WHAT IS THIS?
Daily, snackable writings and podcasts to spur changes in thinking.
A blueprint for building a better brain by slow, consistent, daily drops of influence.
The way we think is both our greatest tool - indeed our only tool - and very often it is also our biggest leash. We are only who we think we are. Our opportunities are also limited by who other people think we are. It stands to reason that if we’d like to change who we are, we must start with an effort to change our thinking. Read more here
March 25th, 2019
The simplest reason is that there’s nothing else to cherish. Life is a challenge, and this applies to all parts, not just the difficult or unpleasant parts. For many it’s an incredible challenge to simply sit and enjoy a moment. This simplest of challenges is one that requires constant practice, otherwise, our ability atrophies and worry, anxiety and restlessness encroach upon us. To cherish the challenge is in effect to turn all in life that seeks to undo you and get the best of you on it’s head.
I bet you can’t do it.
This accusation could easily be at the heart of our existence. And yet, is there a more provocative and motivating accusation? How many times have we done something, and when asked why, we report: they said I couldn’t do it, so I did.
This is the lineage of the word ‘challenge’. It comes from the Latin ‘calumnia’ via French which means to make false and defamatory statements about someone. This etymological heritage is best summed up in the above challenge: bet you can’t do it.
For some this kind of underdog mentality comes easily, riles them up in aggressively productive ways. For others who are all too willing to defer, submit and admit lack of ability, it would be immensely useful to explore how this kind of reaction to a challenge exists within others. We need only make the challenge more acute to bring out the underdog in a demure person.
This is where an activity like martial arts can help. A person who has never felt this desperation to act will find it quickly when physically pinned and stressed to the point where alarms of survival start to ring in one’s psyche. Regardless of how someone find this bulldog spirit within them, it’s a necessary gear to have ready to employ. Not only does it help us meet the challenge, it can enable us to enjoy and even cherish the challenge.
The swaggering spirit of smiling at a challenge can, of course, lapse into hubris - the folly of heroes in the Greek literary tradition. But while this attribute was seen as a mistake, it can – if reframed be seen as a mechanism for self-regulation that creates a higher level of challenge.
For example early on in the Homeric epic The Odyssey, we have Odysseus held captive by Polyphemus, a Cyclops who tends a flock of sheep which he eats and who also happens to be a son of the god Poseidon. Odysseus, popularly known as a clever and cunning hero, easily outsmarts Polyphemus and escapes. It’s at this moment that high school English teachers will label Odysseus’ next action as a mistake of hubris. As Odysseus is sailing away, he yells at Polyphemus and tells the Cyclops his real name as a way of affixing an egotistical signature to his clever success. Polyphemus, in turn, calls upon his father Poseidon to make Odysseus’ life difficult. And indeed Poseidon does.
Our modern focus on luxury and comfort is ill-equipped to see what is actually happening in this exchange. The modern eye sees this move as Odysseus’ mistake, and implicitly engages in the time-old game of – if only he hadn’t done that… he would have had an easier time. But times are slowly changing and we are beginning to recognize the inherent good in difficulty. Whether this be in biology via research about the stress of exercise and fasting on the body, or in pop culture, such as in the popular show Billions where a character recently says “The very difficulty of it is why you must.”
Everywhere, we are finding instances where the harder road is ultimately the better road.
We can reframe Odysseus’ hubris as a self-regulating mechanism that snaps reality into a new level. Like with a videogame, success on one level grants one entry to the next level which is more difficult, requiring not just the skills of the previous level, but new ones that will be acquired in the midst of new challenge.
Odysseus may not be consciously making his life more difficult, but we can see his egoism or hubris as a trait that arises when life has become too easy. This model of ineptitude growing into bloated ability and then popping even maps onto the boom-bust cycles that we can see in economics, or the feast and fast mechanisms that have arisen in the body throughout evolutionary history. The inherent assumption of mapping over these domains is that the result is stronger than it was before the cycle, which is not necessarily always true, just as hubris and ego can drive a person off a metaphorical cliff from which they never recover. One of the points buried within the Odyssey is that if a person can survive such metaphorical falls and rise once more, they will be far better equipped than if they had never risen and fallen from such egoist heights.
The rest of the epic is perhaps the primordial example of the underdog spirit. Odysseus grinds through challenge after challenge, and though he finally enters his kingdom looking like a poor and decrepit beggar, he is, at that point stronger and better equipped than he ever was as a magnificent war hero thanks solely to his willingness to entertain the dangerous spirit of hubris within himself.
Nietzsche once wrote something to this effect: Be careful in casting our your demons, lest they be the best part of you. Through this lens we can identify Odysseus’ demon as hubris, which ultimately did him a great service by channeling his life down a more difficult corridor. He is, ultimately, willing to flirt with the dangerous parts of the human psyche in order to discover some greater good.
Whether it be technology or even something as basic as emotions, the great mistake is to label something once as good or bad and fail to see the gateways that exist in the border between these two concepts. It’s easy to elucidate this fact with something as simple as a knife: holding the wrong end is bad, but holding it correctly makes it useful and good. This sounds like a simple and dumb mistake, but the point may in fact radiate to all that we propound to be good or bad, and the real trick is to at least wonder what good could be rendered from something that looks wholly bad, and what bad might lurk in the heavenly situations we create and come across.
The one who can cherish the challenge can flip flop perspectives of good and bad to one’s own benefit and growth, and in so doing it’s possible to find the satisfying grist inherent in all the problems of life, let alone finding solutions to those problems.
As with so many things, this solely requires a shift in perspective and nothing else.
But, I bet you can’t you can’t do it.
This episode references Episode 42: Level-Up
March 24th, 2019
Lucilius was wrapping up a day of work with a friend. The two had begun to develop a project several months prior and had formed a good habit of meeting up and working. As his friend sat in final concentration, solving and executing one final task for the day, Lucilius was lost in thought, reminiscing about the process they’d gone through over those months.
The whole thing had developed from the casual chaos of conversation – the good grist of friendship - and eventually found its way onto a white board, where they tossed around ideas and directions, details and possibilities to which they might pivot. What good living it was then and now, in that cacophony and mess of ideas, each brightening to the ideas of the other, pinning some, tossing many, and slowly pulling an order from the disarray. And then as they narrowed in and began to actually build their project, their focus sought out and zeroed each little problem, as Lucilius’ friend now did one final time before they called it a day.
“Got it,” Lucilius’ friend declared with a bright smile. Lucilius looked over the work, seeing the tiny issue of the project solved and smiled.
“Nice, I think we can call it a day.”
Lucilius’ friend checked the time. “Absolutely, and -” He looked at Lucilius “You want to come over for dinner with the family?”
“That’d be great.”
When the door opened, the shrieks of children pierced the air and Lucilius could hear a mother fretting over some new debacle of childish chaos. Lucilius watched the bright spirit of his friend drop a little as they entered.
“What now,” he mumbled.
The children filled the home with a cacophony of screams and yells, the mother trying to herd their disarrayed emotions into some kind of order while managing a kitchen in full operation.
The woman smiled at the sight of them, took a lingering moment to greet Lucilius and then looking at her husband, her expression flipped to exasperation.
“Can you look after the kids while I finish up dinner?”
Lucilius’ friend could barely hold his eyes from rolling. “I brought company.”
The woman’s shoulders slumped a little further, but before she could muster a counter-argument, Lucilius interjected.
“I’ll hang out with the kids. You two get settled.”
The woman looked instantly relieved, but her eyes grew wide as her husband protested.
“Oh no, you don’t have to do that.”
“Honestly, it’ll be fun, you two catch up.”
The mother introduced Lucilius to the kids, who grew shy in their introductions, their inner spirits bubbling at the social constraint. And then Lucilius went down the rabbit hole of their game world, entertaining their ideas as they tossed them out, realizing he could give them more agency, lifting one on his shoulders so they could be Godzilla for a few minutes, then being their wings when they both wanted to fly, holding each round the middle and zooming them round the room. From their huge amount of energy, he slowly unraveled the narrative of their imagination. And when dinner came time, the tired hungry children ate and sleepy with full bellies went quickly and quietly through their nightly routine, leaving the adults plenty of time to enjoy one another’s company.
March 23rd, 2019
Boredom is an underrated activity in the restless, fast-paced world we find ourselves in. Boredom must be separated out from leisure time or relief. Doing nothing due to exhaustion from the day’s activities does not qualify for this subject. Leisure time comes closer, but there is actually too much freedom in such a phrase. Leisure time can be filled with anything: social media feeds, T.V. shows and mindless eating.
Boredom is actually a more concentrated effort: one that displaces all pleasure and distraction to other times and forces the mind into a kind of dark tunnel.
The myth of Writer’s block is a good image but a bad example. For those who wish to do creative work, staring at a blank page often degenerates into a kind of passionate masochism – which is inevitably a totally useless rollercoaster of emotions that helps one embody the chic identity of a starving artist. (This short hand is a rather brutal assessment, and one should refer to Episode 6 of Tinkered Thinking for a more thoughtful discussion of the topic). For those who do not fall into this category, the activity of staring at a blank page might sound like a kind of weird torture, especially if it is compounded with memories of student life when one was under duress to produce some writing on some topic - school certainly does seem to have an uncanny ability to strip down such activities to their least enjoyable parts.
Regardless of the attitudes towards such strange behavior, there is ultimately a great utility in the constraints such a situation creates.
The blank page creates a far more pure form of boredom than leisure time which is more like a buffet of entertainment and distraction.
The fact is, pure boredom is not sustainable. This framing might hint at some kind of meditation practice where one might imagine the goal to be no thinking – a kind of pure boredom, but such a discussion of focus and attention – while related – will be more fully explored later. Any person who has attempted meditation for any length of time knows just how difficult it is to keep thoughts and memories from arising. It’s from this very wellspring that the artist sifts for honey and gold. But not everything that sparkles in the flow of our consciousness is a rabbit hole worth exploring. Like a prospector who sifts mud only to find a broken piece of glass instead of a diamond, this game is initially about traversing a large quantity of thought and memory and then zeroing in for quality.
Reliably making this connection, however, is a practice and a kind of art with regards to shifting one’s perspective.
It’s somewhat similar to the phenomenon of an optical illusion. Particularly the images that look like static, but if viewed at with the right angle, at the right distance and with slightly crossed eyes, suddenly an image of Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse pops out as though it exists in front of the surface upon which it emanates.
This allegorical image is nearly perfect when mapped onto our own internal train of thought. We can see it as an uncontrollable cacophony. A static noise of consciousness which requires distraction to drown out. Or, with a shift in perspective on such a phenomenon, we can see it as that prospector’s stream in which lies gold.
It’s the shift in perspective which is the trick, and which often requires practice. What many people think of as a terrifying void while staring at a blank page is actually a roiling vat of memory and thought that we can pull from if only we know how to connect to it. Whether we think of it as sifting a stream of consciousness or throwing a baited line into that roiling vat, it’s of no matter. These are merely analogies that cannot supplant the necessary practice required to fulfill such analogies.
This is where boredom comes in as an infinitely useful tool. Only by sitting without distraction, constrained by our own intention to somehow connect with this mess of memory and thought do we actually develop the muscle which enables one to make that connection on command.
This episode references Episode 6: What’s Your Passion?
March 22nd, 2019
When a shot in the dark doesn’t pan out with a bulls‘eye, it’s easy to say “I have no luck.” Or even worse statements that degrade our sense of ability or possibility to improve in some way.
Every action that we take is at most an estimated guess of execution. There are factors of randomness that we cannot even label that intercede in all sorts of ways. A problem that can help be a solution if highlighted is that we do not recognize the smaller slips of ability to be in the same category as big misses. For example: typos. We all make typos, whether texting or typing with all ten fingers, our ability to get the right letter down every time is remarkably low. But it’s of little matter. We think almost nothing of it and hit the delete key and rectify the situation with the correct key. It’s only when we make a similar mistake several times in quick succession when we actually notice what’s going on and perhaps sigh with aggravation and double down our concentration in order to keep from wasting so much time doing the wrong thing.
Few of us really remember learning to type, or better yet, learning to read. The first few stabs at this process were bound to be pathetic at best – more of an endurance test with regards to frustration rather than a test of actual or desired ability. But we are so quick to forget such perpetual challenge and quicker still to forget the fact that we are near-constantly making mistakes with the abilities that we have the most practice in.
Mere walking is another example: how few days pass us by with out a trip, a stumble, a quickly-saved fall?
We all have these missteps – both literal and figurative – to inform us with a gentler, less ruthless view of our chances of success, and yet when we try something new and fail at first, how quickly we throw the whole endeavor out the window, claiming no luck and no ability.
Rectifying this cognitive dissonance can go a long way to aiding our chances and our efforts when it comes to new frontiers.
Imagine, for a moment, starting some new venture and getting slapped with some brand of failure. Imagine reacting to such development in the same way we react to making a typo. Without second thought, taking a few steps back and then retaking those new steps forward with clearer intention. With no big emotional upheaval, no depression-delay, only a sort of mechanical retry.
We can close our eyes for a moment and fast-forward to the end of our life and sum up its different parts, like some kind of tally at the end of a game and ask: how much time was spent being aggravated, frustrated and dejected over some first or second effort? Hours and days and weeks and perhaps months and even years sum up before our eyes.
Was the time well spent?
We can imagine another tally just below, recording how much time and effort it took for our very next attempt to result in some breakthrough.
How embarrassing would it be to see that number amount to far less and realize just how much time was wasted agonizing over nearly nothing. It was agonizing for frustration’s sake.
We can Pause to think about emotions – especially the negative ones – as Divas: always wanting to get back in the lime light, always hogging the time once they have the light.
Instead we can refocus on the present and take thoughtful heed of the ubiquitous and relatively harmless nature of failure and gladly welcome such phenomenon when it appears again during our next endeavor.
At the very least, failure signals that we have started.
The trick is only to continue. Lessons abound in failure if we do not let ourselves get wrapped up in the emotional minutiae of our own heads. By listening closely to those details of reality that signal some failure, we can be a little more thoughtful with the next chance we take.
In fact, if we act with more information, than our effort becomes less of a chance and more of a thoughtful action. Naturally there is always some large slice of chance when we try anything, as we can see when we simply try to type a word and fail to do so, but the mere fact that we can slowly shift the balance and have more thoughtful actions land effectively over time rather than not is a powerful fact that can be tread, axel and engine for our motivation. If this weren’t true than none of us would be anywhere. This post would have amounted to little less than a pile of incoherence and no one would be equipped with the ability to understand what actually did come about here.
Each letter of each word, like each thing we say and each action we take in life, was an instant of taking a thoughtful stab at chance and seeing it work out. As a matter of fact there turned out to be dozens of typos during the writing of this post, but such failure never warrants giving up. We need only take a few steps back, pivot a little and continue on.
March 21st, 2019
A failure to understand often occurs due to some missing detail. When, for example, we engage with a brand new subject, there can often seem to be so many details that a larger context seems impossible to construct. However, with enough details discovered, their web of relationships unearthed, we begin to approach that large context, like building a mosaic, or wondering about the trunk and main branches of a tree that are hidden by thick leaves.
Peeling back a leaf gives small amount of insight into what lies beneath, but this is nothing compared to a tree in winter, stripped of all it’s leaves, leaving only its wooden structure to be seen.
Our insta-culture provides too much pressure for things to happen quickly, near instantly, but learning works more like a caterpillar on the leaves of a subject. Luckily we need not devour the whole tree of a subject and return it to a winter-like state in order to understand something. Usually we need only remove the leaves on a few main branches in order to peer deeply into the structure of a subject, and with that understanding we can extrapolate far more efficiently and quickly to other details that grow out from the core axioms of any given subject.
While these leaps of understanding require a consistent, munching effort. We can easily still be befuddled by one leaf, one detail we have ignored, have not investigated, or which simply stands in the way of the internal view we’ve already created.
If we’ve spent significant time with a subject and still fail to grasp the context that allows us to exercise abilities within that domain, than we’re most likely missing a few key details, or string of details. The learning has been a kind of patchwork, all the individual details separated by voids of unknown, like leaves blocking a larger view.
It’s these details we should endeavor to undertake a hunt for, having faith that if other people can understand such a subject, than we too can, if only we discover the pieces missing in our mind.
The devil against our understanding is in these details..