Transcendence

Maybe, if I was feeling really brave, I’d say that there is just one thing that I need to get beyond. If I was feeling that brave, I’m not, I’d say it’s the drive drive drive I feel to do do do.

What we usually do is either be driven, driven, driven by this fear … or we conclude that we need to abandon everything and start with a fresh slate. With this fear, it can feel like these are the only two options.

~ Leo Babauta from, https://zenhabits.net/still-behind/

As Babauta of course goes on to point out: There aren’t, in truth, only two options. I’m still not feeling brave, but the idea that there’s a third-way sounds delightful.

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Using structure

I’m aware that I have a habit (or perhaps it’s a dysfunction depending on your perspective) of turning everything into a process. Before I even do something a first time I’m imagining the whatever-it-is as a checklist— imagining it as a process. I’ll be generous, and I’ll call that being detail-oriented and being a planner. I’m also processifying (my spell-checker balks) everything from both ends: The first step I imagine is: What does done look like? I’m building the process from the front (“gather materials,” let’s say) and from the back (“deposit check, dance jig”). In the middle I’ve a place holder: Magic happens.

I refine and sub-divide the stuff at the front. I refine and sub-divide the stuff at the back. I’m creating more and easier steps, and I’m trying to pull as much as I can out of that “magic happens” step in the middle. When I look honestly, I see this everywhere in my life. That ill-defined, magical, central step is the feature. The struggle there is real, and it’s not to be avoided. Once I’ve factored out—moved to before, or move to after, the magic, middle part—all the stuff I’m more or less certain of… what remains is tension, in that magic, middle part. When I do it just right, that tension makes the magic happen.

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Recognition

If you have your primary needs of security and health fulfilled (as billions of us now do) how then do we proceed? It seems I have two options. The option I default to, is to feel I should first do what I must—the work that others have assigned, the work that brings in the dollars, the work I feel that I should do. The second option is, of course, doing what I wish to do. My defaulting to those shoulds directly conflicts with my pursuit of the wish-tos. This creates enormous tension, and alarming swings of focus, energy and mood.

The message is clear: you should do what you do to the best of your ability, and whether you gain recognition for it or not is secondary. This is the ethic of the Japanese shokunin, the true craftsman. These masters are completely dedicated to perfecting their craft, whether it is cookery or calligraphy, woodwork or weaving. Honour comes simply from the work, not from the recognition others give you for your doing it.

~ Julian Baggini from, https://aeon.co/essays/is-success-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder-or-an-inner-feeling

What, actually, happens if we flip things? Rather than first doing what we must, we first do what we wish. Don’t misread; I’m not proposing we do what we wish instead of doing what we must. What if we simply flipped the priorities— a reversal of the ordering?

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But can you actually see anything?

I love metaphors about hills and valleys. If it’s an uphill struggle, imagine the view. Hills and valleys is a great metaphor for the concept of a local maximum: It’s visually clear (standing atop a hill) and mathematically clear (at a local maximum) that it is “down” in every direction. But only a special sort of hilltop is actually interesting. A hilltop that is really large becomes a flat tabletop. And a hilltop socked in with fog is easily mistaken for not a hilltop. Only hilltops which are pointy enough, and from which we can see other things, are interesting.

[…] our economy—resource allocation based on employment […]—is a local maximum and we cannot expect to arrive at a good outcome without activism.

[…]

But, unless we automate a lot more, we the species will never have enough wealth to offer a decent basic income, and everyone will continue to waste half their lives at work.

~ Gavin Leech from, https://www.gleech.org/automatic/

Is it clear that every direction is “down”? Can we see anything else; if we can’t see anything else we can’t be sure this is a local maximum. How can we explore “down” in some of the directions… when we’re talking about global scale culture and human lives?

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It matters that you start

It matters that I start something. I don’t have to start everything; That’d be tragic. I don’t have to start many things, nor even more than one thing. But it matters that I start something. The knowledge is in the doing of that something. It matters that I go through contemplation (choosing just the right something), then into commitment, and then… that’s where I often struggle.

I’d like to propose a different view: that struggle is the place of growth, learning, curiosity, love, creativity. Struggle is an incredible opportunity for being creative.

~ Leo Babauta from, https://zenhabits.net/struggle-to-creativity/

I struggle when there’s a huge gap between the know-naught starting point, and my being one of those effortless creatives who get stuff done. Those who get stuff done well and demonstrate craftsmanship and care and pride and joy! (Gazing at the horizon,) there’s the thing. I know what it can be. I see how to begin, but I see hills and I know there will be challenges. Don’t turn away. (Gazing at the horizon,) if there’s somewhere I want to be, I need to start walking.

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It matters that you stop

“I wonder what would happen if I created a daily podcast, and did nothing else— if I didn’t tell anyone, didn’t share on social media, nothing. Just publish the thing every day.” So I went and made it happen, over 1,300 times. The answer to “what if?” is: I would receive a cornucopia of benefits simply from doing the work, even if no one heard a single one of them. I received: practice speaking extemporaneously, lessons in dramatic reading, countless tiny lessons of microphone technique, countless nuanced insights of physiology, and much much more.

Unfortunately, over the years, I became fixated on the least-important part of my original question: Daily.

I think this dynamic, to one degree or another, impacts anyone who has been fortunate enough to experience some success in their field. Doing important work matters and sometimes this requires sacrifices. But there’s also a deep part of our humanity that responds to these successes — and the positive feedback they generate — by pushing us to seek this high at ever-increasing frequencies.

~ Cal Newport from, https://calnewport.com/danielle-steel-and-the-tragic-appeal-of-overwork/

It’s become clear that maintaining the pace is a problem, and so I’ve changed the pace. And in a blink, I feel I’m again focused on that still-overflowing cornucopia of benefits.

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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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The practice

I am often stuck in the resistance right before actually writing. It usually takes me several attempts to approach the work. It feels like walking up the slippery slope of a small hill, where the initial speed and direction has to be perfect, and then with continued effort—a penguin waddling judiciously—I reach the gently rounded top of the hill (after sliding off obtusely a few times and beginning again.)

I can easily be nudged into sliding off that small hill by distractions. I’m drawn to address the distraction. Can I fix that so it doesn’t happen again? (For example, change fundamentally how my phone is configured.) But I know that distractions are not all bad and I know that I can hide in the busyness of getting things just right. (Hazards warned of by both Pressfield and Godin.)

Besides that, if you want to get anywhere interesting, there’s no substitute – not even talent – for grinding away at something year after year until you’ve put more work into it than almost anyone else alive.

~ Cierra Martin from, https://www.gapingvoid.com/what-is-your-practice/

The word grinding feels too negative a way to spin simply doing the work. If I think, “that’s going to be grinding,” I’m setting myself up to more easily slide off that little hill. Because invariably—for the things I have to, and want to, do—the actual work is exceedingly easy. Easy like gleeful skipping. All of the hard part is in the way I think about the work before I ever begin. Even using the word “work” feels too negative. All of the hard part is in the way I think about the practice.

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Resistance

If you have decided that you can’t do art until you quiet the voice of resistance, you will never do art. Art is the act of doing work that matters while dancing with the voice in your head that screams for you to stop. We can befriend the lizard, lull it into stupor, or merely face it down, but it’s there, always. As soon as you embrace the lizard (not merely tolerate it but engage it as a partner in your art), then you are free.

~ Seth Godin

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The resistance

When the resistance shows up, I know that I’m winning. Not my fight against it, but my fight to make art. […] The resistance is a symptom that you’re on the right track. The resistance is not something to be avoided; it’s something to seek out.

~ Seth Godin

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A vision of humanity post-labor

If you spend much time (as I do) with your head shoved into a computer, you can’t avoid the whole “artificial intelligence armageddon-is-coming” (or is already here!) bruh-ha-hah. What’s always fascinated me—I’ve always irritated everyone even as a precocious little tike—is what happens when people no longer need to do any work?

Everyone’s always pushed back when I ask that question. For forty years (and why is there no U in forty?!) I’ve conceded that, yes, today there’s an enormous amount of work that needs to be done and people do that work. But I keep waiving my arms and asking: But the current amount of work is not always going to be the case. What happens when people no longer need to do much, if any, work?

The final point to make here is to emphasise that such a post-work world is indeed viable. Perhaps a better way of phrasing it is a post-labour world. Work is an essential part of the human condition; not only is it logistically necessary for social life, but it also provides us with purpose and a sense of self-respect. The thrust of post-labour thinking is not that this must be done away with, but that we can retrieve precisely these positive features—purpose, fulfillment, social value—from the tyranny of wage-labour, in which those are so often undercut by arsehole bosses, terrible working-conditions, and an alienation from the purpose of the work. A post-labour world just means that those types of self-directed activities we usually relegate to hobbies become the fount of meaningful social activity […]

~ Trey Taylor from, https://publicfuture.com/blogs/news/non-market-contributions

I particularly like Taylor’s use of the distinction between labor and work. There’s a lot of work I want to always be able to do, as he points out, because I derive meaning from doing so. There’s also some labor that I continue to do, which I’m happily looking to offload.

Nothing is infinite. (Not AI’s intelligence. Not our time, nor any software AI’s time. Not our energy, nor AI’s energy. Not resources, not willpower, etc.) Therefore we (people, AIs, animals, all “agents”, everyone and everything) will always need to negotiate to get what we want. Some things the robots or AIs will do, and some things they won’t want to do.

Maybe a better question is: As the quantity of labor that humans must do falls, where is the new equilibrium? Will the decreasing (vastly decreasing, if I’m right) amount of labor that humans must do be valued sufficiently highly so that people can still obtain sufficient resources to pursue meaningful lives?

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Rambling

I’ve too-recently discovered the value of perambulation. Although, I can walk great distances when I’m going somewhere specific, I find a simple stroll is so much better for my mental flossing.

I once walked the distance covered by the Hobbits, from the Shire to Mt. Doom in Mordor. It was an engaging challenge (and the Hobbits did it much more quickly that I managed—which gave me new found respect for those little people) but it eventually became just a thing I was ticking off. Each time I walked one of a very small few routes that I’d measured, I simply added to the tally. Somehow, having a destination made the walks (those whereupon it occurred to me that I was getting closer to Mordor) not feel like perambulation.

That “life affirming” element lives in the rigor of the act. The days are rigorous if nothing else.

~ Craig Mod from, https://craigmod.com/ridgeline/150/

Maybe my problem is simply my work ethic. I have a crushing work ethic and it’s taken me a great deal of effort to let go of feeling guilty when I’m not working. If I’m on a journey—a walk or a project—if there’s a destination, then my work ethic rears its ugly head and tries to suck the perambulation out of it.

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Apparently worthless

Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.

~ Thomas Merton

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If this isn’t fun

If this isn’t fun, what would be? Because at this point, I don’t have any excuses for doing anything which isn’t simply, directly enjoyable. I don’t mean that I’m going to be petulant, and rage-quite taking out the trash and dealing with drains. I mean that upon careful inspection there isn’t anything which can’t be simply, directly enjoyable in the moment.

One rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “Am I having a good time doing this?” If you’re not enjoying yourself when you’re engaged in what seems important to you, if you can’t find spontaneous pleasure and joy in it, then there’s likely something wrong. When that happens, you have to go back to the beginning and start discarding any extraneous parts or unnatural elements.

~ Haruki Murakami from, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/nov/05/i-want-to-open-a-window-in-their-souls-haruki-murakami-on-the-power-of-writing-simply

The other day I spent an entire day stacking firewood. It’s a lot of work; but it’s not really that hard. I’d load the wheelbarrow (which is kneeling, squatting or stooping labor), run it to the stacks, stack stack stack. Repeat. After a few trips, I’d retire to the patio and combine some relaxing with some digital work. The parts where I managed to be aware of what I was doing—the sounds, smells, sights, and visceral sensations of hard work—it was definitely enjoyable. Most likely because I find the results of the effort (a warm fire in cold winter) meaningful. It’s any time the meaning seems to be missing that I find I get into trouble.

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Work ethic

Hedonistic adaptation ensures that I continuously cycle back and forth between, “If this isn’t nice I don’t know what is!” and rage-quitting all my self-assigned should’s. Two things help temper my intemperance: Journalling provides me with some—albeit subjective—perspective, and reading about the reality of people’s actual lives and work ethics relaxes my self-criticism.

A truer answer would have been that he was fiercely private and deeply caring. He often let other people talk, entering a conversation with a single considered sentence. He didn’t smile unless he was really pleased, and his biggest laugh was a small chuckle. His eyes would squeeze shut and his head would tip back and after he chuckled, he would look at you with delight.

~ Alison Fairbrother from, https://lithub.com/lessons-in-writing-and-life-from-my-grandfather-e-l-doctorow/

Without Internet cheating, I can’t name a single one of E. L. Doctorow’s works. But I have this diffuse idea that he is (was?) A Real Writer. Someone who got things written, and maybe had a few ideas worth sharing. Darn it if reading Fairbrother’s piece didn’t tug at the ‘ol heart strings, and I might have gotten something briefly stuck in the corner of one of my eyes.

But I came away with a recalibration: I now have this diffuse idea that he was A Real Writer, got things written, had a few ideas worth sharing, and it was made possible by his family and his work ethic.

(Also, maybe help this autodidact out by hitting reply and telling me one thing of Doctorow’s I must read.)

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Too tired

You tell me flatly that you are too tired to do anything outside your programme at night. In reply to which I tell you flatly that if your ordinary day’s work is thus exhausting, then the balance of your life is wrong and must be adjusted. A man’s powers ought not to be monopolized by his ordinary day’s work.

~ Arnold Bennett

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