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Lifestyle

A Meditation on Death

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.
Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011)

In some cultures, the knowledge of death signifies the end of childhood. I see the knowledge of death, as the beginning of life. Only when we know the temporary nature of our existence do we acknowledge (or at least develop the ability to acknowledge) how precious it truly is.

The knowledge that I won’t be able to do things forever is fantastic motivation to actually do all the things I want to do with my life now. I get myself to write my blog posts because I know that one day I won’t be able to clarify what I mean or say anything at all. Like how Arthur Schopenhauer’s thoughts and messages are solidified in their current state, never to be worked on again. I’m sure if he were alive today, there would be a couple of things he would change. But it helps to keep in mind that one day, I won’t be able to do any of the things I can do now because I’ll be dead.

But as for today…

I am not.

What do we say to the god of death?

In celebration of that fact, I shall write my thoughts and make music. I shall make sure my energy is put to good use while I still have it, rather than just finding lifeless ways to burn it all. Dedicating my energy and attention to my works, not only gives me access to immortality, I could share my experience with others in hopes they can cultivate themselves to be better too.

I see my death as the day when my life is truly decided and it will be a culmination of all my decisions. That’s probably why it’s referred to as Judgement Day in religious contexts. All of our choices are set in stone and will be judged, not only by God but by all who lived with us and all who come after.

Right now, I have a say in how that goes and there will come a time when I won’t. And chances are when it arrives…

I won’t see it coming.

It gives me peace to know that there are things I can do that can take on lives of their own and impact people once I’m gone just like I can now while I am alive.

I think it’s so cool when I read books written by people who lived hundreds of years before me, and I can feel as if they’re still here gracing me with their company. We all have an opportunity to reach out to the people who will come after us and with the access to modern technology we can communicate more accurately than ever before. Back then, people captured their minds in books, but now we have so many different mediums that we can accurately capture more information, share it easily, and with a lower barrier to entry than ever before. We can capture ourselves in video and audio in a way that can perfectly capture who and what we are and share it with the world almost instantly.

“Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age.”

Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)

Knowing I’m going to die makes me feel like I have to make my works NOW. This moment, right now, is my opportunity to create what kind of person I’m going to be for the people who will never know me personally. This is why I write about so many self-improvement topics and make music. Those are the things that have spoken to me on a deep level and I would love to share these things with others.

In my post Proclivity for Comfort and The Relationship with Ourselves Part 2, I mention how one of the tragedies of life is that we have to suffer to learn. I see my works as a way to help others learn the same lessons with less suffering. In a way, I’m trying to make my sacrifices worth it to others. Though my works, others can learn the things that made me strong without having to go through the same hell. But my works can only be created while I am alive, so today I must work on them so they can speak for me when I’m gone. Death is a powerful motivator.

One day we will lose it all, but today we haven’t so let’s make our time worthwhile.

I believe the knowledge of death is only powerful if we care about what the world will be like after we’re gone. If we don’t care, then we create a breeding ground for nihilism. We can be nihilistic, but we will lead a fruitless life that’s remembered horribly.

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”

Greek Proverb

Seeing death as motivation can seem insane, especially considering that human beings have a tendency to avoid and deny the thought of their own death. Robert Greene talks about this in-depth his ambitiously, but appropriately titled book The Laws of Human Nature, which is on My Must-Read Book List. He beautifully illustrates how humans naturally gravitate towards denying death, but when inevitably confronted with it, can turn it into something that fills our lives with a sense of purpose and urgency to actualize our intentions. He gives the message life by telling the story of American writer, Mary Flannery O’Connor.

When she was a young girl she was really close to her father. At the age of 10, she wrote a series of caricatures of her family titled “My Relitives.” Her family was shocked both by how they were portrayed and the cleverness of the little girl. Her father was especially impressed, showing it to visitors every chance he got. He saw a bright future in writing for his daughter. When she was 12, Mary discovered her father had a very serious illness (she later learned that is was lupus erythematosus), in which the body develops antibodies that attack healthy tissue. This resulted in him growing weaker and weaker until he finally died in 1941.

His death affected Mary deeply. She was too shocked to talk to anyone, but confined in her private journal. She would write about how “God has broken their complacency, like a bullet in the side.” Despite her anger with God, she was a devout Catholic and believed that everything happens for a reason. God must have a greater plan for her. Over time, she started to throw herself at her schoolwork and writing determined to bring her father’s predictions into reality. Mary was going to be a prolific writer, just like her father thought. She applied to the University of Iowa and enrolled in the famous Writer’s Workshop with a newer simpler name, Flannery O’Conner. She started writing short stories, which caught some attention, based on her experiences in the South.

Then tragedy strikes. In 1949, O’Conner got pretty sick. The doctors diagnosed her with a floating kidney. She gets surgery for it but she isn’t able to write her book because of her recovery time and strange pains developing in her arms. Another doctor assesses the pain in her arms and diagnoses her with rheumatoid arthritis. Along with the joint pains, she was also suffering from high fevers and had to be admitted into a hospital. She didn’t trust the doctors but didn’t have enough energy to argue with them either. The doctors give her massive amounts of cortisone to help with the pain and inflammation, but it prevented her from thinking clearly, made her hair fall out, and bloated her face. She also had to receive frequent blood transfusions. The times when her fever was highest, she would experience blindness and paralysis.

At this time O’Conner started to feel like she didn’t have much time left. Death was coming for her. So she ramped up her writer speed, as much as she possibly could. In the hospital, she finished her novel, Wise Blood, inspired by her many blood transfusions. It’s about a young man who thinks he has wise blood and doesn’t need any spiritual counsel. It details his fall into madness and murder.

After a few months in the hospital, O’Conner returned home hoping to recapture some familiarity. On a drive with her sister, O’Conner discovers that her mother, in cahoots with the doctors, lied to her about her rheumatoid arthritis and that she actually has lupus, the same disease her father died of.

With death staring her right in the face, she saw things differently. First, she was sad at the thought of all the books she has yet to write and all the places she will never see. She felt her world open up as she engaged with life outside of her hometown and it was heartbreaking to know that she was confined to her little room. She was destroyed from the idea that her father was wrong, that she would not be this prolific writer because her time was cut short.

But then she saw things clearly, for the first time. She saw that the most important things in her life were not where she lived, her friends, or even her family, but her writing. She told her mother that she was to have 2 or more hours every morning for writing and they are not to be interrupted for any reason. She focused all of her energy on her work. Writing with such vigor at home connected her more closely with her father. Being surrounded by the objects they were both surrounded by during her blissful years and feeling the pain he felt before he died made her connection to him even stronger. She began to write and write and write despite the pain. It was almost as if she was realizing the potential her father had seen in her as a little girl.

With the stakes higher than ever, O’Conner knew she had no time to waste. She realized with each passing day that she had less and less time than before. As a result, she threw herself even deeper into her work with more and more intensity. Writing allowed her to forget herself and rid her of the anxiety of her sickness.

Knowing about her death gave O’Conner an appreciation for time that I’ve never seen in anyone else. She took in as much as she could every minute as well as didn’t expect much from life. This new perspective gave her the ability to analyze her society in a deep way which inspired her next book. She basically says that if everyone could see what she has seen, that we all suffer and die and our time is short, then people would inevitably live differently. She says the blindness to this fact eats at our humanity and enhances our capacity for cruelty. (I think she’s so right.)

Since she was in her room most of the time, she was extremely lonely and used her characters to keep her company. She also didn’t want to be too intimate with people, since her time was coming to an end she didn’t want to have to say good-bye so soon.

O’Conner wrote with fervor until the day she died. She was buried next to her father. Pain or no pain she wrote with intensity and because of that, the world has been given an amazing writer until the end of time. The story of Flannery O’Conner is one I like to go back to whenever I feel like I’m losing perspective on life. Death gives us perspective and it can be the thing that gets our asses in gear. Ironically enough, it can be the thing that fills us with life.

The beautiful part is that we don’t have to actually be at death’s door to see life this way, all we have to do is take Flannery O’Conner’s story and see how it relates to us. In a sense, we are all already at death door, so we should take a note from Mary and use the knowledge of our impending death to fuel our works and restore our humanity.


In The Shortness of Life by Seneca, which is also on my Must-Read Book List, Seneca discusses how there is more life than time. So much more life that we actively try to find ways to burn it. This is most obvious when we’re bored. Boredom is the feeling when we’re existing more than we’re living. If life was so short, why would people spend so much effort trying to kill time?

Seneca argues that we only feel tired and unrested when we give ourselves to others. This could be in the form of giving your time, but it’s also deeper than that. He gives the example of the dinner party where a dinner guest asks what we do for a living. Someone who has a respectful career may say what they do with pride and how it brings them much satisfaction, but in fact, is withered down and exhausted. That person is not satisfied and unrested because all of the hours that they dedicate to that fancy career is time that is not for them. It is time given to the guest at the dinner party or to anyone they want approval from. The impressed look on the guest’s face when he replies with a fancy title is not for themselves, but for the one with the career. The sacrifices made for careers can easily become sacrifices made for impressing others, which is extremely unsatisfying.

It’s easy to dedicate ourselves to others, but in doing so we make life shorter and when death comes, we will be holding on so tight unable to let go.

It’s funny how seeing life as short, tends to give us this idea that we need to spend it better. I see Seneca’s approach as much more powerful – we have enough time if we were to give it to ourselves. When we only live for others, we lose ourselves and never truly feel rested.

Seneca says that people who say life moves quickly only believe so because they treat life as unimportant and easily replaceable. Because of this, it slips away from us.

From this perspective, life is about choices and how we choose to spend our life is on us.

Seneca also talks about how people are so willing to give their time, but not their money, and how backward that type of thinking is. Money can always be replenished, but time cannot. Meditating on death really nudges me to give someone my money rather than my time. I highly recommend that everyone read this book. It can do wonders for our perspective.


Occasionally, to force some perspective onto myself, I’ll think about the inevitable death of me and everyone I love. This neutralizes any shitty situation pretty quickly. To me, nothing is more upsetting than the destruction of me and everyone I love, but at the same time, it makes me so grateful for what I have now. Whatever painfully flawed moment that I’m dealing with in the present becomes an oasis in the middle of a desert when I’m present to THE END, so to speak.

Death is the fate we all share, no one can escape it. It helps us realize what is important. In the face of death, everything trivial melts away and we only see what matters. When it comes down to it, we have little to lose and a whole world to gain, so let’s embrace death and choose life. Choose to live at our highest intensity. Make bold choices. Decide for ourselves what our lives will be like. Nothing is decided until the very end, we are always in a state of rewriting and our story follows our trajectory. Death makes life matter now.

“the preoccupied become aware of it only when it is over.”

Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)
Categories
Education Lifestyle

The Relationship with Ourselves

“How can a man come to know himself? Never by thinking, but by doing. Try to do your duty and you will know at once what you are worth.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Maxims on Life and Character)

I have spent many weeks putting off writing about this topic simply because it is so big and I didn’t know where to start. I kept scrapping intro after intro because I felt like none of them could accurately express the magnitude of importance that this idea holds. I was getting frustrated because I had this huge message inside me, but I had no way of getting it out! So rather than try to build up to the idea I’m just going to start from the point I want to make and work my way around it.

The main idea is that people are relational creatures and we do not pay enough attention to our most important relationship, the relationship with ourselves.

We see it everyday, so much energy, attention, and money are dedicated to our relationships. In fact, we have entire industries built on this phenomena – therapy, self-help, sports, the arts, the list can go on forever.

We put so much care and attention into how we relate to our work or our loved ones, but rarely think about how we relate to ourselves. This is peculiar because how we relate to ourselves impacts us far greater than how we relate to anything external of ourselves. I’ve read so many different books written by people from all different time periods, and it seems like the biggest influence on our experience of reality, life satisfaction, and peace of mind is ourselves.

People are constantly looking outward to change their lives or find happiness. The inconvenient truth, is that everything we desire is within.

They tell themselves “Once I get _____” or “Once ____ is over” or “When I’m finally ____” then I can be happy.

Most of us intellectually know that this isn’t true, but to internalize it is a different story.

Our life satisfaction, our abilities to take on new things, and potential opportunities are all dictated by how we know ourselves.

We all have feelings and thoughts about ourselves that we do not share with other people and these patterns control our orienting reflexes. People are purpose driven creatures and I talk a little bit about how we need to track things in order to succeed, but the relationship with ourselves decides what we believe we can even keep track of at all.

The relationship with ourselves is the sum total of all our achievements and failures that we observe in ourselves. We subconsciously keep score of everything. Every time we said we were going to do something but didn’t creates a relationship with ourselves that suggests we aren’t reliable. Every time we’ve done the impossible and surprised ourselves with our abilities creates a relationship with ourselves that proves we can do amazing things in the face of adversity.

Everything we do is kept record.

Christians believe that God is watching them always. I believe that we were made in God’s image and it is not only God always watching but it is the god within ourselves that is always watching. Regardless of religious affiliation, we are the only ones who have been with us since the beginning.

No one understands the experiences and situations we have been in better than ourselves and it is through this understanding which we develop the relationship with ourselves.

Who we know ourselves to be is not based in what we say to other people, but how we feel about ourselves. Our perspectives of ourselves is the only thing that has truly been with us through all of our situations. This part of ourselves keeps score, it pays attention to what we have and haven’t done and casts projects of what we can and cannot do. How we relate to ourselves dictates our orienting reflexing and ultimately our lives.

Imagine that you’re planning to meet a friend for dinner. You plan to meet them at the restaurant, but they don’t show up. You try getting in touch with them, but they’re dodging your calls. Eventually, you get a hold of them and they give some weak excuse that barely explains why they couldn’t show up. You just got let down. Your friend did not fulfil what they committed to you. Naturally, we’d feel disappointed and upset, but the real truth is we will forever see that friend as less reliable and accountable. Their word has taken a slight dip in believability and the person can no longer be counted on as much as they were before. It can seem harsh, but it’s the truth. Now, the real kicker is that we can replace that unreliable friend with ourselves.

We rarely pay attention to the expectations and commitments we put onto ourselves. Partly because we like to think as long as only I know, then it didn’t really happen. However, the feelings associated with that unreliable friend can easily be put onto ourselves if we pull the same stunt. Our self-esteem, self-efficacy, confidence, ambition, life satisfaction is a direct result of this. It’s easy to put things onto others and it’s even easier to put things on ourselves, but sometimes we tend not to notice the relationship with ourselves.

In a world of legally mandated education, I’ve noticed a lot of students wondering why they’re forced to learn and work on countless “pointless” concepts and it’s a fair argument. Most of the concepts and “education” people recieve is only useful in an academic setting and rarely applicable in The World Beyond. Admittedly the education system, at least in the United States, needs a ton of rework. However, there is something invaluable we can get from our education.

Our current education system provides students with an opportunity for them to prove to themselves what kind of person they are.

Are you the kind of person who gets things done when the going gets tough or do you quit the first chance you get?

The relationship with ourselves is always transforming and refining with every situation we encounter. Since most kids spend most of their time at school or working on their education, a large portion of the relationship with themselves is rooted in how they handled their academic responsibilities.

We can choose who we are, but first we need to discover what our relationship with ourselves is like. We can ask ourselves the follow questions to get a quick snapshot of what our relationship might look like:

What degree is it damaged?

What can we do to make it better?

Do we trust ourselves?

Do we believe we are capable of helping ourselves?

What kind of person do we think we are?

What kind of person are we actually?

The good news is we can build the relationship with ourselves no matter where we are. First we have to know what our relationship is like for ourselves, then work on ways to prove to ourselves that we are the kind of person that we want to be.

This starts with our integrity and identity.

Integrity

A common definition of integrity is what you do when no one is looking. People who having integrity are typically considered moral and trustworthy because we know that even behind closed doors they will still make the right choices. This definition of integrity is fantastic and if we see it through the lense of the relationship with ourselves, we will see that integrity is important because we, us, ourselves, are always looking. We constantly are watching us and we know how we would act behind closed doors. People with integrity have a healthy and strong relationship with themselves because they know exactly what kind of choices they will make.

There’s another definition that I believe is much more useful and powerful. Integrity is also known as a state of being whole or undivided. Every commitment we break, to others or ourselves, puts a little crack in our integrity. Every aspect of our lives that is not aligned with our chosen commitments also puts a little crack in our integrity.

When our integrity is not perfectly whole, we are prone to negative emotion and lose the ability to live in the present. This creates intense dissatisfaction with our lives.

Living with perfect integrity is better than anything we can ever experiences. It’s comparable to true peace of mind and contentment. It is our goal to seek out what does not make us whole and undivided and reorient that part of our lives so it serves us, or at least does not hold back. When we have perfect integrity, the relationship with ourselves is pristine. We get out of our own way and become our biggest ally.

When we have a commitment, or vision for our lives, we create a value structure which deams certain actions as “good” (they bring us closer to our goals) or “bad” (they bring us away from our goals). When we stay on the path, so to speak, we are operating with perfect integrity and are creating a positive and powerful relationship with ourselves. If we were to stray off the path, make a “bad” decision, we won’t be able to have perfect integrity until we make up for the damage done. In a Judeo-Christian context, this can be seen as atonement – at one, at return to a state of wholeness.

States of Moral Trajectory

I believe this is why the world religions have this mechanism built into their structure. Human beings must stay on a path towards something they find valuble. This is clear when we have a goal or a commitment. However, sometimes we may choose to act in a way that does not align with that path.

In archery, they call missing the mark a sin. In a religious context, they say not staying on the path is a sin. I’m saying that from the perspective of developing a relationship with ourselves, not saying on the path is a sin, in the technical sense of the word.

When we sin, we must correct our trajectory in order to return to the path. The world religions have their own ways for doing this, but I believe they all contain the same basic mental exercises.

In order to restore integrity we must:

  1. Admit that we have missed the mark
  2. Understand the impact of our sin to the highest degree that we are capable
  3. Discover methods to make up for the sin
  4. Implement those methods in the real world

This can look an infinite amount of ways. In the future, I’ll write more about integrity because I feel like it is one of those HUUUGE ideas that could make a significant positive impact in many people’s lives.

Kintsugi – Japanese Art of Scars & Repair

Living with perfect integrity requires us to clearly understand what our values, goals, and commitments are. This is not an easy task, and many people love to not clearly articulate themselves so they can escape the responsibility of paying attention to their actions. I talk about this idea in a few of my posts, but it first came up in The Reality-Possibility Exchange.

If we could be honest with ourselves and understand our commitments, we know when we’re doing something right and when we’re doing something wrong. If we pay enough attention, there is a specific moment when we decide to do the wrong thing. There is an actual second that we can point to on a clock when we decide to not follow through on our commitment. Pay attention and you will notice it when it comes. What we decide to do in that moment determines the relationship with ourselves.

Identity

I talk more about identity in my posts, Utilizing Our Identities and The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 2). In these posts, I talk about the utility in understanding our identities and how we can use that knowledge to design and build the lives we desire.

Our identity, in terms of the relationship to ourselves, is how we understand ourselves to be. We know what we like or don’t like. We understand what we are skilled in and what we are ignorant of. We know ourselves as a certain kind of person.

Our identity is one of the strongest motivational forces and determines what our goals and aims are. Our identity shapes our ideals and the paths we walk towards them.

No matter what we declare our identity to be, we can act out of line and define ourselves whenever we want. This is a turbulent process which comes with its own set of stages, but it can be done. Our identities aren’t permanent, not until we’re dead.

Don’t sacrifice who you could be for who you are now.

Our identity is closely related to our integrity. We see all of our own actions and know all of our own thoughts. Our identity is built from our integrity. If we aren’t following through on our commitments and projects, then we are supplying proof to ourselves that we aren’t trustworthy and reliable. Creating an identity of being unreliable prevents us from creating an identity of someone admirable or virtuous.

The game is pretty rough, but it’s what we all have to play. It’s play the game (whatever game you choose) and play it well, or know yourself as a loser.

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones Season 1 Episode 7)

We try hard to stick to the identity we give ourselves simply because we hate being wrong and what’s worse than being wrong about who we are? Additionally, our identities are usually justified by the people around us. Our friends and family members will consistently remind us of how we are this kind of person or that kind of person. Their perceptions of your identity are just as malleable as our own. Our identities are never permanent in our minds or in the minds of others.

Consistency & Toughness

Life is hard, but we’re tougher than we think, the only issue is that we have to prove it to ourselves. How do we prove it to ourselves? Through consistent action.

Consistency is key to building a relationship with ourselves and it’s also key to building a lasting and formidable identity. Developing a relationship with ourselves is much like developing a relationship with another person, it takes a lot of time. So we need to create consistent action to create ample proof that we are who we think we are. However, unlike relationships with other people, the relationship with ourselves is 20% discovery and 80% creation. Relationships with other people tend to be 80% discovery, and 20% creation.

We need toughness because relationships are hard work and working over the long term will require us to be tough. A lot of early life relationships end because people don’t have the toughness to deal with the challenges of intertwining the life of another. The unique part about this relationship is we can never leave it! We are always going to be in a relationship with ourselves and it’s damn hard to craft it into something steadfast and powerful.

Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

A couple tips for developing toughness – do not say things that make you weak. You are listening to yourself when you speak, and if you say you’re weak then you’ll listen and internalize it. Be mindful of the comments we make about ourselves. Also, try operating in your Zone of Proximal Development. It’s an excellent way to grow yourself in any domain of life you choose.

Grit

This is the difference between success and failure in terms of someone reaching their full potential. The “talentless” can surpass the naturally gifted individuals and reach unimaginable heights as long as they cultivate the grit within them.

According to wikipedia – grit is a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s perseverance of effort combined with the passion for a particular long-term goal or end state (a powerful motivation to achieve an objective). It is the key to stellar performance in any field and the best part is anyone can create it within themselves. The simplest way I think about grit is as passionate persistence.

Renowned scholar and author, Angela Duckworth wrote a book appropriately titled “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” and has a TedTalk which has over 6 million views on YouTube in which she gives a fantastic overview of grit and how we can use it be reach out full potential.

The reason why I bring up grit now is because the key to understanding grit and using it to our advantage is to know ourselves as someone with high levels of grit.

Developing a relationship with ourselves where we are full of grit and cultivating an identity that matches can give us full proof armor when we encounter difficulties such as The Attack, or what Steven Pressfield describes as Resistance in his book, The War of Art.

Grit can be thought of as having 5 characteristics. Focusing on developing each of these characteristics in ourselves will help us cultivate grit as a whole.

The 5 Characteristics of Grit

Courage – developing courage does not mean ridding ourselves of fear, it means to accept the fear within us and act anyway. In order to create a relationship with myself in which I know myself to be courageous, then I have to pay attention during the times when I’m more afraid, decide what they best course of action is, and take it. No withdrawing or freezing in hopes that things will go away on their own.

Conscientiousness: Achievement Oriented vs. Dependable – being conscientious a useful trait to develop within ourselves because conscientious people work like mad. Knowing ourselves as someone who is focused on achievement and dependable makes us invaluable in any industry at any level. Conscientious people tend to rise to the level of expectation, but only because they prove to themselves that they can over and over. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they laid bricks every hour.

Long-Term Goals and Endurance: Follow Through – nothing is worthwhile without follow through in the long term. Things that take longer are usually better and designing our lives is a long game. We need to be able to know ourselves as people who can follow through even if they goal is years down the line. We need to know that we can maintain vision over the long term. Sometimes I think that the true test of success is just maintaining the vision over the trials and tribulations.

Resilience: Optimism, Confidence, and Creativity – we will encounter hardship and challenges that rival our wildest dreams. The only way through it is knowing ourselves as resilient. If we know we have what it takes to get through it, then we will. The only thing is that we’ll need to know how to get through most challenges. Knowing ourselves as optimistic will help us keep faith and push forward. Knowing ourselves as confident will give us the willingness to push the boundaries into unexplored territory. Dragons lay in the unknown, but so does treasure! Knowing ourselves as creative will give us the means to solve some of life’s toughest puzzles – the challenges which impede us from obtaining the life of our own design.

Excellence vs. Perfection – excellence is a difficult idea to wrap our head around without tangling it up with perfection. If we know ourselves as perfectionists, or someone who produces perfect work, then we are frozen forever. Our super egos would be too strict and that would leave no room for any kind of action. However, if we know ourselves as excellent, or someone who produces excellent work, then we will inevitably put our best effort into everything we do. Going the extra mile is only tough if you don’t normally do it.

Self-Efficacy

The relationship we have with ourselves can be reflected in our self-efficacy. Selfefficacy refers to an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments (Bandura, 1977, 1986, 1997). It reflects confidence in the ability to exert control over one’s own motivation, behavior, and social environment.

If we have a powerful relationship with ourselves and know ourselves to follow through on our commitments, then we will have high self-efficacy.

If we have an unstable relationship with ourselves and we know ourselves as wishy-washy, then we’ll have a low self efficacy.

Components of Self-Efficacy

Remember, part of us is always keeping score and self-efficacy is the part that controls our confidence and willingness to try new and difficult things.

Now, this is not the same as self-esteem. Self-esteem is more like the amount of self-respect we have rather than confidence in our ability to perform. Self-esteem is important too, but self-efficacy is what I believe really controls the trajectory of our lives.


There is more I’d like to go over when it comes to the relationship with ourselves, but I’m going to cut it off here for now. How we treat ourselves and how we act affects us. All. The. Time. The relationship with ourselves is a part of our lives that doesn’t get as much attention as it should, especially considering that it determines the majority of our life outcome.

Love yourself. Trust yourself. Push yourself. Earn yourself.

Categories
Education Lifestyle Productivity

Types of Habits and Designing Our Lives

“Most habits take on one of four common forms: things you want to start doing, things you want to stop doing, things you want to do more, and things you want to do less.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)
My habits in their natural habitat

Before I dive into this post, I have to make a few honorable necessary mentions. Most of this information is from James Clear’s amazing book Atomic Habits, which I highly recommend. He explains the importance of developing systems and focusing our attention at the level of the habit in a seemingly effortless and powerful way. I also have to mention Josh Kaufman’s The Personal MBA, a must read book for entrepreneurs looking for well packaged high quality information. I think my must read book list needs some updating. Kaufman goes over more than just business, he also lays out a wealth of knowledge regarding habit formation and lifestyle design.

Intentionally creating our own lives starts with understanding our every day actions and how they develop into habits. I like to think of habits as belonging to the four categories mentioned above – Things We Should Start Doing, Things We Should Stop Doing, Things We Should Do Less, and Things We Should Do More. Meditating on these categories and articulating which habits fall into each category is a fantastic exercise in identifying key habits. Identifying which habits we want to start, stop, or change is the first step in creating our lives by design. Another way I like to identify habits is to categorize them as Old Habits – things I want to do less or stop all together – or as New Habits – things I want to do more or start doing.

The Habit Cycle

Understanding the Habit Cycle is like learning the anatomy and physiology of habits. The Habit Cycle explains how habits come to be and what we can do to make that process easier or harder.

According to Clear, habits have 4 stages that they follow. Cue. Craving. Response. Reward. Understanding each stage will help us intentionally create habits that we want in our lives and destroy the habits we don’t.

The Cue is the external stimuli that triggers the brain to start the behavior. When we see a cue, we get a Craving, which is the motivational force behind the habit. The Response is action or set of actions we take to potentially satisfy the craving. The Reward is what makes it all worth it and the last stage, the satisfaction of the craving.

The Habit Cycle – James Clear

Let me give an example to ground this in real life.

Let’s say I’m working on a blog post and I reach an issue in articulating what I want to say. Cue – I encounter a difficult situation. I start feeling stuck and my motivations change. I just want to be relieved of my frustration. Craving – yearning for relief. Despite my best intentions, I reason with myself that I am going to die sooner than I’d like and my experience of life is all that truly matters so I should stop blogging and play video games. I save my blog post, turn on my PS4 and have a good ol’ time. Reponse – leaving the challenging situation to play games. I feel delighted that I get to play my video games and my relief has come. Reward – obtained relief from tension caused from blogging. In this case, I layed out my provility to play video games when I’m confronted with difficult situations. Identifying the steps in this habit cycle helps me take the steps I need to ramp this up or turn it down depending on what I want for my life. For me, I love developing myself to overcome challenges in anyway possible so I’m going to try to break that habit and replace it with a new and more positive one.

If we pay enough attention to what causes our cravings, then we can take premeditated steps to intentionally create our ideal lives. We do not have to let the habit cycle run over and over, we can stop it at any point. We just need to know how.

Breaking Old Habits

Breaking old habits is a skill worth practicing. On our journey, we pick up ways of being or thinking that may have been useful in the past, but no longer serve a purpose to us in the present. I know I have more than a few habits holding me back from bringing about my Jungian Self.

The first thing we need to do when we’re breaking habits, is identifying the things we do that are not bringing us closer to where we want to go. Once those habits are identified, we can practice a few things to make those habits more difficult for us to live out.

Harness Friction

One of my favorite ways to break bad habits is to add friction to the mix. Friction can be thought of as obstacles preventing us from completing an action.

I’ll give an example to bring this down to Earth.

Let’s say we have a habit of spending too much time on our phone in the morning. The first thing we do when we wake up is check out phone and we end up losing track of time and it throws off our whole day.

Analyzing this situation in terms of friction, we can see that we are only partaking in the “bad” habit because there’s nothing stopping us from doing it! If we were to set our phone on the other side of the room before we go to bed, then there will be a lot of friction between us and checking our phone in the morning.

Those small, yet big, steps of getting out of bed and walking over to your phone gives you enough time to develop the willpower necessary to not act out the habit. Friction is what makes or breaks my habit formation 90% of the time. I’m so sensitive to friction, but I choose to use my susceptibility to measure the effectiveness of my environment.

I love using friction to my advantage. I can increase the friction to prevent actions that I don’t want, or I can decrease it and it’ll be easier for me to build the habits I desire.

Invert the Habit Cycle

Another effective way to break old habits is to invert each step of the habit cycle.

The first step is Cue. If we can cut out the cue completely, or at least make it invisible, then we have a fighting chance to break that specific habit loop. Let me give an example, if I see my PlayStation controller in my room I’ll get an urge to play and I’ll have to use willpower to fight off the craving. Instead of using willpower to break the habit cycle, I put my PlayStation controller in a place that makes it difficult for me to see it and the craving never exists in the first place.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Now, I still may get cravings to play video games, but this way I can control for at least 1 variable. To break the habit cycle at the cue stage, we can make our cues invisible.

The second step is Craving. To stop a craving we can use willpower to resist it (but that takes too much energy), we can make the cue invisible, or we can make the craving seem unattractive.

Let me put it this way, let’s say I have a craving to eat a snack at midnight. I can think about how good it will feel to satisfy my midnight craving and how happy I will be enjoying my little snack – thinking like this will just make me want to eat more.

Or I can think about how I’m developing a habit that could lead to an unhealthy lifestyle which consequently leads to a shorter and lesser quality functional lifespan. I can imagine my body failing me in ways that I take for granted now and the frustration I will feel confronting my true powerlessness.

Once the snack is framed like that, it’s much easier to say “How about a hell no.” Making things unattractive can stop a craving dead in its tracks.

The third step is Response. To stop the habit in the response stage, Clear recommends to make the response difficult. This goes hand-in-hand with my “add-friction” tip from earlier. If we add friction between us and our response, then we are much less likely to act out the response. This makes sense when we think about what the purpose of habits are.

We have habits to save cognitive load, and overcoming friction would add cognitive load, which works counter to habits. We have habits to make things easier, so making a response more difficult will cut off the habit before we get our highly sought after reward.

The fourth and final step is Reward. We love the reward because of one simple reason. It is satisfying. If we make the reward unsatisfying, there goes all the power!

Imagine, sacrificing what mean most to you only to receive a lackluster reward. The visceral and lingering feelings of disappointment will power through any urge to perform those sets of actions again. If we feel like what we doing isn’t worth it, then we aren’t going to do it again. Simple as that. Find what makes the reward sweet and ruin it.

Be weary that there aren’t just clever mind tricks that play into our breaking and forming of habits, but our emotional states as well. We tend to break the “good” habits and start the “bad” habits when we’re feeling H.A.L.T. – hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. When we identify with one of these 4 emotional states, we are way more susceptible to aiming down and following through with it. We are pretty tough people, but we only have so much willpower. Save your willpower for when we’re feeling one of the four detrimental emotional states. We should invert the habit cycle whenever we can so we can have the energy to fight when we need to.

Creating New Habits

Once we set ourselves free from our old bad habits, we can finally create new habits! But that poses the question:

How do we create new habits that last?

We can approach this a few different ways. If you’ve read my other blog posts, specifically about studying, then you know I’m all about finding a bunch of ways to do things and modifying them to create my own personalized system.

Optimize to Win

In his fantastic success manual, Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss talks about the importance of meditating every day. While I do recommended practicing meditation, that isn’t what I want to focus on. People tend to have a difficult time creating a habit from meditation, after all most of the benefits only occur when meditation is being practiced as a habit.

Tim says when you start a new habit, you want to rig the game to win. It takes 5 sessions to make something a habit, and it doesn’t matter how long the sessions are. Keep it simple and make the first 5 sessions short. The first few times stepping up to the figurative plate will take significant willpower, but once we developed a little habit it gets easier over time. Optimize to win. Eventually our actions will eventually become what we are, I talk a little bit about this in my post Hypnotic Rhythm.

We don’t have to stop at making it short, we can make it easy too! When I first started working out consistently, I made my first 5 sessions short and easy and now it feels a little weird if I don’t get at least a little exercise.

Another thing we want to keep in mind when we are trying to create new habits is knowing that we only want to do things when we believe it will pay off for us. If we believe it won’t pay off or it’ll actually harm us, then we won’t do it. To take advantage of this bit of knowledge, we should presence ourselves to why starting this new habit is worthwhile. Be advised, this is different for everyone and requires rigorous self reflection.

Encourage the Habit Cycle

Another effective way to create new habits is to encourage each step of the habit cycle.

The first step is Cue. The cue usually kicks off the habit, but if we’re making new habits we might need a little extra help with this step. Make the cue obvious. I lay out my yoga mat and have my kettlebell out in the open so I don’t have to spend any time setting up. Working out consistently has always been difficult for me, but when I set out my equipment in a place that’s easy to see it’s much easier to just start working out. Making cues obvious can also be thought of as a method of removing friction.

The second step is Craving. This comes after the cue and gives us that feeling that we should be doing something. Craving a good habit is an interesting feeling, but one that we should try to encourage. Encourage the craving by making it attractive. Imagine, actually craving to workout or study. It’s not that hard when you think about how good you will feel once you finish or how much longer you’ll live if you’re healthy. Find reasons to pick the good choice.

The third step is Response. Once we have the craving to do something, our next move is to act. If we want the habit, to stick then we need to make it easy. I’ll use the example of my yoga mat and kettlebell again. Since the mat and kettlebell are already set up in the center of my room, it’s easy to just start working out. It’s actually easier to workout than it is to ignore the equipment! That’s why I put it in the middle of my room. I’m making it harder to ignore working out (stopping the old habit) and easier to start working out (creating the new habit).

The fourth and final step is Reward. This is what makes it all worthwhile. If we want to keep a habit going, we have to make the reward satisfying. Since I absolutely adore my video games, that’s usually the go-to treat for me after doing something difficult. Creating new habits is not easy and responding to those changes takes a lot out of us. I also love watching carefully written television like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones(Seasons 1-4), and Westworld. When I have the time I also love to cook. Sometimes I’ll make a really nice meal to reward myself for creating new habits. Find what makes you happy and indulge once everything is said and done.

Developing New Traits

The best part about knowing all is this is discovering that traits and skills can be developed through simple habit formation. This means we can create habits of traits that we admire in our role models within ourselves!

There was a study at Harvard which suggested that the most productive people don’t wait to be told what to do. Successful people take initiative and we can use the knowledge of breaking and creating habits to create the habit of taking initiative within ourselves!

The best best part – this doesn’t have to stop at initiative!

We can create a habit of being honest, courageous, hard working, dedicated, reliable, or any other trait that we would like. It’s not an easy task by any means, but it is possible with serious attention, dedication, and time.

The Issue of Willpower

Creating habits takes willpower. Sometimes it requires a lot and sometimes it requires a little. If we are trying to create new habits, we. need to find ways to minimize how much willpower we’ll need or designing our lives will be too difficult. We can minimize will power through optimizing our environment. I talk a little bit about that in Strategies for Better Studying Part 4.

If we set up our space to encourage the new habits and add friction to discourage the old habits, then willpower won’t be necessary!

James Clear talks about different ways to minimize required willpower by adjusting our actions to the habit cycle. At first, the changes will requires a huge amount of willpower, but every time we run through the loop we strengthen the neural pathways and the required willpower becomes less and less.

Josh Kaufman also talks about habit cues in his fantastic book, The Personal MBA.

“Habits are easier to install if you look for triggers that signal when it’s time to act. For example, if you want to take vitamins, it’s easier to remember to take them if you use another habitual action as a trigger for the action. Instead of relying on your mind to remember to take your vitamins in the middle of the day, you can use brushing your teeth in the morning or evening as a reminder.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)

In addition to building a guiding environment, we can reduce willpower by focusing our attention on one habit at a time. Kaufman also mentions this in The Personal MBA.

“For best results, focus on installing one Habit at a time. Remember, you only have so much Willpower to use each day, and overriding your default mode of action depletes it quickly. If you try to install too many Habits at the same time, you probably won’t succeed at adopting any of them for long. Focus on installing one Habit until taking action feels automatic, then move on to the next.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)

Creating and destroying habits takes a bit of practice, patience, and discipline. If these methods don’t work, try longer. We are surprisingly malleable creatures despite our proclivity towards habits and routine. Getting better: at first it’s uncomfortable, but later will be worth it. Perhaps the real lesson is to learn how to internalize discomfort and push forward, for once we do this we can do anything. Feel free to pick and choose which parts of this post you like and go forth to design your dream life!

Start by winning the moment right in front of you.

Categories
Education

The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 1)

“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”

Jeffrey Eugenides (1960 – )

We use both the brain and the mind to perceive the world around us and decide the best course of action. The brain is an organ and, in some respects, isn’t just in our heads. It’s spread throughout our entire body expressed in our central and peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system is essentially our spinal cord and what we traditionally consider the brain. The peripheral nervous system spreads out to our fingers and toes as our afferent and efferent nerves.

The mind is a completely different story. The mind isn’t tangible but, in some ways, can be more real than our brains. The mind is our cognitive functions which interpret and interact with the world around us. We usually consider our consciousness and thoughts as originating from the mind and because of this we like to think of the mind as “in the brain” but really the mind is an abstract idea. Our minds shape our reality and are responsible for our creativity and imagination.

There are known connections between the brain and the mind, which are easily demonstrated in drug use. But what I’m most interested in learning is how the brain functions physically, learning how the mind functions metaphysically, and maximizing their innate behavior to bring out optimal results.

The Brain

The brain is made up of 100 billion of neurons, nerve cells, that all work together to run our entire body. Neurons communicate with each other by sending neurotransmitters, electrical and chemical signals, through the spaces in between each neuron, synapses. These connections of neurons and synapses creates neurological pathways in our brain. Different neurological pathways do different things and our brain has a unique pathway for every single thing we think and do. Neurological pathways are a bunch of neurons that communicate through electrical impulses. It’s useful to know that these pathways strengthen every time they are fired. This gives the brain a unique ability to change and adapt based on what it thinks it needs to survive, this is known as brain plasticity. The brain is constantly morphing and changing, which is exciting because it shows that it’s never too late to learn anything. Learning doesn’t stop when someone gets older or gets “set in their ways.” Learning only stops when we decide it stops. However, like all organs in the body, the brain is something that requires energy and maintenance to function effectively.

In order to understand how to take care of our brains and use them more effectively, it’s helpful to know a little anatomy. This is not an exhaustive nervous system anatomy section – just some general knowledge and the parts that I’ve found relevant to learning:

3 Major Parts of the Brain

Thanks hopkinsmedicine.org

Cerebrum

This is the part in charge of performing higher order functions like interpreting our senses, developing and deciphering speech, reasoning, emotional regulation, learning, and fine motor skills. This is the youngest part of our nervous system.

Cerebellum 

This part of the brain receives sensory information, coordinates voluntary muscle movements, maintains posture, and regulates balance. This evolved after the brainstem but before the cerebrum.

Brainstem

This is part connects the rest of the brain to the spinal cord. It’s in charge of many automatic functions. This includes but is not limited to respirations, heart rate, temperature, circadian rhythms, digestion, sneezing, and sweating. This is the oldest part of our nervous system.

Left Brain vs. Right Brain

We’ve all heard the common saying – left brain people are more analytical and right brain people are creative. This never really sat well with me because I’ve always felt like I could be a left brain person and a right brain person. I’m logical and extremely analytical but I’m also creative and artistic, where did I fit into this whole left brain right brain debate? Turns out, I didn’t have to pick a side! Everyone uses both hemispheres of their brains all the time. They’re just used for different things.

In Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning lecture series, he outlines (in extensive detail) how human beings interpret the world and derive value structures from that information. In the eighth video of the 2017 series he presents this image and I believe it’s a much better representation of the functions of the left and right hemispheres.

Maps of Meaning – Jordan Peterson (2017)

We use the left hemisphere to operate in places that we understand, it’s the part of the brain that gives us our positive emotion when the world around us aligns with what we expect or want. In the context of learning, our left hemisphere is what we’re using what we already know the answers. When students feel like what they’re working on is easy and within their realm of understanding, then they’re primarily using their left hemisphere.

On the flip side, we use the right hemisphere to operate in unknown territory, it’s the part of the brain that tells us what to do when we don’t know what to do. When it comes to learning, our right hemisphere is what’s going crazy when we’re trying to learn something new. When students feel like what they’re working on is scary, confusing, or too challenging, then they’re primarily using their right hemisphere.

Each hemisphere has a separate consciousness and they don’t communicate with each other as much as we’d think. They are seperated and communicate through the corpus callosum. It’s almost like each hemisphere makes their own interpretation and we just kind of roll with it. We see this in people with prosopagnosia, the loss of the ability of recognize faces.

Take the Weirwood tree from Game of Thrones for example. There’s curves in the tree that indicate facial information but it’s still a tree. One half of the brain interprets the visual stimuli as a face while the other interprets the information as a tree. We use both of these perspectives to understand reality but someone with prosopagnosia would see only the tree.

Ned & Catelyn Stark discussing duty

I believe our two hemisphere brain is an amazing demonstration of intelligent design. It’s extremely useful to have our control center, so to speak, ran by two systems. If one side goes down, then the whole thing doesn’t have to shut down. We see this happen in people who have strokes. If someone experiences a CVA (cerebrovascular accident), a.k.a. a stroke, they may experience some brain damage but because we have two hemispheres, people usually lose function of only one side of their body, rather than their whole body.

The Lobes of the Brain

The Cerebrum can be further divided into four different sections referred to as lobes.

Frontal Lobe

This is what’s in charge of our personalities, behaviors, and emotions. The frontal lobe is responsible for planning, problem solving, and judging and is where the majority of our executive and higher level functioning takes place. Cognitive phenomena such as concentration and self awareness are functions of the frontal lobe which helps makes us smart and also helps us move towards our goals. The Broca’s area, which is in charge of speaking and writing, sits inside the frontal lobe as well as the motor strip for voluntary body movement.

The frontal lobe also contains the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain which is involved with planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. It’s basically the part of the brain that’s physically responsible for our will power and ability to regulate the more animalistic and impulsive parts of ourselves. Someone with a strong prefrontal cortex is more able to do what they tell themselves to do.

Parietal Lobe

The parietal lobe sits on the top part of our brains and is sort of the sensory processing center of the cerebrum. The parietal lobe is in charge of interpreting language as well as tactile, thermal, visual, auditory, and other sensory stimuli. It also manages spatial and visual perception.

Occipital Lobe

The occipital lobe is at the back of our head and is the primary visual processing center. It interprets visual stimuli in three different ways – color, light intensity, and movement.

Temporal Lobe

The temporal lobe is located on the sides of our heads right under our temples – the parts where our skull fuses together. This part of the brain is great for processing auditory stimuli, sequencing, organization, and memory. You can find the Wernicke’s area in the temporal lobes so It also plays a huge role in understanding language too.

Internal Structures

Hypothalamus

This part of the brain runs us like a tyrannical 2 year old. It controls our autonomic systems and is responsible for the 4 f’s: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and fornication. So it plays a role in determining our body temperature, blood pressure, emotions, and sleep. The hypothalamus knows how to motivate us. When it wants something, it makes sure that we only care about that thing. That’s why it’s so difficult for most people to concentrate when they’re hungry – it’s because all we care about is the food! The hypothalamus is like our master orienting system. Whatever the hypothalamus wants, it gets. We can kind of regulate it with the cerebral cortex, but only to an extent. This is fantastic to know because there are learning techniques that take advantage of the hypothalamus’ behavior.

Pituitary Gland

This part of the brain hides in near the base of the skull in a place called the sella turcica. It’s connected to the hypothalamus, so you know it’s got some power. It controls the other endocrine (communication from far away) glands in the other parts of the body through hormone secretion that regulates sexual development, physical growth, and stress response.

Pineal Gland

This little guy is behind the third ventricle and regulates the body’s internal clock. This part of the brain controls the balance between melatonin and serotonin. The pineal gland is crucial to sleep, which is crucial for learning.

Basal Ganglia

Also known as the basal nuclei. This part of the brain works with the cerebellum to coordinate voluntary motor movements. It’s also involved in procedural and habit learning, eye movements, cognition, and emotions. So this is the part of the brain that we develop when we learn how to type, tie our shoes, ride a bike, or play a musical instrument. The basal ganglia recieves the information from the cerebellum to encode different skills, this is what people are referring to when they are talking about muscle memory.

Hippocampus

This is the part of the brain that’s responsible for information consolidation and spatial memory which helps us with navigation. Since I’m most interested about learning, I want to focus on the information consolidation feature of the hippocampus. The hippocampus moves our memories from our short term (working memory) to our long term memory. If someone were to damage their hippocampus they would experience anterograde amnesia, the inability to form new memories. If we think about what learning is, it’s really what the hippocampus is doing. It’s turning information that we know right now into information that we can have access to forever.

Amygdala

This almond-shaped clump of neurons is responsible for processing our emotions. The amygdala is associated with our fear response and pleasure. This is the part of the brain that goes crazy when some of my students see math problems. Understanding our fear and pleasure tendencies is crucial for understanding learning. Fear helps us remember things better and our seemingly endless pursuit of pleasure is a fantastic motivator.

Working Memory vs. Long Term Memory

Working Memory – this memory we use throughout the day is also known as short-term memory. Working memory has a finite limit. Holding things in your working memory increase cognitive load and since cognitive load has a maximum so does working memory. Things stored in working memory are easily forgotten. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for the working memory. It stores information for about one minute and its capacity is limited to about 7 items (plus or minus 2). This is why we’re able to dial a phone number someone just told us. You can see it in reading too! Our working memory memorizes the sentence we just read so that the next one can make sense.

Long Term Memory – this is memory that we use throughout our entire lives. Some items in our working memory are converted to long term memory in the hippocampus through various methods, the most common is sleep. Highly emotionally charged ideas, events, or memories have a fast pass ticket to our long term memory. We have virtually unlimited space and the items stored in long term memory are not easily forgotten.

The goal that we are most interested in, as far as learning is concerned, is moving as much information as possible to our long term memory and be able to retrieve it using as little cognitive load as possible.


Some basic knowledge of the brain can help tremendously when examining methods for learning and improving. Given that the brain is set up for survival in dangerous living conditions, we can develop techniques which take advantage of these mechanisms. If we don’t use something often then our minds tend to forget it because the brain thinks we don’t need that specific neural pathway to survive. Our brains have evolved for a very different environment than we have built for ourselves as modern people. If we use something often, then our brain will strengthen that pathway so it’s easier for us to use later. I talk about this in my other post Neural Pruning vs. Long-Term Potentiation. This is the basis of Active Recall and many of the other scientifically proven study techniques.

Studying the mind in tandem with the brain sets up a fantastic foundation to test out other learning techniques for yourself. The next post will focus more on the mind and how we can use that knowledge to maximize our learning.

Categories
Education Productivity

Understanding Development and Mentors

“The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.”

Jean Piaget (1896 -1980 )

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is a concept developed by soviet Psychologist Lev Vygotsky. The ZPD is the difference between what someone can do and what they cannot do. In this zone, the person can learn new skills with aid from someone more experienced. To make things easier, let’s refer to the person learning as the “child” and the person giving aid as the “adult.” However, the ZPD does not necessarily only apply to children. It applies to anyone learning something new.

The ZPD changes for each individual and as the domain of unaided skills increases so does the ZPD and the domain of skills that cannot be done decreases.

Piaget and Constructivism

Jean Piaget was a famous Swiss developmental psychologist who was best known for his work in genetic epistemology and constructivism. I highly recommend looking into his work if you work or spend lots of time with kids. Piaget believed that people build new representations of the world on top of their preexisting knowledge in which the new interpretation would incorporate the old interpretation. This is the basis of constructivism.

I like to look at it like this – we can use a bronze axe to chop down a tree, but over time we changed the bronze to steel, and eventually we replace the axe with a power saw. Each of these tools can still cut the tree down but over time the tools we use to get the job done become more comprehensive, efficient, and effective. The same goes for our ways of interpreting the world. When we’re young, we see things a certain way and as we get older we learn new things which explain everything we understood before and more!

The same thing happens in science as well. Isaac Newton founded an entire field of study known as Newtonian physics and it explains so much of what happen in the material objective world but it was unable to explain a few things like how light seemed to travel the same speed no matter which way it was pointing. Over time, a little German boy named Albert Einstein came up with his Theory of Relativity and blew out the doors in the world of physics. Now, Newtonian physics is a subset of Einsteinian physics. Einstein’s theories explain everything Newton was able to explain plus more and this is exactly how we build our own understandings of the world.

Piaget’s constructivist theory works in tandem with Vygotsky’s ZPD theory. We start off with understanding very little but that helps us expand our understanding and this is useful because the world we live in is infinitely complicated and we don’t know very much about the absolute state of being so we need to be able to constantly update our perceptual systems. We can get this updated information through mentorship (we can find the answers ourselves but we make much more progress with mentors), asking the right questions, exploration, and play.

Build a Panel of Mentors

In Game of Thrones, (and in many historical monarchies as well) the king had a small council to advise him on matters outside his expertise. I fell in love with this idea but I found myself frustrated of the king’s small council. I wouldn’t have filled my council with tyrannical sociopaths but with mentors and other people that I look up to. We should all strive to build a small council of mentors.

Building a small council, reading books, taking time to cultivate ourselves will help us expand our domains of unaided skills. When I first graduated from college, I felt ill equipped to handle the world and I knew I needed to learn new things. At the time, I didn’t have a traditional mentor or someone to model myself after but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t keep growing.

I found the works of incredible people and they acted as my guide when I found myself in pitfalls or moments of confusion. These people included Jordan Peterson, Tim Ferriss, Robert Greene, Seneca, and many others. I highly recommend building your own personal panel of advisors. It’s great if you can have one in person, but if you don’t have immediate access to mentors then check out the works of the people that you would like to have advise you. I recommend creating a balanced panel in terms of personal specialty. I believe different people do better in different situations and the panel should be diverse enough to have strengths in all situations. Each person has their own strengths and weaknesses, and a balanced panel’s member’s strengths should compliment the weaknesses of the others. What Seneca lacks in 21st century technology knowledge, Tim Ferriss provides in just 1 book. What Tim lacks in timeless wisdom, Seneca provides in just 1 book. Both of them on my panel ensures I have the best of both worlds.

Stand on the shoulders of giants. Create a mastermind of the best people you can imagine and make that team unstoppable.


Everything you need to learn to be an excellent and whatever you want is within your ZPD. Here is a list of difficult skills that, if developed properly, pay off for the rest of your life:

  • Life long learning and skill acquisition 
  • Grit development
  • Adaptability
  • Silencing your inner critic
  • Learning to say no
  • Critical thinking 
  • Creative thinking 
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Decision making
  • Writing
  • Leadership
  • Personal effectiveness
  • Persuasion
  • Cooking
  • Reflection
  • Compassion
  • Meditation
  • Self-control

These are great starting points if you aren’t sure which skills are worth developing. Honestly though, developing yourself in all of these things will take a lifetime, so I recommend finding which skills are most relevant to you and prioritize accordingly. I talk more about this in my post The 20 Hour Rule and Metaskills.

Developing ourselves is a huge undertaking and requires a bunch of effort, but what else do we have better to do? If we’re better people, we do better, and we cannot fathom the reach of our actions.