Daily, snackable writings and podcasts to spur changes in thinking. Why?

If we wish to change the person we find ourselves to be, we must change our thinking.

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January 17th, 2020

Self-improvement is akin to playing chess with yourself.  You can try to stack the moves in your favor, but fail to remember that you’ll remember the stratagem when the board spins it’s 180 degrees.  Thinking you might be able to control the game from just one side and let the other side be blind to your own stratagem every time is no better than lying to yourself.  Inevitably, you fall victim to your own mistakes again and again by such lying.


But let’s define the players a little more clearly.


Who exactly are we playing against when we think of the uphill struggle of improving ourselves and our life?  What exactly are we battling?  What creates so much resistance when we just want to make the better choice: eat the healthier option, save the money instead of spending it, be calm, cool and collected instead of lashing out in anger? 


Who exactly is the little demon behind these undermining machinations?


Our “rational” mind constantly observes our behavior in frustrated astonishment as our reasonable plans crumble in the hands of some insidious double-agent that seems to exist within our own mind.


Those impulses, of course, arise from an emotional source.  We can think of this split in our self-understanding in a neurologically overly simplistic way as the difference between our executive cortex and our limbic system.  While this glosses over a lot of our understanding and lack of understanding when it comes to the brain, the simplicity is good enough to aid our aims for building a practical and effective strategy for changing our behavior, and ultimately the results of the behavior that manifest as our life.


The two players for this game of chess are the Rational executive cortex and the Emotional limbic system.


The Limbic system is that devious agent that seems to have a secret back door  through which it whispers all sorts of seductive commands that override our better thinking and make us crush a box of cookies or turn on the TV instead of opening the blank word document.


Somehow, in these moments, the executive cortex is rendered silent, almost absent. 


It’s almost as though these two structures are taking turns with our behavior.


But one of these players has an advantage the other is blind to.  The executive cortex, that is our thinking self, the part that can give great advice that we never seem to follow, that narrating, problem solving self – it can make plans.  This ability to plan is a superpower.


The limbic system is totally dumb to plans.  It acts purely in the now.  It’s completely myopic in this way.  It can only see as far as the donut in front of the mouth and Netflix icon.


But the thing about chess is that a person can get very far with a strategy rooted solely in the now.  That is, if you look at each iteration of the board as though you don’t remember how it got there, and you simply make the best move based on the current lay of the land, this will prove to be very effective.


Now enters a crucial point in this analogy.  The limbic system is constantly trying to win.   And frankly this has less to do with beating it’s opponent than it has to do with the fact that the limbic system isn’t even aware it has an opponent.


That impulsive, emotional part of our brain doesn’t really have access to the logic and the narration, and the advice constantly spun by the executive cortex.  Meanwhile our rational, executive self is constantly going nuts as it sees us take action that isn’t in our best interest.   


It’s a bit of a parent-child relationship.  And we often devolve into the sort of negative self-talk that is reminiscent of very bad parenting. 



Why do I always do the wrong things?


Why can’t I just eat properly!


Why can’t I just get stuff done!


I’m so stupid!


I hate myself..



Anyone who has spent any meaningful amount of time with children knows that children have an uncanny ability to get on our nerves in a way that is eerily similar.  It makes sense from a basic neurological standpoint: children don’t really have much of an executive cortex.  They are limbic system monsters and the executive cortex is the last part of the brain to finish growing, and that doesn’t happen until... our mid twenties.  Long past the time we are considered “adults”.


The limbic system, however, never grows up.  And the crucial switch that the executive cortex can make is to realize that while the limbic system will never stop trying to win at this behavioral game of chess. . .


the point isn’t to win.


The point is to play an infinite game.  To play as long as possible.


With this new flavor of aim in place, we begin to look at the game differently.  We know the limbic system is going to have it’s turn after we make our move, and knowing this, we can then begin to plan for it.


We can realize that we simply don’t take our own advice outright, but we can start to experiment with structural ways in which we design that advice into our daily life.


Discipline comes into the picture here, but not necessarily in a way that we have to dread.  Discipline and willpower compose this milieu of cultural mythical power that only seems to be on offer to those who seem incoherently successful.  The point is, we only need relatively small sprints of discipline and willpower. 


We use discipline to set up a structure that is then powered by the limbic system.



What does this look like in a real, practical way?


Let’s say a person has a constant ambient experience of anxiety and stress.  And they hear all the time that meditation reduces this anxiety and stress, but every time this person sits down to meditate, it feels like torture.  There are so many thoughts, it’s overwhelming.  It’s a disaster. This isn’t working.


The conclusion:  This isn’t working.


That’s the limbic system talking.  That’s an emotional response saying, this doesn’t feel good so it must not be something that works.


Meanwhile, we eat a tub of ice cream and our limbic system screams: this is amazing!


And yet an hour later our rational self pleads in horror: what was I thinking?


The lesson here is that the limbic system rarely has a reliable opinion on what’s going on.  But it can still be used to our benefit.


As said before, discipline needs to be implemented for a short, effortful amount of time.  Like working out, we don’t work out all day, we spend 45 minutes or an hour working out and end up feeling pretty good for the rest of the day.  In the moment the limbic system is yelling: what are you doing?  This isn’t fun! but later on in the day the limbic system is constantly noting: hey, today is great! while totally forgetting about the workout.  It’s the executive cortex that can see the whole story.  Workout enough and the limbic system slowly starts to make the connection.


The same goes with meditation.  The executive cortex can read up on the scientific literature, realize that people generally don’t experience any sort of benefits for a few months and realize that it only takes a month for a habit to dig a solid root into our routine of behavior.  Our rational self can then realize: Ok, I’ll put a solid month of effort into making this a habit, even if it’s uncomfortable, I know that eventually it’ll sort of feel good, and once that happens, the limbic system will take over where discipline was required.


In this way our “rational” self can plan life in a way that includes our impulsive, pleasure seeking, limbic system self.


The goal isn’t to dominate the limbic system, but to curate it.


This is the crucial part of the chess analogy.  If you play to win, you’ve already lost.  But if you play simply to keep playing, then you begin to look at your opponent more as a partner, one whom you can rely on to act in a certain way.  You can then begin to experiment with the design of your life so that the limbic system makes predictable choices inside of that structure that ultimately lead to your benefit. 


It requires tinkering, and that requires time, which means patience is a superpower in this respect.  If, however, we can stop viewing self-improvement as a battle and more like a fun game that we can get better at, then the idea that things might not go according to plan becomes less tense.  When things break down, we can analyze why and then try again.


Then slowly, like building sandcastles in the surf, we make headway, fully expecting that we haven’t perfectly designed things for our limbic system and the childlike monster inside of us will wreck things.


Given enough time though, we can build a near perfect playground for this part of ourselves, one whose natural flow of impulse that once undermined our goals, now fuels the effort to achieve those goals.





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Podcast Ep. 642: One Player Chess

Tinkered Thinking

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January 16th, 2020



This episode is dedicated to Shivam who asked a good question on Twitter.  You can follow him on Twitter at @shivamnow.  This episode is also part of a casual on going series by Tinkered Thinking.  For Part’s I & II, check out Episodes 591 & 597


Motivation is a catch-22.  It’s a sort of chicken and egg problem that people constantly seek to crack for a reliable answer in order to develop a robust strategy for getting things done.


We might summarize the issue by observing that while procrastinating and doing nothing, we have no motivation, and perhaps every once in a while a fleeting spike of motivation might pop by for a quick visit.  But when we are actually doing something and making good headway, we feel plenty of motivation.


The question always goes something like: how do I get motivated when I don’t feel like getting started?


The answer to that question is already implicit in the observation about motivation, but it becomes even more salient if we attack it from an etymological point of view.


First, what exactly does it mean to be motivated?  What exactly is motivation?



The dictionary gives us a fairly bland explanation, defining motivation as:


            the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way


Bland as though it might seem, the answer to our original question is also clearly stated in the definition of motivation.


But let’s go a little deeper.


The definition lists reasons or a reason, but do we associated the word of motivation with reason?  In the rational sense?  Or is it more of a feeling?  More of an emotion?


We always have plenty of reasons to do the things that we know need to be done, but despite those reasons we dally.  While procrastinating, what we wait around for, what we chase in befuddled ways is a feeling, an emotion that fills us with a sense of drive.  We imagine once we feel that, then we’ll actually get going.


If we regard motivation as a particular emotion, is there something about this connection that can further illuminate the riddle of motivation?


Look more closely at the words:








There’s a striking similarity between the two.  They both have the exact same root of moti.  Delving into the etymology of the word emotion reveals that emotion comes from the Latin emovere meaning “move out, remove, or agitate,” which comes from an assimilated form of the prefix ex meaning “out” plus movere which intuitively means “to move.”  That root of the word emotion comes originally from the Proto-Indo European root meue, meaning – to push away.


And what about the word Motivation?


The word arrives in English by a slightly different route through old French, but before that it comes from the Medival Latin word motivus meaning ‘moving’, or ‘impelling’, from the Latin motus which just so happens to be the past participle of movere.  The very same movere that we uncovered in the etymology of the word emotion. 


At their root – at their core- both the words motivation and emotion refer to moving, or, more appropriately, motion.


The reason why we fail to feel motivation while we aren’t doing anything is precisely because we aren’t doing anything.  We aren’t. . . moving.


But once we get moving, we slowly begin to feel more and more motivated because the emotions that arise from doing something are in part registering the fact that we’re actually doing something.


The key to motivation is to simply get started.  Start anywhere, start small, start on a fun part, start on a mindless detail, but just get started. 


The emotion of motivation arises from the motion of action.



It’s simply not the other way around, though that’s how we’ve come to think of it.  And it might have something to do with a poet named Percy Shelley who once wrote this line:


“and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.”


The entire concept of writer’s block as a cultural meme can be traced back to Percy, and perhaps right back to this very line of his.


Before this literary period, the concept of writer’s block didn’t even exist.  This is an interesting thing to ponder and it begins to weave into other episodes of Tinkered Thinking, namely in this case episode 139 entitled Regretting Categorical Mistakes.  Which essentially makes the point that it’s possible to make a category or a concept that has consequences on our behavior that are counter-productive.


Think about it for a moment,  what if you had grown up in a world where the words and the concepts: procrastination, writer’s block, just simply didn’t exist?  There’s a chance you’d be less likely to sit around and do nothing if you actually don’t have the ability to call it procrastination.


But Percy’s line is even more insidious.  He’s comparing the original conceptions of the poet to what the poet actually writes.  What’s really going on is that he’s obsessing about perfection.  And this is a subject that ties together many of Tinkered Thinking’s 600+ episodes.  Spending time trying to imagine the perfect plan, or the perfect execution is a waste of time because it’s simply impossible.  Not only do we fail to take into account unforeseen variables that we uncover as we go, but our idea of what we are trying to bring to life changes as we progress.


Case in point.  When the writing of this episode began, there was no plan to talk about writer’s block and Percy’s obsession with perfection, but upon writing it emerged as an explanation for the inactivity that we experience when there’s so much we’d rather see ourselves working on.


If we ask: what came first motivation or procrastination.  The chicken and egg joke here actually has an instructive punch line.


The fact is motivation came first.  We invented the idea of procrastination to stop our work.  It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy to keep from starting up again.


Think of it this way:


Do children ever procrastinate when it comes to starting their fun?


No, they are motivated because they are simply constantly in motion.  It’s only when we are older and our curiosity has been severely hindered that we somehow find the concept of procrastination perversely useful.


But how do we kickstart our curiosity?  It’s requires the exact same prescription that has often appeared on Tinkered Thinking for motivation, it requires a question.


If you don’t feel motivated, you simply haven’t asked yourself the right question.


The question is the Swiss army knife of curiosity and the key to the riddle of motivation.  To go from zero to one, to go from doing nothing to doing just the smallest little thing, requires simply a good question.


Usually we have an annoying internal monologue that is berating us with a list of things we ought to be doing.  But this doesn’t help.


Best to pick one of those things, and stoke some curiosity, by thinking about a detail that we haven’t yet addressed or figured out and asking a question about it.


We might get lucky and see it in a fresh light, seeing a new answer that we immediately feel the need to experiment with, to test, to implement, to see in real life.




The question can be as simple and innocent as “what if I just spent the next 2 or 3 minutes working on it?”





At the end of the day, we just need to start.



Motivation follows.




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Podcast Ep. 641: Emotional Regulation Part III - Motivation

Tinkered Thinking

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January 15th, 2020


Quantity has a quality all it’s own.


Look at the famous composers.  Guys like Beethoven and Bach, and compare just the quantity of work they produced to mediocre composers of the same time.  Our famous composers didn’t simply produce more work as one might guess.  Not just 10 times as much as other mediocre composers.  The ones we consider brilliant –on average- produced 100 times as much music as the average composer.


Now consider this fact in terms of a composer’s best 10%.  Let’s say a mediocre composer produces 10 pieces of music.  The top 10% of their canon is going to be just one peice.


But our so called ‘genius’ composers will have produced 100 times as much, which means they have 1,000 pieces of music to pick from.  What’s the top 10% of a 1,000?  That’s right, our brilliant composers have 100 pieces of music that they can point to as the best of the best they’ve produced.


Sheer quantity in this case creates the space needed to have a diverse range among the best 10%


For the mediocre composer, it’s impossible to have any range or diversity among your best work, when your top 10% is only one song.





For writers and creators of all types, the potential to hit upon something really good goes up the more work they produce.  Quality is more likely to emerge with quantity, whereas if someone focuses just on quality, they might not produce either. 


But there’s a third edge to this sword.  The more work that a creative produces, the larger the base of mediocre stuff they’ve likely produced.  Of course mediocre in this sense should be limited to just their cannon of work.  It’s mediocre in comparison to the creative’s top 10%, not necessarily in comparison to other creatives. 


The third edge has to do with initial exposure.  If a random person dives randomly into their body of work, the likelihood that they encounter one of the best pieces goes down as the creative produces more and more work.  Surely the top 10% grows to include more, but this 10% is most likely becoming diluted.  As the quantity of work increases, the percentage to look at for the best shrinks. 


For the composer who has only produced 10 pieces of music, it’s simply not possible to regard the best 5% of their work because that would be half a piece of music.


And for a composer who has produced 1,000 pieces of music, wading through 100 pieces of music that comprises the top 10% is quite a lot.  It’s more realistic to look at the top 1% of work by a creative that has produced a 1,000 pieces.  With this more realistic shifting percentage of the best, it means that 99% of that creative’s work is comparatively mediocre.



And with that, it’s probably best to keep in mind that Tinkered Thinking has a Most Popular section on the website.  The probability that a random day’s episode is going to be one of the best grows lower every day as episodes emerge. 


Tinker Thinking will soon introduce a solution to this issue beyond the Most Popular section.  Subscribers will soon have access to private podcast feeds that feature only the best material, along with serial episodes that treat a single topic at depth.  So if you enjoy this sort of material and you haven’t yet signed up.  Take a moment at TinkeredThinking.com to subscribe.





This episode references Episode 411: Quality of Quantity

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Podcast Ep. 640: Quantitative Hierarchy

Tinkered Thinking

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Appreciation can be more than a feeling. Toss something in the jar if you find your thinking delightfully tinkered.


January 14th, 2020



Sitting with a problem and trying to figure it out can be excruciating.  You feel dumb, you’re confused, you don’t really, know what to try next.


It’s uncomfortable.



But this is the default state of learning.  Everyone says they love to learn new things, but without this context, few would say that they enjoy feeling dumb, confused and uncomfortable.


Unfortunately, this is what the unknown has in store for us.


Luckily, these feelings are just that: feelings.  And they succumb to strategies like most anything else.  Think of all those tense moments in action movies when stress is running high but our protagonist is suddenly beset with an intricate problem.  They slow down and say out loud:


“I can figure this out.”


There’s a fair amount of faith wrapped up in that sort of statement.  Be sure, we should have a short leash on a word like ‘faith’.


We should have faith in things like gravity.  It’s incredibly reliable in that you know when you drop the coffee mug it will definitely hit the ground, along with pretty much everything we do during a given day which functions with the implicit belief that gravity will keep doing it’s job.  And yet, we don’t really understand what the hell is going on to make us stick to big massive objects like the earth.  So for faith, it must be something incredibly reliable while it’s inner workings remain a mystery.


So faith does turn out to be a good word when we hear ourselves say I can figure this out.


We’ve figured out plenty of things before and if we just put in the requisite time and energy, the next puzzle is bound to give way it’s secrets also.


We sit and stare at the problem and often we feel as though we’re getting no where, but then out of the blue, or rather, out of that mysterious mind we have where seems to sit our consciousness, an idea pops, seemingly out of nowhere.  We try it.  And boom.  Problem solved.


That requisite time and energy is similar to an enzyme, or the activation energy required for a reaction to occur in chemistry.  Without either and nothing happens.


Without the time and energy devoted to a problem, it doesn’t get solved. 


But put in that effort sooner, and sooner comes the answer.


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Podcast Ep. 639: Enzymatic Effort

Tinkered Thinking

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Appreciation can be more than a feeling. Toss something in the jar if you find your thinking delightfully tinkered.


January 13th, 2020


This episode extends episode 386 of Tinkered Thinking entitled White Diamond.



That episode seeks to introduce and describe the concepts of vicious and virtuous cycles.  They are most accessible by thinking about good and bad habits.  Both compound in opposing ways and they gain momentum in their respective directions. 


All personal development might even be described as merely building good habits and doing away with the bad ones.  Easier said than done.


There’s a fishy phrase that floats around talk of the bad habits.  When self-destructive habits compound to the point where we might hit Rock Bottom.


The problem with this idea, this rock bottom, is that when it comes to compounding vicious cycles,


there is no bottom.


There are only breaking points when some small heroic part of our mind looks at the mess and says ‘enough is enough’.


This might even happen often, because it’s the next step that’s hardest.  After reaching a breaking point and saying ‘enough is enough’, where do you go from there?  It’s not simply a matter of feeling a sudden surge of motivation to turn your life around.  Doing such doesn’t happen in a day, nor a week, nor a month.  It happens on the same time scale that habits do; a month is a good start, but in order to really turn things around, it’s important to think in terms of years and decades.  Empowering moments when we feel flooded with rare positive outlook… these are fleeting, and while they feel good and might help us with a burst of productivity, they are unstable and are prone to feel like a let down when the high passes.


Left unaided, vicious cycles spiral downward forever.  They are asymptotic.  It’s simply impossible to get to the bottom in order to bounce, as rock bottom is often said to be of good use for.  Rock bottom is a deceptive myth.  It’s a false comfort in a dangerous way, because it implies that no matter how bad things get, you can always let things get worse because you’ll just eventually hit rock bottom.  This, however, isn’t the case.  Just as the addicted keep trying to chase a certain high, rock bottom forever recedes until other things simply give out.  Like a person’s mental health, or even their bodily systems, as we see with so many accidental suicides and deaths via the opiate crisis.  How many of these people were un afraid of taking a step further down such a path, thinking that they’d eventually hit rock bottom?



What many people call rock bottom in retrospect, was really a breaking point.  Some part of the mind wakes up and tries to exert a rare influence on how things are going.  A person might come across many breaking points as they try to gain a footing and climb back up the wall of that slippery vortex which has become a life and a mind that feels out of control.  It’s counter-intuitive but when things are so dismal, it’s a strange relief to give up effort and slide down even further.  But another breaking point occurs and we try to stop sliding and then attempt the superhuman feat of climbing back up against the slippery tide.  We lose the grip and slide again.  Back and forth, this is the sort of mental and emotional struggle that inundates the minds of those who feel like they’ve lost the ability to move forward in life.  It doesn’t help that the sort of stress that abounds in such situations cripples the mind’s ability to think critically and make long-term plans.  It becomes harder and harder for a person to discern what the best course of action actually might be as they descend further.  The mind becomes quite literally drunk on stress.


If you have a decent life and things are going well, it’s worth wondering about it in this way:  Would you make good decisions if you were hooked up to a perpetual I.V. of alcohol and you were forced to stay up and sleep only an hour or two a night?  Of course not, but this might serve as an accessible analogy to understand those who just can’t seem to turn their life around.  Who seem stuck.  Can you imagine a life where every waking moment is so difficult that you are in a perpetual search for relief?  But you can’t rip out the I.V. and you can’t keep yourself asleep….



While such people might seem unnecessarily angry and destructive, it’s worth remembering that the path and experience of such vicious cycles is an incredibly lonely one, even if there are lots of people around.  It’s lonely because such a person feels as though they’ve lost touch with the most important person, the one that could actually change it all: themselves. 


Without your one guaranteed friend, it’s easy to feel like the world is against you.  And if a person feels like the world is against them, they become desperate for some of that world to join them.  Such a person feels broken, having lost themselves, so they want to break the world. 


Just so they don’t feel alone.


The situation is as though a person’s demons are actually caged angels.  Something needs to be broken, but it’s not the world, and it’s not other people, as so often happens when hurting people lash out.  It’s the vicious cycle they are in that needs to be broken.  That’s the breaking point we blindly try to hit as we lash out in such situations. 


But all too often our flailing makes the situation worse.  And it is always a mistake to think that rock bottom will show up.  We lose too many people, and this small turn of language might seem harmless, but like all language it’s a part of the brick and mortar of how we make sense of the world.  We make better sense of the world without rock bottom.

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Podcast Ep. 638: Rock Bottom

Tinkered Thinking

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If you appreciate the work of Tinkered Thinking, please consider lending support. This platform can only continue and flourish with the support of readers and listeners like you.


Appreciation can be more than a feeling. Toss something in the jar if you find your thinking delightfully tinkered.