Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

How to enjoy life (more)

The point is to focus pointlessly on things that have no point

You’ve doubtless heard that you should “stop and smell the roses,” “savor every moment as if it’s your last,” and, in the words of country singer Tug McGraw, “live like you were dying.”

But how do you actually do that--- I mean, really do that on a consistent basis, not just after surviving a health scare or during a weekend retreat at an Ashram?

Let’s face it, for most of us, the hustle and bustle of everyday life—work, family, presidential politics, what have you—naturally consumes our attention, leading us not smell the roses, not to savor every moment and not to live like we were dying.

Totally consumed with my career, I was the poster child for watching life pass by…until, at the ripe old age of 50, I became a spy just after 9/11.

Yes, I had exciting moments in Iraq and Afghanistan, including some close calls when my helicopter was shot at or my base was attacked with mortars and rockets. But those things are not what showed me how to appreciate life.

What showed me how to appreciate life was learning how to think like an intelligence analyst.

Here, I’m going to share this learning with you so that you too can “live like you were dying.”

Before getting started, I’ll give a thumbnail sketch of the spy business to put things in context and to spice things up a little.

The first thing to know is that we spies --except when we’re trying to make a point with non-spies--never, ever, ever call ourselves spies. Instead, we call ourselves “intelligence officers.”

In our lingo, spies are the folks whom intelligence officers recruit to steal secrets. FBI turncoat Robert Hanssen was a spy controlled by Russian intelligence officers. Ditto for CIA officer Aldrich Ames, who spied for Russia in return for money. Rudolf Abel, featured in “Bridge of Spies” was also a Russian spy.

Now that that’s cleared up, I’ll go on to describe three different flavors of intelligence officer.

Collectors are officers who scoop up information overseas from people who know things we are interested in, or other valuable intelligence such as images, communications or data sitting around on computers. Valerie Plame, was an example of a “human intelligence collector” working for CIA before Vice President Dick Cheney blew her cover.

Analysts are officers who examine the “take” that collectors deliver, in order to understand and report on the intentions and capabilities of certain foreign governments, terrorists or criminals. Analysts are a lot like police detectives, although, unlike detectives, their job is usually to predict what bad things will happen, not to learn who perpetrated crimes that did happen. “Maya” the CIA officer depicted in Zero Dark Thirty who helped find Osama Bin Laden, is an example of an intelligence analyst.

Everyone else, including technologists, administrative support, IT specialists, and other support officers, help collectors to collect and analyzers to analyze. Most of the time, I was in this category (techno-geek, “Q” in James Bond movies, if you will), until I shifted to being a cyber security intelligence analyst for three years.

It was during that three year stint that I learned what I’m going to share with you now.

Intelligence analysis is basically a form of story telling, where the analyst looks at fragmentary, often disjointed pieces of information, then tries to put the fragments together into a coherent story such as, terrorist A is likely hiding in Location B, along with Family Member C, while planning to attack, D, E, F and G.

Perhaps the most important skill of an intelligence analyst is knowing what, in the vast flood of intelligence collection, to pay particular attention to. In my case, I paid close attention to things that didn’t fit, or were out of place. For example, why was someone setting up a web domain with a designation that no human could ever decipher or understand (hackers who launch “Botnet” attacks sometimes do this).

This analytic skill is a sort of hyper-vigilance for odd factoids.

Baseball great Yogi Berra summed up the intelligence analysts skill best when he said “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

And what I learned--and want you to pay close attention to now--is that you can also live a lot just by watching.

It turns out that you can’t maintain hyper-vigilance for weird factoids without simultaneously letting in a lot of “life.” The reason is simple. When you’re looking for the unexpected, as I did, you have to take in and sift through lots and lots of goings-on around you all of the time. This gets you in the habit of taking things in, of smelling the roses, as it were.

Once you have that habit, you can hang on to it long after it’s required for work, and, as a result, continue to live more intensely, more in the moment.

Let me illustrate with a mystery story.

My fiancée Chris and I often take walks in the hills near our home to enjoy the sea air and wonderful ocean views. On each walk, I look for something out of place, something that seems to make no sense, something that causes me to scratch my head. A neighbor’s door left open for hours, or an animal that doesn’t belong (I almost stepped on a Mojave scorpion a few weeks ago, how did that dangerous arachnid venture so far from the desert?).

Last week on walk I saw this lone paw print in the pavement near the side of the road. The print pointed towards the middle of the road, as if a creature had intended to cross the road, but thought better of it. This was the only print.

Eric Haseltine
Source: Eric Haseltine

Other than the rarity of finding an animal track embedded in the road, what struck me as odd was that there was only one paw print.

Eric Haseltine
Source: Eric Haseltine

What happened to the other three paws? What sort of critter was it? What made the animal put its paw into painfully hot asphalt (the asphalt had to be hot and gooey, or it wouldn’t have captured the impression of the print in the first place). And finally, the age old question, why did the critter cross the road (or try to, anyhow)?

Now you may think that there’s no point to these questions, but that’s precisely the point I’m trying to make: making a point out of the pointless is a great way to stay in the moment and to enjoy life.

In my case, I tried to weave together a narrative about the paw print that would make sense of all of the things that didn’t make sense.

The first order of business was to determine who the perpetrator—the owner of the paw in question—was. So, I found images of paw prints of five likely suspects: dog, cat, raccoon, skunk and opossum, all of which roam our neighborhood.

Eric Haseltine
Source: Eric Haseltine

As you can see, raccoon is the closest fit. Note, the print matches the front paw of a raccoon, not the back. This significance of this clue will become evident very soon.

The next step (sorry for the pun) was to figure out why there was only one print, not four (raccoons walk on four legs). A little simple reasoning delivered that answer: the asphalt must have cooled unevenly, allowing the raccoon to venture out onto the side of road just far enough to discover--by planting a front paw in a painful place nearer the middle of the road--that part of the asphalt had not completely cooled. Once burned (literally) the small carnivore doubtless retreated before making more impressions.

Now that we know the critter was a raccoon who ventured one step too far before pulling back a singed paw, yet another mystery arises. Raccoons, I discovered, are nocturnal carnivores that usually sleep during the day and hunt at night. What was a raccoon doing out during the day? The paw print had to have been made during daylight hours because the asphalt was still hot and road crews (at least in the neighborhood where I live) don’t work at night.

Solving this mystery could be highly relevant to answering the ultimate question of why the raccoon in question wanted to cross the road in question, despite the fact that it was daytime and the road was steaming hot and smelled bad. (Hot asphalt isn’t pleasant to the human nose, imagine what it must have smelled like to the vastly more sensitive snout of a raccoon).

A little imagination and survey of the landscape turned up a plausible motivation for the raccoon’s behavior.

Put yourself in the place of the raccoon---be the raccoon—for a moment and imagine what is was like around the road while the pavement was being laid. Lots of noise from men and machinery, noxious smells and ominous ground vibrations (raccoons are sensitive to such vibrations having four feet and being close to the ground ) as heavy vehicles moved in and out of the area. And all of this during the daytime when the raccoon was presumably trying to sleep.

Under such circumstances it is possible, even likely, that the raccoon got spooked into darting here and there, and found itself stranded on a narrow strip of exposed land across the street from its normal digs, initially dashing across the road before it was layered with hot asphalt.

Below is a satellite image of the area (somewhat altered to conceal sources and methods of image collection).

Eric Haseltine
Source: Eric Haseltine

Notice that, at the time the print was made, the creature was moving away from this, narrow, exposed strip of vegetation just in front of a house, moving towards a much larger, more “natural” habitat across the street.

Weaving all this together, we now have a plausible solution to the mystery .

Street pavers startled a raccoon awake where it had been sleeping in a burrow (raccoons usually live in underground burrows, although sometimes in the crotch of a tree) in a largish semi-rural suburban habitat, causing the animal to dart hither and yon to avoid loud, large, smelly humans and scary machines. Finding itself in a narrow, exposed area on the wrong side of the road, the raccoon tried to get back home (perhaps during a lunch break when the road workers weren’t about) but placed its right front paw where it didn’t belong.

Hopefully, after the chaos died down and the sun set, the raccoon returned to the safety of its burrow or commenced its nightly hunt for food.

Why did the raccoon cross the road? To get back home, of course.

End of mystery, probably.

Intelligence analysis such as this is not an exact science, inevitably relying on a certain amount of imagination and guess-work.

The story could be wrong, either totally or in part. But it is a good starting point for getting a better fix on what actually happened because it generates testable hypotheses that could either strengthen or weaken the theory.

For instance, if the scared-out-of-its burrow scenario is true, one would expect to find a burrow in the large habitat towards which the raccoon was headed. Finding a burrow would strengthen the theory a little, not finding one would weaken it.

And that in fact, is what I’m going to do right after finishing this blog; take my flashlight and hunt for a burrow.

Yes, yes, I know, what’s the point?

Again, there is no point, other than making me feel truly alive for the next hour or so.

That’s the point.