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.

Daphne: Why is it so easy to love our families yet so hard to like them?
Frasier: Well, Daphne, that is the kind of question that makes life so rich – and psychiatrists richer!

One of my friends suggested I write about Thanksgiving, but I was skeptical since I would be violating “write what you know.” My family never really celebrates Thanksgiving, so I would be better off writing posts like “The awkwardness of Thanksgivings with boyfriends’ families” or “Why do we eat turkeys when chickens taste better?”

But it is interesting that my family doesn’t do holidays, including Thanksgiving. It demonstrates some of my family’s best traits, like a grave absence of obligation and a functional style of attachment. Since moving to Portland, I’m grateful that I feel no pressure to fly to Pennsylvania during peak holiday times. Instead, I travel off-peak in early December or January.

Some of my parents’ lack of familial holiday spirit comes from being immigrants who never fully adopted the American culture. But I think it’s mostly their propensity to care for us in practical (not sentimental) ways. I often joke that my parents clearly don’t miss me, because they rarely call (I have to call them!). I also remember how my parents always seemed amused, not anxious when they dropped me off for summer camp for the first time, or every time they drove me back to college.

As I’m getting older, I think more about how to like my family in addition to loving them. The challenge with low-obligation relationships is spending enough time together to develop common experiences. Living far away, I worry that we won’t have enough walks together or mundane conversations about food to maintain a good connection. That’s sort of the genius of Frasier – it’s eleven seasons showing how arguments about dinner plans add up to profound relationships!

Playing violin was my main activity growing up. I played in my school orchestra, a community orchestra, in musicals, and occasionally elsewhere. My peers considered me “good” (on a non-serious level), and so it surprises many people that my parents rarely attended my performances. My mother told me that among other reasons, she doesn’t like music and that my orchestras didn’t sound very good anyway.

I think many might consider this unsupportive, that a parent would choose to miss a culminating landmark in their child’s growth. But I had no complaints then, and I appreciate this choice now. This experience makes me question how we define ‘support.’

For example, the aggregate support I received from my parents for playing the violin was extraordinary. My parents bought me violins, paid for my lessons, and coordinated my transportation to and from rehearsals. They doled honest criticisms with a confidence I could improve, and they encouraged me to practice when I was dispirited or forgetful.  They did these things without complaint, without any expectation I would make a career of it, and mostly because I expressed an interest in third grade. How amazing is that?

Often we overlook our needs for real support and default to imagining support centered on the Final Thing – like a concert, a graduation, a book release. Actually it’s in our daily routines that we need the most support.

 

 

Let me tell you a story:

Once upon a time a fictional couple moved into an apartment in a house with three units. On each trash day, a fictional neighbor moved the trash cans ever-closer to the couple’s front door, eventually with a note. The couple, previously uninformed of a trash-moving arrangement but dazzled by this elegant hinting of their new duty, immediately felt ashamed of their lack of conscientiousness. They placed ‘Take out trash for apartment building’ onto their google calendars as a recurring weekly event. They planted an avocado tree as a peace offering. And everyone lived happily ever after.

I heard this fairy tale once (incidentally, it was while I made it up). Grumpy Neighbor, this is not your fairy tale. I imagine yours involves the bitchier half of the couple rolling her eyes and recalling the extremely lengthy, also passive-aggressive note about noise when they first moved in. And then deciding how to most effectively frustrate Grumpy Neighbor (who has never bothered to introduce herself). It’s worth noting that this bitchier half has a high tolerance for disorganization, and a low tolerance for taking unfair directions from the passive-aggressive.

Yes, that’s right – I’m the bitchier half. A misnomer, since I’m fully capable of solving mundane problems with my neighbors. But I will not be cowed into doing unfair chores because a neighbor indirectly tells me to. Instead, I’ll consider feigning ignorance until a certain someone can’t take the overflowing trash any more. Or I’ll consider lying and writing back “Sorry, we can’t take out the trash ever because we travel most weeks! Thanks for being so nice and taking care of it!” After considering more, I’ll likely be a good person and ask in person how we can fairly solve this situation.

So perhaps the lesson is this: if you want to write someone an annoying note, find a better way.

At my former workplace, we had a fortnightly engineering ‘retro,’ which is a meeting that reviews the previous period’s work and considers ways to improve (it’s an agile term). I loved retros because they were hairy and dramatic. Retros had struggled to grow along with the company, because to attempt a democratic process among more engineers, the meeting accumulated sophisticated rules. For example, we could bring up improvements in a matrix of categories – work-related things to start, work-related things to stop, cultural things to start, and cultural things to stop – and algorithmic voting rules governed what we would implement going forward.

These rules themselves were up for debate, so we spent many retros discussing the intentions of retro and arguing about rules and procedure (e.g. Open or anonymous vote? Bring up ideas before or during meeting? Time limits on idea explanations?). Today I had lunch with a former work colleague, and he reported that retros finally settled down with much simpler rules. Boooring!

This is all to say, I love meta discussions and work flux. And since I’m running out of writing topics, I wanted to review the past fortnight of daily blogging.

First, I’m amazed it’s been doable. I know I committed to writing a post every day, but I expected I would slip away, unnoticed, eventually. Having a daily habit removes the problematic decision-making of whether to write a post, and while continuing this habit isn’t easy, it’s attainable.

I complain that I’m running out of writing topics, but I actually have a lot of half-formed topics to discuss, I just fear incoherence. I wish I had more technical posts about skating or programming, but it’s challenging to feel authoritative enough to write these.

In the remaining days of the month, I’d like to write more about my family/relationships, ‘reviews’ of useful books I’ve read, and a comprehensive theory of the universe. Just kidding.

One of the few philosophical concepts I reliably remember is alienation of the worker. This is the idea that industrialization and capitalism reduce workers to their labor, leading to the alienation of the worker from the final products created. (Among other things. It’s a big idea. Sorry if I butcher it in the rest of this post.)

The negative side is when the full products of our work are hidden or unclear, and therefore our lives feels insignificant and untethered to reality. Or bittersweet/ironic images like a Foxconn worker seeing an iPad for the first time.

Maybe there’s a positive side too. Alienation reminds me of an observation that always astounds me – how dumb we all are as individuals, contrasted with how smart we seem as a species (in aggregate, over time, maybe). I think it’s funny that buildings are designed and constructed by combining the efforts of people who are just like me, when all I know about concrete is how it’s a mix of water with something powdery and greyish.

I wonder if my ultimate career goal is to escape alienation of the worker by building a full spectrum of understanding in a field. In software-land, I imagine this is why there’s this mythology of “full-stack.” Controlling a large range of your work decisions and possessing a contextual understanding of its significance is the opposite of feeling alienated. Perhaps artistry is the name for this.

 

Before this month of daily blogging, I hadn’t bothered to visit facebook in months, maybe a year. The last two weeks I’ve been reading everyone’s posts and wondering if I’ve missed something. It feels like my friends suddenly grew up and now everyone reads the news instead of taking photos of their food. Is this for real? Or is it an effect of facebook’s wacky algorithms? Or just election season? I can’t tell! But even though most of my friends are thoughtful and well-read people discussing important events, it somehow makes me feel more lonely than hermit-like disconnection.

Maybe it’s because facebook is loosely directed, as in everyone posts content targeting acquaintances. I feel like I’m missing something because I don’t understand enough context for why people post what they post, yet I feel entitled to context because I actually know these people. Unfair!

Perhaps social networks are a connectivity fallacy. Maybe the best connections lie on opposite ends of the acquainted-ness spectrum. For example, a meaningful book (or a good blog!!) assumes no context and supplies or invents it, while a friendly email plays with mutually understood context. Maybe the in-between of talking to people who sort of know you is the most impractical way to communicate.

Sometimes people ask me for investment advice because I used to work in finance, so here it is:

  • Avoid buying individual stocks unless it prevents you from gambling. Buy index funds instead, or use Betterment/Wealthfront.
  • See a good therapist.

I started seeing a therapist soon after I moved to Portland, and I’m sure I could attribute to it a proportion of returns in my well-being or even my income, far exceeding single-digit stock market returns from the last two years. So if you have extra funds available, I would recommend finding a good therapist. Not seeing one would be analogous to not getting checkups from a doctor or not taking medication.

Why I love seeing a therapist

Sometimes people figure that a good friend who listens is basically a therapist, but this could not be more wrong. A stellar, solid friend might occasionally ask you difficult, uncomfortable questions about who you are or who you want to be, but it’s unlikely. Your friends bring their own baggage, opinions, and needs. Not to mention most of your friends probably lack degrees in counseling.

A therapist has mental frameworks for understanding your motivations and how you experience your life. This allows them to sort out what’s normal in your experience from what’s damaging or unproductive. It’s easy to think that ‘normal’ is simply what we experience often, and forget that other people might experience a different ‘normal’ that’s objectively better or worse. For example, for how many of your friends do you know their daily dinner routines growing up? Or your friends’ bedtime routines? There are so many small things that amount to personalities, habits, and assumptions about the world.

Examples of things I’ve learned:

  • I worry about how long it’s taking me to find a life purpose, when other people my age are building impressively famous things or running for political office or writing important books. I’ve internalized that it’s okay to spend time meandering and seeing what activities feel meaningful (or not) to me. My therapist recommended reading Dreams from My Father. I remember reading about Obama’s early life and thinking “Oh, I like this guy – he seems a little lost, but I really hope he succeeds!” And it was fun to re-remember that I was reading about our president.
  • I’ve stressed a lot about sending emails and messages at work. I’ve frequently had the experience of sitting in front of an email, thinking, for example, “If I say ‘it seems’ here, is that more uncertain than I feel? If I remove it, I sound way too certain… what if I move it to the end of the sentence? Is this important enough to send in email?” It was through discussing this internal conflict that I realized it’s okay to send people messages that aren’t significant. I developed a policy of always sending messages that came to mind (assuming they weren’t offensive) – at worst, people would ignore them.

This is essentially the attitude that’s allowing me to blog this month. You probably won’t think worse of me for supplying useless advice, at worst, you’ll just ignore this!

Going to the gym is unique in my list of activities, because I don’t enjoy it. I find the concept of enjoying the gym so absurd that while on okcupid, I refused to respond to any men who mentioned “going to the gym” or “working out” as an activity – I assumed they must be liars or boring. Because really, who else would publicize that they enjoy lifting something heavy over and over again?

Yet now I go to the gym and lift heavy things… so I’m a little less judgmental about it. These are my reasons for going:

  • Well, initially I went because Max (boyfriend) does it. It’s great to have a partner who plays a tiny violin for you when you whine.
  • Then I complained to my therapist about how futile it feels to lift heavy things, and she recommended a book about women’s biology (Woman: An Intimate Geography). Apparently it’s great for retaining bone density.
  • I decided lifting weights makes me a little better at figure skating.
  • I hope it makes me less embarrassing at lifting heavy things in my normal life.
  • It is uniquely freeing to be terrible at something as an adult.

The Boring Gym Routine

Step 1. I follow Max around the gym and he points at things for me to lift.

Just kidding, mostly. The following is a plan that he decided on after much research and consulting with a body-building friend. It includes mostly compound exercises, which are the most efficient for beginners.

Schedule

  • 3 days a week, with 1 or 2 days between workouts
  • Alternate between workouts 1 and 2 below
  • Warm up for 5-10 minutes before lifting. Max does a stair machine, I do some off-ice “training” (essentially hopping up and down and rotating in skating-specific ways).

Workout 1

  • Squat
  • Bench press
  • T-Bar Row
  • Tricep extension
  • Calf raise or box jump

Workout 2

  • Deadlift
  • Pull-up (I do these at an assisted machine. Have never been able to do a pull up in my life)
  • Shoulder press
  • Bicep curl
  • Plank

Final Thoughts

Like any enlightened, mindful, in-pursuit-of-ultimate-career-and-life-fulfillment yuppie, I usually make a big deal about filling my time with activities that I consider naturally “enjoyable,” where the practice is naturally engaging, and I also get the satisfaction of an end result (like programming or skating). It’s okay to do something boring once in a while that’s good for you.