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

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TALL POPPIES

November 21st, 2019

 

The Father of History, a man called Herodotus once reported a story which has gone down in history as a parable about how to govern.  The story goes as follows:

 

 

A king known as Periander sends a messenger to another king named Thrasybulus with a question about how best to govern his city.  Thrasybulus, upon hearing the request does not respond but instead leads the messenger outside of the city and into a field of wheat. Without saying a word he walks along and cuts off the tallest ears of wheat, throwing them away, continuing until he has destroyed all of the tallest poppies.  The messenger then returns to Periander and reports that he received no advice.  When pressed the messenger tells him about his experience with Thrasybulus in the field of wheat and Periander interprets this as a metaphorical directive to destroy the leading citizens of outstanding influence or ability in his city.

 

 

 

Now, as a metaphor shared between tyrants, this interpretation makes sense, and a thinker like George Orwell would be quick to agree that this is how dictatorships often operate.  The parable has given rise to something called ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ which describes aspects of a culture where people of high status are resented, attacked, cut down, and criticized because of their superior status.  And it’s perhaps part of the reason why many people do not work as hard as possible to realize every last ounce of their potential: it simply seems and feels safer to coast along invisibly in a sea of normal, never causing a ruckus. 

 

However, there remains an alternative interpretation of Thrasybulus’ actions to be mined - an ecological one that offers a fresh spin on an old and insidious idea.

 

Cutting off the tops of wheat plants would not kill the crop.  If anything, this pruning will make the individual plant stronger.  It’s a fundamental feature of biological systems that organisms of all types grow more robust when stressed in like ways. 

 

But beyond this, the pruned pieces fall to the ground where they can be reincorporated into the soil, making it richer, and the diminished height of the plant frees up sunlight for surrounding plants. 

 

And after all, what is the point of a plant producing fruit and seed if not to spread that back to the ground where it can stimulate growth once more?

 

Far from killing leading citizens, this parable makes more sense as a story about reinvesting profits.  Even if that’s not what the tyrant Thrasybulus intended.  One might go so far as to see a lesson about taxes and wealth redistribution which has become a topic of increasing discussion as we see individual parts of society grow far taller above the rest, whether that be Jeff Bezos and his fortune, or the monopolies of Google and Facebook when it comes to data and influence.  The growing Presidential candidate for the U.S., Andrew Yang, perhaps embodies this fresh interpretation with his introduction of the Freedom Dividend.

 

On a smaller scale we can apply this fresh interpretation to a single company - any innovative one that reinvests its profits into research and development and thereby furthers it’s ability to grow through the use of its invention.  Tesla is a good example of this despite the wide variety of opinion about the company.

 

On an individual level, we all have tall poppies growing in our life.  Whether that be a great idea left undeveloped, time wasted watching reruns, or relationships we don’t nurture.  Many of us simply complain about the morass of normalcy we find ourselves while remaining blind to the tiny asymmetries that surround us and offer opportunities to level-up.

 

Zooming out, we can see a larger mechanism at play here regarding unintended consequences.  As a tyrant, Thrasybulus undoubtedly thought he knew what he was doing when he offered his silent advice.  Meanwhile never realizing the flaw of his metaphorical action and the benefit he was providing to his wheat field, including the individual plants he was cutting.  But actions ultimately speak louder than our interpretations of those actions.  And in the case of this parable from Herodotus, it may be that it’s taken thousands of years for the unintended message to arise through a fresh interpretation.

 

Some fruit simply takes a longer time to hit the ground.

 

 

This episode references Episode 42: level up, and Episode 580: Resourcefulness


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Podcast Ep. 585: Tall Poppies

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NEVER FINISHED

November 20th, 2019

 

 

A brilliant professor once said “You never finish a piece of writing, you just stop working on it at some point.”

 

Creative pursuits of all types incur the problem of this paradox, that is: how much is just enough?

 

Go beyond and something becomes over written, cluttered, over painted, thinned out too much.  The issue is even more apparent with the sculptor of stone.  The whole goal is to take away just enough and no more, because none of the cleaved stone can ever be added back.

 

Perfection is an asymptote.  One that we can always continue to approach but never really ever touch.  It is a phantom, an illusion that embodies a paradox of luring us on while giving less and less the more we give.

 

The trick is to follow the phantom just far enough.  Perfection itself wants to be chased, and the creator likewise needs to find out how far they can go… how far they should go.

 

But we grow only by taming the chase with just enough play.  Knowing how to see when things are ripe, or just about to rot is a matter of skill as much as any artistic expression.

 

Our modern world constantly tells us to push farther, work harder, add more, and take whatever you want no matter the cost.

 

But this perspective is zero-sum.  It’s as though perfection were a living breathing thing to be hunted down.  But this is not the point. 

 

More and more we need games that we can play forever, games that we can pause at just the right moment, when the painting is just right, when the sculpture needs no more. Games that we can return to knowing there’s more to explore.


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Podcast Ep. 584: Never Finished

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COMFORT - PART II: FORTS & CAGES

November 19th, 2019

 

Some people are timid and cautious, operating on something that is more like fear.  Others constantly reach beyond their own limits, striving as if trapped by them, forever seeking a way to escape.

 

This second group of people are more likely to think that

 

Comfort is a cage.

 

The previous episode -582- entitled, Comfort Part I: The Roots of a Word examines the etymological roots of the word.  It derives counter-intuitively from the Latin word fortis meaning ‘strong’, the root for words like fortified, fortress, and of course fort.

 

The deep etymological roots of the word comfort mean ‘with strength’.

 

Which at first doesn’t make much sense when we think of that phrase parroted by fitness gurus:

 

Comfort is a Cage.

 

Are we to interpret this as ‘strength is a cage’?

 

This doesn’t make sense until we think of it in more practical terms.  Think of a fort, or a fortress.  Since they have the exact same root, indeed, the word comfort actually contains the word fort, let’s think of the phrase in terms of literal structures and swap out comfort with just fort.

 

A Fort is a Cage.

 

Suddenly, it seems to make even more sense than before.  Think of what it’s like to be behind the walls of your own strong fortress.  No doubt it’s more comfortable than being out in the open.  Unless of course your fortress is being sieged.  Then you have nowhere to go, and your comfortable fortress has now become a strong cage. 

 

As individuals It’s vital to build skills and strengths, our own personal fortress of sorts.  It’s the only way to progress, evolve, move forward and stay healthy and fresh.  But we must do this perpetually, as though we are constantly building forts in order to have respites of safety in order to recover and then plan our next move.  That next move quite literally abandons the current fort through the challenge of trials and growth.

 

The key is to build a situation that you can be comfortable with, and then push yourself out of your own comfort zone.

 

It’s to swap those two initial phrases:

 

Push past your comfort zone until you can say you’re comfortable with the new situation.  Then push again.

 

Build forts, knowing you need to escape before the fort becomes a cage.

 

 


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Podcast Ep. 583: Comfort - Part II: Forts & Cages

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Tinkered Thinking


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COMFORT - PART I: THE ROOTS OF A WORD

November 18th, 2019

This two-part episode is dedicated to Dennis Michael Hynes. You can connect with him on Twitter at @HynesDm

 

Let’s start by juxtaposing two phrases that we often hear:

 

 

This is what I’m comfortable with.

 

versus

 

I’m pushing outside of my comfort zone.

 

The psychological distance that can exist between these two phrases across people is vast.  Some people are timid and cautious, operating on something that is close to straight up fear, whereas others are constantly reaching beyond their own limits, as if trapped by them and seeking to escape.

 

What exactly does this word comfort mean?

 

English as a language is a bit like a cookie monster that never discriminated between types of cookies.  Our language grew by ingesting huge portions of many other languages.  In the case of the word comfort, it most recently derives from Old French in the 13th Century, meaning something akin to ‘cheer up’ or ‘console’.  The word still carries this meaning, as in “we comforted her while she grieved the passing of her husband.”  The close proximity to fragility and even weakness here has somewhat eclipsed the deeper roots of the word and in the current culture comfort is simultaneously seen as both something good to rely on and something bad to get away from.  To understand this strange tension, we have to go deeper, and farther back in the past.  The French derivation comes from Late Latin where the real meaning begins to emerge.

 

To do so, it’s helpful to split the word in two parts, with the break after the m.

 

com + fort

 

The first part is a word forming element, that in Latin means “with, together” or “in combination”.

 

The second part of the word becomes obvious when you treat it as a word all on it’s own.

 

Think of a fort, as in a fortified structure, or a fortress.

 

‘Fort’, also from Latin means ‘Strong, steadfast, spirited.’

 

Now think about these roots in combination with our current use of the word comfort.  If we think of it’s deeper etymological roots, then comfort means something like ‘together with strength, steadfastness and spirited.’ 

 

Apparently the word has drifted in its meaning, but the drift tells a story that can help us understand what it means to grow.  Think again about those two phrases that are at the beginning of this episode.

 

This is what I’m comfortable with.

 

and

 

I’m pushing outside of my comfort zone.

 

Some people think the first phrase is a sign of weakness and relish in the second.  Such people have gravitated around another phrase:

 

Comfort is a Cage.

 

But now that we’ve looked into the history of the word comfort, let’s think about this workout-mantra a little more deeply.  Those first three letters of the word comfort don’t impart too much meaning, and ultimately it’s the second part of the word that carries the core of the word.  So let’s drop those first three letters:

 

A Fort is a Cage.

 

What these static words really imply is a dynamic process, not categories with which we segregate the weak and the strong. 

 

You can check out Part II Here


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Podcast Ep. 582: Comfort - Part I: The Roots of a Word

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A LUCILIUS PARABLE: GRAIN OF SALT

November 17th, 2019

 

A distant screech of metal called out from whining hinges. Some heavy gate that Lucilius had once seen clattered shut and echoes of cold iron reverberated down the silent corridor. 

 

Lucilius felt the two rings of his nose slowly warm and turn cold as he breathed, his pulse rippling out to his limbs, quickening and seeming to pause as it slowed in rhythm as his lungs relaxed.  The cement floor was cold, seeping the heat from him, but Lucilius was content.  A shuffle of sound grew, footsteps emerging until they stopped next to the cell where Lucilius sat.  Another metal door opened.  The cement floor clapped with the flat slap of someone thrown down.  The door clanged shut and guards walked away.  Lucilius watched a thought rise up and fill him with wonder about who might be a neighbor to him now.  He could hear the man groaning in pain but after a time he fell quiet.   And each day, when the small slider at the bottom of each cell door was opened, Lucilius could hear his neighbor scurry forward to the tiny bowl of food.  Lucilius would listen to the clawing rasp of the man’s fingertips gathering every last grain of rice as he watched his own untouched bowl at the front of his cell.  And each day  after Lucilius was finished with his meditation, he would take the tiny amount of rice in the bowl and add it to a white block of packed rice that he kept wrapped and hidden high in the wall where the mice could not scale.

 

After several weeks with his new neighbor, Lucilius began to hear muffled scratchings.  He moved and sat in meditation each day facing the wall where the light sounds seemed to come.  Each day they grew a little clearer until one day Lucilius opened his eyes while meditating and several moments later, a brick in the wall began to budge.  It wiggled and then began to emerge from the wall.  It tilted at the edge of the boxy hole, hanging a moment, and then popped out.  Lucilius leaned forward while sitting and looked into the hole.  Through the wall Lucilius saw a pair of eyes grow wide as his neighbor let out a startled cry and jumped back.  The two of them each looked at their own cell doors, listening for any movement of the guards.  Footsteps slowly tapped out the measure of the long corridor, growing as they neared, pausing at the end and then turning back, meting out the distance once more.

 

Lucilius bent forward again and looked through the hole.  Eyes met him again.

 

“Hello,” Lucilius whispered.

 

“Hi,” the neighbor said. “I’m so hungry.  How long do people last in here?”

 

Lucilius wondered about the question a moment, remembering the many times he’d listened to the sound of a body being dragged down the corridor.  How many had he heard over the years?  All up and down the corridor seemed to light up with sound in his mind, and he realized then that it’d been quite a long time since he’d had a neighbor, the two cells on either side of him being empty for almost the whole time he’d been there. 

 

He got up and removed the hoarded block of rice from it’s place high in the wall.  Returning to the window with his neighbor he carefully fitted the brick of food through the hole.  Gently pushing and pulling, the two shimmied it through until Lucilius’ neighbor plucked it from the tight slot.  The man unwrapped the cloth and then gasped.

 

Wide eyes briefly looked up at Lucilius.  “What? how-“  But the man could not finish his questions as he began shoving the packed rice to his mouth, his eyes glazing over, the focus leaving his face.  Lucilius smiled watching the man eat his fill.  Before the man could even finish the brick of food, he stopped himself, groaning from the fill for a stomach so starved.  After he recovered, smiling, his face grew confused.

 

“How do you have so much food?”

 

“I save it all week,” Lucilius said.

 

A look of shame and guilt and horror flooded his neighbor’s face.  “You must be starving!”

 

Lucilius shrugged, “Hunger is like shit, the more you eat the more you have.”

 

What?”

 

Lucilius looked around him at the comfortable walls of his cell. 

 

“Here, in this place, they feed you just enough to stoke your hunger, like a fire that burns and tortures you.  And just before that fire goes out, they throw in just a little more fuel…. but if you refuse that tease for a few days, you stop feeling hungry, the fire of hunger goes out.  I save the food and eat once a week here.  Then I have a couple of days of hunger and then I’m at peace for the rest of the week until my next good meal before the rice goes bad.”

 

Lucilius’ neighbor looked at him, stunned with knit brows.  “Is that healthy?” he asked.

 

Lucilius smiled and looked around at the cold stone walls of his cell.  “Funny question.”

 

He pulled back a moment, letting the notion roll around in his mind.

 

“The body is like anybody else.  Important to listen to, but. . .  perhaps best taken with a grain of salt rather than a grain of rice.”


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Podcast Ep. 581: A Lucilius Parable: Grain of Salt

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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.