0216 – a reason to be mad

I think that Life should be lived passionately, with fire in your eyes and heart. It shouldn’t be boring, mundane, forgettable. You need to feel your heart beating in your chest. to utilise your nervous system for the brief moments in which it exists. You need to dive onto the landmine called you and blow yourself the up.

It’s easy for this rhetoric to become hollow- full of thunder and bravado, signifying nothing.

I think it helps to have something that you’re truly mad about. I have flipped flopped about this a lot. Sometimes I think it’s important to be detached, to remain calm and zen. My boss often seems incredibly calm and zen. But he’s also building a startup, which is like chewing glass and starting into the abyss. Why would he do it if he were not in some sense mad? [1]

I understand the value in the plea for calm and gentle acceptance. But I think that’s also a rather privileged perspective. Imagine telling somebody who’s oppressed and subjugated that they ought to be calm and gentle. They might be if they choose to be, but nobody has any right to tell anybody else that that is what they should be.

I need to refine my statements. When I say “get mad”, I don’t mean a blind, vengeful, wrathful state that’s uncontrollable, violent, childishly aggressive. I’m talking about a cool, calculated madness that empowers and enables the possessed to be monomaniacally focused.

Focus and persistence requires energy. It requires the devotion of that energy over and over again to the same pursuit. It requires a certain intensity- and that intensity is what I am talking about. Life should be intense on some dimension. Some people achieve this through drugs and violence, or human drama. Arguments, fights, stress. I’ve experienced a little bit of that in the past and it’s really childish and boring- at least that was my experience.

I think the best way to experience that is by contributing beyond ourselves to bettering the lives of others. And yet… I have found that rather hard to do. I have found it hard to put myself in a position where I can focus on helping others. Why? I’m not sure. I know that I want to help people, but a lot of it feels like me just passing time, me just entertaining myself. [2]

I’m not sure if that’s necessarily a problem. Thinking that I’m pursuing meaning might be a losing game. I’m pursuing pleasure. I want to be excited. I want to experience flow. I want to feel connected with other humans I respect and admire. What is exciting and Interesting? Progress. The advancement of the species. If that’s too abstract- the advancement of myself.

But personal development for its own sake is something that I don’t seem enlightened enough to pursue. I forget about it. It doesn’t seem to excite or thrill me, probably because I’m too obtuse to fully appreciate the implications. Should I try to challenge myself to appreciate the implications? [3] Or should I perhaps attempt to focus on things that seem sensible in the moderate, conceivable future? Both of course, but what would I prioritise?

For the time being it seems to me that the latter makes more sense. It’s more manageable and has a better shot at yielding some sort of payoff. Also my life has stakes and I can’t afford the sort of open-ended experimentation that young privileged people tend to be able to have. [4]

What do I do then? I could focus on just getting by. Doing enough to survive and a little bit more, and then getting myself scraps of pleasure and joy where I can. This has been my primary mode so far and I have found it unsatisfactory. I am aware of the hedonic treadmill and that Life will always be defined to a large extent by dissatisfaction- but I think there are broad general states that are significantly different. There will always be some frustration in work, but a job you love is dramatically better than a job you hate. I find myself thinking about people who suffer from having a mismatch between their genders and/or sexual orientation and the world around them. For a trans person, for example, life before transitioning is often substantially more miserable than life after. Dissatisfaction, body image issues, etc are all still problems, but there’s clearly a deep difference.

What if this is the case for other things outside of gender and sexual orientation? This seems to me to be something that is almost obviously far more likely to be true than false. I think this is clear to me because I was clearly horribly mismatched in school. Suppose ADHD doesn’t exist. Why did I behave so differently from all the rest? Why was I so much less likely to do my homework? If it’s because I was lazy or selfish- why? Why was I so much lazier and more selfish than all the other kids?

A part of why I am writing these million words is to make a statement, which is this: I Am Not Lazy. It makes me mad to think that people older than me told me that I was lazy and I believed it. I understand of course that they were themselves affected by all sorts of difficulties and constraints. To them I was a nuisance, something to be dealt with. I can understand that. I don’t blame any particular Individual for it. But it gives me something to be mad about all the same.

That is not why I started writing this. I could find a way to blow it off if the world thought I were lazy. Fuck it, let them be right, I don’t have to care. But it’s not just about me. It’s about everybody else who’s maligned. There’s more to this. I’ll continue another time.

[1]At the extreme end, existence is absurd and we are all mad. Sure. But that itself doesn’t explain the range of behavior that we see in the world around us.

[2] And yeah, everything we do is to amuse ourselves- to release chemicals in our brains. The hypothesis here is that making a ‘real’ difference to other people somehow feels better than imagining it, fantasising about it, achieving the corresponding beliefs through fantasy, illusion, self-deception. Or collaborative self-delusion. Mass delusions feel completely valid to the delusional, no? Their brains literally experience the joy and euphoria that the rest of us mostly hope to achieve.

And of course in the final grand scheme of things we are all inconsequential and nothing matters. Always good to keep that in perspective. But later we will have to poop and pee and eat and drink, and in the persistence of this existence- we, as functions of the galaxy, of the universe, will have to play our roles anyway. So we might as well play roles that please us.

Something like that.

[3] This is a complicated thing I’ll have to address later, if I ever do at all.

[4] The reality is that most people in the world live very difficult lives, defined more by their responsibilities and obligations than their freedoms. So I’m still far more lucky, fortunate and privileged than most. Yet for all I know there may be poor village children in Africa who are, neurologically speaking, more happy and satisfied with life than I am- despite being materially worse off. It’s really a lot about perspective. But perspective aside, do we or do we not have an obligation to improve the lots of others? Or is it good enough to alter their experience? I change my mind about this from time to time.

 

0215 – why do I not sleep better?

This is the most important question in my life right now. If I sleep better, I have more clarity of mind. I make better decisions. I wake earlier, and when I wake earlier I’m likelier to do my morning reflections, go for a run, plan my day and so on.

Sleep is an astoundingly powerful first principle and I’m definitely underestimating it. To make things worse, sleep deprivation diminishes my consciousness- I become groggy and muddled. I take longer to make simple decisions, and I make bad calls.

I’ve quit smoking. I’ve started eating healthier. [1] I’m somewhat more systematic at work- that’s still a work in progress. [2] I’ve started exercising- also a work in progress. [3]

But sleep… I’ve still been stuck in my current state for quite a while.

First step to improving sleep was to get a house of my own. I sleep better in my own home. Then we got a screen to block out the night lights. Then we taped up all the little lights to make the room almost pitch black. We bought air conditioning for the warm nights. Everything I need for the physical sleeping experience is there- ideally I’d like a bigger room with a bigger bed but that’s in the future. What can I do for myself now?

My main problem is that I don’t prioritise sleep the way I’m learning to prioritise, say, exercise. It seems like I’ve simply never learnt to prioritise anything ever. [4]

So I need to make sleep a priority. Am I aware that this is true, is there some weight behind it? Yes. I have many data points telling me that sleep is good and not sleeping is bad, and that Life Is Better when I sleep early. I’ve been writing about this for years, hoping perhaps that when I finally need or decide to make the decision, I already have all the evidence I need. [5]

Well, it’s time to make the decision. Sleep is an important priority. I want to improve my quality of life. Sleep directly achieves that, AND puts me in a better state to make even better decisions about everything else. It’s clearly important and I have to prioritise it. This is the statement of intent.

Why is this even necessary? Why am I not already sleeping well- what is competing? Work, play. I have a habit of thinking/feeling that I need to do more work at night, that I need to squeeze in more of everything at night because I won’t have time to do anything. It’s all dark playground and mixed feelings park.

I feel like I’m overcomplicating things at this point. I don’t sleep early firstly because I’ve been a habitual late sleeper. If I sleep late regularly, then I’m going to keep sleeping late- the habit perpetuates. If I want to get out of the cycle I’m going to have to intentionally, willfully break it, even if there’s no good reason why it’s been like that.

What’s keeping me from sleeping earlier? I guess I worry that I won’t wake early if I sleep early- it feels like if I sleep early, I just sleep longer and end up waking up late anyway, and not at all well-rested, so it feels like it doesn’t make any difference. But I know intellectually that doesn’t make sense- sleep is ultimately like calories. If you consume more calories than you expend, you’re eventually going to gain weight. And if you sleep early enough, and longer for a few hours, you’re going to be more well rested. I must have all sorts of sleep debt that I need to recover from.

So I guess I should be okay with sleeping earlier for a few days- up to a month, maybe. If I sleep early and still wake late a month later, then that’s a problem. But it shouldn’t last more than a week or two. Then I should start waking earlier.

I also need to have a sleep ritual of sorts- start shutting down my computers and screens, and maybe get in bed with a book. That should make a sizeable difference. I’m going to do that. We’ll see how it goes.

[1] It started with the Big Bird salad wrap at Salad Stop. Every time I eat it I feel my eyes brighten- I feel fresher and more clear headed. Ingredients include avocado, grapes, turkey breast, celery. My wife has since persuaded me to eat more of such things.

[2] This is probably my next most important question after sleep. Why have I taken so long to get systematic at work? Why do I keep switching between systems, which is the most important? Which is the most effective and how do I stick to it?

[3] Pull ups, burpees and short sprinty-runs seem to be working well for me. Not sure if I should tamper or tinker with that. I should probably just start measuring them.

[4] Is this actually true? How about in things I like, such as video games? [A] Or- well, even in writing. I’m only JUST learning to prioritise a single train of thought. Previously my word vomits would be completely unstructured and I’d pursue every single new train of thought. Now I at least know to relegate these side thoughts to footnotes. If I need/want to, I can always expand on them later. But making them into footnotes has this lovely effect of reminding me that there’s a main body that I need to get back to.

[A] Do I prioritise in video games? Doesn’t actually seem to be the case. I tend to just repeat the same bits over and over and over again.

For all my brains, a remarkable amount of my approach to things is “just stick with it and you’ll eventually figure it out.” Of course, “eventually” also means developing structures and systems out of chaos. So perhaps it’s a sort of Oedipal scenario where to avoid doing X, you do Y… which is a road that lead to doing X. Initial annoyance aside, it’s all irrelevant as long as the quest is fulfilled.

[5] This thought makes me a little emotional. It’s like I’m playing this elaborate team game with myself- I can’t make the best decision now, perhaps because of time blindness, but I’m going to make damn sure that future me has everything he needs to make an informed decision.

 

0214 – destroy the boxes

I only have a couple of data points [1] but I’ve been enjoying watching videos by accomplished people giving long talks at conferences- particularly, videos that few people seem to have watched in their entirety. I get a sense that I’m exploring something lost, forgotten, ignored- like secret books. (I’m reminded now of how– according to Paul Graham at least– at one point the Most Important Task for academics and intellectuals was simply to transcribe the lost work and wisdom of the Ancients- the Greeks and all.)

So far I’ve watched talks by Ev Williams, a chat between Paul Graham and Marc Andreessen, Harley Finkelstein, a talk by the Airbnb Growth team, and most recently a keynote by Tobias Lutke of Shopify. And a few others that don’t immediately come to mind. (Transcriptions: ev, tobi, harley, airbnb)

That last one was the most recent and I want to write about my thoughts about it.

Tobi talked about his personal growth as an individual- from being a kid in school obsessed with getting a pair of Air Jordan sneakers to impress the popular kids, to being an apprentice at Siemens with a great mentor, and then to becoming the founder and CEO of a company that sold snowboards- Shopify.

He described well how at each point in life he was in a ‘box’- a self-contained world that’s internally consistent. The Siemens box was larger and more complex than the middle school box. More hierarchy, more players, etc. The world becomes more rich.

He then talked about how he had a mentor whose box was so much bigger than his- and how just spending time with him was enough to expand his mind (which reminds me of my experience first joining ReferralCandy- which I think I sometimes take for granted). He closed his talk with a video narrated by Carl Sagan, who had a huge box- thinking in terms of millenia, at the level of the species and beyond.

I think I’m sold on the idea that this is how life should be spent, despite the inevitability of our own deaths and the death of the universe. To do otherwise is stale, boring. Only by breaking your existing boxes- by deliberately seeking out the seams and breaking them- do you keep learning.

And I guess here I have to make a realization and confession- which is that I HAVE gotten complacent. It’s a strange thing to say because I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life. But I guess that’s what happens after you leave a box that you’ve been in for a very long time- perhaps all your life. When is it time to start on the next box? The answer is now, of course. It’s always now, unless you need to rest or take a break- but once you can look up and get up, you’re on to the next box. That’s the nature of the infinite game.

I got comfortable where I am. I allowed myself to be a little messy, a little inefficient. I got overwhelmed and I lost sight of my next box.

I also like how Tobi made a point to talk about the importance of working on things with other people who are also aware of their boxes, who are also working to transcend them. I think it’s very difficult (for me at least) to stay focused on some sort of personal development goal without meshing your goals with others.

And I realize that’s where I want to be. It’s scary and difficult and painful, but it’s also challenging and interesting and exciting. When did I start becoming afraid of challenges? It’s so subtle and insidious. But I have time. I’m young. I’m hungry. I’m privileged. I can and will break my boxes and help other people break theirs. We’ll keep doing it, and we’ll help to realize the visions of Da Vinci and Ben Franklin and Sagan- and if it’s not up to us, then we’ll make it possible for those who come after us. That’s it, that’s entirely it, that’s all we have.

And it starts so small. Laughably, amusingly small. It starts with sleeping habits and eating habits and how I spend my little chunks of time- as well as how how prioritize my days. Very sobering to think that how I manage my own time might have an impact on people less privileged than me, because if I grow and learn faster, I can help more people. Kind of a scary thought, because it makes me responsible for the things that I haven’t done, and that feels really odd and counter-intuitive. And it would also leave me eternally unsatisfied, and I don’t want to live like that. I suppose the only thing you can do is measure yourself against the effort you’ve put in. You have to go to bed every day feeling like you’ve made a good effort, and you review that effort, and you do better the next day, and the next week. I mean, none of this is new, none of this is rocket science. But hey, I’ve been shipping these word vomits at a nice frequency the past few days. I don’t want to get too fixated on it- the idea is to keep going, not to pat myself on the back and then slip. Because I often slip- I’ve always slipped.

But hey, I quit smoking. And I quit social media. And I can and will quit slipping, at least 99% of the time.

[1] A funny thought- I think I have quite a lot of data points of me saying “I only have a couple of data points”. I wonder what I can infer from that. Nothing I don’t already know, I guess- I get bored and distracted too early, even from things that I say I want or things that I care about. I suppose the thing is to then pre commit to the long haul. Which I’ve done with work, with marriage, and with these word vomits. It won’t work out by itself, but it will work out- because I will make it so. I just need to make myself make it so.

 

0213 – freedom requires violence

There were other thoughts in parallel with the Bullshit one. What were they? Okay here’s one that I had written down but didn’t start on: Freedom requires violence.

That’s a very loaded statement, I know, so let me qualify that and narrow the scope dramatically. I don’t mean it in a blunt, “you cannot be free without hurting other people” sort of way, rather I mean it in a much more nuanced sense. Let me just riff on the etymology of violence for a while-

Old French violence (13c.), from Latin violentia “vehemence, impetuosity,” from violentus “vehement, forcible,” probably related to violare, violation -> c.1400, from Old French violacion and directly from Latin violationem (nominative violatio) “an injury, irreverence, profanation,” from past participle stem of violare “to treat with violence, outrage, dishonor,” perhaps an irregular derivative of vis “strength, force, power, energy,” from PIE root *weie- “to go after, pursue with vigor or desire,” with noun derivatives meaning “force, desire”

So you see, if you trace it all the way back- freedom requires force, vigor, some element of irreverance, violation, ‘injury’.

What about freedom? Old English freodom “power of self-determination, state of free will; emancipation from slavery, deliverance;”. Old English freo “free, exempt from, not in bondage, acting of one’s own will,” also “noble; joyful,” from Proto-Germanic *frija- “beloved; not in bondage”, from PIE *priy-a- “dear, beloved,” from root *pri- “to love” (cognates: Sanskrit priyah “own, dear, beloved,” priyate “loves;” Old Church Slavonic prijati “to help,” prijatelji “friend;” Welsh rhydd “free”).

Interesting how love got all tied up in there. Etymology is really a beautiful thing.

I don’t know abut human communities and societies. I don’t know about nations and tribes. I’m writing about this from the perspective of a single human mind, my own. And by freedom I mean loosely the ability to do what ‘I’ (which is itself a complicated and messy concept, very likely to be fiction altogether) want to do.

Pause. Let me reframe that. There’s two kinds of freedom- ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’. The latter is messy and I want to rule out talking about that for now. I just want to talk about ‘freedom from’.

Freedom from what? From base appetites. From anxiety. From fear. From social expectations. From all the things that typically keep you from doing the things you otherwise say you want to do. (Saying you want to do something is a whole new can of worms though.)

I’ve always thought of myself as a pacifist. I don’t like fights and fighting, and I’ve shied away from every single one that I’ve ever encountered. I typically just apologise, claim responsibility and strive to be as diplomatic and neutral as possible.

But I’ve come to realize that there are some circumstances in which neutrality does not work and is not relevant. There are some circumstances in which negotiations get you nowhere.

This applies at many scales of reality. I’d prefer to talk about the less contentious ones. Consider for example, running an online community. And consider censorship, editing, deletions and bans as acts of violence. (Edits can be artfully done, using subtle, consensual persuasion). But bans and deletes are definitely violent acts, at least in the context of an online forum.

Imagine a world where the only way to communicate with other human beings was through an online forum. Now imagine being arbitrarily banned by a powerful moderator without warning. You get a sense of why that might be considered a violent act. Isolation and exile are known to be some of the most torturous things you can do to a person.

Any online community that gets sufficiently large becomes used and/or exploited for marketing purposes. It’s simple economics- the larger a community becomes, or the more apparent the purchasing power of the members of a particular community, the more lucrative it becomes to advertise on that channel. Reddit and Quora are great case studies for this.

What do you do once your forum starts attracting spam? You have to moderate and delete, because otherwise you drive off your most valuable contributors. The forum suffers from the evaporative – cooling effect and dies a slow, painful death. You might say that your forum has some ground rules or basic standards- fine, fair enough, that’s just preemptive, institutionalised violence. It’s order that’s instituted by the looming threat of violence, which hopefully nobody will have to use, witness or be subjected to.

Let’s leave forums for a moment and think about neurons within a brain. Okay- I’m no neuroscientist and I don’t actually know how the brain works. Let’s think about thoughts and how different thoughts coexist in the mind. The mind is rich and full of all sorts of messy, convoluted thoughts. Happy thoughts, sad thoughts, angry thoughts. Positive thoughts, negative thoughts, thoughts about thoughts. Base thoughts, sublime thoughts. Many of these thoughts should be able to safely coexist.

But what happens when some thoughts are volatile to others? When some thoughts “damage” or “disrupt” the “community” of your thoughts? Again, you can’t really have a complete anarchy of mind- there’s some sort of order that emerges, some central control or semblance of control, some order. These things seem to be socially divined- we keep ourselves from burping and farting and belching and defecating in the presence of others, we make it a point to be civilized, blah blah- all of that is for the smooth functioning of society. We destroy a certain uncouth, ‘barbaric’ part of ourselves in the service of social relations. This is rarely framed as a loss, because it’s always implied that the highest status people of any social group are the most civilized of all, and the rest of us ought to aspire to be so refined. But is refinement necessarily a good thing, and necessarily something that we should desire, and most importantly, do we lose something in the process?

I make the case that any time we seek to do something, to achieve something, to build something, we have to get rid of something else. That’s creative destruction. You have to break eggs to make an omelette. You have to kill a smoker inside of you to live healthily. You have to kill the resistance to make art. I’m not doing this justice and I’m going to end the vomit here so that I go to bed, but the basic idea is-

aren’t the demons in your head equally valid denizens, citizens? And isn’t it basically impossible to live a happy, healthy life without bludgeoning them to death? You can’t peacefully co-exist with those who will have you hurt. Freedom requires violence.

 

0212 – Bullshit breaks down at the boundaries

I’m on the way to work, and for the first time in weeks, I’m not tired. Not exhausted. It was almost definitely the weekend naps. I didn’t even particularly sleep better at nights- I had a bit of trouble sleeping last night. (I think I was too eager and anxious to do lots of writing, and my mind took a long time to calm down as a result.)

Despite that, I had 6 hours more Zzz’s than usual, and I think that made all the difference. My mind is significantly clearer now and I know I’m going to be more productive at work today.

I guess the next steps are to remind myself in writing and through other forms- that I need to sleep well every bit as much as I needed to quit smoking. I think I’ll take a meditation break and a short nap at work today. I think it’s getting clear that these things make a significant difference in my clarity of mind. It’s not even about productivity, though that helps a lot. It’s about being present in each moment- about showing up for my life while it’s happening.

Ok, we got that out of the way. What do want to talk about next?

I had a thought recently that the most annoying thing is Bullshit. Bullshit is noisy information that’s produced by people who are indifferent to truth. Bullshit is something inaccurate and/or invalid that is passed off as valid.

The annoying thing about Bullshit is that it’s often not immediately obvious as noise. It attempts to pass itself off as signal, or is interpreted and passed on by intermediaries as signal. This can be confusing.

Truth is that which doesn’t disappear when you stop believing in it. Truth is often painful, harsh, inconvenient. Speaking truth to Bullshitters is often a lost cause. There are sunk costs to being a Bullshitter, and people who Bullshit are rarely interesred in the truth. And this is completely rational for them as long as their environment permits it. Bullshit is comforting, familiar, and it feels good.

So why truth over Bullshit? Bullshit allows you to be the perceived master of your unique/limited domain. Truthism allows you to navigate across domains- or at least it provides you with the tools you need to start down that path (or to get even more nuanced, it’s a starting point / mindset that gets you looking in the right direction).

To be less abstract- Bullshit is pleasant until reality forces you to verify it. Bullshit is unverified claims, like “I didn’t do well because I didn’t study“. You can tell yourself and others that story for as long as you like, and it feels good until you’re made to prove it. When you’re put in a position where you need to do well. That’s when you’ll discover that you cannot actually deliver- that your failure to perform wasn’t a simple, noble act of rebellion (sour grapes is Bullshit) but a much more complex cocktail of incompetence.

This is where it gets a bit scary- realizing that the brain is a natural Bullshitter. Richard Fen man alluded to this: – “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Different people may have different predispositions to this, and maybe environment, upbringing and peer groups (and your identity, but I repeat myself) influence this, but for the most part I think we’re all designed to think what is convenient rather than what is verifiably accurate.

I’m reminded of a quote somewhere else- maybe LessWrong- that science persists because it is powerful, not because it is true. Truth eventually becomes a source of power- understanding physics and engineering allows you to make superior weapons. If science were comforting, it would dominate all religions. But it isn’t, and so it doesn’t.

Science does yield insights that can be immensely profound, but these things are not comfortable. Science persists and triumphs by being right, valid, verifiable, repeatable.

Okay so science is painful but good, Bullshit is comforting but ultimately confusing.

Here’s the other thought- reality reveals itself (and Bullshit gets exposed) at boundary conditions. We learn how the brain works by observing patients with brain damage. You find out what’s truly important to you when you’re about to die. If you’re struggling to prioritize things, it helps to go for an intense run. I’ve found this helpful, at least. My brain can’t juggle Bullshit and it’s need for oxygen at the same time, so it drops the Bullshit. The insights we get in such moments should be enduring- they’re still valid when the Bullshit returns.

This helps me understand better why some people do crazy shit. Because Bullshit breaks down at the boundaries.

What are the implications, then? What should I do? If I’m philosophically opposed to Bullshit, the solution is to test all claims, beliefs, hypotheses and ideas for Bullshit by pushing them to boundary conditions. If I think I want to do X, I should test that idea by being extreme about it. These word vomits are an example. Writing 1,000,000 words is a good way of testing whether or not you actually enjoy writing. I think it’s pretty clear where I stand about this.

But what else? What other beliefs are living rent-free in my head? I’m not sure. But these are things that I want to test. I believe that I can do X. I believe that i can do Y. I know now, for instance, that I can do 4 word vomits in a day. Can I do 10? I feel like I could do 10, but is that actually possible, or just Bullshit?

Until I can prove it, it’s technically Bullshit. It’s just an idea I carry in my head to feel good about myself. I have all this potential, wow, so special, so amaze. I have to eliminate “theoretically” from my vocabulary. Theory can be useful sometimes, but for my purposes, for my current station in life, experience is far more relevant. “I’ve done” is way more relevant than “I think I can do…”, which for me has always been problematic.

Okay, time to work.

 

0211 – reflecting on why

Feels like I’m going over old ground a lot. Let’s go somewhere new. Let’s just ask questions and answer them.

Why word vomits? Why am I doing word vomits? I’m 21% done, and I have 79% to go. Seems like a good time to revisit fundamentals and remind myself why I’m doing this.

I’m doing this because I know for a fact that I will be a different person at the end of it. I know that anybody who gets good at anything has to do a lot of it- the masters have failed more times than the beginners have ever tried. I want to really dance in the halls of the greats and the champions, and to get there I have to practice more than everyday people think is normal or reasonable.

I’m also doing this because I want to prove to myself that I can set myself a challenge and accomplish it. A lot of my life was spent with me flitting from project to project, with nothing every getting completed. I’d just get distracted and excited by the new most exciting thing, and drop the last thing halfway.[1]  I was watching a video about Benjamin Franklin and it talked about how his life was initially a lot of randomness and fragments, and he subsequently decided to discipline and focus himself- I think after he got back from London, while he was sailing back across the Atlantic. And I relate to that, I feel like I’ve tried to do too many things and I ought to focus on maybe 2-3 things at most, at any given time. (Focusing on one thing alone has often proven to be unhelpful- I need to focus on work at work, but when I’m done with work I need to focus on at least one other thing. I’ve tried the 100% work focus thing, and it doesn’t really work for me. Maybe I’ll give it another shot at some time.)

What’s my deeper why? Why do I care? Why do I do anything? 

I have retold my own story to myself and others so many times that I’m no longer clear about what the most accurate origin story is- if there’s one at all. I’d just switch to whichever is most convenient, I’m sure? I used to read a lot because it was interesting to explore all these worlds and perspectives and ideas. It was thrilling, moving. And then I transitioned from being interested into other worlds to being interested in my own, the immediate things around me… gah. Boring. Where can we go that’s new?

I think I’m fundamentally lonely. I think that’s an embarrassing thing to say because it sounds selfish, self-obsessed, egoistic, so on and so forth. And I definitely don’t want to be any of those things. But I do get bored of regular folks. I’m not sure why. I wish this wasn’t the case. But I find myself craving for the company of people who are more inspiring, more interesting, more compelling. People who are doing interesting things at a planetary, species-level. I’d like to work towards being that sort of relevant. Why? I just…

I guess I’ve never really felt like I fit in. I’ve never really felt like I had a group of friends I could well and truly call my own. I’ve never really belonged. I’ve always been a semi-outcast- sociable enough to get along (at least in my later years- really, I don’t know any more). I had peer groups here and there, and people I hung out with, and some of them I shared interests with. I had my musician friends, I had people I’d chat about video games with. I’d have people who I’d smoke and drink with and talk about life and our plans for the future and world domination and all of those things. But I don’t know, man. I don’t feel like any of that really fulfills me anymore.

What would really fulfill me? I think I’d like to be really, deeply useful to a lot of people. I have this odd obsession with scale that I think not many other people have. I find the idea of being a good husband and father and friend, a valuable member of a small community to be somehow limiting, to be playing it too small. And I understand that those basics might have to be met before you can become something greater. (Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll see.) But I want to quickly be useful to the most important people in the world who are doing the most interesting, challenging things. I know that ultimately I’m just a bundle of atoms that’s aware of itself, and aware of other bundles. I’d like to have been useful to as many other bundles of atoms as possible.

Again, dude, why? Why bother?

Here’s what I know- being small is boring. Very painfully boring. Sitting on reddit is boring. Drinking and smoking and playing video games is boring. Creating video games, now that might be more interesting. Helping people think better, more clearly, expand their minds, that might be more interesting. I need to be a creator because consumption alone is passive and unfulfilling.

What do you mean by fulfilling or unfufilling?

Well- I guess I feel anxious and worried all the time, for most of my life, and I know that life shouldn’t be spent that way. Life should be spent smiling and laughing deep belly laughs, and learning and growing. And for some time I felt like I haven’t been laughing, haven’t been learning, haven’t been growing. And the main reason for this is that I get swept up in all sorts of currents.

What currents? Why?

Well- I think at some point I lost faith in my own ability to make decisions for myself. (Is this really true?) This is the narrative I have right now, it’s worth examining and stress-testing. At some point I just kept screwing up and failing at school, and I felt like… I felt like it must have been because there was something deeply wrong with school itself, which must’ve been why I was so terrible at following rules and instructions. I wasn’t rebelling because I didn’t like my teachers or anything like that. I liked a lot of people. I was friendly, bright, alert, helpful. I just hated the institution itself. Is this true? I think so, but I’ll need to verify that…

Anyway so I built up a lot of experience failing and screwing up at being accountable, being responsible. So there’s this dark, dingy, disgusting room in my brain there- it’s like a rotting pile of filth, and I just try to ignore it and function despite it. It’s the elephant in the room- the fact that I fail at this most fundamental sort of human functioning. How to get things done. How to keep to a schedule. How to make plans. I can’t do any of that. And it causes me a lot of anxiety and I’d like to be rid of that.

Ultimately- I feel like I can be useful. I feel like I have skills and perspectives that others don’t, and I ought to apply them in service to the world. But even before that- I’d like to live life without painful guilt and anxiety. I quit smoking. I quit social media. And I’m going to quit this ridiculous guilt and anxiety nonsense. It’s just a matter of time and effort, and I will figure this shit out. It’s literally the single most important thing I can do to improve my own quality of life.

[1] I once read someone else describe productivity as driving from one destination to another. You start on the small roads, with all the traffic lights- it takes a lot of time, and then you get to the highway, which is thrilling and fast. But then to get to the destination you have to go off the highway and onto all the small roads again. The small roads take up 20% of the distance travelled but 80% of the travel time. So even when you’ve covered 80% of the distance, you still have 80% of the journey left. It’s very counter-intuitive for me, and I’ve never properly internalized this.

 

0210 – after the unfriending

Since unfriending everybody, I’ve gotten quite a bit more headspace to think about other things.

It’s been lonely, I have to admit. I’ve been very isolated for the past year. The only human contact I have is with my wife at home and with my colleagues at work. I stopped hanging out with old friends (partially a geographic issue- I was no longer where all my old friends were, and I have no close friends who live where I moved to). I unfollowed and unfriended everybody on Twitter and Facebook, and I deleted as many accounts as I could. And then I went on a sort of radio silence.

I did this because I wanted to know who I was away from all of that noise. I had become really good at responding and replying to other people’s statuses and updates, and I was keeping track of lots of people’s lives, whether intentionally or otherwise. RescueTime told me that I was spending 3-5 hours a day on social media, sometimes more. I was feeling ‘stuck’ at work and with my personal projects, so I felt like it would make a lot of sense to just let go of the 3-5 hours altogether.

I was a little afraid to do it, but I decided that it didn’t make sense to live in fear of what people might think. Why stay friends with people who get so easily offended at you leaving a space, especially if you felt it was necessary for your emotional and psychological well-being? I wanted to know who my real friends were. I wanted to know who would reach out to me if I were gone, who would notice if I were missing.

Initially it was a little daunting, and I started by unfollowing people that I never had any contact with, no real conversations, no real discussions. Then I unfollowed the people who I felt were a little toxic for me- people with whom my interactions were rather combative, forceful, argumentative, etc. I then started gathering momentum, and I decided to unfriend even my close friends and colleagues, people I cared very much about. I unfollowed everybody. And then suddenly, all was quiet.

It was simultaneously more and less than I expected. The quiet was palpable. I would still log into Facebook and Twitter out of habit and impulse, and see that there was nothing there to see. I would catch myself logging in again and again, and it would be clear that the habit had formed. And each time I would encounter nothingness, and that would be a cue for me to contemplate. How much I had grown dependent on these services to fill up my hours, to make me feel like I was doing something. Over time, I would spend less and less time on those platforms. I posted a couple of links to good reads– again, out of habit, and I’d find that nobody responded. And so it felt like I was losing the feedback that kept me going- those notifications, those little dings that kept me going. And so the whole thing started to sort of wilt and die out.

So, what do I do with all this extra headspace? I haven’t decided yet, actually. I feel like my mind has been very foggy and cluttered lately. But it’s not like these are new things. I’m just waking up to the mess that was here all along, that I was distracting myself from. And some of it has been scary and painful to face. But it feels really necessary. What am I talking about?

I guess– in the absence of peripheral peer approval- which I had gotten pretty good at getting- I wasn’t super clear about what I wanted. Or if I was clear, that clarity was fleeting- and maybe I’ll find bits and pieces of it when I review my writing.

Will I always be this total recluse? No, absolutely not. I can’t survive like this indefinitely. I definitely need human contact. But I guess I had approached the problem of “I need human contact” in a very inelegant, wanton, messy, unaesthetic, unimaginative way, with left me with all sorts of people that weren’t necessarily good for me. I hadn’t pruned and tended to my garden, and as a result I had a whole bunch of crap and mess and ugly that was painful and unsightly to deal with. So I burned the whole thing to the ground. And before I start again, I’m using this space to ruminate, to meditate, to reminisce. To figure out what really matters to me, what I really want out of the remainder of my days, what I really want out of my relationships.

What do I want? I want peers that I really respect and admire, and I want to become a person who those people admire. I want to be at the forefront of humanity (as I choose to define it- yeah, I know that life isn’t a competition, but I think some people are doing more amazing things than others, and I want to align myself with the people who are doing amazing things- because I think they have a better sense of reality, and they have more fun, and they’re just happier and more fun to be with, and they say and do more interesting things…)

I’m confident that I’ll get there if I just put in the work. I just need to keep putting in the work. I need to maintain a daily discipline. I need to manage my time better, have more output, prioritize things. I need to write more, and I need to focus on things that are worth writing about. But even that might be premature optimization. I need to trust myself and just do a little bit of writing everyday. Every single day. And I need to sleep early. That’s it. It’s not that complicated. I’ve been complicating things, kicking up a dust and then struggling to see. I think I’ve been doing all that kicking because I used to be such an inactive bum. I’ve been driving myself to blind overwork so that I can collapse from exhaustion rather than laziness, and learn from that point.

I think a part of it might be narrative, which even I’ve bought into without realizing or not. While I hate the idea of busywork, I think it’s easier to do too much busywork, burnout and then recover from that point… than it is to start out as a lazy bum and become effective from there. I don’t know. I’m just validating my own narrative. We’ll see. Just putting this out there. It isn’t nearly as important as actually just getting the important work done.

Done.

 

0209 – repeatedly revisit what you know

Yesterday, I took a post-nap lunch at about 1pm, and I woke up at 4pm. Earlier today, I took a nap at around 145pm, and I woke up at around 445pm. These are only two data points, but it seems like the 3-hour mid-afternoon nap is a robust system. I’m curious to see what happens if I sleep earlier or later. I should test it.

There are few things here that I’d like to meditate on. One is that I clearly need more sleep than I’ve been getting these past few weeks. I feel more alert for sure. Another is that I’m more sold on the idea– I’m pretty sure I’ve written about this before in the past– yup, I have.

But somehow I’ve never fully gotten around to internalizing that wisdom. The idea makes sense to me, and it doesn’t blow my mind the way it first did when I first thought about it, but I think I’ve begun to develop a more practical appreciation for it now. Which is my long-winded way of saying I think I’ve gotten better at paying attention to my natural rhythms and cadences.

The first time I had a session in a sensory deprivation tank (at palm ave float club, I highly recommend it. Tell them Visa sent you), I remember becoming very aware of my breathing. I realized that I take such shallow breaths most of the time. I tend to be naturally hunched and cramped up rather than open and ‘full’- I don’t want to get all touchy-feely here- it’s mainly a body language thing, and it feels like I’ve conditioned myself over the years to make myself smaller, maybe so I fit in better. Maybe.

And the shallow breaths thing- why? Well, why do people normally take shallow breaths? Apparently it’s correlated with stress, anxiety, nervousness. And it feels like those things have been constants in my life for a very, very long time– since I was a kid, maybe.

Again, I don’t know, and again, it feels like it’s not so important to know– it’s more important that I know how to respond, how to react. That’s where meditation comes in. That’s where exercise comes in. And even things like body language and self-talk, and how I think about stress. I’m going to run right after I finish this vomit.

Aside– Am I stuck right now? While I’ve been sleeping more, my mind isn’t necessarily clearer. But I think that’s normal, I think this is sort of a transitional stage. I need to eat better, too. I haven’t been eating. There isn’t enough sugar in my bloodstream or something. So I went to get some glucose.

It’s funny. I’ve had all these really big dreams and ideas and ruminations over the past decade, but I think the most important thing for me to do in my life right now is actually to fix the most boring, mundane things.

I keep feeling like I need to have something important or profound to say, and I know that I have some useful things inside of me, but I can’t access them because my most basic, fundamental needs aren’t quite met properly.

I know for a fact for example– I was telling my wife this in conversation yesterday- that if I just keep to a writing schedule and publish a word vomit every single day (this is my second day writing two, but this is a weekend so I don’t know, and I don’t want to make unhealthy projections that I can’t keep up with), then sooner or later I’ll unearth interesting things that are useful to people. I just know it. Because I get to witness my thoughts and I know that most of them are boring but some of them are interesting, and the few times I’ve managed to get everything aligned right- the right mood, the right words, the right tempo- it DOES go on to be useful to people, and people share it. And that stuff came through me.

I wanted to say “came out of me”, and I wonder when I lost that idea of being a conduit- that things come through you, not from you, and that ideas don’t quite belong to you- they may be manifest in your mind, in the atoms that make up the person you call you, but really they came from somewhere before you, beyond you, outside of you, and they just happen to be in the vessel of you for a little while- for the briefest of moments.

So why do I have all this performance anxiety, this constant need and urge to get everything right? It wouldn’t be such a big deal if the anxiety actually meant that I actually DID get things right, but more often than not I just cramp up and screw up and feel really bad- and that’s not very helpful at all. What I actually need to do is chill out, relax, breathe deeply and know that it’s okay for me to miss out on all the things that are out of reach. Because I have me, and that’s actually quite interesting (for myself). I have a body and a mind and there’s a wealth of insight and experience and beauty for me to enjoy, and I can do that.

I know, kinda fluffy. But it’s the sentiment that matters rather than the specific words.

I was thinking the other day that I had forgotten what I was curious about. Insights are rarely altogether new, they tend to be new configurations of old, revisited insights that had somehow gone dark, gotten dusty and lost their lustre. I’m not really sure if there’s anything I’m going to discover in the world that I don’t already know, and that might be a good thing. [1]

But I’m talking about basic daily wisdom, about motivation, about going to bed with a smile every night, feeling like the day was well spent. I think that sort of wisdom has been established for thousands of years, and the only thing that needs to happen is for it to be practiced.

What’s stopped me from practicing the wisdom I know I ought to be practicing? At some point it seemed a little dry and boring and lame, and all of those things remained relatively true until I was put in circumstances where I couldn’t do what I wanted without getting those things done first. What else? I’m reminded of the motivational talk Al Pacino’s character gave the football players- you don’t know until you start losing stuff. Living is about clawing for the 6 inches in front of your face. And maybe I was really just too privileged, too lucky, too comfortable, too happy. Who knows. I doubt I can reduce all of it into a couple of lines, and again, I’m not so sure if it really matters.

What matters is that I know now that daily practice is the only thing that has a decent shot at getting me away from the person I no longer want to be, towards the person that I want to become. I may have said this before, which is good- because repetition is necessary for learning. I will repeat it a thousand times if it’s necessary. My brain’s a little odd that way. I may have to learn other things along the way- so be it, I’ll figure out those things as I go.

It’s time to run now.

[1] Though I wouldn’t be so quick to write the world off like that! The world is going to blow everybody’s minds, now more than ever, what with cryptocurrencies and 3D printing and brain-controlled artificial limbs and whatnot.

 

0208 – earn your keep

I deeply enjoyed reading The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield a while ago, and it’s a book I want to re-read and re-read and internalize. It talks about The Resistance, which keeps writers from writing. And how every day the Resistance is renewed and you have to face it again and again, and it never ever goes away.

Now that’s a suitable villain for anybody’s life narrative. It’s all the animals in your head trying to get you away from doing the things that you know within yourself you are capable of doing.

So I’m tentatively revisiting the idea that I ought to write these vomits everyday. [1] I liked how Pressfield described his work- he would demarcate time clearly for it, and he’d have his lucky charm, and he’d just go into it and slog it out, like an athlete. The athlete has to play hurt, and the professional artist has to do the work whether or not he’s feeling inspired, whether or not the conditions are right.

So I’m thinking that I’d like to start my days every morning with a thousand words. I’ve been making my bed regularly, and that’s had a positive effect on me. It feels like making and keeping a promise to myself, which is very precious to me because my brain thinks that I’m incapable of keeping promises. If I am to get rid of all the shame and anxiety I feel, I will have to strike at the heart of it- and the heart of it is broken promises. I feel ashamed because I don’t do what I say I’ll do, and I don’t do what I want to do. And I feel like an unreliable, untrustworthy person, and I’m really tired of that. Really, really tired. I’m tired of writing about it. I’m tired of having it as the dominant thought on my mind– there must be so many other interesting things that I could be thinking about.

So where do we go from here? I feel like I’ve definitely written about this before, but I’m just going to write it again. It seems like there’s a certain amount of repetition necessary for these things to really get internalized. I need to start by prioritizing my sleep, because I work better and think more clearly and experience less fog when I have slept well. That means getting in bed before midnight, preferably before 11. I’m changing my way of thinking about it- it’s not just something that happens at the end of everything- it’s a priority, because it’s fundamentally restorative. My mind without sleep is ugly and useless.

I’ve found meditation to be helpful– where I just sit on my sofa and look out of the window and breathe for 5-10 minutes. I’ve found naps to be helpful, too. So I’m making it a point to take a lot more of them moving forward.

In the past, these things seemed like distractions or boring diversions- why bother doing these things when I could squeeze in a bit of work, or more often than not, a bit of pleasure? I realize I do that because I don’t trust myself to have time for pleasure after work. In my experience, work expands to fill every little space, every nook and cranny, so if I’m to have to have any pleasure at all, I have to steal little bits here and there, like smoke breaks. I will never have any real time for myself, my saboteur seems to think.

So it’s this recursive cluster-fuck. I’m not even sure where it all began, and I’m not sure if there’s any point in trying to find out- at least right now. It makes more sense to get rid of the pain first than to think about where the pain come from. Remove the arrow before you worry about who shot you, right? So in my case, the (non-exhaustive list of) conditions are as follows:

  • I don’t believe that I am capable of getting things done, because I have a long and illustrious history of spectacular failures (starting with school, maybe even earlier). This is a deep-rooted, fundamental belief that I rarely state outright because it sounds kinda lame and silly, but it’s actually a belief that gets to stay in my head, and I need to work on evicting it. And to do that I need contrary evidence. I think the runs and vomits and meditation sessions are helping.
  • I don’t have deep-rooted systems for managing my time, for managing my appointments. My parents never taught me (bless them, they’re good people but they were too kind and allowed me too much freedom.) So I’m like an ignorant, irresponsible child in this regard. I just don’t know how to think about time. I don’t know how to think about the future. I can think FAR into the future- I can think about the eventual heat death of the universe and how it renders all of this living business kinda pointless and redundant. I can think about what it would be like to witness my loved ones dying. But somehow I struggle to think about deadlines looming next week.
  • I’m terrible at projecting how long any given task might take. I systematically underestimate them. Part of this is that I hate to upset or displease people, so I try to give them things as quickly as possible. Another part of this is that I’m literally bad at estimating things. I assume perfect conditions, no distractions, insane work ethic, etc. And then these assumptions all get broken, and I hate myself again.
  • I’m impulsive and distractible, more than most people. I can easily spend an entire day on social media, no problem. I can spend an entire day doing anything that isn’t work. I’m not sure if I’ve ever spent an entire day working, and I’m starting to get curious if it’s possible. I can easily finish entire tubes of mentos and nerds and sweets. I can do random nonsense and wonder where the past 4-6 hours had gone.

Nyeh. I’m sure there’s more, but thinking about it further isn’t very helpful to me right now– what matters is that I take action. My real goal here was to finish a word vomit. The vomit is done. It’s before 1pm. I can now do a bunch of chores. Today, I have earned my keep, I have taken baby steps towards the goal that I have set for myself. I’ll maybe do it again tonight before I sleep. And I’ll do it again tomorrow morning.

[1] There are supposedly 4 parts (expectancy, value, impulsiveness, delay) to The Procrastination Equation– I’m guessing there’s actually more, but there are at least these 4 parts. Thinking a little more about it, I’m guessing those are broader, bigger conditions that influence those 4 elements. But I digress.

 

0207 – a restful day + somewhere new now

Today was a good day, and one that I need to replicate a lot. It was simple and straightforward. I slept fully until I was ready to get out of bed- a little longer than that, actually. Then I did some small chores. Then I cooked breakfast with my wife’s help- beans, tomatoes, spinach and eggs. It was healthy, fresh and yummy. Then we watched a little bit of Connections by James Burke, chatted a bit, and then we napped again.

We each slept 3 hours. Then I woke up and transcribed (imperfectly) a talk by Ev Williams. I then watched a talk by Anita Sarkeesian at the same event. Then I chatted with my wife for a while, and then I washed the dishes while she made dinner– chicken, pasta and salad. Then I took another nap. (I’ve been very sleep deprived lately, so all this napping has been great for me.) Then we went for a walk. We had some ice cream, and then we had some prata, and then we walked more, and now we’re home. It’s 1am, and I feel the urge to crank out another word vomit before I go to bed.

Where am I? I was thinking a while ago- not sure if I wrote this down- that there’s an inwards journey that’s almost independent of journeying through time and/or space. I experienced this most strongly when I was in the shower after an early morning run. I experienced something akin to what Louis CK described when he was talking about when he discarded his old jokes and tried something a little strange and new. “I’m somewhere new now”, he said. I last felt this way about quitting smoking, and again when I quit social media. And I experienced that when I was in the shower. I looked at myself in the mirror, and thought, “I’m somewhere new now.”

I think it’s interesting to deconstruct that. I wasn’t somewhere new physically, and I hadn’t been anywhere new physically. I had gone downstairs, I had travelled a short line and a circle or two, and then I had come back, and I was in the shower. None of that was anything new. I was up at maybe 7am, which was unusual for my circumstances, but again, it’s not like I’ve never been awake at 7am in my life. I guess what was new was the fact that I had voluntarily woken up and left the house with the intention of going for a run, without any direct, extrinsic force acting on me. I was doing it because I wanted to do it. Which was new.

And I realize- or I got reminded of, rather- that there’s a choice that I get to make at every moment of every day. I get to do things as I’ve always done them, or I get to do things differently. One of the problems is that the fog tends to stop me from even realizing that I have a choice. It just keeps me running on autopilot. Why do I do that? Why don’t I do things differently?

The short answers aren’t all that interesting, though they’re true- as a human being I’m wired to do whatever’s simple and convenient, I’m wired to have habits. There’s no real survival-affecting reason why I should put in more effort to change the way I do things. (A quote that really stood out for me- can’t remember where I read it- was that humans aren’t evolved to be happy. Happy people don’t survive better than angry, anxious, nervous, paranoid people.)

But okay. I also have this problem where I over complicate things. What I really need to do is create more spaces for myself to make better decisions, rather than agonize over how shitty my decisions are when I’m tired and frustrated and overwhelmed. Turned out what I needed was some meditation (5-10 minutes can make a big difference), some naps (20 mins here, 20 mins there, again huge difference), healthier food (oh my god you have no idea), a couple of cabs to avoid shitty commutes (this costs $$– I’m not rich, but I can afford to spend a bit more than usual if it means better mental health), and some exercise (I just jog quickly to the nearby fitness corner and sprint as quickly as I can for a couple of rounds.)

Doing those things have greatly reduced the anxiety that was plaguing for quite a while. The source of my anxiety was my own inefficiency at work. I was hoping that I would’ve become effective at work because I quit smoking and I quit social media, the latter of which was a huge time sink. Surely if I had more time, I would be more efficient? Turns out that the answer is no. I just spend more time doing unnecessary research, and I spend more time trying to do impossible things at the expense of things that ought to be done.

I was talking to my content team and realizing that when I encounter something, a starting point, I tend to have a vision of version 999 that develops. And I tend to get a clearer and clearer sense of what that optimal, perfect case would look like. What I’m really, really bad at doing is figuring out what version 1 should be, and versions 2 through 10. I really ought to just ship a series of version 10s- and that’s how I ultimately get to version 999 of anything. What’s instead been happening is that I fixate on version 999, try to do it all at once, and I just get overwhelmed and I hate myself. I bite off more than I can chew. And this reduces my Expectancy of what can and cannot be done.

So this year I want to change all that. This year is the year of version 1s and version 10s instead of version 999. I’m going to ship lots of little shitty things and be okay with that. The hardest part, really, is prioritizing what’s the bare minimum necessary for something to function effectively. Turns out that a lot of the time, I don’t actually know. I think this might be the most important skill I have to develop. (Incidentally, the next most important thing is that I publish this vomit and go to bed, so goodnight.)