What I’m Learning: Day 11/365

To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I completed yesterday, click here.

Activity IV: Read for one hour

Free to Learn by Peter Gray (pages 93-110)

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

How to Build a Universe: Philip K. Dick on Reality, Media Manipulation, and Human Heroism

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Popova begins this article by sharing some of Philip K. Dick’s thoughts on the nature of reality:

It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question “What is reality?”, to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” That’s all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven’t been able to define reality any more lucidly.

But the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups. . . . So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later.

Philip K. Dick’s statement about media-generated pseudo-realities is of particular interest to me as the topic I am most preoccupied with is the development of human potential. One of the main sources of distraction, and I define a distraction as something that seduces you away from being productively focused on your own priorities and principles, is the constant barrage of advertisements and news stories tempting us to look at the latest movie, the latest bit of celebrity gossip, the latest political rant, the latest killing, etc., as an all-important reality that demands our immediate focus. And yet, in stark contrast to Philip K. Dick’s definition of reality quoted above, most of these sensational headlines are versions of someone else’s reality that won’t even be relevant to most of the things we truly care about in ten days, ten weeks, ten months, or ten years. Part of our great challenge in life is to focus more on the realities we wish to create for ourselves than on the realities others may wish for us to mindlessly consume. This is precisely what Terence McKenna advocates, even if in a mildly overstated manner, in Stop Consuming Culture, Start Creating Your Own Culture:

We have to create culture, don’t watch TV, don’t read magazines, don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you’re worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you’re giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told ‘no’, we’re unimportant, we’re peripheral. ‘Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.’ And then you’re a player, you don’t want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.

We identify ourselves primarily as consumers rather than creators, we risk becoming what Philip K Dick calls “Fake Humans:”

But I consider that the matter of defining what is real — that is a serious topic, even a vital topic. And in there somewhere is the other topic, the definition of the authentic human. Because the bombardment of pseudo-realities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly, spurious humans — as fake as the data pressing at them from all sides. My two topics are really one topic; they unite at this point. Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland.

Philip K. Dick also expresses his conviction that manipulating words is the source of people’s power to manipulate realities:

The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.

If manipulating words is the key to manipulating society, perhaps an intelligent, deliberate, unconventional, and playful use of language can be a tool for achieving creative freedom. Lexicographer, Erin McKean, seems to think so and in “Go ahead, make up new words!” she advocates taking these very kinds of liberties and creative licenses with language:

People are always telling you, ‘be creative. Make new music. Do art. Invent things: science and technology. And then when it comes to words, they’re like “no, no. Creativity stops right here, whippersnapper.

Popova ends this excellent article with a powerful quote from Philip K. Dick expressing his concept of what it means to be a hero:

The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do, and, in addition, he will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance. Their deeds may be small, and almost always unnoticed, unmarked by history. Their names are not remembered, nor did these authentic humans expect their names to be remembered. I see their authenticity in an odd way: not in their willingness to perform great heroic deeds but in their quiet refusals. In essence, they cannot be compelled to be what they are not.

I believe this is the very kind of person Terence McKenna had in mind. While consumption is a part of life, our greatest potential is realized when we say “no,” to the roles that are advertised to us, or defined for us, or pushed on us, and “yes” to the realities of our own creating.

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalks podcast

Russ Roberts and Mike Munger on How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

Doreen Massey on Space

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Massey’s understanding of space is fascinating. She argues that our commonsense view of space as a mere backdrop to “real” experience is not inconsequential. By thinking of space as just an empty container housing people, places, and things, we close our imagination to the consideration of certain possibilities that may hold the key to resolve political and personal conflicts. Her emphasis on the importance of adopting spacial metaphors when describing human experience is remeniscent of George Lakeoff’s contention in Metaphors We Live By that the metaphors we use to talk about our experiences actually have the power to shape, structure, and thereby limit or liberate our experiences.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts from the interview:

Massey on why space is a topic not only to be studied by physicists and architects, but to also be explored by geographers:

I think the immediate way to respond is that if history is about time, geography is about space. What I do in geography is not space meaning ‘outer space’, or space meaning ‘atomic space’, or any of that; it is space as that dimension of the world in which we live. Whereas historians concentrate on the temporal dimension, how things change over time; what geographers concentrate on is the way in which things are arranged- we would often say ‘geographically’, – I’m here saying ‘over space.’

On her rejection of the commonsense view of space as a mere background phenomenon:

I got really annoyed with the rest of the social sciences, and indeed with philosophers, paying so much attention to time. And space became a kind of residual dimension: it’s always ‘time and space’. So time is the dimension of change, and of dynamism, and of the life we live, and all the rest of it; and space became the dimension that wasn’t all of that. And a lot of us, I think, implicitly think of space as a kind of flat surface out there -we ‘cross space’ – and space is therefore devoid of temporality: it is without time, it is without dynamism, it is a kind of flat, inert given. Foucault wrote in the later part of his life that, yes, he thought we’d often been thinking of space like that and that was wrong, and I agree with Foucault in that later moment.

On her view that space is “alive” and her mission to bring an awareness of space to the forefront of everyday human awareness:

A lot of what I’ve been trying to do over the all too many years when I’ve been writing about space is to bring space alive, to dynamize it and to make it relevant, to emphasize how important space is in the lives in which we live, and in the organization of the societies in which we live. Most obviously I would say that space is not a flat surface across which we walk; Raymond Williams talked about this: you’re taking a train across the landscape – you’re not traveling across a dead flat surface that is space: you’re cutting across a myriad of stories going on. So instead of space being this flat surface it’s like a pincushion of a million stories: if you stop at any point in that walk there will be a house with a story. Raymond Williams spoke about looking out of a train window and there was this woman clearing the grate, and he speeds on and forever in his mind she’s stuck in that moment. But actually, of course, that woman is in the middle of doing something, it’s a story. Maybe she’s going away tomorrow to see her sister, but really before she goes she really must clean that grate out because she’s been meaning to do it for ages. So I want to see space as a cut through the myriad stories in which we are all living at any one moment. Space and time become intimately connected.

On the relationship between space, human diversity, and politics:

If time is the dimension in which things happen one after the other, it’s the dimension of succession, then space is the dimension of things being, existing at the same time: of simultaneity. It’s the dimension of multiplicity. We’re sitting here, and it’s somewhere around midday in London. Well, at this moment it is already night in the Far East, my friends in Latin America are probably just stirring and thinking about getting up, and space is that cut across all of those dimensions. Now what that means is that space is the dimension that presents us with the existence of the other; space is the dimension of multiplicity. It presents me with the existence of those friends in Latin America and that means it is space that presents us with the question of the social. And it presents us with the most fundamental of political of questions which is how are we going to live together.

On how our lack of spacial metaphors limits the political imagination:

For instance, we are often using a terminology of we are ‘developed’ countries, the countries behind us as it were, are ‘developing’ and then you’ve got ‘underdeveloped’ countries. Now what that does is to convert contemporaneous difference between those countries into a single linear history. It’s saying that that country over there – lets say it’s Argentina a developing country, isn’t a country at the same moment which is different, but it’s a country which is following our historical path to become a ‘developed’ country like us. So in a sense we are denying the simultaneity, the multiplicity of space that I want to insist on, and turning all those differences into a single historical trajectory.

Now that has a lot of political effects, I mean the most important one is that it says that there is only one future and that’s being a ‘developed’ country and so Argentina must follow the way we are going. Well, as it happens Argentina right now does not want to follow the way we are going, there is a lot of alternatives in Latin America that is saying ‘we don’t want to be ‘developed’ like you are developing. We want a different model which is more egalitarian, more communitarian, and so forth’. But that way of turning space into time, turning geography into history is a way of denying the possibility of doing something different. If we take space seriously as the dimension of multiplicity then it opens up politics to the possibility of alternatives.

…If we took space seriously as a dimension that we create through our relations which are all full of power and as a dimension which presents us with the multiplicity of the world and refuse to align them all into one story of developments, then we really re-imagine the world in a different way, it presents us with different political questions, I think it opens up our minds.

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

Economics in One Lesson: Part 10 | George Reisman

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Activity XI: One TED Talk

Dan Gilbert: The psychology of your future self

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

In this brief TED talk (coming in just under 7 minutes), Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who delivered one of my favorite TED talks in The surprising science of happiness, explores the issues surrounding how much we change over time and how our failures to anticipate these changes affects, sometimes quite negatively, the decisions we make in the present. Beginning with a brief formulation of the observations that inspired his research, Gilbert shares the following:

At every stage of our lives we make decisions that will profoundly influence the lives of the people we’re going to become, and then when we become those people, we’re not always thrilled with the decisions we made. So young people pay good money to get tattoos removed that teenagers paid good money to get. Middle-aged people rushed to divorce people who young adults rushed to marry. Older adults work hard to lose what middle-aged adults worked hard to gain. On and on and on. The question is, as a psychologist, that fascinates me is, why do we make decisions that our future selves so often regret?

Gilbert then proceeds to identify and unmask what he takes to be a powerful and popular illusion regarding how we assess our personal histories and predict our futures:

Now, I think one of the reasons — I’ll try to convince you today — is that we have a fundamental misconception about the power of time. Every one of you knows that the rate of change slows over the human lifespan, that your children seem to change by the minute but your parents seem to change by the year. But what is the name of this magical point in life where change suddenly goes from a gallop to a crawl? Is it teenage years? Is it middle age? Is it old age? The answer, it turns out, for most people, is now, wherever now happens to be. What I want to convince you today is that all of us are walking around with an illusion, an illusion that history, our personal history, has just come to an end, that we have just recently become the people that we were always meant to be and will be for the rest of our lives.

Gilbert shares some revealing research about what he calls “the end of history illusion,” our tendency to underestimate how much we’re going to change in the future:

Well, we asked thousands of people. We asked half of them to predict for us how much their values would change in the next 10 years, and the others to tell us how much their values had changed in the last 10 years. And this enabled us to do a really interesting kind of analysis, because it allowed us to compare the predictions of people, say, 18 years old, to the reports of people who were 28, and to do that kind of analysis throughout the lifespan.

Here’s what we found. First of all, you are right, change does slow down as we age, but second, you’re wrong, because it doesn’t slow nearly as much as we think. At every age, from 18 to 68 in our data set, people vastly underestimated how much change they would experience over the next 10 years. We call this the “end of history” illusion. To give you an idea of the magnitude of this effect, you can connect these two lines, and what you see here is that 18-year-olds anticipate changing only as much as 50-year-olds actually do.

Gilbert goes on to show that this research isn’t just limited to a few minor aspects of change:

And it isn’t just ephemeral things like values and personality. You can ask people about their likes and dislikes, their basic preferences. For example, name your best friend, your favorite kind of vacation, what’s your favorite hobby, what’s your favorite kind of music. People can name these things. We ask half of them to tell us, “Do you think that that will change over the next 10 years?” and half of them to tell us, “Did that change over the last 10 years?” And what we find, well, you’ve seen it twice now, and here it is again: people predict that the friend they have now is the friend they’ll have in 10 years, the vacation they most enjoy now is the one they’ll enjoy in 10 years, and yet, people who are 10 years older all say, “Eh, you know, that’s really changed.”

Gilbert identifies the distinction between imagining and remembering as a key to understanding why we make these mistakes in judgement:

Why does this happen? We’re not entirely sure, but it probably has to do with the ease of remembering versus the difficulty of imagining. Most of us can remember who we were 10 years ago, but we find it hard to imagine who we’re going to be, and then we mistakenly think that because it’s hard to imagine, it’s not likely to happen. Sorry, when people say “I can’t imagine that,” they’re usually talking about their own lack of imagination, and not about the unlikelihood of the event that they’re describing.

Gilbert concludes with what I take to be an inspiring conclusion:

The bottom line is, time is a powerful force. It transforms our preferences. It reshapes our values. It alters our personalities. We seem to appreciate this fact, but only in retrospect. Only when we look backwards do we realize how much change happens in a decade. It’s as if, for most of us, the present is a magic time. It’s a watershed on the timeline. It’s the moment at which we finally become ourselves. Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our life is change.

One of the reasons I conduct experiments in personal development is because I strongly believe in our capacity to reinvent ourselves. I like to think of each person, to borrow a term from Jean Houston, as a “possible human” capable of actualizing ever-increasing portions of their humanity through challenging tasks and creative projects. When we underestimate the degree to which we’re capable of changing, when we see our current version of self as the definition or ultimate reality of who we are, this attitude manifests as a lifestyle primarily oriented around coping with what we dislike and maintaining what we have. That is, a lack of imagination concerning our capacity for self-reinvention can result in mindset of scarcity that downplays our true potential for personal mastery. By becoming aware of not only our potential for change, but also of our natural propensity for it, we can turn the process of changing into an artform that can be practiced consciously and creatively.

Activity XII: Read one Post from the Study Hacks Blog

The Straight-A Gospels: Pseudo-Work Does Not Equal Work

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

“Jason, a straight-A student from Penn, used the term “pseudo-work” to describe the low-focus, time-intensive marathon style of work. I think this term is apt. Pseudo-work feels like work. It’s hard and time is being spent. But it’s not really accomplishing much.” -Cal Newport

Using the study habits of A-students as an example, Newport discusses the importance of understanding a concept he calls “intensity of focus:”

Here are two facts: (1) I made straight A’s in college. (2) I studied less than most people I know. The same holds true for many of the straight-A students I researched for my book. If this sounds unbelievable, it is probably because you subscribe to the following formula:

work accomplished = time spent studying

The more time you study the more work you accomplish. The more work you accomplish, the better your grades. Ergo, straight A’s imply more work. Right? Then how do you explain me and my interview subjects…

To understand our accomplishment, you must understand the following, more accurate formula:

work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus

That last factor — intensity of focus — is the key to explaining why straight-A students never seem to embark on the same fatigue-saturated all-night study adventures that most undergrads rely on. Let’s take a specific example. Assume that you have a paper to write. The standard approach is to camp out in the library the day before and work until you finish.

Here’s the problem: even with little breaks, there are only so many consecutive hours of work you can manage before your intensity of focus crashes (in practice, this value is probably close to 2-3 hours for most students). Therefore, most of your time spent working features low focus, increasing the time required to accomplish the task at hand.

Using a simple chart to illustrate the difference between spending lots of time studying versus studying when you’re actually able to focus at really high levels, Newport shows how it’s possible to get more results out of less effort:

Let’s say, for example, that your heroic paper writing marathon takes around 10 hours (which matches my experience for a mid-sized paper written in one stretch). The following chart describes your focus over time (rating focus on a scale of 1 – 10):

Intensity of Focus over Time for Marathon Session Approach
hour 1 : 10
hour 2 : 9
hour 3 : 5
hour 4 : 2
hour 5-10 : 1

[For math geeks, this is standard exponential decay.]

If we take the area under this curve, we see that the pseudo-worker has accomplished: 32 units of work.

Now let’s consider another approach. Assume, instead, that you break up the paper writing into two bursts. One burst you do for two hours Saturday afternoon. The other burst you do for two hours on Sunday morning. The long gap in between ensures your focus can recharge. Following the rates of focus decay used above, your chart looks like:

Intensity of Focus over Time for Short Burst Approach
hour 1 (sat) : 10
hour 2 (sat) : 9
hour 3 (sun) : 10
hour 4 (sun) : 9

Clearly, this work schedule is much less painful. Just two hours at a time. And a whole day separating the two sessions. However, when we calculate the area under this curve, we see that the short burst approach accomplished: 38 units of work!

In other words, working fewer hours, in a much less painful configuration, the short-burst accomplished more work than the marathon approach. (19% more to be exact)

Newport ends the post with five excellent tips for eliminating pseudo-work  from our schedules:

1. Take a ten minute break for every hour worked. This helps reduce the rate at which your focus intensity decays.

2. Never work more than three hours (with ten minute breaks) before taking significant time off.

3. Get enough sleep. Eat healthy. Exercise. These factors control your energy. Your energy impacts your focus.

4. Work in the morning and afternoon. Try to accomplish as much as possible before dinner. Your focus degrades quicker at night, and activities during the day will force your work into smaller bursts.

5. Always study in a quiet, distraction-free location. Talking roommates or a TV in the background will lower your focus.

I find Newport’s perspective on this issue to be quite valuable. I have often sacrificed sleep, recreation, and relaxation in the name of “hustle” only to see that my actual results failed to justify such extreme measures. Apart from all the health and relationship problems that can come from working with a “don’t slow down” attitude, it’s actually counter-productive when we try to produce at the expense of sleeping, playing, exercising, etc. There are definitely times when we seem to have no option (parents of a newborn can readily attest to this fact), but it’s easy to overestimate how often we’re in such situations. There are a few ways I try to apply Newport’s advice in my work and studies. For starters, I never let myself work more than two hours straight without stopping to do at least two minutes worth of physical activity. I may choose to do ten pushups, or ten situps, or even just walk around pacing for a few minutes. If I’m having a difficult time staying awake, I opt for a 10-15 minute nap instead of a coffee or redbull. I’ve also started focusing on the most unpleasant/difficult tasks in the day. This last technique is something I borrowed from James Clear. In Do the Painful Things First, he offers the following insight that’s changed my approach to attacking daily routines:

Behavioral scientists have discovered that one of the most effective ways to create an enjoyable experience is to stack the painful parts of the experience early in the process. Psychologically, we prefer experiences that improve over time. That means it’s better for the annoying parts of a purchase to happen early in the experience. Furthermore, we don’t enjoy it when painful experiences are drawn out or repeated.

It’s easy to worry about making the right choices with your life. However, if you choose to pursue things where the pain of the experience is largely in the beginning — like building a business, losing weight, or creating art — then you will tend to look back on those experiences fondly because they improve over time.

Choosing to front-load pain and discomfort isn’t just a choice that applies to daily tasks and errands. It can also be used to nudge you toward the goals you have that you tend to procrastinate on.

Newport’s insights from this short blog posts are reminiscent of the main theme in one of my favorite chapters from a Chuck Norris book called The Secret Power Within. In a chapter titled “Slow Down to Go Faster,” Norris recounts the experience of sharing this valuable lesson with his training partner Bruce Lee:

Bruce: No matter how much I tried I was unable to block your kicks. What am I doing wrong?

Chuck: You tried to speed your blocks up. And your timing was off. Like when I practice sticky hands [a wing chun technique] with you. When you try to faster, you score on me repeatedly. If I am getting faster, it’s because I’ve slowed down, and that’s what I’m suggesting to you. Pace yourself, attend to everything in its own sweet time, and you’ll accomplish more than if you go all out at every opportunity. Slow down and you’ll go faster…Breaking down a martial arts move means doing ti slowly, and I found that by moving slowly, I could sense what was meant to be the inner balance of the move, each step serving its own specific purpose. Having sensed that inner balance and learned to adjust my body to it, and having discovered the importance of including each move, I found I could speed up the moves at will, performing them quickly or slowly with the same accuracy…At first the notion o slowing down so he could go faster seemed contradictory to Bruce. But he did as I suggested and soon found that I was right. He forced himself to relax then explode, and then relax again. His blocks and kicks improved.

These topics of deep work, efficiency, intensity of focus, life/study hacks, and optimal living are of great interests and use to me at this stage of my life. Learning to be highly productive, very healthy, and fully alive are key issues for me. Newport’s contributions to these topics are invaluable and I look forward to experimenting with more of his ideas.