Why We Act

I can’t stop thinking about smash cakes since I learned about them last night.

Smash cakes are whole cakes that parents give to their babies on their first birthday to mash into with their faces, dig into with their hands, to messily revel in, like a tiny infant hurricane tearing through a frosted beachside villa.

99 times out of 100, I’m sure parents just want to have a fun day and a cute photo op.

But, parental intent be damned, there is more than just batter in this cake.

What is a smash cake made of?

1. Vicarious indulgence: Every single 30-year-old I’ve talked to about smash cakes has replied with some variation of, “Jesus, I want that immediately.” When we watch an infant grip her cake with two small fists and smear her cheeks in frosting, we are reminded of how rarely we let ourselves plunge recklessly, shamelessly into pleasure. Cake smashes are no doubt fun for the baby, but they are cathartic to the adults hovering behind the highchair, cameras in hand. For ten minutes, our imaginations smash the cake too, fully present, carelessly free. Just like Pixar movies and trampoline parks, smash cakes are really for us, not them.

2. Ritualized destruction: I am reminded of sand mandalas, the exquisite, kaleidoscopic depictions of the divine universe created by Buddhist monks over days or weeks. After completion, mandalas are destroyed, brushed into an urn, and poured into a river to demonstrate the impermanence of all things. Similar rituals of artistic destruction appear throughout history and across cultures, all the way to present day festivals like Burning Man. Smash cakes carry this lineage of sacred ephemerality. One could argue that infants are better participants than monks to carry out this act of destruction, for even their memories of the event are lost to time. Parents, as usual, miss the almighty point by documenting the occasion like a Kardashian wedding.

3. The first hit of sugar: Smash cakes provide many babies with their first taste of processed sugar. Parents see this as a moment to celebrate. I can’t help but mourn. For most in the Western world, sugar is less a treat than a chronic toxin, strongly linked to the wave of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and obesity that is crushing entire communities. While sugar doesn’t create the physiological dependency that opioids do, the taste preferences and habits we acquire as infants are arduous to reprogram as we age. In this context, watching a cooing parent push a frosted slice under their reluctant child’s nose recalls the dread of a slasher flick. I yell at my screen, tell her to run, run. The protagonist is deaf to my cries.

4. Shut up, it’s just meaningless fun: You read all this and sigh, come on, man! It’s not a ritual or a meditation or a metaphor for jack shit. It’s a fucking cake and it’s a fun, silly thing. Shut up. It’s meaningless. But (I reply) that is meaningful. (You are on the verge of punching me at this point.) I continue: a first birthday marks the symbolic end of an age of meaninglessness.

We demand nothing of infants. They act on impulse, gleefully free of the cultural ideas and interpersonal norms that shape our every shudder. Outside of a few sensations (the sight and sounds and smells of parents prime among them), very little has meaning to them. They could crash a Rolls Royce into the last living polar bear without breaking a sweat, and no jury would convict them because they understand what none of those things are.

Around 12 months old, babies begin to develop mental representations of the world. They notice that Buzz Lightyear continues to exist even when he is hidden behind mommy’s back. They form a hazy understanding of cause and effect, of goal and intent. As they begin to comprehend that a world exists beyond their field of vision, that world starts to place basic expectations upon them about how to exist. We snack on the fruit of knowledge, and suddenly we’re told to put on some damn underpants.

A first birthday is our grand entrance into civil society, with its rules and taboos and demands. In this light, smash cakes form the centerpiece to a sort of baby stag party, one last sensuous celebration of egocentric independence, a hedonistic abandon that will soon be wrenched away forever.

This means nothing to them. What a gift.

I can’t stop thinking about smash cakes.

Why We Learn

Straight-A’s should be a handicap when applying to colleges.

Imagine you are an admissions officer deciding between two applicants:

Lisa gets A’s in every class, is first-chair violin, and captain of the rugby team.

Arya gets C’s and D’s in all of her classes, save for Physics and Woodworking, where she gets A’s. She doesn’t do any academic extracurriculars, but she has a Gunpla youtube channel.

You might believe that Lisa is the better student, but the truth is that her transcript tells you less than Arya’s.

Lisa’s high grades across classes highlights her capability for success, but obscures her interest in anything other than academic achievement.

Meanwhile, Arya demonstrates both capability and passion for a specific topic.

Lisa, with so many commitments, manages her time. Arya prioritizes her time.

As an admissions officer, you should feel confident that Lisa will thrive inside your university. And that Arya will thrive beyond.

For a discussion of fragility and antifragility applied to education, read this article by Alwyn Lau.

Why We Act

Space-time is, broadly, the concept that time and space are not independent structures; the flow of time changes relative to an object’s position and movement through space.

As I sipped absinthe in a secret red-walled bar down a Shibuya alleyway, I considered the existence of a new theory of relativity: the space-food continuum.

What I discovered in my liquor-ish haze, is that my food selection changes relative to my position and movement around the globe.

I treat food like I treat maps.

When I visit unfamiliar cities, I discard maps. Fuck a map, I am a space explorer. I lose time. I lose myself. I pick a point and wander, turning randomly at intersections, no destination in mind. I prioritize novelty over all else. I don’t particularly care where I end up, or when. I trust curiosity, fortune, and friends to lead me to the right spaces.

And the right foods.

Plunk me in a new city, and I will eat everything, try anything. I chuck calorie tracking and nutrient density out the window. My intention is to amble about the culinary topography, to taste the strange, the banal, the obvious and obscure; to let luck guide my tongue.

At home, I turn from explorer to engineer. Space is an optimization exercise. I study the map. I figure out where the fewest stop signs are located and I track the lengths of stoplights in order to shave seconds off my travel time. Beating Google Maps’ estimated travel duration brings me great joy. Missing an exit on the freeway brings me great shame. The purpose of commuting isn’t to commute; the purpose of commuting is to Get There.

At home, food becomes a route to a specific destination. To lower blood levels of LDL-P. To reduce body fat by 5%. To deadlift 35 more pounds. In the kitchen, I track macros and weigh meat. I record weekly averages. Food follows function: I prioritize effectiveness and efficiency over aesthetics and chance.

My tolerance for serendipity increases as a factor of distance from my house.

This is what I define as the space-food continuum.

Why We Learn, Why We Love

In 1968, when William Jefferson Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, he met a graduate student named Jeffrey Stamps at a party.Clinton promptly pulled out a black address book. “What are you doing here at Oxford, Jeff?” he asked.”

“I’m at Pembroke on a Fulbright,” Jeff replied. Clinton penned “Pembroke” into his book…

“Bill, why are you writing this down?” asked Stamps.

“I’m going into politics and plan to run for governor of Arkansas, and I’m keeping track of everyone I meet,” said Clinton.

As an undergraduate at Georgetown, the forty second president made it a nightly habit to record, on index cards, the names and vital information of every person whom he’d met that day.

Keith Ferrazzi, Never Eat Alone

My first reaction upon reading this: “Ha, what an odd dude, that Clinton.”

My second reaction, a moment later: So what the hell am I doing at parties, then? If I’m not there to learn about the people I meet, if I’m not curious about their histories, their perspectives, if I’m willing to let our conversation spill from my memory as soon as the food arrives, why am I there?

And if I am there to learn, how would I demonstrate that?

If a student doesn’t take any notes during a lecture, you can assume that they don’t care much about the class. Perhaps they have a supernatural memory, but it’s far more likely that they aren’t invested in the subject.

When we want to learn, we don’t leave it to chance. We pay attention, ask questions, take notes, review.

And yet, when it comes to the most important subject – the people around us – we leave it all to chance.

For a long time, this wasn’t a problem. We didn’t need to spend a great deal of effort learning about new people because until recently, we rarely met new people. Our social biology and behavioral norms are shaped by thousands of years living in tribes rarely larger than a few hundred. Our brains are only equipped to hold around 150 people in our heads. Odds are, your mental rolodex was full before you got to high school.

Social networks are useful to us because they help fill in the gaps. We meet somebody in the wild and then we get to know them on our iPhone. Their profiles are the notes we should have taken when we met them.

I used to remember people’s phone numbers, now my phone remembers them. It’s your birthday when Facebook tells me it’s your birthday.

Social networks, if we let them, will happily gobble the remainder of our mental representation of our friends.

Maybe that’s not a big deal. Perhaps outsourcing trivia like dates and facts to our phones allows us to focus on what’s really important. The test is open-book, says the student. Why take notes?

We take notes because there is a difference between passing the test and learning the subject. We take notes because we care.

We are bad students when it comes to connecting with people.

And what would a good student do? Pay attention, ask questions, take notes, review.

Why We Learn

There is such a thing as a bad question.

On Reddit’s fitness forum, people share stories, trade tips, and ask questions on a shared quest to improve their health and sculpt their bodies. The site is a treasure for the motivated, curious beginner.

You also encounter questions like, “Is it okay to eat a grapefruit before my workout or should I wait until after?”

Bad question. Good person, but bad question.

This is a bad question because it is fear disguised as curiosity. Learning a little more, reading another book or blog post can feel like progress, but it is also a common stalling tactic. Same with asking for advice. The wisdom of experts can help us avoid painful, time-consuming mistakes.

But this question is about grapefruit timing.

I want to grab this person and yell, “JUST TRY IT AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS!”

Yesterday, I talked about passive curiosity, which asks, “What do people already know about this subject?”

Active curiosity wonders, “Let’s see what happens when I try this.”

The curiosity of taking apart a camera to see if you can put it back together.

The curiosity of introducing yourself to a group of strangers to see how they react.

The curiosity of taking the long way everybody avoids rather than the short cut everybody seeks.

The curiosity of failing forward.

The curiosity of taking the first bite.

The curiosity of saying yes.

When a person specializes in passive curiosity, we call her well-read. When she dedicates herself to active curiosity, we call her well-lived.

The well-read person is sometimes interesting, and often dangerous. The well-lived person is always interesting, and often heroic.

It is the difference between timing a grapefruit and starting a movement.

Why We Learn

There are some days I wish I was less curious.

There was a once a six week stretch when I was obsessed with learning how to make juices. I read an article by a fitness coach about how we can get a lot of missing nutrients when we puree vegetables and fruits into a frothy liquid, add chia seeds, and gulp it down. I spent weeks researching various juicers on Amazon. I read up on the best juicing recipes: which veggies retained their nutritional value during the juicing process, and which didn’t. How to clean seeds and pulp from a juicer.

Maybe I could have become great at juicing, but after a few weeks a new curiosity gripped me: Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law is the observation that the amount of time you spend on a task expands to fit the amount of time you have to complete it. So, if you have six months to get in shape for your trip to Hawaii, it will take six months of working out and eating well. If you only have one month, then you will find a way to do the same amount of work and see the same amount of progress in one month.

For a few weeks I blabbed to my coworkers about Parkinson’s Law. I read and thought about thirty different applications and corollaries of the idea. I was a Parkinson’s Law evangelist, a true believer. Until I started playing a game called Papers, Please..

In the movie Independence Day, we learn that the aliens move planet to planet, eradicating life and harvesting all the resources. But what do they ever use the resources for? Who knows. Perhaps they just enjoy traveling to new planets. Perhaps on their home planet they just have enormous, untouched piles of carbon, magnesium, and silicon, and in front of the piles there are little signs listing the planets of origin. They were just curious.

This is passive curiosity. The passively curious discover a topic, absorb everything they can, then move on to a new subject. It is a curiosity that is useful for cocktail chatter and racking up library fines. Students are implicitly taught to develop their passive curiosity: to focus lesson to lesson, remember what they can long enough to complete a test, then move to the next chapter. Nomadic knowledge.

Passive curiosity answers the question: “What have other people learned about this?”

So what question would active curiosity answer?

Why We Act

When I started out in customer support, thousands of people would contact us every day about resetting their password. In order to do so, they would have to answer a security question which they set when they created their account. It was easy to predict which users could answer their question and which would fail and ultimately call us assholes and fascists.

It had nothing to do with the people and everything to do with the question they chose.

In 2007, there were two types of security questions:

  1. Factual: E.g. The name of your third grade teacher, grandmother’s maiden name, etc.
  2. Opinions: E.g. Favorite pizza topping, favorite hobby, name of your best friend, etc.

Factual questions were never a problem. Facts don’t change. You might forget the name of your third grade teacher, but her name is fully independent of your feelings, preferences, and desires. Conversely, opinions are nothing but the shifting sum of our feelings, preferences, and desires. Opinions are the meals we cook with whatever happens to be in the fridge at the time.

Whenever we told a user that no, their favorite pizza topping was not pineapple, they’d go apeshit. “I know what pizza I goddamn like, you dicks, now let me into my account.”

I will repeat, the problem wasn’t the users, it was the questions. We make the mistake of thinking about our preferences as malleable in the past, but stable in the future. People create their account thinking they’ll always love pepperoni, not imagining the possibility that in eight months a pushy date will insist they try Hawaiian pizza and blow their mind.

Our favorites are fickle.

And so is our motivation.

In an ecstatic midnight fit of passion, we bought the domain name, mocked up designs, drafted our blog posts. It went really well. Really well. We got a lot of Likes that first month.

Six weeks in, something changed.The thought of working on our side project didn’t move us like it first did. We wanted to spend Saturday morning testing AdWords, but we just weren’t Feeling It. We wanted to join that new morning running group instead. Or we hadn’t had a good brunch in a while and wanted to hang out with our friends. Pepperoni turned to pineapple.

As marathon runners know, motivation will not get you across the finish line. Motivation won’t get you further than a dozen blocks. We must plan to feel indifferently about the thing we love right now.

My favorite resource on how to develop that plan is Seth Godin’s The Dip.

Of course, it might not be my favorite in a year.

Uncategorized

Bury a body on the beach.

No one needs to know about it but you.

And when they find the bones washed up, the mystery will captivate them.

Chaz Bundick of the band Toro y Moi describes a body he buried in the lyrics of his song Half Dome. Toward the final chorus, he repeats the line:

Look at who you are beside

Again and again, the words lapping like waves. And on the final repetition, nearly inaudible:

Look at who you are beside

(No one)

What could he mean? Is this an illusion to a specific person in his life? An observation about the obliterating vastness of a walk in nature? A red herring to throw everyone off the trail?

When brought in for questioning by the Song Exploder podcast, Chaz offers his confession:

“Yeah, that was intentional. I threw it in there just because it’s fun. The Beatles would do that, just throw in random stuff that was inaudible. It’s for purposes like this, like ‘I found this, what is this?’”

He had no motive. In the midst of creative intention, a carefully obscured piece of nonsense will fascinate them, aggravate them, confuse them, inspire them.

Your art should be a bit weird, a bit inexplicable.

What is this? The question will drive them mad. In your next project, bury a body on the beach.

Why We Create

The work we do falls into one of two camps: performance or experimentation.

Performance is the work we do that creates value for others. It’s teaching in a way that your students understand. It’s building and presenting an analysis for your colleagues. It’s following the set of exercises recommended by your trainer. It’s giving gifts, offering compliments, telling jokes. It’s doing the dishes before your partner gets home. It’s delivering consistently, effectively, reliably, every morning. It’s following a well-trekked path to a beautiful destination.

Experimentation is the work we do to answer our own questions. It’s sending an email with emoji to see how the VP responds. It’s starting a vlog to help potential customers know you better. It’s debuting an unfinished song for your fans. It’s revealing your vulnerability to your friends. It’s staying in instead of going out on Friday night (or the reverse, if you’re over 30). It’s leaping into the unknown, uncertain, unskilled. It’s wandering a foreign city with no map.

Some people prefer performance or experimentation alone, but most of us require both to feel satisfied in our work. Chefs stay up late to dabble in their kitchen; physicists moonlight before a packed comedy club. Should you feel dissatisfied with life professional or personal, perhaps you’re starving to tinker, perhaps you’re thirsty to dance.

Why We Learn

We take a hidden, grinning pleasure in eavesdropping on conversations out in public. For a floating instance, we are swept along the current of two dueling confessions. Out of context, their declarations (confidently blurted, intensely whispered) sound absurd. He insists, “the children are trying sabotage me,” with comic certainty. She says, “..they leaked for three days before exploding on my manager’s..” and unwittingly frustrates your day with questions that suddenly, urgently require an answer.

Let’s listen longer. Follow the river further and you observe a terrain of alien perspectives, unmet desires, savage caricatures, lusty trivia, blind assumptions, neon obsessions.

The right conversation, eavesdropped rightly, can inspire more questions and uncover more answers than direct dialogue.