Monk Hours

I have an attraction to the monk lifestyle. Or perhaps I have an attraction to extreme lifestyles. You may not guess that by looking at me. I watch Netflix and football. Listen to Spotify and podcasts. But deep down – I am envious of Navy Seals and Monks. People with discipline.

A monk is someone “who practices religious asceticism by monastic living, either alone or with a number of monks”. I am married – so I will not be becoming a monk – but I can do more to cultivate a disciplined lifestyle.

I will be imposing Monk zone hours – from 6:30 am – 7:30 am and 10pm – 11pm. No podcasts, no TV or twitter. Just reflection, writing, reading, meditating.

It starts by having standard against which you hold yourself. You must meet them or not.

Truth v. Quality

I have been thinking about a quote from Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig,  “Truth won, the Good lost, and that is why today we have so little difficulty accepting the reality of truth and so much difficulty accepting the reality of Quality, even though there is no more agreement in one area than in the other.”

There are truths and there is quality. For example, Tom Brady threw 3 interceptions against the Saints is a fact. It is true. Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback in history. Is that statement true – or is that a good argument? Perhaps, an arete? It is a statement that belongs to the domain of quality – a scale.

I constantly hear that we live in a post-truth world. Truth is relative. We are inundated with “Fake News.” I hardly hear anyone talk about quality. Whether something is “of quality”. Whether a piece is well done.

Of relevance for the moment is the election in the United States. Trump declares that there is voter fraud. Biden says every vote counts. They are talking past each other. Of course there is voter fraud – but on what scale? Enough to swing the election, I doubt it. But instead of saying that. We get zero and one. Binaries. Truth or False. Voter fraud on a scale of 1 to 10 is probably .003. But it should be acknowledged, and when discovered, addressed and fixed. So if the discussion was framed in terms of quality – this discussion would be simple – it was a high quality election. Very high quality.

In carelessly mixing our truth and our quality statements – we can arrive at a world where truth seems questionable. And we start to make judgements based on unspecified criteria. Language is a clumsy tool and must be used carefully – lest we cause chaos.

#20 on the Top 20 Psychologists of the 20th Century – George A. Miller

The biggest takeaway from George A. Miller is that while we are limited in the amount of information we can take in, and limited in the duration of time that we can store that information, we can increase the overall amount of information by chunking groups of items together. This is one of the pillars of learning and a powerful tool when used consciously.

George A. Miller is number 20 on the Top Psychologists of the Twentieth Century, and while I was not familiar with the name, I was familiar with the research. I first learned about the 7 item limit of our short term memory in elementary school. But they never taught me the more important principle of chunking – or recoding. Recoding is the idea that you can nest pieces of information together in groups and hold those groups in your short term memory. So while you are still limited to seven pieces of information (plus or minus two) you have in effect hacked the system to hold much more. We are all familiar with this idea, you can hold your telephone number and your address in mind simultaneously, while each of those items is longer than 7 “bits”.

It is remarkable that given Miller’s impact on the landscape of science – and “discovering” such a powerful and practical tool as chunking – I can hardly find anything out about the man himself. It doesn’t help that he has a common name – and it is shared with the successful director of Mad Max. Miller’s books do not seem popular today, as evidenced by the most bare Amazon page I have seen.

After the notable achievement that was “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two”, Miller went on to do important work in Psycholinguistics with Noam Chomsky. As well as co-found the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies, which “institutionalized the revolution and launched the field of cognitive science. Today the study of the human mind is among the most exciting frontiers of science. Its practical applications include the design of software, the diagnosis of neurological disease, and the formation of public policy, and its theories have revolutionized our understanding of ancient problems such as consciousness, free will, and human nature.” 1

Over time, Miller’s interests turned away from the Markov process on which Shannon’s analysis of language was based – and he turned toward Chomsky and the Syntactic Theory. The study of linguistics which was having its own revolution. I want to do more reading around this area because, as Miller state’s, “that language must be a key element of any theory of psychology because it is a means of making private or internal psychological phenomena observable, measurable, and public.”2

The key strategic decision Miller made was to break away from the popular Behavioristic framework of the day. This led to the proposal to switch from a stimulus response view of the world to what they labeled “TOTE” (test, operate, test, exit). This reminds me of Boyd’s OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop. This structure is more dynamic and allows for productive interaction with the wicked world of complexity.

Miller wrote a history of the “Cognitive Revolutions”. It is elegant and to the point at just 3 pages. It is frustrating trying to get a sense of the man from my google searches. I want to know more about him – but perhaps that is just something I have been classically conditioned to expect in our story-saturated culture. He appears to have led an interesting life – attending University of Alabama in the 40s and then Harvard for his Ph.D. He served in the Army Signal Corps during WWII.

The closest I was able to get to a sense of who he was came from reading a collection of memories from former students and colleagues. Like much of Miller’s own writing, this snippet reflects the brevity with which they communicate. “George Miller taught me how to make hollandaise. In the mid-1970s, George was a professor at Rockefeller University, where I was a graduate student in philosophy. George lived in Princeton, but had an apartment in RU’s faculty and student housing building where he stayed during the week. As a graduate student, I was always hungry and looking for a meal. George invited me to dinner at his place. He served nice wine, steak, and asparagus with hollandaise.” 3

Who do you follow?

Who do you follow? On instagram, on twitter, in real life? Is this something you think about?

They say when you are ready – a teacher will appear. I thought I was ready for a long time without running in Mr. Miagi.

I have come to learn that everyone can teach you something. Everyone has something to offer. But some can provide more insight than others. Some can help you on your path to a better life – others will take you on detours. But do you take the time to “maintain your thought garden”?

Reduce the noise so you can find the signal.

Inputs and Outputs

Lately, I have been thinking about inputs and outputs. Something to the effect of, “you are what you eat” and “tell me the five people you spend the most time with and I can predict your future.”

Thinking about inputs – what comes into my “system” – also has me thinking about the inherently complicated nature of systems. Always more than one variable present at a time – so control becomes impossible.

But in general, do you try to effect the outcome? How often do you think about the inputs coming into your life? For me, I don’t think I have ever unfollowed anyone on Instagram. I hardly ever get rid of clothes. I hardly ever get rid of files or papers or books. Things just collect. That means more inputs – more things constantly tugging, I go through life accumulating.

I am not advocating any dirty label, like minimalism, or finding what sparks joy, or Zen Buddhism – but instead acknowledging our power. We make choices everyday. We choose our inputs, and that controls our outputs.

Today, I will unfollow 3 people on Instagram.

Resistance and the Sunrise

In 2013, I woke up early on a Saturday morning. Saturdays are days when I could have slept as long as I wanted. But I chose to wake up at 5:30am and drive off into the darkness. The goal was this beautiful spot I had come across driving around and always wanted to photograph. The night before I set my intention and my alarm.

The spot was a lake, argued to have the highest concentration of Alligators in the state of Florida. Now, I am not scared of alligators. But I am not a fan of them either. Living in Florida and being an avid trail runner – I have had a number of encounters with alligators. But hanging around photographing with a tripod is a little different than already being in motion – and it is a perfect example of what Steven Pressfield calls the “Resistance”.

 The Resistance is that thing in your brain that pops up whenever you try to do something – usually creative or productive. The voice in your head goes something like, “I know, I will wake up early and go take photos of the that beautiful lake.” And then the alarm goes off and it is still dark, and you would pay money to hit snooze. And there are so many steps you have to take to get out the door. And when you imagine arriving at the spot you don’t know where you will park and on top of that – the spot is the highest concentration of alligators in Florida.

This rationalizing brain is the enemy. And that morning in 2013 I beat that part of my brain. And I took some decent photos. I ended up more focused on the street than the lake – and that took me by surprise.

I did not run into any alligators and I did not win any awards for the photos I took that morning. But what I did get was better. I got the valuable lesson that, for some reason, I must relearn every week. The lesson that my life goes better when I fight resistance. 

Resistance is the enemy. And the time when resistance is at its highest, and the battle is hardest to win, is also the most important moment to rise to the occasion – the morning. If you can wake up when the alarm goes off – and start your day. Make your bed if you can (if don’t have a loved one sound asleep in it), get a little bit of stretching, exercise in, some meditation and then from there the day seems to be docile. Things tend to be smoother. As the age old saying goes, “win the morning – win the day”.

For me the right time to wake up seems to be at 5:55. What’s your time?

Courage to Consistently Create

We live in a time of noise. Tweets, instagram posts, snapchat stories, New York Times, NY Post, ESPN, Disney+, the list goes on. Today, we all have a voice and access to a platform. Channels are everywhere.

But, most of us use these tools to consume rather than contribute. When was the last time you made a film? Or tweeted for that matter? According to Pew Research, “most U.S. adult Twitter users don’t tweet very often. A large majority of tweets come from a small minority of users.And while stillness and silence are incredibly important and undervalued – so is contributing to the conversation. So what does it take to contribute?

Not much – just type something and hit send. So perhaps a better question is, what prevents us from contributing, from creating? For me, a feeling of insecurity arises around thinking about what I do not know. I feel like I need a Ph.D. in the subject to be able to comment. Which to be honest, when it comes to complex foreign policy or nuanced health care discussions, the world could use a bit more of that hesitation. But discussions, reflections, putting your thoughts on paper and in to the world – this is how we grow. And it takes courage. Courage to be wrong and to have someone tell you that. To learn and move forward – but at least you are moving forward instead of watching the world go by.

Masterclass: Focusing on What You Can Control

Listening to Dabo Swinney’s full press conference, I am struck by his powerful life philosophy – focus on what you can control. 

He doesn’t state this as his philosophy – I am just observing. And I left out God – which he never does. His philosophy is something like, “I just want to do a good job this week, and if the good Lord gives us another week – do a good job that week.” (28:57)

This echoes stoicism and the Serenity Prayer – there are things outside of you control and there are things inside of your control and knowing the difference and focusing on what you can control is the secret to your success.

What Dabo does so wonderfully, and is seen in this press conference, is that he has fun while he does it. That’s the something extra.

A New Watch

I often listen to long ambient music on YouTube while I work. This genre has become more robust over the years. Amongst the lofi, ambient, and classical videos there appears to be a new genre of “study with me” videos. Instead of the gif person studying forever, you can study “with” a real person. It’s oddly satisfying.

Occasionally, I look over and see someone else hard at work and it motivates me to return to focus.

But occasionally I notice things like her watch. It’s a nice looking watch. And it makes me wonder about my watch. I have long loved watches, but they have changed over the years. Now the Apple Watch exists – not so much a watch as a computer. You now have a choice between something that tells the time or something that assists you in almost every facet of your life.

For some reason, I cannot bring myself to buy the Apple Watch. But I was an early adopter of the Fitbit. I have had one in some form or fashion for over a decade. I wear them for about 3 months and then get tired of it and retreat to a regular watch for a week. Then return to the Fitbit. The band is comfortable. It tells me about my sleep, which I am always trying to improve. It tells me my steps, which I do not really seek a specific number of, but if I look down at 7pm and see 5,000 I know that I need to do something. It’s feedback.

But the watch that this girl is wearing, this is the watch that someone successful wears. It is the watch I could see myself wearing, while I succeed. In fact, I bet if I had that watch, I would focus better. I wonder how much that watch costs – or what kind of watch it is. I wonder if someone has commented on the watch or if I am the only one who notices it. I scroll down. I see that she has added links to the watch, her glasses, the computer – all of it – in the comments. She knew that we would want to “buy” the lifestyle. I lean back in my chair – what does this say about humanity?

Did I just fall into a hopeless pit of human depravity? The desire to buy a thing in order to elicit a feeling. Is that such a bad thing?