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
February 15th, 2019
It should be left to the Pedant to gripe for grammatical reasons about the word ‘unique’ being mutilated by plopping an adverb like ‘very’ in front of it. As in that’s very unique.
To illustrate why this is a problem from a grammatical standpoint we can swap out the word ‘unique’ for something that is unique and the problem becomes quite clear, for example, imagine someone pointing up at the sky during a clear day and saying that’s very Sun.
This feels awkward in the ear and awkward on the tongue for obvious reasons: any given THING cannot be more or less of the thing it is. This is what the function of the word ‘unique’ is supposed to embody.
If something is unique, it is one of a kind. To say that something is VERY one-of-a-kind is like adding 1 to infinity, it’s not only redundant but ineffective.
These are all points that the Pedant would bring up when trying to point out grammatical misuse in the way another person speaks. Often this is done to simply show-off some minutia of knowledge rather than to assist in some kind of opportunity to learn.
Anyone with a genuine and deep appreciation of language will notice how much language shifts, mutates and morphs over time. This ability which ultimately annoys the strict grammarian is one of the core mechanisms of language that has enabled it to evolve to the form purportedly held sacred by pedantic grammarians.
While the careless manipulation of language can certainly lead to dystopian paradoxes of Orwellian stature, the vast metastasis of language has for the most part been for the better when it comes to our ability to get a notion from one mind to another.
We might wonder what exactly we are doing when we say something is very unique. Such a mistake doesn’t seem to occur when speaking of some things that are actually unique. As mentioned we do not say that’s very Sun, or that’s very Moon.
We do on the other hand modify some unique things in the exact same way. For example, let’s say we have a friend named Alex who is quite funny, and we find ourselves in the company of mutual friends without Alex and the whole group witnesses something funny that is in line with Alex’s humor. It’s quite common for someone to make the observation of similarity and say “that’s very Alex.”
Here we have a unique person who is being modified in a way that seems to some how be beyond their own nature. But of course this is not the case. The modifying word ‘very’ is being used to approach the unique nature of Alex and his humor.
To highlight this, we can follow the modifying adverb ‘very’ into some of it’s more traditional territory.
For example, we can say something is bad, but then if it gets worse we’ll change and say that it’s very bad.
For whatever reason there is nothing wrong with this statement, and it may be because we have the word ‘worst’. So we can suss out a kind of hazy spectrum from this concept. There’s bad to worse which is very bad and then if things get even worse, it might actually be the worst.
As much as we don’t like the in-between gray spaces between categories and even identities, we need a spectrum of such gray space in order to communicate nuance.
The rise of the tendency to qualify the word ‘unique’ may be due to a need for a spectrum that approaches uniqueness as opposed to the nonsensical hyperbolic implication of something being more unique than unique.
And what would be the point of such a spectral tool?
Well, to be perfectly pedantic about the word unique would require admitting that absolutely everything is unique. Even an identical set of mass-produced fidget spinners is a composite of unique items for the simple reason that no two things can occupy the exact same space. Two fidget spinners sitting side by side have unique orientations relative to the rest of the universe, and merely one differentiating factor qualifies for uniqueness. What we end up with by investigating the traditional definition of this word is a rather useless concept. It’s akin to the failure of the self-esteem movement and saying everyone is special, which simply becomes another way of saying no one is special.
While language certainly has forays into totally grotesque and un-useful areas, these branches collapse with enough time, just as we see in the evolution of species. For example, we don’t see peacocks with tail feathers that are 35 feet long even though this would certainly be possible, and there have certainly been slight mutations that have resulted in peacocks with feathers that are unusually long – even by peacock’s standards – but at that point the usefulness of looking ostentatious is impinged by fatality since predators have an easier time snagging lunch.
Language is a similar adaptation that follows similar patterns of expansion and collapse in order to evolve.
While the pedantic grammarian might bask in the self-serving conclusion that people are using the word ‘unique’ incorrectly,
it may simply be evidence that the human mind as a kind of hive is delving into the concept with more nuance and seeking out a gradient that exists between things that are similar and things that are one-of-a-kind.
It might seem dangerously post-modern to put a toe in each mutually-exclusive category, however, unlike most products of post-modernism, this faded border is actually a useful one, even if at first glance it does not seem to be the way people are intending it.
It goes to follow that when we say or hear someone say very unique. What’s really being indicated is a degree of something being out-of-the-ordinary.
Which is quite necessary in world of patterns where every ordinary thing is inherently unique.
February 14th, 2019
A perfect storm is defined by a rare combination of meteorological factors that result in an effect far greater than the sum of those factors.
Two storms colliding and joining force create more destruction than the destruction of those two separate storms added together.
We might think of storms as an Allegorical image. Indeed we already do this in other corners of language. Some very driven people, for example can be described as a force of nature. What actual natural occurrence is more fitting than a storm?
We talk about people being late bloomers or being fresh as a daisy. Many cultures even tended to the position of one person as a rainmaker.
Each and every one of us is causing some kind of ruckus in our own way. Some more than others. Though some might try to hide from the fact: if you are living and breathing, then you are having an impact on the space and people around you. We have no choice about this fact, but what we do have a choice about is exactly how much of a ruckus we make, and what kind.
It’s often said that success is when hard work meets opportunity. We only have control over one of these. The hard work. Now while any bootstrapper might scoff at the idea of waiting around for opportunity, claiming that there’s plenty of opportunity lying around, even if you’re not moving, the word opportunity in this case is really referencing chance. Luck, is nearly invisible until it’s been expressed as some kind of lucky occurrence. So we might return to the sentiment that success is when hard work meets opportunity and ask: what exactly is a person working hard on before it’s met with opportunity? Do people not seize an opportunity and then work hard with it? Or does the problematic idiom imply a capacity for hard work?
It is neither of these.
We must simply work hard on anything, perhaps multiple projects, until one of them starts gaining traction. This might be a steady flow of income or a sense of daily fulfillment. The two need not be mutually exclusive either. So often hobbies are left cooped up in that category, when in reality a hobby can become a side-hustle and eventually a side-hustle can turn into an exciting and rewarding way of making a living.
What’s required is a perfect storm. Our efforts constitute one storm: we toil away at a hobby or side hustle, and we simply keep that storm going, like a system that stays out over water hoovering up more and more water to gain strength and longevity. And then another storm, unanticipated comes over the horizon: an opportunity spun from chance. Our storm of activity meets a storm of opportunity and boom: such a perfect storm of factors might begin to look like a sign of success.
We might think of water with a bit more eerie respect. We think very little of it when wine or a cocktail is on offer. We think of it as mildly useful while washing hands – if we think about it at all. After a snow storm we think of it a beautiful and fun and then a pain when we have to try and drive through it. And anyone who’s spent time at sea knows to foster a healthy fear of it.
Storms are completely made up of water and can doll out seemingly unlimited amounts of damage. Water has this strange capacity to not only physically inhabit any shape container we might put it into, but to become these massively powerful shapes.
We might say the same thing about people. We can fit them into cubicles, but given the right conditions they too can become a storm, a force of nature. With enough energy, verve, and productivity, one chance meeting with opportunity is all it takes for a perfect storm - a virtuous cycle - to come into being.
It’s perhaps fitting that our thoughts reside in an organ that is nearly 75% water.
We might go so far as to say that it take only a single thought to begin stirring that water.
This episode references Episode 164: Moving the Whirlpool
February 13th, 2019
Go to a dance studio for the first time, and the class consists of everyone doing the same basic move, in real time after a short demonstration.
Could anything be more straightforward?
Moves are added and combined slowly as newbies get a handle on what’s been covered. This knowledge, know-how and practice compounds until larger patterns start to emerge where combinations can be linked together, split and mixed and eventually perhaps improvisation occurs with a deeper intuition about the most basic rules of what a particular dance invokes.
Let us for a moment compare this to a bizarre reimagining of a dance class. Wanna-be dancers file into a room and listen as the professor shows diagrams of the human body, describing the principle muscles that will be activated and relaxed in which order and in what kind of synchronized pattern to achieve the first most basic move. The students take notes and go home to read an expanded version of what the dance teacher went over in class. The next day the students take a test requiring written knowledge of muscle firing patterns in relation to anatomy. The class is several months long and at the very end each student gets a certificate stating they have completed the dance class.
To celebrate, the whole class goes to a dance club and no one knows how to dance.
This bizarre and humorous twilight scenario characterizes much of what is wrong with the great majority of modern education.
In an effort to be thorough, education has perhaps sacrificed efficacy.
And there is one phrase above all that epitomizes this huge disconnect: on the job learning.
We would presume that an education would equip a person with the things necessary to perform well in a related position. Of course, anyone who has had a job that is supposed to relate to some degree they’ve acquired can relate to the fact that education and job execution are often experiences located in different universes similar to the experience of our twilight zone dance class.
We might ponder for a moment about the expansion of the educational institutions. It used to be that a high school degree could get you a decent job. Then this evaporated and secondary education was needed. And now masters programs have exploded.
While it’s a gross over-simplification this trend sounds somewhat like the old snake-oil salesman who peddles a poison as a cure to the ailments the poison creates. Such a salesman is bound to generate an increasing need for his product… as long as he has his audience convinced that his snake-oil is a healthy cure.
This might be juxtaposed with an excellent physical therapist who looks at success as making themselves irrelevant to the patient. If someone is physically rehabilitated from some injury then the physical therapist is no longer needed.
How many teachers and professors look at the main function of their job in that way?
The dance teacher is likewise seeking to be irrelevant in the same way the physical therapist is. One might imagine an argument centering on the fact that these professions both center around physical activity, but we might reference computer science.
Educational Companies like Codecademy and particularly Lambda school are achieving increasing success by generating educational situations that require immense expressions of personal student agency with regards to the material.
Like the physical therapist or the dance teacher, such educational programs get to their end and can confidently ask their students:
show me what you got.
This episode piggybacks off of Episode 31: PILLS, Therapists, and the IKEA Effect.
February 12th, 2019
One of the most dangerous and powerful aspects of language is that at it’s core, it is representative. It is a composite system and network of symbols that stand in the place of the things we communicate about.
This is totally obvious for anyone who has ever stopped and thought about it. When any of us say or think the word ‘storm’, we are not suddenly whipped with the wind and rain of an actual storm. Phrased bluntly, the word storm is not a storm. And yet there is great utility in pretending that the word storm is closer to an actual storm than any one thing that we can reference.
If, for example, someone is running into a building while yelling ‘tornado’, we are safer to believe that ‘tornado’ is not simply a word in this case, but evidence of an actual physical phenomenon that risks our safety.
If we juxtapose this scenario with a classroom setting where meteorological phenomena are being discussed, the word ‘tornado’ if brought up for description and discussion is somehow further away from the real thing than the first situation.
This is an easy example of how important context is for understanding just about anything, particularly when it comes to language.
One of the more infamous examples of this has to be Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of the fictional radio drama ‘War of the Worlds’ which caused some degree of panic among the public who thought it was real. These people lacked the context of the program as a drama as opposed to an actual news broadcast.
What is striking about the nature of the concept of an allegory or symbol, is that they exist in nature in extremely overt forms.
The spider-tailed horned viper is an interesting example. This snake has evolved in a way that makes the tip of it’s tail look very much like a spider. The viper has even developed a way of moving the end of this tail so that the spider-like portion looks like a moving spider. Doing this fools a bird into thinking that the snake’s tail is actually a spider that it can eat. The bird swoops down to pluck up the snack and finds itself in the jaws of a snake.
This is not too different from the people who tuned into the War of the Worlds broadcast and mistook the fictional story for real events. One might even wonder if there was a dark and curious streak in Orson Welles who saw this sly use of fiction as a way to gain notoriety. Indeed it was the War of the Worlds episode that secured Welles’ fame as a dramatist. Would it be inaccurate to perhaps cast Orson Welles as the snake? He created a life-like lure for the unsuspecting bird-like-public, utilizing a medium in a way they’d never heard before, taking them off guard and in the end making them all aware of who he was and what his artistic power could yield. Regardless of his intent, the allegory seems fairly accurate.
Then again, it’s perhaps doubly accurate if we note that the Spider-Tailed Horned Viper never consciously attempted to make the end of it’s tail into a spider. So too, Orson Wells could have been without the intent to cause panic, but both the Viper and Welles benefit from the lure.
Virtually all creatures that employ some kind of camouflage are engaging in a kind of bio-allegory-defense. By becoming very much like a thing that their predators have no interest in, they themselves evade the interest of hungry jaws.
Despite being composed of mostly real pictures, we might ask: how much of the content on Instagram is a faithful representation of what we are being shown? How many are camouflaging their life from themselves and others with a manufactured highlight reel?
Instagram aside, we can take the cue directly from nature. Things are not always what they seem. In fact, it may be safer to assume that things are very rarely what they seem.
Anyone who has achieved an iota of growth in their life can even deduce this fact from their own experience: how many of us would love to have a few words with a former version of ourselves in order to more efficiently steer that person towards the realizations we’ve since had?
The double-edged nature of allegory, in nature and particularly in language is that there can be great deal of benefit when we pretend something is what it’s not. The down side occurs when we forget to temper our awareness and our experience with this knowledge.
When we forget that things can exit inside or behind some allegorical nature, we present ourselves to great risk, like the bird who carelessly assumes a snake’s tail is lunch, or Orson’s audience who assumes that fiction is reality.
George Orwell perhaps explored this most deeply in his book 1984 which examines how totalitarian regimes can assume great power and erode the healthy fabric of society by toggling the allegorical power of language and skewing everyone’s idea of reality in a way that makes the government’s systemic trap look inviting.
Our first and most powerful defense against such machinations is to simply Pause
Perhaps then we might make a habit of constructing the best possible question that explores the depth of any situation. Regardless of the media, medium or platform through which we perceive things – including life outside of the digital world – we must ask, is anything being represented inaccurately?
The answer is most likely: Yes.
This episode piggybacks off of Episode 250: Language. If you found this episode interesting, you’ll be sure to enjoy that one.
February 11th, 2019
Regardless of one’s opinions or stance on the activity of hunting, few can argue against a good walk in the woods. After enough years, this seems to be what hunters talk about the most. Hunts are not always successful and if there’s too much focus on that lack of success, it’s easy to have the time in the natural elements seem ruined.
We might imagine the best of all possible trips. This has far less to do with what is being hunted and it has everything to do with the hunter, for if we cannot figure out how to enjoy and relish the time while we chase our dreams, not only is the goal less fulfilling if we make it happen, but we’ve also simply wasted time. The moment of achievement with this or that goal is not long lasting. There is the time before such goals are realized and then there comes the moment when reality is different because of our efforts, our perseverance and our ingenuity. Then that moment passes, and while it makes for a good memory to smile about when reflecting on such efforts and potential success, this is not a way forward into the future.
The good hunter is not out for blood and gore in the way the largest detractors of such practice make it out to be. At it’s most basic, hunting is a way to engage with the natural world, not in the killing, but more in the emersion in the environment. It says a great deal that many conservation efforts with regards to environmental health were initiated by hunters. Theodore Roosevelt is perhaps the best example of this. Not only a President of the United States, but a life-long hunter who established America’s National Forests, bird Reserves, game preserves and the National parks as protected National entities. Such circumspection does not mesh well with the laser-focused character who thirsts after one gory goal like Captain Ahab.
What is at hand is the appreciation of a complete experience. A hunter with the perspective embodied by Roosevelt harks more of a gardener who is concerned with a larger picture, as opposed to our kamikaze whaling Captain who thinks about nothing but the end.
This dichotomy is potentially our most important. So often we are just waiting for something to be over. Whether we be waiting in line at the bank or counting down the minutes until work is over for the day, or even waiting for someone to finish talking. Much of our mindset is characterized by that Captain Ahab. We are focused on getting to the end. This is often true even when it comes to beautiful moments.
It’s as though our restless and relentless anxiety around certain ideas of success has an inertia and momentum that carries such feelings and tints of perspective into the most important and enjoyable instances of life.
Here our analogy of the hunter as conservationist becomes particularly poignant. What exactly created the need and impetus for Roosevelt to declare National Parks and National Forests? Corporate interests are traditionally relentless and ruthless in their pursuit of a particular brand of success and this often requires the consumption of natural resources for conversion into consumer products. Such a description certainly invokes an eerie reminiscence of our blood thirsty whaling captain who trudges on in the name of the kill. Ironically, it was a hunter who sought to protect these natural landscapes from such single-minded entities.
To be fair, many corporate entities do not invoke this model of business, and increasingly today, companies are popping into existence that are attempting to do the more difficult work of succeeding with the conversationalist mindset. Tesla is perhaps a good if potentially controversial example. It’s stated mission is to speed up the worlds transition from fossil fuels to solar energy. It’s certainly not too much of a stretch to draw parallels between Elon Musk and Theodore Roosevelt. In each sense they are both hunters. Roosevelt was actually a hunter and certainly had the capacity for single-minded drive. And Musk perhaps epitomizes the single-minded focus of a hunter, an innovator who generates his own gravity for goals lined up like dominoes. And yet each both held in mind the larger picture, and sought to make their single-minded efforts honor the revelations of that larger picture.
Whether we analyze the perspective from a business standpoint, or an environmental one or even a personal one, a single concept emerges as a key ingredient. This is the Well-Oiled Zoom, as described in Episode 54 of Tinkered Thinking.
Both Elon Musk and Roosevelt exercised such a zoom. Looking at the bigger picture and then zooming into the here-and-now to figure out which actions best honor the bigger picture.
On an individual level we are best served by Pausing and doing something similar. When we feel restless in a circumstance that is supposed to be pleasant, we might pause and ask: why? Often such emotions, like nagging children, just need a little bit of attention, and when noticed and acknowledged, they melt away, leaving us free to enjoy the hunt.