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
June 16th, 2019
Lucilius was meditating in his garden when a young friend, a pupil of sorts opened the gate and let it swing closed with a two step clack, as the young man tramped up along the garden’s stepping stones to the base of the big oak where Lucilius sat. None of Lucilius’ friends, nor even acquaintances, nor strangers ever had any issue approaching him and talking to him while he sat in meditation. This was the fruit of reflection on his part. For many years early in his meditation practice an odd curiosity had pooled around the whole strangeness of interruptions. It took years, but slowly he had begun to give into such interruptions, welcoming them, and found that more and more, such instances ceased to be interruptions. He found that the very notion of an interruption, the word itself, the feelings he had associated with such a phenomenon, all of it, might not even exist. Whether that was a realization or time in practice had finally enabled him to reach some indefinable point, he found that his practice continued through the interruption. It was for this very same reason that he often meditated with his eyes open. Not only was the difference trivial, but much of the time, people merely failed to notice that Lucilius was meditating at all.
The young man heaved in some air and molded it into a particularly aggrieved and frustrated sigh as he took a seat on stone bench near Lucilius. The conversational bait was plump, but Lucilius knew as well as the boy felt that such a signal was clear enough for them both. Lucilius merely waited, as the boy’s thoughts and wish to connect bubbled up.
Some anger in memory twisted the boys face a little as he thought, until he blurted “just can’t seem to talk to her.”
Lucilius looked to the troubled boy, pausing. “You can’t seem to talk to her?” Lucilius queried.
The boy glanced at Lucilius. “My mother I mean. I just can’t talk to her. No matter what I say, she just seems to hear something else. She never understands.”
Lucilius reflected further. “She never understands?” he asked.
“Well,” the boy said, “maybe that’s a little unfair. This isn’t the language she grew up with, and of course she understands, I mean, she speaks perfectly, but she can be so sensitive. It’s like, she’s got it in her head that she’s not good with this language, but she’s as good as anyone else that grew up with it. But with me, she just seems to find the one little way to totally miss what I’m trying to say.”
Lucilius picked up on something boy said. “what you’re trying to say?”
“Yea,” the boy said. “She understands everyone else just fine even though she doesn’t think so, but it’s just with me that whatever I’m tying to get across just seems to curve right around her, and never hits home. I end up feeling like there’s something wrong with the way I’m talking, cause we just argue and argue and we get so angry even though I try so hard.”
“You try so hard?” Lucilius parroted.
It seemed to land hard with the boy, and he looked away, thinking. “I guess I could try harder,” the boy said, softer now. “I guess,” he began, pausing to think back. “I guess, I kind of just do the same thing over and over with her. And the whole thing repeats.”
The boy grew quiet, staring off at the grades of green among the plants. The deep and shaded greens tucked away from the near-white glitter in the garden where the sun touched the bare leaves and petals. The boy stood up and wandered a few paces away from the oak tree. He turned Lucilius’ way without meeting his look and said “Thanks,” and then walked away, leaving the garden.
Lucilius continued to sit in meditation, finding no reason arising to arise himself, and so he sat in the garden through the rest of the day and into the evening, until the sky grew darkened and bright with stars. He slept at the base of the oak and in the morning continued his meditation. The new sun was just beginning to pick out the high bright points in the garden when the gate clacked again, and the same young man came walking up towards Lucilius.
“I figured something out!” he exclaimed as he neared and took a seat in front of Lucilius, crossing his legs as the boy did when he sought lessons in meditation from Lucilius.
“You figured something out?” Lucilius asked, curious.
“Yea, sort of by chance but what a difference. My mother and I. We got into a big argument last night after I went home. And I got so angry with her. I just didn’t know what to do, and she was so angry, and then randomly, I didn’t really plan it, I said a bad word. But I said it in her language – My uncles, they stayed with us once and I learned all the bad words from them, and I’m not really good with her language, I can only say basic things and these bad words of course. And last night I was so angry with her that I cursed, but in her language, and you know what happened?”
“What happened?” Lucilius said, with a hampered smile.
“She calmed down. She went from being so angry with me, to just immediately being calm. She even smiled and I don’t think she even realized it. She’s never done anything like that while we’re upset and arguing, and I couldn’t believe it. Obviously, it was just because she was hearing her language, like it was something familiar, and so I tried really hard to say my point in her language, and she helped me through it. She corrected me, but in a good way, as though she actually really wanted to hear what I was saying instead of just being somehow dead-set against understanding me. I just couldn’t believe it. We actually had a really nice discussion, and I learned more of her language.
But it’s crazy to think, if I’d said those same words, but not in her language, things would have gotten so much worse. I mean… I was really angry. But it calmed her down. Just by hearing her own language.”
June 15th, 2019
Ok this episode needs a just a little house keeping since it’s so easy these days to totally misinterpret what someone is trying to convey. Perhaps that should be at the beginning of every episode. Shouldn’t we all walk around with it branded in our skulls that we just might be misinterpreting someone?
Let’s start with the word dissonance. It means a lack of harmony. Usually this is in a musical sense. It’s from Latin and means quite literally ‘not agreeing in sound.’
We need only think of the innumerable times when someone scrunches up their brows and says ‘that doesn’t sound right.’
We get the sense that something isn’t connecting. Either another person isn’t well connected to reality and is therefore painting an inaccurate picture of the situation, or we ourselves have misunderstood their meaning and the picture we are painting in our own mind based on their words is inaccurate.
What’s of even greater interest here is when there’s no second or third party, and we are experiencing cognitive dissonance all on our own.
We are all familiar with this, and if it’s cranked up to a high enough degree, we become frustrated.
This almost always happens in the course of learning something.
Even if we do not experience this dissonance to the point of frustration, the dissonance still exists, and it’s the resolving of this dissonance that is the process of learning.
It’s often been remarked that we learn best when the task at hand is just beyond the scope of our abilities. In this case it does not take much cognitive expansion and creative generation of possible ideas to rope in the new concept we are trying to understand and incorporate it into what we already know.
Bearing this in mind we can realize that the spectrum of cognitive dissonance inevitably includes harmony. As dissonance is resolved with novel understanding, harmony is created between what we already knew and additional information that we incorporate.
Many remark on the ‘flow’ state where work seems to come effortlessly. This is perhaps when a person is positioned just right on the spectrum of cognitive dissonance relative to some task, and the novel work is not too hard to undertake and is readily transformed.
Crank up the dissonance. Make the task too hard, and no ‘flow’ state is possible. In this case we have to endure much greater levels of dissonance and mental discomfort for longer periods of time before we have a breakthrough.
There is a lot to be said about the sort of brute-force ability that some people can muster to endure so much cognitive dissonance and then finally make breakthroughs that cascade towards quicker and quicker realizations until they reach a level of ease that can allow for a flow state.
On the other side of this learning and work process is boredom. When a person is more than good enough at something to the point that the task becomes boring. Endurance once again comes in as a key ability for moving forward. Those who can brute-force the boring periods of progress by just sticking at it longer eventually stumble upon some new way to be better.
But recognize that such endurance of boredom is a new, somewhat meta-level of cognitive dissonance. Where once we were optimally learning by exploring novel ideas and incorporating them into our understanding of a topic, now with a stage of boredom, there is nothing novel that we can see to entertain our mind with. The ability to muster endurance can become that novel aspect of the situation, but it again requires a kind of brute-force ability.
While it’s ideal to land in the sweet spot on the spectrum of cognitive dissonance where a flow state is likely to arise, it’s more important to be capable on the entire spectrum of cognitive dissonance. Those who only do what feels good and easy will inevitably miss out on the goods that can be rendered by people who can brute-force their way from the hard end of the spectrum down to the easier end.
That’s not to say it’s necessary to do everything on the highest difficulty level. Elite athletes do not train at 100% all the time for good reason. It’s the ability to call up that brute-force method that’s important, because with time, there will inevitably arise a situation where brute-force is the only option the make things better.
This episode was heavily influenced by James Clear’s book ‘Atomic Habits’. Which you can find on the Tinkered Thinking reading list.
June 14th, 2019
Perspective is unique.
There’s a somewhat problematic word: unique. As much as Tinkered Thinking would like to urge people to refrain from pedantic thinking (and you can check out Episode 137: Pedant, for a full discussion of this unfortunate tendency in people) . . . the use of the word ‘unique’ has a suffered a notably unfortunate drift, bloat, whatever you want to call it, regarding what it means.
Unique, just means one of a kind. Literally nothing else like it in the universe.
As far as we understand, every physical point in the universe is unique, and if you are occupying one of those points, then it’s simply impossible for anyone else to occupy that point also.
Where you stand in the universe defines -by default- a unique perspective that is impossible to replicate. Holding this in mind, remember also every previous point that every individual has occupied as we all move through life.
No matter how close two people are, the separation of perspective is undeniable. The fact that we have two eyes is a good example of this.
But unlike what our brain does with the information from two eyes, the value of two different people’s perspectives often fails to find a bridge where more value can arise.
Each person acts like a single eye, proclaiming “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I see it totally different, I see it this way.”
When we think about the smooth integration of information from two eyes, this kind of mindset seems somewhat laughable, if not patently ridiculous.
And yet everyone is guilty of this. Every moment of frustration, anger, incredulousness, aggravation, all of these extend from this unfortunate but beneficial separation of perspectives.
Just as the integrated information of two eyes creates an understanding of the space around us that is far superior to the use of just a single eye, it is the space between and including two perspectives that ultimately yields our most productive keys for moving forward.
But in the face of such damming emotions such as aggravation, anger and frustration, what is on offer to circumvent these emotions and achieve something wholly greater than our own petty perspective?
Contrary to much common wisdom about disagreements and friction between points of view, only one person in such a circumstance need alter their approach to achieve gains in understanding.
This is the space between the urge to conquer or concur.
A single person can listen deeply, putting aside the emotional force of their own perspective, and using their imagination to recreate as much of another’s perspective as possible. Though perspectives are unique, the words we use create bridges that we can hijack to slurp up as much of another person’s perspective as is possible and available given the constraints of our forms of communication.
Where others might stubbornly keep the door shut on other people’s perspective in favor of their own, anyone can claim the virtuous gains that exist between our own perspectives and others that differ.
The first ingredient of this practice of listening, is to pause, deeply, and let the emotions surrounding our coveted and falsely threatened perspective slowly subside. Only once the emotional dust has cleared, can we see clearly the message of another person’s perspective. No matter how ridiculous and inane it is.
In fact, it’s perhaps an even more valuable practice to try and hone this skill with people whose perspective we find utterly moronic. What kind of flexibility and ultimately compassion does it imply if you can understand the point of view of someone who seems truly lost to dumb and damaged ways of thinking? Is there anything that would be more valuable to have at hand if we found ourselves at a juncture where it was imperative to cure someone of their idiocy?
June 13th, 2019
Question: Is there any animal that plans for the future in the same way that humans do? Surely we can think of squirrels squirreling away acorns for the coming winter. Perhaps we can give them the benefit of the doubt and say that this is a conscious action and not just something hardwired into their behavior.
But what about a 5-year plan?
Do any animals plan for what their life will look like 10 years from any given moment?
Humans are not the longest living creatures with eyes and ears and brains, so surely we are not unfairly advantaged by the length of our lives.
So what does it? What allows us to build pyramids or cathedrals that take 700 years and generations of workers to put together?
Perhaps consciousness expands our inner world in two directions: Into the past, and into the future.
Extending our mind into the past doesn’t actually sound that special. Certainly animals have memories. A dog accidentally hops up onto a hot stove and boom, that dog will never jump up on the stove ever again. A human can make a similar mistake, by mindlessly testing how hot an element is by touching it and getting burnt. But what will the human do at this point?
Well, really any number of thoughts can percolate from this situation, but it’s not unreasonable for a person to look for a light on the stove that indicates that one of the elements is hot. A person might even check if such a light is broken, and then fix it.
Our ability to reflect on our experience has clearly expanded beyond the range of any other animal. We can ask why? Though it may only be correlational and not causal, we can wonder: what else is so different?
Certainly something is going on in the minds of animals. Certainly a bat is experiencing something. But why don’t the experiences of animals lead them to reflect on very different futures that can manifest from their own actions? One would imagine that it’s somewhat a waste of cognitive energy imagining a better future and never taking potential actions that might lead to that better future.
Granted, plenty of living people totally fail at this, and constantly imagine much better lives without taking any meaningful action to make it happen. But some do. Where as no animals seem capable of this.
But whose to say that consciousness is the same across all people?
Just as our ability to reflect on our experience has expanded beyond the range of animals, perhaps some people have a greater and more effective ability to reflect on their experience? People differ in all sorts of ways, so why wouldn’t this extend to the stuff of consciousness?
It doesn’t take much looking around to realize that some people are on some sort of zombie-autopilot, bumbling along towards whatever happens.
What’s that saying that’s repeated ad nauseum and tattooed on people’s arms and legs, and minds?
Take it one day at a time.
Perhaps that’s spectacularly bad advice. The sentiment, and perhaps intention is good. A sort of live-in-the-moment kind of message, but perhaps it speaks of a deeper problem: if thinking about the past and the future in productive and integrated ways is too hard… then don’t think about them.
Stubborn questions about Free Will aside, it’s clear that the more aware a person is, the more likely key factors will come into play regarding future decisions. The more someone is willing to sift through the cacophony of memory and future possibilities for key signs, the more likely they can haul dreams into reality. Perhaps that ability of awareness, memory and a creative understanding of the future is ultimately a function of our consciousness.
Or perhaps it’s the other way around.
Our consciousness is a function of our awareness, of both the memories we reflect upon and the creative possibilities about the future that we can test for as we launch productive actions into tomorrow.
June 12th, 2019
How does a tree find itself growing at the top of a mountain?
Certainly we can always imagine a bird, carrying this seed high up to the top of the mountain and dropping it. But in our quest to constantly level-up, what exactly does the analogy of a bird bird look like? Winning the lottery perhaps? Is such a smooth and easy climb more a factor of luck as opposed to anything else?
We can think for a moment about just how great a spot it is for a tree to be at the top of a mountain. The vantage point gets you all the sunshine possible, as opposed to deep in a valley below. Not to mention the great view considering as a tree you’re stuck there for quite a while.
Birds aside for a moment, how else do forests come to cover mountains?
It’s actually pretty easy to visualize and looks a lot like taking the stairs. A tree springs up, gains some height, and then shoots out a branch towards the mountain on the side where it is sloping up from the base of the tree. A seed drops from the branch and boom: another tree slightly higher up on the slope of the mountain. Repeat until the species can go no higher.
If we think about the species as a single entity that is moving up the mountain, it’s very much like the movement of our feet while taking the stairs. A foot drops on the first step, just as a seed hits the forest floor, then from that seed, growth lifts straight up and after a certain point it begins moving laterally out with the branches, just as we lift a foot and then move it laterally forward. Then the seed drops, just as we drop our foot from a height that is higher than the stair we are aiming for.
This is how trees gain higher ground, how we get to the upstairs bathroom, and how Pythagoras enabled geometry teachers to torture students.
The analogy lends itself further: the stepping process requires this up and down process. Dropping a seed can seem like a setback if the goal is to go up. But only if we look at an isolated iteration. If we look at the whole process, we see that the trend is ultimately unstoppable, even if it is punctuated at every point with a move downward.
So it goes in learning,
and so on.
And that’s it, that’s life. Just a constant trudge uphill to try and level-up.
Or is it?
Is there a way to flip that infamous contradiction on it’s head and eat cake while having it?
While we trudge uphill, we must not forget the possibility of the birds.
On our quest to slowly step up the slope, can we perhaps also try to make the very thing we seek to produce even more attractive to lucky opportunities?
It’s certainly worthwhile to try. Who knows what virtuous current in society might lift your efforts to new heights. Even if it never happens, there’s certainly opportunity to play with as we put forth each and every effort.
This episode references Episode 42: Level-Up.