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.

Advertisements

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.

###

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.

###

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.

P7310003

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.