I do believe it's about time for a roundup:
- Focus and effort
are more profitably spent on the present, the concrete and the
execution than the future, the abstract and the idea. This is the big one. I was halfway down the track when nyuanshin pointed me toward Robin Hanson's "A Tale of Two Tradeoffs" which covers similar ground quite intelligently, as is Hanson's way:
Much of my progress in this direction springs from pondering a quote by, of all luminaries, Tom Leykis: "Thinking about doing something is useless." Almost offputtingly simple, yes, but oh so right. (The same might be said about a great many lessons the man puts on offer.) I fear getting engangled in thoughts about hypotheticals, in thoughts about the predicted future, in thoughts about potential disasters — in "head-land" — because of how badly detrimental such a habit is to my reality-based endeavors. Where things, y'know, matter.
The human mind seems to have different "near" and "far" mental systems, apparently implemented in distinct brain regions, for detail versus abstract reasoning. Activating one of these systems on a topic for any reason makes other activations of that system on that topic more likely; all near thinking tends to evoke other near thinking, while all far thinking tends to evoke other far thinking.
These different human mental systems tend to be inconsistent in giving systematically different estimates to the same questions, and these inconsistencies seem too strong and patterned to be all accidental. Our concrete day-to-day decisions rely more on near thinking, while our professed basic values and social opinions, especially regarding fiction, rely more on far thinking. Near thinking better helps us work out complex details of how to actually get things done, while far thinking better presents our identity and values to others.
This position has a few useful consequences. One is that acting as much as possible in the realm of the concrete necessitates working only with very small pieces of it at any one time. Taking micro-steps and performing micro-actions, though, actually makes for an effective "thin end of the wedge" strategy: raise momentum for a task by completing the tiniest possible increment of it. Another is that the way you want to be should manifest itself in your current position in spacetime, no matter where you are or what you happen to be doing. (I banner this, some what flakily, as living life "fractally": each part's representative of the whole, etc., etc.) Yet another comes as something of a consequence of the previous: telling yourself that "things will be fine when x" is dangerously delusional.
- You will die.
And there ain't no two ways about it. The natural response to this
inevitabily — that is, ignoring it — has the unpleasant side effect of
encouraging the listlessness of one who believes his time is infinite,
sitting in front of the telly, as Philip Adams put it, and treating
life as if it goes on forever. But something like motivation results
from making death axiomatic:
once you know that the clock's ticking, priorities come a lot closer to
clicking into place. (Heart attack and cancer sufferers often describe
a similar clarity attending the onset of their conditions, but surely I
won't be blamed for wanting that clarity in advance of a
grievous bodily malfunction.) Given the grains running through the
hourglass and whatnot, it seems that actions should be chosen for their
potential to catalyze, multiply or enhance the experiences you can get,
while you can get 'em.
The icy hands of the reaper also, when acknowledged, drive B.S. like "fallbacks" from your life, which is just too short to squander twisting yourself in knots of braided dishonesty about your own goals, intentions and desires.
- Work and art can generate impressive non-monetary benefits. As Werner Herzog said in Herzog on Herzog, he creates art because it "makes life BETTER." (And, in another section, that it's in real ways superior to that of a rich man.) He specified that "better" be printed all in caps, and I'm starting to see why. Tao Lin wrote,
in characteristically quotation-marked style, that "'making money' is
'inextricably tied' with 'just doing something so that there can be
things to do instead of feeling bad,' 'trying to have more people know
about you so that you can meet new people for various purposes,' 'doing
things to feel excited,' and 'doing really 'retarded' things in order
to relieve boredom.'" adamcadre wrote
that art "changes the equation," enriching the creator's existence in a
variety of delightfully unpredictable ways. (Or, to quote nyuanshin,
"What makes a good life is a flow of excellent experiences, and making
something people appreciate is the most powerful way to generate that,
both for yourself and everyone else.")
I would actually go almost so far as to say that much of this benefit comes in the areas where the money isn't, where a bunch of investors aren't tempering everything with demands for safety. Adam Carolla spoke of his desire to get into radio in order to "connect with people". I'd say that motivation holds for most other forms as well, and the connections look to be a bit richer and more easily made in forms that are lower on the totem pole, financially speaking.
- Ideology doesn't really matter.
99% of the time, whether someone is a "Republican", a "Democrat", a
"liberal", a "conservative", a "libertarian", a "socialist", an
"anarcho-syndicalist" or a "minarchist" signifies nothing.
That is to say, the ideological label someone applies to himself
typically has no bearing on what he actually does in reality. Beliefs
at this level of abstraction are, except in rare cases, best ignored;
practically nobody acts on them in any meaningful way. (And this level
of abstraction includes beliefs about much more than the political.)
- The "rules" don't apply to you.
Per Paul Graham, rules are just crowd control hacks. Live by them, and
you'll remain one in a crowd. This doesn't mean you should go around
breaking the rules at every opportunity, but simply that you should recognize them for what they are — what they are not is a pathway to success — and know when they must be subordinated to achievement of your goals.
- Personal identity hinders development. This comes even straighter from Graham. The more defined your identity becomes, the more restricted you are. Maximize your freedom by defining yourself minimally.
- Everything big starts small and grows almost biologically from its inceptive form.
I've grown enamored with biological metaphors for how things develop.
(See? The word "grown", right there in the first sentence!) It's not
simply that I consider the comparison neato, though it is; the more I
talk to various stuff-doers about how the stuff they do came to be done
and the more I study the twisted routes ideas take toward realization,
the more I find that things grow and are guided rather than are
envisioned and just made. There is, of course, an idea, but
that idea reacts with and is changed by the outside world; the altered
idea then continues to work with and be worked on by what's external to
it in a different new way. The major role of context
is undeniable. This phenomenon is, I'm provisionally convinced, better
accepted and used than vainly (and hopelessly) bludgeoned to fit one's
The notion that everything big started small, er, sprouts from this. Practically speaking, any big-time endeavor you'd want to be doing in the future will, of necessity, begin its life as something small-time. Good reason for doing stuff, even if it seems small, lame and crappy. The only stepping stone to large, cool and non-crappy is, alas, the small, the lame and the crappy. Which brings me to the fact that...
- Suckage is unavoidable, so embrace it, engage in it strategically, and gradually iterate away from it. Suckage is as inevitable as death, so you'd better own it as soon as possible. Unlike death, though, there is actually a way to skirt suckage: never attempt anything. The safe bet, as Ze Frank said,
is to think up your ideas and "not to execute them. You can tell
yourself that you don't have the time or resources to do 'em right.
Then they stay around in your head like brain crack!" Ideas are
exclusively head-land phenomena, and thus not worth a damn without
real-land execution. Real-land execution, by its very nature, is
imperfect, and so ideas will often fall short of the vision when
instantiated. Merlin Mann (about whom much more soon) wrote what I would call the definitive post on this:
At bottom, never underestimate the the ability to get things done, nor the advantage in a project's being there, as opposed to being in someone's imagination.
Nobody likes feeling like a noob, especially when you’re getting constant pressure on all sides to never stick out in an unflattering way. And, in this godforsaken just-add-Wikipedia era of make-believe insight and instant expertise, it’s natural to start believing you must never suck at anything or admit to knowing less than everything — even when you’re just starting out. Clarinets should never squawk, sketch lines should never be visible, and dictionaries are just big, dumb books of words for cheaters and fancy people. Right?
I think finding your own comfort with the process (whatever that process ends up being) might just be the whole game here — being willing to put in your time, learn the craft, and never lose the courageousness to be caught in the middle of making something you care about, even when it might be shit and you might look like an idiot fumbling to make it. What’s the worst thing that could happen?
- Escapism is a drug. Never robust, my taste for escapist narrative has bottomed out in recent years. Updike, to name a creator of some note, knew escapism wasn't where it's at, and the recent wave of astonishing "neo-neorealist" film makes me wonder why I'd want anything else. Interviewing
Ramin Bahrani, a filmmaker often named as standing on the vanguard of
neo-neorealism, I asked him about his avowed distaste for escapism, to
which he responsed, "What, the real world isn't interesting enough?"
(Or wise words to that effect.)
I've come to believe, though, that escapism has a much more pernicious effect than creating distraction from a more interesting reality. Compulsive viewing and reading of escapist narratives doesn't, at least to my mind, seem far from "escaping" one's life with the aid of hard drugs. You're getting high and listening to Pet Sounds once a week out of an otherwise productive life? Fine. You need a veritable pharmacy to get through each day? Less so. Escapism as a momentary shot of pleasure is, in itself, harmless, but make a habit of it and you'll never address the underlying problems that prompted the need to escape in the first place. And, to whip out the growth metaphor again, problems left unattended sprout nasty problem-vines. They're covered in highly pokey thorns. And how to get away from the thorns? More escapism.
- Art is best conceived of as a human-object interaction, rather than as a thing. This is lifted almost wholly from its many mentions in enoweb's 1973-2002 interview archive, through which I've been combing. A work of art alone is a bit one-hand-clappy; what's truly fascinating is how particular humans engage with particular works of art. Certainly it's best when you've got a gallery packed with eccentrics and pieces from a high-reputation artist to observe.
- You can't eliminate; you can only displace. This comes more from nyuanshin's explorations than mine, but it's still incredibly useful. Simply deciding not to act or think in a certain way doesn't seem to work. [Insert, by way of explanation, a reference to the old "don't think of an elephant" saw here.] The lousy habit must be displaced with the good one, or at least the not-quite-so-lousy one. To boil it as far down as possible: you can actively do, but you can't actively not do.
(NOTE: All of the above is subject to change.)