On Fictions and Doing What is Right

Part I – How Do You Know What Is Right?

The Serenity Prayer asks for “the courage to change the things you can, the serenity to accept the things you cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference”. The brilliance of this little prayer is the last line – “the wisdom to know the difference.” So often, in our lives, it feels like we are ships in a storm, being tossed around by forces beyond our control. Of course, this is true. Operating in an environment is to be operating with forces beyond our control. And operating in an environment does not excuse us from action, or from pursuing what is right. But how do we know what is right?

If we knew what was right all of the time, if things were labeled “good” and “bad” on their surface, then life would be simple. Ironically, in our world, things that are labeled good and bad are usually the most dangerous items. So we are left to fend for ourselves in a murky land.

Here is a small example, how does one choose between going to a job to provide for their families and spending time with their families? Should someone strive to meet the unrealistic obligations of their boss who is trying to meet the unrealistic obligations of their boss – and therefore miss their daughter’s soccer game? Or put family first and tell the boss they can’t meet the deadline? Or should they be modern and appear in person at the soccer game but be absent in spirit as they work from their phone or laptop?

This is a small everyday example. Life is full of these questions and that is what is so wonderful about the serenity prayer. In just a few words, it acknowledges that we are confronted with choices, we have power, but we do not control the outcome.

Part II – Role Models and Right Actions

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius begins with a list of individuals Marcus finds exceptional for some reason. He takes time, and makes those reasons explicit. Marcus is curious and trying to discover what is worth emulating. We can do the same in our lives and we are not limited to real people, we can also study the characters of history and fictional worlds. Lately, I have been reading the Kingsbridge series (Pillars of the Earth) by Ken Follett. This series is filled with characters who are confronted with challenging circumstances for which there does not seem to be a good or right answer – and yet, they persevere.

Pillars of the Earth is set in England in the 1100’s. I am not a scholar of this period, so I will have to take Ken Follett’s work as tonally accurate – which is to say violent, difficult, and brutal. Parts of the this book are truly difficult to read. Visualizing them in your mind is disturbing, but at the same time nothing feels out of the realm of possibility for every day life in that period. And it is in that time that the character of Philip the Prior is raised. (Spoilers ahead)

Philip’s parents are brutally murdered when he is a young boy and he is raised by the church. His life is given to God. But throughout the book, Philip never thinks that things are out of his hands completely. He believes he can influence things and that is his mission – that is the reason God put him on the earth. This is a very different stance from the often used, “why does God let bad things happen?” A question which might be reworded as “why do people lose sight of God and do bad things?” But each question has its merits.

The division between the self and a higher power is something I have always struggled to accept. As a framework for living, devotion to a higher calling is powerful as a life force. There is often a resolve, a fortitude, within those who feel called by God that individuals serving their own aims and goals cannot muster. But what if you do not hear the call? What does a higher calling mean?

In our modern times, it is hard to find comfort in religion, Marx’s “opiate of the masses”. The world is increasingly secularized. Popular culture does not revolve around conversations about God’s desires for us – but rather – whatever feels good or whatever you want right now. For the most part we live in a secular era for the senses.

The world was not so different in the past. People have always had the same interests, comfort and food, sex and power. Prior Philip is a character who is able to inhabit this morally challenging secular world without losing his spiritual compass. He undertakes big projects, that require business acumen and economic skill such as the ability to forecast wool prices and rights to quarries. He does not simply sit in a room meditating and humming. But how does he know what is right?

Part III – Moral Systems

How do we know what is right? Can’t we ask someone? Why would someone else know and we would not? Perhaps they have lived longer, read more, experienced more, but we all know that no one can experience enough to know the answers to the complex questions we face. Said a different way, at what age are you a sage?

Only we can answer the questions for ourselves. And in order to answer the questions for ourselves – we must reference something. Some touch stone. A center.

To paraphrase David Foster Wallace, in his famous “This is Water” speech, – there is a secret in day-to-day existence. We all worship. There is no such thing as not worshiping – and the only case for worshiping something like God, Allah, or the Wiccan mother goddess is pretty much anything else will eat you alive. If money is where you place your focus, you will never have enough. If you focus on your looks, you will die a thousand deaths before you go.

You do not need to believe in God, Allah or the Wiccan Mother Goddess to ask questions. To get outside your own head. And once you get outside your own head, temptations that can lead to terrible life changing consequences can seem small.

The people who are able to do this, who can see the bigger picture and realize that their own hunger, pain, or self-interest are not the only thing at play are the people we call heroes. They are all over the world and wear all sorts of different clothes, sometimes they look like superheroes on the big screen, sometimes they are your family members getting up before dawn to advance some project that will help put some food on the table, sometimes it is a monk who wants to rebuild a church in a fictional work. Philip’s ability to bring God into the world, to make hard things better for people, to build something beautiful where there was previously something ugly – showcases how to separate right from wrong.

Forgetting to Listen

Kate Murphy’s “You’re Not Listening” is a reminder that in the age of everyone having a voice, it helps if there is someone listening. The book is filled with practical wisdom that has already paid dividends for me. However, at times, the book does tip into the feelings over reality territory that feels so ever present in our culture.

People have often told me, “you are a really good listener.” I just thought I was curious. I have long been fascinated with how people interact. Why people do what they do. What they choose to reveal and what they choose to conceal – from each other and from themselves. So, when I picked up Kate’s book, I did it with the intent to uphold my preexisting opinion – I AM in fact listening and this book is for all my friends and family who would never pick it up themselves. I was wrong. Somewhere along the way, in this busy and chaotic life, I stopped listening.

Where had I gone wrong? At some point, I went from being curious about other people to having things to say. I spend a lot of time reading, learning, listening and reflecting on content like books, podcasts, and media. And when I have an opportunity to bring my sharpened discussion points to a conversation with friends and family, I do. But this comes with an unexpected cost. My explanatory stance has not yielded me with an ever growing contact list of people reaching out to get my opinion on issues – it might be doing just the opposite.

People when confronted with someone who “knows more,” shift into status mode. They try to save face and appear more knowledgeable, take the moral high ground, or become defensive. The conversation does not become one of fascination and exploration between two people who know about different things in the world as I so often hear in podcasts (yes, like the Joe Rogan Experience), but instead it becomes trapped contention. People shift from curiosity to the need to score points.

In the short time since I have read Kate Murphy’s book, I have shifted how I approach conversations. My goal previously, if I had been asked and if I had been forced to crystallize it, might have been to have interesting conversations. I felt it was my duty to bring and share things from the world that were interesting. This is easy because I find the world incredibly fascinating and ceaselessly amazing. Just the fact that water falls from the sky periodically is enough to blow me away. But now I have a new goal, and it is…hard to define.

I want people to share. I want people to feel heard. I want people to walk away from conversations with a smile on their face because for the first time in a long time they felt heard. This sounds mushy and vague and somewhat nebulous as I write it – and perhaps that is my failure as a writer, because what I have in my head is much clearer. Conversations change temperature when you ask a follow up question instead of sharing something about yourself after someone has finished speaking.

The whole book is worth reading (and rereading perhaps) but the chapter that stood out to me the most was “Supporting, Not Shifting, the Conversation.” That is in effect, what I have been writing about. Over the last 5 years I have become someone who shifts, instead of supports the conversation. All the while, feeling like I was supporting the entire conversation because I would talk endlessly about whatever issues were relevant, but in effect, I was taking away from others abilities to share and learn about themselves.

The book at times shifts a bit close to the feelings over reality territory. “Reality is perception” is a popular cultural thesis – aka Expressive Individualism. Roughly defined as what you feel is real because you feel it. This idea is true, but only half true. Your feelings are true and important, but there is also a shared world outside of your feelings and your perspective, and that is reality. A person’s ability to sync with reality is one way to define mental health. 90% of this book might be used to defend the “reality is perception” notion, but I don’t believe Kate is making that argument.

There is a great short film on YouTube called, “It’s not about the nail.” Sometimes it feels like this book is an argument that “it’s not about the nail.” Kate differentiates herself from this occasionally in the book. And the very last chapter is important, “When to Stop Listening.” As with most things, it comes down to each conversation and each reader to differentiate when, who, and how they listen.

17/21 – well worth the money and the read.

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.