I’m often an unreasonable person. I’m prone to ranting, to coming generally unhinged about what are actually totally reasonable things. One of those things which I am routinely unreasonable about is what other people read, and what some authors choose to write. I should not care. I should not care the tiniest bit what other people want to read. Spoiler: I do care. Too much. Goodreads, you’re a problem in my life.
It’s been a bit hard for me to articulate, to nail down why some books, some reading lists make me so unreasonably angry. Fortunately, my brother managed to crack the case for me a couple of days ago:
He was reading a book, which he termed a “management book”. It does seem to be a management book. Makes sense, management is hard. He was sharing something from it with me because it happened to reference Albert Camus, an author who I routinely bring up – and this is when it hit me:
The best way to get people think critically about life is to disguise thoughts as career advice.
Career advice is safe: It’s practically useful, so the professional is praised for spending time and effort on it. The career itself is not questioned – the idea of work itself, the nature and shape of existence – these are frivolities to be ignored for the driven professional. What is important is that you maximize time productivity, to limit mistakes, to achieve your dreams.
Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.
Pirsig, Robert. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (p. 110)
I’m not very consistent in my habits, particularly long term. I’m an occasional journaler. I’m a sporadic budgeter and financial planner. I exercise regularly for about 2 months at a time. 2 or 3 months on, 6 months off. Then 4 months on, a year off.
This is not a celebrated approach to life. We want to be successful. We want for all of our actions to be correct, the be lasting, and to make sense as part of a larger narrative that shows us always headed in a direction that we chose, and can call “good”. We want to make progress. Stopping a habit or activity we decided was worth pursuing essentially negates any amount of time we spent sticking to the habit.
News about diets is often reported through the lens of long term success rates. A diet is “successful” if and only if it facilitates a permanent change in lifestyle, health, weight or all 3. Relationships that end for any reason are commonly referred to as “wasted time”, unless we can come up with some lifelong lessons learned – things to help us avoid wasting time in the future.
These ideas all circle around a narrative that tells us our efforts in life are cumulative. We’re constantly striving to further identify who we are, building the steps up a tower of our own accomplishment. We amass money. We cultivate long term relationships. We progress professionally. And all of this builds on itself, and we climb higher and higher on this tower of progress, of the evolution of a life. We’re terrified of backsliding, of taking steps back down, rather than continuing up. We cling to the foundational building blocks of our lives. We avoid losing sight of anything we deemed important, as it all contributes to our tower, and we’re always reaching higher, striving further.
And then we die.
And then the funeral happens – the crown of a life well lived, of constant improvement. If the goal is to put yourself constantly higher on that tower, then it stands to reason that the funeral is the highest point, the most valuable moment of your life. Hopefully you’ve accomplished constant, steady progress and improvement, and therefore this final manifestation of your life represents the pinnacle of your existence.
Of course you don’t care, you’re dead. You can’t enjoy it. The best you can do is to have envisioned your own funeral in the months, years, decades leading up to it. “What a great person I’ll have been.”
With this narrative in mind, sporadic journaling is not valuable. Working out occasionally isn’t valuable. If in 5 years I’m not more financially stable than I am now, then whatever I did in those intervening years was a waste, at least financially. If I lose 20 pounds over the next few months, but only keep it off for a couple of years – then we’ll all agree that in the long run, I didn’t really lose the weight at all. If a friendship or relationship is lost, then the time spent with that person was wasted – because they won’t be there forever.
This puts plans, habits, and goal setting in an interesting light: “I’m not going to change my eating habits unless I can confidently say I’ll be able to do this forever”. “I need to identify a workout plan that I can stick with long term”. Some are less comfortable: “I won’t attempt to get to know someone if I don’t think they’ll be around for life”. “If I don’t think I can make a habit of journaling forever, I may as well not start”.
There’s another style of narrative that one could choose, in which the moment of death is no more important than any other. Where 6 months spent exercising regularly are valued as 6 months where you felt good, regardless of what the next 6 months, or 6 years are like. Where a friendship enjoyed for a few months is valuable for months, even if it is completely gone after that, even if it has no lasting effect. Where the goal to be pursued is less about how high a person manages to climb by the end of their life, but instead about how many moments along the way they felt happy, or fulfilled, or satisfied.
This doesn’t exactly let a person off the hook: if feeling healthy for 6 months is valuable, feeling healthy for 10 years is even more valuable. If a relationship is nice for a month, then it may be even nicer for a lifetime. The point here is not about avoiding permanence, but about recognizing that permanence is not a requirement to find value.
Last night, I was running and thinking, a combination that is thrust upon me pretty often. Specifically, I was thinking about a friend who is traveling someplace beautiful, who happens to be a talented photographer. And I was thinking to myself that I was looking forward to seeing photos trickle through on Instagram.
Beautiful pictures are pleasant, but in the era of the internet, they’re not exactly scarce. I can find beautiful high resolution photos of nearly any location, landscape, or event without effort. Having a personal connection to beautiful pictures – because the surreal landscape is being experienced firsthand by a friend, because the cute toddler is a niece, because the artfully composed shot is taken by an acquaintance who you know puts great thought into these kinds of things – this is what makes Instagram valuable to me. I almost universally loathe social media, and I love Instagram, for this reason.
But then I remembered: I uninstalled instagram 2 days ago. It wasn’t intended to be a permanent removal from my life – I still find a lot of value in instagram, and I’m sure I’ll re-install it in a day or 2. But I realized (while sitting on the toilet, for context), that I was spending huge amounts of time on the instagram “Explore” tab. I have never, ever found anything valuable on the explore tab – I only find endless content expertly catered perfectly to distract me, to suck me in, to waste my time and hawk advertising at me. It’s not interesting shots from friends, visual updates on lives, it’s a drug. A personalized drug. I needed to break my habit of opening Instagram and scrolling through nonsense I don’t care about, then waking up 10 minutes, 30 minutes an hour later with no idea what I was doing, or where the time had gone.
Any time on the explore tab and you can see that it’s purposefully designed to suck you in – eliminating friction to viewing images and videos, algorithmically selected for their stickiness and your preferences. Tearing yourself away from it can be a challenge.
What strikes me is how disconnected the actual value of a service can become from the success metrics of the business. How the success metrics can be, in fact, diametrically opposed to what users (or at least some cohort of users) actually find valuable. How we could end up in the baffling situation in which a service that I personally find enormous value in, and am willing to defend, fight for, preach about, has, in a (presumed) attempt to better serve me, convinced me to uninstall it.
I’m not totally sure what the takeaway is here. It’s easy to mockingly accuse the people driving the future of Instagram of missing the point – of being greedy and stupid and shortsighted. Maybe those accusations are valid. I’m afraid the truth is probably more nuanced: Platforms need to show growth, they need to show improvement, they need to constantly prove that they’re trending in the right direction – this is the default nature of the tech industry, maybe business as a whole. Showing improvement can often mean inventing measures, metrics, and then executing to improve those metrics.
It’s not unreasonable that the folks behind Instagram would assume time spent with the app open is a valid analog for how indispensable I find it, and therefore how well they’re doing catering to my needs. The reality is harder to parse. How could they measure success if my ideal interaction with the app is to hop on a couple times a day, scroll through a relatively small feed of new pictures, maybe post something myself, and move on? How could they measure what my cutoff for time spent in the app is – the imaginary line a la price is right in which – if I go over, I’ll suddenly uninstall the app? I’m not sure what the metric there is, and I imagine attempts at distilling it are quite a bit harder to justify to investors or a board than “Time spent in app” – an easily understood and communicated idea.
Business is hard. Business where growth is required to appease investors is even harder.
Those who have read some of my former books … find things that seem to be total contradictions of much that I have said before. This, however, is true only in some minor respects. For I have discovered that the essence and crux of what I was trying to say in those books was seldom understood … My intention here is to approach the same meaning from entirely different premises…
Watts, Alan W. The Wisdom of Insecurity
I’m still of the opinion that Alan Watts is mostly crazy, but apparently not so crazy that I’ll stop reading what he wrote. Also, I found this particular thing interesting.
Code is interesting. When you write code, you get to build something from nothing, totally out of thin air. Notably, it’s entirely made up. It has no physical manifestation – the real shape of it, the ideas that it imbues exist only in your head. But even so, there are rules. There are patterns that come up, that start to reveal themselves as they are repeated through different problems.
For the uninitiated, when you write code, you talk to the computer in any of a variety of particular languages, each with their own syntax and idiosyncrasies. There are a lot of them – and much like regular, talking-to-each-other-by-flapping-our-mouths languages, they all attempt to do the same thing – tell the computer what to do. They all have their own nuance, flavor, quirks and sharp edges.
As a result, any problem or idea that is built in a single, particular programming language is going to pick up that nuance, those quirks, those sharp edges – the ones from the language itself. Identifying which sharp edges actually belong to your idea, your coding style, what you were trying to build, and which ones come by nature of the programming language you chose can be almost impossible – until you write the same thing in another language. Getting across the same idea, solving the same problem in another language begins to give the real shape of a thing – which difficulties are inherent in the problem you’re solving, or your approach, and which come from the language you chose.
Back to Watts. Watts wrote a bunch of ideas down, in two books. But he did so from a particular perspective – at the time, he was an Episcopal priest. As a result, his ideas got all wrapped up in that – the language he used, the perspective he was writing from – and he felt like what he was really trying to get at, really trying to explain or at least explore, was lost. The sharp quirks of his perspective and the language he used became indistinguishable from the quirks of his ideas. So he had to try again, from a new perspective, to get at the truth of what he was actually trying to convey. Because communication is hard, but maybe it’s worth it.
Ideas and the language, metaphors, or perspective used to describe them are inseparable. The only way to communicate or understand the real shape of a thing is to come at it repeatedly, from different perspectives.
He was becoming damned civilized; and soon, he suspected, would come acceptance… then complacency… then the death of creativity.
Arthur C. Clarke | Richter 10
Richter 10 is ostensibly about earthquakes, but really it’s about a crazy, broken man. Totally nuts. Unreasonable, and driven well beyond the safety of normalcy by his passion. His eccentricities also drive his greatness – his creativity, his fight. Unshackled by the confines and expectations of polite, socially acceptable society, he’s free to chase what’s important to him.
It seems to me that those willing to be a little abnormal, or maybe even willing to actively fight against being normal, are the ones who do the most interesting things.
I was in New York over the weekend. I hadn’t ever been to New York.
We spent an afternoon in Central Park. It was Sunday afternoon, and the weather was nice – and the park was full of people. More people than a yokel such as myself can really comprehend easily – where did all these people come from? Where do they all live? Why are they all here?
But one thought kept coming to me:
Look at all these shoes.
It can be difficult to really understand the vast scale and power of the worldwide human economic machine – but if you get thousands and thousands of people together, and then just start paying attention to their shoes, you can start to get a sense for it. All those shoes. Very few of them exact duplicates – there are many similar styles, but not so many perfect matches, even in a sample size so large. Each pair had to be designed, manufactured, packaged, shipped, delivered to a store, then purchased by a person. So. Many. Shoes.
What’s more – shoes aren’t exactly a commodity. People care about their shoes. They have to be the right size, to start – but more important than that, they have to be the right style. We expect our shoes to, on some level, reflect who we are. So now you’ve got to have this massive infrastructure in place for manufacturing, delivering, and selling the shoes, but you’ve also got to close the loop – the customer’s desires have to inform your shoe designs. And it works! I saw thousands and thousands of pairs of shoes, and each one somehow spoke to the person who bought them – made them feel a bit more stylish, or more professional, more athletic, more unique – enough to spend some money and take them home.
The sheer volume, the complexity that makes up the industry that has no focus, no concern other than to protect and decorate your feet, is staggering.
So often when we try to create we judge what we are making before its even had a chance to breathe and grow
Ben posted this in relation to a quote from Sister Corita Kent, who I know nothing about, and now feel compelled to hear more from.
About a month ago, I told my brother that I’d write something meaningful to me every day for 100 days on this blog. It’s been great, and it’s been terrible.
The beauty of a commitment like that is that I have to write and publish every day. And a lot of days, the thoughts I’ve had, whatever I’ve written down, I don’t like them. They’re boring, they’re hard to make sense of, they’re pretentious, or they’re just poorly written. And I don’t want to post them. But I do. I thrust them on you poor people, and then I (usually) have them automatically posted to Facebook and Twitter to seal the deal, and ensure people revel in the mediocrity with me.
Just as Ben describes, my default state would be to never publish anything except things that I really like, and I’m really excited about – which means I’d basically never post anything at all. I’m glad to be forced to follow his advice – to be forced to write, create, and avoid judging too much during the process – something just has to get posted every day.
So take Ben’s advice. Go make something, and don’t let yourself judge it along the way – just go until you’re done, and let it turn out how it turns out. Whatever it is, you’ll end up better than when you started.
I just started the podcast S-town, put on by the producers of This American Life, and Serial. It’s come up several times over the past few weeks, most recently when my wife recommended it to me this morning. So I gave it a listen.
In the first episode, the host describes an exchange he had with a listener over the past year or two. It started with emails alleging that something was afoot in a small town in the South.
Eventually, one of the stories is corroborated, and the reporter takes the bait. Upon contacting the listener to get more details, he gets a response: “I would like to talk to you by phone if possible. This is just too much to type.”
When does something become “too much to type”? And why? What conversations necessitate a phone call instead of an email?
I’ll state my bias right up front: I communicate all day long via text. Email, text message, slack, etc – the vast majority of my interaction with other humans – personal and professional- is via text. Text is powerful. In the right hands, it is precise and exact, and ranges from emotionally charged to strictly factual.
So when I hear “This is just too much to type”, I hear “my thoughts are unclear, and I’m interested in having you listen to me ramble”. By the way, my fears are immediately confirmed on the show when the listener launches into descriptions of his mothers dimentia, and the number of stray dogs in the callers house, and town more broadly. You can get away with rambling on he phone, or in person – but in text? In text you don’t have a monopoly on my attention. I can scan ahead, to look for when or if this tangent will wrap back around to the reason for us communicating. The inability to do so means you can hold me hostage indefinitely, or until I’m so annoyed I’ll interrupt.
Speaking on the phone or face to face is far higher bandwidth than text. This is generally touted as a blessing, but let’s consider it more thoroughly, with some examples. Have you ever wondered why salesmen always want to “schedule a call” or meet in person? Why do door to door salesmen still exist, in an age where communicating with anyone without leaving your desk is simple and ubiquitous?
The added bandwidth gives whoever you’re talking to a wealth of information about you (are you nervous? Timid? Eager to please? Uncomfortable with confrontation?), plus an array of tools to use against you to get you to agree. Remember chad? He sold us a standing ovation we didn’t want, but he could only do so because we were in the same room.
For these same reasons, often text is the wrong answer – it is harder to communicate emotion, to foster a connection over text. When I call my kids because I miss them, I want to see their faces, i don’t want to send a text.
But don’t tell me that you need to meet face to face or on the phone to schedule a meeting, or discuss something. Text fits the bill just fine, thanks.
The so-called rich elite are in actuality poor as well, disengaged from real human work and therefore from real human accomplishment
Robinson, Kim Stanley | Red Mars (p. 375)
I’ve taken this quote completely out of context, because it’s been so long since I read it that I’ve forgotten the context. But that’s ok, because I think it stands on its own.
I write code and talk to people for a living. And those are valuable, fulfilling, enjoyable tasks – writing code is creation, in a very literal sense. Even so, sometimes I feel like I’m “disengaged from real human work”.
Building things is fun. It’s satisfying. Handling physical objects, making things that can be seen, touched, admired, used, repaired – it’s a different kind of satisfaction – in some ways it feels more real, maybe more “human”.
Doing human work can help keep us human. Go bake some bread. Or build a chair. Or fix a door that squeaks.
I read a lot, almost entirely on the kindle. I like the kindle. Some people swear by physical books – the smell, the feel, the weight, the ability to carry them around and look important. I get it, but I don’t get it.
Aside from the convenience, both in being able to carry all books easily, but also in purchasing, my favorite thing about reading on the kindle is highlighting. I tend to be moved by particular passages in books – the punchline, the careful phrasing used for the literary climax of an important point, or even a throwaway filler line that, for whatever reason, feels profound. Without a mechanism to note them as important or notable, I’ll lose them – and benefit for only the few minutes they stay at the front of my mind.
Highlighting provides that mechanism. Not only does the physical act of marking the passage to be highlighted give the line or thought a little extra sticking power in my brain, but it’s easy and convenient to scan the highlights of a book when you’re looking to quickly be reminded of the high points or particularly moving ideas.
Try highlighting. Alternatively, if you already do, go scan back through some past highlights, and relive only the best parts of a recent book you enjoyed.
Bonus: I recently discovered Your Highlights, which lists all your highlights, regardless of book. Handy.