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
April 14th, 2019
Lucilius was in his garden looking at mushrooms that had popped up overnight, wondering how they might be connected, gently unearthing some of the mycelium and following it’s growth when the old wooden gate creaked. He looked to see a young man walking along the stones towards him. He took a seat on a fallen log near Lucilius without greeting him. Lucilius looked his way briefly and then continued with his study of the mycelium.
“How goes it?” Lucilius asked.
The young man sighed. “Pretty overwhelmed, I guess.”
“Oh?” Lucilius prodded.
The boy sighed again. “I’ve been given a huge project, and I don’t know what to do.”
“There’s so much to it, so many pieces, I’m just not sure where to start.”
“Start anywhere,” Lucilius recommended, glancing at the young man who was rubbing his eyes, squeezing his brows to a pinch at the bridge of his nose. He opened his eyes as though waking up again, his eyelids fluttering.
“Yea, but I need to know how I’m going to do the rest before I start or else I might mess something up in the beginning.”
“It’ll figure itself out, such is the nature of these processes.”
“How do you mean?”
Lucilius sat back from his investigation of the mycelium and looked at the young man. “Do you remember when we went to see those huge pyramids?”
“You can imagine building a pyramid, by simply placing blocks in a square, and then placing blocks in the shape of a smaller square on top of the first.”
“Yea, I guess.”
“You do not have to worry about the size of the fifth or sixth square because the one below determines how much smaller it should be. If you think about construction in that way, each step tells you what the next should be.”
“That works with a pyramid, sure, but I don’t see how that applies to my task.”
Lucilius watched the boy for a moment, seeing how tired he was. “If you stretch your mind to be more flexible, you might see how it can be much the same. You might for a moment think about the sentences you speak. Do you have them totally written out in your mind every time before you utter a first word? Or does our speech seem to organize itself as it goes?”
The boy thought for a tense moment and then sighed in tired frustration.
“Let’s think about this a different way,” Lucilius said. “Is it easy or difficult to move a huge stone pyramid?”
“Difficult” the young man said.
“That base layer of the pyramid need no particular order in the way it is laid. You can start with a corner stone or a stone at the center. The order only matters once we actually have something to work with, hence the next level.”
“Ok, what does this have to do with moving a pyramid?”
“Well you are concerned with the complete picture, the end-goal. In essence, it’s that last capstone at the top that you are concentrating on. You have it all flipped, and now let me ask you, how difficult is it to topple a pyramid when it’s balanced upside down?”
The boy again sighed in tired frustration.
“But there’s something else that I think needs attending to first.”
“It seems you might benefit by giving tomorrow a good foundation by getting a long night of rest. It seems now that everything I say topples your mind when I’m trying to help you build up a spirit with which to tackle your task.”
April 13th, 2019
Knowledge is Power, goes the old maxim.
This is universally agreed upon, but are the mechanics of such a phrase universally understood?
The word ‘is’ in this short phrase functions like an equal sign, and like balancing both sides of a mathematical equation, we can say that Power increases as Knowledge increases. Or at least, this is the sentiment that we commonly derive from the old maxim. It’s parroted to kids who are learning to read, it’s broadcasted by universities through esoteric Latin phrases. But what exactly are the mechanics of such a phrase? Is the most powerful person the one who has simply read the most? Or does this superficial idea of knowledge gloss over an important aspect of what knowledge is, how it moves, and how it transforms?
Dipping into physics for a moment, Power is neatly defined as Work over Time, or rather, how much work is done in a given interval of time. If a lot of work can be accomplished in less time, then such a system can be described as powerful, or at least more powerful than a system that accomplishes less work in the same interval of time.
Here physics gives us the gift of a definition that is easy to comprehend and conveniently stripped of any mythical psychobabble that may be attached to the word ‘power’ in the cultural mind and imagination.
We can revisit the original maxim with this unpacked comprehension of power and ask a question: is it legitimate knowledge if power is not increasing?
The ramifications of this question are potentially controversial. It poses the possibility that a single piece of knowledge can exist in two states: one imaginary state, and another state that is functional in reality.
An easy example of this is to ask: does the average smoker know that smoking is bad for their health?
It’s safe to assume that all chronic smokers in the modern world have been thoroughly informed of the hazards of smoking, if not by the people in their life, then by the packaging which they help fund. And yet this knowledge has no functional impact on their behavior. The knowledge in this case exists in a state that is more imaginary.
We can likewise illuminate this difference by bringing to mind the instances of deaf people who gain the ability to hear through different technological implants. Such individuals surely have a knowledge of sound and how it functions for people who can hear, but to then actually experience the sound of human voice for the first time is to translate this knowledge from an imagined form into a functional form.
As is also often said: It’s one thing to know, it’s quite another to understand.
This new word, understand, presents quite a literal function in this framework. Knowledge as a word is really a hazy concept, something that cannot really be pointed at. It does not necessarily exist in the space we inhabit. Whereas understanding evokes a perspective. The word quite literally describes a perspective in space. As we understand, we are described as standing under something. That knowledge now might be described as existing in the real world as something that we can stand in relation to. The only reliable way to translate an imagined piece of knowledge into a functional piece of knowledge is to understand it through experience, and this requires taking action based on that knowledge which only exists as a hazy concept beforehand.
It is for this reason that the best teacher is said to be experience, it cuts out the perseverating obsession that can pool around imagined knowledge and gets straight to the goods, or rather, it cuts straight to functional knowledge which we can viscerally understand.
These mechanics all thread through an equal sign with Power on the other side. However, a sneaky caveat exists within that equal sign, namely: action.
If the old maxim were to be more accurately phrased, we might say that knowledge can lead to power if only we act upon that knowledge. Of course this sounds far inferior to the pithy maxim we are all familiar with.
If there is a hack to gaining power, it is to simplify the process as much as possible: this is how infants do it. Infants do not read books about how to crawl or speak, birds do not study aerodynamics and whales do not have swimming lessons. These obvious images are brought to mind here to highlight an often forgotten process that is inherent in experience that we often forget with knowledge we study: if a piece of knowledge can be acted upon, then it should be tested for functional use, and if it fails to provide any functional use in line with our larger aims in life than there is little reason to give it much attention.
Power inevitably extends our own personal agency. The founder and owner of a successful business literally extends their own personal agency via outsourcing the actions they would personally take but cannot due to the limits everyone has regarding what they can actually do as a single human being operating in a single body. Business and governments distribute the work of larger designs to many people. The key word here is work. For example we can imagine Jeff Bezos hand-delivering every Amazon package that has been delivered, like some sort of Santa Claus, but this would inevitably take the guy decades, if not hundreds of years to accomplish personally. Instead, the vision of Amazon was outsourced and that gargantuan amount of work was accomplished in far less time. Here we return to our definition of power from physics as work over time.
However, we need not extrapolate power so far as to include outsourcing our designs to other people to achieve more work. This whole framework seeks to address a far more personal perspective which is illuminated by a single question:
Am I doing things the hard way?
The sentiment of this question, if unpacked with this framework of power here outlined would sharpen into a new question: is there some piece of knowledge that I am not acting upon that would make things easier and hasten the progress of my goals? The flipside of this question is: am I acting on pieces of knowledge that actually aren’t all that useful?
Emotional attachment to certain ideas inevitably hinders our abilities – quite literally – more than anything else. If access to knowledge were the real problem, then people would generally be much happier and lead far more effective and fulfilling lives, but Google has already solved this problem for the most part, which begs the question once more: if access to knowledge isn’t the problem, than what is?
The answer is that caveat buried within the phrase Knowledge is Power: It’s action.
We need only act upon our ideas to see how good they are,
and in the process we forge our experience,
gain the power
to live a better life.
April 12th, 2019
The coefficient of static friction is always higher than the coefficient of kinetic friction. Within the discipline of Newtonian physics, this is the technical way of saying something rather simple and widely known: getting started is harder than continuing.
A far more colloquial but equally accurate way of conveying this aspect of reality is captured by the phrase:
To Get the ball rolling.
For whatever odd reason, the same sticky phenomenon that physical objects at rest have, seems to apply to our mentality. The project lingers in hazy imagination, but we take no action.
And yet, when that deplorably rare and lovely event occurs when we do take the first step, the second step is forever glossed over by it’s brevity and metamorphosis into a third and forth step.
It’s that first step that is curiously elusive, like Pan’s shadow, forever flittering away, a prey to be chased, or ideally: systematically outsmarted.
That bold and commanding shoe slogan: Just Do It, may in fact be a bit counter-productive, if well-intentioned.
Just Do It, refers to the whole project, the entire dream, evoking some sort of birth, as though pulling an all-nighter can bring into existence large and complex designs. Biology, in this case lends a misleading narrative as to how things come into being. The nitty-gritty construction always occurs out of sight, in the belly of a mother or within the hard walls of a shell. A kid playing with legos or a beaver building a dam is a far more useful image when it comes to a story that can effectively aid our ability to convert dreams into actions.
Instead of one magnificent vomit of productivity, we can begin with something that is actually in line with our abilities: a small, tiny little action that merely pokes around the uncertain space where reality may be coaxed into the shape of our dreams.
From a more linguistic standpoint, the object in Nike’s slogan also presents some trouble. That ominous and vaguely specific word ‘it’ creates a far bigger problem than the size of the word might imply. What exactly is it?
The superficial answer is: the project, our design, our dream.
The trap of such language is that it implies a total concrete design, and while this is comforting to our general psychology, it rarely maps onto the world very well. Such a mindset takes no account of the feedback we receive as we take action. This absolute stance with regards to a plan, as opposed to a flexible iterative view of plans, raises the likelihood that we will ignore feedback, which in turn allows ramifications of such ignored feedback to pile up until reality reflects this ignored feedback so dramatically that it feels like a slap in the face, or a wake up call. In other words, our pursuit of Nike’s pervasive it is apt to help us behave like a buffalo running towards a cliff, unable to pivot away due to the claustrophobic nature of our own perspective.
The totality evoked by Just Do It also contributes to the sunk-cost fallacy, because we think in terms of getting all of it done. We may benefit more by adopting a mindset that is more akin to exploration – a mindset that is equipped not with an expectation of destination but with a question, namely: is this still a good direction? Because we lack such a detailed and definitive vision of the end goal, we are less attached and therefore able to pivot with more agility.
This is not to say that we should not have any vision for the future, but that our grasp of how exactly that vision is accomplished should be infinitely pliable. This requires shedding our vision of all discrete details in honor of its most fundamental nature – a concept which is simple and vague by default and detailed only as it emerges in reality through our own discrete actions.
We might think of the jaws of a lion which gingerly carries a cub and yet also has the power to crush in execution. We do best to remain gingerly attached to the image of our vision and dreams while being able to specifically crush small detailed actions.
Each action on the wandering road of progress is a new start as we receive new information about our efforts, and yet, the most difficult step is naturally the first.
This first initial step can become much easier if we grease our mentality by unburdening it with a need for a final detailed outcome, lightening the cognitive and emotional load, freeing up our movement to curiously wander in potentially productive directions.
We are ultimately hindered by a belief that we need to do it all.
Instead, we can
April 11th, 2019
In the realm of probability, it’s often been mentioned that if monkeys were left to bang away at typewriters, they would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare verbatim.
Indeed, the evolutionarily informed thinker might look at our long biological history and see that’s exactly what happened.
A different thought experiment might sub-out the typewriter for something else. Say a pencil and paper.
Both the paper-pencil combo and the typewriter are equally capable in producing a reproduction of Shakespeare’s works, and yet there’s an obvious and fundamental difference.
Not only is a typewriter faster, but it’s usage is also far more narrow. It only produces letters, numbers and punctuation, whereas a pencil and paper can produce an infinitely larger set of graphical combinations.
In this way the pencil-and-paper combo might seem superior, but if we remember our thought experiment about the Monkey’s producing Shakespeare, it’s clear that given the pencil-and-paper, there are far more actions and combinations of actions that the Monkeys could undertake, and therefore in all likelihood it would take far longer for Shakespeare to materialize on the page than if actions were limited to the keys of a typewriter.
The two concepts at play here are Constraints and Speed. The typewriter has far more constraints, but given the task we are testing for, it is far faster, not just in the production of each iteration but overall, whereas the pencil-and-paper combo lacks constraints and speed.
The typewriter in this thought experiment may function as an allegory for our habits and discipline. What we do routinely, within the constraints of habit inevitably aim towards a narrow set of eventual outcomes. By narrowing the variety of actions we take in these realms there may be a higher set of these actions that actually hit the button – so to speak – regarding our progress towards a goal. Habits and discipline, if mindfully designed and carried out can have a compounding effect. Poor habits likewise have a compounding effect that can sink us on a slope that gets steeper and steeper as we go.
But unlike the Monkeys of our thought experiments who are either relegated towards fast and narrow iteration with the typewriter, or slow and open iteration with the pencil-and-paper, we humans get to have our cake and eat it too.
Not only can we initiate and entrench good habits that continually give back to us, but we can make a habit of pausing, to zoom out from our own circumstance to try and look at that circumstance in a larger context where the narrowness of habits dissolve for an important moment.
From such a standpoint we can imagine forward and wonder if our discipline and habits are aimed in useful directions, and if not, we can creatively change up our habits, like switching tools, in order to hone in on a more interesting future.
April 10th, 2019
More so than all human conventions, the two things that exert a tremendous non-negotiable force upon our lives are gravity and time.
It’s perhaps fitting that one of our first inventions to measure one was done so by harnessing the other: namely gravity is used in the hourglass to measure time.
While the extrapolations of advanced physics seem to indicate that these forces are perhaps pliable in extreme circumstances, either through speed or proximity to mass, as time and gravity relate to the average person here on earth, they are reliable and unapologetic constants.
Beyond any god or creed, faith in gravity and the passage of time is so innate to our experience that we do not even question our relation to such forces through something as counter-intuitive as ‘faith’.
And yet, even advanced physics struggles to provide a satisfying description as to exactly how and why time and gravity function as they do. These forces are incredibly reliable without giving up their secrets. Through this puzzling lens, such forces almost sound supernatural, and yet they comprise two of the most fundamental aspects of what is natural.
Regardless of what mechanics reside within these black boxes, it is their reliability and juggernaut consistency that we must keep front and center while negotiating what we do in life. Time pushes us forward, no matter how much we kick and scream, no matter how paralyzed we feel, no matter how nostalgic we are for the past nor how much we dread the future.
Memory and imagination, no matter how flawed they be are the only weapons we have against this interminable march.
One linking us to times now past and the other a cloud of what might be.
We are essentially force fed with memories of our ability or inability to make the best of the moment.
Best to Pause and use that present moment for an honest assessment about how that present moment is usually used.
Because unlike an hourglass that can be flipped and started over,
there is no flipping life and starting again.