Why We Do Better

We learn the most from the events we are least prepared for. Assuming, of course, that we survive the initial collision.

In his essay on the wisdom of lifting barbells, Nassim Taleb applies the principle of tail risk to strength training. Our bodies get stronger not from the monotonous humdrum of routine activities (rising from bed, sitting in a car, sitting in the middle row at team meetings, walking to our car, etc.), but from exposure to infrequent extremes: lifting weight off the ground at the very edge of our muscular and skeletal capacity.

He uses the analogy of weight-testing a bridge:

“You will never get an idea of the strength of a bridge by driving several hundred cars on it, making sure they are all of different colors and makes, which would correspond to representative traffic. No, an engineer would subject it instead to a few multi-ton vehicles. You may not thus map all the risks, as heavy trucks will not show material fatigue, but you can get a solid picture of the overall safety.”

Frequent, trivial insults chip away at a system (low back pain, carpel-tunnel, etc.). Rare, intense shocks may strengthen them.

For the past decade, Millennials have faced a glut of minor knocks but, outside of the 2008 U.S. recession, relatively few cultural hammers. Despite being the savviest participants in social media, the most connected and technologically capable, and having the broadest access to education and global impact, commentators describe the average Millennial as sheltered, anxious, and timid.

It makes sense that a generation insulated from failure and conflict would popularize the concept of microaggressions: frequent, trivial insults that chip away at self-esteem and dignity. And, like a overactive immune response, the battle against microaggressions has not strengthened Millennial political or social clout.

To the majority of voting Millennials, the election of Donald Trump was a tail event: an unthinkable catastrophe, an existential threat made concrete.

A macroaggression.

What if that was exactly what the generation needed? An extreme event that would organize, mobilize, and strengthen the entire system? What if the most connected, most educated generation was also the most politically engaged?

We learn the most from the events we are least prepared for. Assuming, of course, that we survive the initial collision.

Why We Do Better

Fighter planes were new technology during World War II, and we needed to learn how to protect them.

The military commissioned a study that examined bombers that had returned from missions and had taken damage. The study found that a small number of areas took the majority of the fire. The commission recommended that we add armor to those areas of the aircraft.

Luckily, Abraham Wald stopped them before making a costly mistake.

A statistician before the war, Wald understood survivorship bias – our tendency to focus on the winners that are able to tell their story, rather than the losers that cannot.

He observed that instead of reinforcing the areas that took the most damage, we should protect the areas that took no damage. What the commission had actually studied was where bombers could take damage and survive. The planes that had been shot down, the ones that didn’t return to base to be studied by the commission, were hit precisely in the areas where the survivors were unscathed.

We are all survivors. It’s easy to forget, but the seat you’re sitting in right now is one that hundred people like you could have had. Our idols and mentors are brilliant and talented and wonderful, yes, but also lucky. So are you.

The bruises we carry with us and the mistakes we’ve made, the accidents we’ve had and the flack we’ve taken: we could focus on those when we try to improve ourselves. We could dwell on how to never be hit in the same place twice. But we made it. We survived all those hits. Our scars don’t tell us where we are weak, but where we are strong.

The better question is, where are we unscathed?

Why We Do Better

(They will say)

“All things in moderation.”

No. No!

Moderation is dull stress, joint pain, compromise, boredom, homogenization, mediocrity. Carpel tunnel. Weak opinions. Dad bods.

No. All things in extremity. In small amounts. At random intervals. Sprints, not jogs. One square of the darkest chocolate, not a bar of Nestle.

We ignore the lesson that taps us gently on the shoulder every day. It is the moment that smashes us, breaks us, and ejects us into the atmosphere that travels alongside us forever. Not the daily bumps, but the rare stabs – deep enough to leave scars.

No, no things in moderation. Feast, then famine.

Why We Do Better

…but it isn’t. (Yet.)

And unless you plan to travel back in time, the question “How did this happen?” is always less useful than “Why is it not worse?

Why We Love

A magical property of gifts: source confusion.

When you gift him a book, he can’t help but read the words in your voice. Gift her a mixtape, and it’s as if you composed every lyric for her.

When they say the artist shares her soul through her work, this isn’t metaphor; genius hops from giver to giver.

Why We Fuck Up

A common fitness story: On January 1st, Lydia and Randy decide they’ve spent a great deal of their post-college decade reclining on the couch. They make a pact to transform their bodies over the course of the year. Lydia decides to run at least one mile every day. Randy, aspiring meathead, joins a gym and practices Olympic lifts six days a week.

Three months in, they’ve each shed 10% of their body weight and have more energy than they did in college.

Six months in, Lydia signs up for her first marathon. Randy decides to compete in a local lifting meet at the end of the year.

On July 28th, at precisely 7:42PM, Lydia rounds the bend of her tenth mile of the day, and feels a pop in her left knee. She knows immediately: busted MCL. Unable to put any weight on her knee, she calls Randy and asks him to drive her home. He rushes to the driveway, throws the car door open, and tears his rotator cuff.

In fitness, we tend to celebrate strength and intensity over flexibility. We train to become exceptional in one plane of motion, and subsequently leave ourselves vulnerable to the slight dips, the unseen potholes, the inane chaos of daily life.

So it goes in every domain:

In business, art, love, and running, we find that the strongest and fastest perform for years; the most flexible, decades.

Why We Create

Amy receives a notification on Facebook: a new person liked the video of a dance routine she choreographed ten years ago.

Justin receives an email from a current student at his alma matter, thanking him for writing the first op-ed to call for trans-friendly restrooms on campus, eight years ago.

Nisha receives an endorsement on LinkedIn from the CTO of a popular messaging app, praising the code she wrote as a summer intern five years ago.

The clearest signal of what matters is what endures.

Fascinating that the work we did that mattered most was rarely done inside a classroom.

Why We Do Better

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This is one of my favorite comics, and there are two ways to interpret it: the fool reading and the monk reading.

The fool reading sees Mr. Dog ignorant or stubborn in the face of obvious catastrophe. Dog is each of us: happily, stupidly plodding deeper into the jungle despite every sign that we should turn back.

It’s Jeb! continuing his campaign after Please Clap. It’s Wile E. Coyote busily cycling his legs even though the cliff ended meters back. It’s staying at the shitty job or with the shitty person long after they’ve revealed their toxicity.

This is a valid and vital lesson, though like the Rubin vase, a second impression emerges from its contours.

This interpretation is best explained by an anecdote told by Josh Waitzkin about playing in the rain with his son:

“Parents have this language around weather being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Whenever it’s raining you hear ‘it’s bad weather, we can’t go out,’ or ‘it’s good weather, we can go out.’ So that means we’re externally reliant on conditions being good in order to have a good time. So [my son] Jack and I never miss a single storm. I don’t think we’ve missed a single storm, rain or snow, going outside and romping in it. We developed this language around how beautiful it was, so now whenever it’s a rainy day Jack says ‘look Dada, it’s such a beautiful rainy day.’ ”

From birth, we are taught to label things as good or bad – our emotions, our physical sensations, our successes and failures. In short order, we learn to dread all that we call ‘bad’ and flee from its presence.

The truth, as Waitzkin points out, is that much richness in life comes from sitting in discomfort. In doing so, we gain mastery over ourselves. We hear depth and beauty when before we heard noise. Both courage and wit grow well in this soil.

The truth is, all that we call genius comes down to being able to sit in the fire and say, “this is fine.”

That is the monk reading.

Why We Fuck Up

My newest story, How To Kill A Witch, draws from the lessons of Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile.

Taleb defines as antifragile those things which grow stronger from disorder and harm. Most physical objects are fragile: push a ceramic pot off a table, and the pot is not improved, unless you are a wabi-sabi adherent.

Ideas, on the other hand, tend to be antifragile. Repress an idea through violence and it grows more pervasive.

How To Kill A Witch explores the dynamics of antifragility inside a popular uprising. You see this conflict everywhere once you know how to look for it, from the rise of Trumpism shocking the Republican party to the ascent of Daniel Bryan as WWE’s rebel hero in back in 2014.

To recap, I assert that:

1) Election politics are the same as professional wrestling
2) Professional wrestling can be used to illustrate every cultural phenomenon
3) I am unable to hold a conversation these days without name-checking Nassim Taleb or Daniel Bryan

Check out How To Kill A Witch at The Statement.

Uncategorized, Why We Do Better

I think I figured out why karaoke is so much damn fun.

Last weekend I sang karaoke, shouted my little lungs out for a few hours to Foo Fighters, System of a Down, Marilyn Manson, Rihanna (IBNLT). By the end I was a bit hoarse and a bit damp and percolating in seratonin and dopamine. It could be that I just enjoy sing/shouting, but I think there’s something a little more going on. I think there’s something about sometimes shouting that also makes us healthier.

The core of the idea is that short sprints of effort followed by periods of rest outperform consistent, steady levels of effort. It’s one of those patterns that seems to pop up everywhere in nature and culture once you look for it:

Fitness: There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests that high intensity interval training is as effective as steady state cardio in improving endurance and increasing fat loss, and may be more effective in reducing insulin sensitivity and markers for type-2 diabetes.

Nutrition: Similarly, nutrition scientists now tout the benefits of intermittent fasting for decreasing diabetes risk, improving cholesterol markers, and accelerating fat loss.

Stoic philosophy: Seneca suggests practicing poverty for a few days each year to inoculate yourself to the fear of failure and loss:

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’”

Mental Focus: We do our best work when we take breaks. A 2014 study found that employees accomplished more when they alternated 52 minutes of work with 17 minutes of rest.

Back to singing:

As kids, we learn not to shout in public places. It’s rude, we learn, to disturb others with our unmodulated honking and quacking. For most kids, the edict extends into the home – quiet down, calm down, pipe down. And if our parents didn’t make it clear, teachers shamed and punished us into silent civility.

I’d argue that vocal cords are made to be stretched to their limits. Our biceps swell from the stress of the barbell; our hearts pump harder from the strain of the sprint; our brains bathe in endorphins to reward us, to say, “yes, do this more.” Just the same, our bodies ache to flatten the world with the boom of our voice. Our lungs grow stronger, as do our hearts. As do our spirits.

There is a clarifying moment during intense effort. Sprint or sing or lift or draw as hard as you can, and for an instant the world falls away. Or perhaps, more precisely, you disappear. The inner narrator disappears. Time narrows; there is no past and no future.

Alan Watts argues that this is the moment that fear ceases to exist within us.

Roaring into a microphone in a basement in the Tenderloin, I could care less about all that. The universe is a song shouting itself. I am in Nirvana.