Personal Development

You Are What You Repeatedly Do

I’d bet you’ve heard the phrase “you are what you repeatedly do,” or a variation on it, at least once before. It’s one of these profound but banal truths that I think are so important, those things that are simple but not easy.

It’s got such a simple purity that it’s almost impossible to dispute. But its simple clarity makes it really easy to forget about. And its implications are deep and important; foundational to what I believe to be a good and well-lived life. But it’s really easy to just look past it and do what is easy: to keep on watching television, playing video games, eating that bag of candy you indulgently bought, or anything else.

Surely not everyone has complete control over all the things they end up repeatedly doing. Some people have actual uncontrollable psychological or physical disorders that make them repeatedly do things against their active will. And obviously some people, because of age or poverty or having lost their awareness of their own agency, feel that they have to repeatedly do things that they think are bad and wish they didn’t.

But most people in most conditions most of the time have a lot of ability to change the things that they repeatedly do, but they don’t. Habit formation is hard work. It is not breezy, simple, and effortless fun in the way that eating a pint of ice cream while watching a Law and Order or Threes Company marathon on TV is.

The reason that we like to ignore this nearly incontestable reality that we are the results of our regular behavior is that it implies pretty directly and indisputably that what we lack in discipline or physique or career is not because the world is set against us, but because we don’t regularly exert enough effort toward those goals. (Though we should always keep in mind that we only control what we put out, not what we get back.)

I realized recently that in the course of my recent weight loss journey, I’ve kinda become a little scrawny and chicken-armed. I don’t want to be scrawny and chicken-armed. But the only step I’d taken to not be scrawny and chicken-armed was to do about fifteen push-up and fifteen chair-dips a day. And I’m sure even the most die-hard proponent of body-weight exercises would concur with my recent conclusion that that simply won’t cut it if one wants to have sizable (but not Mr. Olympia scale) arm muscles. I could read my scrawnier-than-I’d-like arms as an indictment of my genetic inheritance, or my career, or something else equally disempowering, but I feel pretty sure that it’s just telling my that I’m not repeatedly doing enough muscle-building arm-work.

This is really the choice you have about most facts about life: they can be great information to help you build to a new thing, or they can be disempowering truths about what is inherently wrong with you. The more I look, the more I see that the way you repeatedly make that choice to see determines almost everything about what else you repeatedly do in life, and thus almost exactly what you are. Learn to repeatedly do things that are hard but important, and I’m starting to wonder if there are any limits to the things you can accomplish.

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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picture of fear graffito

Moving Beyond the Fear Mindset

In a contemplative mood last night, I made a few tweets about fear:

Most things we don’t accomplish in life have one root cause: fear. We fear failure, success, humiliation, poverty, etc so much we don’t try.

Most cruelty is a reaction to fear. Few harsh actions come from a place that isn’t afraid of the vulnerability of openness.

Exposing yourself to the world completely: your fears, your dreams, your accomplishments, your abilities requires incomprehensible strength.

People depend completely on each other but fear each other so much they get very little done.

So to put it mildly, fear was on my mind. The story I’d tell about why is as follows: I’ve made a number of quite positive changes in my life in the last few years—lost 70 pounds, got promoted, started a business, began exercising regularly, changed jobs—and I was contemplating what the biggest reason for them was. What I came to for each and every one was that I’d gotten past the fear and insecurity that had previously stopped me.

And as I saw Alain de Botton tweet soon after all of my tweets, part of the reason for the changes was that I’d started to be more afraid of not doing anything than of making the changes I have.

In her research Dweck has found two basic ways of relating to the problems that we face as we move about the world.

But there was another, more fundamental reason for the shift in my life and it was based on Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. Dweck’s spent most of her career studying why some people are more resilient and successful than others. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her phrase it this way, but in my reading her answer comes down to fear.

In her research Dweck has found two basic ways of relating to the problems that we face as we move about the world. The “fixed mindset” grows out of the belief that our abilities to accomplish things are essentially capped: when we fail to do something it is because we’re just not capable of doing that kind of thing. This contrasts with the “growth mindset”, which takes failure to do a complex math problem, for example, in stride as a part of the learning process. In the growth mindset, my current inability to do this problem means I can now learn how to do it, not—as the “fixed mindset” might have it—that I’m an idiot who’s bad at math.

Personally, I’ve lived most of my life with the “fixed mindset”—from early on I was tagged as a “gifted” (read: smart) child, which tends to lead in Dweck model to the fixed mindset. Praising someone for being smart, she points out, gives them a sense of possessing a fixed thing of worth—their intelligence—that they then will tend to protect jealously. If you want to praise a child for something they’ve done, focus on effort and learning, she encourages.

When my self-appraisal is strongly tied to my ability to project intelligence and mastery, I will avoid situations in which there is a risk I’ll look stupid or inept.

And learning about and understanding the foolishness of the “fixed mindset” way of relating to the problems you face has made such a profound difference in my life I’d find it hard to understate. I’ve become much more willing to fail and much less wedded in my mind to the value of my intelligence. (Beyond reading Dweck’s book, it’s worth mentioning that part of the shift was a result of the world making it increasingly clear to me that idle intelligence has essentially no value.)

The fear that drives the “fixed mindset” is a primal one. When my self-appraisal is strongly tied to my ability to project intelligence and mastery, I will avoid situations in which there is a risk I’ll look stupid or inept. The way this manifested, for me, was an increasing specialization in things of very little worth to the world at which I was relatively skilled. Trivia games were a favorite of mine; business—a giant area about which I knew nearly nothing—was not.

As an ego defense mechanism I’d essentially come to the conclusion that the things I wasn’t good at were things I’d never be good at. I hunkered down and really built a tightly-bound identity around what I perceived to be my strengths. I was an overweight, inactive, introverted person who knew a lot and read a lot and was pretty much set, thank you very much. I’m stated this a bit like it was something I rationally and thoughtfully decided to do. It really progressed unconsciously, through many small decisions. I had just slowly chosen for myself that kind of life.

Seeing the whole constellation of consequences that came out of this simple dichotomy of mindsets Dweck presented, I was a bit humbled and embarrassed. So much of who I was could be traced back to this simple fear that I’d look dumb. Realizing a truth like that about yourself is the first step to change. It allows you to begin to see, intercept, and change the thoughts and fears that you define yourself by.

To get grandiose, the “breakthrough” I’ve made that’s changed my life in uncountable small ways is to realize that my fears—of looking stupid, of saying the wrong things, of asking for help—were the single biggest obstacle between who I was and who I really wanted to be. It’s not been easy to move through them—and they do still get in my way—but I’ve made tremendous progress by understanding, naming, and working with the fears I feel about the things I know I really should be doing.

(Photo from wilderdom on Flickr)


The Case for Better

My internet pal Justin Wehr recently pushed on a point that I considered so obvious as to be completely incompetent in its defense. This then, is an attempt to build the case for constant improvement. The case for the fact that you should work to be better than you were yesterday every single day of your life.

It’s worth establishing, to start, what we mean by better. Striving to be better requires being fully aware of difference between the improvable things in your life and those that can’t be. You can’t change your genetics, or the factors that we consider to directly flow from that, nor are you able to change the things outside of yourself. A 5’4″ overweight man will never make himself into the most physically attractive mate for a woman who favors skinny men over 6’4″ with a different skin tone. Part of getting better is realizing and accepting that reality.

The thoughts, comments, and actions of others are thoroughly beyond our direct control. (It is, however, worth realizing that by changing the way you act, you can in time shape the way you appear to others.) But if you’re going to get angry any time someone disrespects or disagrees with you, you’re going to live a hollow life as other peoples’ rag doll. Thrown around by the impulses of people who rarely think of you at all, you’ll be subject to endless turmoil and frustration, and that’s no way to live.

Essential to this idea of better is this idea that the thing you can control is the way you live. It’s not only within your control, it’s essentially the only thing you control, so why do you think it’s okay you treat it like garbage? There’s a seldom noticed point that I consider relevant: the smaller a person’s area of control the more seriously they take the maintenance of it. Hoarders are generally people who feel they control nothing in the world, or the whole of it. Someone who recognizes that they own their living space and are the sole one responsible for maintenance of it generally treats it quite well.

And so it is with your abilities and mind. They are essentially the only things you have direct control over. Which is different from saying that they’re the only things you think you control. Some people believe their inability to understand mathematics is wired into the system, (barring some rare developmental disabilities) they’re wrong. Some people believe they can exercise complete control over the subservient people in their life (be they family, romantic partners, employees, or even slaves), they too are wrong.

Once one sees fully and exactly what they control and what they don’t, they generally tend to believe in the value of improving it. One of the biggest obstacles people have in understanding the case for better is that they have mistaken beliefs in either their omnipotence or impotence.  The delusions that allow people to believe in either direction are one of the most important obstacles to people living the best life they’re capable of. And they’re far more complex and multifaceted to fit within the purview this essay, so I’ll move on.

If we agree that we control our mind and abilities, we’re left with three basic options: get better, get worse, or stagnate. Getting worse is not easy, but people manage it all the time. When you only learn things because people make you, you’ll forget them quickly and be unable to comprehend facets of the world you once did. This is getting worse. When a boyfriend pushed you to eat better and exercise more, and then left your life, you’re probably going to neglect those things you once did well. That’s getting worse. Generally, we get worse because we were never committed to get better in the first place. We did those things that the wise recognize as good because there was someone pushing us out of the rut, once the pushing stops the rut feels welcoming, like home.

Laziness, habits, and willpower conservation are also the reason we typically stagnate. Without outside pressure to know more about the universe than the model of the solar system you got in grade school, you’ll only have learned of the demotion of Pluto from planetary status because the news was so prevalent as to be unavoidable. Without a school-mandated councilor there to push you to work with your anger in a healthy way, you’ll probably never get any better than the modest extant to which they were able to help you fill in the bottom of your rut.

Without a self-motivation brought on by a belief that you can be better, your life will be controlled by others. By the things you can’t help knowing, the work you can’t help doing, by the mental reactions others evince in you because you’ve never taken the time to try to control your own mind. At the most basic level, I think the case for better comes down to this: who do you want to control your life: yourself or interested strangers? Surely there exist strangers genuinely interested in your improvement (most such people also have a deep interest in their own improvement, it’s worth mentioning), but leaving yourself at the mercy of strangers nets out as an unwise proposition. Even a few people with a truly sinister interests can easily overwhelm those trying to be of help when they can.

All of that gets to sounding a bit “me against the world”, but it’s not. One of the best and most common reasons that people have for being better in their life is so that they’re able to help others better. Taking care of yourself seems selfish until you try a few times you help others and make the whole situation worse. When we’re not in control of ourselves, our attempts to help others will frequently go wrong. Being the best version of yourself also allows you to be the best help possible for other people. So if you don’t want to to try to be better for your own sake, do it for our sake. For the sake of your family, friends, neighbors, and world. If there’s a better reason to do anything I’ve not found it.


Flow Traps

One of the more popular psychological ideas in the public sphere is that of “flow.” The idea, originated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is that we’ll get more done and enjoy it more when we’re given a level of challenge to keep us engaged and exercising a sense of mastery. One shouldn’t have to look very hard at their life to find times when work has been easy, fun, and “flow”ing.

What I struggle to buy into is the rather popular correlate that these flow states are good and worth seeking and preserving. That they make us better at our tasks and thus make us better in life. I’d make no quarrel with the idea that they can do those things, but I’d strongly dissent from the idea that they consistently do those things.

To pick a common example, you’re a programmer. You’re a pretty good programmer, and you’re currently working hard on a project that’s offering opportunities to learn new things from time to time, but generally you’re just enjoying using your tools in slightly different ways than you have in the past. Here flow is clearly a useful thing. When you can get into that groove, you’ll probably be faster and more accurate than you would outside of it. And it feels great too, just being there pounding and creating and getting toward the goal.

But here’s how flow has you trapped: you don’t really want to be  a programmer your whole life. You’d really like to be the kind of person who hires and helps programmers to create projects far bigger and more ambitious than you’d ever manage yourself. You know this, but every day you arrive at work and you just plod until you flow and you stay that way (with a few breaks) until quitting time. You’re never making any progress on this big long-term goal because you’re stuck in a flow trap.

Flow traps aren’t inherently as pernicious as they may sound. (Though they can be: video games, I’m looking at you.) You’re still doing good things while you’re writing code, you’re just not getting any vision of the new vistas of possibility that you think you’d really enjoy. The problem with a flow trap is that it makes you think you can just keep coding your way out of writing so much code, and you can’t. There’s a drastically different skill-set you need if you want to go from the kind of person who writes code well to the kind of person that helps people to write code well.

Real tangible progress in your life, real growth in your skill-set, requires you to step out of the flow and take on things you don’t even have an inkling of how to take on. It requires you to be uncomfortable and for things to be hard. Because that’s where you really learn new things, see new vistas, and gain mastery of the world you’d never thought possible.

metablogging, ruminations


From the “In Case of Emergency, Break Glass” box:

Sometimes you try to write something and come up completely empty. Having had had a number of interesting, strange, and outright unusable ideas, you’ve found nothing that could become a coherent set of sentences that seemed to say anything valuable.

So instead, readers will have to accept some half-formed semi-coherent ideas of what might have seen had it been meaningfully expanded.

  • It’s always best to shovel snow before anyone has walked on it, and especially before any car has driven over it. If you don’t, you’ll get those stubborn packed areas that your plastic shovel will be all but incapable of getting off the concrete.
  • I don’t read nearly enough books. Books are long arguments that require time and dedication to comprehend. My–and perhaps modern culture’s–style is much more little bits of argument presented hundreds of times without much coherent structure behind them.
  • That said, there’s something so nice about feeling a book in your hands. Even if you’ll never read books, it feels good to know you’ve got several dozen (or hundred) on your shelf so you can pick through them from time to time and recognize how much more intelligent you would be if you did read them.
  • Band-Aids are a metaphor for something. If I ever figure out what I’ll be sure to tell you.
  • I sure am hungry.
  • Hunger’s a metaphor for something. If I ever find a way to use such a metaphor without it feeling tired I’ll be sure to tell you.
  • It’s nice when it snows and you don’t have to do anything. That’s what made snow days so great when we were in school. Not that missing school wasn’t a bonus, but I think it was mostly that we were supposed to be doing something but managed to escape it.
  • I’ve never liked pennies. Coins in general even. But quarters, those I like.
  • What else I like: frozen peas. Canned peas usually become mushy and gross. Dried peas get mealy and gross. Frozen peas retain their flavor and shape fairly well.
  • What would it have been like to live where I do 100 years ago? Probably a lot colder. In the winter I mean. Heating would have cost more.

Here’s hoping that I won’t have to use this mess of a post. If I do use it, here’s hoping I never have to use something like it again.

big ideas, religion, retroview

Retroview: Happiness: A Guide

Matthieu Ricard’s Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill is probably the most important book in my life. No work has ever influenced so many aspects of my life or caused me to see the world so differently. Were there only one book that I could take with my to a desert island, I think this would very likely be it.

All of this is not to say that the book is flawless. On the second reading, some parts of the book seemed superfluous. Most memorably, the results of scientific studies which Ricard dutifully reports are interesting, but not as good as much of the rest of the book.

All of this may lead to the most important question: what is this book about? And were I a more careful writer I would edit this to answer that question at the start. Alas, I am not.

The book is, as you can probably infer from the title, a how-to to happiness. As such, the label “self-help” could be applied to it, but that conjures up images of hundreds of unsavory hucksters and swindlers who claim that they’ll make your life better in a snap. This book does no such thing.

Ricard, as the spelling of his name signals, is French by birth. He’s also a Buddhist monk who spends his time between Nepal and Tibet, serving as a translator for the Dalai Lama. And though it would be reasonable to say that Ricard’s answer to happiness grows out of Buddhism, one needn’t understand the first thing about the practice to get something from Ricard’s book.

Many, upon first introduction to Buddhism, see it not as a religion, but as a philosophy or even a type of positive psychology. The fact that Buddhism takes no explicit stance on the existence of deities (or a deity) makes this interpretation easier. And though Buddhism can be endowed with as many dogmatic traditions as any Western religion, the parts which Ricard discusses are not.

For those doubters of Buddhism (and religions in general), Mr. Ricard does conveniently provides scientific evidence–that stuff I said was dull–that Buddhist practice can and does make people happier, more controlled, and peaceful.

All of this is not to say that Happiness is some extended argument for Buddhism as the happiest religion in the world. It is, at the most basic level, an introduction to what thoughts and practices have made Mr. Ricard “the happiest man in the world.” (It was, if you’re wondering, that article that led me to the book in the first place.)

This book didn’t by itself transform my thinking, but it clarified and made much more salient some arguments that I’d been hearing for sometime and not fully understanding. The triviality of difference. The merits of optimism. The way to value all time. The wastefulness of envy.

It’s very likely that you could read this book and recieve from it much less than I have. It’s even possible that I received from this book more than it endeavored to give. But I can say with firm conviction that this book could teach everyone something, and many a great deal. After two readings, I still look forward to returning to it again and again, getting as much as I possibly can.