Why should we blog?

It’s always been self-evident to me, but let me try to spell it out. A blog is the intersection of conversations and book-publishing. Why should have conversations, and why should we publish books?

It allows for the accelerated exchange of ideas. A blogpost has a potentially limitless audience throughout space-time. Something you write can touch and move people long after you’re dead. It can inspire and provoke and be referenced and riffed. And it’s essentially free to publish.

If you have intelligent, thoughtful discussions on Facebook, or on Hacker News, or on Quora, and you don’t translate the fruit of those discussions into a blog that is accessible by search, you’re missing out on hundreds of thousands of hits, potential connections, intelligent input, exchange. And those of us who blog benefit disproportionately from your inaction. (But I’d much rather live in a world where EVERYBODY blogged, because that would mean a richer cross-fertilization of ideas. My % slice of the pie might be smaller, but it would be a bigger slice becaus the pie would’ve expanded so much. And it would taste so much better, too.)

And the audience typically self-selects, so if you write about what you care about, you’ll find yourself surrounded by people who care about the same things. Sometimes people will disagree with you, which is great because it forces you to clarify yourself, to make your thinking more precise. You’ll notice flaws and weaknesses in yourself that you didn’t realize before. It’s accelerated learning. You’ll grow and improve. The brain is a muscle, and a blog is a gymnasium for the mind. After a while you’ll start noticing that you’re sharper and quicker than people.

You’ll learn to think and write better. You’ll develop a public record of your thoughts and writing, and you can psychoanalyze yourself over time. I can look back right now at blogposts from 2010 to see what my thinking was like 4 years ago. I can study it for bad logic, flaws, etc. I can improve myself.

If you find yourself repeating yourself in different conversations, you can just write a blogpost about it and share the link with everybody. That saves time. I’m writing this blogpost after having a conversation with a friend who asked “Why should we blog?”. I’m answering this question in a blogpost, so now I can send it to everybody.

There’s very limited downside (you do something once, it lasts forever) and nearly unlimited upside- your writing will go to places you can’t go yourself. My blog got me invited to see the Prime Minister, it allowed me to respond to kids going through the same problems I did when I was younger, it got me employed by awesome employers.

I’m sure I repeated myself a little bit, and I may have left some of it out, but in essence the benefit is tremendous and accelerated mind expansion. Your mind gets to collide with itself, it gets to collide with other minds, it gets to have its signals amplified, shared, remixed, etc.

It’s like asking a musician, why record your performances? Why play other people’s songs? Why collaborate with other musicians? In all cases, the answer is- because music is beautiful, and the more you play it, the more you immerse yourself in it, the more you share, the more you listen, the better you get at it, and the more joy you bring to yourself and to others. And imagine if all of that was essentially free, and it was what you could be doing with little pockets of spare time (like when you’re on public transportation, for instance.)

Over time, it compounds into a hideous advantage. And it’s free, so I think it’s ridiculous when smart people don’t blog. You mean you tell people the same thing, in conversation, over and over again? When you could essentially publish stuff for free? C’mon guys, we’re living in the future. More blogs, please. More thinking, more thoughts, faster. Let’s go.

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0148 – becoming a better writer

This post was started in Jan 2014, and completed today.

My blog started out as a random cache of brain farts and rants, and I think that won’t ever change. It’s a woodshed where I hone my fundamental (tactical) writing ability. It’s also an R&D center for my (strategic) writing and thinking. And I reflect on my life as I go, so I also refine and improve my objectives along the way.

So change is inevitable if you keep blogging. As long as you keep an open mind and you allow the world in, it’s literally impossible to write the same thing over and over again, even if it seems like that’s what you’re doing for a few months or years. (Here I’m reminded of something that YungSnuggie said about Kanye West- how he sounds new and fresh because he allows broader music to influence him, and yet he still keeps a “signature Kanye” sound because he does the production himself. And I’m also thinking now about a ribbonfarm article about different levels of freedom as expressed by an artist- something about predictability and growth. I think both of those things will be worth your time more than this post.)

Choosing better things

Back to my own blog: What has changed? Ability, for one. But that’s not very interesting- anybody who does something for a period of time is going to get better at it. That’s a very vague, imprecise statement. What exactly got better? I think I choose better things to focus on now, because I take a wider view (from experience). I notice more interesting details.

An interesting, telling detail that’s poorly described is a lot better than an irrelevant detail that’s well described. In fact, an interesting detail is almost always automatically described “well”- the fact that it’s interesting makes it “fresh”. No, sorry- an interesting detail will always seem better described than an equally well described detail that’s not as interesting.

That’s how good songwriters “defeat” good technical musicians. Not-bad music done great isn’t as interesting or compelling as great music done not-bad.
Sometimes a seemingly irrelevant detail can have a “broader relevance”, some sort of witty, humorous or ironic effect. Maybe it creates foreshadowing, juxtaposition or some other sort of intended effect. Achieving this requires a deep understanding of the landscape you’re exploring, and you don’t get that by practicing embellishments. You get that by picking better, more interesting details. You get there through rigorous questioning and examination.

When you pick better details- things that challenge, amuse, surprise you, you naturally get better writing. The progress is not linear. Getting better requires being rather ruthless with past ideas and perspectives. Your initial projections are almost always guaranteed to be due for corrections. In fact, I’d be a little worried if you don’t find yourself having to change things up in a dramatic way from time to time. It means that you’re not learning, not growing- at least, not at the rate at which you could be. If you’re not making mistakes you’re playing it too safe.

Rhythm and pace

There are things that you pick up that are almost imperceptible, like a sense of rhythm and pace. You only observe the differences after extended periods of time. Have you ever looked back at your old Facebook Timeline posts from 2007, or maybe some old writings or emails? It’s dramatic how different the language is- it’s almost like reading the thoughts of a different person. You inevitably cringe at how some aspect of your expression was lacking in nuance. Maybe you were using too many big words in an eager attempt to impress or intimidate others. I used to use lines like “I’m not so arrogant as to say…” which on hindsight was unnecessarily self-obsessed. I’m totally self-obsessed, of course, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to show in my writing.

(July edit: Heh, I’m reading this 6 months after I wrote it, and I find myself cringing at how unnecessarily tedious my writing is. I’m guessing this will continue to be the case.) 

This post ended abruptly, as many of my vomits do. Maybe I was writing on a commute and reached my destination. Let me try and wrap up what I think I was trying to say.

Becoming a better writer

Writing about becoming a better writer is a funny, humbling, self-referencing thing. If you’re a decent enough writer, and you’re self-aware, you know that you’re going to cringe at your own advice sooner or later. But it’s worth doing anyway, because it’s scaffolding that helps you make your thoughts more precise. Even if it’s relatively ugly in the transitional stage. (We’re always in the transitional stage. We’re always in beta.)

I think the single most important thing I’m learning about becoming a better writer is to focus on the objective, on the end-goal. What do you want to achieve with your writing? What do you want the reader to feel? You have to look at your work with a reader’s eyes, and get a sense for how they’re going to feel about it. Which parts are going to bore them? Which parts are going to excite them? Which parts just get in their way? What is the journey you want them to take?

As a general rule, it helps to immerse yourself in as much of the reading and research as possible, and then try to force yourself to make things as succinct as you can. Draw two sets of sketches- one that captures as much detail as possible, and then one that uses as few lines as possible. You never really know what exactly you’re trying to say until you make the effort to summarise and compress it. I know Ribbonfarm has some good things to say about this- about writing density.

Rework

The main thing I’m getting out of this trainwreck of a post is a sense of amusement at how this ended up so cumbersome while saying so little. When I scan through these words, I conjure up a wealth of images and thoughts, but that’s because they correspond to things inside my head. I imagine anybody reading this would just get confused, frustrated and annoyed. (But hey, I’m writing primarily for myself here, so if you’re reading this you’re a little weird. You brought this on yourself.) What should I do? I should start over. I should wipe the slate clean, think about what the most fundamental truths are, and figure out the best way to position them. Then wipe the slate clean, again. And this is the whole process. This is the pleasure of it. It’s awesome to look at your old writing and cringe. Because it means that you’re getting better.

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0147 – if it works, do you accelerate it?

This was started on Jan 2014, and completed today.

If you know that something is changing, and it seems to be a good thing- in achieving your outcomes- should you make an effort to accelerate it? I guess. This can’t be context-independent, right? It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Your broader vision and purpose, if you have any, come into play. That’s why it’s reasonably important to have some sort of vague plan. Explore curiosity and be useful to people. That’s mine, it mirrors Neil Tyson’s and it’s good enough to me.

Upturn the Downturn

So what am I curious about? I don’t care right now that’s not interesting to me at the moment. (Heh.) What’s interesting to me right now is to figure out how to get out of what feels like a “downturn” and get into “the zone” again. I used to do 2 word vomits a day, I’d like to get back into that groove. How?

Think Big But Work Small

First I need to do small things. I’m burdened needlessly by big plans and big ambitions that are too large to chew on. I just keep them around as psychological clutter to make me feel better about myself. I need to discard all of them and focus on what I can do each day.

I suggested to the wife that we do a “daily review” of our days every night before we go to bed. Today will only be the second day but I’m inordinately excited about it because I think it’s an elegant solution to multiple problems. I think it will stick. (7 months later: No, it hasn’t. I think we’re generally in the right direction, but progress has been cumbersome and slow, and boring.) We both need more positive peer pressure from each other, we need to kinda “align” each other better,  I think a daily, deliberate discussion will help. I’m looking forward to it.

You know but you don’t know

It always seems like I already know everything I need to know about what I ought to do. I haven’t read a single piece of advice lately that resonated with me. This is relatively new, and I think it stems from the fact that I have “so much” life experience now (a drop in the bucket, I know) that I will learn more from analysing my own experience than from reading generalised stuff. Or maybe not. I need to start from the basics again- sleep, write, read. I just need better reading diets. Less random online nonsense, more deliberate selections. I need to keep clearing old drafts and keep shipping little things, if only just to get them out of my skull. Whatever works, man.

No grand ideas. No big ambitions. The only task at hand is self mastery. To fulfill my obligations. Today I committed to being early for work, which I was. I kept repeating to myself that I had to jump out of bed when my alarm went off, and I did. Whoopee! I need to grease that groove and set it in stone.

I can surely increase my output, I just need to make my days more deliberate.

Peer groups

Let’s talk peer groups. I’m beginning to suspect that my peers have defined me more than I have defined myself.

I think I have been more susceptible to peer pressure than I realise. I think my peers influence my behaviour more than I influence my own, commitment devices notwithstanding. [1]
Consider this. I picked up smoking because my band mates were smokers. I largely quit smoking because my colleagues are non-smokers. And while it feel good to claim that I quit smoking for my health and whatnot- if my boss brought out a pack and offered me a cigarette, you bet your ass I’d be right back on the cancer train.

How much is this valid, how much does it take? I think it gets complicated because er typically have multiple peer groups at any one time and we can sorta switch between them- and even in within a particular group we might have a particular identity. I never felt shamed by my tamil class to do my tamil homework. Actually many of them liked me for it, because time the teacher spent scolding me was time that they could sit back and relax.

But I’ve betrayed peer groups before… (I bail on people. It’s a horrible problem, incredibly selfish and hurtful of me). But I’ll rationalise that by saying that I didn’t think of them as “true peers”. I think Quora and my colleagues are two examples of peers that I aspire towards, in the sense that I’m very eager to impress them. I mean, I love receiving praise from anyone, but these are people whose opinions kinda go further with me.

I think thinking about my colleagues is an interesting example. I love my colleagues very much, and I’m eager to impress them, help and support them, to contribute to the team and see us all achieve something remarkable. Despite this, I sometimes catch myself being tardy with my work. I think that’s a clear proof that I have internal issues that go beyond the “oh, if you’re not crazy about work it means you haven’t found the right work” idea. Procrastination runs deep into my heart, beyond environment. I procrastinate even doing the things I love. So only I can fix that.

Notes:

[1] On commitment devices: I have often if not always sabotaged my own commitment devices. I didn’t really study for my A levels even though I paid for it with my own money. I didn’t train for my half marathon even though I signed up. In both cases perhaps just taking the initial action felt good and I didn’t follow up.

What was missing? What would I have needed to do to followup? Is it simply the case that both the A Levels and a half-marathon strike me as fundamentally unsound, not worth bothering with? Or could I still rearrange my life and elements in a way that would make me do the things that I say I want to do? Can I combat akrasia, or is it simply a sign that something bigger is wrong?

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0146 – a utilitarian approach to social media

I’ve been really frustrated with the state of discourse in most fields. Most people are, in my biased opinion, caught up in discussions that are suboptimal. This happens on Facebook, sure,  but also on Quora, on blogs, on Reddit, on Hacker News, everywhere.

Prioritization in discourse

We rarely start with the principle of “what’s the most important, interesting, useful and/or surprising thing we could be talking about?” I like the Give It 100 principle: Don’t bother talking about anything until you’ve done the homework, you’ve experimented enough that others can learn from your experience.

If you look around, people are mostly repeating the same thing over and over again. We discuss things like the optimal color for a Call-To-Action button, or what the best social tools are, or what time you ought to tweet people… all really relatively trivial, mundane stuff.

The real important work tends to happen in the trenches. What are those people reading. I have a feeling Steve Jobs didn’t sit around reading listicles on the Internet.

An interesting thing I’ve noted is that a lot of really successful people like to read biographies and autobiographies of other successful people. Probably because there’s less fortune cookie wisdom and more case studies to study, analyse and learn from.

You’ll learn more as an entrepreneur from reading about the lives of entrepreneurs than from listening to their victory lap speeches at university commencements.

Utilitarian approach to social media

Another thing I’ve been thinking about or developing in real time is a utilitarian approach to social media. Everybody has a slightly different approach, but I think the casual laidback thing people do on Facebook is to add familiar faces- that guy from the neighbouring class from school 8 years ago, etc. Kinda what we used to do with MSN messenger, where more contacts = more contact options. We Like a bunch of pages for all the products we use, music we listen to, etc.

What we didn’t realize when we were starting out is that we’d eventually develop a newsfeed- there wasn’t really such a thing in 07 or 08. We didn’t realize that we’d be flooded with notifications and data that might not actually be useful to us. And we sorta live with it. Similarly for Twitter I think many of us just mindlessly follow friends and celebrities, as well as social media profiles of brands we like.

All of that is fine if you plan to just be a sort of casual social media user. But I’m always craving something better when it comes to Newsfeeds, so I’ve developed a rather rigorous system.

VISA’S UTILITARIAN SOCIAL MEDIA ADVICE

#1: Avoid broadcasters. 

Don’t bother following anyone or anything that posts links without @ mentioning people. Only follow people who reply to mentions- that’s how you build relationships. If you’re not either learning or building relationships, you’re wasting your time.

#2: Avoid celebrities and organisations. 

Don’t bother following social media accounts of celebrities unless you’re confident of getting reciprocated, or you’re studying them for a very specific purpose. So there’s no reason for me to follow @whitehouse or @barackobama unless I’m planning to study the nuances of how they post.

If you follow the right people, you’ll still see news from CNN, etc retweeted on your feed.You didn’t need to follow Ellen to see a picture of the Oscar selfie. If something is important enough and you’re following quality individuals, the news will get to you anyway.

An exception for me- I follow ST’s Foreign Desk because they share genuinely interesting news that gives me a lot of context on global issues. Regular Straits Times news is generally uninteresting and I don’t need it. When it’s interesting, I’ll see it in my feed.

#3: Follow thoughtful people in your industry who’ll actually talk to you.

This is part of a lengthy process that earns you credibility if you have anything useful to say. This is digital networking. Don’t sell your shit, just focus on adding value to conversations. If you don’t know how to do that, get off social media and go do some reading. Quora is a great place to practice. Trial and error until you start getting answers with hundreds of upvotes.

Reddit is a pretty good place to practice, too. Go into any subreddit of your interest and study the /top and /gilded threads and reverse engineer what works. As a general rule, you either gotta be really witty, really entertaining or really useful- or some combination of the three.

In almost every case you’ll see people going the extra mile. That’s what gets rewarded. Some lawyer enters a thread and gives a well-researched answer that expands the mind of others. Etc. Give people information they wanted but didn’t have, or present the information they already have in a more elegant way.

#4: Post nice replies to anything personal. 

Someone posts something about an anniversary, birthday, funeral, or even just how tired they are? Go in, be nice, be supportive. They’ll associate you with positive emotions. Insert cheesy quote about how people don’t remember what you said or did, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.

#5: Bring something to the table. 

Some people have massive audiences and get tonnes of responses. Justin Bieber, for instance. Millions of teenage girls think they can get Justin to follow them just because they posted something on his wall. That’s a losing game. If you want to get to Justin, you have to find out what he wants/needs, and who his managers and gatekeepers are.

If you want an investor to invest in your startup, it’s really bad form to approach them directly. So bad, in fact, that many (most?) investors use that as a shit test to weed out the amateurs. If you’re really an entrepreneur, you’ll find a way to get an introduction.

Plot out a map of relationships between yourself and the person you want to reach. It’ll take at most 7 steps, and honestly it’s more likely to be 3-5. Of course, even that is the easy part. Suppose I’m 4 steps from Elon Musk. (Actually, 1- the ex head of hiring at SpaceX is following me on Twitter.)

Despite this “easy entry point”, it would be disrespectful for me to approach her to set up an introduction if I have nothing meaningful to say. That’s how relationships work. I would only introduce you to someone else if you convince me that the introduction will benefit my friend and make me look good in the process- otherwise you’re begging, and those social situations are awkward and sad.

I think Elon Musk described once how Larry Page introduced him to Steve Jobs at a party, but he had nothing meaningful to say so that was that. A party is a nice/neutral space for random introductions, but still the point is- you have to bring something to the table.

#6: Have a blog. 

If you’re connected to the Web in any way and you plan to make a living off of it, and you don’t have a blog, I personally think you’re an idiot. I’m sorry, I do. Exceptions can be make if you’re really famous or prolific already, or you’re working on something really notable- my boss doesn’t need a blog because he’s running a startup, so in a sense the startup is his blog. But if you’re a nobody like me, start a blog.

I got employed because of my blog; I have neither a degree nor a resume. My blog is my resume. Think about it, resumes (and academic papers, but that’s another story) are highly outdated, designed for an era with gated distribution. Why send a resume to 100 people when you can have a blog that brings you 100,000++ hits? A blog allows people to discover you at their own time and pace, searching for what they care about. You no longer have to constrain yourself to a resueme’s limitations.

Your employers are probably going to Google you. What do you get when your full name is Googled? A blog allows you control over that narrative. I’ve done business over Twitter, I’ve sold tshirts over Facebook. Digital real estate is a very real thing, it’s easily accessible, if you don’t have a blog you’re dramatically missing out on the best way to establish yourself internationally. Search means that stuff you wrote in the past has a chance of blowing up (in a good way) in the future.

If you’re a nobody, blogging is a really good way to become a somebody. Just write passionately about the things you care about.

6: Hide/unfollow anybody who posts toxic rubbish. 

The heuristic I’d use is- imagine you’re your own personal assistant. What would you flag for your attention? Does this information enrich your life? No? Then it’s meaningless noise- which isn’t just a waste of time, it’s a waste of your mental bandwidth. Time arguing with internet trolls is time not spent building something. Of course, some argument can be good practice, but it’s very easy to fall into the trap of fighting for the sake of fighting. Life is short and your resources are limited, so pick your battles carefully.

#7: Be as useful as possible.

serve-the-reader

This is from WaitButWhy.com’s 7 ways to be insufferable on Facebook. The image links to the post.

It’s tempting to fall in love with your own voice and start tweeting/posting inane bullshit, but this is a noisy thing that people get tired of. If you want to create value in the social media space, a good starting point is “always be useful.” That can mean posting funny/entertaining/thought-provoking stuff. But make sure you have in mind how your post (s) are going to be interpreted. This is relatively trivial to fix. Mostly it just means giving a quick look at anything you’re going to post, and ask “Am I stroking my own genitals with this one?”

#8: Don’t link to anything you can’t defend or explain. 

Buffer has a bunch of suggestions for generic links and quotes, and while I’m sure they’re well-intentioned, I personally find it rather annoying and noisy. I don’t care about what Abraham Lincoln said; if I wanted to know I’d follow an Abraham Lincoln novelty account. Maybe this is unique to power users like me who aren’t interested in discovering shit that I’ve already heard a thousand times over.

Same for links about the optimal times to post a blogpost. That’s like rearranging deckchairs on the titanic. The only really important question is- how do I post content that actually expands people’s minds? Build a reputation for posting especially good quality stuff; it’ll serve you well.

The danger of sharing superficial stuff is that superficial folk will favorite and retweet it, and it’ll look like you’re “making progress”. This is deceptive and dangerous if you’re serious about creating long term value. I suppose it’s not necessarily wrong, but the litmus test for me is the crowd you attract. I find opportunity folk to be a bit sleazy and I just don’t enjoy the conversations that I have with them.  Your mileage may vary.

If nothing else, read WaitButWhy’s 7 ways to be insufferable on Facebook, and avoid doing all of that.

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0145 – skinny, small changes big results, acknowledging issues

This was written around April 2014.

I’ve always been underweight, my whole life. I suppose I’ve had a rather unhealthy relationship with food, I’m a very picky eater and I don’t know how to cook. I sorta plan to learn- I intellectually know that it’s a good idea and will probably improve my life significantly, but it just feels a little overwhelming… I know even then I ought to break it down into baby steps, but I have so many other plans and priorities all at once. You know how it is.

Anyway- what I do remember is, I was between 62 and 64.5kg for several years, from when I was 16 to 22 years old. I know this because at several points in that time I used to hit the gym to try and build some muscle, gain some weight. At my best, I managed to hit 65kg, which was always an exciting milestone for me… yet before long I’d slip on my diet and fall back below 65kg.

So it was a huge surprise for me to discover that I now weigh about 78kg. I somehow put on a good 13-15kg without really noticing or realising it, seemingly in a 1 year time frame. I don’t even really see the weight; where did it go? I still look pretty skinny. There are two explanations I can think of, probably both working in tandem.

Firstly, I must have stopped growing taller- I read somewhere that a large part of a teenager’s caloric consumption is used by the body to build the skeleton. My skeleton must have finished growing by nos.

Secondly, I must have imperceptibly changed my diet. This is a consequence of the two big changes in my life- moving out of my parents’ place, and starting work. I eat pretty hearty lunches with my colleagues, and I eat dinner with my wife on most evenings. I must have been missing more meals as a teenager- I’d often skip dinner, for example. It dawns on me that I’ve actually been starving myself for most of my life, and I didn’t realize it because I grew accustomed to being hungry, and because I lose my appetite when I’m anxious, nervous or scared (often happens when I have deadlines to meet, and I’m not on track.)

In relation to that, I tend to feel weak, lazy and lethargic because of my eating habits. I think I get low blood sugar levels, which make me slightly sleepy or faint, and I’m very unproductive when I’m like that. I don’t think this is a new thing, I think I’ve actually suffered from this since I was a teenager but I simply accepted it as how life was supposed to be. I thought everybody got lethargic and tired the way I did, and it didn’t occur to me that there might be something wrong with me or the way I was doing things.

Small causes, big effects

Sometimes it’s crazy to think about how geography affects civilization and geopolitics- such mundane, physical things affecting human lives, causing pain, suffering, anguish. But that shouldn’t be surprising at all. We are all physical creatures, with our own biology and chemistry. Our moods are affected by our physical activity, by our diet. I’ve always thought I don’t have any problems- I’m young, I’m healthy. A little unfit, maybe, but because I’m lazy rather than any deeper issues. Issues are for other people, issues are dramatic and powerful… or so I thought.

On hindsight though, it’s clear that I had and continue to have some issues that need to be resolved in order for me to live a happy, fulfilling life. Thinking about “bigger things” like politics and philosophy are fun, interesting, but if I wanted a better life, a better diet, better sleep, better exercise, a system of writing practice, etc would do me a whole lot more good than just thinking. And the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Getting better at the basics puts you in a place where you think more clearly, etc.

Small things are unsexy

Somehow, talking about small causes is just unsexy. Thinking about them is unsexy. Taking the trouble to apply them to yourself is unsexiest of all. One of my greatest weaknesses goes roughly as follows: If I can understand the intellectual argument for something, if I can understand the logic of something, I’m done with it. I don’t need to do it. I don’t need to try it out for myself. It is right, it is good, yes. I accept it without trying to incorporate it into my own existence. So I know all the good things to say, and I know all the good advice to give people who are going through rough times, but it never fully occurs to me to full-heartedly take my own advice, because I convince myself that these aren’t particularly rough times. I’m not particularly going through a crisis. But that’s how life goes, isn’t it? Every moment is now. Nothing is ever serious enough to warrant intervention, until your entire situation is different and you’re far too entrenched, too far gone.
I’ve written quite a few blogposts about the importance of baby steps, of doing little things that add up into big things. Yet I have so much trouble adapting that to my own life. I have so much hubris. I think I’m above it all, I think I’m beyond it all. This isn’t a permanent thought- I think it when I’m up, and then I suffer for it when I’m down, but once I’m out I feel like the next time will be different. It’s the classic procrastinator cycle that hundreds of thousands of people on reddit and tumblr relate to wholeheartedly. (Unrelated: I’m getting annoyed by how little I’ve been working on my personal writing. I should sit down and measure how much I’ve written, exactly. I’m simultaneously impatient for big things to happen and averse to doing tiny things that don’t seem to make a tangiblr difference- again, even though I intellectually know that big things are the sum of small things.)

How many times do I have to talk about small things before I make real headway on getting them done? How much headway do I need before I satisfy myself with the amount of effort I’m putting in? I’ve been doing pull-ups at the playground downstairs from my flat, and I’ve been reading more, and I haven’t missed any actual deadlines at work. I’m making progress on all fronts, but I’m still dissatisfied because I’m still so aware of how much I’m allowing to slide. I could be so much more.

Baby steps. I have to assume that this will take years.

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0144 – reading in the mornings and the joy of decluttering

Yesterday was a glorious day for my head. I published a whole bunch of vomits all at one go, that I had done from March to May. I think I have a few more to go, but my wife suggested that I quit while I was ahead and get a good night’s sleep. I chose the opposite path the last time I was in this situation, so I picked the other one this time. For science.

Morning conundrum

Oh before I get into the details of the vomits, I want to quickly get out what I think is a solution to my morning conundrum. This is something that happens over and over again- I wake up at 8 or 9am, and it feels too early and fresh to get out of bed. I tell myself I’ll take a quick nap, and the next thing I know, it’s 1130am and I’m going to miss lunch with my colleagues.

A while ago, I started keeping a book by my bed in the hope of facilitating a rekindling of the reading habit I had as a child. This wasn’t enough- I learnt that I only read if I go to bed early and fresh. If I’m working late, I get to bed tired and grumpy and I’m just thinking about how little sleep I’m going to get before the next day.

I went to bed fresh and early last night, so reading was the natural choice of action before bed. I started getting sleepy and had to stop halfway, so I put a pen in the book (I scribble in all of the books I own) and went to bed.

So this morning when I woke up, I found myself thinking “I really want to go back to sleep, but I know deep down that I don’t really need to, and that I’ll regret it if I do.” And then a thought crossed my mind- I haven’t finished reading! And I was filled with joy and glee, because here’s an elegant solution to my problem! If I read before bed, I will be inclined to pick up where I left off on the morning. So that’s an incentive to read at night, which in turn is an incentive to be more efficient in the way I work. At least that’s how I hope it’s going to play out.

The vomits

I had totally forgotten that I had a whole bunch of vomits done and waiting in March. I hadn’t really titled then properly, so it wasn’t clear what they were. They could’ve been drafts. Lesson learnt: title vomits properly.

I had been all clogged up because of shitty bookkeeping- my already-published vomits were misnumbered and repeated, and the screwup upset me so much that I simply didn’t have the heart to move on. Or the know-how, really. How do you move forward when things are stuck? Do you just keep going? On hindsight I think I did what ought to be done- fix the misnumbering and remove the repeats, and explain confused chronology as addendums. But it wasn’t clear until I let it kick around in my head for a while. And it was a little too depressing to address directly. Maybe. I don’t know. I’ll have a clearer (but maybe less accurate?) picture with more hindsight. Oh well. Reality is messy.

I’m thankful to my past self for writing vomits even when the bookkeeping was clogged. I think that’s progress, I think that’s something I didn’t do when I was younger and my present and future selves lose out from the lack of historical data. (By that I meant to say that I used to go completely dark when the going got tough, and I wish I had more accurate records of what I was thinking then so that I don’t have to rely on unreliable recollections.)

I’ve been keeping all my writing on Evernote, which feels like a repository, an extension of my mind. The problem is that it’s rarely entirely clear where I’m going with my vomits- I only really know what they’re about when I’m going through them after I’ve written them. So if I’ve written a whole bunch of stuff and I haven’t ordered or processed them carefully, and real life starts getting in the way, I start feeling really uneasy and anxious. It’s like having a really messy house.

I know, I could throw everything out and start over, but I don’t feel like I could bear that- even though I know that this whole 1000 vomits structure is completely arbitrary. I want to keep and use everything while I’m going through this process- even the messy, ugly stuff- because I think the bad or ugly stuff is necessary as part of the overall statement. I can discard everything in future projects, but not this one. It would be a little disingenuous, inaccurate, even dishonest. And if I may be honest- the idea of having to start over just breaks my heart. So I’ll just keep going the way I’m going.

Joy of decluttering

It feels so incredibly good to go through the vomits in my drafts on Evernote and to publish them. As I re-read them, I feel more clarity about my thoughts. It’s like having all these really fragile, shaky towers of thought that need scaffolding and foundation to be properly secured- if I don’t secure them by publishing them, I feel like I’m constantly trying to keep all of them up in the air, and that’s incredibly draining. It keeps me from being able to devote my full focus and attention on the task at hand.

And again, I know that I theoretically have the option of just letting everything go- (let it go, let it go)- to let it all collapse, and then start over with the rubble. It’s not like anything is particularly important. But I just have an inkling that that would be terribly wasteful, a tragedy of sorts. Scorched earth is something you do when you’re utterly desperate, right? And I don’t want to do that. So I’ll just keep going.

So right now my priority is to declutter and eliminate the rest of the notes and drafts that I’ve accumulated in my extended-mind repository, so that I can clean that out and see what the floor actually looks like. And once I do that, I think I’ll be able to see new connections that I haven’t quite noticed yet. Reminder to self: There won’t be any single silver bullet that makes everything better all of a sudden. Rather, I’ll have to work at it bit by bit, piece by piece. But that’s somehow really exciting and fulfilling. I know what I must do, and I’ve done the basic groundwork necessary to begin the heavier lifting. I’m glad to come to this.

Future

I tried to keep a thought alive in my head while I was on the train on the way to work- and here it is: When things got ugly, messy and strained, I did contemplate giving up. It would’ve been easier. It felt like nothing was coming out, and I entertained the thought that I might’ve been done, that this was it. That I had finally run dry. But another part of me told me not to be so certain, that I don’t have enough information, that I can’t predict the future. After all, Dan Gilbert convinced me resoundingly that we lack the imagination to make accurate predictions about our future selves, and that we change way, WAY more than we can even conceive. So I’m betting on me overcoming all of these things- or at least most of these things, or at least ENOUGH of these things- to make my life look very, very different from now. You have to believe, because the data shows a very different picture from the flawed, biased projection created by the limited, small-minded human.

Heh. Funny how that sounds almost religious. I’m guessing that’s what the more enlightened trust-in-God folk mean when they say what they mean. You just have to protect yourself against the downside, too. We’ll see.

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0143 – Questioning own assumptions about how life should be lived

This post was written in May 2014.

Lost Illusions

I find myself questioning many of my assumptions about how life should be lived. Lofty principles and ideologies. Aspirations for status, wealth, even legacy. Death is the only certainty, and the heat death of the universe will claim every last remnant of everything we know.

There seem to be no ends that persist enough to justify means that are unpalatable. More simply, all we have is this moment, and if we don’t like the way we’re spending it, there is no redemption or recourse. There is no guarantee of a better tomorrow. Reality is the most incredible gift, but it is completely, cruelly fleeting and arbitrary. We are entitled to nothing. And we should be grateful for this, if only for the fact that a life (or moment) of gratitude is more pleasurable and fulfilling than a life (or moment) of frustration, anxiety, resignation. “I’ll worry about the fleetingness of existence tomorrow” is an appalling cop-out. Each day that I live without ruminating on the end is a day that I lose to indifferent forces that decide my experience for me.

What withstands scrutiny?

Joy, companionship, curiosity. And even those pursuits have to be carefully managed, because there are things in the world that will give you hollow versions of those- cheap highs, disengaged company, unnecessary details. What do I think is best for me? What is the ideal portfolio of lived experiences, of pursuits?

I fall back on familiar truths. Art, music, conversations, food, writing. I’m experiencing discontent because I haven’t been writing for myself for too long. When I don’t prioritize the nourishment of my “soul” (which I’ll define as my collection of beliefs, experiences, the foundational framework that I use to make sense of reality), I get edgy, cranky and I don’t like who I am. That is a problem that I have to address early and head on. Life is too short and precious to live without liking who you are.

So I have to write. Not because I want to achieve something, even though I do. Not to impress others, though that would be nice. I have to do it because it calms me, it soothes that which is restless within me. I have to do it as therapy. It allows me to get on with the business of living, of listening. I understand the importance of being present for your life. To really see and to really listen with all of your mind. Yet I struggle to do that. I never really learnt how to. Nobody taught me, or if they did, I didn’t quite get the message, and I don’t practice it. I have to find a way that works for me. Once I’ve written, I can be calm. I can listen more fully, because I have said my part.

Revisiting healthy headspace

Is this something that I have been made aware of before? It’s surely not the first time I’ve felt this way; I bet I could find entries in my livejournal from my teenage days where I’ve written things that could be interpreted in this light. But no matter. Coming back to this headspace feels healthy. Each time I come here I feel slightly rejuvenated. I feel a little more skilled, a little more aware. Is this the most important thing I have to say with my life? Maybe, maybe not. It’s the most important thing I have to say at this moment, and that is enough for me.

Goals as escapism

I have all these goals that I keep in my life because they helped me give a semblance of structure to my identity. I’m a guy who wants to write a million words, a guy who wants to read a thousand books and watch a hundred good movies. It’s a form of escapism- the goals don’t exist to be fulfilled, they exist to fill a vacuum. I wouldn’t know what to do if I actually caught what I say I’m chasing. I almost don’t want to find out. I’ll say that I do, but my actions say something else about what my priorities are.

My real priorities are comfort, safety and pleasure. I do what is easy, comfortable and pleasurable because I want life to be easy, comfortable and pleasurable. It doesn’t take a genius to see that that’s faulty logic. An easy life is hard work. Safety requires busting your ass. Pleasure follows exertion. So the end result is suboptimal. Life gets you down if you pursue what is immediate.

So now I come to a contradiction. I shouldn’t use grand schemes and plans to “guide” my life, because they end up becoming wall decorations, bullshit storytelling devices. Ideally, with mindfulness, questioning and focus they become more useful than that- the story gets lived rather than fantasized about. (Though you do have to ask if there’s anything wrong with enjoying a bullshit-fantasy-story. We all have our illusions.)

But for this moment let’s assume the grand schemes hurt more than help, at least in the sense that they don’t seem to guide behaviour as much as I’d like.

Committing to the random walk

On the flipside of grand scheming is “living in the moment”. The problem with that for me is that I’m very boring in the moment. I check Facebook and Reddit in the moment. Be yourself… unless you’re an Internet slob? I found myself agreeing with Nassim Taleb when he argued that the best writing is rarely planned. What you should do is decide on advance that you’re not going to plan to achieve anything in a given day. Just take a random walk of sorts. And if something comes to mind then you just act on that. When I reflect on the stuff I’ve done that in proud of, a lot of it follows that pattern. The trick is to commit to the random walk. That’s the hard part, largely because we’ve been so conditioned to be wary of such “deep idleness”. So we make up busywork and little menial tasks and whatever else we occupy ourselves with.

Still… I haven’t quite found a perfect or near-perfect rhythm that works for me for more than a few days, weeks, months. I like the idea of building a good habit that lasts decades. The only things that have stuck with me are heavy internet usage (Facebook, Reddit, Quora, Twitter) and smoking. I haven’t been able to sustain a fitness habit or a reading habit or a writing habit and I want to. I think/know that I have to start with something small, and do it because I love it rather than because I feel like I need to commit to it (hence the earlier bit about writing for pleasure, joy and presence). And I need to reward myself to make the habit stick.

Dark Playground / “Just for doin’ life!”

 

The problem is that I reward myself for no good reason- “just for doing life” (see also waitbutwhy.com’s Dark Playground; I’ve spent most of my life in the Dark Playground and in Mixed Feelings Park when I ought to be in Flow). So it becomes harder to establish new habit/reward patterns. I suppose I just need to remind myself of how good it feels, and how much better it is than being in the Dark Playground. Or maybe I should remind myself of how shitty it would be to grow old and regret whatever it is I’m messing up now. Or maybe I should systematically try a different action/reward system every two weeks and track how I feel, and what my output is. Who knows. I probably shouldn’t overcomplicate this- I’m writing this now primarily to keep a record as a reminder of how I have a tendency to unnecessarily overcomplicate things.

Focus / away from mindlessness

I know I have to pick one thing and do it well. If nothing else that is what I know, after the initial overcomplication I know that I have to pick one thing and let everything else sorta take second priority. I’m guessing it should probably be meditation. And/or early sleep. Or I just need to write for myself more regularly. Somehow the last one appeals to me the most even though it has the least clear benefit. I feel like if I get the shit out of my head, things would move more smoothly. If I clarify where I am with my life’s work as a writer, I should be able to breathe easier and focus better on my work.

But is that true or am I bullshitting myself so I can do sexy work instead of more important shlep work? Hard to say. That said, I indulge in mindless nonsense all the time. Surely some sexy work as a stepping stone away from mindless indulgence is a tolerable step. And anyway fuck the world, I don’t owe it anything. As long as I stay on top of my work responsibilities (pays the bills) and keep my health and marriage in order, I should be able to survive some minor experimentation.

So okay, writing. What do I need to do? First thing is to get back on track with the vomit summaries- I was at 70 or something. I need to summarize the rest of that shit and keep moving forward. I also need to demarcate the early and current ages of my blog. Ranty teenager days- when I was bitching about government and everything else, calling people names from the safety of my keyboard. Clarify my beliefs and desires.

Phew.

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