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Noise pollution, German wisdom, and System 2 success
Let’s get right into it this week…
Turn down the noise pollution
Through the lens of evolution, loud noises signalled danger.
A bear growling, thunder and lightning crashing down, strong winds and stormy rain, or rocks tumbling down the side of a mountain.
Other than the noise from potential threats, our environment was pretty quiet.
But modern life has changed that.
Scientists from the University of Michigan report that over 100 million Americans live in noise levels of 70 decibels – that’s louder than standing next to a working washing machine or dishwasher.
Many of us have even become uncomfortable in silence which likely signals a widespread inability to sit mindfully with our own thoughts (but that’s a whole other can of worms).
And it gets worse.
The World Health Organization released a report indicating that the constant noise many of us live in may be taking years off of our lives.
When we hear an unexpected loud noise, we get spooked and jump out of our chairs.
Our bodies naturally kick into fight-or-flight mode to prepare us for action by releasing the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
Since loud noises used to be infrequent but potentially dangerous, this natural response kept us alive and safe.
But in the modern world, jolting background noises are common and rarely signal real danger but still trigger the same stress hormone response.
In addition to the odd startling noise, we’re subject to a constant drip of loud background noises.
Constant noise keeps us on high alert 24/7 and stresses us out. Think back to the last time you walked down the sidewalk in a major city.
People are tense, stern-faced, honking in their cars, and rushing to make a light so they don’t have to wait for an extra 30 seconds.
I can observe this phenomenon in myself.
When I get off the train in Toronto, my brain automatically and subconsciously switches into a primal “find and kill this f*cking lion before it gets you” mentality and I have to remind myself to take a breath and calm down.
Loud noises no longer signal a life-threatening danger but, ironically, are putting us at harm by causing increased levels of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Some studies even indicate background noise might be impacting anxiety and depression and impairing our attention, memory, learning, and interactions with others.
Seek Silence, You Must
The level of tension we experience while immersed in noisy environments noticeably fades away with the onset of silence.
So, how can we find more silence in our lives?
Forest bathing, or spending time in nature, is a great place to start.
You could invest in a pair of earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones if you live in a city.
You don’t have to go full monk mode and buy a cabin in the woods but try to integrate a little more silence into your days.
Ultimately, the best solution is the one that you can sustainably maintain.
Consistency is king.
German wisdom from an industrial designer
Dieter Rams was a German industrial designer famous for saying weniger aber besser.
In English, this translates to less but better.
So what? Why does this matter?
Applying this maxim has the potential to improve every single aspect of our lives.
From our workout routine, to career, to relationships, there are benefits to be reaped by doing less things of better quality.
For example, weigh these trade-offs while asking yourself, “what will have a greater positive impact on my life?”
Having 10 acquaintances OR one comrade you can entrust with anything?
Rushing through 12 exercises in one workout OR performing six with maximal focus and intent?
Ripping through 10 good books OR digesting and applying the lessons from one great book?
Replying to email after email OR blocking yourself off from the world in 90-minute intervals to perform focused deep work on one project?
This idea is especially important in our modern world of constantly squeezing more into our overstuffed schedules without removing something first.
We fail to recognize our finite capacity and think we can have, do, and be everything.
But we can’t.
Trade-offs are essential.
You have to say no to the 1,000 great options in order to make the necessary space to say yes to the one to three marvellous options.
Steve Jobs knew this when he said:
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all.
It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.
I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”
At this point, you might be thinking “Thanks for the lecture, Dixon. But how can I use this in my own life?”
I can’t answer that for you but as a hopeful source of inspiration, here’s what I’m doing…
Eating my own dog food
Here are a few ways I’m doing less but better in my own life:
More boredom. Rather than compulsively filling empty space on my calendar with more stuff, I want to carve out time to be bored. To walk, sit and think, or spend in nature.
Say “No” more. If my response to an engagement isn’t “HELL YA!” then it should be a no. We spend far too much time doing things we regret signing up for, feel obliged to do, or don’t have the guts to say no to. I’d rather have an empty block of time than a commitment I’m not fired up for.
Play more. Play has been on my mind lately. Although I’m not entirely sure how to integrate more of it into my life (suggestions welcome), it seems worth pursuing. When at play you enter a state of relaxation, flow, ease, and joy. That headspace invites creativity and problem-solving and leads to a general sense of enjoyment, fun, and pleasure. Everything else clicks when you’re enjoying the moment.
Not majoring in minor things. It’s easy to trick yourself into feeling productive by doing something well or doing a bunch of things fast. When I notice myself falling into one of these traps, I want to stop immediately and ask myself “What is the most essential thing I should be doing with my time right now?” What you do is often far more important than how well or how quickly you do it. Better to accomplish one task that moves the dial each day than fourteen that don’t produce or build to a result.
If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
And there is no more certain path to regret and misery than someone else calling the shots in your life.
Prioritize ruthlessly. And do less but better.
Defining your own version of “success” with System 2 thinking
Last week, I sent this question to a few of my close friends and family:
“When you think of the word successful, who’s the third person that comes to mind?
And why are they actually more successful than the first person that came to mind?”
– Derek Sivers on The Tim Ferriss Show
This is a great question for a few reasons…
Reason #1: It forces your brain to actually think and reason.
Name a painting. Mona Lisa.
A scientist? Einstein.
A composer? Mozart.
Our default response is always the first thing or person that comes to mind. It’s automatic.
Our brains aren’t generating original ideas, reasoning, and providing a well thought-out answer.
They are just responding with the first thing that society or previous experiences conditioned them to think.
So your first answer to a “successful person” was probably someone like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or Elon Musk.
Society tells us they’re successful, so what the heck, we believe it.
System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations (choice, concentration, etc.).
Rather than allowing your System 1 brain to take over, this question forces your System 2 to kick in and define what success means to you and then to think of someone who embodies those characteristics.
One of my close friends gave me a wonderful answer that demonstrates System 2 reasoning and thought:
“Just off the top of my head it went Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and then [my girlfriend’s dad].
He had a really lucrative job but he really just lives a super comfortable life now.
He works at the cottage whenever he feels like it and doesn’t really rush to do anything.
He was never divorced and has some solid friends.
He’s also just really smart, both book and street. He has the answer to every question anyone in his family has.
Even his negative qualities, he owns up to. He can be a little socially awkward (according to him) but he just rocks it.”
If I had asked him “Who do you think is successful?” his default, no-thinking required answer would have been Elon Musk and the conversation would have been over.
But instead, he looked inside, reflected on his core values, and generated a unique answer encompassing what success looks like to him.
This perfectly leads into our next point…
Reason #2: It’s too important of a question to let your System 1 brain answer.
Success in our Western society has become synonymous with riches and fame.
And sadly most of us have accepted that definition without realizing or questioning how it ended up in our minds and if we even agree with it in the first place.
It was forged subconsciously over time (like many of the beliefs we hold).
But given the premise that we’re going to spend a good chunk of our adult lives chasing “success,” don’t you think it’s worth spending the mental brain power to create your own definition of what a successful life means?
I stole the question this section started with from musician, entrepreneur, and TED speaker Derek Sivers.
His response to his own question perfectly captures the importance of defining success for yourself rather than thoughtlessly accepting society’s version:
“My third and real answer is we can’t know, without knowing their aims.
What if Richard Branson set out to live a quiet life, but like a compulsive gambler, just can’t stop creating companies?
Then that changes everything, and we can’t call him successful anymore.”
So, what does a successful life mean to you? And who embodies it?
I find it helpful to answer this question by peering through the lens of three more questions:
What kind of person do I want to be?
What makes me feel meaningful or fulfilled?
What ingredients do I need to create a great day?
If you can find a few people who embody your answers to those questions then your System 2 brain has independently thought, reasoned, and formed your own definition of success.
And whatever that definition is, it will certainly be better than the one society spoon-fed us.
And, as always, please give me feedback. Which section is your favourite? What do you want more or less of? Other suggestions? Just hit reply to this email and let me know.
Much love to you and yours,
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