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
June 6th, 2019
If for a moment we think about the word ‘perfect’ or ‘perfection’, what exactly comes to mind?
The current cultural concept evokes something that is flawless, precisely accurate and fitting an ideal without even the tiniest exception.
This concept guides much of our thinking about the future regarding the plans we try to imagine and the results that we wish to see, but this concept, and our willingness to entertain it ultimately pollutes our ability to act.
The imaginative world that we can conjure is itself an immensely imperfect beast. At a base level there is the sheer magnitude of information that we do not have available in our imagination, due both to the limitations of our senses, their ability to take in such information, and also our inability to remember every single detail that might come our way. Beyond these first limitations, the double edged blessing of our imagination allows us to be host to this virus-concept of perfection. The current cultural concept is in fact not a fair representation of where the word comes from.
Arriving via French from 11th century Latin, the word ‘perfect’ arises from a meaning that is more akin to ‘completed’ or ‘accomplished’. Dissecting it’s original roots we can arrive at an equation of ‘completely’ and ‘to make, or do’. With this etymology in hand, we can see how far the meaning of the word ‘perfect’ has drifted. It’s long history indicates something more like ‘finished’ as opposed to some kind of product or result that meets an ideal in absolutely every way imaginable.
The differential here created by the drift in meaning is perhaps a bit more intuitive when we reframe it with a question:
When we try to imagine something we think we’d like to accomplish, do we focus on how we would actually do it, or do we instead imagine something fully formed? Like an animal emerging from an egg?
The original meaning is about the cessation of doing. To make or do completely. The backbone of meaning in the word perfect is actually an active verb: that of doing.
And yet our modern idea of perfect so often keeps us from even starting. This is the insidious effect that our new concept of the word inflicts upon us.
Something perfect is not necessarily flawless, it’s just done.
If we accomplish something and it’s good enough but it doesn’t actually meet a lofty ideal, then it actually still fits the original meaning of perfect.
This feels like a contradiction, but the feeling evoked by such a strange sounding sentence is perhaps an indication of territory where our imagination can go that reality cannot.
The nuance that connects our current concept to the original meaning in a practical way, is that some accomplishment is probably not done if there are flaws with the result, which merely implies that we are not actually done yet and that we simply need to keep tinkering.
Efforts here become asymptotic. There is ultimately a bridge to the ideal that cannot be crossed and it’s wise to remember something an English professor once said:
You never actually finish an essay. You just stop working on it.
An episode related to this one is Episode 154: Progress or Perfection?
June 5th, 2019
No one enjoys feeling weak. At least not without a rigorous understanding, either through trial and error or through a strong intellectual foundation, that feeling weak is a solid path to increased strength.
The most natural example to illuminate this intuitively is the physical one, specifically with regards to exercise.
To use one’s strength to it’s limits in the gym paradoxically makes a person feel the most weak. We can easily compare bench-pressing 225lbs to lifting a cup of coffee. Lifting a cup of coffee is no problem – totally within our capabilities, but if we’ve only ever bench-pressed 220lbs, finally lifting 225lbs is going to bring us to the limit of our strength, where strength fails to perform the task well. And this is perhaps a good local definition of weakness: not being able to perform a task well. However, the natural anti-fragility of our body’s systems reacts to this feeling of weakness and creatively imagines something even more difficult and begins to reorganize and prepare for that circumstance. This is how we build muscle and get stronger.
But this strange interplay between strength and weakness extends far beyond the physical realm of our muscles and their capacity to fight gravity.
If we do not occasionally feel very weak in our ability to do any given thing, even something we are very good at, something which we have practiced, then we are not extending our strength and mastery of the task at hand. Increased strength lies beyond this experience of weakness.
The general mental version of this weakness is confusion. Only by embracing what we do not understand can we forge a path towards understanding, and this means entertaining things that are confusing, and continually engaging with this territory of confusion until we experience a sensible fusion between the parts that do not seem to connect.
Anyone who has travelled to a foreign country with absolutely no knowledge of the local language knows just how debilitating the experience can be. We feel weak in this new environment because we are not able to perform the task of communication well. We inevitably resort to old child-like forms of charades, an ability that we often only have a slightly greater command of compared to a totally unknown language.
There is, at this point, an extremely dangerous thought that can wiggle it’s way into our world view. Perhaps we hear it quite often:
Don’t know, don’t care.
This might be an acceptable strategy for some things, such as how big the largest star in the Milky Way is, or not knowing a local language during a layover, or even a couple days, but this strategy is something we should be extremely wary of adopting.
To ignore weakness is not to stay at the same static level of strength. To ignore weakness allows our strength to decline.
This is again most obvious in the physical sense. Without constantly testing the limits of physical strength, our muscles atrophy to the level of exertion that our body is accustomed to predicting.
Use it, or lose it, is a pithy and helpful guide here.
Whether the issue is physical strength or some sort of mental strength, what becomes clear is that we are either moving forward or we are drifting backwards. There is no comfortable middle ground where we can coast.
If we feel as though we are coasting, chances are we are subtly degrading in some way, and the change is slow enough that we do not notice the day-to-day changes.
This is even true of something like meditation. If we do not mindfully invoke the practice and technique, our ability to do so fades. But to consistently confront the challenges of meditation on a daily basis is to slowly unravel the benefits and skill through embracing -simultaneously- the limits of our strength and the beginning of our weakness.
The greatest mentor we can take in this kind of endeavor is time.
It marches forward without mercy nor pause.
Our willingness to embrace weakness should likewise follow suit. This is perhaps what the pop culture adage is referring to when we are prescribe to do something everyday that scares us.
The quick and superficial assumption here is that we should have a roller-coaster-like experience everyday.
But if we give this just a moment’s more pause, we can see a deeper conclusion:
what is scarier than feeling weak?
June 4th, 2019
This episode was inspired by reading Annaka Harris’ book ‘Conscious’. You can find a link to her book at the bottom of this post.
The debate that surrounds free will is often an unproductive quagmire.
One problem with this debate is that it’s often approached as a binary topic. Do we or don’t we have free will?
The phrasing of the question here is perhaps the first problem regarding the debate. Even worse, in such debates, it’s never thoroughly discussed what is left over if free will doesn’t exist. Surely something must exist, some sort of consciousness at the very least.
Without free will, the default assumption seems to be a kind of zombie existence (to reference David Chalmers’ philosophical thought experiment). When we think of a zombie, we think of some sort of robotic being with simple drives that lacks a greater awareness of what it’s really doing and why. Many other entities, however, seem to fit into this description but which on further reflection seem to be more aware than we realize. For example, it’s been shown that trees care for their young in complex ways via underground root systems and through a symbiotic relationship with fungi networks, and if this doesn’t imply some sort of awareness, we can certainly highlight the Venus Flytrap which is quite clearly aware of an insect that lands in it’s ‘mouth’.
That word may in fact be on the other side of the free-will debate: awareness. Even if we are to take the stance that free will does not exist, that certainly doesn’t imply anything about awareness. Anyone who can reflect on the fact that they are experiencing something has awareness. Even a tree without a brain can be aware of all sorts of things.
However, is a tree aware of the planet Mars? or the Andromeda Galaxy? It’s hard to think that any tree in the history of trees has ever been aware of these things in the way humans are.
This reveals a gradient of awareness that is separate from free-will, and perhaps, we can think about the free-will problem on a spectrum where one end is simply unattainable. Free will is that unattainable end of the spectrum and at the other end of the spectrum is the least amount of awareness possible. The easiest example might be something like a rock, or a chair… though, that does mean these things are not aware. We need only wonder if any of the carbon making up the chair was once a part of Cleopatra’s amygdala. That possibility is certainly quite real, and if it was the case, does that mean that at one point in the time part of the chair was more aware? We can think of a deceased person. Such a body was certainly more aware while living, presumably.
So perhaps the question of free will is a red herring: an unproductive question that fuels merry-go-round debates and discussions. Perhaps the harder, and more fruitful question is: can an increased awareness approach free will like an asymptote: forever getting closer but never actually making the jump.
How might this work? Well, it seems that our brain hands us a slightly delayed version of reality, we are continually experiencing everything with a lag. We are in essence living in the past, however incredibly recent. We essentially experience what happened. We are taking in the results of prior conditions. What happens to our reactions to such conditions relative to different levels of awareness?
The more sensitive or aware we are to what is going on, or what has just happened, the more thoughtful we can be about our plans, actions and behaviors for the future. Someone who lacks awareness is clearly bound to make the same mistakes over and over. But someone who is paying more attention more acutely is more likely to pick up on the key factors that can ensure that such mistakes don’t happen again, or at least happen less often in the future. This does not necessarily imply free will, but it’s certainly a welcomed improvement from a total lack of awareness.
The opposite of free will need not imply that we are zombies, but perhaps that we exist on a spectrum of awareness. And even if we concede that free will is a bit at odds with scientific determinism, we can still strive to increase our awareness and therefore precipitate a greater possibility of a better future by being more in tune with the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
This episode was inspired by Annaka Harris’ book ‘Conscious’. You can order your copy by clicking on the book below:
June 3rd, 2019
A virtue of language is that there are many ways to say the same thing. Though these different ways might in essence communicate the same thing, each way imparts a different flavor that can greatly alter the way a message lands.
Doctors are phenomenal in this regard. When talking about test results, doctors don’t say “You’re healthy,” they say “Your test results were negative.” Imagine for a moment a teacher in high school saying this to a student. . .
An area where this strange flip-flop nature of language’s flavor can benefit us is failure.
How shall we say it?
How can ‘I failed’ be rephrased with a different, better flavor without losing the meaning of the message.
Perhaps we can say:
I did not succeed.
This means the exact same thing as I failed and yet it imparts a wholly different flavor.
One leaves it more open-ended, the other is a conclusion. This later way that frames failure in terms of success is also phrasing the situation with a positive word. We hear the word ‘success’, which is inherently positive. To help us wonder what sort of effect this flavor has, we can test it immediately in this way:
don’t think of a pink elephant.
What do you think of?
A true absence is impossible to think of, so even though there was no success, there is a ghost of the idea, and more importantly there is an absence of a far more negative way of phrasing the same exact thing: we do not hear the word ‘failed’.
Any effort to achieve something positive is inherently a success over inaction, so even if our efforts do not produce our imagined result, there is still something tiny to celebrate – the fact that we tried. This tiny positive kernel can perhaps be very important during a time when we have to reorganize our idea of how things work, since our efforts didn’t work out the way we imagined.
Language is full of small subtle hacks like this. Another one is explored in Episode 100 regarding the word ‘yet’.
Such small flavors might seem innocuous or too small to be concerned about, but we need only think of actual flavor, of foods, and how often the smallest subtle addition can suddenly bring a meal to life. That secret ingredient as the mythical meal always has.
We must also remember the phenomenon of compounding interest. Small changes, repeated over and over, add up in ways that go far beyond our intuition.
Who can tell just how much radical good might bloom from phrasing our language in more virtuous ways.
This episode references Episode 100: Yet, a Way Out of the Box
June 2nd, 2019
This episode is dedicated to Charles.
Lucilius was called upon to pay a visit to a troubled young man, who had been cursed with an indelible sadness, resigning himself to his room for months. To the young man’s parents the boy was sick, but none of their feeble help seemed to do anything. And so after exhausting their efforts they asked if Lucilius might help. Lucilius told them he wasn’t sure he could be of any help, but that he would meet with the boy.
“You are here to cure me?” The boy said with exhausted scorn, without hope nor pleasure.
“I don’t claim to cure anything.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I’m not sure yet. Hopefully to do no harm, and with luck, maybe be some help, but the truth being, I know nothing of the hell within you.”
“Then you know about as much as I do. I don’t know why I am this way.”
“Is it important to know why?” Lucilius asked.
“If I knew why, then I could fix it, like anything else that is broken. If you know how it is broken then you know why it doesn’t work, and with that you can begin to fix things. But I don’t know why, or how. I just am this way.”
“You assume something is broken.”
“Of course, other people don’t feel this way.”
“Different does not necessarily mean broken.” Lucilius said.
The boy looked hard at Lucilius. “Well I feel broken.”
“On the contrary, someone who can withstand the burden of such heavy things must be strong.”
The boy’s hard stare was unchanged, unmoved, perhaps sadder still at the mention of a word and feeling that felt so far away. He merely looked back to a corner of the room where there seemed to be refuge. Lucilius looked around the room and saw in the bright split between dark curtain and the edge of a window, a moth slowly flapping its wings on the sill, exhausted and trapped.
“May I open a window a little?” Lucilius asked. The boy only shrugged his shoulders, so, Lucilius got up and cracked the window. The small breeze made the moth’s wings tremble a little, and it lifted on the fresh air and fluttered out into the sky. Lucilius watched it a moment, thinking.
“In a valley between mountains, there was a colony of butterflies,” Lucilius began, “and among them was born a butterfly made of concrete.”
The young man looked over at Lucilius, confused and feeling for once in a long while: curiosity.
“The concrete butterfly emerged from his leathery cocoon and saw all around it butterflies quickly fluttering their delicate wings and lifting easily, gently into the air. The concrete butterfly tried to do the same, flapping its rigid heavy wings, but he felt no lift. The other butterflies soon noticed him, so different from all the rest. And in their ignorance, they grew fearful, and they quelled that fear by making fun of the concrete butterfly. Their careless loud remarks drifted down from the flickering crowd, and the concrete butterfly looked on his own body and understood their disgust, their hate. He began to crawl away from the colony of butterflies and soon found a crack in the mountain’s side. He crawled into the darkness and wept about himself. And again the next day when he awoke and crawled outside, forgetting his heavy wings and heavy body, the other butterflies, seeing him flapping his wings as though he might fly laughed and jeered at him until he resigned himself back to his cave, where he wept again, but he stopped short with a strange thought. The grass did not fly, nor the trees nor the flowers nor the pond nor the mountains. Perhaps he wasn’t a butterfly, he wondered, and suddenly those other butterflies seemed now so different from himself. But what was he, he wondered? By this time, he was so tired, exhausted, he decided he didn’t care, and with that final thought he fell into a deep slumber. From then on he only ventured out for the nectar of young flowers that were not far of the ground, one’s that he could bend down with his heavy arms and drink from, and always keeping far from the colony down in the valley.
He kept to himself in this way, until a fateful day when he woke and heard a crashing sound coming from the mouth of the cave. He lifted his heavy body and lumbered toward the jagged shape of light that on this day was not bright, but dim and flashed with brilliant light with each crashing sound. The concrete butterfly emerged to find a great storm raging through the valley, and in the torrent of rain and wind that seemed to rake the trees painfully of their leaves, the concrete butterfly realized that not all were leaves being shorn from the waving branches. In the mess of the air, the colony of butterflies were helpless on their withered, wet and pelted wings, rolling dangerously in the chaos.
The concrete butterfly watched as the torrent slammed one butterfly from the colony into the rock face, crumpling it’s body, it’s wings in tatters. In that moment of horror, the concrete butterfly felt something else, something he’d never felt before. The wind edging beneath his folded wings. Without thinking, he spread his wings, and the fierce wind caught them, and for the first time the concrete butterfly lifted high into the sky. His strong, heavy wings balanced against the onslaught of wind and smoothed the pressure it brought like wide knives. In that moment the concrete butterfly forgot about everything and felt for the first time the sheer pleasure of taking flight. Intuitively, he started tilting his wings to the different crashing currents of wind, all the while rising higher and higher into the sky. He felt instantly as though this was not some second-nature, but his first, and knew that he had been living a life in wait for this moment. But he still had not fully realized just what his life had been in wait for. The pleasure of that first flight calmed, just enough and he looked down, and saw again, now below him, the violence being done to the great colony of butterflies. He heard their pain and sorrow as they screamed, helpless in the storm, and the concrete butterfly reacted without thinking: He tilted himself forward and drew his wings in and dove down towards the colony with tremendous speed.
Just as his strong legs grasped another butterfly as it tumbled through the air, the concrete butterfly spread it’s wings and carried the other, swiftly riding the crazed wind until he was back at his cave. The colony butterfly was terrified and confused at the sudden calmness of the cave and looked back just in time to see the concrete butterfly spreading it’s wings once more and lifting into the the storm.
He worked tirelessly, using the great wind of the storm to save the colony from the storm, plucking each of them from the rolling wind and bringing them back to the cave, until the cave was full and the muddle of air and sky was clear of butterflies. The last of them safely in the cave, the whole colony stared in fear and awe at the concrete butterfly. He looked at them all once more, deciding that he only cared that they were safe. Then he turned a lumbered back out of the cave.
The colony watched on as the concrete butterfly spread his wings and lifted into the storm, to play, on great winds that they could not handle.”
The young man was staring at the floor. He finally breathed in, deeply, as if to sigh.
“You’re saying some great difficulty - some kind of storm - is headed my way?”
“Maybe. There’s no telling what might be around the corner for us. But, it seems you can probably handle whatever comes your way.”
The young man let out a single, doubtful hiccup of laughter, “What makes you say that?” he asked.
“You are still here.”