Being Here

March 30, 2009 — 5 Comments

I wrote a few pieces about running in college and looking back at them they were all very descriptive. They have little observations about how a shadow might look, what my breathing was like, how I reacted to a car that almost hit me. To me, those are signals that I was very much present and aware. It’s unfortunate running has become an entirely different activity.

Since then it’s slowly lost all semblance from that period. Every night same run, same speed, and one song going over and over. So they’ve all blurred together – there is not one night that stands out, it’s like they never even happened. I once listened to Springsteen’s ‘I’m on Fire’ thirty or forty times in a row. When I used to run on the treadmill on my building, it was the only way I could handle spending that much time in a tv-less basement. I stopped when it dawned on me that I’d often run for 40 minutes breathing heavily as I ran towards my own reflection and not even notice that I’d done it. There is something wrong with that. Very wrong.

This is exemplary of having no middleground. Another way to put it might be a “state of unthinking” – rather than reflecting on what has happened or working on what will happen. And simply being busy to the point where you’re not thinking anything isn’t a solution either. There should be a period where you’re simply present, reacting and receiving to what is going on around you.

So how do you become present and aware of the moment? (I’ve since learned that Buddhists called this “mindfulness”) Montaigne wrote that we should have rooms in our house that have nothing in them. You should spend time in them, he said, and be alone and without distraction. I went through my apartment last week and thought “if I was moving right now, what would I not take with me?” and got rid of all that stuff. I figure if you have less, there’s less to consider and less, ultimately, to fear losing. Or, what about turning off the soundtrack and ending its delusion right now. Finally, if descriptiveness can be indicator of someone’s presentness, why not act like you’re going to write about the exact moment you’re in?

I’ve heard that 15 seconds is about what the mind can comprehend as the ‘present.’ Watch yourself as you butt up against that barrier while you’re running. Each second you can go on past that is one you’re not subjected to regret, hope, anger, sadness, expectation, anxiety, stress or uncertainty. You’re just there. And by being there, you’re in control of yourself and your emotions. The resistance I felt at 15 seconds can be worked out just like a muscle.

As I ran last night I caught myself smiling for the first time I can remember doing it since I ran in college. I thought, ‘what a nice night’ and when I got home I didn’t feel the need to rush in and write something down before I forgot it. I was just finished.

What Do I Need to Know?

March 25, 2009 — 20 Comments

I forgot that I said this but a long time ago I wrote that The Long Tail was a theory you HAD to be familiar with. Someone else asked what other theories should be required knowledge for young people. I can only answer what works for me, but I’ll give it a shot.

You should know Alinsky’s strategies for community organizing, John Robb’s theory of networked, guerrilla warfare, what Matt Mason calls “the Pirate’s dilemma”, the concept of a “blue oceans” Wikinomics (specifically, ideagoras or information bazaars) and I like Rob Walker’s “murketing.” You could also make the case that a healthy understanding of how hustlers create advantage, as compared to normal entrepreneurs, is increasingly important.

A couple others I might add, would be Snark (not the book, read this article) and narcissism/narrative fallacy, for the reason that they both derail and delude a lot of people online.

You could read all the books and I’ve linked to them before but thought it might be interesting if I tried to define all of them over the next few weeks. We could put it together into some kind of introduction for beginners. Your thoughts and input are welcome below.

I used to carry a lot of fear. What if I lose this? Or, ‘I have to monitor that in case something bad happens.’ Worse, I would be unsure of how to act in certain situations, whether to advance or maintain or do whatever else somebody asked me to do right away. I was petrified of anything that could be considered a step backwards. I think I once wrote that I promised myself I’d never work on a wage-basis ever again.

Now I’m starting to understand that this was foolish. It’s an attitude prevalent in what Robert calls “tactical hell.” After I formulated, at least ephemerally, what I was after, the feelings melted away. In fact, in laying out and looking at the chessboard I saw instances where there was not only nothing shameful in taking a job like that but doing so would be the best possible move.

This is what is known as Grand Strategy. It means knowing in a very deep way what it is you’re trying to accomplish. It’s important because once you understand where you intend to finish in that distant, far off sense, you can take in, in perspective, how insignificant many individual decisions are. Left or right, what does it matter? Take this, leave that – knowing how you can turn either to a productive, contributive step means you’re less dependent on circumstance and less anxiety for you to carry.

Let’s say you wanted to become something like Tyler Cowen. Tactical hell would be thinking of ways to acquire what he possesses – getting a huge audience, bothering an editor at the New York Times Book Review, setting up a blog and trying to get linked by other important writers. It would be hell because you’d probably fail at each of these things. Grand strategy would be to think of what and why you want to be like Tyler. Perhaps, it’s that he’s paid to be curious or that you think you’d find fulfillment in the intellectually productive life he appears to lead. The separation of the person and the position leads to an understanding that latter flows from the former. The grand strategy is clear.

Whether you choose this class or that one, work or travel, books or people, these are small, tactical decisions. You know that the standing order is to turn each into an interesting, engaging process; everything is a challenge to examine and a chance for insight.

Think about Fight Club. The whole, it’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything. Well what does he really mean? I think what he’s saying has little to do with possessions. He means that after you’ve cleared out dependency and distractions, you acquire, in a way, a kind of grand strategy: a sense of self. When that becomes your only guiding principle, what is happening on the outside is irrelevant. You’re free because grand strategy gives way to formlessness. And formlessness to peace and calm and self-assurance.

This Boy’s Life

March 19, 2009 — 12 Comments

Some proof that good fiction has its roots in science and research:

“When we are green, still half-created, we believe that our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters. We live on the innocent and monstrous assurance that we alone, of all the people ever born, have a special arrangement whereby we will be allowed to stay green forever”

This Boy’s Life

Tobias Wolff

“Psychologist David Elkind introduced two theories in a 1967 paper on adolescents and egocentrism. He suggested that adolescents exist in an empathetically compromised state of egocentrism and that typical teens live their lives as thought they were on a grand stage in front of an attentive audience. Because every action is so important to them, these teens assume that their actions are of equal interest and importance to those around them, that they are performing before a constant imaginary audience. The personal fable theory describes a belief on the part of the adolescent that he or she is unique and special and that when it comes to pursuing his or her destiny, the conventional rules don’t apply. In theory, most teens grow of these dramatic, egocentric stages, as they successfully negotiate a separation from their parents and emerge with unique identities as mature adults.

The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America

Dr. Drew Pinsky

At first glance, Personal Fable Theory sounds a lot like the Narrative Fallacy. Both the This Boy’s Life and The Mirror Effect are very good. Connections are everywhere.

Ryan,

I know you’re a fan of Hugh MacLeod and I was wondering if you use his ‘Sex & Cash Theory‘ in your everyday life. I can’t seem to reconcile the theory (which I think has some merit) with a lot of what I read about people I respect and admire who seem to focus all their attention on something they love. Thoughts?

Regards,

Perry

I think Hugh could have done a better job supporting his argument. When I read it the first time, they were what popped into my head.

If you had a stepmother and a real mother, you would pay your respects to your stepmother, yes…but it’s your real mother you’d go home to. The court…and philosophy: Keep returning to it, to rest in its embrace. It’s all that makes the court-and you-endurable. – Marcus Aurelius

“When some state or other offered Alexander a part of its territory or half of all its property he told them that ‘he hadn’t come to Asia with the intention of accepting whatever they cared to give them, but of letting them keep whatever he chose to leave them.’ Philosophy, likewise, tells all other occupations: ‘It’s not my intention to accept whatever time is left over from you; you shall have, instead, what I reject.'” – Seneca

The problem I have is with the certainty of it. Like “Sex & Cash” is the only way to do it. How wonderful that his natural inclination happened to be the way to do it. The funny thing is that most of the people have talked to locked themselves into a deathground strategy and let desperation push them forward. But what does it matter, because you’re not them and you’re not Hugh either.

Figure out what’s important to you and give it every bit of the attention it deserves. Maybe you can manage something else on the side or maybe you can’t. Or maybe you can figure out how one fuels the other. The critical step is to stop pretending it’s some academic exercise and place it fully into the realm of tangible reality. For me, the theory isn’t anything more than confirmation to what I already felt was right for me. And I only learned that by trying it out.