The Situation

Someone did you wrong and put you in an awkward position. This feels uncomfortable, but it is an opportunity in disguise.

  • Confront the problem head-on. Think of all the things you can use this to practice: empathy, acceptance, peristance, courage.
  • Notice I didn’t say confront him head-on. There is a difference.
  • Place your emotions and your preferences firmly on the bedrock of WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL.
  • Go back in that room and act with courage and nerve. Let his actions and words flow over you like waves crashing on rocks on the shore. They can never touch what is inside.
  • You lost some money. Forget the money. Deal with this problem and it will teach you lessons that you would gladly pay to learn. Dollar for dollar, it’s probably paid for itself already. Pretend the money is gone, never to return. Now make the most of the opportunity.
  • Apply amor fati. To not wish it was any other way. Not “this isn’t so bad,” but “YES. This is right. I love that this has happened.”

Does it make sense yet?

  • You acted today with dignity and courage already. Don’t waste your time wondering if this was a big deal or not. It is important to you, and that’s all that matters.
  • Remember that he and you both will be dead soon. None of this will matter. Neither of you will care and neither of you will exist. Whoever can wrap his head around that fact and feel it in his gut more deeply is the winner.
  • Most of all, remember that this conflict is a moment in your life. To deny it and to wish it were any other way is ignorance. To be ignorant to the reality of your own life is to deny your existance.

You already know what principles should guide your life– so go do it. Be the man in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and blood. Get embarrassed, humiliated, sweaty, angry, and flustered. Let him fight you, piss you off, tear you apart.

Because the alternative is to do nothing. Is that what you prefer?

Deprivation

I went into an isolation tank this weekend. It’s a coffin-sized enclosure filled with a few inches of saltwater. You go in and you float on the water for 90 minutes or so.

You are completely in the dark, no sounds except for your own breath and your heartbeat. Total nothingness.

When people talk about information overload, they’re usually talking about digital stimuli. Mass media, social media, email. The isolation tank helps with this.

But there’s a different kind of information overload that you can’t stop by crawling into a tank or wearing a sleep mask.

It’s the kind that happens when you see it when you share an idea with someone before it’s ready. And they give you their opinion, and just like that, your idea has changed. Maybe you lose a little confidence in yourself, or maybe you change your idea without being aware of it. New ideas are fragile. They’re vulnerable to the opinions of others, and they’re easily swayed from their original course. In a sense, the problem is that there’s too much information out there. The new idea gets overwhelmed and crippled or altered to an unrecognizable state. The extra information didn’t help.

The same thing happens when you hear a brilliant piece of advice from a book or a friend. You cling to it because you know it’s important. But soon it gets crowded out. Diluted by the constant flow of social interactions and activities and information that make up daily life.

Emerson wrote about this: “None of us will ever accomplish anything excellent or commanding except when he listens to the whisper which is heard by him alone.”

It’s tragic that we are usually aware of these fragile ideas and important thoughts, but we let them die anyway. We are often keenly aware of our failures to protect them. The whisper that Emerson mentioned is lost like a sine wave in a sea of white noise.

Limit your consumption of literal information, media, messages, but also limit the exposure to anything that makes it harder to hear the whisper. Identify and avoid things that sap your confidence, upset your flow, and make you second guess your intuition.

Information doesn’t just come in the form of a scrolling feed on your phone. Information is an unenthusastic opinion. It’s standoffish body language. It’s reading so many new books that you forget the best parts of the old ones.

There is value in deprivation. In having fewer thoughts and less social exposure so that your thoughts can mature and take root. And once they do, if they last long enough, they become strong and sturdy like an oak tree.

Resources for Doing Business in China

Blogs:

The Elevator Life – A couple young guys who moved straight to China after graduation to start product businesses. Great short videos and a whole community of makers and entrepreneurs.

China Importal – General info on importing, fraud prevention, dealing with factories.

Jacob Yount – An industry pro with valuable insight into the cultural differences that you need to take into account.

Articles:

The meaning of art according to Xi Jinping

Cultural psychology of the West and Asia

My experience so far with Alibaba (Reddit)

Books I’ve Read Recently

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

Unbelievable. The energy with which Roosevelt lived his life is mind-boggling. This book taught me the value of enthusiasm and vigor. It’s a fat of life, I think, that people who attack their problems with the most energy usually win, and TR is living proof of that. This book covers his life before his presidency, and it’s incredible to see his work habits. Always making moves quickly as soon as he got a new position, always expanding his power and finding new responsibilities to take on. Seeing each job as an opportunity to excel. I think it’s easy to look at TR and assume that this attitude was in some way aided by a certain fixity of purpose or a lot of money in the bank, but the surprising truth is that he was deeply uncertain of his path at nearly every stage in this part of his life. He was also in debt, so much that he couldn’t afford to buy champagne when dining with dignitaries. The fact that this didn’t seem to put a damper on his spirits and his dedication to the ‘strenuous life’ is astounding.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler invented the hard-boiled urban private eye in this book. Full of murky crimes, dangerous dames, and lots and lots of rain, this book just oozes atmosphere. The plot is somewhat secondary in fact– it’s almost too convoluted to pay any attention to, but the writing is so good and the character so interesting that you don’t mind. I always knew this was a classic, and now that I’ve read it I can see it’s influence all over the place, in books and movies and music and art. It’s like listening to the Beatles– they sound hokey and trite until you realize that they aren’t following the trend because they invented it.

Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman

This one had a long gestation period. I wasn’t crazy about it until I went back through my notes and realize how artful and profound some of the ideas are. He does an excellent job at seeing connections between disparate pieces of society. For example, the NFL and the GOP, or Nirvana and Waco, TX. Some really fascinating insights here into sports, the meaning of celebrity, media, and culture, and with a lot of humor as well. I definitely want to read more Klosterman.

Dry by Augusten Burroughs

I read this in like 2 sittings. The writing is just so effortless and well-crafted. I was a little disappointed that this was really more of a memoir involving addiction, and not a book purely about addiction. He really doesn’t go very deeply into the nature of addictive behavior, which I think is an incredibly important things for everyone to study. We’re all addicts in one way or another, I think. But it was a great read nonetheless. I’m not the first one to compare Burroughs to Sedaris, and despite being ostensibly a book about addiction and with a plot that involves the death of an AIDS victim, this was a quick and light read.

If you want to know how something works, figure out how to break it.

Here’s an exercise. It’s an idea I stole from Taleb.

Take anything you’re trying to understand– your company, your relationship, the economy, an old stereo. To understand how it works, you need to figure out how to break it.

When taken as a whole, things that work seem almost mystical. How does it work? I have no idea. If I knew, it wouldn’t be cool. But take the opposite approach. Pretend you’re a spy or a saboteur or a revolutionary. How would you make the whole thing fall apart and come crashing down?

This is how you practice precision in thinking. When you can break something, you know what part to destroy. And you know what part is most important. And then you know how it works from the inside out. From the ground up.

I think what he said was built on something the Stoics practiced. New problems are mysterious, and  understanding something complex involves cutting through that mystery.

“…latching onto thing and piercing through them, so we see what they really are… to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.”

Not Once

I have never once regretted going to the gym.

Sure, it’s hard to get going, but I’ve never once walked out of the locker room and thought, “You know, I shouldn’t have done that. That was a bad idea. What a waste of time.” Never.

So many things are the same way– hard to begin, but never regretted once they’re done. It’s one of life’s little asymmetries. Likewise, so many things are regrettable in hindsight, but they take almost no effort at all to get started. Overindulgence, impulsive behavior, laziness of any type.

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Other things I’ve never regretted, and their flip sides:

I’ve never regretted getting up early, but I’ve regretted sleeping in.

I’ve never regretted staying sober for a night, but I’ve definitely had too much to drink.

I’ve never regretted working hard, but I’ve regretted spending the afternoon watching Mad Men instead of working hard.

I’ve never regretted delaying sex with someone I loved, but I’ve regretted sex with someone new too soon.

I’ve never regretted play, but I’ve regretted time where my mood prevented me from being playful.

I’ve never regretted reading a book, but I’ve regretted taking the easy way out and opting for a movie or a blog instead.

I’ve never regretted writing, but I’ve regretted spending all night bouncing from distraction to distraction. I’ve felt the pain of wasting hours with nothing to show for myself.

I’ve never regretted getting in touch with someone new, but I’ve regretted missed opportunities to form a new relationship.

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Why is it so hard to think ahead? Why can’t we see the end result, but we are instead stuck in a pattern of instant gratification? The answer is right in front of us, but we act like we can’t see what’s right in front of us? Why do we do this, flitting from one impulse to the other, never able to focus on the not-so-distant future?

Seneca said: “Call to ming when you ever had a fixed purpose; how few days have passed as you had planned…You will realize that you are dying prematurely.”

He’s right. Instead of focusing on the distant future, we spend out lives tossed around by these alternating forces of impulse and restraint, action and hesitation, pride and regret.

We are all like children. Or addicts.

Experience: Too Much / Not Enough

If you apply for a job today, it seems like you practically need a masters degree for an entry level position. This is true even for menial work like office administration.

During the draft in WW2 and Vietnam, and even in the military today, it’s possible to take an 18 year old and turn him into a tank operator or a pilot or a marksman within a couple years. At the very least he can be a passable soldier and a comeptant office administrator within a month or so.

It seems unheard of to hire someone with no skills to do a corporate job, yet the military shows that it’s obviously possible to train an inexperienced person to do complex tasks. So why the discrepancy? Why the overemphasis on formal education? I’ve heard it said that it’s a symptom of rampant over-education. A sort of “more college is always better” mode of thinking. The soccer mom-ificaton of society, trying to over prepare everyone for everything.

But the answer is much simpler and less ominous. It ignores that there is probability at play: military recruiting and corporate recruiting are fundamentally different because the military takes thousands of new recruits on at a time, while businesses only hire one person for the job.

The military is making small bets on a thousand horses. If one private can’t make the cut, it’s no big deal. Next, please.

Businesses don’t have that option. They’re betting big, so they want to see some security in the form of excessive degrees and experience. They need to do this to mitigate risk, to cover their asses.

 

Ignorance from the Outside

I remember when I first started working at Greensgrow. It’s funny now to think about it, but I assumed that because it’s an environmentally-focused organization that deals in produce, that everyone on staff would be radical environmentalists, great cooks, and knowledgeable farmers. I was nervous at first because I didn’t have any of those skills at all. So foolish!

As it turns out, you don’t need to be a good farmer to manage a farm. And you don’t need to know the difference between an Ida Red and a Red Delicious to keep inventory in stock and sell apples.

 I made a classic mistake– I was nevous because I lacked skills that I assumed were relevant, but that were actually pretty superficial. What I  had, and what they were really looking for, were less specific but more valuable skills. Leadership, responsibility, insight, humility, competence.

This can be solved by (1) being more confident and direct with my abilities, and (2) recognizing the domain independence of certain skills. If I had gone into that interview talking about how much I know about produce, they would have laughed at me. But they, like all smart people, know that the right knowledge doesn’t necessarily look like the right knowledge to outsiders.

In other words, what looks like knowledge might not be knowledge, and what looks like ignorance isn’t necessarily ignorance.

Signal and Noise, or Why I Don’t Watch the News

This is an oscilloscope. It’s measuring an electrical signal.

Notice how the line is defined by many small jagged variations, but if you zoom out a little, perhaps if you unfocus your eyes a bit, you see a larger trend as well. It spikes up, then down, then back to the middle, before sinking down again. The larger, more interesting, more long-term information is the signal, and all the minute disturbances along the way are the noise.

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Or another way to think of it: suppose you’re in a crowded restaurant, struggling to hear your date over the loud conversations taking place at all the adjacent tables. You have to mentally phase out all the other talking, chewing, slurping, clinking, and laughing– not easy, but possible. Signal and noise.

Nassim Taleb, in his incredible book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, makes a case for avoiding the news, mainstream or otherwise, based on this principle. It’s obvious that not all news is worth watching. So much of what we consume is overhyped and turns out to be inconsequential. We’re looking for the signal, but sometimes all we hear is noise.

Let’s imagine that during the course of a year, pieces of real, imporatant news (signal) and pieces of overhyped news that publications use to fill their pages and get viewers on slow days (noise) come in equal proportions. But what happens if you zoom in, say to every day? You suddenly can’t see the big picture, and you see less of the signal. If you’re checking news daily, you are exposing yourself to a higher proportion of noise-to-signal, maybe 95% to 5%. And if you’re a day trader or a person who refers to the front page of the NYT every few hours “to stay informed,” the proportion might be more like 99.5% noise, 0.05% signal.

The irony, of course, is that you’ll actually feel more informed. But the truth is that so much of the stuff we consume every day is meaningless and prone to exaggeration and speculation unless we can view it in the context of the long term. Watching the news crowds our brains with information that will likely be of no use, all the while giving us a false sense of understanding and “awareness” of the world.

It’s remarkable how the truly important things have a way of finding their way into my brain. I don’t watch the news, but I know all about the failings of the ACA, Justin Bieber’s arrest (OK maybe not so important), the conflict in the Ukraine, and Governer Christie’s bridge closing debacle. Like magic. Instead of following the painstaking fluctuations, I let time and distance filter out most of the noise.

Whether it’s in the news, in restaurant conversations, in physics, in your weight-loss regimen, in inventing, and in business or military strategy, this is a universal law: If you bother less with the day-to-day minutia, the longer-term trends, which are ALWAYS more important, present themselves to you more readily.

So stop watching the news.