Start Somewhere, Start Soon

I started writing about 4 years ago.

My first year was child’s play; a year filled with honest, stupid mistakes. I was in the worst condition of my life, physically and mentally, broke, failing community college, and not a single clue of what I wanted to do with my life. I’ll be honest: I went into blogging thinking I could make money online. I remember spending my days checking my Google Adwords, traffic, metrics, and spamming my links on Twitter with ridiculous hashtags.

My first blog was about video gaming—writing reviews, guides, opinions on upcoming games, etc. It was good practice because no one was reading. My first big article was for a PC game called Rift, and it was published on a site called Rift IGN. IGN is a major gaming website, and Rift IGN was an extension of it.

I think the article had 3 comments. Whatever, I was happy. I was published after a few months of practicing writing and getting familiar with punctuation. My only experience in writing were 5-page essays for high school.

Gaming for 8+ hours a day and trying to write about it and sitting idle ended quickly. I stopped that Summer and really thought about what I was getting myself into. Why was I doing this? How do I see this unfolding in the long haul, say, 5 years from now? What are my goals? Do I like writing? And when I say I got into writing, I mean learning it like a new language.

Then there was a spark, a change in my mind. I became interested not in just writing, but learning—a realization that, after 12 years of schooling, I knew nothing to help me create a future that was meaningful. I was so dependent on sitting in a classroom to learn that I didn’t even know how to start on my own. That year I started reading books. I looked around my room, and to my surprise, I owned books probably because of my middle/high school Summer Reading list. I remember the first two books that I read were The Great Gatsby and The Rum Diary. Still, to this day, they are my favorite books because they inspired me to be a writer. (It’s also funny to mention, Hunter S. Thompson would rewrite The Great Gatsby on his typewriter while he was at work because he wanted to feel the flow of other writers; I did this myself numerous times.)

My second year, second blog, was about writing, blogging, and social media because I was learning about it, so writing helped me develop a deeper understanding (hint hint). I found blogs with readerships in the tens of thousands, hell, some of them in the 100k—I had no idea people could have such audiences. Then I started to search for patterns—why are these blogs so popular, what value are they creating for others, what habits or patterns can I find and how can I apply it to my own endeavors?

Then I took my first online course ever, Guest Blogging by Jon Morrow. I remember scraping whatever money I had because I believed in the course that much. I was even late on a payment. That course was a huge turning point in my life because it taught me very important and fundamental skills as a writer.

The same sites that I was learning from, I was now contributing to them. I think within the first two months I had three guest posts. My habit of reading was picking up; I was averaging a book a week.

I ditched my blog, again, and now focused on personal development. There’s a pattern: Every subject that interested me, I wrote about it. It helped me become aware of my understanding or lack thereof, but more importantly, it brought me back to one of the greatest methods of learning: curiously exploring.

My third year was the year I called myself a writer without shame or fear.

I self-published a short eBook on the power of words that sold 6,000 total copies over the course of four months. I was genuinely shocked.

Then, I was accepted to Seth Godin’s Summer Seminar for college students (wrote about my experience here). That seminar changed me entirely.

After that seminar, I self-published another short eBook called Reignite and released it for free on my blog. I didn’t get the response I was expecting, but nevertheless, the feedback from the readers who needed it were overwhelming. It was a tremendous failure but a fantastic learning experience.

I began to identify the topics that I truly enjoyed writing about and sharing with others: mastery, philosophy, culture, overcoming adversity, psychology, self-awareness, etc.

I changed the focus of my blog, got it redesigned, and wrote an awesome manifesto.

This blog is now two years old (created it in Feb 2012). Just recently, I shipped my third book on self-education called Connect The Dots. I even have a book trailer.

Just recently I had a debut article for the website 99u—a site that I’ve relentlessly used to support my self-education. My post has over 9000 shares and kicked off their monthly newsletter. A huge honor indeed. There’s a second post on the way.

I also taught myself how to draw (wrote about it here).

Please don’t mistake this for showing off. I’m not a NYT-bestseller or someone who created an amazing company. Believe me, I’m not close to where I want to be career-wise. I’m not raking in huge amounts of money. To be very honest, I still live with my parents and live very, very frugally. But looking back at all these years of failing, constantly reinventing myself, trying new things and learning, it’s hard to look back at that failing college student and realize that it was me. I’ve lost a lot of weight, quit smoking, and built very fruitful habits. If you were to ask me, “What is the one single thing that has helped you?” I would say philosophy, in particular, Stoicism. I needed guidance, and because I couldn’t get it externally (coaches, mentors), I had to develop it internally (principles to follow, learning different ways of thinking).

I write and share this in hope that you, or maybe someone you know, can read this and benefit from it, to realize that it’s important to start somewhere and to start soon. To start enriching your mind through self-education, to foster self-discipline and self-awareness, to start looking for patterns in your life and the meaning behind them, and to start training yourself to learn how to change your mind.

Now, embracing my fifth year, I feel a deep sense of gratitude and humility to be where I am—3 books, making money from my writing (?!), almost done with college, and an entire future ahead of me. I’ve had a lot of help along the way, both from friends and people I speak to through email. I doubt myself daily, but I know I have to trust the process. I know that these 5 years could serve as the very foundation for where I want to go. I’m going to keep writing, shipping, and learning. Maybe I’ll join a team or a company. Maybe I’ll start my own.

If you’re stuck, lost, trying to find a way, the only panacea I can think of is this:

Start something today, and make a promise to show up again tomorrow. The rest will unfold along the way.

How did I get here? is a question that I ask myself from time to time.

I can clearly remember being a fat, miserable, worthless 21-year-old in community college, failing all my classes, shoulda graduated years ago, running out of financial aid, punching holes in my walls and burning all the wrong bridges. Reflecting on these last few years helps me put my life into perspective, and to also provide motivation to not settle or get too comfortable. I used to care about the dumbest things, like celebrity news and Facebook statuses and what this person did. Gossip and jealously and hatred gave my life meaning because I couldn’t find it elsewhere.

The change was slow and gradual. There were months where I felt utterly hopeless—like, really, who do I think I am pursuing an artistic endeavor? I was a damn offensive linemen my whole life; a brute. There were moments where I wanted to fall back on the industrial mindset of checking off boxes and maybe put this writing thing on hold. Thank goodness I didn’t. I know what it feels like to work in a factory, and although the pay was good, the things that I bought to fulfill an empty void were meaningless and ephemeral.

But hindsight is 20/20. As I look to the future, I see nothing but fog. Today looks just as uncertain as yesterday, but this time, I’m okay with that. And I can’t promise you that this path will be easy—it won’t. As Steven Pressfield is known for saying, you gotta turn pro. And turning pro requires reinventing yourself from ground up—a profound shift in your perception and beliefs. It’s far easier to defend the status quo, to compare your life to how everyone else lives it. Waiting is not a solution. I don’t know if I’ll ever make it as a writer. But I’m glad I’m not where I was four years ago. 

(This post originally ran on Medium, but with a few changes.)

Epictetus On Living and The True Purpose of Philosophy

Wild Wild Western Civilization

photo: curiouseth

Epictetus, a Roman Stoic philosopher, was born into slavery about A.D. 55 in Hierapolis, Phrygia, located in the eastern borders of the Roman Empire.

Imagine being born into slavery? What resulted from this horrifying life experience was ultimately the Stoic school of philosophy. How strange that a great adversity can turn into something so meaningful and timeless? When Epictetus was freed, he established an influential school teaching Stoic principles that focused on overcoming life’s griefs, annoyances, and roadblocks. Who better to learn from? Among his many students was the future emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius. If you ever read Meditations, you can see how deeply influenced Aurelius was by Epictetus.

In The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness by Epictetus (interpretation by Sharon Lebell), outlines the tenets of Stoicism and how we can use it in our daily lives. Epictetus endured an event that would normally unman a person. By realizing that he couldn’t control life’s events but rather his response to them, he was able to keep his sanity and also live on to share his teachings so that others may benefit from these spiritual practices.

Indeed, even thousands of years later, the Stoic school of philosophy is a system of principles that are relevant to both work and life. It’s a system that I follow closely because of its two simple goals: How to live a happy, fulfilling life, and how to be a good person.

But first, why philosophy? What does this subject provide us? Why should we learn it?

Sharon Lebell (the interpreter for this book) explains:

“Epictetus believed that the primary job of philosophy is to help ordinary people effectively meet the everyday challenges of daily life, and to deal with life’s inevitable major losses, disappointments, and griefs. His was a moral teaching stripped of sentimentality, piousness, and metaphysical mumbo jumbo. What remains is the West’s first and best primer for living the best possible life.

[…]

His prescription for the good life centered on three main themes: mastering your desires, performing your duties, and learning to think clearly about yourself and your relations within the larger community of humanity.”

Philosophy champions self-reflection and self-awareness

Philosophy came into my life at a time when I needed it most. I was failing college and miserable all around. A part of me knew that I had to reinvent myself and the other half was comfortable being miserable. When our soul cries out, as Epictetus would say, it means that we’ve reached a point where we need to reevaluate our lives.  This passage is probably one of my favorite passages in this book, and if it’s something you’re currently going through I think the answer is very clear [emphasis by me]:

“Philosophy’s main task is to respond to the soul’s cry; to make sense of and thereby free ourselves from the hold of our griefs and fears.

Philosophy calls us when we’ve reached the end of our rope. The insistent feeling that something is not right with our lives and the longing to be restored to our better selves will not go away. Our fears of death and being alone, our confusion about love and sex, and our sense of impotence in the face of our anger and outsized ambitions bring us to ask our first sincere philosophical questions.

It’s true: there is no obviously apparent meaning to our lives. Cruelty, injustice, bodily discomfort, illness, annoyances, and inconveniences big and small are the prosaic facts of any day. So what do we do about this? How do we—in spite of the pain and suffering in the outside world and our own wayward emotions—live ennobled lives rather than succumbing to a despairing numbness and merely coping like a mule with tedium and unbidden responsibilities?

When the soul cries out, it is a sign that we have arrived at a necessary, mature stage of self-reflection. The secret is not to get stuck there dithering or wringing your hands, but to move forward by resolving to heal yourself. Philosophy asks us to move into courage. Its remedy is the unblinking excavation of the faulty and specious premises on which we base our lives and our personal identity.”

So if you’re in a stage where you’re constantly reflecting and questioning everything, that is a good sign. Do it daily. Reflect on your behaviors, habits, beliefs, and desires. Continue questioning everything. These are some of the best moments to practice self-awareness, and in turn, spark the slow but steady process for change. In these moments, philosophy serves as our guardian angel.

Philosophy is about the love of wisdom

If you take a philosophy course in college, chances are you’ll be engaged in fruitless debates, theorizing, analysis, and more. Although the purpose of that is to strengthen the art of conversation, I find it much more rewarding to focus on philosophies that provide wisdom on how to live better and be a better human. After all, isn’t that the goal?

Epictetus explains what true philosophy is and how it helps us in our everyday lives [emphasis by me]:

“True philosophy doesn’t involve exotic rituals, mysterious liturgy, or quaint beliefs. Nor is it just about abstract theorizing and analysis. It is, of course, the love of wisdom. It is the art of living a good life. As such, it must be rescued from religious gurus and from professional philosophers lest it be exploited as an esoteric cult or as a set of detached intellectual techniques or brain teasers to show how clever you are. Philosophy is intended for everyone, and it is authentically practiced only by those who wed it with action in the world toward a better life for all.

Philosophy’s purpose is to illuminate the ways our soul has been infected by unsound beliefs, untrained tumultuous desires, and dubious life choices and preferences that are unworthy of us. Self-scruntiny applied with kindness is the main antidote. Besides rooting our the soul’s corruptions, the life of wisdom is also meant to stir us from our lassitude and move us in the direction of an energetic, cheerful life.”

When he says, “self-scrutiny applied with kindness,” I think the main lesson here is self-awareness. It’s very easy to critically examine yourself and immediately feel shame, hopelessness, or even anger. Be hard on yourself, sure, but also realize that this is what everyone goes through, so therefore it isn’t shameful. The idea is to become conscious of a false belief or bad habit and then to apply, with kindness, a solution that can lead to lasting change.

Stoicism is about mastering perception, will, and action

When you read Stoic texts, you’ll come across a unifying theme comprised of specific elements: Nature, perception, action, and will.

The Stoics made it their duty to understand nature’s laws and to know what can be controlled and what cannot. Think of it like this: What can you control? Your judgement, actions, opinions, thoughts. What can’t you control? Events, failure, sickness, death, adversity, bad fortune. Death, failure, and adversity are a part of life, but how we respond to it can vary in effectiveness.

Epictetus said:

“Don’t try to make your own rules. Conduct yourself in all matters, grand and public or small and domestic, in accordance with the laws of nature. Harmonizing your will with nature should be your utmost ideal. Where do you practice this ideal? In the particulars of your own daily life with its uniquely personal tasks and duties. When you carry out your tasks, such as taking a bath, do so—to the best of your ability—in harmony with nature. When you eat, do so—to the best of your ability—in harmony with nature, and so on. It is not so much what you are doing as how you are doing it. When we properly understand and live by this principle, while difficulties arise—for they are part of the divine order too—inner peace will still be possible.”

These spiritual exercises are about exercising our perception. This is important to remember and internalize: It’s is not the events that make us feel something, it’s what we tell ourselves. Bad judgements lead to false perception, and false perception leads to everything but clarity and peace. Indeed, it’s our responsibility to decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.

“From now on, practice saying to everything that appears unpleasant: ‘You are just an appearance and by no means what you appear to be.’ And then thoroughly consider the matter according to the principles just discussed, primarily: Does this appearance concern the things that are within my own control or those that are not? If it concerns anything outside your control, train yourself to not worry about it.”

[...]

“When we name things correctly, we comprehend them correctly, without adding information or judgements that aren’t there. Does someone bathe quickly? Don’t say he bathes poorly, but quickly. Name the situation as it is; don’t filter it through your judgements.

Does someone drink a lot of wine? Don’t say she is a drunk but that she drinks a lot. Unless you possess a comprehensive understanding of her life, how do you know if she is a drunk?

Do not risk being beguiled by appearances and constructing theories and interpretations based on distortions through misnaming. Give your assent only to what is actually true.”

Needless to say, this is no easy task. For many of us, we’re trained in the arts of seeing things as we want to see them, not as how they are. We mistakenly place false labels on things because of our insecurities, fears, and acculturation.

What is the one thing that helps with this change of mind? Humility. As Epictetus would say [emphasis by me]:

The first step to living wisely is to relinquish self-conceit. See the delusional folly in being a nervous know-it-all whose giddy mind is always prattling on about its knee-jerk impressions of events and other people, forcing current experiences into previously formed categories: ‘Oh yes, this thing here is just like such and such.’

Behold the world fresh—as it is, on its own terms—through the eye of a beginner. To know that you do not know and to be willing to admit that you do not know without sheepishly apologizing is a real strength and sets the stage for learning and progress in any endeavor.”

Principles are a practice

Whether you’re following religious principles, Stoicism, Buddhism, Tao, or any other school of philosophy, the consistent goal is to practice the principles in our everyday lives.

“The life of wisdom begins with learning how to put principles, such as ‘We ought not to lie,’ into practice. The second step is to demonstrate the truth of the principles, such as why it is that we ought not to lie. The third step, which connects the first two, is to indicate why the explanations suffice to justify the principles. While the second and third steps are valuable, it is the first step that matters most. For it is all too easy and common to lie while cleverly demonstrating that lying is wrong.”

This is when “self-scrutiny applied with kindness” is helpful because it’s easy to believe that we are this kind of person, when in fact our actions prove otherwise. Abiding to our principles especially in times of grief or annoyance are testaments to our character. We will fail from time to time, without a doubt, but to reflect on our failures and to internalize the lessons are practices that lead to growth.

The Art of Living teaches us how to do just that: live well. The wisdom outlined in this book, and the interpretation by Sharon Lebell, is so clear that page after page the words should strike a cord and provide a sense of clarity and direction. This book isn’t a 500-page tome filled with jargon and ambiguous terms. The principles are straight forward, blunt, and in essence immediately practical. In the words of Seneca, “The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life.” Find knowledge that helps you deal with your troubles and worries and generously apply it throughout your life.

My Book, Connect The Dots, Is Now Available

I am beyond excited to finally announce that my book, Connect The Dots: Strategies and Meditations on Self-education, is finished and available. (Print version will be available in April.)

Connect The Dots is about embarking on the path of self-education. This book will redefine what education means to you, as well as foster an intense desire to learn and study subjects that are practical to your goals and endeavors. I’m sharing a skill that I’ve developed over the last few years. Self-education has  served as a wellspring for self-awareness, understanding, learning, humility, purpose, and joy. It is the single most valuable asset and habit that has helped me reinvent my life.

Here’s the book trailer.

 

 

A few ways you can help:

1. There is, without a doubt in my mind, someone you know that can immediately benefit from reading this book, someone who is frustrated with traditional education or just overall life. Please share this with them. Show them the trailer. The eBook is $4 and the print will be priced at $8. The information that I’m providing will serve as a solid foundation for self-education. I’m not saying my way is the only way, but it is a start.

2. Write an honest review for me after you finish reading the book.  Not only does this help potential readers know if the book is right for them, but it will also help me improve as a writer.

3. This is my first time doing print copies. As previously mentioned, it will be available in April, only because the process takes way longer than making an electronic book. But the book will be gorgeous, and it will make a great gift to someone who is searching for tools or methods to improve their work and life.

Most importantly, thank you for giving me the privilege and opportunity to share my work and ideas.

Click on the cover to purchase the book.

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Why We Are Wired For Social Connection

Understanding the nature of brands alleviated my self-serving and pessimistic judgements on social sharing like selfies and uploading pictures of brand name items. After studying the concept of brands, I wanted to fully understand why we share things online and why we care about how many likes or retweets we get. My friend told me a story once about two girls who kept taking selfies to “get the right one.” Then they spent another half hour looking for the right filter to upload it to Instagram. Once they uploaded it, they sat on their phones for nearly an hour while waiting for likes, constantly hitting the refresh button.

I could have started with judgements like, “that’s pathetic,” or “narcissists,” or “Gen-Ys at their finest,” but that doesn’t help anyone, not even me. So I asked a simple question: Why?

After reading Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect by Dr. Matthew Lieberman, professor at UCLA and a social cognitive neuroscientist, I have a newfound perspective on human nature, social sharing, and I am beginning to understand just how our behaviors with technology reflect our natural state of being: social. After all, in the words of famous communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan, “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Matthew Lieberman says it perfectly:

“We are wired to be social. We are driven by deep motivations to stay connected with friends and family. We are naturally curious about what is going on in the minds of other people. And our identities are formed by the values lent to us from the groups we call our own. These connections lead to strange behaviors that violate our expectation of rational self-interest and make sense only if our social nature is taken as a starting point for who we are.”

Evolution, of course, has played a major role in how our brain developed. Let’s imagine our ancestors: How could an individual survive on their own? It wasn’t feasible. Instead, forming groups, a tribe, was a surefire way to ensure survival, growth, and reproduction.

Lieberman says [emphasis by me]:

“Most accounts of human nature ignore our sociality altogether. Ask people what makes us special and they will rattle off tried-and-true answers like ‘language,’ ‘reason,’ and ‘opposable thumbs.’ Yet the history of human sociality can be traced back at least as far as the first mammals more than 250 million years ago, when dinosaurs first roamed the planet. Our sociality is woven into a series of bets that evolution has laid down again and again throughout mammalian history. These bets come in the form of adaptations that are selected because they promote survival and reproduction. These adaptations intensify the bonds we feel with those around us and increase our capacity to predict what is going on in the minds of others so that we can better coordinate and cooperate with them. The pain of social loss and the ways that an audience’s laughter can influence us are no accidents. To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth. Yet these social adaptations also keep us a mystery to ourselves. We have a massive blind spot for our own social wiring. We have a theory of ‘who we are,’ and this theory is wrong.”

Lieberman also brings up a great point on evolution and the growth of our brains [emphasis by me]:

“The human brain didn’t get larger in order to make more MacGyvers. Instead, it got larger so that after watching an episode of MacGyver, we would want to get together with other people and talk about it. Our social nature is not an accident of having a larger brain. Rather, the value of increasing our sociality is a major reason for why we evolved to have a larger brain.”

It’s easy and common to look at a specific kind of behavior and find it distasteful. Although our opinion may contain some validity, at the end of it all our negative judgements are usually due to a lack of understanding and hating on things we don’t understand is also a part of human nature. Again, the idea of sharing things online, posting selfies, using metrics like retweets and Facebook likes as a sign of social acceptance are all reflective of human nature: to reach out and interact, to belong, to connect, to be acknowledged. Because we’re all children when it comes to technology, it’s evermore important to be mindful of our behaviors and to apply principles so that we don’t mistake checking our social graph as real work.

There are 3 major elements to to our social hardwiring. Lieberman says:

“Just as there are multiple social networks on the Internet such as Facebook and Twitter, each with its own strengths, there are also multiple social networks in our brains, sets of brain regions that work together to promote our social well-being. These networks each have their own strengths, and they have emerged at different points in our evolutionary history moving from vertebrates to mammals to primates to us, Homo sapiens. Additionally, these same evolutionary steps are recapitulated in the same order during childhood.

Connection: Long before there were any primates with a neocortex, mammals split off from other vertebrates and evolved the capacity to feel social pains and pleasures, forever linking our well-being to our social connectedness. Infants embody this deep need to stay connected, but it is present through our entire lives.

Mindreading: Primates have developed an unparalleled ability to understand the actions and thoughts of those around them, enhancing their ability to stay connected and interact strategically. In the toddler years, forms of social thinking develop that outstrip those seen in the adults of any other species. This capacity allows humans to create groups that can implement nearly any idea and to anticipate the needs and wants of those around us, keeping our groups moving smoothly.

Harmonizing: The sense of self is one of the most recent evolutionary gifts we have received. Although the self may appear to be a mechanism for distinguishing us from others and perhaps accentuating our selfishness, the self actually operates as a powerful force for social cohesiveness. During the preteen and teenage years, adolescents focus on their selves and in the process become highly socialized by those around them. Whereas connection is about our desire to be social, harmonizing refers to the neural adaptations that allow group beliefs and values to influence our own.”

There is an abundance of examples and studies throughout this book, but before this piece gets too long, I want to focus on the default network of our brain. Before reading this book, I never gave the brain’s default setting any thought. Do we think in terms of self or in terms of social? Lieberman explains [emphasis by me]:

 “If you are like most people, you thought about other people, yourself, or both. In other words, you engaged in what psychologists call social cognition, which is simply another way of describing thinking about other people, oneself, and the relation of oneself to other people. A college sophomore asked to do boring repetitive tasks in a psychology experiment in order to earn money to take someone on a date will start thinking, as soon as there is a break in the task, about the girl, the date, and whether or not she really likes him. So perhaps the default network that comes on when we are given a break from performing cognitive tasks is involved in social cognition, the capacity to think about other people and ourselves. It took a while to find out whether or not that was true because social neuroscientists weren’t paying attention to research on the default network at first. What the brain does when we stop doing a motor task does not sound like the kind of thing a social neuroscientist would usually care about. But as it happens, the network in the brain that reliably shows up during social cognition studies is virtually identical to the default network. In other words, the default network supports social cognition— making sense of other people and ourselves.”

[...]

“There is a second reason to think default network activity is often a cause, rather than a consequence, of our focus on the social world. Typically, the default network is studied by giving people extended periods of rest, ranging from thirty seconds to several minutes. It is easy to imagine that with all that time, people intentionally turn their minds to whatever matters to them in their daily lives. But what if people had only a few seconds of downtime? Imagine solving a math problem; afterward, you know you have just two seconds before the next math problem. It’s unlikely that people would decide to try to think about anything other than getting ready for the next math problem. Nevertheless, when Robert Spunt, Meghan Meyer, and I gave people only a few seconds of pause between math problems, they showed almost the same default network activity as when they had much longer breaks. In fact, the default network activity was present the instant the math problems were finished. This suggests that the default network really does come on like a reflex. It is the brain’s preferred state of being, one that it returns to literally the second it has a chance.”

So a question worth is asking is, “When or how does the brain flick back and forth between conscious tasks and then back to the default setting?”:

The default network quiets down when we perform a specific task, such as calculating a math problem in math class or studying ancient Greek pottery in history class. But when the mind’s chores are done, it returns to Old Faithful— the default mode. In other words, the brain’s free time is devoted to thinking socially. Consciously or not, it seems to be processing (and perhaps reprocessing) social information, as well as priming us for social life. It might be using this time to integrate new experiences into our long-standing knowledge of other people, their relationships with one another, or our relationships with them. It might be used to extract information from recent interactions to update the general rules we use for understanding the minds of others. This neural habit is at work in two-day-old infants and in our adult brains the moment we stop whatever else we are doing. In essence, our brains are built to practice thinking about the social world and our place in it.”

If the brain’s free time is devoted to social thinking, does this explain why we obsessively go on our phones, close off whatever we’re doing, and then unconsciously return to it without any meaningful purpose — and worse, without being aware of it?

Studies have shown how receiving messages provides a rush of endorphins, similar to an intense exercise. Lori Deschene, in Manage Your Day-to-Day, shares the results of an interesting study [emphasis by me]:

“Purposeful action requires clear intentions. But we’ve all logged on to a social network without them. We may have been procrastinating and looking for a distraction, or feeling angry, annoyed, or frustrated and seeking to escape that feeling. Research shows that we actually get a small rush of endorphins—the same brain chemicals we enjoy after completing an intense exercise—when we receive a new message. Talking about ourselves also triggers the reward center of our brains, making it even more compelling to narrate our daily activities.”

[To see the study, see: Diana I. Tamir and Jason P. Mitchell, “Disclosing Information About The Self Is Intrinsically Rewarding,” PNAS, vol. 109, no. 21 (2012): 8038-8043.]

To end with a boom quote, Lieberman says, “The self is more of a superhighway for social influence than it is the impenetrable private fortress we believe it to be.” We are deeply motivated and influenced by other people. Our brain’s default setting is to think socially. We strive to differentiate ourselves from others as much as we want to belong and connect to our desired tribe. Now, whenever I see obsessive cell phone usage or someone’s Instagram feed of nothing but their face, abs, or boobs, I am more readily mindful of stopping myself from passing negative judgement. Instead, I now understand this kind of behavior is deeply reflective of our human nature, and technology is doing nothing but making that process effortless and widespread. However, just because it’s part of our human nature doesn’t mean that we should mindlessly succumb to our devices and run wild with these behaviors. We must be mindful of our tools, actions, and to always remember that the best kind of interaction and connection is one that humans have been engaging in way before we’ve been connecting through the glow of our screens.

Social is a rich read. At times, especially if you aren’t used to psychology/science books, it can be overwhelming. There is a lot of information to devour, many concepts and terms you may have never heard of, but believe me, stick through it and at the end of the book you will have a much greater understanding about your brain, its functions, and ultimately about yourself.