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Mangrove Trees, Top Ideas, & Creating for the Right People (Reading/Study Notes 6.1.18)

Resource: Sojourners in Space: Annie Dillard on What Mangrove Trees Teach Us About the Human Search for Meaning in an Unfeeling Universe


“If survival is an art, then mangroves are artists of the beautiful: not only that they exist at all — smooth-barked, glossy-leaved, thickets of lapped mystery — but that they can and do exist as floating islands, as trees upright and loose, alive and homeless on the water.” -Annie Dillard

“She marvels at the improbable existence of these arboreal wonders — how hurricanes rip them from the shore and carry them into the ocean; how they defy the deadliness of salinity by exuding salt from their leaves, which even taste salty when licked; how they make their own soil in open water by trapping debris in their aerial roots, attracting bacteria and pooling fresh rainwater; how the mangrove plants its seeds onto this growing self-generated island, until it becomes a floating forest.”

“The mangrove island wanders on, afloat and adrift. It walks teetering and wanton before the wind. Its fate and direction are random. It may bob across an ocean and catch on another mainland’s shores. It may starve or dry while it is still a sapling. It may topple in a storm, or pitchpole. By the rarest of chances, it may stave into another mangrove island in a crash of clacking roots, and mesh. What it is most likely to do is drift anywhere in the alien ocean, feeding on death and growing, netting a makeshift soil as it goes, shrimp in its toes and terns in its hair.”

“Whether these thoughts are true or not I find less interesting than the possibilities for beauty they may hold. We are down here in time, where beauty grows. Even if things are as bad as they could possibly be, and as meaningless, then matters of truth are themselves indifferent; we may as well please our sensibilities and, with as much spirit as we can muster, go out with a buck and wing.”

“The planet is less like an enclosed spaceship — spaceship earth — than it is like an exposed mangrove island beautiful and loose. We the people started small and have since accumulated a great and solacing muck of soil, of human culture. We are rooted in it; we are bearing it with us across nowhere. The word “nowhere” is our cue: the consort of musicians strikes up, and we in the chorus stir and move and start twirling our hats. A mangrove island turns drift to dance. It creates its own soil as it goes, rocking over the salt sea at random, rocking day and night and round the sun, rocking round the sun and out toward east of Hercules.”


Very fascinated with the mangrove tree. I intend to do a little research on it tomorrow. I’m particularly fascinated with it’s ability to capture debris and manufacture its own soil. I’m also intrigued by its ability to resist being overcome by the salt water of the ocean by exuding the salt through its leaves. Mangrove trees seem to offer an inspiring illustration for taking adversity and transforming it into something life-giving.

If life is truly meaningless, then we might as well get as much out of it as we can. Instead of merely thinking about ideas in terms of their truthfulness, we need to think of them in terms of their beauty and practical benefit.

Resource: The Top Idea in Your Mind


“I realized recently that what one thinks about in the shower in the morning is more important than I’d thought. I knew it was a good time to have ideas. Now I’d go further: now I’d say it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower.”

“Everyone who’s worked on difficult problems is probably familiar with the phenomenon of working hard to figure something out, failing, and then suddenly seeing the answer a bit later while doing something else. There’s a kind of thinking you do without trying to. I’m increasingly convinced this type of thinking is not merely helpful in solving hard problems, but necessary. The tricky part is, you can only control it indirectly. [1]”

“I think most people have one top idea in their mind at any given time. That’s the idea their thoughts will drift toward when they’re allowed to drift freely. And this idea will thus tend to get all the benefit of that type of thinking, while others are starved of it. Which means it’s a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind.”

“You can’t directly control where your thoughts drift. If you’re controlling them, they’re not drifting. But you can control them indirectly, by controlling what situations you let yourself get into. That has been the lesson for me: be careful what you let become critical to you. Try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want to think about.”

“I’ve found there are two types of thoughts especially worth avoiding—thoughts like the Nile Perch in the way they push out more interesting ideas. One I’ve already mentioned: thoughts about money. Getting money is almost by definition an attention sink. The other is disputes. These too are engaging in the wrong way: they have the same velcro-like shape as genuinely interesting ideas, but without the substance. So avoid disputes if you want to get real work done.”

“Turning the other cheek turns out to have selfish advantages. Someone who does you an injury hurts you twice: first by the injury itself, and second by taking up your time afterward thinking about it. If you learn to ignore injuries you can at least avoid the second half. I’ve found I can to some extent avoid thinking about nasty things people have done to me by telling myself: this doesn’t deserve space in my head. I’m always delighted to find I’ve forgotten the details of disputes, because that means I hadn’t been thinking about them. My wife thinks I’m more forgiving than she is, but my motives are purely selfish.”

“I suspect a lot of people aren’t sure what’s the top idea in their mind at any given time. I’m often mistaken about it. I tend to think it’s the idea I’d want to be the top one, rather than the one that is. But it’s easy to figure this out: just take a shower. What topic do your thoughts keep returning to? If it’s not what you want to be thinking about, you may want to change something.”


Shower-time thinking is some of the most important thinking you can do. It’s not merely a supplement to having clear and creative ideas, but it’s a necessary condition for it.

There’s a difference between the top idea in your mind and what’s most important to you. The former is about what’s commanding and demanding most of your attention. The latter is about what your consciously held preferences are.

If you want to know what’s the top idea in your mind, then pay attention to what you think about in the shower.

You can’t control what’s the top idea in your mind directly, but you can control it indirectly. You control it indirectly by mostly putting yourself into situations where the things you care about are the most urgent.

The two things that tend to eat up the most mental energy are disputes and an obsession with money.

Resource: Writing for people who don’t read


“I know you’d like to reach more people, and most people don’t read. But if you’re going to write, the only choice you have is to reach people who will choose to engage with you. Do it properly, and there’s a chance that those voluntarily literate people will tell their friends and colleagues.”

“And of course, the same thing goes for trying to teach people who don’t learn, tell jokes to people who don’t laugh, and campaign to people who don’t vote. It almost always works better if you engage with people who are enrolled in the journey and then motivate them to engage with their peers.”


If you’re going to create something, create it for the people who enjoy the types of things you create. Don’t stifle your creativity in order to avoid troubling people who aren’t into what you’re trying to sell.

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