Carry in, carry out: A choice

andreas-dress-715781-unsplash

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

The entire season had led to this. Sweating, pushing, and training together. Moving and thinking as one unit; one team. It was the day before our championship race. It was also the last day of classes. So, most students were partying. But we were at practice.

As we were warming up, a few underclass team members approached me and told me that they had seen a freshman named Bart drink a beer earlier that morning.

Wait, what? This morning?

This morning?

My mind went reeling.

Bart was not supposed to do that. Our team had a rule of no alcohol 48 hours before a race, not to mention Bart was underage. The coach would ban Bart from racing, his boat would be scratched, and three other teammates would lose the opportunity to compete. The whole team would know. Bart would be ostracized and hated.

I pulled Bart aside and asked him whether he had drunk a beer. He paused, and then admitted yes, but it was “only a beer.”

Ugh. What do I do? The behavior itself was wrong. But telling the coach would cause so much trouble. It was only a beer.

If I had been in this situation earlier in my life, maybe I would have covered it up. Because that sounded easier. Because nobody likes a tattle-tale. Because things were going so well that season. Because I thought managing the expectations of a few underclassmen was easier than involving the whole team. Because this was my second-to-last day.

Typically, I take time to reflect alone on decisions like this. But I didn’t have time. I had to react fast. It was a Trebuchet problem, but with the deadline of a Rubber Band problem. My cheeks and palms swelled as the raw gravity of responsibility knocked me sideways.

chuttersnap-478260-unsplash

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

So, I took a chance.

I told the coach.

Coach got angry at me.

Then coach got angry at Bart.

Then Bart got angry at me.

The boat didn’t race the next day.

Bart didn’t return the next season.

 

matteo-vistocco-240766-unsplash

Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

 

I had the responsibility to maintain lasting trust in the structure of our organization. This structure required that every team member live in a way that benefits the organization and does not harm it. This way of life was partially codified by the explicit acceptance of concrete policies such as no alcohol 48 hours before a race and no underage drinking. But it was also constructed by the implicit acceptance of ethical customs, like everyone suffering at practice together instead of partying.

As a team, we needed a real demonstration of these explicit and implicit limits. And to reinforce them, an example had to be made showing what happens if these boundaries were overstepped.

The context surrounding this event had been stirring for years. It unearthed the tectonic cultural forces that had been changing the team from social club to serious competitive squad. It highlighted the effects of us replacing Friday night ragers with movie nights.

To this day, I don’t know whether I made the right choice. I may have ruined Bart’s life, caused social anguish, and crushed his dreams. I don’t expect forgiveness. But I tell myself that I left the organization better than I found it, and I prevented many future “just a beer”s. I hope Bart understood why I chose that way.

Moving forward, I’m concerned that I’ll be faced with more difficult ethical problems requiring faster reactions.

What if Bart had been in my boat? And if banning him meant squelching my own opportunity to compete? Or if Bart had been 21 and the 48-hour policy hadn’t been formally in place? These problems are difficult to solve.

Word travels fast in our ultra-connected world. So, small actions can have large-scale effects. It’s impossible to predict whether a tiny misstep will be overlooked or will ruin lives. The best thing we can do is to think simply, with honesty and humility. Because even if we are clumsy, at least we are trying.

Advertisements

One Night in Beijing

lisheng-chang-626444-unsplash

Photo by Lisheng Chang on Unsplash

When I was backpacking alone through China in the late 2014, I did not know any Chinese. So, I responded to every bit of English I heard.

In the evening twilight, one night in Beijing, I was approached by two Chinese women who asked, in English, where I was from. Glad to speak with anyone, I replied and continued the conversation.

As we talked, I was 100% focused on asking them about their backgrounds, remembering their names, understanding their stories, telling them about myself, and making connections among our interests. I was so focused that I hadn’t noticed that we had walked down the stairs into a tea shop. That we had entered into a room and I sat down at the table furthest from the door. That while one was telling me about her graduate school, the other was ordering tea and wine and nuts and chips and fruit from the menu.

I looked down at the prices and saw they were absurdly expensive. Immediately, red flags went off. I stopped talking. This didn’t feel right. A pit grew in my stomach and my vision got blurry and I stood up and pushed past the women and ran by the waiter and flung open the door and sprinted up the stairs onto the street to safety.

They had set me up. They would order a bunch of expensive items then “forget” their money. I’d be forced to pay. They would split the earnings with the tea shop owner.

What went wrong?

I could have blamed it on them: they were evil and I was trying to be nice. But to what degree was I responsible for that situation?

By reflecting on this event, I noticed a new tendency in my behavior: I focus hard on making a good first impression with new people by giving them my full attention. But for this, I sacrifice situational awareness.

I don’t often feel concerned about my physical danger because I’m a stocky guy. But clearly, maintaining 100% attention on others is not sustainable, because I could find myself in a different type of danger.

So, I decided to change my behavior. Now, I always maintain situational awareness, even when meeting new people. This allows me to make a good first impression while protecting myself.

conor-luddy-650741-unsplash

Photo by Conor Luddy on Unsplash

I think it’s important to always be improving like this. I think of this process as a 4-Step Self-Improvement Engine:

Reflect -> Learn -> Evaluate -> Change

  1. Reflect: Open my mind through prayer or meditation, and focus my attention on my life choices and events (think about the Tea Ladies).
  2. Learn: Find trends in behavior, character, thoughts, or actions that were previously unidentified (note my 100% focus on attention).
  3. Evaluate: Determine the worth of the identified trend continuing. If it adds value, justify incorporating into my behavior. If not, then justify squelching it (it’s bad to lose situational awareness even in new social interactions, because I could find myself in unknown, dangerous situations).
  4. Change: Both incorporating and squelching involve adjusting behavior (next time I communicate, note where my attention goes and practice noticing my surroundings more often).

Self-improvement enables the character to be better. For me, my best self is good and honest toward myself and others. Being good and honest is positive, sustainable, and repeatable, and should be encouraged. Every day, I should get closer to being good and honest.

But some days, it seems like I don’t get closer to my best self. So why do I sometimes feel off the mark? What else is happening?

estee-janssens-396876-unsplash

Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

To answer this question, I conducted an exercise. Each morning, I wrote the best thing I experienced on the previous day. I ended up writing about people I met, knowledge I gained, unique things I tried, mistakes I made, new places I visited, or things I discovered about myself.

Each “best thing” was new to me and required that I adapt to unknown information. The experience of each involves testing the abilities of my pure character without prior knowledge. These exercises underline the value of my character if I succeed and unearth what I’m missing if I fail. Similarly, a machine algorithm is not valuable if it can accurately crunch only the training data sets it’s already seen. It’s valuable if it can accurately crunch new data sets it hasn’t seen. Since I often fail, every encounter with the unknown enables me to discover something new about myself.

By analyzing the set of my responses to new experiences, I can measure the growth or decline of my character over time. But whether I improved or did not, I always learn something.

Improvement starts with reflection, but relies heavily on learning. Over the long term, the quality and frequency of my learning drive the degree and direction of character growth: better learning -> better measuring -> more improving. If my attitude is prideful and ignorant, then I may not identify anything worth changing in my reflection, and my character does not improve. However, if my attitude is open-minded and honest, then I can address a subtle pattern of destructive behavior that my ego had ignored.

Improving to the most good and honest self requires feeding the self-improvement engine with quality learning. It’s like launching a rocket to reach Mars without knowing any laws of physics. All I can do is start small, compare myself to my goal constantly along the way, and make little adjustments to my speed and direction by firing rocket boosters along the way. In other words, answer the following: “what am I doing now and how does that compare to what I could be doing?” Then, “how do I close the gap?” And then do those things.

Aiming for a goal but not feeding quality learning into the improvement engine is like launching with a hope, but never firing the rocket boosters on the journey. We are guaranteed to stray from the path and miss the mark.

Some people don’t care about reaching Mars, fulfilling their best potential self, nor having any noble aim at all. They are content by passively floating along through life without proacting. I don’t know if that’s ok, but that’s certainly not me. I am happiest when I’m seeking noble aims, learning constantly, improving my character to be the best it can be, and avoiding sketchy Beijing tea shops.

If life is an arcade, what games do you play?

Introduction

When I was young, we would go to the arcade. At the arcade, there were games that took tokens and spit out tickets. When the adult gave us our tokens, most kids would run around aimlessly, feeding tokens into games and laughing and getting a ticket or two, but nothing much. However, I wasn’t playing yet. I was picturing myself walking out with a G.I. Joe action figure from behind the counter that costed 100 tickets.

So, I waited, paid attention, and learned. I studied the other kids and counted the tokens they dug out of their pockets. I noted how many tickets buzzed out of the machine on a win. But most of all, I began understanding the differences between luck and skill, and the cost of amusement.

When I knew enough, I pounced on the game that gave me a good chance of winning that 100 tickets, but that also gave me a bit of fun even if I lost.

photo-1513528473392-f3fffb1b31a9

How do we choose what games to play? Well, it depends on the game and the possible results.

Consider three types of games: Random Guesses, Estimated Predictions, and Educated Aims.

Game Is like… Know the answer options? Will more info help? More info means more answer options? Time spent analyzing
Random Guess Rubber Band Yes No No Seconds
Estimated Prediction Trebuchet Maybe Yes Yes Minutes – Hours
Educated Aim Rocket Program No Yes No Hours – Days
  1. Random Guesses = Rubber Bands.

It’s like grabbing a rubber band from the desk, pinching and pulling back one end, and then releasing, flinging it across the room. A Rubber Band game is a quick hit of adrenaline and lasts only a few seconds.

Rubber Bands have low stakes. I know little going in, it doesn’t take much skill, and I don’t learn much while analyzing. Reward and risk are small. Winning and losing have a trivial effect on my life. There’s a low-cost threshold required to play. I know the answer options beforehand (for example yes/no, or any number 1-10).

So, for example, while walking down the sidewalk I decide to guess the state of a car’s license plate before seeing it. It’s not worth spending much time deciding whether I want to play or not, because it’d be so quick to take a guess. And I can stare at the side of the car all I want, but it won’t really help me guess the license plate any better.

  1. Estimated Predictions = Trebuchets.

It’s like pushing a trebuchet into place, measuring distances, angles, wind speed, placing the projectile, coordinating responsibilities among engineers, and pulling the lever, hurling the rock across the countryside.

Trebuchet games are a step up from Rubber Bands. Trebuchets are more complex and have higher stakes, requiring minutes to hours of play. More skill and knowledge are required to win. But luckily, I can learn more to increase my chances. Reward and risk are higher. Winning and losing significantly affect my life. There may be a substantial cost threshold required to play, because while Rubber Bands involve me as an observer, Trebuchets require me to participate in the game as an actor. Either way, I may know the answers going in, or may not. In that case, more effort helps not only to win, but also to figure out the possible answers. But with both Rubber Bands and Trebuchets, all answers can be found eventually.

So, for example, even though this car in front of me has its left blinker on, it’s been on for a while without switching lanes, so it’s probably not going to switch lanes (I’ve seen this before). Based on my analysis I’m gonna go ahead pass this car with its blinker on. What happens next is the result of the bet: discovering whether the car turns left or not. The longer I drive behind this car with its blinker on without it turning, the more likely it is that the driver left the blinker on by accident; conversely as time goes on the more likely it is that the car will turn if it had intended to.

  1. Educated Aims = Rocket Programs.

It’s like researching and developing and testing and managing for months to build a sustainable program to launch rocket after rocket into space. Rocket games are immensely complex have the highest stakes of all: your life. The utmost skill and knowledge are necessary to even start playing. Rewards include a fruitful and successful life, while risks include death: both immediate and creeping. There’s no end to Rocket games. Any possible answers can’t be verified as the winning play, which means there is no clear winning or losing: the game always continues while players put hours and days and years of life into playing.

The key to Rockets is the cost threshold to play. The value earned or lost in Rockets is the journey toward finding and aligning life along the best possible journey rather than winning the game itself. Before playing, I must make a conscious decision to dive into the game that has no end, in which I bet my life over time to seek the answer that may not exist. But if I do well at the game, my Rocket Program will be healthy and send many rockets to space, discovering countless new horizons.

Suppose I have a convertible car. I drive my convertible, and not something else, because I am betting on its value over real and potential costs. I trust that I can drive it from point A to B consistently and stylishly and in accordance with my values. Even though I may have to replace the brakes soon, the value of the convertible to me is greater the cost over the long term, or at least I think it is. There are so many variables of value and cost, both present and future, that it’s impossible to determine the most rational choice. And the infinitude of life means that I can’t even fathom how many choices are even possible. So, my gamble is the continued driving of my convertible… for now.

carl-raw-599586-unsplash

Conclusions

Different games require different amounts of tokens, involve different levels of skill and luck, and spit out different types of tickets. Consider all three aspects of the game before you play.

Rubber Bands: Spend small amounts of tokens, because you’re paying for fun and amusement. The choice to play can be so instantaneous that it doesn’t take much to decide to play. Know that you may get one lousy ticket even if you win.

Trebuchets: Consider first whether winning would give you enough tickets to warrant the higher number of tokens, higher level of skill, and higher level of analysis that you must spend to play, find additional answers, and win. Also, think about whether the risk of losing those tokens without a payout would cripple you beyond repair.

Rocket Programs: Figure out whether you’d like to live as the player who plays this game, feeding in tokens without getting any tickets. The skill and analysis required to play, however, rub off on you so much that playing the game changes you, for better or worse. Is the aim noble? Is it in accordance in values? Such games involve asking: What is God? How do I aim at the highest good? Seeking that, you’re gonna learn so many good things you can do, some of which may resonate; hopefully you end up doing some of those things and producing good in the world. Or, what evil am I capable of? This will give you awareness that you won’t fall into the downward spiral of mistrust, into consenting to genocide.

“Stare at the abyss and the abyss will stare back at you.” When deciding what game to play, consider how the game will be playing you.

Language, Gife-Liver

~~~

Do you remember the recent decision by the British people to leave the EU? Of course you do. Do you remember what that was called? Of course you do.

Now that some dust has settled, I examine the processes before, during, and after “Brexit” with a particular lens:

I hypothesize that language can give life to things.

~~~

Consider something that is not. Impossible? Debatable, but unlikely. Language serves as a function that inputs something and gives it “realness” or “life” in our minds. That realness serves as a recipient grasped by our mental actions. For our purposes, if a vote by a nation of people to change a policy significantly affects economies, ideologies, and perceptions, then “Brexit”, and thus language, is real enough to matter.

Having the word “tree” consolidates sensory data in a way that encourages us to notice manifestations of the word in the form of patterns usually found in forests. Whereas a lack of a word may cause our attention to skip over such manifestations of patterns. Without ever noticing it, one could argue that it does not exist to us. If something has never been described in language, this does not mean that it doesn’t exist. However, certainly something having been described with language gains a considerable degree of realness.

Like electricity or getting introduced to the stage by an MC, this describing function often simply involves the connection of this piece of language to other pieces in various ways, through the connection maintaining accepted modica of usage, thus giving this piece realness. This connection serves as a platform upon which a thing is described by other (previously vetted) “real” things.

In action, consider “Brexit”: a combination of “Britain” (a country located around 55.3781° N, 3.4360° W) and “exit” (the action of taking leave). Note my explanations of the pieces themselves contain connections to other lingual pieces.

Language can give life, or degrees of realness. So, what’s the point?

 

 

~~~

Power

Understand this: That which can be more easily represented in language is more likely to be understood quicker than that which can be represented in language less easily. Repetition increases understanding. Repetition increases understanding. Repetition increases understanding. Comfort breeds understanding. Fear propels us away, into comfort.

Marketing departments exist for a reason. TV commercials cost a lot of resources. Lingual manipulation works in favor of the manipulator. Memes, fads, and slang exist from common understanding, borne from ease, repetition, and control of comfort and fear.

Language that is easy to describe, repeated, and manipulated through fear or comfort can influence the communicative dissemination and transactions of understanding.

So, I hold that “Brexit”, an easily communicable two-syllable combination of commonly known ideas, plastered on media outlets, and instilled by positivity and negativity, contributed directly and significantly to the vote in its favor. If its creation was deliberate, “Brexit’s” creators should be commended. And given a raise. “Brexit” implanted itself in many hearts and minds, at the least. One can only speculate how its sibling, “Bremain”, would’ve fared given the same attention.

In conclusion, to persuade, try inventing language. Control the ease, repetition, and level of comfort or fear associated with it. Give a description of something new that benefits you. Its foil, the non-existence of the thing, stands no chance to combat your description. Through language, we can be gods. Give life. Live gife.

 

Buy high: Get your attention’s worth

Story

I had the morning and early afternoon to explore before my flight to Dublin, so I decided to wander. While ambling through Hyde Park, London early on a late-summer day, I noticed a crowd of people gathered under some trees: extravagantly-dressed characters speaking loudly to surrounding groups of people. A few stood atop boxes. As I approached, the cacophony of monologues crept up into my ears and I entered Speaker’s Corner.

When I could finally fit a word of my own into the fray, I asked one speaker about the implications of overpopulation. Before I had finished asking my question, he snatched attention away from me and started speaking. He led us on a magical journey of speech and language, countless hecklers interrupted and argued as they pleased. The speaker wrestled for attention from many challengers.

Soon, one famous challenger arrived: a self-proclaimed fascist, dressed in military garb with a Hitler-style mustache, argued for the role of a strong state, necessity of institutions, and importance of racism. In response the first speaker wove a deep metaphor about how the challenger’s thought process could be represented as a sewage system funneling large, powerful shits.

Symbol

But this scene was more than a processing system for word-shits. It was beautiful not because of the shit in the sewer, but rather the sea into which the sewers spewed.

Here at Speaker’s Corner between strangers the right to speak is fought for and not given. Anyone can speak openly, with or without respect to those on the soap-boxes. The people constantly construct and deconstruct the social dynamics that give attention to one and take it away from another.

Social dynamics we may take for granted, but allocation of attention is less like a hierarchy and more like a swirling ocean of pure chaos. Many situations in our lives have predetermined social roles, depending on cues like status, dress, age, and confidence. Social pressure compels us to fight for attention covertly and subtly, appearing always in control. Conflicts that emerge into verbal or physical fights are deemed uncivil.

But when social dynamics are boiled down, rules fall apart and only savagery remains. The prize of these fights is dominance through attention, and the prize of attention is self-worth.

Power

In order to win attention, study how you give attention. Specifically, notice how you pay attention.

Even notice the language we use: “pay attention.” We are in control of a valuable resource that we can trade for something in return. As is the case with currency and confidence, the more you value your attention, the more others will. Those seeking your attention can provide something in return. The intelligent and successful sell their attention for highly valuable resources with developmental benefits. They sell high.

How do you get your attention’s worth?

Take an “attention pulse” throughout the day.

Keep a journal, or use a note-taking app on your phone. At certain points during the day, take note of what you were paying your attention to a moment before. For each entry, document important observations:

  • Object of attention
  • Time
  • Location
  • Context (what happened before or after this?)

And most importantly:

  • Trade-off (that which is received for your attention)

Whether it is knowledge, entertainment, social value, nourishment, relaxation, or fulfillment, this observation will reveal for what you trade your most powerful, but finite resource. Consolidate your results. Are you spending your attention wisely? If not, identify what trade-offs are most valuable to you, and budget your attention accordingly. Remember, your attention is only as good as you spend it.

~~~

The conversations at the Speaker’s Corner are passionate, radical, eloquent, and challenging: true Sophists at work. I most enjoyed the pure awe I felt at the skilled rhetoric of an individual vying for attention. Such social dynamics were incredibly entertaining to witness, and revealed a raw truth about the power of attention.

 

“Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.” -Daniel Kahneman

Everyone has their wolf

wolf_eyes___detail_by_haloghost-d49p4ee

Who is your favorite fictional character?

Story

When I was 14 years old, as I do now, I loved to read fantasy and science fiction books. Within an epic series lived a character whom I idolized. My eyes scanned Robert Jordan’s words outlining the stout, stubborn, and humble Perrin Aybara’s quirks. But in these words I imagined myself, and my inner heroism now had a medium with which to express itself.

As Perrin Aybara delved into adventures, he began to discover a deep, powerful energy: his inner wolf. He grew a thick beard, became intimate with his senses, and noticed his eyes change into a golden hue. He could even communicate with wolves themselves.

I was born with blue eyes. After a few years, these changed to green. At 14 years old, my eye color was changing from green to an earthy, golden hazel. My canine teeth grew longer and sharper than the rest of my teeth. It couldn’t be a coincidence.

Symbol

The characteristics, thoughts, and actions of an external symbol catalyzed the development of my own characteristics, thoughts, and actions. I could metaphorically conceptualize my life through the mind of a wolf: my ideal self. So, I did. I could see the humans for the animals they are. School lunches became a crowded crossroads at a watering hole. A morning run became a hunt for survival.

Wolves are pack animals: the adaptive team member. There is the “lone wolf”: the independent explorer. There is the “alpha” of the pack: the confident leader. I appropriated every positive attribute of the “wolf” to my own identity. Am I working with others on a project? Wolves sacrifice for the good of the pack. Am I feeling lost? Go out and experience something new: look at art; climb a mountain; ask questions. Am I yearning for a mission? Establish a vision, gather help, and build something.

Power

For many years, I only lived as an animal. But recently, I began to understand the reasons why I did so. When I felt pressure, I found a way free from my longing to be a comfortable recluse, curled up in a fetal position of artificial security. When faced with a difficult interview question, for example, heat would rise into my cheeks and my neck hairs would stand on end. But now, I have trained my mind to leap for a split-second into wolf-mode. For that brief instance of silence between question and answer, time waning into slow motion, I bear my canines and flick my ears, drawing upon ages of feral spirit to reassure myself. With a brief smile, I can confidently re-focus my attention toward the task at hand.

We should not restrict our oases of inspiration to those most like us. Yes, I have my human idols: orators, visionaries, warriors. But, I learn more from noticing and grasping at similarities between things that, at first glance, appear mutually exclusive. If we don’t sense connections between things, it does not follow that these the connections don’t exist. Rather, a foreign feeling propagates because I have not conceptualized and understood the similarities, yet. That which appears furthest from me only appears as such because I am ignorant and biased. Once I open my mind to the possibility, embody it, and test it, I can hold myself to such a restricting dichotomy as “right” or “wrong.” What can we learn from ants?: About emergence theory and feedback loops. What can we learn from Watson?: About human nature. What can we learn from the moon?: About ambition. Symbols are teachers of our world.

As I walk down the crowded streets, I see lions and pumas, falcons and hawks, beetles and bears, gorillas and celery. Consider whatever animal (or thing) I smell in you a compliment. Such acts comprise my fundamental survival guide with which I consult when necessary to interact in a crazy, un-symbolized world.

“For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” -Rudyard Kipling

 

Image by HaloGhost @ http://haloghost.deviantart.com/art/Wolf-Eyes-Detail-258153350