Stuck in Unhappiness: How We Get There (And How to Get Out)

There’s a story unhappy people tell.

This story—this myth—is a big reason why unhappy people stay unhappy.

Let’s look at a story I tell myself sometimes, from Theodore Zeldin’s A Intimate History of Humanity:

“…in the beginning everybody lived cosily in a family or tribe, people did not originally even know what loneliness was, never conceiving of themselves as separate individuals. Then suddenly, quite recently, togetherness crumbled. Now, not only is an epidemic of loneliness sweeping the world, hand in hand with prosperity, but the more successful you are, the more likely you are to suffer from it; and money cannot buy you out.”

Pretty convincing, yea? Part of me still believes it.

Zeldin warns against this self-storytelling. If we believe happiness is an impossibility—a long-dead artifact of ancient times—why search for it at all?

Our belief defines our reality.

Humans have always been unhappy at times. And, in each age, they have found a way to fight back.

For another perspective on this matter, let’s dig into the personal notebooks of Samuel Butler, written over 100 years ago:

“At least one half of the misery which meets us daily might be removed or, at any rate, greatly alleviated, if those who suffer by it would think it worth their while to be at any pains to get rid of it.”

How We Get Stuck

How to be happy, says Butler, is not something they teach in school:

“One can bring no greater reproach against a man than to say that he does not set sufficient value upon pleasure, and there is no greater sign of a fool than the thinking that he can tell at once and easily what it is that pleases him. To know this is not easy, and how to extend our knowledge of it is the highest and the most neglected of all arts and branches of education.”

In school, they taught us math. They taught us science. But, in my experience, nobody taught us how to live.

It’s not my goal to argue whether happiness is worth chasing—that’s for you to decide. But if you do want to be happy, then it makes no sense to wait for it to come to you.

Go get it.

There are reasons other than self-storytelling that make people unhappy. Butler shares one of them:

“One reason why we find it so hard to know our own likings is because we are so little accustomed to try; we have our likings found for us in respect of by far the greater number of the matters that concern us; thus we have grown all our limbs on the strength of the likings of our ancestors and adopt these without question.”

I’ve seen it happen. When people make effort to change themselves, they do. In the past, I would look down on those who didn’t change, calling them “lazy” or “stupid.”

Lately, I realize it’s not the case.

People aren’t lazy, they’re just stuck, stuck in a whirlwind of habit and false belief. Without outside help, sometimes they’ll never get out.

Some things that might cause this:

  • Learned helplessness. If you don’t believe it’s possible to improve yourself, you won’t.
  • Blaming the environment. People who complain a lot often believe that it’s the world (not them) that is the source of all their problems. You’re just a drop in the ocean. Why bother to change?
  • Limiting beliefs. When every around you believes money, test scores, prestige, etc. brings happiness, you might believe that too—until it is too late.

You, the reader, are lucky. If you’re here reading this, it means you have the power, the agency, to direct change in your life.

But how do we direct change?

Butler has some ideas on that too…

Getting to Happiness

In his notebooks, Butler goes on to explain how to take control:

“To those, however, who are desirous of knowing what gives them pleasure but do not quite know how to set about it I have no better advice to give than that they must take the same pains about acquiring this difficult art as about any other, and must acquire it in the same way—that is by attending to one thing at a time and not being in too great a hurry.”

Sorry folks, no magic powder here. You can’t buy happiness for three easy payments of $99.99.

With that said, the process is simple (it’s the doing that’s hard). Learning how to be happy is not much different from, say, learning how to juggle.

Challenge Assumptions

First, Butler says to doubt your beliefs:

“Above all things it is necessary here, as in all other branches of study, not to think we know a thing before we do know it—to make sure of our ground and be quite certain that we really do like a thing before we say we do. When you cannot decide whether you like a thing or not, nothing is easier than to say so and to hang it up among the uncertainties.”

Or, put simply:

Make sure you really like something before you say you do. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.”

Get in the habit of looking at what you (and the people around you) believe to be true. Ask: “Does this really make me happy? How do I know?”

Test Drive

Sometimes, no amount of armchair philosophy will get you to the right answer.

In times like that, Butler says to a test drive:

“Or when you know you do not know and are in such doubt as to see no chance of deciding, then you may take one side or the other provisionally and throw yourself into it. This will sometimes make you uncomfortable, and you will feel you have taken the wrong side and thus learn that the other was the right one. Sometimes you will feel you have done right. Any way ere long you will know more about it.”

Or, put simply:

Can’t decide? Pick something and try it. If it went well, maybe it’s good. If it didn’t, maybe it’s bad. Keep going until you’re sure.

I thought AcroYoga was the silliest thing ever, a perversion of an ancient art. But hey, I tried it and it was really fun.

The more serious the decision, the more you should in invest in getting it right. Couples that get married a few months after meeting rarely turn out well.

The Great Experiment

If you think about it, what Butler is telling us is something we all knew already.

He’s telling us to:

  • Challenge commonly held assumptions. This includes both your own beliefs and the beliefs of others.
  • Test those assumptions. Instead of philosophizing, live out (or simulate) each option as best you can.
  • Reflect on what you learned from your tests. Apply. Identify new problems or questions.
  • Repeat your tests to make sure you got it right.

Sounds familiar? We learned it science class all those years ago. It’s the scientific method.

So here’s the big takeaway for me.

The how-to of life is not a science. But this does NOT mean we shouldn’t apply methods of science to our lives. And, of course, no easy answers does not mean there are no answers at all.

Maybe that stuff they taught us in school wasn’t so useless after all.

Peter Drucker: How to (Actually) Manage Your Time

Many consider Peter Drucker the most influential thinker in the history of management.

Which is great, if you are a manager.

But what if you’re not? What if you’re a freelancer, an office grunt, or just a hermit living in the woods? Can Drucker still help you?

You bet.

There’s one thing that everyone has to manage. It’s something very close to us—ourselves.

For Drucker, this self-management starts with time.

In The Essential Drucker—an excellent intro to Drucker’s prolific writings (over 30 books!)—there’s an entire chapter devoted to his method of time management.

I’ve used a variant Drucker’s method on and off for a while now. When I do use it, I am a productive beast, averaging 7-8 hours of quality work a day. When I don’t, I average 2-3 hours—no better than the average American.

Let’s take a look at Drucker’s method.

Why Time?

I have a friend who never runs out of startup ideas. Every few weeks, he sends me an excited message that goes something like this:

HEYYYY MANNN! I’ve got this AWESOME idea. Nobody’s thought of it. There’s an inefficiency in the market. All I have to do is exploit it, and BAM!!!!11!!! It’s gonna be the next Facebook!”

Yea, man. You got this.

Five years later, there’s still only one Facebook. And this friend is still teaching English.

What’s wrong here?

Well, a lot is wrong. But, according to Drucker, the most obvious mistake is that he is starting in the wrong place:

“Effective knowledge workers, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time.”

I see this often. People make intricate plans for diets, businesses, or world travel and, well, none of it happens. It’s a pleasant fantasy. If you want results instead of fantasies, the first step is to start executing.

And execution starts by mastering your time.

The Three Steps to Master Your Time

Drucker’s method can be roughly divided into three steps.

The first step is to understand.

1. Record Your Time

If you’re like me, you probably read “record your time” and thought something like this:

Pshhhh. Are you kidding? I’m me. ME. I lived it, so I know where my time goes. Why bother to track it?


Our minds are fickle, says Drucker:

“Man is ill-equipped to manage his time. Even in total darkness, most people retain their sense of space. But even with the lights on, a few hours in a sealed room render most people incapable of estimating how much time has elapsed. […] If we rely on our memory, therefore, we do not know how time has been spent.”

The only way to stay honest is to track in the moment.
There are countless ways to do this:

“The specific method in which the record is put together need not concern us here. … The important thing is that it gets done, and that the record is made in “real” time…

It doesn’t matter how you do it. Just make sure that you do.

Here are some ways you can try:

  • Automate the tracking with RescueTime. (Note: This only works well if you spend most of your day at your computer.)
  • Semi-automate using a digital time-tracker like Toggl
  • Outsource it to your secretary or VA.
  • Track manually with a spreadsheet or good ‘ol pen and paper

Personally, I track on paper and record everything to a spreadsheet at the end of the day. Drucker recommends doing this for 3-4 weeks. I think 1 is probably enough, for starters.

Either way, take your records and…

2. Diagnose Your Time

The next step is to analyze your records.

Nobody spends their time perfectly, says Drucker:

“I have yet to see a knowledge worker, regardless of rank or station, who could not consign something like a quarter of the demands on his time to the wastepaper basket without anybody’s noticing their disappearance.”

I find that, without time-tracking, more than half of my time goes towards “useless” activities. (Note that is work time. Whether or not to track your social life is a topic for another time.)

The goal during this step is to figure out where time is being wasted. To help figure it out, Drucker gives two questions we can ask.

Question One: “What would happen if this were not done at all?”

“[Ask:] What would happen if this were not done at all? And if the answer is, Nothing would happen, then obviously the conclusion is to stop doing it.”

This is pretty straightforward. If you think something might be useless, take it out and see what happens.

Question Two: “What activities could someone else do better?”

I get stuck here a lot. I tend to think I can do things better than anybody else. Even if that’s true (it’s not), that’s not the point.

The point is that I do some things better than other things. It makes sense to delegate, outsource, automate things that I am less good at so I can do more of what I excel at.

Some things you can try:

  • Automate repeated tasks using apps like Zapier or IFTTT.
  • Optimize work done repeatedly by creating an “Operations Checklist.” (See Marshall’s Progression for more on how to do this.)
  • Outsource by hiring a freelancer to do things that you are less good at (scheduling, babysit, web design, walk the dog, outreach, marketing, etc.)

3. Consolidate Your Time

Step two was about finding wasted time and eliminating it. But there’s another way to manage your time: you can reorganize it.

A one-hour block is not the same as ten six-minute blocks. High-level creative work needs around two hours of focus. If you’re always interrupted by meetings (or kids), no real work will happen.

Drucker recommends that we “block off” at least a quarter of our day to do private, focused work:

“Even one-quarter of the working day, if consolidated in large time units, is usually enough to get the important things done.”

If your work is highly creative (writing, etc.), you might need to block off a lot more.

One Last Thing

Try doing the above three things for a few weeks. I’ve seen impressive results from it.

But there’s a caveat.

This is not one of the things that you just do once in a lifetime. Without periodic attention, we “decay” to our old selves, says Drucker:

“…effective executives have the log run on themselves for three to four weeks at a stretch twice a year or so, on a regular schedule.”

And, when you’ve made the time, consider checking out The Essential Drucker. There’s a lot more good stuff in there.

Learning How to Write Fiction: The Storytelling Project

On this blog, I usually have a “learning project” going on where I apply the more abstract success concepts that I write and teach.

For my latest experiment, I’m trying to become a published fiction writer in less than 1 year, with no connections and no experience.

I’m a decent non-fiction writer (else I wouldn’t be able to blog full-time), but fiction is a completely different monster.

Even if you aren’t interested in writing fiction, I encourage you to look through the post. The main concepts can be applied to learn any discipline.

For starters, here’s a rough like at what I do when learning a new skill:

  • Build a mental model. I want to understand (generally) how the discipline works as a whole. What are the moving parts? How to they work together?
  • Build a bullshit filter. In any discipline, there are many ways to be successful, but the failures all tend to make the same few mistakes. I want to train myself to detect these mistakes.
  • Do a 80/20 analysis. Not all parts in a machine are of equal importance. What are the most important parts that make it run?
  • Set an end goal. Tie theory to practice by setting a tangle “end goal.” How can I take a discipline like “writing fiction” or “learning to sing” and associate it with tangible outcomes (publish a novel, achieve a score of X in karaoke, etc.)?
  • Design a process. Reverse engineer from the end goal to get mid- and short-term goals. Then, build a daily practice.
  • Execute and reflect. Reflect periodically on your process and/or goals. Make tweaks if necessary.

I’ve used this basic framework in language learning, programming, martial arts, and all sorts of other areas.

I’m currently ~2 weeks into the Storytelling Project. What follows is look at how I applied the above principles to the discipline of storytelling.

Build a Mental Model: Understand Storytelling

The first thing I want to do when I learn something is to understand how it works.

I’ve always been a terrible storyteller. I’d try to tell my friends something that happened to be, but I’d see their bored faces and then give up halfway.

Yet now, two weeks into the project, I understand how stories work. I’m currently reviewing two drafts, and I have a few pages of story ideas. The idea of storytelling isn’t intimidating anymore.

Here’s what I did.

I went through 10-20 books highly recommended books on the subject of storytelling and writing fiction. As I read and took notes, I realized that, although all these writers had their own views on the craft of writing, there were a few key concepts that were universal.

Now, I can “see” these concepts show up in the stories I read.

The books that helped me the most:

Note: At this stage, it’s important to find sources you trust. For choosing books, I use the “skin-in-the-game” filter. I want to make sure the books I read are (1) written by real writers (not professors) and (2) that it comes highly recommended by good writers.

Build a Bullshit Filter: The Not-To-Do List

Ask 100 different writers to tell a story, and they’ll tell it in 100 different ways. But hand them a “bad” story—something that will never get published—and they’ll all point out the same reasons.

A lot of people start by looking at what to do when learning a skill, but I think it’s even more important to look at what not to do.

This lets me draw the “boundary lines” that I must not cross when learning. Everything else is fair game. This helps me feel like I’m not being restricted by a set of rigid rules.

What I’m using here:

Do a 80/20 Analysis

Again, there are probably an infinite number of ways you could approach becoming a writer, but not all of them are equal.

If I’d taken the “standard” path to full-time blogging, It would’ve taken me years, not months.

A lot of writers (with nothing published) on the internet will say: “Just read and write. Then, read and write some more.” This is terrible advice—only the luckiest of writers of that crowd will ever make it.

Since I’m only two weeks into this project, I’m still working on the 80/20, but here are two things I’ve picked up:

  • Focus on the essentials. Some things (plot, characters, setting) are essential to a good story. Other things (a particular structure, cliffhangers, etc.) are not. Focus on baking the cake, not on the icing.
  • Simple language works. Hemingway. I can spend a lot of time learning rarely-used vocabulary but, at the present moment, it seems like a lot of effort for little return.

Set an End Goal

“Learn storytelling” is an abstract concept.

To make sure I don’t cheat myself, I wanted to connect this abstract concept to something tangible—a black and white goal where I know 100% if I’ve failed or succeeded.

After some thinking, this is what I came up with:

  • End goal: Publish a professional short story in a magazine in 2017.

Note: To keep myself honest, I’ve defined “professional” as an article sold for at least $0.10 per word. This is the equivalent of $500 for a short story of 5000 words or $100 for one of 1000 words.

I chose 2017 because, looking at some case studies from other writers, it took new writers anything from 10-40 stories written before they started getting published. With ~40 weeks left in the year at the time I started this project, it felt just about right.

As for why I chose short stories and not a novel, it’s simple: a novel takes longer to write.

Design a Process

Okay, so I’ve set my end goal.

What are things that I must do in order to achieve my goal?

  • Write a short story each week and submit it.
  • Learn how to write fiction well, so someone will actually publish my work.

Again, writing can be divided into skills that can be taught (aka “craft”) and the skills that cannot be taught. When learning, it’s important that I hit on both of these.

Here are the three activities I’m currently using to do this:

  • Study the craft. Use active reading of instructional texts to learn the part of writing that can be taught.
  • Critique bad writing. Read writing from amateurs and take notes on why it is bad. This includes (1) noticing poor technical skills and (2) noticing how the writing does or does not affect my emotions.
  • Absorb good writing. Read stories that respected writers generally consider good.

My hope is that, by keeping a healthy diet of both good and bad writing, I’ll develop a natural sense of what makes a story good or bad.

My Daily Writing Schedule

With all of the above in mind, here’s what my daily writing schedule looks like.

  • Write for 60 minutes.
  • Critique at least one short story.
  • Read at least one good short story.
  • If I have time, study the craft of writing.

You’ll notice that the time requirements here are a lot less intense than some of my other projects, as I’m also writing full-time for the blog.


I hope that gives an idea of what the learning process looks like! I’ll be checking in periodically to post progress and updates to the method.


Sense Journaling: A Powerful Creative Writing Technique

Fiction and non-fiction are both writing, but mastery in one does not equal mastery in the other. Non-fiction tends to be analytical and rational. Fiction, though, goes much closer to our core.

Fiction is about senses.

This is one reason why creative writing is so hard to learn. We spend most of the time in our analytical minds. To write good fiction, we need to unlearn. We need to train ourselves to see the world past memes and cliches and surface patterns.

That’s where creative writing exercises can be useful.

What follows is an exercise I found in From Where You Dream, a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler.

Most journaling is counterproductive. Most journals are repositories of great swatches of abstraction and generalization and self-analysis and interpretation and all that bad stuff. Don’t do that. But here’s a certain kind of journal that might be useful to you:

At the end of the day or the beginning of the next day, return to some event of the day that evoked an emotion in you. Record that event in the journal. But do this only—only—moment to moment through the senses. Absolutely never name an emotion; never start explaining or analyzing or interpreting an emotion. Record only through these five ways I mentioned that we feel emotions—signals inside the body, signals outside the body, flashes of the past, flashes of the future, sensual selectivity—which are therefore the best ways to express emotions. Such a journal entry will read like a passage in a novel, like the most intense moment-to-moment scene in a novel.

Here it is again:

  • Record some emotional event using only moment to moment senses
  • Do NOT name emotions (“I was scared”)
  • Do NOT analyze or interpret (“It was a strange feeling”)

Use only the five ways we feel emotions to do the writing.

The five ways are:

  • Signals in the body. Temperature, heartbeat, lungs, muscles, nerves, etc.
  • Signals outside the body. Gestures, posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc.
  • Flashes of the past. Not analyses but what Butler calls “bursts of waking dream.”
  • Flashes of the future. More dream bursts, but as premonitions of what might happen. Again, not analytical.
  • Sensual selectivity. What we sense from the world around us, filtered by the emotions. (The same thing can look very different to two people.)

Try doing this consecutively for a few weeks. Butler says you should start slipping into a meditative “dreamspace” where you can write directly from experience and not from your analytical mind.

For more excellent writing advice from a real, working writer, check out Butler’s entire book here.

Recommended Reading From Readers

Last week, I asked readers to send me their favorite “big idea” books that changed how they see the world.


The list is below.






A big thank you to Guilherme, Brier, Drew, Derran, Veronika, Miriam, Eric, Kasim, Alex, Tom, Mike, Dave, Josh, Matthew, Paul, Austin, and Renier for sending in your submissions.

If you think a book should be added to this list, email me at charles {at} marketmeditations [dot] com.

Note: I’ve purposely left out books I feel uncomfortable listing. 

Note #2: If you click a link and buy a book, a small percentage of the purchase will go towards supporting my writing. This doesn’t cost you anything extra. Thanks 🙂