Monday, December 30, 2013

To consider the cannonball effect

I was browsing through a library book, "A Complaint Free World" by Will Bowen. One anecdote stands out in my mind, perhaps because we are approaching the beginning of another new year. It's about a house painter named Mike who had an idea to dip a standard baseball in leftover paint at the end of each day in his garage, just out of idle curiosity to see how big it would get. The result surprised even him.

Will Bowen and his daughter were invited to come and see it after he had been doing the daily dip for several years. They found a massive thing, the size of a cannon ball hanging from steel girders. He asked them if they'd like to apply that day's coat of paint, and it took them 15 minutes to get it evenly covered. What amazed them all was the fact that each individual coat of paint was about the width of a hair. Visible proof that lots of small actions, if persisted in, result in something formidably huge.

Bowen took it as an analogy for his complaint free world. Each individual decision to stay cheerful and not make an issue of annoyances may result in a transformed personality which automatically leans toward the optimistic option. I started to reflect that the principle applies to absolutely anything we can think of.

We all know that individually, one yummy Lindor chocolate ball or Cadbury Freddo frog doesn't contain enough calories to put on much weight. If you indulge in them a lot, though, they become like those coats of paint, and your waistline ends up much thicker. One jog up a steep mountain path may result in no difference on the scales, which contestants on "The Biggest Loser" have discovered many times, but making a habit of it can get that flab moving. Brain science has shown that one thought, repeated over again several times, results in an entrenched attitude that wears a pathway, similar to the ones we see worn across the paddocks near our house, by lots of pedestrians taking short cuts to the wetlands.

Each late December I hear plenty of negative comments about making new year's resolutions.  "We might as well not even bother. By February, we're back to our old habits, or April at the latest." No, that's a gloomy attitude masquerading as realistic. By February, the baseball hasn't grown very big at all, and it's easy to look at the thinness of each individual coat of paint. It's right about then that we could benefit from reminding ourselves about the huge, impressive cannonball we could create, if only we persevere. I like new year's resolutions and begin a couple every January. I'd encourage everyone to do the same, if there's something in your life you wouldn't mind reversing or changing.

Even if you decide, "I need to accept myself more, and not get into the self-help trap of thinking there's always something wrong with me that I need to change," that's still a resolution, if you're not used to thinking that way. In fact, that may well be one of mine.

Mother Teresa vividly showed this principle with the poor in Calcutta, that thousands of small gestures, repeated over and over, may produce a wonderfully productive and difference-making life. It doesn't have to be that grandiose or self-sacrificing. I'd extend the analogy to blogs like this one. Although our numbers of followers may change and drop-off over the years, each post may result in a thick volume of awesome material which our descendants will love. In this one's case, I hope the number of small, serendipitous thoughts that just occur to me may morph into something bigger with the potential to amuse people who want a bit of simple inspiration.

I wish everyone who may read this a hopeful, healthy and productive 2014.

Monday, December 9, 2013

that we choose our own version of success

I've been reading a bit about this man and his philosophy. It's Henry David Thoreau and he became one of the world's most famous non-conformists.

It seems he'd tried to live as others did. In his twenties, he'd taken on the jobs of teacher, surveyer, gardener, farmer, house-painter, carpenter, mason, day-labourer, pencil-maker and glass-paper maker. He found aspects of each of them disappointing and decided to no longer be included among the 'mass of men who lead lives of quiet desperation' as he put it.

In 1845, aged 27, Thoreau set off to build himself a rough, basic house on the shores of Walden Pond. He intended to work for just six weeks of each year (probably helping farmers get their crops in or something like that) and figured out how to live off just 27c per week for the rest of the year. During the other 46 weeks of the year, he reflected on nature, read, wrote in his journal and walked. Sounds pretty good to me.

He had one bed, a table, a desk, 3 chairs, a small mirror and some cooking utensils in his one-room house. Thoreau studiously avoided anything 'the world' would consider successful. He dodged all forms of work to the greatest extent possible, which turned out to be a lot.

"Joy and sorrow, success and failure, grandeur and meanness do not mean for me what they do for my neighbours," he wrote. Just to make his outlook crystal clear, he added, "If a man has spent all his days about some business by which he's grown rich, has got much money, many houses, barns and woodlots, then his life would have been a failure, I think. Normal society man has no interest that can tempt me. Not one." Ignoring his neighbours and choosing to 'march to the beat of his own drum' came easily to him.

His contemporaries only scoffed at him, including intellectuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May Alcott. But as one of my books says, "to a true eccentric like Thoreau, earning the disdain of others, or at least puzzling them, is a sign of success." As for his own personal job description, he called himself the self-appointed and unpaid inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms.

Here is one of his most famous quotes, which I'm sure we've all come across many times. "If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." We see this splashed over cards and souvenir merchandise in gift shops. It's in the offices of high-flyers on desk calendars and wall hangings. All sorts of business people and VIPs quote it. It's become one of the mantras of wealth creation teachers. How ironic, to think that it came from a man who didn't care a fig for all that, and in fact, stood for the opposite of what they stand for and wasn't afraid to say it.

And how funny to think that so many twenty-first century ambitious go-getters quote it glibly, along with the one about marching to the beat of their own drum, without knowing the background of their creator. They may or may not recognise the name of Henry David Thoreau, but I'm sure they claim that his words resonate with them. I wonder what his reaction would be to the irony that they have latched so fervently onto his sayings. No less, is the irony that tourists from all over the world visit his little house on the shore of Walden Pond to this very day, but possibly shun the fellow down the road who is really living in the spirit of Thoreau, the one who lives in a little shack, clothing himself from Good Will shops, heating his baked beans over a little campfire each night and reading his books by torchlight.

I have to say I find his attitude refreshing. Henry David was the real deal, not part of a group who dress the same, eat the same, surreptitiously study the way people such as themselves are 'meant' to think and wear their supposed non-conformity like badges. He wasn't a burden on the tax payer, because he genuinely earned his 27c per week, and Centrelink payments weren't even an option. This gives us exciting freedom and potential, when it comes to defining what the 'success' in his quote may mean to us. I applaud Thoreau for deciding on his own values and sticking to them without being swayed by what people were saying. The lives of people such as him remind me that, hey, even if I don't look successful, by what criteria am I making the judgment? When I start feeling like a flop, I can remember Thoreau, and he reminds me that I've moved the measuring stick by which I determine my values. That's right, I'm not going by job description, bank account total or academic letters after my name. My personal values are time spent with family, laughing at their jokes, listening to them, reading good books, writing some stuff, noticing things when I go for walks, and encouraging my kids to focus on their own values with the tool of homeschooling. I find it easier to think of myself as successful with these things as my gauge.

I've never been to America, but if I ever do, I'd like to visit that little house, and I've got the book "Walden" on my kindle to dip into sometimes when I feel reflective. 
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