Not Noticing

July 6, 2010 — 7 Comments

Think about all the near-misses that you never knew about. Fight-or-flight situations that passed unintentionally unnoticed. To not know and continue to never know without consequence is a wonderful gift.

Especially if you’re someone like me who internalizes theses crises. I feel them churning in my stomach. My heart races or I get sick with frustration and anger.

But so many of these situations come to mean nothing. Like, absolutely nothing. You miss a surprise phone call from someone important. The wasted opportunity nags at you. But how many times has your phone eaten a call and you never knew about it? Someone gets the last word and it hurts. But what if you’d never heard it?

Your life remains utterly unchanged by these moments. The mistakes you’re aware of, but can do nothing about, pale in comparison to the countless mistakes you didn’t even realize. The last word isn’t acted on, it’s just resented or aggravating.

What you do, for example, in a heated discussion is decide the point at which the things the other person says become meaningless. And then don’t listen when it turns into excuses or rationalizations or bullshit. If it’s an email chain, don’t even open it. You can choose to make it irrelevant. In terms of your decisions and life, it already is.

Syrus wrote that we should “always shun that which makes you angry.” Meaning, you identify the triggers and you opt out of being a part of pulling them. The body has ingrained responses to certain stimuli. It’s more severe in people like me. So you avoid those stimuli because they represent nothing. They are false.

Maybe you don’t take is as far as being purposely ignorant, but you do take into consideration how easily you could have just not known about this thing before you let it matter too much.

Who?

June 25, 2010 — 7 Comments

“Who is wise? He that learns from everyone
Who is powerful? He that governs his passions
Who is rich? He that is content
Who is that? Nobody”

Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1755

Sprezzatura

June 17, 2010 — 6 Comments

When I run, I’ve always had this habit of breaking down whatever distance I set out to accomplish in increasingly diminutive yet illogical units to keep my mind busy. 4 miles becomes just 2 miles when it’s halfway done and 2 miles is easy because you’re hardly even warmed up at .5 which is already halfway to the halfway point of the first leg. And of course the 4th mile has the end in sight so it goes by the quickest. Or when I’m swimming, I change strokes for a pocket in the middle before changing back, so there is a rising up, a hoop to jump through, and a winding down.

This works, I think, because it keeps you immediately and constantly focused on a single point directly in front of you, and when that point is passed, another presents itself and is passed in turn at just the right interval between manageable and significant.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how Darwin spent something like eight years studying barnacles. Or Stuart Kauffman spending a decade on the mutations of fruit flies. And how we pass along little tidbits like this without any empathy for what they must have meant. These weren’t foundational education periods at the beginning of their careers, they were detours and tangents—years of learning to clear up a few details. We lose the humanity behind that decision, what it must have been like for them in this phase: waiting it out, putting in the hours. We look at it with the hindsight of knowing that it ended, thinking that they probably broke it up like we could—a few years to get familiar, a few for theorizing, and of course the last year flew by because it was finally over. But it wasn’t like that at all.

Try to think of the humility and of the patience. Wading into a pool you have no idea if you’ll ever get out of. Going back and forth until you’d done what you’d needed. No clue yet that it will tie their theories together. To bear this with grace and commitment and a quiet sense of self-control. To accept that no one will ever know what it all felt like.

For me, this year was about wanting less. Being okay with less. Learning how to tolerate dissonance and cultivate indifference. At 23, I’m thinking this is the skill everybody assumed was obsolete.

All the talk about real estate, working at a startup or internships—so much of it is about convincing yourself that you’re “investing” when its really just a way to give yourself what you want now and pretend the payoff is somehow deferred into the future. What part is delayed? What have you gone without? How have you learned to deal with uncertainty? Or the growing bewilderment of the people around you? The truth is that we make these decisions precisely because they’re thought to be “sure things.” But that is not strategy, it’s not even real.

To be able to handle even a fraction of the tension of one of these multi-year draw-down periods. To do the time on the treadmill and then a little more and then get off to do the next thing (and not take the baggage with you). To steadily increase the amount of time that we can stand without getting anxious or restless. And in this process of teaching yourself to do it, to complain as little as possible.

The Point

June 10, 2010 — 7 Comments

One of my favorite things about the internet is watching how people interpret things. Particularly in blog or Twitter posts where someone is forced to condense what they took away from an article down to just a sentence or two. What you notice is that people are incredibly bad at getting the point. Or worse, they walk away with an entirely self-constructed impression. (see: this from this)

A good example is to watch a speculative story evolve across websites. Jokes turn into facts, anonymous quotes turn into official statements, bizarre details become evidence for warped conspiracy theories and so it goes down the chain.

Of course part of this is what they call the confirmation bias. People tend to seek out the parts of what they experience that confirm their existing beliefs, or more often, their unacknowledged preferences or sensitivities. But that doesn’t completely explain the tendency to so profoundly and creatively miss what was right in front of them.

The ability to reduce something down to its essence—to understand, analogize and articulate is a skill we tend to assume is simply there. It isn’t. In fact, most of the tools we have for sharing not only don’t facilitate this synthesis, they discourage it. Comments sections seem to thrive on conflict; a commenter needs to call the writer out or disagree with a trivial part of what they said. Twitter and Facebook are about sharing our opinion about a thing, not what that thing was. Newspapers, blogs and television, both for the creators and also for the viewers, are about making that thing as big as it can be or else it doesn’t deserve the attention. What we’re left with after consuming and participating in this cycle is an inability to comprehend what we see in an honest or accurate way.

If you think this process as a kind of entropy, then the question is how to rebuild what is constantly falling apart–or worse, what we were never explicitly taught. I think this is where several spiritual exercises have value. The first is one the Stoics called “contemptuous expressions,” essentially a way to use cynicism to reduce something to its most basic state. Sex is a few minutes of rubbing and then semen. What a King submits to in private versus the image he presents to his subjects. Another, from Cicero, is to ask this question in every situation: Cui bono? By assuming there is a exposed interest yet unmasked, we’re required to examine each party from an unusual but enlightening perspective—suspicion.

The idea of practicing the act of getting to the center or premise of something is about more than improving reading comprehension. In what they are describing as “economics of abundance” there is no scarcity to ensure preselection. This means that what we see, read, hear or are pitched—from entertainment to a business plan—is more likely to be bullshit. Think: misinterpretation layered on top of misinterpretation, stripped from context and general understanding. Without the ability to separate the folds to look at the central, underpinning parts of an issue, you’re at the mercy of the comically distorted reality of the people mentioned above.

The Course

May 25, 2010 — 27 Comments

When you first begin as a strategist, you hold the faulty assumption that foresight means predicting what happens next. Of course, though it sometimes does, more often than not, the proper plan is proven wrong before it is proven proper.

There are plenty of opportunities to undermine yourself along the way. To have doubts. To want to turn back. To disavow the instincts that brought you here. They say that the market bottoms out when the last bull finally blinks and throws in the towel.

So you may beat yourself up when it doesn’t work out exactly as you envisioned. You forget that the timeline could be a year or five years or longer. Groundwork can suddenly pay off without expectation. It can look very bad before it ever starts to look good – or worse it can look like nothing, like you did nothing at all.

What you need to develop is the quiet confidence that Seneca called euthymia—”the belief that you’re on the right path and not led astray by the many tracks which cross yours of people who are hopelessly lost.” You’re after something elusive and rare and critical: to not be shaken. If you can accept that your strategy will almost certainly “feel wrong” at some point, you’ll be less likely to ditch it at the critical moment. In fact, you’ll come to know this test as a positive experience that exercises your tolerance for dissonance.