stillness in staring at bird shit

From E.F. Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed:

"All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance to the conduct of my life.

I remembered that for many years my perplexity had been complete; and no interpreter had come along to help me. It remained complete until I ceased to suspect the sanity of my perceptions and began, instead, to suspect the soundness of the maps.”

Every few days, I come across an old man in Tompkins Square Park. One of these days, I'll actually talk to him, because I wonder what he would have to tell me. (Hopefully he knows English).

This man -- I'm not sure if he's Japanese or Chinese or Korean -- comes to the park to practice tai chi. His movements are so slow, so deliberate, and so in control; he blends into the natural arrangement of the park. The man exudes a stillness that is pretty hard to ignore when surrounded at 7pm by scurrying rats/humans.

What's odd is that there's usually a little kid somewhere nearby, too, who's just standing there staring at bird shit. I know the comparison is a little ridiculous, but I've witnessed these two things in tandem so often that I can't help myself. 

The child is mesmerized by the bird shit. I wonder what he's pondering, or whether that even matters. In his own meditative way (at an age where everything is a form of meditation), this kid's found the same kind of stillness that the old man has.

Their maps of the world grow large in their respective moments of stillness. Maybe the old man as a child also stared at bird shit. And then maybe over time the world told him that it, along with all other "silly" things, wasn't worth noticing. And maybe his tai chi is a way of reclaiming the map that he once had.

Maybe I should stop staring at old men in the park.

insecurities and limitations

From Alan Watts' The Wisdom of Insecurity:

"Man seems to be unable to live without myth, without the belief that the routine and drudgery, the pain and fear of this life have some meaning and goal in the future.

[...] These myths give the individual a certain sense of meaning by making him part of a vast social effort, in which he loses something of his own emptiness and loneliness. Yet the very violence of these political religions betrays the anxiety beneath them - for they are but men huddling together and shouting to give themselves courage in the dark."

During my walk to work this morning, I listened to an old Freakonomics podcast. Stephen Dubner was chatting with Takeru Kobayashi, the waifish Japanese competitive eater who can consume 72 hot dogs in 10 minutes. 

Dubner and Kobayashi talked about how a 5-foot-8, 130-pound dude who eats predominantly fish and fruit could become a world champion eater. For Kobe, the answer was pretty simple, actually. Most competitive hot-dog eaters had treated the contest as an extension of eating a normal meal. They played with the mindset of "Let me just eat how I normally do, but faster."

Kobayashi reframed the problem- the question for him was: How can I make it easier to consume one hot dog? "Rapid hot dog consumption" became less about "eating" and more about scientifically putting food into the body.

Through obsessive experimentation, he came up with the right mix of discipline and strategy to blow the previous world record out of the water. 

And only through absolutely destroying the previous standard of what was possible did people take notice:
"I think people have to have a reason to rethink what could be wrong if ... people only see someone eating 25 is the limit then someone who can eat 20 might think wow, if I just eat five more I could actually do that and no one would think anything else can be done. But if you see someone suddenly come and eat 50 then everyone knows that there must be a different approach to the problem. And until something like that happens, people don’t question."
In the first quote I dropped in here, Alan Watts discussed the human need for myth. These myths appear everywhere - in religion, in politics, in business, you name it. They often act as ways to tame our insecurities. They give us the freedom to believe certain things that normalize the world in some important way.

These myths also tend to limit our own personal capabilities. 

In environments where myths reign supreme, everyone seems to talk and act the same way, humming and circling in the same set of ritualized words and practices. This all really exists to help these cult members feel less insecure about the opinions they hold about the world. And in the process, they likely oppress the brilliance of their brightest minds. In most mythologies, the "tallest poppies have their heads cut off."

It is easier to hold a static view of the world, where much of its uncertainty/mystery has already been solved. Kobayashi could have very justifiably told himself that there's no way someone of his size could eat that many hot dogs. In the domain of technology, there's no reason why Elon Musk should be doing what he's doing with Tesla and SpaceX. 

Often, our limitations are not self-imposed; they are imposed upon us by others, and then we are made to think that we ourselves are the ones who are crazy and self-defeating. 

I don't think we in our natural state care too much about what others think of our interests- we just become conditioned to be that way.

humans are in their sophomore slump

From Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

“This planet has - or rather had - a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.” 

I've recently begun re-reading this book (after having previously read it when I was 12 years old). It is a gold mine.

Many problems can, when viewed from an uninterested third-party's perspective, be whittled down to obvious insights.

Why are we, as a species, generally unhappy? What does it even mean to be happy or unhappy? From the trenches, we can overanalyze things and say it's due to inequality, racism, religion, capitalism, and everything in between.

But viewed for what it is at its most basic level, we are unhappy because, well, consciousness is a bitch.

Humans have only very recently figured out that, by using technology and language to stockpile resources and build institutions, we don't have to live from meal to meal. 

But there's a lot of other stuff we haven't figured out. God? The Universe? Renewable energy? Anger? Fear? What? Our descendants (assuming we don't cause Armageddon before then) will laugh at how primitive we were.

Our brains haven't evolved fast enough. They haven't caught up. And so we are ill-equipped (at least for now) to deal with higher thoughts. 

To put it in very corny terms: if the history of the world is the School of Knowledge, we're just entering our sophomore slump. It's the uncomfortable realization that we aren't the hot shit we thought we were, and that there is an infinite amount of things we don't know.


law, data, and lagging indicators

From Fred Rodell's 1939 polemic, Woe Unto You, Lawyers:

"The Law is the killy-loo bird of the sciences. The killy-loo, of course, was the bird that insisted on flying backward because it didn’t care where it was going but was mightily interested in where it had been. And certainly The Law, when it moves at all, does so by flapping clumsily and uncertainly along, with its eye unswervingly glued on what lies behind."

I don't mean to pick on The Law. It's important that laws change somewhat slowly, as an overcompensatory mechanism to counter the madness of popular opinion.

At the same time, however, isn't it strange? The Law itself eventually does end up conforming to changes in popular opinion, though this transition takes much longer than we would like. 

A national consensus often must exist in order for sweeping rulings to occur. There must be "precedent" - ample record of municipal and state courts deciding to rule in a certain direction. Seems like a chicken v. egg situation.

Black folk in America didn't have their rights as US citizens fully protected until the 1960s (though arguably these rights are still not being protected). The LGBTQ community only recently secured their right to marry the love of their life.

I'm sorry, but how can we congratulate our legal system for doing what should have happened long ago? If our society is founded upon the ideal that "all men are created equal," then doesn't it follow that discriminatory rulings shouldn't take centuries to overturn?

Application to "Big Data"

In a broader sense, the Law is very similar to the business world, in which unimaginative decision-makers cower behind data. Most data, just like the Law, is a lagging indicator. What does that mean? That the data points you're looking at to steer your ship describe the past. If you make decisions based on these lagging indicators, you are making the horrible assumption that the future will look, and should look, like the past. (To be fair, in many cases, this is true).

Some data, just like some legal principles and decisions, are leading indicators. They point to what ought to be and what will be. But to discover these leading indicators requires a very deep understanding of (in law) the meaning of unalienable and (in business) the meaning of innovation.

advice and skin in the game

From Nassim Taleb's incredible book Antifragile:

“The psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has a simple heuristic. Never ask the doctor what you should do. Ask him what he would do if he were in your place. You would be surprised at the difference."

A strange feature of growing into "adulthood" is the increasing presence of people willing to dispense advice.

Often, this advice seems to act as a socialization scheme to convert crazy, idealistic young folk into jaded, play-within-the-rules social climbers. Eager advice-givers often frame their advice as answers, rather than questions. They cite their decades of experience rather than the principles guiding their thought processes.

Nowhere else is this more prevalent than in New York City. It's also prevalent in Silicon Valley, though in its own weird way where "disruption" and "breaking the rules" all ends up looking the same way.

The truth, however, is that not all advice is created the same. Usually, the primary purpose of advice is to tell you more about the person giving it than to provide deeper value to the person receiving it.

Advice tells you what kind of skin the giver has in the game of giving advice. What does this person have to gain or lose from dispensing "wisdom?" 

A grumpy but well-intentioned veteran teacher once watched me teach a lesson on linear equations. After class, she chided me for trying too hard to build rapport with the students.
"They will eat you for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Just give it a couple more weeks. I highly suggest you cut out the summer camp feel-good stuff."
Later that same day, another teacher came to observe my classroom (I enjoyed having veterans watch my classes; it helped me gauge how badly I was sucking). She was one of the most loved teachers at the school; her no-nonsense yet nurturing personality made it difficult for anyone to not want to make her happy. This was her advice for me:
"I really like what you're trying to do to get the kids involved, but you still have a long ways to go. Don't fall in the trap of structure. Learn to embrace and orchestrate the chaos. Kids don't learn passively; you need to get their energy levels up, then manage that energy."
And then she offered to show me how to do it. 

The very next day, she taught a lesson to my first period class. It was organized chaos. Students clambering out of their seats to get a better look at the board; kids yelling out answers, then quickly covering their mouths (because they knew they shouldn't have blurted it out). 

Yet the teacher was in complete control. She already knew every single student by name and had already developed strong relationships with most of them. So a single stern look immediately translated to "I love you, but if you don't shut up, me and your mom are going to have a chat later this week."

Everything I had been told about these types of scenes - that they only happen in movies - was pretty much demonstrated to be false. Sure, every day can't look like this, but this teacher showed me it can actually happen in real life.

This teacher had skin in the game. Whatever she presented to me as a theory, she had actually successfully practiced in the past, and continues to practice in the present. That's advice I can get behind.


the flow and deliberate practice

From Tim Gallwey's The Inner Game of Tennis:

"Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking."

Much has been written as of late about the creative zone - that strange space in which you lose all sense of self, in which you volunteer yourself to something outside of you.

Athletes at peak performance witness this regularly. I think anyone with a desire to master anything has experienced it at some point. Maybe a lawyer has an out-of-body experience while making a closing argument; an engineer makes a crucial breakthrough and works for 12 hours straight; during a lesson a teacher becomes the conductor, and the classroom her orchestra.

Among the overeducated, there's a tendency to place too much emphasis on the conscious mind. Reason, logical thinking, and explicitly expounded theories take precedent. 

As we see from master craftsmen and artists, though, good shit happens when you just let things happen. But these people didn't get to where they have through haphazard practice. They practiced deeply on specific things. They've eliminated unacceptable weaknesses; they've highlighted and solidified their unique strengths.

The key, then, is in how you design your moments of deliberate practice. Are you getting interrupted every 15 minutes? Then you'll never hit your zone. 

allowing for the process

From A.S. Neill's 1960 classic Summerhill:

"Children who come to Summerhill as kindergarteners attend lessons from the beginning of their stay; but pupils from other schools vow that they will never attend any beastly lessons again at any time. They play and cycle and get in people's way, but they fight shy of lessons. This sometimes goes on for months. 

The recovery time is proportionate to the hatred their last school gave them. Our record case was a girl from a convent. She loafed for three years. The average period of recovery from lesson aversion is three months."

I recently learned about Summerhill, an experimental private school located about 115 miles northeast of London. At Summerhill: 

- Students can come and go as they please; if they want to skip class, they can without penalty.
- Students and staff democratically vote each year on the rules of the school.
- There are no official tests or exams other than those for students applying for university.

A.S. Neill, a lifelong educator, started the school because he had noticed destructive tendencies in modern education. One was that schools often conformed children to fit their agendas, rather than the other way around. The other was that traditional schools viewed children rather suspiciously.

In any case, the above quote really struck a chord with me for two reasons.

1. There is a slow process to things. Adjustment takes time, and it does no one any good to force the issue prematurely.
2. Intrinsic motivation matters. A late bloomer who actually cares > a bored, mechanically studious overachiever.

There are countless anecdotes in this book about the effect of Summerhill on its students. One student goes on to become a successful engineer; another a professor of mathematics. In these two circumstances, the students wouldn't have been deemed exceptional if judged solely on their exam scores. But other immeasurable "metrics" would point to the inevitability of their success. 

Who knows if Summerhill still operates like this today. But there is something refreshing about a school that focuses on process and intrinsic motivation over outcomes and coercion.

the good and bad of pain

From Norman Doidge's The Brain's Way of Healing:

"Then he amputated the animal's third finger. After a number of months, he remapped the monkey's remaining fingers and found that the brain maps for the second finger and fourth finger had grown into the space he had originally mapped for the third."

I often forget this important insight about how our brains work (though the grotesque image of chopping an ape's finger off will help with recall). 

There are two angles of insight here:

  1. Our brains (and bodies) are wired to overcompensate. This is good!
  2. Our brains (and bodies) are wired to overcompensate. This is bad!

The good: Shortcomings often become strengths if you survive for long enough. This is essentially the "Rose in the Concrete" effect. Your brain understands that something isn't right and uses everything at its disposal to fill in the gaps. Examples worth looking up: Elon Musk's childhood in South Africa; attorney David Walton's stutter.

The bad: Mismanaged pain expands into areas that, objectively speaking, shouldn't feel pain. Doidge brings up the example of chronic pain he had developed in the left side of his neck due to a previous injury. When went untreated, this throbbing pain spread to the other side of his neck (even though that side had no injury).

Another way to view this same insight comes from Paul Graham's essay The Hacker's Guide to Investors:

"Instead of a beautiful but fragile flower that needs to have its stem in a plastic tube to support itself, better to be small, ugly, and indestructible."

Many people to try engineer lifestyles where no pain is encountered or ever felt. But a) most things amazing have arisen from moments of pain and suffering (or at the very least, discomfort and stress); and b) to avoid pain is a "Brave New World"-esque attempt at control that really isn't sustainable. 


trust in the unconscious

From Mihnea Moldoveanu's Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers:

"Behavior does not have to be conscious to be intelligent."

An important lesson I've learned over the past couple years is to trust (and train) your unconscious self.

That bad feeling you have about making a certain decision. The negative vibes you get when you meet a certain someone. 

Why do these things happen? It's not like I willed them consciously into reality. Yet my gut is sharing important information with me: you're making a mistake; this person isn't trustworthy.

Sometimes, though, these gut reflexes are wrong. That decision turns out to be a good one; I was just naturally predisposed to not normally make decisions like that. That person actually ends up being awesome; I'm just naturally inclined to be suspicious of people who look and talk a certain way (me being the asshole that I am). 

The trick I'm slowly learning is to understand why my intuitions act a certain way. Everyone has tendencies and biases; which ones are at play when my body language immediately closes off to new people and new ideas? 

Alternatively, which "warning signs" are not firing when they should be?


experts v. masters

From Robert Greene's Mastery:

“We tend to think of working with the hands, of building something physical, as degraded skills for those who are less intelligent. This is an extremely counterproductive cultural value.”

My father is a doctor. He sees upwards of 50 patients every day and receives more "Thanks for everything" notes of gratitude than anyone I've encountered.

My father isn't an intellectual; his relationship with his craft is dominated by his hands and his body. His mind just happens to come along for the ride, take notes, and learn.

Just as a seasoned Wall Street trader can sense a downturn in the market simply by smelling the post-lunch air, Dr. Mian can make diagnoses and split-second decisions based on decades of trial and error.

And he tells anyone who's willing to listen how important learning from a "master" was for him. My dad learned much of the art of his profession through a mentor he had while he was a resident:

"To this day I remember what he would tell me. He would tell me, 'Rafiq, that scalpel is an extension of your fingers, your wrist, your arm, and your mind. If you can connect the scalpel tip to the rest of you, you'll make that scalpel dance to your tune.'"

This is what it means to have a craft. It is something that was once revered centuries ago, when ambitious young folk spent years as apprentices for ironsmiths and printing presses. Musicians-in-training had actual archetypes of what excellence looked like.

But today, we attach ourselves to ideas and techniques, rather than to the vehicles for these ideas and techniques.

We are suspicious of masters; but we eagerly want to extract from them the theory rather than the practice.

"Experts" vastly outnumber masters. People masquerading as masters have built a career by talking at the lectern, but never doing. The real masters are too busy at work for all that stuffy speech.