0124 – Stop living in the past

I was watching one of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s videos about mindfulness and meditation, and he talked about how we often spend our time fixated on the past or the future, instead of living in the now. He’s totally right, of course, and I’m especially guilty of it.

Idealizing or worrying about the future unnecessarily is a form of escapism. I’m going to do this and that when I finally get rich, I’m going to travel to all these places, read all these books… it’s great if I take concrete, actionable steps towards making them happen, but otherwise they’re just there as a sort of coffeetable display, to communicate what I want to be perceived as. It’s wasteful. One should keep one’s identity small. It’s a less laborious, stressful way to live. Who am I? Don’t know! How do I want to be perceived? It doesn’t matter! All that matters is now, and how I can live kindly, compassionately, skillfully.

I don’t really worry about the future too much. I’ve always been guilty of thinking that the future will kind of take care of itself, in the “as long as I’m breathing I’m doing okay” kinda way. I tend to worry about the short-term future- what happens when people find out that I’m a fraud? What happens when people realize what a horrible person I am? What will happen when I’m revealed as unreliable, irresponsible, and I lose everything? That’s something I worry about when I’m not careful.

But I don’t worry about the long-term future too much. I acknowledge the possibility of illness and random unexpected catastrophes- I tend to rehearse in my head for deaths in the family and such… but hey, ultimately the heat death of the universe is going to claim us all, wipe out every last remnant of everything that ever existed. So it doesn’t make sense to worry too much.

Ultimately what matters is that we’re able to live with ourselves, the decisions we make… it’s a matter of working with our biology, isn’t it? Riding on the waves of our breaths. That’s what life is about. We don’t yet have the full ability to remake ourselves entirely, so we have to work with what we have, while we have it. It’s a little bit depressing to think about how future generations might have opportunities that we can’t even dream of, but hey, our predecessors would’ve said the same thing about us, and life is a ridiculously, improbably precious gift as it is, anyway. It’s so easy to feel all self-important and entitled. I have access to food, shelter, water and an internet connection, which puts me ahead of billions of people in the world. I don’t have any right to bitch. Or, more sensibly, even if I COULD bitch, it wouldn’t achieve anything. This is the hand I’m dealt- how do I play it well?

Something like that. I don’t take much action about my few worries for the future (I need to save more money, I need to get better insurance coverage, stuff like that). But I don’t take much action about anything, period- which is something I want to work on fixing at this stage in my life. The sooner the better.

I don’t think I overly romanticize the past, or dwell upon it too much, but there’s something about the past that bugs me in a way that the future doesn’t. I feel like there are things about the past that I need to dig up, dust off and talk about. I feel like there are lessons in there that I have learnt that I haven’t quite articulated fully, and that reflecting on my past will give me valuable perspectives and insights. This has been something that I’ve been carrying on my shoulder ever since… I think National Service. I think the past can and should be mined for insight. Sometimes you think you’ve thought about a certain period of your life enough, but new experiences and perspectives open up new avenues of inquiry- you can look back on old conflicts and re-interpret them, and see things that you might have missed before.

The goal of all of this, ultimately, is to live better in the now. To make better decisions. To trip up less. To ride more comfortably on the breath. What surprises me, on hindsight? What were the mistakes I was making? What were the biases that I was suffering from? What went wrong, where could I have done better, and how do I use those insights to interpret the present and realize what sort of mistakes I must be making right now?

I think I have a rough idea- now really ought to be the most prolific period of my life, in terms of shit-work or schlep. It might not be the most insightful, the most clever, the most useful material imaginable, but I should be working my butt off to produce as much as I possibly can now… because my output is only going to diminish in the future. The more I write now, the more I will reap later, with interest. That’s a mistake I made over and over again in the past. I absolutely squandered my holidays, as well as my little pockets of free time. If I ever had some sort of unfair advantage over my peers, I sincerely believe it stemmed from the vast amount of reading I was doing. I read every night until I fell asleep, and I’d read books everywhere I went- on the bus (constantly missing my stop), and even at family occasions. I think I need to get back into that.

I should also be meeting people regularly, while I’m still young. I should be building relationships now, while I still have energy. I should be exercising more, so that I age more gracefully and am less likely to be impeded by my health.

I really started this vomit with an intention of analysing my past. I was thinking of maybe going through my NS experiences, or my secondary school experiences. I also want to be exploring ideas about procrastination, work-aversion, laziness, etc. I think I will attempt to do them in tandem. Maybe I’ll do it chronologically. Either way, what matters is that I keep writing a little bit everyday. Writing is going to be my competitive advantage a decade from now.

 

0123 – laziness as work aversion

I want to talk about the word lazy, which I have come to hate with a passion. I’m biased, because I have often been described as lazy by my family, teachers and peers. I probably wouldn’t have given it this much thought otherwise.

Let’s get to it. What is laziness? Wikipedia says it’s a disinclination to activity or exertion despite having the ability to do so. Synonyms include “idle, indolent, slothful, work-shy, shiftless, loafing, inactive, inert, sluggish, lethargic, languorous, listless”.

Let’s head over to etymonline: lazy (adj.)
1540s, laysy, of unknown origin. Replaced native slack, slothful, and idle as the main word expressing the notion of “averse to work.” In 19c. thought to be from lay (v.) as tipsy from tip. Skeat is responsible for the prevailing modern view that it probably comes from Low German, cf. Middle Low German laisch “weak, feeble, tired,” modern Low German läösig, early modern Dutch leuzig, all of which may go back to the PIE root *(s)leg- “slack.” According to Weekley, the -z- sound disqualifies a connection with French lassé “tired” or German lassig “lazy, weary, tired.

AVERSE TO WORK.

The thing about laziness is that it’s very subtly made out to be the attribute of a person. She’s a lazy person. You’re so lazy. Lazy is who you are. Why are you so lazy? What is wrong with you? It’s a way of policing people’s behaviour. If you don’t do the work that is assigned to you, there is something wrong with you.

Before we continue I’d like to make an observation: people described as lazy are rarely universally lazy. People typically do something. A boy might be lazy in school but work incredibly hard when playing World of Warcraft- a game that requires significant effort, practice, skill, focus.

It’s very telling to me that a person playing WoW instead of doing his homework is often described as lazy- he’s so lazy, he plays games all the time. I find that to be inconsistent. He’s not lazy, he’s work-averse when it comes to schoolwork. Which I think can be rather rational response to the drudgery of school, within a child’s mental framework.

I’m not being prescriptive here. I’m not saying kids should play games or that they should avoid doing homework. I’m trying to describe the situation more accurately so we can so something about it.

If we use the term “work-averse” instead of lazy, we can have much more interesting, useful discussions about people’s motivations and behaviour. Laziness puts the burden entirely on the person. Work-averse makes you think and realise that work-aversion is a phenomenon, like when two like magnets repel each other. School is like a magnet that repels some students, and then we ask those students, why are you so repulsive? And of course, the kid doesn’t really know. He likes world of Warcraft and hates school, and somehow it’s his fault.

Why? Because it’s more convenient to blame the kid (and Warcraft!) than the school. Kids who don’t like school are just a cost of doing business in the broader public education system. Casualties, roadkill, collateral damage. The system can’t afford to humor people who don’t fit. It’s not malicious or evil, it’s just limited.

Ok, I need to refocus my thoughts. My goal in writing this is to persuade you that “lazy” is an overly blunt tool.We do each other a disservice when we use it. It’s useful to sort students out, but it’s not useful if you want to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives, if you want to help them self – actualize.

I don’t expect schools to change anytime soon. Some of the frustrations I had as a student were deeply structural, but I didn’t have the mental tools then to make sense of it. I just knew I hated school. Now I know why. I hated the hypocrisy of claiming to teach critical thinking but refusing to be questioned. I hated the idea of examinations where you don’t have access to references, books, the Internet. I can’t think of any genuinely interesting problem that school ever gave me. None of it seemed genuinely practical.

Erm that’s not what i want to talk about. Let’s explore interesting questions. Why are some kids work-averse in school and others not? How do some kids work incredibly hard even if they hate school?

Perception of reality, tradeoffs, utility

I believe it boils down to the student’s perception of reality and imagination of the future. I can think of two sets of students I admire. One is the girl who came from a broken family that was in debt and sometimes didn’t even have electricity. She was hardened by life at a tender age and was supremely determined to kick butt. She envisioned an escape route for herself where she would get her A’s and a scholarship overseas, and she did just that, in spite of her broken environment. She read a lot of books and fashioned herself a unique mental state which kept her driven. She knew she was different from her friends and couldn’t sympathise or commiserate with them. She didn’t let anybody hold her down. She had a personal mission/agenda and she achieved it.

While it’s a lovely story, she’s an exception- most kids from broken homes aren’t able to visualize or conceive of an escape. You can fill in the blanks yourself.

Another example is the kid that very comfortably rides the wave of success. Works hard, has life goals, intelligent high – achieving parents and family members. His mum is a pilot, dad is a doctor. Every Chinese new year he’s surrounded by graduates and PhDs. When this kid goes to school, he too knows he can’t hang out with the “middle” crowd. He has a legacy to live up to. From young, he’s been primed to take that graduation photo at Oxford, like his sister and brother before him. There’s an empty space on the wall where his graduation photo is supposed to be, and he sees it every day when he comes home from school. He also knows of his career prospects. He knows about the differences between Harvard, Stanford and Yale, and he knows which one he wants to go to.

Both of these kids have something in common that I didn’t have: a sense of purpose, a narrative to plug themselves into when the going got tough, something that they had to be responsible for- which would trigger alarm bells in their head if they began to jeopardise it. If you don’t have a vision of the future, if you don’t have a sense of who you are “supposed to be”, then there are no alarm bells. Drink, smoke, be merry. Until, of course, some sort of crisis situation. But you just deal with that, and keep moving along.

Something they don’t really teach you in school is that people have dramatically different perceptions and experiences of reality. When I was a kid, luxury meant swensens ice cream. For some kids, luxury is McDonald’s. Others go to Holland V and have eggs benedict for $25++ after school. Some kids have parents who are lawyers and surgeons, other kids have parents in jail. This affects their perception of reality tremendously, and than in turn affects how they see themselves in the world, and what they think they ought to be doing with their lives, with their time, with any given day.

I have a lot more to say on the matter, and I know a lot of this isn’t entirely accurate or precise, but the point of word vomits is that I blurt things out and edit them later. Let me know your thoughts.

 

0122 – whenever i stop smoking

I wanted to talk about what happens when I stop smoking, and describe it in as much detail as possible. Why? I just felt like it, it’s something I’ve been wanting to kind of explore.

First, I would say that it’s worth noting that there are “phases” or “stages” of smoking, just as you might imagine that there are stages of alcoholism, or stages of say, a fitness habit. Smoking one or two cigarettes a day is a completely different experience from smoking 5-6, which in turn is different from smoking a pack a day.

I have smoked an entire pack in a day on several occasions, but they were almost always unique- when I’m really, really stressed, extremely upset, have been drinking or am spending time with a group of smoker friends. The best way to finish a pack of cigarettes is to gather a bunch of smoker friends, get drunk and talk about your feelings. There’s something about watching another person smoke that sets off a chain reaction. It feels polite to smoke too. It becomes a shared experience. I notice the same thing happens with drinking, and I’m sure even with more innocuous activities like eating. We do more together than we would on our own. At least, that has been my experience.

If you haven’t been smoking in a while, or you’re a non smoker, and you really inhale a cigarette properly, it elevates your heart rate. I’ve noticed that it doesn’t “take the edge off” until 3, 4 cigarettes in.

The experience of reality on and off cigarettes is staggeringly different to me, and I think it’s given me some vague insight about the effect of mood on perception. I remember jokingly thinking that the sky seemed extra blue after I was done with my last exam, and the grass extra green. On hindsight, I think it’s true. I remember feeling the same way when I was done with national service. And I remember the world being rather dark and dull during my depressing times.

If you watch the movie Limitless, I think they capture this really well. When the protagonist is living his normal life, the world is drab, grey. When he gets on the magic drug, it becomes bright, clear. Initially I thought it was just good use of cinematography- and it is. But I realise now that the brain is a cinematographer itself. We might see the same things, but our subjective experiences might be completely different. We focus on different things depending on what we’re primed on.

Ok back to smoking. When you’ve been smoking for a while, it coats your tongue, teeth, throat with filthy death-matter. (Yes, I’m sure that’s the scientific term.) You get nasty breath after a while, no matter how much you brush. Your nose and mouth- your entire respiratory system, really- starts “drying out”, like wilting plants. Your lips get charred and start cracking a little bit. Drinking lots of water and getting lots of sleep makes this a little less bad, but it’s still pretty bad. Your tongue starts accumulating a filthy yellow layer of death that screws up your sense of taste and just feels gross. I remember using the blunt sides of tweezers or scissors to scrape off layers of that icky yellow stuff so I could taste my cigarettes better.

You squint the whole time you’re a smoker. You don’t realise it, the way you don’t realise you’re slouching when you’re using the computer. You squint naturally to avoid letting the smoke get in your eyes. Watch smokers more closely, you’ll see it. The eyes dry out anyway, as does the rest of the skin on the face. The natural waxy textureof skin (from the oils, I guess?) becomes dry and dead. A couple of days of non-smoking and all this stuff starts getting reversed. Your eyes will thank you for freeing them from the constant abuse of heat and smoke. They’ll get whiter and “wetter”, in a good way.

As your nose clears up you’ll suddenly be more conscious of how bad your breath actually stinks. You’ll start being able to taste water again. (If you avoid McDonald’s and other “extreme foods”- stuff with high sodium, sugar, salt, etc during this time, your taste buds will go through a transformation too.)

I get a bit dizzy and blur-headed for a while. I yawn a lot more, and for a few days I sleep more, too. All of this is a recovery from the over-stimulation.

I burp and fart more, too. Cigarettes have a relationship with the digestive system. It feels good to smoke after a good meal. Cigarettes help alleviate the symptoms of low blood sugar- I read something about how it stimulates something… It makes even more sense why skinny supermodels smoke. It doesn’t just suppress their appetites, it keeps them going. And I’ve always noticed that I smoke more when sleep deprived. Like, a lot more. Cigarettes are in some senses like micro-coffees, giving you buzzes.

It’s interesting to pay attention to what happens to your body when you stop smoking, because it’s reveals what cigarettes do to your body. But doesn’t everybody already know? No, not exactly. Many smokers systematically overestimate the health costs of smoking- some call it a slow, controlled suicide. But I think we underestimate the day to day discomforts, because they happen so slowly and progressively. The first cough doesn’t seem too bad. The second is just a quick encore. Before you know it you’re hacking and sputtering, but you don’t notice it. That’s the power of small changes.

There are other things you notice. Your muscles and back get sore. How is that related?

You take much deeper breaths when you yawn. Just two to three days later your lung capacity seems to increase dramatically. It’s beautiful.

I wake up the morning after to sniffles and sneezes as my nose tries to recover from the damage. My nasal passage gets filled with watery, mucusy stuff.. ok i’m done here

 

0121 – a bird in the hand is worth a flock in the sky

120th. I’m amused by how long it took me to get here. It reveals how naive my projections have always been. I think I estimated that I would be in the mid-200s by now. What this means is that I take at least twice as long to get stuff done as I think I do. I think even that doesn’t capture the full reality of the situation. Let’s explore that.

A large part of getting stuff done is knowing exactly what needs to be done. Having a clear map of the territory that needs to be explored. There was a fun Quora answer that explored this by using the Coast Of Britain problem as an extended metaphor. We think that the distance is short, but when we actually traverse it, we realise it was far more complex than expected. Another great analogy I found was the expressway/roads idea. When you want to drive from point A to point B, you think of the total distance covered. You get out of your house, which is familiar territory, and you get on the highway, which takes you 80% of the way there. You’ve covered 80% of the distance so you assume that 80% of the trip is done. But the remaining 20% of the distance is much more complicated- you need to get off the expressway and explore the smaller roads, where there may be unexpected traffic jams. You might miss a turn here and there. The last 20% of distance ends up taking just as long as the first 80%, if not longer. So distance travelled is not actually an accurate indicator of how long you have left to reach your destination.

Often, we don’t even have a map and we don’t really know where we’re going.

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I’m really eager to refactor my blog and remove extraneous elements, yet I’ve made really slow progress on this. I think a part of it is because I’m not clear about my priorities. So let’s try and clarify them now. I don’t want to delete old posts if possible, because I think there are lessons to be learned from them. If I find a post that expresses a perspective that I no longer agree with, I don’t want to censor it or eliminate it. I think a superior alternative is to write an updated header to the post that explains how and why I’ve changed my mind. This is less pretty, but I think it’s a good trade-off to make. If I have enough of these revisionist headers, I’ll probably feel more comfortable eliminating pointless noise.

I also want to trawl my Facebook account- and maybe even my Twitter and Tumblr- and look for gems worth re-emphasizing. It seems like a shame to let them languish in non- circulation.

Quick aside: I experienced a momentary impulse to close this document and get on Twitter/Facebook. These impulses come fairly frequently, and they remind me of cigarette cravings. There’s some cue- thinking about twitter/fb, in this case. The routine is to get distracted. The reward is the pleasure of aimless bumbling around- looking at pictures, reading what others have to say. It’s an immediate reward and a simpler, easier experience. But it doesn’t compound. It won’t be as rewarding as completing this vomit would be. By keeping this vomit as my main goal and reminding myself that it’ll feel better to complete this, I’m able to stay on track.

If you want to modify a habit, you need to identify the cue, routine and reward. Then you need to change the routine and make sure there’s a new reward. I think my new routine to the cue of temptation is to write it down. To acknowledge it. In the Age of Absurdity, the writer pointed out that a lot of primal, primitive desires wither away under the harsh light of intense scrutiny.

I think there’s something in there that I can crack open and exploit, or “hack”. Earlier I wrote about how there’s utility to be gained from telling people about your plans, or say, posting your gym pictures on Instagram. While ideally you want to get utility from the workout itself, if posting gym selfies gets you working out, then it’s worth doing (in pursuit of a fitter you). Similarly, if I can choose to get utility either from succumbing to temptation or making a big show out of resisting it, the latter is preferable. So from now on, if I feel tempted to distract myself in the midst of doing work, I’m going to write it down. If it happens at work, I’ll maybe write it down somewhere else and keep track of it. Temptation resisted is a pretty nice vanity metric to have, assuming it correlates with work done.

The goal of course is to do work, and get utility from doing work. But what do you do if you don’t get utility from work, because your brain hasn’t yet been rewired sufficiently to give you a chemical hit from studying or from exercising? You find something else you get utility from, and do that instead.

I think this is how people start smoking and drinking before their brains start enjoying the acts themselves. We do it for social utility. To impress our friends or earn their approval. The cool kids smoke.

I think there are some interesting implications here. We are social creatures, so it’s pointless to wish that people wouldn’t brag about their achievements. If we can make moral things cool, we probably should… assuming a whole bunch of things. If activism-tourism hurts rather than helps, we should discourage it. We should probably call people out if they’re faking things like posting gym pics but not working out, posting photos of their homework but not actually doing their homework… this gets unhealthy, it’s fake and it becomes a game of impressions rather than actual improvement, actual work done.

“Should” here is unnecessarily prescriptive. You can do whatever you like. There’s no need to interfere with anybody else. I’m guilty of making overly broad statements. I can only speak for myself, my problems and my circumstances. And my problem, as I define it for myself, is to figure out how to get myself to do things that I say I want to do. If there are second-order negative consequences, then I will figure out how to fix that.

Let’s take these vomits as an example. I will openly admit that part of the reason I’m doing this is bragging rights. Somebody joked that marathon signups would plummet if people had no way to communicate to others that they did it. It’s funny because it’s probably true. There will probably be some subset of marathon runners who will run even if nobody else ever knows that they do. But there are all kinds of other benefits anyway- a healthier body that impresses people even if they can’t explain how or why they got it.

Would people work out if it made then feel good but it made them look unattractive? Actually that’s also an oversimplistic question- a really muscular girl might be seen as unattractive by most people, but she might not care at all what most people think.

As a general rule I think most people care about what most people think… But that’s not a very useful rule either because the exceptions make all the difference. The average person is not interested in writing 1000 word vomits even if they agree that it’s a cool or impressive thing to do. So… I guess this stuff is really, really complex.

Let’s start over. I can only truly speak for myself. A lot of the above is just my pattern-finding mechanism going bonkers… I have to return to what is useful. So what IS useful? Useful is whatever I can use to steer myself down a path that I want to go. I want to complete these 1000 vomits as quickly as I can. I want to be more prolific at work. I want to procrastinate less and get more done in general. Broader claims and assertions are not useful.

Why am I always so quick and eager to “go broader”? Perhaps it is fear, perhaps it is incompetence, perhaps both. The real value comes from a clearer picture of myself, and perhaps the part of me that resists change doesn’t want to be too precise about things, because a lack of precision allows me to get away with more bullshit.

Here’s an interesting example. When me and my friends went for lunch once, we ended up discussing Blizzard and Diablo 3. I wondered what Blizzard’s game plan was, how they were going to survive, to continue putting out good stuff… I wondered whether it’s possible for any company to sustain quality over the long term (Apple?), or if it’s the inevitable nature of things to be disrupted. Should anybody try to build a lasting company that endures, or is it better for society for companies to be born and die? Venkatesh Rao’s Gervais Principle would suggest that it’s inevitable that big companies get bloated and bureaucratic, and that there’s a natural order of sorts to how these things work. Should one attempt to fight this natural order, or instead seek to work with it? Which is superior?

On hindsight, this question is a semi-pointless parlor game for me to explore at this point in time. I don’t work in a big company. I don’t understand big companies- a point driven in painfully well by Marc Andreesen’s guide to startups part 5: Moby Dick. Even Blizzard doesn’t likely know what Blizzard is going to do. I’m not going to get an answer to that question that corresponds to reality purely by thinking about it, because I lack the framework, I lack the context, I lack the knowledge. I don’t even know what I don’t know. So any answer I arrive at is largely meaningless- a matter of sophistry rather rush insight.

This can be fun and there is value in it, but a mentor pointed out to me that there’s also opportunity cost: time spent deliberating about Blizzard is time not spent figuring out how I can get better at my job, how I can become a better friend, husband, son, writer, marketer, so on and so forth.

A bird in the hand is worth an entire flock in the sky. Yet I spend large amounts of my time focused looking upwards. Clearly, it’s a coping mechanism. It makes me feel good. But it doesn’t actually leave me any better off. So I ought to change that.

 

0120 – build self-control like building a company

An interesting thing that happens when you go to bed committed to doing something the next day- in my case, this word vomit- is how the relevant thoughts prepare themselves, like rows of soldiers, ready to march on into unknown territory. I was excited enough about that fact that I didn’t bother thinking about where they would go, I just focused really hard on the fact that they’re there. We can just play by ear as we go through this.

I think this is something I never appreciated as a procrastinator. Getting stuff done always seems like it requires ungodly amounts of conscious. But actually it doesn’t. Most of it is habit and routine. That’s how you reconcile the fact that there are so many people seemingly less “intelligent” than you doing so much better at school or work. They invested in routines that do half the work for them. The system trains them to work without conscious decision making needing to interrupt the process. Procrastinators like myself get all self-important, refusing to be indoctrinated… and we throw the baby out with the bathwater, because by refusing to learn to follow orders, we grow up unable to follow our own. We’re just addicts to the short term pleasures desired by the monkey mind. We let the monkey take the wheel.

Following on yesterday’s thoughts I guess the goal shouldn’t be to extend consciousness over all of life, but to be intensely conscious of a few moments. Paul Graham wrote about how startups need deep specialisation and focus, and that’s an idea that’s stuck with me. If you want to build a company that’s big and good, you have to start good and stay good as you get big. It’s impossible for a company to start big and get good. This is because there are costs to running a large operation that are intrinsic to size. I remember Yishan Wong writing about this on a note by Boz about Facebook growing as a company. It’s an inescapable cost that burdens large companies, regardless of the quality of the people. Amazon, Google etc are good in spite of being big- big is a cost they bear, a tradeoff they make. Well- that’s just one way of looking at it, and it’s not entirely accurate now that I think about it. I can’t comment on large companies.

The point is that a small company should never look at a big, successful company and think that big leads to successful. It’s successful that leads to big. Aiming to be big and hoping or expecting to get successful as a consequence of it is a very dangerous, perhaps even suicidal approach.

Let’s get back to thinking about consciousness, habit formation, self-control. If the insight transcends domains (and I think this is a hypothesis worth testing)… then a person who wants to be more mindful is better off trying to be really mindful of one small thing. If she tries to be mindful of everything, her limited cognition is spread too thin and it evanesces.

I think the mindfulness teachers understood this. Consider the advice about drinking tea, or about walking, enjoying each and every step purposefully. It seems silly the way it might seem silly to make your bed nicely in the morning when you have a fuck ton of work to do, but clearly there’s something to it. You have to do the basics incredibly well. Practicing scales mindfully makes you a better soloist. In fact, practicing scales can help your solo playing more than practicing your soloing (without practicing scales). I definitely experienced this as a musician. I think I’ve experienced this as a writer, too. You get better at writing and grammar by doing loads of reading. If your job is to write, how do you have time to read?

You have to make time. It matters how Michael Phelps stretches before swimming, and that he listens to hip hop. It matters that Christiano Ronaldo does that silly looking leg spread before he takes his free kicks. You can’t become great without it. These are their soldiers- perfectly drilled, in beautiful harmony. You become great at the Great by first becoming great at the mundane. There is no other way, even for the daredevil genius improvisers. Even rockstars practice like crazy.

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Ack, I’m already at work and I’m still 300 words short. I guess I’ll just keep going. The mistake I’ve been making over and over again is overreaching. I try too hard to do too many things over too long a period of time. Instead, I should focus on each step, on drinking the tea. This applies at the smallest scales. Even right now as I’m at work, I have a whole bunch of tabs open. This is unnecessary. I’m going to close those tabs now.

Went for lunch and back. I realize I need to pick really small wins and dominate them, so that’s what I’m going to do. I think the word vomits I’ve written yesterday and today have given me the little victories I need to keep going, and I’m going to try to get little victories in other spheres too- most importantly at work, and then with my fitness, and in my relationships with other people.

Sometimes I wonder if it was silly of me to impose this 1000 word rule, but I think it’s an amusing, interesting restriction. I already live with a lot of “unrestrained” freedom in my day-to-day life, and I find THAT limiting. So this sort of limitation forces me to be a little more creative. And while I might sometimes find it silly, it’s not like anybody’s actually getting hurt because of it. I get to do more interesting things. Once I’m done with all 1,000 vomits, I’ll get to the much more challenging work of doing rewriting. Or maybe I’ll start rewriting right now, as I move forward. I still have a few more summaries to do, and maybe I’ll do them tonight. It doesn’t really matter, what matters most of all is that I keep moving. I can reorganize and optimize while I’m moving. I can’t do that while I’m static. Whatever reorganizing and optimization I do in my head when I’m static is actually kinda toxic.

Look at that, crossing the limit running, not crawling. That’s what happens. You really can’t let yourself think you’re in a rut, even when you are, because that prevents you from realizing how you might just get a burst of energy around the corner.

 

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.

Absence

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.

=== break ===

Inaction

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]