January 28, 2011 — 31 Comments

There’s this thing people say: “if the 16 year old version of me saw this they’d kick my ass.” It always seems to show up around matters of responsibility, compromise, maturity, finances or anything we’d have once labeled “adult.”

I think the underpinning assumptions of this quip are so baseless as to deserve reconsideration. Namely, who gives a fuck what a 16 year old cares about anything? [For this, see whatever pseudo-strawman age we come up with to denigrate ourselves against.]

As we get older, we’re made aware of three inalterable truths about our existences. That there is a objective reality outside ourselves. Then there is what we want this reality to be. And that these two facts overlap less often than we’d like and more often than we probably deserve. The longer you’ve meditated on this, the wiser you are.

Yet, here we are comparing ourselves to a child in order to judge the rightness or wrongness of decisions we make about our lives.

It might feel like there is some refreshing certainty in ignorance but it is a chimera. Ignore for a second what you remember yourself as at [any age] and hold in your mind what the average representative of that group is like. Chances are you were much closer to the latter than the former. (Have you talked to a 16 year old recently? That’s who you think knows what’s important?)

The key is to hold yourself against something who has more of a sense of the world, not less—or worse, someone who doesn’t know it at all. To consider it from the perspective of a man. Notice how we never seem to say: what would 40 year old me think of this? And naturally, it’d be better to take ourselves out of the equation entirely, find someone who surpasses us, and ask how they would feel.

A False Sense

January 13, 2011 — 32 Comments

There is a bunch of data that shows that the more we talk about things, the less we tend to actually accomplish them. This is because—and I’m sure you can think of a person in your life who does this a lot—the act of articulating the goal entails visualizing the achievement of it, and thus partially gives us credit for it in our own minds and reduces the motivation to actually do it. So doing this diminishes the payoff. There are many people smarter than I who have written about this, but there is a word for such a process that I think its very important. It’s called reification.

To reify means turn something abstract into something concrete.

It was something Walter Lippman talked about when it came to the news. The news, he said, is just a journalist’s limited and simplified version of the world—a pseudo-environment. For many of us, this version of reality is inserted between us and the complicated and infinite reality of the actual situation which we were not able to personally experience. But our responses to this pseudo-environment don’t operate in that pseudo-environment because they are behavior. They happen in the real world. This is the danger of reification. Though what we’re acting on is not real (or only partial real), the act is. And worse, we’re only aware that this has happened when our behavior creates a “noticeable break in the texture of the fictitious world.” What about when our response is just a thought? Or an opinion? That is, most of our response to a pseudo-environment are not overt, they are beliefs, emotions, and senses—things we carry around for a long time before acting on, unaware of the false foundation they were built on.

It something we do to ourselves all the time. Now, there’s nothing wrong with thinking about what you want to do and what you’d like to achieve. Problems arise when this process of dreaming and imagining becomes its own end. You reflect and internalize the emotions and feelings that you’ve evoked, which after a while come to ossify and be the foundations for new images and you get further and further from reality. Think about it this way: You’ve got a picture of your dream house in your head that you may one day be able to own. Totally fine. Then after a period of time of meditating on this, it starts to take on a sort of mental firmness—you know its ins-and-outs because you’ve imagined it so many times. Then you think how much it might be worth if you were to ever sell it, perhaps $2.5M dollars. Then you’ve got the picture of $2.5 million dollars in your head. What could one do with all that money? And so you begin to think of what you could buy or have or the respect that would come with it.

In other words, one illusion becomes the foundation for another illusion which in turn has its own illusions. Each time you whip through this cycle the first illusion starts to feel a little more real—have a little more substance—since it’s was the impetus for the ones that came after it. You’ve tread it more often, which has the affect of substance but is still just air.

A famous academic paper in the 70′s coined a term for the costs of too much information: narcotizing dysfunction. The authors described a world where people are bombarded with more than they can possibly consume, or possibly comprehend as a result of the mass media. In the face of the overwhelming deluge, we spend more and more time reading and listening, leaving less and less space for action. Knowing about problems comes to replace doing something about them. And beneath our superficial understanding of our surroundings is a growing apathy. Information becomes a substitute for action because it is a manageable and achievable end, action is replaced because to chase it is to accept futility.

The problem of reification is that, by definition, it blurs the line between what is real and what is not. In the complexity of a hypothetical, we can become so lost as to forget that we’re debating a conditional. That nothing has actually happened, and that what goes on in our head stays there. It’s easier this way because by confusing time spent with things done we basically eliminate any critical benchmark we might be judged against. Things might be illusionary, but they are pleasant illusions. Our minds function in a kind of iterative loop and as we mix our interpretation of events with the events themselves, one amalgam is mistakenly amalgamated into another—our sense of the world, an amalgam of amalgams.

Advice: be the quiet one in the corner, working away. Avoid information you’re unlikely to actually make use of, and avoid extrapolations as much as you can—because “this means that which means this which could become” is just a chain of illusions based on something you’ll probably never have to deal with. Don’t tell people what you do, if you can get away with it. Just lie, or downplay it. Plan as little as possible, set your life up so there’s less you need to plan about anyway (rent, have less stuff, keep commitments loose). Refuse to accept conflation—this is not the same as that, no matter how similar they might seem. Insist on critical evaluations, even negative ones. Finally, accept that you have this impulse to reify. It is natural to feel drawn towards making the abstract into the concrete (we’re not good with things that turn out to be for naught). Just recognize when you’re doing it. The point is that it’s better to know when you’ve submitted to something rather than be blindly enslaved to it.

The Rules

January 7, 2011 — 5 Comments

One thing I’ve learned is that people are gluttons for punishment. Or, well, they are but unintentionally so. I mean this in the sense that we needlessly repeat mistakes and suffer their consequences and then wonder why we feel bruised and beaten down.

There was an episode of that gameshow where crazy Asian people humiliate themselves for lame prizes and one of the obstacles on the course was 5 rows of 3 walls. One of the walls in each row was a trick and the others were solid. The contestants had to crash through the faux-wall in each row as fast as they could before moving on to the next part of the course. I think of this image on a regular basis, as I watch people repeatedly hurl themselves against walls instead of trying the one next to it see if it is a trick. A favorite: forgetting that to ask for permission is to seek denial.

Scientists describe two kinds of learning environments known as wicked and kind. In a kind environment, we have clear visibility between causes and effects. Through this linkage, we’re able to properly evaluate our methods based on feedback and hopefully improve on an iterative basis. The medical community, for instance, has instituted a variety of procedures to make treatments as kind as possible to doctors. From the Socratic approach to the differential diagnosis to morbidity and mortality conferences, the profession is designed to create educational feedback from peers. In wicked environments, the visibility can be much different. A black box scenario is one type where trial and error is difficult because you have no sense of what or why things happen. You input, it outputs but middle process is not illuminated—it is a black box. A worse environment is where things are so chaotic that you get unreliable feedback. That is, the effect is incorrectly linked to a cause or, like a bad compass, the arrow points you in the wrong direction.

Our lives are a mix of kinder and more wicked environments than we tend to think. We have clear evidence that our approach is just not working and yet we try the same thing over and over. On top of this, there are politics and personal complications which run us into disincentives—logic that doesn’t compute right and leads to bad assumptions. The key to navigating this reality, I’ve found, is to have a sense of a larger purpose.

Robert has a saying that “it’s all material.” What he meant was that everything that happens to him can be used for something, like one of his books or a talk or a business venture. Since he’s a writer, this is a pretty understandable approach. But it’s freeing in other important ways because the larger purpose (going through bad things to get good material) allows you to be dispassionate in the immediate present. You’re simply collecting data. By bifurcating whatever it is you’re doing now from what you intend to later, you get to look at the data from two perspectives and it’s this process that makes it easy to spot anomalies. This develops a loop of action, [skeptical] evaluation, and change that becomes almost sub-conscious and runs on autopilot. The approach combines the trial and error of the kind environment with the presence of mind that transcends the traps of the wicked.

When James McPhee described basketball as a game of “subtle felonies,” he was expressing a similar idea. The best players operate by ignoring and violating the rules in each given situation, as appropriately as the circumstances allow. There is what the system tells you through direct feedback and a filter of your own larger goals which parse the data properly—putting it in distinct categories which you can access and learn from.

There is nothing quite as miserable as the act of throwing yourself against a door that won’t budge. As being stuck inside your own fetish for punishment because you can’t step back and understand that every situation is telling you something, ignoring the fact that you’re the only one who can decipher what it means and how to act on it. But this is what people do, as others slide right through trick walls and open passageways they aware enough to check.


December 8, 2010 — 17 Comments

There is a famous speech by Demosthenes that he ends by chiding his fellow statesman for their flattery. As was common in Athens, the speakers who’d gone before him had filled their orations with examples of great and proud moments in the country’s history like victories at Marathon and Salamis. This was a distraction, he said, a trick to tell the audience what they wanted to hear instead of prompting them into the action they desperately needed to take, which in this case was war. “Reflect,” he concluded, “that your ancestors set up those trophies, not that you may gaze at them in wonder but that you may also imitate the virtues of the men who set them up.”

This is an interesting way of looking at things. Particularly for whatever it is that you may consider to be high arts of human achievement—be it sports or music or religion or finance. For me, I’d think of a book that was important. After we’ve finished we tend to think about how impressive or ground breaking it was. Maybe it changes how we think about the world or we use it for a project we’re working on but then after we’re finished, we just put it on a shelf…like a trophy. But Demosthenes’ point is that this is a hollow use of their achievement—even a self-destructive one.

Ignore this impulse. And ignore the charlatans who try to sell you a kind of congratulation by association—retroactive or through proxy—instead of on the bold action that they required. Focus on the precedent set by the accomplishment and the people who put it together. Like Demosthenes figured out: make them exhortations instead of examples.

The Dress-Suit Bribe

November 17, 2010 — 36 Comments

There’s a theme in the works of Upton Sinclair called the “dress-suit bribe” which he returns to over and over. It’s the the name of a play written by a character in Dragon’s Teeth, a throwaway line in his essay Mammonart, and called out as a corrupting force in his expose on the American university system. But it’s mostly clearly defined in a chapter of The Brass Check on how good people get turned around. It goes something like this:

You pay a shoeshine $5 to shine your shoes. But do you know what you got paid to have your shoes shined? You might buy a suit for $500, but do you know how much you get paid to be well-dressed? Or to drive a nice car, to shave and get your hair cut a certain way, to orient your life around an arbitrary schedule of this hour to this hour for this many days a year?

The dress-suit bribe works particularly well because it doesn’t seem like a bribe. People can’t say no, because it wasn’t directly proffered so much as sublimated inside ordinary things. Think about the first nice business lunch someone took you to. This was the offer. How long did it take you to work your way back up to sitting in a chair at that same restaurant for a purely social occasion? This was when you took the bribe.

Forget answering: my salary is ________. This is about all the little things that you think are your preferences but were actually given to you like gifts. People like nice things so they’ll lease themselves the car it becomes OK to have. People want to be recognized so of course they’ll join you at the right events and press flesh with the right folks. People need to be responsible so they’re going to save up for a down payment on a house. It is, after all, an investment. When I was younger I didn’t realize that these acts were bridges, and that there would come a time where you were pressured to cross them. And that in many cases, it wasn’t clear that you’d done so until after you were on the other side.

What Sinclair meant to provoke with his question was an understanding that seemingly benign decisions trigger commitments to larger ideas than we might imagine. In the case of something like a mortgage they are literal contracts that require decades of a very particular kind of lifestyle. Which should explain the forces that act on a person to ring that bell.

On the lower rungs of the system, we can clearly see the relationship between service and payment—like in the case of a shoeshine. However our own position in the scheme remains in a fog of rationalization and unintentional obfuscation. The things we have to do as employees, as a member of a class, as a certain type of professional are tacit extracurricular duties that not only coincide with the amount in our paychecks but make us dependent on getting one every week. If we really calculated this labor, we’d realize it not only wasn’t cheap but if we stripped away the illusions, we’d see that we weren’t asked very nicely if we felt like doing them. They were as mandatory as wearing a uniform and saying “Yes, sir, let me know if I can get your anything else.”