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
November 6th, 2018
We all make mistakes, and often it’s said that it’s only through our mistakes that we learn. However, mistakes have all sorts of qualities that may allow us to differentiate between types of mistakes. And if learning is a function of mistakes, then perhaps these differences in the quality of mistakes that we make can have an impact on the quality and speed of our learning.
Take for example the quality of duration. We can behave for any length of time in a way that we may look back on and see as a mistake. It seems obvious that any mistake would be ideally made quickly so that we do not live with some kind of aggregating consequence of mistake. While general, it seems fair to assume that the longer the duration of a mistake, the larger the consequences of that mistake. The logic here is that the sooner a mistake is rooted out of behavior or strategy, the more time can be spent on a better strategy or behavior that may result in the achievement of specific goals. This is essentially a pivot from one direction of behavior to another.
The image arises of going down the wrong road for a long long time. The more time spent going in the wrong direction, the more time required to get to the final destination.
We might ask then, if we seek to have the shortest possible duration of mistake, how does this change our relationship to mistakes?
If, for a moment, we take the common expression of ‘learning through mistakes’ as a golden rule, we can come to the inference that since learning requires mistakes, and we decrease the duration of our mistakes as much as possible, this gives rise to a greater quantity of mistakes. Essentially, by spending less time entertaining the direction of a mistake, we are afforded more time and opportunity to make other beneficial mistakes.
Chasing a moving target creates a useful image in this instance. If we glimpse the target and then keep our head down and run in only that direction, it’s clear than we will not hit the target since it is moving. This is clearly an unwise strategy. But, if we don’t realize that we are trying to hit a moving target, suddenly it is not so clear whether or not this strategy is bad. If however, we watch someone chase a moving target, like hockey players skating after the puck, we see a constant alteration of direction. Players are almost incessantly moving in new directions as they see the puck change direction. In the parlance of this analogy, we could say that every direction before the most recent pivot was a kind of mistake. It may have been virtually impossible to realize it at the time, but ultimately following such a direction would make a player look like a broken algorithm in a hockey video game: clearly a mistake. The reason why the concept of mistake does not resonate clearly with these previous directions is because the pivot of each player is performed so quickly based on changes in the environment. The action seems well centered in the present.
Unfortunately, goals in life are not as easy to see as a small black piece of hard rubber sliding across white ice.
More importantly, we may not realize that goals which may seem like static milestones, may in fact be more like moving targets. While geography changes slowly enough that it’s effectively static, and therefore it’s fairly straightforward to get from point A to point B, like going from Chicago to Paris, in comparison, milestones or goals that may exist at some point in the future are certainly more like moving targets; primarily for the same reason that the puck is moving around the ice rink: the people around us are moving and changing, and most of our goals as humans have to do with our relationship to those moving changing people. Money, for example, defines a type of relationship between people. We pay money for services, and presumably, those who give the culture tremendous gifts, like the Iphone, or the automobile, or a social media platform are likewise rewarded with money. It’s been pointed out that a technology or product can come about at the wrong time. An invention can come about before there is a real need for it, or long after it may have been useful.
Google Glass, for example was a much-hyped initial foray into augmented reality, and while virtual and augmented reality is still projected to be an increasingly large part of the future, Google Glass was a flop, simply because it may have been too early. In this case, the target of an augmented reality market was not in the present where Google thought it might be at the time. It akin to trying to shoot a hockey puck without realizing that it has drifted forward of the range of your swing.
Regardless of the goal or milestone, if it can exist at all, it’ll be found somewhere in the future, but which point of the future, and what we have to do to prepare and anticipate the situation where we might be able to succeed is extremely difficult to forecast. We are best served by paying close attention to the present, and exercising the ability to pivot as quickly as possible as we follow the scent of our goals. Pivoting quickly in this case means making mistakes, lots of mistakes. The only way we can afford so many mistakes is by ensuring we don’t spend too much time on any one mistaken direction.
This episode references Episode 72: Persevere vs. pivot.
November 5th, 2018
While the concept of Exorcism is primarily a religious concept, it is sometimes appropriated and used in secular contexts with regards to ideas or behaviors.
The concept of exorcism starts with a supposition that some kind of undesirable entity exists inside an otherwise respectable person that is theoretically deserving of care.
Rooting out this undesirable entity is the whole shebang, but what if the undesirable entity is not a quote ‘thing’ that is tangible enough to be moved around and potentially out of a person?
When, for example, we find ourselves arguing with someone who seems particularly stubborn on some point, we may develop a perspective that fits well with the concept of exorcism. We determine that some stop-gate exists within this stubborn person that we must find and break in order to help this person realize the mistake of their opinion or perspective.
The default and predominate method here is a kind of brute force argument: we will try to show blatantly and bluntly exactly how someone’s perspective is ‘wrong’. We list the reasons in often stark contrast and difference to the perspective of the opposition. But anyone who has tried to crack a safe through a brute force method – and the number of such people is or should be essentially zero – it can take an ungodly amount of time to finally stumble across the correct combination.
What would a successful thief actually do with such a safe? Brute force not only takes a long time, but it’s boring and inefficient compared to the possible alternative strategies that exist.
The successful thief listens very carefully, perhaps putting an ear against the door of the safe, or the thief finds some other way to get some feedback from the safe as she interacts with it. Perhaps she feels very closely for variations in the force required to turn the number knob. Regardless, the effort here is to first learn something very deep and intimate about the internal workings of the safe.
An unwise thief could blithely try a few combinations, get angry and simply try to rip the door open by hand, but this seems particularly unwise considering it’s exactly what the construction of a safe is designed to withstand.
No, the wise thief seeks to understand how the safe works from the inside out. And this first starts with gathering information, either though a keen ear or touch. The wise thief knows that if she simply understands how it is functioning on the inside, then using the limited influence she has on those internal workings, she can manipulate the system to naturally change in accord to her desires without any tactics that are quintessentially damaging to the system. A safe after all is also primarily designed to open, albeit only with the right conditions.
What would we change about our own behavior and our own tactics regarding other stubborn people if we keep in mind the thief who diligently takes the time to learn about the safe she seeks to open?
We’d do well to first listen instead of speak. By doing so we can learn a little bit more about how a person works and how such a person thinks. With an expansive and open mind, we begin to model their internal world within ourselves. It’s like painting a picture of a landscape based on what someone says. If we spend the whole time talking ourselves, our painting will turn out wildly inaccurate because we have inhibited the flow of information we need to make a good painting. But if we listen carefully and ask questions that seek to improve our understanding of the environment we hope to change for the better, like asking.. how exactly far is the tree from the river in this landscape? Or what was the first occurrence in your life that relates to this view point that you have? We empower ourselves with knowledge in the same way that the tinker tweaking thief does.
By having an accurate understanding of the landscape we seek to influence, we can then move about that landscape with greater ease, instead of bumbling around with a blindfold and bumping into this tree or falling into that river and experiencing only unpleasant aggravation.
We’d do well to be like the tinker tweaking thief, developing confidence through practice, and making ourselves open to important information before trying to have an effect and ultimately leaving exorcism to the realm from whence it came, because the good thief knows there is nothing wrong that must be purged, only a lack of understanding that must be filled and effectively used.
November 4th, 2018
Sometime in the mid-21st century, at a point when Artificial Intelligence was becoming quite advanced but had not yet reached what many refer to as the ‘Singularity’, Lucilius decided to try an experiment which he forever regretted.
During his daily meditations, Lucilius had become very proficient in the technique loosely referred to as ‘noticing’. All this really entails is simply noticing what one is thinking about. This is often purported as a useful technique for defusing negative thoughts and emotions for beginner meditators. It’s often said that the angry mind aware of it’s anger ceases to be angry, and this is generally at the core of noticing one’s thoughts and emotions at such a level of meditation.
After years of meditating and practicing such noticing techniques, Lucilius started to incur a strange instance of noticing the act of noticing. The technique seemed to be turning on itself as Lucilius slowly realized during his meditations that the instance of noticing was in of itself another object of consciousness to be noticed. Lucilius suspected that there was a brief moment before the second instance of noticing when his mind was achieving a sort of blank calmness that is perhaps the most beneficial aspect of the practice. But the space was a brief and subtle one and Lucilius could not explain the experience without ruining it with words.
Lucilius was curious about the physical neural reality of this instance, but neural imaging was lagging behind in relation to the development of Artificial Intelligence.
So Lucilius designed a little experiment. He realized that there was a limit to how much noticing of noticing of noticing his own human brain could do, so he decided to do a cloned merge with an artificially intelligent computer framework to further probe his curiosity.
Lucilius used a program to clone the thought patterns of his own brain and after a merge with a low-level artificially intelligent system, he directed that second cloned brain to meditate and notice the noticing of the noticing.
Lucilius thought he was rather clever, designing this experiment and smiled as he pressed the enter button to initiate the whole process.
Then all went sour.
Having learned some programming over the years, Lucilius was fairly certain that what happened in the instant he pressed the enter key was a kind of infinite loop. For years afterwards he would think of this moment and rephrase it as an infinite regression.
The screen flashed with Lucilius.exe has stopped working.
For years he tried to imagine the state of the cloned brain inside the computer program and wondered. Did if feel pain in that moment? He was of the opinion that he had effectively overloaded the whole experiment, and with electricity still running through everything, he wondered what the subjective experience of his cloned self might have been.
Lucilius would always suspect that it was a kind of infinite pain he had inflicted on a form of himself and felt remorse and regret every time he remembered the experience.
Little did he know, what had actually happened in the experiment was unnoticeable in the same way that Lucilius could not seem to capture the moment before the second noticing when he suspected his mind was calm and blank.
The infinite regression of noticing had indeed happened inside the computer program, but the aggregated experience of the brief moments of calm blankness compiled like the negative space of a pinpricked curtain held before bright sunlight. The calm blankness eventually crippled the noticing function by mere obsolescence. The program as a whole failed at that point because it was effectively a noticing program. What Lucilius never knew, is that the state of his cloned mind experienced a pure form of nothing in those last moments before he pulled the plug on the machine. It was indeed a perfect way to go.
Podcast Ep. 203: A Lucilius Parable: Lucilius.exe Has Stopped Working, System Failure
November 3rd, 2018
The last episode of Tinkered Thinking explored the image of visibility at sea during a storm and when things are calm. Our ability to see and notice subtle things in the distance is ultimately dependent on how calm the water is, and the water in such an analogy is the emotional state of our mind. When we are overcome with strong emotions, our ability to notice subtle details effectively goes out the window.
But angering events, depressing, frustrating, and disappointing events along with all manner of disheartening experiences are possible and potentially around the corner. We cannot control the storms that may come across the water, so we are faced with a different question that resides in sync with visibility: how do we handle ourselves in a storm?
Here we get literal with the analogy. Storm tactics and strategies have been studied and developed since we first got the idea to hop on some floating log and go for a ride. Strangely, even after millennia of experience with storms, the prevailing wisdom of what to do in a storm is not good. Lin and Larry Paradey’s book ‘Storm Tactics’ goes into great detail about the history of why this might be the case, and they present alternative hurricane-tested tactics for what to do at sea. It may seem strange to go into such detail for an analogy, but it proves useful.
The prevailing wisdom for a long time was to run with the storm. This means, put the storm that is coming your way behind you and try to run in front of it. For all intents and purposes, it’s good to have the idea that it’s nearly impossible to outrun a storm at sea, unless it’s just brushing past you which is a situation that has little use here. Running from a storm that will catch up and pass you simply means that you will spend the maximum amount of time in the storm. It also means that waves are hitting your vessel from the rear which, given enough time, will absolutely result in a broach, aka. your boat does a very uncomfortable summersault. Not fun.
The Paradey’s outline a much different approach. It’s long been a practice in nautical tradition to heave-to. And what this means is to turn around, face the storm, and then arrange the sails in such a way that a cancelling force occurs. It’s a strange, somewhat counter-intuitive way to essentially park your boat or ship in the middle of a storm. Unfortunately not all vessels have the design to pull off this maneuver very effectively. The Paradey’s prescribe deploying a small parachute, often called a sea-anchor, or a drogue off of the bow and rigged so that it pulls at an angle. This slows the boat down even more. Keep in mind that the boat is being pushed by oncoming waves, and heaving-to is the technique to park and slow the rate of being pushed while reducing the risk of being totally swamped by a wave. The drogue, or parachute reduces this risk drastically and it seems through experimentation that anything short of a wave that is breaking is mitigated by such a tactic. That’s the short and sweet technicalities of it. So how does it relate to storms of the mind?
Running from a storm, as mentioned ensures that we’ll spend the maximum amount of time in that storm. With the storm at our back, it’s a sort of denial. Literally running from a storm can be akin to running from one’s fears or one’s problems. Doing so perpetuates the discomfort in both situations, and usually results in a worse outcome.
Heaving-to is akin to turning and facing one’s fear or problem without denial. Doing so the first time might be incredibly scary and require a tremendous amount of faith in the story of the technique related above, because: all useful knowledge that we might pass among ourselves that can be practically implemented to greater result is, at the end of the day, just a different story. Believing that story can be difficult, often because what is rational does not always feel intuitive, and our intuition is the seat of fear. But facing one’s fear almost always decreases that amount of time that we are uncomfortable. Like a scary movie, the anticipation of a potentially negative event is always the worst part.
The other less obvious benefit of heaving-to as opposed to running from a storm is the mental space it creates. When running from a storm, one must always be at the helm, steering the boat perfectly in order to keep from broaching. This is not only exhausting but frankly, more importantly, you can’t do anything else that might help your situation. But while heaving-to, the helm is locked in position, and the boat is moving much more slowly against the waves. An individual on a boat that is in the heave-to position can move to different parts of their vessel. This frees up their resources, allowing one to perhaps go below for a nap, or look at a chart to check for lee shores, or simply put on a pair of goggles and gaze out at the magnificent power that the sea and the sky can produce together. Such a perspective can be used to fine-tune the set up for heaving-to, tinkering with different variations to see what works best.
This is a quick description of the actual practical conditions of heaving-to in a vessel at sea during a storm. The image can be imported as an analogy into the changing environment of our mind.
When something happens and our minds are thrown into a storm of emotion, what would it mean to heave-to in this respect?
One of the Stoics, Marcus Aurelius is often quoted, having written
“be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest.”
Perhaps Mr. Aurelius was not intimately familiar with the open-ocean possibilities of mitigating such seething waters, but it’s doubtful he would not have seen the similarities.
Perhaps even more apt is a line from Joseph Conrad, who when describing what entails a good boat wrote that it should be “like a seabird going to rest upon the angry waves… will lay out the heaviest gale that ever made you doubt living long enough to see another sunrise.”
The juxtaposition of seabird and rocky headland is a juicy one. A rocky headland is clearly a strong entity, but a seabird? The image here evokes a powerful and strong strategy as opposed to being physically strong.
And so to should we strive to find a powerful mental strategy for when storms arise. What is our strategy for ‘heaving-to’ when storms of emotion come upon us? How do we essentially ‘park’ in the middle of that storm and free our mental resources from the grips of that storm in order to see what the next useful step might be?
Many good pieces of such strategy reside in the writing of the stoics, and it does well to remember that much of behavioral economics research has gone to show that things we fear happening or losing effect us much less than we think they will. (Cue the scary movie where the anticipation is the worst part.)
But these are, again, stories that we must have the courage to believe and somehow figure out how to implement, which can be difficult in the moment. We’ve all heard good advice, but implementation seems to be in a different medium altogether. Perhaps the most powerful thing we can do in order to develop a strategy for heaving-to in the emotional moment is to study the present intimately, and this is done primarily through meditation.
Meditation is a tool that can be implemented like a drogue or sea-anchor, or a sail configuration to park our boat. Meditation, with enough practice, gives the mind an ability to slow down and separate ourselves from the emotion that is overtaking our being. We are not totally divorced from it, we simply change our relationship to such emotions, in much the same way that the ship that heaves-to does not magically lift itself out of the water, but simply changes its relationship to those oncoming waves.
But just as the good sailor spends lots of time at sea, watching the waves and feeling the wind, we need to spend the necessary time watching our mind, seeing how it works, tinkering with our perspective of it and feeling around for an escape hatch - a strategy that can give us more visibility. This is, in essence what the practice of meditation entails. And eventually, with enough practice, meditation becomes our drogue in the storm, because any and all phenomena can become an object of meditation. Even the worst moment of life can be grasped by the meditating mind and held in relation to our mind in a way that effectively makes one’s mind like that seabird, comfortably waiting out the storm, bobbing along peacefully over the angry waves.
This episode references Episode 201: Visibility
November 2nd, 2018
Imagine being out at sea when it is perfectly still, like a glassy mirror from every point on the horizon beneath a clear blue sky. The visibility couldn’t be better in this sort of situation. We can notice anything for as far as the eye can see. Even the tiniest blip at the edge of the horizon could be seen.
Now imagine the same ocean in the middle of huge storm. Even if we have never been at sea in a storm, we can close our eyes and imagine gargantuan waves, like mountains scraping across the face of the world. Imagine being in the middle of that terrifying place. Perhaps on a small boat, sliding down into the deep troughs, being overcome again and again by the next wall of water.
What’s the visibility like in the place?
Perhaps for the briefest of moments at the crest of a wave we are high enough to look around and see the ocean like a mountain range of grey walls moving with hissing wind. But at best this is only for the briefest moment, and most of the time we are stuck tumbling down into a trough between waves, where the only visibility is up, into spitting rain.
It’s a ripe analogy to see the mind as this ocean of water. The emotions we feel are like the motions of that water. When we are caught up in some welling, intense emotion, it’s as though we are deep in the trough between waves, and each new one is not seen as an opportunity to perhaps get a little more visibility, but an ordeal to try and survive. On the contrary, when we are calm, and our minds are still, we can see much more clearly.
It may be widely believed that it’s our emotions that make us human. Some like to point out our compassion and empathy as core to our humanity, but anyone who has ever had a kind pet, like a cat or a dog can recognize similar lovely emotions in such animals. Unfortunately, our emotions are a shorthand system for analyzing and reacting to the world, and just as a dog can snap at someone if pushed too far, so too is the case with humans. It’s not our emotions that makes us so human, but our ability to put emotion aside, and notice important details that we are blind to while in the throes of emotion. Having clarity of mind simply expands our field of mental vision. Such calmness gives us the space to notice a small thought, barely audible that has been trying to nudge us in a better direction, a more interesting direction.
It can easily be argued that such big emotions may be very useful. They might be described as large attempts on the part of some sort of subconscious to alert us to some sort of problem or inequity in life that we need to deal with. But most of us get too caught up in the sounding of the alarm to actually understand what the alarm is for.
Calmness and clarity of mind is the place we should always strive to return to. It’s unrealistic to expect it perpetually all the time, but it’s not a fool’s errand to try, because trying gets us there more often than not. More importantly is how do we handle ourselves in the storm? Do we just tumble into troughs? Or is there another way? Can we compose ourselves to deal with such whims of fate, and take advantage of those brief moments at the high crests of waves when we can gain some visibility and perhaps notice something that might help our situation.