space to move freely and my awareness a chance to simply watch it happen. I use the app Headspace, but it took years to understand the power of the name itself.
  2. Meditation is not about feeling Zen. While being frustrated by pursuing peace is not pleasant, my awareness of that frustration while meditating is great. I read somewhere that the thought of enlightenment keeps us from being enlightened. I am not trying to reach a peaceful Zen state because that is a thought that takes me out of the moment. And it’s also easy to mistake a Zen state with dissociation, which is not helpful to engaging with life after the session. Meditation is about watching the negative self-talk, seeing the stories my mind plays on repeat, recognizing the physical discomfort. Not ruminating on it, but seeing it for what it is, embracing it, and then letting it go and returning to the breath or the senses.
  3. The most frustrating meditation sessions are the most helpful. Seeing the chaos is wonderful. When I feel my mind racing and my breath ignored while meditating, I  get curious and watch, without trying to change it. When I don’t push back, the chatter slowly quiets down. The chatter never goes silent, and worrying about that is counterproductive. The beauty is in how it quiets and dims at all.
  4. Meditation is more beneficial when done more frequently. I used to think that meditation was like riding a bike. Learn how to do it once and you keep the skill, that feeling, forever. I don’t believe that anymore. My mind and body are always growing, changing, working. So cultivating awareness requires consistent growth, change, and work as well. Meditating 10 minutes a day is better than one hour-long meditation session a week. Two 15-minute meditations are more helpful than one 30-minute session. The frequency helps cultivate the awareness for when I need it most: in stressful and trying moments when I’m not in a calm, peaceful state. Meditation is not to feel good. It’s to observe and accept when I’m feeling bad.
  5. Meditation is not something to get good at. The practice is the whole point. Some people play football to win a championship. Well, with meditation, the practice is the workout, practice, playoffs, and championship all collapsed into one. It’s the whole experience. I am skeptical now when my mind says, “I should skip a day because I’m getting good at this.” That misses the mark entirely. Consistent practice, no expectations. Just keep showing up.

On Giving

Years from now, we are unlikely to remember the gifts we received today. But we will remember the feeling of being seen by a person who was generous enough to give something — kind words, time, a note, a donation, food, an item. And that feeling is priceless; it does not require money to create and lasts a lifetime when done right.