0662 – safe spaces

I have an essay swirling around in my mind about ‘safe spaces’ and I need to get it out of my system, but I can’t seem to talk about it in a simple, succinct way.

Let me try. So… some people think that safe spaces have a coddling effect. And maybe that’s true. And the examples are pretty lurid and fun to mock.

But the inverse is also a huge problem. ‘Nasty spaces’, or ‘free-for-all’ spaces. (I think there should be a better phrase). Toxic spaces. Basically open, anarchistic areas, “free market” areas, where anything goes.

The wishful ideal is that the freedom is intrinsically good, and the public will use it to engage in civil, mature debate, build things and make progress in an enlightened, open way.

The reality of it is a lot uglier and messier. Without some sort of ‘house rules’, the place ends up catering to the lowest common denominator. The gangsters and drunks storm the joint and mess shit up. Moderates get silenced by whoever is willing to be most destructive, most violent, most ugly. Online, for example, you can shut people up by doxxing them in a bad-faith way. This is fun for the bullies and assholes (because it gives them a sense of power), but thoroughly damaging to the community. Each time a good person leaves, the community becomes a marginally less good place for everyone. And the next best person leaves. And so on.

(This sort of happened to me on /r/singapore a few months ago, which hit me really hard and forced me to reconfigure my attitude towards open public spaces on the Internet – a very painful reconfiguration for someone who grew up dreamy-eyed on the Internet. But probably much less painful than for say, any woman who’s received all sorts of messed up shit from creepy dudes online.)

The bullies of the Internet have a scripted defense for anybody who tries to talk about this. If you’re being picked on for your race or gender, then you’re playing one of those cards, you’re overly sensitive, you’re making it all about yourself, you’re an attention whore. If you’re trying to stand up for somebody else, you’re a White Knight, trying to virtue-signal and get points for being such a good, nice person. You can’t really win either fight. And those fights are really just a distraction – you’re probably better off just ignoring it and focusing on trying to get to emphasize how toxic the environment is. (Or getting out of there, for your own sanity.)

But what the bullies don’t seem to realize – or care about – is that driving away the good people makes the entire place shittier. And this is one of the greatest tragedies. You get deprived of different perspectives, you get deprived of interesting stories, and it’s very hard to be cognizant of what you have lost each time a person-shaped Universe leaves and never comes back.

I’m most familiar with this phenomenon online, but it’s really a human thing. It happens with groups of friends, cliques, groups, etc. I think it’s the problem with sexism in the workplace. And the whole “ugh, why does everybody need safe spaces” response is rather mistaken. The problem is that many if not all environments are toxic to degrees that existing members do not recognize. And there are costs to that toxicity. It’s kind of like being a smoker who says “I’m coughing like mad but apart from that it’s not a big deal”. You just learn to adjust. And if you CAN adjust, then you’re one of the survivors. You can pat yourself on the back for being ‘tough’, but I think it’s much more interesting to focus on what you’re missing.

Anyway, here’s the paradox I’m trying to outline – most people’s dislike of Safe Spaces has to do with a dislike of being restrained. But all the best conversation, the most interesting information (money, debt, family issues, children, doubts, etc) doesn’t come up UNLESS you can create an environment conducive to it.

In a way, refusing to respect that is more restrictive than anything else. You can go anywhere you like, and say whatever you like, but nobody will ever open up to you. In a way, it’s kind of a dystopian, Black-Mirror-esque jail – the entire world around you learns to ostracize you in plain sight.

So – what is to be done? What do you do when you realize this?

I think the first thing to be done is to decide to protect the vulnerable. And the moment I typed that out I thought, “shit, that sounds like coddling”. But there’s totally a difference. Let’s try to outline that.

Think about parenting, as an analogy. You don’t want to be an overprotective parent who controls what your child sees, what she does, who she can hang out with, etc. You might even want to gently challenge her to try things that she’s unfamiliar with and uncomfortable with, because you believe she’ll enjoy it. (This is obviously a push-pull thing that you’ll have to negotiate over time, and you will make some mistakes. I am not a parent. But you get the idea.)

AT THE SAME TIME – you want your child to feel confident and comfortable reaching out to you. You want her to feel safe coming to you and telling you her uncertainties and her doubts. This will make you a better parent. This will make your child a stronger, happier, healthier child.

Of course, you’re not the parent of the whole world. Most of the time, you’re a peer. But the same fundamentals apply. You don’t want to coddle your friends with bullshit – you want to be honest with them. About what’s going on, what you see, etc. And yet you don’t want to mock and insult them. You want them to feel comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. (I’m thinking now of the Loyalty Missions in Mass Effect 2. Some of the most badass people in the galaxy, and going through difficult times and talking about their feelings with one another made them stronger, not weaker.)

There’s a difference between coddling and nurturing. We can nurture people to be strong. And we should, so that they may use their strength to protect and nurture others in turn. Not insulate. Not coddle. Nurture. Empower. Embolden. It can be done.

 

0661 – make books a part of your life again

And now we’re on to the third and final vomit of the day. It’s 1210am on a Sunday morning. And I have to admit this feels good. It feels good to get something out of the way. I could make this my life’s mission – to do things early and get them out of the way. Because I never did that when I was a child. I always chose the dark playground first. Which you can never fully enjoy either because you know that you have work in the back of your mind. And I always told myself, “But there will always be more work!” And it’s true. I’ve written 2 vomits, and I’m about to write a 3rd, and there will still be 339 word vomits left to write after I’m done with this. And yet. And yet I’m already starting to feel a little better inside. I’m starting to feel “hey I can do this”, “hey I’m a good person for looking out for myself and my goals”. I don’t yet deserve to slack off for the rest of the day – after this I think I’m going to hit the gym to , and then I’m going to get started on some real work.

The point that I want to internalise is this – you don’t need to get everything done in order to feel good about yourself. You just need to have done enough for the day. And your subconscious does seem to generally be smart enough to know what is ‘enough for the day’. You can reevaluate and modify your idea about what is ‘enough’ later on, but in the interim, you do physically, in your body, know the difference between a day well spent and a day not. And it’s really only about 4 hours of work, I believe. But those 4 hours have to be focused, un-distracted, applied hard and heavy towards the things that matter.

This is still counter-intuitive to me despite me reflecting on it over and over again. I started writing my first vomit today at 1130 am. It’s now 1215am. It’s been 45 minutes. So it seems I’m averaging about 20 minutes per vomit. That means I’m committing myself to an hour a day. Is that a big commitment? It seems reasonable, considering the amount of time I usually spend dicking around on the internet everyday – that’s probably about 2 hours a day at least. A bunch of it is spent on commutes, which seems reasonable, but that time could really be spent reading. I know that reading books is kind of energising, and reading social media is kind of exhausting. So I think I should really change my behaviour on that front. Now that’s a 4th principle waiting to happen. What are the principles again?

* Publish 3 word vomits every day to demonstrate your commitment to yourself as a serious writer
* Publish these first thing in the morning so you aren’t worried about them for the rest of the day, and so you can sleep early
* Sleep early because being cognitively alert is great, and early mornings rule (good for writing!)

The 4th one would be – when you’re commuting, make sure you’re either reading or writing. In an ‘extreme’ case, if I write 3 word vomits in the morning, then write 1 on the way to work and 1 on the way home, that’s 5 word vomits per weekday. That’s maybe a bit much. I don’t know. Let’s stick to 3 for now and keep it going for a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I also want to think about my reading habits. I have like a hundred books in my study – probably more. Almost definitely more. And I want to read almost all of them. This reading is not happening. So what is going on here? Do I want to read, or do I just want to want to read? Well I picked up a couple of books a couple of days ago with the intent of getting rid of them, and before I got rid of them I felt that it was only fair to just riff through them a little – and in the process of that riffing I found them fascinating and I really wanted to read them all the way through. (Letters to Thinkers, and the Letters of Vincent Van Gogh – both books that I thought I’d be quite comfortable getting rid of).

If I were really forced to get rid of them, I would, but otherwise I suppose I like having them around as some sort of indefinite option. “If I ever feel like reading Van Gogh’s letters…” – but that feeling has not come to me randomly since I got the book,w probably about 5 or 6 years ago. Why? Because I do not make time to read. It’s funny. If I go to the library, I’m quite likely to pick up a whole bunch of books and then try to start reading all of them at once – and ultimately be foiled because there simply isn’t enough time. At some point I racked up a massive library fine (well massive for when I was a teenager – about $30. I paid it since) and I could no longer borrow new books. And even now the idea of going to a library to borrow books feels a bit indulgent or silly, knowing that I have so many books at home.

But I used to have books at home AND library books, and the great thing about library books were the deadlines – you’d have to return them or pay a fine. So there was an urgency involved with library books. Books you own feel different. They’re old souls that you can get comfortable with over years and years. But I haven’t accumulated the books in my home library through slow and careful consideration. I bought a ton of them at a library book sale for $2 each, and other similar events. There’s a place near my parents’ where people simply leave old books for others to take. I’ve taken a bunch. I used to almost always take something overtime I visited, and it was one of the things I looked forward to when visiting.

I guess I’m starting to get a glimpse of what my life is like without social media and constant internet urgency. I do miss a life of reading books. There’s sort of depth that you lose yourself into when reading books that isn’t quite the same when you’re opening 20 tabs in chrome or swiping on your phone. There’s something about that physical action of sitting with a book that I really enjoyed. And I’m going to make more time for it. Should I make time for it today? Well – since I’ve already written my 3 word vomits for the morning in the morning, I suppose I could read in bed tonight before going to sleep. That sounds like a wonderful plan.

* write 3 word vomits first thing in the morning
* sleep early
* read a book before sleeping

Let’s keep this simple for now.

 

0660 – acknowledge the monkey-mind

This will be word vomit 0660 and I’m getting started on it on a Sunday morning at 1150am. Now this is starting to feel good. A part of me is tempted to go downstairs and get some coffee, but I think I’m just going to focus on getting the writing done first. I want to do 3 vomits every morning. This is the second of today’s series. It’s like working out. I’m on my second set. I want to complete 3 sets every day. It’s just the commitment that I’ve made to myself as a writer, and it will allow me to breathe a little easier, knowing that one part of my life is a little less full of shit. Then once I make this a foothold, I can systematically reduce bullshit elsewhere in my life. Having written 1.1 vomits so far, I’m now thinking about how I’d like to work out after this is done. Isn’t it funny how that works? Admiral McRaven talked about this in his commencement speech, when talking about the virtue of making your bed. It’s just one small task that, when completed, gets the ball rolling, and gives you the confidence you need to believe and know that you can do another. And another. I have successfully written a word vomit in the morning without any distractions, without doing anything else (apart from feeding my cats and going to pee). If I can do that, what else can I do? I can write another one? Sure.

My overthinking drive kicks in at this point and says things like, “why don’t you just keep writing? Maybe you could do 40 in a single day!” Slow down, Satan. My record for most word vomits done in a single day, if I remember correctly, is 15. (Which were those again? I’m tempted to go check them out. I shall add a todo.)

But see, this is the odd way in which my brain tends to work. It races to extremes. It tries to get excited about doing something big, something bold, something all at once. [1] But I’ve been learning over the years that if you want to really do something good, something really big and bold, you’re going to have to do it in bits and pieces day after day after day. This seems boring and disappointing to the monkey-child mind, but it’s actually quite liberating, interesting and exciting to the adult mind. I want to grow up, I want to be a full adult, I want to be mature and respectable as a person so that I can be childlike and irreverent in my work. I keep saying those things because it feels good to say it, but the point is that I need to do the work required in order to achieve it.

(Here I found myself thinking about something somebody tweeted about the recent archetype of ‘former teenage rebels in positions of responsibility’ in media, and I was tempted to look it up.)

What’s next? I guess this vomit is now about the nature of my monkey mind and how it really jumps around, from thing to thing, looking for shiny things, looking for distractions. And I can’t really begrudge it for that, but I have to acknowledge that that’s how it is. Sometimes I wonder what life would be like with a child. I need to wake up to this idea that I DO live with a child – who lives inside my own brain. Sometimes it throws tantrums. I think we’ve generally improved upon our relationship in the past few years, but I’d like to really take it to the next level. I’d like to have one of those trust-fall type relationships, where we can both really trust teach other to take care of things because life is just so goddamn exhausting when you can’t trust yourself.

I need to make this a part of my reviews. [todo added]

How shall we end this? The central point here is akin to what Tim Urban described in Wait But Why’s post about procrastination. It’s all about knowing and understanding the monkey. And being kind to the monkey. Loving the monkey. And yet not entirely indulging the monkey. That’s called being an adult. That’s the textbook definition of growing up. Nobody else can look inside your head and see precisely how crazy your monkey is. I think I have an unusually crazy monkey. My monkey’s like 90th or 95th percentile crazy. But life isn’t a comparative suffering game. And there are benefits to having a crazy monkey once you know how to manage it right. It’s a source of creativity and insight. You just need to keep him from sniffing glue. That’s not too hard, right? That’s not too hard at all.

[1] “Let’s write 40,000 words in a day.” First of all, is that possible? I know it takes me about 15-20 minutes to do 1,000. So let’s say that’s 3,000/hr. 10 hours would be 30,000. It would take 14 hours. Yeah, 40,000 is probably possible but I would have to be seriously strategic about it. I would have to have my meals all planned out, I would have to have no distractions, and I would have to have all my cues set up so that I’d be able to to go through them systematically, without wasting time in between thinking things like “oh, but what do I write next?”

Hypothetically then it’s possible to write a novel in a day if you plan everything out just so. But of course it’ll take many more days to do all the editing and so on.

I wonder now if I’d like to try and finish my word vomit project with a bang, maybe in the last 50,000 stretch. I could live-stream it or something. That actually would be pretty cool. I would probably literally injure my fingers from all that typing though. Which, again, oddly sounds a little fun to me. I’m a weird person that way.

 

0659 – make commitments to yourself and keep them

So I’m trying something new today. I slept later than I intended last night, so it’s now 1130am. I remember that the last thing I decided last night was that I should make writing my “first thing in the morning” task. And to do that, I realise that it’s necessary not just to start writing when I wake up, but also to avoid any possible distractions prior to it. I know that my primary distraction is the Internet. As I’m writing this, I know that I have new things on Facebook and Twitter just “waiting for me”. And I’m thinking now about how liberating it actually was when I was on holiday in India and I didn’t have to bother with those things at all. Social media is really a hell of a drug.

So we’re back in the territory of principles and preferences. Should I have to “deny themselves” (see how language is leaking meaning again?) something like social media in the morning? I don’t want to say that there’s a definitive answer, but hey – I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t turned off my wifi and then closed my Telegram app, I would be scrolling through a bunch of newsfeed right now. Once I’m already scrolling through Facebook, it’s pretty easy to then open another tab for reddit. And then I can spend hours on that stuff, which is how lots of my time just slips away.

This isn’t intrinsically a bad thing if that’s how I want to live my life. I think adding too much guilt and shame to some set of nations makes the problem worse because there’s some sort of subconscious rebellion going on. It’s okay to live one’s life just coasting along and checking Facebook and Reddit every so often. The thing is, it’s becoming clear to me that I can’t do that AND simultaneously develop a large body of work in a surprisingly short amount of time. If I spend my social media hours writing, I would’ve been done with this project by now and I would’ve moved on to the next stage in my writing path/trajectory. Wouldn’t that have been cool? I think so.

Here I find that I’m in the same sort of dilemma as I was as a student – if I had studied hard and diligently instead of picking around, I would have had life open up its opportunities to me. I could’ve travelled abroad to study, met all sorts of other interesting, driven people, and things would’ve been so different. I’m good at rationalising my current position and synthesising happiness. But I don’t think I want to continue using this skill set for the rest of my life. I don’t want to just invent stories after the fact about how things are really quite okay. Because I can already say now that life will be “really quite okay” no matter how it goes. I could end up in jail for some reckless accident and then spend the rest of my life reading and writing in jail and that would still be “unfortunate but quite okay”. If I lead a moderate family life – have a couple of children with my wife,continue working on my career path for the next 30 years without trying anything different or new, maybe just learn to cook a few more dishes, and read a few more books… that would be quite okay, too. I mean, there are lots of people who haven’t even made it as far as I have, getting killed at 17 or 19 or getting childhood cancer. Not everybody gets to live a full life like Lemmy or Lee Kuan Yew or Oliver Sacks or Daniel Dennett.

(I just felt myself tempted to open Facebook. But the wifi is off. Interesting catch. These things are pretty scary when you really get down to it.)

Now I’m thinking about how Oliver Sacks is no longer in this world. Prince and Lemmy and David Bowie. It’s an interesting thing, death. Michael Jackson has been dead for some time. Lee Kuan Yew has been dead for two years. if you enlisted into Singapore National Service on the day he died, you would have ORD’d a couple of days ago. Two years ago I was in Cebu with my friend Damien when we found out. Life definitely seems to move at a faster pace as you get older. Though maybe there are some variations. Time didn’t even really seem “real” when I was in primary school. I didn’t quite consider it. You had a birthday every year which was something you looked forward to, and new year’s, and holidays and such, but that seemed to be about it. As someone on reddit said – the Christmases you experienced from 6 to 12 were just pure happiness with no baggage, no guilt, no shame, no worries or cares, just magical. Something like that. But that isn’t something we should be yearning for (although we all probably secretly will – there’s a hero’s journey aspect to it, there’s a Freudian aspect to it.)

[2nd FB impulse]

It’s interesting how meta and recursive everything gets, and how challenging it is to ever come up with a set of points that adequately reflects this, without turning itself into a sludgey mess. I think it’s a challenge I would like to attempt to solve in my lifetime. Just for fun, out of curiosity. I do think it can be done with words. Or maybe in film, or animation. I need to watch that anime with the crazy cuts. Maybe I need to experiment with word vomits with crazy cuts. Which would be an interesting sort of ‘full circle’ – my early vomits were about me trying to talk about many different things to fill up the space. Along the way I tried to focus and stick to the matter at hand, which I think I’ve gotten reasonably decent at doing. And now I’m thinking about how I can bring up multiple things to talk about the same thing. It’s an evolution. I’m thinking of Dave Chappelle’s standup now, where he told multiple stories while also telling 4 little stories about the times he met OJ Simpson. It was just a clever, interesting bit of structure. One of the Ender’s Game sequels did that too, by using bits of a conversation between two characters as introductions to chapters. It makes me realise, as I’m writing this, that something seemingly straightforward and simple can be made interesting based on how you pace it, how you set it up, how you tell it. I don’t think I quite appreciated that enough as a creator. And it really reveals that even though I’ve spent so much time writing words, I haven’t spent any time telling stories at all. I should start doing standup. I should start doing video. And I should start writing shitty fiction.

 

0657 + 0658 – identify your principles by examining your behavior patterns

What are my principles?

A bunch of my colleagues were chatting about our company values and it was an interesting discussion – some of us have been around since before we sat down to articulate them, and others have joined later on and encountered them as though they were always there. It was interesting to talk about why we came up with them in the first place, and how we were hesitant to codify them at the start, and how they’ve since actually been useful in running the company because they help us evaluate decisions that have been made and so on.

(The important thing to making this work is to be able to evaluate past decisions according to the stated values, celebrate good examples, and evaluate bad examples. A company’s values are not what it says they are, but what it prioritizes, what it rewards. There is utility in having your actual values and stated values be aligned. If they are misaligned, then there are costs. There’s the minor cost of carrying around a bunch of meaningless phrases that don’t mean anything, and the more major cost of everyone now doubting the truth-value of everything else that is said in the organization.)

Which brings me to thinking about my own personal values and principles. I prefer the word ‘principles’ to ‘values’, because the latter is quite a loaded phrase with all these moral implications. Principles is an easier term to work with. They’re the fundamental, axiomatic assumptions we make about how to do things. Ask me what my values are, and honestly I have no idea where to begin. I’ll probably make something up based on whatever is recent in my memory. Ask me what my principles are, and I think my mind is naturally led to more rigorous territory. But still not nearly as rigorous as I think I’d like.

Everybody has principles whether they realise them or not, whether they articulate them or not. “I have no principles” is still a system – you’ll still almost always have more things to do than you can actually get done, so you’re always going to have to be making trade-offs. You might just not be aware that you’re making these trade-offs, maybe because you’re attending to whatever is most urgent, whatever is noisiest or scariest, or whatever is most fun or easy. Or maybe (this is highly improbable, in my opinion) you’re Truly Random about how you prioritise things.

If you examine a history of behaviour – whether a person’s behaviour, or an organization’s – you will almost definitely find patterns. (Your pattern-recognition system itself is likely biased, because humans are wired to recognise patterns even when they aren’t there, so you have to be self-reflexive and consider whether the patterns you observe are actually there, or cherry-picked, or imagined.) But you will almost definitely find real patterns, because it’s staggeringly difficult for any person or group of persons to be truly random. People are creatures of habit. Think of any old friend that you have, and how you may have had the same conversation with them dozens of times. Think of your own set of internal thoughts. Most people (myself included) have a surprisingly small number of thoughts. There’s a great quote by Christopher Alexander about how “If I consider my life honestly, I see that it is governed by a certain very small number of patterns of events which I take part in over and over again.”

Let’s recap what I’m trying to say here. Most people can reduce their lives into a surprisingly small number of little patterns. If you examine these patterns of events and behaviours, you should be able to identify trade-offs that are made repeatedly. These repeated tradeoffs are indicative of preferences, or principles. Now, the phrase ‘preference’ is a bit loaded. There are people who repeatedly do things that they say they hate. And they look like they’re suffering, like it’s very unpleasant, and they seem really tired, guilty, ashamed, all of those things. But if they do it over and over again, then they have a ‘preference’ for it. It could be that they are not aware of other options, or that they don’t believe that other options exist, or if they do exist, they seem impossible, or if they seem possible, it still seems too difficult or complicated. For example, for a long time I had an aversion to the kitchen. The kitchen was an ‘ugh field’ for me. If my wife was in the kitchen, and she called to me to help her, I would literally ignore her, or say something like “yup, coming” and then not move. You could say that I had a preference for not-cooking. An aversion to cooking. Or I preferred eating takeout, which is typically unhealthier.

As I write this, it occurs to me that language makes this a little more complicated than it has to be. Language is very loaded with meaning that isn’t always intended. I just spent a seemingly unnecessary amount of time trying to work around the word ‘preference’. But really all I’m trying to say is… when it comes to patterns of behaviour, people do behave in startlingly mechanical ways. I mean… animals can be incredibly mechanic. One of the things that often blows my mind is seeing my cats groom themselves aggressively after being startled. It’s self-soothing behaviour. Humans do the same thing too, with junk food or internet distractions and notifications and whatnot. I remember reading a passage in Lives of a Cell where Lewis Thomas described how some insect would perform some act with mathematical precision – and if you moved the object, it would then repeat the action indefinitely for as long as you could be bothered to do it.

I’m now thinking of something else, about how humans are blessed and cursed with fuzzy minds and fuzzy thoughts – evolutionary ‘mistakes’ that turned out to have some seeming biological advantage. (This is still yet to be seen, we may destroy ourselves yet. Or we may spread life beyond Earth. Which, in turn, is not obviously a good thing either. We’ll see. Or not.) The point is – pre-humans are incredibly mechanical and methodical and precise. This leads to moths burning themselves in flames. Humans like to flatter ourselves by thinking that we’re better than that. But we all get drawn to flames of our own. We systematically fall into traps designed to exploit our biases – fake news, clickbait, boobs on video thumbnails, cute cats… they’re all the same sort of thing.

We might differ on some finer points about determinism and free will, and about precisely how mechanical or predictable humans are. I think humans have the capacity to surprise themselves and each other, and that’s where art and laughter comes from. But these surprises often tend to be rather ‘localised’, or discrete. Sometimes if we’re lucky, it inspires or challenges a person to make a big change to their lives and to then restructure themselves to contribute to humanity in some cool way. But most of the time I think most people tend to be quite comfortably circling around a simple-ish life that they find fulfilling. Not that simple is bad or anything, just that people are different.

I’m having an unusual amount of trouble sticking to the matter at hand in this vomit here, lol.

Where I think we can find common ground is this: people are instinctively familiarity seeking, routine-seeking. I remember when I was a teenager there were some who liked to put on this persona of “oh I’m so random haha”, which was never quite as random as they’d have liked to think. There’s a predictability to ‘i’m so random’ randomness – for some it’s quirky stuff, for some its gore, for some it’s sex, whatever – it’s about looking for things that are tangential or taboo, and people actually have almost depressingly few things to choose from.

I mean, it’s just challenging to be creative in general. Complete gibberish doesn’t mean anything. So you have to pick something that’s different in the right amounts, in the right way. I think /r/askreddit is quite a good place to hang out on to get a sense of people’s originality and predictability. Music and fashion changes, but in a sort of cyclic, I refute my predecessor way. Yeah, let’s talk about music. What was the last really original piece of music to come around? What was the last really novel pop song? Everything is a remix. People fundamentally want the same things. Creativity works within some anthropocentric constraints.

Right? Okay.

So I think I’ve established that people are generally quite predictable most of the time, generally want the same things, generally fear and avoid the same things, and so on. Most people don’t change that drastically (although we’re all one hard, well-placed knock to the head away from becoming a completely different person). Some people change… and come to think of it I’d really like to read a study that really dug deep into people who’ve changed dramatically. I think Charles Duhigg referenced something like that in Power of Habit.

But what I’m getting at with all of this is… if people have patterns of behaviour, then those patterns of behaviour reveal their principles. If you’re a striving sort of person, there’s almost definitely a gap between your desired principles and your revealed principles. This is definitely the case for me. I was ‘hoping’ to be asleep at midnight, and it’s now 230am. So what does this mean? Am I not really serious about wanting to sleep early? In this case I let myself frame it as “oh, I want to write, too. I want to publish 3 word vomits a day. And I’d rather sleep late than not publish.” Is this always true? Not always. This is just the second day that I’m making sure to publish 3 vomits in a day. Can I continue to keep the chain going? If so, then I can say that “my highest known, articulated principle is that I should publish 3 vomits every day. My 2nd strongest principle would be that I should sleep early.”

How do I achieve both? Wanting to publish 3,000 words a day and sleep before midnight sounds like a very achievable thing to me. So what’s stopping me? I’m starting too late. Why don’t I start earlier? And I’m working with distractions. A friend had texted me and I was enjoying myself texting back. So the question I have to ask myself is – is it acceptable to me to allow my friends’ texting me to interrupt my writing, which then interrupts my sleep? It’s okay if the answer is yes, but then I need to know why exactly that is okay.

So this is where we get to an interesting place. I get to decide now what is okay and what is not. And I’m tempted to argue in defence of my immediate past behaviour, so I don’t feel like I”m betraying myself. I could rationalise it as “well, it was an interesting conversation, and interesting conversations are a part of being a good writer”. It would be true. But I don’t like this. The 3rd principle doesn’t fit with the other two. Sleeping early leads to improved overall cognition and well being. Writing every day makes me a better writer. If I anticipated having a conversation at night, I should have gotten my writing done out of the way. Perhaps it would be prudent then to get my writing done first thing in the morning every day, so that I can then go about the rest of my day without worrying about whether or not something interesting is going to crop up and put me in a mess.

That makes sense, right? Makes sense to me. So. Sleep early. Write 3 word vomits first thing in the morning. Let’s try that tomorrow. Time for bed.

 

0656 – have concrete next steps on your radar

The time is now 10:05pm on a saturday night, March 25th 2017. It’s been quite a casual, lazy day. I watched some Extra Credit videos over lunch about the Punic wars, and was surprised to learn that Hannibal, Carthage, Barcelona and Archimedes are all related. History is fascinating and I’d like to learn more about it. I also watched Trevor Noah’s standup special over dinner, and finished watching Dave Chapelle’s special (1.5x speed is a hell of a drug). I also got a bit of work done, and spent a bit of time thinking about Paramore (I want to write a word vomit memoir about them) and about principles and values.

What do I want to do with my life? I want to be a writer. Be more precise. I want to be an accomplished writer that I admire. I want to write things that I’m proud of. What would it take for me to be proud of something that I’ve written? It would have to accomplish something that hasn’t been accomplished before, at least in my estimation. But I don’t just want some mythical piece of writing in the indefinite future – I want to be the steward of a process of writing that I admire. I think that means producing a minimum volume of written work a day. I established in a previous vomit that I would have to do 3 word vomits a day in order to finish my project by July this year. That seems like an achievable goal – but I know from past experience that I have trouble even making sure that I write once every single day. So I need to be vigilant. Anyway, I’m writing now.

What will it take to continue to develop as a writer? What are the intermediate steps? Well I think one of the first things I can do is to begin publishing work over at existing publications. That’s a measurable, concrete goal. It would be cool to publish say at least 5 things on reasonably cool publications sometime this year. I can imagine publishing something on a video game blog. Something on a tamil/indian culture blog. Something on a Singaporean site. I know that most editors are happy to receive quality content. I just need to take a little initiative. So one of my next steps will be to identify places that I want to have my work published, and then accomplish that.

I might also want to do the same thing for my marketing blog. Right now (meaning today and tomorrow) I don’t feel like I have time for that. I need to publish 3 word vomits tonight for myself, and then I need to spend tomorrow catching up on work. Once I’m done with that though, I think on Monday it would be cool to spend some time in the evening working on this goal of getting published across several publications. I’ll make a list of about 20 writers that I like and want to emulate. (Created to-dos for both of these). I’ll also want to summarise what I’ve learned and achieved over the past 4 years. I’ve been putting that off for a while because it’s a little depressing to realise that I haven’t achieved nearly as much as I’d like to have achieved by now. But those are just feelings. Feelings are feelings. What matters is assessing the situation accurately and making better decisions from there. Let’s assume that it’s true that I haven’t accomplished enough in the past 4 years, what should I do? I still have all sorts of advantages and resources that I can use to get myself into a place that I want to be. I’m going to be giving a couple of marketing talks in the coming months. I’ll be paid for my trouble, which is cool. I can build on that.

I need to have a serious private conversation with myself about what exactly I want and how exactly I’m going to get it. Most of my friends and peers know that I’m a pretty decent writer and a pretty decent marketer, by virtue of exposure. But this exposure has been rather casual and almost accidental. I want to get a lot more deliberate about it. I want to be publishing material at a much more feverish pace. I want to be tidying up and editing my work at a regular pace, too. I need to be measuring my progress on that. Publishing volume can be easily measured by word count. Editing volume I think is probably best measured in terms of hours for now. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing.

After I’m done with this word vomit, I’m going to go through my “become an author” category in Things and then I’m going to delete anything that doesn’t feel relevant, that doesn’t excite me. I need to strike a balance between keeping old things around, and having some space to respond to new things as they come. I can’t just respond to every single thing that comes, because then nothing substantial will get done. But I’ve also definitely been holding on to some old things long past their due – things that now feel like a frustrating burden. I can delete those things and then allow them to return to me whenever they do, naturally. I need to trust my own internal rhythms a bit more, and rework the superstructure that I’m building around myself to make myself a productive, effective writer.

At the heart of all of it will have to be a daily writing practice. I can write junk if I have to. The quality of my “junk” today is a lot better than some of my best attempts in the past. If my writing suffers in the present day, the main reason is typically lack of sleep. So I need to stop sabotaging myself and make sure that I sleep early. It’s 1026pm now. I would like to be sleeping at 11pm, worst case 12mn. I slept at 4am yesterday, which was way too late. I did get a full night’s sleep, but then woke up in the afternoon. That’s better than not sleeping enough, but I should just sleep earlier. I keep trying to have it both ways, and I need to come to a hard decision on this if I’m going to be able to take myself seriously. Am I serious about my sleep or am I not? I know that lack of sleep = cognitive impairment. I know some people who seem to be able to get away with less sleep, but I know categorically that I’m not one of them. So I need to make a decision and not pussyfoot around this. Does it matter or does it not?

 

0655 – cross one threshold at a time

Do I have time for another? I established earlier that if I wrote 2 vomits a day, I could be done in September. If I do 3 vomits in a day, I’d be done in July. Shortly after I turn 27. Now that would be even cooler. The more I do, the faster I can go, the faster I can be done. And it’s not like these things take a ton of my time. I spend more time doing random nonsense every day than I spend writing. I can definitely do much better than this. I just need to change the way I think about these things. I still have an overly perfectionist and overly completionist attitude towards these things – the whole “oh, I’m not going to be able to do a good one today so let’s just not even start” attitude. When I sit down and write about it and Ithink about it, it’s obviously bullshit. But when I’m going about my day, and the thought “hey I should write a word vomit tonight” enters my mind, my followup thought is usually “sorry, no time”, or “let’s have a bit of fun first”. I need to dismantle both of those things in order to get to where I really want to go, to become who I really want to become.

“Sorry, no time” is a cop out. If my goal in life is to be a writer, then I need to be writing. I have to make it a priority. Nobody can disturb me. Surely I can have 20 minutes a day where there’s time to sit down and write something. I’m a pretty fast typist – I can definitely publish a word vomit within half an hour, sometimes less. I just need to riff more, and be okay with starting without knowing where a particular thing is going. I also need to turn my thoughts and feelings about general things (usually things that I encounter on social media) into writing exercises. Why argue with a stranger online, when they won’t appreciate it? Why not instead focus on articulating your own position in life, your own challenges, your own goals and so on?

Clearly there’s still something a little missing from my self-concept, from my identity. I still think of myself as a naughty irresponsible boy. I wonder if it’ll ever be possible to change my perspective on that. I mean, I’ll probably always be mischievous and always get into trouble. I want to be. I feel like I’ve been living my life a little too safe these past couple of years, and I’m done for more volatility, more surprises.

I’m terrified of the prospect of becoming a boring old man who sits around commenting on things, and other people are obliged to play “humour the baby” with him. Humour the middle-aged old man who never really accomplished much, but has an opinion on everything.

I do have an opinion on everything – well maybe now less of everything than before – but the point is that I want to be more than just a talking head. I want to achieve something that I can be personally proud of. What would those achievements be? I need to have an honest conversation with myself about what respectable looks like, what honourable looks like, what goodness looks like and so on. I think it’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you have to do what other people are doing, you have to relate with them on their terms. I’ve already been spared some of this by getting married early, by working at a startup, by not going to University, and so on. But those things are all in the distant past now. They are fragments of memories from a dream that I once had a long time ago. I inhabit a different reality now. I am a different person now. All of the physical cells that made up who I was are all gone. What remains are patterns, what Hulse would call neurotic holding patterns. And I need to shake that shit out of me so that I can reorient myself to be receptive to what’s next.

So what IS next? A stronger, better version of myself. Someone who meets more people. Someone who writes more. Someone who prioritizes, who does what is best for himself and the people he cares about. Someone who is able to let things slide. Someone who has self-control, self-discipline, a great sense of humour. I want to grow old and become someone like Daniel Dennett or Oliver Sacks or James Mattis. Is it possible? I guess that’s the question that I’ve been grappling with the past year or so. Is it actually possible for me to drink from the nectar of the gods, to grasp real greatness? To get into the bigger arenas? There’s no point obsessing over those questions because the obsession doesn’t help – what helps is to get out of your current arena and get into the slightly more difficult one, slightly bigger one. You know what I mean? Progress is incremental. If you’re a Division 3 football player, and you want to play at the Premier League level, you likely need to get to Division 2 first. Sure, some folks might be able to jump straight to the end, but it makes a lot of sense to progress step by step. I’m thinking now about a Facebook note that Boz wrote and Zuck replied to – something about how the path is something that’s necessarily a little winding, necessarily progressed through incrementally. You have to lift 50kg before you can lift 100kg. That’s just… physics, goddamnit. And there’s a similar sort of logic about how the world works in general. You can’t hope and pray for some runaway hit. You have to put in the hours, put in the work, cross one threshold at a time.

Today, that means writing and publishing my 3rd word vomit in a row, and then likely going to bed (maybe I’ll attempt #4). Tomorrow, it’ll mean doing a review and cleaning out my tasks and figuring out next steps to make my dream(s) a reality.

 

0654 – do reviews regularly so you can have more fun

I have a sprawling to-do list that’s just full of things that I haven’t gotten around to. This is an interesting challenge and opportunity. Some of these things are dated and I should just say no to them. But really what I need to do is to get to a meta-level. To recognise that I’m trapped in a box, with my limitations keeping me in, and that I’ll have to carefully examine my situation in order to transcend it. I don’t think it’ll ever be possible to get to “inbox zero” with a bunch of todos. So I need to find some better way of feeling happy and fulfilled. It has to be a measure of flow, a measure of progress, a rate of change sort of metric rather than an absolute one. I know I need to be writing every day. If I’m not writing, I’m stagnating, and if I’m left stagnant, I start to get a little… decrepit. It’s not a good look, and it doesn’t feel fun either. I want to have fun. Life is short, we should all have as much fun as we can before we die. And to have really great fun, we have to be imaginative. All the “lots of fun in the short term” options are uncreative, and often destructive.

How can I have more fun? I find myself thinking about my guitars, which are hanging on my wall, that I haven’t really touched in a while. I find myself thinking about the youtube videos that I want to make. I’ve made a couple of videos recently – they’re really just word vomits in video form. I want to do this partly because I think it’s such a shame I don’t have more videos of myself from the past – there’s something that gets captured in a video that mere writing and photographs can’t quite capture. And also I want to get more comfortable speaking to an international audience. I want to get better at communicating, at being understood. Doing this on more than one medium definitely has its uses. I don’t intend to be a famous YouTuber – I just want to get into the habit of publishing videos of myself. Maybe at least one a week? I should do one tomorrow. Adding a todo for that now.

I want to get this word vomit project over and done with as quickly as possible. I have 346 vomits left to write. If I do one a day (and remember, I went 17 days without writing a single one recently), then I still won’t be done until 2018. I’d really like to be done in 2017. This means that I have to write more than one word vomit a day. This means that I have to change my behaviour significantly. It means that I’ll have to write on my commutes. It means I’ll have to try and publish one word vomit before I leave the house, and one more before I go to bed. If I manage to write 2 a day, that’s 173 sets of vomits. If I can pull this off, I’ll be done in September. That seems reasonable. I just need to set aside time to write. This isn’t all that crazy. I’ve found myself running in circles for no reason at all, and that’s definitely time I could have spent writing. I’m publishing unedited words anyway, so it’s not like things need to be good. They just need to be done.

I’m thinking now of how little I’ve exercised in the past year even though I have access to a home gym that I spent a couple of thousands of dollars on. I haven’t completely fallen off the wagon; I still work out at least once every two weeks or so. But I should be working out every 3 days. I know i’ve written a few vomits before about how exercise is psychoactive, how it has all sorts of mental and psychological benefits, how it’s fun, how it makes me feel alive, how it makes me realise that I could be doing more with myself, more for myself, at any given point in time. So I definitely need to exercise tomorrow.

I told myself to have a system of doing regular reviews. I just messaged a friend earlier to remind him to do his. It’s funny, how hard it is to maintain this habit. On a daily level I think I just tell myself that oh I’m so tired, I’ll do it later, I’ll do it tomorrow. But then it doesn’t get done. And if I’m not doing regular reviews of my everyday life, then how do I know if I’m getting better at living the life that I want to be living? Some people might do this without writing, but just by reflecting and meditating. I think I could use some of that too. What am I waiting for? I don’t want to obsess about this too much – the point is to act. I’m writing a vomit now. I want to do a review tomorrow morning, going over all of my things as quickly as possible. Ah – I realise I often get distracted y some specific detail of whatever’s on my plate, and then I start pursuing the on the spot. That’s a bad idea. I need to learn to set a course for myself and then follow it without being distracted mid-way. I’ve definitely gotten better at this over the years, but I need to continually get better yet, otherwise I’m stagnating, and when I stagnate I get decrepit, and life goes from being an adventure to an ordeal.

Sometimes I wonder if I deliberately make my own life a little difficult because some part of me feels like I need to suffer, atone for my sins. It seems a little far-fetched in writing, but think about how sometimes people who’ve been abused, continue to seek out new abusers to abuse them. It’s sad, silly, all of those things. And yet I am like that in my own way. That’s just a bug of the human mind. We’re only sort-of conscious. We’re only sort-of able. We have to accept that, and integrate that into our dealings with reality.

 

0653 – get back in the game and reorient yourself

It’s 238am, Saturday, May 25th. My last published word vomit was on May 8th. It’s been 17 days. This is definitely too long a period of time for me to go without writing a vomit. I’ve noticed myself getting tired, lethargic and so on – going through the motions. I’ve noticed myself cycling through apps on my phone, trying to find some sort of distraction. This is obviously a sign that things aren’t going quite right for me.

This is a relatively minor stumbling block for me compared to past ones. I’m definitely not depressed. As I write this I find myself thinking that I’m quite excited, that I have a lot of opportunities ahead of me, and there’s a lot of things that I know I could be doing to make my life better in a myriad of ways. I just don’t quite feel like I have the energy, or the right mindset, or something. I don’t think I’m lacking any particular philosophical tool. I’ve been here before. The way out is to stop, breathe, reflect, prioritise, and do one thing right. And then another. Right now, the right thing for me to do is to work on this vomit, publish it, and then go to bed. Tomorrow morning I will wake up, and then I will spend some time to clean my house. Then I will hit the gym for a bit. Then I will shower, have lunch, and then I will start my day – catching up on work that I need to do.

Beyond my day-to-day work commitments, I’ve accumulated a backlog of self-work that needs doing. I think I do bits and pieces of these through word vomits, and so simply making it a point to do vomits regularly will help with that. I need to begin to reorient myself for the future. What do I want to accomplish next? Who do I want to become?

I’m going to be giving a couple of paid lectures in the coming months, which is pretty exciting. It’s a sign of advancement. I need to be more deliberate about this. I want to meet more people who work in my field. To do that, I need to have something of value to give. I think I want to do this by fleshing out my marketing blog, at visakanv.com/marketing/. This is where things get a little vague – I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do with my marketing blog. I started out thinking that it ought to be a scrapbook or swipe file of sorts – but now I think it should really be a series of letters that I want to write to other people in my industry. I want to write for younger versions of myself – and I’ve found a great way to do this is simply to talk to my real younger peers who are interested in doing what I do. So there’s that. I also think it will be useful to do a research review of sorts, analysing everything I’ve read. I do sincerely believe that a person’s honest opinion, honest appraisal, is still valuable in a world where we know most people in most contexts are simply doing and saying whatever they need to in order to in order to fulfil their obligations. I want to do that but I also want to do more.

Several times before, when I’ve been in this position – I’m on my computer at night, and I have a bit of time to kill before my wife comes to bed – I’ve found it tempting to hang out on social media, or play video games. But I’m really bored and tired of those things, and I want to focus on working for myself. I need to value myself more, value my time more. I want more out of my life, and that means I’m going to have to put in more work into my life. So this is me doing that. This is for you, Future Visa. I hope you appreciate it. But I’m going to do it even if you don’t, because it’s something I want to do for myself, too.

I’m also starting to think about what it means to be a career writer. Of course I have the same ultimate lofty goal as every other writer – to write the next great novel, to reach hundreds of millions of people with my most sincere, honest thoughts. While that’s kind of a nice goal to have, it’s also very escapist – it’s a very big leap to make, and lots of people who try to do it from scratch just fail miserably. It’s not a smart strategy. A smarter strategy would be to write much smaller things for smaller audiences, and to get those things right, and then to build upon that. I can think of a bunch of writers that I love and would like to emulate in this regard. I need to be much more explicit about the group of writers that I want to emulate, and then create my own versions of their work. If I am serious about this goal, I need to take intermediate steps right now so that I can reap the rewards later on. And again, it’s really not about the promise of some reward. I already know that people who write wildly popular things don’t exactly have the idyllic fantasy life that some folks fantasise about. It’s quite obvious that fame is a pain in the ass, and that you’re going to have to deal with lots of people misunderstanding your work, calling you names… there are all sorts of traps associated with “success”. So pain is inevitable. Suffering is somewhat optional. But you have to choose what you want to hurt for, and how you want to hurt. I want to earn my own self-respect, and I will respect myself for developing and growing as a writer. For achieving more. For writing things that matter, to myself and to other people.

This vomit is just scratching the surface of what I need to be doing. That’s what happens when you’re out of the game for too long. That’s okay. Just get back in the game.

 

0652 – write on your commutes

Commute vomit! I haven’t done one of these in a while. I find myself feeling like I don’t have enough time. Time is the most precious resource and I still constantly feel like it’s slipping through my fingers. This needs to change. I know there were several vomits earlier where I wrote about this. I always hope that I won’t have to write more about time management, but this problem isn’t going to go away by itself.
It isn’t rocket science, it’s really quite straightforward. There are only so many hours in a day. Only so many things I can accomplish. I spend too much time being scatterbrained, and then rushing to get things done in a frenzied panic as deadlines and obligations loom. This is no way to live. I do not want to live this way in my 30s. I was hoping I would have solved this by 25. I’ll be turning 27 in 3 months. I’m already overdue. This is a sign for concern.
Let’s work through these things a day at a time, an hour at a time. It’s now 515pm. I’m on the train on the way home. I will reach home around 615 to 630pm. I often spend my commutes on social media, which I think is a suboptimal use of my time. Rarely do I encounter anything truly useful or compelling. It’s just a mindless habit that’s easy and distracting. I would much rather put in a little effort and get some writing done. Which is what I’m doing now, and it feels good.
So what am I going to do when I get home? My wife is going to be working late tonight so I have time to myself. I should get dinner and then I should get down to work.
I know I should spend some time processing my todo list. There’s a lot on it, much of it unprocessed, and when that happens I tend to avoid it, and the feeling of avoidance builds this unsettling sensation in me. “Browsing imgur stressfully”, as someone once put it.
I don’t want to do that any more. My external reality might be relatively “fixed” (and it’s actually very changeable!), but I can definitely change the way I interpret it, make sense of it, navigate it. The first thing is to make my workspace more legible. I have notebooks and a whiteboard and multiple apps. It’s always tempting to “let’s do everything this time”, but really I should start with what’s urgent and due, stuff that I owe other people, that’s pending. And I should quickly decompose that into digestible next steps. Break it, break it down. And then start tracking how much I accomplish each day. There is some wisdom in the whole “how much did you do today” logic, despite its flaws. My eternal fantasy is to be able to be completely free, but I know that professionals who are good at improvising get good by being very deliberate about how they practice. So I need to make deliberate practice a part of my life. There’s always that silly paradox there- if you’re not good at being deliberate to begin with, how do you institute a new habit? Maybe you just have to give it all you got. That’s only one part of the equation though, obviously. You don’t want to be pushing a pull door. So you need to commit to small things. I keep delaying my workouts because I keep wanting everything to be aligned. But things rarely align the way you want them. You have to do them anyway. Waiting for the right mood is a trap.
60% done with the vomit and I’m halfway through my commute. See, this can work. So why haven’t I been writing a vomit on my commute everyday? Because I vaguely recall writing half-written vomits that don’t get finished, and then being frustrated with having to navigate all these half-formed thoughts.
I just caught myself wanting to switch tabs to something more stimulating. And then I stopped myself. This urge to switch tasks when things get a little uncomfortable or boring – it has its uses, but I also really need to be able to master it. I need to be able to finish what I start, even if the finished product isn’t all that great. I need to be more comfortable sharing shitty drafts of things with people and separate my judgement from them.
It always starts really small. That’s something I keep missing. I know I’ve written  vomits about taking baby steps, I just need to follow my own advice. My own instructions. I’ve definitely accumulated more than enough advice. So I can no longer use the excuse of “there’s no advice tailored for me” – that excuse was never really valid to begin with, obviously, but now it’s been completely eliminated. Or so I’d like to think. Do remember that the saboteur is endlessly creative. You cannot defeat him with a single blow – that’s what he wants you to believe. You have to struggle, and you have to renew the struggle every day. The idea of this only sounds overwhelming and exhausting because you don’t have much practice, and your imagination is limited. You haven’t learned to expand your imagination to include possibilities that you haven’t considered yet.
You can grow, get bigger, get stronger, dominate your circumstances – not with sheer force, but with an elegant artfulness. You can become a symbol of something better, something to aspire towards, something o be proud of. And honestly, fuck what other people think. All you really want is to live well and die happy. And that means earning your own respect, sleeping well at night after a good day’s work. That stuff seemed easier when you were doing manual labor – “writers block” is often a problem of associating your self-worth with your work. A part of that is useful because it makes you want to be better. But it’s also damaging if you aren’t careful, because nothing is ever good enough. You have to integrate that understanding into your work. To be imperfect, to strive towards perfection, yet to acknowledge and accept your limitations. There will be shortfalls. It can’t be helped. You just have to keep moving. And if you use a good filing system, if you make your stuff easily searchable and navigable, then it can build on itself.
Just get it done. Deal with the imperfections later. Better than being empty-handed. You know this.