0528 – break things down

Sometimes it feels like there are gaps in my reasoning or gaps in my understanding of my own behavior.

Why am I not writing everyday? Excuse– I got distracted, I don’t feel like writing, I’m not in the mood, I don’t have time. Reality– if it’s important to me, I should make it a priority. I should set aside the time for it. I don’t currently do this with much intensity. I sometimes write on my commutes but I seldom finish an entire vomit unless it’s something really pressing on my mind. But when I sit down to think about it, I often find myself deciding that my daily writing habit should be the most important thing in my life, because I know that writing is going to be the most important skill that I develop. So I need to reduce distractions, make the time, make the mood. What gets me in the mood for writing? I just need to remember that I love writing. Read good writing. If I read everyday, I’ll be writing more. If I revisit the things that frustrate me about bad writing every day, I’ll be writing more. So it’s largely about managing my triggers and cues. If I’m serious about writing I’ll assemble writing cues around me so that I write more. I’ll make it a sacred part of my daily routine. So I should do that. I’m writing right now, so that’s good. What about tomorrow? When I wake up tomorrow, chances are I’m going to be thinking about work. But if I wake up early I should set aside a few minutes just to get some writing in.

Next question.

Why have I not done tasks that I say that I want to do? Excuses– I got distracted. I don’t have time. I don’t have energy. Everything from the Procrastination Matrix– it seems like the payoffs or penalties are far away. The tasks seem scary and insurmountable. I don’t see myself being able to do and finish the task at hand. So I avoid it, run away from it, hide from it.

Perhaps I should break things up into chunks. Before I can do something, I have to face it. So maybe I should make it a daily habit to face my tasks, before I can make it habit to do them. While re-reading the Power of Habit, I came across this part where a therapist was advising a chronic nail biter. The first step wasn’t to try and stop biting her nails. It was to simply keep track of all the instances in which she found herself tempted to bite– whether or not she actually went through with it. Similarly, it was interesting to read Allan Carr’s Easyway to Quit Smoking and find that he recommended that readers smoke the entire time that they’re reading the book, as long as they still feel like doing it. I think in all cases the idea is not to get caught up trying to fix the problem before you’re even clear about what the problem is. Getting stressed and anxious about a problem being unsolved makes it EVEN HARDER to solve it.

A lot of it is about managing your energy and stress levels. Being able to conceptualize of a problem as something that isn’t scary, something that isn’t going to ruin your life – although technically it might very well ruin your life if you DON’T do something about it… we try talking about these things in the light of rationality and awareness, but the problem is that these things happen when we aren’t paying attention, when we aren’t so alert, rational, aware. We have to admit that we’re powerless, be comfortable with that, and then surrender entirely to a process. AA suggests surrendering to God. I think usually the important thing is to surrender to constant accountability. To supervision. To be forced to be mindful and to pay attention to what’s going on. It starts with small chunks– paying attention to what happens for 20 minutes, then an hour, then several hours. I haven’t actually learned to do this effectively yet. I still have large swaths of time that pass everyday without me being super-cognizant of what’s going on. This is horrifying when I really think about it. It means I’m not really living my life. Of course, from my brain’s point of view, I’m just conserving energy. If it’s not critical, if it’s not life-threatening, why waste energy?

But we no longer live in a world where energy is extremely precious. Energy is kinda abundant in a practical sense, for individuals. We can eat. We can rest. We can exercise. We can get a lot more energy than we think w can. Than I think I can. I can do more than my subconscious believes.

Uh, I’m getting distracted here. Why am I not doing hard, scary, insurmountable, complex tasks? Because I’m not breaking them down into simple, manageable, step-by-step tasks. Why don’t I do that? Well I do that sometimes, but it’s a new habit and I haven’t gotten very good at doing it. I just need to practice it more. My personal trello board is a great place to do this and I have been doing this. I have been breaking things down into manageable components and getting them done. And I have been lifting more weight, and generally (very generally) sleeping and waking earlier. These are all good things. I just need to keep doing them, with more frequency and more intensity. If something works, accelerate it (within measurable, manageable levels).

Break things down. Break things down. A million miles begins with a single step. A million words begins with a sigle word. This is 528,000+. If I did this a couple more times, we’d be at 53% completion. That’s not too shabby. I just need to break things down into smaller, simpler steps. It’s not “excess work”, it’s critical work. This is how everything is going to be, so I gotta get down to it.

 

0527 – next steps for main blog

I’ve been starting to post things on my main blog again. It’s interesting for me to try to be mindful about what I’m doing. I’m not writing articles or posts intended for public consumption. Rather, I’m using my blog as a sort of public notebook.

I can’t remember the earlier iterations of this idea. I initially wanted to do this for my “marketing blog”, where I would instead of writing 1,000 posts like I do in these word vomits, I would use up 1,000 common or interesting words. That way, visakanv.com/marketing/[[word]] would always point to something interesting. I always thought that would be a rather interesting, memorable experience. That in turn I suppose is quite inspired by those old websites or text-based RPGs where the game or context responds to specific (sometimes VERY specific) requests from the reader/player.

As I write more of these vomits, I’ve discovered that it’s going to be quite a struggle to internalize everything I’ve written. If I had to start all over again, I would be much more deliberate in making sure that everything fit together. That everything was modular. Things would build upon each other, reference on another. I’ve noticed that LessWrong does this well, and Terence Tao did this on his blog, too. And other people like Matt Might, Paul Graham and Venkatesh Rao come to mind. As Venkat said on Quora– if you want to think your own thoughts, you’ll have to make up your own words, and your own language. I’m not sure if I’ve coined any unique terms yet. What I do know is that I have over time developed rather specific ideas about things. These things have developed in a very sloppy, haphazard manner over the past 500,000+ words.

Anyway so– I think that it’s good that I’ve done what I’ve done so far, and I’m not sure if I’d have been able to have done it more efficiently except with all this additional perspective and knowledge and practice that I’ve had already.

Okay, so what’s the plan? I want to convert some of my books into blogposts– by that I mean I want to publish blogposts that summarize books in a way that I’m happy with. Of course it’ll never be perfect– I’ve uploaded an imperfect, incomplete summary/list/dissection of Charles Duhigg’s Power of Habit. The idea there is that it’s a book that I want to internalize. I want to be able to use the insights in the book and apply them to my own life. I want to be able to quickly and easily reference it in my writing. To do that I need to read the book backwards and forwards. When reading it for the 3rd time or so today, I found that there are a lot of “inefficiencies” – things that are good for the book because they give it narrative and context, but once you’ve got that, it’s a sort of dead weight. I guess the best way to communicate what I want is to publish what I want to see. That will take a few iterations.

What else? I want to get rid of old books that I no longer care for. I want to summarize and extract what’s good, remix it into something that’s useful to me. What does “useful to me” mean? I was scanning through the “what I want” page on the 1000 site, and I realize that it’s not actually a simple, straightforward summary of what I want. This strikes me as rather inefficient. If I want to “improve myself”, if I want to grow as a person, I need to be able to quickly and easily access things about myself without having to go through an ardous process of recreating it over and over again (which is what I’m currently doing now, which is still superior to not doing it at all). So I’m going to have a post on my main blog, /blog/want, where I keep an up to date post about what I want. So that any time I’m feeling lost and confused or uncertain, I can just simply go to /blog/want and I’ll be able to navigate my life using that buoy. That sounds simple enough. I know that I’ve already covered a lot of the material over the past 500,000 words. I don’t think I actually need to re-read all of it in order to capture most of it in a post. It’s in my mind, from all of that repetition and iteration. I just gotta trust it and wing it.

What others posts will I need? There are things that I want to learn. I’m making a list of that on /blog/learning, and I’ll link out to child-posts from that master-post.

What else? I want to keep working out. I was already tracking it on the JEFIT app on my phone, but just to make sure the data is simple, neat and tidy, I wrote it out in an excel sheet on Google Drive. I now have a simple goal for that– to keep increasing my 1RM and 5RM lifts. As long as I keep doing that, I know that I’m making progress, that I’m getting stronger. I technically only really started in Nov 2015, and tomorrow will be Feb 2015– I’d have been working out for 3 months, with about 20 sessions in them. That’s about 1 every 3 days on average. I think that’s pretty good.

Beyond that, I also want to be writing more word vomits. I’m a little annoyed with myself for not having written more. But being annoyed isn’t useful. I need to dig into the causes. Why haven’t I been writing more, if this is such a big priority for me? Part of it is that I haven’t been creating the mental state I need. I haven’t been prioritizing it. Uh. I write mainly when I have something on my mind that I want to write about. But I know I’ve had a few things on my mind recently that I haven’t written about. I made a few starts but I didn’t make much progress, and I decided that if a vomit doesn’t get fully written in a single sitting, I should just throw it out because managing half-vomits is annoying, and it’s annoying to read them later on, too.

TLDR of this post– move fast, publish things, set up more legible buoys that actually work. Keep on keepin’ on.

 

0526 – revise and refine your personal algorithms (they’ll set you free)

I’m thinking about Facebook and video games again, and personal growth and scaling difficulty. When you play a game such as Borderlands or Diablo, your character starts out with practically nothing– maybe a really crappy pistol or dagger. You start out in a really crappy region, too– Borderlands 2 begins with you crashing into some snowed-tundra wasteland, Diablo 2 starts with you in a little Rogue encampment– basically a refugee camp. In Act 4, you’re in the Hall of Champions, with Archangels hanging out, and incredible enchanted armor and weapons. [1]

What about in life? There are many different paths that can happen. You start out being born to your parents, obviously. Your dad may or may not be in the picture. You might be in a safe town or a dangerous one– born into safety or conflict. I can’t speak for people born into conflict. I was born into safety– sunny Singapore, where everything runs smoothly like clockwork and it’s easy to take everything for granted.

So within that narrow band of experience– the next thing is to go to school, which is really like an elaborate tutorial zone where you get grades. I essentially went through my tutorial zone by mashing on the keys and failing over and over again. It seems like most people from where I amgenerally remain in the tutorial zone until around 18-21, unless there’s some reason for them to leave it earlier. Then some people start work, some people go to University (which is in some senses an extended tutorial zone/zoo). By 24 or 25, most of us would have started work. By this point there are some real economic considerations. What sort of resources do you have? Some people inherit a lot of them. But there may be some complexity about how they can access those resources– maybe their parents, who are the gatekeepers of those resources, demand that they perform certain tasks or live a certain lifestyle. Some people inherit effectively nothing. Some people have it worse, inheriting responsibilities and obligations and debt.

By this point it becomes somewhat clear that different people lead very different lives. A lot of the signs of public life and the middle class and peer groups etc work to suppress this uncomfortable reality. We (broadly) seem to like to feel like most people are somewhat similar to us, most people live this middle class life with similar aspirations. Some people enjoy pretending that this isn’t true for them, but they ultimately do return to their peers for validation. It’s been particularly sobering to witness how some rebellious punks in school ended up cleaning up to sell insurance or property. How people who wanted to be rockstars end up becoming wedding singers or photographers or yoga teachers. Ultimately we’re all affected by market forces.

Why am I writing all of this down? The original reason was that I wanted to meditate on the fact that I often get stuck in old patterns, old routines, thinking old thoughts, remembering old gripes. We know that we literally live in the past by a few microseconds because of the way our brains work, but I also literally live in the past of a few years. I’m haunted unnecessarily by my younger self. The books I wanted to read then. The people I hung out with then. The habits I’ve had since then.

It would be the equivalent of playing Borderlands or Diablo, and constantly going back to the older parts of the map, using old weapons and fighting old enemies, just because it’s familiar, simpler, easier.

We seldom fall into the trap of doing that in those games, because there’s always something new and exciting to do. The new areas are more interesting and more rewarding. They give cooler weapons, cooler quests, bigger rewards. Life isn’t always so kind and linear. The only time we go back to the old is if we’re really bored, or if we’re overwhelmed by what we’re facing at the moment and need to go back to accumulate resources– potions, money, etc. It’s usually an unpleasant grind, and it’s usually better to just be very careful when facing the new and difficult enemy.

So I suppose I’m writing this to persuade myself that I need to sell my old weapons, stop being such a completionist about old quests, because there are new weapons to use and new quests to do that are much more suited for who I am right now. [2]

But beyond “letting go” of old things, the important thing is to confront and engage the present. What do I most need to do right now? Well, I need to finish this vomit, obviously. Then I need to wash my face, brush my teeth, have lunch, and get started on work. And that itself will repeat the process– I’ll have to identify the most urgent/important thing at work, break it down into its components, pick the most critical component (if none is critical, pick the easiest/fastest to do…) and so on and so forth. In a sense it’s the building and enacting of an algorithm.

Which makes me realize. Video games are quite “algorithmic”. It’s frustrating when you don’t have one. It’s fun when you do. That’s when you get into a flow state. You know how to respond to something. When this happens, you do that. When your gun runs out, you do that. When you face a new enemy, you do that. There’s a whole set of instructions inside the head.

The challenge is to do the same in life– not to reduce life to a bunch of rules, but so that things get done and free us to then fully engage with things as adventure rather than ordeal. That’s how we get to be creative and improvise. Improvisation requires preparation. Algorithms set us free.
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[1] There’s something about that progression that’s very appealing to people. In Every Frame A Painting, the narrator describes how in Jackie Chan’s fighting sequences, he typically starts out disadvantaged and “on the bottom”, and then he works his way up. Similarly, in JRPGs, you tend to start out fighting a slug or rat or something, and you end up fighting the Ultimate God Of Life And Death or something like that in the end.

[2] And these quests are time-sensitive too, so if I spend Visa-26’s time doing Visa-18’s quests, then by the time I get around to doing Visa-26’s quests I’ll be Visa-35 or something. So it’s a constant catching up. I need to let me go.

 

0525 – strive to transition from ordeal to adventure

There are many metaphors for thinking about life. One of the most common is probably “life as journey”. Birth is the starting point, death is the ending point. Along the way you travel. You rendezvous with others. You part ways. You hit dead ends, or a rough patch.

There’s also I think this seductive sense that life is supposed to be a grand adventure. I’m thinking of a quote from Charlie Chaplin’s The Dictator:

> “In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.”

Similarly, Alan Watts said,

> “This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”

That’s a somewhat privileged perspective, of course [1], but there is truth to it at least for those of us living in corporate-cubicle-civilization-land, AKA the developed world AKA the primary source of whiny thought pieces such as this one.

Anyway. So the point is– we start out in life hearing [2] that we’re supposed to seize the day, live our this grand adventure. [3] To live our lives with passion, with drive. To find out what we care about, what makes our soul sing.

And then we enter adulthood and we discover the flipside of the coin– that on the the other side of the Adventure is the Ordeal. Actually, we learn this even before adulthood. School can be quite the ordeal. Keeping up with shallow social relations is an ordeal. Developing a healthy self-image and self-concept in a world bombarded with advertisement and appeals to ego and lowest-common-denominator desires is an ordeal. Staying alive is largely an ordeal.

It’s interesting to think about how (it seems to me that) parents tend to try to prepare kids for this, and yet kids tend not to really internalize it. I suppose you don’t know what the ordeal really is like until you really encounter it.

The point I’m trying to explore is… how does one transition from Life as Ordeal to Life as Adventure? What are the precise steps that need to be taken?

Let’s go through the possible outcomes.

1. Your life is really an ordeal. It really, really sucks. You’ve got parents and children to care for, you’re not making a lot of money, you’re basically in crisis mode 24/7. Maybe there’s a war going on. In this case I think it’ll be pretty tough to think of your life as an adventure. At best maybe you might see it as a “glorious” ordeal, like maybe God has given you a great challenge because you’re the only one who can handle it. I don’t know, I’m not a religious person but I imagine under such stressful/difficult circumstances it might be consoling to imagine it as such. Or maybe the secular equivalent is that you live a life that is an example for others, to inspire others. Either way, hardly an adventure.
2. Your life FEELS like an ordeal. It seems like an ordinary middle-class existence. You have enough to get by, but it’s a struggle. You hate your commutes, but you don’t need to worry about the precise details of how you’re going to pay to top up your bus/train cards. You don’t have a lot of free time, and when you do you’re typically so tired that you end up indulging in very superficial crap just to distract yourself.

Well, I guess those are the two main scenarios. If your life is already an adventure, or feels like an adventure, then you don’t really have an issue. Enjoy it. Hopefully in a responsible way. [4]

I guess where I’ve personally been stuck is– if life is an ordeal, obviously you batten down the hatches and solve your fucking problems like a man. But if your life FEELS like an ordeal, is it really? Is it not? Should you just “wait it out”? Should you just distract yourself? You know you don’t have “real problems”.

But the perception of a problem is still a problem that needs addressing just as much as any other problem. If things feel like an ordeal, maybe there’s something broken with how you’re feeling (which needs correcting) or maybe you need to correct something else. It seems like the first thing you should drop would be the mindless distractions– you probably need rest, mindfulness and sleep instead.

I feel like there was something substantial I didn’t cover in this vomit. Something about predictability. Part of the difference between an adventure and an ordeal is predictability. If you’re trapped in a box of things that you already know, and the world outside of that box is scary and unfamiliar and you’re not going out there, and you’re being grated by your circumstances (bills, mortgage, obligations, responsibilities), it’s probably an ordeal. If you’re getting out of your current box and expanding it, then it’s probably more of an adventure. We’ll explore that later.
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[1] Those of us who are born in relative safety have the luxury of being engaged in the present and calling it play. There are still billions of people in the world living in incredibly harsh conditions, and it would be insulting to them to tell them that they ought to interpret their struggles as play. [1]

Yet probably a surprising number or proportion of them are likely to actually do just that, and be happier and more satisfied and laugh more and have better social relations and so on. So there IS probably something to the idea that modern civilized corporate cubicle life is dehumanizing. It’s tough to make comparisons.

[2] When I say “hearing” – where are we hearing this from? Is this what parents talk about? My parents never really talked about that, they talked mainly about getting a good job, earning good money, not having to struggle. To escape and avoid the ordeal, I suppose. Because that’s what they were subjected to. And they must’ve hated it and resented it so bad, and wished they could’ve bypassed it altogether.

[3] The latest iterations have been “eat pray love”, “live laugh love”, travel, wanderlust, look at auroras, take pictures in beach resorts and Europe and… argh.

[4] It’s always possible to just drop everything and go crazy, maybe run away from the country, go backpacking or something. I mean, just take grand decisions. The question is– what about your responsibilities and obligations? If you don’t have any pets, children, etc– if it’s just you, then enjoy yourself. But otherwise you need networks of relationships to take care of things, etc etc.

 

0524 – acknowledge the silly “big-minded man” game

I think I’ve been approaching fiction the wrong way. I start with big ideas. But what’s the point? People don’t really care about big ideas. I thought I did but now I’m not so sure. Maybe I just thought that it was good to care about big ideas, like it meant I was better or superior or something. That if I could develop myself by thinking and talking about big ideas. And that’s a sort of self-deception, a sort of delusion that goes really deep. I’m just playing this big game of “I want to be a big-minded species-level-thinking good person”.

But when I really sit down and pause and reflect and investigate I realize that it’s a game. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing just the same. And it seems to make sense that if you’re going to be playing a game, you should probably know what game you’re playing. Although you gotta be careful there- that’s a game, too. The “ah, I’m playing a game” game. It never ends, it goes on forever.

What’s the point of saying that? Relief. It gets exhausting to keep up any sort of performance indefinitely. Life is short and limited, and you shouldn’t get stuck playing a game you don’t want to play.

Okay, so there’s a “big-minded man” game I’ve been playing that I don’t really find satisfying anymore. Maybe I will again in the future. Should I switch to some other game then? That seems like the likely outcome. I do like to be surprised and challenged, I think [1]. And once you’re stuck in a game for a long time it can cease to be surprising or challenging in pleasant dimensions. [2]

It seems like the important thing to do then is to revisit your reasons for doing what you do, and clarify your desired outcome. If work begins to feel like a drag, why? It might be because you’re just going through the motions, just getting by. “Just getting by” for long periods of time is excruciating for the curious mind. Unless of course you have something else going own. Just getting by at the patent office is fine if you’re developing the Theory of Relativity in your head. [3]
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[1] There are most definitely exceptions to this rule. There are bad surprises and unpleasant challenges. I’m reminded of a passage from Anthony Robbins’ TED talk- “the surprises you don’t want, you call problems, but you need them.”

[2] As with the previous footnote, “pleasant dimensions” is a bit wishy washy and should be better defined. Growth is almost always painful, uncomfortable, hard. But it’s great when you can see how it’s helping you, expanding you. Lifting weights to get stronger is an example of a challenge that has a “pleasant dimension”. But that’s an unusually simple (rather than complex) context. Most things in life are much more complicated. Should you force yourself to learn something that you’re not comfortable with? I guess it depends on your desired outcome, which is itself a moving target.

So the interesting thing is- challenges are painful but pleasant when they help you move towards a desired outcome. Where it gets unpleasant is when you’re no longer sure of what your desired outcome is. If you don’t know what you want, then every challenge- everything that requires effort, exertion and so on- is unpleasant.

[3] Or, I suppose, if you’re recovering from illness or disease or depression or something. That’s when “just getting by” is an achievement in itself. Of course, it never really feels like it. Our ideas of what goodness or success look like are too strong, too deep rooted. Idling Is Bad! (Note to self- reread Bertrand Russell’s thoughts on the matter.)

 

0523 – prioritize developing your work ethic

What is work ethic? Wikipedia says it’s a value based on hard work and diligence, and frames it in the context of Marxism and the Soviet Union. It also talks about Ben Franklin’s quote that time = money, and uses a phrase “the value of delayed gratification to achieve self-actualization”.

Some sociologists argue that it’s irrational for an employee to work hard in a context where he “can’t rationally hope to become more than a manager whose fate still depends on the owner’s decisions”. Andre Gorz wrote, “The connection between more and better has been broken; our needs for many products and services are already more than adequately met, and many of our as-yet- unsatisfied needs will be met not by producing more, but by producing differently, producing other things, or even producing less.”

Fair. I think the modern concept of work ethic includes “producing differently, other things, or even less”. Producing more effectively, in a sense. And the assumption that an employee “can’t rationally hope to be come more” is valid in some terrible contexts, but not in mine.

Let’s shift gears and examine a blogpost by Entrepreneur.com. It describes 7 elements of work ethic. A person with strong work ethic is… Professional (in presentation and treatment, and so broad a category that it “basically encompasses all the other elements of a strong work ethic”, respectful (poised, diplomatic, polite), dependable (reliable, punctual, consistent, stable in an unstable world), dedicated (gets everything right, attention and devotion to excellence in detail), determination (unfazed by obstacles), accountability (admit mistakes, learn from them), humility (share credit for accomplishments, take work seriously but not yourself).

Let’s examine myself. I think I’m respectful and have humility. I’m in two minds about my own dedication and determination– I think I have “long waves” of dedication and determination, and I return to things I care about and I persist at things long after people give up– but I’m bad at “short wave” dedication/determination. I can get distracted or taken out pretty easily. I’m not as dependable as I feel I ought to be. I’m not as “professional” as I feel I ought to be. Those were things that I never really learnt to do or be, and I even developed anti-values around them, thinking of them as “square, predictable, boring” and writing them off. As I get older and get more experience, I realize that fundamental truth– that stability is valuable in an unstable world, and that a stable base is necessary for you to improvise off of. There’s not much point being some sort of creative genius if you crash and burn out.

smallbusiness.chron lists 5 characteristics– reliability, dedication and character are similar to the previous list. But they also include cooperation (sort of included in professionalism, humility… but with more of a “plays well with others” element) and productivity, which talks about “working at a consistently fast pace”. It introduces the idea of speed, which I think the previous list implied but didn’t outright mention.

Speed. I’m very erratic in the way I work, and the way I play. Perhaps a little less erratic now than I used to be as a teenager, but still too erratic to be reliably productive. With my own word vomits– in the context of my entire project, I still haven’t successfully completed a “write 1000 words / day for a month”. But sometimes I have these bursts where I do a lot of stuff at one go. I’ve occasionally had days where I’ve done 14,000+ words in a single sitting. And maybe that’s just the natural rhythm of how I work, in bursts. And maybe all of this is me trying to… find some way to convince myself that I need to work according to the systems and structures that are around me, the structures that I was so flippant of when I was a kid.

Is consistency really important? Depends on what you’re talking about. Okay, let’s talk writing, since that’s what I want to be doing until I die. Is it Really Actually Important to be consistent in writing? Well, you should have a daily practice because sometimes you’ll surprise yourself with good stuff even when you don’t think it’s going to be good. And if you’re going to wait for good stuff, sometimes you’re going to be waiting for a really long time and that’s going to make you feel like shit. You don’t need to be consistent in quality, you just need to step up to the plate every day and give it a shot.

Okay. So what about the rest of life? What about in fitness? What about in doing the boring, painful, nasty work tasks? Even if you’re doing the thing you love, about 20 to 50% of the time you’re going to be doing administrative things or preparatory things or practice or rehearsal or something. Right? The musician can’t spend all his time playing live– she also needs to practice, rehearse. She may have a team taking care of all the other details– the marketing, the promotions, whatever. She still gots to rehearse.

Well I suppose in my head the rehearsal part is fine. I don’t mind writing reams of words every day for things that I like, for things that I care about, even if 90% of it is rehearsal. That’s easy to justify. The hard part is doing the shitwork that ISN’T preparation. It’s doing things like… the day job so you can afford to keep the lights on while you write. It’s like Einstein working the patent office. But the thing about the patent office is that he didn’t have to work very hard at it. He just had to show up, and he could’ve been daydreaming the rest of the time. He probably was.

So I guess the confusing thing for me is, do I want to be a marketer, or do I just want to be a writer? Do I truly want to be a part of a great company, or do I just want to be a lone ranger on my own? I think the problem for me is that I still haven’t fully made up my mind about that, and I need to go sit in silence and figure that one out on my own. It’s probably not a binary answer. But I think I need to be super honest with myself about what these things mean to me and what I want, otherwise I’m not doing justice to anything.

 

0522 – strive to do more than ‘getting by’

It’s interesting to think about how many teenagers come to the conclusion that the world is full of mindless zombies, that most people are just plugged into “the system”. I’m thinking about the cliche perspective that people often inherit after reading Ayn Rand. And I’m curious about my relationship with that worldview. Did I ever take it seriously?

Looking back, I think sure, I definitely had some of that. When I was in Junior College, I felt incredibly uncomfortable and stifled, and I felt like I was on a sort of industrial factory-line, being processed. I was angry, upset, frustrated, bitter and so on. I wondered, how does anybody buy into this crap? What sort of life are you hoping to lead once you’ve gotten your results? The options seemed almost universally terrible, to me.

I was lucky– I got out of that ordeal reasonably well intact. I still have some underlying anxiety and stuff, but it’s not a big deal. I’ll work through that stuff over the next few years. Hopefully I’ll be done with it before I’m 30, and I’ll be able to be a “full, self-actualized adult”. I’m guessing this is something I’ll look back and laugh at as an example of hilariously naive, wishful thinking, but I also think it’s good to be naive and wishful about some things. [1]

But so what I’m trying to get at is… let’s start with where I am right now. I’m 25 going on 26. I’ve been married for 3 years. I’ve been a working adult for 3 years. I’ve been paying bills for 3 years. I’ve produced about $100,000+ worth of goods and services for the world, I think. I’m no longer obliged to listen to “authorities” the way I was as a child– if I wanted to I have the freedom to quit my job and just… do whatever I like, really.

Stop, rewind. There’s a quote somewhere that goes along the lines of– “Sometimes I look at birds and wonder, if they can go anywhere in the world, why do they choose to stay here? And then I ask myself the same question.” Some variant of that is on my mind. What is the present configuration of my life, my reality, and why do I choose it over all the other possible configurations? Inertia. Legacy issues. If I wanted to, I could change everything. Well, should I? I’m sure there are some changes that are worth making. What are these changes?

I find myself revisiting the basics. I should change the way I sleep. I should change the way I eat. I should change the way I work. I should change the way I write. I should change the way I consume information. I should change the way I get things done. I should change the way I see the world. I should change the things that I choose to care about, I should change the things that I focus on. The assumption underlying all of that is– that I’ve inherited most of these things, and if I’ve modified them any, it’s mostly through simplistic, small-time trial and error.

When I was 22, I remember thinking, “Okay, I’m going to transition into adulthood now.” Well, now I’m 25 and I’ve made the bulk of that transition. I know what it’s like now to commute to work and back day after week after month after year. I see how dehumanizing it can be. I get it now. That’s what I didn’t fully appreciate as an idealistic teenager– I didn’t appreciate how tired my parents must’ve been all the time, and must still be today.

Well, I think I survived the transition. This is my life now. Work and bills. I meet friends when I can. I watch a movie or read a book when I can. I write when I can. I get by. But I don’t just want to get by. I want to thrive. In my mind, I think that thriving was out of the question for the first couple of years– I was spending all of my time and energy just struggling to get by. And I’ve gotten by. And now I have a bit of time and space and energy that I can carve out for myself, and I want to use those limited resources to figure out how to make life better for me.

What would that life look like? What does a better life look like? I think the first thing is just waking up early every day and dealing with life before it comes to me. It’s better to do it early than late. [2] I’ve been trying to do that for the past couple of weeks. I’ve been sleeping earlier and waking earlier. I feel like I’m making progress on this front but it will take a few more weeks before I really adjust to it. Once I’m done adjusting to that, I’ll want to be more effective and efficient with how I spend my early mornings. I’ll want to get some reading done, some writing done, some planning and evaluation done. Figure out my commitments in advance– arrange my appointments and scheduling, plan my workouts, my meals and so on. That’s the biggest thing that will make the biggest difference to my life– to be prepared and to anticipate things rather than to meet them on the road and improvise suboptimally over and over again.

Okay, I’ve gotten a bunch of stuff out about what I want to do over the next few weeks, but I haven’t yet talked about what I actually set out to talk about, which is figuring out how and why I should change the way I relate to other people. That’s up next.

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[1] Well, it’s complicated. I don’t really want to get into that in the context of this vomit.

[2] There are reasons for this that I don’t feel like getting into right now, but it might be worth elaborating separately.

 

0521 – next steps for writing and work

The last vomit ended with “I have not answered the central question”. Probably because I didn’t ask it clearly enough. So what IS the central question? Something like “How should I live my life?” What should I focus on? How should I direct my limited resources throughout the remainder of my life? What should I spend my time and energy doing, and what should I NOT be doing?

I know I should be writing, and so I am doing that. The two questions that follow are, how so, and what else?

How So:
Right now I’m just going to keep continuing with the 1,000,000 word project just to make it to the end and finish what I started. This is primarily so that I can convince myself that I’ve done something substantial. Not necessarily SIGNIFICANT, but substantial. That’s just an interesting thing to have in my mind when I go on to write anything else. If you can write a million words, you can write pretty much anything.

Beyond that, I find myself thinking vague things like “I want to explore ideas”, “I want to write fiction”, “I want to solve problems”. I don’t necessarily want to be the best in the world at any of those particular things for its own sake, I think that would be a little… I’m thinking “extremist” or “putting the cart before the horse”, but that’s not quite accurate. It’s more like… it would be me putting myself into a structure that I don’t necessarily agree with, and I might end up optimizing relentlessly towards an end-state that I don’t actually desire.

But I’m also aware that if I don’t pick anything, it’s possible for me to just languish without making any progress. That’s definitely happened before. So I might spend some amount of time doing “problem-solving” writing, some amount of time doing “idea-exploring” writing, and some amount of time writing fiction, and seeking to get better at each of those things as I do them. But I also think that I don’t particularly want to define myself as a person who does just one of those things. I don’t know for sure, it might be a little premature to think about this in too much detail. But it’s good to at least be aware of it.

What I do know is that there are a lot of gaps in popular writing. Some of these gaps were filled by people from decades or centuries ago, but people generally have this odd obsession with current affairs and so there are a ton of really good books and really good material that never get appreciated in present day, beyond a small audience of purist fans. A part of me thinks that I’d like to just sit around and read and review old books in a non-pretentious way. But is that what I should be doing with my time? Maybe, why not. We’ll do a bit of that and see how it goes.

So I suppose the short answer to “how so” is to just experiment with different things and see what I learn from each thing. I may spend some time doing intense head-down study and review, analyzing books written by other people. I may spend some time writing strange free-association things that don’t have a particular voice or narrator. I may do some of that within the context of these vomits, or I might not. The thing is to just kep moving forward.

Alright, that much is fairly clear.

What Else:

To keep writing I need to take care of myself physically, emotionally, financially. Those are to some degree also good ends in themselves, but I’m not sure if I want any of them to supercede the writing thing.

Often I find myself worried about money. I have a house to pay off, and the loan lasts 30 years. I’m 3 years in now, so theoretically I would be done in 27 years. Who knows what’s going to happen over the next 27 years?! Life is unpredictable. I might die from an accident or from disease or from something otherwise unforeseen or unexpected.

So how much time and energy should I devote to worrying about money? How am I going to make more money? My primary source of income right now is from my full-time job as a marketing guy for a tech startup, which I do enjoy. I’ve learned a lot.

A thought I have is, “If I could do whatever I wanted, I would stop working and just read and write myself silly”. While technically that IS an option, it isn’t necessarily a good or optimal one. My mind just operates in simplistic absolutes when it comes to intuitions. What does that thought really mean? Am I sick of work? No, I like my work. I just wish I spent more time reading and writing. Okay, is that achievable? With the 24 hours I have every day, can I get work done ANd do reading and writing? I think subconsciously I feel like that’s not possible. Subconsciously I feel like I’m not working as effectively as I could or should, and that I should devote even more time and energy to work– and that that will limit the amount of time I can spend on other pursuits.

But zooming out, what’s the reality of the situation? Am I effective as possible at work? No, absolutely not. I think and I believe that all I really need to do is 4 super-focused hours of work every day. Yesterday I managed to do maybe an hour to two hours, and that was pretty good. If I can do 4 hours a day, I believe I should be able to “be ahead” of my obligations, and then I can read and write for pleasure with no guilt. [1]

How do I do more focused work? I need to be more aware of distractions and deviations, I need to be more clearheaded about my priorities and what needs to be done, I need to make sure that I’m lucid, awake, constantly re-evaluating what’s going on. So it’s really important that I keep track of the work that I do, and the time that I spend on doing that work, and how that all plays out. I’m currently doing that on Trello and Google Calendar. Yesterday was my first day at work in 2016, and today will be my second. So my single main goal today is to keep track of the 30-min blocks that I spend at work and make sure that I devote them to the right things.

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[1] I think what I need to learn and realize is that the guilt is really just an internal compass, and my problem isn’t so much that it’s there or that it exists, but that I haven’t learnt to navigate by it.

 

0520 – know what you want and go get it

I woke up pretty early yesterday, I think. It was probably around 7 or 8 am. I left for work at 9-something, got to office at 1030 and actually got quite a bit of work done before lunch.

I got home really tired and fell asleep at about 1030pm or so. I awoke momentarily at 1 or 2 am, and later at 515am or so. I spent about 40 minutes looking through my phone, then went down to buy coffee at about 620am. I then came up and sat outside and watched the sun rise, which was a really beautiful experience. I sort of just took it slow, went and showered, and now it’s 750am and I’m sitting down on my sofa, looking at the sky, writing this word vomit.

I’ve had a few false starts [1] with the past few attempts at writing, possibly because I’m trying to wrap my head around something larger than I can currently grasp, or because I’m not focused enough to stick with it through the full thousand words. Probably both.

Today though I’m awake, well-rested, have some time to think and write, and I don’t really feel like doing anything else in particular, so it feels like I have a good shot at writing something (or a couple of things) that I’d be okay with publishing.

Let’s start with the sunrise. I like witnessing sunrises and sunsets. I find them to be appropriately awe-inspiring and humbling. They remind me that I’m just a little human in the grander scheme of things, and they remind me that great, beautiful things are possible. It’s like a mini-version of the Overview Effect, which I have often said I’d like to witness.

Theoretically speaking, the sun has risen over 9,000 times in my lifetime so far, and set just as many times. That’s 18,000 events. How many of these have I witnessed? Definitely fewer than 1,000. Probably a couple of hundreds, tops. How many do I consciously remember? Definitely less than 100. Maybe less than 50. That’s 50 out of 18,000. That’s 1/360, which is less than 0.3%.

So I have to confront something that I think is symptomatic of a broader problem that I’d like to solve– the gap between what I say I want and what I actually act in order to get. It’s a subset of the circle of influence vs circle of concern problem. If I like sunrises and sunsets, why don’t I take the time and trouble to witness them? I know they’re good for me. I know they make me happy. I know they make me feel like writing, which is another thing that I say that I want to do.

This really does feel like one of the central challenges of my life. Bridging the gap between what I say I want and what I get.

The easiest way to make a big dent in the problem is to eliminate many of the things that I say I want, by examining them closely to see if I really want them, and eliminating them if I don’t. Working backwards (because examining everything I’ve said would take years)– I think the things I want the most are– to become a really good writer, to live without guilt and fear and anxiety [2], to be physically fit and strong.

Okay, wait, even here I feel a need to pause. What do I actually know for sure? I know that I like words, and that I can spend an indefinite amount of time just learning about their history and studying how they’re put together and so on. So it makes a lot of sense for me to want to be a writer. I love the smell of a beautiful sentence. So that’s easy for me. But what do I know beyond that? Should that be the central thing in my life around which everything else is organized? What would that even mean, what would that even look like? How can you purely pursue a craft for the sake of craftsmanship if you don’t know what you’re doing it for? What is the point of writing? I suppose the clue is in the second thing– I might be writing to resolve guilt and fear and anxiety, to resolve the neuroses and tics I inherited. Why do I want to do that? Because those are just really unpleasant things that get in the way of me appreciating and enjoying life.

I guess a simple heuristic might be, “I want to earn my own respect”. That would be nice, and the opposite case would be not-so-nice. What do I respect? Effort. Focus. Discipline. Conviction. I was watching the entire Rocky movie series a while back and I was intrigued to realize that while I value intelligence and smarts, I admired Rocky a lot despite him not having tonnes of it. What he had was HEART, and I found that very admirable. This will to just keep going on, to not quit, to not give in. To keep trying. To persist. Why do people do that? What’s the point of doing that? There isn’t any, but we do it anyway. So that we can look back on our lives, maybe, and say that we stood for something, we tried something, we made something of ourselves with the clay we were given.

TBC, I haven’t answered the central question yet.

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[1] Anyway I think the simple solution for dealing with half-written drafts is to just get rid of them and rewrite them altogether. When I read old vomits, I find myself amused and disappointed by vomits that are a bunch of haphazard thoughts just stitched together. Those aren’t very valuable to me. It’s far more valuable to either ruminate on a single idea or to follow a single train of thought, even if it deviates and diverges significantly (like this one).

[2] There’s a line from Les Miserables that makes me really want to read it, about the protagonist seeking and attaining redemption.

 

0519 – obliterate your subconscious taskmasters

Day 4 of the new year. Didn’t publish a word vomit yesterday. It’s interesting to think about the psychology and practice of missing days, breaking chains. On the first day I believe I published 3, and on the second I published 1, and 0 on the third. I’m writing one now, so it’s likely that I’ll publish at least one today.

What I was thinking was– it isn’t so bad to miss one day, it’s fairly trivial to make up for it with two the next day. But once you miss a day, it’s easy to miss another day– the new day becomes “just like yesterday”. And now to make up for it you need to do 3 the day after, which is a little more daunting. It’s 3 times the usual amount. And so that’s where it really begins unravelling. That’s the real cost of missing a day– not that you can’t afford to do two the day after, but that it gets so much likelier that you’ll miss another one. When you fall of the wagon, you either have to immediately run after it to get back on, of you fall completely and have to build another one, which takes energy that you might not necessarily have. Alternatively, you can wait for another wagon, which takes time– time in which things might depreciate. And even if things don’t depreciate, ie you don’t get any worse at your craft because you haven’t been practicing, there is opportunity cost– you forgo the better-you-would-have-gotten.

Of course, we’re not robots or machines [1], so we need breaks and rest. And those things should be planned and scheduled.

As I say all of these things, I find myself thinking, surely that isn’t always true for all cases. There have to be some times where you literally just screw all your plans, all your bento-box management and just roll with it, just improvise. The thing is, it feels like I’ve really romanticized that idea my whole life to avoid doing any real work, to avoid doing the boring scheduling stuff. But the output is never all that interesting. I have had few great adventures, most of them have been pretty boring and predictable.

Skilled improvisation requires practice. Spontaneity requires practice. Otherwise we fall back into the same patterns, same routines. I have been noodling with similar patterns on the guitar for years, just as I used to play SimCity and Grand Theft Auto badly, and die, and repeat the same patterns over and over again. Maybe there’s something calming or reassuring about the repeating of a bad pattern, even when you know it’s a bad pattern. Amusingly I’m sure I’ve already written a few vomits about this in the past. About how the horrible-familiar is often preferable to the unknown.

I was reading a little bit about Portia de Rossi’s struggle with anorexia, and she had a very powerful way of describing it– like she had some sort of horrible taskmaster / drill sargeant in her head who would yell at her in her subconscious, before she was even fully awake. I relate to that in my own way. That there are things under the surface that are in control of me, that hold me in line one way or another. It might not be a specific, tangible thing, it might be more of an idea, a way of seeing, a habit of mind. A superficial instantiation of this would be the way I check social media on my phone every morning when I wake up. Why do I do that? Nothing good ever comes out of it. But I suppose there’s a sort of addiction/craving mechanism for that variable reward, of seeing notifications, of finding out the unknown (even if the unknown can be assumed to be trivial nonsense).

I described that as a superficial [2] example. What’s a more substantial example? I suppose it’s my entire way of being. If that’s too abstract– my entire way of thinking. The way I perceive. The things I choose to focus on. (I find myself thinking “Oh my god, I need to go on a silent retreat.”) How, when I’m writing these vomits, I must be circling around a few things over and over again. What Christopher Alexander was talking about when he said that, practically speaking, life can be reduced to a startlingly few set of patterns that we live out.

Tired of a lot of my patterns. Tired of saying that I’m tired. Tired of that, too. Tired of having been here before. Will this be the last time that I say this? Probably not, but I’d like it to be. At least, the next time I return to this set of thoughts, I would like to be a very different person. I would like to be a lot more than I am right now. (Aside: I’m listening to old music. I suppose I’d like to listen to some very different music.)

Whoops, I got a little derailed there. Ended up on YouTube or something. Oh well. Let’s just finish this one up. Actually a lot of this is just flourish and fluff, which is okay for the context of this writing project still… maybe, if I say so. But if there’s something I want to take away from this, it would be… just make sure to break lousy patterns and to just “exit” often so you can start over with a fresh mind. I get stuck in things too easily, long after they’ve lost their utility. So I should just “get up and leave” often, and return fresh.

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[1] And even those things typically need some sort of maintenance… might be more accurate today to say “we’re not just software.

[2] What’s the opposite of superficial? The “super” is latin for above, and the inverse of that is “sub”. So “subficial”? There’s a band called that. But that doesn’t feel right. What about… substance? Yup, turns out it means “under / stand”. And isn’t it interesting how understand means understand? Anyway.