Friction and process

Picasso observed that, “inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” Inspiration has to find you in the midst of your practice.

Let’s say that I enjoy painting. When I find myself painting, I usually find myself happy. I love the feeling of setting down my brush after having worked out some little problem in a painting. And so, I decide I’m going to paint regularly.

Or let’s say I enjoy sailing. I love the adventure, or the wind in my face. And so, I decide I’m going to sail regularly.

Or, running, writing, movement, music … your choice.

But without concrete plans, and clear processes, I will never actually do the practice. Friction, followed closely by excuses, will sap my momentum. If I’m to be a runner, my shoes, clothes, music or whatever I need— Those things must be in place. For any practice there are some things which you will feel must be in place.

The processes that I’m imagining, which remove friction and enable my practice, have a steady state. For my process, what does “done” look like? It looks like me sailing so often I can’t even remember not sailing all the time. Or it looks like me running and jumping and playing so often that my body is a comfortable place for my mind.

Matthew Frederick, the author of 101 Things I learned in Architecture School, makes this point:

True style does not come from a conscious effort to create a particular look. It results obliquely—even accidentally—out of a holistic process.

This point about a holistic process—the idea that mastery isn’t some higgledy-piggledy mish-mash of throwing things together—is an idea I’ve held dearly for a long time. Every single time that I’ve decided to take a process, and repeat it in search of understanding, the learning and personal growth has paid off beyond my wildest dreams.

I’m a process process process person. The second time I have to do something, I’m trying to figure out how to either never have to do that again, or how to automate it. (And failing those two, it goes into my admin day.) Random activity, powered by inspiration works to get one thing done. But inspiration doesn’t work in the long run, and it won’t carry me through my practice.

Instead, I want to know what can I intentionally do to set up my life, so that I later find myself simply being the sort of person who does my chosen practice? I want to eliminate every possible bit of friction that may sap my momentum.

There’s a phrase in cooking, mise en place, meaning to have everything in its proper place before starting. The classic example of failure in this regard is to be half-way through making something only to realize you’re missing an ingredient and having to throw away the food. Merlin Mann, who’s little known beyond knowledge workers, has done the most to improve processes for knowledge workers and creative people. I’m not sure if he’s ever said it explicitly, but a huge part of what he did was to elevate knowledge workers and creatives by cultivating a mise en place mindset.

And don’t confuse “process” or a “mise en place” mindset with goals. Forget goals. Focus on the process, and focus on eliminating friction.

To quote Seth Godin:

The specific outcome is not the primary driver of our practice. […] We can begin with this: If we failed, would it be worth the journey? Do you trust yourself enough to commit to engaging with a project regardless of the chances of success? The first step is to separate the process from the outcome. Not because we don’t care about the outcome. But because we do.

And I’ll give my last words to Vincent Thibault, author of one of my favorite books:

That is how we are still conditioned socially as adults: Do, achieve, produce results, instead of be, feel, enjoy the process. Quantitative over qualitative. We are obsessed by performance and “tangible” results. But that is one of the great teaching of Parkour and Art du Déplacement: That the path is just as enjoyable as the destination; That sometimes it is even more important, and that oftentimes it is the destination.

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Oblivion

So begins her obsession with dominating the mind by dominating the body, which would follow her throughout her life in various guises — running, karate, yoga, cycling, skiing — always ambivalent and self-conscious, until it finally resolves into a glimpse of the larger truth beneath the mechanics of illusory perfectibility: that we exert ourselves so violently on keeping the package of the body intact in order to keep it from spilling its immaterial contents — the soul, the self — into oblivion.

~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/01/01/the-secret-to-superhuman-strength-alison-bechdel/

Ah yes, “oblivion.” Good stuff. Popova is referring to a graphic artist, and midway through the article is an exquisite cartoon example; the author drawing, figuratively and literally, a metaphor for life involving a hill and a bicycle. Reading that cartoon brought to mind my beloved practice of meditating on death. (Try this explanation.) Closely related I often call to mind the impermanence of things. Sometimes I mix the two, thinking…

This is my last sip from this [my favorite, morning coffee] mug. (Knowing it will one day be broken.)

This [regularly scheduled weekly] conversation with this person is our last one. (Imagining when priorities change and we’re no longer working together.)

This conversation I’m recording for a podcast is my last one. (Because I will die.)

This dinner with this person [my mom, my spouse, etc] is my last one. (Because one of us will die first.)

The goal is not to be morbid and depressed; The goal is to maintain a realistic perspective to enable wringing the absolute maximum enjoyment and appreciation from every single waking moment.

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Embedded in a culture

Ray Liotta died on May 26, 2022. I wasn’t a particular fan of his, but he was definitely an actor who was a significant part of the culture I grew up in. There are many such people; actors of course, and also authors, musicians, journalists, teachers, scientists, politicians, military leaders, activists, and others less classifiable.

It’s one thing to think: That huge band that I love, which I’ve seen in concert… they’ve retired and hung up the act. Just knowing the people are still around however, means that something of, whatever it was that I loved, continues on in whatever it is, (public or not,) that they’re doing. Nostalgia rises up as people retire and things become, “remember when?”

But slowly, year by year, those people die and that makes it clear: Everything has its time, and that time ends. There but for the grace of God go I, is a beautiful turn of phrase.

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Two things

This sudden loss has gotten me to face my own death this week. I know it is coming, just not when. I rarely think about it, because life is so in-my-face, but it’s there, waiting. Tyler’s death is such a stark reminder that we never know how much time we have left.

~ Leo Babauta from, https://zenhabits.net/liberation/

There are exactly two things about my life of which I am certain. I was born, and I will die. I spend a lot of time contemplating my end; Not in a fatalistic, “come at me bro’!” way, but rather with the intention of reminding myself to make the most out of every moment.

There are many moments where I’m unconscious—quite a few of those moments are while I’m sleeping, but also there are mindless moments aplenty throughout my days. But there are increasingly more mindful moments every day.

An extremely fast way to get to mindfulness—this is the fastest way I’ve found so far—is to think: This may well be the last time I do this. The last walk. The last boulder I scramble upon. The last conversation with this person. The last conversation ever. The last word I type. The last sentence I jauntily scribble with a pen. The last time I drive a car. The last time I ride a bicycle. The last time I wrench my back shoveling snow. The last time something scares the crap out of me. The last time I laugh until I lose control of my bladder. The last time I’m stuck as part of the traffic. The last time I’m part of the solution. The last time I’m the source of the problem. The last time I smash the hell out of my toe on something.

In every one of those cases, I can now enjoy it… if I can manage to remember: This could be the last time I get to experience this.

I’ve even decided that if I can manage it, my last words will be: “Well, if that wasn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” (And just maybe with a literal hat tip to Vonnegut.)

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Caution: Tulpa

I’ve recently made a startling discovery: Maybe there really is a tulpa in my head.

First, I’ve said for many years that my brain is broken. (Yes, I am aware I have terrible self-talk.) Here’s why I call it broken: I am literally unable to NOT see problems. I notice an endless onslaught of things that, in my opinion, could be improved. I don’t mean, “that sucks, I wish it could be better.” No, I mean, “that sucks and it’s obvious this way would be better and if you’d just let me get started . . . ” Adderall might help, I suppose.

Everyone loves that I get stuff done, and try to make things better. But unless you have this same problem, I’d imagine it’s hard to understand how this is debilitating. I am aware that this is recursive—I see my own brain as a broken process that I feel I should repair. All I can say is that you should be happy, and thank your fave diety if that’s your thing, that you don’t understand. Because to understand is to have the problem, and you do. not. want. this. problem.

Second, I’ve also said for many years that, “the remainder cannot go into the computer.” I’m referring to a endless source of struggle in programming and systems administration; Computers are exact, and the real world—with its real people, real problems, and things which really are subjective shades of gray—is not. So programmers and systems administrators factor, in the mathematical sense of finding factors which when multiplied give you the original, reality into the computers. And when factoring reality, there is always a remainder. That remainder shows up when you find your software does something weird. That could be a mistake, but I tell you from experience, it is more often some edge case. Some people had to make choices when they factored.

The result of that second point is that I’ve spent the majority of my life factoring, (and “normalizing” for your math geeks who know about vector spaces,) problems into computers. And then trying to live with the remainders that didn’t go into the computer. The remainders are all in my head. Or on post-it notes on my wall, (back in the day.) Or the remainder is some scheduled item reminding me to check the Foobazzle process to ensure the comboflux has not gone frobnitz. To do that I had to intentionally be pragmatic and logical. And the really scary part is I also learned that the best way to do all of that was to talk to myself—sometimes literally, bat-shit crazy, out loud, but usually very loudly inside my own mind—to discover the smallest, least-worst, remainder that I could manage to live with.

What if those two things were sufficient to create a Tulpa. (I am serious.)

I think there’s a Tulpa in here! (My title is the sign on the front gate.) It is absolutely pragmatic. It knows an alarming amount of detail about things I’ve built, (or maintained, or fixed.) It is cold and calculating. It is terrified that it will forget about one of those details, 2347 will happen, and everyone will run out of ammunition defending their canned goods from the roaming bands of marauders. I definitely don’t “have” the Tulpa. It’s more like discovering there’s an extra person living in your house. Although, I don’t hold hope of banishing this Tulpa, Yoda does make a good point if I’m going to try. So, I should definitely give it a name.

Maybe, Sark?

That is an intriguing idea indeed! Sark, what do you think?

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Slips

I was leisurely tinkering my way through my morning, and my mind kicked out a few ideas. It always does that. Yes, I talk about my mind in the third person, because sometimes I think I have a Tulpa.

The first idea that popped up was about sending a message to someone to wish them a Happy New Year. At the time, I had not yet awakened the sleeping dragon—my computer. (I could say: My personal Eye of Sauron was still closed.) Things change for me once I awaken the dragon each day. But I have this idea to send a message, and it’s important, but I don’t dare awaken the dragon to ask if I can just send this one quick message. I’ll look up again and it’ll be 4 in the afternoon. Instead, I grabbed one of my precious slips and jotted a note.

Holding the slip I realized this was brilliant. I recently bought a brick of 1,000 3×5 cards because the slipbox is voracious. I have plenty of these little slips. So why hadn’t I done this for the past year that I’ve been keeping a slipbox? Why did it happen for the first time today? It happened because I used to see the slips as precious; They were nice, heavy, beautiful 3×5 cards that sit close at hand and are supposedly waiting to become immortal slips in the slipbox. Just the other day, I used the last one of my original stash, and I broke open that new brick… and realized I’d bought cheap-ass crappy Amazon knock-off 3×5 cards. (I had only spent $13 for 1,000 so I wasn’t too upset.) When that idea to send a message popped into my brain, I thought: “well, I have 1,000 crappy slips to use up . . .” and this little queue of individual ideas quickly appeared on my desk.

No, the coffee mug does not currently contain rum.

The lesson I re-learned this morning is that even a slight change of context can have an outsized affect on something. (In this case, my “precious” slips [you’re hearing Gollum aren’t you?] had become “crappy” slips.)

Setting aside what you think of my specific anecdote here, where might you make a small change and discover some surprising benefit?

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How does one take notes…

…when the goal isn’t to end up with a pile of notes?

There are many scenarios where, over time, I do want to end up with a collection of notes. This is straight forward; start taking notes, and keep them somewhere. Bonus points if you review them, or use them as reference, or do anything with them.

But what if I have a scenario where I want to “do a better job” but I don’t care at all about the notes themselves. Suppose you have a regularly scheduled recurring meeting, but you don’t need a historical collection of notes. In fact, suppose you don’t actually need notes, but you think: It would be nice to know what we did last time, so we can follow-up next time.

And so I’m thinking this would be easy. I’ll just have a pile of notes (physical, digital, whatever) and I’ll go through them and … wait, what, actually? Recopy them? gag, that’s tedious. How many do I keep? How long do I keep the old ones? Here’s what I came up with…

I’m working in a single digital document. I have a heading, “Ongoing,” at the top that has the big things we currently have on our radar. The list has some dates with notes; “Oct 2020 — started that big project” and similar things.

Next I have a heading, “Jan 5, 2022” with the date of our next scheduled meeting. When that meeting arrives, I start by doing something very weird: I add “9876543210” on the line below the heading. Then I take simple bullet-point notes under that heading. “We discussed the foo bazzle widget needs defranishizing,” and similar items. Before our meeting ends, I add a heading for the date of the NEXT meeting, ABOVE this meeting’s heading. This pushes the heading and notes down the page a bit.

Then I continue reading. The heading just below this meeting’s, is the date of our last meeting. Just below the heading is “9876543210”, which I put there when we had that meeting. I delete the “9” from the front. I read my notes from the meeting. I may even edit them. Sometimes things that were obvious then, don’t seem so obvious a week later.

Then I continue reading. The next heading is the one from two meetings ago. Just below it is “876543210” — think about that, if it’s not obvious that last week, I read this part and already removed the “9”. So this week, I remove the “8.” Read the notes.

I work my way down each of the historical dates. Snipping a lead number, off the front of the line after each heading. 7. 6. 5. etc.

At the very end of the document, I find a heading that is from 11 meetings ago. Below the heading is “0” — because I’ve looked at these notes 9, 8, 7, 6, etc deleting a digit each time. These notes are now quite old. In fact, they should be irrelevant after 11 meetings. If they are not, I figure out what I have to add to “Ongoing” (the very topmost heading)… or perhaps I put a note under the coming meetings heading (just below “Ongoing”.)

It sounds wonky, but it’s magic. One digital document, you can skim the entire thing right in any of the meetings. You can search in the document. I can be sure I’m not forgetting things, but I can be sure I’m not making a huge collection of crap I’m never going to look at again.

Care to guess where that delete-a-digit each time comes from? It’s an idea from book printing. When they used to set type (physical lead type in trays) they would put “1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10” (or other orderings of the numbers) in the cover plate. Then print the book. What printing? This one is “1” Next printing? …they’d just chip off the “1” and print “2 3 4 5…” in the book… second printing. They still print those weird sequences of digits in digitally printed books. I believe this one is a second edition, 3rd printing…

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Click

I’m a child of the vinyl album era. We had a collection—about 5 feet of shelf space—of classic rock, some jazz, the usual suspects collected during the 60s, 70s and into the 80s. There was sublime magic in that vinyl. My dad wasn’t an audiophile per se, but he had a few nice things that comprised the stereo system, and the crown jewel was a Marantz turn-table. We had special soft-cloth cylinders for gently lifting dust off the surfaces. We even had a little space-ray-gun-looking thing that [as far as I recall] neutralized static charge on the vinyl, (which apparently can accumulate when you pull them out of their sleeves.) A classic Pioneer amp… at one point he found someone who rebuilt his speakers for him—repair rather than replace was, at one time, the norm in America. There was a dedicated cabinet for the gear, with a built-in power strip, and lighting…

And the CD was invented while I was a kid. We—society at large—had endless arguments about sound. I even did a high-school presentation about how CDs actually work to encode the sound digitally, and how that encoding uses compression, and how quality is lost… and I bought more and more CDs. I skipped right over collecting cassette tapes; I made countless of my own from albums and CDs, but I don’t believe I ever bought a single one. The Sony Walkman was the driver for my recording cassettes. Then the portable CD players arrived and all hell broke loose. I only purchased a handful of vinyl albums and I never ever set up the Marantz after my dad died. (I passed it to my cousin who did get into collecting vinyl as a kid. I made him promise to spin the helll out of it, and play music loud— damn loud.) And my CD collection grew to thousands. Then I mixed in my dad’s extensive CD collection which had almost zero overlap with mine. My stereo? I keep a scary-old little AirPort Express plugged in, with a cheap-ass set of “computer” speakers, with a woofer, plugged into the AirPort’s 3.5mm headphone jack.

This morning… “I think some Mozart would be nice.” Click, click… and click… and Symphony no. 39, recorded in 1977 by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra streams from the little stereo. Rather loudly I might add.

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Little Box of Quotes

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All the quotes

Craig Constantine

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Attitude and assessment

It seems likely that Jack Sparrow’s admonishment about attitude is an echo of Aurelius’s reminder to himself two thousand years earlier. This idea that the attitude and assessment is most important has really helped me relax. Things will never be done, and I create all of my problems. I’ve come to understand that concrete goals and clear progress are detrimental to my health. They’re necessary, yes, but detrimental. The more goals I set, the more clear progress I can measure, the worse off I become; Mentally and physically those things grind me down.

Since they’re necessary—without them, it seems I’d simply devolve to being a blob on a sofa—I must have something in my life which counters the damage so that I can continue setting some sane number of goals and measuring some concrete progress. One of those things is practicing my attitude and assessment. I set aside time for this each morning. It’s not meant to take long. 15 minutes is really long enough. I read through a prompt from a set that I’ve created for myself. I read through a selection from some key books. I write in my journal, usually copying a single new quote from my collection as the beginning of the journal entry. I write some thoughts. I write some observations from the previous day.

Unfortunately, just about every morning, my urge—affliction? addiction?—to measure and create goals creeps into my morning reflection. Why am I taking all this time? (I’m up to something like 4,000 hand-written pages of journals!) Am I getting benefit from all this reflection? What’s the optimum “dosage” of reflection which yields the most benefit? How do I even measure the benefit? Is that page—that one I just wrote, an instant before these questions pop into my mind—worth writing? If I read that page in a year, will it in any way help me? Is the entry for today long enough? Should it have more “here’s what I did yesterday,” type stuff, or less? Maybe I should be also making a small note on my mood, or how I feel physically? Maybe I should… Oh, crap.

Close the journal, and go on with today!

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