Personal Development

It’s Easier to Say Wise Things than Do Them

It is so much easier to say something sage-like and wise than to live out the implications of that wisdom. I touched on this a bit in my yearly review from last week, but it’s one of the core things that reading through this site regularly reminds me.

Doing wise things requires actually facing up to the reality of a situation and putting your base responses aside. To act wisely you must understand a situation fully, and act on that knowledge coupled with your highest, most noble understanding. And then you must take an action unimpeachable even from a great distance of time.

Part of the reason many people so love giving advice to others is that we know somewhere inside of us that this difference between speech and action is real. When we give advice, we don’t have to bear any of the responsibility for the wise action. We’re just responsible for seeing the situation clearly and having an opinion about the best way through it. The hard part of making that real in the world is left to the advice’s receiver.

I wrote last year about how gratitude is so important. I advocated for cultivating gratitude as it makes life better and easier and all that. And yet I just recently realized that I had been missing — for most of the period since that piece was published — all the small miracles in my life. I hadn’t forgotten the power of gratitude, but I only knew it in an abstract, academic way. I’d forgotten to actually live it regularly.

But living it is what life consists of. Learning to live the things you know. Learning to manifest in the world the beauty that is in your heart. There are few lines from 13th century Persian poet Rumi (translations differ) that go:

May be beauty of what you love be what you do
There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground

At heart, what we must regularly remind ourselves of is this: what we love, what we want the world to be like, what we wish were true — all of it — is our responsibility. We change the world by changing ourselves. Not just in what we think and say, but in what we actually go and do in the world. It is wise action, not wise thought or wise speech, that makes the world better.

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Practical Philosophy

Never Assume You Know Their Reason

One of the most valuable lessons I learned in my life was to stop assuming that I understood a person’s motivations for doing something. I used to think that the obvious (and usually malicious) motivation that I first came up with to explain another person’s behavior was probably theirs. That is, if someone was driving in a manner that frustrated me, it was because they were specifically trying to be a jerk to me. They wanted to make my life hard.

But I’m increasingly sure that that category of explanation is not just wrong, but never right. There are uncountable explanations for most behaviors we see people demonstrating. The frustrating driver may be distracted by their child in the back seat, or on the other end of the phone. Maybe they’re in a panicked mind state for one of more than a dozen reasons we could speculate about. Maybe they’re uncomfortable behind the wheel of their vehicle, or don’t really know all the relevant traffic laws and customs. Maybe they’re struggling mightily just to keep their vehicle operating in the manner it should and are unable to focus on their actual driving behaviors. Maybe they’re just really preoccupied with an appointment they’re driving from or to. And there are certainly more stories we could come up with.

The point isn’t that any of those specific stories are true, but that any of them are at least as likely as the story that they’re intentionally trying to sit in my blindspot, block me from passing, or swerving in a way I find disconcerting. In fact, most of the latter stories seem to be more likely than the one that they’ve intentionally chosen to make a special effort to ruin my day.

Assuming you completely understand the behaviors of another person is almost always stupid. People are complicated. They live rich, complete, independent lives totally divorced from the small fractions of time that their world collides with ours. How frequently do you intentionally act to thwart someone’s goals, to make their life harder or less pleasant? Do you think others do that more or less than you do? Why?

I’ve learned in the years since I first noticed this strange impulse to misunderstand, that most of the times that I came up with an explanation of why someone was doing something and checked my understanding with them, their reason was never the malice I’d assumed. Even allowing for the fact that people might hide actual malice in retrospect (either for the reason of further malice or self-delusion), people’s reasons for their actions aren’t usually malicious.

On the other hand, a gap in understanding is a common explanation of places where I mistakenly saw malice. It’s common that someone’s behavior was different than I wanted because they had knowledge I didn’t. To come back to our driver example, that she urgently needed to stop her child from putting something in his mouth that he shouldn’t might be the reason she changed lanes without as much care as she should have. Another possibility is that she was ignorant of something I knew that was relevant and true. In many states the law or custom is that you drive in the right lane on the highway, except to pass. Not all drivers know this.

The benefits of not assuming you understand someone’s motivations are many. The primary one is this: you see and understand the world with more accuracy and clarity when you don’t make up and treat as true things that aren’t verified. Ignorance papered over by a thin film of plausible explanations isn’t knowledge. It’s a delusion you’ve constructed.

Another big benefit to refraining from seeing malice you don’t know to be there is that it makes you a more patient, friendly, and kind person. How’s that? When you assume you understand someone’s reasons, and especially if you think them malicious, you’re short with them, and prone to lashing out at (what you perceive as) their malicious behavior toward you. When you assume nothing, you’re able to come to them with a patient, questioning curiosity. You’re also more likely to greet them as a friend, rather than an enemy. And to state the blindingly obvious, we’re nicer to our friends than our enemies.

It’s not easy to really internalize and operationalize this new way of relating to people. If you’re experienced with the art of finding a motivation to explain every action you see, you’ll need to allow yourself a lot of time and space to retrain in patience and allowing for the possibility that you don’t understand why someone is doing something. But you can learn to do it. I did.

When you know the value of assuming that you don’t understand someone’s reasons, it’s just a matter of time until you’re able to relate in a new way. Be patient; allow for possibilities you’ve never even considered. Slowly, you’ll see a shift. And your life will be better, and the world friendlier, as a result.

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Vinyl Kills the MP3 Industry
Communication

Culture Is A Series of Lossy Compression Algorithms

Compression algorithms are all around you in a modern digital life. But you may not actually know what they are, so let me explain: raw data taken from the world is rarely very efficiently packed. So to save file size and computational sanity, most data is compressed. JPEG is an image compression format — it takes raw information about what color each pixel of a photograph is and packs it more efficiently. MPEG does this same basic thing for video, MP3 does music, and ZIP can be used on any kind of data.

Some compression algorithms favor data accuracy and integrity over efficient file size compression. These are said to be “lossless” data compression formats. The FLAC audio format offers “lossless compression.” MP3, on the other hand, is rather notorious for its strategic “lossy compression” on music. Audiophiles love to deride it, but consumers have used and loved the format for decades now. By chopping off bits of the sound that human ears struggle to make sense of or retain, MP3 files can be significantly smaller than FLAC files. But incontestably something is lost when audio is encoded and saved as an MP3.

Now this site isn’t about technology, so why did I tell you all of that? Because it occurred to me that I really love writing, but all my attempts to convey my ideas amount to partial capturings of what I really want to convey and persuade someone of. The words capture the majority of the point, but they don’t say everything that was in my head.

And then it occurred to me that movies which are built upon books are famously lossy encodings of those books. This fact usually means that those that haven’t read the book are satisfied to have seen a good movie. And those that have read the source material are outraged by all the omissions.

And it turns out, all cultural artifacts contain this same type of data loss.

People have full, rich, and so far uncapturable-by-technology outer and inner lives. Even if we could record everything that entered our visual and auditory fields throughout our lives — which is possible but quite unlikely today — we’d be missing touch, taste, and smell, which so far technologies don’t capture. And that’s to say nothing of the internal life of the mind.

So to save and pass along anything, we humans have developed some ingenious lossy compression algorithms through history. Language allows us to condense and convey most thoughts and feelings, but we still hit its edges somewhat regularly. (Metaphors help, but they to don’t quite ever feel like they get us the whole way.) And written language can capture most of the spoken language, but still stumbles on some of the more subtle non-linguistic auditory expressions that can be so meaningful.

So, hopefully I’ve convinced you that culture is a lossy compression algorithm. So what? I think these may be a bit controversial — I picked the hottest ideas I could — but I think the following ideas are true if my theory is.

  • Religions are an effort to compress, condense, and pass along experience of the mysterious and indescribable, but people get caught on specific corners of the encoding. Hot topics like homosexuality, or whether or not you can consume pork, beef, or any meats are examples of strange artifacts of a specific encoding.
  • Acedemia at large is built around the attempt to clarify and hone our procress of understanding the world. But the lives of many academics include as much politicking, infighting, and administrativa as it does contributing actual knowledge back to the world. This is a direct effect of the need to institutionalize the processes for the sake of preservation.
  • Corporations mostly form because they solve problems that exist in the world. But most companies end up with their initial “we will solve this problem excellently” culture having been lost as they propagate and undergo recompression throughout time and a bureaucracy that inevitably compounds data artifacting as it grows.

There are obviously many more places we could take this idea, but I think I’ve thrown enough into the arena for now. The chief thing I think this idea should make you realize is that what you read, write, or are told is probably not an exact representation of the truth as originally experienced. Through a series of inevitably lossy compressions and re-compressions, it could even be quite quite different. And that’s just the reality of cultural transmission.

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Practical Philosophy

The Value of Curiousity

There’s a saying I don’t much like; maybe you’ve heard it. It says “curiosity killed the cat.” The reason I don’t like it is pretty simple: it’s wrong. It drags the good name of curiosity through the mud for the sake of some supposed safety. It’s possible that curiosity contributed to the cat’s death, but it’s impossible that simple curiosity ever killed anyone or anything.

The reason I am so certain is that curiosity is only a desire to find out. Foolish curiosity may well have killed the cat. But that’s because a desire to find out can be carried out in a flawed and dangerous way, not that the desire on its own causes any harm.

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Personal Development

The Power of Understanding the Different Levels of Knowing

We humans are complicated and intelligent creatures. We know a lot of stuff. A lot a lot. We can name hundreds of different plants and animals. We can cook. We can speak a language. We can read that same language from symbols put on paper. We can make paper. We can understand what it means to make things. We can understand abstract concepts that have no relationship to the physical world in which we live.

But we know these things in different ways. Some things we know so well we can do them without thinking. We can eat, breathe, and move without even thinking about it. We know those things so deep we almost never think about the act itself.

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"Ignorance is the worst form of violence" - E. G.
Life

The Depths of Our Ignorance

When you stop to think about it, it’s shocking how little we actually understand about anything. We know only the edges of things, and use them to guide our reasoning about them. Neuroscientists and psychologist are increasingly aware how few of our decisions and thoughts are a result of careful consideration. We constantly make inferences and jump to conclusions without a lot of evidence. This is what makes it possible for us to do as many things as we do, but it’s also a big source for the growth and stability of ignorance.

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big ideas

On the Banality of Profound Truths

If there was one obstacle, beyond laziness, that made me hesitate to get back to writing in more than the few-sentence bursts I regularly produce for Link Banana it was my uncertainty about what of value I could say.

It’s not that I don’t think people need to hear things I think that I know–while there may be merit in possessing that type of modesty, I do not–it’s that they’ve already heard those things I think they most need to hear.

Things about how money doesn’t buy happiness. That understanding is rooted in attention. That the greatest obstacle to your happiness is your waiting to be happy. That happiness is not the same as pleasure, or a lack of sadness. That ignoring the present situation is the worst way to change it. That you can always find something to be thankful for. That anger is never the best way to solve a problem. That an act of kindness is never squandered.

These statements–and many others I didn’t list–are all, at least to my ears, the most obvious of truths. There are hundreds of famous quotations that attest to all of them. Anyone unacquainted with those quotations probably wouldn’t be reading anything I said anyway.

These short and obvious cliches are exactly what conventional wisdom says a writer should avoid.  But anything that takes more than a sentence to express seems overstated to me. While a sentence can’t explain the political climate of Somalia, or what spin means with relation to the bonding of atoms, or how the crash of the US stock market in 1929 was influenced by Germany, none of those things hit you where you live. Between your insides and your outsides none of those things matter.

The only things that really affect your quality of life exist within a radius about the length of your arms from your body. Everything outside of that radius is not acting on you in any direct way, and is thus irrelevant to your true quality of life.

I think that if there’s a single reason that the facts I consider most essential are simple, it’s this: not that much exists between your mind and fingertips. And even the most teeming of minds doesn’t contain much more than twenty thoughts at a time. And chatter among twenty idea’s can only get so complex.

People searching the edges of human knowledge are unlikely find anything there that will, or should, fundamentally affect their life as it’s lived daily. The confirmation of string theory says absolutely nothing to that longing you feel lying alone in your bed for the first time in years. A better understanding of the relationship between modern man and neanderthals, or market demand and labor supply, will not correct your dysfunctional relationship with everyone in your family. The existence or nonexistence of God changes nothing about your difficulty controlling your drinking.

But a single new idea, if it’s strong, simple, and powerful enough, added to the constant mental chatter can fundamentally change the timbre of the conversation in your mind. And that constant chattering is the very substance of your disposition, your life, and your reality. It is you, more than anything else anyone thinks they know about you. And you’re the one I’m interested in.

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ruminations

In Defense of Wikipedia

For those not following closely, it’s probably news that Wikipedia’s management structure–Wikipedia has a management structure?–is being critiqued because of what The Register, an online technology newspaper, said was new evidence that “the site’s top administrators are using a secret insider mailing list to crackdown on perceived threats to their power.” You can read all the details elsewhere, because this piece has nothing to do with the encyclopedia’s politics–however full of secrecy and intrigue–and everything to do with its usefulness.

People have denigrated Wikipedia from the beginning. First, they couldn’t believe anyone but well-groomed academicians could write about anything. Then they were sure that it was too easy to deface it with baldfaced lies. Now–though those earlier critiques are still regularly heard–people say that teachers–and especially the infallable “college professors” docks points for citing it. None of these critiques are completely unfounded, but all of them are insufficient to mean that society should abandon Wikipedia as a valuable and free encyclopedia.

Most of the trouble people have with Wikipedia is that they misunderstand how traditional encyclopedias are written. Britannica or World Book are written by a diverse and geographically-distant team of writers. Surely they aren’t “amateurs,” after all they’re paid by the encyclopedia they write for, but they’re hardly universally recognized experts in the field about which they write.

Wikipedia, like these, is written by people who know enough about a topic to explain its basics, but aren’t spending their time learning every possible detail. This is the fundamental reason that the third critique I cited falls flat. Every college professor, and potentially every high school teacher, should forbid their students from ever citing an encyclopedia. They’re great introductions to a given topic, but are terrible at exposing the complexity and nuance of things.

But this is no more a flaw with Wikipedia as it is with World Book, Britannica, or a common dictionary. Every resource that aims to be comprehensive must necessarily also be brief. Anyone who’s seen one of the dozens of biographies of Abraham Lincoln knows that Wikipedia’s article contains far less information. But so does every other encyclopedia.

To the complaint of vandalism and inaccuracies, I find it hard to say that they’re any more numerous than those found in any other encyclopedias. Without going into the detail–which I admittedly don’t know–Wikipedia’s mandarins do a fairly solid job of assuring that any blatant vandalism is both removed, and the perpetrating account put on watch. General inaccuracies are a problems that only the most expert people in a field can assure are never made. This doesn’t mean that Wikipedia is free of errors, but at least one study by the science journal Nature (BBC article, Nature‘s is behind a paywall) found the number of errors on Wikipedia to be comparable with traditional encyclopedias.

I would never categorize Wikipedia as a “repository of all knowledge” or a “perfect source of truth” but failing to reach these unrealistic standards is hardly a reason to condemn it. It is a great step toward the democratization of knowledge–even if its writing can sometimes be muddled and difficult–and that can’t be a bad thing. I don’t think anyone but encyclopedia publishers yearns for the days when a working man would buy Britannica one volume at a time so that his children could have access to an encyclopedia’s knowledge. Today all he needs is an internet connection–which isn’t free, but is much more affordable than Britannica was–and he can get as much or more knowledge than Britannica ever offered.

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big ideas, OPW

Other People’s Words: Happiness

These words are from Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard and translated by Jesse Browner. I really enjoy this book, and would encourage you to read it. This quote is about the difference between genuine happiness and what we often think of as means of achieving it.

Once at an open meeting in Hong Kong, a young man rose from the audience to ask me: “Can you give me one reason why I should go on living?” This book is a humble response to that question, for happiness is above all a love of life. To have lost all reason for living is to open up an abyss of suffering. As influential as external conditions may be, suffering, like well-being, is essentially an inner state. Understanding that is the key prerequisite to a life worth living. What mental conditions will sap our joie de vivre, and which will nourish it.

Changing the way we see the world does not imply naive optimism or some artificial euphoria designed to counter-balance adversity. So long as we are slaves to the dissatisfaction and frustrations that arise from the confusion that rules our minds, it will be just as futile to tell ourselves ‘I’m happy! I’m happy!’ over and over again as it would be to repaint the walls of ruins. The search for happiness is not about looking at life through rose-colored glasses or blinding oneself to the pain and imperfections of the world. Nor is happiness a state of exaltation to be perpetuated at all costs; it is the purging of mental toxins, such as hatred and obsession, that literally poison the mind. It is also about learning how to put things in perspective and reduce the gap between appearances and reality. To that end we must acquire a better knowledge of how the mind works and a more accurate insight into the nature of things, for in its deepest sense, suffering is intimately linked to a misapprehension of the nature of reality.

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