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
January 10th, 2019
For a moment picture a figure skater spinning. At first the posture of the figure skater is large and open as in a Biellmann spin or the Camel Spin which has as much weight distributed outwards from the center of the spin.
But we all know what the figure skater does next. With a stable rotation established, the skater begins to bring their weight towards the center. This concentrates the spin and speeds it up. Eventually the skater will compress into a near fetal position with all of their body weight compressed into as small a space as possible centered on the axis of their spin. This creates an impressive display of rotational speed.
This process of going from a large slow posture down into a small tight spin is a demonstration of a whirlpool, an image often mentioned on Tinkered Thinking to help represent positive and negative compounding cycles, often good habits and bad habits.
What we can learn from the image of the skater is how important the slower start of the spin is for the rest of the process. This slower spin with a larger posture is used to stabilize the spin, to ensure that as it’s concentrated, the refocused power won’t work against the skater and abruptly throw them off balance and fall.
This slower larger spin can work as an analogy for the amount of concentration we need to devote when establishing a new good habit. In the beginning it’s very useful to gamify the process by using a counter to keep track of days and to put much conscious effort into the necessary steps and actions to make sure our target behavior occurs. But over time, as this behavior reshapes some of the structure and firing pattern of our brain, the daily initiation of this behavior becomes automatic. In this case the stability of the spin has been well established, and at this point the accrued benefits of the daily habit begin to compound to a noticeable degree. This is a good habit - like our spinning skater brining in their weight – well focused.
These good habits are like spinning drill bits that allow us to drill into the future with purpose. Though bad habits function just the same. More than anything aside from unpredictably impactful events, our future is largely the result of our most concentrated habits, whether they be good or bad. This should give us reason to pause. And think about what things in our life are already spinning, and what behaviors we’d wish to have as the shapers of our future.
January 9th, 2019
Somehow ‘being on the right track’ and ‘blazing trails’ have come to mean much the same thing in the cultural parlance of moving forward and making progress. And yet these images could not be more incompatibly paired as synonyms.
They’ve perhaps been lumped together because any kind of forward progress is now coveted in a culture of productivity, leveling-up and the perennial task of eschewing the atrophy of being mediocre.
We can see this innate desire for novelty in the way social media platforms are built. Each social feed is designed with a primary concentration on tempting us with scrolling more, discovering the new. Novelty in this case appears to be a stickier factor than quality. But any kind of thoughtful pause will allow anyone to generally come to the conclusion that quality before novelty is probably a better order of priorities.
This obsession with the new perhaps undermines our ability to properly filter for quality. Instead of spending time with something to properly analyze it, we simply move forward. Each social media feed is like a track, which someone else has built, and in doing so, that person has much more control about where we go and what we see. This is where the two phrases ‘being on the right track’ and ‘blazing trails’ immediately diverge. While both are indicative of forward motion, suddenly the concepts of direction and agency emerge as attributes that make these phrases far from similar.
Being on the right track inherently carries with it an implication that we are using someone else’s structure to get somewhere, and since someone has already built this structure, anywhere we might go is a predetermined place, somewhere someone has already been because the person who built such a track had to get there first to actually lay the track. We might look at secondary education and much of the traditional career model as a system that conforms to this image of the track. In such a paradigm, it’s only a matter of picking the right track. The universities have already been built, the curriculum and diplomas already designed, the bureaucratic ladders of promotion already established. It’s just a matter of picking the right track and jumping through all the necessary hoops. Doing so might feel like blazing a trail personally in an emotional sense because each experience in this process is new to the individual, but this has an uncanny similarity to the social feeds we look. Every social feed is showing you something new. The important caveat is that while it appears new to the individual, it is not new to the larger system nor the population that takes part in such a system. We are seeing and experiencing what others have. Everyone who rides the same train is going to have a different experience that feels new to each person, but they are still experiencing much the same environment which can be predicted and anticipated or even designed by someone who is familiar with the overall structure of the track.
Blazing a trail on the other hand involves interacting with something that is truly new. Such an image might evoke a rugged character making a way through dense jungle, hacking at the foliage in order to get through. Here there is no set path, no track to zip us forward on our way. This is where no one has ever gone before. Blazing a trail is an image that is reserved exclusively for a frontier. It is where we come face to face with the unknown and the experience of uncertainty. And in this eerie pair of synonyms lie potential treasures that cannot be found on any track; for a very simple and straightforward reason. Anyone who has laid a track had to blaze a trail and clear the path in order to lay the track so any treasures that were found on the way into such unmapped territory were picked up by that explorer who had the luck to come across those treasures first. We might think of the creators of social media platforms, whether it be facebook, Instagram, twitter or even myspace. All of the creators of these systems and structures have become very wealthy as a result of their efforts. Not necessarily because they blazed the trail, but because they also laid tracks for others to easily follow in their wake and effortlessly see the new landscape that they traversed first. In the case of social media platforms, that track is a digital one and the landscape is other people and their thoughts, pictures, writings, songs, drawings and all other current manner of expression that can be hosted on this digital track.
One way to blaze a trail with these structures is to try and find a kind of human expression that has no representation on these large platforms. Finding a way to digitally integrate a form of human expression that currently has no representation is a way of blazing a trail away from these platforms, while simultaneously laying a branching track that people can follow.
But blazing a trail need not even be connected to any current popular system. While blazing a trail emotionally might be fulfilled by current systems, in order to truly blaze a trail where no one has ever ventured before, the two great navigational tools are curiosity and fear. Most of us battle a fairly ambient level of fear that coaxes us into more traditional forms of behavior and down more traditional tracks. Often we fear taking a chance and this is the emotional bottle neck that keeps the superpower of curiosity out of reach for use. For those who find their directions and even identity dominated by the status quo, their curiosity is tiled over with fear. Facing fear, if closely examined is really a matter of facing the unknown. Curiosity is the most efficient tool for navigating the unknown. It is the compliment to the cultural prescription to face one’s fear. While facing one’s fears is akin to progressing forward while leaning back and bracing for some kind of negativity, curiosity is progressing forward and leaning into the process with eagerness and a kind of hunger that can become unstoppable.
While it may seem like a wholly bad idea to follow someone else’s track based on this analysis, there is one singular benefit that should not be ignored. Tracks laid by another person can quite literally fast track you to a place where you can then curiously embark off into the unknown on your own. A place that would be impossible to get to on your own. This is the great gift of culture. And the simplest example is the language through which you understand these words. They were not created by you nor I, but we use them to fast track our ability to communicate and share ideas. In so doing we can compound the achievements of our forebears and build upon their tracks in order to use our limited time to explore the current frontiers and figure out a place where we can strike out on our own and find something new, some gift that we can turn around and show our fellow people, some unknown that might benefit our grand family.
This episode references Episode 63: The Etymology of Fear.
January 8th, 2019
Hopefully, we’ve all felt this. It’s when you find yourself in a position that feels uncomfortable because it broadcasts an identity and ability that is beyond what we think ourselves capable. Like a fish out of water, there is an uneasiness, perhaps even downright anxiety about this state of affairs.
Growth and progress require a change, and we might benefit from wondering whether all parts of our psychology get onboard with changes at the same time. There does appear to be two conflicting urges that plague all people. On the one hand we want things to stay the same and on the other we crave novelty, stimulation and growth. The first of these is denial rooted in a kind of fear. To want things to stay the same is a fantasy given a long enough timeline, but a craving for novelty, stimulation and growth is an engine to strategically deal with the fact that nothing stays the same.
Regardless of how these two urges might be mapped in the brain, it’s possible to highlight the guilty party as that urge that wants things to stay the same. Perhaps part of this mechanism is to simply assume things are still the same. This is also a bad mental tendency that people have, another area where denial comes in. So often when things are slowly getting worse, we deny any change and simply believe that things are still as they’ve always been. Until perhaps a heart attack devastates our reality and we have a big wake up call to the changes we’ve been ignoring. This instance is a sort of impostor syndrome in reverse. Generally, someone with an impending heart attack probably thinks they are healthier than they really are. Changes have been taking place, but they still identify with a younger, healthier self that never even thought about heart attacks. And then boom, wake up call.
Impostor syndrome, as it’s usually used, implies something good. Our efforts are paying off, other people see the fruits of our labor and see us more for what we are than we ourselves do. It’s almost as though when it comes to problems and work we have to do, we have our focus correctly faced forward, but when we think of ourselves, we look backwards and spend that whole time looking in the rear-view mirror. And yet, such a perspective couldn’t be more incorrect. Each day we are a slightly different person. This is true on a physical biological level as our cells constantly multiply and die, but it’s also true on a mental level if only for the fact that after yesterday, we have one more day of memories and information to incorporate into how we see and understand the world.
Impostor syndrome at it’s most basic is a fairly harmless phenomenon that shows why it’s a poor idea to cling to any identity too much. The Identity Danger can keep us locked into patterns of behavior that make us vulnerable to the changing nature of reality. It’s an instance that reminds us that identity is fluid. Identity evolves as a function of our understanding of reality.
As we gather more information, and unlock further information by taking action, our understanding of reality changes, and thus, our identity changes.
To cling too tightly to any identity is to shut out new information and underestimate the complexity of the world.
Luckily impostor syndrome is fairly harmless, and with the right understanding, we can see that it’s a good sign. It’s proof the we are changing, because our effect on the world has changed. If anything we should seek out situations the evoke impostor syndrome. At the very least, the discomfort of such an uncertain situation will make us more likely to grow.
January 7th, 2019
What is the difference between an individual who says they’re starving and someone who says their fasting?
Both are presumably in much the same state: they haven’t eaten food in a while.
The only difference is the intention and emotional disposition of each person. The person who claims to be starving did not plan on going so long without eating, nor are they enjoying it and remain blind to any good the experience could be doing. Such a person’s only focus is almost always to end it.
A person who is fasting on the other hand has quite a strong intention with regards to not eating food, and many who have not tried this exercise nor read any of the literature on the subject might be quick to assume some kind of religious reason.
Because, why wouldn’t you eat some food if you have it available?
Like many of the things that are good for us, the answer and the process of experiencing that answer is counter-intuitive.
The question: why wouldn’t you eat some food if you have it available? is a similar inverted form of this question regarding exercise:
Why would you do something that’s kind of painful if you don’t have to?
While we’ve come a long way from the 1960’s when doctors would endorse certain brands of cigarettes on television commercials and we now generally acknowledge that the difficult experience of working out is very good for us, there is still much that has yet to be incorporated into our cultural understanding of healthy living.
Fasting has decades of research showing a host of positive benefits. One way of understanding some of these benefits is through this analogy: If you were running a business and suddenly had a decrease in profits, perhaps due to a recession, and you had to cut some staff for this business, who would you cut first? Would you let go of your best people? Absolutely not. You would let the least effective workers go first. If, for a moment, we regard the body as a system like this business, then it behaves in much the same way when the resource of constant food suddenly disappears. The body turns on mechanisms that start analyzing and deconstructing poorly made proteins and cells in order to reuse the material. Organs become smaller but benefit as a result and grow back healthier after the fast. While this platform does not purport to be any kind of medical authority and advises anyone interested to do their due diligence before trying anything, there are non-medical benefits that we can also analyze.
For example, we might ask how much time is spent dealing with food during a given day. We prepare food, eat the food, clean up afterwards and then of course there’s getting rid of what we’ve eaten. All of these things take time.
A few years ago the Bureau of Labor Statistics released some metrics for this. Apparently, during workdays, a little over an hour is spent eating and just under 40 minutes is spent in food preparation and cleaning. For our purposes here we’ll lowball the number and say that an hour and half is spent solely with regards to food each day.
Fasting just one day a week would give us an extra 78 hours a year. That’s more than 3 days. Imagine for a moment what you could do with 3 days? How many books could be read, or projects started or finished?
And of course, time is not the only thing we save. Without eating, less money is spent, and while the cost of a meal is going to vary greatly depending on location, eating habits and whether we go out or cook at home, it’s undeniable that the cost of between 50 and 150 meals is going to be substantial. And all of this comes with health benefits.
Like anything, it’s very difficult the first time it’s attempted. Much like going for the gym after a long hiatus from physical activity, the beginning is very rough going. But also like going to the gym, it gets much easier every time we fast. And if fasts extend beyond a day, many people report increasing energy and mental clarity on the 3rd day onward. Further gifts of an underutilized practice.
This practice also equips us more robustly for times when there are no good food options around. Perhaps we find ourselves at a conference that only has junk food. Having fasted a few times gives one a much greater chance of resisting the emotional logic that makes us give in. Instead, we know we can survive just fine for a few more hours or even a few more days.
While the wisdom of mothers and grandmothers is usually on point, their ubiquitous insistence that we eat… pretty much all the time is perhaps an area where the wisdom falls short.
Culturally we have removed all restraint when it comes to food. We use food as emotional therapy far more than we do to nourish our bodies, and fasting can also be a way to remove a guilty vice and confront the reasons we wish to retreat into short term pleasure more effectively.
While there are loads of reasons to start playing around with fasting, whether it be intermittent fasting or longer fasts, it does well to remember the case of Angus Barbieri who in 1965 fasted for 382 days, consuming only water, tea, coffee and vitamins. At the beginning of his fast he was 456lbs, and a little over a year later he was 180lbs. The guy went more than a year without eating solid food. Just let that sink in today as you have your next craving and hear yourself say “I’m starving!”
Chances are, if you can grab a love handle on your side, you aren’t starving, you’re either lacking in real nutrients, or your just addicted to the foods you’ve been eating.
January 6th, 2019
Once when Lucilius was a young boy, he fell and broke his leg and was confined to his room while the bone healed. But while lying in bed and remembering the pain when he fell, Lucilius began to fear the future. The boy’s anxiety rose to such a pitch that even after his body was healed, he remained secluded in his room.
He became completely obsessed with a future he could not see, and such unknown terrified him. Days turned into months and the days had become all alike as Lucilius resolved to do absolutely nothing.
An old man, long revered in the community, was caring for him during this time, kindly bringing him meals at regular times, knowing full well that the regularity only helped to entrench young Lucilius’ thinking about the future.
One day the old man entered Lucilius’ room with lunch a little early, and Lucilius remarked,
“You’re early! You’re not supposed to come in for another 10 minutes.”
The old man smiled and left the room with the food and sat down to wait. When he came back in to give Lucilius his food, he asked:
“What do you think about all day in bed?”
As Lucilius pulled his bowl of soup close, the boy said, “I’m planning my life.”
“Yes, if I can plan everything, then nothing can happen that I don’t like.”
The old man thought for a few moments. “And how is your plan coming along?”
“I’m almost done,” he said.
“When does it start?”
“I haven’t planned that yet.”
“Don’t you think that’s a good place to start when planning something so big?”
Lucilius looked at the old man with a suspicious face. “Yea, maybe, but I have to finish it first before I know when it starts.” he said.
“But doesn’t the plan change depending on where you start?.”
“I’ll start right here when the plan is finished.”
The old man paused for a moment. “I guess I meant to say ‘when’ the plan starts. Doesn’t the plan change depending on when it starts?”
“I don’t see why.”
“Well let’s say you start your plan in the middle of the night, but in order to do the first thing in your plan, you need to be able to see outside. You won’t be able to do that at night as well as you can in the middle of the day.”
“I’ll just wait till the next day,” Lucilius said.
The old man thought for another moment. “Well, that does work for some things that repeat predictably like night and day, but what about things that don’t repeat everyday like sunrise and night time?”
“Like what?” Lucilius asked.
The old man smiled. “Like your next good idea about what to do.”
“But that’s what I’m doing.”
“Wait,” the old man exclaimed, “You’re telling me you even planned when you would get the good ideas for your plan?”
Lucilius looked down for a moment, puzzled. “No, I just wait for them.”
“But that means you’ve found something that’s impossible to plan!”
Young Lucilius frowned at the old man, and turned his concentration back to his soup. The old man smiled and got up, and as he was leaving young Lucilius’ room, he said “You know I’ve found that I have my best ideas while walking through the woods or climbing mountains. Can’t claim too many good ones while sitting in bed.” He didn’t need to look, but could feel how young Lucilius’ face crunched in displeased confusion.
The old man closed the door, and turned around to look where he had affixed a booby-trap to the wall above the young boy’s door – a bowl filled to the brim and carefully secured and balanced on a swivel so that it could tip and dump it’s contents. He double-checked the date, and muttered,
“just about time.”
He set up the trip wire for the booby-trap and then sat back down near the warm fireplace where he had a good view of the young boy’s bedroom door. The trap was set, and he smiled thinking back to that time long ago when he had finally been curious enough to leave his room and the surprise and joy he felt when he was showered in candy.
How he had come to wake up an old man in the town where he had grown up, he had no idea.