Knowing when to stick and when to walk away

Among the vast options every day, how does one choose well? Should I observe guardrails and steer down the center of the easy path? If I can see guardrails which are clearly “that would be, or create, a true problem” and “that would be a quagmire of ongoing struggle”, why would I ever want to not steer down the middle of that path?

And finally, some problems get better if we’re willing to talk about them. Some situations, on the other hand, simply get worse when we focus our energy and community on them.

~ Seth Godin from, https://seths.blog/2023/11/working-with-problems/

Any time I choose to walk away, I can also choose to widen my perspective. From a wider perspective, any time I walk away is simply the next step in my path.

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Happy. Generous. Contributing.

For years now I’ve been fascinated by groups of three.

These perspectives are not just useful literary devices. They are core practical perspectives that we adopt toward the world and our place in it. As we pursue our projects and pleasures, interact with others, and share public institutions and meanings, we are constantly shifting back and forth among these three practical perspectives, each bringing different elements of a situation to salience and highlighting different features of the world and our place in it as good or bad.

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Am I happy? Am I generous? Am I contributing to the world? The moral struggle we face is finding a way to honestly and accurately answer ‘Yes’ to all three of these questions at once, over the course of a life that presents us with many obstacles to doing so.

~ Irene McMullin from, https://aeon.co/essays/how-should-you-choose-the-right-right-thing-to-do

Just yesterday, in a conversation for a podcast, I was responding to a guest who asked my opinion… I don’t think I’ve ever expressed what I said so clearly, when I suggested balancing the first-person and second-person points of view. And here I am one day later staring at something I originally read months ago, crafting a blog post… and *POW* this quite philosophical essay is talking about balancing the three perspectives of the first-, second-, and third-person. But, sorry, now I’ve buried the lead.

Am I happy? Am I generous? Am I contributing to the world? This group of 3 questions is clearly yet another guiding principle straight from the How to Be a Human manual. (Which I feel compelled to point out I’m certain exists despite my never having received a copy upon arrival in this human form.)

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This right here is just fine

There are only two things which seem to work for me: Plain old discipline, and regular, high-intensity exercise. Make a plan. Work the plan. Follow through. I don’t have to finish it all. (That used to be a huge problem too.) Each day, make a plan. And yes, some days the plan is, “today there’s no plan just follow your nose.” Where the mental freedom to believe that’s a good plan is banked during the days with a more plan-looking plan. The exercise acts as a baseline reset.

The result? An inevitable sense of disappointment. A sense that other people are doing better than us. We feel guilt. We feel pressure. We think “Oh, if only I had more money, or a better job, or lived in France where the child care benefits were different, if I had more custody, then things would be good…”

~ Ryan Holiday from, https://ryanholiday.net/all-time-is-quality-time/

Slowly, daily, my false sense of urgency ratchets up. It’s not healthy, but going out and doing something high intensity resets my personal brand of insanity. Every time I’m in the worst of moods, all I have to do is head out and just start running like I hate myself. (This is rare, but frequent enough that it’s useful to have a strategy ready.) I can go just a couple minutes running like I stole something, and then my crazy-brain starts bargaining… okay, uh, if we can just slow down a bit, I promise to stop acting crazy. I’m pretty sure that’s not the best way to deal with things, but it’s definitely a coping strategy that works well. And the side effects are awesome.

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We close our eyes

My journey of growth has been ascending levels of perspective shifts. Some of us don’t get to go on that journey because of external and evil forces or because of the random, initial conditions they drew at the beginning of their lives. While I don’t understand what my self even is, I do understand that hiding—ignoring reality—is not going to move me further along on my journey of self-discovery.

“Daytime” is us closing our eyes and pretending it makes infinity go away.

~ Randall Munroe from, https://xkcd.com/2849/

Munroe has gone on quite a journey. I think everyone far enough along on their needs-satisfaction curve (anyone who’s ever watched entertainment or played a video game is far enough along) would be moved, inspired, made to laugh and cry, by reading all of Munroe’s cartoons.

This cartoon is number 2,849. He publishes a cartoon Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. So, he’s published cartoons for about 950 weeks. About 18 years.

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What indeed

While there’s nothing wrong with always having our nose to the grindstone, and having every day feel the same as the last … what would it be like to open to something different?

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

I hate to quibble with Babauta (his writing having been so instrumental in my growth over decades). But… uhm, actually, I’m going to say there is indeed something wrong with having one’s nose to the grindstone. Working a hard dash on meaningful work is healthy. Dashing all the time is—by definition—not dashing. Lately I’m again and again (and again and again and again) returning to the same problem. I’ve so many things I want to do, but only so many hours.

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Frustration

Learning to distinguish the map versus the territory is an essential step. It’s critical to learn what a map is, and what maps are good for, in order to proceed with one’s life. Maps enable me to see and do things otherwise impossible; maps reveal unknown unknowns. Maps can also frustrate me endlessly. Sometimes I don’t want to have an opinion; I don’t want to spend the energy to have an opinion. I don’t care how I get from here to there. Just. Tell. Me. how to get there. And of course nothing in this paragraph has to do with literal maps of the world— I’m not talking about cartography nor driving directions.

On closer examination, it turns out there are many things wrong with it. Thousand True Fans is a hollow philosophy. It is Chicken Soup for the Digital Creator’s Soul, ultimately devoid of any real nutritional value.

~ Dave Karpf from, https://davekarpf.substack.com/p/the-hollow-core-of-kevin-kellys-thousand

Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans is a map, before it there was another map, The Cluetrain Manifesto, and there were others. When you find a new-to-you map it opens your mind to new possibilities. I would assume the first children’s books I encountered were astounding, but wouldn’t have the same effect today. (I’m not denigrating either of those works; I’m not suggesting they are “children’s books”.)

But I do get frustrated. I see a terrific map, and then I want to make a terrific next “move”. That’s not how maps work, Craig. You look at the map, then you take the next small step informed by everything you know, including the new perspective from the new map. You write one sentence (for example, on a page soliciting support for your work) and that’s informed by all the maps you’ve previously seen. Big picture. Little steps.

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Creating something

I’m the obsessive type. I’m ordered and process driven to a fault, but not quite (or at least, only rarely) to the point where this affects my ability to function. I’m continuously thinking about things like can I carry something else if I’m going in a certain direction— which is fine when heading out to run errands with the car, but which can stop me in my tracks, and cause me to turn in circles in place, before moving from room to room. I’m also obsessive about doing things. I’m the guy you want physically setting up your complex computer systems and networks—physically arranging everything. I’m the guy who got really into roller skating, bicycling, skiing, Aikido, scratch-building radio-controlled gliders, sailing… there’s a much longer list.

I learned one lesson on my own over the years and many obsessions: Do or do not. I am unable to “spend less time” on an obsession. I have to lean into it, or let go of it. Many of my obsessions paid off either as income or simply being useful to my personal growth. Being able to assess when continuing an obsession is not going to do either of those things for me is a hard-won skill.

But there are some heuristics you can use to guess whether an obsession might be one that matters. For example, it’s more promising if you’re creating something, rather than just consuming something someone else creates. It’s more promising if something you’re interested in is difficult, especially if it’s more difficult for other people than it is for you. And the obsessions of talented people are more likely to be promising. When talented people become interested in random things, they’re not truly random.

But you can never be sure. In fact, here’s an interesting idea that’s also rather alarming if it’s true: it may be that to do great work, you also have to waste a lot of time.

~ Paul Graham from, http://paulgraham.com/genius.html

Graham’s point about creation is a second lesson about obsession. I agree, and I think an obsession’s being about creation is critical. I stumbled really near this lesson a few months ago when I wrote Being Genuine for Open + Curious where I wrote…

A great conversation is one where we (and our partners) feel the joy of creation, even if that’s while discussing a contentious topic. We have little chance of being creative if we know, or think we know, where things are headed.

Creation is critical. I need to imagine the world differently, and then try to go and create that new world.

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Not too often, not too infrequent

There is no piece of straw incapable of breaking the camel’s back. Because there’s nothing particularly interesting about the final piece of straw, it’s the total mass. Over the past week I’ve been attacking my lists in a sort of upside down fashion. There are some big, low-priority things sitting at the bottom of my lists for some time. They’ve resisted my finely-honed urge to summarily delete them; each time I consider them I remain sure I want to actually do them. None the less, I see them and I know they’re there and they weigh upon my mind.

Left unchecked, every life flows away from higher aims and towards the path of least resistance. Daily practices can help stem this slide. But staying on course requires check-ins that are too big to do every day, and too important to only accomplish monthly (or yearly).

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/habits/sunday-firesides-theres-only-so-far-you-can-get-off-track-in-a-week/

Last weekend, as I often do, I did a review and decided to focus on those big, low-priority items. And to my surprise, I’ve been springing out of bed at 530—the normally targeted time, but which is often a struggle—and smashing these items in multi-hour dashes. Crossing them off one by one has been sublime. The magic seems to be the combination of going to bed knowing I’m going to start tomorrow working on those things which are actually on my mind, and knowing that I’ve set myself a specific window of days to smash this stuff.

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Souvenirs

I don’t collect many souvenirs. Sometimes I buy postcards when I visit places… and then I tape those into my journals. But in a very real sense a lot of what I write in my journals is meant to be a souvenir. Either way, the physical or the notational souvenir, is meant to trigger some memory.

Even institutions built for the express purpose of information preservation have succumbed to the ravages of time, natural disaster or human conquest. The famous library of Alexandria, one of the most important repositories of knowledge in the ancient world, eventually faded into obscurity. Built in the fourth century B.C., the library flourished for some six centuries, an unparalleled center of intellectual pursuit. Alexandria’s archive was said to contain half a million papyrus scrolls — the largest collection of manuscripts in the ancient world — including works by Plato, Aristotle, Homer and Herodotus. By the fifth century A.D., however, the majority of its collections had been stolen or destroyed, and the library fell into disrepair.

~ Adrienne Bernhard from, https://longnow.org/ideas/shining-a-light-on-the-digital-dark-age/

Always I’m thinking: Do I really want to add this thing to my pile? There’s a timeframe of only a few decades where any thing, or notation, has the chance to jog my memory. Sometimes I think of taking a photo… and then I think, why? Why this image right here? Maybe it would be better (I continue thinking) to just relax and enjoy the moment. Even the Library at Alexandria’s enormous collection was surely only a minuscule fraction of what humanity had created to that point. Why take a photo? Why make a notation? Why build a web site? :)

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