0493 – suspend judgement of low-res work, increase resolution through practice

I’m writing this one while I’m on the train, taking the Green line (east-west) from my workplace to my parent’s place, across the whole of Singapore. It’s been amusing to me how much I’ve had to travel across and around the island since getting married. When I was younger, I’d spend pretty much 99% of my life in the Eastern quadrant, and even then the most number of train stops I’d typically have to travel was 3-5, tops. How things have changed.

I’m starting to get a sense of the stories that I want to write. I’ve started printing my word vomits (have I already written about this? This is the weird fragmentation that happens when I don’t do proper version control while writing, and have a bunch of fragments sitting around….), and the first 450 vomits or so make up a thick stack of A4 sized paper books. The average vomit takes 2 pages, and I print them single-sided so that I can write notes on the back if I want to. I bundle 50 vomits at a time, which is 100 pages– it doesn’t sound like a big deal when you think of a thin-ish paper novel, I’m talking 100 tall pages of thick essays. 50,000 words per bound copy– that’s a short novel, isn’t it? Novels are typically around 70,000 words to 120,000 words or so, maybe. Once I cross 1,000,000 words I’ll know that I’ve basically written all of Harry Potter, in terms of length.

All of this is giving me a confidence that I didn’t have when I was writing my first few vomits. My wife decided to give it a try herself, committing to 1,000 words in a single session. And interestingly, she was plagued with constant self-interruptions, double-checking to see how far along she had gone. It reminds me of Benjamin Zander talking about impulses in classical music playing. It’s when you bounce off of individual thoughts over and over again, a little too mechanically. Experienced musicians play through the entire phrase, going from A to Z without worrying too much about the stepping stones in between. They focus on the overall journey, the Line of Action. This takes a lot of practice to develop.

Very interesting to witness this in real time. Interesting to watch somebody doing it for the first time. Interesting to see how I did it before, and to observe how I’m doing it now. It’s quite a trip. Which is a nice segue to a point I’ve been wanting to make, about how Facebook allows us this really unique, kaledescopic experience of time– I can revisit an older friend’s Facebook pictures from years ago. This affords me multiple experiences. I can re-experience what I felt as a younger person 5 years ago. I can experience a new interpretation of the pictures I’m seeing of the younger version of my friend. I can experience what it’s like to feel older than a person in a picture, and yet I can relate that picture to the person who is still older than me (assuming they didn’t die– which everyone does eventually, and some people do far too early).

It’s a hell of a trip, I’d like it to do it more justice in writing. I’d like to explain and explore the idea through fiction, rather than explain it. Think about what Inception did for the perception of the passage of time, with multiple layers. We do something similar every time we look at old pictures of our older friends, old videos of artists we loved as kids, when they were younger than we are now.

The more I look at my writing, the clearer the picture gets. I’m going to keep getting better as a writer. I’m going to keep writing. I’m going to eliminate the bad stuff. I’m going to double down on the good stuff. I haven’t even really been going all out yet, I haven’t been totally crazy about it. It’s been something that I’ve been trying out in my spare time, after work. It’s becoming clearer and clearer to me now that I will write for a living. In the mean time I am more than delighted to continue working where I am, learning and growing and contributing as much as I possibly can. I was the first content hire, hired to write blogposts. Now I work with designers and manage other writers, which has been a very interesting, enlightening, horizon-broadening experience. I can see a path to growth and learning. I can see what I’m supposed to be doing next.

But I’ll keep writing, too. I’ll write better stuff for work. I’ll write better stuff for pleasure. I’ll write better stuff for practice. I’m convinced that I can get good enough to be internationally significant, which is what I’m really going for. I’m starting to be able to see flaws and chinks in the writing-thinking of people that I used to admire. I still admire them, but I no longer see them as Gods. I see them as peers, to eventually be surpassed. And of course this isn’t a zero-sum game. Getting overly focused on other people is tedious and it is wasteful. All that matters is that I get better at expressing myself. I need to get more efficient at saying what I want to say.

I was talking to my wife earlier about her own struggle with writing. She has a brilliant mind, but she feels stifled by her inability to replicate her thoughts in writing. It always looks wrong to her. But that’s the whole thing, I told her. That’s the Gap. She has an uncommonly high-resolution mental picture, and a frustratingly low-resolution “printer”. So every time she tries to print a picture that’s in her mind, to her, it looks like nothing like what she intended. That’s what happens when you have taste but no ability (yet). [1]

So the challenge for her is to suspend judgement of her low-resolution writing, and practice. The amazing thing about all forms of expression is that we can get better. We can improve the resolution by becoming more nuanced. Consider how we can go from being bumbling babies to being brain surgeons. Even touching our own noses with a specific finger is remarkably more nuanced than a baby’s wiggling. We can all stand, and walk around, and those things were initially hard to do. Some of us just stop there, while others keep getting more refined and go on to do trapezes and unicycles.

There’s really no reason to stop. Don’t stop. (Believing. Hold on to that feeling.)

Lol k bye

_____
[1] And taste is something that’s tough to teach, if it can be taught at all. The most you can do is guide people’s attention, point them to this and that, and if you’re lucky they’ll make the leaps and connections themselves. Plato said something about how learning is ultimately a sort of madness, you get the idea.

 

0492 – a subconscious filled with trivial games

I went to bed earlier than usual (which is probably the time I should actually be going to bed regularly, at around 10pm), and I found myself awake around 230am or so, and hungry. Had a peanut butter / milk blended drink and came back to bed, and I’ve been having a bit of difficulty sleeping so I thought I might as well fire up the laptop and write another vomit. It’s interesting to pay attention to how words just flow out of my brain through my fingers and onto the screen with barely any conscious effort whatsoever. I’ve pretty much mastered the art of typing in English on a QWERTY keyboard. It’s a strange thing to consider, that I can do this without even thinking about how I’m doing it. I suppose I can do similar-ish things on the guitar by just moving my hands around, and all of spoken language and thought is more of the same thing. I find myself thinking, what else is like that? What other behaviors? In a sense, opening Chrome and then Googling for something is sort of the same thing, a sort of subconscious behavior-pattern, a habit. And to change that sort of thing would require really slow, tedious, deliberate effort.

Anyway. There were a couple of things on my mind. One was video games again, for some reason. My very first vomit was about video games and productivity, I believe, and about how gamification should be a plausible way to approach the dreary bits of life. While I was lying in bed (I’m still lying in bed, but now I have my laptop open) I was thinking that it’s so strange and almost sort of sad (not in a “that’s pathetic” way, but in a sort of wistful, weird way) how many hours I’ve spent throughout my life playing video games. I found myself thinking about Battle Arena Toshinden– I downloaded a demo off the Internet, a version that only had 3 available characters unlocked, and I must’ve played that for hours. Then I thought about some unnamed Playstation fighting game that I played for hours too, where the commands for the characters were remarkably simple. Then I found myself thinking about Street Fighter, and hitboxes, and how there was a particular character’s voice that was stuck in my head and I couldn’t place which game it came from (I realize it now as I’m typing this– K’ from King of Fighters).

I wonder, what did other people do with their lives and their time, as children? I’m guessing more accomplished people did things like sports, piano lessons, maybe spent more time with their families. I had a friend who, at the age of 14 or 15, was incredibly good at the guitar. I knew others who were dancers, others still who read even more than I did. I played video games and I wasn’t even all that good at them. I wasn’t that disciplined. I tended to fuck around. I recall some odd motorcycle racing game that I used to play– and now I’m remembering that there was a drummer from another local band that was insanely good at Need for Speed.

What a strange, suboptimal use of a childhood. I suppose there must have been many others who have had it worse. And I suppose the very idea of optimizing one’s childhood is a little silly and a little sad. But I find myself thinking now of the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and how the two girls that Amy Chua raised were high-functioning kids who went on to really good schools, and were able to play music at a high level of proficiency. Those are skills that stay with you, they are force multipliers that heighten your appreciation of everything else that you do, everything else that comes afterwards, even if you end up completely rejecting your childhood and your upbringing. Even if Amy Chua’s kids hate her (and they don’t), they would be exceedingly articulate in their hatred thanks to their upbringing.

So I do sometimes wonder what my life would’ve been like if I had been brought up by overbearing parents rather than sorta-lackadaisical ones. I suppose I would have a whole other set of competencies, but I’d also be totally different from who I am. It’s an interesting thought experiment, but the most it can do for me is remind me of the arbitrary nature of the configuration of all things, and how everybody has different contexts and entirely different ways of conceiving of reality.

And the thing about that thought experiment is– if for some reason or another I feel like I missed out in life because I didn’t have some insane structure imposed upon me for me to develop discipline in, well… I can impose that on myself. I can still do it. And while life isn’t a competition, I can’t help but think that there must be a large group of people who “do well” early on because of the structures they around them, but then go on to resent those very structures. I find that… I’m coming to sort of resent my own lack of structure, maybe. When I recognize these thoughts arising I recognize that the proper thing to do would be to dismiss them. They’re provincial, simplistic. Life doesn’t need to be so tribal– I can and I should expand my perception to transcend superficial, petty competitivenes (what is that even for, anyway? What petty greviances am I allowing to consume me when I entertain these thoughts? These fellows my come along to knock at my door, but I’m not inviting them in for tea.)

Nothing lived ever goes to waste if you’re mindful and kind. I truly believe that. Everything that I’ve experienced- even the seemingly boring and mundane and frustrating and wasteful– all of it is clay for me to work with. I recognize that things will never fully settle down in some sort of hyper-orderly calm, but I do believe that I’m making progress towards a more effective management of ebbs and flows. Breathe in, breathe out.

 

0491 – everything changes so stop holding so tight

Have had a few recurring conversations recently– first with my wife then with a couple of my colleagues, and I suppose I wrote a vomit about it a couple of days ago. I was rather sleep-deprived today, having slept last night, so my mind isn’t very clear, but I’d like to get this one out before I go to bed.

The idea is this– things change. It’s an obvious statement, but it’s not always obvious when we think about everyday life and about our mental models of everyday life. Sometimes I feel like I’m still 15, 18, 21. I’m 25. What’s changed? Well, practically everything. On a physical level, every atom in my body is probably different. My circumstances have changed. I own a house now, and I’m married, and I have two cats. I have a job, and the precise nature of my job is constantly changing and evolving even if it isn’t entirely obvious week on week. The contract that I signed over 2 years ago doesn’t quite cover the full scope of my actual role and responsibilities. My relationship with my family members have changed. The way people see me has probably changed. The way I think of myself? Well, it’s changed to some degree, but not as deliberately as I think it should. I still cling on to old patterns, old systems, old models.

So it’s necessary to shake things up every once in a while. I’m probably due for a vacation soon– as one colleague said, it’s never the right time to take a break, because there’s always things going on, but you’re going to need one sooner or later. I’ve said this in other contexts, too– I was just telling a friend that she has to make time for herself, because if she doesn’t then sooner or later her body/mind will insist on making time, in the form of stress, frustration, illness, injury, depression, whatever. We’re not machines that can go on indefinitely (and even machines need regular maintenance!).

Another colleague was talking about entropy, and how it’s always growing, and there’s always an increasing amount of clutter and buildup– the exciting part of business is planting seeds and watching them grow, but there’s also the messy business of watering and clearing weeds and so on. And one of the themes that’s been running through my life and through these vomits is that I’m not very good at the weed-clearing bit. Part of the reason I do these vomits is every time I write, I feel like I’m clearing things up a little bit. I’m clarifying things a little bit. But it’s never going to be enough, it’s never going to be “done”. You can’t “win” and then never have to do it again. The battle has to be fought indefinitely. And maybe when I cross the finish line of 1,000,000 words, I’ll just keep going, and keep going, and keep going. Maybe that’s what’s best. Or maybe not. But I can’t possibly know that in advance. That’s part of what keeps life interesting.

But so I guess the takeaway from all of that is– it’s very necessary to have constant revision, constant reviews, constant reevaluation. We don’t need to be utterly mired in them, spending every moment reflecting and never acting. Rather, action and reflection need to happen in a back and forth cycle. Yin and yang, day and night. We need to sleep every night so that our brains can recover, rest, reconsolidate our memories and so on. It makes sense that this process needs to happen at larger intervals too. Daily patterns, weekly patterns, monthly, quarterly, yearly and so on. I’ve talked about my intent to do this before but I still haven’t quite found a system that works well for me. I guess again these vomits sort of function as a recurring review, but they often seem to be too little, and not substantial enough… maybe I’m being too hard on myself. If so, that’s something I need to let go of. My current experience is colored by my lack of sleep. Once I’m done with this I’m going to really relax and stretch out and enjoy a good night’s rest.

But what else? Is there anything beyond the reminder of the need for revision and refactoring? Um. Not really. I guess I still somehow find meditation a little silly, I still hold myself back from making the videos that I feel like making because I feel like I’m not good enough, and there are all sorts of other things I’m probably unnecessarily self-conscious about. Rather than strive for some sort of perfection, I should strive just to be honest with myself, just to be present and to pay attention to what needs doing, how things are flowing, and give in to all of that. Give in to gravity and let it pull me and swing me around. Sounds a bit cheesy but I think there’s a truth to that.

I’ve made progress. I don’t feel like I’m completely on top of my life, and maybe to some degree I’ll never totally feel that way. But before and now, I feel like there are thresholds that can be crossed. I already crossed one important threshold in the past– the “everything is a crisis” threshold. I recognize now that that’s bad and unhealthy, and that I should take care of business before it becomes “serious” or “critical” (quotes because in a sense nothing is really serious, nothing is really critical, everything is one big cosmic joke and we’re afraid to laugh).

I guess if I want to remind myself of one thing, it would be what Alan Watts said about the addiction to control. When we let go of the obsessive need to control, and in parallel I think an obsessive need to play the roles and parts that we’ve inherited, then I think we have more energy to ACTUALLY do the work that ACTUALLY matters. I believe this to be true, I believe I have felt fragments of it before, and I’m going to hold on to that and focus on that until it becomes a part of my everyday life. That’s something worthy to fight for.

 

0490 – mindfully avoid muscle memory

The brain is an interesting thing. If complexity were a measure of interestingness, it would be the most interesting thing in the universe. The reason it isn’t immediately, obviously so is that it’s complicated and inaccessible. But I think that’s actually just a marketing problem- the brain can be presented and perceived in simpler ways. The most common and errenous oversimplification is “left brain and right brain”, which introduces an interesting distinction but is, well, horribly inaccurate and imprecise. And then there are all these additional layers- the “old brain” or lizard brain, the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, parts meant for language processing, spatial awareness, all sorts of interesting things. And they’re all made up of neurons, which fire electrical signals at one another (?) supported by gluons (?), require glucose as fuel… there’s a lot of stuff I’ve forgotten and must be misunderstanding, but I’m going to revisit it over and over until I get it bevause it’s clearly the most fascinating thing there is, and has a higher impact on one’s quality of life than anything else.

Why did I even come around to talking about this? I was thinking about how this is vomit 0490, and in a mere 10,000 words I would have hit the halfway mark. And I was trying to imagine how that would feel. Will I be happy and excited and feel celebratory? Or will I just smile and be content and move on? I think I’ll take a couple of pictures, celebrate with a glass of whiskey. But then the challenge is to keep my eyes trained forward and to continue onwards. Maybe I’ll write a vomit about what I’ve learned, and what the experience has been like. Why not write it now? What’s the difference between 490 and 500? Nothing. It’s all arbitrary milestones, like weeks and months, it feels like a nice number because it fits our base-10 system and 5 fingers very nicely. 10 sets of 50, 5 sets of 100. And so there’s a sense of significance, somehow, that’s entirely imaginary. But isn’t everything, in a sense, imaginary? Not exactly. All meaning is synthesized in the brain, but there are things about reality that don’t go away when you stop imagining them.

I’m thinking back to past events where I felt a lot of feelings. The strongest and most vivid memories are- the last day of my mandatory conscription, and before that, the last day of Junior College. Oh, and my wedding day. And moments before going on stage when I was a musician, and before giving talks or speeches or hosting anything.

The halfway point of these vomits will be nice, but completing it will really be something special. It will be the first time I complete a large undertaking that I completely initiated and followed through and completed all by myself. I’ll experience a huge sense of relief.

I suppose the halfway mark of the vomits will be slightly similar to the halfway mark of school- Primary 4, Secondary 3, JC2. A sense that… you’ve got this, now. You’ve made it past the middle, now you “just” need to hang on. The incentives to give up are now (if they weren’t already) outweighed by the incentives to keep going.

Of course, after saying something like “I can’t wait to be done with this project”, I need to bring up the counterpoint that ultimately the project doesn’t actually even matter- what really matters is the journey, the effort I put in, the discipline. That I learn to appreciate each word that comes from my mind. That I learn to enjoy the beautiful structures that must be forming in my mind in order for me to persist at this. That I see how ultimately this is all life is, in both the most trivial and fullest sense. Life is me sitting in a train on the way to work, bouncing thoughts off of a plane of glass. That’s it, right now! Not tomorrow, not next year, now.

Somehow, saying that always sounds like advocating for short-term hedonism. But that’s not exactly it. And short-term hedonism isn’t always exactly what it sounds like. In fact I have a suspicion that a lot of the time, it’s almost precisely the opposite. That’s a tedious, roundabout way of saying… I think people who compulsively seek escapist things are trying to avoid the Now rather than face it. Uhh… not very happy with how I’m framing this right now. Eckhart Tolle and Alan Watts both do a pretty good job of talking about this sort of thing.

Shall we try again? The moment that we’re in is the moment that counts. But okay, so what do we do now? What is it about the now that needs doing? Sometimes it means lazing around with a book. Sometimes it means going for a run. It means listening closely and deeply to whatever sort of internal…

wait, what are these internal things, anyway? They’re… subconscious thoughts? I still have the sense that I’m sort of grasping at straws here. I’m circling and circling. There’s something about meditation that supposedly makes it easier to change patterns. We’re less stuck in loops. Why do we get stuck in loops? Because when we’re not aware, when we’re not paying attention, we default to… well, the defaults. I’m thinking now about guitar practice. If you want to do something you can’t do yet, you have to do it slowly, mindfully, so that your mind and your hands have the time and space to adjust and learn. If you try to “just wing it”, chances are it won’t work out. You default to muscle memory. I suppose something similar happens to the mind.

I guess ultimately this is another in a long series of reminders to myself to relax, breathe, pay attention, not stress so much, and to allow gravity to work on me. Stop trying to control everything and just let it go, and be mindful and aware and see what happens.

It’s clear that I’m not super confident about this yet. But I want to try it.

 

0489 – a weekend of refactoring

It’s been a good weekend. Yesterday I woke up really early with my mind swimming with thoughts, and I wrote a full 8 vomits.

Both days I’ve had lunch with the wife without either of us bringing our phones downstairs, and we’ve had really good conversations on both counts. We should do that more, I think it’s going to be a thing.

I’ve also been cleaning and tidying up my house. In particular, I’ve been moving all books and papers out of all the rooms and moving them into the study, which is now a centralized place for all books, papers, bills, everything. It feels great. I’m cleaning out the master bedroom, which I’m going to turn into a home gym. I really look forward to being able to do squats and bench presses at home. Endorphins on demand! I’m half-tempted to do a “1,000 workouts” progression, the same way I’m doing 1,000 word vomits. Who will I be after 5,000 reps of heavy squats? I’m really excited to find out.

I’ve also made quite a bit of progress in cleaning out my Workflowy, which had burgeoned into having too many bullets with too many things splayed out. I’ve consolidated a bunch of them, and it’s now a lot easier to process.

All of these things make me much happier. My guitars are in my living room, as is my amp, and it makes playing and practicing so much more convenient, so I’ve been doing that more.

I’ve opened up a wooden table that I bought a while ago, and it functions great as a sort of mobile desk that we can have dinner at, or work from our sofa at. It’s awesome.

My house feels even more like a home now, and I feel like I rest more easily.

We then started going through the paperwork that we have. I’ve sorted out most of my old journals and diaries, and I can now go through them more easily if and when I want to. They’re categorized by year.

I feel like I’ve made progress in understanding what I need to do in order to help myself take action about the things that I want to act on. It mostly involves being more precise about the exact, specific actions that need to happen.

I was reading some of our old notes to ourselves and each other, and I did feel a lot of feelings when reading some of the rougher patches. It’s so interesting and beautiful to be able to reimagine and re-witness old conversations, old struggles and challenges, and to see how they should’ve been dealt with differently. It’s clear that I had all sorts of problems that I wasn’t adequately equipped to address or manage. I’m making up for all of that now. I’ve made significant progress. I’m a stronger, better person now. I’m more responsible. I’m more effective, I’m more functional. Some happiness is in order.

But the journey has just begun. We’re just getting started. There’s so much more to live, learn, experience, do.

As I was clearing my shelves, I picked up one of the many self-help books I’ve accumulated– this one was called Transforming Your Self or something like that, with a picture of the sculpture of a man carving himself out of a rock. It’s surprisingly good– it does a good introduction from first principles, describing self-concept, self-esteem and the relationship between the two, and acknowledging straight away that high self-esteem isn’t necessarily a good thing, and that it can be outright damaging. It also explores how people who’re constantly seeking validation from others usually have some sort of self-concept that they’re uncomfortable with, which is accurate in my own experience, and seems to accurately describe a few people I’ve witnessed.

Where it got interesting– I still haven’t read deeply enough– is when it starts talking about identifying your own self-concept, which is probably something that’s largely inherited or developed in a haphazard manner. It then talks about refining and improving your self-concept along lines that direct you towards becoming a person that you’d be happy becoming (because there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy at the heart of self-concept– we do things and think things that are aligned with our concepts of ourselves, which makes us become even more like our own projections of ourselves).

A part of that, apparently, is to pick and choose things about yourself that you like, and make those things stronger in your self-concept. And you do that by drawing to attention and memory instances in which you behaved in a way that you like, and make those memories more vivid. Recreate and revisit them.

And conversely, when you have memories of you doing things that you didn’t like, or just painful, unhappy memories one way or another, the author recommends revisiting those memories again, and facing that discomfort again with the broader perspective and experience that you now have. He even recommends this– when you have a memory of someone being hurtful towards you, reimagine it with that person treating you better, with more wisdom.

I’m not sure how he managed to frame it in a way that wasn’t literally “just pretend life was better than it actually was”. He pointed out that memories are stories we tell ourselves, and the people who hurt us in the past don’t technically exist in the present– so when we continue to be hurt by them, we’re actually being hurt by the stories we’re telling ourselves inside our own heads.

So I suppose you don’t necessarily need to pretend that bad things didn’t happen, or that good things happened instead. You just need to recognize that you don’t need to keep beating yourself up– which is precisely what we’re doing when we’re recalling nasty or unpleasant memories. We rationalize all the time, and we can’t avoid it. So rather than try to avoid it, we ought to be deliberate about it, and acknowledge BOTH the “real truth” and how things should be, should have been, how we’d like them to have been. At least, that’s my interpretation.

It’s all very interesting, I haven’t made up my mind about how exactly it should all be, and I need to read it more.

 

0488 – getting shit done is a lot of work

So this is interesting. It’s 12 noon now. I was able to chug from 5am till about 730am, then I got tired and started reading nonsense. Next thing I knew it was 9am. Did a bit more writing… then it was 1030am. My wife woke up, we hung out for a while, I did some reading (TechGnosis). Then I just sort of wandered around the house for a while. I should probably eat and take a nap. I’ll do one more vomit and then go down for brunch. I should’ve eaten earlier, I guess. But so far doing quite alright for a Saturday morning, I feel.

After writing a vomit about boredom and cluttered minds, I went to glance at my bookshelves and I realized that… there isn’t really a lot of stuff I want to read. At least, that was the thought I had. And the corrective thought that followed was– well, I need to figure out what my reading priorities are. What do I want to read? What are my purposes? There are several threads to follow. One is the whole pagan wisdom thing– Gabrielle Roth’s Connections, Jay Griffiths’ Sideways Look At Time, and now TechGnosis. I’d like a bit more of that, but I’m a bit tired of that right now. What else? I’d like to revisit the Edge books (where they ask smart people a single question, and then collect all the answers). I feel like I’d like to re-read Carl Sagan’s biography, and User Illusion, but do I really…? Hah, I shouldn’t overthink my feelings. I should just do what I want. And I suppose right now I don’t actually feel like reading. I have a couple of history books on my Kindle that I’m reading. I’d still like to develop a better understanding of nutrition, ATP, sleep, low blood sugar, etc… and that might be something better done online? I’ll extract what I can from the books I have– the Energy Of Life is one such book that I have. Okay, so I’m overthinking my reading. I have 4-5 books in line, and I can make notes. Cool.

What else is up? I’ve been wanting to clean out my Workflowy, which has gotten rather cluttered. As I scan through it, I see a lot of stuff that “might be useful”, but it’s really just taking up space. What should I do with it? I can save the file and upload it to the cloud and then not look at it. There’s a part of me that just wants everything to be tidy, but is that a sort of compulsive busyness activity? Let’s pop over to the Workflowy again.

Ah yeah, I’d like to read some old wisdom. Seneca, Montaigne. And I’d like to re-read Paul Graham’s essays, maybe. And once I’ve bounded my word vomits that I’ve printed out, I’d like to re-read those. I think re-reading old vomits is probably the best reading choice out of all my options, because I feel like there’s some unresolved stuff from the older vomits that I ought to readdress ASAP.

I’ve made a bit more progress on my Workflowy. I realized I had a bullet for “Projects” and another bullet for “Brain Dump”, but a lot of the brain dump things were actually projects– so I’ve merged the two. I’ll eliminate the shittier projects altogether, and I’ll just dump anything that’s “brain dumpy” at the top or bottom of my workflowy and triage them into wherever they got to go. That feels better.

I also had another tab for “priorities”, I’m merging that into “projects” as well. Wow, that feels much better. Way too many folders.

Now I started looking into my “Work” tab, and hoo boy, there’s tonnes of mess there. All of this mess must be contributing to my general stress levels. I know I have all my stuff in places, but it’s not ordered neatly, it’s not easily accessible, there’s a lot of repetition and mess. Once I finish this vomit and go down for lunch, I should come back up and sort the crap out of my Workflowy so that I’m clearheaded again. No wonder I’m dazed and confused.

I suppose this vomit was just all about me trying to clarify what I want to do. At the end of the whole project, there are going to be quite a few vomits that were like this. And I think that’s a good thing. I was reading a post about managing your own psychology and it talked about how you ought to have “Start”, “Keep Doing”, “Stop” and so on. And you have to figure out what the best, worst and probable outcomes are, and assign probabilities…

Phew. Getting shit done is a lot of work. I suppose that’s why you should always go back to the source and remind yourself what you’re trying to achieve, who you want to be, what you’re trying to embody, what you’re doing all of this for. I’m writing these vomits to build discipline, to gain mastery of language, and to become a better thinker. I’m writing with the intent of influencing my actions and my behaviors, and I think so far it’s helping quite alright.

It’s nice to know that the present muddiness of my mind is a function of context and environment and state. Early this morning my brain was swimming in thoughts, and I put out 8,000 words of them down. And of course, they’re not going to do justice to the thoughts, but they never are. The point is to just keep putting them down and keep going. I’ll go have lunch with my wife, and it’ll feel good because I did get quite a big chunk of stuff done in a single morning. And then I’ll meditate and rest and see what my brain surprises me with next, as it inevitably will.

I realize– whenever I have a few words left, I used to write a bunch of gibberish to try and fill up my quota. Instead, I think I should write a note to my future self. Dear future Visa: I really want us to do well. I believe we can do it. I’m sorry I didn’t do better earlier, but I’m trying.

 

0487 – progress is cringeborne

One of the best signs of progress is when you find yourself cringing at your own work. The more recent the work you cringe at, the faster you must be progressing. I find myself thinking about this on two fronts. (And multiple other micro-fronts popped up– I started thinking about drawing, and then film and music.) But really the two fronts I care about are socializing and writing. I’d like to pretend that I don’t care about my social status and standing, but I’d be a liar. I’m a human being, human beings are social animals, we’re all wired to care about how we socialize. As I get older it becomes more obvious that I should limit the pool of people that I care about, but that doesn’t change the mechanics of fundamentally bad socializing.

So here I’m at a decision-point. I can try to talk about cringeworthiness on two fronts at once, or I can pick one. I guess I’ll pick the socializing thing.

I was never very good at socializing. This is a strange thing to say. I’ve always been outgoing, extroverted, noisy, rambunctious, loud, naughty, a clown, a performer. But I’m not actually all that good at building relationships, at sitting and listening, at paying attention, and being thoughtful and attentive. I’m not good at interpreting what other people are thinking, how they might be feeling, how they might be interpreting me in turn.

So when I look back at old statuses and exchanges on Facebook, for example, I cringe. I see myself acting with a sort of bone-headed insensitivity, oblivious to the feelings of the people that I was talking at. I suppose there’s a chance that 10 years from now I’ll look back at my behavior today and feel the same way, and that’ll probably be a good thing. I would like to commit to progressively becoming more and more sensitive, more and more subtle, compassionate, kind. The first rule is to spare people shame and embarrassment. There was a time (and it wasn’t as long ago as I wish it was) where I thought it was somehow okay or acceptable to shame people if it was entertaining, witty, clever and so on. I grappled with that for some time, and I think I now definitively agree that it’s something that shouldn’t be done. [1]

But in general I guess I was just really naive and ignorant about the nature of social interactions. I do think I subscribed to some vague sort of Nice Guy theory, remixed with Clever / Funny Guy theory. I wasn’t stupid enough to insist that people had to pay attention to me or like me for what I was doing, or owe me anything at all, but I mistakenly believed that they WOULD. Which, of course, they’re not at all obliged to.

It feels like I’m skirting around something and not talking about it. What is it that I’m not talking about? Well I think I was an ignorant idiot, obtuse and oblivious, and I think it’s amazing that people put up with the stupid shit I was saying– probably because they weren’t “Putting Up” with me in an active sense, but sort of just going about their lives with me as a sort of background annoyance– not quite worth the effort to put down.

I wonder, 10 years from now, what I’ll be cringing at today. Probably that I’m so focused on myself still, and that I’m not spending more time actively cultivating the relationships that will matter to me 10 years from now. That’s what I should be doing. I should be building relationship capital, helping people out, being kind and generous. I’d like to think that I already am, but I’m hardly systematic about it. And to this I know a thought is “Goddamnit Visa, not everything needs to be systematic”, but you need to understand that I’m overcompensating for what feels like a lot of waste. And maybe one day I’ll wake up and stop feeling the need to overcompensate– but in the meantime it definitely feels like there’s a lot that I could do.

Of course, “there’s a lot I could do” is vastly less useful than “there’s a little that I am doing”. So the the thing is to keep doing. The people I’m best positioned to help are myself, my wife, my colleagues. After that, there’s the loose network of friends that I keep in contact with online, I can and should keep meeting people for coffee and talk to them.

It feels like I’m still avoiding something. I suppose it shall be enough to put a stake in the ground here, to remind myself that I want to think about my cringeworthy past. And also I guess at this point I’d like to remind future me that everybody does some cringeworthy shit in life, and that in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter all that much. (At all, actually.) Schools aren’t enough to teach you everything that your parents leave out. So you gotta figure stuff out on your own. So let’s keep doing that.

_____

[1] I do admit to sometimes trolling and baiting people– for instance, I remember commenting on a Malcolm Gladwell Facebook post on school shootings that America was awesome in its global leadership of death and murder, and that it’s no surprise that they’re killing their own children considering their violent history. Why did I do that? I was curious, I guess. And I predictably got people sending me personal attacks and insults. It’s simple physics, practically. Once you’re aware of it, you can’t really pretend otherwise. I did make it a point to treat all my repliers with respect– which I think confused them. I suppose on hindsight I’ll think of this as a waste of time, but it really was interesting to be in the midst of it and sort of manipulate what was going on. I do feel bad about it, but I feel like I learned something from it. It’s like how dissecting an animal requires killing it. Maybe next time I’ll write something inspiring and see if I get the predictable responses to that.

 

0486 – boredom is a symptom of a cluttered mind

I think I wrote about this as a Facebook status before, because I was so excited about it, but it’ll be good to revisit it from scratch again. A common thought that bored people have is “Gosh, there’s nothing to do.” Which we know is untrue as we’re saying it. There’s an infinite amount of things to do. And people tend to chastize bored people for saying that, and then we feel guilty… which is seldom helpful.

Now consider another context in which something similar is said. A person stands in front of a cluttered warddrobe and says “There’s nothing to wear!” It’s kind of similar, don’t you think? And another– a person stands in front of a bookshelf and thinks, “There’s nothing to read!”, or in front of a list of movies and “There’s nothing to watch!”.

I believe it’s important to pay careful attention to our words. When we state something that’s observably false, it usually means that our statement is imprecise. It means that we have a feeling, and we’re bad at articulating the precise cause of that feeling.

In all of the above cases, I believe the situation is as follows. There are actually many options in front of us. We need to pick some subset of the options– usually one, sometimes a several (as is the case of picking out an outfit). We feel that this option needs to be optimal for some situation– maybe we need to dress up for a date, or we want to watch a movie that makes us feel inspired to do our work.

The thing with generalized boredom though is that we don’t even precisely know what we want. We have a vague sense of wanting something, and a list of options that we’re not very clear about. That’s when we’re totally screwed– no option is going to be good enough unless we get really, really lucky, or we give up and satisfice with whatever’s directly in front of us (this is actually a surprisingly good strategy if you make the decision that something is better than anything, and that you don’t have to get it perfect). Or worse, we just wallow in our boredom and frustration and end up not doing anything.

So before solving the boredom problem, let’s solve the nothing to wear problem. First, you need to know what you have. That means splitting up your wardrobe into all your options. What are your blacks, what are your colors, etc. What are your dressy things, what are your not-so-dressy things. You need to identify the major parameters that you care about.

Actually, I think even before you think about these things, it might be helpful to get a sense of what you’re probably going to do, where you’re probably going to go. (You see how this problem needs to be solved BEFORE the day of the date or ceremony or whatever it is that you’re going for.)

Once you know what you’re optimizing FOR, you can start sorting your options into buckets. (It just suddenly dawned on me that THIS is what I ought to be doing with my bookshelf. Facepalm.)

This is where it can get interesting with something like clothes– once you know the range of events that you’re likely to need clothing for, and you split things up, you may find that there are some things that you’re never going to wear, and get rid of those– but more interestingly, you may find some clothes that you PREVIOUSLY thought you were never going to wear, but now suddenly make sense within an outfit for a specific context. I experienced this very vividly when I was sorting out my music into playlists. I previously just kept adding songs to “My Songs” in Spotify, and I would often listen to songs from other people’s playlists that I subscribed to. It was a rather suboptimal situation– other people’s playlists often weren’t perfect for my intended purposes and I’d often have to skip songs. When I wanted particular songs, I’d often have to go through a huge list of my own songs and then look for songs I want, and then have to skip. Both groupings were suboptimal. The idea of making playlists from scratch was daunting.

Finally, I decided that I would get rid of all of the songs in My Songs list, and triage them out into playlists by theme. That’s when it got interesting. I put together an “Acoustic” playlist for easy listening and general gentleness of sorts– really just songs that begin with acoustic guitars. And suddenly, there are songs that go in there that I wouldn’t particularly care for in a general-ish playlist– like an acoustic cover of Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off. Within the context of “Acoustic Playlist”, it fits. Similarly, I have multiple covers of the same songs– I have a hard rock cover of Bad Romance that works well in my Hell March playlist.

Things that previously didn’t make sense by themselves, or in a global set, can make a lot of sense in a well-chosen subset. That’s the power of curation.

I realize now that this is what I ought to do with my books, too. I was previously just collecting books into a huge pile called “My Books”, and then I tried categorizing them by theme and type, or by author, and once even by color. I realize now that I should instead work backwards from my reading and writing goals, and then group books according to THAT. Excellent. Good job, Visa.

Aside from that, I think the generalizable lesson is… boredom is what happens when you don’t know what you want AND you don’t know what each option is going to give you.

I knew I had written this in a better format, and it’s amusing that I don’t remember it. I went looking for it on Facebook, where I had posted a status about it. Here it is:

“I have nothing to do / wear / watch / read” is a bug we encounter when…

1- a tired mind
2- attempts to find an optimal solution
3- in a cluttered space
4- with options that have poorly-defined utility-values

What was missing was 5- without knowing what they’re optimizing for.

So to be less bored, be clear about what you’re optimizing for, declutter your space, lay out your options and define their utility-values more clearly. Oh, and if you’re tired, sleep, exercise, eat healthier. It’s all just chemicals, electricity.

 

0485 – the athlete must play hurt

Took a short break, drank some water and I’m back for round 5.

The title of this post is from a line from Steven Pressfield’s War of Art, which is a great book that I think I should keep on my desk to remind me of all times about The Resistance and how life is good is you face it down, and bad if you let it overwhelm you. It’s simplistic but it’s true.

The Athlete Must Play Hurt. The point is that we’re never going to be in the perfect mood. We’re never going to be perfectly comfortable, except maybe after a vacation which is when we’re actually not at our best (because we’re a little lumpy). So feeling perfectly comfortable isn’t actually a good thing. Vacations are good things, of course, and I’m probably due for one soon. But the point is that The Athlete Must Play Hurt.

This isn’t a cry for mindless self-damage and “no pain no gain”. Injuries are wasteful and tragic. We should seek to minimize and avoid injury as much as possible. And seeking out pain in a masochistic way is kind of troubling. Unless you really get so much joy and pleasure from it, which I don’t relate to. In an earlier vomit I talked about using guilt and shame to feel significant, and that’s a sort of masochism. But I don’t deeply enjoy that. It’s neurotic. It’s uncomfortable. It’s not like a kinky sex type of thing like enjoying spanking or choking or something. It’s more like smoking, where the habit sticks because you’re using it to self-medicate low blood sugar levels.

That’s a useful analogy. I think the whole idea about “quitting smoking” is a little misguided, and I’m sure all sorts of other things like “lose weight” are misguided too. I think habitual smoking, habitual overeating, etc are symptoms, not the disease. They’re manifestations of deeper problems. They’re bugs. What you really want to do, in my opinion, is to dig deep into the causal factors and get a sense of what the full picture is. The smoking and overeating and internet addiction and all of those things are [3] like the emissions at the end of a long chain of processes. If the goal is to “reduce emissions”, you need to understand where the emissions are coming from, and why. [4] You can’t just block the vent, for example. If it were that simple you’d have done it already. Block the vent and it’ll eventually pop, and the emissions will be even worse than before. And it won’t change until you address the underlying processes. And this is the part that people don’t talk very much about. It goes way outside the realm of civil conversation about polite things. It involves family, and friends, and sleep, and nutrition, and how you spend your personal, private time.

That’s why LifeHacks don’t and will never quite cut it. They’re just fun superficial ideas, and they can be fun to play with. But the real reason you aren’t productive isn’t that you don’t have the right hacks. It’s that deep, deep down inside, you’re scared, anxious, frightened, confused, lost, disappointed, frustrated, angry. And you lack discipline, and you lack skills, and those things just make you more upset and angry and frustrated.

What’s the LifeHack for that? I suppose you could say meditation, reflection, journaling, gratitude journalling, exercise. Yeah, all of those things are true, all of those things are helpful. I guess I’m a little bit bitter about how we frame things. I recently wrote a post “So what are you passionate about” in response to a younger friend asking me that question, and it had the same sort of bitter, angry tone in reaction to the cheery happy goody vibes that advice columns and Medium posts seem to be full of. (I’m plowing a lot of imaginary straw men down… but hey, it feels good and I’m getting it out of my system. I wonder what’s at the end of all this bitterness.)

The Athlete Must Play Hurt. I’m repeating it to myself because I feel like I still haven’t internalized it. I feel like every morning I wake up and I still think, “I’m still hurt, I haven’t recovered, I can’t play yet.” I still haven’t quite internalized the truth that the only way to recover IS TO PLAY. Exercise gives you energy, it’s the most counter-intuitive thing in the world to hear when you’re tired but it’s true. I wonder if anybody’s done a study about that– I think it has something to do with the body wanting to conserve energy. Bodies are incredibly intelligent but also kinda dumb, probably because we can’t communicate to our bones and cells that we live in a relative age of abundance.

_____

[1] Interesting that I’d say that. Does it even matter? Probably not. I’m trying to feel better about myself by one-upping myself over my past self. Doesn’t sound like a particularly healthy thought. But it was a thought, and I let it out. Moving on.

[2] It’s not JUST that, of course, but I do still think the main distinction between hardcore habitual smokers and people who smoked a little bit and then stopped, or smoke once in a while, is the diet thing. And other chronic problems like anxiety, depression, etc.

[3] This is just my opinion, not a hard fact. And this is just one lens to view these things through, it’s probably worth using multiple lenses to get multiple perspectives to attack the problem from multiple fronts.

[4] Why do you smoke? What are the circumstances and conditions in which you smoke? What were you doing in those situations before you were a smoker? What do non-smokers do in those situations? Have there been circumstances in which you did not smoke? What were your best attempts at quitting smoking in the past? What sabotaged that attempt? What do you really want? What do you really care about? How do you demonstrate, with action and stakes, that those statements are true?

 

0484 – use good tools (but don’t obssess endlessly about them)

Back for number 4 at 0633hrs. There’s something very calming about writing in this Byword screen, which is all minimalist and black, with a counter at the bottom. It’s interesting to think about how my writing medium has changed over the years. I started out doing the word vomits directly into wordpress, I think. And then I started using this app called Write or Die, which had a timer and a word counter. Eventually I switched to writing in Evernote for mobile, and I would write in wordcounter.com for the counter. Finally I bought an app (after over 400,000 words!) that’s pleasurable to write in.

I’m not sure if there’s a lesson here. The first thought I had is, “The lesson here is that I ought to treat myself to good tools whenever I’m working on anything”, but I know that’s not necessarily true. Your first guitar shouldn’t be amazing. It should be cheap and hardy, and you should play it to pieces until you develop a sense of what you like and dislike on guitars. And of course you should play around with other guitars too, when you can. But only after a year or so of playing with your first guitar will you really develop a sense, I think, of what you like in a guitar. And then you can / should get a better one.

This advice of course assumes that you’re broke. If you’re rich, just get a guitarist you trust to help you choose a good one. But even then… there’s a chance you’ll waste your money because she bought something that’s better for her than for you. If she’s smart, she’ll ask you questions about what your favorite songs are, what sort of music you like, and infer from that what’s closest to your favorite sound, but even that’s kinda rubbishy because you don’t know anything about your optimal string height, string thickness, and if you’re not playing a lot of music yet, you don’t actually know what your “true preferences” are. At least, in terms of direction. Nobody ever really absolutely knows what their true preferences are, and maybe true preferences aren’t even a real thing. But you develop an idea with time and experience, at least of where you want to be searching.

So… maybe buying a writing app early on would have guilt-tripped me into writing more. But I’m not so sure about that. Maybe I bought it at precisely the right time I was supposed to buy it. I’m not sure if I can generalize anything out of this. I guess if there are things that are affordable but I’m not buying because I don’t feel ready for them, I should just buy them anyway (and reduce spending on more frivolous things if possible). Air conditioning was a great idea, I wish I got it earlier. A foldable dinner table was a great idea, wish I got that earlier. Macbook was a great idea, same. Monitor was a good idea, took me a while to find a good placement for it. Jury’s still out, but I like having access to it. Razr keyboard was a bad idea– I should’ve tested it before buying it. I fell in love with the idea of it and had never tried it before. Turns out that it’s a little too clunky for my taste, and all the additional key mapping stuff just complicates things for me. I’m not a pro-gamer. The Mac keyboard turned out to be all I needed, which I should’ve gotten earlier.

I maybe should’ve gotten a guitar amp earlier, I waited quite a while for that. But I have one now and I’m happy. Maybe I’ll get a better one after a year or so of playing around. I might get a better guitar or simply get my current one set up better, there’s something not quite right about the knobs and the pickups. I have all these books that I want to read.

What do I mean when I say that I want to read? “I want to read” is not a very useful statement. I want to do a lot of things. Everything. Wants are infinite. What are my priorities? Writing these word vomits are a priority for me, which is why I’m writing them at 640am in the morning. Where does reading come in? What do I really want to read? My kindle is full of books that I thought I wanted to read but I don’t really feel like reading, and I should get rid of those.

I guess I explored this a little with the ideascapes vomit earlier– I want to read things that expand my mind, and lately it feels like the best way to expand my mind is to reconfigure my mental models. Also the “Poor Little Me” idea alone is quite revolutionary and I still haven’t properly internalized it. I should probably spend some time meditating on that fact. Also there’s a bunch of work I want to do that I keep saying I want to do that I haven’t done. I started a vomit saying “The Athlete Must Play Hurt”, I guess I’ll finish that one after I finish this one.

Where am I going with all of this, where was I going? It started with a thought about my writing tool (this Byword app), and went on to me thinking about all the other tools in my life. Tools aren’t just tools, they’re ways of thinking and ways of expressing ourselves, and so it’s important to have good tools. But good tools aren’t entirely an objective thing. A tool’s utility is a function of what you’re using it to do, and you need to know what you want to do, and you learn what you want to do by doing things badly.

So what do I want to do? I want to read, I have books and a kindle. Are there other reading technologies I should consider? Does my online reading matter enough that I should design the experience better? I guess I’ll add that to my todo list and get to it if I feel like it. Does my todo list system matter enough that I should design my experience better? YES, definitely. So I’ll add that too.

It’s interesting how, in a “state of cognition”, it’s clear that all of the tools are ultimately… manifestations? Of patterns of action and behavior. I realize this from time to time. At the heart of everything is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, what we believe we’re worth, what we believe we want, deserve. And tinkering with a todo list can be a sort of distraction if you’re not sure what it’s all for. The kicker is you’ll NEVER be sure what it’s all for, and you got to sort of pick something and run with it, and refine things along the way.

I understand this when it comes to writing, and I think I understand it when it comes to music, so I just need to extrapolate this and understand it when it comes to life.