0119 – unclogged, future direction

I’m determined to finish writing a full vomit on my commute home and have it published. It’s been too long.


I realise that my rising standards have been choking me. I recently came to the conclusion that I haven’t really ever written anything worth reading. I know, some of you will say that that’s been obvious all this while. Until now I’ve been fairly comfortable with writing “rubbish” because I didn’t know what was rubbish and what wasn’t. It was Schroedinger’s shitty writing. I knew that I had to just have some sort of output and that I could refine it along the way.

As I look back on my output now, I struggle to identify the real value. I’m a little overwhelmed by how staggeringly few and far between my insights are. Almost everything that I’ve gotten credit for has been rehashed, reapplied ideas and perspectives of others. A lot of it is populist, sensationalist crap. I wrote stuff optimising for distribution, not depth. I think that was rational and fair at the time. I didn’t know what I wanted, so I did what was fun, whatever yielded returns. But it’s clear to me that doing that is merely a local optima. There are higher peaks to scale in the pursuit of thinking/writing excellence, and to get there I have to forgo what has worked for me for the bulk of my blogging/writing “career”. I want to transition from being sensationalist to being genuinely useful.

Genuinely Useful

What does genuinely useful mean? For the longest time I had no idea, but now I think I have a working provisional definition: Useful, in the context of a blog, is something that saves people time and helps them move forward in their thinking, in their discussions, in their arguments. A blogger is useful when she provides others with the tools they need to think better. I think Bertha Hanson is doing a fantastic job at this by asking a lot of good questions. Questions alone can be incredibly useful. Anger and sensationalism, not so useful. Partisanship, not useful. Personal attacks, not useful. Naive hopes and normative statements, not helpful. Imprecise, vague journalism, not helpful. Accurate model of reality, useful.

To be a little less harsh on myself I don’t think my earlier analyses and thoughts are entirely invalidated because I flavoured them heavily with my anger or emotion. I think anger and emotion are useful as an energy source. But the energy should be channeled effectively. It doesn’t HAVE to be, but I want it to be- especially now that I am aware of the possibility.

I did myself an injustice by answering my own questions with what I wanted to hear. more precisely, I often had preconceived notions of what the answers should have been. I thought it would be nice or good or right or righteous to attack people in power, and so I did, but it’s obvious on hindsight that wasn’t necessarily the best way for me to make the biggest impact or do the greatest good.

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I have been paralysed for a while because I had competing ideas and perspectives in my head about what to do, and so I did nothing for a period of time (since last vomits, maybe). A part of me thought, you shouldn’t talk about what you’re thinking of doing, you should just do it. But I need to break things down into manageable chunks and part of that involves exploring the context of the idea. It has become clear to me at least in this context (of action vs inaction) that I should just lay everything out that’s in my head.

The most important question I have to answer, through action, is how should I spend my time?

To answer that I first have to observe and study how I’m already spending my time, then identify why I’m doing what I’m doing. (I procrastinate. I waste time on Facebook and Tumblr and Quora. I do that not because I lack purpose, but because my purpose doesn’t remain in focus for long, and because the work I know I have to do is tedious, hard and initially unrewarding.) Then I have to figure out how to manipulate myself to get out of my current local optima and work towards reaching a relatively more global optima.

So how do I make my important work more rewarding and make the distractions less rewarding? Realisation #1: this doesn’t need to be a global or universal thing. I can’t instantaneously change 23 years of conditioning. I can’t change my taste buds overnight.

There’s this thing that happens when you realise your previously unrecognised incompetence, and it gets you so flustered and overwhelmed that you retreat into the comfort of ignorance. Intellectually this seems weird, but I’ve caught myself doing it and it boils down to the fact that the lizard brain is older and more powerful. It’s why substance abusers relapse, why diets and exercise regimes are often fragile and short – lived. We resist change at a very fundamental level that the conscious mind does not seem to recognise (which makes sense, because the conscious mind operates after-the-fact, doesn’t it?). Almost nobody actually wants to leave Plato’s Cave, even when we think they do- and when we do do it, if we’re not adequately prepared, a primal part of our minds carries us back into the cave, running and screaming from all the discomfort.

So recognising you have to get out, while an important step, is insufficient. Getting out repeatedly after failure is good, but also insufficient. You have to prepare for failure in advance. What will you do when faced with a trigger or cue that sends you running, and how will you disrupt that running behaviour? If I read Power of Habit correctly, the trick is to recognise the reward that follows the routine (running back). In the case of procrastination, it’s pleasure and comfort.

So I guess I need to find ways to get pleasure and comfort from doing hard work. It might not necessarily come from the work itself. You could reward yourself with, idk, chocolate or gummy bears. Alternatively, you could brag about it when you’re done and look forward to the bragging. The end goal of course is to cease the need for bragging altogether, and to derive pleasure from the act of doing itself. But that takes time to develop. Perhaps one should simply meditate on that fact and take periodic time outs to remind self of that end goal. Maybe the goal initially isn’t to burst out of the cave forever, but to spend a few minutes in the light every day. I think I get that from writing the way I’m writing now- at a feverish pace, anxious to get everything out. I would love to have access to this mental state every day. I know it will feel great when it’s over. I’m already anticipating that feelgood feeling. In fact I think I’m already feeling it. So the challenge is really to keep starting. Maybe.

Ok I’ve covered enough of that. What do I need to think about apart from how to manage my time? Let’s restate findings/hypothesis: rather than try to have amazing productive days, I should strive to have amazing productive 20 minutes. I think too grand and yet do too little at the same time. And I think both problems are highly related. If you’re busy doing stuff that can be done, your mind expands to fit the space of the problem you’re solving. Paul Graham wrote something similar about carrying code in your head. What I got out of that is that your headspace is simultaneously more precious and more powerful than you realise. You shouldn’t let yourself read stupid bullshit because that outright drains you. It robs you of the chance of getting exponential or compound gains from thinking about problems that are rewarding to solve. My instinct is to do something dramatic like delete my Facebook account again. I might do that in time but I do use it to correspond with some people and I don’t think I need to cut that out right this moment. What really matters is that I get chunks of deep writing done, every day. Today already feels like a better day for having written this. Now it’s time for the victory lap.

Future Intent

I want to steer my blog into a space to write about procrastination, laziness. I simply haven’t been satisfied by everything I’ve read about the matter so far. Nobody has quite written what I want to read, so I’m going to write that. In bits and pieces. I think my next piece will be “laziness is work aversion”.

I have some plans for my Singapore writing. I’m going to try to spend less time criticising the media and government and more time trying to see things from their perspective and figure out why they do things the way they do. I’m still going to point out mistakes, inconsistencies, weak points, etc when I see them. I think that’s a citizen’s duty. But I’m going to be less angry about it.

History/World Affairs Project

I have an idea for a history/world affairs “project”, which is to expand people’s consciousness about our role and place in time and space. How, for instance, our island has been affected by global issues in the past and how we ought to think about them. What are the current affairs we need to be concerned about? What is up with the South China Sea disputes, and how are we affected if things turn sour? What are Singapore’s dependencies, weaknesses, and how do we shore them up?

I think it’s criminal that we spend time debating the cleanliness of hawker center ceilings (the way Americans spent time arguing about Obama’s birth certificate). But the USA is a massive country. We are a tiny speck. If we are to survive on the international stage we’re going to have to take every “unfair” advantage we can get, because we know for a fact that others will do the same. If the big leverage their bigness then the small must leverage their smallness.

One fathomable advantage of smallness is that ideas can spread really quickly, and decisions can be made in a more agile fashion, too. (Technology is quickly reducing this inequality- information dissemination is instantaneous at large scales. But collections of people are still afflicted by the effects of large complex groups. 5 million people are still easier to govern than 500 million, and it will be easier to coordinate action, etc.)

So I think there is a space in Singaporean civil discourse for intelligent thought and discussion, and if it is positioned well, it should be able to reach a very effective slice of the population- that is, the people who are in positions to take real action and do important things. I firmly believe that many of the good people on both sides of the fence are thoughtful enough to be open to good ideas, to good questions, as long as these aren’t polarised or politicised before they’re even aired. And I think people have the sense to see when something is interesting and valuable.

The main problem (which I first alluded to in my post about meeting PM Lee) is that the people working on hard problems are typically too busy working on hard problems to have discussions with the public about what they’re up to. But I think these are really matters of public importance! It should be somebody’s job to make sure that the public is well informed about what keeps the ministers up at night. Maybe not completely, but you know, to a reasonable degree. More so than now. What’s a day in the Finance Minster’s life like? I wonder what it’s like to be PM’s secretary or personal assistant. I find it odd that I have little to no idea. It makes sense to seek out intelligent people in the civil service and ask them what their thoughts and concerns are. My personal biggest concern is disruptive technology- 3d printers, bitcoin, driverless cars, solar energy and other game-changing things like that. I wonder how high a priority that is. Probably not that high. There are probably security concerns. Education concerns. Foreign affairs. It’s madness. I can’t even manage myself. How do people manage a country?

-fin [2073 words, double the usual vomit length… what happens when you get unclogged, I guess]

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