Tenets for an Extra-ordinary Life

Tenets for an Extra-ordinary Life

Today’s post comes from some writings made in Zion National Park during a one day solo hike from the canyon rim down into the belly of the Industrial National Tourist Park. I sketched out a number of ideas on how to pursue a life that is beyond ordinary – say, extra-ordinary – and then took a few weeks to flesh them out with text. This post is a long one, but otherwise self contained. Enjoy!


I spent the day amidst the throngs of moving people mixed with the rock solid grandeur of the Zion valley pondering these two worlds and how to stop moving between them, but blending them together into a constant state of mind. Per the distance between the PCT/Zion trail and the urban walk, I debated the difference between the vacation life and the mundane life.

To define terms, let’s first give the words “extraordinary life” (better written as “extra-ordinary”, as in outside of the ordinary) to describe the feeling one has on vacation, and the “ordinary life” to be the feeling when one is steeped into the daily rigors and whims of mundane life. I struggled long and hard with many iterations to come up with this nomenclature – and no schema was perfect – but these descriptors are the best I could do.

So I must emphasize with its own paragraph, the goal in the discussion today is to make the “extraordinary life” become ordinary in a way – commonplace, even entirely active 100% of the time if possible. The goal is to shrink “ordinary life” to such a small kernel as to be tossed in the air like popcorn into a mouth watching an intense movie.

Now to define terms – an extraordinary life is when you feel that life is experienced and experienced deliberately – not just passing by without your fingers digging deep into it. Extraordinary means you are aware and awake, brimming with intent and fulfillment, discernment and accomplishment. With the power of discernment fully welded, you are attentive in your actions, and your time is subservient to your attentiveness.

On the contrary, an ordinary life is being in a reactive fog, skipping likes stones on the misty surface of life. It is a timeless place where meaning and purpose are constructs always just out of reach below the surface. It is residing in a cluttered place where mundanities stack needlessly high like dusty magazines in a pack rat’s hallway. It is a weighty place where deadlines and meetings, emails and obligations overwhelm the scales of your ability to discern both priority and urgency in anything but relative levels over a wasteland of tasks, so much so that the larger scale of measure is lost. And to clarify, it’s not the busy-ness or tasks that make it out of life, but this loss of scale and the loss of ability to discern priority and urgency amidst the clutter that makes it fall into the “ordinary life” camp.

While not a perfect fit, I still see how Abbey struggle with the two states of being in his book:

My god! I’m thinking, what incredible shit we’ve put up with most of our lives – the domestic routine (same old jobs, insufferable arrogance of elected officials, the crafty cheating and the slimy advertising of the businessman, the tedious wars in which we kill our buddies instead of our real enemies back home in the capital, the foul diseased and hideous cities and towns we live in, the constant petty tyranny of automatic washers and automobiles and TV machines and telephones -! Ah christ!, I’m thinking, at the same time that I’m waving goodbye to that hollering idiot on shore, what intolerable garbage and what utterly useless crap we bury ourselves in day by day, while patiently enduring at the same time the creeping strangulation of the clean white collar and the rich but modest four-in-hand garrote)

So before I delve into extra-ordinary vs ordinary life more, let me dispel two natural responses to this bifurcation of life. I want to be clear and ready for a heady examination of the two states. 

First, I know it is easy to dismiss any discussion of this by saying “sure, it is easy for Abbey to dismiss to dismiss automatic washers – he’s out living on his own with the complete freedom to bend reality to his desires”. But that’s still not the point as I say above about tasks and emails. It is the ability to discern priority, urgency and importance when you are living out of life. It is to be attentive in your actions, to act with intent. While it is easier to lose your ability to discern amongst the automatic washers and hideous cities, you can lose it just the same when you, like Thoreau, trudges the same path in the woods everyday and lose sight of the magic in spontaneity. There is correlation, but not equality. 

Second, I also think it is important to state that “extra-ordinary life” is also different than being “in the flow”. Being “in the flow” is more of a subset (or arguably even independent to) of extraordinary life” Flow is an incredible feeling when all cylinders are on fire and firing in rhythm, effort is effortless, and the universe is bending itself around you as if you were Moses walking through the Dead Sea. Flow is hyper-discerning. Extra-Ordinary life can still be mundane, complete with struggles and foibles. Extraordinary life means that you’ve made ordinary life be extraordinary, fulfilled. Extraordinary life just means there is a tangible connection to fulfilled living, to knowing there is intent and purpose behind every action, full discernment in your choices, and knowing there is enrichment and depth behind every accomplishment. 

Some people (thinking Mark or Phil here) seem to have figured out how to live an extraordinary life permanently. Most people never seem to leave the ordinary life state except when on vacation. And yes, it does suggest a corollary that extraordinary life requires a freeing of external responsibilities such as kids and jobs. But that too I feel needs to be rejected as an assumption that too easily can de-evolve into an excuse to free one from struggle and effort. 

Obviously there is a desire to not have the distinction, to live fully an extraordinary life in a world of responsibilities of children and jobs – but that’s naive. So if we assume that the dichotomy is a reflection of reality then it begs the question, how do we get the balance right – or more specifically how do we successfully get as much of our lives to be in the extraordinary state? How do we enter that slot canyon?

To answer that, let’s look more closely at those exemplars who have managed to get more of a extraordinary state to be active the vast majority of the time and gain insight as to what are the necessary states of being in order to achieve a more discerning life.

First, looking at the differences between the two, order and structure seems to be an active component and differentiator. The ordinary life has plenty of schedule and structure, soccer practices and bus drop offs, end of working day whistles and scheduled gym time. 

If you look at the ones seemingly living the extraordinary life, the role of structure seems to have flipped. They have more structure when engage in their day-to-day independent life than when they are engaged on “vacation” with typical societal structures and others. For instance, one friend that has flipped the balance to 80% extraordinary life has remarked that all of his regiments go out the window when he emerges into normal society and engages with board meetings or socializing with people. Diet and exercise plans go out the window, flexibility to coordinate with others pushes his schedule out of whack. Thus structure and discipline to it should be viewed as tools, and may even be more conducive to supporting an extraordinary life than an ordinary life.

So .. do we schedule more aggressively our vacations? Do we more aggressively (e.g. with discipline) schedule our time to be extraordinary?  I think so. Imagine on your calendar a period from 9:00 to 12:00 to be extraordinary, and to take with discipline no compromise for any mundanity to intrude.

Similarly, solitude, responsibilities and money all figure strongly. Let’s hit these next.

On solitude, unfortunately I have few examples (except perhaps funnily enough for the Gleee Family) of being able to have any sustained extraordinary life without being solo.

So for solitude – yeah, maybe it is a requirement for extraordinary life – or, if not requirement, solitude is at least a buttery lubricant that eases extraordinary life into existence. I certainly will be first in line to jump head first into this pool of thought, and to do so with conclusive enthusiasm. But truly, acknowledging a lack of exemplars to the contrary, I do not have any rational proof that a family or a couple cannot pursue an extraordinary life beyond limited exceptions that would best be qualified as extended vacations, which are not intended to be sustainable.

So yeah, I’ll embrace solitude alongside order as a tools that can be used to accentuate extraordinary living.

OK, next is responsibilities and dependencies. Job and Kids. Ballet classes and Board meetings. And while we are at it, throw in Money, as it is wrapped tightly into those responsibilities and dependencies. There is no escaping these pulls and they are the crux of ordinary life.

But… are they? I think of the words that one exemplar of extraordinary living has really honed into me:

When you feel stuck in a box where there is no answer to a problem, stop struggling with the problem but instead look at the box. It is likely built on assumptions that need re-evaluation. Redraw the box, and you will find an answer will be obvious.

Or as Ayn Rand says:

Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.

So with this, I ponder strongly on how to redefine the box when it comes to the responsibilities of every day ordinary life.

Some of the box is steeped in Actions, some of the box is steeped in Mindset. I think they need to be addressed separately. And for both, I will use the example of ballet classes and soccer practices, as I spend easily 20 hours a week taking my girls to and from activities or waiting for the activities to complete.

In terms of Mindset, I believe the key is to be on the defense. The key to extraordinary living is to be razor sharp in focus on the intent behind every action. Why am I taking the kids to all these activities? Is it obligation? – certainly that is not a good enough reason. Is it inertia? could be, but that’s even worse than doing things out of obligation. The only reason, residing in razor sharp focus, that is worthy of intent is the highest prioritization of love and desire for my children’s well being and education. If this truly is  of the highest prioritization, then embrace it fully. And these activities truly must be fulfilling that goal. With this mindset, then, the box is redrawn, as suddenly I am doing exactly what I would be doing if on vacation, if leading an extraordinary life. It becomes extraordinary. They may not be getting ballet lessons at the New York School of Ballet  and Theater. But.. they are getting the best you can get in Portland while still being enrolled in school.

If you can’t get to the mindset where you embrace a responsibility as fulfilling your highest priority desires, then you must examine that box and assess whether or not that responsibility is a requirement in your life. It must be brutal. If you are not doing this evaluation, then you will lead an ordinary life.

Oh to reach the point of death and realize one has not lived at all. – Thoreau

In terms of Action, I believe the focus must be on the offensive. You must ruthlessly shed any item that is a distraction from your clearly expressed goals in an extraordinary life.

It’s easy to fall into a pattern of actions without deliberateness, to let inertia take repeated activities and extend them to the infinite with laziness and lack of consciousness. You must fight every action and ask, is this taking me to the goal?

Thus, in all that driving to activities, my mindset is now embraced into the ultimate goal; it is now a miracle upon heaven that I have the moment to spend to take my girls to these activities as I am fulfilling my goals to broaden their well being. But in the action, I must be equally ruthless to not let any moment go by without also fulfilling these goals. Time in the car? Audible books pushing the mind. Time during ballet? I must ruthlessly and relentlessly make it extraordinary.

Time without attention is worthless. – Tim Ferris
(Thanks to Lenka for this one)

I must go to the definitions above and ask – is this making me discern life’s passage more clearly?

This discussion on Mindset and Action make it abundantly clear that one must also have a very clear idea of what they would do if they had the freedom and time to lead an extraordinary life.

Furthermore, one must have a relentless passion to pursue their big ideas. This passion must be the strongest muscle in their body. This is another thing I underestimate its importance.

Lord knows, I don’t struggle on these fronts. Heck, I probably don’t even struggle on generating or the prioritization of that long list. To this I am blessed; truly I cannot imagine not being in this state.

That said, this is a public writing, and thus I must acknowledge that for many if not most, this question is likely more difficult than the process of getting to the point of implementing ruthlessness of mind and action.

I believe there is another aspect to extraordinary life that hasn’t been captured yet, and that is of detachment.

There is an old adage that you can’t see the mountain when you are on it. There is a sort of freedom that comes from detaching from the ordinary life in order to gain clarity of priorities. This distance yields the discernment that defines extraordinary life.

In addition, I’m also a huge proponent of barrier crossing being an important element to vacations. I distrust “staycations” as there is little effort to reach a location, and thus the mind is not able to reach the distance referenced above. The act of jumping on a plane, the act of driving two days, really enables the mind to also disconnect from actions to gain the detachment necessary to see the world fully.

This mountain issue and the need for barrier crossings runs counter to the idea of living an extra-ordinary life in the day to day.  By definition, I am trying to incorporate the view of the mountain while being on it.

The only way I know how to achieve this is to ensure a level of detachment between your mindset and your actions. You must train up that flabby oversight identity of your mind, and move it from watching whether or not your words are socially acceptable in social engagements – and instead put it to work assessing whether or not your actions are aligned with your codify goals for living extraordinary.

This need for detachment is perhaps why solitude works so well for helping in living the extraordinary life.

One other thought that I’ve long been pondering also coils into this discussion – the concept that there is too much luxury in modern life. My gut tells me once I root this feeling out, that there is something distinct to be found her to enable a more extra-ordinary lifestyle – but for now, I’ll tie it mentally into the rule to be ruthless in cutting actions that are not furthering a goal for extra-ordinary life.

So with the trail ending, let me end my explorations into making the extra-ordinary life become ordinary with this summary:

  • We can have extra-ordinary life become ordinary in our day to day life, I am convinced of it
  • Relentlessly train the muscle of passion so you can tap into what makes life extra-ordinary
  • Then, codify with clarity what engenders an extraordinary life to yourself and prioritize it.
  • To do so, embrace structure in forcing the extraordinary to bloom
  • Find solitude to lubricate its arrival, both in idea and putting it into practice
  • Defend your mindset in ensuring that all actions map to goals that lead to an extraordinary life
  • Ruthlessly cut those actions that are not furthering an ordinary life; be highly skeptical of all luxuries that only rest the mind and not expand it.
  • Train your mind to detach from the day to day and exercise its ability to discern  from a distance your actions.

With this summary, the question becomes… is this enough?

That question, I leave now for you, dear reader. And if you made it this far, then yeah, let’s just go with, that’s enough! Peace! No more, for dear God!

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