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SCHOOL?

May 27th, 2020

 

This episode is dedicated to Abhishek who you can connect with on Twitter at the handle @manipulateit

 

What is the value of higher education these days?  A fair question that is getting tossed around quite a bit in recent months as the whole enterprise tries to make a difficult pivot in response to current health risks.

 

Examine first the quality of the question.  What are we trying to get at when we ask what is the value of higher education?

 

Intimately connected with the value of anything – especially that for which you pay for – is the purpose of the thing you pay for.  The value of a screwdriver is pretty well related to it’s ability to help you drive screws into a wall.  A more expensive screwdriver – the value of it – likely has to do with it’s ability to hold up through time, perhaps with an enhanced metal, or perhaps it has a fancy mechanism for the purpose of quickly switching between different types of bits.

 

What happens when we return to the subject of education with this question?

 

What is the purpose of higher education?

 

Well, it seems to depend.  If your goal is to become a surgeon, then higher education is really the only path to explore a way towards that option.  The purpose of higher education is pretty clear in this instance.  But what about a region of study like literature? 

 

What is the purpose of a literature degree?

 

The answer doesn’t matter in light of the fact that people would answer this in a variety of ways that span the entire spectrum from positive to negative.  Some would scoff at it, claiming it a waste of time and money.  While others will swear by the wisdom and exposure to the depth of human nature that can be found within.  Still others might claim it has to do with writing.

 

Do we get such a variety and conflict of opinion when we talk about the purpose of a medical degree?

 

No, not at all.

 

This brings to light the first mistake while trying to assess the value or purpose of higher education.  It really does depend.

 

Some goals and achievements have fairly well defined paths, while others do not.  Perhaps the thorn stuck in the sole of higher education is the fact that most goals and achievements do not have well defined paths, and thereby resist institutionalization.  For example, there is no course nor degree that is going to guarantee fantastic wealth, just as there is no course nor degree that guarantees you’ll gain the ability to write a novel that will endure the harsh test of time.  These are achievable goals, but the resist the framework of planning.  There is a certain degree of chaos or randomness that simply cannot be anticipated in a meaningful way.  Such goals require an evolving process that is capable of responding to the present in a dynamic, flexible way.  The hound has no idea if the rabbit went left or right until the hound’s nose gets there and can smell it out.  So too is the path of the artist or the entrepreneur.  There are perhaps heuristics for honing such flexible skills, but they certainly aren’t taught in higher education, and if they are in any meaningful way, these courses and professors compose a very small niche within a larger framework.  One would have to be lucky to find or come across such courses.

 

An example of this may be a course that Tim Ferriss often talks about.  Apparently he took a course called High Tech Entrepreneurship.  This is certainly a niche topic, especially when you consider that this was on offer over a decade ago, long before the advent of a platform like Shopify which enables people to create an online store with little hassle.

 

Many people claim that the purpose of higher education is that you learn how to think, but even with this, we land squarely into the same situation just discussed.  You still have to get lucky when it comes to your professors, and the courses they teach.  Professors are emphatically not created equally, nor are they equally effective.  Some are downright awful.  There is the joke about tenured professors being like sea slugs.  The joke is that when a sea slug finds a place to settle down permanently like a tenured professor, it then eats it’s own brain because it no longer needs it.  The joke wouldn’t exist if there weren’t an infuriating amount of truth under the hood.  This is not to take away from the fact that there are astonishingly good professors to be found in higher education – it’s only to say that you still have to get a bit lucky to fall in their lap.

 

Another claim about the purpose of higher education is that it gives you the room to explore.  For the large majority of students, this idea is pure horseshit for one simple reason:  the cost.  Paying huge amounts of money in order to explore subjects just to be saddled with debt upon graduation while riding on the notion that a student will just curiously stumble upon a fantastic way to use the knowledge imparted by the university to effortlessly pay off these loans is pure fantasy – hence the student debt crisis.

 

The core problem is that there’s a disconnect between the type of feedback students receive in university, and the type of feedback people receive in the real world.  A student would have two vastly different experiences if they were to receive a D- for a business proposal written for a business class, and losing $1,000 of their own money during an attempt to bring the exact same business proposal to life in the real world.  And yet, chances are the student still paid $1,000 for the class.  The student loses the same amount of money without really learning anything meaningful about the world – a professor’s opinion about a business plan will never –ever- be able to approximate the response of the world to such a business, simply because the markets have the unpredictability, that randomness discussed earlier.  If such things could be planned then it would be an ex-professor chilling on a beach in Mexico having gotten rich off of the idea of a fidget spinner.  In fact, it makes no sense that business professors even exist because if the principles they teach are so effective, then those professors would be implementing them in order to create the best life possible.  Hats off of course to professors who have built extremely successful businesses, or who also operate successful businesses.  Chances are these people have something worth listening to.  But otherwise, why would a person ever take advice from a business professor who has never built a successful business?  A bird might as well learn how to fly by listening to the instruction of a fish. 

 

Higher education certainly is a ripe place for exploration, but not when it has a lead pricetag.  The money allocated for such education would probably be better spent as seed money for an individual’s life.

 

Think of it this way:  Here’s four years of education, and at the end of it you have a piece of paper, maybe some applicable knowledge, but you also have tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

 

Or.  Here’s ten thousand dollars, go try to make money.  A person can then get a job that requires no qualifications and then just hold steady with some savings.  Or, they can allocate half of it to living expenses for a few months and the other half to a business idea, and then if it all fails, they still get the job that requires no qualifications, but they’ll have learned something during the process. 

 

Considering the enormous student population that can’t effectively pay off their student loans, it’s either because they didn’t learn anything valuable enough during that higher education to enable them to pay off those loans, or the whole damn this is a trap, or perhaps even a bit of both.  And do note, the word ‘valuable’ in that last sentence refers to what the market deems valuable, not what a person finds personally or emotionally valuable. 

 

The key concept that is missing from this discussion of higher education is the optimal challenge.  An optimal challenge creates growth, and this occurs because the challenge is not so difficult that it paralyzes the individual, and it’s hard enough that it forces the individual to move past their comfort zone.  What happens to many students who graduate with oddles of debt is that they are suddenly faced with a gargantuan problem that is drastically different than the sort of challenges that are a part of higher education.  The size of financial debt pushes this far past optimal, and makes it an extreme challenge, one specifically marked with a particularly insidious factor:

 

Chronic stress, the variety that often if not always comes with financial difficulties and debt has a reliably negative effect on the way the human brain operates.  Chronic stress – to put it very simplistically, quite literally makes an individual dumber.  For a thorough understanding of how this happens, Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s book entitled Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers is required, non-negotiable reading.  It’s simply a fact of human biology that the overwhelming majority of us are going to perform poorly in all sorts of ways if we are saddled with enormous debt.  Of course there will be outliers, but to point at such people as examples that anyone can somehow emulate is analogous to criticizing someone for not being taller.  Dealing with such stress well, while that exists in some people, is simply not the human default, which means that most people are going to end up crippled with stress.

 

There are of course strategies that a person in financial distress can adopt in order to clear the effect of such stress on their brain, like meditation and exercise, but this is still besides the point because the situation is still too extreme, and the subject at hand is the value, purpose and effectiveness of higher education, and whether or not it is providing an optimal challenge. 

 

The purpose of higher education most emphatically should not be to plop someone into a situation that is so difficult to recover from that it’s only possible to solve with unusual luck or unusual ability.  Unfortunately, not everyone has unusual ability, by default of the fact that such abilities are not usually found. 

 

Higher education might provide an optimal challenge on it’s own terms within it’s own institutional environment, but in the larger context of a person’s life, such optimal challenges are clearly not translating well to the challenges graduates are faced with in a post-school life.

 

Speaking about these issues on the scale of populations, is ultimately a speculative endeavor.  Only on an individual level do these issues ossify into practical points about how to navigate the way forwards.

 

If an individual has a dream or goal that can only be achieved through the institutional tunnel of higher education, like becoming a doctor, then the path is pretty straight forward.  But if such an individual has a goal or a dream that can be achieved in many ways, it’s certainly worth the time and effort to wonder if higher education is the best way to go about that goal.  Does it serve an individual’s goal to finally arrive at the beginning of the monopoly board shouldered with debt? ( Even in that cruel game, we start off with money and we get paid just for playing when we pass go. )

 

If we go back to that example of the individual who uses 10 grand to run a little business experiment, we can see an optimal challenge.  Even if the business experiment is a total failure, there are lessons learned.  But more importantly, it’s not a huge setback to be at zero.  A year of hard work at a base level job can pump the funds back up to try another experiment.  A string of failures in this fashion would likely still be far more educational for an individual than our run-of-the-mill MBA.  And if one of these experiments actually works in any meaningful way?

 

Anyone who has a deep interest in their own education eventually realizes that reality is the one true classroom.  And in many ways, the classrooms in schools function like an inaccurate warp of the real world.  We can get stuck trying to respond to all problems the way they were solved in the classroom, and fail to figure out that there is a whole new set of puzzles to solve outside of the classroom that often require a person to become their own teacher.

 

While there exist an endless network of people who can teach us and help us with an incredible variety of things, ultimately, success can’t be taught, it’s something each of us has to figure out.


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Podcast Ep. 773: School?

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LOOPHOLE

May 26th, 2020

 

Is a loophole good or bad?  It seems to inherit a bit from both worlds.  It’s good for the individual who can use it and it seems to imply something unfair about the system in which it’s found.  Or is it just evidence of an imperfect system? Which raises the question:

 

Is it bad to make use of a loophole that you find?

 

It’s no secret that the bloated complexity of law is erected for the purpose of being taken advantage of by those who know the variegated holes in all it’s looping complication.  It’s from privileged positions such as these that loopholes garner a reputation of unfairness.

 

But then again, is it really a loophole if you consciously embedded it?

 

How might we better think of this loophole phenomenon?

 

Tearing the word apart and thinking about it a bit literally makes the concept a bit more personal.  Everyday we are waking up and going about our routines.  Some of these are powerful and treasured, whether that be something as simple as the first cup of coffee or something with deep impact like a hard-won meditation practice.  Many of our habits and habitual obligations, however, do not benefit us, and if anything form constant sources of frustration and stress.

 

The commute to work – it’s quite literally a loop, to and from work, undertaken hundreds of times a year, and fraught with the perfect combination of factors to perfectly stress out a human being.  Traffic jams, road rage, construction detours, strings of red lights and cops on the prowl for filling monthly quotas. 

 

For those who have been able to retain their job during this unprecedented year, many such people have had a hole poked in this obnoxious loop of the daily commute.  Turns out, it’s possible for many people to work from home.  While it’s not a benefit for everyone, a large cross section of this population is enjoying the new loophole.  Rarely are such loopholes discovered en masse.

 

Many of the loops upon which we function are embedded on the deepest level possible: on a neurological level.

 

We all have bad habits that we’d love to shed, and each time we go around that loop, the behavior seems to get entrenched deeper and deeper.  It can seem as though we are locked in the system of our own behavior.  We listen to loud and hard protestations about willpower and just doing it, and much of this talk just makes a person feel even more powerless in the face of the inertia they feel from their own past.

 

Will power, and for that matter free will, need not even be a part of the conversation.  The desire to somehow be better is ever present, for nearly all of us, and this makes the idea of a ‘decision’ to somehow magically be better a bit of a trap.

 

 

And just like the random individual who realizes that it’s much much easier to replace a bad habit with a different habit as opposed to just going cold turkey, we can pay closer attention to our behavior, and watch as we go round and round in the same old ways and search for the hole in the loop through which we can escape to a better life.


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Podcast Ep. 772: Loophole

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DANCING PERFECTION

May 25th, 2020

 

A perfect ideal can amputate our progress in two ways:  it can permanently bridle our attempts to even get started as we try to plan a way to achieve the perfect, and it can also keep our efforts iterating in perpetuity as we seek that impossible instance when we finally produce that perfection.

 

Having a vision for the end product of a project is often what gets us motivated to start and keeps the wheels turning during the whole slog of a process.  A vision, and even an ideal is a good thing, working the way North does in relation to a compass.  Ideals and a vision create a larger, simpler structure which helps us navigate smaller decisions with greater ease.  Should it be orange or purple?  How does this serve the greater mission? 

 

Is this question even relevant to the larger mission?

 

That question is key to finding a balance between perfection and progress.  Spending gobs of time trying to decide between two close shades of blue is a waste of time.  It’s a way of procrastinating and it sacrifices progress.  The final product will almost never be what we initially imagine, and so the question becomes:

 

On what points do we hold our ground, and what do we let slide?

 

We can rephrase the question and sharpen it up in order to provoke answers:

 

How much can change without losing sight of the vision we have in mind?

 

As reality boils an idea with progress, the answer to this question turns out to be a lot.  Sometimes these changes are call tradeoffs or compromises.  And for such people who think of such developments only in these terms, it’s unfortunate.

 

Another way to approach this pesky and often disappointing notion of tradeoffs is to think of the vision, the final product as something that the future has in store for you.  Progress is what reveals how it exists in reality.  If, just for this situation, we think of life as a movie, with the ending predetermined, already scripted, acted and shot, then as the real project morphs and shapes itself in the direction of our vision, reality reveals this part of our story.  We can begin to see the process more like a dance as opposed to some arduous birth.  The point of life isn’t some final product.  Just as the point of a dance is the entire process, and not some final outcome, for which, with dance, there isn’t any tangible outcome.  The process is the outcome. 

 

We can take the same view of any endeavor.  As fate seems to slam down upon our efforts, and our determination rises, the necessity of perfection can shed from the progress.  The question can become:

 

Ok, what shape does this vision have to take in order to exist at all?

 

This, in a single question, is evolution.  All species are doing this, all the time.  Changing as needed and as possible in order to continue existing.

 

The evolution of a project is best served by following similar strategies.  Species change in response to their circumstance, and sometimes the circumstance changes because of how species change.  The volley is a constant dance, and so to must be our efforts.

 

Notice that the questions throughout this episode are all effectively the same question.  But each one evokes a slightly different perspective.  Each question is a step in the dance of these words with your brain, with an attempt to paint an overall point in your mind.  The degree of success such a process has had is certainly variable depending on an enumerable slew of factors.  But at the very least, the episode found a way to exist.  For better or worse, it’s been interesting to see how the ideas unfolded, even if the final product isn’t perfect.

 


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Podcast Ep. 771: Dancing Perfection

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A LUCILIUS PARABLE: TENDING THE BLOOM

May 24th, 2020

Lucilius kept a garden that extended into a cool stand of woods.  There was no line between the area he tended and the woods that tended themselves.  It was a dance of attention that he paid and had been for many years.  Beyond the bright light of the main garden, he felt he could find deeper sanctuary where the world tended itself.  He was sitting on a huge old root, the spot bare and smooth from years of sitting, surrounded by felt moss.  He opened his eyes from meditation and found that a wild orchid had finally fully bloomed.  The color was like a hole in the canopy, a pop of brightness heldfast in time.

 

Lucilius smiled, having watched the green stem rise over the years, the ghostly roots tapping their way out around the rock that pinched in, to it’s hold in the earth.

 

The sound of taps on the lazy stone path drifted and pulled Lucilius’ gaze toward the way back to the garden.  A young man approached with cowed face, his brow bent round some pain, warning of some question that haunted the man.

 

The young man bowed before Lucilius.

 

Lucilius chuckled.  “No need to bow, my friend.”

 

The young man stuttered to speak.  “I’m told that you have answers.”

 

“Eh,” Lucilius said, amused by the statement.  “Well, it’s not like I keep anything hidden away, so I’m not sure what I have in that respect.”

 

The young man looked confused, nearly afraid, and Lucilius’ compassion for the young man helped him take a different approach.

 

“What can I do for you?”

 

“I want to know how…”  the young man stopped, as though suddenly searching for words that he’d had planned for so long.  “well, I don’t – I don’t like myself.  I hate who, I am.  I can’t stand the person I am.”

 

He fell silent for a moment, the twist of it now out.

 

Sheepishly, he raised his eyes to meet Lucilius.  “And, I want to know how to become someone who does not hate themselves.”

 

Lucilius tilted his head a bit, looking the young man up and down.  He noticed how worn and dirty the man’s sandals were.

 

“Where are you from?”

 

“I have travelled from very far, to ask you this question.  Very far,” the young man said, nodding his head.

 

“You left your people, your family, to travel all this way to ask me?”

 

The young man nodded.

 

“Why would you do such a thing?”

 

The young man looked confused.

 

“If your mother needed a medicine from very far away, would you make the journey to fetch it?”

 

The young man nodded, “yes, of course.”

 

“And why would you do that?  Why would you go through so much trouble for your mother?”

 

“Because she is my mother! And I love her deeply.”

 

“But my boy, don’t you see you’ve just done that?”

 

The young man was confused.  “but I’m not here for medicine to bring my mother.”

 

“You’re right.  You’re not here for your mother.  You came to find medicine for yourself.  If you hated yourself, why did you go through all this trouble, come all this way to try and do something so kind, for yourself?”

 

Lucilius began to shake his head softly as the young man’s eyes were wide with the notion.  The young man looked around, slowly, as though seeing the world anew.  He looked back at the short stone path he’d taken into the wood.

 

“It’s hard for me to see any hate in someone who has already shown such extraordinary kindness.”

 

 


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Podcast Ep. 770: A Lucilius Parable: Tending the Bloom

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MEMORY FASTING

May 23rd, 2020

 

While reading or listening to these words, how is it that we are able to make sense of each and every one?  Memory.  We have some sort of prior experience with each word.  It may be that we’ve never come across this particular combination of words, but our memory of each one individually allows us to connect them in fluid ways.

 

In a very real sense, this sentence is reorganizing your current thoughts by means of plugging into your memory of each word and threading those memories together in a new way in order for you to have a novel experience in the present.

 

But this extends far beyond words.

 

We can identify a chair that we’ve never seen as a chair because we are referencing our memory of chairs.  But beyond this, we are doing it with all categories at all times.  In some sense, our experience of the present is a constant reorganization of past memories.  We are constantly identifying the objects of the present in terms of previously formed categories.

 

It seems as though we are ineluctably tied to the past as a means of making sense of the present.  Our utter dependency on memory to make sense of anything makes it natural and perhaps obvious that the past can be so difficult to let go of.  Not only does it feel as though the past defines who we are, the past is how we define everything else.  A subtle catch-22 seems to arise: how do you escape from the only life-raft you have?

 

How does one become present in the moment without making sense of it with aide from the past?

 

As with anything, with practice.

 

We can take a page from the way the body operates, and apply it to the mind to great effect.  There is a long standing scientific consensus that fasting, that is, not eating, is very healthy for the body.  In recent years a large amount of literature has emerged on the subject and seems to indicate that many of the body’s most incredible superpowers are unlocked by the absence of food.  One example is autophagy.  Given no food, the body starts trolling itself to find poorly made proteins and cells that aren’t doing their job.  It then rips those defunct actors down to their most basic building blocks and then it rebuilds needed parts with a lot more care and attention.  This is just one of the operations that turns on while fasting.

 

Now let’s take this and apply it as a loose analogy to the mind.

 

While meditating, at least in the vipassana tradition, one of the main exercises is to simply dwell in the present moment by focusing on what’s actually going on, the breath entering and exiting the body, the sounds that drift in, the feeling of temperature, and the body’s own weight.  Inevitably this attention is disrupted by some memory of a thing you need to do.  Or a fantasy and dream about the future butts in.  Minutes pass until we snap back to the present and realize we’re far off track of the exercise.

 

But what happens in the total absence of this exercise and without any innate talent or drive to reside peacefully in the present?  Our minds are a sea of memory and hope, swirling with anxieties and desire.

 

How useful are all these desires and worries?

 

A few of them are certainly worth some attention.  But all of them?  Many of the thoughts, memories and desires that plague our experience are like those broken cells and poorly made proteins, roaming the body, spewing toxins and causing trouble and bringing the whole operation down a little.  Many of our thoughts, memories, desires, worries are just as useless, and worse, they bring the whole mind down a little.

 

Meditation is an attempt to have a memory fast.  That is, to let go of the past, and the future alike, and to dwell squarely in the present.  And without that perpetual aid and information of the past, the present moment can take on a surreal aspect, as though everything is again for the first time, and blazingly new.

 

Otherwise, we are essentially force-fed with memories of our ability or inability to make the best of the present.

 

Meditation is a past fast.

 

 

 

 


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Podcast Ep. 769: Memory Fasting

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Appreciation can be more than a feeling. Toss something in the jar if you find your thinking delightfully tinkered.