Category Archives: Accidental Philosophy

Past baggage


We’re out of town and away from computers this week, but I can’t not share this, so I’m posting from my phone, of all things. Blasphemy! My typing speed is hamstrung, but that’s a testament to my shookenness.

I picked up a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living on the recommendation of Tim Ferriss (thanks to my previous post) and 5 pages in I can already tell this one is a keeper. I’m sharing with you, then, an excerpt from the opening pages.

A few months before he spoke at Yale, Sir William Osler had crossed the Atlantic on a great ocean liner where the captain, standing on the bridge, could press a button and -presto! – there was a clanging of machinery and various parts of the ship were immediately shut off from one another – shut off into watertight compartments.

“Now each one of you,” Dr. Osler said to those Yale students, “is a much more marvelous organization than the great liner, and bound on a longer voyage. What I urge is that you so learn to control the machinery as to live with day-tight compartments as the most certain way to ensure safety on the voyage. Get on the bridge, and see that at least the great bulkheads are in working order. Touch a button and hear, at every level of your life, the iron doors shutting on the Past – the dead yesterdays. Touch another and shut off, with a metal curtain, the Future – the unborn tomorrows. Then you are safe – safe for today! Shut off the past! Let the past bury its dead … shut out the yesterdays which have lighted fools the way to dusty death … the load of tomorrow, added to that of yesterday, carried today, makes the strongest falter. Shut off the future as tightly as the past … the future is today … there is no tomorrow. The day of man’s salvation is now.

Waste of energy, mental distress, nervous worries dog the steps of a man who is anxious about the future … shut close, then, the great fore and aft bulkheads, and prepare to cultivate the habit of a life of ‘day-tight compartments’.”

We – and by we I mean I – carry so much of the weight of yesterday and tomorrow that it gets in the way of today. But the fact is, yesterday is over – whatever will come of it is out of my hands. And tomorrow will come, or it won’t – and very little of that is within my compass either.

Worry over the past or the future, therefore, is worry picked up for its own sake. Maybe think twice before picking up all that baggage.

Put another way…

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Productivity Porn Pays Off Sometimes


I made the mistake of listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast this morning.

I say mistake because, as is often the case when I read or listen to something by Tim it tends to take over my brain, the way the moon drifting in front of the sun turns day into night for a few minutes. The difference is instead of lasting for minutes, the effect tends to last for days or weeks.

The problem with listening to Mr. Ferriss, or with any so-called “productivity porn”, is that it tends to create a feedback loop, a sort-of hyped up fugue state. You read this thing and you think “HELL YES, this thing is going to change my life” and your brain drowns in the dopamine flood caused by the visions of success, and while you’re high on that you notice that the thing you just read references this other thing and hey, you’ve got a few minutes before you have to get back to real life, so why not check that out while you’re at it, and wouldn’t you know it the new thing hits you with the “HELL YES” effect again and the cycle repeats. (Full disclosure: when I started writing this post I visited Tim’s site — for the first time in months, I might add, because I know what happens when I do it — and fell victim to the same cycle. I also signed up for his new newsletter. And may or may not have copy/pasted some material onto my desktop. Stop judging me.) Point is, you have to be judicious with this sort of thing, which is why I’m probably not going to dip my toes into Tim Ferriss land for several months again. Still, this morning, I think, was beneficial.

The material in question was a recent episode called Tea Time with Tim, which covers a lot of ground but left me with a couple of things clanking around in the ol’ noggin: something he calls “fear-setting” and a few quotes from ancient Greece.

First, fear-setting. You’ve heard of goal-setting, where you set down your goals, enumerate the steps to the achievement of said goals, and more or less plan your vision for success. Well and good, but for us anxious types, who dwell on fears perhaps more than we should, there’s a tendency to let those fears paralyze us to the point of inaction. (See for example my writing productivity over the past several months.) Fear-setting is designed to take the positive visualization of goal-setting and turn the full artillery of that framework on the anti-action fear center of the brain. In a (woefully inadequate) nutshell, fear-setting entails writing down all the things that could go wrong and enumerating the opportunity cost if all those things did go wrong, then weighing those costs against a (harshly conservative) estimation of the possible benefits if the things don’t go wrong. For the anxious sort like me, it seems like a good way to short-circuit the “thing is scary so maybe just pretend it doesn’t exist and it’ll go away” paralysis I tend to fall into over stuff.

Then, quotes from Greek guys. First, this one:

Which is one I’m going to share with my classes today, because my students tend to be sick with the germ of “well I want this thing really badly, and things tend to work out for me, so on performance day it’ll all just come together”. You and I, of course, know that kind of thinking is what makes starving artists waiting tables for their whole lives, or worse, a phalanx of creatives who never took up the dream at all because a single performance didn’t live up to the hype in their head. So I’m going to remind them, today, that their training, today, matters for the performance a month down the road, and, well, for most of ’em it’ll bounce right off but at least I’ll have done my part for the day.

It applies for me personally, too, of course. Suffice it to say I’m not particularly well trained-up at the moment in a number of domains, and, well, that needs some attention.

Then, this:

And, yeah, Seneca was Roman, not Greek, but the Romans were basically Greeks with better tech, so let’s not get too hung up on the details. I’ve actually seen the quote more often with the first clause as “we are often more frightened than hurt,” but I prefer this one with fears and dangers. The important part, at any rate, is the second part. The thing we’re afraid of is always worse in our minds and the reality is almost never as bad as we build it up to be. For evidence I offer the example from Louis C.K. (and yeah, quoting Louis C.K. is problematic these days but his personal faults don’t change the poignancy of his words) of the average description of a trip by airplane. The person is likely to complain about the length of delays or the slowness of service or the lack of wi-fi and less likely to dwell on the fact that they literally FLEW THROUGH THE AIR and crossed the country in a matter of hours. We make things out, in other words, a bit worse than they really are in the scheme of things.

So, yeah, my brain is basically on fire this morning.

I hope it doesn’t burn out.


Accidental Philosophy: Tie Up Your Camels


When I read books, the best quotes go in an ever-growing Evernote file. Sometimes I reach into that file and ruminate on a passage or two. The result is “Accidental Philosophy.”

I recently finished Dan Harris’s 10% Happier, which I’ve mentioned once or twice ’round these parts. It’s a bit of a strange bird: a book about meditation which is somehow riveting. A great skeptic’s look at a practice that, from the outside, seems to be dripping with woo. If you’re considering the practice of meditation, or just curious about it, it’s worth your time.

But today’s words aren’t about the book, they’re about a single passage within it. Which is actually a quote of something else. So I’m quoting a quote about another quote. Anyway:

The Sufi Muslims say, “Praise Allah, but also tie your camel to the post.” In other words, it’s good to take a transcendent view of the world, but don’t be a chump. (201)

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Let the record show, then: good ideas can come from religion!

I love this quote, and here’s why: we rely too much on faith. Even those of us who are decidedly not people of faith lean too much on faith at the expense of our common sense.

Faith in our own abilities. Faith in other people. Faith in society. And, yeah, for those who swing that way, faith in higher powers.

And that’s not, in and of itself, a problem, or even a mistake. Sometimes we do estimate our own abilities appropriately. Sometimes other people do live up to the hope we hold for them. Sometimes societies do the right thing.

But certainly more often than “rarely” those things don’t happen. You overestimate yourself and get in over your head. A person you trust lets you down. Society disappoints you. (Oh lord, how society has disappointed me these past two years.)

This quote, then, is a little reminder, a little prick in the pocket, to stay skeptical. To not rely too much on faith. To hold nothing so sacred that you give no thought to the consequences if it doesn’t deliver.

In other words, tie up your camels. Tie ’em right up.

And then keep your distance. I hear they spit.

llama eating GIF

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


Accidental Philosophy: The Futility of “Should”


“Should” is a useless word. 

-Delilah S. Dawson, Hit

There’s something that’s been bugging me for a while now. I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I couldn’t name it, so it just sort of floated around in the back of my brain like a dragon fly, darting this way and that, sometimes getting right up in your face, then skittering away whenever you swat at it or grab for it.

It’s about people, and the way we talk to each other, and the way we talk about the world. Specifically, it’s about certain kinds of people and the way they want the world to be. You know these people. They talk about the way the world ought to be, saying things like “wouldn’t it be better if …” or “things would be perfect if only …”

And some of these people even find their way into office in this country. And they start making laws and enacting statutes and directing policy to bend things to the way they say they “ought to be”. Trouble is, things are what they are, and changing them around isn’t so easy as that. Especially when the things are people.

Before I get too carried away, let me wander back to the point. My leisure reading the last two weeks was Delilah S. Dawson’s Hit, a YA dystopian thriller about a future where banks have seized control of the country and are forcing children to become debt-collecting hitmen.

(Why kids? Because it’s too diabolical to be believed, and who’s gonna point a gun at a kid coming to their door? And also, because YA. Pretty wild, but who cares, it was a fun read.)

Anyway, about a third of the way into the book, one of the characters is lamenting their situation and moaning about how “things shouldn’t be this way” and the protagonist snaps back, “should is a useless word.”

I read that. And all of a sudden, that dragonfly in my brain stopped skittering, landed on a lonely dendrite, and took root.

“Should” is a useless word. Yet it’s one we use all the time.

“I should have gotten up earlier.” Yeah, I should have, but I didn’t — so what am I going to do about it?

“People shouldn’t steal.” Yeah, they shouldn’t, but they do — so what are we going to do about it?

“He shouldn’t have even been there.” Yeah, but he was — so what are you going to do about it?

See what happens there? Any time somebody says “so-and-so should …” there’s an automatic “but” followed by a “so what” that comes in response.

“Should” seems more and more to me like the refuge of the coward. It says, “I don’t like this situation, so instead I’m going to talk about what I would rather it had been (yikes, grammar is hard when you get rid of “should”) without doing anything about it.” And yeah, sometimes the “should” statement is followed by action, but a lot of times, it isn’t. A lot of the time, we just say “well, it should be this other way” and we leave it at that.

For that matter, a lot of what people go around “shoulding” about has nothing to do with them. “Gay people shouldn’t get married.” “Women shouldn’t be in those jobs.” “He should take better care of himself.” None of which has anything to do with the person saying it. We have a rule in my house and in my classroom. Rule #1. MYOB. Mind Your Own Business.

The fact is, people use “should” to hide from things they don’t like, from things that make them uncomfortable, from things that scare them. They use “should” to build a fantasy world in their heads. A make-believe universe where things are perfect, unoffensive, unscary. “Should” represents a fundamental failure (or, worse, refusal) to see the world as it is in favor of how we expect it to be.

But the “shoulding” doesn’t do a damn thing. Things are what they are, and all the shoulds in the world won’t change them.

What changes things is action.

And guess what?

You can take action without griping about how things “should” be first. Address things as they are, recognize that there is no such thing as “perfect” (because the world we live in is messy and filled with other people who don’t automatically agree with you) and work to make things better.

Don’t waste your time moaning about the way things “should” be.

Get to work on fixing what’s wrong.

 


On Bloody Ears and the Problem of Luck


I cut myself shaving this morning.

Not a big deal. I wasn’t the only one. And it’s not like it has messed with my day in any major way. You get a cut, you stop it up with some tissue paper, you forget about it and walk into the office with spritzes of bloody tissue on your face, life goes on.

Except I didn’t cut my face, as one might expect. I cut my ear.

And not the low-hanging fruit of the lobe, which, while unusual, is still within the realm of the normal and understandable. No, I sliced the top of my ear.

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This is virtually impossible to do under ordinary circumstances, unless, like me, you’re a guy taking a safety razor to your dome once a week.

(Side note: the safety razor is not particularly aptly named, as it turns out. Your average dollar-store special is way harder to injure yourself with — though it doesn’t give you nearly as nice a result.)

Worse still, I’ve done it before — and it’s the kind of mistake that, really, you shouldn’t make that often. Cuts that high up on the head sting terrifically, and bleed with the abandon of a five-year-old running toward a playground, which is to say, total. One would think that one would, therefore, remember the unpleasantness of the entire affair and take care to avoid it.

The trouble is, of course, that shaving is one of those things that becomes routine, that you do so regularly that they become automatic. And when things become automatic, our minds tend to wander while we’re about them. (See also: driving. Unless something seriously significant happened — a near accident, for example, or a strange sighting, like a murder-clown walking along the street side — what can you really remember about your drive this morning? Probably not much. Your brain handled it for you, on autopilot, while you listened to the radio or thought about what you had to get done today.) And when the mind wanders while you’re about a routine task, well. You can come away missing pieces of yourself.

This is called automaticity, by the way, and is one of the few concepts I recall with perfect clarity from my college days. Who knows why. Probably it’s the funny word, which WordPress’s spellchecker does not recognize.

But shaving is not a thing that I should be doing in such a carefree manner. The blade I’m using is sharp, and the technique for its use is not necessarily intuitive. Not to mention that the curved surface of a skull is not the easiest thing to shave when using a blade that is flat. There’s care involved, and skill, and attention to detail. And getting above and behind the ears is fiddly even by head-shaving standards. I really should know better.

But no, instead of focusing on the task, I was listening to a podcast. Trying to learn a few things about the world we live in. (A back episode of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, for the curious.) You know, trying to better myself. And then, snag, slice, recoil.

And here I am, bleeding. I thought it might not be that bad, until a few seconds later when blood began dripping onto the bathroom counter. (Pit pit pit. Cue dizzy panic.)

There’s something to be thought, here, about luck. I was unlucky this morning, but this is my MO every time I shave, and usually I am not unlucky. (To put it into perspective, consider: many, many people text and drive, some of them alarmingly often. Some unlucky few will get into accidents, or even hurt or kill somebody, as a result. Only those disastrously unlucky enough to have accidents happen are likely to suffer any significant penalty or jail time; most people who text and drive suffer no consequence at all. Yet they all participated in the same inadvisable behavior. Some are lucky, the others are not. Shouldn’t those who text and drive, even without causing any harm to anybody on the occasion, suffer the same penalties we would levy against the person unlucky enough to hit somebody with their car? Why should those who were simply unlucky bear a harsher penalty? Needless to say, this is a practice I do not partake in.)

Anyway, just some food for thought on a Monday morning. Maybe I need a bit more mindfulness in my day. I’ve got a bloody neck and shoulder to remind me. It leads me to wonder: just how much of our days do we complete on autopilot?

 


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