Not spinning out of control

Because, like you, like seemingly everybody, I have also felt as though the world is spinning out of control and there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m exhausted from all the stories of shootings and attacks and bombs and the constant stream of awful stuff that is happening out there. I, too, feel desensitized and dejected from the seemingly constant carnage raging across the planet.

~ Mark Manson from, https://markmanson.net/crazy-world

There was a period of time when I felt that the world was spinning out of control. It is not.

Over a couple decades, as I spent less time on dysfunctional social networks, less time on instant gratification, less time on consuming mindless media, less time on bite-sized tripe posing as information, less time on pre-digested opinions… Well, over a couple decades I’ve come to realize that humanity is awesome. Sure, we progress in fits and starts, with setbacks small and large scattered about. But progress we do none the less!

If you see an issue that you think needs addressing, then please do set about affecting change. But do so sans hysteria, sans hyperbole, sans click-baity mindless louder-just-to-get-attention fluff.

The way you make the whole world better is to make one piece of it better; Then repeat.

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Presuming, of course, you actually know of something better to do

“If you don’t dedicate your time and attention to working with this roto-mill,” the clerk warns, “you might miss out on some benefit that we’re not thinking of now. I don’t see how you could afford such a risk in today’s age of modern yard tools.”

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2014/03/17/would-you-buy-a-yard-tool-if-you-had-no-idea-what-to-use-it-for-so-why-would-you-sign-up-for-snapchat/

Maybe I’m going about this all wrong? We—me, Newport, everyone that I’m following and reading—keep saying things like this. (Read the article, it’s super short.) I keep talking about how engaging in certain things is a waste of one’s precious time. But it occurs to me that maybe for some people it is not a waste of time. Maybe for some people, playing Nimecraft, scrolling through Bacefook or Twettir is actually the best thing they’ve yet found to do with their time. (Data point: I do remember when that was the case for myself!)

Today, I have a list of things that I want to do—that I enjoy doing, that yield benefits, and which make me and the world a better place. I also have a list of things which I find pointless which I do not want to do. Maybe it would be far more useful for me to be asking, rhetorically, of the world at large:

What do you want to be doing with your limited time here?

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The size of your identity

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity. By definition they’re partisan.

Paul Graham from, http://www.paulgraham.com/identity.html

There are two ways I can think to aim this: outward as a way to lecture others, and inward as a way to lecture myself. Lately, I find I’m choosing to aim inward with every lesson I encounter. I’m frequently trying to catch myself being untrue to my morals.

Yesterday I was asking myself: What would it mean to be, “so good, they can’t ignore you?” Asking myself such things is an ongoing theme, and I’ve always considered it from the mindset of more; from the mindset of searching for ways to improve by addition. Yes, I’ve intentionally left the subject unspecified here. Thinking about Graham’s article this morning leaves me wondering if the best way—for me today at my current place in my personal journey—might instead be to improve by removing things.

What would that look like, specifically?

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Nothing fancy

That’s what you and I need right now.

We need the Kiwi virtues.

Nothing fancy. Nothing heroic. Just do our part and be there for our mates in trouble.

~ Steven Pressfield from, https://stevenpressfield.com/2020/03/kiwi-virtues-in-a-time-of-trouble/

I still cannot imagine what the English experienced during the second world war. I’ve long known what, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” was about. But even now that there is a real danger, I still feel zero urge to panic.

Things to do, or not do. Places to go, or not go. Sure. Decisions to be made. People to be helped. Lessons to be learned. Work to be done. Priorities to be reality-checked. Sure.

But, panic? Hoarding? Stigmatizing people? …no thanks.

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The difficulty setting

But a strong work ethic will keep on opening doors for you, again and again, for years to come.

~ Hugh MacLeod from, https://www.gapingvoid.com/blog/2018/04/05/its-not-what-you-do-its-how-you-do-it/

MacLeod’s point about work ethic is spot-on. A certain type and quantity of work ethic is necessary for success; however you wish to define success for yourself, you’ll need work ethic to succeed. It’s necessary.

But it’s not sufficient. The game of life has initial difficulty settings, and we each have little control over that.

Are you born in a country that protects your rights? Are you raised by people who care for you, and create an environment where you flourish? Were you lucky enough to inherit good DNA (as opposed to having a genetic disorder)? Did you grow up in a safe and healthy community (or did people steal your things, threaten you with violence, etc.)?

Work ethic and initiative can enable you to overcome almost all of the challenges the random initial conditions of life might set up for you. You can even change the difficulty level of your own game. But it’s harder.

You’re probably not responsible for more than a handful of people (children, parents, family, etc.) You do not need to sacrifice yourself for others. But if you have extra time, extra resources, extra skill, extra knowledge, or extra ability, what happens to the world if you choose to try to change the difficulty setting for others?

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How to communicate

You can not not communicate. Not discussing the elephant in the room is communicating. Few things are as important to study, practice, and perfect as clear communication.

~ Jason Fried from, https://basecamp.com/guides/how-we-communicate

This article explains how Basecamp—the organization itself—communicates. If you are a human being, who ever encounters other human beings, the initial list is a great primer on how to communicate. The whole article makes me feel warm and fuzzy. As if, somehow, the world would take a big step in the right direction if more people would read this one thing.

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An online advertising bubble?

The story that emerged from these conversations is about much more than just online advertising. It’s about a market of a quarter of a trillion dollars governed by irrationality. It’s about knowables, about how even the biggest data sets don’t always provide insight. It’s about organisations and why they are so hard to change. And it’s about us, and how easy we are to manipulate.

~ Jesse Frederik and Maurits Martijn from, https://thecorrespondent.com/100/the-new-dot-com-bubble-is-here-its-called-online-advertising/13228924500-22d5fd24

For years I’ve been beating the drum about how we individually need to take control of how we use social networks and the Internet in general. There’s still time for us to turn away from the dystopian future where everything has become an algorithm optimized for profit for profit’s sake.

I’ve long known that we are individually fighting an uneven battle. The companies running the social networks are using technology and psychology to manipulate us via our basic human instincts and our basic human cognition. (Each of us, thanks to our biology, has big, ergonomic, grab-handles enabling others to manipulate us.) I think it’s possible that we can each practice using our rational minds and make good decisions; It’s possible, but all evidence shows it is not likely. Meanwhile, I continue to fight the good fight. Those of you reading, seem to be similarly interested.

This article planted a new idea in my mind: The dystopian future is made possible only because someone is paying. We, individually, are not paying. (Reminder: We are the product being sold to the advertisers.) Every single pixel on every single social network is powered by advertising revenue.

What happens if the companies paying to advertise online realize that advertising online doesn’t work the way they think it does?

Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat? …perhaps.

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If Lincoln had email

If the Internet is robbing us of our ability to sit and concentrate, without distraction, in a Lincoln log cabin style of intense focus, we must ask the obvious question: are we doomed to be a generation bereft of big ideas? Will we lose, over time, like some vestigial limb, our ability to focus on something difficult for extended stretches? As a graduate student, I’ve had to put in place what are, in essence, rigorous training programs to help pump up my attention span. It’s a huge struggle for me. Somehow, I imagine, if Lincoln was in my position, he wouldn’t be having this same problem.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2008/02/20/would-lincoln-have-become-president-if-he-had-e-mail/

I usually quote things I agree with whole-heartedly. This one is a little different. I like the topic Newport has raised and he brings up several good points, but my thinking differs a bit.

The Internet is only a tool. There’s nothing magical about how it works to change your brain, distract you, or [as I’m found of describing it] eat your face. The power of choice remains with each of us. What do we use the tool for? What things do we talk about? Whom do we associate with? What change are we creating?

The Internet is only a tool. Make what you will of that.

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Thoughtfully giving and receiving decisions

Decision fatigue is a well-known effect. I’ve long since learned to be mindful of when I am going to encounter this, and to take steps to avoid or reduce it. There’s a paradox where I used to want the option to make decisions, while not having the energy to make good decisions.

Also long ago, I started intentionally reigning in the urge to have an opinion when a decision is available. I now think, “do I want to have an opinion on this?” and I try to steer myself towards, “no.” There are countless examples, but they most often fall into, what I’ll call, refinements. This is when something is happening, and it is happening because I’m following someone’s lead. Our culture encourages that leader to solicit opinions; I’m presented a dinner invitation, but asked, “where would you like to eat?” These refinements come in a huge variety, but usually, that leader had an idea in mind when they set the ball rolling. These days, whenever I can, I don’t add an opinion to the mix.

I’ve gotten really good at not having an opinion. In fact, I’ve realized this is now a problem. Everyone is so used to people complaining—about everything; the movie, the food, the traffic—that they assume I too am going to complain later, after going along with their choice.

Each of us needs to practice giving the gift of making thoughtful choices for others. Each of us needs to practice accepting those gifts graciously, (up front, and during and after without complaint.)

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Mindless or mindful?

Have you noticed how often we all repeat what we say?

Too many people simply begin talking at another person, before having obtained their attention. This happens all the time! Once you start to notice it, it’s everywhere.

Too many people aren’t paying attention. Although, I suspect it’s partly in response to too many people [and computers and phones and our entire culture] clamoring for their attention, that they’ve stopped paying attention as a self-defense mechanism. Withholding attention shifts the default setting of how attention-getting something must be to actually get their attention.

Many years ago I made a house rule that we would not talk to each other unless we were in the same room. It took a long time until it became the norm in our house. No shouting from one room to another with a question, or an order. How often do things like, “Hey, could you…” travel from room to room in your home? The rule forces us, when I want your attention, to go to you. This puts some actual effort onto me, where it belongs. No one is permitted to call from the living room, “Hey, can you bring me…” when we both know full well we should get up and get it ourselves.

Settling into that rule was tough, but part two was far harder. The other side of the exchange. The person who is interrupted, even if it is ever so politely, by a demand for attention. Having reached a point where we each travel to the other, (the first part,) we then had to learn to treat the arriving person with respect, (the second part.) For example, when I’m knee-deep in computer work and she arrives, I had to learn to pause from my work and turn my full attention to this person who is vastly more important than anything happening in my computer. Frankly I’m still working on this.

So meta. She arrived to talk about something as I was typing this… ;)

…anyway.

After a few years of all of the above, I noticed my attention was becoming a much sharper tool in my interactions out in the world. Some of this was surely due to years of martial arts training, but much of the change was due to my intentional practice described above.

(Then I realized just how much of my attention my phone was demanding, and I fixed that shit right quick. Then I threw my participation in social networks under the bus.)

Now, I see countless examples of mindlessness any time I venture out into the regular world. But I also see examples of mindfulness. They’re not as common, but some people I encounter are awake. Some people I encounter are interested and interesting. Some people’s presence make the immediate area a better place.

Which are you, mindless or mindful?

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