A right to know what?

It’s hard to quarrel with that ancient justification of the free press: “America’s right to know.” It seems almost cruel to ask, ingenuously, “America’s right to know what, please? Science? Mathematics? Economics? Foreign languages?” None of those things, of course. In fact, one might well suppose that the popular feeling is that Americans are a lot better off without any of that tripe.

~ Isaac Asimov from (Newsweek Jan 21, 1980) https://media.aphelis.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/ASIMOV_1980_Cult_of_Ignorance.pdf

tripe n. 2: something poor, worthless, or offensive

That’s the second definition, and is clearly the one Asimov was using. For some reason, I believe I would have said that the first definition had something to do with fish. (It does not.)

In addition, suspecting that Asimov knew a thing or three more than me, had not made a capitalization error in writing “mandarin minority”—you’ll have to click now, won’t you?—I spent several minutes in my Dictionary and learned a second thing.

And finally a third thing: 1980. 2021. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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Conversing: Generating great questions in real-time

What more could you ask for?

Pick any two ideas, presume they are connected, and present that connection as a question.

I’ll wager you’re thinking, “that’s easier read than done.” But, it is easy. Simply ask:

Is there a connection between X and Y?

Exercise: Pause here and think of a few random pairs of ideas. The faster you pull the ideas out, the better. Take two ideas and say the question in your mind. Are they not surprising, the trains of thought which spring up? If you manage to stump yourself in finding a connection, would it have been an interesting exchange if another person had been involved?

Where’s the trick?

The trick is right there in the very first line I wrote, in the first phrase:

Pick two ideas.

The two ideas are connected; that’s how your mind was able to pick them. The trick uses your mind’s built-in super-powers of observation and curiosity. To ask a great question, people focus on finding a question. It’s far easier to make a question out of something great.

Clearly the degree of greatness of your question depends on what ideas you pick. Fortunately, the more you pick-two and ask about the connection, the better you’ll get at picking better ideas. You’re refining your mental observation skills and refining your taste in which ideas will combine into a great question.

Complications

In mechanical watches, a “complication” is some additional function. Indicating the day of the week, the date, or the phase of the moon, are in reality not that different in terms of complexity; They are each simply a complication. It’s the total number of complications that impresses the watch aficionados.

I’m going to throw a bunch of complications on top of this idea. By analogy with the watches, I’m suggesting that no one of these is any better or more complex. Each complication is simply a possibility you could add. One of your goals, in any conversation I care to think about, is to have your tools and skills disappear in service of the conversation. Only through experience can you learn how complicated to make things. It varies based on every conversational parameter you can imagine. Sometimes, the barest simplicity is the best choice—“is there a connection between X and Y?”—and sometimes…

It’s not you, it’s me. If the question you’re posing might be too personal, taboo, etc. you can couch it in a dash of self-deprecation. “I know this sounds weird, but is there a connection between X and Y?” Your conversation partner can easily parry—in fact, people will automatically and subconsciously parry this way if they are uncomfortable—with, “Yes that’s weird. What sort of wacko would ask that?” Being a great conversationalist, you can then proceed in another direction. (Or press on!)

The joy of wonder. Rare, (and possibly psychotic,) is the person who isn’t sucked in when you express honest wonder. If you really are wondering—that is probably how you picked those two ideas in the first place—then it’s going to be obvious that you’re enjoying asking about the connection. “Oh, wow! Now I’m wondering if there’s a connection between X and Y.”

Grammar ain’t all that. Did you catch that? That last example wasn’t a question. Turns out, it’s not necessary to speak a grammatical question. All you ever need to do is convey that you have a question. In the Movers Mindset podcast I get endless mileage out of saying, “And of course, the final question: Three words to describe your practice.” Which is a statement stapled to a sentence fragment, and I don’t even pitch-up at the end to make it sound like a question. Statements using “wondering” are the obvious way to do statement-questions. But there are more: “I’m astounded I never realized there’s a connection between X and Y.” That one has a quiet little question—“is there actually a connection here?”—tucked in under the loud astonishment. There’s also, “I can’t believe I never noticed the connection between X and Y.” Even snarky, “…next you’re going to tell me X and Y are connected.” Complications sure, but filigree has its place.

There can’t possible be more

I’ve described this entire thing as if it were something you do once, (and then use the question.) Eventually, you can generate two, sometimes three or more, two-ideas-and-a-connection questions before the pause gets pregnant. With practice, you can regularly generate 2, and then choose the one you like better.

This is particularly important if you’re trying to lead the conversation—“lead” as in “let’s go for a stroll and I secretly want to show you my favorite bakery along the way,” not “I want to lead you to a mugging”. Being able to ask great questions is one thing, but being able to ask a series of great questions that lead to a through-line, however tenuous, is pure wizardry.

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slip:7a5.

Mirror image of negative visualization

The fatalism advocated by the Stoics is in a sense the reverse, or one might say the mirror image, of negative visualization: Instead of thinking about how our situation could be worse, we refuse to think about how it could be better.

~William Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life

I use negative visualization very often. “What could possibly go wrong?” is one of my favorite interjections. Everyone thinks I’m making a joke—and in part I am—but what I’m really doing is actually thinking about what could actually go wrong.

I’ve learned, (slowly after far too much struggle because: i dumb,) that the more simple I can keep my life, the better. I want to be clear: The complexity I wrestle with—and which wins and beats me down—is all stuff I’ve invented. Not simply accepted, but outright invented. Things I want to create or see get done or ways I can help when someone asks and on and on and on. My brain is a snow globe of ideas.

And that all springs from my apparently hardwired drive to make things better. So, practicing refusing to think about how it could be better.

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slip:6c6a.

Conversing: Be the hornet?

Is it better to be the fly on the wall, or the hornet in the room?

I variously categorize conversations on a spectrum from formal to casual. (I can think of other ways that I categorize them, but I’ll leave that for another day.) At the formal end would be police interrogations and then—perhaps—live, antagonistic interviews of politicians. At the casual end would be pillow-talk and long-term friends around a campfire with their preferred beverages. I’m generally not interested in the formal end of the spectrum; I plead the Fifth. While I’m deeply, personally interested in the casual end, today I want to talk about conversations that fall in the middle.

So what’s in the middle? Conversations built on a shared intention: Two people who want to resolve a difference, who want to co-create something new from their individual experiences, or who are simply excited about taking a leap into the unknown experience that is a good conversation. It’s that third one which really calls to me these days.

The leap

I’ve now done enough recorded conversations to say two things:

I used to think I was doing interviews. In fact, I began using a process and format intentionally meant to create interviews; I showed up with things I was interested in and I wanted to learn more about from my partner. I soon discovered that when we veered away from the formal-end of the conversation spectrum, (away from the “interview” I had intended to create,) into the more middle-area of simply good conversation, that was when I most enjoyed the experience. My conversation partners clearly enjoyed it more, and the listeners did too. (“hmmmmm… maybe I am onto something here?” #seecraiglearn )

The first thing I have to say is that the form of the created artifact follows from the process.

If I use a process intended to create formal conversations, that’s what I’ll get, (more or less.) If I use a process intended to create more casual conversations, then I get that, (more or less.) The insight is that the process for creating casual conversation is not itself casual. The process is specific, rigorous, and frankly exhausting. It’s exhausting because I want to execute the process in order to create the best possible conversation, and I want to experience that conversation. That’s in contrast to my conversation partner who is only attempting to do the latter because they’re only aware of their desire to experience the conversation. They’re not aware of the process, and they probably shouldn’t be aware.

Each conversation—each performance, since I’m today talking about when we are recording—is better if we’re comfortable going just a bit farther than we might normally. This is where the process pays off. Everything I’ve done in preparation, and everything I do during the conversation, from the obvious to the subtle to the outright manipulative, is in service of creating the best space for that conversation.

The second thing I have to say is that to create good, casual conversations I have to help my partner leap.

Be the hornet?

I recently listened to Jesse Thorn’s interview of Werner Herzog for The Turnaround. If you’ve read this far, I can’t imagine you wouldn’t enjoy listening to that ~35 minutes of Thorn and Herzog.

In the conversations that I’m currently interested in creating and recording I simply cannot be the fly on the wall. I have to literally sit down with my conversation partner. But there’s an enormous range of engagement that I can vary. (More realistically I can only try to control this, as I’m always balancing the observer-process and the participant-creation experiences.) In my first recorded conversations there quickly became far too much of me performing, (and I’ll leave it at that for today.) Then followed me reigning myself in too far, then some relaxing back towards more of me, and currently I find that I like the amount of me that appears in the conversations.

After listening to Herzog’s thoughts on documentary film-making, (but he talks about a lot more than that in the podcast,) I now see that I need to work on being the active hornet in the room. This is the dimension where I actively lead the conversation—not upstage my partner, but actively lead in the way that two intimate dance partners have a leader, (and, yes, who is leading can change at any moment.)

I need to more often be the hornet. I need to more often suggest simply by my presence that a sting might be imminent. Then if they decline to leap, maybe, sting just a little.

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Conversing: Listening

As opposed to listening to refute, or listening to respond.

Sometimes I simply have a conversation. I find they spring up through a crack in the concrete: A random encounter begins with some words exchanged per social norm, and quickly expands as both sides shift their focus to the person before them. More often they push up through fertile ground; a social gathering where, “get together and socialize,” is literally on the agenda. My journey exploring conversation began with these found conversations; I simply found myself having cool conversations.

I soon learned that I love creating conversation. I began trying to create conversation, (between myself and one or more others,) initially simply for fun and later in the context of recording podcast episodes. I was surprised to find that having recording gear, an agenda (“I’d like to interview you about…”), and simply acting like I knew what I was doing, was sufficient to get things going!

If I truly do want to engage in a good conversations, it turns out that my actions follow automatically. I share things about myself and doing so invites the other person to share. I take things seriously which conveys that I value the interaction and what I’m hearing. I express my interest directly by asking questions about what—in the moment, not the day before—is interesting; questions which show the other person I’m generally curious. Overall, I demonstrate that I’m listening because I’m interested, rather than because I want to immediately do something with what I’m about to hear.

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slip:7a2.

Looking back

I’ve started thinking about a touch phrase for 2021. (2020’s was the superbly helpful, “Get less done.”) As part of the thinking, I was browsing the old blog, and wondered when I last missed a daily post. That turns out to be November 18, 2019. It’s simply a random day with nothing posted.

For a few weeks leading up to that 18th, there’s a post on each day. But October of 2019 is Swiss cheese—actually, it’s more hole than cheese. But early to mid 2019 things look mostly solidly-posted. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I also know that in the very beginning of this blog I wasn’t even intending to post daily; In the beginning it was just a place for me to put things that I felt I needed some place to put. Unsurprisingly, character by character this blog was built like a drifting sand dune. In 2021 this blog will turn 10. Hello World was posted on August 13, 2011. If I continue, and I see no reason to stop, post number 3,000 should appear in late December 2021.

I bring this up because this time of year is traditionally a time for wrapping things up, and striking out anew, perhaps with a fresh start or a new commitment, into the new year. meh. That never works for me. But you know what has been working well—year-round, not just during this completely arbitrary calendar roll-over point—

LOOK BACK!

Look back at some of the things you’ve accomplished or experienced and think: “Well if that isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” Seriously. I’m not going to end this post on a, “but if you don’t like what you see…”. No.

Take some time during the arbitrary end-of-the-year machinations to look back and think:

Well if that isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

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The promise of future discussion

Only recently did I become aware of the key point of a Slipbox: It can capture your thinking and enables you to have a discussion with your own thinking. I’m aware of this key point, but I’m not entirely certain it will work. I am convinced that the only way to find out is for me to try the experience.

There are many ways to do capture, and those ways are useful for various things. For example, capturing information with the context necessary to use, or do, the thing captured:

GTD is based on storing, tracking, and retrieving the information related to the things that need to get done. Mental blocks we encounter are caused by insufficient ‘front-end’ planning. This means thinking in advance, generating a series of actions which can later be undertaken without further planning. The mind’s “reminder system” is inefficient and seldom reminds us of what we need to do at the time and place when we can do it. Consequently, the “next actions” stored by context in the “trusted system” act as an external support which ensures that we are presented with the right reminders at the right time.

From, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getting_Things_Done#Summary

Other examples are: A collection of books (at personal or institutional scale); personal journals; note-taking (think school studying); at-scale capture of information (Evernote, and ad hoc ways of doing that oneself). There are many more: Personal or team Wikis; Online collaboration systems (Miro, Emvi, et al).

I’ve tried all of the above. Some I’m still using—big time using! Collections of books, notes, journals, Wiki’s, and others.

And yet, something was still missing. The first problem was that I could only sometimes sense there was something missing. The best I can describe it: It’s like hearing a sound and not being sure you heard it. Later, in a very different location, you think you heard the sound. Eventually, you know the sound, without being able to describe it. It’s a sort of pattern in my mind, into which something should fit.

So the current experiment with a Slipbox is my attempt to place a ‘something’ into this pattern— this concept-shaped hole. I will continue to write about this as I go along. Today I wanted to try to take a snapshot of the hole.

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It’s about sleep

The general sentiment here is that everyone else is sleeping so you’re not missing out on something important and you can spend time taking care of yourself, which generally leads to a positive impact on your productivity throughout the day.

~ Farnam Street from, https://fs.blog/2014/01/what-the-most-successful-people-do-before-breakfast/

The reason successful people are found doing their important work in the morning—working out, reading, writing, … whatever it is that is important to them—is because it’s right after when they have rested.

I’ll repeat: Sleep is the most important thing. Good sleep. Learn about sleep. Your life is already arranged around sleep, although you may wrongly think you’re consciously in control—you’re not… your body is in control. Fix your sleep.

Then use the time just after resting—that’s probably “morning”—to do what you want to actually get done. All the things that you think interrupt you from doing your real work? …you’re enabling that, and you can change that too.

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He who is not even looking

Don’t expect, then, that you can sample the masterpieces of great minds by way of summaries; you must examine the whole, work over the whole. Their structure is a totality fitted together according to the outlines of their special genius, and if any member is removed the whole may collapse.

That is why we give boys apothegms, what the Greeks call chriai, to learn by heart, because the childish mind, which cannot comprehend more, is able to grasp them. But for a man advanced in study to hunt such gem is disgraceful; he is using a handful of clichés for a prop and leaning on his memory; by now he should stand on his own feet. He should be producing bons mots, not remembering them. It is disgraceful for an old man or one in sight of old age to be wise by book. “Zeno said this.” What do you say? “This Cleanthes said.” What do you say? How long will you be a subaltern? Take command and say things which will be handed down to posterity. Produce something of your own. All those men who never create but lurk as interpreters under the shadow of another are lacking, I believe, in independence of spirit. They never venture to do the things they have long rehearsed. They exercise their memories on what is not their own. But to remember is one thing, to know another. Remembering is merely overseeing a thing deposited in the memory; knowing is making the thing your own, not depending on the model, not always looking over your shoulder at the teacher. “Zeno said this, Cleanthes that”—is there any difference between you and a book? How long will you learn? Begin to teach! One man objects, “Why should I listen to lectures when I can read?” Another replies, “The living voice adds a great deal.” It does indeed, but not a voice which merely serves for another’s words and functions as a clerk.

There is another consideration. First people who have not rid themselves of leading-strings follow their predecessors where all the world has ceased to follow them, and second, they follow them in matters still under investigation. But if we rest content with solutions offered, the real solution will never be found. Moreover, a man who follows another not only finds nothing, he is not even looking. What is the upshot? Shall I not walk in the steps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old path, but if I find a shorter and easier way I shall make a new path. The men who made the old paths are not our suzerains but our pioneers. Truth is open to all; it has not been pre-empted. Much of it is left for future generations.

~ Senece, from Letter 33, Maxims

This is Seneca at his mic-drop best. (Unlike the borderline torturous silver point style you also see quoted from on occasion.) Here he’s writing a personal letter to one of his long-time students.

If it’s made you perk up, I recommend digging into this letter further by reading, On the Futility of Learning Maxims, overs on the Stoic Letters web site. That’s also a great introduction to the nuance of translating these very old works; there are significant differences between M. Hadas’s translation circa 1958 and whatever translation Stoic Letters is using, (I looked, but it’s not clear to me.)

Obviously the thread I’m tugging on here is meta: It’s one thing to nod along in the audience of a performance— “yes yes yes I agree I’m doing that yes.” It’s quite another to stand up, and ask to speak next. It was about 10 years ago that I began this blog, and about 5 years ago that I began seriously devoting intentional effort to creating something here.

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I’m not sure that I’m setting much of an example. But trying to walk-the-walk has definitely helped me.

In the spirit of the season: Go read this next, What do you do for fun?

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Don’t ask for advice

An important, but counter-intuitive, strategy we found essential in this style of research is to avoid simply asking people for advice. When you ask for advice, you’ll often get vague, unhelpful answers. Instead, you need to observe what the top performers in your field are actually doing differently. Act like a journalist not a protege. This can often yield surprising insights about what actually matters to move forward.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2017/01/16/are-you-working-in-your-career-or-on-your-career/

I’ve found this to be the case as well.

There are some people who give advice well. There are far more people who can give useful answers to good questions. Asking, “what do you think I should do,” isn’t going to get you useful guidance nearly as often as asking, “how did you do that.” You simply must do the hard work of figuring out whom to ask, and what to ask them.

In a recent conversation on the podcast, Thomas Droge brought up the idea of seeking younger persons to be your mentors; maybe not a formal mentorship relationship, but to be open to being a sort of stealth protege (my interpretation, not his words.) These two ideas dovetail: If you try to ask a younger person, literally, for advice, that’s not going to work well nearly as often as asking, “how did you do that?”

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