Personal Development

You Can’t Skip Rookie Year

You know what sucks?! Being new at things. Having to flail and try hard and still have little or nothing to show for it. But that’s basically what it’s like to be new at things. Rookies are a specially-named-class in the world of sports and beyond because while they may have done similar things before they’ve never done the real thing. They’re new. They’re unpracticed.

But no matter how much wishing and hoping you do — and I’ve done plenty — it turns out you can’t skip rookie year. Not in your love life, not in your work life, not in your academic life, not anywhere. And you can’t skip being a rookie even if you only do that thing for a little while. You’ll still have that new awkward hard painful phase.

That’s how things go. You don’t get to be an experienced expert at anything without having done it a first time. And then a second and a third. Once you’ve done it a few dozen times you’ll feel like you’re maybe getting the hang of it. At a few hundred you may start to have a comfort and familiarity with it. Keep going, and eventually you’ll forget entirely about all that pain and heartache you had as a rookie. You may even be one of those people with no sympathy for a rookie.

But no matter what it is or why you’re doing it, you’ll never be able to skip rookie year. To be good at anything you’ll have to bear with the painful, awkward, hard, scary parts. That’s how the world really is. No one who’s skilled and experienced at anything has managed to bypass it, and no one ever will.


Flow Traps Revisited

On a recent Friday night, I installed a video game on my computer: Civilization 5. I don’t play “hardcore” (that is: long, complex, time-consuming) video games much anymore. Really, barely ever. The last time I did before this was probably nearly three years ago. But there was a time when I played them regularly and really enjoyed them.

In any case. I started a game at 6pm. I then played. And played and played for 12 hours. At 6am I finally went to sleep for the night, such as it was. I’ll spare you the digression into how out of character not going to sleep until 6am was. The point is just that this is quite different than something I normally do, and not something I was glad to have done. But I now see I was caught in a perfectly tuned flow trap.

What’s a flow trap? Well I first wrote about it some years ago, but on rereading the piece does too much bloviating and too little explaining. A flow trap is basically a cycle that locks you into the state of “flow” and then keeps you locked in despite the fact that it’s not a particularly useful place to be or thing to be doing. It’s a trap in the sense that the satisfaction of the feeling of “flow” stops you from breaking out and doing other better things. (For me, that list included but wasn’t limited to: folding the laundry, doing the dishes, reading a book, going to sleep.)

The state of flow was first described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Essentially, he uses the term to describe that “peak” experience you’ve probably had sometimes and may have a lot. It’s this mid-point between a task you’re challenged by and one you can easily accomplish that’s optimal for your continued good performance and willingness to keep performing. If the challenge before you is too familiar, accomplishable, and easy — doing the dishes — it’s likely to bore you rather than fulfill you. If it’s so hard that you struggle to perceive that you’re making any progress or having any effect — running a marathon, for most — you’ll never begin or quit too soon.

There’s a lot of good in flow. If you manage to find a way that your flow states correspond directly with things that our world rewards — good athletic performance is the common example, some people flow when conversing with acquaintances and so excel at sales, I sometimes flow while getting paid to write software — the experience is a clear win-win. You’re having so much fun you lose track of time, your employer is happy that you’re performing well.

The importance of the concept of “flow traps” is the fact that flowing effortless experiences are not so clearly a match with many things which are ipso facto valuable and good. I’ve encountered more than a few people who conflate “flow” with peak performance, and it can correspond, as we just outlined. But frequently flow experiences correspond with little or no substantial value. Video games to me are the clearest example, but hardly the only one.

Video games are a fun diversion. Though they today lack the cultural esteem of movies, reading, or even television, I don’t doubt that some of them are artful and perfectly sound ways to wile away a few hours pleasantly. But one of the things that I think is pernicious about video games is that because they’re so immersive, it’s much easier to “lose yourself” in their flow and waste not just hours but weeks and months of time accomplishing nothing in the concrete world we all share.

In my last article on this topic, I mentioned I’m a pretty good programmer, and I could optimize my life around getting into programming flow states and never leaving. That could probably be fairly well-paid if I structured it right. But — and this is important — I don’t think my best self is involved in programming things. I think I’m at my best when I push a little out of that comfort zone and try new things that feel awkward and hard and miles-from-flowing.

You should definitely know what “flow” is. You should definitely enjoy the experience of egoless ease that comes with it. But you must also make sure that when you experience such things, it’s because they’re really valuable to you, not simply because they are pleasant ways to waste time.

Practical Philosophy

It’s Not Your Fault, But it is Your Responsibility

I mercifully never really struggled with was the idea that having invisible social privileges is “my fault,” but it’s a conversation that comes up a lot. A simplistic rebuff of the very idea of unearned social privilege existing is that I — as a straight, white, male, etc — are not at fault for the confluence of societal structures that are the causes of all the invisible privileges I enjoy.

I didn’t keep slaves, I didn’t perpetrate housing segregation, I was never vocally anti-gay or misogynistic, etc. These are all claims made by people trying to show that they aren’t at fault. And indeed if they have or had done these things, then they are quite directly at fault for them.

But for most people in the modern world who benefit from privilege, it’s not something they are at fault for. Instead they’re just been given the privileges without the need to be vocal or violent to win them.

But the thing is, even if the privileges you possess aren’t your fault, they can still be your responsibility. The common pattern in productive environments is that the assignment of fault — if it happens at all — is not the same thing as the process of determining who can and should help take ownership of the problem and fix it.

The machine broke because Billy was running it irresponsibly. The machine doesn’t start to work any quicker if Billy’s fault is the topic of long discussions or an elaborate fact-finding and punishment process. It gets back to work faster if the team that runs the machine takes collective responsibility for getting it back in working order. Billy may have been the driver, but his team will perform best when they are all in charge of keeping the machine going, no ifs, ands, or buts.

It’s the same with dismantling the vestiges of privilege that make life invisibly easier for people who bear a shocking resemblance to me. I’m not at fault for the way law enforcement officers trust me more as a cis-hetero-norm-conforming white man, but I am responsible for that fact. I can and should use my privilege to make sure nothing dangerous happens as a black woman is getting arrested.

Divorcing responsibility from fault is crucial for productive action anywhere. For a complex and multi-variant problem that has resulted from literally hundreds if not thousands of years of social pressures, it is utterly essential. The existence of social privileges for advantaged groups is not the fault of the members of those groups, but they share in the collective responsibility to recognize, name, and change those privileges and preferences.

Personal Development

Humans on Autopilot

Planes have had autopilot for a few decades now. Cars are just now starting to get it. Some people think we should skip the assisted-human-driving that’s creeping in now and remove humans from the car-piloting process entirely as soon as we can.

And all of that is mostly irrelevant to my topic. What is relevant is that most of us humans, most of the time, are doing things in the same basic way we did them before and getting the same sort of results we’ve always been a little disappointed by. But we keep doing things that way nonetheless.

We’re on autopilot. One of the more interesting ideas about planes is that mostly-automated plane flight is the worst of all worlds. The reason: human pilots who are habituated to computer control will be out of practice and fumble when put back into control of the plane when a human-intervention-required emergency occurs.

This basic mechanic applies to less life-threatening scenarios too. If you suddenly decide to go to a new restaurant for eggs in the morning, you’ll probably feel a bit flustered and disoriented the first time. The same is true when you try to exercise for the first time in a while. Or when you try to have a conversation with the friend or neighbor you’d been benignly neglecting.

There are good things about living your life on autopilot. If you had to consciously think through every action and reaction you completed, you’d be a dead human. Not only would a lion or hippopotamus likely have killed you, but you probably wouldn’t have been able to keep yourself fed if they didn’t. By using autopilot for less-complicated tasks, we leave ourselves space to work on the really mind-bending ones.

The issue is that, as with human pilots, as we get older we tend to get more complacent and let autopilot drive more things. This is part of an old complaint I had about “flow traps,” and it’s also one of the reasons so many older humans are moderately dissatisfied all the time.

What’s necessary to get away from the seemingly chronic problems that haunt your life — those forty pounds you can’t shake, that relationship you wish you had but don’t, that bank account that just always seems to be a little emptier than you wish — is to turn off the autopilot that you might not even recognize is driving you back to that same places all the time.

It’s easier and more convenient to glide along guided by your autopilot — those same decision-making processes and decided truths about yourself you laid down days or decades ago — than it is to take control and fly to some place new or in some way new. But real change comes when you turn off your autopilot. You have the override, you just need to remember to use it sometimes. Keep your skills sharp.

Practical Philosophy

Waiting for Super(wo)man

It’s rather alluring, the belief that some outside force can swoop in from above and set everything right. Whether we call that entity God, or Super(wo)man, or “they,” we love to quickly and easily release our agency for the sake of not having to do any work.

We imagine that at Judgement Day God will finally smite the sinners and raise us, the righteous, to our proper position. We believe that the quickest and best solution to the problem of crime is an invincible crime fighter from another world. We believe that “they” should acknowledge our genius and give us what is ours; that “they” haven’t yet is simply an indication that “they” don’t really know what they’re doing.

If you’re not careful, it’s very easy to give up agency over your life and accept your fate as existing in the hands of some outside force. “They” is frequently bandied about by people in this state: we used to have a park but then “they” took it away. If only “they” would install a traffic light, this intersection would be a lot safer.

These people are waiting for Super(wo)man. Some outside powerful force to swoop in and change the world. But the real change in the world is rarely made — with a few noteworthy exceptions — by individuals. And even those individuals who arguably were primary causal actors don’t match the comic book image of Super(wo)man.

Instead the world is made better by banal and often thankless actions of normal people. The young teacher motivated to put in extra hours making sure Tyler gets out of third grade reading at his grade level and eager to get even better. By the aging citizen who is so insistent on the need for a stoplight at an intersection that she methodically bends the unreceptive city council into submission. By the middle-aged man who decides to give a few days a months to feeding the homeless with his own two hands. By the little girl who protests hard when her high school commits some injustice that every adult would rather ignore.

Some people setting out to make these sorts of contributions stumble or fail. But they can and do push the collective of humanity forward, effort by effort. There’s a stultifying impotence in waiting for Super(wo)man, and the idea that your effort will not solve the problem is the start of that impotence.

None of us can single-handedly bring peace on earth or an end to poverty. But we can make our small effort and slowly, over the course of our lives, see the world slightly better as a result. To do so we must accept that we are the Super(wo)men we’ve been waiting for.

Woman looking into the camera smiling on a beautiful autumn day, with a slight sense of hesitation.

No One Has Ever Loved Anyone

I love potent little phrases (it’s why I run a quotation-browsing website), and I recently came across a great one. It seems that Mignon McLaughlin once quipped:

No one has ever loved anyone the way everyone wants to be loved.

It bowled me over. Because it immediately struck me as both true and useful.

First, lets play with its truthiness. If we were to make the quotation into some sort of logical proof, that proof would postulate, first, that there is a “way everyone wants to be loved.” And then it says that no one has ever loved another in that way.

It feels reasonable to sign up to the postulate that there is a way that everyone wants to be loved. What kind of love is that? Well, it’s fond and appreciative and fun, of course, but it’s also unconditional. I don’t think anyone wants to believe that whatever fondness and mutual support and whatever else they think comes with love is accompanied by any sort of precondition.

And this is the rub of the whole line: humans are, generally, unable to love in a precondition-less way. We’ll love our romantic partner, but only if they’re able to continue to provide for the family, or to be attractive to us physically, or to be available to us emotionally. Whichever of those or some other is the real friction point in the relationship, there almost certainly is one.

And there are good reasons for this: our survival is helped by mutually beneficial relationships. Unconditionality requires that we stop assuring that we get some benefit from a relationship. To move in relationship without precondition means that we can only score whether or not we’re having a positive impact on the partner to that relationship. Watching and counting what they do (or do not) for us would be a part of the calculus of rationally justifiable conditionality.

Almost all relationships between humans contain at least one regular point of friction. Even if it is as small as sometimes quibbling about what seasoning is best for the Sunday sauce, there is always some part of a relationship that doesn’t work seamlessly. Somewhere where there’s anger, or fear, or just plain old apathy to be found.

And that’s why “no one has ever loved anyone the way everyone wants to be loved.” Now, why did I say it’s instructive? Because it points our way to a better love. We can love people intensely, but we probably aren’t giving them as perfect a love as they’d like. But so frequently, because we’re lazy or blind, we deny that. We don’t accept that we may own some part of the strain that we’re both subconsciously aware has started to show in our relationship.

If we’re able to take it as a starting point that “no one has ever loved anyone” so well that there was no friction, no conditionality, no difficulty, we can use it as a place to begin to work to make our loves and relationships stronger. It can be hard to accept, especially if you’re blinded by either your romanticism or your rational self-defense. But you can love better, in a way more like the target of your love would like. And if you work on it with seriousness, you will.

Three baby turtles swimming in a tub of sandy water
Practical Philosophy

All Problems Come from Ignorant Non-alignment

I believe in two things: the value of love and the danger of ignorance. I believe, as I explained recently, that those two things are related pretty profoundly.

I believe something else too: different people want different things. But I think wanting different things doesn’t have to be an obstacle to compromise and everyone feeling like their needs and wants are understood, accepted, and accommodated in a solution to a problem that isn’t specifically what they would have chosen.

I think all of the most sticky problems in the world are fundamentally solvable. After all, we humans made the messes, we humans can solve them.

People can align their conflicting needs and wants and create compromise. Compromise is reached through a two-step process. First we have to be clear about where everyone is on a particular topic — what they understand, how they feel about it, and what they’d like to do about it — then we have to align our vision and find a solution that meets everyones needs.

This process of finding compromise by building a mutual understanding and an alignment on vision is not easy. When facing long histories of misunderstanding, it’s probably the hardest communication task that anyone has ever undertaken. But it’s both possible and valuable.

When we see other’s views clearly, fully, and with a will to help, we’ll naturally become aligned with them. We’ll find a way we can work together to make us all happy. Ignorance is tenacious, and alignment takes work. But it’s always possible to use those two as the levers by which we solve even the hardest problems.

Woman manuevering though a huge tower of shoes

“We All Make Choices”

I’ve caught myself saying something more and more. Though most of the  things we say are pretty dumb and banal — this is very much included — the increased frequency is notable and thus must have some meaning. So what, then, leads me to say “We all make choices…” so much?

For one, the phrase has a nice self-evident quality. It can’t be disputed with much seriousness. In this way it’s inert and vacuous.

But I typically find that I’m using the phrase specifically in cases where someone else has made a choice I disagree with. An ostentatious hairstyle that I don’t think works for them. Or going into a business that I’d personally never want to be in. Driving in a manner that I find thoughtless and unsafe. I rarely find I’m using the phrase when I feel someone has chosen something positive.

Tying back to its vacuousness, when I pass my judgement by saying “we all make choices” rather than “that’s a stupid/dangerous thing that person is doing,” I don’t own the judgement. The audience for my observation isn’t necessarily aware of what my thought on the choice this third party has made is. Perhaps they can take it as the empty, valueless phrase it is.

In this way, there’s something kind of nice about only letting judgments about other people pass with a relatively neutral phrase. “We all make choices” is a low-quality Rorschach test I pass onto the interlocutors of my inner dialog, rather than something that’s either forcing or encouraging them to join me in my strange little hovel of beliefs I’ve accumulated with varying degrees of care over the course of my life.

But I can’t get past the fact that I’m basically using the phrase as simply a less negative way to say “I don’t like that.” It feels cheap and easy rather than something I’m doing with conviction. It’s a place and time that I can and do say something somewhat mindless rather than something that’s specific and thoughtful.

We don’t all always have time to be specific and thoughtful. We make choices about when our energy will be well spent on a careful explication and when filler can suffice. If someone takes me up on “We all make choices…” then we can have a real conversation. Until then, it’s a choice I’ll probably continue to make, perhaps with a bit more thoughtfulness.

Practical Philosophy

What If Ignorance is Love’s Only Obstacle?

I’ve got a short enemies list. If I whittle it down as far as it can go, I think it contains one item: ignorance.

But it wasn’t until today that it struck me directly that this relates very specifically to the one thing I could whittle my list of unimpeachably good things down to: love.

Because, for the first time, with the aid of Shantideva, it was clear to me that the only reasons I find it hard to love people is that I have mistaken and out-of-whack understandings of what they want,  what they can do, or what’s really driving their behavior.

If someone cannot be nice to me — be the proximate reason for that political, personal, or something else — shouldn’t I feel nothing but sympathy for that block they have?

If someone is cruel to me, shouldn’t I feel nothing but sorrow that they are in a place where they feel it is necessary or appropriate to be cruel?

And if someone is nice to me, shouldn’t I just appreciate the fact that they loved themself, and me, enough to be nice? What a beautiful thing that is!

We find it hard to love because we don’t understand the complex web of causes that leads people to be who they are and act in ways that we don’t like. But if we really understood all the causes that led another driver to cut us off, or a family member yell at us, or a stranger to run at us with a knife, wouldn’t our only reasonable response be to accept it? To understand that causes just came together such that they felt compelled to act in these ways?

There is a certain baked-in belief in the fated, rational, causal understanding of the world here. That is, if you believe that we are all rational agents making completely rational atomic choices at all times, as the only forces in the system, what I’m saying will make no sense to you. When you understand the world as consisting of completely isolated people acting in independent ways, a cruelty to another is a clear sign that a person is cruel. A nice action is a clear sign that that atomic person is nice.

But I don’t believe that people work like that. I believe all the way down to the core of my being that people are frequently ignorant agents playing out past conditioning. Some of that past conditioning points us in the direction of rational independent thought and action, but hardly a majority of it.

We do not walk, run, or drive cars with careful consideration of every muscle flex and yield. We don’t make decisions to eat a snack or go for a walk via careful, meticulously rational weighing of the costs and benefits of that act in our conscious mind. We simply are not nearly as rational as our rational mind would like us to believe.

We find it hard to love because we fail to believe in our own, or the world’s, lawful and understandable way of working. When we reject the idea that we live in a lawful world, we choose ignorance. When we choose ignorance, we’ll find it hard to accept and love as much as we should. As much as the world needs.

Cat licking another

The Two Currencies of Relationships

Every good relationship contains two things: intimacy and mutual service. I don’t just mean romantic relationships; whenever you find a relationship valuable, it is because you’re getting at least one of those two needs met by that relationship. When you find a relationship hard to sustain, or damaging, it’s because it fails to provide (or provides negative and damaging forms of) these two qualities.

There are lots of kinds of service. To do something on someone else’s behalf is a service. To show someone how to do something is a service. To help someone to accomplish something they were trying to do but couldn’t complete on their own is a service. Some services are offered in exchange for material benefit (money or other things valued by the servicer) — and so form a direct relationship of mutual service — and some are freely offered with no expectation.

And so it is with intimacy. Simply being in the vicinity as I do a thing is a kind of intimacy I might want to receive from another person. Their being my compatriot in doing a task is a richer version. A friend with whom I feel safe to disclose emotions, hopes, and more is richer still. And finally, there’s the thing most people think of with the word “intimacy,” intimate-partner relationships where you’re more honest, open, and supported than you are anywhere else.

All models are wrong. Some are useful though, and I think this one passes the test. When you’re looking to “debug” a relationship with someone that’s not taking, it’s almost certainly for an imbalance in (or lack of) these two things.

I service the pets in my life when I give them food, water, and shelter. I may receive (given the reality of modern life, nearly useless) mutual service. More likely, I continue to keep them well for the sense of comfort and camaraderie their companionship provides. This is the reason that owner-aggressive pets are rarely tolerated for long.

When a relationship doesn’t ever seem to click and work with someone, it’s probably because one party in that relationship feels they’ve not received either intimacy or service that makes it worth continuing. This is why you’re frequently advised to offer value — usually service, but sometimes the solace of commiseration — to strangers before you ask for something you need from them.

It’s not a revolutionary idea, this intimacy and service thing. But I found it clarifying, useful, and thus worth a note.