Behavior Modification

Me, Myself, and this blog,Philosophy — Sean Bonner @ 3:15 pm
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If you’ve been following me online for a while you probably know that I often use the end/beginning of the year to assess some habit or practice, and challenge myself to make an improvement. My Year Of Less was one of the more popular ones. These aren’t really New Year’s resolutions so to speak, the new year just makes it easy to remember when I started it. Or something, maybe I just say that to make myself feel better.

Over the last month a few people have asked me what my plans are for 2014, perhaps looking for some inspiration of their own. I’ve been thinking about it a lot actually, largely because I didn’t have as clear of an idea as I’ve had in the past. But I’ve had a few discussions this year about what it means to try and improve yourself. How can you make yourself a better person, why would you try, and what does that even mean? After all, who even defines what a good person is?

For me, at the end of the day, I want to feel good about the things I’ve said and done. I want to be proud of my actions, and sleep well at night knowing I did what I could. I want to be happy with how I’ve spent my time, at least as much of it as I have a say in. And if I can make little changes here and there to improve these things, then all the better. And sometimes just talking about them, getting them out in the open makes you more aware of them, and thus easier to tweak. So, this year I’m looking at a handful of minor behavior modifications.

• No white lies

I feel like this deserves a whole post of it’s own as it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, for a long time. The people I truly respect, whose opinions I value above all others are the ones that I know will be honest with me even when that means telling me something I don’t want to hear. I’m lucky enough to have a few friends like this and I’ve often aspired to be as direct and authentic as they are. When I need the truth, these are the people I turn to. I wouldn’t consider myself a liar by any stretch, but I’m certainly guilty of excessive simplification to get though uncomfortable situations from time to time, and I’d be lying (see what I did there) if I said I’ve never told a friend what I knew they wanted to to hear so as not to upset them. I recently read “Lying” by Sam Harris which helped me refine some of what I’d been chewing on already — namely that these tiny little white lies “to avoid awkwardness” or “to keep things simple” don’t actually accomplish that, but instead make it easier to ignore the truth and broadcast to everyone around you that you likely can’t be trusted, and might be lying at anytime. I know for certain I don’t ever want a friend to “tell me what I want to hear” so why would I do that to them? And having a kid now makes me think about this even more, I don’t want to set the example that the truth only matters sometimes. It’s important, or it isn’t. And I’m going to take the stance that it is. This requires listening better (I’ll get to that in a second) and being more thoughtful with what I say in response, but again, I think those are worthwhile efforts to make.

The flip side of this for everyone else — don’t ask me something unless you really want to know what I’m thinking.

• Listen better

A few times this year I’ve caught myself in conversations with people, just waiting for them to finish talking so I can say what I want to. I felt as if their ongoing verbage is just standing in the way of my obviously brilliant thought. Maybe I’ve done this longer than I realized, but the times when I noticed myself doing it this year I felt like shit. What kind of an asshole talks to someone and spends the whole time just waiting for them to shut up? This kind of asshole aparently, and I don’t want to be that kind of asshole. If what someone has to say isn’t interesting to me, I shouldn’t be wasting my time or theirs talking to them, and if it is interesting I should grant them the courtesy and respect of listing to what they have to say. I’d certainly want that same philosophy applied to me. So that one is obvious, going forward I’m going to actively try and be a better listener and not think about what I might have to say myself until after whoever I’m talking to has finished their thought.

• Write some fiction, every day

I’ve struggled with writing fiction for a long time —  I’ve written about that before. But I realize that what I consider my “problem” is more likely just the normal steps people need to go through that I’ve somehow convinced myself I get to skip. And perhaps I don’t actually get to do that. I think it boils down to this: As much as I want to write fiction I don’t because I’m not confident that I can do it, which stems from my personal compultion to publish everything I write, so I end up not writing fiction because I don’t think what I’d write would be publishable at this point. So I keep magically hoping I’ll just wake up one day and be good at it. Which maybe isn’t be best course of action to depend on. So this year I’m purposefully giving myself permission to write fiction and not publish it. Hell, maybe I will publish some of it, but I’m allowing myself not to, which is a big move for me. And to further spur this along and eliminate another crutch, I’m going to write something everyday. That way I can’t argue with myself that something is too big to start or too involved to work on right now. These stories can be as short as they need to be, but everyday I need to write one of them.

• Blog

And while we’re on the topic of arguing with myself, I’m making a commitment that I wont let me talk myself out of blogging. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of blog posts since I began blogging regularly back in ‘98 or so. The vast majority of those were written and posted prior to 2010. I’ve been quiet the last few years, quieter than I had previously been anyway and quieter than I’d like. This has largely been due to me convincing myself that whatever I have to write about everyone else already knows about so I’d be wasting their time by writing more about it. Or worse and more likely, no one cares in the first place. And I make a convincing argument. But on a semi-regular basis I get a comment on a post I wrote 5+ years ago, or I get an email from someone about one of those old posts. And then I have to completely reconsider my “no one gives a shit” theory, but I can usally supress that. But I don’t want to, and I want to blog again more. So I’m going to stop assuming no one cares, and stop assuming everyone’s already heard it. That doesn’t mean I’ll be blogging every day, but it does mean I want to average more than one post a month.

So that’s what I’m looking at for 2014. If I can move myself a few steps in a direction I’m happy about for all of them, that’ll be a success. It’s about habits and behavior modification, but I feel like these things are worth the effort and I’ll be happier if I can push through them. What do you think? What habits could you create that would make you a better person?



  1. I read you post on behavior modification and felt inspired to reply. I don’t think enough people write about what it means to be better. It’s relative, but meaningful. Being better, at least in my mind, means calling yourself on shit. Check yo’self before you wreck yo’self. When I was in my 20s, and certainly before then, I did a lot of stuff that didn’t reflect who I really am. They were things that reflect who I thought I wanted to be. Admittedly I was immature, reckless with other human’s feelings and was a pretty selfish person. I was dogmatic and because I could talk and debate, I loved arguing for the sake of argument. At some point in my mid-twenties I started thinking more about the person I wanted to be because I had a friend that never let me get away with anything. They ALWAYS called me on my shit. It made me mad and for a while I resented them for it. The friendship deteriorated and the thing I missed most about this person was the type of friendship they provided. It was a new experience for me. I was used to having people that just agreed with me and told me what I wanted to hear, but I missed that brutal honesty and that started a quest, if you will, to be a better person.

    I ended up meeting and dating a woman that was Buddhist. I had been reading some self-help books like Conversations With God (even though I’ve considered myself an Atheist since was a teenager) and The Power of Now. Both pretty cheesy, but did get me to a place where I was being more thoughtful about who I was and that any action I took either supported or worked against this vision of a better me. Man, it sounds so silly to write this stuff, but it’s how it happened. Anyway, so I was intrigued by the sect of Buddhism that she was practicing (Nichiren) and ended up going to a meeting so her. Not long after, I was chanting every morning and evening, studying Buddhist philosophy and even eventually taking a leadership position in the lay organization associated with the practice. Through it I was really able to challenge and become much more of the person I wanted to be. I was calmer (I’ve always suffered from anxiety and panic attacks), much kinder and immensely better at calling myself out on shit. I stopped practicing Buddhism after eight years (a whole other story), but I would not be the person I am today without having done it.

    My dad died several years ago from pancreatic cancer and he always had great advice. One of his buts of advice was about treating yourself like your own best friend. It’s difficult, but I always have that in the back of my mind. It’s a lot of work to constantly ask yourself if the action you are about to take supports who you really are or want to be. It’s one of the more difficult things I’ve done, but once you get into the habit, like most habits, it becomes second-nature. I still struggle with it, but I’m in a much better place. Like you I want to feel good about the things I do in life and most recently, the example I set for my daughter Cassidy.

    I love writing, and I do write stuff that I don’t share, which makes me feel bad about myself. I want to share everything I write, but don’t a lot of times because similarly, I feel like people have already heard enough about what I want to talk about. I know that’s not true for me (or you). So I’m going to write more publicly and put myself out there to get called out, challenged and disagreed with. I think people think I’m smart and I’m terrified of being found out. I need to challenge that and I will. That’s what I want to change. I also gotta get back into running and other physical exercise. It’s been challenging since Cassidy came along.

    Hope you, Tara and Ripley have a happy new year. And please do write more. I always find inspiration in your posts. Never would have written all of this if you hadn’t put yourself out there.

    Comment by Brad Barrish — December 24, 2013 @ 8:27 pm
  2. Sean, I’ve been in the crowd for a couple months now and I like your writing. I always look forward to receiving email from you.

    I recently read Lying and also became aware of the many places I tell white lies. Even to myself, apparently, since I was so surprised to discover this about myself.

    I can relate with you and commenter Brad about wondering if anyone cares what I have to say, because it’s surely all been said before, and better in most cases.

    Tl;dr version: keep writing. You inspire me.

    Comment by Susan taylor — December 25, 2013 @ 11:12 am

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