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THE LUCILIUS PARABLES, VOLUME II

September 27th, 2022

 

Tinkered Thinking has released its second book, The Lucilius Parables, Volume II.  

 

Those who are regular readers or visitors of Tinkered Thinking will know that a short story is released on most Sundays.  These stories are dubbed ‘parables’ and they always revolve around the same character: Lucilius.  This second volume is an illustrated collection of the 42 parables released on Tinkered Thinking.

 

The name Lucilius was inspired by the famous Letters of Seneca, or as they are sometimes referred to The Moral Letters to Lucilius.  This is a collection that documents one side of a correspondence between the philosopher and statesman Seneca and a financial official in Sicily.  Lucilius’ side of the correspondence is not included, and so he remains a bit of a mystery, appearing only as Seneca imagines him.

 

At the time when Tinkered Thinking was just starting, Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s work was also on the chopping block, and his use of the fictional character Nero to illustrate certain points inside of his non-fiction work helped provoke this notion and question:  would Tinkered Thinking benefit from fictional narratives that try to explore the same material in a totally different light?

 

Even with a good deal of experience writing fiction, this is a fairly tall order: to write a short story every week.  Luckily, the word ‘parable’ comes into quick and elegant use for this issue.  A parable is a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson.  And of course this comes from the Christian tradition, as they were told by Jesus in the Gospels.  This concept of a ‘parable’ does several things which are in-tune with with a possible answer for that question posed about Tinkered Thinking benefiting from fictional narratives.

 

In literary circles, a story that blatantly demonstrates the ‘point’ that it’s trying to get across is frowned upon, especially if it’s a moral one.  Why this is, and whether its good or not is a can of worms better left for someone else to crack. But a parable straddles this issue quite nicely. A parable makes no claim to be any kind of high fiction. There is something far more humble about a parable. The entire concept lacks the stuffy conceit often associated with fine literature.  And for good reason: when it comes to the task of understanding what’s going on, the barrier to entry is far lower than it is for something like say… oh, James Joyce’s Ulysses.  

 

This conscious flip of purpose is quite interesting in a modern context of social feeds and over-stimulation and constant distraction.  Whether it succeeds on Tinkered Thinking or not, the concept of a modern parable teases at something that is quick, accessible and thought-provoking.  These concepts don’t usually go hand-in-hand.  What is quick and accessible is often shallow, and what is thought-provoking  - or rather what is culturally deemed ‘thought-provoking’ can often be concealed within layers of obfuscation that one is required to sift through.  The Lucilius Parables from Tinkered Thinking seek to cut this cake and keep it too.  The kernel curiosity that generates each story is this: is it possible to help a reader think about their experience of being alive in a new refreshing way within the bounds of just a couple pages of fictional story?

 

Tinkered Thinking has now released over 170 Parables, and the feedback emphatically answers: yes, It is possible.

 

The 42 illustrations were added for several reasons.  One is that a few parables really are quite short, and to be frank, this presents an awkward situation regarding spacing and design within a book.  The illustrations provide a beautiful punctuation between each story.  The other reason is that.. well, everyone loves pictures in a book, and do be sure, these illustrations were quite a lot of work.  The hope is these illustrations add a bit of mysterious value to a physical item like a book.  This isn’t just a bunch of stories, this was designed to be a larger aesthetic experience, like a book you can imagine having on a coffee table, but if picked up and genuinely perused would quickly have your brain bent in an unexpected and refreshing way. That’s another aspect of this book: the stories can be read in any order, and they are quick, bite-sized meditations.

 

Each parable in this book can be found on Tinkered Thinking in its rough unedited form.  But, good luck finding them in a way that is as effortless and pleasurable as turning a page and seeing a hand drawn illustration to invite you into the next story…


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RESTART/REBUILD

September 17th, 2022

 

Recently someone pointed out that an experienced and skilled artist can toss a drawing away and start over with little thought or concern. Amateurs will toil away at something that can never get much better because they don’t have much to show for. They try to improve what little they have, failing to realize that it’s more efficient to just start over. The master draftsman isn’t so unattached because of a sizable cannon of work, but simply because it’s just faster to start over in order to get somewhere good.

 

This has happened countless times here on Tinkered Thinking, both with Lucilius Parables and regular entries. This very entry started off three different ways, with three different titles, and while one of those false starts was saved for perhaps another day, the other one is already lost from memory. This isn’t to imply some sort of mastery over writing, but after a thousand and some odd essays and stories, the psychological experience is far… lighter, casual, and playful. Writing can be serious business ( always too serious if even just a little serious, in this writer’s honest opinion ) But as soon as all that cramped spirit released, words have a much easier time coming to mind.

 

But the technique or advice can be imported. Currently a little chess app is in the works and just today I rebuilt it twice, tackling different aspects of functionality as I wiggle my way around a tech stack that I’m not all that familiar with. While I’m making good progress with the latest iteration, I already have plans to start anew tomorrow. None of this is all that repetitive, it’s more as though you’d built a blossom before the leaves and done so without stem and seed. Rebuilding isn’t so much a total restart as it is an iterative cumulation - the same way we might race through and obstacle course over and over, each time figuring out some aspect of the course that can improve performance on the next run. 

 

Perhaps the most approachable example is when we stutter to start on some point, as the mind rewrites our opening sentence as we say it. It’s hard to think no one hasn’t had this experience: we get half way through our first sentence and the mere hearing of that sentence gives us a better idea about how to go about our description or argument, and so it necessitates starting over. 

 

All of this boils down to a priority of moving, especially when stuck. Without the ability to abandon some nascent effort and restart, getting stuck can be a serious waste of time. And the time it takes to succeed is always good to cut down. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, starting over is often quicker…


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QUESTIONS & CONVERSATIONAL CONSTRAINTS

September 16th, 2022

 

It can be incredibly difficult to get someone to see things from your point of view. Often it feels as though no one is listening. But there’s a problem with this feeling: it’s based on a lack of evidence, an no evidence is not proof that something doesn’t exit. It’s just proof that the evidence currently isn’t visible. 

 

What’s often happening is that we are heard, but instead of confirming this, our listener is too busy trying to push their own perspective because they are in the same boat - they feel as though they have not been understood.

 

We keep heaping our own point of view on others. Everyone struggles with this.

 

The key and hack to good conversation is in the questions we ask, not the descriptions and arguments we give.

 

When stuck at an impasse in conversation today, I felt the urge to rephrase what I’d already said, but a thoughtful moment made me realize that I was just repeating myself. So I switched it up, and wondered: how could a I force a response about the direction I was thinking in? The question I ended up asking was:

 

Given what you understand about my situation and my goals, if you had to adhere to those parameters as if you also really wanted them, what would your advice be for moving forward?

 

This got the thoughtful pause in my conversation partner that I was looking for. And the initial response was telling.

 

Hmm. You’ve forced me to give up my perspective and my agenda and take on yours as a kind of creative constraint….

 

Exactly. Isn’t this in large part what most people are looking for in many conversations? Isn’t this the framing through which we often hope to be spoken to? Put on my shoes for a moment. Look through my eyes. Wear my dreams and shroud yourself with my problems. Do you see something here that I don’t? How would you navigate forward?

 

Raw description does little to steer the mind of others. Argument and description function like the walls of a structure. Questions are the thresholds, the doors and portals that welcome a listener to venture in and explore. And notice the difference in agency allotted our partner in conversation: our partner takes no part in building the argument we give, but a good question requires both people to properly function. The listener is not just granted agency in terms of supplying a response, the listener is challenged to do so.

 

As it turns out, the advice my partner in conversation ended up giving me was exactly what Was doing.

Previous to my pivot with the question it had seemed like we were in total disagreement, but as it turned out, we were on the same page.


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THE FUN ROUTE

September 15th, 2022

Given any new endeavor, any new project or skill to learn, the path forward is often unsure - unknown. And yet, without fail, we try to imagine one. Vaguely and somehow specifically there’s a sense of how it should go. It’s exactly at that point - before even starting - that trouble begins to arise.

 

Rare is the person who is going to actively imagine a dozen different paths to the same outcome, but in reality, there’s an infinite number of ways to arrive at a given destination, be it a real physical one, or figurative. What differentiates people is how we navigate - toward the first step and from step to step. Instead of taking things one step at a time, the cognitive e convention seems to be to imagine the entire arc of progress, but how we navigate from one small step to the next determines exactly how and if we make it to our desired destination.

 

The matter of taking one small step towards achievement is a matter of the Optimal Challenge. It’s a bit like the Goldilocks story, but instead of bed sizes and porridge temperatures, it’s a measure of difficulty: Not too difficult or you’ll get frustrated, not too easy or it’ll be boring. And then there’s one more component to the optimal challenge and exactly which optimal challenge to pick: does the result of overcoming the challenge inspire further motivation?

 

Some challenges are an end unto themselves. Once surmounted we slump back in exhaustion and call it a night. Other challenges, however, produce a result that seems to have the opposite effect: we lean in with more energy, we keep working, and whoops, accidentally pull an all-nighter. As much as staying up all night is not recommended, these are some of the best times - when the flow state seems on another level of longevity, when the marathon session feels like flying.

 

These experiences hold keys for understanding the mechanics of our own personal navigation when it comes to novel projects and learning new skills. 

 

A practical example might help: I’m currently sprinting on a small project. A few days ago, an entry about Flip Chess was posted. And after some encouragement from a good friend, I’ve decided to whip up an app for the chess variant. But for this project, I’m using a tech stack that I’m not terribly familiar with. So what exactly should I do? The first day I sort of languished on all sorts of tutorials, feeling out exactly how to do what I wanted to do. By the end of the day I was tired and honestly doubting whether the project was even worth undertaking. But at that point I had a thought: just get a chessboard on the screen. That should be easy. And so 20 minutes later I’d pulled a library, plugged it into my bare-bones set up and voila, I at least had a chessboard to look at. But, I’m a bit picky about how things should look. It was at this point I remember having a little conversation with myself. I reasoned that I shouldn’t do anything aesthetic because that’s not how a good friend of mine would do it. I should get the guts of the application working, and then worry about aesthetics. But that’s when I realized all this that I’ve been writing about. That’s now how my navigation system for motivation and the unknown functions. Having a uniquely colored board in the style I imagine - I realized - would make me more motivated to tackle the trickier stuff that I was feeling daunted about. So an hour or so later, I had what felt like a very slick looking chessboard - and because of it, I was excited to do more, to make it live, to get the guts of the application working so I could see my chosen aesthetics actually function.

 

So to circle back: it seems that when people think about how the path through the unknown should look, we are trying to imagine the correct way, when it’s actually more practical to ask: what is the funnest way to go about this?


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SOLICITING ADVICE

September 14th, 2022

 

Advice can be a difficult object to parse. First off, no one is you. All the flowery stuff about being unique is, well - true. While there might be many people living a similar life, or people who have lived similar experiences, the differences between very similar lives are still vast. Advice that one person would have loved to hear when they were in your current predicament might not really apply to you, even if the situation is quite similar.

 

There’s also the issue of bad advice. Much advice is likely just that: bad. Either because someone doesn’t know what they’re talking about or because the advice just doesn’t apply to you aren your situation. It’s a bit like using an instruction manual for a prop airplane engine in order to fix a car engine. Sure there’s similarities in how both work, but the devil is in the details. Heck, even car engines can vary enough that an instruction manual for one doesn’t easily translate to another. Especially if it’s your first time trying to do something with these engines.

 

Much of the advice we hunt for is likely just due to a social impulse. It feels good to talk about our predicaments, and it feels like being loved when someone cares enough to listen and then say something constructive. 

 

All of this is also a form of procrastination. 

 

No matter the mentor or master, there is one source of advice that supersedes them all: reality. But how, of course, do we ask reality for some advice? Luckily reality is ruthless and honest beyond all people we might talk to. The trick is knowing how to ask for the advice. We might ask a friend and a mentor Do you think this is a good business idea? And that friend or mentor might have some interesting things to say, but reality carries a far better answer, and the way to ask reality is to actually go ahead and try it out - the business idea, that is.. Reality will give the final word of advice on whether it’s a good idea or a bad one. Reality’s advice is sought through experiments. And this is why it’s good to try and test ideas in iterative increments as opposed to toiling away on a grand plan for years and years without any real feedback from reality. Launch the smallest possible version of the idea with the minimum of effort and time and… see what reality says. 


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