Check-Box Activism

There seems to be no shortage of upset and outrage these days. On a positive note, people do seem to want justice and equality. However, each person seems to have their own definition of justice and equality. Each side is going to war with an enemy that exists only in their own mind. The left is possibly more active than ever before, or so it seems, yet they are not solving any of the issues they are protesting. Police fatally shooting minorities is still just as large a problem, Occupy wall street is now a laughing stock of the elites and inequality is soaring. What happened to the MLK civil rights era style organizing? Obviously we will never have another MLK, but that is no reason to throw out effective tactics. Both sides have lessons to learn and responsibility to bear for our current state.

With all the outrage on both sides we need to back up and see where we have all gone off the rails on common sense, and honest effectiveness. Honest effectiveness is included because if we are objectively honest with ourselves, trying to gut each other on social media is not actually an effective or successful political strategy. You will never, and have never brought voters to your point of view from argument, this is a psychological concept, you trigger people to dig their heels in. With that being said, common sense tells us to occasionally get out of the trenches and check out the big picture. The classic business line- “there is a difference between working in a business and working on a business. If you only work in the business you can’t work on the business.” We all seem very angry and highly motivated, we’re going at it everyday online, but to what end? From the left and the right, it’s easy to see neither are making progress, even where there is overlap like in the case of a second stimulus package. So how is our energy and political engagement being diverted from what we want? More importantly, why don’t we care?

The idea of Check-Box Activism is based on a psychological concept of Jaques Lacan about why we engage in empty or symbolic gestures, or actions that have no real consequence. Think about the fact that we give and value gifts based on their uselessness- repurposing an old tool into artwork that hangs on the wall. All of our actions are actually directed towards this symbolic realm the messages we are sending are more like this, “I’m not really giving you an expensive or useful gift, but a priceless gift that I worked on to let you know that I care about you and our friendship, the gift is just a medium” And to the receiver we see the a grandparent receiving a piece of artwork from a grandchild, they will hang it up where it will be on display to proudly tell visitors, “my grandchild made that for me, it took hours and hours” with the real meaning “My grandchild made that for me because I am that special and because they love me that much.” 

Prior to social media, if you wanted to take a symbolic gesture that signals to everyone what you believe, you could go organize or actually volunteer. The only actions available were in private(inaction) or public acts of expression and engagement with the Government. Now we have a “Brave New World” style apparatus in social media that is doing a classic Bruce Lee redirect of our energy against us. Before social media to calm that internal desire to take action, and to clear your conscience you had to take action. Now we see tragedy and want justice, so we go online and retweet about climate change, we take our bags to the store, and an internal switch flips that says “I have done my part”. We feel internal pressure release with an “ahh” and hear the CHECK of crossing an item off a list. On its face it appears that we are lazy, yet that simply is not the case. 

So why do we spend our time in frivolous ways? Every person feels societal pressures in some way, it just depends on your upbringing and specific family culture. If you are a young person in virtually any group, you feel the pressure to go to college, get a great job, buy a house, get married, and possibly have kids. While pressures mount personally, we see constant news about climate change, wildfires, refugee crisis, migrant crisis, sex trafficking billionaires, big money taking over politics, completely public corruption, you fill in the blank. Not only are all of these legitimate, they are being forced down our throats at a rate never seen before with social media. What could the effects be on a brain constantly exposed to emergency and tragedy? Prior to the media, the bad news received was to the extent of your neighborhood. Then with Newspapers and eventually TV, you start getting non-local news. This beckons the question, are we capable of emotionally handling an entire country’s tragedies? We certainly didn’t evolve that way, now we are asking ourselves to not get overwhelmed knowing every tragedy on earth. Oh yeah, and there is an algorithm studying which topics will engage you the most and put it in your face 24-7.

There are so many people and causes screaming in our face to take action that an active tension is built on a daily basis. This makes you feel guilty, anxious that one day you could look back and regret not taking some action. And then…… you make a Facebook post, bashing real people. When we look out at potential options for being active, the only thing we see is that social media icon, and it is so effective because it clears your guilt as if you took action or stood up to a bully defending something innocent. This is Check-Box Activism, of all the things on the list of pressure-

  • Get a house
  • Volunteer more
  • Ask for a raise
  • Do something about climate change
  • Exercise more
  • Do something about racism

The two vague, yet threatening items serve as a distraction from our immediate life and they can be crossed off from the couch. With one post about what you believe and what you’re against, your conscience clears and endorphins flow. CHECK

TAR’s guide to stress management

There has perhaps never been a more stressful time than the pandemic. It has been and continues to be a gnarly concoction of economic fear and fear for our health. Some days have been emotionally overwhelming. We would like to share some of the successful tactics we’ve used for handling stress and open an invite for collaboration here.

While there are a million ways of handling stress, most tactics are some deviation of mindfulness. Simply put, being able to disconnect or unhook from emotion, thoughts, and reactions as they fly through your brain. The goal is not to cease thought or stop having mood swings, that is impossible, but you separate from them. Like the new Fleet Foxes song “You are not your season”, the day’s crazy emotion or thought is not who you are. This is easy to write about, in reality if we can “unhook” from our constant thought/daydreaming for mere seconds of every hour, that is game changing. This is hard! Stress wouldn’t exist if we were naturally monks who could never get wrapped up in emotion, but we evolved to survive not be blissful.

There are different categories(arbitrary) of stress management, first there are activities like exercise, meditation, etc. then there are monikers, and finally drills. We did in fact just make up those categories. Activities are typically straightforward, and the most evidence based. Monikers are generally unknown to the general public and never used, sadly being positive is not culturally very cool. Finally there are drills, interestingly humans are running negative drills constantly that undermine their peace of mind and destroy self esteem. 

Let’s start with activities, one of the main reasons why exercise can be so powerful is the concept of little victories. When you are able to push yourself and get that run in or go to yoga before work, you have started the day with a win, giving you a boost chemically and psychologically. You are only as confident as your most recent achievement, and if your brain is dwelling on eating that pizza and skipping a run, you won’t have much confidence. Typically our emotions end up controlling our actions, we feel bad and talk ourselves out of running, luckily for us the process also works in reverse. If we can take action despite our emotions resisting we can change our emotions. If you press on and go for the run anyways, the results feel more rewarding, and you are in a positive mood. 

The second activity is meditation. At the core of meditation, you are “expanding your window of tolerance of the human experience”. Think about the last time you had to pick up to-go food and had to wait in a restaurant. How many seconds did it take once you sat down to pull your phone out? That is your window of tolerance, you could only handle existing without distraction for that many seconds. Don’t feel bad, the largest companies in human history hire the greatest minds on earth to figure out how to make the cell phone more addicting than drugs or gambling. Effectively grinding our window of tolerance down to a nub. We recommend the Waking Up app, but no matter where you start, you can’t go wrong. 

The next category is the use of monikers. Monikers and running mental drills are ways of describing automatic thought processes that already occur. The point is to use these processes to our advantage, as opposed to our detriment. If it has never occurred to you, we do not have control over our thoughts, they run rampant, changing sporadically like a toddler with the TV remote. Since we can’t stop thinking(we wouldn’t want to, thought is a great tool) we need to try and get a grip on this overpowered brain of ours. How? Self-talk. We are constantly thinking negative thoughts in our head and reinforcing negative beliefs. “I’m always late!” “I’m not good with numbers” “I’m super disorganized”. Why we do this comes down to survival, if you were nearly killed by another group, your brain tells you that you “do not fit in with them”. The problem is we are still telling ourselves these narratives in everyday scenarios. It is important to ask yourself the question “When did I start to believe that about myself?”

This biggest challenge with changing the way you talk to and about yourself is that it isn’t cool to be a positive person. Even though everyone hates negative people in particular, being positive is viewed as goofy or uncool. You will be set free when you take out that “cool card” you got at 13 and cut it. This isn’t a childish activity, start noticing the little degrading comments you feed yourself all day and see if you can swap them for something like “I feel healthy and confident” “I always work hard”, “If I work hard and treat people right, I believe thing will work in my favor”.

Next time you are nervous about something coming up, a big meeting, an interview, anything that makes you nervous, and watch how negative your thoughts are. More than likely you are picturing the worst scenario that could happen. This is where the mental drills come into play. Just like self talk, you are currently running mental drills naturally, but mostly negative drills that are causing you to dwell on past shortcomings. In the book Psycho Cybernetics(Tony Robbins inspiration) Dr. Maxwell Maltz puts the human brain and the computer side by side on problem solving. When a computer has a problem to solve, it goes back to its memory to see how it solved past problems and find the right solution. When we have a problem we also search our memories, however we only highlight failures. Imagine a computer that used past failed responses to problems, your computer would crash constantly. Again this is an old survival technique that we no longer need. Before going into an interview, picture it going perfectly. Use the theater of the mind to play through yourself nailing the questions and them responding positively. Research shows our brain responds to imagined scenarios the same as actual scenarios. Yes that’s right, visualizing is as powerful as actual practice. 

While you are imagining the upcoming scenario, you should always have the cookie jar close by. This is a concept pioneered by the GOAT, David Goggins. Goggins is the world’s hardest man, after growing up with an extremely abusive father and getting extremely overweight, he became a Navy Seal and runs the world’s toughest long distance races. The cookie jar is where you keep all of your achievements and all the challenges you have overcome. Anytime a scenario is daunting reach into the cookie jar and remind yourself that you have done things tougher than this and come out on top. This is another reason exercise is so powerful, if going on a run at dawn is 10x more challenging than your upcoming meeting with your boss, you’ve just shrank the size of your anxiety and worry drastically by viewing it at scale. At scale means compared to everything else you’ve been through and overcome. 

In conclusion, remember that while negativity is toxic as hell to others, at the end of the day you are only holding yourself back. Next time you find yourself in a pickle, with a broken down car or job troubles, objectively notice how negativity literally can NOT help the situation in any way, only make it worse.