Ali Barter Is A Conqueror We Need

I can’t explain to you the energy it takes to have to face these feelings every day. You can ignore me but I’m not the only girl who wakes up trying not to feel this way.

Ali Barter, Cigarette

Sometime in early 2016 I was sitting in Wheat Café in Newtown when I heard a catchy tune cascading from the speakers inside. It had everything that initially attracts me to new music: unique vocals, face-melting guitar and a clean structure that builds to an explosive finish. It turned out to be Far Away by Ali Barter and upon repeat listens I began to feel like it was a song written about me; a song that gave definition to a certain kind of listlessness that not infrequently colors my days (“Spent too much time on freeways and internet / I’ve never felt so far away”).

As it turns out, Ali Barter had me right where she wanted me.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, the French-Algerian philosopher and writer Albert Camus examines the nature of what he calls “the absurd man”. In short, an absurd person is one who has accepted that life itself is inherently meaningless (that is: absurd). One example of an absurd life that Camus explores in the essay is that of the actor. To Camus, the actor is an absurd person whose interest in theatrical shows is concerned with the limitless potentialities that it offers them to live other lives. On the stage, the absurd person can live a thousand lives in the span of one actual lifetime, allowing them to “accept the poetry without feeling the sorrow.”

The absurd man begins where [the thoughtless man] leaves off, where… the mind wants to enter in.

Though I am no actor, this notion of “entering in” reflects the way that I interact with art in all forms. When an artist or an artwork seizes my attention, I want to know more about it. I want to understand the motivation behind it. I want to know what made it it. Put simply: my “mind wants to enter in.” Anybody who has ever gone straight to Wikipedia after watching a movie that was “based on a true story” knows the feeling that I’m alluding to here.

So I do “enter in” and immerse myself in these other worlds. Every now and again (though not frequently enough for my tastes) I encounter likeminded people when I arrive there. In the same way that actors meet other actors on a stage, so do I sometimes encounter others who seem to share my reality; others whose minds have likewise “enter[ed] in”.

Having “entered in” to the work of Ali Barter, I found not only Ali herself but also the worlds that she defines through her art. Considered individually or as a total body of work, Barter’s songs define worlds in a way that reveal her as a thinker against Camus’ criteria:

To think is first of all to create a world (or to limit one’s own world, which comes to the same thing).

It would seem that these are indeed Barter’s methods, and she uses the two interchangeably. In any given song she’ll either create a world from scratch (as in songs like Marigold and Run You Down) or – more often – she’ll bring in the boundaries of observable reality (as in Cigarette and Far Away) to create a digestible slice of reality that is representative of all the other slices. In either case, the world that Barter creates ends up feeling like the world in which you live.

By creating these familiar worlds, Ali Barter is hoping to grant you the freedom to live within them. In his essay, Camus examines Dostoevsky’s character of Kirilov as a case study of the existential freedom that comes with embracing absurdity. Camus writes about the possibility of becoming a “tsar” by living with absurdity within a practical life and thusly being “covered in glory”. Kirilov aims to grant others this same freedom by committing suicide (thereby proving that the freedom is absolute) but Barter doesn’t need to make a martyr of herself to accomplish the same end. For her, it is enough to acknowledge the inherent absurdity of modern life – the listlessness, if not exactly meaninglessness – so that we can each take the next step on solid footing.

This listlessness, then, becomes a common theme in her songs (and thus, her worlds). In Far Away she observes that “People walk in a trance / They never listen.” Her character (being a version of herself) in the video for Hypercolour rocks out for a crowd whose disinterest in her performance is painfully obvious to her (“I spent the summer in darkness pining for sun”). Meanwhile, Ode 2 Summa perfectly captures the aimlessness of a sweltering summer day (“Life’s a bitch and then you die / But it’s too hot to fuck, too hot to sing”) and her latest single Cigarette finds Barter’s avatar/character “Tired of standing next to you / With nobody caring what I do.”

Ali knows that each of these characters possesses the freedom that comes with absurdity, yet she is also very aware that this freedom is rarely exercised. If these worlds feel a little familiar, don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s some deceptive trick – these are absolutely the worlds in which you already live. They are the stages of theatres that Barter is inviting you to share with her – stages on which you can both live as tsars covered in glory if you can learn to endure your freedom.

If you see a little of yourself in one or more (or maybe all) of these listless characters, then you are – as I was – right where Ali Barter wants you. Her songs end up sounding like ones that you would write about your own life if you happened to be a musician; they seem as if they’re about your own personal experience. Not in the way that songs with universal appeal sound like they’re “about us” by serving as a mirror in which we can see ourselves, but rather as a painting – rendered by another hand – of something undeniably and unshakably familiar. They are about everybody at once while also being about nobody in particular and yet they feel deeply personal – so much so, in fact, that it’s easy to become quite possessive of them.

If it’s a musical sleight of hand, it’s not one executed to trick you but rather to awaken you to your surroundings. Without putting limits on herself as an artist, Barter invites you to enjoy her songs on any level. Each is insanely catchy, built on an intoxicating sound and constructed with a tried-and-true structure. This is enjoyable enough on a superficial level, but she rewards those who are willing to look deeper and examine the subtext of the worlds she’s invited you to share with her.

Ali accomplishes this in a few different ways, but always with simplistic strokes. In Community she employs melancholy and nostalgia in framing a night out as a quest for inclusion and connection; for belonging.

Community reminds one of the story of Sisyphus, whose struggle Camus examines in his essay. Sisyphus was doomed to push a massive boulder up a mountain only to see it roll back down, requiring him to push it up the mountain again and again in futile and eternal repetition. The character in Community likewise seems to have been pushing a metaphorical boulder (“Drink myself to death on a Saturday night”) up the same mountain over and over again (“Give me everything and more / You know it’s never enough”). It’s a pattern, Ali knows, that we all get stuck in from time to time.

By mining these familiar truths, Barter accomplishes what Camus considers in his essay to be the “good” relationship between the artist’s experience and the work that inevitably reflects it:

That relationship is good when the work is but a piece cut out of experience, a facet of the diamond in which the inner luster is epitomized without being limited.

Whether you consider the character in Community to be you, Barter, your best friend, or some faceless fictional partier matters not. What matters, Camus tells us, is whether or not you think the character is finding pleasure in the face of this repeated struggle.

One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

On the surface Community is a “celebration of the ordinary” that would please Camus – a tribute to good times (perhaps enjoyed in pre-lockout Kings Cross, where the video for the song was filmed) – but there are clearly layers to the worlds Barter has created here and in other songs.

Consider the example of Girlie Bits, one of Barter’s most popular tunes. The song has been popularly described as a “feminist anthem” and it certainly sounds like one (this, of course, being merely the surface layer). While this label isn’t at all inaccurate (or, I imagine, unwelcome by Barter), it doesn’t totally capture the subtly powerful manner in which the song goes about being such an anthem.

Girlie Bits doesn’t yell at you, call anybody out, or tell anybody what to do. The song doesn’t operate on the assumption that any of sexist attitudes referred to in the lyrics (“Give us a smile, Princess / It’s better for business”) will come as a shock to you. In fact, Barter is betting that it will all seem very familiar indeed to male and female listeners alike; that these examples of the ways in which women are frequently marginalized are so prevalent in our society that the unenlightened eye might mistake them as being normal. This world is absolutely your world and the subtext (that is, the “inner luster” layer) becomes immediately and painfully clear: we see (and/or suffer) these injustices with frequency – so what are we going to do about it?

Barter, for her part, isn’t stopping with songs that might make us reconsider the actions of our skeevier acquaintances. For the past few months she’s been using short but moving posts on her Facebook page to highlight the powerful female singers (which she calls History Grrrlsthat have inspired her through the years. In longer form she’s been railing against a musical status quo that has been perpetuated by a historical narrative that often refuses to see female musicians as legitimate artists. It’s easy to see that she’s trying to create and step into a role of an empowerment agent that she had to go largely without in her own developmental years. By taking on this role, she hopes the female artists of tomorrow will grow up in a world where the legitimacy of their work is never questioned.

Importantly, she recognizes that her role as an artist is inextricable from her role as a person. Camus highlights the importance of this relationship in his exploration of absurdist creation. He posits that an absurd artist is not so different from a philosopher:

The idea of an art detached from its creator is not only outmoded; it is false.

For the same reason as the thinker, the artist commits himself and becomes himself in his work.

This much holds true with Barter. As seen in the example of the subtext found in Girlie Bits and how this aligns with her interest in advancing a discourse toward achieving gender equity, Barter is as much thinker as artist and these two modes of her intellect are inextricably linked. Girlie Bits loses its bite if it’s not written by Barter and Barter can’t disrupt the status quo in a manner authentic to her own ideas without writing Girlie Bits.

All of that to say: whatever you think of it otherwise, Girlie Bits is more than “just a song”. It’s a song written by a certain person in a certain way under certain circumstances and for a specific reason. To merely listen to the song (or any of her others) and not consider these circumstances (the art as an extension of the artist) is to miss what she’s freely and nakedly offering you. It’s akin to walking into the cinema late and seeing only the end of the movie.

If Ali Barter the person can’t be removed from the songs of Ali Barter, then those same songs have the effect of making you feel as if you grew up alongside her. Each track becomes an existential comfort zone into which you can settle and allow the rhythm to wash over you or from which – on a different day, having finally seen something that Barter has already mined for “internal luster” – you can launch your revolt against inequity, an aloof romantic partner, a hot summer day, consumerism, or the fear of missing out.

Ali’s songs (and by extension, her worlds) are – in spite of the meaninglessness they acknowledge but refuse to succumb to – ultimately hopeful. In this way her art avoids being absurd in the purest sense, but even Camus recognises “that hope cannot be eluded forever” and this speaks again to the freedom that Ali would like us all to recognise that we possess. Even Sisyphus, bound as he is to his eternal fate, enjoys – within that “world” – absurdist freedom and is thereby capable of happiness. The key, as we have seen, is that he uses his freedom to choose that happiness.

Like those of us caught exactly where Ali wants us, her character in Cigarette is beginning to notice that something about her reality is a bit sterile. Here Ali has tightened the fences of reality on a character who is only just beginning to become fully aware of the form those fences take: in this case, gender normative romantic expectations and the mundanity of merely “being”. She wonders what measures would be necessary to escape these shackles (“If I shaved my head would you / Tell your friends you don’t really care / Really care”) but by the time she’s warning the unidentified “other” in the song to not ask her for a cigarette, it becomes clear that such measures aren’t necessary. She need not replicate the gesture of Kirilov’s suicide in order to obtain her freedom, she need only to embrace that she has always possessed that freedom.

A post shared by ALI BARTER (@alibarter) on

To paraphrase her own words that I quoted at the beginning of this piece: as well as she understands the energy it takes to have to face these feelings every day, she also knows she’s not the only one who wakes up trying not to feel that way. By illustrating that we all possess the freedom of Ali Barter the person, artist and avatar – and that we need only choose happiness, as Camus would like us to believe Sisyphus did – she reveals herself as something vitally important in the present moment: a conqueror.

From Camus:

The conquerors are merely those among [us] who are conscious enough of their strength to be sure of living constantly on those heights and fully aware of that grandeur.

Ali Barter chooses revolt rather than surrender – to live fully and happily as a tsar covered in glory – in the face of inherent meaninglessness. Each of her songs is an invitation for us to do the same and we all possess the freedom to accept that invitation. All that remains is to choose to do so.


Greg Joachim is a writer of fiction and non-fiction when not working as a PhD candidate and academic at the University of Technology Sydney. He resides in Sydney with his wife, Claire.

Reach out on Twitter: @gregjoachim

Why We Should Take Each Other Seriously

Do you want to be taken seriously? I would have a difficult time imagining that you don’t.

The desire to be taken seriously is the fuel that powers strange personality traits that you’ve likely observed in yourself and others, including:

  • Your Facebook friends who meticulously curate their online presence in an effort to appear as if they have their shit together. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, Dorothy.
  • People who are “busy”. They’ve just had a lot on, you know? Things are crazy with the kids and there’s this huge project at work that only they can do properly so there go their weekends! Last seen opening a second bottle of white wine at 7:00 on a Monday night because “cheat day!”.
  • “Fanboys” who surrender a not insignificant portion of their identity to interests they can not directly participate in or outcomes they can not meaningfully impact. Depending on the selected devotion, this can assume the shape of either hipster escapism or – more typically – living vicariously through the success of others (see: devout fans of sports teams, athletes, bands, artists, etc.).
    • This phenomenon can also be observed in:
      • Those who dedicate themselves fully to a job they don’t believe in.
      • Those dedicated to being a “present” parent to the point of having no individual identity outside of this pursuit. When asked how they are, these parents will tell you how their kids are doing.

It would be unfairly reductive to say that the desire to be taken seriously is the sole cause of these and other, similar behaviors. That’s not the point I wish to make. Rather, I would like us to turn the mirror back onto ourselves. How seriously would you (or do you) take people who fall into one of the categories listed above?

None of us is more important than anybody else. This isn’t a revolutionary idea. It’s safe to say that a large majority of the human race believe this to be true on at least a philosophical level. Not many people would claim to be superior to others; above the fray. To believe that you are better than anybody else – that there is anybody “not worth your time” – is a particularly off-putting brand of solipsism.

That said, observed human behavior (which may include your own) would seem to suggest that such espoused beliefs may be merely rhetoric. If none of us thinks that we’re better than anybody else, why are we routinely jerks to one another?

The problem is introduced when we must adhere to this philosophy in real life.

Talking about being fair is easy. Meanwhile, doing? Well, don’t we all have enough to do already?

What does this kind of behavior look like?

  • Any number of aggressive traffic maneuvers. Nobody needs to get to their destination as urgently as you!
  • Elbowing in front of kids on train station escalators. Kids aren’t really people, right? Where do they have to be that’s so important? They have their whole lives to get to the top of the escalator!
  • Spilling some coffee on the counter of the office canteen but leaving it for somebody else to clean up. That’s what interns are for, right? You? You’re late for a meeting!

You get the idea.

In all of these instances, the “bully” (let’s just call the behavior what it is, even if I’m stretching the definition past the inherent intentionality) considers nobody but themselves. Are they doing this to be a dick? Hopefully not. Most times, they’re probably perfectly nice people. So how does this happen? Where do nice people go wrong?

Inside their minds – unseen to all, including (usually) themselves – a complicated calculus is determining their actions. This calculus can be conceptualized as a flow chart of sorts; the reduction of complex social and natural scenarios to a ruthlessly efficient series of tripwires and routinized responses.

The result? They elbow in front of kids on the escalator not because they closely examined the children and considered their adolescent circumstances to be of only marginal importance when contrasted against those of the adults about, but because they didn’t think about the kids at all.

They thought only of themselves.

This type of behavior is indicative of a profound lack of regard for the needs of anybody but the self. We can look each other in the eye and claim to be selfless and socially responsible citizens who have time for everybody because that internal calculus – that ruthless flowchart – that controls our actions like a fanboy controls Lara Croft allows us to effortlessly maintain sufficient cognitive distance between effect and cause. We behave like jerks and let ourselves off the hook because, well, we didn’t mean to hurt anybody.

This is where the allegedly universal philosophy – believe it as we may – falls over entirely.

Being passively rude to strangers is bad enough but it is merely a symptom and not the disease (depending on the circumstances). The problem truly becomes a tragedy when we allow it to creep into our interpersonal relationships.

Over the last ten years I directly managed somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand staff, almost all of them younger than me and still pursuing undergraduate degrees or – more generally and with mixed results – “being twenty something”.

I had hundreds of encounters with these staff members while they were under my management, but one sticks out in my mind. This staff member found me after her shift one day and presented me with a gift. It was nothing fancy but it was very thoughtful (when selecting the gift, she had recalled a funny moment we had shared at work) and completely unexpected.

What had I done for her that she felt warranted this gift? I had seen that she was having a bad day and I asked her if she was okay.

No other staff member ever presented me with a gift, and I did my part to assist as many as I could. I had helped many with interpersonal problems they were facing, wrote letters of recommendations that helped some earn better jobs or places in their university, and just generally made myself available to them.

Sincere thanks was always offered for my assistance to those ends but the person who went beyond a mere “thank you” did so because I had done something she truly valued: I had taken her seriously. As repayment, she took me seriously.

Of those hundreds of staff interactions, this is the one that I still remember; that I still take seriously.

More recently I’ve begun tutoring at the University of Technology Sydney and in two years have directly worked with about 500 undergraduate and graduate students, the vast majority of whom are in their first year of study at their respective level.

At the end of each semester, these students are invited to complete anonymous student feedback surveys in order to help us improve the class for future students. One open-ended question on this survey asks what elements of our tutorials they particularly enjoyed or found useful. Many use this opportunity to explicitly acknowledge my acknowledgment of them. They go out of their way to thank me for taking them seriously.

The things I’ve done that they thank me for? Responding to emails, providing assistance ahead of assignment submissions, not playing favorites, and offering useful and constructive feedback on assignments. If you’re thinking that this list sounds like all the things that any teacher should be doing, I would agree with you.

Don’t mistake this anecdote for a low key explainabrag. The entire point is that I’ve merely taken my students seriously and they’ve responded in a way that suggests this type of behavior is not something they regularly encounter. Those of us who are willing to recall our undergraduate years honestly will probably sympathize with their situation, and it’s (sadly) telling that this feedback is only offered anonymously. Clearly there is some level of shame associated with feeling like we’re not consistently being taken seriously.

The way to undo this – to move toward a more respectful society that makes progress because of and not despite the presence of others – is to embrace self-awareness rather than self-absorption.

One of the most difficult obstacles to achieving this is – as I already mentioned – time. By and large we are busy people these days. To stop and give everybody our undivided attention and selfless devotion is not practical. Fortunately, it’s also not necessary.

To be merely aware as you move about the world would be to go a long way toward taking others seriously. To not elbow in on escalators. Not because you take the time to critically analyse the needs of the people whom you would be cutting off, but because you’re operating on the assumption that your needs are no more important than anybody else’s.

Herein lies the simple, overarching truth behind all of this: taking others seriously is not an active task that consumes time and energy. It’s actually as passive as not considering them at all. The difference is a fundamental shift in the baseline of your own awareness: to not rush, to not be aggressive, to not assume that your needs are more important; that you are more important.

If I took the time to actively integrate myself into the lives of my students, there would not be enough hours in the day. Further to that logistical obstacle, my introversion would cause me to collapse in a heap even as I explained how to construct a rigorous thesis for an academic essay.

To take others seriously is not to insert yourself – it’s to leave the door open. Of the 35-40 students I have in any one class, only two or three will ever take me up on my offers of extensive assistance. Maybe ten will email me at least once – usually about a question relating to attendance.

If I didn’t take them seriously? If I operated on the assumption that their undergraduate needs were inferior to my postgraduate needs and thus only relevant within the 80 minutes I’m paid to stand before them in a classroom? It would be no different to elbowing in front of them on an escalator. I wouldn’t have seen them in either scenario. I wouldn’t have taken them seriously.

Instead, I make the choice that you should also make: I take them seriously. I offer them the world and a few approach me to claim it. They respond to my taking them seriously and they take me seriously in kind. Once we find each other, there’s no need for curating our lives or surrendering pieces of our identity. We take each other as we are and we move forward.

As we all should.





Marginalia: “No One Understands You And What To Do About It”

Marginalia is a regular series on Toward Vandalia in which I review the books I’m reading and unpack their most valuable lessons.

Today I’m looking at No One Understands You And What To Do About It by Heidi Grant Halvorson.


Heidi Grant Halvorson is the Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia Business School. She first slipped onto my radar in a recap of the 2015 99U Conference, where she was presenting the findings from this book. Her other articles on 99U – where she writes about leadership and communication – are a good sample of both her writing style and unique insight.

With No One Understands You And What To Do About It, Halvorson manages to turn the same trick that David McRaney executed exceptionally with You Are Not So Smart – she makes issues of psychology not only approachable and digestable but also funny.

Here she is talking about the fact that mature-faced people are statistically more likely to be found guilty (92%) than baby-faced people (45%) in incidents that appear to be intentional:

… If someone with a delightfully babyish face, like Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, or a young Mark Hamill, ran over your begonias, you’d be likely to think he or she was just distracted by a frolicking puppy or a happy song on the radio. But when Clint Eastwood runs over your begonias, you’re pretty sure he’s doing it on purpose.

The book is divided into four sections that first get to the root of all this misunderstanding between people then delve into the lenses that affect how we see the world and how personality alters those lenses. The last section brings it all together and offers a workable strategy for being better understood as well as better understanding others.

In Part One, Halvorson reminds us that we are essentially unknowable (since nobody can plug directly into our brains) – a problem for those of us who believe we can be analyzed objectively and that others see us the way we see ourselves (or want to be seen). Not only can nobody see us this way (by rule!) but no two people are likely to see us in the same (if objectively incorrect) way.

Making matters worse is the fact that the people you would like to get to know you probably aren’t bothering – their attention is limited and so they use shortcuts to assign attributes to you.

This is complicated by cognitive dissonance and the primacy effect, which cause people to put you in the box they expect you to fit into and to assume that you will never change from their first impression of you, respectively.

Oh, and everybody thinks they’re better than you.

Generally speaking, other people will assume you share their opinions and attitudes, but not their abilities and moral character. With respect to the latter, they believe they are more talented and less corruptible than you are. Try not to take it personally.

However, perception can be “hacked” if you understand how it works. The process is carried out in two phases.

Phase 1 mostly occurs automatically, which could be good or bad depending on the moment.

A person’s “typical” behavior will change as a function of where he or she is, whom the person is with, and what he or she is trying to do.

Unfortunately, most people will stop mentally bothering with you at Phase 1 meaning that if you didn’t make a good first impression, you now have your work cut out for you.

This is overcome by getting people to shift into Phase 2 perception. In this phase they will take more time to analyze your behavior in context and attempt to construct a more accurate perception of you and your being. Granted, this takes more time and energy so most people won’t bother – and if you stuffed up in Phase 1, they’ll be less inclined to see the investment of added mental energy as being worth it.

You’ve experienced this yourself if you ever met somebody when they were having a bad day and wrote them off as being a grumpy / stern / serious / unpleasant person. Maybe you didn’t bother with them for a while after that until an unavoidable situation (perhaps a long car ride where there was no escape!) forced you to consider them again. Whether or not they really were a grumpy person, your perception was most likely refined for accuracy as a result of the extra consideration on your part.

Part Two gets into the three lenses that shape the way we all make the above perceptions.

The Trust Lens

This one is rather straightforward: people will assess whether or not they can trust you. They do this by looking for the answer to two questions about you:

  1. Are you a friend or an enemy?
  2. Are you capable of acting on your good or bad intentions?

Halvorson points out that both are important to consider:

The second question is just as important as the first, because if the answer to the second one is no, then you are more or less harmless no matter what your intentions are.

The answers to these questions are sussed out from the warmth and competence we display. Halvorson provides strategies for conveying both, including classics like maintaining eye contact and exercising will power. As she says:

Don’t advertise your personal demons.

The Power Lens

Halvorson offers some uplifting encouragement for dealing with powerful people:

It’s not so much that [powerful people] think they are better than you as it is they simply do not think about you at all.

Well.

Powerful people don’t have a lot of time and are less willing to spend that time on you unless you can prove your value. This is rather straightforward and recalls age-old advice for establishing job security: make yourself indispensable.

The Ego Lens

This final lens is perhaps the trickiest of all, as it’s all about self-preservation for the perceiver.

… The ego lens… has a single mission. In this case, it’s to see things in such a way that the perceiver comes out on top.

The perceiver pulls this off in one of four fascinating ways that seem ripped from the script of Mean Girls:

  1. They will convince themselves that they and their people are better than you and your people.
  2. They will decide that you are both similar and can thus share in any victories.
  3. They will determine that you aren’t actually competing for anything they want, so: no harm, no foul.
  4. If none of the above are possible, they will avoid you or attempt to destroy you.

Halvorson uses examples from job interviews with candidates of different sexes, races, and qualifications as compared to the interviewers to demonstrate how this plays out in real life (with or without the interviewer even being aware of it). Suffice it to say, you don’t want to be better looking (or smarter) than your interviewer – especially if they have low self esteem.

Halvorson recommends modesty and affirmation to overcome the trouble inherent to the ego lens.

Part Three shows how perception can be a function of personality. Halvorson examines promotion-focused (risk takers) and prevention-focused (risk averse) personalities and encourages readers to adapt their communication according a person’s dominant personality.

For a promotion-focused perceiver, frame your ideas in terms of potential gains or wins… For a prevention-focused perceiver, frame your ideas in terms of avoiding losses or mistakes.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me was Halvorson’s examination of the secure, anxious and avoidant lenses. I have a tendency to be avoidant, so it was encouraging to see these often-misunderstood traits of mine presented as being very normal.

Herein lies the beauty of books such as this: you go in expecting to learn more about others but you end up learning a thing or two about yourself. Halvorson’s techniques for dealing with avoidant-attached people is, of course, useful for me in my dealings with other avoidant-attached people but it’s most beneficial as a means of understanding how I must be coming across to other people.

In short: be patient with avoidant-attached people and don’t take our stand-offishness personally.

The last section brings all of the above together and presents techniques for forcing the issue of perception when needed, as well as a rather intricate guide to crafting the perfect apology. The book concludes with tips on how to reverse-engineer Halvorson’s guide to being better understood into ways of better understanding others.

No One Understands You And What To Do About It is an easy read but is far from a superficial one. Halvorson has deconstructed a problem central to communication in our hyper-communicative world and offers strategies that can be employed in any aspects of our lives and within any context: home, work, school, the gym – anywhere!

She writes with an assured style and peppers in subtle, wink-wink humor to make sure you’re paying attention. Far from your average management or self-help book (which she notes in the intro she specifically tried to avoid writing), No One Understands You And What To Do About It entertains as much as it informs.





Lessons I Learned From My 2015 Reading

Lessons learned from books I read in 2015

Those of you keeping score at home know I love trying to find life lessons everywhere (even in movies). Books, of course, are not an unusual source of lessons but reading critically and identifying the thoughts and lessons that truly resonate with you is an enjoyable exercise that adds value to fiction and non-fiction alike. The books that I read in 2015 represent a nice blend of both categories and though the lessons are certainly easier to glean from non-fiction, there were also lessons to be learned from the fictional stories.

Here are some of my favorites.

Harvest by Jim Crace

Harvest will really remind readers of the film The Village as the setting is almost identical. Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, Harvest features prose that borders on poetry in terms of both beauty and lyricism. The story is simple but rich – a group of outsiders arrives on the edges of a rural settlement on the same night a large fire consumes the manor house. Accusations are immediately leveled against the unknown visitors and the pursuit of the truth pushes each villager to the edge.

The lane is telling me I should not fear the futures that it holds.

The villagers in Harvest value their uncomplicated lives and go to extremes in their attempts to maintain it. However, as I have often said across many posts, there are no reasons to fear the unknown future. There are good reasons to fix what “ain’t broke”.

I can’t believe he would be parted from his smile, even in death.

This quote is presented out of context but who wouldn’t want to be remembered this way?

It’s certain that you cannot tell from how a person works or how a person strolls behind her hens what kind of life they live in secrecy.

Another common theme explored elsewhere on ToVa: your own concept of another person is not even a shred of the whole truth of their being. This can mean things good or evil are unseen and/or unknown by you but the real takeaway is to remember that though other people appear as extras in the movie of our daily life, their existence could be every bit as rich as yours (if not more rich).

Quiet by Susan Cain

As an introvert, I found Quiet quite fascinating. Cain digs deep into society’s concept of introversion and what she refers to as the “extrovert ideal” that leaves most introverts feeling misunderstood and/or undervalued. Introverts will find it especially interesting but extroverts will also take a lot away from the research and case studies that Cain presents.

That said, the quote that I found the most inspiring applies to introverts and extroverts alike:

Those who live the most fully realized lives – giving back to their families, societies, and ultimately themselves – tend to find meaning in their obstacles.

We would all do well to remember this very true notion in times of struggle.

How to be Alone by Sara Maitland

Doesn’t it seem natural that I would sit down a book about introversion and pick up what is ostensibly a guide to being a loner? Of course, How to be Alone is far from a step-by-step guide to hermitude – rather, it is an exploration of the many benefits of carving out some solitude in a world that increasingly demands either our physical or digital presence at all times.

Hence:

Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.

We all want to be “luxuriously immersed in doings of [our] own choice” but this often requires being alone or, at the very least, ‘disconnected’. This, then, is a valuable reminder that to be alone is more about being present with ourselves than it is about removing ourselves from the company of others.

All of us want to be treated as complex and unique human beings, but simultaneously want everybody to be just like ourselves.

I present this quote without context just because it always make me chuckle.

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

This book, by the co-founder of The School of Life, uses the philosophy of a great thinker to guide the reader through dealing with existential crises (for example: the philosophy of Socrates is relayed as a consolation for being unpopular). It is a highly readable and thoroughly enjoyable way to expose oneself to the works of great philosophers such as Nietzsche and Epicurus if you’re hesitant to jump right into their respective primary texts.

It was hard to limit the number of quotes I wanted to share and even still I’m left with quite a long list.

If we attend properly to our experiences and learn to consider ourselves plausible candidates for an intellectual life, it is, implied Montaigne, open to all of us to arrive at insights no less profound than those in the great ancient books.

Montaigne was all about the ability of the common man to achieve intellectual heights and this quote underscores the point. We could all afford to take ourselves a little more (but not too) seriously.

Critics are not inclined to bow before the grander pronouncements of those with whom they attended university.

Oh, so true – but we are truly limiting ourselves through such jealousy.

The wise man can lose nothing. He has everything invested in himself.

Courtesy of the stoics, this quote highlights that we must be careful about where (and with whom) we deposit pieces of ourselves. It is possible to toe the line between looking out for your own development and being selfish.

He allowed him to be himself; through his psychological acuity, he enabled him to be so. He offered scope for valuable and yet until then neglected dimensions of Montaigne’s character – which suggests that we pick our friends not only because they are kind and enjoyable company, but also, perhaps more importantly, because they understand us for who we think we are.

There are many dimensions to friendship and our most valuable relationships with others will be both affectionate and actualizing, pushing us ever toward achieving our ideal self. Friends who see us as everything we wish to be are special indeed.

Expensive objects can feel like plausible solutions to needs we don’t understand. Objects mimic in a material dimension what we require in a psychological one. We need to rearrange our minds but are lured toward new shelves. We buy a cashmere cardigan as a substitute for the counsel of friends.

A warning against the dangers of consumerism, ostensibly, but also a reminder that we must tend to the garden of our minds. How to be Alone can help in this cause.

Errors in our thought and way of life can at no point and in no way ever be proven simply by the fact that we have run into opposition.

This really should be common sense but sadly is not altogether common knowledge. The motivations of those who might oppose us are hard to know (see the earlier quote from Harvest about secret lives) and physical objects that get in the way could be present for no greater reason than coincidence. You might be wrong but the mere presence of resistance does not in itself prove this fact.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Most of you have probably seen the movie and I hope many have also read the book. More than just a gripping science-fiction tale of survival, The Martian is hilarious from cover to cover. Thankfully, this humor mostly survived the translation to film but if you haven’t read the book, do!

No plan survives first contact with the enemy.

Remember what we just said about obstacles not being an indicator of correctness?

Since Sol 6 all I’ve wanted to do is get the hell out of here. Now the prospect of leaving the Hab behind scares the shit out of me. I need some encouragement. I need to ask myself, “What would an Apollo astronaut do?”

He’d drink three whiskey sours, drive his corvette to the launchpad, then fly to the moon in a command module smaller than my rover. Man those guys were cool.

Included because we all want to a whiskey drinkin’, moon landin’ Apollo astronaut. Those guys were cool.

Log Entry Sol 11
I wonder how the Cubs are doing.

Mark Watney’s log in the early days of his being stranded on Mars. A little levity never hurt nobody (but Cubs fandom has).

The Fall by Albert Camus

Camus is one of my favorite authors and thinkers. I’ve featured his ideas on ToVa before. His novels do a fantastic job of weaving his philosophy through a compelling but fictional narrative and The Fall is no exception. The book is entirely dialogue but reveals only one side of a conversation between the speaker, Clamence, and a fellow Frenchman he befriends and subsequently shows around Amsterdam. Slowly Clamence reveals elements of his personal history and philosophy toward many subjects – primarily judgement – to the increasing horror of his compatriot and the reader.

One plays at being immortal and after a few weeks one doesn’t even know whether or not one can hang on till the next day.

Anybody making a real go of things has been here before: you’re on top of the world one minute and then you blink and can’t get motivated to get out of bed. Pacing and moderation are critical in all aspects of our lives; actualization is a process, not a task.

What we call basic truths are simply the ones we discover after all the others.

Hindsight, eh? Still, these lessons must be learned.

… We rarely confide in those who are better than we. Rather, we are more inclined to flee their society. Most often, on the other hand, we confess to those who are like us and who share our weaknesses. Hence we don’t want to improve ourselves or be bettered, for we should first have to be judged in default.

Here is a different, more cynical, take on the earlier quote about choosing friends who see us as we want to be seen. This is a trap in which we can easily be ensnared. Those with low expectations are easier to please and less likely to judge but they will also never help you move forward. They are quicksand from which it is difficult to escape. Fear not the judgement of the less-enlightened.

But to be happy it is essential not to be too concerned with others.

I feel like I just said this!

Doubtless they suspected me of living fully, given up completely to happiness; and that cannot be forgiven. The look of success, when it is worn in a certain way, would infuriate a jackass.

Jealousy! People unwilling to pursue their own happiness will never give you credit for achieving happiness of your own. This is not worth your time to consider.

Men are never convinced of your reasons, of your sincerity, of the seriousness of your sufferings, except by your death. So long as you are alive, your case is doubtful; you have a right only to their skepticism.

Again we strike upon a common theme across these books: that others know not what we are going through and can never be made to understand. As the stoics remind us, we must choose to live for and invest in ourselves.

You know what charm is: a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question.

Charisma and charm are facets of human interaction that fascinate me and this quote illustrates their magical powers. It’s a topic I’ll be exploring in future blog posts.

The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen

Until I picked up The Twenty-Seventh City I had not read one word written by Franzen which meant, with the release of Purity toward the end of the year, I had five novels to work my way through. Since I love doing these things in order, I started with his first novel, a sprawling narrative concerning a political and sociological conspiracy in St. Louis that effects all levels of the city’s society. The treat of Franzen’s writing is in the observation and his first effort is no exception, showing flashes of the insight that he refines with each subsequent novel.

Everything seems like it might be important. The side of the bed I sleep on. Working too hard. Not working enough. Do I need to get angry? Or do I need to stay calm? Weekend versus week night. Red wine versus white. You know? Because there’s got to be a reason for this, and any part of my life, anything I do every day — There are so many variables, so many combinations. I can’t pinpoint the important ones by any process of elimination. What if the reasons I can’t sleep are eating sugar, going to bed too early, and watching sports on the weekend? I could never isolate that. But I lie there for hours turning over the variables. I can’t remember when I ever slept well. As if my whole life had been this way.

Case in point: who among us has not had thoughts in this same pattern? There is comfort in knowing we are not alone. The power of fiction is its ability to breed empathy.

Probst doesn’t have the loser’s ethic it takes to believe in conspiracy.

While the notion of a ‘loser’s ethic’ seems harsh, this touches again upon our common thread of feeling like any resistance means we are wrong or that people are out to get us. The winners, meanwhile, are getting on with it.

And he could see how the year had happened , how a man in his prime, the envy of a state, could lose everything without even putting up a fight along the way: he hadn’t believed in what he had.

Here is a very real danger we all face as we strive for actualization. It is possible to reach – sometimes several times – a point when we don’t feel as though the good around us and the things we have accomplished are real or worthwhile or (more cynically still) a product of our efforts. If we don’t value what we have it may slip away while we’re not looking.

Strong Motion by Jonathan Franzen

Strong Motion again weaves a tale of conspiracy but in a tighter manner than Franzen’s first novel. Reneé Seitchek is a seismologist working at Harvard when unprecedented earthquakes rock the Boston area. She meets and begins a romance with Louis Holland, whose grandmother was the sole fatal victim of the first of these minor tremors. Through this romance and her exposure to the Holland family she slowly begins to theorize that the cause of the earthquakes is not natural but her accusations – if true – would have far-reaching implications.

I have no quotes to share from this book as most of my marginalia in this case highlighted bits of prose I particularly liked for stylistic reasons (you can click here to read those passages if you’re interested) but the story itself stands as a good example of determination in the face of opposition. When Reneé completes her theory (which she defends in an academic article) there are ample stakeholders who wish to dismiss her theory for various and shallow reasons as well as those who stand to lose if she is proven right and are a threat to her safety as she proceeds with her research.

She sticks to her guns and (in several ways) looks out for her own interests despite all of the resistance and, in some cases, departures of those who encouraged her to pursue her research in the first place.

What are you reading?

My first novel of 2016 is The Corrections, Franzen’s third and most highly-regarded novel. I’m 150 pages in and can already see why this is the case.

What are you reading? Please share below along with any lessons you’d like to highlight.


All of my writing – including ToVa posts, fiction, and personal essays – is now being gathered at jgregjoachim.com





Don’t Rush To The Middle

Rupert is watching.

Listening to comedians discuss their craft never ceases to fascinate me. In fact, I sometimes find it more interesting than watching their act.

Sometimes.

A great source of these discussions is the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, on which Jay Leno was recently a guest. Leno rolled out a few stories I have heard him tell in the past, but one point he made about ‘working clean’ really stuck with me:

You have a lot of [comedians] now that rush to the middle and then stay there for twenty years.

He goes on to describe a phenomenon where new comedians are very quickly able to reach the middle of the pack because they can milk swearing or vulgarity for a cheap laugh… but then their careers hit a wall and stall.

It’s really easy to take a clean joke and make it dirty. It’s almost impossible to take a really funny dirty joke and make it clean. When the punchline is some four-letter word, what do you do with that? Where do you go with it? You can’t take it past a certain point.

The warning here is obvious: if you take shortcuts to success, you’ll eventually be stranded without the tools to progress further. It’s easy enough to learn what certain words translate to in Spanish, but if you don’t understand how to conjugate verbs and construct sentences you’ll find it difficult to ever carry a conversation in that language.

A comedian who relies too heavily on cheap laughs runs the danger of never actually learning the craft of comedy. Eventually the novelty of your vulgarity will wear thin and if you don’t have the skills to write new jokes, so will the laughs you receive.

Granted, there will always be a receptive (but transient) audience for those who lean on tried-and-true tricks, but the real success is reserved for those willing to work for it.

Most people want to play the audience where they get the best laugh… But if you just play rooms where everybody laughs at everything you say, you never get any better.

Leno is talking about comedians in this interview but he may as well be talking about anybody with any serious ambitions. Shortcuts and low-hanging fruit abound, as do people who will pat you on the back and tell you what you want to hear. Don’t be afraid to climb a little higher and seek feedback from the people you fear you’ll never impress. Eventually you will find the higher, riper fruit and get a laugh you know you earned.