This quote is probably one of the most life changing ideas I’ve come across this year. I like to add “…and what gets managed gets improved, as long as you’re aiming up” to the end of it to give it that extra punch. The idea is pretty simple, we’re able to manage the things we pay the most attention to and we can manage to improve them with a little intentionality.
If we’re trying to lose weight, we’ll need a way to determine if we’re making progress. Most people use weight, but we can use an indefinite amount of different measures. We can measure our BMI, arm width, torso width, torso circumference, daily energy levels, etc. Once we pick a measure, we track the measure over time and we can see if we’re moving towards our goals or away from our goals. In The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss (which is on my Must Read Book List), Tim suggests that people measure as many variables as possible when they are trying to make new changes to their fitness routine so they can see potential progress in domains they may not be focusing on. This prevents us from quitting if we aren’t meeting the goals we set for ourselves. For example, if we spend a week doing kettlebell swings and we don’t lose any weight but we’re able to increase our maximum number of reps, then we aren’t totally wiped out from the failure. The progress in the other domain gives us the boost we need to stick with it. As long as we’re getting better, it’s all good.
The best part of measuring multiple variables is being able to improve them intentionally. I’ve noticed this in my own life, anything that I keep track of inevitability gets improved over time. This is partly because I’m (possibly unhealthily) obsessed with personal development but also because I know my metrics and where I objectively stand.
Man will only get better when you make him see what he is like.
Anton Chekhov (1860 – 1904)
We can think of tracking as our ability to notice when we’re on path towards our ideal life so we can use it to stay on the path towards our goals. It’s helpful to see tracking as a skill that we practice, but it’s much more than that. Our ability to track is deep-seated in our biology. We have connections in our limbic system wired throughout our entire body which entangles our emotional states with the trajectory of our desired goal. We have visceral feelings when we suspect something may physically harm us or feelings of unease when we’re doing something we know we shouldn’t. These deeply ingrained systems are examples of our tracking mechanisms letting us know where we stand in relation to our goals.
A relatable example of tracking mechanisms controlling our emotional states is being hungry. When we’re hungry, our entire body’s mission becomes “get food.” All of our senses become hyper aware of everything food related and we become perspective of all the possible ways of getting food. Our whole body is oriented towards getting the goal: food. This happens all the time when I’m hungry and I drive by an In-N-Out. I’m minding my own business, when BAM! I’m hit with the sweet aroma of burgers and fries. Now, imagine you’re hungry decide to go drive to your favorite restaurant. You get a flat tire on the drive and it’s going to take a while to get it fixed. Something came up that stopped you from reaching the goal. That bag of negative emotion you feel when an obstruction comes up is your tracking mechanism saying “You are off course!” or “Something is stopping you from reaching your goal!” Now, imagine you fixed the tired and made it to the restaurant and you see your hot meal coming out of the kitchen headed towards you. As the food gets closer and closer, your brain releases a bigger and bigger dopamine kick. These kicks also strengthen actions committed right before that point making them more likely to occur in the future. The same phenomena happens with all of our goals. We experience positive emotion when we move towards our goals and we experience negative emotion when we are impeded or off course from our goals. The feelings are experienced proportionally less intense as the goals become less crucial to our survival.
Tracking works best when we have a clear purpose. Tracking doesn’t discern what is a proper purpose and what is an inauthentic purpose, so we decide what we dedicate ourselves to, and tracking can be one of the many tools we can use. It provides powerful motivation and a built-in incentive structure. Some people like to track for shiggles, but I like to track with a specific goal in mind because seeing ourselves move towards a goal makes us happy, staves off depression and anxiety, and boosts confidence.
I mentioned this earlier but it’s so important to track multiple variables. In a classroom, only measuring our overall grade in the class may be discouraging since it doesn’t change as quickly as we’d like. It usually takes week of consistent improvement to raise an overall grade in a course, especially towards the end. But if we measure the number of questions we can answer easily in our a certain class, then we may see improvements faster.
Tracking multiple dimensions gives us boosts when we see improvement and prevents disappointment because we won’t trick ourselves into thinking that we’re stagnant. The more things you keep track of, the more things will improve, and the more you’ll be able to see how you’re progressing in a comprehensive way. When we are working on ourselves, there is always going to be some improvement in some dimension but it’s easy to miss those marks. Tracking is a way for us to see some of the different things that are improving. Keep track of many things, the more specific the better.
I like to think of Loss Aversion as an internal mechanism which motivates us to act to prevent losing something. Some examples of this could be going to work to pay the bills in order to avoid the water being shut off or studying for a test in order to avoid getting a bad grade. Loss aversion can also help us stay on the path towards our goals because it gives us something to run from. Research from Center for Experimental Social Science at NYU demonstrates that people will work way harder to avoid losing $5 than earn $20. Tracking and Loss Aversion are both powerful motivators but Loss Aversion is more effective. Not surprising considering that most people are more sensitive to negative stimuli than positive stimuli.
Everyone loves to envision themselves at the top of the mountain, so to speak, looking down at the world from their throne of success. That kind of envisioning is using the Tracking mechanism to create a possible future that we would love to run towards. But I believe that knowing what you want to do and where you want to go is not enough to accomplish something great. It is just as important to know what will happen if you do not take the actions necessary. If you don’t feeling like studying, ask yourself “What will happen if I don’t study?” Be vivid. The more clear the scenario of disaster, the better. I get myself to work out, stick to my routines, and create on a regular basis by asking myself:
What would my life would be like if I didn’t do this?
If keeping your own vision doesn’t work, there are fun apps to monitor loss aversion, feel free to google them and pick one that’s best for you. There are also organizations called Anti-Charities. You pledge money to these organizations and they will donate the money under your name if you don’t accomplish your goals. An example would be something like: Donating $5 to the KKK every day that you don’t study for an exam.
As much as I wish we could all just track down our goals like my dog when we wants to eat, success is extremely rare when we track without loss aversion. Trust me, I’ve avoided loss aversion intentionally for years but when I carefully reflected on a majority of my achievements I noticed that what really got the job done was the fear of getting the stick if I didn’t hold up my end of the deal.
Create something to run to and create something to run from. It will be pretty hard to procrastinate or do meaningless work if you are clear on what you want and what you do not.
Run towards Heaven and away from Hell. Nowadays, I hear so much contention between positive reinforcement and positive punishment. Some people say we should only use positive reinforcement and avoid positive punishment but I say we should use a combination of both. Run towards the carrot and away from the stick. Usually just one good reason isn’t enough, most of the time we’ll need more than one. Combining Tracking with Loss Aversion gives us at least two good reasons to do the things we want and it’s a surefire way to success.
“If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.”
C.S. Lewis (1889 – 1963)
We love to look for comfort, but seeking out comfort can lead to taking shortcuts and avoiding challenges. The comfortable path enables us to practice habits which reward instant gratification and that prevents any long term goals from ever coming to fruition. This isn’t to say that the way to success is paved by only misery and suffering. There is a balance to be found between living a comfortable life and living a meaningful life. That balance could never be achieved if one was aiming at comfort, but it could possibly be achieved through aiming at truth. Finding the truth gives us a realistic view of what is required for success and only there it is possible to make peace with the high price success and meaning demands. Living a significant life is expensive, and the price can only be paid if we know it exists. That price of meaning lies in the truth but is masked by comfort. The unfortunate part of it all, is that humans have a need to be comfortable. It feels so good, and on some level makes life worth living all on its own.
It’s worthwhile to chase truth because it will make us smarter, tougher, more creative and dangerous. If we know what is true and share it correctly with others, then they will give us money and opportunities. The pursuit of truth will give us access to unlimited worthwhile experiences. We will become the beings which shapes the world around them.
Chasing comfort is terrible because we stop failing and when we stop failing, we stop learning. We can think of being comfortable as being in an environment in which everything is acting as we expect. While that sounds like a great place to be, the problem is we never need to learn anything if everything is working out exactly as we expect. If there is no mismatch between the actual environment and our expected environment, then our brains find no use in learning something new. Why bother? Everything is working perfectly. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it amiright? But when we dwell in the realm of order we don’t fail and because we don’t fail, we don’t learn. If we don’t learn, then we can’t become the people we want to be. I go more in depth on this in my post about The Power of Failure. Humans are creatures of necessity and we only learn something new if we need to, so if everything around is is perfectly fine then there is no learning taking place.
Be mindful of when you want to take the comfortable path. It’s probably going to take you the long way and make your journey more difficult. I know this all too well from personal experience. When making decisions, I find it worthwhile to evaluate my own intentions so I don’t change my behavior solely because something is comfortable. I change to be effective, not to be comfortable because I believe the comfort will come as a byproduct of being more effective.
I really learned this lesson a few years deep into my college career. For a long time, I was a chronic procrastinator and I would always wait until the last minute to do my assignments. I remember back in middle school, whenever I would get a huge project assigned I just automatically thought that meant I was going to be miserable the night before it was due. Eventually, I decided to try things differently three years into college. When I got assignments I would do them the day they were assigned with the same tenacity and velocity that I would have if I worked on it the night before it was due. It was extremely uncomfortable at first, but I stuck with it for a month and found that I had way less stress and was more comfortable than I would have been if I focused on my momentary instantaneous comfort. I had years of experience with putting assignments off until the last minute and I was familiar with how prioritizing comfort felt, but that month felt so great that it was enough incentive to kick my chronic procrastination habit for good! Like everyone else, I am human and I will procrastinate occasionally, but I know first hand the value of not procrastinating. Nowadays, I never procrastinate projects that are important to me. The clear mind I have when I don’t procrastinate in conjunction with the additional time for revisions is a sure fire way to perform better with less stress.
The easy way out often leads back in.
The Last Man vs. The Superman
“Too many people believe that everything must be pleasurable in life, which makes them constantly search for distractions and short-circuits the learning process.”
Robert Greene (1959 – )
In Nietzsche’s relatively poetic Thus Spake Zarathustra, a prophet named Zarathustra preaches to people in a town regarding his own wisdom accrued from his careful reflection upon a mountaintop. He delivers a powerful, but ill received, talk about the ways of The Superman and The Last Man to a crowd awaiting a performance of a tightrope walker.
The Superman-Last Man dichotomy is a huge idea but I want to highlight a few characteristics of each and how it explains our proclivity for comfort. The Übermensch, also translated to Beyond-Man or Superman, can be thought of as the man who is dedicated to the goal which he sets for himself. *Disclaimer: Nietzsche believed that men could create values for themselves and while this can be true for some men, it is not true for all so when I suggest that we should strive to be Übermensch, I mean that we should strive in a way that benefits ourselves, our families, and our communities.* I think Kyra explains the The Superman fantastically in her post when she said “all about challenging the status quo, and truly thinking about life beyond what he is told. The Superman goes on the tedious journey of creating a work that will outlast his life.” On the other hand, The Last Man is named appropriately so because he who lives like The Last Man will be the last of his kind. The Last Man takes no risks and engrosses themselves with distractions such as fancy careers, the latest social event, and happiness to avoid seriously thinking about the meaning of these things. The Last Man pursues only comfort and security, consumes more than he creates, and never challenges the axioms of his time. The Last Man resents his suffering and seeks to alleviate it while the Superman takes in his suffering and channels it into something more.
Appropriately enough, the tightrope walker is the only one who was receptive to the message Zarathustra was putting forward. Nietzsche did a fantastic job dramatizing the dichotomy of The Superman and The Last Man by juxtaposing the tightrope walker with the crowd. Not only was the tightrope walker the only person who understood the message, which suggests he’s closer to manifesting The Superman than anyone else, but he was already demonstrating the characteristics of The Superman by being the one who is giving the performance to the crowd.
Zarathustra describes man as “a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman-a rope over an abyss” and I believe that’s an accurate representation of existence of human beings. We are constantly trying to regulate and integrate our animalistic (Last Man-esque) tendencies by striving to bring out the best in ourselves and if we choose not to play that game, then we end up in an existential abyss where we are susceptible to pathological ideologies.
We either walk the tightrope or we get swallowed by pure chaos. Most of us choose to walk the tightrope, but the inconvenient truth is that walking towards The Superman end of the rope is a difficult endeavor. It’s much more comfortable to drift towards The Last Man end and it’s useful to keep this in mind. The choices we have to make to walk towards to Superman are always going to be difficult but that is the price to create something of worth and operate at the edge of your abilities. It’s painful in the moment, but something worthwhile always comes out the other side. Walking towards the Superman is like sitting on the edge of order and chaos, but we are imposing our will on the chaos we encounter and creating order of our own accord. This allows us to create and design the worlds we want to live in, but it comes from resisting the urge to drift towards The Last Man.
Life is tough and part of what makes it tough is being aware of our relative presence in the universe and the inevitable demise of ourselves and all of our loved ones. However, in a certain light death can seem like a sweet release from an exhausting existence so it’s not the only one to blame for the inherent unfair suffering of life. From a Piagetian perspective, babies initially don’t understand much about how to operate in the world, but over time they accommodate and assimilate new information to expand their sphere of competence. The steps of development can look something like: we think we understand, we realize that we don’t understand anything, we learn something new, we think we understand again, we repeat. Our lives are made up of times in which the world makes sense to us and our current frames of understanding are sufficient to operate powerfully in the world, and there are times when the world shows us it’s true complexity. In the times we are present to the complexity of the universe, we suffer. We realize our inadequacies, our insecurities, and vulnerabilities. This cycle is painful, but it’s built into life as we know it and it’s how we learn. Now, this isn’t to say suffering is the ONLY way to learn. We also learn to satiate curiosity but that can be in itself is dangerous.
The combination of all of these things contributes to what is known as the inherent suffering of life. It’s hard to be human and we all have different ways of dealing with it. The Norwegian metaphysicist Peter Zapffe categorized how we deal with the inherent suffering of life in four broad categories: isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation. The first three are characteristic of Nietzsche’s idea of The Last Man, while the fourth, sublimation, is characteristic of the Superman. Keep in mind that these methods never solve the problem of the inherent tragedy, but simply repress our awareness of it.
Zapffe’s 4 Methods of Repression
Have you ever looked at all the stuff you have to do and get really sleepy? That initial reaction to the tragedy of life is our proclivity towards what Zapffe refers to as Isolation. Zapffe defines isolation, in the context of a method of repression, as “a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling.” Other examples of isolation include hitting the snooze button to stay in bed longer, keeping yourself away from things that scare you, or keeping your ears away from opposing views. Isolation is comfortable, it keeps us warm and justifies our preexisting ideas, but it’s dangerous. When we isolate ourselves we stop encountering the natural chaos of the universe and that prevents us from learning and learning is something we want to do, it gives us the tools we need to not suffer more than we already do. The key to learn more is to throw ourselves into challenging, complicated, and unknown situations. To hell with isolation!
Little kids are an interesting phenomena to observe because despite their lack of knowledge of the complex world around them, they manage to survive. How? The tragedy of life doesn’t hold back just because someone is a child but what the child does is combat the complexity of the world with the aid of an adult. The kid explores the world with their simple understanding and they are able to do so because the real complexity of the world is mediated by the more complex understanding of the adult. Since this is a winning strategy, the child learns to develop a want for adults to handle difficult and complex situations. The child uses the adult as a wall the protect itself from the overly complicated parts of existence and this “wall” is known as an anchor. The best part is that adults never stop doing this just because they “grow up.” They shift their anchor to something else like their childhood home, neighborhood or nation. Zapffe defined anchoring as “a fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness…the happiest…protection against the cosmos that we ever get to know in life.” Anchoring explains how people can drift towards gangs or radical nationalist groups. It also explains people’s desire to cling to what they know. The unfortunate side effect of anchoring is similar to isolation – you cling to your walls, you stop encountering the unknown, you stop learning, you suffer more. It’s easy and comforting to cling to what we know, but it’s treating the symptom and not the disease. If we release our anchors, we can learn more things and become more competent and that competence will spill over into other parts of our lives.
Distraction is usually the preferred form of repression from people who often find themselves bored or those who feel like they need to “burn time.” Both of these characteristics are actually desires for existential distraction masqueraded as innocuous states of being. Zapffe defines distraction as “A very popular mode of protection [where] one limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impression.” Modern technology is proof that Zapffe’s speculations of distraction being a popular option was correct. Our streaming services, social media, video games, and cell phones are just a few examples of modern tech that rewards us for distracted thinking and condition us to expect continuous information input. This isn’t a critique of modern technology, it’s just that these particular characteristics of modern technology were created by us to fulfill our desires for distraction. Our need for distraction is so deep that we’ve built machines that rewards us for not thinking about the inherent suffering of life. On a personal note, distraction drives me crazy. It’s such a plague to everything beautiful about human beings. When we ignore the distractions of this sort, we create something truly special.
Personally, I’m always at war with the side of myself that wants to drift towards The Last Man and it takes a tremendous effort to overcome it but the unfortunately reality is that people usually aren’t checking their own tendencies and allow their distraction to inhibit others. You see it in mindless entertainment, insatiable consumption, insufferable parties, and fake performances. Distraction is destructive but the payoff is massive – given we’re distracted properly. If we’re distracted, then we don’t have the burden of thinking about the tragedy of life, but we lose the ability to see life for what it truly is, in all it’s beauty and catastrophe and this blindness prevents us from bringing fourth our Jungian Self.
So what happens if isolation, anchoring and distraction aren’t enough? Zapffe describes a fourth method in which one transforms the problem into purpose. This is known as Sublimation. It is what people inevitably do when the other three methods aren’t sufficient. In an essay he wrote which regarded the four methods of repression, he says “the present essay is a typical example of sublimation. The author does not suffer. He is filling pages, and is going to be published in a journal.” I say that is a perfect example of sublimation. Sublimation is characteristic of The Superman, as mentioned above, because in order to create something that may outlast you, you must channel the inherent tragedy of life into something other than complete despair and anxiety. In order to create, we must sublimate. Sublimation can also be defined as channeling the energy from an inappropriate urge to an appropriate urge. In this case, the impact that the tragedy of life has on us can be channeled into something that can help others deal with the tragedy as well (an appropriate urge) rather than using it as an excuse to shoot up a school (an inappropriate urge). This is where creation is born. Creation can be seen as internalizing the world around us and transforming the parts of suffering into something novel and good. I like to think that I practice this with my blog, music, lesson plans, and my other creative endeavors. After all, most of my passions came to be because I was trying to deal with suffering and had a desire to alleviate that same suffering for others.
A fascinating feat of creation is that our creations are made by us but they take a life of their own once they are out in the world. Jawed Karin, Steve Chen, and Chad Hurley had no idea what they were really creating when they founded YouTube. Sure, YouTube is a place to upload videos but now that it’s out in the world it’s become much more than just a space to share videos. YouTube has become the modern Library of Alexandria, it’s the modern Gutenberg printing press but for the spoken word rather than the written word. Creations become something else as they live their lives and it’s impossible for us to know exactly what that is at the time of inception. All creation shares this peculiar characteristic – to come into a life of its own and impact the world in it’s own manner. The best part is that all human beings have this capacity and it is the best solution to repress the tragedy of life. We momentarily diverge our attention towards from the horrors and simultaneously create something which may contribute positively to the human experience.
We have a tendency towards comfortable things, and while the comfort can make life worth living, there is an expensive price to be paid for chasing what’s comfortable. When we are uncomfortable, we learn and when we learn, we don’t have to suffer more than we already do. Being comfortable stops us from expanding our spheres of competence but it also robs us of the highest potential within ourselves. It feels good to be The Last Man, but we will be the last of our kind if we give in to these tendencies. Strive to be the Superman, avoid all distractions, sublimate your tragedy, dive into the unknown, create something better for the world. That something can take the form of anything we please.
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
John Milton (1608 – 1674)
The mind what makes us feel alive and aware. It gives us the faculty of consciousness and the ability to think. The mind provides us with judgement, perception, language and memory. People all throughout time have dedicated their entire lives to trying to understand the mind but there is no shortage of things we don’t understand. Some of the people that studied the mind in depth include but are not limited to: Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Peterson, and many, many more. The mind is a strange place that we know very little about, but we can use what little we do know to our advantage. For some, the mind is the enemy. Perhaps it’s the most formidable enemy we’ll ever meet, but learning a few things about our minds can turn it into our most valuable ally.
I’ll do a brief run through a few of the topics that are integral to understanding the mind. Each of these topics is extremely dense and you can spend your entire life learning about just one aspect, but knowing just a little bit can make a dramatic difference in our lifestyle.
Wikipedia puts it best when it comes to summarizing what thinking is – “Thinking is sometimes described as a “higher” cognitive function and the analysis of thinking processes is a part of cognitive psychology. It is also deeply connected with our capacity to make and use tools; to understand cause and effect; to recognize patterns of significance; to comprehend and disclose unique contexts of experience or activity; and to respond to the world in a meaningful way.”
There are many theories to how the mind works. One of my favorites are diffuse thinking vs. focused thinking:
Focused thinking is what we traditionally think of when we hear the word thinking. It’s effortful, deliberate, and concentrated. It’s what we use when we’re consciously trying to solve a problem. Focused thinking eliminates distractions and gets the job done through sheer will power. This type of thinking is made possible through the contributions made by the prefrontal cortex. Focused thinking is optimal when you have high energy and the solution to the problem is right outside your zone of proximal development.
On the other hand, diffuse thinking is less straightforward. Diffuse thinking is the kind of thinking that’s running in the background making connections without you consciously noticing. Diffuse thinking occurs when we’re doing mundane tasks or whenever our brain has the ability to “wonder off.” Unlike focused thinking, diffuse thinking occurs in all parts of the brain. The freedom the brian has to make random connections allows for more creative solutions to come about. Diffuse thinking is optimal for when you are presented with a problem that may need a creative solution that you can’t immediately see. Benjamin Franklin used to induce diffuse thinking with his special napping technique whenever he came across a problem that he didn’t know how to solve.
Daniel Kahneman wrote about another thinking dichotomy in his best selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. In this book, he discusses the brain working in two gears but he calls them System 1 and System 2. It’s similar to focused thinking vs. diffuse thinking but with some nuances. The main idea is to use System 1 to get the easy things done, but to slow down and use System 2 when necessary. Many people tend to mix these up and make important decisions quickly resulting in many unnecessary problems. I recommend checking his book out!
Memory refers to our ability to keep and retrieve information. The study of memory has been a meeting point of several different academic disciplines such as neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and biology. There are many different kinds of memory. I laid out working memory vs. long term memory in my last post, but there are a few others that are worth mentioning.
Long Term Memory
It’s an umbrella term and splits into two different kinds of long term memory – Declarative and Implicit Memory.
Declarative (Explicit) Memory is the conscious and intentional storage of facts, events, and concepts. This is the memory that’s consolidated during stage 3 of the sleep cycle. Declarative memory can also split into two types:
Episodic memory refers to our autobiographical memory of specific events. It’s basically our collection of how we remember our life events.
Semantic memory refers to our memory of words, concepts, numbers, or other general worldly knowledge that we may need to survive. This type of memory is dependent on culture and experience.
Implicit Memory is the unconscious and unintentional learning that affects our thoughts and behaviors. Implicit memory is the reason why priming is a popular marketing method advertisers use to sell their products.
Procedural Memory is the best example of implicit memory at work. Procedural memory is responsible for knowing how to do things and it’s consolidated during the REM stage in the sleep cycle. This part of our memory picks up on the motor skills necessary to make every day life easier. This is how we learn how to talk, walk, ride a bike, play an instrument, etc.
Part of what we consider to be our memory is our ability to access the information stored in our brains. The two main methods of retrieval are recall and recognition.
Recall refers to our ability to retrieve information from our long term memory with little or no cues.
Recognition refers to our ability to retrieve information from our long term memory because of specific cues.
“Scientists must have a vivid intuitive imagination, for new ideas are not generated by deduction, but by an artistically creative imagination.”
Max Planck (1858 – 1947)
Scientists aren’t the only people who must have imagination, it’s necessary for everyone.
The imagination has been described as a subjective process that the mind uses to perceives the world and the activity of creating new situations, concepts, images, or any other qualia. Even when setting aside the make-believe games that children need to play, people use their imagination all the time. Whenever we think of possible future scenarios, see things from other people’s perspectives, or get lost in a daydream we are using our imagination. Imagination is crucial for problem solving, especially under restricted conditions, so there are many practical reasons to develop our imagination. I say imagination is the fuel for creativity, and our creativity is what separates us from animals. We should lean into our imaginative thoughts. Everything we have around us was first imagined in someone’s mind. Everything.
Developing our imagination is key to solving all of our world’s biggest problems. Climate change will be solved through imagination. The social and political conflicts around the world will end through new solutions that have not been implemented (or maybe even thought of) yet. Imagination solves problems. Imagination creates life.
Assimilation & Accommodation
Assimilation, according to Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, is using an existing schemata to make sense of a new situation. It’s the first step in learning something new! Whenever we encounter something new, we first try to relate the novel stimuli to something we already know in hopes of understanding it well enough to deal with it. For example, whenever I’m teaching my students how to solve algebraic inequalities, I show them how it’s similar to solving regular algebraic equations.
Accommodation is what we use when we don’t have the necessary schemas to perceive the new information. If the new information still doesn’t make sense even after applying our pre-existing schemas, then we modify existing schemas or create new ones to accommodate for that new information. This is how we learn new things. We build new knowledge on top of the knowledge we had before when we encounter new circumstances.
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”
Our identity is how we see ourselves and how we know who we are. Over the course of our lives we create this person based on our interpretations of our life events or our goals we set for ourselves. This is arguably the MOST powerful force that motivates us. Our habits and choices are based off what kind of person we see ourselves as.
What makes our identity such a powerful force?
Identity Defense is how we preserve who we think we are. This results in rejecting actions that don’t match with who we think we are and continuing actions that match who we think we are. We love being right and hate being wrong, and nothing is worse than being wrong about who we think we are. The kind of person that we see ourselves to be is the one thing that we like to think we know for sure. This is powerful in creating new habits and explains why starting new habits could be difficult. New habits may not be seen as something that would match up with our current view of ourselves so in order to be right about who we are, we reject the idea of doing those actions.
If we see ourselves as athletes, then we are more likely to do what athletes do.
If we see ourselves as musicians, then we are more likely to do what musicians do.
If we see ourselves as great students, then we are more likely to do what great students do.
If we see ourselves already as the people we desire to be, then taking on the new actions won’t feel so strange. Be the new person, everything else will follow.
Our identity is very much aligned with how we know ourselves. When we say I know myself, what does that actually mean? We have multiple ideas of our self and these ideas play into how we form our identity.
All of the multidimensional ways we describe ourselves is known as our Self-Concept. It transcends time and applies to our past, present, and future self. We have infinitely many ways in which we describe ourselves, but it’ll just cover a few of them here –
Let’s start with our Actual Self. This is who we are in reality; it includes all of our strengths, weaknesses, and how we know ourselves to act in the world. It’s tough to get an accurate read on who we are objectively, but with serious reflection and the right team of people around us we can find our actual limits and use that knowledge to our advantage.
The Ideal Self is the person who we strive to be. This is can be seen as analogous to Freud’s Superego. This is the version of ourselves that judges us when we make a mistake and praises us when we act in alignment with it. This is the self that most people identify with the most. It’s easy to mix up the actual self with the ideal self.
The Ought Self is the person who other people want us to be. Sometimes the person we think we should we is the person that other people think we should be. We should recognize when this is the case and act in accordance with our own commitment to our Ideal Self. I’m not saying we should never let other people influence how we act, I’m suggesting that it’s extremely beneficial to recognize the affect other people have on our sense of self and decide if it’s worth internalizing.
Our Self-Esteem is our evaluation of ourselves in relationship to our ideal self. The closer our actual self is to our ideal self, the higher our self-esteem. The further our actual self is to our ideal self, the lower our-self esteem. The best way to raise your self-esteem is to clearly define what your ideal self is and do actions that coincide with the your ideal self.
Self-esteem is not the same as Self-Efficacy, which is how capable we think we are at a given skill or situation.
Our self-efficacy is what drives the idea that we have to learn a certain way (like visual or auditory) or that we are only skilled in certain subjects (“I am a math person” or “I am an English person”). That isn’t true. Our self-efficacy can be improved and with those improvements comes a higher rate of learning in all domains of life, higher self confidence, and exciting opportunities!
We can improve our self-efficacy in three steps:
Making & accomplishing small attainable goals
Recognizing those small accomplishments as significant and the preferred method of progress, as opposed to working hard for one large accomplishment
Slowly increasing difficulty over time
If we don’t take care of our self-efficacy, it’ll be difficult to try new things and eventually one could slide into the realm of Learned Helplessness. This is one of the lowest forms of diminished self-efficacy. It comes about from being in consistently hopeless scenarios. Sometimes there are things we can’t do, and if we find ourselves in those situations enough then we’ll learn that there isn’t anything we can do anywhere.
Learned helplessness is serious, but can be avoided. Recovering from learned helplessness requires a shift in identity, recognizing our cognitive biases (specifically the negative ones we hold about ourselves), setting them aside, and focusing on raising our self-efficacy.
One noteworthy mention is Carl Jung’s definition of The Self. I reference this in my other post The Power of Failure. Jung believed that the Self was developed through individuation, which is the integration of your personality. The Self is the representation of the unification of our conscious and unconscious. It’s my understanding that the primary means of individuation is through circumambulation, which is also mentioned in The Power of Failure.
There are many ways to define ourselves, so no one way is objectively true. But one thing is certain, understanding how we see ourselves is crucial to improving and getting out of our own way.
Dramaturgy (Front Stage Self vs. Back Stage Self)
Front Stage Self
This is the self which we present to other people. The self we put out to fit the social norms.
Back Stage Self
This is the self that we are when we are not around other people. This self is the one that really runs the show. Most of the actions that define our lives and self-concept are driven by the back stage self.
Collapsing these two as much as possible will make success in any domain easier. We don’t have to completely merge them together, but an honest life keeps us confident and directly affects our self esteem and efficacy. Training the back stage self to be well polished and pristine like our front stage self will allow us to accomplish what we need to accomplish to reach our goals.
I like to think of cognitive load as our brain’s biological RAM or our mental gas tank. In the morning (if we’re well rested) we start off with our full processing capacity, but as the day goes on every little task and decision chips away at our cognitive load until we go to sleep. Not all activities require the same amount of cognitive processing. Multitasking or activities that require intense concentration use up our cognitive load the most. This is why I do the most difficult tasks first – just getting my lazy ass to do it is going to take tons of cognitive load, so to speak. I won’t have the physiological brain power necessary to do the difficult tasks well if I save them for the end of the day.
Maximize bandwidth by reducing cognitive load.
Scientifically Proven Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load
Apply Occam’s razor to everything
Minimize the number of decisions you make per day
Remove needless words
Do the most difficult tasks first
Use cognitive aids (e.g. checklists, calendars, notifications)
Top-down Processing vs. Bottom-up Processing
Examine the following sentence – Rocky loves to rock on his rcoking chair to rock music.
Noticing that the c
and the o in rocking chair are reversed is a form of bottom-up processing,
seeing each letter and concluding that it is supposed to say rocking. But
knowing that rcoking and rocking are similar for all intents and purposes is a
form of top-down processing because you have noticed that the word is rocking
then noticing later that the letters are switched.
Our ability to perceive something and apply what we already know and expect to perceive details that match with our conclusions.
Our ability to perceive a collection of details as they come and conclude what something is as a result of those details.
How does it relate to studying?
When studying, we want to use bottom-up processing to fight against our top-down processing tendencies. It’s easy to review a topic and think we know all the small details because we are familiar with hearing the name of the chapter or section, but in reality, we need to practice our concepts from the small details up and practice working through everything to really make sure that we know our information.
To study through bottom-up processing, doing practice problems or answering free response questions will help identify any gaps in your knowledge when it comes to the concepts you are responsible for learning. This type of studying is also know as Active Recall.
How do both processes work for us and against us?
When studying, it’s easy to fall into the trap of top-down processing. If we study simply by looking over our notes or reading quick sections over the chapter, we’ll be at a loss when the test comes and that will have a negative impact on our grades.
However, this doesn’t mean that top-down processing doesn’t have it’s uses. Sometimes top-down can be great for trying to learn something new. Applying top-down processing to a new concept can help you try to see the bigger picture then fill in the smaller details later. This is something I like to call Knowledge Frames. Building knowledge frames is perfect for frontloading, or previewing new information in advanced in order to focus on reviewing rather accommodation or assimilation. When I was in EMT school, I used knowledge frames to learn the blood flow through the heart in less than 10 minutes!
Bottom-up processing is great for reviewing content and can prevent us from deluding ourselves from thinking that we understand something when we actually don’t. I have had plenty of experience using bottom-up processing while studying and taking tests I was grossly underprepared for.
That being said, bottom-up processing isn’t so great for learning new material. Using bottom-up can create an illusion of new concepts seeming more difficult than they actually are. Purely memorizing individual facts or ideas about a new concept without trying to find how they all fit together will make any class 10x harder than it should be.
Both have their place and being aware of their existence can give us more firepower when dealing with a new class of information. Experiment with both and find your own methods that can maximize your results.
We interact with the world on many different levels. When a snake lunges towards us, we jump back before we consciously realize that the snake is attacking us. Our bodies are interpreting the world at one level and our minds interpret the world on another. Understanding our minds, is understanding part of how we interact with the world around us which will help us in anything we pursue. This is why I consider understanding our brain and mind important and treat it as a metaskill and I highly recommend diving into the fields of psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, and literature if you’re interested in doing so.
Despite this blog post and the much larger body of work other people much smarter than me have put together, there is no shortage of things we don’t understand about the mind.
“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 whatI’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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“We often expect progress to be linear. At the very least, we hope it will come quickly. In reality, the results of our efforts are often delayed. It is not until months or years later that we realize the true value of the previous work we have done. This can result in a “valley of disappointment” where people feel discouraged after putting in weeks or months of hard work without experiencing any results. However, this work was not wasted. It was simply being stored. It is not until much later that the full value of previous efforts is revealed.”
The Expectancy Curve
In James Clear’s fantastic book Atomic Habits, he explains the idea of the expectancy curve. I think it’s a great tool to overcome imposter syndrome or any other form of the attack. The expectancy curve helps us keep going by giving us a frame to understand our insufficiencies.
Whenever we learn something new, we expect our progress to follow a straight line but in reality our progress is more parabolic. This results in a period of time when we are performing at a lower level than we’re expecting. This time period is called The Valley of Disappointment and it’s duration depends on the skill and how much deliberate practice we choose to put in.
When we feel like we’re underperforming, it’s easy to feel like we aren’t “meant” to do that new thing but all we need to do is stick with our newfound skill until we reach the critical point. The critical point is where the level of our skill matches our expectations. When we reach the critical point we stop suffering from imposter syndrome, feel more confident in our abilities, and (most importantly) keep developing our skills.
Most people stop cultivating their skills when they’re in the valley of disappointment but the ones who make it to the critical point can start to reap the benefits of their faith, consistency, and hard work.
I’ve seen this play out in a number of skills but I found this especially true in music production, hurdling, and cooking.
It can take weeks, months, or even years to get to the critical point. When I first took up music production, I was told that I would have to practice producing for 5 years before I would be able to compose, mix, and master a song from start to finish.
This was me kind of understanding The Expectancy Curve and The Valley of Disappointment years before I could articulate it. The idea of The Valley of Disappointment and taking 5 years before I could complete a song gave me a longer time frame for proficiency. This longer time frame is what made it easier for me to cut myself some slack. That freedom to make mistakes helped me grow. I always thought that made me a little insane but [Kobe Bryant] talks about having the freedom to make mistakes and how that leads to accelerated growth too.
This isn’t to say that The Valley of Disappointment isn’t a tough place to be. It’s easy to think all the work we’re putting in is futile and insane but it isn’t. The work we put in while we’re in the valley is exactly what gives us the ability to move out of it and enjoy the fruits of our labor later on. Deliberate practice is never wasted effort. Our efforts compound over time and this is especially true with skill development.
It’s difficult to move past The Valley of Disappointment but I do think as we learn more we find peace in our insufficiencies. The more I learned about music production, the more I realized that the experienced producers who said music production had a 5 year valley of disappointment were right. The more I learned, the more I realized how much I didn’t know. (Which totally applies to everything btw)
“Be not afraid of going slowly; be afraid only of standing still.”
The whole idea is to stick with things for a while. Ask people in the field how long it took them to feel comfortable and confident in their position. I remember an ER doc saying it took him 10 years before he felt like he reach his critical point. Proficiency take time.
I find that knowing The Valley of Disappointment exists helps me get through it. The upset is temporary and the I know I’m right around the corner from being a badass.