0318 – Romance of Late Nights

I’ve been sleeping earlier and earlier the past few days. I went to bed at midnight yesterday, before 1am the day before, and before 2am the day before that. And there were times in the weeks that preceded that I was sleeping at maybe 3am. The result would be that I would wake up tired and groggy– this would never seem too terrible at the moment of waking. It would seem like the same as any other day. But after I get to work, I would be tired and groggy.

The worst part is, it’s never completely clear that this is actually the case. I think I took a 20 minute nap at work yesterday and I felt a little bit refreshed, but really, it’s no substitute for good, deep sleep. Which makes me want to take a little time to explore my experience and history with sleep, just as a while ago I found myself thinking about my history with food.

I read a quote recently– I’m not sure if it was on Reddit or Hacker News or somewhere– maybe Tumblr, maybe an Imgur picture quoting Tumblr (that’s probably it– it’s all the same, it’s all a blur now, the nature of modernity is that everything from everywhere is happening all at once)– about someone talking about their experience staying up late. Between 1am and 4am, he or she said, the world is quiet and still, and you can ignore your obligations, your responsibilities, the consequences of your actions. It’s the romance of late nights, the time out of time, where you are completely free to do as you please. In Singapore, if you like, you can even go out and have supper.

When I look back on my life, there have been times where time spent with friends between 1am and 4am was some of my favorite times. I used to play video games at friends houses, or smoke at void decks and drink beer and talk about what life had in store for us ahead, or talk about relationship problems, and wonder if we’d ever figure it all out– or if we’d get any better at this whole living thing. I think for younger folks– teenagers, especially, the night has a certain sense of freedom calling. Your parents are asleep, your teachers are asleep, the witching hours are the time where you can be free. These are probably the times where teenage boys and girls sneak out of their homes to go and make out in the playgrounds– spaces which enable children’s play in the daylight would afford semi-privacy for quivering, wandering hands, fingers, lips.

For me, the late nights were the quiet times, the downtime away from all the pesky people who fill up my day like swarms of insects, buzzing and yapping and moving around in their clunky, obtuse ways. I have to admit, these are my feelings as I write this– people often annoy and frustrate me. I like persons– George Carlin said that when you catch an individual in person, you can see the Universe in his eyes if you’re really looking. But groups of people, swathes of people, they can be sickening and overwhelming.

I don’t mean that personally. Every person must feel the same way about my role in the crowd, too. We are all traffic. We are all the plague on our own houses. And every day I feel worn down and abused by the throngs of people on the trains. Some people are fine, but there are always those who are loud and obnoxious and abrasive, and a part of me always wants to lash out at them, speak up and put them in their place somehow.

But I know that that would itself be unnecessary provocation, that my expression of annoyance would further annoy and frustrate others, and so I just allow it to boil inside me, hopefully distracting myself with things on my phone, maybe listen to some music, maybe try to be a little bit meditative. Nothing quite works, and the commutes just wear you down. Perhaps someday I will be able to afford taking a cab, perhaps driverless cars will soon be a thing (I wish for this so hard), or perhaps I will move somewhere that isn’t as inaccessible as where I am right now.

But I have to remember to be thankful and grateful and all that, yadda yadda. Suspending that for now to think harder about late nights. I remember the house that my family lived in was always tense. My parents worked out of a home office, and so they were always concerned about work. There was no clear demarcation between work and home in my house, and I didn’t want to be a part of it very much.

So I’d typically head out– either stay late in school, or go to friends’ homes, or hang out in the library, I don’t know. It seems a little neat and tidy to say that I was avoiding home. Was I really? I know that I was never in a rush to go home. There were always some people who would linger– sometimes different people every time, and a few who would linger throughout. And I would stick around to see who would stick around, and to see what would unfold, what fuckery we’d get up to.

I’d notice the same thing happening on Facebook years later, when Facebook came around. You’d see all those green lights in the sidebar, people who’re online. And as the night goes on, you’d see more and more of the lights go off, and you’d feel a certain affinity to the last few people who remained. Sometimes people from the other side of the Earth.

I remember chatting from time to time with a friend of my wife’s, who was studying in New York. We’d typically chat around 3am or so. I enjoyed our conversations– there was something about tired late nights, something about the darkness, something about the quiet that would bring out something introspective and honest about me. I wouldn’t be surprised if– when I someday become a novelist or writer of some sort– I actively sometimes choose to stay up late at night to write.

But lately I’ve been contemplating the inverse, which I’ve never fully explored. Sleeping early so that I can wake up late, arising BEFORE the world, allowing the world to come to me. It seems like a much more confident, strong proposition. We’ll see how that plays out. It’s 1040pm now, and I’m going to bed. It’s rather uncharacteristic of me.

 

0317 – somewhat existential

Somewhat existential.

Been feeling a bit of a cloudy sort of mood for a while. Not exactly the “Oh woe is me, I’m going to die” thing or the “wow the Universe will die too so the idea of preserving yourself in a legacy is kinda short-sighted” thing– I think I’ve sorta come to terms with both of those facts. I accept them to be true. I think what I’m sorta troubled with right now is the feeling that I’m not doing very much with either of those realizations. And I don’t want to veer into Notes from Underground territory, where Dostoyevsky’s character basically bitches and whines in an articulate way about how he hates everything, including himself, and how he does stupid things, blah blah. (I should probably read it again to make sure I’m not re-reading). That’s somewhat predictable, and I don’t want to be predictable. I’m not saying I want to be some sort of magical special snowflake, I know that’s not really an option (well– except by digging really deep into a particular domain, which I hope to do with my writing over my lifetime).

But here’s what’s bothering me. I feel like I’ve done all this reading and all this thinking and daydreaming and planning, and somehow nothing seems to interest me very much anymore. I don’t know what I care about anymore, except maybe the fact that I don’t want to feel bummed out when I go to bed. I don’t want to feel like I wasted my hours and days. I don’t feel like I have any crazy big ambitions anymore. I used to want to somehow contribute to space travel– I still do, but I recognize now that having that as a goal is too far away, too abstract, almost a form of escapism. Focusing on that doesn’t help me at all. I ought to just focus on sleeping well at night.

So how do I sleep well at night? What’s stopping me from sleeping well each night? Well, I feel like I don’t do enough. Enough of what? Writing, and work. What writing is enough? I think I should be doing at least one word vomit a day that gets published, and I feel like I should also be publishing something somewhere else. I catch myself spending time on Reddit or Twitter again, after having gone through one round of social media detox sometime last year. I feel like it’s time for me to detox again. But more importantly, maybe I should just prioritize how I spend my limited time. I’d like to do a word vomit and publish a “regular” post every morning.

Why do I want to do that? Well… I want to feel connected in life. I want to feel like I’m a part of the goings-on of the universe. And I know, you always are, no matter what you’re doing. Just by breathing. And to a slightly more substantial extent, by producing and consuming all that you produce and consume. Well… I don’t like the idea of expressing myself through my consumption habits. How do I want to express myself? Why do I want to express myself? What do I want to express? Who do I want to impress?

The only person I actually want to impress anymore is me. But what impresses me? For the longest time, I thought the answer was, “the approval of other people”. If I can get popular people to like me, I must be doing well. But it’s clear that that’s not all it’s made out to be. It’s unnecessarily difficult and not all that fulfilling, and people are going to judge you anyway.

Feels like I’m repeating a script, let’s ditch that. I’m not sure if I’m going to be writing short stories or novels or commentary or whatnot. I don’t really care for being some sort of social activist anymore, I think. I got a bit jaded and also felt like things are going to turn out however they turn out regardless of intervention. As I write this I wonder if that’s necessarily true. I think it’s helpful to give people the tools they need/want to achieve what they need/want to achieve. And if I can do that with a marginal amount of effort I think I should do that. I don’t want to spend all my time crusading in some blogosphere for some issues. Really, I just want to sleep well and work out and get buff and feel comfortable in my skin. I might start doing vlogs, for a long time I’ve been wanting to do vlogs of some kind but I don’t yet know what I want to say. I just know that there is some limit to expressing myself in the written word, and I feel like using the spoken word will make me feel less limp, less weak, more confident and assertive.

I want to feel powerful. I want to be able to beat people up. I want to never have to ever do that, but I’d like to have that ability. I’d like the ability to intimidate people, and not have to use it. I feel like that’s something that’s lacking in my life and I thought I’d finally come out and say it.

In a sort of meta way, I’d also like to be done with this constant need for validation from other people. I’m not sure if these vomits count as an attempt to get validation– after all I am publishing them online and linking to them on Twitter, but also sorta try not to draw too much attention to it. The posts are intentionally long and meandering so nobody’s going to figure out what the fuck I’m talking about unless they’re equally crazy and want to get themselves embroiled in my shit. This isn’t a cry for help or anything, it’s just my personal sort of nonsense. I feel like this is a nice balance. You can opt in if you want, but most people are going to walk right on by and that’s just fine, I like it that way.

But that feels like just half the picture. I think I also need a steady stream of output that’s almost-optimized for public consumption, just as I’ve almost-optimized this for personal introspection. I’ll see what I can do. I’ll go to sleep now first.

 

0316 – thinking and talking about anger

C: Okay, okay. I think I need help. Can you help me?

B: I can try. What do you need help with?

C: I think most people are really stupid and annoying. And I guess if I’m totally honest, I don’t like that I think that. It’s very presumptuous of me.

B: Just being aware of that, being that honest, that has to be a huge step in the right direction.

C: I know right? I’m so awesome, get a load of me! Seriously though, it’s not helping. I know I’m being presumptuous but I can’t help it.

B: What exactly about people do you find so stupid and annoying?

C: People are really narrow-minded. They don’t think very much. They act without thinking. They jump to conclusions. They come up with really stupid names for things. They have terrible grammar. They get fixated on really rubbishy things. They run the world, and they’re running it very badly.

B: How would you do things better?

C: I don’t know. At the very least I think I wouldn’t pretend that I know what I’m talking about, or that I know what I’m doing. All these pretentious people pretending to know what they’re doing, they’re really just bullshitting themselves and each other. Eventually reality will smack them in the face, but right now they’re having a really good time– better than me, for sure– and I feel like reality is being unfair.

B: Reality IS unfair. Or rather, it has no concept of fairness. It simply is.

C: Yeah well that sucks. It’s really unfair.

B: It’s interesting how fixated you seem to be on this concept of fairness.

C: Is it? What about you? Don’t you feel bothered that the world is so unfair?

B: It is rather troubling, but what can I do about it?

C: You could… get angry?

B: How does that help make the world any fairer?

C: It doesn’t. It’s just better than…

B: Better than?

C: Being a moron.

B: I bet being a moron is great. Morons love being morons.

C: Well, I can’t go back to being a moron, can I?

B: You could do some drugs and get irreversible brain damage.

C: Are you seriously advocating that?

B: Nah, just a thought.

C: So what should I do?

B: For a start I guess you should just think about the longer term implications of your actions, and who you ultimately want to be. How do you ultimately want to spend your life?

C: I’d like to be less angry.

B: Okay. This might sound a little weird or like it’s missing the point, but do you realize that anger is a response that you have? Meaning that there are things happening inside your brain that make you angry. Physical processes, neurons firing and all that.

C: Uhuh.

B: So let’s open up the problem. There are a bunch of things that happen. You are a person in the world, and so things happen around you, and they happen to you. You then process this information with your beliefs, ideas, and so on. Something about the information triggers a response in you, which makes you angry.

C: Uhuh.

B: And you want to be less angry, or preferably not angry at all.

C: Uh, hm. Maybe. Yeah. Probably.

B: You hesitate on that because you’re so used to being angry, you’re not sure what it’ll be like to not be angry. Your anger colors your perception of reality, and your experience of it. You worry that being not-angry means being a sort of vacuous, hollow, superficially happy person.

C: I HATE hollow happy people.

B: Hahaha.

C: I’m not kidding!

B: Sure. Why do you hate them?

C: Because they’re obviously just going through a bunch of motions, reading a script without actually thinking very much about what they’re talking about.

B: Just to play devil’s advocate for a second– how do you know you’re not just going through a bunch of motions, reading a script without thinking very much about what you’re talking about?

C: Because–

B: Mmhmm?

C: Are you saying I’m just as stupid as stupid happy people, just that I’m a stupid angry person?

B: Well, I don’t know. What’s the difference between the two?

C: Uh. I’ve seen some stupid angry people who just get angry at everything. Even at things that can’t be helped. Like bad weather, or the power going out.

B: You don’t get angry at bad weather?

C: Um… I make angry sounds, but I’m not REALLY angry. I know that there’s nothing that can be done. I don’t rage at service staff when it’s a problem beyond their capacity to fix. But I get frustrated when they tell me they can’t do something that they can obviously do (such as serve two things at once, etc).

B: Interesting. So how do you define “capacity to fix”?

C: Uhh. If it’s something right in front of your face, and you can deal with it with your hands, it’s within your capacity to fix? If you can directly influence something. So it’s not the service staff’s fault if there was some fault in the boxed up product I bought, but it’s their fault if they stare blankly at me and tell me I can’t exchange it because of some arbitrary bullshit reason– they’re obviously just trying to evade responsibility.

B: That’s interesting. Do you think it’s within your capacity to become a less angry person?

C: I don’t know. I’m not too optimistic about that.

B: Are you just trying to evade responsibility?

C: I don’t know. I don’t think so. But I suppose it’s a possibility.

B: What would you say if the service staff genuinely doesn’t think it’s within their capacity to do something, even if it’s obvious to you?

C: I… get frustrated that we live in a stupid world that doesn’t teach people better.

B: What if I told you this– from my point of view, you’re no different from that service staffer. It’s within your capacity to get less angry– to use your own mind and your own thoughts– but you’re “obviously” just trying to evade responsibility.

C: Erm… that feels a bit unfair.

B: Which is probably how service staff feels about you, when you judge them.

C: Sigh. So I’m just as guilty of perpetuating bullshit and unfairness in the world.

B: You don’t have to keep doing it. You can stop, just as the service staff can stop evading responsibility.

C: That sounds nice in theory.

B: It feels even better in practice, when you finally get around to actually doing it.

C: But what does “actually doing it” even mean?

B: Deciding to think and feel differently.

C: But I can’t change the way I feel.

B: That’s always how it seems, but truth is, you change the way you feel all the time.

C: I suppose. That’s not very helpful though.

B: Just think about it. Take a long walk. Sleep on it.

C: Okay. *lights a cigarette*

 

0315 – sorta starting from scratch, managing the mind

Every so often it helps to start from scratch. What do I really want to be doing? What am I really all about? What should I be doing with my limited resources?

I know that I want to write, and that I want to get better at writing. That’s a good node to have at the heart of my system. I will always want to write, and always want to get better at writing. This might be a way of saying that I want to get better at thinking and communicating, clearly and effectively. It could be that I someday want to express myself through movies, through visuals, through diagrams and such. That’s fine, I think that’s just a subset of the fact that I’m very interested expression, and that I associate pleasure and quality of life with effective expression.

But okay, so expression is just half the equation. What am I supposed to be expressing? What do I want to talk about? The first thing that enters my head is “everything and nothing”, which is a cute answer but not very useful. Let’s make it smaller. I want to be at least a little bit practical. I’m idealistic, but I don’t want to be tilting at windmills and writing inspirational-sounding things that aren’t grounded in reality, that aren’t useful for me or others in living life better.

What does it mean to live life well? It means to sleep well at night, really. To laugh a lot. To smile. To learn. To grow. To be able to do more, make more of a difference, manipulate reality better. A couple of vomits ago I was feeling a little stuck thinking about writing processes. I’ll be very satisfied to one day be able to crack that open and run through it smoothly and skillfully. If I can repeatedly do that for the rest of my life I think I will be very satisfied indeed. That would’ve been a facet of a good life.

What are the other facets of a good life? Service to others. How can I serve others? It starts with serving myself, and serving myself so well that it spills out onto others, that it gives others permission to do the same. Okay, how can I serve myself? One thing I can do is to stop writing and start working on other things, but for the time being I’m suspending that to focus on thinking further, writing more. Collect before you select. I went to the gym yesterday and I’m feeling really good about that. I’ve had 3 workouts so far. It will be interesting to see what I’m like at 10 workouts, 30, 100, 300. I will be a different person. I’ve already started, and I’m just going to keep going.

Okay, but where does writing factor into all of that? It got me here, but what next? I guess I like the idea of keeping track of progress, but you need to make progress before you can keep track.

We’re meandering. Let’s move to another point. How can I serve myself? I need to identify my own weaknesses and break through them. Earlier I realized that I was feeling sleepy and tired, and decided to experiment by writing through it. And I have written through it, and some of it was ugly and messy, but I don’t care. I’m still going. And now I feel a bit of a sense of flow, and I’m going to keep going. I’d like to hit 320 today so that I can sleep great at night. Once I hit 320 I’m going to do other kinds of work, and then we’ll go for 340 another time. It’s all arbitrary, it’s all made up, but as long as I’m moving and I’m having fun, none of it matters. As long as it meets my own standards, it’s not cheating. This is what I wanted to capture, and I’m capturing it.

I suppose a huge part of all of this is me managing my own mental state, my own psychology. These words are just symbols, signifiers, signposts. What I’m really trying to do is to rewire my brain in a way that I feel is good for me. Cigarettes used to be a big part of my life, and I weeded that out. I have books that I want to read. I have habits that I want to form. What book do I most want to read next? It’s interesting that I don’t seem to have a short answer to that. I have about 4-5 books that I’m reading at the same time right now– The Box, A Sideways Look At Time, The Game, First Break All The Rules, The News… is there any particular reason why I’m reading any of them? Not really. Should I pick any single one of them to finish right now? I’m not really feeling that right now, but I think I might go through First Break All The Rules. The more I keep writing this, the more it’s going to become clearer that I should switch to doing the work that I’m hired to do. So we’ll get there. What shall we do until we get there?

I suppose it’s interesting enough that I sit and play with my thoughts and my words instead of procrastinating on Reddit or Imgur or other forms of cheap internet content consumption. I would like to ideally be free of that someday, to not really even feel the need to check it out– just as I have greatly diminished my need to have cigarettes be a part of my life.

Eergh. Feels like I’m just going through the motions saying things that I say over and over again. Would like to question some of these things and unpackage them and go somewhere new with them. I think for my next vomit I’ll go back to dialoguing with these characters I’ve been sorta-inventing inside my head, and we’ll see what happens there. Or maybe not.

It’s a little sad and amusing that, given the chance to do absolutely anything, we tend to fall into doing what we’ve always done– probably because it’s cheap, simple, easy, familiar.

 

0314 – writing when tired, little rubbish piles

I wrote that last post– 0313– right after lunch, while in a food coma of sorts. I would’ve typically much rather have preferred to take a nap instead, but I decided that I wanted to challenge myself a little bit. To keep myself from straying– ending up on Reddit, Facebook, Imgur, etc as I often do, I turned off my Wifi.

As to be expected, the post wasn’t the most coherent of posts. Interestingly, come to think of it, I must’ve known that that was going to be the case, and I chose to write something that didn’t necessarily have to be coherent. I chose to put together a bunch of thoughts and quotes instead of writing something that might’ve required welding or other more energy-intensive processes.

It feels like there are several different kinds of processes in writing, and they require different levels of alertness. It gets really complex because there are multiple variables and multiple types of work and processes. And none of this is very precise. Most of the time I just sit in front of my keyboard and start writing without thinking too much about what sort of writing I’m doing. Right now i’m just writing straight from my head, whatever’s on my mind– a running commentary about what is going on, about what happened earlier. That’s a sort of “transcriptive” writing, the process of making a transcript.

This is slightly easier than what I was doing earlier, which was accumulation and gathering– thinking about all the things that are related or relevant, and then putting them down on paper. That’s the sort of thing you don’t necessarily need to write in paragraphs– a simple bulleted list would do, if you’re merely accumulating data.

What other forms of writing are there? (I’m now transitioning to thinking about accumulating, which requires more thought and recall of some kind.) There’s argumentative or expository thinking, where you have to analyze something in your head and look for cracks and chinks. This is harder than simply accumulating data points, because now you’re adding value judgements. If you’re writing about something you’re very familiar with, then you’ve already done the accumulation-work in advance, and you can go straight to processing the values. If you’re trying to argue about or discuss something you don’t know very much about, then it’s going to be harder– because you have to collect the data AND figure out what you think about it all. (Of course, you’re never able to simply collect information without forming some sort of opinion about it, unless it’s purely abstract gibberish that you aren’t able to make sense of.

What am I getting at with this post? I’m trying to say that writing (and thinking– for me the two are somewhat yin/yang) is a big bag of many things, and all of those subsets of things each have their own challenges, their own complexities. Okay, I already knew that. What are the subsets? So far I’ve mentioned– transcribing thoughts in real time, accumulating data points, and making sense of data points. What else is there? “Making sense of data points” is itself a box with smaller boxes in it. What are those boxes? There’s… contextualizing, which is seeing where some data points fit with other data points.

I’m halfway through this vomit and I’m feeling a bit stuck, because it feels like the scope of what I’m writing about doesn’t fit nicely within the scope of this piece of writing. I suppose I should attempt to write about writing in an entirely separate form. So what should I use to remainder of this vomit to do?

I guess transcribe more thoughts. I know that I’m a pretty decent writer. I was reading a book yesterday about Business and about individuals who have made a difference to the world of Business, and I found myself thinking… this book might be useful to some people who’ve never heard of these individuals, but there are all sorts of more interesting things to talk about than merely listing out who these people are. I feel like I could have written a “better” book– better according to my own standards and interests, of course. It was an interesting, slightly unsettling and rather exciting feeling– the realization that I must have become a better writer. Again, I know I’m pretty good, but I’ve always felt like I’m not ready to write books. A book is a bigger investment than a blogpost or an internet comment– it’s an experience, something that people make time for. It’s like the difference between telling a joke and doing a standup routine for a paying audience.

I can’t wait to be done with these vomits, but of course I shouldn’t rush them. I’m sorta rushing them, but I’m just going with the flow that’s inside me. As long as I sleep well at night, all is alright. I stress out about some things but I want to contextualize that stress within a broader system. I want to be able to breathe deeply and feel calm even as some part of me stresses out on the inside.

What do I need to do now in order to become a better writer, to move forward, to develop my craft? There are a whole bunch of things I could do, of course, but what’s the most important thing? I need to read, but I don’t feel like reading right now. I feel like I’m beginning a process at the present moment that I should exhaust before I get around to changing gears, changing tasks. I suppose I should go through old things that I said I want to write about, and write about those things. I had put together a mini set of heuristics for thinking about what’s worth writing about, and what’s not.

I wonder if my next one will be less messy, and what that will say about what I’m doing, where I’m at. It’s okay for some of these vomits to be completely incoherent and senseless– they still perform a function within the broader ecosystem. They’re the little trash piles.

 

0313 – tenative thoughts about content labor and process management

There’s an idea that’s been swirling in my mind for quite some time. The adjacent ideas are “writer’s block” (very common phrase), “supply chain management” (business idea), and the term “content laborer” (I made it up when playing around while thinking about the work I do as a content marketer). Stephen Pressfield’s “The War Of Art” also must’ve influenced my thoughts on this, and “Everything Is A Remix”.

Here’s the situation: We tend to think of writing and other creative work (painting, music, product design, architecture, dance, maybe programming) as something, well, “creative”. It’s “idea work”, and requires “inspiration”. I’m not disputing any of that, I’m adding quotes just to emphasize the fact that all of these words are loaded (as all words are), and I’d like to think a little harder about what those things mean.

Here’s my problem, which is probably really common, something loads of people have probably thought of before: The idea of writing as something whimsical, somewhat random, requiring “genius” (see Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk) is somewhat inhibiting. It creates all sorts of expectations that hinders the process of creation for me.

So I found myself smiling and laughing when the phrase “content laborer” entered my mind. There are all these terms like “growth hacker” and “social media guru” or “ninja” that imply some sort of hidden knowledge, some sort of secret skill. The labels imply a certain elusive quality about them. “Content laborer”, on the other hand, is wonderfully spartan. It’s blue-collar work, digging up data like a miner mining coal from the ground.

Which then got me thinking about process management. Getting a piece of content published– whether a novel or a play or a webapp– is the final step of a long, industrial process. It doesn’t need to be linear. You might start with the raw materials, and then play around with them to see what comes out of it. Or you might start with an idea, and then look for the materials you’ll need. And then you need to work with them. [1]

What I’m vaguely getting at is– the idea that writing is some sort of magical, inspiration-driven process is just the froth at the crest of the wave. The reality of it goes much deeper, and has far more prerequisites than most people ever talk about. If you want to write, you’re going to have to read. You’re going to have to read a lot, you’re going to have to process a ton of information just to spit out a tiny diamond of value. [2]

This post is necessarily clunky. The points don’t flow from one to another, there is no crescendo, no buildup. It’s just a series of thoughts, a series of quotes, a bunch of raw materials sitting in a warehouse on the page. And I’m walking around them, feeling them with my hands, rubbing them against each other, just seeing what happens. And it’s a necessary precursor to the elegant, insightful writing that flows beautifully from start to finish.

There’s something else somebody once wrote about the design sketches hardly anybody sees in the process en route to a product. You look at something like the latest Macbook and think, wow, that’s divine. It’s beautifully designed, it’s so perfect. What went into it? What were all the alternate ideas that were discarded, rejected? What were all the other ways it could’ve turned out, but didn’t? That’s a very important thing to know, if you’re trying to make something. But that’s very rarely presented, and it’s very rarely comprehensible. Beauty emerges out of chaos and mess.

Let’s go back to process management. I was reading a little bit about some of the innovative process thinkers and practitioners who ushered in the Industrial Revolution (and some of those who came around after). When I was younger I hated how industrialized school felt– I felt like I was a mere automaton, jumping through hoops and following instructions for little to no reward, no learning. By extension (leaky perceptions) I developed a distaste for anything that felt industrial or process-focused. I hated the idea of timetables, schedules, plans. I felt it was soulless.

I realize now [3] that it only felt soulless maybe because it was something that I didn’t believe in, or maybe because it feels like the school-factory is producing automatons for which demand is greatly diminished. [4] There might have been a time and a context where following orders paid off beautifully, but when I was going to school it felt like a shitty deal.

It doesn’t change the fact, however, that being good at process and resource management TOWARDS YOUR OWN DESIRED ENDS is incredibly powerful. This is the thing that I need to learn.

_____

[1] There’s a post on Ribbonfarm which describes how Bronze required some really complex processes to make– you need Tin, which doesn’t form naturally everywhere– so you need to trade for them, which means you need these extended supply chains and trading routes just to get the raw material. And it takes a lot of experience, practice and learning before you can work with the stuff well, so you need guilds and systems of learning.

[2] As I write this I realize that Venkat from Ribbonfarm has already written quite extensively about this, but I feel like it’s necessary for me to come up with my own ideas, my own metaphors, my own language. The better I understand my own process, the better I’ll be able to create the output that I want. The goal is to be limited by resource constraints, not by my own ignorance, my own lack of resourcefulness.

[3] I’ve repeated this realization in several forms, at several times, but it still feels poignant and necessary. I understand this point intellectually but it hasn’t yet sunk in enough to reprogram my earlier habits and distaste towards process. So I will keep doing this (and try other things in parallel) until I figure it out.

[4] 20, 30 years ago in Singapore, if you just studied hard in school, you were pretty much guaranteed a job that would pay pretty well, and you would have a higher standard of living than your parents did. Today, I don’t think this is the case anymore. But I don’t want to go into too much detail into that, because I’m not an expert, and I don’t know my stuff as well as I would like to.

 

0312 – B and C

C: So… is that what you guys do all the time? Sit around and talk about life?

B: You could say that. What do you usually do with your time?

C: Get angry, mostly.

B: Why do you do that?

C: I don’t exactly do it. It just happens. I mean, look around. There are thousands of things that come together in this delightful symphony of fuckery. I simply can’t help but get angry.

B: That’s interesting.

C: Is it really.

B: Sure.

C: Why do you say that?

B: It’s always interesting to pay attention to how people describe the world. Your description of the world almost always betrays more about you than it does about the world.

C: So what do my descriptions tell you about me?

B: Well, I don’t know anything for certai–

C: Cut the crap, man.

B: Fine, but take all of this with a pinch of salt. They’re just impressions. And the same caveat applies: These impressions tell you more about me than they tell you about you.

C: Uhuh.

B: Well, you’re an angry person.

C: No shit.

B: I think what’s more interesting, actually, than me trying to describe what kind of person you are– as though people can be described– is for us to spend some time thinking about what anger is.

C: *snorts* You’re making me angry!

B: *smiles* C’mon, let’s just walk through this. You spend so much of your time angry, how much time have you devoted to figuring out what anger actually is? Are you really okay with being angry all the time? Is this how you want to spend your life?

C: I don’t know. Doesn’t feel like I have much of a choice.

B: That’s a legitimate feeling.

C: That’s an odd thing for you to say.

B: It’s odd to you, probably because you’re not used to people telling you that your feelings are legitimate.

C: Okay, fuck the feelings talk. Tell me about anger.

B: *laughs* Well. First of all, anger is a pretty old emotion, or force, or whatever you want to call it. People say that there’s a wide range of human experience, but there are some states that pretty much everybody spends all of their time in. Fear. Hunger. Desire. Anxiety. Jealousy. Anger. Apathy. And so on.

C: Uhuh.

B: Well, anger’s pretty old. Think about why it exists. If you were the only person in the world, it never quite makes sense to get angry. Anger is when you lose control. You become irrational when you’re angry. You’re willing to damage and destroy things, including your own things, including yourself. It’s a sort of scorched Earth tactic, that says “Don’t fuck with me”.

C: Heh, you said the F word.

B: I had a wise teacher once, who said– I don’t have a problem with swearing, I have a problem with the dilution of swearing. If you use it all the time, it ceases to have any weight. You swear when you really need to. Otherwise every problem is a crisis, emergency.

C: Ugh, wise people.

B: I think anger is fundamentally a sort of social negotiation tactic. It says “I won’t back down, even if I get hurt or die.” Angry people are scary, because you don’t know what they’re going to do. You can’t reason with them.

C: I’m not a very scary person. Hell, I wish I was. Nobody’s afraid of me. If people were a little more afraid of me and a little less full of shit, I’d have a lot less reason to be so fucking angry all the time.

B: I’m getting there. The root of anger is a sort of relinquishing of control. Anger is about retaliation. It’s about being offended. It’s about feeling violated. You describe yourself as angry, but that’s a form of shorthand. Anger is what happens to you because of some prerequisite conditions, which is what we really ought to be talking about. it might be more accurate to say… you’re a person who feels violated and offended. You want your boundaries to be respected but they aren’t. You feel like you don’t have control in your life.

C: That is offensive! How dare you! *laughs*

B: I’m sorry, but think about it. People get angry because they lost control. If you’re in control, there’s no need to be angry. In a way, anger is the recursive, amplified losing of control. The final act of “fuck it, I’m angry!” is a sort of, “If I can’t control it, I’ll fucking destroy it” mentality.

C: You’re saying a bunch of words that make me nod my head, and feel a bit angry, but you’re saying that’s because–

B: You don’t feel like you’re in control of this conversation. I’m talking about something personal to you, in a space that you’re not used to sharing. If you’re uncomfortable, we can stop, or talk about something else. Like what a weirdo A is.

C: Hahahaha. Uh. No, tell me more.

B: There’s not actually that much to say. You probably have a history of feeling like you’re not in control. Maybe it’s school, maybe it’s family, whatever. And you’re not used to exercising your will to get what you want, in a way that makes sense to you. Have you ever seen a child losing at a game he doesn’t quite understand, and then he just topples all the pieces on the board?

C: *looks away* uhhhh…

B: C’mon, we all do it. Most games are stupid.

C: *laughs*

B: The problem is that you can’t just keep doing that. You can’t keep destroying the board. I mean, you can, but it becomes a very frustrating, painful way to live. And you don’t really build or accumulate anything of value, that you can be really proud of. I mean, why did you come to talk to me?

C: A told me to.

B: Right, and you do everything A tells you to do?

C: *shrug* No, of course not.

B: So why did you come to talk to me?

C: I guess I heard him raving about how awesome you were, and I wanted to see for myself if he was full of shit.

B: So what’s you’re verdict?

C: I don’t know yet. People inevitably disappoint me.

B: They will.

C: So aren’t I justified in being angry?

B: I never said you weren’t. You can justify absolutely anything you like. I ain’t judging ya. You do whatever you like, madam. It’s your life!

C: You’re not very helpful…

B: Well, I never actually said I’d help you. And you never actually asked for my help.

C: Touché.

 

0311 – Introducing C

A: You know, we’ve been chatting for some time now and I’ve been having a pretty good time. You challenge me in a way that I really appreciate.

B: That’s very touching.

A: I know right? Anyway, I thought maybe you would be able to help my friend out.

B: Oh? With what?

A: I’m not very sure. She’s just really angry and frustrated and all sorts of things. But underneath it all she has a heart of gold, I swear.

B: Uhuh.

A: I feel like you’d be able to help her somehow. Or at the very least, you should be able to discern things that I’m not able to, because you’re all perceptive and wise and stuff.

B: Right.

A: Seriously. Would you do that for me?

B: I don’t have much of a choice, you know.

A: Yeah, but it would be really painful and boring if you weren’t interested. Or maybe before I do that– actually, what are YOU interested in?

B: Everything. Nothing. The Now.

A: Oh come on, that’s cheesy as fuck and you know it.

B: Fine. I don’t know what I’m interested in. I’m as lost in this world as you are.

A: I find that hard to believe.

B: That’s only because you think you’re special to a greater degree than you actually are.

A: Ouch.

B: I’m just playing.

A: It wouldn’t hurt if it weren’t probably true. Anyway, I’m tired of hogging the limelight and talking about me. I’ve already spoken to C and told her about you. She said she’ll show up, but she doesn’t have any expectations. She’s very cynical and jaded.

B: Why do you bother?

A: Because I care, I just do. I don’t know how to let go. It would be unnecessarily traumatic for me to let go, and I wouldn’t know what I’m letting go for. I owe this at least my best effort.

B: I suppose I can sort of respect that. You’re weird though.

A: That much I am actually really okay with. I want to give this a shot until I feel like I shouldn’t.

*C arrives*

A: Hi! Hey C, this is B.

C: Hi.

B: Hello.

A: Um… so…

C: *lights a cigarette, and holds out the pack* Do you smoke?

B: Nope, no thank you.

C: Suit yourself. A?

A: Uh, I’m trying to quit…

C: That’s adorable. You like this guy that much, huh?

A: Well, you know. It’s not just about that.

B: How long have you been smoking?

C: I think about 10 years.

B: Since you were…

C: 15.

A: Yeah, we were with a group of friends and everybody smoked.

B: That’s a little tragic.

C: Life’s a little tragic.

B: That’s true.

A: C, you’re thinking of quitting sometime, right?

C: I quit about every 20 minutes, yeah.

A: No, seriously.

C: I don’t know, man. What does it fucking matter anyway. Why are you so bothered by whether people smoke or not?

A: I guess I feel like… you know. We all know it’s bad for us. We all know it’s wrecking us on the inside and it’s going to affect our lives. Yet we do it anyway.

B: Maybe you do it precisely because it’s bad for you.

C: Yep. See, your friend gets it.

B: Thank you.

A: Is that true, though?

C: Well, what’s your explanation?

A: I think there are a bunch of explanations that all overlap and work together. I think a part of it is that the immediate pleasure feels good, while the costs seem to be distant and distributed. A single cigarette never feels like a horrible thing, but they accumulate really easily and really quickly.

C: *exhales* I don’t understand why you feel the need to talk so much.

A: And I don’t understand why you need to be so negative and cynical all the time.

B: Okay, pause.

A: Hm?

B: It’s not in my place to say anything, and I’m nobody to judge, but it does feel like you guys have some sort of unresolved tension between the two of you.

A: Uh…

C: No shit.

B: It’s interesting.

A: Is it that obvious?

B: Everything is unresolved tension to some degree, most of the time.

C: Mmhmm.

A: Well, what should we do about it?

B: Do you think something needs to be done?

A: *glances at C* Well…

C: What?

A: Yeah. I think it’s weird when friends have unresolved tension between them. I think when we have things unsaid, it narrows down the amount of sincere interaction we can have. Which is a damn shame, because life is already so precious and short. The fact that we’re even in the same place at the same time is a miracle. The fact that we can communicate with one another– even haltingly, imperfectly– that’s another miracle, too. So I think it’s a tremendous waste if we’re in each other’s presence and we don’t fully appreciate it.

C: *exhale* I’m just trying to appreciate my cigarette, man.

B: *smiles*

A: Don’t you guys relate to what I’m saying? Like, shouldn’t we seek to resolve tensions whenever we find them?

C: There’s always going to be more, though. Life’s tense and then you die.

B: I think you’re both right in your own ways. I’m not exactly an expert–

A: You don’t have to be so coy, you know. You’re obviously smart and perceptive.

B: I’m not being coy. If you think I’m smart and perceptive, it’s precisely because I’m “coy”.

C: D’aww, so romantic, you too.

B: I think the real challenge is simply to allow ourselves to become aware of tension where we find it. There’s no need to try to hard to resolve tension. I think your obsessive need to resolve tension is itself a source of tension– your scratching worsens the itch. You kick up more dust in all the struggle, and things get worse.

C: Amen.

A: So what should I do?

B: You’re framing the question wrong. It’s not about doing. It’s about being. About being mindful. When you recognize and acknowledge tension, it resolves itself.

A: I guess that sounds like it makes sense.

C: *exhales, extinguishes cigarette*

 

0310 – just to make the numbers

I would experience a certain exalted satisfaction if I finish another vomit tonight, because then I’d gone from 305 on my fridge to 310. (I keep track of my vomits on a piece of squared paper on my fridge, with 1000 squares to mark with X’s).

I guess I’d like to talk about self-flagellation. That’s the process where I beat myself up internally– often without even realizing it– because I’m mimicking processes and behaviors that I must’ve witnessed when I was younger. I’ve internalized the way my parents talked to me, the way my teachers talked to me, even as I thought that I was being some sort of independent, self-directed individual who did what he wanted.

I was trying to explain meditation to some dude on reddit, and he didn’t quite get it. I’m not exactly Mr Meditator myself, but I’m pretty good at communicating ideas that I think I understand. So I said something along the lines of– “your mind is like a tank of water and sand– some things in it are shiny and valuable, while other things are dark and terrible. And you are not your mind– you are IN your mind. And most of the time, you can’t even see the shiny and dark things, especially because you’ve kicked up too much sand and everything is muddy.

“Meditation is about sitting still and allowing the dust and sand to settle at the bottom. It isn’t necessarily bliss in itself– you may encounter some dark, ugly shit. You may realize that you’re a terrible person who’s been doing terrible things. But the thing is not to kick up dust. It is to relax, and allow yourself to deal with the things naturally. This can sound weird, but the problem is that most of the time we’re too busy writhing and flagellating, which kicks up a dust. And then you can’t see, and then you get nervous and anxious and all that nasty stuff.”

Well, something like that. And it stuck with me. It made me realize that I’m quite a kicker-up-of-dust.

I suppose it’s worth thinking about what this looks like in real life. In the average day, when I wake up in the morning, there’s already a bunch of dust in the air. I’m thinking about going to work, I’m thinking about what work I haven’t done yet, what’s due, what’s pending on other people. I ought to take a few minutes to calm down and allow the sand to settle, and then plan my day properly. Then when I get to work, I ought to do the same thing again. Sit in silence, allow the dust to settle, and pick the most important thing.

Halfway through writing this vomit I ended up on Imgur clicking around mindlessly. Why did I do that? It’s 1130pm. I was hoping to sleep early. Why did I go to Imgur? I don’t know. And I opened a whole bunch of tabs, too. I suppose I like quick shots of entertainment. The thing is… why do I queue up all the tabs? I don’t know, but midway I felt like I ought to complete this instead of leaving it halfway. It’ll feel really good to hit 310. Not super amazing or anything, just nice. My battery is down to 16%, and I’d like to complete this without having to leave my seat, without having to charge my mac. Ideally I’ll finish this before it gets to 5%– I’m hoping 10%– and then drink some mlik, take a shower and prepare for bed.

So I suppose I have an opportunity now not just to talk about self-flagellation, but to actively choose not to practice it. Yes, it’s late. I’m making a decision to finish up this vomit, and then I will shower. I will not fall into the old trap I used to where I start making all these promises to myself, where I get all anxious… I’m done with that shit. Yeah.

Well, that was funny. I didn’t make it. I got further distracted by other nonsense, and then my battery got low so I plugged in my mac and went to shower. It’s 12:27 now and I’m just going to soldier through with this one until it’s done. I’m not particularly impressed but I’m not particularly upset either. This one was what it was. What matters now is that I finish this, ship out that thing I want to ship out, and then sleep well and wake early so I get to my first appointment on time tomorrow.

Is there anything to be learnt from all of this? While in the shower I was thinking about whether I ought to give my vomits ratings out of 10, in terms of how well I thought I was doing. But it gets messy. Do I rate all vomits by my current standards? Would my early vomits be unfairly disadvantaged because I was a weaker writer then? Or would I be surprised to find that some of my best work is actually from the early days? I then thought about starting from the start, and instead of giving things a numerical rating, I’d just order them from best to worst, sorting each subsequent vomit within the pile. But that sounds awfully tedious, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to hold all of them in my head as I figure out which is better and which is worse. So I suppose maybe if I were going to rank my vomits, I would have to start with broader buckets. Top 50% or bottom 50%. Then take those buckets and again, divide those into the top and bottom halfs of each. Seems like a bit of a tiresome proposition with not much value apart from mere curiosity… I might be better off reading (or even writing) a book.

So it’s an interesting game, all of this. It’s all lines in the sand. And I’m still trying to figure out exactly how seriously I ought to take it. I’m guessing it’s “Don’t take it too seriously, but take it.”

 

0309 – draw an arbitrary line in the sand

B: So what would you do if you could do absolutely anything you wanted, if money were no object?

A: Right now really there are three things on my mind. First of all, I would have a very clear gym / nutrition / sleep routine. I want to gain as much strength and muscle as I possibly can.

Secondly, I want to read pretty much every book I own. I want to watch all the most important movies.

Thirdly, I want to write about those things. Hopefully I will have some new and interesting ideas. Or maybe those things will trigger thoughts and get me thinking about different things, writing about different things.

I really just want to do what Tobi was talking about– I want to break the box that I’m currently in. I’m really tired and frustrated of being in this box for so long. [1]

B: Walk me through your reasons.

A: Well, I’m listening to my body, right? My body tells me that I’m edgy and lethargic– those two things seem to be opposites, no? Edgy = excess energy being wasted, and lethargic = lack of energy. So whatever it is, I’m having difficulty experiencing a sort of optimal flow condition. Part of this could simply be that the way I’m doing my work is suboptimal, and desperately in need of optimization.

I think this is true, and has always been true. But the question then is– why does this seem like more of a problem now than ever before? It could be that the problem is compounding, which is legitimate. It could also be that I’m just getting older and finding it harder to excuse or tolerate the way I’m doing things.

I suppose I should look to my relationship with cigarettes and with exercise. In both cases, I feel like I was always going to do something about it, and yet it also felt like I was approaching some sort of burning platform moment. With smoking, I knew I didn’t want to be a 25 year old smoker, or regular smoker. I would be getting past my quarter-life moment and I would be a smoker, and I didn’t want that. Similarly, I didn’t want to be 25 years old and unfit.

B: Heh. Are you chalking this all up to a quarter life crisis?

A: I wouldn’t call it a crisis. It’s more of a… looming realization that I’m not a child anymore. I’ve always thought of myself as a child, considering that I was the youngest kid in my family. When I formed a band, we were typically the youngest band around. When I joined my company, even though I was married, I was the youngest guy on the team.

We have a couple of younger guys now, but I still feel in some respects “younger” than them– at the very least because they did better in school, and doing well in school is a sign of semi-decent time management, maybe? I’m terrible at managing my time.

You can still sorta call yourself a 21 year old boy. I can imagine that. Students in University are boys and girls to me, when I look at them. If you’re still living off your parents, or they’re still paying your bills, etc, you’re still boys and girls.

The phrase “21 year old man” sounds odd to me. I think there are few 21-year-old-men in developed countries. You could call yourself a “young man” or a “young adult” or something. “Man”, in my opinion, seems to happen between 23 and 27.

B: So…

A: So it’s time for me to man up. I don’t want to be a 25 year old boy. A 23 year old boy I can still sorta understand. But at 25, I want to be well-adjusted on the basic things that count in life. I want to be able to exercise my will. I want to be able to be responsible for a child if I had to be.

I don’t plan on having kids until I’m REALLY good at being responsible for myself and others. But I feel like extended playtime is over. I can and should still carve out moments of play for myself, but I can no longer allow circumstances beyond my control to push me around, for me to stick my head under the ground and hide and wait for everything else around me to blow up and settle down. That was what I did when I was a student, a son, a soldier. The responsibility of others.

I am responsible for myself now, for my life. The expiry date for blaming anything beyond myself is coming to an end. The expiry date for excuses is fast approaching. After 25, I am completely responsible for myself.

I know, that’s a rather arbitrary line drawn in the sand, but it’s the line that I’m drawing for myself, and it’s something I intend to take seriously.

_____

[1] Actually, I think that the box metaphor doesn’t capture it fully– though it’s really simple and powerful because of its simplicity. The next level of complexity I think is this– we experience freedom in many different directions, on many different planes. So I feel like I have a lot of freedom in terms of expressing myself with words.

My “range of expression” with words is quite wide. Expanding it further is costly, and doesn’t seem to make that much of a difference. On the other hand, I have very limited expression in terms of strength, cooking, emergency skills, discipline, time management, etc. If I break those sub-boxes, break down the barriers there that keep me from expressing myself more broadly, then I will have a lot more freedom overall.

And it seems like “total freedom” (total feels like a bad word to use– maybe “net freedom” or “cumulative freedom”) is compounded from having multiple freedoms on multiple domains. If you’re strong AND smart, you have more freedom than a very-strong-but-dumb person, and a very-dumb-but-weak person.

Well– it can get way more complicated, depending on the sort of contexts they’re in. You also have more freedom than a strong-but-dumb person and a smart-but-weak person have, summed up together. Of course, doing such summation is a bit of a parlor game.