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You Won. Now What?

March 14, 2012 — 21 Comments

To readers of PaleoHacks, Lifehacker, Get Rich Slowly, 37 Signals, StevePavilina, Quantified Self:


You’ve found the perfect…

[diet, productivity system, way to save money, workflow, source of inspiration, regimen]

You’ve done it. We all agree. Now what?

Remember, it’s bad strategy to go past the mark you aimed for. When we look at our health, our money, our productivity or anything else that takes our time and energy, the metric that matters is ROI. Nature has given us a wonderful guide to help with that: the law of diminishing returns. Yet, you stuck with it long past then.

You spent so many hours slaving over improvements at the margins. So many pedantic debates on the internetbecause you had to be right. How much time did you spend trying to be a better person? A better father? A better friend? You know definitively whether legumes are good for you or not, but whether you are good or not remains less clear.

What should you focus on instead? Start with the things that matter: Philosophy. Empathy. Goodness. And from there, proceed to basically just about everything else. You know, stuff that matters.


Return to Philosophy

March 4, 2012 — 33 Comments

I have written this post before, but it remains a common theme. The busier we get, the more we work, and learn and read, the further we drift. We get in a rhythm. We’re making money, being creative, we’re stimulated and busy. It seems like everything is going well. But we drift further and further from Philosophy.

So we must catch ourselves and return to it. Pick up Meditations, Seneca, Plutarch, Hadot, our notecards of quotes and reminders or, anything from the shelf of “Life” books. Stop and evaluate. Read something that challenges, instead of informs.

No matter how much learning or work or thinking we do, none of it matters unless it happens against the backstop of exhortative analysis. The kind rooted in the deep study of the mind and emotion, and demands that we hold ourselves to certain standards. We must turn to the practical, to the spiritual exercises of great men and actively use them. It’s the only way we’ll get anything out of the rest of our efforts. It’s simple: stop learning (or “working”) for a second and refine.

Put aside all the momentum and the moment. Tap the brakes. Return to philosophy.

You’re Not a Genius

February 22, 2012 — 39 Comments

Your most self-destructive impulse: believing that thing it took you two seconds to come up with was a genius idea. That you’re some creative mastermind who can brainstorm gold. Get over it. The first thing that pops into your head is not revolutionary. It wasn’t, it couldn’t be. So we hold ourselves back when we fall in love with the narrative that we will walk into a room full of people who have done this longer than we have and dazzle them with our ideas. Or not even ideas, but dazzle them while spitballing.

I wish it was cool like that, but it never seems to be.

No. Contributions come from taking the time to develop a deep understanding of everything at play and more often than not, coming up with gradual improvements and suggestions. They come from the rigor and discipline of really knowing something. Half your ideas get thrown away. More than half deserve to be thrown away. Maybe there is some vaunted genius out there whose every thought is mind-blowing but that person is not you.

This bitter little pill does not change another hard reality, however: most people accepted ‘the way things have always been done’ with equal flippancy. Whatever is wrong or broken about the field you’re working in probably will be incredibly and instantly obvious. That is, you are not a genius but most people and practices are really dumb. When you can wrap your head around that paradox, you’ll have the whole package.

The key to doing it is this: trust your instincts as you survey what’s wrong, ignore them as soon as what they tell you starts to make you feel superior. Make your evaluations but shut your mouth. Why replace flippantly accepted ideas with new flippantly created ideas? Think about your idea for more than two seconds. Don’t fall in love with the image of you as the artist or the wunderkind or the hired gun or intuitive expert. These are chimeras.

What you can be is the person who gets things done, the person whose ideas are better. And changes people’s minds, slowly, over time.

The Next Step

February 11, 2012 — 36 Comments

The first level is easy. You get a sense for what people seem to do. That this guy will make himself the center of attention. Or that he needs you to know how smart he is. Or whether status is important to them or whether they value freedom or being loved or being in control more than other things. Or you see that they’re the type to set themselves up to fail. You become hyper-aware of patterns of behavior. You uncover their inner-motivations and anticipate the results. Read them, know them, outmaneuver them. It is a powerful ability that comes with all sorts of advantages. People might even pay you for it.

The second level is harder. You think about why they act that way. He needs to be the center of attention because it was hard having parents who didn’t seem to care. Maybe she wants you to know how smart she is because nobody ever thought she was. Maybe they want status because they think it will get them what they want. Or they like control because it feels so different than how they felt at a point in their life when someone should have been looking out for them but fell down on the job. But instead of exploiting this like you did at the first level, at the second level you understand it. You begin to see them for what they really are: a human being. A human being doing the best they can as best they’ve been taught. You see them with empathy and compassion. You don’t hold any of it against them.

People hurt. People are messed up. People are stuck in patterns and don’t even know they are pattens. Most of what we do is not malicious, not stupid, not selfish or ignorant. Is is, instead, a response to events whose significance we often don’t even recall. The next time you look down on someone else’s behavior—the next time you think, Oh, here we go again or _________ always does this—try to remember that. Remember that these aren’t just little personality quirks, but real feelings masked by annoying actions. These are people in pain, like we are in pain—even if it makes them act like a dick. Don’t hate or pity or pander to them. But let it remind you that they’re human.

The first level is in your self-interest. And so is the second. Because when you can start to understand other people, accept them as they are and forgive them for what they do, you can start to do it to yourself. You can expect it for yourself.

To Really Know Something

January 27, 2012 — 22 Comments

One of the most aggravating parts of the media and marketing world I work in is the gurus and experts (charlatans is probably a better word). To them, everything is a theory or a chance to pontificate. Everything can be simplified and extrapolated. None of the natural laws—diminishing returns, unintended consequences, regression to the mean—ever seem to exist.

It’s less messy to think that way, sure. And comforting. It may even briefly be lucrative. But that is not how it really works. As much as a part of me wishes I could live in that universe, I don’t and can’t. It’s not how you get things done.

“See, I have the advantage of having found out how hard it is to get to really know something, how careful you have to be about checking the experiments, how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I know what it really means to know something. And therefore, I see how it is that they get their information and I can’t believe that they know it—they haven’t done the work necessary, they haven’t done the checks necessary, they haven’t done the care necessary. I have a great suspicion that they don’t know how this stuff is done and they are intimidating people by it.”

That is Richard Feynman. What he’s talking about is the flipness of pseudo-science and the false confidence of delusion. Everything about the internet enables those impulses. From the segmentation to the lack of accountability, we forget what it really takes to know something. How hard it is to be truly sure.

That comes from rigor and discipline. From humility and understatement.  It comes practices, checklists, from methods, and the scientific method. It comes from staying up late reading, not blogging. It comes from having deep connections with a handful of smart people who push you to be better, not networking. It comes from separating ideas from your identity—so you can pick up, discard, pick up, rearrange, discard and pick them up at whim.

To really study something almost inevitably eliminates the desire to talk about it. You don’t need to intimidate other people because you’re too busy checking your own assumptions to bother worrying about theirs. You’re not out trying to sell your theory to random people on the internet (and calling it Ryan’s Law or some indulgent shit) because you’re selling it to people who matter—people who actually pay you for your ideas.

All this takes time. That is, it can’t be done in real-time. So be patient and quiet and do the work. Check the experiments and put in the care. Then you start to know what it really means to know something.