a short essay on plans, written on a delayed metro train

This is a short essay on plans, written on a delayed Metro train. I originally posted this on Facebook randomly, then cleaned it up and posted it at http://ammarmian.com/posts/on-plans.html. Will probably post most things over there from now on. Posting here for redundant archiving.

What is effective is not the same as what seems effective.

We often do things that make us feel effective, whether or not that action actually is effective.

Thus there is effective and "effective".

We make plans, and it is up for debate whether we are making them to be "effective" or effective.

I argue that we are rarely aware of this distinction and are often acting in "effective" ways.

Many plans we make, inherit, and adhere to may be "effective" or effective, we're not really sure, because our only measure of the value of a plan or action is if it feels effective.

Put in other words, we fixate on clever or noble plans, ignoring entire classes of plans that might actually be effective but don't necessarily make us feel great.

The Insecurity of Not Knowing

So what is this feeling? It seems like before we can even try thinking of how to be effective (without quotations), we need to know why we are drawn to being "effective" (with quotations).

Desiring feelings of effectiveness may derive from a root insecurity about our own abilities to handle uncertainty.

We want to show that we have something figured out, and we want to listen to those who show they have things figured out. Otherwise we just say we're not cut out for one thing or another.

It's a very simple way to deal with uncertainty -- either show that you're fully certain, find someone who does claim that, or don't involve yourself at all.

Due to this insecurity over our ability to deal with uncertain terms, we fixate on making (and listening to) "effective" plans -- plans that feel like certitudes in some way or another.

This is why we get so excited by clever exercise regimens or diet plans or learning modules or stump speeches. If we fail, it's because we just weren't cut out for it. Not because the plan sucked (which it did). Because just look at how clever and fancy the presenter was!

An Attempt at a Better Plan

Over the past four years I've tried and failed and succeeded and failed and failed and failed and failed at coding, teaching, writing, marketing, reading, thinking, taking standardized tests, snowboarding, running, meditating, etc.

I've noticed the most effective plans take one general shape:

  1. Diagnose
  2. Explore
  3. Diagnose again
  4. Make a short term schedule
  5. Follow it studiously
  6. Repeat 1-5

Steps 1-3 take the most time and constitute the most emotional work because each time you enter, you're not quite sure if you'll make it out to step 4.

But then you repeatedly do.

This is the act of learning over and over again what it means to not be sure of how things are. This is a crucial element of solving problems, it appears, to somewhat masochistically cherish the unknown unknowns.

During this process, you may figure out you hadn't ever really precisely defined what you were trying to do.

And then it turns out you were your own limit.

And then it turns out that the concept of you is flexible.

And then the real fun work begins.


you are the product of the memes you keep

From psychologist Hoye Leigh's Genes, Memes, Culture, and Mental Illness:

"Primitive memory formed by trial and error died with the organism. With the evolution of complex brains, however, memory in the form of brain codes acquired the ability to skip from one brain to another, first by imitation as a shortcut to trial and error, and later, with language, as knowledge and information. When memory achieved portability, it became memes, bits of replicating information."
Meme: A Definition

Have you ever seen "meme" defined so precisely? In modern parlance, a meme is an image or short video with a snappy tagline. It's not the image or the tagline itself that makes it a meme. What makes a meme is that it can be directly inserted into various social contexts and make perfect sense. The perfect meme conveys information more portably and more accurately than having to explain something. In theory, we could carry on conversations with each other using just memes.

Bits of replicating information.

We've grown very accustomed to imagining memes as some new phenomenon. Usually, these memes are sassy, clever, and cynical -- Internet culture in nutshell. The following meme has gotten a lot of airplay in recent months:

The original clip (5:42) is hilarious. The meme's text makes you laugh because we've all been in that situation. But the frame itself makes the meme, and it transmits well because of what it communicates subliminally. We relate to it because everyone privately battles with their own darkness. So it doesn't matter what Kermit and Evil Kermit say specifically, we get it and we laugh (see the hundreds of renditions here).

Non-Digital Memes

Let's generalize the term meme and move it outside of the domain of the digital world. If a meme is a dense, repeatable, portable memory chunk, then much of our selves are determined by the memes we repeat like mantras.

A meme: a dog licking her pup repeatedly, or a cat snuggling behind another cat. According to psychologist Hoye Leigh, "the perception of licking by the pup results in memes, i.e., new neural connections and potentiation of existing ones that may represent, in homo sapiens terms, 'I am loved.'"

Here's a reference to that same meme appearing in cinema, in Barry Jenkins' incredible film Moonlight:
"I messed up baby. I fucked it all up, I know that.  But yo’ heart ain’t gotta be black like mine, you hear me?

I love you baby. I do, I love you Chiron. You ain’t gotta love me, lord knows I didn’t have love for you when you needed it, I know that.

So you ain’t gotta love me but you gon’ know that I love you, you hear?"
Paula, Chiron's heroin addict mother, communicates to her son something she never did when he needed to hear it. In Chiron's life, the meme of "I am loved" never fully formed, and Chiron's decisions throughout the movie reflect the lack of this important life meme.

Memes are patterns of neural connections, according to Leigh, and they "affect other neural connections to result in neurotransmitter release and affect genes. The affected genes, in turn, affect the individual’s perceptual bias and interpretation of life experiences in the future, and thus stress vulnerability or resilience."

The memes we receive and the memes we repeat to ourselves and to others determine how we see ourselves and others. They determine if and how we: show affection, study, work, think, engage, converse, navigate, and handle emotions. Some memes are extremely sticky -- if you don't have them, chances are your kids won't either.

Culture: A Collection of Memes

Through this lens, memes aren't trivial. A meme carries with it not just visceral memories, but also expectations, biases, and values. So then imagine a stream of memes occurring all around us. This collection is what we're subconsciously pulling from to construct our personalities.

In our early years, family provides us with memes on what constitutes "life". But in the absence of (or supplemental to) family, whether by choice or by circumstance, we seek out memes in media, sports, art, books, urban spaces, quaint coffeeshops, and niche tribes. One could give this conglomerate source of influence a name: "culture".

We are shaped by the culture surrounding us insofar as how we assimilate to it, or conversely, how sharply we react to it.

In New York City, the prevailing meme is money: the city's culture is broadly defined by the tension between Midtown glitz-and-glam and its defiant bohemian starving-artist peripheries. 

In San Francisco, the prevailing meme is glory: the city is a breeding ground for cultural spaces emanating conflicting "change the world" and "change your self" messages.

Some cities use intellectualism as a driving/reactionary force (Boston), while others use power (DC), masculinity, stoicism, religion, etc.

The community you occupy can play a huge role in how you perceive life and the subsequent decisions you make about it. That's because the community's capital-C Culture can often be a forcing function pushing you towards/away from certain values.

The people you run into, the media you consume, the food you eat, the transportation you take, the block you live on -- these all play significant roles in how your view of yourself morphs or stays the same. If you stay long enough, you then start contributing to this viscous stew of memes.

Reclaiming Your Meme-o-sphere in the Era of the Infinite Scroll

The more time I spend observing my own habits, the more I realize the importance of curating the types of memes I pay attention to.

If memes can dismantle old neural connections and replace them with new ones, then imagine their effect on our well-being. When a meme gets repeated, it decides to stick around. It grows to deepen its occupation of our inner value system. Which means that if we are sloppy about our consumption habits, our values are easily rattled and replaced without us even noticing it happening.

This is reminiscent of the first rule of getting in shape, which is to empty your apartment of bad snacks. It might sound funny, but in the realm of health, a pantry filled with unhealthy food is a meme telling you what it is okay to consume when you're hungry and don't have time to cook. Replace the candy with nuts and healthy fats, and you've solved your problem. The larger problem still remains ("Why do you crave snacks?"), but this solution prevents a bad meme from fully infiltrating your value system.

In the digital context, the bad snacks may be clickbait headlines -- CNN might buzz your phone with the latest provocative story. In the realm of knowledge, this digital pantry is a meme telling you that consuming headlines like this is healthy for your understanding of the world. Replace the CNN ticker with Farnam Street or The Skimm, and you've solved the problem. The larger problem still remains ("Why do you crave provocative information?"), but this solution, like the one above, prevents a bad meme from invading your value system.

Reclaim your meme-o-sphere. You are the product of the memes you keep and create. Whether they occur online or in your office or the company you keep or the apartment you live in, these memes deserve to be audited, reflected on, and reshaped. Then start producing memes for others to consume.


zealous for the obscure: thoughts on learning and friction

From philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human:

"Twofold misjudgment:

The misfortune suffered by clear-minded and easily understood writers is that they are taken for shallow and thus little effort is expended on reading them.

And the good fortune that attends the obscure is that the reader toils at them and ascribes to them the pleasure he has in fact gained from his own zeal."

The Wise Man, The Wizard

Some wise man said something or another, I can't remember when or why, that went to the effect of: tell me what you see, and I'll tell you who you are. 

The wise man was my optometrist, and he asked me whether I had changed my diet significantly since my last checkup (it had been a full year).

"Yes, I stopped eating meat."

"I knew it. Your macular pigment density drastically increased. Probably from all that kale and spinach."

"What else can you read about me based on my eye health?"

"You stare at a computer all day, and you exercise regularly. You also don't seem to like wearing glasses because you overwear your contacts."

"You're a wizard, Dr. Solomon."

"Well, that's why I'm in this line of work. Tell me what you see, and I'll tell you who you are. For most people, that's diabetic, malnourished, and sedentary."

Tell me what you see, and I'll tell you who you are. I wonder if Dr. Solomon is aware of how often I reflect upon this memory. When a particular set of ideas invades my mind, it bleeds into the things I notice in the world around me.

This is not rare by any means; everyone does it, to varying degrees. The pattern of things we notice becomes the fabric of our reality. Learning something new is "simply" the creation of a new pattern of observation. Maybe that's why kids learn so readily and adults don't.

A Series of Observations

That child was trouble until the teacher learned he was a "sneakerhead." The teacher handed him some historical data on the resale price of Air Jordans, and he started figuring out for himself how slopes and linear equations work.

She doesn't read much, but her best friend contracted cancer, and so she engrossed herself in The Emperor of All Maladies. She buried herself in that book during her spare moments.

A prolonged period of disillusionment from Islam meant he refused to fast during Ramadan. But he read studies linking "intermittent fasting" to improvements in cardiac health, fat loss, and muscle growth. So he started fasting again. And then he started paying attention to religion again.

Motivated Reasoning & The Case for Friction

Dr. Solomon may have been discussing eye health specifically, but "tell me what you see and I'll tell you who you are" sounds suspiciously like motivated reasoning.

Generally speaking, motivated reasoning is "When people form and cling to false beliefs despite overwhelming evidence." More broadly and colloquially, I view this phenomenon as the "people see what they want to see" effect. The things that "motivate" them to evaluate their environment in a particular way end up shaping how they see the world.

Modern times have reshaped how we "optimize" our media for consumption. There's been a steady march towards the more easily swallowed and immediately palatable. The theory is that, by reducing the friction behind consumption (by making everything a textual/visual/sensual snack), we get smarter and wiser.

This theory misses a crucial point that psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi touches on in his famous book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In the line of research, he found that: a) that we can only focus on a finite number of things at a time, and b) that our learning faculties are at their most intense when we are fully absorbed and focused on a single activity. Finding flow is more important than finding ease.

The sneakerhead pores over numbers and equations despite not liking math. The friend of a cancer patient tears through relatively dense passages of medical history despite not being much of a reader.

Koan Contemplation in an Attention-Starved World

There's an old Buddhist saying that goes like "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." There's also an old Sufi saying that goes "The soul covers its own truth with a thousand veils from its own eyes." Both convey more or less equivalent ideas.

The funny thing about these sayings is that they sound quite obvious. To each, we may naturally roll our eyes at their self-evident nature. And then we proceed to directly contradict in our own lives what we thought was so obvious.

Words can "make sense", but if we haven't done the very difficult work of integrating them into our patterns of observation of reality, then these beautiful turns of phrase become fodder for yearbooks and status updates.

Two Breeds of Culture: On the Obscure and the Inaccessible

Clarity might be overrated, and it's our fault. I'll try and illustrate what I mean with an example. (Ironically, by trying to make myself clear, I may be defeating the purpose).

There is a breed of writer that focuses on clarity. Economical in expression; wastes no time in indulgent narrative. Oftentimes, these writers are able to whittle down to the essential. A small subset of readers can take these simple phrases and impart their own dense imagery upon them. My brother is one of them. They can take a small phrase and chew and ponder over it for days, weeks, months, years even.

The problem with this koan breed is that their work gives a topic a veneer of easy digestion: finish the book (and listen to the accompanying TED Talk) in an afternoon, and change the world! But in this ease of digestion, perhaps the meanings are not drilled home effectively. To reiterate Nietzsche, these thinkers "are taken for shallow and thus little effort is expended on reading them." Like a snack.

There is a second breed of writer that focuses on the details and minutiae of their study. Their works serve as frantic messages: "This is all that I have acquired, and I'm not sure I can quite distill them down to the size of my fist. So here's my entire universe." A small subset of readers find these dense, obscure texts and lose themselves in them. These consumers emerge with new patterns of observation. The fabric of their reality, after an epic struggle, transforms. As Nietzsche says, these obscure texts are attended to by "a reader [who] toils at them and ascribes to them the pleasure he has in fact gained from his own zeal."

The problem with the obscura breed is that their work is often dense, confusing, and tough to follow. Their works are the financial analyses, the primatologist's notebooks, the observations of the practitioner of some obscure art or craft.

Zealous for the Obscure

In an ideal world, the clearly and plainly written would win out - that we're all koan enthusiasts, taking small, clear nuggets of thought and chewing on them to understand them.

In an ideal world, clear communication is about ideas and conveying them in a way that seamlessly integrates them into people's daily lives.

But we know that's not how we work. Many studies have showed how audiences remember very little about the content of a "strong" communicator's speech. But they do remember how great and insightful the communicator apparently was. 

We aren't as ready to learn as we think we are, and we aren't as rational as we think we are. So all those easily-digested thought pieces might not actually be teaching us much. They might just be reinforcing our existing views because we'll just notice what we already want to notice. We seek out experiences rather than truth. Hence "shoot the messenger" and so on.

The trick to understanding something in a different way appears to be finding something so impenetrable and so obscure that if you are still drawn to it, you will actually learn something significant. The friction that you are willing to endure means that you care enough about the ideas held within to keep banging your head against the wall.

For many people, the path to "Zen clarity" goes through a twisting, winding, dense foliage of narratives we zealously chase despite their difficulty. That is because, as the Buddhist and the Sufi would say, the knowledge we seek is often already held within ourselves. We just need the right lights to reveal them.


breaking the cycle of imitation, suffering, and judgment

For many people, 2016 was the year of hurt. Over the past few months, this has been the prevailing thread in many long conversations I've had with friends. Below I attempt to distill these conversations into a single essay.


Despite our efforts, we cannot help but to hurt each other, especially when the stakes are so high.

At first I wondered if it was just an inevitable part of being human. But that seems too lazy of a conclusion. That's the conclusion that leads to jaded sorority girls writing about relationships on Elite Daily, weary intellectuals ruminating about a godless existence, and radicals waging war in the name of Some Party You Aren't Invited To. That's no fun.

The way we hurt ourselves and each other stems from a poor understanding of how our thoughts, desires, and memories work. 

These three streams are what we absorb most willingly, and they converge to help us form a notion of who we are (our ego). The ego is a useful construct because it helps us have a semblance of continuity and consistency.

But the ego also has a dark side -- it often deludes us into believing that our thoughts, desires, and memories are valid and correct. We thus fail to be thoughtful, to listen carefully, and to avoid passing our pain on to others.

A lot of the violence we commit happens silently and without even noticing ourselves doing it. This habitual violence is so deeply ingrained, it's nearly impossible to eradicate it entirely. I keep catching myself sliding into these ego-fueled patterns. So the best thing we can do is to begin to understand what they are and what they look like.

1. Imitative Desires

From philosopher Rene Gerard's I See Satan Fall By Lightning:

"Rivalistic desires are all the more overwhelming since they reinforce one another. The principle of reciprocal escalation and one-upmanship governs this type of conflict. This phenomenon is so common, so well known to us, and so contrary to our concept of ourselves, thus so humiliating, that we prefer to remove it from consciousness and act as if it did not exist. But all the while we know it does exist."

Our desires arise from imitating the things other people want or find desirable. These "mimetic desires" push us into conflict with each other. We want the same things. Evolutionarily, our ability to imitate is what makes us such quick learners and adapters. But the complexity of modern society makes the imitation game a losing proposition.

Sometimes we want the same things but claim we want different things, which is what causes conflict! If only we could just recognize when we want the same thing (and we can both have it)!

Sometimes we want something just because someone else wants that thing! This drives us into a frenzy and we are no longer happy with what we already have.

The wants and haves of our peer group become the things we covet. Tragically, we don't realize that the things we have become the things others covet. In an era of abundance, our instinct is still to pine for the seemingly scarce.

2. Ego-Driven Speech

From psychologist Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication:

"Analyses of others are actually expressions of our own needs and values."

From spiritual teacher Adyashanti's Falling Into Grace:

"When we see the world through our thoughts, we stop experiencing life as it really is and others as they really are. When I have a thought about you, that’s something I’ve created. I’ve turned you into an idea. In a certain sense, if I have an idea about you that I believe, I’ve degraded you. I’ve made you into something very small. This is the way of human beings, this is what we do to each other."

When we talk to each other, we have a concept of ourselves and we have a concept of the person we are talking to. Our sense of self, our identity, often forms from the thoughts we cling onto, attach ourselves to, and perpetuate over and over again.

The words and phrases we use to communicate translate these patterns of thought very inefficiently to words. What comes out is a stream of ego-protective expressions that often escalates into some form of conflict. We protect our egos even when we claim to be "expressing ourselves."

"You're such a so-and-so when you ..." (very judgmental) vs. "You make me feel inadequate when you ..." (subtly judgmental) vs. "I feel disappointed in my ability to make you happy when you ..." (vulnerable).

You don't say what you mean to say in the very moments you need to say what you mean to say.

Because we attach much value to our thoughts (and the correctness of translating these thoughts to words), we aren't well-equipped to notice the harm our words can cause.

3. Suffering Through Memory Reliance

From Michael Lewis's The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds:

"The human mind was just bad at seeing things it did not expect to see, and a bit too eager to see what it expected to see. 'Confirmation bias is the most insidious because you don’t even realize it is happening,' [Kahneman] said. A scout would settle on an opinion about a player and then arrange the evidence to support that opinion."

From psychologist Carol Tavris's Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me):

"Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously. Even irrefutable evidence is rarely enough to pierce the mental armor of self-justification."

Our memories play tricks on us. Our memories are extremely vulnerable to the recency effect (how we felt at the tail end of an experience can often skew our memory of the total experience).

Our memories are extremely vulnerable to "making sense" of things in a way that protects our ego. When something promotes the ego, we cherry pick the good; when something clashes with our ego, we cherry pick the bad. This is also why it's so hard for people in high-ego settings to admit fault.

Our subjective memories are not very reliable judges, though they do provide us with rich perspectives. However, we obtain much of our suffering and our emotional state from how we choose to remember something.

You think someone stood you up, so you grumble and despise them, until you learn that they got into a car accident on the way to meeting you. In a flash, your sense of suffering changes entirely - you move from anger to concern.

Reality doesn't change; our perspective on it does.


Our imitative desires cause us to seek a very relational happiness. We are "happy" if we are better off than those around us. However, with the advent of social media, this relational happiness is impossible to attain -- there is always someone or something "better" (or at least, more novel) than what we already have.

And so we must learn to identify these desires and master them.

Our ego-driven speech leads us to conflict. We communicate mostly to secure our own sense of self, rarely thinking, speaking, and listening empathically.

And so we must learn to identify patterns of violence in the way we talk to each other.

Our obsession with our (faulty and unreliable) memories causes us to latch on to our own experiences. We construct narrow narratives about our lives that we defend viciously. 

And so we must learn to never let our memories become an obsession.

It appears we are not careful enough about our relationship with our thoughts, desires, and memories. While it is certainly valuable to care about them, it's dangerous to assume an entitlement to them. They add some color to our life, but the shape of life exists somewhere beyond the pale of things that make us suffer. And so we must break the cycle.


Edit: Also will be trying something different and closing with a list of recommended books + essays. Here are a few related to the conversation above:


decisions need principles

From law professor and metaethicist Ruth Chang's On Hard Choices:

"As post-Enlightenment creatures we tend to assume that scientific thinking holds the key to everything of importance in our world. But the world of value is different from the world of science. One world can be quantified by real numbers, but the other cannot.

We shouldn’t assume that the world of is, of weights and lengths, has the same structure as the world of ought, of values."

The Red Pill, The Blue Pill

My siblings and I have watched The Matrix together more times than I can count. We spent most of our time seeking out hilarious out-of-context two-second snippets that we would play back over and over again. Yes, Vine a full fifteen years before Vine.

Anyways, the soul of the entire movie lives in one scene. Morpheus presents Mr. Anderson with a red pill and a blue pill:

"You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."

Viewed in isolation, neither option is superior in any obvious way to the other. Both are, as Ruth Chang would say, "on a par" with each other, though leading to uncertain and diverging outcomes. The red pill would show Mr. Anderson a world outside The Matrix. Or it might not. The blue pill would allow Mr. Anderson to return to his life as usual. Or it might not. 

To different people, different decisions would be appropriate in this situation. But as viewers, we know Mr. Anderson will pick the red pill because we already know what his values are. We already know from earlier scenes that he is a rebellious, dissatisfied fringe member of the corporate world. With that emotional context laid out, we know exactly which decision he will make. We might even be rooting for him to choose one way.

"This type of response to hard choices is a rational response. But it is not dictated by reasons given to us. Rather, it is supported by reasons created by us. When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are. You might say that we become the authors of our own lives."

Reasoning & Emotions

In his influential Descartes' Error, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes the peculiar circumstances of a patient named Elliot. A brain tumor caused damage to Elliot's frontal lobe; subsequently, his ability to experience emotion evaporated. In the ensuing years, Elliot's professional and personal lives unraveled, as he found it difficult to make decisions.

We sometimes tend to think that the best decision-making system is one that is purely rational and devoid of emotion. But in Damasio's estimation, reasoning is incomplete without emotional motivation. Many decisions cannot be reduced down to choosing between less, more, or equal quantities. We might even think we're being entirely rational, when really a suppressed emotional context might be invisibly creating this appearance of rationality.

Hard decisions are hard because there is no correct answer to them. If the decision was easy, there would be no dilemma. My eternal dilemma is: should we go get noodles or tacos for dinner? I don't know! Both options sound amazing!

What makes hard choices is the set of tradeoffs and uncertain futures that accompany them. One set cannot necessarily be proven "greater than" the other. We can use measurement to get as close as possible to an objective view of these tradeoffs, but at some point, the uncertainty of correctness still remains.

In this space of difficulty, the agent must observe this decision in terms of the system that is her life. By choosing one alternative over another, she has made a normative choice as to which types of tradeoffs, uncertain futures, and new realities she is willing to accept. Over time, these normative choices form our notions of principles and character. And when we feel like we've made a mistake, we can go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate how we decide. As Chang says herself:

"[...] the reasons that govern our choices as correct or incorrect sometimes run out, and it is here in this space of hard choices that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people that we are."

Hypothetical: Jobs (and Investing in Anything)

Here's a hypothetical about deciding between job offers (because that's something I'll be doing pretty soon). Choosing a job, like most choices dealing with a degree of uncertainty, involves an investment. Generally speaking, investing is the act of choosing one uncertain future over another, with the hope that a particular subset of futures comes to fruition.

You can minimize uncertainty through observation and data, but at the end of the day, all uncertainty can't be vanquished. In fact, an over-reliance on measurement might even blind you from some uncertain outcomes you hadn't anticipated.

The typical approach to the job question is to choose the most socially validating job in your community. Another approach is to enumerate pros and cons for each option and then pick the job that's the biggest net positive. Both methods on their own can quickly lead to unhappy outcomes when faced with hard choices. Prestige-bound choices occur through forces external to the decision-maker, while exhaustive pro-conning can act as a form of fake rigor.

A more robust approach would be to envision the person you are and the person you aspire to become. What are the values and principles that ought to be guiding your decision? Which job offers would prevent this person from actualizing? As a good friend recently pointed out, something as simple as a bad interview experience could point to such a misalignment. 

A valid thesis could be: I want to construct a life in which 1) I nurture strong relationships with family and friends, 2) I devote my energy to mastering a craft, and 3) I have the right time-money balance to dedicate to missions I care about. As thoughtful decision-makers, we can go through each of these levers to clarify exactly what they mean and what they look like. Why are they so important to us? Do we fear the things we value?

Introspecting like this can show us the types of biases and insecurities we are susceptible to. Maybe we lean to the safe and prestigious at the detriment of what we actually need. Conversely, maybe we ignore the option we need precisely because it is safe and prestigious.

Principles, Values, and Science

A principles-based analysis often creates a simplifying rigor to decision-making. It eliminates enticing offers that would jeopardize your values. It illuminates options that you may have been hesitating to take seriously.

Of course, this is not to say that striving for purely rational thought is stupid. In fact, many areas of our lives can be better understood through this form of reasoning. You can "science the shit out of" more things than not. In some cases, you can even science the shit out of analyzing your own values.

But in the realm of decision-making, scientific rigor should exist in the service of identifying and acting upon principles. We see this everywhere: sports (the Broncos and zone blocking schemes, the Spurs and ball movement), software (Amazon's maniacal focus on the customer and near-100% uptime), organizations (Google's super analytical approach to hiring and preventing bias); politics (Denmark's rehabilitation-focused counterterrorism efforts) ... the list goes on and on.

In the long run, a well-tuned set of principles can give an entity a pretty long-lasting advantage over its peers. Mostly because everyone else doesn't have the patience to act based on principles.

Perhaps the most concise expression of all the above comes from the philosopher king Kanye West:

Damn, here we go again.
Everybody's saying what's not for him,
But everything I'm not made me everything I am.


make the people around you feel necessary

From Sebastian Junger's Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging:

"Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary."

"Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker. Contempt is often directed at people who have been excluded from a group or declared unworthy of its benefits. [...] Contempt is one of four behaviors that, statistically, can predict divorce in married couples. People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united for long."
(If you've talked to me at any point over the past two weeks, you're probably sick of how often I bring up this book. Read it. It is wonderful.)

Pakistani Pundits and Socialites

There's an 18-inch TV perched in the kitchen where I dutifully ate my morning Cocoa Puffs as a child. On any given weeknight, this TV featured a gaggle of Pakistani pundits "debating" about the state of the country. To an outsider, it probably sounded like a bunch of hotheaded teens yelling over each other. To an insider ... well, it also sounded like a bunch of hotheaded teens yelling over each other.

So I learned that Pakistanis can be quite cruel and contemptuous towards those who don't think like them.

Some of the other programs that played on GeoTV (Pakistan's flagship station) featured much gentler and more respectful commentary. Of course, the guests on these shows tended to agree with each other.

So I learned that Pakistanis are quite kind and hospitable to those who think like them. 

After a brief foray into the world of DC-area Pakistani socialites, I made my quiet exit after repeatedly feeling like I didn't belong. I didn't feel necessary or particularly valued in that environment. So my image of "those people" came from a place of insecurity masked behind moral superiority. "Those people" and their glitzy, glamorous, superficial, horrible ways.

Years later, I realized that I wasn't a victim here. I was an aggressor. Those who held perspectives or preferred lifestyles that clashed with my own would then become the objects of my contempt. As they sensed that I cast them away in my mind, I became the object of their contempt. Each party defensively dismissed the worthiness of the other.

The Formation of Echo Chambers

It dawned on me that this strange quality of "contempt for those who don't openly accept you" extends everywhere there is an ego that cares a lot about its own success.

This is all something I've noticed only very recently (probably as my ego has chilled out enough to let me see more clearly). In my personal life, it took the form of clashes with friends, significant others, parents, siblings, acquaintances. Elsewhere, it looked like Fox News v. CNN showdowns of increasingly higher stakes. Overall, it looks like people talking over each other and not with each other.

As of late, I've been following ultra-right and ultra-left commentators on Twitter, and now my feed resembles a schizophrenic conspiracy theory that can't decide on who the villain is, but that there is a villain somewhere in the mix.

"Those people" voted for a tyrant. But "those other people" have always wanted to paint him as a tyrant. Both sides scream their own views ad infinitum into the depths of their respective echo chambers.

This "echo chamber" business doesn't appear to be an issue of politics. It is and has always been a problem of basic human decency. Those we don't agree with, we cast away with frustrating jargon. Those who cast us away with frustrating language, we view contemptuously. When we don't feel valued or necessary in a particular context, we demonize that context and avoid engaging with it.

Notes from the Classroom

Early on during my short stint as a teacher, I was having a difficult time with one of my students. My mentor swung by my classroom one morning as I was prepping for the day.

"Mr. Mian, you still having trouble with that boy T in your afternoon class?"
"If by trouble you mean I can't sleep well because of him, then yes."
"I've got an idea for you. Put him in charge of passing back homework."
"I don't know, Ms. G. That's dicey."

After a few more days of struggle with T, I gave in and tried my mentor's suggestion.

"T, I'm giving you a job that will help me teach you guys better. Think you can handle it?"
"Why can't you get F to do it? She always trying to help out anyways."
"Are you telling me you can't handle it?"

I'm not sure whether it was because of the challenge or because of the job, but T gradually stopped (most of) his disruptions. His grades steadily climbed up. And he found a way to inject his own personality into the gig. It became fun.

I suspect that as soon as T realized he was a necessary component of the classroom, he stepped up. His contempt for me and for math class subsided when he became a valued, integral member of what we were trying to accomplish. Strangely, as I saw him become a valued member, my own contempt for him also disappeared.

Feeling Necessary & Making Others Feel Necessary

In Tribe, Sebastian Junger writes about this notion of "feeling necessary" when he discusses his work with soldiers coming back from combat. In many tribal, communitarian societies, warriors returning from the front are seamlessly reintegrated into the fabric of daily life. However, in the US, many veterans suffering from PTSD get tossed a monthly disability check and regular appointments with a doctor. Until recently, there had been minimal resources directed towards helping them reintegrate and feel valued for more than just being Army grunts that we "thank for their service."

If the shape of society is the complex interactions occurring across a set of individuals, then the way we make each other feel necessary could be the lynchpin for a healthier society. Because when people don't feel heard or valued, they will seek out tribes that do value them. Then things begin to fracture. Then things fall apart.

on the topography of striving

From EF Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed:

"Map-making is an empirical art which makes use of a high degree of abstraction but nonetheless clings to reality with something akin to self-abandonment.

Its motto, in a sense, is 'Accept everything; reject nothing.' If something is there, if it has any kind of existence, if people notice it and are interested in it, it must be indicated on the map, in its proper place.

Map-making is not the whole of philosophy, just as a map or guidebook is not the whole of geography. It is simply a beginning - the very beginning that is at present lacking, when people ask: 'What does it all mean?' or 'What am I supposed to do with my life?'"

I remember when I started loving maps. It was when I first learned that the map we see in schools is actually a projection (the Mercator projection) rather than an objective representation of the world. In reality, the United States neatly fits into the Sahara Desert; the Indian subcontinent is larger than all of Western Europe. Yet the Western rendition of history makes these "exotic locales" seem so insignificant.

Point being, maps are great. They show you where everything is, but they can't show you every thing, and so "everything" becomes an editorial decision. What makes the cut? What is worth looking at? The arrangement and centering of a map also tells you what the mapmaker thought was most important (notice how Mercator's projection placed Germany longitudinally in the center of the map).

Iterating on the Design of Mental Maps

As my personal grad school year winds to a close, I've been thinking a lot about mental maps. Previously, I wrote about the importance of collecting them; this time, I want to write a bit about how to draw them.

The first, and possibly most useful, map I ever collected came from my father. It was sparsely detailed -- obscure gravel paths leading into vaguely dangerous woodlands distract a young traveler from the golden road (the Ivy League Parkway). I won't lie, this map helped (and continues to help) me stay focused, even if the object of my focus back then was pretty contrived.

As I moved onto college, I realized I had the ability to edit this map by drawing directly on it. Thus, the map began to deepen in detail as my life experiences began to diversify. What was once dangerous and obscure now brimmed with happy elven creatures and mischievous tree critters (of course accompanied with sing-along subtitles). What was once golden and holy now looked stilted and weary, like a Bluth model home. I also started drawing new holy paths, though their initial renderings were overly romanticized.

During my tenure as a teacher in Florida, I learned that this map could change shape depending on who was looking at it! It wasn't purely functional; it was a piece of art, despite being sloppily inked. The map could create meaning for the beholder. Some of my students were attracted to the not-so-vaguely dangerous regions on their own maps, while I tried to steer them towards the golden paths on the map I grew up with. Even though these had ultimately lost their appeal to me years ago.

Topographical Maps

Mental maps can confer meaning, direction, and a sense of play to an eager explorer. As I've learned over the past year, they also help us understand what we can (or are willing to) endure. Topography.

For instance, some of the paths on my map are remarkably smooth, though they may lead to turbulent destinations. Others plod across jagged expanses, though their destinations may well prove worth the peril.

Topography is a vital consideration because it largely determines what parts of our map we are willing to risk exploring. 

We can't entirely escape the ups and downs of life, but we can choose the terrains we are willing to endure. These are often stated abstractly as our "principles," and they form probably the most important set of life-navigational tools for a thoughtful traveler.

How to Work on Your Mental Map

From Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Laws of Medicine:
"It's easy to make perfect decisions with perfect information. Medicine asks you to make perfect decisions with imperfect information." 
Unfortunately, we can only understand the topography of a region by either a) traveling to it ourselves, or b) letting other travelers tell us how it was.

There is an opportunity cost to each of these options. If we like to explore everything ourselves, we tend to better internalize our maps and have richer details at the edges. However, this occurs at the expense of deepening our understanding of the unexplored familiar. If we like to absorb wisdom from others, we can learn without too much experiential pain. However, this puts us in danger of vicariously living through the hard work of others.

So drawing, rendering, and re-imagining our map is a constant balancing act. If you tend towards abiding by simplistic, inherited maps, you should try drawing them yourself for a little while. Conversely, if you tend to reinvent the wheel all the time, you may want to stop overcomplicating things and just try to learn from what others have drawn.

Anyways, I wanted to share these thoughts as a way to wrap up a pretty revealing year of restlessly exploring the edges of my mental map. I had a longer, sappier, much less interesting essay drafted up, but that thankfully is going back into my chamber of secrets.

I'm back on the East Coast ready to slow down and deepen my understanding of the familiar. If you're around, let's get coffee and talk about weird things.


asking for directions vs. asking for maps

From Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

"[Alice]: 'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'

'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.

'I don't much care where--' said Alice.

'Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.

'--so long as I get somewhere,' Alice added as an explanation.

'Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, 'if you only walk long enough.'"

Making Sense of Things

Humans are sense-making machines. We're not necessarily good at it, though.

If the world around us is illegible, we often find ways to sort out that local chaos. This tendency can be quite nice. Making your bed or tidying up your room or organizing your thoughts -- each are useful in that they allow you to see your world more clearly.

But sometimes this "reshaping" of what is illegible can cause problems.

Imagine looking at yogurt under a microscope. If we aren't accustomed to such a granular inspection, things will not make sense. We may even experience ourselves trying to create a narrative for what we see. To the untrained eye, yogurt-under-the-microscope is a series of blobs that can't really be comprehended. But we know what yogurt looks like when not viewed through the microscope; it is legible to us at that level of zoom.

The same goes with our immediate, local environment. Any semblance of human-undecipherable local chaos gets reordered and reshaped into something legible. For things like making our bed or teasing out the logic in our arguments, this is useful. But when local chaos belongs to a larger system, reordering things can prevent us from more keenly observing what's really going on. This naive reordering might even harm the larger system (see: subprime mortgages, Salafism/Wahhabism, social justice warriordom, p-value hacking).

The Eternal Search for "Meaning"

Our tendency to want to make sense of things around us may also drive our need to find "Meaning", the Capital-W Why. This is where well-intentioned mental models (religion, science, philosophy, sports, startups) become dogmas. Their main utility was to give us a new way to navigate the world, but uncertainty makes us go batshit and so mental models quickly become comfortable, fixed, unchanging, universal directions. Like a Google Maps that only tells you how to get from point A to point B without showing the map itself (how annoying would that be?). The lazy directions-follower would be blind to any inconsistencies in the model that a map collector would quickly notice.

Professional gadfly Nassim Taleb recently gave a commencement speech at the American University of Beirut earlier this year. He began with the following provocative claim:

"For I have a single definition of success: you look in the mirror every evening, and wonder if you disappoint the person you were at 18, right before the age when people start getting corrupted by life. Let him or her be the only judge; not your reputation, not your wealth, not your standing in the community, not the decorations on your lapel. If you do not feel ashamed, you are successful. All other definitions of success are modern constructions; fragile modern constructions."

"Success" maneuvers can be very closely linked to "meaning-making" in that many people derive life-juice out of their pursuit. Externally-defined meaning, just like externally-defined success, are fragile directions-following. The longer you remain on that one righteous path, the more likely you are to get blindsided by some truth or inconsistency that throws you into an existential funk. At which point you may start baring your fangs.

As famous investors Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger have often alluded to, the perceived world unites through a latticework of mental models. The same subset of models that works in a given context may be the completely wrong one to use in the subsequent context. These are maps, and our job is to collect them, observe their machinery, and wisely apply them accordingly to our ever-changing circumstances. In the process, we may discover broader mental models that coalesce many smaller ones. Or not.

A Crude Map for Meaning-Making

From Kevin Simler's A Nihilist's Guide to Meaning:

"In lieu of meaning, I mostly adopted the attitude of Alan Watts. Existence, he says, is fundamentally playful. It's less like a journey, and more like a piece of music or a dance. And the point of dancing isn't to arrive at a particular spot on the floor; the point of dancing is simply to dance. Vonnegut expresses a similar sentiment when he says, 'We are here on Earth to fart around.'

This may be nihilism, but at least it's good-humored."

Despite all the above hand-waving, I'm going to be a hypocrite and try to make sense of the whole meaning-making enterprise.

In short, trying to find Meaning is very difficult because we're constantly battling different external and internal battles. As military strategist John Boyd once put it, the various "theories, systems, processes, etc that we employ to make sense of (the) world contain features that generate mismatches that, in turn, keep such a world uncertain, ever-changing, and unpredictable."

The slightly longer, more visual, and possibly helpful (or possibly entirely wrong) version is that the search for meaning is a graph that emerges from answering the question "Is the world worth saving?" This question works because it is vague and content-less enough for the asker to ascribe whatever pre-meaning they want to it. Rorschach much?

Notice how, at some point, the way you answer the initial question really doesn't matter because it ultimately leads to the same calculations of How or Why. The leaf nodes can independently produce the same output as each other -- a mission-driven Joker and a mission-driven Reverend may possess the same mental models and make similar conclusions along their journey.

The question of Meaning, then, doesn't really matter much unless you need one to keep moving (or need to know you don't need one). The key seems to be to keep moving.

As for myself, I definitely need meaning -- at this moment, I'm more drawn to exploring "The world is worth saving, but why?" When it's time to start a family, I may naturally migrate to the How, or even to the Void-Staring side of life. It is unclear at this point; lucky for me I've got all these crinkly, yellowing maps that I don't fully understand yet.


thoughts on how to travel well

From Slavoj Zizek's Plague of Fantasies:

"The original question of desire is not directly 'What do I want?', but 'What do others want from me? What do they see in me? What am I to others?' A small child is embedded in a complex network of relations; he serves as a kind of catalyst and battlefield for the desires of those around him."

From Anthony Storr's Solitude: A Return to the Self:

"Many of the patients whom [a famous psychiatrist] treated had, for one reason or another, learned as children to be over-compliant; that is, to live in ways which were expected of them, or which pleased others, or which were designed not to offend others. [...] This is what Winnicott deemed a 'false self' -- that is, a self which is based upon compliance with the wishes of others, rather than being based upon the individual's own true feelings and instinctive needs. Such an individual ultimately comes to feel that life is pointless and futile, because he is merely adapting to the world rather than experiencing it as a place in which his subjective needs can find fulfillment."

During the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I flew off to Aix-en-Provence for a 10-week study abroad program. For the first time in my very sheltered life, almost every pillar of protection had been knocked over. 

All the self-defense mechanisms I had carefully cultivated over the years wouldn't work here:

  • The program consisted of 2 boys and 40 girls; I had attended an all-boys prep school for ten years.
  • The local culture was very expressive and open (a lot of kisses, touches, and proximity); I had a pretty conservative upbringing in a stoic Pakistani Muslim household. 
  • People in Aix didn't speak much English; my French was "academic" -- great for probing analyses on Voltaire, but little practical value.

As a result, during my first week in Aix, I subsisted off of a Nutella-and-bread diet, holed up in my room watching Amelie in darkness. I exercised the only semblance of control I could find -- stick my head in the ground.

Eventually, I realized what was going on with me. Many of my unconscious habits of disengaging with uncomfortable situations had now become not only alarmingly conscious, but also ineffective. I feared going out to the market to grab groceries or start a conversation with a stranger because I feared how my errors in French or other quirkiness would negatively impact how others viewed me. Even if they couldn't care less.

The Fear of Social Rejection

This is a pretty common setup for the College Kid Abroad narrative. The "immersion" aspect throws him (or her) for a loop; he leans into the awkwardness; lingual and personal transformation ensues. He returns with a Mediterranean tan, a chiller, slightly arrogant demeanor, and new clothes/music. Or maybe he doesn't lean in and has a miserable time.

Why does this happen? We can look at some psych literature for some clues. In his excellent book Others in Mind, Philippe Rochat asserts that self-consciousness is a modern syndrome in which the "self is an object to itself co-constructed in interaction with others."

"As a species, we are caught in a unique and fateful reflective loop. We have the privilege as well as the curse of being able to reflect upon ourselves, as an object unto itself, but also through the eyes of others."

In other terms, I create an idea of "Ammar" largely in relation to other people's recognition of me. When we sit with friends and talk about random things, on one level, yes, we're engaging in friendly banter and love. But we're also exploring and experimenting with our sense of self by mutually recognizing each other and actively being aware of the existence of each other. We are simultaneously constructing others and being constructed by others.

Rochat writes that a side effect of this "co-constructive" feature of being human is a hard-wired fear of social rejection. When social encounters make someone anxious, it may be because he fears that others will see him unworthy of recognition. This is a case of believing that others are actively constructing and de-constructing the person, as opposed to all of this being a shared, cooperative activity. 

Some of this is genetic, but much of it is environmental -- if you've been raised to view your sense of self coming from certain accomplishments (and that most of your human interaction with others revolves around discussion of said accomplishments), then of course there will be anxiety about not being "good enough" for others. If you feel your self driven by other people's expectations of you, then at some level you fear their rejection (and thus lack of recognition) of you.

This process of co-construction could also be why we: act differently around different people; enjoy being regulars at coffeeshops or delis or bars or restaurants; feel comfortable in small groups but lose footing in crowds; say things like "I'm so glad I met someone who's as weird as I am"; join cults.

Getting Out of the "Comfort Zone"

Over time, the way we deal with this constant co-construction becomes habituated and subconscious. My relationship to myself and to others stabilizes, so then I get a person named Ammar who generally is x and does y and thinks z.

Going abroad shatters this habituated self and brings all of this to the conscious surface. There are no comfortable nooks you can reliably crawl back to, no previously saved versions of You that other people agree upon. Every encounter is a potential source of social rejection -- if not because of your quirkiness, then definitely because of your broken French. 

Being abroad (or generally speaking, being thrown way out of your comfort zone), you have to consciously re-address your relationship with this co-construction. Will you play an active role in exploring the different ways you can experience yourself and experience others? Or will you passively accept the easiest version of yourself that others expect you to be?

How to Travel Well

A large part of traveling is really a way for your "self" to travel, to be thrown out of the context of the self it has been habituated to be.

Traveling well is to harshly reacquaint yourself with the fact that you are a constructed You (and that you have the power to construct that person however you wish).

Traveling well is also realizing that how you treat other people (or even things and places) is also constructing them. There is a responsibility in not only compassionately constructing yourself, but also compassionately constructing the people around you.

In this sense, traveling well doesn't necessarily require a passport or a sexy Airbnb apartment rented out in Havana. You can travel well by more actively participating in co-construction: brunch with friends, conversations with Uber drivers, hikes, long walks. Though that Cuba trip does sound pretty awesome.


finding secrets of the self

From Sufi scholar Zia Inayat Khan:

"Wisdom is the fruit that ripens when, with crazy courage, we plant ourselves in the garden of radical unknowingness. It is the deep breath that accompanies the willingness to not know, to rest in the mystery, to abide in surprise and allow the sacred to reveal itself in its terrible beauty and startling ordinariness. To be wise is to come undone and pay attention to the dismantling and celebrate what rises from the annihilating depths of love’s fire."

Lately, I've been reading a lot of works by Sufi scholars. One of the most profound ideas that constantly reappears among their teachings is the notion of secrets. Hidden truth. Wisdom that is not visible until the beholder is ready to see it. This type of understanding is not rational; it does not appear simply by being present and logically coherent.

The idea of hidden truth is embedded in the very mechanics of Sufism's patron language. Mostly every word in Arabic takes shape from an algebraic combination of three consonants. The pattern in which they are combined often give them their meaning. 

Let's take a look at the various combinations of Q-L-A (Anglicized to make it easier to follow):

  • There's the verb qalla, which means "to become less" or "to diminish".
  • And there's the adjective qaleel, which means "a little (amount)" or "small (in quantity)".
  • But if you change it a little, to istiqlal, now you have the word for "independence".
  • One more slight alteration, and you get istiqlaliyyah, which means "self-reliance".

You can see how generative, poetic, and suggestive a language gets when small and almost unnoticeable alterations yield potentially great differences in connotation and meaning. Especially when you as the observer bring your own specific experience to the table.

One person may hear qaleel in istiqlal -- to be independent is to diminish the self. 

Yet another person may hear istiqlal in qaleel -- to become less is to become independent.

Maybe there is equal meaning in both, but we cannot unlock the true duality of meaning until we are ready to see and feel it.

The Fable of the Four Travelers

The Sufis are all about this concealed beauty to things. One fable that illustrates this principle really well is Idries Shah's story about the four men in search for food.

"I want to buy angur,” said the Persian.

“I want uzum,” said the Turk.

“I want inab,” said the Arab.

“No!” said the Greek,  "we should buy stafil.“

Another traveller passing, a linguist, said, "Give the coin to me. I undertake to satisfy the desires of all of you.”

The traveller buys them four small bunches of grapes. They realize that they had each wanted the same thing -- grapes. The disharmony had been caused by their faulty understanding of each other. 

Even deeper still, in Sufism, the juice of a grape steeped with time is the wine of wisdom. But before the wine can be tasted, the man must first learn to recognize the grape as a grape.

Modern Grapes

In these modern times, our "grapes" of misunderstanding exist within ourselves. Oftentimes, when we feel something is missing from our lives, we seek out a surface-level acquisition of something.

For some, that may be material things. Buying the newest and the hottest. Quality by association.

For others, it might be knowledge. Reading voraciously but not deeply. Looking to extract wisdom from other sources rather than seeing these sources as vehicles for extracting wisdom from the self.

Or maybe it's something like relationships, or prestige, or money, or some other indicator of success. 

All of these amount to a faulty understanding of what we're really missing.

Becoming the Indiana Jones of Secrets

So what do we do to find what we're missing if our current model doesn't work? Hunt secrets. Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, trained in the works of philosopher/secret-hunter Rene Girard, has written about secrets for years. In his Zero to One essays, he wrote:

"Every great business is built around a secret that’s hidden from the outside. A great company is a conspiracy to change the world; when you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator."

In the realm of business, this makes sense. Airbnb rediscovered the secret link between homes, intimacy, and lodging. Uber rediscovered the secret of car pools. Pixar rediscovers time and time again the power of ancient stories retold with new characters.

Perhaps every great self is also built around rediscovering secrets that are "hidden from the outside." Finding these secrets of the self is not a formula, but once you start seeking them, small innocuous seeds of experience get much more interesting. Nothing is boring anymore. And slowly that vague feeling of modern emptiness might just start to dissipate.