0540 – scratching new surfaces + desired end states

This weekend wasn’t as productive as I was hoping it was going to be. That’s interesting– Why do I say hoping? What does hope have to do with it? “Hoping” suggests that I leave it up to randomness or chance, that I don’t take control. I need to hope less and design more, schedule more. On the plus side, I did break some lifting PRs– Bench 1RM of 70kg, squat 1RM of 82.5kg, 5RM of 62.5kg. That felt good. And then I ate pizza afterwards. Score!

Last Friday I had a pretty good conversation with a few colleagues over coffee, and revisited some old ideas about mental software, models of reality, the language that we use to speak to ourselves. How words like “big”, “great”, “important”, “meaningful”, “best” and so on can be poisonously loaded. How we ought to take the time to be very, very clear about our desired end-states.

What are mine? I’ve tried thinking about this several times, but it still feels like I haven’t really scratched very far beyond the surface. (That said, while the feeling is consistent, I do believe I’ve made progress and discarded many ‘outer layers’. So I’m always scratching at the surface of the next level.)

I was thinking also about how… after re-reading an old Superman comic (where he spends all day trying to save a single suicidal girl, which is definitely not the most optimal thing Superman could be doing with 24 hrs) and thinking about several other recent slice-of-life comics I’ve read recently… that a lot of life is definitely about recalibrating expectations. About knowing that your expectations will be recalibrated for you. That the payoffs you you think you’re going to get are less likely to materialize than you think, and even IF they did, they’re likely to be less rewarding than you think. And you’re going to have to be okay with that, or you’re in for a miserable time.

I mean, it’s neither right nor wrong to want to be a Great Man Of History. But the question is, why? Is that really a good or healthy target to have? Why is that a desired end-state to begin with? The assumption I think is that it’s a sort of Sinatra Test. (If I can make it in NYC, I can make it anywhere. If I can be a Great Man Of History, I must have lived a good life.) But why allow your happiness to be held hostage by something that will involve so much luck and serendipity and randomness? There are GMOH who weren’t happy, and non-GMOH people who are. Supposing being a happy GMOH is out of the question (since that’s perfect-optimal), what would I settle for? Would I rather be happy but not Great, or Great but not happy?

We’d have to dig into what happy means. And I think it gets cylic because part of what makes me happy is the idea that I’ve achieved something. Why? What’s so great about achievement? All achivements will fade away in the end. Remember Ozymandias. Remember the heat death of the Universe. Glory and legacy are, in the grand scheme of things, as transient as rainbows.

So I think if I have to choose between working hard at a legacy that I may not realize, and will not be around to enjoy, and being happy in the present moment, moment by moment, I will pick the latter.

The knee-jerk reaction I get then is, so why not just become fully hedonistic, eat junk food, smoke cigarettes, live fast? That’s because the “now” is a pretty long now. If I had just one day to live, sure. Give me all the junk and all the drugs. But I expect to live for, say, at least 5-10 more years. And hopefully another 10 more years after that, and so on. This is where things start to get a little blurry because I’m bad at making long term plans, and they never seem real. Hell, I struggle with deadlines because I tend to put them off until the last minute. But I can’t afford to do that with this. Death is something I intend to overprepare for.

Uh. So what then? What was the legacy I was hoping for? I suppose I’ve always thought that if I have any shot at being “legendary” at anything, it would be at being a writer. Not in my current form, of course. But after say another 50, 60, 70 years of practice. I don’t intend to stop. I intend to keep getting better. How great can an individual get? Where should you set your target? Well. What was Shakespeare’s attitude towards his writing? What about Homer? Marcus Aurelius? Voltaire? I guess I get the sense that these people weren’t too obsessed with trying to enter some sort of great list, they were just doing their best at doing what they thought was good, what was right. And as I think Aurelius put it, not even the Gods can ask more of you.

But yeah, so. I want to be the best writer I can possibly be. I want to stop worrying about my legacy or prestige or anything like that, and focus instead on writing every day, on continuing to get better, on dissecting what I’ve done. I was going through my workflowy earlier and realized that there’s so much rewriting work I have to do with my older word vomits. I’m almost avoiding it subconsciously because I know that it’s going to be a tedious and frustrating experience. But I got to embrace the suck. This is the one thing that I know for certain I’m going to be more-than-willing than 99% of people to do– to go over things over and over and over until they’re tidy, pretty, beautiful. I’ma gonna do just that.

But that’s just the writing bit, though. There is so much more I need to explore and expand on (and subsequently compress) about my desired ends. With writing, though, I guess for now it’s volume. And then it’s rewriting, and compression. And I need to be making progress on that practically every day, so I don’t fall into the lulls.


0539 – end 2015

(started 24 dec 2015)

So I’ve made it through another year. Not bad. It’s probably been legitimately the best year of my life so far, though I’m not feeling particularly thrilled. I think because I haven’t yet achieved some good stretch goals. I could’ve read more. Watched more good movies. Met more friends. Been more effective at work. [1]

Thinking about death. I’m often conscious of the possibility that I might not get to live as long as I’d like to. Wishful thinking makes me hope I’ll live to 110, but it’s entirely possible that I won’t make it past the next year, or decade. I wonder if there’s an actual probability to be put on that.

What do I want to do before I die? I used to have loftier ambitions- to achieve some sort of superstardom, some sort of great success. To leave a massive legacy that’s valuable to others. That would still be nice, but I’ve come to think that that’s a sort of ecapist, deferential sort of thinking.

It’s important to be happy with your life in the present moment because that’s the only moment you have. The past and the future factor into the present, so it’s tough to fully enjoy something if you know it has nasty consequences. The dark playground gets less and less viable as I accumulate more experience and evidence that unearned play is unsatisfying, that postponed work becomes more unhealthy-stressful at an exponential rate.

So in 2016 I’d like to minimize the amount of time I spend idling in the dark playground. If I don’t feel up to doing work, I should take a conscientious break and just rest, meditate, exercise, relax. But I shouldn’t be playing games or surfing the web mildlessly, looking for some drama to get involved in. In 2016 I need to be much more selective about the drama I opt into. I need to be more proactive about learning the skills and acquiring the knowledge that I’ll need in order to realize my desired end-states.

Spending less time in the dark playground and more time being proactive both are grounded in similar desires- a desire for less unnecessary guilt, stress, frustration, anxiety. I have been suffering needlessly from a background radiation of guilt/stress/anxiety ever since I started schooling, and now that I’m a relatively responsible working adult I’d like to be rid of it. I’d like to witness what it’s like to wake up in the morning and not feel like I’m playing catch up with my life.

In 2016 I want to worry even less about the opinions and concerns of others. I’d like to get to know myself even better, to have more frequent conversations with myself because I am the most important person in my life. The problem of opportunity cost and limited resources means that I have to assertively say no to many things in order to get the few things that I really want.

(continued 9th feb 2016)

I’ve definitely already spent some time in the dark playground. I don’t think it’s a crippling, shocking, horrible amount, but it’s more than I’d like. But the good thing maybe is that I’m not overcome with guilt about it. Really, it’s more of… okay, that’s what’s happened, and I need to make up for it now. I have an obligation and duty to myself to write and publish word vomits, and I’m doing that. I have a duty to my spouse to make time for our marriage, and I have been doing that. I have a duty to the organization that employs me to do good work, and I intend to do that– I’ll be doing more work after I wake up tomorrow, and I’ll continue to review and improve what I’m doing.

I do think it’s fair to say that 2015 was the best year of my life. My challenge for myself now is to make 2016 the NEW best year of my life, and idealistically, to continue to be able to say that for myself year after year with each passing year. That’s a lofty goal but it should be achievable with diligence and reflection– skills that I want to develop.

I’ve been meeting more people and I like that. This is the year that I want to spend building relationships with new people who I want to invite to the table of my life. The earlier I do this the better, because relationships definitely benefit from having long lives (all else held constant). It’s good to know people for a long period of time, through shifting circumstances.

What else do I want to think about in terms of annual time scales? I guess information diets– I want to read good things, watch good movies and shows. I want to start writing short stories of my own. Can I commit to a specific amount? Can I do 50 or 100 short stories in a year? If I incorporate them into these word vomits, then maybe. It would be two birds with one stone. But I worry that that might be a little premature. I’m adding it to my list, and then I’ll see how I feel about it week after week.

So the recurring theme seems to be that if I want to grow, and make “gains” in my life, the fastest and best way to do that is simply to reflect a lot more. To get back on the wagon after I’ve fallen off. To limit the amount of time that I feel sorry for myself and bounce back into performing well, taking care of business, getting shit done. To ship things faster, and to ship more things. I think I can do it. It’ll be better done than said.

[1] I am aware that this will always be the case to some degree. But the point is that there are many degrees, and I’m not satisfied with the degree that I currently inhabit. I feel like I’m at about 30%. I’ll be happier at about 80%.


0538 – evaluate (and do not tolerate) your problems

(started 4 oct 2015)

In an earlier vomit, I mentioned that I already pretty much know what all my problems are and I know what to do about them. But when I look back over my life, the reality of it is that I don’t always do what I need to do. So there’s an incongruence there.

If I know what to do, and I’m not doing it, do I really know what to do? What are the things that stop a person from doing what they need to do? When I’m down, I tend to question myself and my motivations, and suspect that I’m a fraud. When I’m up, I know that this isn’t true– I know in my bones that I do really care about things.

So, if I do really know that I do really care about things (that is, the feeling is real), then there’s still a gap between the feeling and the action. The main thing that’s kind of hard to acknowledge and admit is that the conscious mind might not have much to do with it.

A couple of vomits ago I wrote about how insects fly into flames, and humans stay in destructive relationships or stick to habits that are destructive. The reasons are probably similar– in both cases, we’re probably following an internal logic or an internal set of instructions that might have worked for us in some way before. Whatever the case. It’s a bug, and the conscious mind isn’t very good at dealing with bugs that might be operating below the level of consciousness. I know i’m being iffy about the precise neuroscience, but that seems to be roughly what’s going on.

This is basically the central challenge or conflict of my life. Growing up. Killing the person I used to be in order to become the person I want to be right now. Definitely a very repeated motif. I think I’ve made some progress, and I think there’s some truth to the idea that when you want to progress to a new state, there’s a period of time that there will be relapses into the old state– often multiple relapses– and you have to integrate that into your developmental process. I think I’m doing okay. But I also think I can be doing better, and I want to do better.

Okay. Lots of repetition going on here. But what is it that I wanted to get at?

I wanted to go through the common causes and frustrations that I experience when trying to make this transition, and figure out what I need to do or say or think in order to get through it faster. The challenge is not to never fall, but to be able to bounce back from falling as quickly as possible.

I listed 4 possible problems, and maybe there are more.

1. I’m tired.
2. I’m weak.
3. I’m scared.
4. I don’t know how.

I suppose they should map quite nicely onto the procrastination equation– value, expectancy, impulsiveness, delay. Huh. I guess I’m tired and I’m weak are similar. And I didn’t account for delay or value. Let’s start over.

I don’t really care, I don’t really think I can do it (weak, scared), It doesn’t really feel urgent, and I’m distracted (tired?).

The meta-challenge for me has been that I understand these things intellectually but I still haven’t fully internalized them into my day-to-day functioning. A simple idea is this– if a task isn’t made very precise, it doesn’t get done. I constantly postpone this.

(continued 9 feb 2016)

This still remains one of the core challenges in my life– perhaps THE core challenge. It also overlaps with something else I’ve been thinking about, which is my interface with the world. I was thinking about that in the context of the “greater world” – other people, big problems, opportunities, etc. But this is about my interface with the world that’s directly in front of my face. My problems. My responsibilities. How do I interface with these things? What is broken about this interface? How do I improve it?

The way to improve weakness is to do strength training. At the most basic level I’ve come to believe that physical exercise is key. I’ve been making progress on this over the past 3 months by lifting weights. That forces me to rest better, to eat more, and it also has taught me the very real belief that if I work at my limits, and then rest and recuperate, my limits expand and I can do more than I had done before. That’s something that’s easy to appreciate intellectually but intellectual appreciation is insufficient. You really need to KNOW it in your bones, know-by-doing.

Tiredness is resolved with rest. What stops me from resting? Why don’t I rest enough? I have this flawed sense that I haven’t done enough, and that I need to repent for my sins of ignorance and avoidance by working through my tiredness. But that is damaging– the work you do when tired is shoddy and requires double-work to fix. And it’s demoralizing and frustrating, and you’re prone to “injury”. Better to rest and start over fresh whenever possible. So this turns out to be a sort of moral problem, a failure of imagination or a misconception of the cause-and-effect relationships at the heart of it. If you’re tired, and you can afford to rest, you must rest. The question is, how do you know if you can really afford to rest? Well… unless you’re literally at war and people’s lives or livelihoods are on the line, rest is almost always a superior option. That should be the default setting. I suppose before that you also need to recognize when you’re tired, as opposed to pretending that it’s not the case, or just ignoring it. This requires constant, regular check-ins with yourself to pay attention to your state.

Then we’re left with fear and ignorance. How to do deal with fear? The fear never goes away. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s the crippling fear of catastrophic failure, and the fear of not getting it right. It’s okay to not get it right as long as you avoid catastrophic failure. And avoiding catastrophic failure is fairly easy– there are usually just a few basic things to watch out for. Writing these things down on paper makes them less scary than when they’re in the fog of the mind. When you’re afraid, write down the worst case scenario.

Ignorance? When you don’t know how to do something? We have Google these days.

My problems aren’t really problems.


0537 – what is going on?

What are we, what is going on, what should we do?

We’re all bags of cells. A hundred trillion nanobots working together, seemingly in some sort of celebration. There isn’t really a good reason for it, it was all rather arbitrary. Skeletons, muscles, nerves, skin. A digestive tract- mouth, throat, stomach, intestines, bladder, anus. Lungs, heart, arteries, veins. Glands, hormones, neurons. Our ancestors were simple cells, and they reproduced and grew complex over practically a billion years. The Earth that we’re on is 1.6 billion years, it orbits a nuclear reactor we call the sun, which is one of a hundred billion stars in the Milky Way, a hundred thousand light years across. And the Milky Way is one of probably billions and billions of galaxies in the known universe.

But for the time being, we’re stuck here on this Earth. Some cool people are working on getting us to Mars. Some cool people have written about all sorts of possibilities and we have begun to realize them.

Zooming back. People. We are social creatures, we don’t live alone. We live in groups. We pass thoughts and ideas from mind to mind through elaborate systems of gestures, vocalizations, squiggles. We used to live in smaller groups, but have been progressively expanding them. Today we have mega-cities with millions of people. We have not yet learnt to see ourselves as part of a single human family. We are still squabbling, killing each other over all sorts of trivial nonsense. But it’s not trivial to the killers- it’s of crucial, critical importance. People are consumed with hate and pain and rage, often understandably so considering their starting conditions, considering the terrible fates they inherited.

You only ever need to step into a children’s hospital to realize that life is cruel and unfair.

I’ve been thinking lately that there are two extreme ends or positions that a person can take with regards to the world- both a little simplistic. One is a position of unconditional love towards all things- probably best embodied by the Dalai Lama or Pope Francis. A position of service and kindness and grace.

The other is a sort of fundamental contempt for incompetence, weakness, bullshit. [1]

It seems likely that both of these positions will have to coexist. They seem to contradict each other, but that’s probably because I’m being vague to a degree I do not realize. It seems like a case of “love the sinner, hate the sin”. But then sometimes it does seem like the sin can be so consuming that the sinner is an unrecognizable shell.

Zooming out. The point is that humanity is a teeming, writhing mass, messy and chaotic, bristling at the edges. In the civilization centers, things can seem calm, smooth, predictable, reliable. It’s simultaneously the best and worst thing we can conceive of. We’re all we know. Which is kinda limited.

Humanity requires energy to survive. As individuals we need food to eat, at the most basic level. To maintain our civilizations and standards of living, we need a lot more. We need electricity, we need power. For that we largely burn fossil fuels. We’ll need to eventually move to solar power, which is the primary source from which everything actually originates. Fossil fuels are compressed organic material from living things that were either plants themselves or animals that fed on plants– and plants themselves. All life on Earth is sustained by solar energy. Some people are working on this. Some people are working against this. It gets very complex because of all the extensive histories of all the agents and all the nuances of politics and whatnot.

So… what do we do? What are we here for? I live on an island city-state called Singapore, which is a tiny minnow in the grand scheme of things– 0.07% of the global population. It’s a full-time job just staying afloat, and to use the tiny influence we have to keep the region and world around us stable enough so that we can continue to survive.

There is a lot of poverty and pain and suffering in the world, a lot of injustice, a lot of cruelty and unfairness. It would be nice to see the world make progress on this. At the same time, it also feels like an intractable, insoluble problem– like there’s always going to be more no matter how much you do. The parable of the starfish on the beach comes to mind. I suppose ultimately we justify our actions within the greater context of the fact that we’re all going to die and that life is fundamentally meaningless. If we decide that we want to believe that something is meaningful, then we do that.

I also have come to think that it probably makes more sense to focus on the problems that we CAN measureably solve and make a difference to, than to flail wildly at problems that we can’t do much about. It seems like there’s a sort of ladder here– you begin by solving problems for yourself and creating a superstructure around you that allows you to take care of business for yourself and then some, and then you use that additional capacity to take care of things beyond yourself– and you keep scaling that, keep doing more. That’s one way of living a life. Another is to just let it all go and to engage each thing as it comes, which has a rather zen quality about it. Which yields greater peace? It depends on your own mental model of what you respect.

Either way, wringing one’s hands or feeling sorry for oneself doesn’t achieve much. You can do that for a few minutes a day, then you gotta be a gangster. And do what is objectively the best you can do, and then strive to do better. That’s the most anybody can ask.

[1] It would be interesting to hear what the Pope and Dalai Lama have to say about those things, about their experiences with those things. They seem to always be cheerful and good natured, but are they? Do they have their doubts? Have they experienced the dark night of the soul, their own inner despair? I’m sure they have; I can’t imagine that not being the case.


0536 – Lemmy (This is not a practice life)

(29 Dec 2015)

I woke up today and learned that Lemmy from Motorhead is dead. I wasn’t particularly a big fan of the band, but I always thought he seemed like a great guy. He seemed very genuine. And while he lived a good 70 years, the news that he’s gone is still pretty jarring. For some reason, it seems like the most jarring celebrity death I’ve heard about in the past few years. (I suppose Robin Williams would’ve been more jarring if I had grown up watching his films; I’ve mostly been enjoying his work posthumously.)

I want to reflect on this for a while. Lemmy’s death triggers several different thoughts for me.

1. I’m getting older myself. I’m 25 going on 26, I am not a child or a teenager or even a “young adult” any more. This is it, this is full-contact adulthood. It definitely feels like I wasn’t adequately prepared for this, but it’s also clear that hardly anybody is, and that being bitter about this fact achieves nothing.

2. This is not a practice life. This is not a rehearsal, this is not a drill. This is IT. The real thing. We’re live. Everything we’ve experienced and done do far, that’s our history. We can’t change that. Everything we do today and tomorrow will echo and resonate through us for the remainder of our days.

It is a tremendous responsibility, managing yourself. Avoiding it doesn’t make it go away. So live into it. Don’t leave it up to chance and circumstance.

3. There are already several if not many regrets, mistakes, fuckups. There will definitely be more, and we will have to face that.

That said, we owe it to ourselves and our circumstances to reduce the avoidable ones, and to navigate the remaining ones as best as we can.

After all, it would be a little disappointing, wasteful, boring if we reach the end of our lives making the same mistakes over and over. If nothing else, life is an opportunity to play and experiment, to learn and grow. Stasis is itself a kind of death. Let’s not die before we’re dead.

4. So much of life is trivial, yet our experience of reality is utterly dominated by a small number of non-trivial events. And people inevitably express regret at under-preparing, under-anticipating and under-estimating the non-trivial. We’ve made a lot of mistakes but let’s not make this one, not where it counts the most.

If we want a quality life, however we define that, we have to focus on quality thoughts, build quality relationships with quality people, do quality things and so on. A 25 year old man has no excuse for not knowing what he wants, for not having a vision of what a good life means to him, for not having a plan to enact and realize that vision to the best of his capability. The bulk of his resources (time, energy, focus, capital) should be devoted towards building himself the life that he desires.

What are the usual excuses?

I don’t know what to do: Find out.

I don’t know where to find out: Google it. Ask friends, peers, mentors.

I don’t have any quality peers: Find them.

I don’t know how: Find out.

I’m overwhelmed: Start with the simplest basics. Breathe. List out your
problems. Pick the most painful one. Break it down into smaller steps. Pick the most important one. Solve it. Move to the next step.

I’m scared: So’s everybody else. Face your fear and do it anyway.

I’m tired: Put everything away and rest, fully. Exercise. Eat. Hydrate.

I don’t know how to exercise or what to eat: Find out.

I have bad habits: Destroy them.

I don’t know how: Find out. Every habit is simply a pattern of behavior. There’s a cue, there’s a response, there’s a reward. Map out your bad habit- what triggers it? What do you do? Why do you do it? Find alternative ways of dealing with it. If you relapse, don’t be childish about it. It’s a new data point for you to learn from.

I’m not strong enough: Get stronger. Exercise. Do a little more than you did the last time. Everybody can do one more pushup than they last did, lift more weight off the ground than they last did. Being able to do that helps you internalize the powerful idea that you can grow and become stronger, doing things you couldn’t do before. That’s the beauty of life.

I’m lonely: Find people. Don’t make it all about yourself. There are other people who need help. Adopt a dog. Dogs love you unconditionally. Volunteer.

I’m anxious: Meditate. Exercise.

I don’t believe I can do it: Write down what you believe you can and cannot do. Then evaluate those beliefs and ask why that belief exists. What is the basis of that belief? What is its history? You weren’t born with limiting beliefs. You learned and inherited them. And more often than not, those beliefs were thrust upon you by people and circumstances who don’t have your best interests in mind, or have a misconstrued idea about your best interests.

I’m spread too thin: Eliminate the non-essential.

But life would be painful without my [games/social media/porn]: Yes. Life is painful. If you want to be more and do more, you’ll have to tolerate pain. You can handle a lot more pain than you think, you just need a good reason to. Which brings us back to the importance of having a clear vision of what you want.

Consider young children who cry because of a little discomfort, or because they don’t get what they want. Or imagine a young teenager heartbroken over their crush snubbing them. Those things can seem laughably trivial to adults, but to those littler, less-developed humans, the pain is all-consuming, unmanageable. How do they grow out of it? The stimuli doesn’t change. Their response to it does. Their attitude towards it does. Their belief system around it does.

Adults don’t cry ugly, screaming tears when they don’t get what they want because they recognize that reality doesn’t owe them anything. (And also because they’ve learnt to be considerate of other people, who have their own problems to worry about.)


0535 – 2015 in review

(started 2015-12-21)

The year is coming to a close, and with it there’s a general atmosphere of slowing down, breathing out. I find myself wanting to tie up loose ends, to do a little revision of my experiences. The idea, I suppose, is to get some clarity and closure about what’s happened. To learn from what went well, from what didn’t go do well, and to begin the next year more strongly.

The biggest highlight of my year I think was the decision to convert my home’s master bedroom into a gym, with a squat cage, barbell, weights, a bench and floor mats. I bought them about 8 weeks ago, and I’ve improved my squats (around 40-50kg to 80kg yesterday) and bench press (40kg to 65kg) significantly. [1] This fundamental increase in physical strength has been a powerful learning experience for me. Even “learning” isn’t quite the right word. It’s know just about knowing how to do something. It’s about being able to believe in new possibilities. I think that was my real limiting factor. I now need to channel the lessons from that experience to the rest of my life, especially my work.

Another good experience has been deciding to open up my company blog to freelance writers. It gives me some ownership over the work of others, which is a nice privilege and responsibility that forces me to clarify my own principles.

I’ve also finally developed a GTD system that works for me- a mix of workflowy and trello. It’s really just a list of lists and a system of moving post-its from left to right (done), but it works well and I’m happy to have it.

I’ve met a couple of friends for coffee or dinner here and there, and it’s almost always been a good experience. My regret is that I feel like I haven’t done it enough. If I died at the end of the year, that would probably be my biggest regret- that I didn’t take more time to spend with friends.

I suppose my reasoning there is- I spent a lot of my teenage days just lounging and loafing with a bunch of people who were also just lounging and loafing with me (at least while I was with them- perhaps they were doing other things when I wasn’t around). And it was fun for a while but eventually became a huge waste of time. And I suppose I’ve been trying to live in a deliberately opposite manner- immersing myself in work, and refusing to loaf with my friends.

But once I write it down it’s clearly over-simplistic. My effectiveness at work is not purely a function of how much time I spend on it. There are diminishing returns past a certain point. I can be more effective at work by being decisive and focused. It’s almost like I’m just punishing myself by spending as much time on work tasks as possible, while getting just a passable amount of work done. And then I don’t have much real time for myself left over, and I feel like that’s my “punishment” or penance or something. My silly brain seems to think that I’ll be somehow rewarded or acknowledged for “making sacrifices”. But it’s not actually a real sacrifice. A better way exists. I can have the best of both worlds, I just need to be better to myself. The rules of the game are different from the silly rules of school and family. Work done is the measure, not time spent. And if I make myself a priority and carve out time for myself to have stress-free, guilt-free fun, then I can return to work with happiness and joy rather than a foreboding sense of obligation and duty, only tolerated because it’s better than being a worthless bum.

Also, it’s not like any of my friends are particularly interested in loafing any more, at least the way we used to. Times have changed. Our lives have changed. We’ve grown older. We have responsibilities now. A night out (or in) with friends is no longer about naughty escapism (and it wasn’t always that, anyway). Now it’s about sharing precious warmth and love, which we could all probably use a little more of. We can better trust ourselves now to be sensible, to know when to call it a night, to get back into the grind. We don’t have to keep beating ourselves up for the sins of our ignorant youth.

So the next steps there are to schedule more regular meet ups next year with the people I love. More dates with the wife.

Did I do a decent amount of writing? My experience is colored by the last few weeks, wherein I haven’t written a lot. But I I do know that July this year was when I was most disciplined about my writing habit. So that’s good, I should try to do that more next year.

(continued 8 feb 2016)

Well it’s been slightly over a month since the end of the year. I feel like I still haven’t fully gotten down to business. I’ve been cleaning stuff out, more than I usually do (which adds more credence to this idea of annual rhythms and so on). That should clear my head more for the work I have ahead of me. I’ve also been meeting people more frequently, because I realize that I didn’t do that as much as I wanted to in the previous 3 years. I did feel like I had to “detach” or “go monk” for a while, and I did, and I feel like I’m done with that now. I’m now looking to meet people roughly once or twice a week for lunch or dinner, or drinks afterwards, and it’s proving to be quite a pleasant experience so far. I’d like to keep that up. I’d also like to keep getting stronger with my lifts, and I’d like to keep working out.

The title of the post was originally “happiness and self-actualization”. It no longer accurately describes this post so I’m going to change it. I’ll write that post separately.

[1] I haven’t been doing a lot of deadlifts yet, or much of anything else. This will change.


0534 – becoming a man means accepting responsibility

(started 25 sept 2015)

When does a boy become a man? In some societies- tribal cultures in particular- there are very explicit initiation rituals and ceremony. You’re a boy, you go through the initiation, now you’re a man. And perhaps there’s a later initiation where a man becomes an elder.

Before there were widespread public schools, boys were apprentices- and you probably became a man when you finished your initation.

I get the sense that in some ways, masculinity and manhood, in the classical sense, is fundamentally economic. In tribes or nomadic bands, you become a man when you begin to hunt, begin to provide food, become able to provide for a family. A child is fragile (literally). It’s a dependent on its hosts, like a parasite. [1]

Modern civilization is interesting. It seems to have been so successful at providing for itself that it doesn’t need as many Men (in the economic sense) as before. And this can be a good thing- it allows for the care of the disabled, it allows for the development of art, poetry and so on. [2]

Aside- it’s interesting to think about the role of art in difficult times. Lee Kuan Yew was a man who appreciated literature, but when he became Prime Minister of Singapore he insisted that poetry was a luxury that we couldn’t afford. I suppose what he meant was that we couldn’t afford to spend tax money on it when there were more life-and-death concerns like housing and healthcare.

At the same time I think it’s quite well understood that art helps people cope with life. I’m thinking of how LKY read poetry to his wife when she was bedridden, and of that heart-rending rendition of Home by the visiting choir at LKY’s wake. And reports of how the first acts of healing following 9/11 were people singing in the streets. Karl Paulnack’s speech.


I spent some time asking people about their thoughts, mostly along the lines of, when does a boy become a man? There were some joke answers, and some questioning-the-question. I’m well aware that masculinity and manhood are social constructs- I’m not looking for some absolute answer, I’m looking to understand what people think about manhood themselves, whether it be ideas they inherited, reacted against or outright rejected. It’s still relevant, since we live amongst people. [3]

(continued 8 feb 2016)

I’ve come to think that manhood is largely about being able to take care of business. Being able to create a structure and a context for yourself, and for the people around you. I know that it’s 2016 and there are all these ideas about how “manhood is not about X”, “manhood is not about y”– for instance it’s supposed to be damaging that we perpetuate ideas like “boys don’t cry” or “a man must be physically strong”. But when I examine it myself I find myself asking, what is the spirit of those ideas, rather than the letter?

We have the luxury now of being very inclusive, so a lot of older ideas don’t seem to make sense anymore– seem needlessly harsh, cruel and so on. But I think those old ideas evolved out of a different time– times of scarcity and hardship. Physical strength absolutely mattered if you needed it in order to make a living, in order to put food on a table. Whatever your social justice politics or beliefs, you wouldn’t marry or advise someone you cared about to marry a physically weak person if that meant (as it must’ve been centuries or millenia ago) that you were probably going to starve. Even the very idea of love and romance is quite a luxury, in a sense.

It’s not too difficult to imagine how it might all go to hell really quickly. It just takes some devestating circumstances– war, disease, pestilence, floods. Once people don’t know where their next meal is going to come from, the resulting anarchy will almost definitely revert to more straightforward, conventional heirarchies of power.

But of course, that’s not why I asked this question. A modern collapse of civilization is an interesting thought experiment, but the selfish reason I explored that idea was to make sense of my own value as a person. People will say nice-sounding things like “everybody is valuable”– sure, each human life is a universe by itself, but that doesn’t make everyone valuable. There are economic realities that we live in. It’s a little frustrating when they don’t get properly acknowledged or discussed, but that itself is the reality of the meta-game to that question.

Ultimately, manhood involves knowing when to break the rules, how to look out for yourself, how to take care of yourself and of others– and that includes your own emotional state, and that in turn means crying when necessary.


[1] Only I guess parasites are unwelcome, while we’re wired to love and want children to pass our genes on to or something.

[2] Though that’s definitely reductive. Art predates agriculture and industrialization. And I believe in the earlier days artists were supported by wealthy patrons. It was also a way to make a living.

[3] Hell, even in the hard sciences– a thing might be objectively true in terms of science, yet not be recognized as valid until PEOPLE deem it so. So as long as we live amongst people, as people, social constructs are relevant and significant and worth understanding.

I don’t want to delve too deep into the meta-analysis- the objective of this whole pursuit is to better understand and appreciate the relationship I have with myself and my own self-identified. It is enough to realize that all of this is social construction, while also recognizing that as social beings we live within social constructs.

So a thing can be a social construct AND still be valid. In fact, you could go so far as to say that almost everything outside of hard sciences derives its validity from social constructs.


0533 – the next steps of my writing journey

(started 13nov2015)

I love the winds we get at the end of the year. They’re so calming, refreshing, and a little melancholic. I wonder how much more impactful it would be if we had seasons, if it were snowing instead and we were all swaddled up, sipping coffee or hot chocolate.

I find myself feeling very strongly now that I want to make a living as a writer. As a friend pointed out, I’m already doing it, in a sense. But I’m still not “fully self-actualized” yet. What does that mean, what does that look like? What am I taking about? I’m talking about the dream scenario, where I literally get to make a living writing whatever I feel like writing, without having to worry about any considerations other than “is this a piece of writing that deserves to live, that I’m proud of?”.

Bunch of thoughts about that:

Nobody owes me such circumstances. They’re idealistic but achievable. I’m thinking about people like Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, the woman who wrote the Divergent series, and folks like Matthew Inman, Tim Urban, the folks at Crash Course and so on. It’s not like wanting to be Bill Gates or Elon Musk. I have relatively modest, acheivable goals.

So what’s the path to getting there? Well, I have to keep producing content and putting it out there. Right now I’m still in the middle of this word vomit project. The main intent here is to help me become a better writer. To become even more intimate with the written word than I already am. This project was conceived about 3 years ago, before I had developed more concrete ambitions of being a professional writer. So it’s a little underoptimized (but I’m intent on seeing it through anyway, to prove to myself that I can do it, and to build a habit of finishing what I set out to do.)

What would I do differently if I were doing everything from scratch?

Well the first thing I would do is to list out a bunch of conflicts and pain points that I’ve either encountered or thought about over the years. Then I would attempt to represent them accurately in fiction.

Another thing I would do is simply write fan fiction. There is no shame in that, in fact there’s a ready audience and it’s no different from doing covers of popular songs. If I wanted to be a professional musician, I would start out by playing other people’s songs. Every professional musician alive did the same. That’s how we learn and develop, at anything. Imitation, acquisition and so on.

I find myself thinking about the relationship between author and persona, or narrator, or actor and act. I find myself thinking particularly of Louis CK, George Carlin, Russell Brand, Lady Gaga. Before these people could become the 24/7 larger-than-life giants that we know or knew them to be, they had to work on their craft behind the scenes. And I find myself obsessing a little unnecessarily about the difficulty of the transition. Before you can become fully out-and-proud, which is bound to be a little unnerving to loved ones, you have to try it out in contained contexts. When you’re on stage. Maybe I ought to go back to doing standup, at least a few more times.

(cont. 8feb2016)

Hmm. Do I want to make a living as a writer? I think it would be nice to be paid to write things that I really believe in, and to be paid so much that I don’t need to do anything else. But let’s unpackage that.

1. I would like to write things that I really believe in. I haven’t even really started with that. What does that look like? I’m currently doing content marketing, and I do “believe in that” in a sense that I think it’s helpful and useful to the people I’m doing it for. But it’s not what I personally want or need. I’m still, in a sense, a wedding singer. Which isn’t a bad thing. The Beatles used to be a cover band in Hamburg.
2. I would like to be paid to write things (that I really believe in). If I just wanted to get paid for writing words, I could be a freelance writer and do content marketing. That would be relatively easy, but I might as well keep my day job because I get to play the meta-games for that, too, which means more $$ and more learning and growth in areas that will be unexpectedly useful for me in other spheres.
3. I want to be paid so much that I don’t need to do anything else. I think this is primarily an ego thing. Just this idea that I might be supported economically by the parts of my brain that enjoy doing things that they enjoy for themselves. It’s the closest thing to a modern-civilization equivalent of hunting and eating your own food… and choosing exactly what you like, what you want.

I got interrupted while writing this to talk to a friend, and I ended up talking about this with him. I realize that for me to become the writer I want to be, I need to do writing that is in the direction of the writing that I want to read. I’ve said several times that I want to rewrite certain things. Well, why not start now? Start in bits and pieces? I can do that. And so I’m going to do that. I’m going to make a post titled “rewrite”, and list out the things I want to rewrite, and then link those things to posts where I literally rewrite the things that I want to rewrite. And instead of putting it off until I can do it all at once, I’ll just publish the most simplistic outlines as quickly as I can– “reverse cauliflower style” (summarize in a sentence, then a paragraph, then a set of points, etc.)

I think that should be interesting. Writing in the “architecting hyperlinks” sense rather than writing paragraphs after paragraphs (like I’m doing with these vomits.)


0532 – guilt as a signalling mechanism

(started 3rd nov 2015)

Let’s start with a bit of skepticism. I’ve written about feeling guilty several times before, what makes this time any different? Well the main thing is that I’m not actually flooded with guilt right now, so it’s not like an escape mechanism. By escape mechanism I mean… I’m not talking about guilt to avoid addressing the foundations and fundamentals of said guilt. I’m not talking about it just to wash myself with good feels. That’s one of the patterns to watch out for, when you’ve defined yourself as a victim of some sort.

So we can start fresh by just approaching the whole thing with some calm, level-headed curiosity. What is the guilt, and where does it come from? Etymology is always a great hint, and it doesn’t fail me today either. The word guilt comes from Old English’s gylt: “crime, sin, moral defect, failure of duty.” And I have to say, “Failure of duty” captures it perfectly. The moral defect bit is sort of a package deal. [1]

Have written about this before. It’s far too easy to conflate different sorts of failure. Failure is an event, it is not who we are. We are bigger than our failures and our successes. A common response to that is “we will be judged by our successes and failures”, but even that is actually misleading. Because there are two kinds of judgement, and we often horribly conflate the two. The first is judgement as part of a sorting and/or selection process, like selecting somebody for a job interview. The second is the more iffy but massive ‘moral’ judgement, where we try to grasp at the fundamental value of a person. As I write these words I realize how odd that sounds. Paul Graham has a great post about this, and I’d defer to that: http://paulgraham.com/judgement.html

The important takeaway there is not to take optimal-set selection personally. If your teachers, etc don’t quite appreciate your oddball quirks, don’t take that personally. It’s not about you. Not everything is about you. Stop being so goddamn self-centered, bruh.

And I guess where it gets complicated is– the language we use doesn’t always make that distinction clear, so it’s quite understandable that people mess this up. I’m speaking in the general but all of this is really about me (wow, this vomit is a trainwreck). That is, I’m talking about my own experience. Let’s start over and clarify. I don’t want to go through my whole childhood story again, I’m bored of repeating that shit. The point is that I used to be competent at one set of t hings and incompetent at another, and I was excessively (IMHO) celebrated for the former and unecessarily (IMHO) chastized for the other. It’s easier to make the case that I over-celebrated as a kid, though maybe if I weren’t then I wouldn’t be who I am today, and I might regret that… though probably not, because I am always me, no matter which me I am.

It’s harder to be clear about the unnecessary chastizing part. Unnecessary for my personal growth and development and education, but that wasn’t what it was all about, that’s the part where it wasn’t all about me. It was about what was best for the broader system, for the whole, and I appreciate that that is a necessary thing. I appreciate the schools need to do the best with what they have to achieve what they can, and they aren’t exactly obligated to look out for weirdos like me. In the general sense, a case could be made that the weirdos need to be protected a little for make benefit of society, but life isn’t lived in the general sense. It’s every weirdo for himself.

(Continued 7 Feb 2016)

So let’s try to TLDR the above. Guilt is a feeling. It’s often a legitimate feeling, and it’s a signal from the mind/body that something is wrong. The signalling mechanism itself might be broken, which means it’s possible to feel either too little guilt or too much guilt. In both cases, we’re not deferring to some moral authority about what is an absolute, objectively appropriate amount of global guilt. Rather, we’re talking about guilt as a signalling mechanism for influencing behavior. If guilt makes you do things that are in your broad self-interest, it makes you a good person, father, husband, friend, colleague, and it drives you to do things that also make you satisfied and happy, then it’s probably a good thing and it should be a part of your life. If you just need to confess to a priest once a month or you need to have beers with a friend to deal with that, then so be it, that sounds like a legitimate coping mechanism. If having absolutely no guilt enables you to go on and create incredibly amazing things, like iPhones and Facebook, and millions of people are helped as a result, that’s pretty much great too.

And really, that’s looking at it from an outcome-centric POV. The person whose judgement you’ll have to bear is your own. That much seems rather inescapable, unless you’re really disassociative or are able to run away from your own mind. (I don’t think anybody’s ever really succeeded at this and I’m not sure it’s worth trying.) Beyond that, it’s partially up to you, and partially whatever you’ve inherited. If you believe or were raised to believe in a vengeful god, you might be worried about his or her judgement. Then there’s family and friends and peers and “others”. We’re often socialized to care about what other people think, and we seem to have some innate system for caring about others a priori, too. The two are interconnected.

But the point is, all of that is negotiable and navigable. Guilt begins when you feel that you have failed your duty– to yourself, to your family, to your peers, to society, to God. All of those things are really ideas, but sometimes ideas are backed up with violent force or threats– ie your parents might expect you to get certain grades or marry somebody of a certain type, and if you don’t do it, they might ostracize you, make you feel bad, withhold your inheritance, even be violent towards you, etc etc. Beyond that though, once you get into a position of strength, you get to renegotiate what your duty is– to yourself and to everyone else around you. So I think if you want to deal with guilt issues, that’s the sort of framework you have to work with. What is my duty to myself, first and foremost? How do I know if I’m honoring that duty? And then you work your way outwards.

Guilt is an unpleasant feeling, and nobody should feel crippled by guilt to the point where they can’t function, can’t get anything done, get driven to suicide, or simply live a miserable life. Life is just too short for that.


0531 – do things for placebo purposes

(Started in Oct 2015)

I just downloaded an app called Byword and I’m using it to write right now. It cost me $15. Part of why I did it I think is because I’ve been reflecting on the idea of the power of placebos. Was reading a Nature article about how some experiment or trial for painkillers was thwarted because the people who were receiving the placebo reported feeling much better too. Is it really a sham treatment if people are actually feeling better?

So I figure that it makes sense to try doing things that have placebo value. For instance, when I was in NS, I racked up a $30+ library fine. I had borrowed a bunch of books and kept them for a really long time. I had also bought lots of books from the library book sale, so I ended up having more books than I’m ever going to be able to read. So it seemed like I was never going to borrow books from the library again. $30 then was almost 10% of my monthly income or allowance as a citizen soldier, and it seemed wasteful to spend that kind of money at the time on something that wasn’t going to have a material impact on my life. So I didn’t.

But so, as a sort of unintended side-effect, at the back of my mind, I’ve always been a person who hasn’t paid his library fine. It’s just another data point that tells me that I’m an irresponsible person, someone who doesn’t fulfill his obligations. That becomes part of the narrative that I’ve been telling myself, and something I’m going to make a more conscientious effort to break from. So part of that means paying my library fine, which I just did. And it does feel good. I don’t know if it feels extra good because I’m extra aware of this whole placebo thing right now, but whatever. I’ll just keep moving.

Decision-point: I originally sat down to write my shower thoughts, but then I paused momentarily and decided to do my writing on something a little more luxurious, and so I got byword and ended up writing the above. Do I now switch to what I wanted to write, or do I find something that allows me to continue this train? I think I should do the latter. That’s actually the central idea of… well, having central ideas. I think I should get better at spending entire vomits sticking to a single topic or idea. This is mainly so that individual vomits are more useful to me in the future when I look back.

So, the line of action for this word vomit is now decided– it’s about placebos and changing internalized narratives. Paying $15 for a writing app (and it seems to be working out pretty nicely so far, but maybe I’m just rationalizing– but that’s fine, that’s totally okay, that works!) is part of me doubling down on my self-image and narrative as a writer. Paying off my library fine is part of me redefining my image as a person who is trustworthy, reliable, pays off his debts. That’s a good thing.

Pause. I actually stopped writing this vomit back in October last year. I’ve grown to think that a lot of the time it’s not worth finishing old vomits, but that’s assuming I can’t quite capture the original train of thought. But this one I think I can recover from.

The idea is that there are placebo purposes that are worth investing in. What other things can I do? One of it was to keep track of my workouts in a spreadsheet. Initially I decided that it wasn’t even necessary to really keep track of them– just hit the gym as often as possible. But I did keep track in a notebook anyway since it was so little effort. Then I transcribed those notes into an app, and now I have it in a spreadsheet too. The good thing about that is now I can measure my 1 rep max and my 5 rep max, as well as the total amount of weight I lift in each gym session. As long as I keep increasing those 3 numbers, I know that I’m making progress and getting stronger. That’s very powerful stuff even though “technically nothing is new or different”. That’s marketing, in a sense. That’s adding a narrative that makes sense to me.

What else? I’m now over halfway through this word vomit project and I’m starting to feel a little lost and confused. I feel like I’ve been repeating myself a lot, which I recognize is a part of the process, but I also feel like I don’t really know why I’m doing this anymore, or what it’s for. A part of me deals with that by funneling my energy into fleshing out my main blog, which is now turning into a sort of wiki repository of thoughts and links, based on keywords that I can think of. I like the idea and I think I’m going to continue that. But I still want to keep writing word vomits just to keep the momentum going. So I need to find a new purpose.

So, Visa. You know that you want to complete this project. You have 470,000 words to go, 470 sessions of 1000 words each. What do you want to with it? Well, I want to meditate on very specific things so that I can connect the dots later. I want things to be more modular. In my earlier vomits I was trying to say too many things in each vomit, which made each vomit less useful in a broader context. Okay. So I’ll just… write vomits based on the simplest possible phrases and ideas, or the smallest possible phrases and ideas. Will that work? I don’t know yet. I’ll start with the keywords on /blog/ and see how that plays out.

Anything else? I’m going to keep working out. I want to sleep and wake early but that isn’t going so well. Never mind that for now then. I’ll just keep working out, keep writing, and keep doing work. The sleep thing I’ll keep paying attention to and see how it goes. I’ll keep doing weekly reviews. It won’t sort itself out by itself, but I think I can work on it from the side. We’ll see.