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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
May 8th, 2019
Modern life is replete with all manner of vicious cycles that can gently grasp a person and slowly nudge them into a quickening whirlpool that descends towards velocities and forces that become harder and harder to escape.
These can all gather unto themselves in such powerful ways that some people quite literally do not ever escape such a fate.
It is perhaps no surprise that these three vicious cycles in particular can often have overlap. All three of these revolve in some way around chronic forms of stress. Debt can easily cause this stress, such stress can be a major contributing factor to depression, and addiction is often a short-term solution to such stress and depression.
The neuroendocrinologist Dr. Robert Sapolsky has been at the forefront of elucidating just how toxic chronic stress is for people. From digestive problems to accelerated aging to diminished portions of the brain crucial for learning and memory, stress, if activated for sustained periods slowly kills people.
With regards to the vicious cycles that we might encounter and get sucked down into, it should seem like an obvious catch-22. The more chronic stress a person experiences, the less equipped they become to invent a viable way out of the situation that is causing such stress.
It’s well correlated that financial stress lowers fluid IQ. And this is the kind of problem where utilizing as much intelligence as possible is crucial if not fundamental to changing and improving one’s financial situation. Such a correlation makes it far more likely, indeed increasingly likely that the more stress a person feels on account of debt, the less likely they will be able to muster some ingenuity and see a solution out of such a situation.
This is a positive feedback loop, pure and simple. But for the individual who gets sucked into such a vicious cycle there is absolutely nothing positive about it.
The symmetrical view here is to say that a person’s intelligence, under the influence of such chronic stress enters a negative feedback loop. As stress begins to have an effect on a person’s ability to make good decisions and therefore make bad decisions more likely, the fallout of such bad decisions again make more bad decisions even more likely. It’s reasonable to say that fluid intelligence in this case is stuck in a negative feedback loop where less optimal decisions hobble available intelligence for future decisions.
This horrible Maelström, like the one in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, does have a few counter-intuitive hacks embedded in it’s nature.
In Poe’s short story a sailor gets sucked down into a Maelström and as he’s swirling round and round, clinging to the deck of the ship he’s on, he becomes calm and merely begins to observe the chaos around him. In that calmness he observes that objects of a certain shape get tossed out of the Maelström back up to safer waters.
It would seem crazy to abandon a ship, but the sailor lashes himself to an object like the ones he sees escape the Maelström and he jumps overboard, and inevitably his observation serves him well. He escapes the Maelström.
The counter-intuitive aspect of this situation is key, and it can serve anyone who likewise finds themselves trapped in some vicious cycle.
It’s perfectly reasonable to think that if the sailor had remained in a state of panic he never would have made his key observation.
Poe intuits a truth about stress that is exactly what researchers like Dr. Robert Sapolsky have illuminated.
For the person suffering from financial stress, or any other whirlpool of stress, the first solution is not necessarily to meet the problem head on.
The Maelström can be cracked if we first Pause and address the root cause of inability: stress.
This is the true whirlpool that is perpetuating many bad situations, and if that stress is first addressed, than our minds can become more able and adept at solving the external problems of our life.
But how we might wonder if it’s an external problem that is causing such stress, as with debt?
Luckily, the most effective forms of stress-reduction are free: such as meditation.
It may seem somewhat absurd that a person with debt spiraling out of control should meditate. Such a person should work harder, right?
Though, would it not serve such a person better to work smarter instead of just harder?
What if we can work harder and smarter? Might we resolve our problems quicker?
The tiny amount of time required each day for meditation to have a substantial impact on the reduction of stress can pay compounding dividends in terms of a person’s ability to then think more clearly and with ingenuity.
Like Poe’s sailor who becomes strangely calm, meditation, with a couple short months of dedicated practice can bring a calmness to a person that may enable them to make a key insight, one that might help them crack the Maelström and escape it, instead of fruitlessly trying to fight it.
May 7th, 2019
These two concepts are at odds with one another. One of these concepts is an honest assessment of how far we have come whereas the other is often an imagined certainty about the future. Progress is that honest assessment, however it too is mapped forward into the future, as in, the progress we hope to make. It is an active verb that we push forward with into the future.
We do so presumably with plans, however a plan is a cold and static noun. And because of that, plans should be kept relatively short so that we can quickly gain any result and feedback generated by acting on such a plan and forgo the risk of marching off in unproductive directions for long periods of time simply in the name of the plan.
The longer we spend marching off in an unproductive direction, and the more we invest in a sunk cost of such a direction, the longer it takes to make a useful pivot away from such an ineffective plan. This pivot also becomes less likely as the cognitive fallacy of sunk-cost accumulates in the mind.
Plans are somewhat confused with instructions. They appear extremely similar in their make up. Both are a blueprint for some achievable end. The difference of course is that instructions are tried and true ways of a achieving whatever ends they instruct. Plans, on the other hand are educated guesses at best. The similarity between these two is unfortunate because people can easily fall into a false sense of security about the efficacy of a plan in the same way we can often rightfully rely on instructions. Any plan, however, is far from tried and true.
Progress, as an active verb that describes the future we aim to create, requires a strategy that is equally active and agile.
Our strategy is ultimately and ideally an arsenal of mental models and evolving cognitive frameworks that should change based on newly acquired information. Once an understanding of this information is integrated into these models and frameworks, that combined strategy then outputs a plan. The smaller and more concrete the better.
If however our plans are large, vague and reach far into the future, there is most likely gross weaknesses within our cognitive framework and the mental models that it employs.
This lack of robustness and antifragility within our cognitive framework leaves us vulnerable to many cognitive mistakes, namely in this case, the sunk-cost fallacy wherein we follow a plan irrespective of new information that indicates that abandoning the plan would be a better plan. In such a case our strategy lacks the ability to cut emotional ties to such plan and print out a new plan that successfully incorporates new information. The mental skill here is the ability to continually question one’s current efforts and size them up against the core aims that we seek to achieve. If they cease to match, than we need to slip such anchors and sail in new directions.
Progress and the perseverance to pursue such progress require a strategy that can evolve plans quickly. An absolute necessity of taking action on quickly evolving plans benefits both from our ability to emotionally distance our self from current lines of action, but also from shorter plans. The shorter the plan, the quicker it can be carried out and the faster we can potentially receive more information to update our strategy and pivot –even if only slightly- towards a tighter range in which direction we sense our goal may lie.
Progress, in retrospect looks like a set of instructions. The narrative is always clear and seems obvious after the fact, but progress while looking forward has none of this clarity nor certainty. Looking forward, progress is a probability cloud that we are constantly seeking to shrink as we take action and integrate information. The smaller and tighter our plans that we formulate to carry out this process, the quicker and more efficiently we shrink that probability cloud of the future where our goals may exist. Ultimately, if our goal is possible and we can pivot intelligently towards it, or stumble with luck on to it, that probability cloud vanishes as the future becomes the present where our goal emerges.
This episode references Episode 37: The Instructions are Always Written Afterwards and Episode 72: Persevere vs. Pivot
May 6th, 2019
First a quick explanation of the title for this episode. The symbol of the white diamond represented on playing cards is not intended to be a diamond but rather two instances of the letter ‘V’, one flipped and stacked on top the other. This may sound a little convoluted right now, but this image is a perfect synthesis of two cycles that are often explored on Tinkered Thinking – so much so that they deserve their own episode so the concept can be properly explored, explained and so that future references can be more efficiently directed to a thorough and definitive explanation of the concept.
The two cycles in question are namely:
Each one begins with the letter ‘v’ and the letter ‘v’ as a symbol is evocative of a pictorial representation of what each cycle looks like if we were to try and form a graphical image of these processes.
A Vicious cycle is most easily visualized as a whirlpool, the cross-section of which looks like a ‘V’ with concave sides.
We are all familiar with that mythic image of the primordial sailor clinging to some piece of wreckage while going round and round and getting sucked down faster and faster into some monstrous vortex. This is the most literal example of a vicious cycle.
Edgar Allen Poe’s short story ‘A Descent into the Maelström’ is a visceral and tense example of the sailor’s story.
Our own personal bad habits are the closest and most intimate examples of vicious cycles.
Such vicious cycles are what propel people to eat themselves into obesity, or smoke until cancer fills their body, or complain, bicker and berate in their relationships until they are lonely and bitter.
Vicious cycles have two main aspects that are notably insidious:
They are slow in the beginning. Like the subtle trends of current moving in the water, a sailor does not even notice that such a current is having much effect on the course of the boat. Those beginning outer edges of the vicious cycle are akin to the long tentacles of a jellyfish – seemingly innocuous, silently present and inconspicuous as to where they are rooted.
The second aspect of vicious cycles that is of even greater cause for worry is that once we are stuck in a vicious cycle it becomes increasingly difficult to fight against the current and influence of such a vicious cycle through brute force alone.
The behavior we have performed everyday for the last thousand days is very likely to happen tomorrow. A clean and lasting break from such behavior is rare because there is so much momentum behind it in the form of neural structure and firing pattern. Parts of the brain even seem to be wired to help us fall into such vicious traps. The most ready example is sugar; since it was so rare during the large majority of our physiological evolution, that physiology structured itself to predispose our behavior towards chasing after such caloric resources. There was never a risk of over-indulging as there is today because such caloric abundance was simply non-existent, and so we never evolved any kind of built-in safeguard against today’s over-indulgence.
Financial stress, primarily in the form of debt is also an accessible example of a vicious cycle in action. For the vast majority of people, financial insecurity creates a chronic source of stress. While stress is actually very good for the brain in small punctuated doses, continuous stress creates the opposite effect. Chronic stress impedes the brain’s ability to function well, and predisposes a person to making decisions based on short-term outcomes, as opposed to long-term benefit.
Simply, the process – once in place – entrenches itself deeper and deeper.
The phrase, digging one’s own grave comes to mind: the deeper we dig a hole, the harder it is to climb out.
Many such vicious cycles, if not hacked and cracked, can ultimately cost people their relationships, their health, their careers, and ultimately their lives in direct or indirect ways.
Virtuous cycles, on the other hand have the exact same structure, but in the reverse direction.
Instead of a vortex in the sea that pulls a sailor down into death and oblivion, we can picture a mountain, shaped like a cone. And in this case, we have a mountain climber who walks around the base of the mountain while slowly aiming upwards. Each circuit around the mountain increases the climber’s altitude and each circuit is also shorter, making the time to the top shorter and shorter. If we picture the top of the mountain as some sort of goal, than each circuit around the mountain gets a person closer to their goal faster as each succeeding circuit grows smaller.
It’s also perfectly reasonable to simply visualize switchbacks up the face of a mountain as is usually the case. At the bottom the switchbacks are long, and each switchback gets shorter until the trail is pivoting back and forth so quickly that the hiker is nearly walking straight up.
While such images work well with regards to goals that we accomplish, the definitive peak presents a slight allegorical inconsistency if we apply the image to good habits.
Whether it be diet, exercise, or something like meditation, there is no final and definitive goal. Maintaining might be a more appropriate word, though the hope with all three areas is to have continual improvement.
In this case the rise upward is more like an asymptote. To visualize this we might imagine a mountain that continually gets narrow towards a point, but also has infinite height. In such a case, there is simply no end to the amount to which we can improve.
Just as we can have a perfect storm of bad habits – all vicious cycles that together overwhelm us to some final and tragic end, we can also have a collection of good habits that compound with one another to create results that are unachievable with one alone. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts in this case.
Turning one’s life around by turning vicious cycles into virtuous ones is the difficult and innately counter-intuitive hack that we are all looking for in one way or another, and to which the rest of Tinkered Thinking seeks to explore.
May 5th, 2019
Lucilius eased the brake and looked back at the trailer load. The stack of solar panels were all still in place atop the camper and the compost containers, seed cache, and drones were still secured where the backseats used to be. He looked forward, towards bright blue sky cracked by the dark silhouette of the ridge top. He turned to a set of filing cabinets that were bolted in place where a passenger seat used to be. He unclicked the lock and pulled one of the drawers open revealing rows of gas masks that he had collected during his excursions through old urban areas. He checked the filters on the most recent mask he had been using.
They weren’t terribly dirty. So he fitted the mask over his head and wiggled the seal into place on his stubbled skin. He had forgotten to shave and the seal was not as tight as it could be.
He pulled out a pad of paper and noted down an instruction to shave before eastern planting excursions.
Again he looked up at the ridge blurring from the bright sky. A high pressure, so the likelihood of a dust storm was low. No need for a perfect seal, and good for planting. He volleyed the peddles gently and a light whine of electric motors sung out from the buggy.
Years ago he had cut down a Tesla to bare motors, battery-pack and seats. The missing body afforded room to install tractor tires, lifting the carbon fiber underbelly high above the underbrush and debris that littered the mountain trails he had carved out through the range.
Lucilius had been making these eastern excursions during the winter months for years, and now, with the heat of summer releasing some grasp he was mounting the last ridge, wondering what he’d find.
The Western slopes before the plains had all barely survived, much of it brown, but none of it had burned. He had replanted these slopes half a dozen times during the last decade and finally the soil seemed to be thick enough and rich enough to hold enough water throughout the hot months. Lucilius allowed no hope to be born of the thought knowing full well how the next year could bring again tornadoes of fire to whisk away his work in ashes.
The buggy jolted along the path, the Tesla motors whining. Lucilius lifted an old digital watch he had wired into the Tesla computer to give a readout on the battery life. He still had ample juice to get home in case any of the solar panels shorted out.
The wheels came to the ridge edge and Lucilius eased the brakes, getting a view of the plains extending out to the Mackenzie River all the way to Fort Simpson where the river forked into the Jean Marie.
The flat land had turned to desert and as the winds had grown hotter and fiercer over the decades, dunes began to appear.
Lucilius carefully lead the buggy over the ridge to a point where he could turn his train of equipment around and then back it out towards the edge of the eastern slopes. He got out of the buggy, and tapped an old and cracked Ipad to life. He initialized some programs he had written and with a hum and a jolt the solar panels atop the camper trailer began to unfold and spreading, lifted, as the team of panels angled to face the sun.
He then went to the seed cache and removed cartridges that were loaded with thousands of seed packets formed like arrowheads, arranged neatly. He clicked a cartridge into the first drone and a second cartridge into the other drone and hit their power buttons.
Picking up the cracked Ipad once more, he connected the drones via Bluetooth and initialized their scanning program. The drones buzzed to life and shot up into the sky and zipped out over the eastern slopes.
Lucilius had been experimenting with different lattice patterns for planting his trees over the last decade, constantly trying the optimal spacing between trees so that the natural growth pattern could advance fastest on its own. Only within the last year had he amassed enough data from planting patterns and recorded growth results to feed a neural net in order to find a more precise answer. After much tinkering with the neural net, it finally seemed to produce a result: it was a strange fractal pattern that looked both messy and sensible, reminding Lucilius of old static patterns on dead T.V. channels. He was a little disappointed, but unsurprised: it looked nothing like the beautiful lattice and grid patterns that Lucilius had tried over the years.
The drones were scanning the eastern slopes for topographical information and soil composition. All the information was relayed back to the Ipad to calculate optimal spacing for seed pods and compost deposits. Meanwhile, Lucilius opened the camper door and then tapped another program to life on the Ipad. The camper thudded as electric motors whined to life. An old Boston Dynamics Atlas robot stamped out of the camper door, easing the wheel suspension. Years ago Lucilius had managed to snag three of the heavy robots from an Amazon warehouse, and now only one remained as parts in the three bots had worn and broken forcing Lucilius to swap and recompile the pieces that still functioned.
The robot walked around the camper to the compost bins and lifted one over it’s head and rested it on hooks welded onto the back of it’s frame. Then it jogged off towards the eastern slopes where Lucilius’ program had determined optimal spots for planting.
Lucilius watched the robot, sighing at the fact that technology had never managed to develop a personality to put behind the robot before everything crumbled. It was a silent automaton, and Lucilius pondered for a moment about the old space dramas that he had soaked up as a kid. How much lighter the situation could be with a stale joke, or some cynical observation. He smiled to himself beneath the mask and lifted the Ipad once more.
The drones moved through their patterns in the sky, pausing to launch steel-tipped seed packets at earth freshly composted by the Atlas robot, Lucilius went into the camper and removed a telescope and tripod and casually set it on the horizon. He went back and took out a 50 caliber Barrett rifle and tripod and set it up next to the telescope along with a beach chair that he unfolded. He flopped down into the beach chair and rubbed his eyes.
The man was tired. He had been driving since long before sunrise and sleep was threading its sticky fingers through his mind. He thought for a moment about sitting up and scanning the horizon for dust storms with the telescope, but he was tired. He had his mask on, he reasoned, and slowly his closed eyes softened to a slumber. As he drifted off to sleep he remembered from a different life a time when he had an office job, everyday sitting in a cubical, every morning falling asleep on the bus, and thinking now how his new office job was no different. Everyday the same, fine tuning programs, fixing hardware, venturing further, planting, watching growth and hoping that disaster would keep at bay just long enough for tiny efforts to get the upper hand. All the years of effort were probably for nothing, he figured, knowing how one extreme event in the new weather could roast all his work through the many mountains and valleys. But he couldn’t care and never would, smiling ever so slightly as he relaxed into sleep.
May 4th, 2019
The shape of language has an enormous impact on our thinking, and downstream from there, our thinking has an enormous impact on our behavior. The language that we use, especially with ourselves ultimately has a large influence on our behavior.
Much of what people say is really in order to hear what they actually think about a given topic. This is the forgivable drive behind the pervasive problem that we all experience in conversation when someone fails to listen with the intent to understand; most people are simply waiting for their turn to speak in order to further explore what they actually think about a given topic. We are, in some sense curiously eager to find out more about who we find ourselves to be. While this can be funneled into an extremely productive behavior, like with writing, the times when we engage in such exploration are often misplaced and plopped in the spots of life when we should be outwardly focused and listening to that loved one or colleague or stranger.
Getting this placement of listening versus talking to discover one’s own thoughts creates an enormous opportunity with regards to our network. To effectively indicate to a person that you’ve listened is to gain trust and kinship, regardless of how much we might differ in terms of ideas.
The shape of language, however, has an extended effect where the component of behavior is heavily influenced.
What we say, and how we say it is always something that we ourselves hear. This is obvious, but the implications are not. We hear what we say , but then we act in accordance to what we’ve heard.
We are constantly trying to achieve something in line with a consistent fabric of personality, so if we hear ourselves say something like,
I can’t draw.
Then we are likely to believe it. Since we understand it as a fact about ourselves that comes from a source that is the most reliable from an emotional standpoint, (i.e. ourselves), we are furthermore very unlikely to actually try and draw.
Attempting to prove ourselves wrong about a given belief regarding who we are is counter to our fabric of consistency, but it is a relative superpower when it comes to levelling-up among a sea of people who are holding themselves back through the shape of the language upon which their thinking and their behavior operates.
Using the word Yet at the end of such limiting statements flips their meaning and actually propels us against who we find ourselves to be currently. Episode 100 of Tinkered Thinking explores this word-hack in depth.
But the shape of language extends far beyond this single example. The way we word problems that we try to solve also has a substantial impact on whether or not we are likely to find a solution. The questions that we can effectively pose against the way we word such problems can ultimately crack any limiting structures that we ourselves have built.
Single words often contain whole extended narratives that have influences on our behavior in seemingly backchannel ways, and in these cases the way we describe and build our identity with such words often works more as a prison as opposed to a springboard towards an improved personal agency.
This is why it’s wise to keep one’s identity small and to always be aware of the dangers of identity. The language that surrounds identity is often very rigid by default and lacks the fluidity that would otherwise allow a person to change their thinking and behavior and ultimately the situation of life in which they find themselves.
Moving aside all of these negatives with regards to the shape of language, we might wonder about the flip of such curiosities.
What shapes can we create with language that form –not prison cells, but ships that can enable us to set sail, wings that can give us the ability to fly, and rocket ships that we can use to explore totally alien worlds of thought, action and achievement?
The truth is, everything people say is fairly honest. Even the liars are speaking in perfect accordance with who they are, and if we listen carefully, nothing anyone says should ever be all that surprising.
This applies most poignantly to the one person we listen to the closest and the most:
Our own self.
Take care with the way you build words. They inevitably build who you are.