How Do We Know What We Know?

In recent weeks, a friend acquired a book by Rebecca Solnit, an author I admire.  I immediately offered to read it at the same time, in order to discuss it together.  Having read the book several years before, why return to this one when I had so many unread books in piles around the house?

The answer comes in understanding how we know what we know.  That’s been on my mind recently as I’ve thought about topics as wide ranging as cultural norms, untold histories, political divisiveness, and generational perspectives. Just how do we—as humans—shape our personal world view?

Skyscape at Villa Panza

Pondering the big questions

In rereading Solnit’s book, I came to the material at a very different time in my life and that of our country. I had vaguely remembered parts of the book from my first reading, but frankly there were whole sections that seemingly had escaped my notice or understanding the first time through.  But I also realized how much more of the book aligned with my current “model” of how the world works. And I don’t think that’s by accident.

“Reading and experience train your model of the world,” writes Paul Graham. “And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists. Your mind is like a compiled program you’ve lost the source of. It works, but you don’t know why.”  Henry David Thoreau said something similar when he wrote: “Every man…tracks himself through life, in all his hearing and reading and observation and traveling. His observations make a chain.” In Thoreau’s formulation, I “half knew” what I’d read earlier, and was ready to receive it on a second reading and have it connect more deeply with my model of the world.  Graham, the computer programmer and investor, notes,

“…reading and experience are usually ‘compiled’ at the time they happen, using the state of your brain at that time. The same book would get compiled differently at different points in your life. Which means it is very much worth reading important books multiple times. I always used to feel some misgivings about rereading books. I unconsciously lumped reading together with work like carpentry, where having to do something again is a sign you did it wrong the first time. Whereas now the phrase ‘already read’ seems almost ill-formed.”

There’s much to be learned by going back to that which has formed us—consciously or unconsciously—to see how our current base of knowledge and experience reacts with this material today. In fact, it is critical to continued learning.

So take the time to reread the books that captured your imagination as a teenager, or in graduate school, or in mid-life. It is one way we know what we know.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Procrastination

I’ll tell you all about the downsides of procrastination later.  When I get around to it.

Seriously, indecisiveness can be bad.  Indecisiveness can also lead to better choices and better results. To discern which it is, we must understand why we may be waiting to make a decision.

If you find yourself chronically putting off difficult tasks you know you should tackle, then you’ll find this path leads to the loss of time, the loss of respect of co-workers and family, and it can cost you in results. Perhaps when you are in a situation where you don’t enjoy or admire your work, you have to force yourself to push forward. When that happens, Paul Graham suggests, “the results are distinctly inferior.”

However, if you are doing work you enjoy and still worry that you are indecisive, Graham and others see us making better choices with more creative outcomes by waiting for a more deliberate answer.  Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin says, “You call it procrastination,  I call it thinking.”

“There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.

That’s the ‘absent-minded professor,’ who forgets to shave, or eat, or even perhaps look where he’s going while he’s thinking about some interesting question. His mind is absent from the everyday world because it’s hard at work in another.

That’s the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. They’re type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.

What’s ‘small stuff?’ Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary. It’s hard to say at the time what will turn out to be your best work (will it be your magnum opus on Sumerian temple architecture, or the detective thriller you wrote under a pseudonym?), but there’s a whole class of tasks you can safely rule out…”

I sometimes find myself filling up a to-do list and checking off the boxes to convince myself I’m not procrastinating.  (That’s Graham’s type-b procrastination listed above.)  Or I rip through a project and finish it early.  Again, I convince myself I’m not procrastinating.  But as Wharton School professor Adam Grant notes, “Our first ideas, after all, are usually our most conventional.”  He notes in an essay entitled Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate, “My natural need to finish early was a way of shutting down complicating thoughts that sent me whirling in new directions. I was avoiding the pain of divergent thinking — but I was also missing out on its rewards.”

Right or lefgt

Right or left – Let’s think on that for a while…

Truth be told, I have had a first draft of this post in my box for over a month.  In that time, as I read various articles on the topic and thought about what I wanted to say (i.e., procrastinated), one of the clearest thoughts I’ve found came from Richard Hamming, who asks the simple question:  “What is the best thing you could be working on, and why aren’t you?”  If we’re focused on that — even while daydreaming — there’s a better-than-average chance that we’re a “good procrastinator.”

Have a better-than-average week.

More to come…

DJB

What Do You Think About in the Shower

I began a recent conversation with, “I was thinking about this earlier today in the shower.”  You may think that’s too much information to share at work, but I believe that the time we use to think in the shower is critical to our productivity and creativity.  Paul Graham goes further to say “it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower.”

I have certainly wrestled day after day with issues, becoming disheartened over time. It takes different ways of thinking at different times to push through the fog. Hard problems don’t lend themselves to easy analysis.  And yet, one day you’ll find yourself walking, daydreaming, or — in this most recent case — in the shower, and the path becomes clear.

When I am most productive, I find that the issues that are top of mind are the fundamental ones to my job or life. When I’m flailing, my top of mind issues are unimportant or, even worse, distractions. I have found that by being aware that my mind is wandering off into unproductive territory, there are some things I can do to pull it back into focus on the thing that matters.

Graham, founder of the venture capital firm Y Combinator, notes the challenge:

“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.” (emphasis added)

Disputes and slights are one of the primary areas that Graham identifies as dangerous territory for your thoughts.

“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.”

The Wandering Mind

The Wandering Mind by Michael Corballis

Think about your shower this morning and the idea or ideas rummaging around your brain.  Was it the most important focus for you, a key to getting ahead and accomplishing your goals?  Or, are you giving up valuable real estate in your brain to undeserving distractions?  Are you letting others control your life? Are you letting the wrong things become critical to you?

Think about that the next time you step into the shower.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Thoughts for a Birthday

Birthday Mousse

Birthday Mousse

Birthdays are funny things.  You know intellectually that you are only one day older than you were the day before. But the flipping of the year – in my case from 62 to 63 – has effects that have nothing to do with intellect and everything to do with your emotions.

In approaching this year’s birthday, I’ve been focused on the fact that life is short.  I’ve written in the past about the need to savor every moment.  However, when you truly recognize that life is short, you think about how that knowledge will change the way you live.

You begin to think about the things that matter, and the things that get in the way of the things that matter. I can only speak from the perspective of someone still in the workplace, but it is easy to find all-too-many instances from the working world that get in the way of your focus on what matters: useless meetings without agenda or purpose, process designed without thought, colleagues looking to you to do their work. I try and push back against these calls on my time whenever I see them. Technology can also be a time suck, both in and out of work.  David Sax, writing in the Revenge of Analog, quotes a time management expert who says, “You can waste time with all kinds of stuff, but the digital world provides a lot of opportunity to waste a lot of time.”  Getting sucked into the distractions of the never-ending clown show currently taking place at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue strikes me as a waste of time.  Thank God that Robert Mueller seems able to focus on the things that matter.

Paul Graham, in an essay on the topic, calls the stuff that life is too short for bullshit, which he describes as the “junk food of experience.”  Amen.

I have found that the things that matter are often focused on — and around — people.  I’m something of an introvert, so I sometimes have to push myself to reach out to others. Fortunately, I have (almost) never regretted the time I find to focus on others:  family, friends, colleagues, people much younger than me, those in need, the exceptionally talented, the wise elders, the total stranger.  It may not seem substantial, but breakfast with a friend can very much matter.

A breakfast birthday

A birthday breakfast from an earlier year

Being intentional in seeking out the things that matter is a good way to avoid the junk food of experience. That also helps in pushing you to do more of what matters right now.  As the new year began, I started a list of “50 things to do in 2018.”  Some were major, others were simple, but they all mattered to me and I wanted to do them before too much time passed.  Reaching right now for the things that matter is another key to living with the knowledge that life is short.

Graham ends his essay with the following:

“Relentlessly prune bullshit, don’t wait to do things that matter, and savor the time you have. That’s what you do when life is short.”

That sounds about right.  I hope your birthday, whenever it happens this year, gives you a renewed chance to do the things that matter.

More to come…

DJB

Writing, Briefly. Writing Well.

Writer's Block

Writer’s Block (photo credit: Center for Documentary Studies)

I am a frustrated writer.  Not the kind who needs to work on The Great American Novel (or TGAN)*.  If I wanted to write fiction — great or otherwise — there are plenty of models to follow, such as Flannery O’Connor’s habit of three-hours of writing first thing every morning, or advice to be found in places like Annie Dillard’s eloquent The Writing Life  and Cheryl Strayed’s direct and somewhat salty response (be forewarned) to a young aspiring writer.  No, I want to be able to write essays, blog posts, magazine articles, reports, letters, and speeches that pull people in, make them care about the topic at hand, show a bit of my personality, and only say what needs to be said and nothing more.

If you have similar aspirations, you may not want to take advice about writing from a computer programmer, but let me suggest that Paul Graham — a programmer, writer, and investor who helped co-found Y-Combinator, a new type of startup investment firm — should be the exception.

In a tiny essay entitled Writing, Briefly, Graham lays out his thoughts on the importance of writing.

“I think it’s far more important to write well than most people realize. Writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you’re bad at writing and don’t like to do it, you’ll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.”

I agree.  “Let’s see how it writes” is my favorite instruction to our management team after we’ve talked through a topic.  Writing helps you generate and think through ideas.

So after this opening, Graham proceeds, in one very long sentence, to outline how to write well.  Here’s a flavor to whet your appetite:

“As for how to write well, here’s the short version: Write a bad version 1 as fast as you can; rewrite it over and over; cut out everything unnecessary; write in a conversational tone; develop a nose for bad writing, so you can see and fix it in yours; imitate writers you like; if you can’t get started, tell someone what you plan to write about, then write down what you said; expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it, and 50% of those you start with to be wrong; be confident enough to cut;

. . .

print out drafts instead of just looking at them on the screen; use simple, germanic words; learn to distinguish surprises from digressions; learn to recognize the approach of an ending, and when one appears, grab it.”

Do yourself a favor and read the entire Graham essay at the link above. It will take less than two minutes. I suspect you’ll think differently about computer programmers — and writing — once you’re finished.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

* The very wise — and recently departed — science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin has an interesting essay on the topic of The Great American Novel, where she posits that John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is the book that will tell you the most about what is good and what is bad in America, but in the very next essay she writes that “Who cares?” is the correct answer to the question about what is TGAN. (Since this is a digression, I have placed this in an end note at the bottom of my blog post, per Graham’s advice.)

Passions

Passion is one universal key to what moves the world forward, yet our passions are the part of us that doesn’t require approval from others.  In fact, the search for prestige through work often gets in the way of our passion.  As Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham notes, “Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.”  I think of passion as that which takes you out of your daily life, that lets you feel closest to your truest self.  Graham describes it as “what doesn’t seem like work to you?” even if it is your life’s work.

These insights led me to consider what we could learn about each other if we truly understood the passions that let us feel closest to our truest self. Passions may be simple things. I can wander around the desks in our part of the office and make guesses about the passions of my colleagues.  Sports cut across gender, geography, and type (Kansas Jayhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Nationals, the Cornell Big Red).  Some passions I know because of conversations through the years (such as our colleague who collects guitars like most of us would collect baseball caps…and yes, I do have Guitar Acquisition Syndrome envy).  We have one colleague who goes over the top with Christmas decorations, and now has a “~320 days until Christmas” sign hanging by her cubicle. Another colleague paints landscapes in his spare time. We have colleagues who take their vacations to help others in developing nations. From the staff spotlights in our office e-newsletter, I know that I can look around and see colleagues who have passions for choral music, extreme sports, food (cooking and eating), and travel.  Other passions are much more ingrained with our jobs, such as the individual who always liked math, turning that passion into programming and research work “that doesn’t feel like work.”  I have a feeling that one colleague who collects old political buttons does so with the professional eye of a collections manager.

What intrigues me is how passions define us, how we can use those passions to help  inspire our work and what passions teach us about each other. Passions are a way we tell stories about ourselves and to ourselves. We are a country that needs to understand each other in more profound ways.  Telling stories—and listening to stories—of passions is a way to build that understanding.  We can do it as individuals. We can also do that in our jobs.  And we can do that as a nation. A blogger I read on a regular basis has a passion for story-telling, and he makes the point that telling stories of passions, with passion, changed how we understand the history of what might otherwise be considered a “minor” Founding Father in Alexander Hamilton.  That happened even in the face of hundreds of statistics that tell us that we are losing our connection to our past:

Stage of Hamilton

Stage of “Hamilton: An American Musical” which looks like a period-appropriate tavern

“Hamilton has had a particular impact on young people. That’s the staggering part. After 200-plus years, Alexander Hamilton is hip with the kids? How did that happen? How did Lin Manuel-Miranda and the cast of Hamilton spark teenagers’ dormant passion for history?

The answer – and it is a universal answer for anyone trying to inspire passion — is simply this: great storytelling. What Miranda did, through brilliant song-writing talent and classic Broadway theatrics, was make Hamilton’s story relatable and rebellious and fun and tragic, all those things that we so often miss in history….So much of the way history is told makes it feel bland — dates and places and all that — and this a common complaint. But we would argue that what hurts history more is the appearance of inevitability. Nothing hurts a story more than inevitability. You know the colonists won the war. You know that Hamilton helped found our nation. You know that he died in a duel.

So how can you make it feel vibrant? How can you tell these stories so that people can see and feel how unlikely an Alexander Hamilton really was, how close the colonists came to losing the Revolutionary War, how impossibly courageous decisions by deeply flawed men who often hated each other, minute by minute, made the United States of America?

This is the challenge – to help people walk among the weeds at Antietam and feel the desperation of normal people, to see the tombstone in Charles Town of the woman who lost seven sons in the Revolutionary War and carry her pain…These are stories of passion. These are stories that, when told well, can still inspire passion….In many ways, what (Lin-Manuel Miranda) did was not new at all. He pulled Hamilton from the staid pages of elementary school history books and made him flesh and blood, reminding us that the Founding Fathers were not featureless men simply destined to start a new nation. They were reckless, brilliant, flawed, brave, hypocritical, and extraordinary dreamers. History, so often, goes for the head. Lin-Manuel Miranda went for the heart.”

Passions big and small make us who we are. Working with passion and telling our stories with passion can help us bring the past into the present for today’s and future generations.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB