Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

omni“Yet I wonder if it doesn’t make more sense to speak in terms of an American paradox—that is, a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily.”

A thoughtfully written exploration on our evolution of food consumption and the modern burden of choice. Pollan argues that without a consistent culture to work as the trusted monitor for what we eat, we—namely, Americans—find ourselves at the mercy of faddish, contradictory marketing backed by slanted research.

“It is very much in the interest of the food industry to exacerbate our anxieties about what to eat, the better to then assuage them with new products.”

The food industry has worked relentlessly to feed our increasing demands for speed and affordability and Pollan goes to great lengths exposing the true price of this “industrialized” food.

“The fact that the nutritional quality of a given food (and of that food’s food) can vary not just in degree but in kind throws a big wrench into an industrial food chain, the very premise of which is that beef is beef and salmon salmon. It also throws a new light on the whole question of cost, for if quality matters so much more than quantity, then the price of a food may bear little relation to the value of the nutrients in it.”

This books confirms everything we might suspect but don’t want to acknowledge about our poor food choices and eating habits. It’s worth taking an honest assessment of what (and how) we eat, even if it’s uncomfortable knowing the real price of our convenience.

A solid take-away for me was shifting my focus on buying local (even over organic) food products. Supply meets demand and it makes sense to support local farming opposed to the unsustainable (albeit cheap) monoculture/destructive corn-feeding practices of the large-scale industry.

“Depending on how we spend them, our food dollars can either go to support a food industry devoted to quantity and convenience and ‘value’ or they can nourish a food chain organized around values—values like quality and health. Yes, shopping this way takes more money and effort, but as soon you begin to treat that expenditure not just as shopping but also as a kind of vote—a vote for health in the largest sense—food no longer seems like the smartest place to economize.”

Some worthy highlights: 

“…always living on less than you have and more lightly than you need to.”

“It’s all very Italian (and decidedly un-American): to insist that doing the right thing is the most pleasurable thing, and that the act of consumption might be an act of addition rather than subtraction.”

“Eating is an agricultural act,’ as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world – and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world; this book is probably not for them.”

“Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do.”

“Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.”

“A successful local food economy implies not only a new kind of food producer, but a new kind of eater as well, one who regards finding, preparing, and preserving food as one of the pleasures of life rather than a chore.”

“We are not only what we eat, but how we eat, too.”

Decentering Effect

“You are at least 10% better than you think.” – Sarah (Miano) Corfman

At 20 years old I was standing in an overcrowded bus when a irrefutable realization began to set in: I was not exceptional. At the time I was in China for a semester of undergraduate study and feeling sick of public transportation—fighting my way to the doors, standing sandwiched between strangers, seeing crowded streets on all sides for miles—just too many people, I thought. This is when the realization began, slowly and with increasing conviction.

To my surprise, after taking some time to cope, I felt relieved. I came face to face with hundreds of people every day and finally understood the truth that everyone—everyone—is overwhelmingly the same. There was no need to prove to myself or anyone else that I was the best snowflake. Now, years later, I still think there are too many people, but I recognize my place just a little more realistically—less as an individual and more within the human collective.

It’s a lot of work to be self-centered. Shedding the need to maintain a false sense of importance frees my emotional energy to focus on what I actually value. My aim is to define myself in the simplest, most generic terms possible. I am a friend, a colleague, etc.

“I always consider myself personally one of seven billion human beings. Nothing special. So, on that level, I have tried to make people aware that the ultimate source of happiness is simply a healthy body and a warm heart.” – Dalai Lama XIV

With that being said, trying is hard. It’s easy to imagine what I could do now that I know I don’t have to be anything—but at the moment my quasi nihilistic attempts to grapple with life may be what’s holding me back.

As I work through this, I think of something my grandmother used to tell my mom: “Give yourself 110%. You’re at least 10% better than you think.” The simple belief forces us to recognize we’re always wrong about how we perceive ourselves and offers an optimistic alternative. To be explicitly clear, this isn’t focusing on identity (in risk of narcissism), but capability.

“There is a simple realization from which all personal improvement and growth emerges. This is the realization that we, individually, are responsible for everything in our lives, no matter the external circumstances. We don’t always control what happens to us. But we always control how we interpret what happens to us, as well as how we respond. Whether we consciously recognize it or not, we are always responsible for our experiences. It’s impossible not to be. Choosing to not consciously interpret events in our lives is still an interpretation of the events of our lives.”
― Mark MansonThe Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

I now believe two things: (1) the human population is overwhelmingly the same and (2) everyone underestimates themselves by at least 10%. When I say everyone, I mean everyone—all seven billion of us.

What would you do differently if you knew you could never overestimate yourself? Belief is an incredibly powerful tool. Belief gives us the confidence to try and fail and continue trying until it’s right.

“We’re all capable of huge leaps of insight and empathy if we’re willing to go to work to learn how.” – Seth Godin

Review: 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head by Dan Harris

“Everything we experience in this world goes through one filter—our minds—and we spend very little time bothering to see how it works.” – Dan Harris

Summary: 10% Happier is the skeptic’s candid introduction to the science behind mindfulness and argues meditation is a reasonable solution for letting go of the stress in your life through acknowledging the illusions built up around your ego.

As an ABC News correspondent going through minor drug abuse and unacknowledged PTSD from reporting in a war zone, Dan Harris was finally forced to consider inward reflection after having a panic attack on live national television. His desire to resolve this inner anxiety led him on a journey of meditation and mindfulness and eventually a life—he argues—lived at least 10% happier.

#1 take-away: Be Simple, not a simpleton—why letting go of your ego won’t make you a push-over.

“One of the most interesting discoveries of this whole journey was that I didn’t need my demons to fuel my drive—and that taming them was a more satisfying exercise than indulging them.”

Here’s Dan’s interesting self-sabotage insight: We think our ego and the anxiety it provokes creates the competitive edge that drives us. For many of us, the fear of practicing meditation is that in doing so we become the world’s doormat. Without our ego, we’d be passive, detached, even nihilistic.

You know the type, right? The people who offer no resistance—who allow others to cut them off in conversation, who don’t insist on getting their order right, and who absorb tasteless comments without reprove.

This isn’t practicing mindfulness or letting go of the ego. Rather, the tendency is to act like a simpleton in order to avoid necessary conflict. It’s like having a paradoxically humble ego that is affirmed by acting selfless and detached, inevitably building into this false impression of ourselves that needs to be maintained, even by negative external cues.

“Don’t confuse letting go with going soft. Just because you’re aware of what is going on and being mindful about it does not mean you just let things go when you have the ability to take action on them and improve. The way to respond to adversity is often to work through it, not to avoid it altogether in the name of acting Zen.”

#1.5 take-away: Harris offers, “When necessary, hide the Zen.” We don’t have to walk around acting like neutralized Zen zombies. It’s fine to strive for success, as long as we accept the outcome is out of our control. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t solve our problems, it enables us to act—rather than react—when faced with daily stress and conflict.

“Nonattachment to results + self compassion = a supple relentlessness that is hard to match. Push hard, play to win, but don’t assume the fetal position if things don’t go your way.”

“’Is this useful?’ It’s a simple, elegant corrective to my ‘price of security’ motto. It’s okay to worry, plot, and plan […]—but only until it’s not useful anymore.”

Conclusion: Dan Harris was a true skeptic of meditation and practicing mindfulness. The book is his honest confession that, having given meditation a fair chance, he can actually feel its benefits throughout his daily life and his career in the news industry. Mindfulness is such a simple concept—it’s heightened common sense. If you’re open to a new perspective on understanding how our brains work, I’d recommend this as a good place to start. It’s a light read and offers some applicable insights into the mysterious world of mindfulness. Harris is definitely a journalist—his writing is not only good, it’s downright fun.

Other highlights:

“But it was in this moment, lying in bed late at night, that I first realized that the voice in my head—the running commentary that had dominated my field of consciousness since I could remember—was kind of an asshole.”

“All successful people fail. If you can create an inner environment where your mistakes are forgiven and flaws are candidly confronted, your resilience expands exponentially.”

“When I opened my eyes, I had an entirely different attitude about meditation. I didn’t like it, per se, but I now respected it. This was not just some hippie time-passing technique […] It was a rigorous brain exercise: rep after rep of trying to tame the runaway train of the mind. The repeated attempt to bring the compulsive thought machine to heel was like holding a live fish in your hands. Wrestling your mind to the ground, repeatedly hauling your attention back to the breath in the face of the inner onslaught required genuine grit. This was a badass endeavor.”

“At the end, the meditator arrives at the true goal of Buddhist meditation: to see that the “self” that we take to be the ridgepole of our lives is actually an illusion.”

“in a world where everything is constantly changing, we suffer because we cling to things that won’t last.”

Can We Really Change?

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.” – John Kenneth Galbraith, American Economist

Change is my only constant. I’m finding the need to start deconstructing how I understand the concept of change.

Fact: we are constantly changing.

I am a firm and passionate proponent of our ability to direct change. Transition is that fine line between Change One and Change Two, and I think that’s where the magic happens. Transition is not change, it leads to change. It’s when we get to decide what the next change will look like.

“Human functioning is facilitated by a personal sense of control.” writes Ralf Schwarzer in the preface of Self-Efficacy: Thought Control of Action. He explains that, “if people believe they can take action to solve a problem instrumentally, they become more inclined to do so and feel more committed to this decision.”

Self-efficacy is a self-confident view of our capability to deal with certain life stressors and also allows us to “select challenging settings, explore [our] environments, or create new environments.”

“A person who believes in being able to cause an event can conduct a more active and self-determined life course.” (Schwarzer)

So why don’t we initiate the necessary steps toward the changes we want to make? The question has never been, “To change or not to change.” The question is always, “How will I change?”

Some people can seem stuck in their ways or stagnant. They’re not, they’re just passively going through their lives accepting the changes as they come and reacting to everything the same way—with fear, denial, and/or indifference.

So who are the agents of change and who are the victims? I think it comes down to our concept of self. People are more accepting of external information that is consistent with their—conscious or unconscious/good or bad—belief of themselves. That means people with an unclear concept of themselves are generally more dependent on and more susceptible to external cues that might carry self-relevant information (Campbell and Lavallee), and this often inhibits their own perceived power of changing.

Here’s an interesting study: Using three different measures of extremity—15 bipolar trait scales such as predictable-unpredictable, tactful-candid, cautious-risky, and unconventional-conventional—researchers showed that people with low self-esteem gave ratings that were, on average, nearer the midpoint of the scales. The study confirmed that, “people with low self-esteem tended to describe themselves in noncommittal, middle-of-the-road terms.”

Stuck in the middle—in this case—is not good. The middle seems safe, but it abuses the magic of transition. We cannot stay in limbo.

With that being said, positive long-term change is a series of small changes. “Many of life’s choices [and changes] fall into two categories,” writes New York Times columnist Carl Richards (a.k.a. Sketch Guy) in an interesting article, The Best Path to Change is Slow, Simple, and Boring:

■ Option A: Exciting and complex and quick, but the action rarely works.

■ Option B: Boring and simple and slow, but it works nearly all the time.

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The secret of making lasting change? “Small actions repeated consistently over a very long period of time,” says Richards. “Incremental change is short-term boring, but long-term exciting.” And it works.

Here’s my adaptation to Richards’ sketch:

Looking at Richards’ sketch, we assume that fundamental change starts from the bottom and works its way up. Not always true. If we don’t mindfully participate in the transition phases, change will still happen, but maybe not in the direction we’d prefer.

Even if we find it is hard to define ourselves in extreme terms like the people in the study (and even if the study might have a few variables), we can avoid (1) attempts to neutralize our lives and (2) expectations of radical transformation.

Making conscious incremental steps to slow transformation will permit us to know ourselves and push our limits one vertical transition at a time. Our level of commitment will determine our capacity to not only embrace, but regulate change for ourselves

“Every day, I make it a point to look back and notice how far I have come. Some days, the distance I have come is clear, while other days I see I still have room to improve. But keeping track of this incremental change helps reinforce why I’m making short-term boring choices. Because at some point, I’ll look back and see how far I have come, and short-term boring will become long-term exciting.” (Richards)