Last year, like everyone else, I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

I’ve historically been a defender of physical mess. In college I even felt pride when friends expressed surprise at my messy room – I took it to mean that I pass as a neat, competent person in public. And I feel like it defies an irksome stereotype that smart people (particularly women) are organized.

It may be a paranoia of mine, but I think there’s a different expectation of how smart women operate compared to smart men. A ‘ disorganized genius’ paradigm is more acceptable for men – it seems reasonable and typical that a smart, talented man might spend all his time focused on his work and his thoughts, leaving him with a living space cluttered with books, food, and other evidence of brilliance. Meanwhile, a smart, talented woman is assumed to be organized – she probably succeeded because in high school she kept neat binders with colorful tabbed separators for each of her classes. So Hermione Granger is portrayed as an earnest note-taker who draws up study schedules for herself and her friends, while I bet no one would assume over-tidying character traits for brilliant male students like Dumbledore or Snape.

It’s good to address stereotypes, but eventually I decided to prioritize my own happiness over personally rebelling against them. I think Kondo’s book advocates self-knowledge and prioritizing your personal space in a way that’s unrelated to my conception of potentially gendered and annoying neatness.

Summaries with Some Thoughts by Chapter

  1. Why Can’t I Keep My House in Order?
    • Many “authorities” on organizing suggest that cultivating a gradual habit that move towards being more organized is the way to change the orderliness of your space, but these are unlikely to cause significant change. Instead, Marie Kondo urges the reader to seek the achievement of perfect organization in one major bout of tidying, as the recognition of a perfect space is necessary for the motivation to maintain a perfect space.
    • I think this is great, because my main problem with conventional organizing is the earnestness and mental effort involved – effort I think should go towards more important pursuits. The seeking of a perfect space also appeals to me. When it comes to trivial things, often the best approach is to think very hard about it and finding an ideal solution, and then stop thinking about it altogether. This works better than deciding “I’m going to let myself waste a little bit of effort every day trying to be slightly more X.”
    • On the other hand, I did have a great time throwing out one thing a day (or one class of things a day) for a month back in 2012. I think this is fundamentally different from the gradual habits that Kondo disdains, because I committed only for a month, and I meant for the change to be conscientious (I even wrote about what I threw out each day and why). This exercise altered my perspective because it revealed what objects are useful and it changed how often I acquired new things.
  2. Finish Discarding First
    • The first step in Marie Kondo’s method is to examine every individual object you own and decide what to discard before making any decisions on where to place objects. Kondo suggests making discard decisions in categories, from least sentimental to most sentimental groups, and decide to keep only objects that “bring you joy.”
    • I love the thoroughness of this approach and the innateness of the decision criteria. Kondo frequently disparages rule-based organizing tips, like “keep things that you’ve used in the past 12 months” or “keep shirts that work with at least three outfits,” and I agree – following conventional rules is being a slave to societal expectations, and a considered life doesn’t rely on other people’s rules of thumb. Joy, meanwhile, is visceral and internal, and if you’re not constrained by cash or availability of material goods, it’s easy to hold individual objects and decide “joy – yes or no?”
  3. Tidying by Category Works Like Magic
    • This chapter gives more specific recommendations for specific categories of objects, for example, noting that books and papers are generally not needed, and that statements like “I might read this someday” do not reflect the presence of joy. Kondo also emphasizes the importance of reaching a critical, noticeable point of tidying where the objects you keep feel inexplicably right.
    • It’s funny how after discarding by category, everything fits. For clothing, I used to have a full closet and four boxes within an ikea shelf unit, but now everything fits easily in the closet and one drawer under my bed.
  4. Storing Your Things to Make Your Life Shine
    • After the paring down of owned things, Kondo moves on to storing objects in a way that maintains orderliness. She recommends storing things with the goal of making it easy to put away, rather than trying to anticipate use cases of objects. Having few, simplistic places to arrange objects visibly is the best.
    • I found the point about ignoring use cases to be revelatory. It can feel so satisfying and clever when you need something and it’s right there, so it’s hard to admit that you’re wrong about use cases most of the time. For a long time I kept losing my scissors because I’d leave them close to where I last use them, expecting that I’d be nearby the next time I’d need them, but really this meant I often used nail clippers or knives for scissoring tasks when I couldn’t find my scissors.
    • It’s also much easier to store your things when you have fewer things and the things you have all bring you joy. Storing things you don’t love is a chore.
    • Folding things according to Kondo’s method is not hard. I thought that physics would prevent standing up fabric, but it works, and it’s uniquely delightful to pick out outfits from this configuration.
  5. The Magic of Tidying Dramatically Transforms Your Life
    • Tidying up in one event leads people to gain confidence in their decision-making abilities and helps them uncover what is meaningful to them.
    • I followed this process loosely, and it did help to clarify my priorities, but this have been more a result of progressing in my career or finding a supportive partner. I have more conviction about the stuff I still own. However, I don’t thank my objects on a daily basis.

Sometimes a book is mentioned so often that I assume I’ve already heard all of its content. I assumed this about Mindset, because various education-like resources sprinkle references to “fixed vs. growth mindset” as though the phrase were a magical salt that transforms any bland instruction into a life-changing experience.

Even though the frequency of reference annoys me, the mindset distinction is still a valuable concept. I found the book to be worthwhile because it made me aware of mindset beyond the context of learning something new. My notes aren’t an outline, rather some bits I found meaningful that hopefully motivate other people to consider reading the book.

Mindset can be situational

Sometimes the shallow “fixed vs. growth mindset” refrain reduces to “If you have a growth mindset, you can do ANYTHING! But if you have a fixed mindset, you’re screwed for life.” Some people probably read about these mindsets and decide that the glorious promises of growth mindset-edness must be closed to them because the fixed mindset resonates more. However, the simplistic descriptions of mindset skate over how they’re influenced by environment. To some extent people can be extremely “fixed” or “growth,” but the majority of people can waver depending on the situation.

I highly recommend reading this book while you’re unemployed or seeking work (as I did). Job seeking forces most people into a fixed mindset, because you’re interacting (maybe exclusively) with people who want to judge your worth as an employee. When you feel like your main task is to prove your own value, it’s natural to fall into a fixed mindset. Other examples of fixed-mindset-inducing environments include schools with unhelpful testing practices, or companies dominated by a sense of competition.

Effort and Mindset

A major reason to encourage a growth mindset is to encourage effort. In a fixed mindset (or a fixed mindset environment), people feel like exerting effort does nothing except prove them to be incompetent sometimes.

The book mentions that people often exert low effort to obscure their “ability” when they feel subject to external judgment. A prime example of this is graded participation, which remains one of my most abhorred school practices. Having someone evaluate what’s immediately on my mind felt like the most offensive, shallowest form of judgment, much worse than tests or homework where I could at least enjoy a process of arriving at answers. So I generally chose complete silence and an inaccurate grade over enduring judgment.

Mindsets in Relationships

Fixed mindsets are problematic for relationships, especially romantic ones. The book describes three potential ways to have fixed mindset thinking in a relationship – about your own qualities, your partner’s qualities, and the relationship’s qualities. People with a fixed mindset about their own qualities are likely to feel in competition with their friends or significant others, and therefore they’re often unable to feel truly happy for others. A fixed mindset about the relationship causes people to believe that having to work at a relationship means it’s not meant to be, that their partners should be able to read their minds, and that they should agree on everything.

I’ve historically had a fixed mindset about relationship qualities. I’d hear other people describe their relationships and judge them to be examples of “settling.” It also caused me to be skeptical about “attachment,” and the idea that you should be with someone simply because you like spending time with them (my therapist tells me is a little odd… I’m working on / thinking about it).

A Note about Self-Help Books

It’s hard to escape feeling like self-help books are silly, because they’re all marketed as revelatory. I think the key to using self-help books is to either read none or everything. If you read a few they can become unhealthy gospel, but reading many creates useful lenses with which to view your experience.

Hi! Welcome back to this blog thing. My life probably doesn’t look as interesting as 3-4 months ago, but I continue to have [amusing? perplexing? incomplete?] thoughts that I occasionally write about but never get around to editing for human consumption.

A Brief Update

I’ve settled into a normal life, I think. Work takes up a typical, work-like chunk of my time. Yesterday we had the luxury of girl scout cookies and working outdoors on the patio. The tech lifestyle I’m experiencing here is pretty great – it’s comfortable without being ostentatious, and my mornings are now so relaxed from only working forty hours a week.

Other stuff:

  • I’m still skating, still struggling with my lutz.
  • I’ve been re-learning Mandarin in preparation for a trip to Hangzhou and Shanghai in April – this was the main activity that edged out writing lately. In case anyone’s there – let me know!
  • I’ve been looking into developing for Android because it’d be nice to understand for my job, and I’m working on this app I’m calling “splunch” for now – for splitting a lunch with someone who wants the same food as you, because we could all use more lunch variety and portion control.
  • I’ll be in San Francisco the first weekend of April if anyone wants to meet up!

Books, for Guzzling

I found myself telling a few people recently that I feel like I don’t have enough time to read fiction. Given the vast array of real stuff that I don’t comprehend, it sometimes seems frivolous to worry about stuff that isn’t even real. But that’s ridiculous. I’ve been nourished by fiction this week. I was listening to this archived Radiolab podcast about how perhaps we don’t think unless we have words; this might be true. Sometimes reading analogies of your feelings in astounding phrasings is the best way to delineate things that normally pass by unnoticed.

Over the weekend, I read [/devoured] My Antonia by Willa Cather. I found it lovely to consider how our younger years cling to us and color our preferences for the future. At some point the main protagonist, Jim, remarks how Antonia (a friend since childhood) has been with him in all sorts of ways throughout his life, and that often his likes and dislikes are formed with some memory of her. When we know and love someone, we’re able to adopt their lens to see our world and sometimes we’ll adjust our habits to align with their values. Isn’t that amazing? Good love, like literature, it’s a way to step outside of ourselves to see more clearly.

I was also fascinated with how Jim’s cosmopolitan adulthood results in some “disappointment” in seeing Antonia’s life unfold – this judgmental tone recedes as Jim finds Antonia fulfilled in her life, but I think this is a common sentiment among those of us who grow up, move away, and hear about people from their childhood. In many ways I’ve been continuously struggling to reconcile my attraction to city habitation and a yearning for the quiet suburbs from my adolescence, weighing the symphony against the stars or weighing obnoxious food snobbery against posting links from upworthy (actually these two might be universal annoyances rather than region-specific). In the end there’s probably not much value in judging the superiority of  lifestyles; fulfillment is something we’re all capable of experiencing and typically the means that lead to real fulfillment are all decent.

Then the past few days I was addicted to reading Halfway House by Katharine Noel. This is a recent novel (published 2007) which narrates the story of a star athlete in high school named Angie, who suffers a mental breakdown and tumbles through a series of institutions, she and her family oscillating between wellness and terror. Much of this story was just painful, and I wanted to read to reach “resting points” where I felt like the characters were okay. But the language was also beautiful – kind of rolling and prickly; and then there was just memorable weird stuff, like a girl who razored a guy’s name into her skin (uhh what? she was ironically not diagnosed with a mental illness).

There was a lot in this book about understanding who we really are. Angie, having spent a long time on medication, wonders whether her real persona is the one that’s crazy without the medication, or the tamed one that’s often in a drugged stupor. Another character questions his identity upon realizing that his wife’s observant nature has colored many of his own thoughts or brought his thoughts to his consciousness. I think we all wonder about this somewhat – who am I really if who I am now was changed by very specific things in my life? Am I who I am now or am I the collection of various different versions of a person I’d be if I’d encountered different situations?

I think I’ll continue on this literary rampage for at least another week. Next up is probably either Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) or The Joke (Milan Kundera) based on a friend’s recommendation. (What else should I read?)

Books, for Grazing

Most of the nonfiction I’ve been reading (or staring at) has been programming-related. There’s so much I want to read to fill in the gaps in my developer-related knowledge. I’ve found myself amongst people who are fairly language-agnostic and feel that many new languages are simply re-creating and re-solving old problems. I could see this being the reality, although I’m met with my old problem of not wanting to form an opinion on such a broad topic without compiling research. So here’s some programming-related reading I’ve been looking at lately:

  • Unix Power Tools – because the command line is way cooler than any javascript framework.
  • High Performance MySQL – good SQL queries are stunning.
  • The Art of Computer Programming – trying to understand the math proofs at the beginning of this book is exhausting! But I’m trusting it’ll lead to something good, so I’ll try to keep everyone updated in a decade or so when I get further into it.
  • Also, Algorithms: Design and Analysis Part II taught by Tim Roughgarden is starting on coursera this week. The first part was great (and I’d highly recommend it to people coming out of a more practical program like DBC), so I’m hoping I can find time to do the second part.