(moar old stuff 2013)
It’s 230am and I can’t seem to get to sleep so I figure that I might as well do a word vomit and get as much out of my head as possible.
I didn’t really do a year – in – review for 2013, which is something I might regret years down the road when I wish I had some signposts to look back on. So maybe let’s do a quick summary now.
I’ve been married for a year. Marriage is hard, even with your best friend. Because people are just hard, period. It’s hard enough to live with oneself, it’s amazing that we manage to live with others. I think I’ve learnt to be a little more responsible. I’ve still got a long way to go. I’m still a very selfish person who needs to learn to think about others before myself. I was never really trained to, I never really learned to.
I think getting employed has helped me with that. I’m incredibly privileged to have the colleagues and working environment that I do. My work feels significant, I feel significant. Re-reading The Mundanity of Excellence makes me realise that my new group of peers might just be the best thing in my life for my personal development, across pretty much all spheres. My colleagues are teaching me to be more focused, more disciplined, to have a more can-do attitude. I’m learning so much. The only thing that sucks about work is my daily commute, and I think I’ve kinda ameliorated that by using the time to read and/or write. I think I’ve become a better writer and thinker, and I’ve learned quite a bit. Maybe I should write an internal essay about what I’ve learned from a year’s work.
Life has been hard, but in a good way- the way life for a wild animal is harder than life for a domesticated one. There are more stressors, but they make me feel alive. The central challenge of not letting the world dehumanise you still remains, but I think rose-tinted glasses make me underestimate how much of a problem that used to be, and what I used to get stressed about. I used to panic every morning that I hadn’t done my homework. I used to panic when I woke up late to go to camp during my NS. This sort of guilty panic has been a regular feature of my life and I intend to systematically eliminate it by being more responsible about the things that matter and by giving less of a shit about things that don’t matter.
Which brings me to Facebook. I started using it in 2007, became a “power user” around 2010, and I was completely hooked. I’d stay up late to be on Facebook. I’d be late for stuff because I was arguing with people on Facebook. I developed a bunch of useful skills during that time which I think are serving me pretty well in my line of work, but I think I started experiencing major diminishing returns. Facebook is all about co-creating identities, and it’s very easy to get caught up in it. For me, at least. I was the equivalent of a Facebook alcoholic- it was the lens through which I was viewing the world. I would scheme and plan and figure out how to game the system, how to play to the audience and win their approval. I’m okay, you’re okay. I got sick of it when it started to get really intense- people getting very personal about political stuff, lots of angry arguments and attacks- it was affecting my work. I couldn’t focus. So I deactivated my account, and the months that followed were characterised by bliss. Once you walk away from it all, suddenly anybody spending time on it looks really silly, like an addict or substance abuser of sorts. I know that sounds unfair and spiteful and holier-than-thou, but that was my experience.
I would later experience something similar when I stopped smoking cigarettes- suddenly everybody smoking cigarettes looked really sad and pathetic, dependent on an abusive substance. Again, I’m no better than anybody else, but I experienced myself thinking those thoughts, having those perceptions. It’s probably some kind of defensive mechanism that my pathetic ego puts up to feel better about itself, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a damned shame. I reactivated my Facebook every so often since, but time and space away from the herd allowed me to disengage, and it no longer felt like a comfortable space for me. I felt like the blinders had been taken off and I could no longer find comfort in the reassurance of the Likes of others. A beautifully crafted status update might entertain others for a little bit, but it has diminishing returns- you’re better off using that time to build something truly meaningful to you. For a while I wanted to write a sort of “guide out of Facebook” or something of the sort but now I feel like I don’t have the time- I need to focus on doing stuff that matters more, ie. my work. Only after I truly crush and dominate what I’m doing at work will I truly feel like I have the legitimacy to say what I want to say- until then it’s still a circlejerk.
A blogpost I wrote for work made me realise or rediscover that asking good questions is a phenomenally powerful skill. Everybody should be asking questions everyday. Questions are how we explore and discover ourselves and the world around us. When we stop questioning we fall into rigid routines and patterns, we go through the motions of saying what we think we ought to say. A good question upsets all of that. A good question inspires curiosity and excitement, encourages thinking and tinkering. The best questions trigger conceptual collisions that create nothing short of Art. Knowing this, I think it’s everybody’s civic duty to ask as many questions as possible. I think we should be farming and cultivating questions. Quora, Reddit and Hacker News are all doing this to some degree, as do most forums of all kinds around the world, but I think it could still be a little more deliberate.
We can and should encourage better questions, unique questions that probe into previously unexplored territory. The role of the artist is to help us look at things with new eyes- to see the familiar in an unfamiliar light, and the vice versa. Many questions get repeated. Google gets tonnes of searches every second- what are the most common questions? What are the most common questions that have the least satisfactory answers? What are the best questions ever asked in the history of humanity? How do we ask better questions? How do we encourage more people to ask better questions? Quora has top writers, for instance, but who are the top askers? We’re often limited by our own experiences and perspectives, which is why people travel, take drugs, watch movies, read novels- we want to be confronted with questions that sweep us away in their magnificence, questions that make us lose ourselves in the fascinating pursuit of answers.
This can sound all spiritual and new-agey but it has some very practical applications. At the simplest, questions are “ooh, what does this button do?” Or what happens if we push it harder? Faster? Use more power? What if we had to do it in half the time? That’s how we learn, right? What happens when we tweak the input? How does the output change? What is the relationship between the variables? Under what conditions does it break or fail? Why? What does that tell us about how it’s made, how it works? What are the flaws? How can we make it more robust? More powerful? More palatable? What are the tradeoffs? What are the limitations?
Questions are the tools we use to carve out understanding from imprecise, vague chaos and noise. Questions give us power. They help us make sense of things. So you’re screwed when you stop asking questions.
So here are my questions to you:
What are the best questions anybody’s ever asked you? What made those particularly memorable, useful or important? What do you think it was about them that made them ask you that?
What are the best questions you’ve ever asked? Why did you ask them? What were the circumstances or conditions that led to you asking them?
What are the questions you ought to be asking yourself now, but aren’t? (Why aren’t you asking those questions? What can you do to fix that, now and in the long term?)
What are the questions you ought to be asking your peers, your colleagues, your boss, your spouse, your friends, your family? What’s the most important question nobody’s asked you? What are you going to do about it?