0637 – YOLO

For DC: “how can one best fulfill the saying live as if you might die tomorrow?”

I’m a very naughty fellow, so whenever anybody gives me some sort of directive I tend to quickly think of the most mischievous way to interpret it. And here it is for this one:

If I knew I were going to die tomorrow, I think the first thing I would do is probably get myself some drugs. I mean, you’re going to die, right? Some people say that using heroin is like lying to rest in the lap of God. Wouldn’t that be a nice way to go? The main thing keeping me from trying (apart from the fact that it is very, very illegal) is the knowledge that it’s very addictive / habit-forming, and that I had a tough enough time with cigarettes. [1] But an addiction is meaningless if you’re not going to wake up to see tomorrow.

Anyway – to answer the question directly. I don’t know. I think a lot of people throw the sentence around because it sounds really enlightened. It’s the sort of thing you’d say at a commencement speech at a prestigious university – Steve Jobs said something similar, and I’m sure like at least 30% of speakers say the same thing.

That said, I can think of a few instances in my life where I found myself thinking, “You know what, if I died now, I’d be alright with it.” Looking back, I realise I tend to think this when looking at good views, or when taking a long, leisurely walk. So maybe the answer is to take more walks.

There’s a lot of things that I still want to do before I die. And I know that I realistically won’t do them all. I won’t become a hotshot author AND a popular musician AND learn to code and build a killer app AND travel to all the cool countries in the world AND… you know it. I have to prioritise. And accept that most of the things just aren’t going to happen. Right now I’m thinking the thing that I really want to try is to put in as many points as I can into the “Author” skill tree. And that means writing as much as I can. A day when I write is better than a day when I don’t write. And there IS always a really satisfying feeling at the end of having written something, even if I know that as a whole what I wrote was pretty crappy. This particular vomit is maybe about 40-50% crap. But that’s okay, that happens, I just gotta keep going. Prolific is better than perfect.

That said, I also find it helpful to reflect on the people in my life who have already died. There was this kid from VS who died right after finishing his O levels, back when I was in JC. We dedicated a song to him at VS’s evening of music and drama. I knew a guy from TPJC named Daniel S, who had a heart condition. I think the fella always knew that his mortality was much more fragile than the rest of us. I didn’t know him that well, but I think he did seem more chill than most people, and he also did more random things – travel, etc. Maybe he knew that he didn’t have a lot of time, and so he didn’t care for stupid shit. Wayne Thunder died 10 freaking years ago. At the time he seemed like this wise, mature older guy. But how old was he then? Probably about 10 years older than me. So I’m now the age Wayne was when he died. I could die tomorrow. Who knows? Life is crazy like that.

Going back to the question again – is it actually possible to live like you’re going to die tomorrow, if you know you’re probably going to live at least 10, 20, 30 more years? I think there’s a part of our subconscious that knows the truth, and doesn’t really buy our bullshit when we try to bullshit ourselves. We will never be able to engage our lives with the same urgency as when we know we’re about to die. That’s just like, the physics of life.

What we CAN do, though, I think, is contemplate periodically. I think about once a month is a good tempo for this. At the end of every month, consider the fact that your ‘month-self’ has died. Whatever you had hoped to achieve, see, experience – if you fell short, you fell short, and you have to be okay with that. Have a little mental funeral for January self, and then look forward to February. I’m trying to do this, I think it’s helping. And by helping I mean – it’s helping me live a more intentional, present life.

Oh, out of sync but I just remembered a quote from reddit. Someone asked his boss how his boss was so chill all the time. And his boss said, I paraphrase, “Son, one day you’re going to receive a phone call that the most important person in your life is dying or dead. And in that moment you’re going to realise how little anything else matters.” I try to reflect on that fairly regularly.

So to recap – take long slow walks, reflect on the fallen, reflect on your own mortality.

Another mental image comes to mind – you know that scene in Toy Story 3, where all the toys are in the incinerator, panicking at their impending doom – and then they hold hands? We’re all in the incinerator, right now. Reach out to your loved ones. Hold hands.

[1] I was just thinking earlier today – I like cigarettes. I’ve stopped smoking for months on end multiple times. I think my longest stretch was about 9 months. In that time I felt well and truly free of cigarettes, and didn’t need them. After a while I didn’t even think about them. But there’s something beautiful and poignant about cigarettes, to me. Whenever I hear someone say something like, oh I used to smoke but you’re just poisoning yourself, it’s just ugly and terrible, why do you hate yourself, -insert ton of negative rhetoric here-, I get the point, but I also get suspicious. I just tune out a little whenever I hear anybody feeling too strongly about one thing or another. Like people talking about only the good or only the bad about something – say, their ex. Assuming they weren’t in some sort of abusive, manipulative situation – what does it say about their judgement? You know what I mean.


0636 – the human game, pt 1

Essay WIP.

I find myself thinking about an Alan Watts lecture, that you can find on YouTube titled The Human Game. And he talks about how when people are born into the world, we don’t tell them, “Hello, welcome to the world, we’re playing a bunch of games here, and here are the rules,” and so on. We take it very seriously.

I was reflecting about something related to this when I walked out of the shower yesterday afternoon, I think, and I looked out of the window and I saw all the buildings in the distance. I live in Singapore, in a HDB flat, which is a sort of box of boxes, stacks of apartments, a lot like containers stacked on a container ship. And I found myself thinking about the forces that made this happen – “this” meaning me, being in a home, in a housing estate in Singapore. What went into the building itself? What about the ecosystem that the building is a part of? What about the laws and regulations and housing policies and so on? What about the Singapore government? What about my parents, my ancestors (from India, and from earlier than that)?

It all started with the big bang, and then the sun, and the Earth,  and then at some point life (either on Earth itself, or visited from a meteor or comet or something), and then life evolved over time from single-celled organisms to birds and reptiles and mammals… and eventually we had bipedal creatures; monkeys, apes, nomadic bands of humans.

At this point the game is still pretty easy. You’re in a small-ish group of people, you spend almost all of your time looking for food, avoiding danger, and having sex. This is what our minds are optimized for, and we haven’t yet adapted fully to the much more complex games that we play today. We fought, we killed, we fucked, we scavenged, we hunted, we ate. We groomed one another, comforted one another, mourned our dead – all of this we can see in our monkey cousins today. We may have had some primitive sort of religions. This was the “Paleolithic” era – 99% of human history. People used stone tools.

At some point things got more complicated. We learned to manipulate things in our hands. We made tools, we made up language, we sang songs, we danced. We learned to make fire, we learned to control it, we learned to cook. We began to shape the environment. And here things start to get a lot more complicated. This is at the beginning of civilization, roughly about 10,000-12,000 years ago. Once we had a food surplus, we could afford to spend less time looking for food and more time doing other things. Little tribes of families would emerge. Hierarchies. Over time these would get consolidated to become hamlets, villages, towns, cities. (There were people who lived outside of cities – bands of barbarians – and we know unfortunately little about them.)

With the age of cities came all sorts of complexity – legal systems, laws, systems of government, taxes, diplomatic relations with other cities, trade, economies. We learned to write, keep records. The birth of the bureaucrat. We domesticated animals, built houses and structures, cathedrals, aqueducts, sewer systems. Schools. Marketplaces. People would start to specialize, becoming craftsmen, and consolidated into guilds. We started having fashion and social classes. Capitalism. Technology began to develop. We had philosophers and intellectuals, people figured out maths and science, physics and chemistry.  Cities were “civilizing” – life was brutish outside of them, and bureaucratic inside of them. At some point we punished people by banishing them, exiling them, casting them out. And then at some point we started having jails and prisons.

At some point empires became a thing – cities with imperial ambitions would conquer and vanquish other cities, and consolidate them into greater empires. Colonization, slavery. Persian empire, Roman empire. Interestingly we seldom use the phrase “Chinese Empire” even though there have been many Emperors. We tend to say Dynasties instead – why is that? China today is called a Republic…

Anyway so over time people developed in-groups and loyalties… what about religion? And language? Broadly I find myself thinking that there are the eastern religions and the western ones. The eastern ones are more ‘continental’ – in fact when we say ‘religion’, that word itself makes me think of a church or a mosque – which are civilization constructs, very abrahamic. Cathedrals. We don’t think so much about pagans, witches, Sun worship, nature worship, ancestor worship. Tribal circles, shamanistic wilderness religions – going into the jungle, into the desert and so on. Buddhism and Taoism and so on might be philosophies or systems of principles etc rather than religions in the common sense.

How should religions be conceived? Religion seems to be… ways of making sense of the world. I think maybe it makes sense to think of “city religions”… systems of beliefs, patterns of control, rituals, sacrifice…

(I’ve been fascinated by the idea of how the metaphor for God or the Creator changes over time – the Christian god is described as a sculptor, who sculpted Man from Earth and breathed life into his nostrils – a sort of cosmic Geppeto. So whoever came up with that story was already familiar with sculpting, pottery, etc – and presumably that must have been a rather high-status job at the time. Before that we have older religions that use more pre-agrarian metaphors – a female god giving birth to the world. The greeks do this – Gaia giving birth to Uranus (the sky), and so on. The nordic religions have Yggdrasil, the world tree.)

Let’s pause for a moment to consider how the game would’ve been different for a human born at a different point in time.

If you’re born during the Paleolithic era, you pretty much have the same game as a monkey does.

If you’re born after 12,000 BCE, you’re probably born into a more complicated game. You’re part of a tribe, city, settlement, and you have a leader. You start playing more complex status games, maybe. You have a craft to practice.

When does this next change? For most of the time you’re ‘plugged into the Matrix’ of your particular circumstances – if you’re born into the Persian Empire, you don’t really have a choice about Zoroastrianism being your religion.

Kingdoms, nation-states… I find myself now thinking “Century of the Self…” – I guess we’ll continue there, somewhere.


0635 – think about your contribution

I want to spend this vomit thinking about the contributions I want to make. I’m approaching the two-thirds mark (666 word vomits), so I think I need to start thinking about ‘life after the vomits’.

One thing I’ve been feeling strongly about quite recently is that I need to own a blog that’s focused on a niche that I care about, that isn’t based on my primary domain name (visakanv.com). I’ve already bought a domain, but I’m not going to talk about it directly on this blog right now until I’ve made something of it. I have some goals – I want to publish about 100 posts, do some promotion, build some relationships anonymously, get the backlinks and so on. This actually feels like some weight off my shoulders, because I can simplify what I do on my primary site.

I’m going to simplify visakanv.com – I want to make it very easy for anybody Googling for me to get a simple, clear picture of who I am and what I do, and get links to my absolute best work. I also have a memoir project that I want to do.

I’m going to take everything Singapore related and move it to visakanv.com/sg/. Over there I’m going to split things according to topical iss ues. National Service. The education system and the pressure-cooker atmosphere around it. The issue of censorship, especially how mindlessly it’s done. Addressing things like how sterile and stodgy the country supposedly is. I find myself thinking about what the news has been like in the past decade that I’ve been observing it, and how there are all these recurring patterns. I find myself thinking about what I saw on slatestarcodex – a joke about having a schedule for arguments – in January we’ll argue about this, in February we’ll argue about that, and so on. I find myself thinking… maybe that might be something worth doing? Yes, actually. I think I’ll that. It’s already halfway through January… but let’s just go for it anyway.

What else? I also have many book reviews that I want to get through, and TV show reviews, movie reviews, product reviews. So how do I prioritize? Which goes first? Should I put one of the projects (reviews vs SG) on the backburner, or should I try to do both? And I also have the project I talked about earlier on. And I have this word vomit project as well. Typing all this out, it becomes pretty clear that I have a little too many things to do all at once – I also have to work on my job – which is not just a time-pass for me; it’s important to me that I get my work done well and continue to develop myself in my career. That’s a lot of things to do. How am I going to do all of it? What’s my top priority? Right now, my top priority is to publish this word vomit. After that, my next top priority is work – I’m getting paid for it, and my professional reputation is tied up in it, but I think most importantly I feel gratitude to and affection for my team, and I want to contribute in that way so that I can do more for that.

Oh yeah, pause – and I have my marketing blog too, which is an overlap between what I do at work and what I want to talk about in public about marketing, advertising and so on. Let’s list these out again for clarity’s sake–

  • visakanv.com – the nexus from which everything else comes out of; a list of my best and favorite essays
  • visakanv.com/blog/ – I’m going to have content about storytelling, about writing, about book reviews, product reviews and so on.
  • visakanv.com/sg/ – to write things that contribute to discourse in Singapore, encouraging people to think more critically, to try and transcend above us-vs-them dynamics and think about what’s best for Singapore in the long term
  • visakanv.com/marketing/ – to share my experience, insights and learnings as a SaaS content marketer over the past 4 years
  • visakanv.com/1000/ – the writing project that I’m working on here. Lots of the content here will be repurposed for other sites
  • ???.com [to be revealed later] – a blog about productivity, GTD, procrastination, fitness, health

That’s a lot of stuff. It seems like a lot of stuff. I will have to prioritize. I think my biggest priority actually is still going to be the /1000/ project – I want to finish this and get it out of my system. I guess I’m going to write on the wall… okay. I just took a few minutes to write down all of the above on postits that go on my whiteboard in the study so that I can look at them every day. [1]

[1] Which got me thinking now – what else should go on my whiteboard? What should come down from it? I have a few reminders to self that I could turn into blogposts – I think it’s important to make sure that the entire whiteboard is constantly updated. Everything should be completely wiped off every so often, so that there’s an opportunity to start over from scratch. Otherwise I fall into the trap of having things just become a little too familiar, and I don’t really pay attention to them. This is not good. This is not what I want. I want things to get addressed, taken care of. I want them to be resolved. I want things to go from my Whiteboard (which is where things are played around with in an experimental, generative sort of stage) to my Things (mac app – where I come up with physical next-action tasks to follow up on). And things should then either get done or Next’d or Someday’d, and I should just keep kicking butt at whatever’s on my list. And every week or so I should step back and go, is this helping me get to where I want to go? Do I need to revise where I want to go? I’m going to be a beast this year. I’m going to contribute like mad. Let’s do this.


0634 – be sensitive, smart and strong

I wrote a tweetstorm a while ago (two years ago, wow) saying that “a man should be sensitive (to inputs from reality), smart (at making sense of reality) and strong (to effect reality)”. I rediscovered it at some point and I found myself rubbing my chin at it. It seems like quite a full picture, and I’m wondering how I measure up to that statement.

I like to think that I’m smart (at making sense of reality), but I’m not very sensitive and I’m not very strong. Those are my constraints, my bottlenecks. [1] They limit the impact of my smarts. Of the two, which is the bigger constraint?

My impulse is to say “it must be strength, I want to be stronger, I don’t feel strong enough.” But if I’m really paying careful attention, I think sensitivity is the greater constraint. [2]

I believe this to be true. I can think of more instances in which I got myself into unpleasant circumstances because of a lack of sensitivity, rather than because of a lack of strength. There are some situations in which having more strength would’ve allowed me to better handle said circumstances, but practically all of them could be averted with more sensitivity.

So – how do I become more sensitive to inputs from reality? How do I get better at knowing what is real and what’s not, what’s correct and what’s not? How do I get less quick at jumping to conclusions? I’m thinking now about @buster’s ‘thinking is hard‘ posts. I guess I just need to do all of the things that are listed in there. That’s all, no big deal 😛

Where do I start? How do I implement this? What I’ve learned personally is that you can’t do everything all at once, the way to do it is piecemeal. The way to do it is in a simplified, small, MVP sort of way. Little things that technically count in the grand scheme of things.

Where do I start, goddamnit? I think I’m making some progress just by writing a word vomit every day (or almost every day) – I’ve been doing this since the beginning of the year now. I’ve also been doing almost-daily self-reviews on Evernote, which I should then use to do weekly roundups and then monthly and quarterly roundups. It’s important to me that I get this done, because this would be the first time I’ve ever really properly done it in a consistent way.

I need to see more clearly that being more sensitive to myself and the people around me means that I’m going to become smarter and stronger in a practical sense. Which are all things that I want to be.

“Start with Why” – what’s my Why? I’m thinking now about my “boy and his puppies” short story that I once wrote. It’s silly, I’m not sure if I even have a copy lying around any more, but it drove me to tears when I wrote it while sitting at Starbucks in the central business district on a Saturday (so it was empty). I wrote it after reading a bit of Ray Bradbury’s Zen In The Art Of Writing, and something about something he said in there compelled me to just start writing something without overthinking it – and I ended up with the boy-and-puppies story. The puppies were a metaphor for my own mind – ego and id, conscious and subconscious, Me vs I, however you want to frame it.

The wolrd has disappointed me a lot in the past year and the past few years. But do I even have the right to say that? The world is simply being itself. I can only focus on myself. Have I disappointed myself? A little bit in some ways, but I have also surprised and challenged and inspired myself in other ways. I still have a lot to give, and I intend to give it. I’m thinking now about how inspired and excited I was when Obama was first elected President. The world seemed to have been just brimming with possibility and hope, that we were at the dawn of a new age, a more perfect union, and everything was going to be just dandy.

And I was of course going to be one of the benefactors of that. How nice it is, to be able to do nothing and yet enjoy all the benefits of other people’s labor – to be able to get new iPhones and Macbooks and wireless bluetooth earphones. What do I have to give in return for all of this? Just money, it seems – which I get for participating in the capitalist system that I was born into and had effectively nothing to do with.

At this point I find myself thinking – okay, so how can I give back? How can I create something? How can I do something that is useful and good? Writing is one thing that I do, but it seems woefully inadequate, at least at this juncture. But I also feel like I’m kind of ‘working blind” – I’m in a very narrow context, I’m not seeing all of the good that my work could be doing. I do believe that I have useful things to say. I just need to clean all of it up. This needs to happen in the next couple of months, and then I can publish, clean up, tidy up, freshen up, recalibrate, reorient, start over.

I just gotta be sensitive to everything.


[1] Without sensitivity, you’re wasting your smarts processing contaminated data. Without strength, your smarts get stuck in elaborate loops and cycles – right now I find myself thinking about that guy who wrote a massive, sprawling book to justify why he was going to commit suicide as a sort of public spectacle.

[2] At this point I wanted to make the case that there are ‘strength cults’ and ‘smarts cults’ but no ‘sensitivity cults’, when I realized that there are – mindfulness / meditation junkies. It’s a strange-ish thing to contemplate, because can there be such a thing as too much meditation?


0633 – slow down when responding to people (ugh fields)

There’s something a little strange about me that is a sort of bug that I want to correct. It’s kind of like “an island in a lake in an island” situation.

I generally procrastinate quite a bit, on a lot of things.

At the same time, I have a habit of getting all panicky and rushed when responding to people. This is one of my ugh fields – one of the areas in which I behave in a way that’s very impulsive, very ‘jerky’.

When we’re asking the question “how do I improve my life”, there are many different possible answers, many of which contradict one another, some of which are conditional on things that are uncertain, unclear and so on.

But I’m thinking that confronting ugh fields is one of the best ways to do it. It’s improving one’s life by cleaning up the toxic spaces, in a sense. It doesn’t presume to know what’s the right thing to do, how to allocate resources in a globally optimally way or anything like that. It’s just about removing things that trip you up.

So – one ugh field I’m happy to have conquered was involving food. I used to be terrified of handling food, probably because of some childhood hangups around mealtime and food preparation. But after I became an adult, this was a sort of really outdated, silly hangup that I had that didn’t make sense any more. So I decided that I was going to learn to cook. I’ve since learned to make pasta with minced meat, pan-fried stakes and chicken breasts and so on. I can do a pretty decent job of feeding myself with ingredients bought at a supermarket. But more importantly, I now have a sort of context in which I can continue to get better at cooking. I’m curious about buying better tools (pans, cutlery).

I’ve done the same thing with my fear of squats. I used to be strangely afraid of doing squats – mainly, I think because I was too tall to use squat racks as they are typically configured in local gyms, and I was ashamed to squat with just the bar, and I was worried that the form would be all wrong… all of those things. I got around it by literally buying my own squat rack so that I can squat at home.

So now that I’ve done it with both fitness and with food, it’s time to progress on to other things. One of it is to do with schedules and daily tracking. Accountability to self. I grew up being frustrated and terrified of timetables, bills, todo lists and tasks and so on, and so very often I just ignore those things as much as possible. I know it’s weird, but that’s just the nature of ugh fields and I have to accept that. To get past it I need to make them a highly-visible feature of my environment, and I need to make them a part of my daily routine. I think it’s especially important to carve out a substantial part of the weekend for myself every week to go through this. The next level would be to set aside time every single DAY to go through my stuff – I’m not sure why I haven’t been able to do that effectively yet, but maybe that’s just the nature of ugh fields. You need to be very strategic about it. It’s like a game of Heroes or Civilization or Starcraft – you gotta marshall your resources carefully. You have to concentrate your efforts, focus on the most important thing and get it knocked down. Secure a beachhead, and then move on bit by bit. You can’t just scattershot at everything.

The other thing is to practice meditation. Meditation often seems dull, or stupid, or a waste of time – just sitting there doing nothing. But it’s really about zooming out and getting a more global sense of perspective. It’s about getting removed from whatever situation is troubling you, at least inside your mind, and then you can see better, decide better. But meditation hasn’t quite caught on for me yet.

And now we get to what I started with, which is talking about how I deal with other people. My ugh field with other people – when people start talking to me about something, I very easily look at it through some sort of foreboding or intimidating lens. I get nervous for every single meeting that I go to, even 1-1s with my boss who I really enjoy, even though we’ve been doing this for almost 4 years. And this is a sort of global paranoia and anxiety that I have. I was going to say “low level”, but I have no real idea about what the actual level is. I want to address and resolve this anxiety and really make it my bitch. I think that’s doable, it’s just going to take a lot of smart, intelligent effort – because we’re talking about rewiring a brain that’s been wired a certain way for 20 years. So it’s got to be a sort of keyhole surgery, a very hard and deliberate approach..

I particularly want to stop freezing up when talking to people. I want to be warm and open and slow. I want to be able to take my time. I’m reminded now of my wife telling me how she saw me almost panicking when anxiously trying to get money to pay a pizza guy once. It’s like I was worried that he was going to get angry and scold me. Which is silly, because why would a pizza delivery guy scold me in any scenario, let alone one where I’m bigger and older than him? So there’s some sort of deep rooted shit there, and I need to meditate on that every day in order to change my perspective, in order to approach it differently.

That’s what I want for myself in 2017. I want to eliminate all the ugh fields that I can conceive of right now. Cook a great meal, have people over and relax in their presence, and go to meetings well-prepared without any sort of anxiety whatsoever. That’s what I want for now.


0632 – most people want quiet, not justice for others

The world is large, and complicated, and there are all sorts of people in it.

This seems to be surprisingly hard for some people to grasp.

Anyway, the reason I’m writing this is because I saw something on Imgur about how it’s become socially acceptable to be racist towards white people.

Racism is complicated, man.

It’s tempting to say that everybody’s got their own problems, everybody faces some sort of discrimination. But is that really true? And if it were true, is it really a useful statement? What are we trying to achieve, here, what are we trying to do? A lot of the time I think a lot of people just want peace and quiet. If someone’s complaining, they want the complaints to stop. (Whoa, I just surprised myself a little bit there. I’m not sure why this particular perspective never quite occurred to me in this specific context.)

Not many people really want justice for all. What they really want is quiet. They might SAY they want peace, but if peace turns out to require a lengthy, drawn-out process of engagement and behavioral change, they’d much rather just insist on quiet.
This helps to explain something that’s always confused me: when someone says something like “why must you bring up race”, “why must you be so divisive”.
Every person who’s experienced racism or sexism or some form of prejudice would really much rather never have to bring it up. Bringing it up is uncomfortable, tedious and has unknowable social costs. We’d all rather make puns and dad jokes that everyone can enjoy (or cringe at). But we only bring it up because _it is a problem_.
Many people never quite relate to this. Here’s an insultingly silly analogy that hopefully gives a slight idea: it’s like interrupting an entire lecture to announce that you need to go and pee. Most people in that situation would much rather just hold it in. Until they can’t any more.
A parent/child analogy is probably problematic, but it keeps coming to me again and again: Getting frustrated with people speaking up about racism is like getting frustrated with a child for crying. You assume that she’s crying because she wants to annoy you, wants to spoil your day, wants to make a lot noise, likes the attention. It’s a lot harder to believe that she might actually be crying because she’s in pain, she’s hurt, she needs help.
It’s been quite well established by now that people have a tendency to literally seek out comforting beliefs. (This explains victim-blaming to some degree. Many people want to believe the comforting lie that the world is fair, that bad things don’t happen to good people, so if something bad happened to you, you must’ve done something to deserve it!)

I rewatched a video earlier by Cameron Russell, the swimwear model who gave a TED talk about beauty and body image. She was quick to say that she benefited from winning a genetic lottery, and from a legacy of beauty standards and so on. She gets a free pass on things because of how she looks. And yet despite being so close to what is considered to be physical perfection, she feels insecure about her body. And she says the same is true for any group of models, despite having the thinnest thighs and so on. So people with all the advantages can still be unhappy. Perhaps deeply, profoundly unhappy, in the depths of dark-night-of-the-soul despair.

I find myself thinking now about an article about the son of a wealthy Chinese family – I can’t remember the specifics, but I think he was saying something like, life is miserable when you’re rich. Nobody sympathizes with you, everybody assumes the worst of you, you can’t trust your friends because everybody wants your money. Your parents have very high expectations of you to run the family business, to get married to someone that is good for the family (rather than necessarily good for you), and so on.

Poorer folk might say, well if you don’t like all that stuff why don’t you just walk away? Why don’t you just quit? But is that ever really a fair thing to ask of somebody? You don’t like how your countrymen treat you, leave the country! Well it’s your country too, why should you have to leave? Exit decisions make tonnes of sense in nomadic situations, but it’s really drastic and costly within tightly-meshed civilization. Maybe things will continue to change in the coming years.

Time to start wrapping up. What am I trying to say here? Most people just want peace and quiet and aren’t quite aware of just how messy, complicated and difficult the world is, and how difficult other people’s lives can be. We are all intimately aware of all the things that are difficult and painful about our own lives, but it’s not so obvious that other people are suffering too, and probably worse. I mean, if you have internet access, you probably also have clean water, food and so on and you’re doing okay.

But then and again, are the comforts of civilization actually good for us? I’m thinking now about Sebastian Junger’s points about how people who experience great social trauma collectively end up rallying together and improving their relationships with one another, and suicide rates drop, murder rates drop, people just seem better and more whole and happier. And there are all those things about how people in villages have happier relationships, a better attitude towards life in general, they’re healthier in many ways… I guess the thing is that we shouldn’t be too quick to start getting all certain about whose life is better and whose life is worse. Some things might be objectively terrible – malaria is obviously a bad thing that ought to go away. Anyway – am I even very seriously interested in figuring that stuff out? That’s the thing I think I’m beginning to get at. I think eventually you shed your BS moral posturing and come closer to your personal truth about what you really care about. I’m sure I have some moral goodness in me somewhere, to the degree that I am a social animal and all social animals care about the broader group. And I am trying to do a bunch of signalling to the “Greater Human Tribe”, because I don’t quite feel like I belong in any Minor Human Tribe. Something to think about. That’s more interesting to me than “how to save the world from malaria”. So in that regard, I’m a selfish bastard, obviously. :-p


0631 – optimize for years, not days; improve skills by learning specific new things

I missed a vomit yesterday because I was so tired and sleepy – which means that I gotta do two today. But if I just do one, that would be okay too, as long as I keep the streak going. A slight silver lining is, I do feel like I didn’t do the vomit yesterday. As in, often when I miss things or skip things, I tend to forget that I did that. But this time I did not, this time I remembered. So it’s a sign that at least the habit is building, a little bit, maybe. Too early to tell. The important thing is to get back on the wagon ASAP and keep going.

What do I want to write about… I was thinking in the shower in the morning that I wanted to write about the idea of productivity. This would be useful for another blog that I’m planning on doing. What is productivity? When did the idea originate? The word produce is latin in origin, and it means to bring forth.

My first thought is that productivity might’ve been invented by industrialization. That’s definitely where it started to get broken down into components and widgetized, in the modern supply chain sense with bottlenecks and constraints and throughput and such. I have an odd relationship with those terms – a part of me is very turned off by them, a part of me is very eager to dig deep into them and really make sense of it all. It’s funny because even wanting to solve the problem requires carving out time to solve the problem, and if you were good at carving out time for yourself, you wouldn’t have the problem.

But on further thought, surely productivity mattered before the industrial era. It would’ve mattered in the agricultural era. It would’ve mattered when it came to making tools of war. There’s probably a ton of nuance here that I’m not sensitive to, and there’s probably a lifetime’s worth of reading to be done here. So at this point I gotta zoom out and ask myself again – what am I trying to make sense of here?

Productivity. Why I care about it. Why other people care about it. Why it is a feature of our lives, and what to do about it. Is it worth it to be productive? I’ve actually really witnessed compelling arguments from both sides. Are there only two sides? I do remember being really miserable when I was a teenager who spent months and months doing very little. I would have been much happier if I had learned something, if I had grown, if I had picked up a new skill –

I’m suddenly thinking of another thought I had – which was something like, we optimize for minutes, hours and days, when we should (at least simultaneously) be optimizing for decades and years. Like, on a given day, you’re not going to make much progress learning a new skill. You’re not going to learn to play the guitar in a day, week or month. It will take several months to get semi-decent.

But on any given day, if you want to have a good day, “start learning a new skill” is not going to feature highly on it. Whether we’re talking about learning to code, learning to dance, learning to play guitar or whatever it is that you don’t currently know how to do – chances are that when you start something new, you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to face pain and discomfort. This is a cost that you have to accept. It can be slightly mitigated maybe if you have a great teacher or some sort of highly structured learning environment, but no matter what learning is going to involve some amount of mistake-making.

The thing is, each new thing that you learn becomes something powerful and useful. It becomes a new way of making sense of the world. Writing does that. Drawing does that. Filmmaking does that. Music does that. It gives you ways to express yourself.

When you’re starting out, ‘self-expression’ is not quite a possible thing, because you don’t quite know how to even operate the dang instrument in your hands. It’s all noise.

And what is the self, anyway, but a bunch of noise…?

Not sure where I’m going with that. I’m trying to visualize– a person, which is a sort of contained blob, intefacing with an instrument, which is a sort of series of switches – a string, a tube, some sort of object that responds in a variable way depending on how you tinker with it. And then you have an audience, I suppose, whether it’s just the musician alone, or some group of people. I’m guess talking about the tree of talking now – the communication process.

200 words to tie this all together – so what if becoming productive is something like getting good at playing a musical instrument, where the instrument is your life? The instrument is your body, your hands, your mind… does that work? There’s still something a little missing from the picture here…

I guess I could try to put everything through a musical lens and then get it back out. What do I want for myself as a musician? I’m probably never going to be a professional musician, but I’d like music to continue to be a part of my life. But so what does that mean? I have guitars in my house, I have access to music on my laptop via the Internet. I don’t want to have a ridiculously rigorous, structured approach to ‘getting more musical’, I want it to be fun. And yet at the same time, I feel like my current approach of “let’s just leave the things around and see what happens” hasn’t quite been working out for me. By that I mean, it hasn’t quite been fun. Fun isn’t just noodling around, fun is learning new things, being able to do more than I was able to do last month, last quarter, last year. To do that I need to seek out specific things to do. Learn a particular song that I don’t know how to play. I should always have at least 1, up to maybe 3-5 things that I’m trying to learn. This is a bit of difficulty, but getting it right and locking it in will expand my abilities, which is very life-affirming.


0630 – step into your ugh fields bit by bit

Let’s pick up where we left off.

// Who did you have to be?

I had to be compliant enough to do as I was told, to follow along without asking questions, and yet smart enough and disciplined enough to do well academically. I was none of the above. The first 10 years or so of my life were pretty lovely, and I can’t complain about any of that. If I could’ve changed something, I would’ve tried to introduce a bit more of some sort of discipline, some rigor, habit, routine, experiment more with swimming, cooking, trying different things. But that’s not a complaint so much as a wish of sorts.

// Why are you blocked?

Like I said, I was neither compliant nor disciplined. I got really good at getting in my own way. I’m thinking now about how I’m capable of playing video games or watching movies for hours and hours long after everyone else is too tired to continue. I’m trying to channel that right now into my writing – I’m writing this word vomit at 2:47am when I ought to be sleeping.

That said, I’ve committed myself to writing a word vomit a day. So what I need to do, to avoid following in the footsteps of lesser men, is to avoid using the word vomit as an explanation for why I’m not sleeping. Sleeping early and sleeping well is one of my highest intended priorities. But to say “i’m not sleeping because I’m writing a word vomit” is myopic. Why didn’t I write the word vomit earlier? Because I was procrastinating. Because I was looking at random nonsense that wasn’t actually relevant to my main concerns in life. What was I doing? I was looking up random strangers on the Internet. A while before that I was going through my bookmarks – and yes, I did update my bookmarks very well, removing links that are no longer relevant, making existing links more parseable – I did make an hour or two of progress on that. But is that my top priority? No! My top priorities are – writing word vomits and sleeping early.

So the question is – why isn’t my behavior aligned with my priorities? And what do I need to do to close that gap? What are the possibilities?

One possibility is that my priorities aren’t my real priorities, they’re just goodfeels priorities. Escapist priorities. Like having grand, vague goals that can never be achieved.

The way to fix that is to make the priorities really precise. So I have – “publish one word vomit every day” and “sleep earlier and better”. I should replace that with “publish one word vomit as early as possible each day – first thing in the morning”, and “start preparing for sleep at 10pm and get in bed at 11pm every day unless there is an emergency”. I seem to have had some resistance to this for a while. I think because it seems boring and limiting in the short term. Like, why should I have to ‘limit’ myself like that?

As I write this down, it’s obviously silly. It’s obvious intellectually that self-discipline, self-binding, commitment devices – these things bring more freedom. But it’s not so obvious in the short run. In the short run it just looks like pain and frustration, or boredom, or limitations – and it’s an ‘ugh field’ for me. (At this point, I recalled that I once wrote a blogpost about ugh fields, and went looking for it – and funnily enough, the last time I thought about it, I was also writing a word vomit at 3:25am in the morning. It’s 3:02am now. I’ll be done in about 5 minutes or so, so at least I’m making some sort of progress, maybe. Who knows, everything is an illusion.)

Okay, so ugh fields. I need to walk into them. I need to walk into my fear and my discomfort. And I need to take pride in making myself a priority. Take pride in sleeping early because it gives me a clear mind to take on the world. Take pride in writing early because that’s one task done in the morning, one task gotten out of the way, and like Admiral McRaven says, that’s the beginning of a chain reaction. That allows me to do one more little thing, and one more.

What would I want to do next? I’ve learned by now that it’s not helpful for me to try and take on 20 things all at once the moment I feel like I want to be more productive. I have to do one thing first. So let’s say, right now, I finish this word vomit. Then I shower and go to bed. Then I wake up in the morning. I have to do another word vomit as early as I can. Once that is done it will be time to go through my todo list and then elaborate on each thing to turn it into a next action. And then it would be to clean out my email, and follow up on the things that I owe people. I need to make that a part of a daily routine that I really enjoy, and maybe tie it to something like a coffee or something pleasurable so that I really enjoy it. I wrote about this problem in 2015, and I’m writing about it again in 2017. I do NOT want to be writing about it in 2018 or 2019, so the buck stops here. I have been doing regular reviews of my days so far in Evernote – not every single day is perfectly captured, but the habit has been rolling over and it’s been good.

I’m serious about making this work. I really want it to work. I really want to get good at it. I’ve learned to cook for myself, at least a couple of dishes with a couple of different inputs. I’ve learned to squat and deadlift. I’ve bench pressed 60kg and more, which used to seem impossible when I was younger. I know I can break my limits. I know I can become stronger. I will become stronger!


0629 – remember to go upstream

I just re-watched Tony Robbins: I am not your guru. I’m not sure if I wrote my thoughts the first time around, but here they are the second time around. I think Tony is pretty legit. I don’t think he’s legit for everyone, but I don’t think anybody can be legit for everyone either. I think he’s legit to his tribe, to his people. That’s the best you can ever do, anyway. You put out a clear signal so that your people can follow it back to you. That’s what he’s done, and that’s why he has this great staff that’s so committed and focused to contributing, and that’s why he draws so many people to him (who are then so nurturing and helpful to one another).

I’m trying to model the questions he’d have asked me.

// Why are you here?

I’m here because I feel like I’m blocked.

// Why do you feel blocked?

I feel like I could be doing more things with my life, like I could be moving faster, contributing more, shedding old bullshit, changing more. I AM doing these things, but progress has been really slow. It feels like I’ve made a tiny crack in a big dam, and now there’s water trickling out. I need to break the dam altogether. I’ve never done this before. I believe it’s doable but I haven’t done it yet.

// What is the dam? What’s blocking you?

You know, I’ve done a LOT of reflecting on this, but I really don’t have a straight answer. It seems like the answer changes depending on my mood or my circumstances. I guess the problem is that I don’t have a strong frame, then. The problem is that I allow myself to be swept up in all these currents. A part of me enjoys it. But another part of me knows – a deeper part, maybe – knows that I can’t live like that.

// Why is your frame weak?

I don’t know. How do you have a strong frame? Nobody taught me how to have a strong frame. Few people in my life could be described as examples of people with strong frame – and with the exception of my boss and a colleagues, I found ways to dislike or despise anybody with a strong frame. At least, I did when I was younger. I hated authority figures, I hated teachers, parents, all that sort of thing. I just wanted to be left alone to my own devices, to be free to do whatever.

But I also recognise that when people didn’t leave me be, it was because they didn’t trust me to be left alone, and there’s a sort of love in that. People don’t want me to end up a burden on my family, or on society, some derelict hobo just lounging around doing nothing.

I have to earn the right to be left alone to my own devices. There’s a responsibility there, a “price of admission” that I need to pay. I haven’t fully, properly internalised this and I should reflect on it more.

// Whose love did you crave the most?

My siblings would probably unanimously say that I was the favourite child of my parents. And I suppose they’re right. I always assumed that I would have my mother’s affection. My dad’s too, in his own way, but my dad wasn’t so warm and sentimental. I don’t know. I don’t actually know my parents nearly as well as I assume I might. My dad’s a bit of a reckless man, a bit impulsive, a bit of a Clint Eastwood type. I don’t know the specifics of the challenges he faced when he was younger, but I imagine he was ambitious. I think he wanted to be a wealthy businessman who could show off, grant favours and things like that. He was the sort of guy who would go to court over a parking ticket and then argue his case. A bit of a rascal, a bit of a mischievous type. He would’ve been a joker. It’s sad to think on hindsight I suppose that I never fully got to see that side of him – as we never quite get to see who our parents are before they become our parents.

Anyway – I guess I would’ve craved his love more. He was the worldlier one, it seemed.

// Who did you have to be for your father?

I can’t remember the specific of how it felt back then, but vaguely overall I think my dad wanted a bit of a trophy kid – someone who would do really well academically and then end up a lawyer or some sort of bigshot. He was definitely thrilled when I made it into the GEP, and definitely upset when I was asked to leave. And he wouldn’t have any of it when I suggested maybe going to Poly instead of JC. And I’m recalling now that there was some point where he was very persistent in trying to persuade me to take a military scholarship of some kind. So clearly there’s something there about what he wanted for me that I never quite fully articulated – I mean, I saw it as something to run away from, or run circles around, and it didn’t occur to me then to sit and try and make sense of it all. But it makes sense – my dad’s a bit of a smartass who likes to run his mouth. He would’ve been prone to making strong claims and statements… he would’ve wanted sons who were driven, high-functioning, accomplished and so on.

But one of the tragedies of life maybe is that it’s so easy to get in the way of the things that we want. So we end up stifling the very thing that we want to have. That’s a common loop that I seem to run into.

// Who did you have to be?

It was a sort of contradiction – I had to be a trophy kid, and at the same time I had to be moderately sociable, and not a total moron. He’d mock me for some things in a subtle way – like how I had odd eating habits, and when I was young that was always a source of embarrassment for me, I think. Having “dietary restrictions” in the form of “sorry, I won’t eat that, it looks gross.”


0628 – review your stuff hyper-regularly and do a little bit every day

Today was an interesting day in terms of productivity. I woke up later than I’d have liked, and spent a bit of time just lounging around. And then I got around to doing some drilling work in the house – I moved a couple of whiteboards (a large one from the gym to the study, and a small one from my bedroom to the gym). I also doubly-secured the whiteboard in my living room (which was ‘flappy’ because it was hanging off of two screws – I drilled in a couple more screws at the bottom to secure it). And I drilled in a new hand towel holder in the kitchen. All of that was really satisfying, though it took longer than I’d have liked. The drill bits are getting a little worn, and I should replace them. I particularly enjoyed having my Jaybird X3’s with me, because it was possible to listen to music in-ear while drilling. Listening to music over the speakers doesn’t help because the drill overpowers it, and wearing regular earphones is a little dicey because you don’t want any wires dangling off of you while you’re doing drilling work.

Afterwards, my wife and I spent some time in our study. We had just cleaned it out, so we put all of our books on the floor. It was quite an interesting experience, and one I wish we had experimented with earlier. It’s something that Marie Kondo recommends – put all your stuff out on the floor, and then touch it with your hands and see if it sparks joy. I didn’t exactly follow that formula – rather I used different colored post-its to sort them into different categories – books I love, books I WANT to read, books I’d LIKE to want to read, and “#shrug”. I’m eliminating a lot of the #shrug books, as well as many of the “I’d like to want to read this” books. I might give some of them away, and maybe keep the top 20-30% of the “want to want to read” books.

I found myself thinking that there’s definitely utility in going through things over and over again. I used to feel bad about this, and so there would be a considerable length of time between each review. If I wait too long, I’d have forgotten a lot of whatever it is that caught my attention and interest, and so each new session ends up feeling like I”m just re-doing what I had done the last time. And it feels very wasteful, like there’s no progress. I suppose a close analogy would be – it’s like going to the gym once every 3 months and feeling really unfit and weak each time, like you didn’t make any progress and like you shouldn’t have bothered at all. Your feelings and observations are correct, but the conclusion is misplaced. You SHOULD have bothered, you just should’ve bothered in much smaller amounts at a much higher frequency. This is what I want to get better at.

(I’m racing against the clock with this word vomit – I have 3% left on my Macbook battery.)

What is it that I want to remind myself of here? Heh – I want to remind myself to revisit everything – all the basics – at a much higher frequency. Ideally I should be doing it every single day. Every single morning and every single evening. There are only a few basic things in life that I need to care about. Breathing, posture, hydration, diet, sleep, exercise, social relations, work done, todo list, goals, chores, bills and so on… it can sometimes seem like too much to bear, but when I’m writing myself a word vomit every day, it becomes clearer that actually it only seems too much because I haven’t sufficiently broken things down into bite-sized components that I can deal with at my own time, at my own leisure.

Also I just simply have this silly habit of taking way too long to start doing anything. The way around this might be to just circle around the task itself – and have a sort of ritual or routine for the circling. I find myself thinking now about how I instinctively do a bunch of fast, deep breaths before doing heavy squats. There’s something about it that calms me down, that seems to give me the strength I need. I wonder if I could just do it without – like just breathe normally and start squatting. I think it could be done, but a part of me feels like my core might not be braced tightly enough (I’m pulling this stuff out of my ass) and I might get injured or something. I guess I could experiment with lower weights and see how it goes. I don’t know.

Anyway the point of that example is to help me think about how to act on other things. I think the system I use for working out should translate quite well to doing work tasks, for instance. I write down what I’m going to do, on the whiteboard. I block out a period of time – 30 minutes, an hour. I play music. And I don’t do anything else. And afterwards I reward myself in some way. That’s exactly what I should be doing with work. I should have a list and I should use that list to measure my progress, and I should use my progress to reward myself – both directly (as in, get pleasure from seeing a visible chart of progress) and indirectly (“I’ve done X, I’ve earned that Starbucks drink”).

So to recap, today’s reminders are – revisit your shit over and over again so that it remains fresh – that way you can pick up where you left off and actually start exploring new territory. Set aside a short amount of time to do it. You don’t need to spend hours and hours on a thing each time you do it. Just pay attention to how it feels right now, to have published one word vomit per day of 2017. You’re going to hit 10 soon. Each new milestone will feel great. No zero days. A little bit every day. Done is better than perfect. C’mon!