Coming Soon

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Launching Thursday, 3 January 2019.

Watch this space.

A Brief Programming Note

I haven’t posted for a while, because I am re-working the backend of this site. I went with conventional wisdom for writers chose a fuss-free writing/publishing solution. The problem is that I like fuss.

I also don’t like the WP editor, Markdown parser, URL structure, and other assorted miscellany. I want to be able to write in any text editor, version control with Git, style, and extend the site at will. I want to own this whole thing. I want to occasionally break things, because I am a no-nothing programming dilettante. It’s fun for me. It’s also how I’ll learn.

Anyway, my day job has been busy, I’ve been traveling, and again, I’m a no-nothing programming dilettante. Thus, delay.

Please bear with me.

Good.

I highly value personal toughness. I don’t, however, expect this from everyone around me. In other words, I don’t go around hurting other people’s feeling, saying, “Hey, I’m sorry you’re offended; I’m just a straight-shooter.” No, I try to balance toughness with kindness, and I don’t pretend to be a valid arbiter of other people’s reactions.

I think one, highly-politicized example of this is trigger warnings on campus. I am largely in the Jonathan Haidt camp, in the sense that I don’t think we are helping our young people by implying avoidance is a good way to avoid pain. I think that’s akin to teaching them, “You’re too weak to handle this; you’re too weak for the hard stuff.”

However.

If I were a professor in one of these classrooms, I would absolutely issue trigger warnings, because it is important to take care of people. Ideally, I would also sit down with the otherwise-triggered students for a one-on-one discussion after class, but I shouldn’t try to force healing or toughness on someone who’s hurting, even, or especially if I can’t understand why they are.

My toughness is also not some sort of misguided, toxic masculinity. I have all the feelings. Shoot, I cried at the end of Avengers: Endgame in a crowded movie theater, so I am definitely not calling for callousness. I simply seek toughness when the chips are down. When kindness is not offered. When toughness is required.

Another common way thinking about toughness is as stoicism. When I first heard about the philosophy of Stoicism, I was a sophomore at the Naval Academy, and we learned about it by examining the life of Admiral James Stockdale and his heroism while serving as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. 1 Admiral Stockdale had been very affected by the writings of Epictetus in his middle years–pre-Vietnam–as a graduate student at Stanford, and it would later sustain him during seven grueling years in the “Hanoi Hilton”.

In his own words:

On September 9, 1965, I flew at 500 knots right into a flak trap, at tree-top level, in a little A-4 airplane–the cockpit walls not even three feet apart–which I couldn’t steer after it was on fire, its control system shot out. After ejection I had about thirty seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed in the main street of a little village right ahead. And so help me, I whispered to myself: “Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.”

“Ready at hand” from The Enchiridion as I ejected from that airplane was the understanding that a Stoic always kept separate files in his mind for (A) those things that are “up to him” and (B) those things that are “not up to him.” Another way of saying it is (A) those things that are “within his power” and (B) those things that are “beyond his power.” Still another way of saying it is (A) those things that are within the grasp of “his Will, his Free Will” and (B) those things that are beyond it. All in category B are “external,” beyond my control, ultimately dooming me to fear and anxiety if I covet them. All in category A are up to me, within my power, within my will, and properly subjects for my total concern and involvement. They include my opinions, my aims, my aversions, my own grief, my own joy, my judgments, my attitude about what is going on, my own good, and my own evil.²

Toughness for me is exerting rigid control over everything in "category A" when everything in "category B" is hard. I think the ultimate measure of a philosophy’s utility is how well it stands up at the limits of human experience. Stoicism has passed that test countless times throughout the ages.³

Another warrior I have immense respect for is Jocko Willink. He is impossibly intense, but also funny. Undeniably tough, but also intellectual. I’ve learned a lot from him in the few years since he emerged into public life.

Perhaps most important of these lessons is his version of what I call optimistic stoicism:

How do I deal with setback, Failures, delays, defeats, or other disasters? I actually have a fairly simple way of dealing with these situations, summed up in one word: "Good." This is something that one of my direct subordinates, one of the guys who worked for me, a guy who became one of my best friends, pointed out. He would pull me aside with some major problem or some issue that was going on, and he’d say "Boss, we’ve got this thing, this situation, and it’s going terribly wrong." I would look at him and I’d say: "Good." And finally, one day, he was telling me about something that was going off the rails, and as soon as he finished explaining it to me he said, "I already know what you’re going to say."

And I asked, "What am I going to say?"

And he said, "You’re going to say: ‘Good.’" He continued, "That’s what you always say. When something is wrong or going bad, you just look at me and say, ‘Good.’"

And I said, "Well. I mean it. Because that is how I operate." So I explained to him that when things are going bad there’s going to be some good that will come from it.

  • Oh mission got canceled? Good. We can focus on another one.
  • Didn’t get the new high-speed gear we wanted? Good. We can keep it simple.
  • Didn’t get promoted? Good. More time to get better.
  • Didn’t get funded? Good. We own more of the company.
  • Didn’t get the job you wanted? Good. Go out, gain more experience, and build a better resume.
  • Got injured? Good. Needed a break from training.
  • Got tapped out? Good. It’s better to tap out in training than to tap out on the street.
  • Got beat? Good. We learned.
  • Unexpected problems? Good. We have the opportunity to figure out a solution.

Beyond the Stoic ideal of an imperturbable rock, Jocko points out that bad news is just an opportunity to get better.

I love this reminder to ignore what’s out of my control and to instead focus on what I do control. I especially like it as a one-word reminder. In my day-to-day life, I put that one word in between action and reaction:

Good.


  1. Depending on your age and pop culture IQ, you may associate Admiral Stockdale with the jokes about him after the vice-presidential debates in 1992, when he was Ross Perot’s running mate. Please spend some time learning about the actual man. Dennis Miller gave perhaps the best counterpoint in his own comedy special in 1994: “Now I know [Stockdale’s name has] become a buzzword in this culture for doddering old man, but let’s look at the record, folks. The guy was the first guy in and the last guy out of Vietnam, a war that many Americans, including your new President, did not want to dirty their hands with. The reason he had to turn his hearing aid on at that debate is because those fucking animals knocked his eardrums out when he wouldn’t spill his guts. He teaches philosophy at Stanford University, he’s a brilliant, sensitive, courageous man. And yet…he committed the one unpardonable sin in our culture: he was bad on television.”↩︎
  2. Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior], Hoover Institution, Stanford, 1993, p 7.↩︎
  3. If you’d like more inexpert opinions on Stoicism, Erik and I discussed the topic at length on our old podcast, Seasons.↩︎
  4. Jocko Willink, Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual, 2017, pp 58-59.↩︎

Better

I am not a "goals" person. That’s nebulous, so let me explain. My brother-in-law loves to ask people, what’s your 5-year goal? Your 10-year goal? I don’t work that way. I’ve explained before how I define success, and as I implied then, this is not "vision board" kind of stuff.

In his book The Practicing Mind, Thomas Sterner discussed how goals often cause adult learners to self-sabotage.

If you have never considered it, think about how everything we learn and master in life, from walking and tying our shoes to saving money and raising a child, is accomplished through a form of practice, something we repeat over and over again. For the most part, we are not aware of the process as such, but that is how good practice manifests itself when done properly. It carries no stress-laden anticipation, no internal question, “When will the goal be reached?”

We have a very unhealthy habit of making the product—our intended result—the goal, instead of the process of reaching that goal. This is evident in many activities in our everyday lives. We become fixated on our intended goal and completely miss out on the joy present in the process of achieving it. We erroneously think that there is a magical point that we will reach and then we will be happy. We look at the process of getting there as almost a necessary nuisance we have to go through in order to get to our goal.1

When we only consider some future end-state a success, each effort short of that end feels like a failure. At some point after childhood, we lose the joy of discovery inherent in erring. Children are not troubled by falling while having fun; they pop right up again. When an adult falls, we check for witnesses before we check for injury.

And now we’re back to my goals.

I want to be content, within the bounds of what I think is right. My personal ethic, were I to boil it down to something pithy, is be kind and be tough. This means I try to care intensely and elaborately for everyone in my orbit, but you don’t need to worry about me. I’m good.

I further refine it–at the risk of losing pith–with seek micro over macro. This circumscribes my aforementioned orbit to my family, friends, and the people I come across day-to-day. This is based on my mistrust of any systems that purport to be universal. Said another way, I know I can treat my waitress well, but I know I can’t help all the waitstaff in the world.

I think small.

This valuing the micro over the macro makes my "goal" singular. Namely, I want to always get better. It is perfectly okay for me to get just a little bit better. It’s preferred, even.

This a continual process that places a big emphasis on the present moment. Sterner continues:

In order to focus on the present, we must give up, at least temporarily, our attachment to our desired goal. If we don’t give up our attachment to the goal, we cannot be in the present because we are thinking about something that hasn’t occurred yet: the goal. This is the goal shift I spoke of earlier. When you shift your goal from the product you are trying to achieve to the process of achieving it, a wonderful phenomenon occurs: all pressure drops away…

This awareness of being where you are and in the present gives you the constant positive reinforcement of reaching your goal over and over again. However, when your mind is only on the finished product, not only do you feel frustrated in every second that you have not met that goal, but you experience anxiety in every “mistake” you make while practicing. You view each mistake as a barrier, something delaying you from realizing your goal and experiencing the joy that reaching that goal is going to give you.

When, instead, your goal is to focus on the process and stay in the present, then there are no mistakes and no judging. You are just learning and doing. You are executing the activity, observing the outcome, and adjusting yourself and your practice energy to produce the desired result. There are no bad emotions, because you are not judging anything.2

I don’t worry about making sure every new opportunity will help me achieve a discrete goal. I instead approach each new endeavor as an opportunity to grow.

Maybe I can make some money. Maybe I can gain a new skill. Maybe I can brighten the day of a DMV clerk by simply treating her as a human being instead of as an impediment to my Getting Things Done mojo.

I apply a better check at all decision points.

Better is good enough.


  1. Sterner, Thomas M. The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life: Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012.↩︎
  2. Sterner.↩︎

Incantations

In the next several posts, I am going to spend some time highlighting my favorite decision tools and ways of thinking. These are all concepts I consciously call to mind with a certain word or phrase, and I’ve taken to calling the lot of them incantations.

I use incantations to shift my thinking all at once, and that is why use the same word or phrase every time. This forces a pattern interrupt in my monkey mind, which helps me carefully filter incoming information, break a cycle of destructive thoughts, or consider circumstances from a different perspective.

My list of incantations is not yet complete, nor will it ever be. I hope to keep growing and improving them as long as I live, and I expect I’ll also need to prune this list sometime in the future. That’s all part of the fun.


P.S. Many readers may be thinking of mental models by now, and that is the more normal way of talking about metacognition. No one is here for normal.

P.P.S. Long time readers will recognize some of these from my past work. The good stuff sticks.

Chunking

One of the most useful shifts I’ve made in my own thinking is the conscious use of chunkingIn my own words, chunking is a way utilizing a stand-in word or phrase to bring an entire, complicated concept to mind.

I picture this being like when Neo in the matrix “learned” new skills.

 

This chunking enables me to build a fuller understanding of new concepts in the same way that an expansive vocabulary can enable a fuller verbal explanation.

As I have considered what and how I want to learn and study, I’ve wanted to figure out how to capture notes and preserve what I learn. I realized today I don’t really care about the “how”–Evernote, DEVONthink, etc.–of this process, and knowing myself, if I go down the tools rabbit hole, I won’t actually get anything done. HTML is going to be my storage method. I’ll also post this external brain online here, because I know I’ll do better work if someone might be reading along with me.

This brings me back to chunking. I am in the habit of processing new information gleaned from books or podcasts based on the vocabulary I have developed over the past few years. I’ve found this to be a valuable way to evaluate new ideas and figure out where to hang the good stuff on my own mental framework.

As I now rededicate myself to more deliberately learning, I first want strengthen my vocabulary. To that end, I am going work through my favorite terms here for a while, so that’s what you can expect to read next.


P.S. – I’ll have to add in some css to make gifs stop animating, if I keep using gifs. Kinda distracting.

 

Shamelessly Motivating

I accidentally found myself motivated today by my past writing.

Although it surely could be a shameless plug for the old project, spending some time in the archives helped me remember why I spent all that time writing. It was hard work, but I now remember I can do good work. Starting again doesn’t feel as daunting having been reminded I’ve done it before.

The motivation must be kicking in a little already, because I started and rejected two drafts earlier today. I was planning to just try again tomorrow, and yet here I am ready to hit publish for the second day in a row.

Progress.

 

More Problems

The biggest problem with setting out on a journey begun with a grand purpose is knowing what to do when you don’t feel grand. When you’re not sure where to look for grand. When you don’t even feel good.

This is where I have been living since my last post. Lots of up and downs–mostly ups–but I haven’t been able to find a coherent thread between my ideas. Nor have I had the right combination of time and brainpower required to build a bridge between my roaming thoughts.

So I haven’t written at all. This isn’t what I want, but it’s also not something I could fix.

So, I’m going to pivot again.

I am going to record the mess, before I figure it out. This means I may someday actually figure it out. My overarching mission statement remains true. This will hard. The “it” is just now going to be “where do I go from here?” I completed my Navy career, and I need a new mission. I have a job, but it’s not my mission.

I’ve always liked Bill Gate’s quote, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I can wait a while to evaluate where I’ve been.

You’re welcome to follow along.