What type of crap are you willing to tolerate

The questions we usually ask are: What activities bring purpose to my life? What do I enjoy doing? What am I passionate about? These are all good questions but they miss something important: everything sucks, some of the time.

As Mark Manson asks, “What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich?”

It’s about what we are willing to tolerate in order to get the part we love. I love dance, for instance, but I am not willing to endure the injuries that one gets from dancing all day. I am also not willing to deal with all the uncertainty that every artist has to put up with. Ergo, dance is not my main preoccupation.

I often wonder whether I truly enjoy research. I love asking the big questions, and it also fascinates me to find practical ways to study them. It’s beautiful to see a clever experimental design and marvel at the creativity that went into coming up it. I learn from such designs in the hope that one day I will be able to come up with experimental like that myself and study the questions I find intriguing. But there is also a lot of uninspiring work that goes into all of this. Learning the methods of analysis, sitting in front of the computer, creating excel tables or matlab matrices, creating tiny stimuli, programming behavioral tasks, applying statistical analyses to neuroimaging data… Basically sitting in front of the computer a lot and dealing with details when one actually wants to know the answers to the large-scale questions. To be fair, I find some dorky enjoyment in some of those technical tasks. But a lot of it is booooooring and tedious.

For me the question is whether it is worthwhile to spend a few months on tedious tasks in order to briefly reach some outcome that might (or might not) give me an inkling of an answer to the question I wanted to address. It really does take a lot of time and effort to make a small step forward.

But then that’s true of probably anything. I am still working towards a clearer answer to whether that’s worthwhile for me, but so far it seems like it is. I may be willing to tolerate a large amount of tedious tasks in order to, at the end of the day, know that I have made a tiny step towards understanding how we perceive and experience the world. If I had all the choice in the world, this is the question I’d be answering, and research is one way to examine it (art is another, but let’s not go there right now). So for now I’m sticking with the shit sandwich of doing many technical analyses to try to reach some answer.

It’s also liberating to realize that there isn’t one amazing option out there that you’re missing out on. No matter what you do, it will suck at least a little bit, so you don’t have to keep looking for that perfect occupation. Good enough is good enough. Now all you need to do is figure out what is good enough for you. Good luck there…

A Choice: An Extrovert or an Introvert Tonight?

I often have a dilemma on a Friday or Saturday evening: do I stay at home cuddled up with a book or movie, or do I go out, be social, talk, dance, and laugh? Last weekend I experienced this dilemma particularly intensely.

This is the choice between our introverted side or our extroverted side. For some people it’s an easy choice, since one is more powerful than the other. For me the two are of similar strengths, so the answer is not straightforward.

On Friday, I had spent all day at the university and then done some work. I had a cozy dinner and cuddled up on my couch with a book (yes, I’m still in love with the book I wrote about here). I was supposed to meet my friends at 21.30 (9.30 pm) to go to a karaoke bar, but by the time I had to get ready, my eyes were drooping. I wanted to go to karaoke, I really did. I knew it would be fun. But at that particular moment my whole body was begging me to stay on that couch, under the soft blanket, and keep reading quietly. I listened to that plead. I apologized to my friends and stayed in the comfort of my home, my book, my relaxation. It was such a pleasant evening that I could feel my heart melt.

Then Saturday came. I was supposed to go out with a friend that evening, but he got sick. Suddenly I panicked: I really wanted to go out that night but my plan fell through. I called several other friends, but no one wanted to go out with me. I felt utterly lonely, and I cuddled up on the couch again with my book. It was enjoyable, but I also felt sorry for myself. Then a friend messaged me and invited me to this rock concert. I considered it: it sounded fun, but was I really in the mood for it? I had almost decided not to go, when I thought I’d check out what music the band was going to play at the show. Oh, it was awesome music! With a sudden surge of energy, I got dressed and went to the concert. It was so absorbing to listen to the music and dance! Being there in the crowd, watching the band, and letting the music sink in was so enjoyable. Afterwards my friend and I met some new people and stayed with them for the rest of the night, talking and dancing. This fun evening took me by surprise. The next morning I was smiling.

On Friday evening, I was happy to stay home and indulge in my book, following my introverted side. On Saturday evening, I was glad I got up from my couch and had a night full of music and people, following my extroverted side. Perhaps the balance between the two types of activities made me happy. One day I gratified one part of me, and the next day I appeased another part.

How do we choose when to pursue our introverted side and when to follow our extroverted side? The two evenings I described offered opportunities for both. I was uncertain about what to choose, but I listened to some cues. On Friday evening, I was really tired, so staying home appealed to me more. On Saturday evening, I was lonely and wanted to have fun, so I decided to go out. It’s not really so simple since there are many aspects that we consider before making a decision. But the cues are there, and we just need to tune in and notice which one is most important to us at the moment.

Interestingly, often we’ll be happy either way. Sometimes there is an event happening and you have to go. You might feel tired or in a different mood, but you go anyway. At times this can result in an unpleasant evening. But most often, your mood switches and suddenly you’re enjoying yourself. The extroverted and the introverted side don’t have to be so mutually exclusive. I can switch from one to the other quickly often, adapting to the context. In this way, I don’t need to actually make a decision but I follow the outside world. It can be surprisingly freeing.

The context can often make the decisions for us. We still guide the context, but not so strictly. Perhaps I can choose to go out on one of the weekend evenings and stay home on the other evening, providing myself a nice balance. But on which evening I do which can be left up to friends, events, chance, etc. And when we really have the choice in our hands, like I did last weekend, we can listen to the internal cues. Perhaps this is a good enough heuristic?