Why We Do Better

In the physical world, echoes muddle. An echoing voice (say, a friend calling out to you in the forest) gets softer, cloudier with each bounce. We hear the pitch, but the message is garbled.

In the informational domain, echoes do the opposite: they clarify. Take an idea and listen to how it echoes in the history of literature, or philosophy, or political action. With each echo, each occurrence, the theme distills, the message sharpens. When history echoes, we understand it more clearly.

This short movie visualizes a speech by Alan Watts. Watts reminds us of something we knew as toddlers:

“The physical universe is basically playful…the same way [as] dancing. You don’t aim for a particular spot in the room because that’s where you should arrive. The whole point of dancing is the dance.”

When we watch partners dance, we don’t observe the angle of their elbows, the sway of their hips and grasp for a greater purpose. The purpose is the dance.  We may understand our entire life in this way: the goal is not achievement or completion, but engagement, expression, presence.  In this way, we dance with every moment.

Seven-hundred years before Watts, the poet Rumi echoes:

Dance, when you’re broken open.
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free.
In this way, we dance with every moment.

There are many ways to dance. You might smash cake. I might make soup. (More echoes.)

You don’t have to change anything you’re doing. You don’t have to stop; you haven’t been going anywhere. You’ve been dancing the whole time.

In this way, we dance with every moment.

 

Why We Learn

Before we get too smug about the past century of scientific progress, note that scientists developed the theory of special relativity before developing a consensus on the existence of the female orgasm.

Scientific inquiry into sex didn’t begin until the 20th century, and until the 1950s remained at the extreme fringes of biology, medicine, and psychology. Participants were nearly impossible to recruit. Many researchers completed their studies with prostitutes, research assistants, spouses, and, when necessary, themselves:

“Rather than risk being fired or ostracized by explaining their unconventional project to other people and trying to press those other people into service, researchers would simply, quietly, do it themselves.”

Mary Roach, Bonk

Measurement instruments were even more difficult to acquire. Mid-20th century researchers like William Masters and Virginia Johnson built their own makeshift penis cameras to get a better look at the action:

“The dildo camera unmasked, among other things, the source of vaginal lubrication: not glandular secretions but plasma seeping through the capillary walls in the vagina.”

Mary Roach, Bonk

TIL.

Here’s the thing: The Hubble telescope recently photographed a galaxy 13.8 billion light years away, literally looking back in time to the formation of the universe. It is very likely that we will develop 3D-printed human kidneys for transplant before we develop a complete model of the mechanics of human insemination.

We are taught to view technology as the bottleneck for understanding the world around us. If only we had more engineers and data scientists to build the gadgets and crunch the numbers, we’d usher in our age of abundance.

We could build a machine to perfectly record and analyze every detail of human sexuality, and we’d still be screwed without thousands of people willing to strip down and jump in, without governments and universities willing to fund the studies, without teachers and parents ready to broach the subject. Until we de-stigmatize human bodies and everything we like to do with them, we’ll never fully understand or heal them.

For our most important human problems, technology is not the bottleneck.

The bottleneck is people willing to talk frankly, to act shamelessly, to share generously.

The bottleneck is culture.

 

Bonk, by Mary Roach, is a frank, generous, and hilarious look at history and science of sex.  Check it out here.

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

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 Do Better

If free food doesn’t excite you, nothing will.

That’s about the least you can care about something. If an event boasts of free pie, you know they are in a low-care business. The conference room might be packed, but 99% people are just there for the food. When the food runs out, or the organizers ask people commit to anything (anything), the attendees will flock to the exit.

And of course, you avoid opportunities like that because you’d rather spend your time on something that you care about, pie-or-no-pie.

So that’s one end of the Care Spectrum. What would sit at the other end? What is the opposite of free pie?

How about a punch in the face?

Very few people would show up to an event that boasts it will punch every attendee in the face. In fact, let’s assume this event is extremely expensive as well. You might pay several thousand dollars to attend this event, and you will be punched directly in the face an uncertain number of times.

Very few attendees, indeed. But you can bet that whatever this event is about, the attendees care a whole hell of a lot about it. Whoever these attendees are, they are the experts and nerds, the pioneers and changemakers.

We all want to make a difference, until we get punched in the face a few times.

You might know exactly what you want to do. You might even be great at doing it.

But the question is, what are you willing to take hits for? Because this isn’t the end of the Care Spectrum: it’s the new beginning. This is the least you can care and still make a difference.

Which conferences do you show up for, punch or pie?

 

Want to learn more about how to care (and more importantly, not care) about the right stuff? Check out Mark Manson’s  The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.

Why We Talk

Here’s how to land the job of your dreams. No need to spend weeks studying. Don’t bother learning about their business problems. Forget about power poses and positivity. All you need is One Great Story. Actually, just half of one.

On second thought, you will also need one accomplice, a wingperson, inside the building. And you will need to be skilled at thumbing your phone from your pocket, because you are going to signal them with a text message at the correct moment. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though.

Now, the set up: your interviewer brings you into a room. You shake hands, sit down. They start out by asking you a general question – it really doesn’t matter what it is – perhaps an inquiry as to how you would approach blah-dee-blah given schmo constraints.

You respond, “Funny story, actually,” and begin to tell your One Great Story. The story, given that it is great, takes several minutes to recount. You notice that your interviewer is initially confused, then annoyed, but eventually (and this is important) intrigued. The story is implausible, bonkers, and yet utterly relatable human drama. Perhaps there is a tangential dash through a stranger’s wake or an illicit three-way tryst with the ambassadors of two warring nations. This is your Great Story, so the details are really up to you. The action intensifies until you see beads of sweat on your interviewer’s forehead.

And then: you signal your accomplice. Your accomplice pulls the building’s fire alarm. Sirens blare, and your story is brutally severed.

There is a cognitive phenomenon called the Zeigarnik effect. Psychologists wanted to understand how waiters could memorize multiple complex orders for half an hour, and then completely forget the orders as soon as they were brought to the table. Their studies observed that people were twice as likely to remember tasks that were interrupted than those that they completed.

We understand this intuitively; we talk about closure as a means of letting go.

But we don’t want our interviewer to let go. We want our interviewer to fixate, to ruminate. On their long walk to the designated fire safety zone outside the building, they should be turning your Great Story over in their head, muddling the greatness of the story with the greatness of the storyteller.

Of course, if you’ve been paying attention, then you’ve already recognized the flaw in this plan. The firefighters arrive and scan the building. They give the all-clear. You’re going to have to walk back into that meeting room and sit down with your interviewer again. And you only prepared half a Great Story. That’s all you prepared. Shit. Your interviewer stares at you from across the table. What are you going to do?

Your heart clangs inside your chest. Your eyes dart around the room, searching. Desperate. Your mind grasps for an answer.  Then, blam, it hits you. Of course! All you need to say is

Why We Create

“The 8 hours you need to sleep each night, are my opportunity. The time you spend with your family and friends, is my opportunity. If you’re not maxed out, if there’s still a shred of humanity left in you, then you’re just leaving your lunch on the table.”

This brilliant blog post by Elaine Ou captures a common strategy: to expand to the widest possible audience, slash your margins. Instead of making $10 per sale, make $1. Instead of $1, make 10 cents. Instead of 10 cents, raise funding to give it away for free.

We often encounter the same incentives at our own jobs. Rather than money, the margin for our work is time. Instead of leaving at 6, stay until 8. Instead of finishing at 8, work on the ride home. Instead of finishing when you arrive home, work the weekend. Slash your margins. Track your metrics. Eliminate your inefficiencies.

When your team begins talking about efficiency, it’s time to find a new team. Efficiency is an endless war, one measured in minutes and dollars saved, not in people served or missions met.

Every four years, someone sets a new swimming record at the Olympics. Efficiency is an endless war.

And what’s the opposite of chasing efficiency? Spending more time: to listen, to build relationships, to tailor, to take risks. To serve fewer, better. To add humanity to your work. The more you add, the more you keep.

Why We Love

“Every hour, 10 of us are asked to go rescue an influx of 200 people.”

I can’t stop thinking about the short documentary 4.1 Miles. It follows the day of a coast guard captain on the island of Lesbos, which sits 4.1 miles from the coast of Turkey. Every day, thousands of refugees attempt to cross the gulf in cheap inflatable rafts. Many capsize in the strong waves. The Greek coast guard tries to rescue as many people as possible.

The documentary reveals the incredible courage of the coast guard and refugees, and the unfathomable toll the struggle takes on both.

4.1 miles is roughly the distance between Penn Station and the top of Central Park. Facebook headquarters to Stanford Stadium. The length of the Bay Bridge.

Our brains tend to equate size with power, distance with struggle – an echo of our ancestors’ lives in the wild.

To endure so much sorrow in so short a span – our imagination fails us here. We must observe.

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.