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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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UPSIDE FAIL

February 22nd, 2020

 

When considering an opportunity, there’s perhaps one quality above all else that we should look for.

We might at first think about how big the pay off is if the opportunity goes as hoped, and we’ll probably wonder what the likelihood of success is.  We compare and contrast different opportunities in accordance to how good they might potentially be, and ‘good’ in this case involves a few variables.

 

But an overlooked variable is to sort opportunities by what a failed outcome looks like.  Just as not all successes have equal results, so to with failure.  Betting everything on the roll of a die has a pretty clear negative outcome of things don’t go well, but working for a start up that fails gives you an insider’s look at how such a machine works, or in this case doesn’t work.  Success is hard to pin down in terms of why it happened.  All the variables are probably involved and there’s no way to tell which ones were more salient.  But with a failed attempt, the reason why something fails often lends itself to a much higher degree of precision. 

 

The benefits of a failed opportunity can be far greater.  For example, any project that requires you to learn something.  Even if the project is a failure or doesn’t take off, you emerge with a new skill set, one that can potentially be leveraged in countless new ways.  This sort of failed opportunity has a counter-intuitive upside. 

 

This might be the most important aspect of opportunity selection.  By constantly sorting for opportunities that have a pay off no matter how bad things go, you constantly hedge your bets against catastrophic failure.

 

It’s one thing to start from scratch.

 

It’s quite another to land in that position with a new power in hand.


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Podcast Ep. 678: Upside Fail

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Tinkered Thinking


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WHY WRITE?

February 21st, 2020

 

This episode is a response to Paul Graham’s wonderful essay “How to Write Usefully.”

 

 

Why should someone sit down to write?  Many people would say that it’s because someone has something to say.  But this is wrong.  Those who do write might disagree vehemently, making bold claims about a drive and an impulse to put letter to page.  There’s no reason to argue with such claims, but there is good reason to understand why this urge can’t be described as the prenatal kick of an idea that just wants to get out.

 

This urge to express is familiar to all.  We experience it every time just before we open our mouth to speak.  Unfortunately many people are content with just speaking, using family, friends, coworkers and even strangers as an outlet to cure themselves of this urge.

 

 

The writer, however, is a person who has figured out a hack for this urge, one that has benefits that extend far beyond the mere resolution of an urge.  The writer leverages this urge to produce something far more useful than relief.  Unlike speaking, writing is a record of thought process in action.  With talking, a speaker is constantly cramped for time by the structure of conversation.  One has to return the volley for response.  The writer in solitary pursuit has no pressure against their own wish to pause.  While many speak in reverent tones about the much sought ‘flow state’, where it just ‘pours out of you’, the act of stuttering while writing has benefits we don’t appreciate in conversation.  The paused writer is like a bloodhound that stops for a moment to sniff a little in a couple different directions.  The bloodhound knows something is there, the only question is which way to go?  The same is true for the writer.  The urge to express is simply a whiff of an idea, far from fully formed.

 

The act of writing, unlike speaking is a dedicated method to figure out what that idea is, to discover it, and test it through interrogation by description.

 

This is not how writing is described when kids are given writing assignments in school.  Teachers are in a hurry to cram a structure into their students.  This writer -for one- can remember asking “why?” over and over as a 5th grade teacher adorned with a PhD tried to describe how I should be writing.  “You’ll need it for later,” was the best explanation I got.  But with years of education still to come, wouldn’t this structure become obvious with so much practice?  What’s the harm with going off the grid for a little bit?  The sad truth is that this educator, despite being laden with a PhD couldn’t give a better answer because she didn’t have a clear idea of why we sit down to write in the first place.  She was teaching in order to examine without recognizing the real application of writing, that is, to discover.

 

It turns out that the best writing doesn’t follow the structure taught in schools.  The best writing, the most persuasive and useful writing follows it’s own structure – a structure determined by the unique needs of the subject. 

 

This is part of the reason why the writing of someone like Paul Graham is so good.  His essays read like stories.  The writing tells you where it’s going but it still surprises you.

 

This freshness, this surprise isn’t so much planned or contrived as it is an effect of the process.  The writer is discovering it while writing just as much as the reader is while reading.  The writer is attempting to go somewhere new, a place they sense might exist.

 

Paul Graham’s essay “How to Write Usefully” ends with this notion of discovery.  But the whole essay operates on the assumption that the reader is a writer who has maintained a practice and a passion despite all the educational harpoons that get lodged in the minds of students.  The failings of education are bemoaned constantly -there’s no need to flense that whale here- but what remains is a huge number of people who have no idea how useful writing can be from a personal point of view.

 

The writer doesn’t simply serve up an idea for other people to chew on; you become clearer to yourself by writing.  Not just in terms of what you think about a given topic, but how you think.   But none of this is clear while learning to write as a student.

 

Graham’s “How to Write Usefully” reads like a stand alone master’s course in writing.  The perspective is not just subtle, and convincing, it’s about as useful as it gets.  But for those who have never devoted any real free time to the act of paint balling a word document with letters, the wisdom of such an essay, and most importantly the final point about discovery might probably go totally unused and unnoticed. 

 

For those who might be willing to give the begrudged activity another shot with a fresh perspective infused with a sense of discovery and problem solving, Graham’s prescription for such high quality is maybe not ideal.  The dictum from the tech world to ship the product as soon as it’s viable, is perhaps a better starting point.  The sense of accomplishment for simply having something complete might be more important than quality.  And as we can see by looking back at the great musical composers, quantity eventually produces quality. 

 

Indeed, this platform - Tinkered Thinking- is a casual experiment to explore the practice of writing and publishing a micro-essay every single day.  While this could not be further from the useful advice Graham details in his essay, the exercise has turned up far more than previous years of writing where dozens - if not hundreds of hours - were spent on single paragraphs and even single sentences of fiction.  Not to mention that every micro essay on Tinkered Thinking is a first draft with only the most cursory scan for spelling and grammar mistakes.  Nonetheless, many people have expressed a gratitude for the fact that this writing has been shared.

 

It’s curious to wonder if this platform would have been more impactful with less writing but more time devoted to editing.  It’s without a doubt that the quality could be higher, but what about trying to write better first drafts?  And covering more ground?  As with everything, these are trade-offs with quality.  Though, now there is ample material to sift and hone into something more useful.

 

After nearly half a million words on this project and hundreds of essays, one thing has become clear about ideas: they are fleeting. 

 

When some notion comes close, the scent of an inkling, the light tug on attention, the first step for a writer is to:

 

Get it down, get it out.

 

 

P.S. This episode was written in under an hour.


Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

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Podcast Ep. 677: Why Write?

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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.




MOMENTARY NAVIGATION

February 20th, 2020

 

Where should I go and how do I get there?

 

This pair of questions underlies most everything that we do.  Deciding on a vacation, a goal, a lifestyle, and then figuring out how to get there.  Almost everything is an act of problem solving that fits into these questions either literally or figuratively.

 

The question, ‘what to do?’ is another form of ‘where to go?’  Both point at some object of desire that might exist in the future, whether that be a real place or the place in time where an achievement has become manifest.

 

First we decide, and then we shoot for the option.

 

Both are subtle versions of the same skill.

 

The solution to any problem generally involves some manipulation of parts and ideas until they fuse in a way that works.  The basic foundation of this process is options. It’s difficult to form a sentence in a foreign language if you don’t know any words in that language and therefore don’t have any options to choose from.

 

This initial step in the problem solving method is identical to the first question: where to go or what to do?

 

At core the question asks: what problem are you going to work on?

 

The follow up would be: are you aware of all the available problems that can be worked on?

 

Many people don’t consider this question, allowing their options to be determined by the most obvious forces in their life, as opposed to considering subtler options that are sometimes quite literally off the beaten path.

 

These sets of questions boil down to something even more fundamental, that is, attention itself.

 

The ability to solve a problem, to sort the components of possible solutions, or to even select the problem in the first place is a question of attention, and how we manage to direct it.

 

However, the vector for attention is inverted.  Our attention does not reach out from our head and touch things that we want to contemplate.  It’s the other way around.  Things in our sphere of conscious experience reach out for attention from us.

 

Think of it this way.  Say you are at a café and you are deep in thought over something you are working on.  You haven’t been all that aware of anything else going on around you for hours.  But then suddenly two cars collide outside on the street in a loud bang.  You look up to see what’s going on. 

 

Now what exactly happened with the attention here?  Something that you were totally unaware of reached out and took your attention.

 

This is exactly how distraction works.  If it’s big enough and flashy enough and loud enough, it’ll interrupt your preoccupation with some other source of attention and take yours.

 

Knowing how to refuse the call for attention of thousands if not millions of different things everyday, whether they be T.V. commercials or doughnuts or lackluster career paths, or even our own very thoughts – knowing how to swipe these aside so they don’t take up our time is a superpower, perhaps even the only power that we have.

 

If you can navigate the moment,

 

you can go anywhere.

 


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Podcast Ep. 676: Momentary Navigation

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MEDITATION: THINKING TOO MUCH

February 19th, 2020

 

When offered the suggestion of taking up meditation, many people respond that they can’t do it, or could never do it because they think too much. 

 

Any practitioner of mindfulness exercise with some experience will likely see this sentiment as a bit cute.

 

And not in a disparaging or condescending way.  But more in line with a delightful irony.

 

For a simple reason:  Anyone who is aware of the deluge of thoughts that inundates their waking experience is indeed already being mindful, if only to a limited degree.

 

The claim that this deluge of thoughts can never be tamed is akin to the person who goes to the gym, does a heavy workout and then experiences a soreness that keeps them away from the gym for weeks.  They try to go to the gym again and experience the same soreness, as opposed to someone who stays consistent with their workout and eventually undergoes the fundamental shift in experience when their body acclimates and really starts building muscle.

 

As with everything, there’s a barrier to entry.  There aren’t any infants that stand up and go running on the first try.  We have to fail and fall a few times before we get the hang of it.

 

There is a similar barrier to entry here with meditation, and those who are aware of their constant thought, but seem to have given into a helplessness over the experience are in some sense constantly coming right up to this barrier and then turning away without pushing through.

 

The person who claims to have a calm mind with no training is someone to be far more wary of.  Such a person is likely so intoxicated by their mellifluous inner monologue that they’ve ceased to realize just how much is going on.

 

But those who say they think too much? 

 

They’ve already made progress on the path to a more mindful experience.


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Podcast Ep. 675: Meditation: Thinking Too Much

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Tinkered Thinking


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If you appreciate the work of Tinkered Thinking, please consider lending support. This platform can only continue and flourish with the support of readers and listeners like you.

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Appreciation can be more than a feeling. Toss something in the jar if you find your thinking delightfully tinkered.




THE DESIRE HACK

February 18th, 2020

 

Desire is a pesky thing to deal with.  It’s so insidious, and so deeply baked into how we operate that we can be completely oblivious to it’s hold over our behavior.

 

Why did I eat that entire tub of ice cream?

 

Much of the world’s religious systems were and are devoted to this issue of desire.  What to do with it.  How to control it.  How to tame it.

 

Desire certainly serves as an extremely apt and worthy opponent upon which a person can build their own internal strength.  Being able to regulate the swirl of emotion that circles the low pressure of desire can be akin to a god controlling the actual weather.  And imagine that – if you could control the weather.  What would you do with it?  Certainly you’d make it rain in the places that need it, and make it shine when you take a day hike up to a particularly beautiful lookout spot.

 

Something similar can be said about the effect of regulating one’s emotions to great effect.  If left unregulated, emotions make a mess, creating flash floods when and where we don’t need them, and leaving us high and dry just when we need a drink.  These images might stand as symbols for bouts of depression or times when we can’t find an ounce of motivation.

 

This larger subject of emotional regulation aside, desire carries with it a basic rule of thumb to use it more productively.

 

It’s repeated ad nauseum that we seek novelty, but is this really true?  Do we really seek something truly new?  Or do we seek the same old thing in a different costume?

 

A new donut place opens up.  You hear rave reviews.  You just have to try this new variety of donut.

 

But do you?  Is it really going to be all that spectacular?  Or is it just going to be that same old impulse given into once again with the illusion that this time it will really be something.

 

 

What about something truly new.

 

What if we take this broken record of a program and direct that desire towards the truly novel, like:

 

What would it feel like to get this project done, to bring this unique idea to full fruition?

 

Directing desire in this way doesn’t simply help us orient ourselves in more productive ways, it leads us to truly novel perspectives.  It pings reality for ways that we can actually have an effect, it reveals knowledge that allows us to improve our own life and potentially the lives of others.

 

And it’s far more interesting than some sticky ring of undercooked dough.

 

 


Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

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Podcast Ep. 674: The Desire Hack

from
Tinkered Thinking


donating = loving

If you appreciate the work of Tinkered Thinking, please consider lending support. This platform can only continue and flourish with the support of readers and listeners like you.

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TIP JAR

Appreciation can be more than a feeling. Toss something in the jar if you find your thinking delightfully tinkered.