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Keeping your cyber stuff safe: the one thing you’re probably doing wrong

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The other day, I received a rather scary email.

It addressed me by name and politely informed me that it had successfully hacked one of my accounts and here was my password. In order for my private particulars not to be shared with the wider world, here were the details for a Bitcoin account into which I could deposit $1,500. Thank you, and have a nice day.

Not ideal.

The me of 6 months ago would have freaked the f*@! out. Not because the hacked account was of particular importance. Indeed, the email didn’t actually specify which one had been hacked. But it didn’t have to. The exposed password happened to be same for most of my six squillion odd accounts.

Fortunately for me, my security-savvy better half had schooled me on the dangers of duplicate passwords not 6 months prior. And even more fortunately for me, it was one of his lessons I had elected to act upon.

It went something like this:

Hackers are constantly trawling websites, probing for weaknesses. Some sites have pretty good security. Some do not. The ones that fall into the ‘do not’ category will probably get penetrated.

Knowing that most users tend to repeat-use the same password across a whole bunch of their accounts, the information gleaned from this single penetration event can then be plugged into more potentially damaging domains – bank accounts, email accounts, online shopping accounts…

This opens up a much wider drain down which they can and will suck your money, private/personal content and identity.

Your best protection is to make your passwords long and complicated. ‘Password’ is not an acceptable password. And for goodness sake don’t reuse the same one across multiple accounts!

Thus the lesson ended, and we went off to eat cheese and biscuits. But the message hit its mark. The risks were clear, and the ‘don’t re-use the same password’ argument was compelling.

But how on earth could I ever retain tens or even hundreds of different, complex codes, let alone remember which one was for what account? I, like most people, had no confidence that my already over-crowded brain possessed the mental bandwidth to master such a cognitive feat.

Enter the role of the password manager.

Password managers are encrypted, often cloud-based systems whose sole role is to securely store all of our passwords together. When using them, we literally have one job – to remember our single ‘master password’ – which unlocks the gate to all of the other passwords we have recorded.

While this centralised setup may itself seem a little dicey on the risk-front, the likelihood of a password manager being penetrated is pretty minimal. Like us, they also have only one job; to not get hacked. As such they tend to have pretty tight safeguards in place. After all, no one would use them if they didn’t.

At any rate, it seemed safer than what I had been doing up until that point. So I created an account with the free password manager LastPass and set about changing every one of my six squillion identical or semi-identical passwords.

Now, I’m not going to lie; it was a veritable pain in the proverbial to log in to every single account, change every single password to something long, complicated and distinct, and add each one to LastPass.

But within a few days I was done.

My brain felt clear and at peace; relieved of having to remember which of my passwords had exclamation marks at the end, which ones included numbers, and which ones started with capital letters. And I felt smugly secure in the knowledge that my cyber stuff was safe.

So when I received that scary email last week, I didn’t feel scared. And instead of transferring $1,500 into some cheeky hacker’s Bitcoin account, I bought my better half a big block of chocolate instead.

Surviving coronavirus: it’s probably not what you think

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While debate has raged around many aspects of our pandemic, there’s one thing we can pretty much all agree on: the whole situation has been one protracted series of emotional d*ck punches.

About a week ago, a large portion of Australia’s population was downgraded from Stage 3 restrictions (severely limited fun) to Stage 4 restrictions (fun is cancelled).

Thanks to our almost year-long lockdown (with a few short weeks reprieve in the middle as some sort of cruel ‘psych’), we have become – nay, instructed – to become incredibly isolated from one another.

Access to the people we love is forbidden. Recreation is forbidden.

It’s little wonder that many of us are riding minute-to-minute emotional rollercoasters, or simply being sucked progressively into a downwards spiral of mental messed-up-ness.

According to the Black Dog Institute, a whopping 78% of people have reported worsening mental health since pandemic onset. More than half have reported feeling lonely. More than half have reported stress about finances. More than half have reported drinking to excess.

Chillin cat!

It seems that in our quest to not catch coronavirus, we have created a very unwell world indeed.

But fortunately, this is not (entirely) a doom-and-gloom blog. This is more of a ‘let’s talk about how to fix everything’ blog.

Let’s get into it.

Maintaining incidental connection

Lockdown 2.0 feels rather different to Lockdown 1.0. The first time around, people frequently took to their local streets on foot or bike-back, drawing rainbows on sidewalks and smiling at the people they passed.

Thanks to mandatory masks coupled with our newfound fear of each other, the whole ‘smiling at people on the street’ thing is kind of no longer a thing. And as insignificant as that may seem, the ramifications are potentially pretty big.

When we can’t access our family and friends, incidental encounters with randoms are almost all we have when it comes to connection. And when even those connections are cut off – when we are no longer able to perceive passing smiles in the supermarket aisles – we feel more alone than ever.

So excepting the rare individual who has been blessed with ridiculously smiley eyes, the time has come for all of us to be more overt in how we acknowledge our fellow humans.

It could be a simple ‘good morning’. Perhaps a subtle wave. Maybe even just a wink, or one to two exaggerated eyebrow elevations.

youtube eyebrows GIF by SoulPancake

However it happens, we need to let our fellow lockdown-ees know that we see them. We need to let them know they are not alone. And when they give us a wink or a ‘hello’ back, we’ll know it too.

Make yourself feel better

In the western world, the concept of self-care has garnered a ton of traction in recent years, particularly in the context of maintaining a healthy mental state.

The problem is that most self-care exemplars tends to trend towards hedonic pleasures. Massages. Bubble baths. A glass of red (or six) and some raw cookie dough to wash it down.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like cookie dough as much as the next girl. But hedonic highs are unfortunately short-lived. And as soon as the pleasurable stimulus is gone, the feel-good feels fade away again.

Fortunately, there’s a longer lasting way to maintain a happiness high. And shockingly, it doesn’t even involve cookie dough.

What it does involve is doing something nice for someone else.

nice surprise

Oxymoronic as it sounds, selflessness is an amazing way to satisfy our own selfish needs, and can provide a powerful distraction from our own woes. When we go out of our way to make someone else’s day, our serotonin systems fire up, giving our brains a satisfying squirt of happy chemical that lingers like a fart in a poorly-ventilated room.

It doesn’t have to involve anything enormous. It might be as simple as cutting some flowers from your garden to leave on a colleague’s desk or surreptitiously paying for the coffee of the next person in the cafe queue.

Even a small gesture can be enough to brighten a day and pull someone back from an emotional precipice. And unlike curves and quarantines, it’s one thing that is within our control.

So forget ventilators and hand sanni. Connection and kindness are the true keys to weathering this COVID sh*tstorm, and emerging intact on the other side

Compulsory masks? Time to ban alcohol.

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It’s a mad time right now. Making it through a single conversation without encountering words like ‘unprecedented’ or ‘new normal’ is an almost insurmountable challenge.

In the current cray-cray climate, almost every new day seems to herald a new list of things that we must or must not do in order to be socially responsible citizens.

This week, mandatory masks are the new thing.

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For the lucky, corona-infested populace of metropolitan Melbourne (where I live), masks will be compulsory as soon as we step outside our front doors as of midnight tomorrow. And if we fail to fully shield our lower facial orifices, the heavy hand of the law will be poised, ready to slap us (with a fine).

Many people have accepted the impending mandatory masking as an unfortunate necessity born of our far-from-over coronavirus crisis. Others have taken their acceptance a step further and become vocal champions of the mask, decrying anyone selfish enough to dare show their shnoz in public.

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But others are less sold on the hiding of our face holes.

I find myself with a foot in each camp. On one hand, I get it. If a disease is both very virulent and crazily contagious, taming transmission is probably a good thing. And adding extra barriers will probably help to prevent us from uncontrollably French kissing and spitting in each other’s faces.

But there’s something that doesn’t quite compute for me.

If it’s so necessary for us to each take a personal hit to protect the health of our fellow humans, shouldn’t we be extending our endorsement of restrictions a lot wider than mass mask-wearing?

By the same principle for example, all alcohol consumption should also be banned from midnight tomorrow. After all, intoxication is one of the most common precursors to violence, road accidents, and a bunch of other antisocial behaviours that harm humans and society at large. Our indulgence places others at risk… just like our indulgence in a bare lower face. Yet we won’t land a fine for ordering a wine.

Smoking anywhere in public should likewise be prohibited. Secondhand smoke has enormous potential to harm the lungs of proximal innocent bystanders in much the same way a bare lower face has now been deemed to pose a secondhand respiratory risk. But we haven’t and probably never will outlaw public smoking.

While these are just two examples, there are a whole host of other possible prohibitions we could declare in the name of protecting each other. Consuming junk food while pregnant. Forcing junior doctors to pull 20 hour shifts. Offering jobs that require a person to sit on their bum staring at a screen for 9 hours every day.

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All of these behaviours harm others. But most of them are scarcely frowned upon, let alone illegal.

So if we need to wear masks to protect the people around us, fine. But let’s be consistent with that concern when it comes to other harms too.

Coronavirus has cured the flu

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So far, 2020 has seemed like some sort of bad joke. The kind that, once cracked, earns you long, withering looks from anyone in earshot.

In Australia, it started with the bushfire season from hell. Our air quality levels plummeted to among the worst in the entire world. Our landscapes were transformed into apocalyptic scenes with smokey, blood red skies. Zombie dingoes prowled through the flames, chewing on babies*.

Bush fire

Then it got worse. 

Our already sh*t-stained fan was bombarded by a second fecal load in the form of a coronavirus pandemic. People started dying in droves. The living were locked up, scared and isolated. Toilet paper supplies were rapidly dwindling.

But in among the disintegration of life as we knew it, coronavirus seemed to bestow an interesting perk. And I’m not talking about the extra Netflix binge time.

While the news media religiously delivered ‘breaking news’ every time another person bit the proverbial coronavirus dust, the usual suspects that snuff us out in more typical years seemed uncharacteristically silent.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), influenza-related deaths in the country totalled 3,102 in 2018, ranking the flu as the number 12 most effective killer of Aussies. This was not an unusual flu season, representing only a slight uptick from the 2,497 influenza-related deaths recorded in 2013.

This year however, the flu seems to have suddenly run out of puff. And not just in a small way. So far, there have been just 36 influenza-related deaths in Australia. 

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Now sure – we’re just over a month into winter. There’s certainly time for the flu to gather a little more mortal momentum. But even if we were to quintuple the current numbers, the total influenza-related deaths would still stand at less than 6% of the numbers experienced in preceding years.

There’s no denying it; coronavirus has cured the flu.   

The next question, of course, is why. Why are our influenza death digits so drastically lower than their historical averages? 

Iso is why.

Evading our fellow humans eliminates the opportunity for us to pass our pathogens around. Not just SARS-CoV-2 pathogens, but any pathogens. No germ sharing = no germ spreading = less germ-induced dying. It seems to be that simple. The numbers speak for themselves.

It’s clear that being social beings is inherently risky business. Being alive, likewise. As soon as we leave the relative safety of our homes and interact with the outside world, we necessarily put ourselves at an increased risk of death.

But being social beings that interact with the outside world is also precisely what makes us human. It’s what gives us meaning and a reason to get up in the morning. As J.A. Shedd once said; ships in the harbour are safe, but that’s not what ships are built for. 

So what does this all mean for our current situation?

All around the world, we are seeing second coronavirus ‘waves’. Infection rates improve, lockdowns lift, infections spike and lockdowns are reinstated to get it all back under control again.

Lockdown1

Realistically, this cycle is likely to be a long term thing unless we either change our management approach or get our hands on an effective vaccine. And finding a vaccine that effectively targets respiratory viruses is notoriously challenging… so we probably shouldn’t hold our breath for that to happen anytime soon.

Which leaves us to weigh up the merits of risk vs. reward.

We need to determine how much potential danger we are prepared to weather in the interests of preserving our way of life. We need to work out how long we are prepared to forgo our freedoms in the interest of safety. And we need to know far we will go to protect ourselves before we’ve sacrificed everything that was worthy of protection in the first place.

For everyone, the tipping point will be different. But our pre-COVID world was not a risk-free world either.

At some point, we may simply need to acknowledge that being alive carries an inexorable risk of death.

And shutting ourselves away from an interminable storm, merely to arrive safely at death’s door a little further down the track, doesn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense.

 

*This may or may not have actually happened.

Lifting of lockdowns: navigating a return to pre-iso life

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The first half of 2020 has been a sh*t-storm of fairly monumental proportions. The kind usually reserved for bathrooms following dodgy third world street food feasts.

But to those who have weathered the COVID-storm and emerged on the other side, clearer skies are on the horizon. Our iso-diet has worked. The curve has become less curvaceous. Restrictions are being relaxed. The light at the end of the lockdown tunnel is aglow.

As anticipated, many are champing at the bit to race out for that long-awaited haircut… er, I mean family reunion. Particularly those who have been trapped in tiny apartments with housemates of whom they’re not enormously fond.

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But not everyone is super keen for a return to regular ‘pre-iso’ life.

Sure – at the start it was scary. But once we all worked out the optional background for our video calls and got our hands on the required rolls of toilet paper, things started to settle down. And as lockdown life became the new normal, many of us started… well… kind of liking it.

Introverts around the world rejoiced; finally free to spend long, luxurious weekends legitimately avoiding hordes of other humans. Extroverts, while less predisposed to thrive in such situations, enjoyed not needing to waste time commuting between their innumerable Zooms and House Parties; allowing extra time to squeeze in even more socialising with even more people.

Many replaced their pre-pandemic activities with more meaningful alternatives. Family bike rides were substituted in place of retail therapy and fine dining. We abdicated  our need to be constantly out and about doing. Started acclimating to simply being. Allowed ourselves to enjoy the slower pace of life.

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And almost everyone smashed through at least a few home improvement tasks that had been lying dismally dormant on the ‘to do’ list for months/years.

It therefore comes as no great surprise that, with iso easing and lockdowns lifting, more than a few of us are reticent to relinquish the solace we have found in this seeming impingement on our freedom.

And so, as we prepare to transition into less isolated isolation, and less lockddown-y lockdowns, the conversations have begun.

‘Do we actually want everything to return to exactly as it was before? Or do we maybe want to hold onto a few elements of this new lifestyle once the limitations lift?’

On this front, everyone will no doubt have differences of opinion. But personally, there are a few features I wouldn’t mind perpetuating post-pandemic.

The intentionality of iso-interactions
In my book, catch-ups organised deliberately with people I’m genuinely hanging out to see trump en-masse invitations dished out by distant-ish acquaintances any day.

Hanging onto that newfound skerrick of extra alone time
Much as we’re all programmed to crave companionship and connection, there’s a certain freedom found in the occasional absence of our fellow humans.

Substituting the odd video call in place of in-person meet-ups from time to time
The emissions, effort and road rage saved by avoiding extensive commutes over the past 2 months has been rather heavenly. And ‘big nights’ are certainly less exhausting when they wind down a mere 15m from bed!

Continuing to find joy in life’s more simple pleasures
In the absence of extravagant adventures and experiences, lockdown life has re-taught me how to see beauty in the mundane. The fragrant delight of a home-cooked meal prepared with loving care. The excitement of spotting teddy bears in windows along a suburban stroll. The delicious relaxation of a Sunday morning home yoga session.

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So has lockdown life been easy? No.

Do we want to be locked down forever? Of course not.

But outside of a Marvel movie, nothing in this world is ever entirely ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Every disaster offers opportunity and potential for learning and growth.

What will you carry on into post-pandemic life?

The true culprit of our toilet paper crisis

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Over the course of the past week, Australia has lost its collective mind in a frenzy of corona virus-induced fear.

In stark contrast to our standard ‘She’ll be right’ approach, Aussies have begun genuinely prepping for the apocalypse. 

As one might imagine could occur in conjunction with end-of-world arrangements, there’s been a definitive up-tick in the supermarket sales of canned goods, bottled water and long life milk. And fair enough. If you’re buckling down in a bunker to wait out the wiping out of humankind, you’re probably going to need some sustenance to keep you going while you’re down there.

The bizarre bit is that supermarkets across the nation have been completely cleaned out of toilet paper.

It sounds like something out of an Andy Griffith’s book. But I kid you not; I have visited 4 supermarkets in the past 3 days, and there’s not a scrap of loo roll remaining. Entire aisles are eerily bare. Heck, the first store I tried had even been emptied of tissues, paper towel and serviettes.

Coronavirus meme

Given the total dearth of bum-cleansing materials, I felt acutely relieved at discovering I still had nine loo rolls stashed under my laundry sink. But alongside the relief was a whole lot of confusion.

Why toilet paper? Where was it all going? And when would it be back?

It occurred to me that while some people were comprehensively losing their sh!t over the corona situation*, such individuals were likely in the minority. After all, most people I encountered weren’t shirking work to batten down the hatches in anticipation of an impending apocalypse.

Rather, like me, most were simply noticing the lack of toileting supplies and starting to mentally calculate the approximate number of bum-wiping days they had left before their own dwindling supply might start to become problematic.

In response to this increased awareness, such individuals were loading up on loo roll preemptively when they happened upon it. This proactive purchasing further drained the standard supermarket supply, perpetuating the problem which would likely have otherwise resolved itself.

In summary, the toilet paper problem was not being caused by cataclysmic corona concerns. It was simply a secondary symptom driven by herd mentality and FOMO. 

This is not the first time FOMO has been to blame for major crises. Poo-paper quandry aside, fear-driven herd behaviour has underpinned a whole heap of other irrational man–made disasters.

Rapid, unforseen stock market crashes, for example, are rarely due to any true change in fundamental stock value. Rather, they typically occur in response to anticipatory anxiety that fellow shareholders will imminently stock-dump.

Bank runs likewise typically take place as a herd-style fear response; ironically often causing the feared disaster (bank insolvency and evaporation of savings) to come to fruition.

Stampedes in which people (or Lion Kings) are devastatingly crushed to death often also start when a crowd senses there is something to be scared about despite not necessarily knowing what that something is, and surge together en masse. It might be a loud noise that frightens a herd of buffalo into a stampede. Or it might simply be fear of missing out on a particularly good department store deal at 8.00am on Black Friday.

In every case, the situation is the same. Fear is more contagious than a cruise ship full of corona virus. And reacting to that fear can actually cause the worst of it to be realised.

So next time you feel the urge to flip out because everyone around you is flipping out, just stop.

Take a breath.

Put your 6 tetra-packs of toilet paper back on the shelf.

And remind yourself that a little bit of calm can go a long way when it comes to preventing true disaster.

 

* The irony  of losing one’s sh*t at a time when there’s nothing to wipe with is not lost on me.

Your attention: hot property right now

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Your attention is hot property right now. Like, seriously hot. And like most piping hot commodities, everyone wants a piece.

At this very moment, there are squillions of other attention bidders vying for the prize of your eyes. Heck, the fact that you’ve chosen to park them here for at least 3 lines of this blog feels little short of miraculous.

But even as we flippantly cast it about, the direction in and duration with which we choose to invest our attention can have some pretty significant implications. Implications that shape the world around us. And implications that shape us.

What we attend to shapes the world

In recent years, a sh*t tonne of media enterprises have sprung up with one purpose and one purpose alone: to monopolise as much of our attention as possible.

I’m talking Instagram. Facebook. Snapchat. Blogs. YouTube videos. Trashy mags filled with attractive, half-dressed women.

Attention
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Much as we like to believe that YouTube content is created to keep us entertained and Instagram exists because its founders just wanted the world to know how beautiful their brunch was, unfortunately that’s not quite how our capitalist community rolls.

These are businesses, not charities. And businesses tend to operate with the sole goal of making maximal moolah.

Most of us routinely and willingly surrender ourselves to these mind-monopolising machines, believing that our attention is a small price to pay for the opportunities they afford us. Like getting to rant at strangers on the web about the disgraceful inclusion of pickles in our Big Mac. Or find out how high cats jump when cucumbers are surreptitiously placed behind them.

Given the value we place on having access to these things, we don’t tend to overly agonise over the implications of our attention-gifting. But as Isaac Newton taught us, every action in this world has an equal and opposite reaction.

The more time we spend locking eyes with a company’s content, the more money they make. And the more money they make, the more of that type of content they are motivated to churn out in the future.

As a result, our media has largely transformed into a sea of short-form, low-grade, sensationalised articles and sound bites. Anything that evokes an emotional response is engaged with and thus proliferates, while boring, in-depth, well-researched material becomes increasingly hard to find.

Click bait headlines are now the primary information source for many. And because juicy/shocking content garners clicks irrespective of accuracy or authenticity, fake news has now burgeoned to such a degree that I genuinely no longer feel confident believing anything I read, watch or hear.

This is not to say that fake news is a new phenomenon. On the contrary, it’s been around for centuries. But in the past, fabricated claims were rooted out by investigative journalists who were paid to delve deeply and separate the bona fide from the B.S.

The problem is that high quality journalism takes time and money.  And in a new age where anyone with a laptop and set of functional fingers can be a ‘journalist’, those with the will and skill to do it properly are seen as expensive and expendable.

The result is frequently fake and low-quality content. This is the unfortunate by-product of the choices we have made around where to click and where to stick our eyes.

But it’s not just the stuff around us that’s affected.

What you attend to shapes you

I once heard it said that the person you will become in the future is the sum of what you read, hear and watch (and the people you spend most of your time with) in the present.

 

The notion resonates. I notice the evolution of my opinions in line with opinions I encounter elsewhere. I recognise the waxing and waning of my existential angst in accordance with how much news I consume. And I definitely feel like a smarter, more well-rounded person when I spend my time engaging with certain types of content over others. 

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Given how significantly these things can affect our future selves, one might imagine that we would select such influencing items with careful consideration. But paradoxically, most of us tend to do kind of the opposite.

Rather than actively seeking out our content, most of us are now passively fed it.

We’re fed by newspapers that barely bother trying to conceal their political affiliations and agendas. We’re fed by radio stations that, for the most part, simply regurgitate whatever other mainstream media outlets are already spouting. And we’re fed by ‘suggestions’ from internet and social media algorithms that have hoarded enough of our data to know exactly what kind of content will keep us coming back for more.

In this way, much of our consumption has become opportunistic and reactive rather than intentional. We’re satisfied with content that is custom-chosen for and delivered directly to us. After all, such modes of distribution are convenient, easy, and typically confirm our existing biases, which feels good.

But what’s the cost?

Allowing for-profit enterprises to engineer and select the information we encounter is like handing the Coca-Cola CEO a blank page and asking him/her to write us up a diet plan. Sure, he/she will probably prescribe something we’ll delight in guzzling down. But it may not be so crash hot for our health.

In much the same way, if the content we consume is going to govern the person we will become, we probably want to be the ones calling the shots on what that content is.

Personally, I don’t want some multinational conglomerate dictating what’s important to me. And I definitely don’t want them telling me how to feel about issues that are.

So what can we do to consume content more intentionally, and blaze our own ways forward?

Tip 1: Seek it yourself

We’ve established that much of the material we now consume is custom-chosen for us by corporations and their all-knowing algorithms. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Why should we submissively accept these narrow-scope and often low-quality scraps?

Most of us have at least a half-decent idea of how to seek and find ‘proper’ information when we really want it. And most of us do when we deem it important enough.

We don’t generally hire new employees without interviews and reference checks, even if they seem sensational on paper. And we’re unlikely to shell out $1,000,000 for a house that’s actually valued at $500,000 simply because the smarmy estate agent swears it’s worth a mill.

In the same way, seeking our daily content through more intentional avenues provides us with a more accurate and holistic picture of what’s going on when it comes to the important issues.

Wanting to know more about a certain topic? Try listening to some long-form interviews.  Digest a few peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject. Watch some documentaries. Chat to someone about their unique experience with it.

Popular media is not the only way to access information.

Tip 2: Acknowledge the bias

Just because a media source seems legit, doesn’t mean that it is. Chances are, there are probably a bunch of behind-the-scenes agendas being woven into whatever content is being plugged or produced.

There are the more insidious examples of articles that are quietly funded by individuals or groups with a vested interest in making us feel a certain way. But even when objectivity is indeed the objective, writers and editors are only people at the end of the day. Most people have views. And irrespective of intention, those views have a tendency to seep through.

Given this inherent bias present in so much of our content, the onus falls on us as consumers to read and listen critically to root bias out.

Much as it makes for extra brain strain, we should theoretically refuse to accept any view at face value, even if it seems to be supported by consensus (a problematic heuristic for ‘truth’ to start with). And we shouldn’t let ourselves get sucked into the false narrative that whatever we read or hear is necessarily an accurate representation of reality.

After all, there are multiple sides to every story. Which leads me to Tip 3.

Tip 3: Hear out both sides

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We all love to hear our own views reaffirmed back to us by others. This confirmation bias confers a comforting sense of vindication. And when we think and feel that what we think and feel is justified and right, we give ourselves permission to continue thinking and feeling the same ways into the future.

“Oh, you also love stabbing puppies? Cool! I knew there was nothing wrong with me.”

Engaging with ideas that oppose our fundamental beliefs, on the other hand, can be downright uncomfortable. Particularly where the contrary views relate to topics that are central to our identities.

Having already invested years supporting ‘our side’, many of us are reticent to consider the ‘other side’. However, just as the challenge of physically exerting ourselves makes our bodies stronger, so too do we mentally grow by challenging our own cognitive beliefs and biases.

Genuinely listening to alternative perspectives with no agenda to counter-argue is a powerful way to put our own beliefs to the test. And most of the time when we do, we see that the people on the ‘other side’ aren’t just all a bunch of crazies. We realise – sometimes with great surprise – that they often have fairly rational reasons for thinking what they think, and feeling as they feel.

So if you’re a right-winger, flip through a progressive newspaper. If you’re a vegan, hear out the merits of the carnivore diet. If you hate your government, actively try to find out what positive changes they’ve made in your country since coming to power.

It won’t be comfortable. But it will help to reveal the grey tones that characterise a world so often portrayed in stark black and white.

Tip 4: Opt for long-form

Those of you familiar with my previous articles may have noticed that this one has lasted a tad longer than its predecessors. And by a tad longer, I mean approximately 4x my historical average.

(Incidentally, congrats on making it this far. Your attention span is clearly superior to that of the average reader who would have given up within the first 37 seconds)

The length of this blog was no accident. Because I’ve come to realise that long-form content is actually kind of key to quality.

A blogging course I took early in my blogging life advised to keep posts under 400 words in order to accommodate the shrinking attention spans of the 21st century reader. But as we’ve already established, what people want and what people need are not always the same thing.

Long-form content like chunky articles, well-researched books, deep-diving documentaries and multi-hour podcast interviews are the broccoli to our fast food diets. The meditation to our mindlessness. The antidote to oversimplification.

Most issues worthy of our attention are, by nature, complex and multidimensional. And complexity simply can’t be captured in a six second sound bite or a 140 character tweet.

Or even a 400 word blog.

If we want to be briefly informed that something has happened, short-form might do. But if we’re going to get all high and mighty about an issue based on something we saw on the news, or an article that we spent all of 3 minutes reading… maybe it’s worth going a little deeper first to make sure our the indignation is justified.

 

Your attention is hot property right now.

What will you do with it?

You should do what I do

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Around 3 years ago, my partner and I figured out what we felt was a pretty great financial strategy. And ever since, I’ve been busy trying to convince everyone else that they should adopt it too.

Before you abandon this article for fear of an incoming 500 word drone about money management – this is not that kind of blog. This is a blog about why I was so hell bent on encouraging others to embrace our scheme.

At first, I didn’t think too much about why I was plugging our approach so hard. Perhaps I subliminally assumed that I just wanted everyone else to be as happy and wealthy as I projected future me to be.

Raining money
Photo credit

But the more I thought about it, the more apparent it became that this was not an isolated incident of persuasion. I realised that I often encouraged others to adopt my approaches, and not only to money management. I would champion my political views, career choice, diet preferences, hobby selection.

It was not a comfortable realisation.

“How arrogant must I be to believe that I have it all figured out relative to everyone else?” I wondered. “How absurd to assume that others’ lives would be better if they saved the way I save; thought the way I think; placed their new toilet roll on its holder in the same orientation as my toilet roll?”

But as I wallowed in my shameful discovery, it occurred to me that perhaps there was something else going on after all. That maybe my driving desire for everyone to do things ‘my’ way was actually… insecurity.

There’s a soothing sense of validation that’s imparted from knowing we’ve made a good choice. Particularly when we weren’t completely confident with said choice in the first place.

And when someone else adopts our approach, our sense of validation shoots up like an affluent heroin addict.

“They didn’t just say we were right; they believed it with such conviction that they lay down some skin in the game to do the same. We definitely made the right move!”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that every suggestion derives from self-doubt. Some stem from more wholesome origins, like the desire to transmit learnings from past mistakes to help others elude the same blunders.

But when we’re lying in the beds we have made, we almost always want others to hop in under the covers with us to convey the confirmation we crave.

If I were to quit my frenetic corporate job to shift into the less glamorous not-for-profit sector for example, I would feel far more sure of my choice if a corporate colleague sanctioned my actions by following me across.

Following
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If I’ve just forked out a fortune for a sparkling new beach house, I probably don’t want to hear that you think the property market is on a downwards death spiral. No – I want you buying up the place next door as affirmation that I did the right thing.

It’s almost as though we feel, when someone deliberately picks a path that’s different to ours,  they’re somehow dubbing our way ‘the wrong way’. And that makes us feel sad. And defensive.

So as a sort of preemptive strike, many of us find ourselves attempting to convince our peers that our way is the best way. The right way. The way they should take.

What we don’t consider however, is that no two people are the same. That everyone has unique priorities, circumstances and life trajectories. And as such, a ‘different’ choice might be right for someone else even while being wrong for us. And something that suits us superbly may in turn be inappropriate for another.

His ‘glorious’ new home could be her mortgage nightmare. Her ‘free’ nomadic lifestyle may make him sick with stress. His 16 hour work day might lead him to his dream job. Her 16 hour work day might give her a stomach ulcer.

So perhaps we shouldn’t always try to sway others to our way. Perhaps it’s ok for us to each peel off in our different directions.

Because who knows?

Maybe there’s more than one path leading to a happy ending.

 

Co-dependence kills conversation

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I recently returned from two delightful weeks away in New Zealand with my better half.

Having opted for the ‘campervan’ type of travel, we were very much up in each others’ grills for the full 14 holiday days. We literally had to clamber over each other to vacate the van, access our bits and bobs, or make cups of tea.

Pyes Pa sunset1
Our little van (and a particularly lovely sunset we encountered)

Time apart was non-existent. Everything was shared. His experiences were my experiences.

It was very co-dependent.

Remarkably, we made it through the entire experience without killing each other, and somehow even still liked one another at the other end.

However, I noticed that our interactions evolved quite a bit as the holiday progressed.

Having spent every waking (and sleeping) moment together, as time went on we basically had no new news to share. During normal day-to-day life, a hefty proportion of our evening conversations tended to encapsulate updates from the day or sharing of tidbits we’d independently heard or read.

But on holiday we had already shared it all.

We had listened to the same stuff. Met the same people. Done the same things.

As such, barring the odd memory lapse, there was nothing novel the other person didn’t already know about our own recent experience. Neither of us had anything new to teach the other. No unique wisdom to impart.

As a result, the character of our conversations noticeably shifted across the course of our two week adventure.

Discourse tended to be directed at the experiences we were sharing as we were sharing them. We would comment on what we were hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and noticing. On how annoying/lovely/foolish our fellow travellers seemed to be. On the aesthetic majesty of the mountains. On how expensive milk was given the enormous number of cows we had driven past.

Cows Marokopa2
A small sample of the 1,000,000,000 cows we drove past

On one hand, it was remarkably mindful. We were totally in the moment almost all of the time, and rarely found ourselves ruminating on the past or worrying about the future.

But on the other hand, our conversations were much less meaty than their home-based counterparts had been. Most of our comments were… well, just comments. They didn’t tend to delve too deeply below surface-level.

Back home, I tended to be in an almost constant state of learning as my partner and I exchanged new information in almost every interaction. But on our trip I learned very little from my extremely curious and intelligent companion.

It wasn’t a huge issue. Two weeks was not such an expansive time frame to take a break from absorbing erudition or discussing the ‘big issues’. After all, we were rather preoccupied with exploring and adventuring at the time.

But it did get me thinking.

What happens to couples who are co-dependent all the time? Those who share everything – hobbies, experiences, friends, reading and watching materials – not just when traveling, but always?

Lovebirds
Photo credit

If who we are is defined by the sum of our experiences, then someone who experiences everything we experience is essentially a slightly genetically modified version of us. And unless we’re extremely good at role-play (or suffer from dissociative identity disorder), there’s not enormous growth potential from interacting with ourselves.

If a person doesn’t give two tosses about personal growth, then co-dependence might be entirely acceptable. But if we want our life partners to challenge us and make us better versions of ourselves, maybe it’s not the best way to go.

My accidental two week flirtation with co-dependence clarified to me the importance of maintaining my own unique experiences while cohabiting with another human.

So today, while my man completed an online module on data analytics, I churned through a few chapters of Mark Manson’s latest book. While he hit up a cafe for his daily caffeine hit, I popped into the gym. He listened to a podcast about the health impacts of ingesting dairy, and I listened to one about the Australian housing bubble.

In about an hour, we will reconvene over dinner.

I anticipate our conversation will be utterly magnificent.

Limit your limits

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Wistful cat

Many years ago, I used to jog the same running route four times a week. By the end of each 6.2km circuit I was utterly destroyed, gasping for breath like an asthmatic goldfish in the Sahara.

Given my depleted state following each run, I naturally assumed that 6.2km was all that my body could handle. I knew my limit. And so it remained for a number of years.

Until one day, a friend suggested that we run together in a novel area. I agreed, and before I had a chance to entirely realise what was happening, we had 10km under our belts/activewear.

Running

That was the day when I realised the limits of self-imposed limits. And since that time, I’ve been fascinated by how achievable goals often hold me back from achieving.

As I approach each target I set myself, it seems that I start to struggle irrespective of what the target is.

If I aim to climb 75 floors on the stair machine at the gym, I’m struggling at 70 floors. If I aim for 50 floors, I’m nearing breaking point at 45.

If I set out to fast for 24 hours, I’m getting peckish at the 22 hour mark. Scale down to a 16 hour fast, and I’m ready to rip a chocolate bar out of a passing toddler’s hand after 14 hours.

It’s as though, by setting an end point, the message is “This is what I’m capable of. This is all I’m capable of”. And the power of the belief makes it real.

Don’t worry; I’m not going to get all fluffy and assert that we can all achieve anything if only we believe we can. After all, no matter how hard we try, most of us will never be the fastest/richest/smartest human on earth, accidentally discover the cure for cancer, or land a date with Liam Hemsworth.

However, it’s certainly clear that we can quite easily stop ourselves from achieving our potential by prematurely capping our targets.

In a society that advocates short-term goal-setting for success, this realisation gives me pause. Might the setting of attainable end-goals actually be unwittingly shooting us in the foot and holding us back?

It’s not that I believe we should ditch targets altogether. Having something to head towards can certainly provide direction, and imbue us with the will to keep going when the going gets a tad tough.

But perhaps abandoning ‘achievable’ short-termers in favour of more fantastical or long-term goals might allow us to realise a greater degree of what we’re capable of.

Of course, setting ambitious targets necessarily elevates the likelihood of failing to achieve what we’ve set out to achieve. If I aim to climb 100 floors, I may ‘fail’ and only make it to 90. But relative to ‘achieving’ my easier goal of 75 floors, a failure of 90 doesn’t actually look all that shabby.

We’re impressed by Olympic athletes who land in last place. We don’t disparage doctors who are ‘only’ able to cure half of their afflicted patients. We still marvel at that guy who ate 8 hot dogs in a minute, even though really he was aiming for 9.

Falling short of something spectacular is inevitably going to thrust us to greater heights than we might achieve by meeting a more paltry aim.

So what’s your target going to be?