For the past few years, I’ve spent much of my time subjecting myself to pain and humiliation.
It wasn’t out of masochism. It was out of a desire to self improve. Trust me, I need a lot of self improvement.
I’ve done this by throwing myself into a series of (admittedly absurd but hopefully enlightening) projects, which I chronicle in my books and articles.
I work at Esquire magazine, and a few years ago, I wrote an article called “My Outsourced Life” in which I hired a team of people in Bangalore, India to live my life for me. They answered my emails for me. They answered my phone. They argued with my wife. It was the best month of my life. I just sat back and read books and watched movies.
More recently, I wrote an article about a movement called Radical Honesty. This is a movement that says you should never, ever lie. Whatever is on your brain should come out of your mouth. So I decided I would try this for a month. This was the worst month of my life. I don’t recommend this at all.
For my first book, I tried to improve my mind. I took a cue from my dad, who had read the Encyclopedia Britannica when I was a kid. I dove in at A and emerged 18 months later at Z. Or more precisely, I started at A-ak and ended at Zyweic.
My goal was to explore the limits of information overload. It was an amazing year. Painful at times. Especially for those those around me. My wife started to fine me $1 for every irrelevant fact I inserted into conversation. But I got to learn about the highs and lows of history, and came out believing the highs outweighed the lows. It made me proud to be a member of our species.
Next I tried to improve my spirit. This I did by attempting to follow every single rule in the Bible for a year. I grew up with no religion. As I say in the book, I’m Jewish in same way the Olive Garden is Italian. But I thought I’d get a crash course in my heritage. So I followed hundreds of biblical rules.
The Bible says no coveting, or lying or gossiping. I live in New York and work as a journalist, so that was 80 percent of my day. The Bible says that you cannot shave the corners of your beard. I didn’t know where the corners were, so I ended up growing the whole thing out, and I had some alarming topiary on my chin. The Bible says you can’t wear clothes of mixed fiber, so I had to get rid of all my poly-cotton blends.
After exploring the mind and spirit, I wrote my most recent book about trying to improve my body. I needed it. I was skinny-fat. I looked like a snake that had swallowed a goat. So I tested out dozens of diets and exercise routines.
At the end of each project, I’ve given up many of the habits. I shaved my beard after my biblical stint. I eat the occasional stuffed-crust pizza after Drop Dead Healthy.
But I find that some of the habits stick with me. I’ve remade myself, at least a little. The maker movement doesn’t have to be confined to objects. You can shape your own personality and desires.
A lot of it has to do with the power of pretending. I spend much energy forcing myself to act in a certain way. The exterior has an astounding affect on the interior. There’s a great quote from the founder of Habitat for Humanity: “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting.”
I live by that motto. Even if I don’t feel compassionate, I ask myself: “What would a compassionate person do.” And I force myself to go visit a friend at the hospital (or whatever). And that tricks my brain. I start to believe that I’m compassionate. And eventually I become more compassionate.
I still lie, covet and gossip a huge amount. But since I started remaking myself, I believe I do it 40 percent less. Maybe 30. Okay 20.