One of my goals for this year is to write more. Writing feels like something I’m “called to do.” I’m not sure exactly what this means, but I know what it feels like.Unfortunately, I hate writing. My saving grace is that I love it slightly more than I hate it. And so it is that I keep coming back. I’ll save the paean to my relationship with writing for another day.
For today, I just want to write, to get something out there. Good writing requires getting into a habit, a groove, building up a muscle, and those muscles have atrophied in me. I haven’t written anything longform since my Material piece nine months ago. Most of what I want to write—on how beauty will save the world, a defense of the category of art, a plausible metaphysics of reincarnation, a novella, etc.—requires good writing, a prospect I find daunting at present, so I’m opting for an easier route.
That’s not to say I intend for this to be terrible writing (wouldn’t that be a funny thing to intend to do?), but to lighten the burden of that first step, I’ll be writing a bit more loosely and diaristically about the year past and the year to come: 2022, 2023.
I’m a sucker for New Year’s. Most people I know are at best neutral toward it. Many of my friends hate it—the cacophony, the hype, the pressure to do something, the arbitrariness of this one infinitesimally small moment, the needlessly late night, the exhausting exhortation to be a New You. I love it—the howling, the excitement, the chasing desire to do something, the arbitrary yet potent symbolism of this one infinitesimally small moment, the vastness of the 3 o’clock night, the reinvigoration on the path to being your best self. I love both sides of New Year’s, the jubilation as well as the pause for reflection.The jubilation has passed, but the time for reflection and resolutions is still at hand. It’s with these things in mind that I write.
These are some things that happened to me in 2022; all true, most literally:
I started making art for a living. This led me to some weird, interesting, exhausting, and invigorating places: walking around Manhattan for 8 hours straight, encounters with with Laurie Anderson and Yves Klein (Laurie in person, Klein from beyond the grave), installing myself as an interactive exhibit in an art museum until getting found and kicked out, and “permissionlessly” exhibiting the first-ever NFT to be displayed at the National Gallery of Art. What started as the seed of a creative idea turned into a deluge of them. I uncorked a side of me that had been long-dormant, previously unable to find natural expression in any of the mediums I was acquainted with. I found this vehicle for expression not through a specific medium, but rather through a medium-agnostic approach (and thus liberation from medium), grounded in the beauty of expressing complex ideas through art.Art became a frame of mind in which I feel at home.
I burped really loudly at a guy who was rude to me at this club in LA where a decent number of famous people hang out.
I exercised delusional self-belief more than ever, outright refusing to work on anything that I wasn’t in love with, operating under the “practical” philosophy that time is the only commodity you can never get back. I watched my bank account dwindle to nothing as I persisted in this self-belief. I watched it recover as this bet finally paid off.
I felt accomplished for the first time in my adult life. I’d like to say this was due to some degree of inner peace attained, but it wasn’t. I think I’ve been stagnant for a few years, peace-wise.Rather, I just actually saw some externally validated success for once and felt accomplished on account of that. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always felt competent and even accomplished internally—being a self-taught x and y, overcoming z, building things I’m proud of, becoming a person I’m proud of—but never felt accomplished for things outside of me, in the world, for creating things that I find to be of value and having the world say “yes we agree” at a meaningful scale. More and more these days, people talk like the only thing you need for validation is your own approval. That if only you love and accept yourself (“all of yourself”) enough you’ll be okay. This, in my opinion, is a solipsistic byproduct of therapy culture, in which the answer lies within you. Salvation lies within you. You are a goddess. You are a god. You are powerful. You are enough. This isn’t a condemnation of therapy or our society’s increasing embrace of wellbeing practices. I spent three years building a mental health startup. I’m really into meditation. I love this shit. But some of therapy culture’s excesses can lead us astray, into a world where we focus so emphatically on self-care that it reaches a point of self-absorption. Let us not forget that we are social beings, and wellbeing is an interpersonal endeavor. There is a balance to be had. Buddhism, among the world’s oldest and most reliable “therapy cultures,” is instructional here. You must find your sangha. You must return to the marketplace. This year I received some validation from outside of me. I got a honey-glazed taste of the world telling me that I’m worthy. I liked the taste, and I’m okay with that.
I said goodbye to people I’ve known my whole life; to people I thought I’d know my whole life; to people I just met.
I refrained from posting some things online which were completely benign because I thought someone was going to try to kill me.
I moved. Three times. From DC to Brooklyn to DC to West Village. One of these was with a mere 10-day heads up, at the bidding of a group of people who vote on my life as part of a performance art bit thing. I’ve now lived in six different places for at least a couple months each over the last four years. Instead of feeling unsettled, though, I feel more at home in myself than ever. Rather than relying on the world around me to lend cues that I’m at home, I furnished the inner chambers of my psyche to fashion a warm and spacious abode within myself, a home I can take with me anywhere.
I “read” 50 books, failed myself a lot (but not for lack of trying), put on makeup for the first time, got scared, felt lost, stood naked in front of a crowd, got dumped a couple times, and threw up on myself for the first time in my adult life. I’d like to think I got something out of it all.
I did things I’ll find cringey in 5 years. I did things I already find cringey. I had a good time doing both.
I grew a mustache and luxuriated in a room-sized bed with a dozen other people on K.It was not an orgy. It was not an orgy.
I hoped too loudly and tried too hard to do too much and still have yet to learn my lesson.
I ran late to a lot of things. But only by a minute or so, because I sprinted, in a genuine effort to make it on time. But fuck excuses, I was still late and could have avoided it if I had prepared better in the first place. But I also started to get to some things on time, even early. That was new.
A lot of these are things that were new, but equally important is what’s old, almost boring. Some old things that stick around are evidence of a rut. Others are things that have stood the test of time. I ate salad. I worked out. I wrestled with compulsive thoughts. I guarded my solitude. I cherished family and old friends.
2022 was better than 2021. I had a handful of sleepless nights both years. In 2022, these were by choice. I was either up dancing til 7 in the morning or working on something I cared deeply about. Those are both good things. In 2021, those sleepless nights were not by choice, instead the product of a bout of anxiety-fueled insomnia lasting several months. That was a less good thing, but one I value nonetheless. Life’s gotta shake things up every once in a while, keep me on my toes. Both were good years. 2021 was a lot of searching. 2022, with the meager distance I have for hindsight and at risk of sounding corny, yielded more discovery. The best of these discoveries were rediscoveries. JB.Art. My voice. Many of life’s greatest discoveries are like this. In rediscovering something you once knew you get the buzz of the discovery, but you also have the distance from that first encounter to know that it’s real, not just a mirage, a seduction, an infatuation. Rediscovery is a feeling of coming home to yourself. 2022 was that in many ways for me.
I’m not sure there’s any great way to say this without sounding like a douche, but I take self-improvement pretty seriously. I make a deliberate process of it, and in this process I try to embrace both my pensive, thoughtful, organic side as well as the engineering side that wants to optimize the shit out of everything. This year, the result was a 15-page document marked by both reflection and planning, in which I voice my aspirations for the coming year and detail action plans for achieving them. That doc is a little too raw and personal to publish, so what follows is an abridged and annotated version thereof.
Writ large, I want 2023 to be a year of:
Plunging headlong into my art and writing practices and prolifically producing output that I’m proud of. To make real creative and discursive contributions and hopefully be recognized for them.
Depth over breadth in thought and work. Meaningful works of art and writing will be my receipts.
Seeing the world. I haven’t set foot outside of America in my adult life. I want to see, try, feel, and experience everything, and most of everything is beyond the shores of this country. My education as a human feels impoverished (relative to these aims) for not having ventured abroad. When I first started thinking about this, I thought that a small part of me finds it daunting to go this far afield and push to the limits of my comfort zone. This would be the easy answer posing as a thoughtful, vulnerable one. On further examination I realized I actually just fear taking that time off from work, being away from budding relationships, and missing out on everything happening here in New York. I’m not sure that makes it any easier to overcome.
Establishing a life, a home, a world for myself here in New York.
Cultivating physical health and vitality, more than ever. Last year I fucked my knee up a lil bit and it forced me to take significant time off playing soccer. I returned to action right around the new year and it left me invigorated to hit the ground running in 2023. There’s just about nothing I love in this world more than that beautiful game, and it’s important to me that I be able to play for a long, long time. I also just want to feel great and look okay at 80.
Deepening my meditation practice. I’m pretty convinced that a serious meditation practice is a path to something ultimate here on earth. I’ve been meditating daily for 7+ years now and I can see clearly the fruits that it yields. To the extent that this is something that can be quantified (it can’t), I’d say it has reduced my suffering by ~75%. I’ve also seen enough glimpses and heard enough accounts of meditation offering something far more than what I’ve attained such that I’m convinced that I’m only a fraction of the way along this journey. My personality demands fruition, resolution, obsession, perfection, salvation, so I’m going to chase well past the fraction that I’ve encountered.
Tracking back, these broad strokes goals are all rooted in a set of aims for my life that I penned back in 2021. Getting dialed in on goals can lead one to miss the forest in the trees, so I try to ground myself in these principles when I undertake exercises of this nature. To use a once-beautiful-but-now-somewhat-tainted metaphor, these are my north stars. Starting from this big picture, I then zoom in on general practices that have reliably brought me fulfillment in the pursuit of these aims. These include meditation, writing, learning, thinking and reflecting, exploring the mind, physical exercise, making and fixing things, music, food, design and art, novel experiences, being with people, loving people, laughing, making people laugh, and engaging in craft.
I design my life around these. A year in which I partake in them plentifully is a good year. Following from these + the north stars, I list domains I’d like to improve in and set goals for the year followed by specific “actionables”—first steps that naturally lead to subsequent ones—for each goal. An example of this chain might look as follows:
health (domain) → bed by 1am on weekday nights (goal…I’m a night owl) → set alarm for 12:45 to prompt me to get in bed (actionable)
meditation (domain) → be able to enter jhana at will (goal) → meditate for 1hr/day (goal/actionable) → inform a friend that you’ll be paying them $5 every day you don’t hit this goal (actionable)
Meditating for an hour a day sits somewhere between a goal and an actionable because it’s precise yet it’s also difficult to accomplish on its own without some sub-actionable supporting it. The technical language doesn’t really matter. What matters is the pipeline from using reflection and self-knowledge to ground and orient oneself to then engaging in engineering of solutions in order to instantiate and accomplish.
At the start of each month I do a “self-audit” where I evaluate my progress, choose which of these goals to get started on for the month, and add the relevant actionables to the to-do list and/or calendar.
Here’s a partial list of my goals for 2023:
Health and fitness
Spend more time in the sun and around bodies of water
Relatedly, apply sunscreen liberally to my face and only my face so I feel sexy for years to come but also get that good vitamin D from exposing my bare skin to the Sun
Play soccer 1-3 times/week
Laugh and make others laugh more
Make friends who push me intellectually, creatively, morally, and spiritually
Build a strong group of friends, broad and deep, here in New York
Make others feel loved
Keep close with the people who matter most to me
West coast trip
Touch grass. Go hiking at least twice
Develop a battery of cognitive and emotional tests to evaluate my mental state as influenced by nootropics and other self-experiments
Run a Dual N-Back experiment
Read 40+ books
Interpersonal MDMA session
Be able to enter the jhanas at will
Rekindle a daily gratitude practice
Prolifically produce creative works that I’m proud of
Try a melange of crafts and creative arts
Write and publish at least one written work each month
Continue pouring myself into Material
Complete at least 60% of these goals (there are 45). Last year I completed 40%. It might seem funny that I’m apparently accepting the fact that I won’t complete them all (isn’t the whole point of setting goals that you intend to complete them?), but c’est la vie.
As I worked to formulate these, I noticed a few frameworks that have blossomed and stuck around for me in the years of practicing this sort of analysis.
Emulate. Find people who exhibit the characteristics you aspire to. Spend time around them, whether actually or parasocially (via media), study them, and emulate them. Become a method actor—actually impersonate elements of them that you want to co-opt.
Regrets and regards? Regretfuls and gratefuls? I’m not sure which cute little name I prefer, but the idea is to set goals and make decisions informed by the things you regret or are grateful to have done. For those who shout No Ragrets, consider what you’d prefer to avoid repeating and tease out the principles in which those actions were grounded. For 2023, I looked back on what aspects of 2022 I don’t want to happen again, as well as the things I want more of, and considered my goals through that lens. This is different than regret-minimization, the logical conclusion of which is suicide.The crux here is using previous experience as a compass and weighting that experience heavily relative to present preferences that have no precedent (something you think you want but have no experience with) or have negative precedent (we often want things that haven’t worked out well previously, forgetting those outcomes or convincing ourselves that next time will be different). Desires with no precedent (things you haven’t done before) still merit attention. This is how we try new things, and novelty is how we keep ourselves spiritually alive. My method here is to approach new things as experiments, rather than making a year-long resolute commitment to a thing with which I have no prior experience.
Experiments as a way of life. Framing something as an experiment can be a fruitful way for undertaking anything new such that it is both low-commitment and flexible while also rigorous, empirical, and informative. Approaching a new endeavor, habit, supplement, mindset, or whatever experimentally enables engagement with the world that is at once scientific and playful. I wrote about this at some length here.
Enduring desires. Be patient with your desires. This has become a guiding rule of thumb for me across domains. If I still want a thing two years after first thinking of it, it’s probably something I should pursue. Creatively, I’ll often come up with an idea for an art piece that I think is brilliant, only to watch that brilliance fade away after the passage of a few weeks. Works I can return to after months and find none of their luster lost are the ones I know will be worth my time.If we want to be foolhardy and construct a formal codification of the principle which will inevitably crumble under its own rigidity when faced by an endless swarm of edge cases but nonetheless be fun and make us feel like we have a formula for parsing our lives in the meantime, we could say something like “take action on a desire only once it has been around for twice as long as it will take to satisfy that desire and deal with the consequences thereof.” I’m not sure about this exact 2:1 ratio and in fact picked it completely arbitrarily, but it’s an interesting potential rule of thumb.
Focus on the delta. Apply yourself most to the goals where you need the most substantial change (and thus the most active effort) to see success. For example, as mentioned above one of my goals for this year is to “read” 40+ books. I read 50 last year, so the habits are already in place to make this happen. Since my habits are already congruent with my goals, it would be a waste to expend further energy optimizing my approach on this front. Instead I set the goal and largely forget it, letting the autopilot of the habits I’ve previously established do the work. This might sound obvious, but needless optimization can be subtly seductive. It feels good and productive to keep working toward better, but unless you’re setting loftier goals it’s really a mere performance of productivity within the comfortable confines of a goal you already know you’re sure to meet. Unless I were trying to read more than 50 books (or achieve a similar goal like reading those 50 books in less time) additional effort toward this aim would be masturbatory. Channel your energy where you need the boost.
And just like that, it’s out of my system. That daunting, monstrous, seemingly insurmountable character of writing, the same one that I encountered looming in the corners of my mind as I began this piece, has dissipated. It always takes just a few days, and it always feels like it’ll take much more than that. A few days of writing, just for an hour or two a day, and I no longer hate it. In fact I love it again. I’m even calling myself “a writer” in my head. I almost updated my Twitter bio. I’ll sit on that one for now. “Enduring desires” and whatnot. I feel ready to write things of substance now. So much so that I almost want to just delete this whole thing because it suddenly feels inconsequential. But I’ll leave it. Click publish. “For posterity.”
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PS: If you’re into this stuff and want to talk ideas for experiments, decision-making frameworks, self-improvement, etc. I encourage you to reach out.
Rilke, one of my most cherished writers, said this of writing:
"Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.
This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse."
I finally feel like my answer to the call of writing is that strong, simple "I must."
I also like the Japanese concept of ikigai on this notion of a calling.
I may actually try deliberately terrible writing some time as an experiment to see what sort of creative results it yields. Warhol once remarked that there's something revealed when you do something exactly wrong, and I think this rings true.
It just struck me what a weird word "o'clock" is. It reminds me of when a friend borrows something, holds onto it for a while, then gives it back and it's not in the same condition and they clearly realized they fucked it up and were hoping to fix it but eventually admitted to themselves they were never going to get around to it so they hand it back to you in its mutated state, but in this case the thing borrowed was the word clock and the friend was a chipper Irishman.
I'm not a huge fan of the “best self” jargon and the way it's been commandeered by the more permissive, woo-adjacent side of wellness culture but what can you do.
You might say the time for reflection and resolutions has passed too, but I’ve given myself carte blanche for the month of January on this matter. Here on the last day of the month I’m just sneaking in.
I say "liberation from medium" not to indicate that medium is some prison from which we need to escape. Medium provides important constraint. Rather for me, as someone who couldn't see myself as a painter or photographer or any such thing, not viewing any medium as a vocation or identity to which I was bound enabled me to see them all as a set of tools in my toolkit for richly communicating concepts.
Not "not at peace," but not advancing in my peacefulness.
The community with whom you practice the Buddhist path.
Most of these were audiobooks. For a while I saw this as "less than," but my retention is just as high as with reading, and I thoroughly enjoy them, so I no longer mind, but I also want to clarify this fact so as not to give anyone a false impression. Reading actual books seems more erudite.
The statement “I grew a mustache” is logically equivalent to the prior one about moving to Brooklyn.
The mustache and the room-bed-K-orgy are unrelated.
I love the thought of you thinking I'm talking about Justin Bieber here.
The surest way to minimize regret is to die immediately. It's on account of this that I think regret minimization as a "life optimization function" is at-best incomplete. It's a low-risk framework that will bar you from ever approximating global optima.
One cool thing about making more stuff is that you come to condense the time horizon at which your judgment on those creations becomes reliable. Your creative intuitions develop through repetition, and the predictive validity of your initial impulse sharpens. Put more simply, you learn to trust your gut. But not because your gut was necessarily trustworthy all along, it's just gotten smarter. Or a combination of that fact and improved ability to discern the true voice of your gut from the other voices in your head. Something like that.
Obviously this can't be applied all the time (it would be incredibly inconvenient for something like deciding on a meal) and is only really sensible as a binary, a yes or no to a specific thing (i.e. take action or don't) or a yes/no to (i.e. take action in the form of) either of two alternatives. It's probably best applied to endeavors of significant heft, but not ones that are too big—it wouldn't make sense for marriage, for example, which is ostensibly a lifelong commitment. Clearly this is a principle for which it's more useful to abide by the spirit, rather than the letter, of the law.
Fantastic as always!