Common Discourse is a project designed to help others (and ourselves) think through creativity, focus, and intentional work—from Alex Tan & Alice Otieno.
Every Tuesday we share words from a journal, a few ideas, a quote from somebody else, and links worth sharing. On Fridays we invite a guest to share images from their camera roll and a sound that resonates with them.
The twelve of us at MW.S gathered in Palm Springs for a few days last week to do absolutely nothing aside from drinking Prickly Pear tequila drinks in the pool and strategically avoid the UV 10 sun strength in the desert. It’s the first time every full-time team member had been in one place at the same time, trekking in from Portland, New York, Los Angeles, London, and Salt Lake City.
One of the strangest shifts this generation will experience is spending nearly 40 hours a week with your colleagues but never meeting in real life. It’s as if 20 years of advancement have happened within a span of two years due to the constraints the pandemic brought upon us. The sudden realization of “Oh we can actually do this” is good for humanity at large and allows us to take steps forward. And while the technology available to make remote work possible is probably for the best, I find that the time we spend together as a team in person is difficult to replicate.
Nuance, pondering, facial expressions, body language, spacing off, silence, and searching for the next thing to say can bring you much closer together than GIPHY responses and emojis in a Slack channel.
Abraham, Alice and I circled around a small table in a dimly lit speakeasy before dinner on Friday reminiscing about how much things have changed since she first joined nearly two years ago—from doing only MOUTHWASH Journal interviews to now playing a pivotal role on the team surrounding strategy & research.
As we’re reflecting, Alice asked “How do you prevent yourself from feeling jaded?”
I started to quickly think and prepare a lengthy, complex answer…
Try new things
Go on a walk (lol)
Drink a glass of water (lol???)
Before I could mutter out something that didn’t make sense, nor answer her question directly, Abraham beat me to it with a very simple statement:
“I don’t sign myself up for anything I don’t want to do.”
I’ve been thinking lately about how much complexity I’ve created in my own life by misunderstanding what it means to be a good person, thinking that goodness was only achievable by doing something for the benefit of others without any consideration for the affects it has on myself.
When you grow up in the Midwest with the “I’ll take the shirt off my back for you” mentality and realize the rest of the world does not play by those rules, I’d argue that you start off a few inches behind everyone else. Not because everyone else is selfish, but because many of us have grown up inaccurately equating goodness with altruism.
Haley Nahman, of Maybe Baby, covered the Paradox of Politeness so well on her newsletter this week. While slightly different from where this piece is heading, I found her angle on using altruism to cover hints of our egotistical nature to be quite interesting:
I thought of this recently when I was hosting a party, and realized that even though I’ve gotten better at letting people bring things, my instinct is still to refuse when someone offers to do something less pleasant, like, say, wash a dish. In reality, helping out as a guest isn’t a burden. It can be satisfying to contribute and feel included in the success of the night. But insisting that everyone relax and leave the work to me is still ingrained in me as a sign of a gracious host. I suspect this has something to do with my ego. Obviously I want people to have a good time, but I also want to be seen as a good host, for people to think being around me is easy and pleasant, for people to want to be around me forever, essentially. It’s interesting that, despite writing about this topic in so many different ways, I can still connect being lovable and capable with having no needs.
The Paradox of Politeness, Haley Nahman
Altruism essentially can be described as giving and expecting nothing in return. Studies have shown that helping others generally an act that has positive effects on both the giver and the receiver. There is also evidence that being aware of your own acts of kindness and the things you are grateful for can increase feelings of happiness, optimism, and satisfaction.
And while it’s good, if not necessary in some ways, to be altruistic. I’ve come to realize it cannot replace what it means to live honestly.
Christine Carter, a Sociologist and PhD at the University of California Berkeley, studies human happiness — and what holds us back from living our most joyful lives. In brief talk on truth telling, she explains that happiness can only be achieved through one simple action:
“Ten years ago, I would have told you a regular gratitude practice was the most important thing. Five years ago I would have added something about having a spirit of generosity and kindness being the key to living a happy life. But a few years ago I came to see that the only path to true joy is one where we don’t lie at all. I believe the most important thing for happiness is living truthfully. Live with total integrity. Be transparent, honest, and authentic. Do not ever waiver from this; white lies and false smiles quickly snowball into a life lived out of alignment. It is better to be yourself and risk having people not like you than to suffer the stress and tension that comes from pretending to be someone you’re not, or professing to like something that you don’t. I promise you: Pretending will rob you of joy.”
— The Power of Truth Telling, Christine Carter
So when we talk about happiness in anything (work, relationships, friendships, hobbies), perhaps it has little to do with how long you’re able to withstand a positive mindset, and more about how quickly you’re able to confront your dissatisfaction.
The worst state-of-mind on this earth is knowing you’re misaligned but forcing it anyway because either you or the person you’re connected to doesn’t choose the bravery to be honest about the way they’re feeling.
Starting a project with a friend. You were both excited at the beginning but it’s not working out and are afraid to be honest with them about that because you feel like you might let them down. So you just show up and force yourself through it.
A partner is unhappy in a relationship but would rather deal with their unhappiness to avoid a break up conversation
You take on a project even when you’re not particularly interested in it or happy to do it because a friend asked if you could help
There are a lot of psychological reasons why Sociotropy can be problematic. In Carter’s talk, she goes on to explain the negative affects that the habitual formation of pretending has on us as individuals:
“I’m just gonna give it to you straight. All of this pretending is form of lying. We could be pretending over something really tiny, or to protect somebody else’s feelings, but it’s still a form of lying. And lying is the most stressful thing that human beings can do to their brains or their bodies. The lie-detector test completely depends on this polygraph. The test does not detect lies, it detects the unconscious stress and fear that lying causes.”
Generally, we call these People Pleasers. Salma Hindy, an award-winning Toronto-based engineer-turned-stand-up comedian, has conducted remarkable research on people pleasing and what we can learn about ourselves from it.
“People pleasing doesn’t even achieve what you think it does. It doesn’t make either party eternally happy because neither of them are making a decision from genuine conviction. I’d encourage everyone to take back the autonomy of their own decision making otherwise you will end up resenting the very same people you sought out to please.”
I used to spend a lot of time pretending. Pretending I was happy to be at the party, pretending that I was satisfied in previous friendships and relationships, pretending that I was excited to do something when I would have rather been doing something else.
When Alice had asked her question and Abraham gave his answer, I realized in that moment that it is almost always more simple than we think it is.
“Do I want to do this?” is a powerful question, but effective only with a sincere answer. The result of communicating the truth to ourselves and others pushes us forward.
Being brave enough to be honest is a benefit for everyone.
A few ideas
You are under no obligation to remain the same person you were a year, month, or day ago.
You are not tied to the identity you’ve made for yourself online, you’re not married to the same interests that your peers have, and you’re allowed to change your mind.
Creating yourself is a continuous effort.
Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.
III. THE WORK
One thing we discovered early is that if we spend a little more time on presentation, we can reduce the amount of time spent convincing others to collaborate with us in the future.
We don’t have to beg people to work with us when they can see the results themselves.
It’s the work that does the work.
A quote from somebody else
“You must be unintimidated by your own thoughts because if you write with someone looking over you shoulder, you'll never write.”
Links worth sharing
🎨 Imagining what a color picker for words could look like
💆 Knave of Hearts, by Alex Zhang Hungtai
🎙 Rappers, ranked by the number of unique words used in their lyrics
🌏 Here-There, a library of stories shared by members of the Asian Canadian diaspora. It is a place to explore what holds us together, as individuals and as a community. Each unguided story follows a “pass-it-on” structure that weaves an anthology of lived histories and experiences. Collectively, it is a space to contemplate the nuanced journeys of those who live both here and there.
Thanks for consuming!
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Love these refections. Keep them coming.
"...the only path to true joy is one where we don’t lie at all." Sheesh! Yes while tumbling through that lesson I think about how at this point in my life, many things that sound important or impressive don't make me any bit happier than what I already know does, but what will take me into a nosedive is that self-betrayal of lying even a little in compulsive altrusim/people-pleasing. So good Alex, sounds like the trip was great for MW.S.