Why We Do Better

From earlier this summer, what I call the prognostic treadmill:

“The hedonic treadmill describes our tendency to return to a baseline level of happiness (or curmudgeonliness) shortly after events we thought would bring us lasting joy: that new Tesla, that condo with the view, that promotion (long overdue, really).

We are less familiar with, yet no less afflicted by, the prognostic treadmill:

Our tendency to return to a level of confidence in our predictive ability, shortly after events that confirm our inability to make predictions: failure to reach last year’s growth targets, global economic recessions, populist upheavals.”

A shocking event scrambles the neat picture of the future that we held in our heads, like a child dashing a finished jigsaw puzzle to the floor.

For a fleeting instant, we see the unfolding of human history as it is: impervious to prediction. Anti-certain. Unfortunately, our brains crave closure.

Moments after the experts and pundits get it wrong, we gasp for more predictions, new predictions to settle our roiling bellies. Like salt water, bad predictions just make us thirstier for more predictions.

What would it look like to sit in uncertainty? To admit that in complex environments with interlocking dependencies, the odds are always 50-50? That it is better to have no map than a wrong map?

Might you be more cautious? Might you listen more closely? Might you work a little harder?

We can’t predict the future, but we can prepare for possibilities.

Why We Love

“Years ago, a friend of mine and I used to frequent a market in Baltimore where we would eat oysters and drink VLB’s – Very Large Beers – from 32-ounce styrofoam cups. One of the regulars there had the worst toupee in the world, a comical little wig taped in place on the top of his head. Looking at this man and drinking our VLB’s, we developed the concept of the Soul Toupee.

Each of us has a Soul Toupee. The Soul Toupee is that thing about ourselves we are most deeply embarrassed by and like to think we have cunningly concealed from the world, but which is, in fact, pitifully obvious to everybody who knows us.

Contemplating one’s own Soul Toupee is not an exercise for the fainthearted.

Most of the time, other people don’t even get why our Soul Toupee is any big deal or a cause of such evident deep shame to us, but they can tell that it is because of our inept, transparent efforts to cover it up, which only call more attention to it and to our self-consciousness about it, and so they gently pretend not to notice it. Meanwhile, we’re standing there with our little rigid spongelike square of hair pasted on our heads thinking: Heh – got ‘em all fooled!”

What’s so ironic and sad about this is that the very parts of ourselves that we’re most ashamed of and eager to conceal are not only obvious to everyone but are also, quite often, the parts of us they love best.”

Tim Kreider, The Czar’s Daughter

If you spend enough time in nature, eventually you will see something so majestic and unlikely that you are struck speechless. You might watch a deer nibble at the grass in your local park when an eagle swoops down like a fighter jet, snatches the deer from the ground, and soars up into the treetops. These scenes temporarily empty your mind of vocabulary. You replay the incident over and over again in your head, examining the memory for any clue that you misperceived what just happened, like a merchant inspecting a diamond for flaws. In the weeks and months later, what stays with you is not just the slow-motion clarity of the event, but the feeling of awe that hit you like a sudden drop in air pressure, a sensation our neurons produce only after witnessing something both brutal and impossibly beautiful.

At its peak, Tim Kreider’s We Learn Nothing generates this sort of emotional response every 60-90 seconds. You pause an essay for minutes simply to absorb and recover from the precision with which he knocks you in gut with a hard truth, gorgeously rendered.

The book isn’t a manual to boost your productivity or reclaim your finances or build your network. It’s a series of stunning personal essays by a little-known cartoonist and writer. Few people reading this will take a chance on this book, even after a recommendation by me, a fully-unknown non-cartoonist and writer.

If you’d like to listen to Lazy: A Manifesto, one of the essays that appears in the book, you can do so here for free.

Like witnessing a bolt of lightning strike a tree fifty yards in the distance, the first thing you want to do after cleaning your pants and picking your jaw up off the ground is share the moment with your friends.

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 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 Love

Sometime between the second and third hour of wandering through Granada after dark, I realized it was time to be honest with myself. No more lies, no more shame. Here goes: I’m a fan of Drake. I’m a Drake fan.

I hope you accept me for who I am. I understand if you need a minute. Culture seems to be moving faster and faster these days; it feels like yesterday that just the idea of a rapper being from Canada was far-fetched. I can understand that for Gen-Xers it must be shocking to see us kids mixing gentle crooning with corny rapping like it’s just a normal thing to do.

Alas. Millennials. We are who we are.

I think I figured out why corny-ass, emo-ass, marshmallow-soft Aubrey Drake is an inspiring character to us.

See, for the past week, I’ve been traveling on my own, and when you’re by yourself in a new city you think a lot about vulnerability. You fumble through a conversation with a bus driver in a foreign language, or you eat dinner by yourself in a crowded restaurant, or you approach a group of strangers chatting at the bar. At any given moment you are wagering your physical or emotional comfort. Your dignity is constantly in danger.

A foreign city is the opposite of a safe space.

What I’ve come to learn is that the way we respond to vulnerability dictates whether others see us as confident and charismatic, or shy and awkward. As self-development writer Mark Manson explains in Models, we exude confidence when how we see ourselves is more important than how others might see us. When our self-perception is stronger than anybody’s else’s perception of us, we can be comfortable while being vulnerable. We don’t feel the need to hide our accents or pretend we are perfect. Our rough edges not only define us, they are what attract others to us.

This is the key to understanding Drake. After all the goofy dancing and embarrassing confessions, what shines through is a startling emotional authenticity and lack of neediness. Go ahead, call him uncool. Turn him into a meme. He really doesn’t mind. He knows who he is. He likes that person.

In the 90s, rap was defined by its aggression.
In the 00s, rap was defined by its bravado.
In the 10s, rap is being defined by a different sort of strength – a deeper, truer, more lasting sort of strength. Drake is defining contemporary rap with his vulnerability.

I enter my favorite bar in Granada and see a bunch of new faces. Locals and expats, chatting and laughing in little groups. Here I am by myself. Then I remember Drake and his dorky sweater. I walk up to a group of strangers and introduce myself. We have a great night.

Why We Do Better

“It’s not rocket science.”

Maybe they’re right. Perhaps the challenge you’re working on isn’t Literal Actual Rocket Science With Rockets.

But if it feels like rocket science, like success requires defying your own personal gravity, then remember this: it takes a team to build a rocket. To put a satellite in orbit or ten toes on the moon, you need a hell of a lot of brains.

So to you, lonely novice, daring changer, rocket scientist, you damn fool – understand this. It’s time to assemble your team.

Why We Create

“If you want to watch what someone fears losing, watch what they photograph.”

Merlin Mann, Roderick on the Line (1:12:30)

The conventional take is that social media presents us with only half a story. We see their view from the summit of Mt. Shasta, their tiny espresso on Rue Mouffetard, their group photo in Napa, friends arm in arm, wide smiles. We see their joy and their fulfillment (this line of thinking goes), and we miss the other half: the stumbles and struggles, the insecurities, the boredom.

What if our friends have been showing us all along?

Yes, our Instagram feeds our curated. Everything, from our subject, to our framing, to the filter we apply, each choice is the story of a moment – not as it was, but as we need to remember it. Each photograph captures a feeling we fear might slip away.

There is a second half to every photo, a face in the vase.

We may feel closer to our friends when we consider the choices that went into their photos. Why here? Why this moment? Why do they want to hold onto this, remember with this lens? What happened just outside the frame? What is it they fear to lose?

Why We Love

Most broadcast their virtues to social media and share their flaws only among close friends (perhaps over whiskey).

Others share their flaws to social media and show their virtues only among close friends (perhaps over whiskey).

The more we segregate our virtues from our flaws, the less we appreciate the value of social media – and the company of our friends.

Why We Create

I imagine a bookstore full of empty shelves. A gallery, no frames on the wall. Spotify searches that return No Results Found. All because we conflated creativity with originality.

As children we happily draw what’s in the coloring book, build what’s on the Lego box, tell the same stories we’ve heard before. At some point, we learn that creating isn’t enough, that we must express ourselves. Great art, we learn, is original. Making a copy is boring. Perhaps even criminal. And certainly worthless.

(Note that our association between originality and value derives primarily from art’s commercial market, not its aesthetic or artistic intent.)

This is how we become creatively timid. We fear to tread in others’ footsteps. And so we stop taking steps at all.

Banish the word originality from your dictionary. Make, make, copy, make. Experiment, or don’t. Keep your brushes moving, your feet tapping, your words dancing across the screen. When we forget about originality, we nurture more creative humans. With more creative humans, originality will balloon.

Why We Do Better

Free time is the problem.

Headspace is a wonderfully humane app designed to improve our well-being through daily meditation. For a little social validation, the app provides the number of people meditating along with you at that moment.

One might expect that the number of meditators rises on evenings and weekends, when people are out of work. Instead, the opposite trend unfolds: fewer people meditate on nights and weekends than they do on weekdays.

The people who insist they “just don’t have the time” also tend to be absent when they do.

If you are citing your constraints as an excuse to not take action, then you don’t have enough constraints.

A little less time, a little less funding, a little less freedom to avoid (or accept) the consequences; each constraint nudges us to the edge of the diving board. And then we leap.