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 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?
March 15th, 2019
A negative statement like “I can’t do math” instantly ceases to be a pessimistic conclusion and suddenly embodies the underdog process of a person who is learning when the word ‘yet’ is added to the end.
I can’t do math….yet.
Without the key final word, the statement is planted squarely in the mental composition of pessimism. The perspective shifts with the addition of yet. For all those of able body, we are perhaps familiar with the case of moving in one direction, stopping to think, and then taking a step in a new direction. If we look down at our feet during this moment, one is facing in the old direction. The other has pivoted away, and its on this new direction that we put our efforts. We physically invoke the notion of two different perspectives in such a case. The old one, heading in the wrong direction, and the new direction that may pay off.
Pessimistic statements may be broadcasted as realistic, but their true potential effect on our own psychology arises when we combine such statements with other perspectives.
For instance, it’s common to shrug one’s shoulders with a pair of enlightened eyebrows held high while saying:
That’s just the way things are.
This is pessimism trying to masquerade as tough-love realism. And it becomes apparent when we add just a tiny spin to the statement to tweak the perspective.
One can instead say:
That’s just the way things are, currently.
Here too we find a conclusion flipped into an active statement, one that opens up the future and frees it from being anything like the past – if only we use the present in novel ways. Failing to use the present like this merely repeats the past and turns life into a kind of monotony. There is of course a degree of fear that crops up while trying new things, but this is often a good sign. It’s a signal that we are venturing into unknown territory.
So often our ability and opportunity to take a few different perspectives on a situation, even our own situation, is wasted. Our feet march in the same direction and yesterday manifests again as tomorrow.
Simply Pausing to consider options and possibilities opens up the future, for the mere fact that it creates a choice. We can continue on the track we’ve been on, or we can entertain the new directions of such an imaginative cross-roads, and perhaps, venture out into the unknown.
March 14th, 2019
Exposure tends to breed tolerance. The more consistently a person lifts weights, the more weight that person can handle. The more consistently a person drinks alcohol, the more they seem to be able to drink. The fifth time trying to make it through a fast is much easier than the first.
Frustration on the other hand, or rather, the objects that inspire such a response do not necessarily seem to fall within this paradigm. If this were the case, we’d all be able to maintain the placid composure of an enlightened bodhisattva during times of stress and confusion.
Instead, it seems, our mind might be haphazardly gearing itself for another kind of tolerance, indeed, the exact opposite of what we want. Many people may in fact be priming themselves to exercise a response of frustration. Many of us can probably call to mind a person in our life that is so easily riled up by even the smallest things. A meaningless detail of the day doesn’t unfold according to some plan and the whole day is lost because of it.
A first thought about such subjects might find it puzzling that an adult, after years of living and dealing with the innumerable aggravations both large and small that befall us on a daily basis would train a person to be completely unsurprised and unconcerned by such trifles. The opposite seems to be the case.
One idea that may answer why, revolves around the simple reason that we as people merely want to feel something while we live. For many people life falls -unfortunately- into long spells of monotony and boredom. Most bullshit jobs do not really require any growth or present much challenge with regards to what a person is really capable of. We attempt to placate this dearth of utilized potential by bombarding ourselves with T.V. shows, medications, and vacations. As though these “reprieves” are functioning in the same way recovery time after a work out is healthy. We should ask the harder question: are these healthy reprieves? Or are they masking a deeper problem?
These modern tropes are trying to accomplish two emotional functions simultaneously: we are trying escape our usual feelings of eroding monotony and we are trying to replace them with something a bit more spicy and exciting, whether this be the gore-porn of Game of Thrones or the hot sun and jostling waves of a far away beach. Regardless, we are simply trying to feel something more intense than – the usual.
Frustration and it’s tendency to rile a person at an accelerating rate over the years may fit into this paradigm of simply wanting to feel something of substance and gravity. Of course any frustrated person will deny wanting to react in such ways, but this tension, this feeling of being trapped within a tense circumstance is part of the drama that helps one escape from the mundane facts of normal life.
We can think of sensationalist news and tabloids that function within society by broadcasting ridiculous and often negative stories. The clue about why these function is in the subject title: sensationalist. They hit the senses, creating a sensation that we feel, and just as all publicity is good publicity, we are geared to want to feel something, the larger the feeling the better – it doesn’t really seem to matter if that feeling is good or bad, though it’s clear, one is easier to find fodder for, and negative feelings are about as difficult to raise to a pitch as a weed left un-pulled.
Unfortunately this seems to be a bug that was once a useful feature. Back when survival was a fairly constant daily concern, being primed to recognize the (negative) threat in one’s own environment was very very useful. Indeed, evolution weeded out those who did not have this as a hardcoded program. But now, a donut offers far more danger to our health than some lurking predator, and this tendency to notice and focus on the negative finds itself in an environment where it has outlived its usefulness and now does us a great disservice. For how many is this tendency perpetually pulling us away from the present and the possibility of simply enjoying a moment breathing and being alive?
We can take a moment right now. Just a quick second, to think about how nice it actually is to be alive. Things could be far far worse, and yet here we are, after all that had to come before us to make it so that we would exist and experience this moment.
Our relationship to frustration progresses in the exact opposite direction of this ability to be present. Like the movies, the medications and the vacations, we always need more in order to out-do the last experience we had. The movies are flashier, gorier and more action-packed. The medication dosage ratchets higher, and the vacation has to have a new destination – preferably somewhere better than last time.
Frustration – for many people – follows the same trend. But instead of getting frustrated with bigger and more important topics, our reaction magnifies any chance it gets, which means that the ingredients required to provoke our frustration become more granular, until it takes almost nothing at all to spark a fire in our mind.
The only real solution is developing an ability to Pause – to foster a habit and a practice of mindfulness – which is really just an ability to step back within our own mind and notice what is happening on an emotional and intellectual level. This slowly, but surely turns the trend in the opposite direction. It turns a vicious cycle into a virtuous one, until we can stomach that old quote from Churchill without feeling a sense of embarrassment. As he once said:
A man is about as big as the things that make him upset.
This episode references Episode 23: Pause.
March 13th, 2019
The words ‘power’ and ‘entitlement’ have entered into a strange dance that is undoing each as useful concepts that we can use in order to think and communicate effectively.
Often the connotation of a word bloats and metastasizes in directions of meaning that can eventually be totally at odds with their actual definition, and sometimes, this connotative expansion then takes over the actual definition.
An easy example is the pair of words: Awful & Awesome. They both grew from the root word of ‘awe’, but they polarized around the phenomenon of feeling a sense of awe. The word awful went down the negative route and the word awesome went down the positive route.
The words Power and Entitlement are not as closely paired but their usage in relation to one another is causing some unhealthy growth in meaning. This is occurring by an increasing expansion into an abstract arena and a dearth of tying concrete realities to these words.
We can investigate this quite literally with an initial question of what exactly is power?
Machiavelli might have a treatise on the subject, but the scientific lens of physics provides a far more useful and clean answer:
Power = Work / Time.
Power is quite literally how much work gets done as a result of one’s hopes dreams and wishes during a given interval of time. If a person has a lot of money then tasks can be outsourced and since it’s fair to say that a lot of work is being accomplished in relatively little time with that wealthy individual’s thoughts, hopes and dreams as a blueprint, such a person can be literally described as powerful. It doesn’t matter if the outsourced task is the transport of champagne from a bottle behind a bar down a walkway to the beach where someone has paid for the service, of if rockets are being built in accordance to that beach goer’s design and direction.
This fungible nature of money enables this phenomenon of outsourcing and ultimately stands in for trust when it comes to cooperation with strangers. If, however we ask a good friend for some help and then offer money in exchange for that help, we risk offending the trust that has been built through the growth of such friendship. Indeed, it can even imply a lack of trust, whereas the limits of time, circumstance and memory force us to interact with strangers all the time to get things both large and small done. Given these constraints, the development of organic trust has no viable environment and so money stands in as the mechanism that enables strangers to cooperate. Huge numbers of people can be brought together through the direction of this money resource, and as the old maxim follows: there is power in numbers, there is quite literally power in money because money can bring together people and have them each work in a coordinated way towards some unified cooperative end.
We need only look at the similarity between words like corporation and cooperative to see how this one-way street is looked at in two different ways.
The uncomfortable truth that people do not like to look square in the face is that power enables entitlement. If you can muster the resources to make some unit of work happen, then such an accomplished item forms the substance of such entitlement. In today’s cultural parlance, it’s not hard to imagine such a statement landing with a great deal of discomfort. But, we need only get even more literal with our words to see how they interact through reality. Example:
The heavyweight champion of the world cannot hold that title unless it’s been earned, and such a title is earned quite literally through a physical expression of power generated by muscles and directed in accordance to the goals of the mind in question. Some pipsqueak standing on a street corner claiming to be entitled to the title of heavy weight champion is ignored for laughably obvious reasons.
And yet when entitlement is claimed in other, less physically obvious domains, the squawking claims often land with some strange force of legitimacy. The parallel juxtaposition calls into question this legitimacy and frames it almost as a kind of lunacy. This is intended to be uncomfortable. People who claim entitlement without the power to generate the work required to claim such entitlement are quite literally suffering from a conceptual disconnect. This disconnect is the word entitlement itself which has broken loose from it’s anchor in day-to-day reality and has drifted off into a land that is more and more simply imagined. The discomfort of this conceptual disconnect serves an important and often misused purpose in the minds of those who feel such discomfort.
Such people often feel powerless but entitled. This is akin to someone who thinks they can do a physical feat that they have not trained for. Attempting such is only going to cause physical pain and possibly damage. In less physical domains, it causes emotional pain.
A person who feels such emotional pain and discomfort might simply default in frustration to a conclusion that things just aren’t fair. But this is swinging the pendulum in the absolute opposite direction. Claiming things aren’t fair is a complete slap in the face to the tiny amount of power any one person has independent of wealth and other people. The conclusion things aren’t fair is actually a different subject revolving around justice and fairness. Such a diversion is counter-productively leapfrogging a person’s actual real power, however small, and ignoring any potential use it may be applied to for benefit.
The conclusion ‘things aren’t fair’ turns a person with a tiny amount of power into a totally helpless person.
It’s best to ignore questions of fairness altogether. Such discussion is not helpful to the individual looking to change themselves and their life. Such questions of Justice and Fairness are better left to governing bodies, and if a person is not willing to dive into that swimming pool, then such concepts are more likely to paralyze a person’s mentality rather than enable it for beneficial use.
It’s best to examine and concentrate on the very real power any given individual actually has. Short of being totally disabled, catatonic, and requiring complete care from other human beings, there is always something we can do. For example, a person who has been able to read this far into the article and has been able to follow along both conceptually and emotionally must be fit with an intellect and a command of language that has some degree of power. A power that could be leveraged into more power if such a resource is applied, properly.
We can easily call to mind the somewhat malicious relationship between the rich and the poor. The rich stereotypically think the poor are lazy and the poor stereotypically think the rich are thieves. Meanwhile the rich feel that their entitlement, and power is well earned and the poor feel powerless yet entitled. This is an age-old story, one that is in dire need of fresh air and sunlight to kill off all the mold it’s fostered.
As briefly explored above, money is a conceptual mechanism that enables cooperation. This age-old story of friction between rich and poor is in many ways a hint at inefficiencies in the way money moves and pools, and this could be labelled quite simply as a mass failure of cooperation. What other label than ‘failure of cooperation’ could be more appropriate when a country’s currency becomes worthless and society starts to dissolve into less desirable forms? Regardless of how economists and politicians might spin this rotten top, at it’s most basic form, something about the way people cooperate in order to live together has given out in a disastrous way.
People who feel powerless but can understand such concepts here presented might need to confront the power inherent in such intellectual prowess. As opposed to belittling the use of such conceptual power by merely complaining or squawking about unfairness, both of which degrade the cooperation that we so desperately need, perhaps such conceptual, linguistic and intellectual power could be put to better use in order to find a way to open up a productive dialogue between different pools of cooperation. Indeed what exactly is venture capital if not a risk on the part of powerful people to cooperate with people who have good ideas but lack the financial power to implement such ideas on their own? Relative to the venture capitalists who dole out the money, the startup founder is essentially the poor person with the good idea.
We can thread an arrow through this entire line of axes and imagine a relatively unentitled person with minimal power leveraging their small voice of intellectual power to generously and emotionally convince some powerful and entitled executive to see the future in a different way, and thereby initiate actions that change bad courses of action into more virtuous ones. Oil executives come to mind.
We can even see such a process occurring in ourselves on some level. When we grab for a chocolate donut and hear that tiny powerless voice in our head tell us that it’s not good for our health and that we shouldn’t eat it.
Just as the poor unrealistically view the rich as thieves who only got their wealth through tricks and hacks of the system, we might imagine a similar circumstance where a person yields wields power through intellectual, linguistic and interpersonal channels. Rasputin comes to mind as someone who was poor in the sense of money, but leveraged his tiny amount of intellectual power on a person-to-person basis in order to gain access to much larger swathes of power. Another example that comes to mind is Jeff Bezos’ recent splash across the news regarding a certain woman who by all reports seems to have Rasputinesque abilities with regards to persuasion.
Directing powerful and entitled people via emotionally persuasive discourse can be seen through two different polar lens, depending on our stance on the issues at hand. It can either be seen as manipulation that borders on gaslighting, or it can have the positive bent that so often evokes religious tones, as when someone finally ‘sees the light’.
Indeed, aren’t we constantly wishing for that tiny underdog voice in our own head urging us to be healthier to win the battle? Wouldn’t it be nice if that tiny voice advocating health suddenly developed the silver tongue of some linguistic seductress whose bidding we cannot stop doing? How healthy and effective would we grow with such a benevolent demon residing in our mind?
This discussion of power seeks to draw a connection between two levels: the first is the work we do in interpersonal relationships to build organic trust, and the second is how those connections can be leveraged to create larger forms of power that no longer require –indeed cannot handle interpersonal relationships- and function solely through the mechanism of money. We can think of a company that is started with a few trusted people and eventually grows into a large cooperation where the mechanism of money bears more of the burden of ensuring that someone can be trusted. These highlights of the word power are not terribly difficult to grasp, but they are important to reference in order to see how the word ‘entitlement’ has mutated in a way that is self-defeating for the individual and even iatrogenic.
The word ‘entitlement’ is in dire need of deflating back down into proportion with the power that is mustered behind such entitlement. This is not to say that people who seem unrealistically entitled should bite their tongue and mosey along. It’s to urge such people to recognize one’s real and actual power and recalibrate a sense of entitlement to reflect that power. Not only would this alleviate huge amounts of emotional pain, but it makes a person more effective. In simple terms it’s the same as saying: let’s work with what we’ve got, because currently we don’t have anything else to work with.
Using the power any given individual has to accomplish some feasible task entitles a person to the fruits of that accomplishment, and much of the discussion using the word ‘entitlement’ robs people of this kind of efficaciousness. Such small abilities to do work – if thoughtfully and cleverly directed – can be used to leverage such power into greater power, as is so often seen with those who manage to bootstrap a successful business, or even author a successful book. Regardless of other hacked and deceitful ways to gain power and influence, all roots of power ramify in reverse back to one central fact that is important for the person who feels powerless to realize:
Real power is not in money or the cooperation one can muster from strangers through money.
Real power is inevitably reduced to how a single person can effectively direct their own mind.