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 20th, 2019
In general, each person has a vague and hazy idea of who they are. A more circumspect person might include who they would like to become and spend some time thinking about the aspects of their current self that need some work. A retrospective person might be able to look back on the process they’ve gone through to become who they currently find themselves to be.
One strange opportunity that some technologies offer is the ability to get a new mirror to look in.
To understand this we can think of the first moment in history when someone was able to place two mirrors at angles so that they can see the back of their own head. It’s difficult to think of this sort of opportunity occurring in the natural world, but easy to imagine the inventor of the portable mirror to have that first bizarre day of fun discovering all those new perspectives. It’s entertaining to imagine the copper smiths of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia putting two mirrors in parallel and witnessing that strange phenomenon of having one’s head repeat to infinity. Doubtless they wondered if they’d discovered another dimension.
These mirrors, whether we talk about the polished copper of Mesopotamia or the modern mirror invented by Justus von Liebig are a kind of technology, and it’s the most literal example of getting a new perspective on one’s self.
We can see an evolving growth of this perspective via innovations in technology when we think of the film camera. Never before had humans been able to literally see exactly how they looked and sounded in the immediate past.
These examples are quite literal with regards to perspective, they involve actually seeing our body, whereas other areas of technology are providing less intuitive perspectives.
There are, for example, continuous glucose monitors which can give a moment-by-moment measure of blood sugar. This presents another perspective on what is going on when we contemplate the phenomenon of the self.
(Some may like to differentiate the self as some sort of soul that is separate from the body in some way, but this idea need not take away from the current line of thinking in any way.)
There also exists monitors for tracking sleep patterns, brain activity and all sorts of things that occur within the body.
One important caveat to these technologies is that if they are not used, then the information they might provide need not even be considered possible. Meaning: just because it exists doesn’t mean its actually useful unless its actually being used. This is hopefully eye-rollingly obvious. However, we need only consider one of our oldest technologies and it’s lack of use to see how much opportunity sifts through the fingers of our life.
Descartes famously said: I think therefore I am.
Overlooking the many problems people have found in this statement over the years, we can make the simple observation that, often people don’t even know what they think about a given topic.
We need only think of the mere existence of phrases like “I don’t know” or “I’ll have to think about that.” to find the simplest and most troubling problem in Descartes declaration.
If we don’t know what we think about a given topic, do we cease to exist in relation to it? This is a silly train of thought to ride and puts us at risk of losing sight of the more important point which lies in the opposite direction, which is namely the answer to this question:
If I don’t know what I think about something, how do I find out?
While many of us are quite likely to sit quietly and stew unproductively like some ruminating herbivore – and this is a conscious stab at the general uselessness of such behavior – others are likely to employ the strategy of talking it out, finding a friend and having a discussion, bouncing the topic off someone else’s mind – so to speak.
We might wonder if this is simply an excuse to socialize and create a feeling of progress on the topic. The ubiquitous hate for the business meeting is perhaps the clearest signal to evidence this possibility. Whereas those who seek out a friend to discuss personal life are being a bit more true to the urge of simply wanting company and interaction.
This isn’t to say that such situations can’t be useful, but merely to point out that the likelihood is low.
These strategies depend on our most powerful technology, that of language, but there is perhaps an iteration of this technology that is far more efficient and powerful when it comes to figuring out exactly what we think about a given topic:
If Descartes’ declaration could be worded with a little more specificity, we might imagine an addendum:
I think therefore I am, and I write to know my thoughts.
Ponder for a moment all that has been written by the human race. Certainly much of it is useful and reports important facts about our shared physical world. But we might wonder: how much of our written content is more an exploration of the author’s own mind?
While school has become incredibly adept and efficient with the task of sterilizing the act and practice of writing to the extent that people lump it into a similar category with ‘chores’, writing as a technology remains to be a tool that can sharpen endlessly in our quest to know ourselves.
It can be better than any movie or novel or entertainment that we might fill our free time with, for the simple and symmetrical reason that one doesn’t know exactly what they’ll think and write next, just as novels and T.V. shows keep us in suspense for what will happen next. Except when we are creating the story or the concept through writing, it simultaneously creates a record of who we are and how we know ourselves.
March 19th, 2019
New difficulties are bound to spring up. Progress might even be defined as the rate at which we can gobble up these difficulties that lie on the path to our goals.
Many of us react to these new difficulties in similar ways. We roll our eyes, we groan, we ignore them, we get frustrated, angry and even bitter. We essentially invoke that ancient image of the toddler stamping their feet and having a tantrum.
On the other hand, some people have discovered and developed a kind of super power response to such needling details. Some people take delight in such difficulties. Such a response might seem mildly psychotic to a person who has no accessible benchmark for such a perspective.
A possible remedy is to think of games. Those played by the youngest children are very easy: like putting a star shaped object into a star-shaped hole. For a young child we can imagine this is good for pattern recognition, but for an adult, this task would be inane and boring. The game is too easy. But present the same adult with a more difficult game? Intrigue and enjoyment are more likely to arise and perhaps provoke a sense of curiosity.
This tension between difficulty and curiosity is an invaluable waypoint in the process of becoming a more effective person and less triggered.
We can think back on our own recent history and ask: do small difficulties make me angry and frustrated? Or am I more likely to be curious about such things?
In such questions lie an important caveat: if such difficulties are too simple, and merely represent a procedural repetition in our job or life, than we are perhaps playing a game that is too simple for the mind we find ourselves equipped with. If such is the case, then it’s time to Level-Up and go find a more challenging game, one in which the inevitable difficulties can be used as fodder for curiosity.
On the other hand, there are aspects of living that are impervious to such game-switching. There are things that we as humans have to do on a regular basis that cannot be swapped out for more interesting tasks. And here in lies the mirror complement of the above caveat: we can further ask if there’s any way we can tinker with our perspective to change our relationship to frustration during the times we have to deal with such simplistic difficulties.
We can take something as simple as doing the dishes, or folding laundry. While some people can actually pay their way out of such tasks, the vast majority have to engage in this kind of activity from time to time. Just as a more difficult game requires stretches of perspective and recombined ideas, our more mundane tasks still offer a similar opportunity. Here a practice like Mindfulness can be invaluable, and while a full discussion of the topic will be left for another time, we can still phrase the useful difficulty in a simple way, we can wonder: how well-tuned is my ability to focus on the task at hand?
Am I always lost thinking about the past or thinking about the future? Or can I leave the past and the future where they are and walk the Tightrope of the moment in the present and simply enjoy being alive, regardless of what I am doing?
This is an important difficulty that besets all people, and yet little training or exercise is undertaken to address such difficulty. While it generally requires some study and a healthy amount of practice, it is well within reach to develop the on-command ability to take delight in the moment, no matter which moment. Such an ability is another superpower, especially in today’s hyper-saturated distracting environment that appears hell-bent on convincing the common person that their life is pathetic when compared to others. Not only does such a mindful ability clear such useless obstacles, but it opens up the space to teach ourselves that first mentioned superpower: the ability to take delight in difficulties as opposed to simply getting angry. By observing, noting, and taking careful heed of our default reactions to different issues as they arise in life, we can slowly but steadily edit those defaults and eventually rebuild a perspective so that when irritating trifles arise, we either respond with delight and curiosity or we take the opportunity to simply enjoy being alive.
March 18th, 2019
The word detriment, from Latin, via Old French, means ‘wear away’. We might think of the erosion of a coastline, or – perhaps – we might think of the erosion of a waistline for someone who has diligently undertaken a course of exercise and nutrition. Detriment refers definitively to damage, but damage also breaks into ‘loss’ and ‘hurt’. Certainly in the specific frame of health, we can say that it’s not exactly comfortable to lose weight. It hurts to work-out if we are unaccustomed to such and it certainly hurts to hold ourselves back from temptation, both of which result in a beneficial loss.
We can also envision the sculptor chiseling away at a block of marble, surrounded by a pile of detritus. The work of art is not complete until everything has been removed to reveal what the artist has in mind. And here we can differentiate between hurt and harm. Though the two words seem inherently bound in that hurt always leads to harm, we can suss out a categorical shift. If the sculptor keeps chiseling away too hard and cracks the sculpture in half, then of course harm has occurred. And yet, with a thoughtful approach to health, we can endure much hurt while exercising while keeping ourselves safe from actual harm.
Detriment need not be destruction, but merely a way to clean up what has grown through natural processes.
This tension and turn-taking between growth and detriment can be seen in all sorts of situations. As in the biological example of growing, eating and the pairing back the fat, the trend is also apparent in seemingly unrelated areas, such as: searching for an answer.
We google a question and a list of possible sources that may hold our answer pop up. We open up a few links in different tabs, and after much time researching, we might find our browser has grown slow because we’ve opened up dozens and dozens of pages in our adventure down some interesting rabbit hole. After stepping back, we look through all the opened pages and exit all those that didn’t prove helpful – cutting the fat, in the browser-sense.
Through this toggle of expansion and detriment we discover and create the future, whether this be a business or merely an idea, but our rhetoric and behavior suffers from a categorical barrier that keeps concepts like detriment in a negative category and growth in a positive category.
We must remember that tumors grow and that bad ideas can whither away.
Just as hurt does not always lead to real harm, we must keep in mind that the borders between our categories truly have a semi-permeable nature. And in fact, some of these categorical borders may benefit from their own degradation, while other borders perhaps need some growth. Such a process is occurring all the time within language as connotations expand and take over denotations. While such a process is inevitably a cultural one, the individual also experiences the same process on a personal level. The difference is that the individual can Pause and take a mindful, thoughtful perspective on this process and in so doing discover new helpful ways of thinking that can in turn lead to beneficial behaviors.
We can mindfully entertain more helpful ideas and do away with concepts that are no longer serving us well, regardless of what the culture at large tries to dictate, and this may be the most fundamental invocation of that popular advice to ‘go your own way’.
Such general advice may even be a subtle example of these mechanisms of growth and detriment on a large scale. We grow together, but we often benefit immensely when someone splits off from the herd to go investigate something on their own.
March 17th, 2019
Lucilius was sitting in the baggage claim area of an airport, waiting during a long layover. He took a sip from an old pannikin – a metal mug - he’d used for several hundred years. The mug was dented and scratched, misshapen but loved, and still – only faintly – showed the image of Hercules, crudely etched, swinging a sword at a many-headed monster.
He realized it had been decades since he’d last looked at the faded piece of art. Hercules had yet to figure out the trick to defeating the monster and it was still getting stronger and stronger, growing more heads every time Hercules cut one off. Lucilius held the mug out and took in all the dimples and dents. Hercules’ sword was bent because of one dent, and the monster wrapped round the rest of the mug.
At that moment he heard a short shriek and a moan. He looked up and saw a woman kneeling over a suitcase unzipped and open. She was holding white and blue shards of a tea cup that had shattered in her luggage. She began to cry as she peeled back paper and clothing to find more broken pieces of china, the whole mess of it clinking and crunching as she moved things around, searching for even a single unbroken piece. The woman sat back and started to have a full-on tantrum, anger and grief flashing across her face.
An airport janitor walked some distance past her and the crying woman yelled,
“Why can’t you be careful with people’s stuff?”
The janitor briefly looked around to see who she might be addressing and then continued on their way.
Lucilius sipped more coffee, watching the scene and became aware once more of his mug. He held it out at length, next to the sight of the bereaved woman.
The mug certainly wasn’t new and far from pristine, but, Lucilius realized, it had somehow become better than when it had first been given to him.
The woman mopped up her face and then dragged the splayed suitcase over to a trashcan next to the bench where Lucilius sat. She struggled to lift the suitcase and get an edge to the lip of the trash, tilting it until the whole crushed mess clattered out and dumped into the bin. The woman coughed at the dust cloud that plumed up from the crash as she flipped the whole suitcase on top of the trash bin and then walked away.
Lucilius cracked an old book and began to read while his next flight was still sometime off and it wasn’t long before the same janitor had circled back and noticed the suitcase atop the trash bin.
The janitor removed the suitcase and groaned, looking down at the heavy mess. The janitor tried to lift the plastic trash bag from the bin but with the weight, it only ripped where he gripped it. In defeated frustration, the janitor took a step back to reassess the situation, and as he did, he bumped Lucilius’ mug balanced on the edge of the bench. The now empty mug fell and bounced on the tile, clattering to a stop. The janitor spun around in the same instant.
“I’m so so sorry.” He said as he picked up the mug and handed it back to Lucilius.
“Don’t worry,” Lucilius said “it’s made for that.”
March 16th, 2019
There’s that limply inspiring phrase “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Which certainly seems to always be about other people. We might wonder, are the tough people who are already going being told such a thing? Or does the presence of this statement feel more like a belittling assessment?
This is perhaps reminiscent of the obvious problem with traditional schooling. A grade, such as an A- or a C+ gives no indication of a trend. It is more a statement of position as opposed to motion. It’s akin to saying: this student’s command of the subject is good, or mediocre. It gives no evidence of where someone started, what sort of progress, either good or bad was made, and certainly offers no indication of how a person might grow, which is – to the great misfortune of millions – exactly how institutions of higher education treat such summarizing symbols.
To segway back to our initial phrase: “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” perhaps merely indicates that the listener is not seen as tough in the eyes of the speaker. Though the intention is perhaps a good one, if the listener comes to believe the speaker, than the prescription is entirely iatrogenic, meaning: it makes a weak person out of someone who was simply not appearing tough.
So many of our efforts land in the same vein: By merely describing the situation, we entrench that situation, as opposed to changing it for the better – which is most likely our intention and objective. Yet we shoot ourselves in the foot by failing to take a step back and take in the whole situation.
The straight-shooter might simply conclude that one has to face the music, man-up, and stop ignoring reality.
This may work in some cases, but it puts an awful lot of navigational burden on the listener. And isn’t this the person in need of help?
The prescription Deal with it! starts to look like laziness on the part of the person saying it. If such a person is in a position to say such a thing, wouldn’t they be equipped to give more thoughtful advice? Perhaps such advice wouldn’t fit so quaintly into a one liner that can propagate through culture like all quotes do. But this is a big part of what makes us human: taking the time with one another, not just to explain things, but to honor that interaction by stepping back from it and asking: what would actually be effective in helping this person grow? Surely we can do better than just barking at a person that they should grow? If that’s all a person can muster, than perhaps there’s more than one person in need of help, love and growth?
We might wonder how we can repackage that cultural adage. Instead of “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” We might say something like: You don’t have to be tough to get going, but the further along you get, the tougher you’ll become.
Perhaps some of our cultural wisdom needs some nuanced updating:
When the going gets tough, the weak get stronger.
This episode references Episode 185: Iatrogenic Gaslighting: Are You Ok?