REVIEW: Not Fade Away, Peter Barton

Not Fade Away: A Short Life Well LivedNot Fade Away: A Short Life Well Lived by Laurence Shames
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In perhaps a misguided attempt to explore what it means to “live well”, a couple months ago I bought a bunch of books on dying. Or more correctly, on living knowing you are dying. While everyone is dying, most people live like it will never happen to them. Rarely do you hear from those who are actively living a life with the full, active knowledge that they are dying. The Stoics say EVERYONE should live every day like this, and wrote in detail about how to do that. Unfortunately modern man tends to not consider death until it is too late. The ones who do write about it tend to have some kind of terminal illness that brings the question to the top of mind. So the most available modern thinkers on living well while dying are the rich, smart terminally ill. Like Peter Barton. Or Paul Kalanithi.

Barton is not a philosopher. He was a very successful and smart business man. The book (thankfully) doesn’t spend too much time on biography and all the self important things done in life (although Barton did some awesome things). Barton stays focused on what the cancer was TEACHING him about living. On how to separate the body and the mind/soul. On how to focus on building the present. Barton had a partner writer live with him and help write the book over the last 9 months of his life. While I understand why he did this (he was not a writer), the chapters trade off between Barton’s first person account and Shames’ second person account. I didn’t like that structure and wish it had all been first person (even if it was ghost written).

I guess what I am looking for in these books are the nuggets that become self evident when you know your days are numbered, that you should have figured out beforehand. Here are some of my favorites.

“… as death grows imminent, the fear of it no longer serves a purpose.”

“My frame of mind was something I could still control.”

“Don’t ask permission, just beg forgiveness. If you’re going to make a mistake, make it with your foot on the accelerator. If you drive with one foot on the brake, you’re not for us.”

“No future. If that notion is surreal and terrifying, it is also vastly liberating.”

“…wealth is a great deal more enjoyable if you’ve already taught yourself that you can have a good time without it.”

“There’s a next level where the soul can go, and the body can’t. Not that dissolving a partnership is every easy. But the alternative is even worse. Let the sout be sullied by the complaints of the body, and you’ve lost not only in one of life’s arenas, but two. ”

“When I hurt, I hurt. But it’s the attitude toward the pain that makes all the difference. Pain can make you thoroughly miserable, or pain can just be pain.”

Overall, a worthwhile read, but not 5 stars due to the clunky structure and mixed narrative.

View all my reviews

DO THIS: Build your Agency skills

Here at DGC, we have discovered first hand the power of reframing and Agency.  One of the keys to building the capacity to make a decision (agency) is facing down your fears.  I have talked about the coffee cup facing the flinch experiment and examining minor fears with data before.  This week I found another very instructive situation in which there is a choice to build Agency or not.

A key tactic in the war to build Agency and overcome Fears is to pick your battles.  Pick the right ones. The ones where you have an advantage.  Ones where you have enough Agency to win.

This week a friend was over for dinner.  Around 8:30 she headed out to her car to leave.  She came back in 5 minutes later.

“I don’t want to leave.” she said.

“Whats wrong?”

“I only have 25 miles of gas and it is dark and cold and I don’t know if I can make it home.”

“There is a gas station less than a mile away, just stop there.”

“No, I am scared of getting gas by myself at night.”

“Well are you more scared of not getting home?”

“I don’t know, what should I do?”

And there you have it.  Dueling fears causing paralysis.  But a decision has to be made.  How to decide which fear to face?  My recommendation is always to face the fear in which you have MORE AGENCY, more capacity to make a decision.  Regardless of the outcome, having made an affirmative conscious decision, builds capacity to make more decisions. Being passive and submissive builds more of the same as well.

Lets consider the facts and relative merits of each fear.

Fear of getting gas at night alone as a single woman.   There certainly is merit to this fear.  While the absolute probability of something bad happening is VERY low (probably less than 1:20,000) (FBI stats put overall threat of woman rape at 52:100,000 or a 0.0529% chance of being raped anywhere in one year, so a GAS STATION AT NIGHT is even more rare):, this one is very easy for the monkey mind to catastrophize about.  The story is “don’t be alone.”  And there are things you can do at a gas station to make you less of a target to reduce the odds even more. You can choose a full service gas station where the guy pumps for you.  I offered to drive down in my car with her to fill up so she would not be alone.  The bottom line is that with she had a HIGH degree of AGENCY with this fear; she could do some actions to modify the out come, change the odds in here favor.  So the FACTS say this is a VERY unlikely event to occur, she had high Agency relative to the fear, but the emotional merits/appeal is quite high and understandable.

Fear of running out of gas.  The facts for my friend were that she lived about 10 miles away and had 25 miles on the range meter in the car.  Most cars are conservative on their range meters so you are likely to have half a gallon or so left when the gauge reads zero.  With a 30 mpg car (which she had) that means the real range is likely 40 miles.  So the probability of running out of gas is likely equal to the probability of an electronics failure causing improper measurement combined with the probability of some other major car system failure.   While I couldn’t find any hard stats on either of these, I did find anecdotal predictions between 0.01 – 0.10 % of each type of failure (combined 0.02 – 0.20 %)  It is not a huge logical leap to conclude that fear of running out of gas an fear of being attacked at a gas station are approximately the same.  But there is VERY LOW AGENCY in running out of gas.  You either are or are not.  The only thing you can do to improve you odds is Fear #1, getting more gas.  On the harm scale, being out of gas somewhere random is probably more dangerous than being out of gas at a gas station, but you have to stack the odds of attack onto the odds of running out of gas making the odds of both running out of gas AND something bad happening much longer than either event separately.  But emotionally I can understand that being alone with a broken down car on the side of the road would cause more angst than being alone in a lit gas station with an attendant. So low probability event (likely equal to fear #1), low agency in fear, and roughly equal emotional appeal on outcomes.

So what did I tell my friend?  To face the gas fear, go get more gas.  Why?

  1.  She has Agency in the gas fear. She can change the odds.  Face her fear at a time and place of her choosing.
  2. By solving fear #1, you also solve fear #2.  Two birds with one stone.

What did she do?  Took her chances with the gas and put off the fill up.  That is completely understandable. But it was also a missed opportunity.  An opportunity to face down and practice overcoming a paralyzing fear.  One which is keeping her from enjoying driving around the city at night.  Why let a 0.05% chance event cause you angst EVERY NIGHT of the year?  Instead her monkey mind choose the easy path, the path of passive acceptance that an unlikely event may happen and she would deal with it then.  While that decision is understandable, it does not grow the individual.  Not every growth opportunity should be taken every time, but I encourage you to take more when you see them.  The first step is awareness and recognition that you do in fact have a decision and one option is better (growth) than the other.

So next time you are faced with a decision between two fears, choose to face the one in which you have more Agency.  You will be stronger for it!

Glossary: Agency

A key aspect of building Authenticity in your life is building your capacity for Action; to make a decision.  Action based on contemplation.  Actions which stem from an individual with a high level of social reflexivity having actively chosen your own social norms, tastes, politics, desires and so on.   Of course the professors have a word for the capacity for action:  Agency.

As with many things here at DGC, we try to keep Agency out of the good/bad have/have not bipolar paradigm.  Since Agency is a “capacity” it is more a “how full is the cup?” sort of thing.  For some decisions you have tons of Agency; “What color of underwear should I put on today?”.  For others, not so much; “Should I wear white at a funeral?”

If you don’t have Agency to make a decision, action is not possible.  So I am all about building Agency.  Building the capacity to make a decision. Many times this involves breaking through social norms or fears that prevent action.  Then encouraging those decisions to be made.  Start with simple decisions (action), build up capacity and make bigger ones.  That is how anyone at the top of their game got there.  You get to the big table by playing the small tables well.  More Agency is almost always a good thing.  But Agency doesn’t mean bucking the trend by making outrageous decisions all the time.  Agency is the CAPACITY to make a decision not a directive to be an outlier all the time.  So is being aware enough to realize a bad decision (action) (see above white at a funeral) is also a display of strong AGENCY.

Glossary: Cognitive Reframing

The verb to “reframe” means exactly what it sounds like: “to put a picture in a new frame.”  When put in the context of consciousness and the self, that frame is the stories we tell ourselves.  The positive or negative stories about life.  The Wikipedia entry on Cognitive Reframing (which was obviously written by the CBT zealots), says it is a “psychological technique that consists of identifying and then disputing irrational or maladaptive thoughts.”  This is a fairly one sided view of reframing as it focuses exclusively on identifying the negative and re-writing it as positive.

Here at DGC we take it up a level by focusing on AUTHENTICITY of thoughts over binary good/bad paradigm.  Every story or thought is a Frame.  Your mind has framed your experience based on all your other experiences, thoughts, learnings, and actions.  The Frame is neither good nor bad on its face it just is what it is.  The question which is more interesting is does the Frame serve me now?  And if it doesn’t serve me, what can I do to change (reframe) it?  How do I build skills to change the underlying stories so that new experiences come with a new frame?  It is not just about reframing on experience, it is about changing the story overall so that future experiences build on the story that serves you and is authentic.  Reframing is a general change in a person’s story/mindset whether it is positive or negative.  I have found that some of the most destructive stories in my life have been positive ones driven by my ego.

So at DGC we encourage a cognitive reframing process (and design exercises to support) that goes something like this:

  1. Skillfully OBSERVE your thoughts and stories to identify the true major stories which are the underpinnings of your life.  The ones that keep causing certain actions to recur over time.
  2. CONTEMPLATE with compassion and kindness these stories by asking the question: Does this story still serve me now?  And will it serve me in the future as my journey continues?  Do not be critical of the past.  The past is gone.  Consider putting down the baggage.  Or not.  But at least consider it.  Pay special attention to see if there are any of the common COGNITIVE BIASes in your stories.  Become aware of your own biases.
  3. ACTIVELY DECIDE how the story will continue.  Will it continue with the same cognitive biases as before? With the same summary and conclusion of factual events?  Or do you want to change your story, reframe it, into one which does serve you going forward.

For those of you that love acronyms you can have a new one: DGC Reframing process: OCA; Observe, Contemplate, Action.  Reframe anything that no longer serves you.

TEDFAV: How positive psychology has reversed how we “get” happiness, now you actually can

Pretty much all my life when I have wondered how to “get” or “achieve” happiness, the answer has gone something like this:  “First do X,Y,Z, then when you have achieved A,B,C, you can then be happy.”  Pretty much the entire western world has a cognitive happiness model with happiness delayed in the future after some long journey with various achievements along the way.  Consumer society is the most obvious offender “Buy This and get That”.  But career advice, most religious traditions and even the “self help” industry reinforces this delayed gratification mental model.

This model always caused my BS meter to go off.  Wouldn’t being happy now cause you and everyone around you to be happier now?  Why couldn’t I be happy now but still have dreams?  When hard or bad things happened, why should I allow that to make me unhappy?  Are there ways to build happiness NOW without buying into some huge new mental model of the world (one religion say), or hanging my hopes on THE ONE TRUE THING sold by GURUX?  I was always VERY skeptical that anyone or any organization had THE ONE TRUE THING that if I just bought it, practiced it, or believed it, all my problems would disappear and happiness would bloom like flowers.  Or Unicorns.

Well it turns out my contrarian view has attracted some scientists who have been building a new mental model about happiness which is EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of what we have been taught.  The field is Positive Psychology.  One of the lights is Shawn Anchor and he has a brilliant TED talk about the new model.   Anchor is also very entertaining and funny using many personal stories to describe the new model.  In the end he gives five evidence based practices that have been shown to be able to raise the “base happiness” level in people NOW.  You don’ t have to believe anything, buy anything, or join a cult.  By adding a couple of simple practices, in total of less than 20 minutes a day, you can reliably and quantifiably increase your base happiness level.  When you do that, it is self reinforcing and the world around you (seems to) change.  Actually what you have changed is your mindset from a “everything sucks, i am going to be happy later”, to “I am happy now and happiness is my natural state.”  If you are looking for an evidence based approach to happiness with some concrete exercises, this is for you.

Grab some popcorn.  Watch this one.  Change your life.

TEDFAV: Matthieu Ricard on Happieness

Ok, this talk is from way back in the stone ages (2004), but the message is eternally relevant.  Ricard is a French scientist who turned Buddhist monk in the Himalayas.  His scientific western mind syncs well with my own, making his framing of happiness as really “well being” is very accessible to me.  This is really a deep dive into how/why we “search for happiness” and how that search is in vain and going for the wrong goal.  Why do so many people “search for happiness” through conditions (get this car, get that place, do x, y, z) yet so few are successful.  By reframing the search and reframing the goal away from conditions and toward inner strengths, success is possible.  Ricard describes how to build the INNER conditions that are the real foundations of true happiness.

I can also recommend any of his books.

TEDFAV: Andy from Headspace on mindfulness

I had heard about meditation for along time before I was actually able to actually learn it.  It wasn’t until the Headspace app came out from Andy Puddicombe that meditation became accessible to me.   While many people deal with a busy mind by drinking, working, exercising, Andy went to Tibet and became a monk.  Now he is back to describe this ancient practice in very accessible terms to all of us in the west.  Oh, and he juggles as a visual aide.   Worth 10 minutes!

TEDFAV: Eckart Tolle on meditation

Ok, not a TED talk, but a very short and interesting talk on what meditation is, how it works, and why it is important.  In Eckhart’s unique self deprecating style.  Meditation is not a “doing” it is a “being”.

It is about being in the present moment. About tuning into the present.  In his words:

All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence. People don’t realize that now is all there ever is; there is no past or future except as memory or anticipation in your mind. 

In 8 minutes, this is what Meditation is and how it will change your mind:

 

TEDFAV: Talk to your kids about food

One of my daughters, Madison, had alopecia.  Yea I had to look it up too.  It is a autoimmune disease that causes the hair to fall out.   For a six year old girl it was particularly horrifying to have big bald spots on her head.  In the mad scramble for the cause and a cure, we ended up learning quite alot about food.  Ok, mom Jen Pitts learned alot about food and Dad came along begrudgingly.  Yea like usual.  Good food, bad food, and especially rethinking what I learned about food in school, especially the “food pyramid”.   Turns out the “food pyramid” was created mostly by industrial food lobbyist rather than nutritionists.  It also turns out that school lunches are one of the leading contributors to our overall decline in child health in America.  School lunches are all too often the target of easy recipes and  cost cutting.

Jamie Oliver has a different idea.  In this TED talk he really lays bare the bad trade we are making with out children’s health when we go for industrial food lobby cheap lunch programs.  He has successfully delivered healthy food in the same budgets around the world.  It is really all about attitude.  Watch the talk, change your mind.  Pack your own lunch.

TEDFAV: Everything you think about addiction is wrong

I am starting a new category here at DGC, my favorite TED talks of all time.  Sometimes they will be on-topic with the other themes here at DGC, sometimes they will be totally random.  The common thread will be that these talks made me think, made me contemplate in a new way.   Maybe the talk challenged a belief or bias I had.  Maybe it introduced me to a new field I never considered.  Maybe someone just communicated an eternal truth in a new and interesting way.  In any case, I have listened to hundreds of TED talks and attended a couple of their in person meetings.  These are the ones I pass on to friends.

The first one I want to share is about addiction.  Maybe you have struggled with it yourself as I have (gambling, cell phones, etc.) or maybe you know someone who has.  But the question is, how should addicts be treated? The common method in America is to shun them and punish them.  Yet much of the addictive behavior is a cry for attention, for attachment, a reaching out for connection.  Pushing them away is exactly the opposite of what is needed.  Hari really breaks it down for us from debunking the erroneous studies behind current policy to highlighting success with new approaches.  This talk is not just for policy wonks, it is for all of us. It can help us have more compassion for the addicts in our lives, including ourselves.  Watch it.