Author Archives: Mirjam van Olst

The Midnight Library

We all take hundreds of decisions every day and each decision taken differently could have led to a different life. In The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, Nora feels like all of the key decisions that she took were the wrong ones. She’s let everyone she cares about down.
One night when things are particularly bad Nora ends up in the midnight library. The library contains all the books describing the lives she could have lived had she made different choices. And she gets to try them on too!

She has a little taster of several different lives she could have been living.
It sounds like a glorious opportunity but it turns out that a different decision doesn’t just impact the part of your life that you hoped it would impact. A seemingly small thing can change your life in many different ways.

The premise of this book is brilliant and the writing is excellent. The Midnight Library is a very enjoyable read. It makes you think too. What would you do differently if you could turn back time? How would your life be different if you had made different decisions in the past? What exactly is needed to be able to live a happy or content life?

I notice that I can feel wildly different about my life on different days or even different hours of a single day, depending on where my head is at. And I think there are as many unhappy rich people and rich people unsatisfied with their lives as people who have a lot less, materialistically speaking. If your basic needs are taken care of and you’re healthy, the quality of your life can be vastly improved by changing your mindset.

That is not to say that it’s easy. Life can be a drag and people can be horrible and the world is falling to pieces and we’ve been deprived of many of the things and the people we love for almost 9 months now. It’s hard. It takes a conscious effort to stay positive. Even with a conscious effort to look for positives and focus on the things that we are in control of we sometimes (ok, regularly) stumble. But we get back up and we try again.

If life in this pandemic has taught me anything it’s to not deny myself the small pleasures like lighting the candles in the evening or spending a few minutes on my swing when the rain stays away long enough for the seat to dry. It’s to enjoy the books and the runs and the times I do get to spend with other people.

I’ve also learned to acknowledge and accept my frustration and to try and move past it. We only have one life. It’s unlikely we’ll ever end up in our own midnight library and even if we do the alternatives to our current life might not be as attractive as you think they might be.
Let’s make the most out of this one life we have and fill it.

Atomic habits – Discipline is taking that break

When I started reading Atomic Habits by James Clear I thought it couldn’t possibly contain a lot of new information. The concept overlaps with so many other books that I was sure most of the book would be repetition and I mostly read it to tick it off my list. What I underestimated is how useful the repetition of good ideas is and how much I needed to reframe and adjust my habits to being at home most of the time.

Behavior becomes a habit when you do it consistently. It often seems easier to create bad habits than it is to create good habits. The main reason for this is that bad habits often have an immediate reward attached to them, while with good habits the reward is delayed. If you’re a smoker, having a cigarette relieves stress and a craving immediately. If you’re a runner the endorphins take a while to kick in.
Your habits should be aligned with the way you want to live and the person you want to be. A smoker, a runner, a reader, or a cheater. Your habits are often how people describe you and how you might describe yourself.

I started working from home full-time around mid-March. At first, I mostly noticed the positives. I became more productive because I didn’t have to commute and because there were no distractions. The structure and consistency of the days and the lack of work-related dinners and events in the evening meant that it was much easier to manage my irritable bowel syndrome. As spring had just begun and the weather was acknowledging that fact, it was lovely to be outside and I took daily lunch walks.

At some point during or just before the summer, work started to pile up again. And even my introvert, structure loving brain was getting bored with what felt like an endless repetition of the same day. I started to skip my lunch walks to get more work done. I felt like I was being disciplined by focusing on my todo list, but my motivation and productivity were starting to falter.
When I started reading Atomic Habits I realized that it required more discipline and would be more sensible to take regular breaks. It turns out that taking regular breaks without an external trigger is surprisingly hard.

The book gave some clues. Habits that stick are obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. My number one job was to find a way to make taking breaks more obvious.
When I had a few days off I decided that I would use part of my time hanging around the house not-working to come up with something to motivate myself to take more regular breaks while working from home. I’m pleased to report that mulling over a concrete problem in your mind while lying on the sofa can lead to tangible results.
I came up with a surprisingly low-tech “solution”.

  • I bought 12 small cards with fun pictures on them
  • On all of the cards, I wrote one activity that can be completed in about 10 minutes. Examples are:
    • Take a walk
    • Make a smoothie
    • Do a 7-minute workout
    • Stretch
    • Do laundry (it might surprise you to hear that this is the easiest one to step away from the screen for)
  • I stuck a small piece of string with 5 tiny pegs on it to the lamp behind my screen, right in front of me
  • The cards are laid out next to me each morning and the idea is that at the end of the day, I have at least 4 cards hanging on the string, representing 4 ten minute breaks

Most days I have 2 or 3 cards up at the end of the day. Having the cards lying next to me provides a very helpful reminder, but it still requires discipline to get up and take the break. Discipline requires energy and energy is often in short supplies when I most need a break. I have some more work to do to make taking regular breaks a habit and I suspect it will always require some discipline as continuing work will always be the most obvious and easy. A break is more satisfying once you are taking the break and after you’ve taken it. As with a lot of good habits, the gratification is delayed. And worth it so I’ll keep working on it.

Humankind – A Hopeful History

If you need a break from the news and all the negativity in the world, it’s worth considering reading Humankind by Rutger Bregman. The premise in itself is interesting, Bregman claims that people are inherently good. We can be made to do awful things but we’re not programmed to be awful. I must admit that I was skeptical. How can you not be, with everything that’s going on in the world? I’m not completely converted after reading it but the book did plant the seeds of several new ideas. I will mention a few in this post. If you are looking for a feel-good vibe that is substantiated by research I highly encourage you to read Humankind.

Pessimist or optimist?

One of the ideas that this book changed for me is that I thought I was a pessimist. That I didn’t believe people are naturally good. I didn’t want to be a pessimist, I think no one wants to be a pessimist. When Bregman compared countries to companies I realized that while I’m a pessimist when looking at a global scale, I’m an optimist at a smaller scale. I believe companies should be run in a way that assumes that people are inherently good. Giving people responsibility will make them act more responsible. Keeping people on a short leash will make them passive and disinterested. You get the best results when people are intrinsically motivated and to allow people to be intrinsically motivated you have to give them some responsibility and trust them with it.

Why do I believe people are mostly inclined to do the right thing at the small scale of a company (not just the company that I work for, any company) but do I find it difficult to believe the same thing at the larger scale of a country or even the world? People working for companies are very clearly people. I can relate to them. When talking about countries the numbers become too big. We can’t imagine 17 million people (in the case of The Netherlands) which means that people become anonymous statistics. And it’s hard to feel compassion for statistics. We need to remember that all these people are more similar to us than they are different. Refugees and soldiers are all people. They have friends and family as we do and they want a good life for the people that they love. They just might have a different idea of how to get there.

Following the news

Most of us tend to closely follow the news. And for most of us, the news won’t make us feel better about people or the world. What we need to remember is that the news shows exceptions. The behavior and ideas of the majority of people aren’t newsworthy. The news also focuses on negative stories, as they are more sensational and we’re more likely to click on their headlines. The people protesting against the Corona rules and guidelines are exceptions. Most people try to follow the rules and guidelines. The people who point guns at BLM protesters who walk past their house are also exceptions. Watching the news shows you the worst and most negative exceptions and a lot of us are addicted to checking the news several times throughout the day, constantly keeping negative examples top of mind. At this point, our built-in availability bias kicks in. We feel that things we can recall easily must be important and happen often. This means that we assume that what we see on the news (riots at protests, terrorist attacks, and people consciously breaking corona guidelines) happens all the time. Most people are a lot more afraid of getting killed in a terrorist attack than of being struck by lightning and yet the latter is four times more likely to happen.

We feel that it’s important that we are informed about the latest news stories. It feels irresponsible not to know. When you think about it that makes no sense as ninety-nine out of a hundred times (at least) us being aware of the news doesn’t change a single thing for anyone except ourselves and our anxiety about the state of the world. We’re much better off picking a limited number of topics or problems to follow somewhat closely and try to make a difference in them. Either by donating money or by actively getting involved. You can then focus on those topics and leave the other topics for other people to deal with.
I have used this realization to cut down on my news consumption by mostly staying off Twitter. I’ve also become an Amnesty International member. I’ll continue to promote having empathy and compassion for people with different experiences than your own, I’ll do whatever I can to make the company that I work for as inclusive as possible, and I’ll try to always be kind.

Empathy vs compassion

The focus on empathy is interesting. Bregman describes in the book that people are inherently good and friendly, but that we are also very tribal. And having empathy enhances the feeling of tribalism. It makes us identify with one group and almost by definition because of that, turn against another group. It brings out the best but also the worst in us. Empathy can make us care deeply and it can make hate with the same passion. Instead of focusing on empathy, we should have a closer look at compassion. Compassion is more restrained and constructive. It doesn’t let you share in the suffering of the other person, but it does help you to see their suffering and take action. If you empathize strongly with someone who is suffering it can paralyze and drain you. Feeling compassion means you can keep your energy and take constructive action.
The book provides a simplified example. When a child is scared of the dark, you don’t want to feel their fear as if it’s your own (empathy). You want to comfort and reassure the child (compassion).

World leaders

The group of people that most make me doubt if it can be that people are inherently good. Or even, not inherently bad, it’s our current world leaders. The thing that sets our current leaders (“leaders”) apart from the rest of us, is that they have no shame. Most of us can’t imagine knowingly lying, even if the consequences are small. Let alone lying to an entire country and negatively impacting the health and wellbeing of thousands (if not millions) of people.
Most people’s emotions show in their faces and body posture. They can’t hide how they feel. And shame is an emotion that is very powerful and extraordinarily difficult to control. When we feel shame we start blushing. Anyone who has ever tried to stop the blushing knows that this is impossible. Thinking about it will inevitably make it worse, not better. Having our emotions on display helps us to come across as trustworthy to others. It allows us to be part of a team and work together.
Powerful people often don’t blush. They are literally shameless. They are more impulsive, egotistical, reckless, and arrogant than the average person. They cheat on their spouses more often and care less about other people’s perspectives. Some leaders grow up like this but power can also trigger it. Power can be a drug that makes you focus on yourself and it can detach you from the people around you.

So now what?

Think critically, always. Don’t give up. We should try to be kind and compassionate to our family, friends, and co-workers and more abstract groups like refugees and people with a different sexual orientation, religion, gender, or skin color. Don’t think in big numbers, think in people.
Being kind doesn’t mean being meek or tame. We need to change things and the only way to do that is by pushing hard against institutions and structures that are causing harm to other people or the earth. Sitting back and smiling politely won’t get us there. Pick a small thing that you feel strongly about and that you can contribute to and talk about it, write about it, sing about, march for it, or donate to the cause.
We aren’t inherently bad but we are also not completely good. We all have good and bad sides and where on the spectrum we are depends on the subject and your point of view. If we focus more on our own and other people’s kindness and positive sides we will see more of it. And that in turn will inspire us to do better ourselves. Baby steps. We can do this!

The Spirit Level – Why Equality is Better for Everyone

For a long time now, rich countries have been getting richer. As countries get richer, a lot of good things happen on the back of it. The population’s health improves, life expectancy rises, education improves, more people can get an education, and unemployment rates lower.
At a certain point, this pattern stops. A lot of rich countries today are now so rich that economic growth and increasing the average material living standards no longer directly impacts health, education, and unemployment. As countries reach this threshold there’s something else that starts driving these important metrics, and it’s the level of equality among their citizens.
 
More equality is better for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about a country, a state, a city, or a company. When inequality among citizens of a country lowers, the health expectancy rises. Not just among the poor and not just on average. Even the life expectancy of the rich rises. In The Spirit Level, the authors compare data about 21 developed countries, as well as the states of the US. They looked at several indicators of health and well-being. The most interesting ones for me being:

  • Level of trust
  • Mental Illness (including drug and alcohol addiction)
  • Life expectancy
  • Children’s educational performance
  • Imprisonment rates
  • Social mobility

How is it that we have created so much mental and emotional suffering despite levels of wealth and comfort unprecedented in human history? None of this has been a conscious choice. We didn’t set out to become this rich. We are continuously trying to improve our situation. That’s true for people but also countries and companies. When you add up all these small incremental improvements you eventually end up in our current world of plenty.
 
Because we never made a conscious decision about this growth, we also never considered the impact of all this material wealth. Nor did we think about how it should be spread out across the world population. Everyone is making their own small improvements and because of that feels that the results of these improvements are theirs. We fail to recognize that we are lucky. Living in a part of the world without any major natural disasters is lucky. (Mind you, this could change when sea levels rise as my house is already below sea level.) Having a good education is lucky. Being able to learn in the way the education system demands is lucky. Living in a mostly functioning democracy is lucky. I didn’t do anything to deserve any of this. I just got lucky.
 
The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis that it caused has made it even clearer how much luck is involved in leading a good and easy life. Many people who had a very good job 6 months ago are out of work today. If your job was in the tourism or event branch the pandemic has pretty much killed your line of work. If you are working as a contractor the economic crisis might mean that you lost your assignment without much notice. None of us have chosen our line of work thinking “what job would be the safest bet during a pandemic?”. If you still have a job you’re lucky. And we have to share that luck or at least the income that we are enjoying because of it, with the people who aren’t as lucky.
 
Intuitively it makes sense that more equality is better for everyone but when it becomes personal it’s less straightforward. A majority of people want society to move away from greed and access towards a way of life more centered around values, community, and friendship. But to adjust your own life is a different thing altogether.
Personally, I’m happy paying all of my taxes and I regularly give money to charities but voluntarily giving away large amounts of money or accepting a lower income would require me to take several long hard looks at myself. I can only assume that this feeling doesn’t change when you have millions or even billions (although I can’t say this from personal experience).
 
So how do we ever get to a society with less inequality? The earlier in the process we start, the more impactful and less painful it is. The best place to start is education. Ensuring that everyone has access to quality education, regardless of the color of your skin or the amount of money your parents earn is a good start. Investing in pre-school for all kids can be a huge equalizer. Primary schools that are funded based on the average income (or tax being paid) in the neighborhood where the school is located significantly increases inequality. Schools and pre-schools should be properly funded by governments. Unfortunately, few governments make this a priority. In the end, it might be a choice between paying for social benefits to limit inequality and using public expenditure to cope with social harm like increased health problems and larger prison populations.
 
Another option is to limit inequality in salaries or redistribute money through taxes. You can argue that some jobs should make a bit more money than others but the differences that we see today can’t be defended, nor are they beneficial for the well-being of anyone, rich or poor.
Structural policy changes will be hard to achieve but the first step is to raise awareness of the impact of inequality on our societies and the people living in it. This starts with all of us. I encourage you to look into the impact of inequality in general and the level of inequality around you. Think about it and talk about it with others. There won’t be a quick fix but everywhere we are able to limit inequality we will improve the well-being of everyone involved.

This Life – Why Mortality Makes Us Free

This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free has two parts that could have been two books. It feels a little bit like Hägglund had two strong ideas and a one-book deal. The book is split into two parts where each part describes one of the ideas. Both ideas are thought-provoking, very well researched, and clearly described and explained. It was easy to stay engaged in the philosophical text.
In this post, I’ll focus on the first part of the book, which is about why mortality makes us free. The second part explains why capitalism can never lead to equality and why redistribution of wealth under capitalism can’t work in the long run. I might come back to that in a later post.

Our mortality might be the one thing that we can all agree on in this world full of division and false dichotomies. We don’t know when or how, but eventually we’ll all die. We are fragile and our lives are finite. Hägglund argues, successfully in my opinion, that the transience of our life is what makes it valuable.
Death makes life meaningless, because everything we have ever striven for ceases when life does, and it makes life meaningful, too, because the finitude of our lives makes every moment precious. Knowing that it can all end makes us care. Hägglund calls this secular faith. I would prefer to just call it caring, but that might be why I’m not a philosopher.

Most religions consider our finitude a lamentable condition that ideally should be overcome. Our lives on earth are considered a necessary prelude to eternity after death. An explanation of what eternity means is seldom included. It’s often considered to be similar to our lives on earth, except it will last forever. We’ll be together with our loved ones and there won’t be any pain or suffering. This premise means that it can’t be like our life on earth. The happiest day of our lives is so enjoyable because it sits in contrast to other days. Just try and picture the happiest day of your life (or just a happy day) and imagine it will last forever. The lack of contrast would make it bland and even boring. An eternal now would deprive us of a past and a future. There is no risk and no failure and thus no growth.

When we think about eternity after death this not what we have in mind. It turns out that we don’t want eternity. We want to continue to live our lives as we do on earth. When we wish that the lives of those whom we love will last, we do not wish for them to be eternal but for their earthly lives to continue.
The thought of our own death and the death of our loved ones is painful. We don’t want to die and we often don’t want things to end. At the same time, we shouldn’t want things to be eternal. Eternity would take away all reasons to care and be passionate. A life worth living must be finite and include secular faith or reasons to care. If your ultimate goal is to exist until you die, just so you can move on to eternity in heaven, you have no reason to deeply care about anything that happens during your life.

We enjoy spring because of the contrast of the cold and dark winter. We savior a summer day because we know that fall will be coming to fade the bright colors to a more demure red and yellow and brown. Life can be beautiful because it can be tough.
It is often asserted that life without spirituality suffers from disenchantment. However, it’s the transience of our lives that gives us a reason to care. If only one tiny circumstance in evolution or the lives of our ancestors would have been different, we would not have been here. There is no pre-determined meaning to life, but it can be beautiful. The most meaningful things in our lives often turn out to be the small things. A smile, a laugh, or sharing a spontaneous moment. We can make living worthwhile by caring and trying to make a difference to other people. Perhaps even to future generations. While our death is unavoidable, our legacy might live on.

It’s also a commonly held belief that religion is required to lead a moral life. The atrocities committed and wars fought in the name of religion should make it abundantly clear that religion can also have the opposite effect. The books and stories that are at the core of many religions are said to explain what it means to lead a moral life, but their interpretations differ wildly and some of them are used as excuses for bigotry and cause immense suffering. Leading a secular life, there isn’t a single dedicated text that tells us how to lead our lives. It’s up to us to create our moral compass. I like the humanist concept of trying to live your life in a way that does the least amount of damage and the most amount of good for both people and the planet. Not being sweetened by the idea of heaven or threatened with punishment in hell, leading a moral, secular life depends on intrinsic motivation. Knowing that life is short and death unavoidable provides this motivation for many.
Of course, some non-religious people feel that the meaninglessness of our existence is a reason to not care at all. But religion is certainly not a requirement for leading a good and moral life.

Seeing things in perspective as they happen is almost impossible. Looking back at past events it’s often easier to see them as precious. Time takes the edge of any hurt or worries that you encountered at the time. Appreciating the present is more difficult as it’s raw and unprocessed. Memories are also often isolated, not taking into account the full context of everything else that was going on in your life and the world.
This is especially challenging today. With a raging pandemic that’s causing pain and suffering and that’s increasing inequality, a sociopath in the White House, and the very urgent problem of climate change moved to the background it can be hard to find joy and happiness. If you feel this way try focusing on the small things. I can feel intense happiness when I’m running or when I’m sat on the sofa with a cup of tea after a long day. It’s ok to allow yourself these moments of happiness despite the state that the world is in. Denying yourself the little pleasures isn’t going to make the world a better place and might make you depressed.

I’m not religious and I believe that when I die my existence ends. While I’m not afraid of death I’m also not a fan, so I mostly don’t think about it if I don’t have to. While this book might not have changed my beliefs significantly I found it interesting and uplifting to read and think about why the finitude of our lives is a good thing. I liked both the writing and ideas. The second part of the book on the subject of democratic socialism is just as interesting as the first part and also worth a read.

Something else that fascinated me about the book was the confidence with which Hägglund asserts that the common interpretations of the works of some famous philosophers are wrong and how his interpretation is right. I understand that he has spent a lot of time studying all of these works as well as the broader concept. I don’t mean to say that he is wrong. A lot of Hägglund’s interpretations sound at least plausible. I simply don’t know and I’m not convinced that I would be bold enough to reject the norm and present my own interpretation as the right one. It’s interesting.