We Restrain Ourselves

“THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.”
– “Harrison Bergeron”, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Harrison Bergeron“, is a dystopic short story (a 10 min read).
It asks and answers the question: What if everybody were forced to be equal?

I understand now that to produce a dystopia from equality requires a set of false assumptions. The very same false assumption that I’ve uncovered lately: that there is a measurable and fixed amount of intrinsic worth available to each human being. For one person to have more, of anything, another must have less.

Taken to the extreme, this fixation of the fixedness and limitedness of the resources of the planet and the internal resources of each person, combined with a desire for equality, leads directly to a world of mediocrity.

What’s incredible to me is that we don’t need a “Handicapper General” to diligently limit people’s abilities. We limit ourselves.

I feel like we’re all Harrison Bergeron: great in our own unique way.
We’re also our own Handicapper: putting on our own shackles and distractions, weights and masks…

Continue reading We Restrain Ourselves

The Lies I Tell Myself

On the morning of April 4th, my “self reliance” ritual was cut short when I looked at the calendar and saw the day before was an empty box, where there needed to be a checkmark. I felt a dull ache rising in the back of my gut.

“Did I forget to write yesterday?”
“Did I break my unprecedented 123 day streak?”
“No no no! This can’t be!”

My panic rose steadily, but I simply wasn’t sure. So, I seized the benefit of the doubt, slowly filled in the missing checkmark, and went about my days, trying to forget this lie I told myself.

Exhibit A: The lie I tried to tell myself.

It’s now 3 weeks later. My mini-habits of writing, programming, and exercising daily have lost all their former power. Even my morning ritual is starting to slip.

Rationally, I know that one misstep shouldn’t matter. That I should brush it off, learn from it, and keep going. But I can’t stop myself from feeling that it does matter.

Worse, this pattern is disappointingly familiar.
Something is deeply wrong here… Continue reading The Lies I Tell Myself

Lessons from Living Without Time

Here are some fictional diary entries, reconstructed from actual events:

Six months ago:
My PhD is almost complete! And I finally received my citizenship. Both of those open loops are now closed. I’ll finally have more time to focus!

Three months ago:
Gingko’s server crashed. The cause was a silly mistake from two months ago. No big deal. I just brought it back up, and made a note to fix it more thoroughly… when I have the time.

Two months ago:
We noticed a poster for a children’s play that our son would love. Great! I’ll just put a note in my inbox, and process it later. I’ll get tickets… when I have the time.

One month ago:
We missed a meal again today. It was sunny out (and a “warm -5 C”), so we rushed out for a walk. But we didn’t have snacks at home, or much in the fridge. Ended up “hangry” at each other most of the walk. We need to figure out meal plans or a more regular grocery schedule! If only we had more time…

And now? My PhD is done, but I don’t know where all the “extra” time went. I never did get around to fixing that issue, and the server crashed briefly again a few days ago (sorry!). The play for my son was sold out by the time I managed to look into it.

So. I’m a 31 year old husband, father, and business owner, with full control of my schedule, goals, and income, yet still find myself with an empty fridge or an overflowing laundry pile like I did as a teenage student. My customers missed some work time, my son missed a play, and I could list countless other instances of small and big failures that were predictable and completely avoidable.

A heavy question hangs over this, that I’ve always been afraid to ask: Why?

It took living without time for one week
to finally answer it.

Here’s what I discovered by living without clocks for just 7 days…

Continue reading Lessons from Living Without Time

The Pump and the Generator

Productivity and wealth are both powerful aids in enabling flow.
But we need to keep these in their place, as a means to an end: Freedom.

If you must do a great deal of work that is unsatisfying and dreary, you are poor.
If you can do only what you love, you are rich.
There is no other definition that matters.

We can achieve this for every one of us, but we must first change our beliefs and our mental models…

Continue reading The Pump and the Generator

An Even Flow

There is a massive body of work on “getting rich”. Whether quickly or slowly, automatically or with great effort, alone or as a company, scientifically or mystically. Just take your pick.

There is also a lot written about “productivity”, most of which is actually about efficiency. Todo lists, sticky notes, ABCD priorities, Eisenhower matrices, Getting Things Done, Autofocus method, and on and on.

But what is the aim of all of this work?
I think both of them address a core human need:

To do more of what we love,
and less of what we don’t.

However, both the “getting rich” literature and the “productivity” literature place emphasis on the wrong things…

Continue reading An Even Flow

[Video] Node-based Thinking

I’m often a victim of the “Curse of Knowledge” when it comes to Gingko. I’ve been embedded in it for so long, I find it hard to see it as a beginner. This makes it hard to explain why it works so well.

But this TED talk by designer Tom Wujec goes part of the way to explaining how three elements come together to help us gain clarity:

  1. Node-based thinking.
  2. Freedom to move and to group nodes.
  3. Ability to work together, in parallel and in silence.

Gingko not only allows, but encourages, all three of these elements.

The Wealth of The Future

I have an odd relationship with money. Often I feel that I’m beyond it or above it. I focus on the pursuit of happiness over the pursuit of wealth. At other times though, I think maybe these are stories I tell myself because I have deep-seated fears or misconceptions regarding wealth.

The truth is, I’m not sure if my attitude towards wealth is incredibly wise, or incredibly stupid.

I know that I’m not making as much as I could if, for instance, I were to focus more on promoting Gingko as-is, and less on creating Gingko as it ought to be. On the other hand, I’m very happy most days, so I must be doing something right.

In any case, since I don’t fit into either the “Profit profit profit” camp, nor the “Money is evil” starving artist category, I do a lot of thinking on the subject. In particular, I try to argue both for and against wealth as a goal.

Here’s an argument that occurred to me, in favor of wealth:

Money is a way to travel into the future.

Continue reading The Wealth of The Future

Trust Thyself

Every morning, I wake at 5:30am, put on my jogging clothes, and run up and down the stairs of my building a few times (I admire those who jog in -25*C weather, but I’m not one of them). When I’m done, I freshen up, fill a glass of cool water, head towards the office (quietly, so as not to wake my wife and son), and sit down for a few minutes and just breathe.

My son Zeno reading "Self-Reliance". Starting him young!
Starting him young!

Then I perform my most important ritual. I open to where I left off in my copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance”, and read.

A few minutes later, I mark my place, close the book, turn on my PC, pull the keyboard towards me, and get to work.

The recurring litany of Emerson’s words has a powerful effect on my mindset. In short, it’s brought me closer to my ultimate goal: a life of tranquility and creative flow.

What is it about this work that is so profound?

Unlike almost anything else you have ever read, “Self-Reliance” is wholly and completely about you. The essay is a battle-cry not for any one flag or banner, but for every person’s own inimitable self.
Continue reading Trust Thyself

A Failed Blog Post

I’ve been writing daily for 3 months, so you’d think I have a mass of content to output.
But I’ve had a week since the last post, a looming deadline in 35 minutes, yet I have no post.

I started twice, and failed twice, to produce a blog post that I was happy with.
I was about to go with my backup plan and just shove a TED talk or something up here, when I decided that instead I’d quickly share why I failed this week.

Mistake 1: The Corpse of Memory

Last week, I wrote a post on seeing productivity through the lens of software.
I’m not thrilled with it, but at least it’s original content. Towards the end, I realized I had bit off more than I could chew, and cut it short, “promising” to continue this week.

Well, a few days later when I started writing the sequel, I realized that my ideas had still not solidified. For many days I kept trying to write the followup post, and it just wasn’t going anywhere. As my Tuesday blog post deadline drew closer, I asked myself, “Why do I have to write about this?” and the only answer I could come up with was “I said I would.”

Ok, fair enough. Consistency is important. But the next question was “If I don’t feel it’s valuable yet, wouldn’t it be better for my readers as well if I write something else?”

Then I remembered the following line from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance:

Why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place?

Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.

So that was my first mistake: continuing a thread for the sake of a foolish consistency.

Mistake 2: Epic Scope

With a few days left, I started writing about something I do care about, and something I feel is important. (I won’t make Mistake 1 again and tell you what it is, or when I’ll publish it).

My wife and son were out of town this weekend, visiting in-laws, so I had a lot of quiet time to think and work and write. And what I was thinking about was itching to get out of me.

Ah, but as I typed frantically, the minutes counting down to when I have to pick them up at the train station, the post I was writing grew to epic scope. Literally.

I quote both Steve Jobs and Marcus Aurelius. I have images of the vastness of the cosmos, and of tomb stones. I considered recounting in detail the chilling experience I had when facing the sarcophagus of a Pharaoh who’s name is lost in memory. I talk about famous physicists and the vastness of time.

I found myself thrashing about, trying to make an epic subject fit into my less than epic skills, and rapidly diminishing time. In short, I forgot my own advice to focus on Quality and Frequency, and keep the Scope in check.

I need to learn to trust the only barometer for my work that matters to me: “Am I happy in creating it?” For those posts, the answer was “no”.

This post is short, not very deep, but I enjoyed writing it. I laughed out loud when I decided I would scrap the other two.

And as a bonus, I hope that an honest admission of failure is of more value than a half-hearted attempt at rehashing a previous idea, or an incoherent attempt at tackling something grand and cosmic.

Till next week!

Programming Your Productivity

Our world is increasingly shaped by software, and I want to prepare my son for this digital future.

In planning my homeschooling approach, I like to play with different ideas. Recently, I wondered “How could one teach the powerful technique of Monte Carlo simulation to a group of 8 year olds?”

I came up with a rough approach that would work with a small group of 9 or more kids, using dice, strips of paper to be passed around, and a (hopefully fun) sequence of actions. My hope would be that the group as a whole would be able to converge on an answer, without any individual discovering it.

The idea of personifying computation is an interesting way of teaching it. But it triggered another thought: what would it look like if we actually used computation as a model for our behavior?

It’s not as silly as it sounds. We all have systems in our lives, chaotic as they might seem. We do certain things and not others, we do some things in a given order. And everyone’s system could be improved in some way. So I wonder…

What if we designed productivity systems
the way we designed software?

Continue reading Programming Your Productivity