Forward. Backward. Preferred. Dis-preferred.

Like any good algebraist, he is made to think sometimes in a forward fashion and sometimes in reverse; and so he learns when to concentrate mostly on what he wants to happen and also when to concentrate mostly on avoiding what he does not want to happen.

~ Charlie Munger from, https://fs.blog/2016/04/crashing-planes-mungers-system/

That item from a list of six elements, originally from the best pilot education program in existence, made me realize there’s this thing that I do. For me it’s such an intuitive, automatic thing, but it occurs to me to share it to make it explicit.

Let’s begin by thinking about planning and learning. (I’m done. You are now thinking about planning and learning. :) Next, we’ll trot out three magnificently useful, relative adverbs: how, when and why. Six sublime questions instantly appear:

How do I plan?
When do I plan?
Why do I plan?
How do I learn?
When do I learn?
Why do I learn?

I’ve certainly spent a lot of time thinking about those questions. For example, I’ve a bunch of blog posts about knowledge systems that came from thinking about, “how do I learn?” I could spend all my time thinking about those six questions. Exploring those questions, understanding myself, and learning in general, are fine projects to spend time on. But it’s tough to get started. Each of those questions is a deep, Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole.

What I want to share is how to use a different framework to flip the entire process over. I want to share my way of making progress on those fine projects without intentionally working on them. Things happen. Thoughts arise. (Your experience may be similar to mine?) The following framework will take anything—happenings or thoughts—and guide it into being deep work on those six questions.

Simply ask:

Forward or backward in time: Is the event in the future or past? Am I thinking about the future or past?

And…

Prefer or dis-prefer: Do I prefer or dis-prefer the event? Do I prefer or dis-prefer what I’m thinking?

For me, the act of examining something—an event, a thought—in the light of those questions, (forward/backward? preferred/dis-preferred?,) leads me to learning about one, and sometimes several, of those six, big questions.

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No too hot. Not too cold.

Self-motivated, self-starting individuals are incredibly motivated to find their weaknesses. It’s not far-fetched to say that some of us actually seek to make ourselves perfect — rational, calculating beings making the right type of decisions at just the right times. But we’ve learned from Star Trek; we don’t look to eliminate emotion either and turn ourselves into Mr. Spock. We want just the right amount of emotion in our lives.

~ Farnam Street from, https://fs.blog/2016/03/five-percent-better/

Here’s the two-pronged approach which has been working for me:

First, I remind myself to resist my innate urge to make things worse. Don’t add energy to emotions themselves, nor to things which cause emotions. Emotions are real. We are emotional beings. Emotions get their due. And no more. If things are going badly: relax, they won’t last. If things are going well: relax, they won’t last.

Second, I take note of—literally in my journal—things which cause me to be emotional. It turns out that sometimes I can simply eliminate chronic causes. My goal isn’t to remove all the causes; That’d be a stoopid plan. But sometimes a pain in my foot is simply caused by a stone in my shoe, and is easily removed.

Those could be summarized as, “reminding myself, and taking note.” Those two things are always possible, and always easy. The hard part is remembering to do them. But if I simply—as in: gently, and with self-kindness—do those two things when I do remember, they slowly become habitual. I can’t say I even understand what, “…just right,” would be. But I know for sure what, “just right,” is not.

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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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Stoic Ethics

The Stoics argued that it’s not feelings and pleasure that control our primary impulses but reason—and because of this, reason, like a craftsman, overrides impulse. Sometimes what feels good leads to bad results. What we feel is good for us often isn’t. Reason alone allows us to keep our individual nature (what’s good for me) and universal nature (what’s good for my kind) in harmony.

~ From, https://dailystoic.com/oikeiosis/

I believe the key thing which distinguishes us from the other animals is our faculty of reason. If any of my myriad ramblings about Stoicism have peaked your interest, this article is a proper discussion of Stoic ethics.

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No and yes

Because we can’t say no—because we might miss out on something if we did. We think “yes” will let us accomplish more, will give us more of what we want, when in reality it prevents exactly what we seek. All of us waste precious life doing things we don’t like, to prove ourselves to people we don’t respect, and to get things we don’t want.

~ Ryan Holiday from, https://dailystoic.com/how-to-say-no-advice-from-the-worlds-most-powerful-man/

Accepting and rejecting are two sides of the same coin. A lot—I contemplated writing “all”—of my problems came from being unable to intentionally say, “yes,” or being unable to intentionally say, “no.” When completely lacking the skill from either side of this coin, I’m a puppet for others. I’m one of those doormats that says, “WELCOME,” come on in and use me.

But simply developing both of the skills is not enough. I needed to learn to balance the skills; To balance the requirements of life with the pursuits of pleasure, leisure, and creativity. That requires a finer control of these, “yes,” and, “no,” skills.

I occasionally encounter people who speak of, “always saying, ‘yes and…’.” That’s utter nonsense. One can only say once to the pan-handler on the street asking for money, “yes, and take my house.” Or to the myriad of people clamoring for one’s attention online, “yes, and…” scrolling scrolling scrolling and… the whole hour is lost.

The mastery level of, “no,” and, “yes,” is to go beyond reacting to life—figuring out which tool to deploy in this situation—to intentionally using, “no,” and, “yes,” to navigate life.

Distraction, Busyness, Hurrying: No.

Discovery, Reflection, Efficacy: Yes, and…

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blog by a Stoic

Stoicism has long surged in times of difficulty—the decline and fall of Rome, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Civil War, depressions, and periods of strife because it is a philosophy designed for difficult times. It says, in effect, you don’t control these alarming events going on in the world, but you do control how you respond. And in fact is a framework for responding with courage and virtue, and with the good emotions that accompany and sustain them: joy, caution and well-wishing. None of these inspiring figures were guilty of emotionless acquiescence.

~ Ryan Holiday from, https://dailystoic.com/secret-singular-philosophy-todays-politics-desperately-missing/

I’m certainly not going to transform my blog to be entirely about Stoicism. Not because others have already done so, (others have, and have done it better than I could,) but rather, simply because this blog doesn’t have a single specific topic. It’s one long stream of consciousness where I’m leaving a breadcrumb trail of my thoughts. That being said:

Stoicism is turning out to be a powerful toolset; an excellent fulcrum for leveraging change in my personal life. Over several years, I’ve become increasingly interested in it, and have read slowly, but steadily. Very recently, I started a morning practice I’ve labeled “philosophical reading.” It’s simply some time set aside in my mornings to read and reflect on philosophy.

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Show yourself first

If you should ever turn your will to things outside your control in order to impress someone, be sure that you have wrecked your whole purpose in life. Be content, then, to be a philosopher in all that you do, and if you wish also to be seen as one, show yourself first that you are and you will succeed.

~ Epictetus

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Stoicism, with a capital ‘S’

Ancient Stoics were all about living in the moment, a goal achieved by cultivating self-control and self-awareness through meditative practices, though not necessarily of the om-chanting variety. They “thought about thinking” by considering their emotions from a rational perspective, reflecting on the ethics of their decisions, and constantly reminding themselves that while they had no power over what happened in life, they did have power over their responses to it. 

~ Chiara Sulprizio from, https://dailystoic.com/stoicism-cultural-moment/

“Ancient Stoics,” as in, people who lived in antiquity who were Stoics. Stoicism is ancient, in the sense that it predates the modern religions, (that is, all those you can name.) But it’s distinctly modern in the sense that it’s prefectly suited to today.

If you take one thing from this little missive of mine, let it be that being “stoic” in the common English usage, (stoic: n., one who is seemingly indifferent to or unaffected by joy, grief, pleasure, or pain,) has nothing to do with Stoicism, as a philosophy. And a great one for your daily life at that.

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Focus your attention

One of the most powerful things you can do as a human being in our hyperconnected, 24/7 media world is say: “I don’t know.” Or, more provocatively: “I don’t care.” Most of society seems to have taken it as a commandment that one must know about every single current event, watch every episode of every critically acclaimed television series, follow the news religiously, and present themselves to others as an informed and worldly individual.

~ Ryan Holiday from, The Daily Stoic, p39.

Stoicism is a terrific tool. (It’s not about suppressing your emotions.) One of the practices is to pay attention to where your attention is. If I know I’m not going to do anything with this information—this news show, this political argument, this batshit-crazy conspiracy theory, this story, that solicitation, this bit of entertainment, that bit of distraction . . . If I know I’m not going to do anything with this information, then it turns out that it is trivial to not be distracted by things. People think I’m ignoring things, or that I’ve not noticed things. I’m simply choosing where to allocate my attention, (and therefore my time and efforts.) I choose to be in control of where my attention is placed. Only then can I apply it where it will do good.

What in your life can demand your attention? Are you okay with each of things that you just thought of?

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On splitting

Caution: seemingly disjointed thoughts ahead, followed by unifying insight.

I hope.

I’m pragmatic and rational with the usual dose of emotions thrown in, because, human. I also find that I too often ignore the messaging coming from my body and my brain. I sometimes get into deep work on something technical, and I have trouble knowing when I should stop. (Answer: A few hours in, at a place where I know what I should do next. Never work until stuck; Don’t stop there.) I push everything too far and then crash mentally, or even physically.

I’ve recently found I have Lyme disease. “Boooo!” But the treatment—at least, the initial treatment option—is a simple antibiotic called Doxycycline. “Yay, modern science!” Which I take twice per day on an empty stomache and it makes me pretty nauseous. “Booooo,” (more vociforously.) I usually eat dinner by 6:30pm, and the evening 8:30pm pill isn’t usually bad. But the 8:30am pill on a totally empty stomach is nausea-roulette about 40 minutes later.

Splitting is the name for all-or-nothing thinking: You’re either with me, or against me. This project is suceeding or failing. I am a sucess or a failure. Partly this comes from focusing on outcomes; I set lots of goals, and I set them high on purpose, so usually I don’t reach them. “Booooo,” combined with some splitting leads to, “I suck.”

In Stoic parlance, a “dispreferred indifferent” is something you do not prefer, and over which you have no control and are therefore indifferent to the outcome. (Stoicism crib notes: Almost everything is an “indifferent” since you fully control only your own thoughts.) Vomitting around 9am every day is definitely a DISpreferred indifferent. I can drink plenty of water, I can pay attention to my posture, (unexpectedly it drastically affects my stomach reaction,) I can avoid laying down, I can avoid getting up, etc. …and it’s still nausea-roulette.

I have had a superlatively enjoyable week since starting this medication.

Wait, what?

Seriously. Something about having this [actually quite minor] regular nausea thing seems to be treating my splitting thinking. “Oh, nice it’s time to work on this cool thing I want to see suceed!” “Oh, nice it seems to be time to vomit!” “Oh, nice that was just a wave of nausea!” “It’s really going to be hot outside today, but it’s cool on the patio for now. Nice!” “Oh, are we vomitting now? That’s nice too!” “Oh, I have an idea for something to do this afternoon. Nice!” It seems to have all just run together into this general state of, “nice!”

Ok, yeah, that may be pretty messed up. But, gotta go, it’s 8:30.

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